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Sharon Bill Music Tutor & Author

Saying it Straight


Musical terms and performance directions take some time to get to grips with. Percy Grainger makes us wonder why we ever bothered to try!

As you progress through the musical periods and you widen your musical horizons you have to deal with Italian terms, and then French and German directions add a little more for you to figure out. Often the directions are pretty common and pretty easy to guess what the composer is driving at, but as your repertoire grows the terms and symbols become more obscure. Nevertheless, all that time spent learning the various definitions feels like it’s been time well spent.

Over time you learn that there really is a subtle difference between performing a piece “Moderato” (at a moderate speed) and performing “Andante” (at a walking pace). You begin to understand that there really is a subtle distinction between being told “Ritenuto” (held back) and “Ritardando” (gradually getting slower). These words become like old friends and just a glance at the term gives you an insight into the nuances of performance that the composer is asking of you. And then Grainger gets his pen out…

Grainger had a reputation as being rather eccentric and a short glance at his abstract, wordy performance directions cements such opinion. On reading his score I actually feel offended by his irreverence for the time honoured Italian terms. One Italian musical term would have described his uncouth, lengthy directions - and yet, his intentions are crystal clear. We’re in no doubt of the effect he’s after so does breaking with tradition really matter?

Here are a few of his performance directions that I’ve recently come across:

“Beat 4 twice in every bar” (Why not put the time signature to reflect that in the first place?)

“Keep soft and smooth” (“Piano e legato” would have done the job.)

“Louden bit by bit” (“Crescendo” has expressed that perfectly for centuries.)

“Slow off” (“Ritardando” or “Rallentando” have been understood for hundreds of years to mean just that.)

“Louden lots” ("Molto crescendo” served other composers equally well.)

“Wayward in time” (“Rubato” would say is much in one word.)

However, the best indication ever has to be,

“Breathe when blown”

I should probably explain that the piece of music I’m looking at is a choral piece. One can only presume that, in this case, Grainger is referring to choral breathing here. In this particular section the altos have a long phrase with no opportunity for an official breath. The way to deal with such a scenario is for individual chorus members to stagger when they take their breath so there isn’t a gap and each member covers over when their neighbour takes a breath. The result is that no one passes out for lack of oxygen but the overall phrase is never broken. This happens often in choral singing without the composer needing to give such direction. Grainger didn’t need to say anything at all!