Forte and relativity

I judged a piano competition the other day. Well, I was a member of a panel of 3 judges. It was a long, exhausting, and very interesting day. There was some lovely piano playing, and some lovely repertory; there was some less sensitive performing and some less lovely repertory. When the less sensitive performing met up with the less lovely repertory, well, disaster ensued. I learned a tremendous amount about what is important to me as a musician, a pianist, and a composer, by listening to the disasters, even more than by hearing the beautifully performed music.

Here’s what became explicit for me: markings in a score — especially, but not limited to, dynamic markings and tempo markings — are very relative. It’s not just that one pianist’s forte will be louder or less loud than another pianist’s. It’s that the forte we would use in one piece might be completely out of place in another.

This was demonstrated for me most clearly in a performance of 2 Brahms Intermezzi (Op 118/1 and Op 118/2, if you are interested in hearing them for yourself). The first is marked by Brahms Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato which translates to “lively, not very, but very passionately!” Almost all the dynamics are forte or sforzando, but the music tapers to a piano for the final sonority (which Brahms in his leisurely way takes 3 measures to complete, which is just exactly perfect after all the roiling of the music till then).

The second Intermezzo, marked Andante teneramente (precisely translated, that’s a tenderly played walking tempo), begins piano, visits pianissimo frequently, includes instructions like dolce (sweetly) and legato (connected) and espressivo (expressively ) and calando (more softly and maybe more slowly too!). Surprisingly, for such a lyrical, introspective, bittersweet piece, forte manages to make an appearance; twice, actually, since the intermezzo is in ternary form (meaning ABA). 

But the forte of this second intermezzo cannot be the same tone as the forte of the first intermezzo. The first piece is molto appassionato! Big, fiery, rolling arpeggios just about knocking us down with their energy. The forte in this bittersweet second piece is just a signpost of the climax and, to me at least, signifies warmth of tone more than it does volume. Yes, the forte is undoubtedly the biggest moment of the piece, and thank you, Brahms, for making that very clear; but the tone must always be warm and tender. (And NO RUSHING!! We don’t play faster just because we’re playing louder!)

Now that I have mentioned faster: Allegro does not necessarily mean Fast. It just doesn’t. Get over it. It means lively, and originally it also meant joyfully or cheerfully. And even where it does mean Fast, we pianists need to remember that clarity is utmost and if we play so fast that the music is obscured by the notes, well then, we just played badly. There really isn’t any other way to put it.

Here’s how I see it (you must be at least a tiny touch interested in this if you have read this far): The music is utmost. We the performers know the music better than anyone else in the room. Therefore it is our sacred duty to deliver that music to them, lovingly and faithfully. The composer has given us both the music and the score, which is a map to the music. The composer has also given us*, as part of the score, helpful markings, which if we pay attention to them will guide us in understanding what the music really is. On studying the score, with its notes, rhythms, and markings, we will draw some conclusions about what the music is, and our performance is an attempt to bring listeners into that experience of the music. We may decide that there’s something in the music which the composer didn’t mark, or which he accidentally hid, or which he didn’t even notice. Whatever we conclude, our performance is the doorway for others to experience what we found in the music. And, oh hey: we can’t force it on them. We’d do much better to invite them into the music.

This is all a very wordy way of saying: All markings are relative, but ignore them at your peril! Keep in mind that your audience cannot listen as fast as you can play! And IT’S NOT ABOUT THE NOTES! It never was. Oh, and it’s not about YOU, either. It never was.


*Or has not, often, in the case of me, alas. Maybe this will get me to stop fussing about markings and just put them in!

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