The composer’s markings

7th June 2014 | Musings, Teaching | 3 comments

In a lot of the teaching I’ve been doing recently, one theme has been running through the lessons.

I find myself pointing out to one person after another that they are not actually doing what the composer asked. I don’t mean in terms of notes – those are usually fine – but in terms of louds and softs, choice of tempo, phrasing marks, crescendos and diminuenods, speeding and slowing down, freedom to alter rhythm, legato and staccato, and so on.

Composers don’t mark their scores very heavily with instructions, but I regard their markings as precious messages from one or two hundred years ago about how they imagined the music, and what they hoped to hear. Many of them were experienced performers themselves and would have known how best to bring their music to life. As players, it seems to me that our first task is to notice what the composer has suggested we do with the notes, and see if we can figure out why. Most of the time there are very good reasons for their requests – admittedly more so with some composers than others. For example, Mozart writes very little on his scores apart from the notes, but every single request is meaningful and illuminating. When I’ve become lazy and ceased to notice his markings, I’m always amazed – when I notice them again – to discover how much better they are than what I’ve been doing instead. The same is true with Chopin, whose markings (and pedal markings) are often surprising and brilliantly counter-intuitive. Not every composer hits the nail on the head with such accuracy, but I still think our starting-point should be to respect their advice.

But these days I often find myself telling people that they shouldn’t feel so free to ignore the markings and play whatever comes into their head on the spur of the moment – loud instead of soft, fast instead of slow, lots of pedal instead of no pedal, slowing down or speeding up randomly, pausing wherever they feel like it, and so on. It seems to me that inventing your own alternatives should only come when you’ve digested the composer’s requests and decided they don’t work. Many students don’t wait for this stage before going off-piste with their own ideas. Is it because we are now too far away from the composers for young musicians to identify easily with them? Is it because they live in a society which glorifies the individual’s feelings and wishes?

I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s musicality or love of performance, yet on the other hand I often suspect that students haven’t even tried to put into practice what the composer has asked. Yes, I agree that the most important thing is that students are playing the music at all – that’s why I find it difficult to lay down the law. Of course I’d far rather hear a young musician having a go at Chopin or Mozart than not having a go at it, but I’m puzzled as to why they so often feel they can play the notes and ignore the composer’s other words and signs.


  1. Mary

    I think that adding/changing/abandoning the composers’ marks was definitely the norm in conservatoires of the 1970s. I made the decision in the 1990s to replace many of my old marked scruffy student music with new fresh editions and was astonished to discover that (apart from obvious misprints)I didn’t need to add things to most scores! The delight of reading ‘clean’ scores has never left me. As an educational composer I try to put in only what I want the player to notice. Often I get asked by teachers what I want in a particular passage and they seem surprised when I say, “Exactly what I wrote.”

  2. Martin White

    As an organist I have an extra stave to worry about together with the fact that no two organs are the same and rarely will I even be playing on the organ the composer will have been familiar with. I happen to be able to sight read very fluently, with the result that I can play a significant amount of the organ repertoire without fully understanding what the composer really want me to communicate to listeners.

    I now start work on any new piece, or a piece I have not played for sometime, sitting at a desk with a pencil and eraser. Working through bar by bar I find all sorts of details that I not only missed when I sight read it but have continued to play in error ever since. I should add that I am not a professional musician but in effect I have to give a recital every Sunday. You never know who is in the audience. One Sunday it was the Sub-Organist of Westminster Abbey on holiday! This detailed work away from the keyboard has made a massive difference to my performances.


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