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David Whitwell

The Maxime Principle: Thoughts on the origin of dynamic markings

In a com­mu­ni­ca­tion we recent­ly received from Pro­fes­sor Maxime in Paris, she encour­aged all instru­men­tal­ists to begin think­ing of the Ital­ian piano and forte sym­bols to mean rel­a­tive degrees of emo­tion­al inten­si­ty and not the stan­dard prac­tice of indi­cat­ing only “soft” and “loud” sound.

This rec­om­men­da­tion, that the piano and forte sym­bols should reflect “emo­tion­al inten­si­ty,” is per­haps a bit star­tling for those of us who have been taught that the pur­pose of these sym­bols was to reflect only the degrees of loud­ness or soft­ness of the actu­al vol­ume of sound itself. For those who believe that the sole pur­pose of music is the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of feel­ing and emo­tions, Pro­fes­sor Maxime’s prin­ci­ple is a wel­come reminder that in ear­li­er times the piano and forte sym­bols were also asso­ci­at­ed with feel­ing and were often the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the per­former, not the com­pos­er. But the sym­bols are intro­duced to us today as being of an objec­tive char­ac­ter with no dis­cus­sion of how these sym­bols are relat­ed to feel­ing. While Pro­fes­sor Maxime speaks of “emo­tion­al inten­si­ty,” we rel­e­gate these sym­bols to the sta­tus of being only “dynam­ic markings.”

Since piano and forte are Ital­ian words, per­haps we should begin ask­ing what these words mean in the lives of ordi­nary Ital­ian cit­i­zens. Begin­ning with piano, my Cassell’s Ital­ian-Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary gives sev­er­al, unnum­bered, one-word def­i­n­i­tions, begin­ning, as we might expect, with “soft­ly.” The sec­ond one-word def­i­n­i­tion, “gen­tly,” is a sur­prise for this is of a dis­tinct­ly sub­jec­tive char­ac­ter and, as the read­er will see below, one actu­al­ly used by some ear­li­er musi­cians. Also, this is clos­er to the mean­ing found in con­ver­sa­tion of Ital­ians today. If one were to say, in an attempt to qui­et down a group of peo­ple, “piano, piano,” the speak­er would be under­stood to mean some­thing more like “calm down,” and not “soft­er, softer.”

The third one-word def­i­n­i­tion is even more of a sur­prise, “slow­ly”! Have you ever had a teacher point to the low­er­case “p” in a com­po­si­tion and tell you it means slow?1 Of course when one reflects on the thou­sands of Clas­si­cal Peri­od sym­phonies, con­cer­ti and cham­ber works one knows, one recalls that the sec­ond move­ment, which is invari­ably slow, begins with a low­er­case “p” at the begin­ning. It would nev­er occur to most of us that the “p” at this point means slow, as opposed to its tra­di­tion­al mean­ing of soft. But then again, no one of us has ever said to a class, “We are now going to hear the soft move­ment of Mozart’s Sym­pho­ny Nr. 40.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, my dic­tio­nary gives for forte a num­ber of one-word def­i­n­i­tions, many of them rather sub­jec­tive: strong, vig­or­ous, pow­er­ful, stur­dy, robust, hale, healthy, con­sid­er­able, large, heavy and (!) high. Only the twelfth of these one-word def­i­n­i­tion reads, “loud (of sound).”

While there is a greater diver­si­ty of mean­ing here than most read­ers might expect for piano and forte, some ear­ly trea­tis­es on music are even more extreme. For exam­ple, Georg Muf­fat, in the Fore­word to his col­lec­tion of con­cer­ti, Auser­lesene Instru­men­tal-Music (1701) observes,

At the direc­tion piano or p all are ordi­nar­i­ly to play at once so soft­ly and ten­der­ly that one bare­ly hears them, and at the direc­tion forte or f with so full a tone, from the first note so marked, that the lis­ten­ers are left, as it were, astound­ed at such vehemence.

