Notation in Classical Era

When notes are played in neither staccato nor legato the fingers should be raised from the key a little earlier than the value f the note requires. In 1801, Muzio Clementi wrote that ‘the best general rule is to keep down the keys of the instruments, the FULL LENGTH of every note’. When Mozart wanted a specific horn and trumpet sound in Idomeneo, he wrote to request from his father a special kind of mute that was unavailable in Munich but used by the watchmen in Salzburg. Even between these two geographical and culturally close cities, they observed different musical tradition.

Written sources describing late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century performing practices must be treated with caution. What instrument do they apply and what repertoire are contemporary need to be considered. CPE Bach’s Versuch (1753 Translated as Essay on the True Art of playing Keyboard Instruments), Quantz’s Versuch (1752, translated as On Playing the Flute) and Mozart’s Versuch (1756, translated as A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing) can all be associated with specific repertoires. All three books were highly regarded throughout the eighteenth century in Europe. Their treatise were well worth studying as are other treatises by students and other well-known composers. These included Carl Czerny (1849 -50, translated as School of Practical Composition) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1828, translated as A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instructions on the Art of Playing the Pianoforte).

Careful study of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or any other great composer of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries, no single detail seems to be completely independent on its own from either single phrase or an entire movement. The notational conventions and interpretation – including tempo, metre, articulation and phrasing, dynamics and ornamentations.

Notation and Metre

Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that ‘tempo is a problematic and crucial issue.’ In his Dictionnaire de musique (1768), he listed three factors that play a part in determining tempo. The degree of slowness or quickness that one gives to a measure depends on several things:

  • On the value of the notes that compose the bar. If one sees the bar contains breve, it must be taken more calmly and last longer than that which contains by the crochets.
  • On the tempo indicated by the French and Italian word that one ordinarily finds at the head of the piece…each of these words indicates an explicit modification in the tempo of a given metre.
  • Finally, on the character of the piece

The first of these points refers to the performance practice known as ‘fixed tactus.’

The whole of eighteenth century, tempos were on the fast side. Metronomes did not become common until the early nineteenth century. Composers, performers and theorists increasingly wrote down not only their ideas about tempos in general but also their requirement for specific works old and new. For example, Beethoven left metronome markings for all nine symphonies, the first eleven string quartets and several smaller works. Among his piano works, he only left markings for ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op.106 and these are considered controversial as they seem unreasonably fast.

The primary point is that there was no standardization for the speed neither chronologically nor geographically.

There is an additional problem of tempo flexibility. Earlier in the period, steadiness of tempo was seen as an attribute. When Mozart played a concert in Vienna in 1771, he was praised for his attention to rhythm and tempo.  Beethoven, on the other hand was describe by Joseph Michael Boehm as ‘the deaf Beethoven was able to judge the smallest fluctuations in tempo and rhythms and correct them immediately.’ In the similar vein, Ferdinand Ries wrote that although Beethoven played his composition impetuously, but for the most part he stayed strictly in time and only infrequently pushed the tempo a little. He occasionally retarded his tempo during crescendo and this created a beautiful and most remarkable effect.

Meanwhile Schubert’s works suggests a steadiness in tempo depended on genre. In most of his orchestral music, for example the ‘Great C major’ Symphony, requires a steady beat.  However, for his songs, the expression is in the text. It has also been argued that the ‘hairpin’ sign is an indication of dynamics which may reflect a subtle change of tempo. Contrary to the eyewitness accounts that Schubert always kept strict and even time except in a few places where he indicated in writing marked a ritardando, morendo or accelerando.

Discreet tempo Rubato was expected. Mozart wrote to his father:

‘They all marvel that I always stay in strict time. They do not realize that tempo rubato in an adagio does not apply to the left hand.’

This is not far from the description by Pier Francesco Tosi in 1723: ‘When the Bass goes on exactly regular Pace, the other part retards or anticipate in a singular manner.’ It is necessary to create a persuasive beat, although this often requires mixture of precision and flexibility that avoids both mechanical regularity and caprice.

The eighteenth and nineteenth century, sources draw together the notion of tempo and character. Henrich Christoph’s Musikalisches Lexikon of 1802 draw some of the following tempos:

Largo – signifies broad or expanded. Mostly indicates the slow tempo which expressed with solemn slowness.

Adagio – moderately slowly, calls for finely drawn performance. The music will become boring and unpleasant if the tempo is not maintained with sufficient momentum.

Andante – moving, walking speed. The pace is midway between fast and slow. The sentiment of the piece is calm, quiet and contentment.  Notes are not drag into each other much as in Adagio.

Allegro – quick to moderately quick tempo. The tempo calls for a firm tone quality, the notes are being connected when expressly indicated otherwise the notes are generally separately rather decisively

Presto – rapid, quick the quickest category of tempo. In Instrumental music, it calls for fleeting and light, straight forward delivery of speed; in opera, tempo is used for sentiments of greatest intensity, more vigour must be expressed in a sharper accentuation of the tones and the clarity of performance must not compromised.

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