Tenuto and Fermata: Rebels Against the Tyranny of Notation

For a mil­lion years or more, singers and instru­men­tal­ists play­ing on nat­ur­al instru­ments made music freely with the sole goal of express­ing their feel­ings. But once nota­tion appeared the “rules” of music began to be addressed to the eye rather than the ear. The cre­ation of bar lines in the eleventh cen­tu­ry cre­at­ed units of time itself which lent to the eye the appar­ent rule that music must be con­tained with­in these units and the free­dom of the ancient musi­cians was now lost for good. The sub­se­quent his­to­ry of nota­tion was a con­stant effort to allow an escape from these pre­set units of time, includ­ing such things as col­ored nota­tion and Pro­por­tion­al nota­tion. By the time of the Baroque com­posers such as Prae­to­rius and Fres­cobal­di began to write “just ignore the nota­tion; play faster or slow­er as you desire.” And by the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry it is amaz­ing to see the lengths com­posers such as Haydn went to to write music that fell between those bar lines, but sound­ed as if it were in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent meter or tem­po. By the advent of music schools in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry a new rigid­i­ty became the rule and as a result today no stu­dent believes he is enti­tled to expand a mea­sure of music in per­for­mance sole­ly on the basis of his feelings.

All nota­tion is essen­tial­ly an anti-musi­cal con­struc­tion and we must believe that all musi­cians have always rebelled against restric­tion to lim­it their expres­sion. Thus we find even before the mod­ern nota­tion­al sys­tem, dur­ing the peri­od of neume nota­tion, the monk, Notk­er of St. Gall (840–912), dis­cuss­es in one of his let­ters the use of the let­ter “t” in plain­song nota­tion to mean “tra­here vel tenere debere,” sug­gest­ing the stretch­ing of the music to express the feel­ing of the words. We can­not call this the first use of tenu­to because in his dis­cus­sion it is evi­dent some­one else was already doing this.

The fer­ma­ta sym­bol, which appears as ear­ly as the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry in the music of Dufay, is anoth­er ves­tige of the fight against leg­is­lat­ed time in music. Most of us, when young musi­cians, were told that the famil­iar fer­ma­ta “bird’s eye” sym­bol meant only a “stop­ping place.” And so it does today for ordi­nary cit­i­zens liv­ing in Milan, for the sym­bol appears on all bus stop signs. But this sym­bol can mean many oth­er things in music nota­tion. Mozart used it, for exam­ple, over the final dou­ble bar of a com­po­si­tion to make sure the copy­ist under­stood this was real­ly the end of the com­po­si­tion. He also used it to sig­ni­fy both caden­zas and eingänge points, the dif­fer­ence being a mat­ter of har­mo­ny. Bach, in his chorales, used it to des­ig­nate where the singers breathe.

An alter­na­tive def­i­n­i­tion of fer­ma­ta is to pause, but not stop. An exam­ple is found near the end of the final Ron­do in Mozart’s Gran Par­ti­ta, K. 361. The music, to the con­fu­sion of many con­duc­tors, just seems to hes­i­tate, with­out a break in the pro­gres­sion of the music. In my expe­ri­ence, such a use of the fer­ma­ta sym­bol asso­ci­at­ed with a pause seems to have an emo­tion­al con­nec­tion, which is cer­tain­ly rel­e­vant to my under­stand­ing in the Mozart example.

