Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Italian On His Terms

At the state convention in June, Maurice Hinson discussed the many Italian words we use to describe the tempo of a piece. Adagio, Andante, Allegro, Vivace, the list is long. He described each word in depth and the deeper meanings behind them. When I was ready to go into a deep diatribe with a student yesterday, full of wisdom about Andante, I was cut off with a better question! "Why did the 'guys' who wrote this music on paper use Italian? Didn't they speak English?"

True that! So rather than wax eloquently on what I had prepared, we discussed that some of the men to write music on paper were the monks who lived in Rome, Italy. They weren't the first, but it has lasted. They spoke Italian and used their native language to put the melodies, notes and rhythms, into a form so that the other monks in Italy and eventually around Europe could sing. The same chants and melodies would unify the congregations no matter which church they attended, the same as the ones at the Vatican.

This is also why there are lines, like fingers, on the staff. The lead monk, in front of the group, used to hold up one hand, fingers outstretched and sing the pitch of one of the fingers. Then he used the other hand to point to the different outstretched fingers, or their spaces in between. The monks could all change pitches together then and sing their mass. When it came time to write down these songs, they drew it on paper the way it looked as they had pointed on their hand. You can pretend to direct what is written above! Tricky, but it works.

We still use Italian as a sign of respect in a way to the first composers. Some later composers used their native languages, (English, German, French, etc.,) in their music. Most of this began in the Romantic period when there was a big Nationalistic push across Europe. At this point the student interrupted and said that it should have been printed in English because that's what he reads.

He certainly has a point.


  1. Interesting post--I didn't know the history of the staff lines.

  2. The student should get an opportunity to see a trial and all the Latin terms still in use, wot?

  3. This post takes me back to my only music course. I loved it, by the way. Thank you so much for explaining why it is in Italian.

  4. Yes, we can thank Rome for a lot of things, can't we?


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