Back of a woman's head - I. Díaz Olano
From time to time, I make some comments about those annotations that we find in scores, if I think they might be useful to highlight a detail or a performing. Sometimes you’ve asked me about these annotations; this week's song has just reminded me of this, so this post is, very briefly, about this matter. If you already know about it you can go straight to listen to Erinnerung
, an early song by Gustav Mahler; he wrote it around 1880, from a poem by Richard Leander, pseudonym of the prestigious surgeon Richard von Volkmann (I'm not sure I want to know how surgery was performed in the 19th century). Alternatively, you can also keep on reading and to correct, complete, enlighten... whatever it takes. I would be very grateful.
When a composer writes a work, a song for instance, he definitely writes the pitch and duration of the musical sounds (that's, the notes on the staff), and also, he jots down some annotations about how the music should be performed; here we will focus on three kind of annotations: dynamics, tempo and expression.
Dynamics refers to the volume, the music being soft or loud. A soft sound is represented by piano
), a loud one by forte
). Between them, a sound can be moderately soft, mezzo piano
) and moderately loud, mezzo forte
); softer than piano
), louder than forte
), etc. We can move from one volume to another abruptly or gradually, and we say, for instance, crescendo
for increasing or diminuendo
for decreasing. The question is who is to define what is loud and what is soft, and the performers hold the answer, according to context and common sense. For instance, at Erinnerung
the singer begins with pp
, ends with ppp
, I love this word, meaning the softest possible), going through p
. Therefore, he chooses the volumes by keeping the coherence with the score.
Annotations of tempo
set the speed of a piece, since the duration of notes is relative. Italian words that are more or less familiar to us are used: lento
,... As in the case of dynamics, there isn’t any precise correspondence between the name and the speed, just more or less accepted margins (unless the beats per minute are indicated, of course), so it's quite common to listen to the same song played with quite different speeds, depending again on the performers. These indications are not always in Italian, at Erinnerung
we find them in German: Mahler says at the beginning Langsam
, slow; at the beginning of the third stanza is marked allmählich bewegter (aber unmerklich)
, gradually with more emotion (but imperceptible), and at the end, etwas züruckhaltend
, somewhat slackening, that is to say, slowing the tempo to get a dramatic effect.
Finally, the indications of expression establish how a particular mood should be performed; they often go together with tempo instructions or just replace them. As you can imagine, there are as many indications of expression as the composers are able to imagine, and they become very important in songs. We find at Erinnerung
's beginning the word sehnsuchtig
(longing), and at the second stanza it turns to innig
(hearfelt, intimate, fervent), and adjective that we often find in many Lieder. I would say, as a listener, that these annotations of expression are the most difficult for performers as there are many things to specify...
And this is just a broad idea, I hope the post hasn't been too boring. If you are still curious, you'll find in this link
a part of the Erinnerung
’s score with all its indications (which, of course, are many more than those I've mentioned). Otherwise, you can listen to the song, performed by Brigitte Fassbaender and Irwin Gage.