Monday, April 15, 2013

Il Linguaggio Musicale

We have been attending performances of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra held at various churches and centers in the suburbs of Detroit, yesterday once again. We like to sit in the front row of the balcony quite close to the orchestra at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church. The balcony has a neat railing where the opened program finds a spot so that we can follow the movements as they are played. Mozart’s Serenade No. 6 in D major for Two Small Orchestras, “Serenata notturna.” It has three movements: Marcia maestoso, Menuetto, and Rondo. The Rondo is described as Allegretto, Adagio, Allegro. Originally, when first performed, the first movement, the “majestic march,” was played both at the beginning and at the end. At the beginning the two orchestras marched in playing it, positioned themselves at two different spots in a great hall. And when they finished the Rondo, they rose again and, playing their majestic march, again departed. So our vastly gifted conductor, Christopher Warren-Green, informed us. (Not all knowledge comes from the Internet.)

Looking at those, and the succeeding, movements, I got curious about the designation of tempos these words indicate. So what exactly is the difference between an Adagio and an Allegro? Well, adagio means slow, allegro merry and cheerful. One movement was Allegro con brio, meaning that the composer of it, Franz Joseph Hayden, wished it to be played cheerfully and “with panache, with flair.” Are these tempos or do these words transcend mere beat? Did I just discover a secret but quite literal “language of music” quite familiar to composers, who know this stuff much better than I do? It’s common to hear that music just cannot be expressed in language—but here are the composers doing so. Very parsimoniously, to be sure, but they have something in mind.

Among tempo indicators, for instance is Solenne, meaning “solemn.” But just as solemn music is quite difficult to put into words, so is that word itself. How do you render solemn into other words? What is a solemn occasion? Perhaps a funeral? What all does that word contain? It contains the whole behavior of a collective of humans gathered for it, their dress for the occasion, their postures, their facial expression, the words they utter, the look in their eyes. It means the kind of music that will be played, the formality of movements observed by everyone, the content of the words exchanged, the subject of the sermon, the words chosen for the service itself.

And what exactly does “with flair” signify? Not any one thing? Something graceful may be entirely still—or may be in motion. Not just music, it strikes me; vast ranges of human experience, rendered by words as well as music, extend beneath words the meaning of which is as elusive as music itself—and yet we all know what they mean.

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