Language and Tempo

A friend of mine who shares the same teacher as me, was prompted by said teacher to ask his colleagues (and I assume more established composers as well) what their thoughts were on the appropriate language to use in scores and tempo indications.

So here are some of mine.

Obviously, the main concern here is communicating effectively and succinctly (and judging by the length of this post, something I could possibly use some work on). Probably the best way to achieve this is to communicate in a players’s native language. It is for this reason that my scores are in English. As of this writing, I have yet to write music for non-native English speakers, but hopefully that will change at some point in the future. If I become so lucky as to have a commission from a non-English speaker, I will probably produce a score in primarily whatever language it is they are fluent in. I will then most likely produce a second copy of the score in English, as most other musicians who might be interested will most likely be English speakers.

But, it is unrealistic and ineffective to have everything in a score (directions, indications, etc.) in English. There are certain phrases, symbols, and abbreviations that have become part of standard performance practice. The issue then becomes drawing the line at what has and has not become universally adopted.

William Bolcom once told a story about exactly this at a master class I watched in college. He recalled that when he was younger, he sought to have everything in his scores in English, because, he is an American composer. But it came to a point where he put “plucked” in a string part instead of “pizzicato”, and the player just simply asked him if he meant pizzicato. A discussion ensued chewing up much valuable rehearsal time.

The abbreviation pizz. quickly and accurately conveys to the player what is intended. Pizzicato has become an English word, meaning to pluck the strings. It is even included in Merriam-Webster.

Other symbols and abbreviations have become universally adopted, at least in the Classical music community. The symbols “ff” and “mp” similarly have a commonly accepted meaning (even if this meaning is discussed and argued about in context in rehearsals, but then again almost everything is). It would be misguided and a waste of time and energy to put such indications as “softly” or “very very loud” (or “very very strong” to give a more direct translation) instead of the bold slightly italic symbols that have become part of musical discourse.

Other indications enter a gray (grey) area, such as dolce. While understood, it is not as firmly integrated into musical discourse. Other English alternatives such as sweetly, warmly, singingly, or even “in a warm and delicate manner”, convey slightly different sentiments whose nuances may be more appropriate to the musical situation.

Then there comes the whole issue of tempo and the associated indication.

For a newly composed work, I have never seen a composer get away with only giving an indication and not an actual tempo marking. I have seen performers, both amateur and professional, relentlessly grill composers about what metronome marking they had in mind, even when those composers’s work is firmly rooted in a tradition of trying to relive Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms, who gave generic indications such as allegro. It seems to me, that because of their overuse in such a staggeringly array of different situations, indications such as allegro and adagio have become almost meaningless, especially when dealing with contemporary music.

Indications at tempo markings are one of the main places that performers look at for the character of the work, and clues to how they should interpret everything else that is on the page.  Just as I have seen composers grilled for metronome markings when missing, I have seen just as many instances when performers try and tease out a word or two from the composer to give then a clue about the music when only a number is given at the beginning of the score. These indications often serve as a litmus test for how clearly the composer has this music in their mind, especially with younger composers. In his blog, conductor Jeffery Means extols Hans Abrahamsen’s marking in his score for Schnee:

“There is always just the right amount of information to be perfectly clear in all regards, yet the score does not give the impression of being over-marked. Also, Abrahamsen’s stylistic markings, to me, strike the perfect balance between pragmatic clarity and poetic description.”

And lastly, these two issues of tempo indications and language come to a head in Mahler. Take for instance his fifth symphony (because it happens to be readily at hand). Mahler is a famous case for having score in a native language. In fact, Mahler has so much German in his score that Dover saw fit to publish a glossary of German terms and phrases at the beginning of the book.

The tempo indication at the opening of the first movement is “In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt.”, which Google translates to “At a measured pace. Strictly. Like a funeral procession.” (not bad). Depending on one’s personal taste, this either falls perfectly on the line of just enough or too much. But the fact that it is in German conveys a more nuanced and personal message than just marcia funere.

And then there is the famous Adagietto, the fourth movement of five. This is a fascinating case because Mahler chose what would classically be an Italian tempo indication as the title of the movement, and then wrote “Sehr Langsam” (“very slowly”) at the top of the page. Obviously the indication adagietto imparted a certain amount of information about the character of the music, but he found that an actual tempo indication was still necessary.

Let me know what your thoughts are on this, or if I missed something big.

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  1. I feel that it also comes down to exactly what instruments you are writing for and what the performers are used to seeing. I feel that a percussionist would rather see “bowed” in their vibraphone part than “arco” and a string player would rather see “arco than “bowed”.

    I myself am constantly grilled by professors and performers for putting only metronome marks at the beginning of the work and not giving its “character”. Even though I feel that its character is pretty elf evident, I’ve started including generic non-descriptors such as “quickly” and “not quickly”.

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