Allegro non molto; allegro or not?



Vivaldi appears to be scrupulous in his choice of tempo indications. Kolneder (1979) lists some dozen variations of Allegro and Largo (A. molto; A. con moto; A. poco; A. mà poco e cantabile; A. mà d’un mezzo tempo; L. e spiccato; L. cantabile; L. mà sciolto).

One could read these combinatory indications, some even seemingly contradictory, as an attempt by a composer to control the exact tempo of the performance. ‘The care given to tempo indications is also evident in their corrections: in RV 419, 1st movement, the 'Andante' is crossed out and replaced by 'Adagio'; in RV 179/581, the middle movement, 'Largo' is altered to 'Andante'; in both cases this suits the character of the music much better’ (Kolneder, 1979, p. 13).

Being a violinist, one could also read these indications as being related to the character and affect, or, as I advocate in this study, as related to the kinaesthetic quality of body movements. The playing action – bowing and body movement – can translate the indications into gestures, taking into account all the kinaesthetic factors derived from the musical score, performance practice, and the specifics of the historical instrument; but also, taking into account the actual environment of the performance, the room, co-players, and the audience’s response. Such a flexible, qualitative, and ecological approach will redefine the notion of the “right” tempo as that which emerges naturally in the moment of the performance, based on a direct communication and interaction, rather than being quantitatively fixed, through the tempo markings, and normatively imposed on performers as some 'objective' value.

However, only outside of Italy did these tempo indications become synonymous with specific tempi. Various methods have been employed to systematize the Italian words into precise tempo indications, for instance by relating the tempo to heart beats (Quantz, 1752), or the swing of a pendulum (Loulié, 1696).  Alexander Bonus reminds us that ‘the differences between “time” of clocks and the “time” of music appear in early-modern references across Europe’ (Bonus, 2010, p. 11). Also, as is apparent in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the term mouvement ‘contains various meanings, both mechanical and musical. Mouvement as a terme d’Horlogerie, references the various components of a clock or watch, including a pendulum, escapement, dial, and pivots. Alternatively, movement en Musique concerns qualities of liveliness or slowness and the characteristics of each air – during each bar – which was most often related by French or Italian words. It is significant to note that the Encyclopédie defines another mouvement, that of rhetoric, as it concerns the fluctuating passions and emotions elicited through skilful oration’ (Bonus, 2000, p. 11).

When the indications are applied in native languages, they tend to relate more to character than to the actual speed of movement. For instance, Purcell’s ‘Slow’, ‘Quick’ and ‘Brisk’ remain in the same pulse, but as the note values and character change, the ‘Quick’ and ‘Brisk’ feel like a faster tempo (Boyden, 1990). However, as the actual speed is implied in the structure, a designation like ‘Slow’ will signal a change in the articulation from short to long, a smoother bow action, and, not least, a more languid attitude in the body movements. Conversely, the ‘Quick’ indication will signal shorter bow-strokes and livelier body movements, while keeping the same pulse.

That is not to say that smaller note values necessary means a faster tempo. In Corelli’s ornamentation of Adagios, the increased number of notes in an ornamented passage does not change the basic character and sensation of the tempo. The pulse keeps being 'slow', and the body language remains the basic Adagio motion, while the small ornamenting notes fill the bigger shapes with an energy from within.

In this respect, the Allegro non molto indication in the first movement of the Summer concerto can be understood in the context of the implied poetic imagery of the Sonnet, translated into languid body movements. The poetic imagery enhances the contradictory meanings of Allegro (fast) and non molto (not much). Rather than reading the indication as a specific value, the performers enact the contending meanings in body movements.








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