Ever since the Middle Ages, music has had a troubled relationship with notation. The history of writing down music, the development from neumes to modern notation, is a long and often combative saga about the delicate balance between the vitality and infinite diversity of music, and a pedantic and punctilious writing practice. In fact, the expression “modern notation” may well provoke some frowns, as the musical notation of today has essentially remained unchanged throughout centuries. Admittedly, the last sixty years have produced numerous new methods and strategies, new symbols and innovative graphic designs, and worldwide seminars on the issue of musical notation have been arranged. But the metric, diatonic system of notating music on five staves has held its ground since the 1600s, virtually unaffected by dodecaphony, serialism, electroacoustic music, microtonal inflections and countless other innovations. This is not the place to contemplate whether the inertia of a musical culture chained to conventions, a culture moreover increasingly commercialized today, is to blame for the failure of practically all attempts at changing habits and current practice (including experiments with new tuning systems, new instruments, the make-up of the symphony orchestra, concert practices, etc.). But the relationship between a virtually undeviating notational system and a music in continuous, often radical flux, creates obvious problems that usually can only be solved ad hoc, from one situation to another.
This is particularly true in the field of dynamics – notating the intended volume of sounds or notes. The fact that such markings are relative, depending on the situation and subject to discretion, goes without saying. It has always been like that. Contemporary yearning for extreme subtlety such as writing six or seven times forte or piano may be dismissed with a shrug. But, as mentioned earlier, even Tchaikovsky wrote pppppp in his 6th symphony (cf. Essence and Appearance – Intent and Realization). In the second movement of his Fifth Symphony, Carl Nielsen marks ppppp at the end of a diminuendo in the woodwinds. This “process of inflation” has escalated even further during the latter part of the 20th century.
Time and again, modern orchestral practice reveals a lack of overall consensus. A trumpet is louder than a flute, no doubt. But is a trumpet marked p always louder than a flute? Or will a musician usually adjust the volume relative to other instruments taking part in a passage, regardless of their basic sound power? This question can unconditionally be answered in the affirmative if the music in question is a classical or well-known work (such works constitute 80–90 % of the mainstream orchestral repertoire today). In the case of less familiar works, the role of the conductor will naturally center on adjusting the balance even more than usual. Since the romantic era it has become common practice for composers to indicate the desired balance by writing individual dynamics for different instruments. In figure 45, Ravel marks a softer dynamic in the instruments playing the famous “mixture” doubling in Bolero. Here there can be no doubt about Ravel’s intention. But what if a composer simply writes p for a trumpet and f for a flute? Does this indicate that the two instruments are to be perceived at the same volume level? Or should the trumpet in fact sound softer than the flute?
A musician does not necessarily know what is written in the part of a colleague and will therefore usually attempt to “match” the general dynamic balance. The conductor’s mediating function is essential if the score’s requirement of establishing clear dynamic nuances is to be realized according to the composer’s intentions (which, of course, must be explicitly evident in the score).
Already Berlioz had frequently indicated different dynamics in different instruments. In figure 114, the general dynamic is ppp, but the final chord adds a piccolo flute playing pp. Presumably, Berlioz’ intention is to make sure that the piccolo, extremely soft in this register, will be heard, hardly that it is supposed to stand out. But one cannot be entirely sure …
In classical music, the issue of dynamics and notation rarely poses major problems. But music in which the hierarchic relationship between different segments is not immediately evident, brings with it the risk of misunderstandings. In his time, this encouraged Schoenberg to introduce the concepts of Hauptstimme (main voice) and Nebenstimme (secondary voice), written as H and N, respectively, in the score (cf. figure 90). Apart from his pupil Alban Berg, however, only few composers have adopted this practice.
More recently, some composers have chosen to assign dynamics exclusively to certain groups as opposed to others (frequently by using “magnified” dynamic symbols, sometimes in a text box), thus indicating that a specific group (or the entire orchestra) is to realize a certain volume relative to the whole. This practice, however, has neither been able to establish itself, nor has there been any consensus on how to clarify such intentions in the individual part.
In practice, each situation requires the orchestrator to consider anew whether the musical structure enables a conductor to interpret dynamic markings as intended. Or, where this may seem unlikely, use footnotes or the like to clarify his or her intentions. As of today, no other general solutions to the problem exist, apart from the methods mentioned above.
In all fairness it must be noted that experienced orchestra or chamber musicians develop something akin to a sixth sense with regard to their individual importance in terms of the whole. Needless to say that this kind of sensibility will only work if the music essentially avails itself of a language they are familiar with.
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