Is Presto Faster Than Allegro?

Is Presto Faster Than Allegro
Is Presto Faster Than Allegro

Music is full of vocabulary that relates to almost every aspect of performing and interpretation. These words are there to provide performers guidance as to the composer’s intentions and have as the years go by, become increasingly complex.

If you take a momentary glance back for instance, at the music of JS Bach, there are very few musical words he uses to indicate to the performer how the music is intended to be played. There are some dynamic indications for volume and changes in volume, and tempo marks to indicate speed.

Is Presto Faster Than Allegro

Other than that JS Bach provides little else. As we move forward in musical time to the music of Mahler, we discover a whole variety of musical vocabulary that gives precise details about how the music should be performed, or what the emotional intent is.

This can be a hindrance as much as a help, but at least offers a starting point for interpretive debate. The words under discussion in this article refer to tempo.

This in most cases, indicates the speed of a piece of music. It is commonly written at the start of composition, often with a metronome marking to dispel questions regarding the exact understanding of the speed.

Remember, the metronome marking gives a beats-per-minute figure that is simply more accurate than a word that offers a range of possibilities.

Allegro for example means a lively, quick tempo but the question that naturally arises is what does that mean? After all, what one musician understands quick to mean could radically differ from another.

This is where the metronome marking is a great help. For allegro, the metronome indication ranges from around 110 – 148 beats per minute (BPM).

This still gives a significant difference in terms of speed, but where it scores is the fact that the composer can specify the BPM for each composition and reduce the need for discussion. In contrast, presto has a different tempo marking.

The metronome figures for presto are generally accepted to be between 168 – 200 BPM. From this perspective alone, it is clear that there is a noticeable difference in speed between allegro and presto.

If music was as black and white as the examples above, the dilemma would be over. Unfortunately, music is littered with subtleties and variations that bring many simple terms into different contexts and generate alternative interpretations.

Let me bring to the discussion a couple of examples. Allegro on its own is in most cases likely to be slower than presto, but if a composer should write allegro vivace or allegro con brio, where does that leave the performer?

Vivace indicates a very lively speed and con brio literally means with life, so if you were working on a piece that had these tempo markings, you are encouraged to push the allegro much further in terms of speed than a basic allegro.

At this point perhaps it becomes more of a challenge to distinguish between an allegro vivace performance and a presto one.

One of the most illuminating books on the issue of tempo indications is one titled “Interpreting Mozart: the performance of his Piano Pieces and Other Compositions” by Eva and Paul Badura-Skoda. (Routledge: 2018).

What is highlighted in this book, amongst numerous other vital considerations is the tempo indications that Mozart wrote in his manuscripts. The suggestion is that an allegro needs to be thought of in terms of what is referred to as lyrical allegro movements and fiery ones.

In this respect, the speed of an allegro can vary considerably. It is the character of the allegro that plays a huge part in deciding how this tempo marking needs to be interpreted, even if there is a metronome marking. (Mozart did not use metronome markings).

When Mozart writes presto then he intends the music to be performed as fast as possible. This Mozart writes in a letter that dates from 7th August 1782. What Mozart is also specific about is that the speed of the performance, even at presto should not result in a lack of clarity or precision.

If you consider the finale from the A minor Piano Sonata (K.310), then this presents quite a challenge and is in deliberate contrast to the opening movement’s marking of Allegro maestoso.

Not only are there a considerable number of additional Italian words that can be added to both allegro and presto but there is a definite discrepancy between different composers’ interpretations of the indications.

I have often felt that Haydn’s presto tempos markings were not quite as fast perhaps as Mozart’s and contain a more jovial, humorous element that is not as evident in Mozart’s scores. Of course, this is a personal approach that may not receive the universal agreement.

What it does underline though is the need to make careful judgments regarding tempo markings This must take into account the period of musical history and the frequently quite specific understanding each composer brings to these terms.

One further distinction that may help to pull apart these tempo markings a little is the idea of underlying pulse. Pulse in music usually refers to something that does not alter and to which the rhythms of a piece adhere.

In other words, rhythms can change, develop and naturally evolve throughout a piece but the pulse of that piece can remain unaltered.

If you are looking at a piece of music with allegro written on the title page, then you are feeling an underlying pulse that does not exceed that of semi-quavers or 16th beats. 

The argument then continues to suggest that if one is playing a piece marked presto, the underlying pulse is that of demi-semi quavers.

For the vast majority of pieces, you will find that if a composer indicates allegro they are expecting you to play a piece quickly, possibly with a liveliness too but with presto, you are in a whole other league of speed.

When you attempt to achieve a presto hold onto your hat and without compromising accuracy, perform as fast as the wind.

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