Pick up an English music book for beginners and the first thing you will notice is the plethora of Italian terms. For many children in the UK, Italian is the first foreign language they encounter, long before their first school language lessons. Italians must be bemused by the music-lovers they meet who can reel off a string of bizarre phrases such as ‘allegro ma non troppo’ (fast but not too much), ‘un poco maestoso’ (slightly majestic) and ‘con spirito’ (with spirit), and yet would have no idea how to buy a return ticket to Naples.
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In fact, when it comes to ‘holiday’ Italian, you had better leave your musical phrase book at home. The differences between the musical meaning and the literal sense could lead to some awkward situations, especially in the case of ‘rubato’ indicating a more flexible tempo, but, literally translated, means ‘stolen’.
Italy sets the stage
Italian’s dominance as the language of music began during the Renaissance. At the time Italy was the cultural centre of Europe, excelling in literature, painting, sculpture and, of course, music. But what really established Italy as the driving force in Western music was the emergence of opera. Composed by the Italian Peri, the first opera ‘Daphne’ appeared in 1597. Around the same period, composers in Italy also began to give written indications to musicians about the speed and style of performance, rather than just the notes themselves. As the taste for opera grew and spread, composers from across Europe flocked to Italy to learn the art, including German-born Handel (1685–1759) who went on to pen some three dozen operas in Italian.
Change of tune
Italy’s hegemony as the home of opera was not to last. The French court was a great patron of the arts and, in 1653, Lully was appointed as composer to Louis XIV. Italian-born, but fully naturalised, Lully was the founder of French opera and created a new style of opera to suit the French tongue. Despite French opera’s growth, it took the German language longer to shake off its Italian rival. Although many had tried, it was not until Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’, first performed in 1791, that German-language opera was taken seriously for the first time. Not that everyone in society was pleased about this; the linguistic barrier meant that Italian-language opera was the preserve of the upper classes, and The Magic Flute controversially made this high-brow entertainment accessible to the German-speaking lower classes in Vienna and beyond.
Although the lyric became more likely to appear in the native language, the guidance given to conductors and players in terms of musical tempo, dynamics and expression markings was still, as a rule, in Italian. The rise, particularly in the 19th century, of ‘programme music’, which seeks to tell a story or evoke an image, meant that composers looked for more imaginative ways to express their ideas than set Italian terms. From Schumann (1810–1856), it became increasingly common for composers to use their native language in this way. In his First Symphony (1888), Mahler inserts lengthy German markings such as ‘Very simple and homely like a folk tune’ into his score.
Today, it is common to see musical directions in Italian, English, German, French and even Russian. Of course, while using the native language may give more freedom of expression, there is much room for misinterpretation when an unusual term crops up unexpectedly. It certainly wouldn’t be for the first time that an unsuspecting player has been fooled by the German ‘draengend’. It may look like ‘dragging’, but its correct meaning – ‘pushing on’ – is quite the opposite.
There are also plenty of stumbling blocks for non-English speakers. In the 20th century, the rather eccentric Grainger, remembered for his ‘Country Gardens’, famously shunned all Italian expressions. He preferred instead to invent his own colloquial English versions such as ‘louden lots’, ‘slowing off’ and the imaginative ‘clingingly’, which have no doubt puzzled generations of non-native speakers.
Five centuries on from Italian’s initial dominance, the language used in Western music today is a truly multilingual affair. Italian-based terms still play an important role but the use of other languages has grown; allowing increased freedom of expression, and creating a number of pitfalls for the unwary musician (and translator). Only one thing can be guaranteed: the only true universal language is the music itself.