Dynamics - The Loudness And Softenss in Music
Loudness levels are not a big issue in Rock or pop music in general. We take it for granted that a Rock concert will be really loud, and all the pop singers use microphones. But it's very different with classical music. Here, there are many different gradations of loudness and softness, and they are a very important factor in both composing, performing and listening to this kind of music.
Dynamics is the name for these many gradations of volume. The terminology used in classical music is Italian, and the name of the piano comes from the Italian. Piano means soft and quiet, and Forte means loud; there are many degrees of this. The way harpsichords are built makes them unable to vary the dynamics. So in the early 18th century, an Italian maker of keyboard instruments invented a new one "Col Pian E Forte" - with soft and loud. It took about a century for the instrument to evolve into the familiar piano of today.
If you go to an orchestral concert or an opera performance, you will notice that things are not an unvarying level of loudness and softness, and that sometimes a work may start quietly and end loudly, or vice versa. Classical music would be boringly monotonous without these contrasts.
There are variations of piano - marked p in the sheet music. mp or mezzo piano; medium soft. pp or very soft, pianissimo. and even ppp, almost inaudible. F is forte or loud. There is MF, mezzo forte, or medium loud, FF vor very loud, and occaisionally FFF.
Then there are crescendos and diminuendos, or gradually getting louder or softer, and even sudden changes from soft to loud. The symphony no 94 by Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809 ) is nicknamed the "Surprise" symphony because of what may be a joke on the composers part. The second, and slow movement opens very quietly, and after a while, there is a sudden loud thud, which apparently startled some listeners when it was new. Rossini, composer of the Barber of Seville, became famous for the crescendos in his music, and came to be known as "Signor Crescendo".
In Haydn's marvelous but not very scientifically accurate oratio "The Creation", based on Genesis, there is a description of the world being formed out of chaos. At the point where God declares "Let There Be Light!", there is a sudden and dazzling outburst by the whole orchestra and the chorus.
Most symphonies end loudly and sometimes jubilantly, but there are exceptions. The famous "Pathetique" symphony of Tchaikovsky, his last work, and premiered only days before his untimely death in mysterious circumastances, is a work of tragedy; the final movement is a despairing slow movement and ends by dying out into nothingness. The French term Pathetique does not mean pathetic as in English; it refers to unabashed emotionalism. The symphony is anything but a pathetic piece of music !
The final movement of Gustav Mahler's 9th symphony, written while the composer was suffering from a heart ailment which guaranteed that he would soon die, fades out gently, almost in relief. The opening of Beethoven's 9th symphony begins in a mysterious and enigmatic manner with tremulous strings and has been compared to a depiction of creation, and the great Austrian symphonist and organist Anton Bruckner, whom I covered previously, begins all of his nine symphonies in a somewhat similar manner, even though he has a distincive voice of his own.
An important part of a conductor's job is to see to it that dynamic markings are faithfully observed by the orchestra, and it's sometimes necessary to adjust the markings in rehearsal. If all the instruments are marked F or above, it's often necessary to have the brass section to play more softly to avoid drowning out the other instruments, for example.
Opera singers must often have voices that can project above a large orchestra in a large opera house. They don't have the luxury of microphones. Some great Wagnerian singers, such as the Scandinavians Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson and Lauritz Melchior, had voices of enormous power and had no trouble rising above the huge Wagner orchestra. One of the most important roles of an opera conductor is to make sure that the orchestra is not too loud , or the singers can easily be drowned out. This does happen sometimes.
The famous sunken orchestra pit at the Wagner festival theater in Bayreuth , northern Bavaria is designed to prevent the orchestra from overpowering the singers. The large and mighty Wagnerian brass section is 17 feet below the stage , and the strings are at the top. This makes things very difficult for the conductor to hear everything and coordinate the performance, but the acoustics are said to be miraculous. There are many recordings of performances from the festival available on CD, and some on DVD.
In some ways, dynamics are to music what spice is to food; they add so much to music.