Musical Terms in Italian
During the Renaissance period (14th to 17th Century), Italy was at the centre of musical learning. Common use of Italian emerged through the practice of specifying particular tempos or style when copying music to share with others. Musicians flocked to Italy to study these new practices. They then returned to their native countries with new repertoire annotated with musical terms in Italian. Now, in the 21st Century, when publishing compositions for wider public performance, Italian remains a universal language for tempo, dynamics and style.
If you watch an Italian film with English subtitles you’ll discover how close the language actually is to our own. Yet, few of us can speak it (Italian). I love the non- word throat noises that do not appear in the sub titles when Inspector Montalbano speaks; also his universal use of Prego that can mean, please, after you! you’re welcome, don’t mention it, not at all; yet, one always catches the meaning through the milieu of the situation. It’s also a verb, ask, pray, beg.
It is no wonder then, that despite musical instruction being given almost universally in Italian, the word Prego is never used. This is a pity, as it is far more versatile than, for instance Andante. It would certainly give the musician greater flexibility in performance (as in ad lib). Then again imagine the musical chaos it would cause if one used it during an ensemble unison passage.
The French, great preservationists of their own language, have retained the basic Italian words for initial direction. However, they do also scatter musical terms in French around the rest of the page like confetti.
Sprechen sie Deutsch?
German orchestral Classical repertoire reveals almost exclusive use of German except, once again, the initial Italian indication. Mahler in particular can need some serious linguistic research if one is to get exactly what he is indicating on the part. This glossary of terms for Mahler symphonies mat be helpful in this situation.
If in Doubt About Musical Terms
Relying on memory for all musical instructions is good but if one has even the slightest inclination towards forgetfulness reference books were the best way forward. You’ll note I said were, because lately, the Internet seems to have become the default research tool for most folk.
Copyright in Ancient Greece and Rome
Even scholars in Ancient Greece and Rome had to insist upon their right to be recognised as the authors of their works (the ‘right of paternity’). This was an era when plagiarism was no crime. Protecting sacred compositions, performed in such revered places as the Vatican, was common practice in those early days. This was especially the case when a composer was in the employ of a nobleman or Pontiff, as was the case for Gregorio Allegri. He composed a Miserere sometime before 1638 that was fiercely guarded for exclusive use in Papal circles. It was originally taught by rote (repetition); although it is thought that some copies of the basic structure of the piece had been allowed abroad.
Mozart and the Sistine Chapel
A Capella performances (unaccompanied and from memory) in the Sistine Chapel contained a high degree of improvised decoration of certain verses. These created a mystique that was a draw for pilgrims – both religious and musical. One such was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At age twelve, he arrived in Rome with his Father Leopold, on Wednesday April 11th 1770. They attended St. Peter’s for the Wednesday Tenebrae (3 specific services during Holy Week) to hear the famous Miserere sung in the Sistine Chapel. Returning to their lodgings afterwards, Wolfgang wrote out from memory the entire piece; returning on Good Friday, with his manuscript rolled up in his hat, to hear the piece again and make a few minor corrections.
Leopold told of Wolfgang’s accomplishment in a letter to his wife dated April 14, 1770 (Rome):-
“…You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter, if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands….”
One wonders, apart from the musical notes, did Mozart indicate the style of what he had heard in Italian or his native Austrian? We’ll never know because although it contained the exact improvisation notation by the then Papal choir (a priceless document indeed) the manuscript has never been found.
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