Readers' Questions and Answers
About Interpretation and Performance Practice

Question 1 Notes printed in little type.
Question 2 A little note connected to an eighth followed by 2 sixteenths, especially in Mozart.
Question 3 Meaning of senza sordino (in Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata").
Question 4 Meaning of una corda.
Question 5 Location of the first beat "Für Elise."
Question 6 Tambourine sections in Mozart's rondo alla turca.
Question 7 What speed to play "My Lady Careys Dompe."
Question 8 Little notes in Mozart's "Rondo alla turca."
Question 9 Playing a Pralltrill

What are the notes printed in little type? Are these ornaments?

If you're French, you call them "graces." If you're anything else, you call them "ornaments" or whatever the translation of that word is in your language. "Embellishments" is also used, but usually by gray-bearded, pedantic types.

The "grace note" therefore, in English, is a misnomer because it uses a non-specific, collective term to designate a specific ornament. We're stuck with it, however.

A grace note is a note that falls -before- the beat. When properly notated, it is a little note with a slash through the stem and is printed before the note it precedes.

There are also other "little notes." These should be interpreted as one of the following, in music of Mozart/Haydn/Beethoven/Clementi/Czerny and other composers of this period: (1) appoggiatura; (2) quick appoggiatura (say "DO-nut," with the first syllable on the beat; note that this means the -little note- is on the beat); or (3) acciaccatura ( say "squish it," with both notes struch on "squish" and the little note lifted on "it;" say "squish it" as quickly as you can; the little note should be very quick).

Sometimes these three ornaments are printed with a slash across the stem. This is incorrect; and this is usually in those editions with yellow covers, which is why most teachers don't use them (this and numerous other errors which persist and the company refuses to fix, though maybe since Hal Leonard bought them we'll see some progress!).

How do you know which ornament it is? you ask. Good question. You don't know for sure, so you try all three ways, and usually one will leap out and say, "Choose me!" because it makes musical sense to your hand as well as your ear. So you choose that one. Sometimes two of them "make hand sense," so in this case, look elsewhere in the music and see if there isn't a similar construction but written in normal notation. If not, choose the one you think sounds best (this may not be the one that's easiest to play).

In music of the Romantic (Brahms, Dvorák, Liszt, etc.) and Contemporary Periods (Bartók, Ravel, Debussy, etc.), the little note is almost always (I don't want to be totally doctrinaire here!) a true grace note. If these composers want an acciaccatura or quick appoggiatura, they will usually write it out with specific note values. Schumann is a special case; he is most helpful in his notation! He writes the grace note in the -previous- measure, which is when it is actually played.

What is a little note connected to a regular-size eighth and followed by two sixteenths? Is the little note a grace note to be played before the beat? Mozart uses this q lot.

If properly notated, it's a little note followed by an eighth-note and two sixteenths. There will be no slash through the stem of the little note.

This notation is most commonly found in Mozart, as you noted. While some authorities say that there -are- other interpretations, I have never been convinced this is so, either by the evidence they adduce or by playing the music according to their interpretations.

Therefore I always teach that such a notation is the equivalent of 4 sixteenth-notes. (This is because the little note is an appoggiatura and takes half the value of the regular-size note is precedes; therefore the little note and the eighth are played as two sixteenths. When these are followed by the two sixteenths printed regular size, you have four sixteenths.)

And now you will ask why Mozart sometimes used an alternate notation instead of being consistent. Because Mozart didn't care which way he wrote it. It meant the same thing to him--and to those of his era. So as a student of Mozart, you have to learn to recognize both and to know that they're equivalent.

What does "senza sordino" mean in Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata?

This notation at the beginning of the first movement has always caused confusion. Does it mean with pedal or without? Short answer: with pedal.

Sordino means "a mute," as in the dampers which rest on the piano strings. To cancel their effect, mutes are raised by depressing the damper pedal. "Con sordino" would mean with the mute(s) seated on the stings, thus -without- damper pedal depressed. "Senza sordino" means without the mute(s) seated on the strings, which can be accomplished by depressing the damper pedal. Entirely confusing, I know.

The entire notation--"Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino"--translates roughly as: "it is necessary to play this entire piece delicately and without mutes [with pedal]." You might want to jot this translation in your score.

What does una corda mean?

The literal translation from the Italian is "one string." It is also the instruction to depress the left-most pedal, which is called the una corda pedal. What happens is that when the una corda pedal is down is that the hammer strikes only two strings, not all three.

With the permission of Canadian fortepiano builder, Stephen Birkett, I present his more detailed explanation of the una corda pedal. Please contact him about reprint permission.

"The relationship between the width of the hammer and the distance between the unison groups in the stringband is important. Early 19th-century Viennese pianos were arranged so that the shift pedal could pick out one or two strings of a tri-chord [the group of three strings all tuned to the same pitch; look inside your piano; mb]...hence the markings in Beethoven's Sonata Op. 106 that differentiate between these two possibilities. Some of the pianos had separate pedals for these two, some had a single pedal that was operated to two different positions. By the time of the bigger 6.5-octave pianos circa 1820, the geometry of the stringband and the hammer size made it almost impossible to achieve a true una corda on the Viennese instruments, so eventually the "extra" shift pedal was dropped, but unfortunately the name "una corda" was kept.

