Italian: The Language That Sings Even when it isn't sung, the Italian language sounds like music, which is part of why Italian words are used to tell musicians how to play—presto, lento, adagio, forte. Commentator Miles Hoffman explains why Italian is the lingua franca of classical music.
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Italian: The Language That Sings

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Italian: The Language That Sings

Italian: The Language That Sings

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Okay. There are only two things you need to know in order to enjoy this next report. The first is that today is Columbus Day; the other is that Columbus was Italian. Just keep those facts in mind, and Renee Montagne brings you all the rest.

(Soundbite of music)


No matter how you say it, shout it, or sing it, Italian is beautiful.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Even when it isn't sung, the Italian language sounds like music, which is one of the reasons it's used to tell musicians how to play. Presto, lento, adagio, forte: Italian words all. And so many others: aria, sonata, cantata, concerto. It's the type of thing you just take for granted unless, of course, you're Miles Hoffman, our good friend and author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion," and he joins us in our studio today.

Happy Columbus Day, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We know Italian is a gorgeous language. Could it be that simple as to why most of these musical terms are in Italian?

HOFFMAN: It's unrelated, Renee. I mean, here we are on Columbus Day. If we say, in English, 1492, that's fine. But in Italian, it's (Italian spoken)…


HOFFMAN: …which, you know, that sounds…

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOFFMAN: …a lot nicer, I think. But in fact, so many of these musical forms started in Italy so the original names for the forms were in Italian, the original names for the dynamic markings, they were all in Italian. Plus, Italian musicians were in positions of prestige all over Europe. So it became the lingua franca.

MONTAGNE: You mentioned dynamic markings. Tell us exactly what that means. Obviously, in its grossest sense, it means loudness and softness.

HOFFMAN: That's right. And the indications that composers used in the music are relative indications so that, for example, forte means loud; piano means soft. Mezzo piano means half soft or kind of soft.

Now Italians have all sorts of endings that they can add to words. So for example, for three pianos, it's pianississimo. For four pianos, it's pianissississimo, and so on and so forth.

MONTAGNE: And goes from there, and…

HOFFMAN: Right. For forte, fortissimo, fortississimo.

Now I think we should listen to a very neat example from Tchaikovsky's "Sixth Symphony."

(Soundbite of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6)

HOFFMAN: We go from a section that is marked first with three pianos and four pianos and five pianos.

(Soundbite of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6)

HOFFMAN: And now six pianos, pianississississississimo.

But step back, Renee.

(Soundbite of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6)

HOFFMAN: So from a soft as you can possibly play to very loud.

MONTAGNE: Fortissimo.


MONTAGNE: But who decides? Obviously, you start at one level of, let's say, softness. Who decides where that is where the jumping-off point is?

HOFFMAN: This is a matter of interpretation, Renee. Forte is louder than piano, but one person's forte may be louder than somebody else's forte. And many composers leave things intentionally a little vague because they want interpreters to interpret. They want the performers to decide and to bring the music to life.

MONTAGNE: When you get into tempo markings, some of these are also very expressive. Allegro con brio, fast with verve.

HOFFMAN: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: There are even tempo markings to denote feelings like friendly, majestic.


MONTAGNE: You're a professional violist. Can you do friendly?

(Soundbite of laughter)

And is that different than con brio?

HOFFMAN: Well, yeah. I mean, you certainly use those indications as clues. You might find this one interesting, Renee. The 20th-century composer Ernest Bloch, he marked the second movement of his first piano quintet andante mistico.

(Soundbite of Ernest Bloch's Piano Quintet No. 1)

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little how one achieves this because it does have that shimmering, mysterious quality.

HOFFMAN: You choose a different bow stroke, you play lighter with a different bow sound, and you do everything within your power to make the music match the idea and ideal that you have in your mind.

MONTAGNE: Now there are even a few markings of what you might call preemptive phrases, which seem to warn the musician.

HOFFMAN: Well, again, they're qualifiers. So very often, you'll see allegro ma non troppo, allegro but not too much.

One of my favorites is a humorous marking that Mozart used for the last movement of one of his flute quartets. He marked the movement allegretto grazioso, ma non troppo presto, pero non troppo adagio, cosi-cosi, con molto garbo ed espressione.

MONTAGNE: And the musician is supposed to think?

HOFFMAN: Graceful allegretto but not too fast, but not too slow, so-so, with lots of elegance and expression. And it's all a big joke.

(Soundbite of music, Mozart's "Flute Quartet No. 4 in A Major")

MONTAGNE: Let's finish this conversation with a word that drives you a bit crazy, crescendo. It's misused quite commonly.

HOFFMAN: It is misused more often than any other musical term, Renee. People use crescendo to mean climax. They say the battle reached the shattering crescendo or the senator's speech reached the crescendo. You cannot reach a crescendo. A crescendo is a getting louder, and it may be a getting louder from very soft to not-so-soft or from moderately loud to very loud, but it is a process. It is not an arrival point.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you to suggest a piece of music that would embody the true meaning of crescendo.

HOFFMAN: Okay. It's the transition from the third to the fourth movements of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony." It's one of the great passages in the history of music.

(Soundbite of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5)

HOFFMAN: Okay, so here we are in this kind of spooky pianissimo. And here comes the crescendo.

(Soundbite of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5)

HOFFMAN: And there, we've arrived at one of the great moments.

MONTAGNE: And now it's time to say goodbye.

HOFFMAN: After we've just arrived, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Just arrived, saying goodbye.

Miles Hoffman is MORNING EDITION's classical music commentator. But you also have, Miles, a new title.

HOFFMAN: I do indeed.

MONTAGNE: Dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College.

HOFFMAN: And that's in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Renee.

(Soundbite of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Deborah Amos.

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