Question for skimmers: how do we know when to play portamento/portato or a dry staccato? Is it based on a date or composer? Or is a half-staccato still common practice?
Sometime in college I played a timpani part and had a conversation like this:
Instructor: You're playing that too dry.
Me: It's staccato.
Instructor: Yes, but staccato means play the note for 1/2 its value. Staccato half notes should sound like quarter note.
After which I said something like "Yessir", thought "how have I missed this?", and accepted it. Unfortunately I don't remember the piece, but my guess is that it was early romantic era. (That semester my big timpani challenges were the jarring juxtaposition of a Beethoven Symphony and Candide, but it could have been another piece).
Most contemporary definitions just say "detached" or something similar:
Wikipedia: Staccato (Italian for "detached") is a form of musical articulation. In modern notation it signifies a note of shortened duration, separated from the note that may follow by silence.
This is representative of most easily accessible internet definitions.
But some older definitions assume the "half-staccato" as common knowledge, and even newer dictionaries retain vestiges of the definition propounded by my teacher. All works below accessible in the US via Google Books.
Facts on File Dictionary of Music (2004): Staccato performance in practice reduces the time value of a note by one-half or more;...
The Pronouncing and Defining Dictionary of Music (1896): Staccato Marks. Small dashes or dots placed under the notes, thus: [example] No difference is now made in playing the dotted staccato signs and the pointed ones. Formerly it was taught that the dots represented a half staccato. [Emphasis mine].
Haydn: an Introduction to his Keyboard Works (2005): It may be that Haydn intended the stroke for a short staccato and the dot for a somewhat longer portamento, but the marks cannot always be differentiated in his manuscripts or those of his copyists. In general, a staccato note should be about one-half the length of its usual value. [Bold emphasis mine]
The Etude: the Musical Journal (vol 40, 1922): Remembering that the dash (staccatoissimo) reduces the sound to approximately one quarter of its value, and the dot to about one-half, the slurred staccato reduces it to about three-fourths of its normal length. [in the context of a piece by Beethoven, bold emphasis mine].
I've also heard Bach staccatos played as half-duration values.
So, in the absence of a marking like secco or portato, how do we know when to play portamento/portato or a dry staccato? Is it based on a date or composer? Or is a half-staccato still common practice?
Is it based on a date or composer?Yes, and composer's intent. Plus people get to throw whatever interpretation they like on top!