Some Common Italian Terms in Musical Notation
Here are common verbal terms of musical notation, chiefly Italian, seen in scores, sheet music, and reviews of performance. These terms help the performer in dynamics (the volume of the note), tempo, pitch, rhythm, and other niceties of musical performing style.
None of these instructing Italian adjectives, gerunds, nouns and hints are precise. A passage marked presto (play it very fast) to one pianist may be a machine-gun nightmare of prestissimo (very, very fast) to another. Musical style is relative and individual. We’ve all heard Handel played so molto adagio that one would think his “Arrival of the Queen Sheba” was a funeral dirge for a mafioso’s pet leopard.
Why are the words preponderantly Italian? Because so many conventions of European musical notation began in Italy. What I’m doing here is defining common terms and adding pert etymological chitchat.
It’s Italian and, referring to choral music, means ‘as if sung in a chapel, that is, vocal music sung without instrumental accompaniment. A cappella’s opposite is cantata ‘sung with accompaniment.’ On a pop song level, barbershop quartets and doo-wop groups usually sing a cappella.
The instruction here is: play it slowly, gracefully, bathed in ease and sweet leisure. The Italian adagio is made up of Latin ad ‘to, for’ + Italian agio ‘ease’ perhaps borrowed from a word in Provence, namely aize, from the Latin adjective adjacens ‘lying nearby, adjacent.’
Of the five common indications of performing “speed,” allegro follows directly after presto “fast.” Allegro’s prime, non-musical meaning in Italian is ‘merry’ or ‘cheerful.’ Most cheerful music is played quickly and so the passage marked allegro is to be played in a lively manner at a pert tempo. There are musical variants of the word: allegretto adds a diminutive suffix that changes the meaning to ‘not quite so quick, moderately fast.’ The superlative adjective suffix –issimo added to make allegrissimo suggests that one play the music very fast but not as fast as a passage marked presto. Joy can be translated into Italian as allegrezza.
The Italian allegro is a dialect pronunciation from alacrem, a Latin accusative form of alacer, a common Latin adjective that means speedy or fast and gives us an English noun alacrity ‘speed.’
The first meaning of Allegro in English was happy. Consider the title of Milton’ famous poem “L’Allegro.”
Andante in music means played ‘at a walking pace, a moderate tempo.’ It’s an adjective of present-participial form from andare Italian ‘to go, to walk, to travel.’ This andare is a very late form. It does not appear in classical Latin. We must define a linguistic term to explain it. Suppletion happens in languages when some forms of a common verb are simply not used, not available in common speech, so therefore forms derived from an entirely different root are used in the verb’s paradigm. Andare may be evidence of suppletion of Latin verbs like vadere ‘to go’ or ambitare or ambulare ‘to walk along,’ from which English derives words like ambulate, perambulator, to amble.
Add an h to the front of this word to get its meaning ‘like a harp.’ Arpeggio notes are to be played quickly in usually ascending order. In piano music, arpeggio solves the problem of a wide-ranging chord whose notes cannot be played simultaneously by a normal pianist’s hand. Arpeggiare is Italian and means ‘to play the arpa [harp].’
Its literal sense in Italian is ‘singable, able or worthy to be sung.’ Music marked cantabile is to be played in a singing style, full of expression and flowing melodiously. Moderato cantabile directs the player to a style not quite so “singy.” Cantare is Latin ‘to sing.’ Dozens of French and English words sprang from that root: cantor, chanter, cant, cantata, enchanting, enchanté, recantation.
“With vigour or spirit” is the English translation. Such markings are imprecise in the extreme and much is left to the performer’s sense of appropriate tempo. Brio is now common in English as a stand-alone noun. Other “with-it” musical phrases are con fuoco ‘with fire’ and con slancio ‘with enthusiasm.’
Con Sordina or (plural) Con Sordine
It means ‘with a mute’ or ‘with mutes.’ Instruments may have their tone softed by wood, rubber, metal, or plastic devices. String instrumentalists clip mutes to the bridge of, say, a violin. Brass players insert the mute in the bell of a trumpet or horn. After a passage of muted playing, senza sordina may appear. This is an instruction to remove mutes, literally in Italian ‘without mute.’ The Italian root word is sordo ‘deaf, muffled, dulled.’
Crescendo / Diminuendo
The present participle of the Italian and Latin verb crescere ‘to increase’ is a musical instruction to make the music progressively louder. To make music progressively softer, fainter is diminuendo, present participle of diminuire ‘to lessen, o diminish.’ Many English words spring from these stems. A crescent moon is one that waxing, growing bigger. It is increasing. Decrease the excrement is a politer mode of saying, “Cut the shit.”
“From the start, from the head, from the beginning.’ Da capo is placed at the end of a musical passage, instructing the player to repeat it from the beginning. The end of the repeat is also marked with a pause or with the word fine (Italian ‘end’).
Marked in the score ff, this means play it very loud. Very softly would be its opposite: pianissimo. The piano’s name descends from one of its early names, the pianoforte ‘the soft-loud instrument.’ If the composer wishes to deafen nearby listeners, a passage can even be marked with a word of double superlative form: fortississimo or fff: ‘as loud as humanly and instrumentally possible.’
A glissando (plural: glissandi) is a glide from one pitch to another. It is a hybrid Frano-Italian musical word, an Italian present participial suffix added to a French verb glisser ‘to slide, to slip, to sweep, to glide.’
This Italian adjective means ‘slow,’ so play it that way. If the composer wants ‘very slow,’ the Italian superlative adjective is used: lentissimo.
Play it full of maesta ‘majesty,’ in a grand and stately fashion. This might appear on a march written for a royal wedding. Maestoso ma non troppo might be read on a less important piece: please, not too pompously, or literally as the Italian says, “in a grand manner but not too much.”
David Rose’s “ Holiday for Strings” has pizzicato all over the score. It instructs the violinist to pluck the strings with his fingers instead of bowing. From a 6 th-century Italian verb pizzicare ‘to twang a string, to pinch, to pluck’ from il pizzo ‘point.’
1538 CE — Germany: Heinrich Aldegrever portrays a trio of trombonists in a woodcut titled Die Posaunisten (The Brass Players) from the series “The Great Wedding Dances. ”
Or scherzoso ‘in a lightly playful manner, sprightly.’ From Italian scherzo ‘joke, trick, prank.’ It’s one of the rare Italian musical terms that stems from a German word Scherz ‘joke.’
Scherzo itself names a symphonic movement, usually the second or third movement in a symphony or sonata, of a lively, upbeat character.
If you enjoyed this modest intro to the nifty names in musical notation, simply reread it da capo al fine.
Andrea Andreani, The Triumph of Julius Caesar, c. 1599
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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