Smè-tana or Sme-tâ-na?

Today’s blog is all about accents and articulations.  Most of the time they are dead obvious.  But – now and then you run across something like this:

The "coda" from The Moldau

This is the coda section from The Moldau – it’s bringing back the theme from the first of the ‘Ma Vlast’ symphonic poems.  Generally speaking, it’s pretty freakin’ loud.  The problem is: how loud?  It’s still got to be musical – and we’ve got to read into a probable or likely “intent” that Smetana had in mind.

Let’s take stock of what we’ve got here:

  • bar 1 – ff
  • bar 2 – fz
  • bar 4 – another ff
  • bar 5 – another fz
  • bar 7 – then a change to ‘>’
  • etc…

Recordings I’ve heard have put the greater accent on the ‘fz‘ – which makes sense: sforzando has a greater initial articulation than fortissimo.  But then the ‘ff‘ is repeated in bar 4.  Why re-iterate a fortissimo dynamic?  A ‘gentle’ reminder?  Looking back at Beethoven, he used sforzandi regularly, but he also would repeat forte markings, bar-after-bar, to indicate and reinforce strong accenting in loud passages (in the scherzo of his 9th symphony, for instance).

So Smetana is mixing three dynamic markings in a short span where everything is generally loud – or is it?  ok, well, yeah, it is.  But how loud?  It always comes down to context.  Ask yourself these questions when trying to judge a dynamic marking:

  1. How loud is the rest of the ensemble right now?
  2. How loud was the rest of the piece?  – or better yet …
  3. Does this look like the dynamic climax of the piece?  i.e. does it die down from here for a quiet ending (like Elgar’s Nimrod), or is there an even bigger bang later (like, um, the Moldau with ‘fff‘ a little later)?  Should I give it all now, I save a bit for the end?
  4. Harmonically or melodically, how should my dynamic level relate to the rest of the orchestra?  e.g. do I have a harmonically-interesting accidental?  Am I doing something attention-worthy like a change in register?
Back to the clip above, what do we do with bar 7?  The plain old marcato (“>”).  It’s “plain old” compared to the two ‘ff‘ indications that came before it.  So, then, it is less accented and quieter than the first 6 bars of this section?  It feels like it should be.  If Mr. Bedrich meant to keep the big dynamic level, he wouldn’t have turned to ‘>’ eh?  Especially after explicitly using ‘ff‘s. Lazy printing or artistic intent?  I think it’s artistic intent — in context, bar 8 goes in a different harmonic direction, and listeners would better appreciate this if the orchestra backed off a little from the initial impact of this return to the ‘Vysehrad’ motif (IMHO, ‘Vysehrad’ is totally overshadowed by the popularity of ‘The Moldau’).
The lessons for me here are: to try to read the artistic intent of the composer in the dynamic markings; to keep in mind the larger context of the piece; and always keep listening to my fellow musicians.
ps. it’s Sme-tâ-na – and I had been pronouncing it wrong all along.

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