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:
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 ‘>’
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:
- How loud is the rest of the ensemble right now?
- How loud was the rest of the piece? – or better yet …
- 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?
- 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?