This use of the fer­ma­ta sym­bol to cre­ate pause for an emo­tion­al rea­son is per­fect­ly illus­trat­ed in the begin­ning of the Sixth Sym­pho­ny of Beethoven. Here I must pause to remind those friends who have shared with me the mild win­ters of Cal­i­for­nia and Texas that all of Europe is fur­ther North than our State of Maine. Hav­ing lived for three years in Vien­na and Salzburg, I can under­stand the great expe­ri­ence of that day which arrives sud­den­ly announc­ing Spring. The return of Spring was the most famil­iar sub­ject, after love, of the Trou­ba­dours in their numer­ous orig­i­nal songs. And it was from this back­ground of the joy of the sud­den return of Spring, the return of col­or and the return of birds that Beethoven, in the very begin­ning of the sym­pho­ny, runs from his house and in the fourth bar imme­di­ate­ly stops, in awe of the beau­ty of Nature, takes a deep breath of the fresh new air and then con­tin­ues on his way. That is what the fer­ma­ta here is all about, a pause, not a stop, to express feel­ing. The note he wrote here, “Awak­en­ing of cheer­ful feel­ings upon arrival in the coun­try­side” clear­ly includes his emo­tion, as did his often quot­ed descrip­tion of the entire sym­pho­ny, “more an expres­sion of feel­ing than painting.” 

As in the prac­tice of the fer­ma­ta, the cur­rent lit­er­al mean­ing of tenu­to in Ital­ian speech and in music has to do with hold­ing on to some­thing. I have begun to think that in the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry the implied elon­ga­tion by the word tenu­to was tied to feel­ing and was not yet thought of as an artic­u­la­tion. In such a use it would be very sim­i­lar to the Beethoven Sixth Sym­pho­ny exam­ple men­tioned above. I have been work­ing on a mod­ern edi­tion of a Requiem for cho­rus and band which was com­mis­sioned, in a high­ly charged emo­tion­al atmos­phere, for the rebur­ial of Louis XVI on 21 Jan­u­ary 1815 in Paris. In the first move­ment, a Marche funèbre, the inter­nal cadences of the melody are marked tenu. There is no log­ic here for an accent, but when I sing this and elon­gate the mea­sure one imme­di­ate­ly feels a much stronger emo­tion­al expres­sion.1

This asso­ci­a­tion of elon­ga­tion for the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of feel­ing seems to me exact­ly what is implied in Beethoven’s lit­tle mas­ter­piece, his Andante for wind instru­ments. Here again, in the inter­nal cadences, he writes “Ten” and by elon­gat­ing this note, and the notes lead­ing into it, the result is a much more expres­sive feel­ing. It is par­tic­u­lar­ly enlight­en­ing that at the end of this com­po­si­tion when two unac­com­pa­nied horns are rep­re­sent­ing the court per­sons rid­ing off into the dis­tance, Beethoven still writes “ten” even though he also writes “sen­za tem­po.” That is, the feel­ing he asso­ci­at­ed with the cadence and its elon­ga­tion is main­tained even though it no longer has any asso­ci­a­tion with tem­po. As a nat­ur­al result of this asso­ci­a­tion between elon­ga­tion and feel­ing, Beethoven con­cludes with an aug­men­ta­tion of his ini­tial melod­ic mate­r­i­al, a very touch­ing and poignant ending.

After Beethoven, one finds in the high­ly idio­syn­crat­ic music of Chopin uses of tenu­to which are very puz­zling and gives one the feel­ing that it would be only in hear­ing Chopin him­self play that we would under­stand what he meant. What, for exam­ple, was he think­ing in his Scher­zo, Op. 39, Nr. 3, when he wrote three bars of tied G Sharp with “ten.” over the begin­ning of the first bar? Under the sec­ond bar is a dimin­u­en­do sign and a piano sym­bol under the third, appear­ing to rep­re­sent the nat­ur­al decay of a long sound struck one on the piano. But what did he expect tenu­to would add to this? Sim­i­lar­i­ly, in his Bar­carolle, Op. 60, in bar 39 one finds tenu­to over the begin­ning of a tone last­ing 7 beats, also with a dimenu­en­do beneath lead­ing to sot­to voce. Again, what could tenu­to add to this?

In his Polon­aise, Op. 26, Nr. 1, in bars 8 and 20 there is tenu­to writ­ten over a bar which looks as it were part of a cadence which might sound expres­sive as a ritenu­to, but since in both cas­es he writes “ritenu­to” two bars lat­er we have to assume that he would have used this word if that is what he meant. So, what did tenu­to mean here? Espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing here is the use of tenu­to (“to hold” in Ital­ian) and two bars lat­er ritenu­to (“reserved, self-pos­sessed, retained, kept-back” in Italian).