But even here, the choice of the words “ten­der­ly” and “vehe­mence” sug­gest that Muf­fat was think­ing of more than a mere descrip­tion of vol­ume. A sim­i­lar great range of sound is found in Chaucer’s famous Can­ter­bury Tales, where we are told that even a trum­pet was only half as loud as the two-part songs of the Par­don­er and the Sum­n­er, while the parish clerk, Absa­lom, some­times sang in a small and gen­tle voice. Again, in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry poem, Daph­nis and Chloe, we read of even a pan­pipe play­er who could go from a “loud and pow­er­ful tone” to a “sweet­er tone.”2

In read­ing ear­ly trea­tis­es on per­for­mance one can find many impli­ca­tions that ear­li­er instru­men­tal­ists were as con­cerned with the musi­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of dynam­ic mark­ings as they were about vol­ume of sound. Mon­tever­di, in 1638, almost avoids the ques­tion of vol­ume entirely,

I con­sid­er the prin­ci­pal pas­sions or emo­tions of the soul to be three, name­ly, anger, seren­i­ty and humil­i­ty. The best philoso­phers affirm this; the very nature of our voice, with its high, low and mid­dle ranges, shows it; and the art of music clear­ly man­i­fests it in these three terms: agi­tat­ed, soft and moderate.

Gius­tini­ani, in dis­cussing the singing of the ladies of Man­tua and Fer­rara in the ear­ly Baroque, men­tions they not only pro­duced loud or soft, but “heavy or light … now slow, break­ing off with some­times a gen­tle sigh.”3

An Ital­ian trea­tise of the Baroque observes, “the oth­er let­ters P, F, E, T, under­stood for Piano, Forte, Echo and Trill are known to every­one.”4 But in French string music of this time the “P” stood for poussé, pushed or up-stroke of the bow, where­as the “T”, tiré, meant pulled or down-stroke. This sug­gests that piano implied crescen­do and forte implied dimin­u­en­do. This is found again in a vocal trea­tise of 1686,

Yet with both piano and forte it is to be not­ed that one does not go so sud­den­ly from piano to forte, but one should grad­u­al­ly strength­en the voice and again let it decrease so that at the begin­ning piano is heard, forte at the mid­dle and once again piano as one comes to the close.5

Final­ly, there are many pas­sages dur­ing the Baroque which make it clear that it is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the per­former to decide upon adding forte and piano for musi­cal ends.

We play Loud or Soft, accord­ing to our fan­cy, or the mood of the music.6

Humour a Les­son [com­po­si­tion] by Play­ing some Sen­tences Loud and oth­ers again Soft, accord­ing as they best please your own fan­cy.7

Quantz in his famous flute trea­tise reminds the read­er that in most cas­es there are no dynam­ic mark­ings in the orig­i­nal and that it is impor­tant that the per­former “work out a good scheme of louds and softs.”8 But he then con­tin­ues with a very inter­est­ing observation,

But with­in these fair­ly lev­el planes of vol­ume, a con­stant play of light and shade can keep the dynam­ic tex­ture alive with interest.

Dur­ing the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry per­form­ers began to take even more respon­si­bil­i­ty for issues relat­ed to dynam­ics. We rec­om­mend to the read­er a very inter­est­ing trea­tise by Jeanne Roudet, F. Chopin, Clara Schu­mann and the Singing Piano School. She points to places where Chopin wrote Ruba­to stret­to to indi­cate an accel­er­a­tion caused by emo­tion and observes that in Belli­ni and Donizetti “accents must some­times be tak­en to mean vibra­to and sure­ly not as an accent.”

Clear­ly there is a per­for­mance prac­tice regard­ing the role of piano and forte which for some rea­son instru­men­tal­ists of our time have lost. At the same time on reflec­tion we real­ize this is not true at all with singers. Singers, whose music comes from with­in the body, nat­u­ral­ly employ a vast range of dynam­ics to express their feel­ings and gen­er­al­ly feel the respon­si­bil­i­ty to ignore the sym­bols on paper in the greater neces­si­ty of the accu­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tion their feel­ings. Indeed, I was amused recent­ly when I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to study the auto­graph score of the opera Euryante by von Weber to notice that while he care­ful­ly marked dynam­ic sym­bols through­out the orches­tra, he wrote none at all in the vocal parts. I could feel him think­ing, “Why should I waste all this ink writ­ing such sym­bols in the score when the singers are going to ignore them anyway!”

Before the gen­er­al adop­tion of music being writ­ten down on paper, instru­men­tal­ists must have been for ages untold like singers, cre­at­ing their own range of dynam­ics to express them­selves and very prob­a­bly nev­er giv­ing a thought to the sub­sti­tute goals of “loud” and “soft.”

