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The Secret Life of Musical Notation: Defying Interpretive Traditions
- Amadeus Press

From Chapter Three - "...of Rinforzandi" (p. 103)

When asked to describe the role of a rinforzando that has been placed at the end of a crescendo whose destination is an fff, quite a few musicians offered a predictable response: it demands a greater increase in volume. I had assigned the same connotation in my own musical vocabulary, but as I looked anew at the contexts in which rinforzando appears concurrently with a crescendo, I began to question the logic of the redundancy: would not indicating a crescendo have sufficed? As to the degree of dynamic intensity, would the emotional charge of its context be more instructive than a generalized duplicative marking?

In Musik-Lexikon, compiled in 1882, Hugo Riemann attributed dynamic validity to rinforzando, stating that a strong crescendo – “ein starkes Crescendo” – is to be employed.¹ Other authoritative publications in the second half of the 19th century shared this position, relating the term to sforzando, crescendo, and even forte. Its interpretation did not change in the 20th century: all the reliable encyclopedic sources I consulted agree that rinforzando indicates an increase in volume or a localized dynamic swell. Music theorists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries often referred to the marking’s dynamic involvement, but the German composer Justin Heinrich Knecht (1752-1817) seems to have seen in the marking a broader scope. In Knechts allgemeiner musikalischer Katechismus (Knecht’s General Musical Principles), published in 1803, his definition of what was then a term in its infancy reveals that rinforzando may have not referred exclusively to volume:

Rinforzando can only be applied to a group of several notes to which one should give a strong emphasis.²

Only a few years before Knecht’s Katechismus began to circulate, Beethoven had published his Piano Trios, Op. 1 and Piano Sonatas, Op. 2 – six works that contain a prolific amount of interpretive instructions and a profuse application of rinforzando. In my teenage years, when I approached the study of some of these pieces, the conventional treatment of the marking was often so perplexing that I questioned whether a dynamic role should have been regarded as its only feasible treatment. The presence of these irrational instances was often justified by the supposition that the composer had deliberately intended for certain anomalies to take place. But how could the dynamic abruptness of certain rinforzandi, which seemed to hinder and deform the expression of entire passages, be accepted as manifest truth? The musicians with whom I interacted or performed during those years did not seem too perturbed by these dynamic swells, though they occasionally recognized their peculiarity. I suspected that these unusual outcomes were perhaps the result of a system that assigns inalterable meanings to notational symbols, and that we had allowed these interpretive traditions to become part of our language, to be crucial elements of the way we faced the complex prosody of the music we played. Further, it seemed to me that the belief that the mechanical reproduction of these symbols and signs aimed to reveal the composer’s intentions was often brought to an extreme and encouraged by teachers and performers alike – an approach that may have perpetuated erroneous convictions about a composer’s language.


In Chapters One and Two I discussed how my understanding of what I saw in print had been based on dogmatic principles and traditions that had been instilled in me during my formative years. I took these conventions at face value, assuming that there must have been a truth to the manner in which generations of musicians who preceded me had interpreted musical notation. The musicians with whom I interacted, the concerts I attended and the recordings to which I regularly returned all shaped the way in which I heard, read and understood music. I began to communicate those notions in my deliberations about how a piece should sound and in my early teaching experiences, perpetuating beliefs that, I thought, were respecting the composer’s intentions. Yet the substantial conclusions to which I came over time [...] made me reconsider many occurrences of rinforzando whose mechanical reproduction in its conventional dynamic attribution did not always seem to correspond to musically logical solutions. Was our perception of "rinforzando" also based on an interpretive misconstruction, I wondered?

An opportunity to address this question arose while I was working with a student on the opening page of the Adagio from Beethoven’s first Sonata from Op. 2. In this inspired slow movement, a "rinforzando" is encountered in measure 14, as the first sixteen-measure episode nears its close. A new phrase introduces the relative key of D minor, starting from the anacrusis of measure 17:

Example 3.1 - L. van Beethoven: Sonata in f minor, Op. 2, no. 1 - II. Adagio - mm. 13-18

Beethoven’s only dynamic indication for this tender, intimate episode is a pianissimo as the movement begins, yet the student applied an increase in volume in its concluding measures – quite an unusual choice, considering the poignant lyricism of the passage. If Beethoven had a particular effect in mind for this rinforzando, its meaning eluded me. Was my student’s interpretation correct? Was he really supposed to apply a crescendo – a strong one, if Riemann’s suggestion were to be followed – at the end of the opening phrase? Where would the increase end? Should it continue through the new phrase that starts in measure 17? Or should the emphasis be a localized dynamic one on the third beat of measure 14, as some performers interpret it? By comparison with a crescendo, a single stress seemed a more reasonable solution; nevertheless I wondered what would necessitate its odd presence in an opening section whose only dynamic marking is an initial pianissimo.

I then noticed a curious parallel between this rinforzando and the opening measures of the second movement of Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/49, written only a few years earlier. In measure 15, the application of the term forzando not to a single pitch but to a cluster of notes is the only such instance in the composer’s entire output for keyboard:

Example 3.2 - F. J. Haydn: Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/49 - II. Adagio e cantabile - mm. 14-18

My puzzlement only grew. The uncanny resemblance between this passage and the one we looked at in example 3.1, I thought, might not be just a fortuitous occurrence. Did Haydn also expect a crescendo, as I had been trained to believe that Beethoven did? And if so, how could I make sense of an interpretive instruction that parted with my musical instinct – indeed, that seemed incoherent? Further, as this instance in Haydn’s Adagio bears such a remarkable similarity to the passage in Beethoven’s first Sonata, was I permitted to assume that the markings forzando and rinforzando had comparable connotations?

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