This Blog was first published by Oxford University Press: https://blog.oup.com/2017/04/eighteenth-century-performance-practices/
To the modern player, when dynamic indications are found in the score, the typical reaction is to think in terms of changes in volume. Not entirely true for the eighteenth-century musician – dynamic indications mean much more than loud or soft. Volume shift was only part of the story and was a rather new and novel concept that took hold with the advent of the fortepiano and its ability to quickly alternate from loud to soft. According to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, the use of abbreviations to indicate dynamics appeared as late as 1638.[i] Notated dynamic markings came into their own during the rise of the fortepiano and its expanded capabilities.
From early Haydn to late Beethoven we see the frequency of use increase and more varieties of indications come into play. Crescendo and diminuendo were developed and exploited at the renowned Mannheim School and modern use notation appeared later, in 1739.[ii]
Interestingly, C. P. E. Bach and D. G. Türk speak very little about dynamics in their tutors. Bach writes about only three terms: p, mf, and f. Türk defines ff, f, mf, p, and pp. What they do speak to at great length is affekt, the foundational pillar for eighteenth-century style. Affekt is the ability of music to stir emotions. It was achieved through attention to detail and proper execution, including execution of dynamics.
The novelty of the fortepiano wasn’t the extreme range of volume as we know today, but its ability to quickly alternate and facilitate finesse. Forte and piano are associated with a deeper meaning behind the marking. Consider forte to possibly portray heavy, wide, broad, angry, anxious, big, or strong; piano to portray light, sweet, pleading, sorrowful, or melancholy. The make-up of the fortepiano allows these characters to be expressed beautifully. When this understanding is applied to the repertoire, the results become quite exciting:
The natural tendencies on the fortepiano bring the energy to the forefront: Mozart Audio Example 1
It can be achieved effectively on the modern piano when appropriate adjustments are made: Mozart Audio Example 2
Forte and piano are the backbone, indicating more and less rather than an absolute extreme loud or soft. It provides the means to shading and nuance. And it should be done in good taste, which requires further understanding of proper practices of the time.
Forte followed by piano is not necessarily an absolute direction for the notes specifically under the marking until the next change, but serves as a guide for dynamic direction from one marking to the next based on melodic, harmonic, and contextual clues. In the example below, direction is from forte to piano rather than an absolute forte on beat 1 that continues until piano on beat 2. The performer should start forte and arrive at piano by beat 2.
Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 309/II, mm. 17-19 (Henle)
The subtle rise of the line is expressed well on the fortepiano: Mozart Audio Example 3
Forte directly followed by piano is often declarative in nature. The breadth is determined by affekt. We turn again to Mozart for clarification. The marking may be expressive:
Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 280/III, mm. 55-59 (Henle)
These types of subtleties are expressed well on the fortepiano: Mozart Audio Example 4
Or it may give direction for a terraced crescendo or diminuendo. Here, the line builds bit by bit, leading up to the forte at the peak of the line.
Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 309/I, mm. 48-51(Henle)
The fortepiano provides excellent opportunity to terrace the crescendo: Mozart Audio Example 5
As understood practices are incorporated it is important to remember that the overriding goal is to express affekt and dynamic markings are one of many notational clues provided by the composer to guide the performer in achieving the desired affekt. Once the clues are uncovered and adjustments are made in translating the affekt from fortepiano to modern piano, the musical message can be carried quite effectively. From the context of the piece, determine how and to what extent the dynamic marking(s) will best describe the affekt the composer is portraying.
Listen carefully to make artistic adjustments. Guard against playing loudly simply because there is an f in the score. When considering extreme f or p, remember the volume capabilities available on the fortepiano. As Malcolm Bilson suggests, playing “as if” the modern piano is a fortepiano will go a long way in achieving the goal. Making appropriate adjustments on the modern piano will bring authenticity to the performance. The modern piano requires time for the tone to develop. Listen with a discerning ear to avoid cutting the sound off too quickly and creating a choppy, undesirable effect.
Continually consider the intended affekt, how the piece was probably performed on the period instrument, and how that intention can be best realized on this instrument. In doing so, playing will no longer simply be loud or soft, but an organic, living expression of the soul.