Monday, June 16, 2014

So which is it?

This week I'm finally officially cataloging Mendelssohn's second Organ Sonata, part of a project I had this spring to play three of them at my church (in nine separate movements--truly my congregation has had enough Mendelssohn to last a little). I couldn't let it go by without interpretive comment, however. It all has to do with that little phrase in Italian affixed to the head of the movement; that being the tempo marking. It reads: Allegro maestoso e vivace.

Now I love a good musical mystery as much as the next guy. And this certainly is one. We've all got allegro figured out: Italian for fast (actually Italian for happy, but musicians have decided one means the other). But Mendelssohn couldn't leave such a pedestrian description well enough alone and appended two additional prescriptive adjectives, and it is these last two adjective that get me.

Maestoso, meaning majestic, which ordinarily makes one think of proceeding more slowly. I remember observing to a student, "you've never seen a king run, have you?" It's undignified. It's something the peasants do, when they're being chased by the king's enforcers.

Vivace, meaning lively. Just the opposite. Speed that up a little, will, you? Give it some juice.

So what we seem to have here is fast, but a slower shade of fast, but with plenty of movement.

Oye veh.

This is a candidate to be one of my favorite tempo markings, along with Molto Moderato, which I think hails from the Schubert Bb piano sonata. "Very middle of the road" is how I interpret that one. Extremely not very extreme at all.

Anyhow, you can hear the results of my confusion here. I've tried to take what seemed a good tempo, though I think I might have taken it a bit faster if the composer hadn't hamstrung me with the maestoso in there, and also if I'd been playing the piece for more than a few days.

It underlines how hard it is to communicate something as tricky as art, and reminds me as a composer how easily you can confuse your interpreters. If only he'd made a recording for posterity to ignore. That would have been easier.

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