BEAUTY of music | check the tempo

Check the tempo: February's Beauty of Music explains how individual movements in classical music are identified--most commonly by using the tempo marking.

In our Beauty of Music blog, we have discussed how a whole classical work might be named in your program. Now I would like to turn to the individual movements, how they are labeled, and why some words, like Allegro, Andante, and Adagio appear so frequently.

Most movements of abstract instrumental music are identified by their tempo marking. The word “movement” even comes from the Italian movimento which is another term for the pace or character of the piece, i.e., how the music moves. The Italian tempo marking became a shorthand for a title of an individual movement. As with most conventions in classical music, the history of tempo markings is rich with traditions and assumptions.

From about 1600-1750 when tempo markings became standardized, music—and culture more broadly—was still heavily influenced by Italy. Italian, therefore, became the pan-European language of music. Opera, which was invented near the beginning of the 17th century in Italy, continued to be written mostly in Italian until the 19th century, even for audiences outside Italy.

While tempo markings come from Italian words, they should not be taken literally, which is why programs rarely translate the terms into the vernacular. For instance, the word allegro literally translates to “merry, cheerful, joyous, or carefree,” but one would never apply these words to the outer movements of Mahler’s 6th Symphony which are heavy and dramatic. These movements are, however, performed at a fairly fast tempo, which is what allegro means in this context.

Italian tempo markings are generally the only identifier in movements of 17th and 18th-century instrumental music. This is especially true of works in sonata form, such as sonatas, other chamber works, symphonies, and concerti. Movements from dance suites were more often identified by the dance form, e.g., Bach’s French Suites and English Suites (more on dance suites another day).

It is helpful to know what some of these tempo markings mean, as they can help you anticipate what is to come. Most sonatas and concerti follow a three movement structure: fast—slow—fast. String quartets, piano quintets, symphonies, and other larger-scale works are more often in four movements with a scherzo or minuet in the third position: fast—slow—minuet/scherzo—fast. The minuet is a courtly dance form, and a scherzo—Italian for “joke”—is a fast, lively movement most often in triple meter. There are, of course, many exceptions to these patterns, and these rules are increasingly broken throughout the 19th century.

Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of tempo markings you can find here. I have reproduced some of the most important ones below from slow to fast. BPM stands for beats per minute and can be calculated using a metronome. Allegro, Andante, and Adagio are the three you will find most often in a program.

Tempo markings

These markings can be modified with diminutive and superlative suffixes: Adagietto is not quite as slow as Adagio, and Prestissimo is even faster than Presto.

Tempo markings are sometimes just one word, but they often have qualifying words or phrases that help the performer interpret the music. Again, an exhaustive list can be found on Wikipedia, but here are some important ones:

Tempo marking qualifiers

Beethoven was particularly known for writing detailed tempo markings, sometimes to absurd degrees. By far my favorite is from the Kyrie from his Mass in C, op. 86: Andante con moto assai vivace, quasi Allegretto ma non troppo. Translation: “At a walking pace with very much lively motion, somewhat fast-ish but not too much.”

One other thing to look for in movement titles is punctuation. A comma usually indicates that what follows is more description. A colon indicates that what precedes it is a title or form, and what follows is the tempo. You see this often as Scherzo: Presto, or Finale: Allegro. A semicolon or an em-dash indicates a change in tempo. You can often find this following a slow introduction such as Adagio; Allegro or sometimes LargoAllegro.

Let’s look at examples from Alex Beyer’s program for his February 26 Premiere Series recital. Alex will be playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The tempo markings are Allegro con brio (fast with vigor), Adagio (slow), and Rondo: Molto allegro (Rondo: very fast). Rondo is a form often used for final movements.

Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 1 is less straightforward. It is a four-movement work. The first is labeled Introduzione: Un poco adagio; Allegro vivace. He is telling you there is a (somewhat) slow introduction followed by a fast and lively section. The second movement is simply titled Aria—Italian for air. We normally think of arias as solo numbers in an opera, and this movement evokes a vocal style with a melody plus accompanying figures. The third movement, labled Scherzo e intermezzo: Allegrissimo; lento tells you that we have two sections, a very fast scherzo and a slower intermezzo that leads into the fourth movement: Finale: Allegro un poco maestoso (Finale: Fast and a little stately).

As composers became more nationalist throughout the 19th century, they began to adopt vernacular languages for their score markings. Beethoven was among the earliest to do so, but only for a handful of works, and even then he most often included Italian markings as well. Schumann goes back and forth depending on the genre—earlier in his career and in more formal genres, he was more likely to use Italian. German, however, is more common in his later works. His Fourth Symphony underwent major revisions, and the 1841 version has Italian tempo markings while the 1851 has German. Brahms, who was writing late in the century but always looking at the past over his shoulder, preferred Italian for his instrumental works.

Throughout the 20th century and up to today, composers use both, and often they do so within the same piece. Use of metronome markings, once reviled by some composers, has also become standard with the understanding that musicians “as human beings, will approximate tempo, and vary as necessary depending on the situation (acoustics, etc.)” (Indiana University Composition Style Guide). Often composers will write a description next to the metronome marking, either in Italian or native language. Rarely, though, are individual movements by contemporary composers labeled only by an Italian tempo marking.

Judith Lang Zaimont’s piece ATTARS was commissioned by the American Pianists Association for the 2017 Awards and will be premiered at the New Music Recital on April 3, 2017. I asked Ms. Zaimont how she makes decisions about what language to use for her directions, and she writes, “As an English-speaking individual born in the US, it's natural for me to use English—along with Italian, French and sometimes other languages—to get tempo & expression marks as clear as possible” (emphasis mine). That means drawing on the knowledge and understanding that her performers have built up over the years working with the repertoire. The beginning of the section “Jasmine” in ATTARS provides a great example:

Selection from ATTARS

Here, the Italian (and Latin) indication Scherzo e perpetuum mobile are firmly established terms: Jokingly and in perpetual motion. Scherzo in particular is a word that shouldn’t be translated because it does not really mean jokingly, but performed in a specific style that has evolved since the late 18th century. “Leisurely, hesitant,” and “fast and light with sudden accents” is more clearly understood in English. The eight note = 138+ indicates the approximate speed in eighth notes per minute at which the passage should be executed.

From Bach to Zaimont, composers have been trying to communicate as clearly and effectively as possible to the performer while realizing that each performer will approach the work with a certain musical vocabulary. This vocabulary, like that of any other language, has been expanded and refined over many years, and everyone who composes is capable of adding to this rich tapestry of musical terms. 


2017 American Pianists Awards finalist Alex Beyer performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Sunday, February 26 at the Indiana History Center. Alex and the other finalists return to Indianapolis for the final week of competition in April when they will perform an exciting range of repertoire including Zaimont's ATTARS. Check out the full Discovery Week schedule.




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