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A Painless Path to Learning Italian: A Look at Musical Terms

June, 2003

Loving opera as I do, I always try to follow a new recording with a vocal score. This practice has led me, willy or nilly, to look up an awful lot of foreign words. Some of the results might amuse you, if not enlighten you.

Speaking of music, what does MUSIC mean? In fact, what is the meaning of a whole google of words used by musicians? (Never mind what "mean" means, for that is a really deep topic.)

To start with, "music" means more or less "having to do with the muses." That much is easy and comes from the Greek, which leaves some unamused. For the rest, we are going to learn a lot of Italian.

Let us think just about the speeds at which a piece can be played. LARGO (as in Key Largo) means "large, broad, expansive," with the idea of slow and dignified. ANDANTE means "going" in the sense of slow but still moving right along, while ADAGIO means "at ease" with the idea of slow but not quite as slow as largo. In between the two slow paces, we have ADAGIETTO, which means "a little adagio." And in between fairly slow and quick, we have MODERATO, which scarcely needs a translation.

Moving a little faster brings us to ALLEGRETTO, which means a little ALLEGRO, which in turn means "merry" in the sense of played quickly. To put a little pep into things, you can play ANIMATO (with spirit) or VIVO (lively) or VIVACE (fast and lively) or even MULTO VIVACE (very fast and lively) or PRESTO (fast) or PRESTISSIMO (very fast). By now you have noticed that the old Latin superlative ending "-issimo" means nearly the same thing as our superlative "-est" at the end of an adjective.

If you play each note sharply, you are playing STACCATO (detached); but if you want a smoother effect, you play LEGATO (tied together, as in "ligature") so that each note is still sounding as the next note is played.

Now regardless of the TEMPO ("timing") you have chosen from the above, you can play your piece PIANO (softly) or PIANISSIMO (very softly), or FORTE (strong in the sense of "loud") or even FORTISSIMO if you want to bring the roof down. (In his desperation with Italian orchestras who could never quite play anything below a "forte," Verdi used to mark certain passages in his operas "ppppp" in the hopes they would be played at least moderately softly!)

Now what about voices? For men, we use the words TENOR, BARITONE and BASS. The latter means "low" (as in "basement") and baritone means "heavy sound" (as in "barometer" which measures air pressure). The word "tenor simply means "holder" (as in "tendon," "tenacious," and "tenant"). What gives? Way back in the Middle Ages, the tenor was the one who sang in what we call the baritone range and was given the task of "holding" the canto firmo in a Mass while the other singers accompanied him. After 1500, the tenor became the male who sang in a range higher than the baritone. The possessor of this voice did not become the superstar until one of them hit a full-voiced high C during a Rossini opera and changed the world.

Tenors more or less can be grouped, not by range but by the power in their voices, into TENOR ROBUSTO (most of the Verdi leading male roles and all of the Wagnerian ones) and TENOR LEGGIERO (light, as is required for the bel canto — "beautiful sing" — roles in Mozart and Donizetti operas).

For the women, we have the SOPRANO (or super-singer) who sings "above" all the others, be she COLORATURA (colorful like Lakme), LYRIC (in the sense of "melodic" like Mimi), or DRAMATIC (like Aida). Female voices a notch below or in the middle are MEZZO SOPRANO (as in "mezzanine") and such roles in operas go to those playing secondary female leads and young men (like the "pants roles" in "Tales of Hoffmann" and "Faust"). On the other hand, Rossini's Cinderella and Rosina and Saint-Saens' Dalila are mezzos, so there is no strict rule.

The CONTRALTO is really a "counter-alto" (against the high) since she theoretically sings in opposition, as it were, to the higher soprano. Which brings in the rarely heard COUNTERTENOR, the voice of choice, some say, through most of western musical history, exemplified by the excellent Alfred Deller and his son whose recordings revived that style. The last opera role for a counter tenor (I believe) was that of Oberon in Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Most people know that OPERA simply means "work" in the sense of a musical drama. In the Baroque period, CANTATA meant "something to be sung" (usually of a religious nature) while SONATA simply meant "something to be played without vocal accompaniment." That last word has certainly taken on a different meaning in "sonata form" and the ambiguous use of the word in "piano sonata" or "violin sonata."

Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth!

Yes, there is always more than one good reason for learning a foreign language.

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