In spite of having concertized around the world with the Vegh Quartet for 37 years, I have always enjoyed playing chamber music in private life, just for the pleasure of making music (Hausmusik), often playing with amateur musicians.
On one of these occasions, during a string sextet, the second violinist suddenly played a phrase distinctly slower, a phrase that was important melodically. The first violinist stopped and asked him the reason for his change in tempo.
“It is marked ‘Tranquillo’ at that place in my part so it has to be played slower,” answered the second violinist.
“But tranquillo means ‘quiet,’ not ‘slow,’ “said the first violinist. “It is an expression, not a tempo indication.”
Then we played that passage again, not slower, but just with a quiet expression—and it was beautiful.
I mention this episode because this little exchange settled in my brain and later gave me the impulse to examine all the tempo indications that I had learned and that are generally taken for granted around the world. Where did they originate, what is their real meaning? And why do we use Italian words for almost all tempo indications? For the answer we have to go back quite far in history.
Except for the early medieval songs of the troubadours, which were in great part improvised and not written down, we cannot deny that occidental music originates from Italy, and therefore the tempo markings are in Italian. But why just Italian? Why did the whole civilized world adopt the Italian markings? I think it must have been the great power, political as well as cultural, of the Catholic Church. It had tremendous influence in earlier centuries and very cleverly used everything it could to reinforce and increase that influence. The Gregorian chants were written down so they could be spread over the entire Christian world.
Then came such composers as Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Pergolese, Tartini, and hundreds of others, whose works are still on concert programs around the world. Being Italians, they naturally used their own language to mark their pieces. These composers were so important, distinguished, and numerous in their time, and had such a great influence on the whole musical world, that composers of other nationalities, like Gluck, Bach, Handel, and Purcell, also adopted their indications and markings, and so Italian became the “official” musical language.
So far, so good. But, although these musicians and their German, English, etc., contemporaries knew the exact meaning of the words they were using, the real meanings of many of them were slightly altered through the centuries.
When I began to play violin, I was six years old and spoke only Hungarian. So in studying music I had to learn that Adagio means “slow” and Presto means “fast.” I thought at that time that these funny words were technical terms, invented especially to indicate different tempi in music. I knew they were Italian, but I was very surprised when I later learned that they were just common Italian words, still used today in conversation. Unfortunately in my early years of study I learned that tranquillo means “slower than the mean tempo” and that con anima means “faster.” And of course that is not true.
The Baroque composers used very few terms for their tempo indications: Lento, Adagio, Largo, Andante, Allegro, Vivace, Presto. Although all these words were taken from the Italian language of that period, they had the same meanings as the dictionary gives today. And this point is important! With the passage of time we attributed slightly different meanings to many of them. For example, Lento and Adagio both mean “slow,” but Largo means “large, broad” and not specifically slow. Largo is more of a character than a tempo indication. We can play a relatively flowing piece “large” or “broad.” An Andante movement can be played “large” if the melodic line requires it, or in the same Andante we can play some quiet sixteenth-note passages “broad.”
It is similar with fast movements: Presto means “fast” in Italian, but Vivace is “lively, with life,” and Allegro means “joyful, in a good mood.” When we see an Allegro indication we tend to assume that the movement is fast. But not necessarily! Certainly it is not a slow movement, but we have to distinguish and take the original meaning of the word. This misunderstanding explains why we so often hear Baroque Allegro movements played so fast—too fast.
Going on in the history of music, we arrive at the classical composers. During the time of Haydn and Mozart we rarely find more complicated or more detailed indications than were used in the Baroque (many of their oeuvres—quartets, symphonies—have the simple indications for the four movements: Allegro, Adagio, Allegretto, Allegro), but Beethoven felt the need of giving more precise and more detailed indications to express his music. Naturally, all his contemporaries and the following generations of composers followed suit. Thus were born indications like Andante un poco allegretto, Allegro ma non troppo, Adagio molto espressivo, Allegretto scherzando. Those indications, too, should be understood in light of their literal translations or true meanings.
Other kinds of indications came into being also. These were not indications for the whole movement (which would be indicated at the beginning of the piece), but were related to a specific part of it or pertained to a particular phrase, such as tranquillo, largamente, con anima, agitato. These are not tempo indications, although they are usually considered as such today. I would call them “character indications,” and I refer again to the original meanings of the words. When a particular phrase of an Allegro movement is marked tranquillo, it should be played “quietly” but not necessarily “more slowly.” Naturally, we cannot rush when we have to play quietly, but to make that phrase slower purposely is erroneous. A lot depends on the phrase in question, and on the melodic line, which sometimes requires a slightly slower tempo. But it is not a rule that we automatically slow down when a passage is marked tranquillo. With this consideration in mind, we will find that many places marked tranquillo can be played very beautifully and with quiet expression without affecting the tempo. Remember, when a composer wants a phrase or a part of a fast movement to be slower, he can and would mark un poco meno or simply meno mosso—“a little less” or “less motion.”
In the same way we can analyze other character indications, looking first for the original meaning of the word and then adapting it to the phrase in question. Largamente is another indication that can lead to false conclusions. It is very easy to play four or eight sixteenth notes “large, broad” in a relatively moving piece, let us say in an Allegretto, without altering the basic tempo. In the same way the intentions of other character indications (e.g., con sentimento, slentando, morendo, smorzando) can be implemented without changing the tempo.
One indication that seems to have been adopted and used erroneously by all composers is Largo. Largo means “large, broad,” not “slow,” but it is universally recognized as the slowest tempo, slower than Lento or Adagio. Even on the metronome it is given as the slowest tempo indication. Why this is so, nobody knows, but we have to accept that meaning. Several other Italian tempo markings have been misunderstood, and have acquired meanings that are similar, but slightly different, from their original sense.
Mainly for this reason, I think, and not because of strong nationalistic feelings, many composers began to mark their pieces in their own languages—Schumann and Hindemith in German, Ravel and Debussy in French. They also felt that the Italian words often have different meanings for different people. When Debussy writes Assez vif et bien rhythmé, in place of Assai vivace, ben ritmico, he knows it will be understood exactly, even by a child. Also, in his lifetime, French was more universally spoken in Europe than was Italian.
This short essay does not pretend to be a scientific study of all the character markings. Its goal is to call attention to the need to be more careful and exact in interpreting the indications in a musical composition. I have been aware, again and again over the years, that many musicians do not know the meanings of the tempo indications in the pieces they perform. The markings between the lines and between the notes are almost as important as the notes themselves. How can we interpret and reproduce a musical composition if we start out with false, or at least inaccurate, knowledge about the markings? We must not be too lazy or too proud to look up the exact meaning of a word in the dictionary, for our interpretations will be much better musically if we always read the composer’s instructions carefully and translate them accurately.