Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Musical Detail (2)

Someone asked what I thought was a very fair question following my "On Musical Detail (1)" blog, and, rather than edit the original blog to clarify this point (it may already be the longest of all my blogs thus far!), I thought I'd answer it here.

The question:

What's wrong with using English terminology? Lots of composers used their native tongue; Debussy in French, Bach in German, Ives in English... I'm just curious as to why it's such a big deal to write in Italian or German when our primary language is English.

Here is my response:

Let's start with the following assumptions:

(1) A musical score is written in code. It is a code that not everyone can understand, even excellent musicians sometimes (we frequently hear that the Beatles couldn't read music, for example).

(2) What we as composers are trying to do is to use this code to communicate our intentions as clearly as possible, so that performers trained in the interpretation of the code can translate it into music that sounds as good (or even better) than we imagined it.

Everything I wrote about in my previous blog stems from these assumptions, especially #2.

With regard to language, it is true that composers write instructions in dozens of different languages in musical scores, like English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, Italian, etc.

But of all these, the one language that is most widely understood by classical musicians, at least when it comes to performance instructions (tempo, dynamics, and expressive markings), is Italian, so, from a purely practical point of view, it works best to give these kinds of instructions in Italian.

I would guess that most classical music students in North America are not well-enough versed in German to understand many German terms found in scores, and French instructions may not be widely understood outside of Canada and other French-speaking countries either.

English instructions are readily understood throughout most of North America, as well as in and many other places in the world, but, as I pointed out in my last blog, they resulted in some confusion during the ECM workshop last week since it is a predominantly French-speaking ensemble.

Therefore, from a purely pragmatic point of view it makes sense to use Italian terms for most of the common text information needed in a score, because that is what classical musicians are used to seeing.

That said, if there are times when the instruction you want is not a commonly-used Italian term, then by all means, write it in English! (But just be sure that there isn't a widely-understood Italian term that conveys the gist of your meaning before reverting to English.)


Jessica Blenis said...

I've always found that for most instructions, the Italian words seemed to capture the essence of the direction better than an English word could. This might be simply because those words (allegro, rubato, con brio, con fuoco) came attached to music from the very beginning so I've associated them with the sound of the music they create rather than their dictionary definition. But at the same time I'm tempted to use English words, like I used 'lugubriously' in my last composition because it captured the essence of the feeling I wanted that particular section to portray. Is it alright to have a mixture of languages in once piece in order to get the right sound?

Clark Ross said...

To answer your question first, yes, because otherwise you'd end up writing everything in English ("gradually growing louder" as opposed to "cresc."), or writing everything in Italian, which would require better Italian skills than most of us (or more to the point, most performers, since they are the ones who have to make sense of the music) have.

And you're right; there are a lot of cases where the Italian term captures the essence of your musical intention better than an English term could, and equally important, it often does so more succinctly, as in the "Cresc." example above, or "rit." or "rall.", etc.

Jill A. said...

Italian instructions are generally easier to understand because as Jess said we've all been taught from the beginning what they mean and how they are to be used,and this is pretty well standard throughout the world.
When it comes to English we aren't guarenteed that the performers will understand what the composer wants. Having to take time out of rehearsals to explain the instructions can take away from valuable practice time, and also places more work upon the performer. English may seem easier to us but its use could possibly affect the outcome and interpretations of our compositions.
I know that whenever I play a piece that uses German terminology I have to take the time and look up the proper meanings in order to play as the composer intended.

Melissa B. said...

Thanks for the detailed response.
What you've said definitely makes sense!

NBus said...

I think it really depends on the style of the music you're playing. When I'm working on my classical repertoire, or standard works for a concert band I expect to see Italian words, as like everyone said "it's what we're used to". But then I think of something like a march, samba, or swing tune. In those if I saw Italian I think it would actually cause me to need to think about it. As from what I've seen in those styles of music, jazz in particular, the standard is English. I'm not sure how you would right 'straight eighths in Italian. I think it kinda goes back to what Jess said, we learn the words in a way that goes beyond a text book definition. The word 'swing' is both a direction for interpreting rhythms, as well as a suggestion what parts of the beat to accent, or what way to articulate something when no articulation is given.

Clark Ross said...

Neil, you're right about the style or genre of music being a factor in the choice of language used for instructions. My blogs are all basically about contemporary classical music, which is why I suggested that Italian is the most widely-understood language for most performance instructions.

But, as I wrote in this blog's last paragraph, "if there are times when the instruction you want is not a commonly-used Italian term, then by all means, write it in English! " And see the first paragraph of my reply to Jessica, above, for a similar sentiment.

And even marches, jazz band charts, sambas, etc., use "cresc." instead of "gradually growing louder," I think!

By the way, I could be wrong, but I think what Jessica meant when she wrote "I've associated them [Italian terms] with the sound of the music they create rather than their dictionary definition" was that she doesn't have to stop and think of the definition in the music; she (and you, I'm sure) has seen these widely-used terms so often that she understands them immediately, without having to think of a translation. I don't think she meant that our understanding of these terms goes beyond a dictionary definition.

In any event, I don't believe that it does, unless the dictionary definition is faulty.

I think that the popularity of Jazz began mostly in the U.S., and much of its development as a musical art form took place there, which is why it makes a lot more sense to write "swing" as an instruction than it would be to think of an equivalent in a different language.

But even so, if you write "swing" on a score that is intended to be performed by classical musicians, it is a good idea to explain what it means (a common way is to write a pair of 8th notes = triplet quarter - eighth (but using music notation, of course!)), because you can't assume that all classical performers will understand it.

Good points, Neil!

Philip said...

I just kind of want to echo what I've heard in these blogs about using Italian, for example, and suggest a word to use in this discussion: CONNOTATION. I think using foreign language words, especially those that describe styles, is simply more efficient because of the associations we have with them. For example Allegro means so much more than just a specific tempo marking, and a decently experienced musician would likely be able to recall some sort of music in this style.

Michael Bramble said...

I'm not going to lie, when I spoke briefly about my piece I was slightly offended that the audience laughed when I said the title of my piece "Before thy transfigured throne I now appear." I'm not entirely sure why this happened but it brings up the fact about language. Had I left the title in it's origional German (Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit) I doubt it would be met with laughter. I find that sometimes it's bet to use the Italian or even German musical words for it provides a degree of separation from us that allows the music to be played more precise. Does that make sense? There is no difference between very slow and sehr langsam, but it would be neat to see if different ensembles interpret it differently. When things are written in our own language we can take it at face value whereas things in a different language need to be interpretated and understood.

Kyle Andrews said...

I have always wondered about this subject, and I always wonder why certain composers used certain languages.

I definitely agree with choosing Italian as the language of choice, because all musicians have grown up up reading scores that use Italian.

Also when English is used, yes English speakers are going to understand the words, however some English directions I've seen I don't know how to make that in the music, which even though I understand the words, I would feel more comfortable with Italian words.

Evan Smith said...

This is something I have never thought about. At such a young age as musicians we learn the Italian and often just take for granted that thats the way it is.

Being a romantic myself, I think the Italian sounds much nicer then the blatant English, or rough German. Italian is such a musical language. Even the spoken Italian is musical and lyrical. It just seems right.

But I have to agree, there is a time and place for other languages. It would be quite odd if Scott Joplin wrote "Vivace" at the top of Maple-leaf Rag, for example.