This presents us with an inter­est­ing and impor­tant ques­tion: How did we instru­men­tal­ists lose sight of some­thing so fun­da­men­tal? Per­haps an impor­tant influ­ence was the ear­ly organ, which arrived ear­li­er than oth­er instru­men­tal­ists in both the per­for­mance before audi­ences in church­es, palaces and city halls, but also in the use of writ­ten nota­tion. As Joachim Quantz recalled in 1752, at the end of the Baroque, it was still com­mon prac­tice for organ­ists to per­form “ter­race dynam­ics,” long stretch­es at a sin­gle lev­el before chang­ing to a long stretch at anoth­er lev­el.9 Cer­tain­ly with the asso­ci­a­tion of forte with loud sound, the point is very strik­ing when, if one is lis­ten­ing to a Baroque per­for­mance, the organ­ist hits a lever sud­den­ly open­ing a dozen small doors above his head caus­ing an imme­di­ate blast of loud sound.

We instru­men­tal­ists have also been great­ly dis­ad­van­taged by many mod­ern music edu­ca­tion the­o­ries which have elim­i­nat­ed the role of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of feel­ings in the class­room to replace it with “con­cep­tu­al music edu­ca­tion the­o­ry,” which means pri­mar­i­ly teach­ing only descrip­tions of the gram­mar of music and not the per­for­mance of music.

In addi­tion to this there has been the futile and anti-musi­cal con­cept of hold­ing “con­tests” in music. This has result­ed, in the Unit­ed States, in an eth­ic by which an ensem­ble is grad­ed not on the basis of musi­cal­i­ty, but on the basis of per­form­ing exact­ly and pre­cise­ly what appears on paper. Forte must be loud, piano must be on the bor­der of inaudi­bil­i­ty or a demer­it is giv­en. No one seems to care if there were any musi­cal pur­pose to these sym­bols. Here I must men­tion an occa­sion when I was engaged to be the Pres­i­dent of the Jury for an inter­na­tion­al piano con­test in Italy. The oth­er ten judges were all famous piano teach­ers; I was to rep­re­sent the “gen­er­al lis­ten­er.” After a mov­ing and musi­cal per­for­mance of a Beethoven Sonata by a pianist from Fin­land [who, upon a vote of 10 to 1, was thrown out and sent pack­ing] I turned to one of the judges whom I knew, a per­form­ing artist from Argenti­na, and asked him how the entire jury, except­ing myself, reject­ed so musi­cal a per­for­mance. “Oh,” he answered in a most mat­ter of fact voice, “piano con­tests have noth­ing to do with music!”

Final­ly, we should like to give an exam­ple of the appli­ca­tion of the Maxime Prin­ci­ple. Fol­low­ing is the final four bars of the first move­ment of an orig­i­nal Baroque band com­po­si­tion by Johann Müller.


If you were trained as a con­duc­tor as I was, you would look at this music, with its change from piano to forte on every beat, con­tem­plat­ing the rehearsal time involved to achieve this, not to men­tion the con­duct­ing acro­bat­ics, and you would think to your­self, “No, I will not per­form this composition.”

But if one were to view this music through the (Baroque) eyes of the Maxime Prin­ci­ple one would see no pianos nor fortes at all! Rather one would see repeat­ed chord tones which lean for­ward slight­ly with more emo­tion­al inten­si­ty and then return back with less emo­tion­al intensity—a gen­tle for­ward back, for­ward back, etc., with per­haps a ritard. on the final two beats. The result would be a love­ly and ele­gant coda to this movement.


  1. This reminds us of a com­ment which Charles Bur­ney made in a posthu­mous arti­cle on “Ada­gio” in Rees’ Cyclo­pe­dia, Lon­don, 1819, that if one does not embell­ish slow notes they “soon excite lan­guor and dis­gust in the lis­ten­er.” []
  2. Longus, Daph­nis and Chloe, II, 35. []
  3. Vicen­zo Gius­tini­ani, Dis­cor­so sopra la Musi­ca [c. 1628], trans. Car­ol Mac­Clin­tock (Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Musi­col­o­gy, 1962), 67ff. []
  4. Domeni­co Maz­zoc­chi, Par­ti­tu­ra de’ madri­gali a cinque voice, Rome, 1638, pref­ace. []
  5. W. M. Mylius, Rudi­men­ta Musices, Gotha, 1686, 49. []
  6. Christo­pher Simp­son, Divi­sion-Vio­list, Lon­don, 1659, 10. []
  7. Thomas Mace, Musick’s Mon­u­ment, Lon­don, 1676, 130. []
  8. Joachim Quantz, Essay, Berlin, 1752, XII, 23. []
  9. Ibid. []