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

From Chapter Five - "...of Stretti" (p. 181)

Rather accidentally, the subject of this chapter took shape as I was comparing pedal markings in editions of Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28. Open before me was the third page of the sixteenth Prelude with its perilous runs, when for the first time I noticed a startling anomaly: a four-measure section marked stretto precedes the sempre piú animato that leads to the inexorable ending. It is conventionally accepted that an increase in speed be applied at the sight of both signs, and that stretto has a more circumscribed intent; and though some performers claim that stretto should prescribe a purely expressive connotation – passion, agitation, rage – these are attributes that, ultimately, might incite an acceleration and lead to a similar, undifferentiated outcome.

As I eventually noticed, this curious instance is not isolated in the works of Chopin. I had grown accustomed to his sometimes idiosyncratic instructions, yet I thought the idea peculiar that a composer for whom writing was an open-ended process that involved constant revision would have blatantly overlooked a set of conspicuous redundancies in regard to tempo. Here is the passage in question:

Example 5.1 - F. Chopin: Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 28, no. 16, mm. 28-35

[...] I wondered whether I should have temporarily broadened the purpose of stretto or sempre piú animato in the prelude by imagining that one marking or the other might refer to something other than an agogic coordinate. I began my investigation when I stumbled upon a letter that Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy wrote to Robert Schumann on January 10, 1835 – not long before Chopin wrote the Prelude in B-flat Minor. Mendelssohn expressed his dissatisfaction about a performance of his Overture The Hebrides, which Schumann had described unfavorably:

It surprises me much to hear of my Overture in b minor being taken faster at the end than at the beginning. I suppose you mean after the "animato"? If so, I shall certainly adopt Sebastian Bach’s practice, who hardly ever marked a piano or forte on his music. I thought a "piú stretto" would hardly do well, as I referred rather to an increase of spirit, which I did not know how to indicate except by animato.¹

I sensed that Mendelssohn’s response to the misattribution of the term animato was not to be taken lightly. It supports the assertion that certain markings had begun to lose their intended connotation – to such extent that the composer, perhaps facetiously, was contemplating to return to a complete absence of interpretive directions in the score. Markings that had been chosen for their descriptive nature were becoming the subject of ambiguous interpretation. As symbols were still proliferating and composers were still wavering about their use, a consensus on their standardized meaning would not emerge for decades. The letter provided me with precious information: for Mendelssohn, the marking stretto conveyed an increase in speed, while animato indicated a heightened excitement in the musical material that pertains more to character than agogics. Was the sempre piú animato in Chopin’s B-flat Minor Prelude also intended to evoke an increase of spirit? And if that had been the case, should we assume that Chopin meant for stretto to indicate a temporary acceleration, and that what ensues should return to the original speed? Or should the extensive coda be performed at a faster pace as a result of that acceleration?

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