Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On the word "Adagio"

Does Adagio mean slow?  Most people think so.  But no, it doesn't.  It means "at ease" in Italian (ad="at", agio="ease" or "comfort").  So there you go.  Learn something new every day.

Seriously, though, people's different takes on the meanings of Italian words have plagued music interpreters throughout the ages.  Mozart - a fluent speaker of Italian - certainly meant "at ease" when he wrote adagio in his scores.  (What that actually means in terms of performance is another debate, of course...)  When Tchaikovsky - a lover of all things Italian, no doubt (wink!) - writes adagio in his scores, does he mean "slow"?  When Barber wrote a piece called Adagio for Strings... well, what did he mean by using that word?  Considering that he wrote the piece (actually it originated as the slow movement of Barber's String Quartet no. 1) while he was living in Rome, it's tempting to think he was cognizant of the literal meaning of the word adagio.  But was he really?  And even if he was, did he already have a different/slower meaning for that musical term deeply ingrained?

The truth is: we don't know.  It's impossible to know, unless the composer in question is alive.  Even written testimony to what a composer thought is usually suspect - meetings can be faked, people can mishear.  Think back to when you played a game of "telephone" as a child...  Is there a recording of Barber conducting it?  Not to my knowledge, though if anybody knows of one - PLEASE tell me!  

Given the fact that there's no way of knowing how fast Barber intended his Adagio for Strings to be played, it's easier to understand just why there are such marked differences in tempo between performances of the same piece.  The shortest recordings clock in at around 7 minutes.  They sound sprightly to my ears.  The longest recording I know of is a live Bernstein recording that tips the scales at over 10 minutes.  It sounds absolutely desperate, pleading.  Which way is right?  Both!  Neither!  (Insert your opinion here.)

When you think about it, a 3 minute difference between performances is colossal.  Bernstein's performance is almost half again as long as the fastest versions out there.

So what's my point?  For me, it all goes back to the ambiguity of written language.  Words are symbols, deriving meaning only through the filter of the person doing the writing or the reading.  Think music is written down unambiguously?  Think again.  Sure, we know approximately what pitch the composer wanted at which approximate dynamic level, and played for approximately how long.  But really not much more than that.  

[With Mahler, more than any other composer, you really get a sense of how frustratingly inadequate musical notation is to convey one's ideas in a precise way.  Just look at one of his symphonies in full score, and you'll see - there's almost a running commentary of what is supposed to be happening, all written out in German (and sometimes Italian).  This was a man who saw very clearly that musical notation can never be eindeutig, or unambiguous.]

Is that so bad?  Of course not.  It's beautiful.  It cements, in fact, the partnership between composer and performer, since neither one could create without the other.  In the case of Barber's Adagio, the simple fact that the one word adagio does not mean the same thing to all people yields incredible fruit, in the form of countless different (more or less) valid interpretations of the same piece.  The very idea of there being a "correct" interpretation finds itself ignominiously shuffled off to where it belongs: freezing outside in the cold.

Speaking of which, is anybody else here in NYC ready for spring to arrive?  What gives?



  1. Perhaps it is a sign of the times – or just of your audience – but the Adagio always reminds me of the soundtrack to the movie “Platoon.” I can clearly hear the sound of Charlie Sheen’s over-dubbed narration and recall the anticipation of the “crack” of the rifle shot that killed Tom Berenger’s character(?). It brings to mind the many times and places where I played that album – on shuffle (naturally), so that “White Rabbit” or “Okie from Muskogee” followed, letting me rock out my Barber blues. I sure hope Mssrs. Fowler, Greenstein and Haas worked a little “Tracks of My Tears” (or an Otis Redding “Dock of the Bay” whistle?) into their pieces. In any event, I’ve heard the Adagio in this context more than any other, and thus I associate it with sadness, senseless death in a jungle, and the 70s. Perhaps not exactly what Barber had in mind.

  2. So we may not know how fast Barber would have taken the Adagio for Strings. But does it matter? Trying to figure out a composer's intentions is a tricky business under the best of circumstances. Even if we can replicate the tempi or the interpretative decisions of an original performance, perhaps this misses the point. Listeners in 2009 will necessarily experience Barber's Adagio differently than those in the 1930s. ("Platoon," or Seinfeld's parody of "Platoon," etc. are part of the reason why.) So a better yardstick might be: how can a performer interpret a piece in a way that is personally compelling and that will resonate with a contemporary audience? It's exciting to see Sympho explore new ways of answering this question.

    [A historical note: the association of "adagio" with "extremely slow" owes a lot to Wagner, who wrote in his treatise "On Conducting" that a true adagio couldn't be taken too slowly. (He was talking about the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth.) And the ability to write a transcendent Adagio (with a capital A) was considered by many critics and composers in late nineteenth-century Vienna to be the ultimate test of a composer's skill. Terms, like works of music, accumulate shades of meaning through the ages. The word "adagio" hasn't been the same since...]

  3. Ah yes, the late romantics... weren't they the ones who started insisting on performing everything by memory in recital/concert? Composer/performers like Liszt, besides leaving behind some great music, ended up scaring the Bejeezus out of generations of young, ill-prepared music students. Sigh.

  4. jeremy -- that would be willem dafoe's character, you philistine...