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I was reading through the music for Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy a few days ago and I realized that I am often surprised when I see expressive markings (dynamics, tempo, accents and the like) that are not in the standard Italian. How did Italian become the standard for expressive markings in the majority of notated music?

I do know that a great deal of music (especially from the Romantic period forward) has these markings in whatever language is appropriate to the composer or to the piece; however, most music uses dynamic markings like Forte and Piano regardless of the primary language of the composer or the language in which the piece is written.

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It is because Italian composers were the first to use these markings in their scores, so the formalized the practice during the 1600s if memory serves. It was adapted to music from Europe to formalize the practice in one language so all could understand and perform.

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    You mean: ...so nobody could understand, but still perform... ;-) – awe Mar 26 '12 at 12:17
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    It probably also helped that the Italians were good at publishing, printing and selling sheet music from the 1600s on. They established a solid trend. One might also observe that all computer programming languages are based on English, because most of the work in creating computer languages and implementing them started in the USA. – user1044 Mar 26 '12 at 15:50
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    The Italian printing hegemony is older than that! Rome conquered Egypt largely to secure sources of papyrus. A book written on potsherds is heavy. – luser droog Mar 26 '12 at 19:18
  • @WheatWilliams That is an interesting observation! You could probably expand that into a good answer. – Josh Darnell Mar 26 '12 at 22:19
  • Michael is right on. The earliest scores to include elements such as dynamics (such as Gabriele's 'Sonata Pian e Forte') are in Italian. Elements introduced later after Italian dominance in music waned, such as fluttertounging, are rarely in Italian (this one is in either German or English). – Michael Scott Cuthbert Feb 25 '13 at 4:38
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All of the above is correct. However, the main reason that Italian became the international language for musical performance directions, over all other languages is remarkably simple. In the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, many people could not read or write in their native language, let alone in any other. Also, the majority of workers were labourers who had to work very long hours, just to stay alive and support their families. The only people seriously interested in the Arts & Sciences were the wealthy, educated sections of society who had the money and leisure time to indulge these interests.

The children of these families had private education, and in Western Europe, particularly, the wealthy made sure that their children people were taught science, the arts and languages. Latin and Greek were often taught, along with modern foreign European languages and customs. The mortar which cemented what was taught, was to arrange for the newly educated young people to travel, and experience what they had learned, in foreign countries, and by interacting locally, with other cultures. These young people would have no issue with 'allegro', 'dolce', or any other Italian words, as they would already have a good idea of the language of one of the greatest countries of the time, and its considerable influence in religion and the arts and sciences throughout Europe. They would see no need to translate these words, as they were already a part of their general education. They would no more think of translating these words than we would, of translating, 'fiancé', 'crescendo' or 'zeitgeist'.

It was not until many years after the French Revolution that serious nationalism began to take root, and composers started to use their own languages for performance directions. So, as has already been mentioned above, we get the somewhat amusing situation of a composer such as Debussy (French) or Beethoven (German) sprinkling performance instructions in their own language, whilst still employing Italian for much of the conventional usage! As Nationalism grew through the 19th century, so more and more composers began to use their mother tongue to describe HOW the music was meant to be performed (quickly, slowly, majestically, sadly, etc) and that is how and why the situation developed from there to the present day.

  • This is potential reasonable explanation for why educated musicians of the past didn't mind reading Italian expressive markings and could understand them. It doesn't really explain why they would preferentially choose Italian specifically as the primary language for music notation, though. – Athanasius Nov 25 at 19:33
  • Italy wasn't exactly a country back then. – Elements in Space Nov 26 at 1:46

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