Music is steeped in traditions. One of those that perhaps surprisingly continues even today, is the use of Italian terms in music. These can and frequently do include directions to a performer for dynamics, tempo, expression and others besides.
Even though it is also common for contemporary composers to give direction or instruction in their native language, the use of Italian remains intact.
Adagio Vs Andante
Both adagio and andante are Italian words that relate to the tempo, or speed of a passage or entire piece of music. These two important words come from a large armoury of tempi that any seasoned musician will be familiar with.
In fact, for many examinations, including practical ones, the knowledge of Italian terms is vital to success. Adagio indicates that the music should be played slowly whereas andante in the literal sense means ‘at walking pace’.
What you will notice about these definitions is that they are open to interpretation and indeed misinterpretation too. One remedy to any possible error of judgement is to give a metronome marking thereby dispelling any question of precision.
There are many examples of pieces or movements using these terms. Perhaps one of the most famous adagios is Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ (1936). In many ways, this deeply moving and hugely popular composition encapsulates what adagio means.
The piece is played slowly throughout with a meditative, melancholy quality that occurs in adagio music. This is the other feature of the term; the implied expression in the music.
It is not a question of just playing slowly but of conveying the essence, the deeper meaning of why the music is slow. The very fact that the tempo indication is slow often instinctively pulls performers towards a more reflective rendition.
Further adagio examples might include Albinoni’s ‘Adagio in G minor’, WA Mozart’s Second Movement from his Clarinet Concerto in A K.622, or Gustav Mahler’s Adagio from his Fifth Symphony.
You will regularly discover that the central movements of sonatas, concertos and symphonies are marked to be performed adagio. This is because traditionally, the outer movements of these larger compositions are played as faster tempi such as allegro, presto, or vivace and contrast often in the mood.
The adagio serves as an opportunity for the composer to present music that is contemplative, profound, and even tragic. According to several reliable sources, the word adagio came into regular use around 1730.
Whilst you certainly find it used in the Baroque, the idea of an extended piece marked adagio is more customary from the Classical period onwards.
Like adagio, andante is a popular marker for both the tempo and mood of a given piece of music. The implication, if we accept the literal translation of the word, is that the piece is performed in quite a casual manner, leisurely and gently.
There is the possible danger that this might also be interpreted as frivolous or carefree but andante often carries great meaning and expression just as adagio.
If you look at the works of WA Mozart or Joseph Haydn you often find that when they use the term andante, they compose a piece that is lighter in mood than an adagio but not one to be played glibly.
When you look at how the word is used by other composers, then the direction can be extremely misleading with variations such as andante affettuoso; andante sostenuto, andante grazioso or even, Bewegt, quasi andante: Feierlich’ from Bruckner’s Symphony No.3 in D minor.
To add to the discussion, in Italian the word andante comes from the verb andare which means ‘to go’. If you delve further into the entomology then the Latin root ambire is different again, meaning, to go about, or around.
What we do know is that the word moved into common musical use at a similar time to the word adagio and then the direct association with musical tempo became established.
You can find the term used in many well-known works by JS Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi and other great Baroque composers, all of which would broadly have expected a performance that had a soft momentum with expression.
Both andante and adagio have additional variations. In some pieces of music, you may come across the tempo marking as adagietto, or andantino. This brings a further dimension to the words under consideration.
If you are already familiar with a little Italian, or someone who has played music, you probably already know that these ‘endings’ mean a smaller version of the original word.
Previously mentioned, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony contains one of the most famous Adagiettos ever composed. This particular piece was propelled into the limelight through Visconti’s remarkable film ‘Death In Venice’.
In terms of what Adagietto means, it includes both a ‘short’ adagio or a tempo slightly less slow than you would expect from an adagio. Similarly, andantino, is a little andante.
Contrary to instinct, andantino does not commonly indicate a slower tempo than andante, but a moderately quicker one. It is possible that this meaning altered at some point in the 18th Century from a slower to a faster tempo.
The interpretations of adagio and andante have altered over the centuries with each composer bringing their versions of these words into their compositions. It is broadly accepted by most musicians that the beats per minute or metronome figures look like this.
Adagio is around 66 – 76 beats per minute, with Andante arriving at 70 – 85 beats per minute.
There is a little crossover between the tempo indications and a great degree of freedom in how they might affect performance. From a personal perspective, I have always lent in the direction of an adagio marking for music with solemnity and highly expressively qualities.
Andante I prefer to write when a piece is lighter in content and requires a noticeably quicker pace. Each of the words has its rightful place in the musical dictionary of every practising musician who, one hopes, will always strive to interpret them as close to the composer’s intentions as possible.