In the Noc­turne, Op. 27, Nr. 1, at the Piu mosso, in the meter of 3/4 we find four bars of a melod­ic fig­ure con­sist­ing of a dot­ted quar­ter-note fol­lowed by an eighth-note and a quar­ter-note, with tenu­to writ­ten over each of the dot­ted quar­ter-notes. Five bars lat­er this fig­ure appears as dou­ble dot­ted, now a dou­ble dot­ted quar­ter-note fol­lowed by a six­teenth-note, etc., but no tenu­to mark­ing. So does tenu­to here mean a hold­ing back of the dot­ted quar­ter-note to become some­thing longer, but not as long as being dou­ble dotted?

It is in this same Noc­turne, begin­ning in the third bar, that we see, I believe for the first time in Chopin, the more famil­iar nota­tion of quar­ter-notes which have both dots over the note heads and a slur over groups of such notes. This is the appear­ance which most musi­cians today would prob­a­bly call tenu­to.

Begin­ning by about the mid­dle of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry pianists become the first to speak of the tenu­to sym­bol as mean­ing an accent. J. Frank Leve, a pub­lish­er of mate­ri­als for the piano dur­ing the ear­ly years of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, writ­ing in the Etude Mag­a­zine, Vol. 32, page 567, writes,

I have adopt­ed the sign (-) as a pres­sure sign because in clas­si­cal works where this sign is used it is best pro­duced by the pres­sure touch, notwith­stand­ing in musi­cal dic­tio­nar­ies it is defined as tenu­to, sus­tained. My claim is that the sign (-) does not mean tenu­to in the same sense as when the musi­cal term is used. It rather means, in addi­tion to the note being held for the full time, that it is pro­duced by a pres­sure on the key.

He then quotes the famous pianist, Josef Hof­man (1876–1957), as adding,

It means that the notes should be played in such a way as to stand some­what iso­lat­ed from each oth­er and held down, but not long enough to form a lega­to. It also implies a cer­tain emphasis.

The use of the word empha­sis here by Hof­man, doc­u­ments the arrival of the impres­sion that some have today that the tenu­to is in fact a kind of accent. We can see this again in a com­ment on the tenu­to by Arnold Dol­metsch (1858–1940).

Tenu­to can mean either hold the note in ques­tion its full length (or longer, with slight ruba­to) or else play the note slight­ly loud­er. In oth­er words, the tenu­to mark is some­times inter­pret­ed as an artic­u­la­tion mark and some­times as a dynam­ic mark.

This brings us to an obser­va­tion by Siglind Bruhn (b. 1951) in Ger­many, who, in her Guide­lines to Piano Inter­pre­ta­tion, calls the tenu­to “the most abrupt of all agog­ic process­es.” Going fur­ther, she writes, “a tenu­to applied wise­ly comes unex­pect­ed­ly and caus­es surprise.”

That is a long way from the emo­tion­al­ly expres­sive use by Beethoven.


  1. On the very same day a sim­i­lar cer­e­mo­ny in hon­or of Louis XVI, minus the body, was held in Vien­na in St. Stefan’s Cathe­dral with a Requiem com­posed by Sigis­mund Neukomm and con­duct­ed by Salieri. In Paris, while the pub­lic was in favor of behead­ing Louis XVI dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion, after the inter­val 25 years and after Napoleon’s loss of an entire gen­er­a­tion of young French­men (includ­ing 2,000 French musi­cians lost on the march to Moscow), the pub­lic now regret­ted hav­ing behead­ed Louis XVI. Thus the very strong pub­lic emo­tion sur­round­ing this cer­e­mo­ny in 1815 dur­ing which the remains of Louis and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were more prop­er­ly laid to rest in an impos­ing struc­ture. []