What's with all the
first posted March 15, 2009
Classical music seems like enough of a foreign language to
most people without having to throw an actual foreign language into the mix.
Unless you speak Italian, the names of pieces: Sonata, Symphony, Concerto--
instructions about how fast to play them: allegro moderato, vivace, largo, and
like-- and a whole host of markings within the pieces: ritardando, espressivo,
allargando, staccato, arco, fortissimo, and on and on, might have you saying
with Mozart in the movie Amadeus "basta! basta!" (enough! enough!)
So what is up with all of that Italian? Did the guardians of
the sacred tradition of 'good music' decide to put everything in Italian so the
rest of you guys wouldn't figure it out? Seems like it, but no. However, the
real reason for all the Italian is equally stupid. Read on:
There are several things about humanity that should not be
underestimated. One of these is the power of rivalry. On a small scale it is
known as 'sibling rivalry'; widening the lens a little it is known as war.
Countries and cultures have been colliding practically since the days that
Pangaea got a divorce. But there is an interesting little variant of this;
if you can't wipe them out, you can show you are just as good as they are.
We've always had people who have told us who in the world is
the best at something; these are the people in the know, and what they know is
that they don't want to take a backseat to anybody. You've probably heard France
is the best place to get wine, the Swiss excel at watch making, if you want
engineering, for God's sake, go with the Germans. Aspen is a pretty good
place to go skiing, unless you live near the Alps. The list could go on and on.
Egypt is the place for pyramids, if you are in the market for one. They
are probably going cheap, these days.
Now if you can't beat them, you don't have to join them, but
that would require inventing your own thing to be good at, and that is a later
stage in the development of both people and civilizations. In Europe of the 17th
and 18th centuries it was still the epitome of taste to imitate the epitome of
taste; the rich and powerful are never makers of things, but they are
astonishing collectors. In luxury, the fellow who set the tone was the biggest
king on the block, which at one time was Louis XIV. The Germanys at that point
were divided up into about 300 little kingdoms, and they all tried their best to
be as luxurious and ceremonially wasteful as the court of France, with, I'm
imagining, some pathetic results.
Even Louis knew where to get his music, and it wasn't France.
Somehow word had gotten around that the Italians were doing some hot stuff
musically. Probably their civilization allowed for a greater development of the
arts--remember that little thing called the Renaissance? An Italian thing
(1400-1600). While the Italians were still basking in the afterglow, the rest of
Europe was just getting the memo after two centuries. England had been too busy
fighting France for a hundred years and trying hard to stay poor and
disease-ridden, the German states were riddled by wars and reformations--but in
the southern climes the arts had been given a better chance. Now if you want to
impress people, you need to find out were the best stuff is, and steal it for
yourself. Once Louis figured that out, everybody in Europe had their own music
masters (the kings and princes, I mean) and they were all Italian. Meanwhile,
Italians were streaming out of Italy trying to find work in the newly created
job market were there was a bit more room to stretch your arms without poking
another Italian court composer.
Not all the Italians got all the hot jobs; some non-Italians
changed their names to sound like they were Italians. How that fooled anybody I
have no idea (I guess Puck was right: 'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'). At
any rate, the Italians were dominating music at a critical time, because it
coincided with the birth of several forms of music, and the idea that you could
write more on your page than mere notes; a few remarks in a language that people
could understand more easily might help with important things like how fast you
wanted the music to go, or how loud. These were also items that hadn't been
subject to flux a few short centuries previous, at least in the minds of those
who believed they knew the eternal principles they called music to be, and of
course, what it wasn't.
If you were Italian, you naturally wanted to write these
instructions in your own language. If you happened to be an English composer
(hiding under an assumed name) and you wanted the music to slow down for a
minute, you could, after all, write 'slow down' but that would mean you were an
imbecile who didn't realize that Italian really was the thing this century. If
you wanted to argue that it was better to be able to understand something than
be fashionable, you obviously didn't know much about humans.
Fortunately for those too lazy to learn a few words in
another language, a counter-trend soon materialized, which was the idea that
one's own country was just fine, thank you. Eventually it lead to more wars, but
for a while it merely excited people with the notion that they could in fact use
their own language to communicate musical instructions in. Beethoven, in the
early 19th century, was one of the first to make the change. One of his late
piano sonatas has the instruction 'Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung '
(singing, with inner expression) which is a mouthful in any language (and pretty
lonely; virtually all the other instructions in the piece are still in Italian).
The fact that Mozart had already written an opera that was not sung in Italian
was a hopeful sign in that direction.
When it came to marks like ritardando (slow down) or
crescendo (get louder) Beethoven kept the Italian. Old conventions die hard,
particularly if they are easy to use. When it came to expressing thoughts which
did not have ready Italian words hallowed by tradition it was easier to dispense
with the old custom. Some of my scores are a similar motley of languages, two
centuries later. One of my piano pieces has a passage marked to be played 'like
a pair of angry bassoons' and I have no idea what the Italian equivalent of that
phrase is, nor would I wish to translate it. It is no longer necessary to keep
up appearances, but it is still difficult to make a complete break.
I tell my students that they are going to have to learn the
standard Italian markings, but if they are composers it is not necessary to
always use them. I don't think it is a bad idea to have to adapt, even if it
seems like too much trouble to learn all of those 'funny words.' Being an
English speaker does not make you the center of the universe. But then, Italian
isn't the only thing going either. Many of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin's
markings are in French--and some very interesting ones at that. Into the 20th
century the elite in Russia thought the French were pretty keen.
Cultures have a long history of imitation, appropriation,
influence. Until the 20th century America tried to pretend it was Europe, for
musical purposes. Today most of our classical canon consists of German
composers--Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms--all Germans (Mozart was technically
Austrian). This has long frustrated the heck out of our own native composers,
and our country isn't alone in this German domination. For a long time it was
fashionable for our composers to go to Europe to learn their trade and then come
home and show us what they'd learned. It could, of course, imply a respect and
and interest in another culture which, added to our own arresting musicality (it
took a European composer to complain to us that we were neglecting it!) would
make for a very intoxicating musical brew. But I overestimate ourselves. We are
too busy keeping up with the Joneses, or the Jonesos.
But the next time you are listening to your German music with
its Italian name, sipping French wine and propping your feet on an Ottoman, just
think of all the cultures that have contributed to your entertainment. Even the
Sun King didn't have it this good.