"Una corda" was possible on English pianos, but eventually the size of the hammers increased to the point where only due corde [2 strings] was possible, as on the modern piano."

Where is the "real" first beat in Beethoven's "Für Elise"?

In my opinion, it is not until the second complete measure - - the one in which the left hand enters. Note that the first notes of this piece (D-sharp and E) are really just a written-out trill.

Some years ago, I read a letter by you in Clavier Magazine in which you talked about using tambourine in Mozart's "Rondo alla turca." I wish I had clipped out the letter but didn't, so would you please repeat the measures where tambourine is used?

Measures 24-32, 56-64, 88-108, and 116-end.

This idea came from my having heard musicologist Eva Badura-Skoda speak on the early history of the pianoforte. She mentioned that early instruments had a "Turkish stop," which activated a drum-and-tambourine mechanism. I had a student ready to perform the Rondo, so we tried it, using a tambourine with a padded-head drum beater. The performance was a big success, and the audience really loved it.

What is a dompe? I've been assigned "My Lady Careys [sic] Dompe." My teacher doesn't know what a dompe is, but it's a cool piece and I want to play it, anyway. How fast does it go? Can you help?

I'll try; this is a tough one.

There are 3 extant keyboard dompes (sometimes spelled dump), the most famous being the very one you've been assigned. It's dated about 1525, roughly the time of Henry VIII (1491-1547). This is a splendid piece! Its harmonies are chiefly alternating tonic-dominant, but its melody and figurations are so engaging that almost 500 years have not damped (pardon the pun!) its appeal.

Incidentally, that's the correct spelling. The concept of standardized spelling hadn't been recognized in those days, mostly because everyone was illiterate. Therefore, punctuation was -really- free-form! Dictionaries date from about 1530 and began as translation books, not standardizations of spelling. This lack of standardization figures into the problem of deciphering what the word dompe means and where it came from.

For nearly 30 years I've searched for the origin of this word to understand how to perform the piece, but my search has been pretty much in vain. Here's all I know about dompes.

The Oxford English Dictionary (my choice for "my one book on a desert island") notes that dompe is an "obscure variant" of dump. A dump, also variously doompe, dumpe, and damp (this form appearing in English about 1480, probably of Norse origins), appears in written form in the early 16th century. Several English sources imply a "bemusement/musing" and others a melancholy state while doing same. A 1530 work references falling into "a dump, musying on thyngs."

In Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen from Verona (1592), there is mention of instruments playing "a deploring dump." (Note: Perhaps these instruments were trombones, the instrument traditionally associated with the Second Coming/Last Judgement. Cf: tuba mirum text of most any requiem: trombones are prominent in the orchestration, and sackbutt [early trombone] would have been appropriate for presentation "outdoors" in the Globe Theater.)

In Romeo and Juliet (1594-95), he mentions "doleful dumps" and "merry dumps:" a contradiction, an indication of another meaning, or (as Percy Scholes states in his Oxford Companion to Music) "one of Shakespeare's 'little jokes.'"

A 1610 reference calls a dump a funeral song and associates certain instruments with it. Again, perhaps sackbutts. Cf.: Mozart's use of trombones in the "Tuba mirum" section. Berlioz uses this technique, too, in his Symphonie Fantastique.

Bolstering the idea of melancholy/sadness/grieving is the semi-cognate duma, a Ukrainian word, which, not surprisingly, given the sorrowful character of much Slavic music, means a "meditation" or a "brooding." (Its diminutive form is dumka and plural dumky. If you haven't listened to Dvorak's famous set of 6 dumky [piano trio, Op. 90], hie thee immediately to the music store!)

From all this, I think it's reasonable to assume that a dompe is a mournful piece of music. A solemn tempo is indicated, but don't drag.

This piece does have a dance-like character when played "a bit up-tempo," and I like it this way, too.

One of my techniques for finding the proper tempo is to play the music at several speeds and see which one(s) "speaks" to me. This piece "works" fast -and- slow, does it not?

Bottom line: Play whatever speed you like, but bear in mind its probable mournful original meaning and don't go whizzing along presto.

Addendum: A cyberfriend, Charles Polak, wrote to me the following, for which I thank him:

"In south-western England, many early (Neolithic to Celtic Iron Age) chambered tombs are known as "[X's] Tump". Tump is pretty definitely a dialectal form of tomb. Dump may well originate from a conflation of this word with the dunroot found in dune and in many Celtic names denoting an ancient hilltop fort. Probablydump denoted tomb before coming to mean either: (a) a refuse or waste tip; or (b), as in the doleful dumps: a sad or depressed mood.

"Since the French tombeau refers to exactly the same genre of music, a short lament for a dead individual, is it not likely that the two words are connected? I know that most French musical tombeaux -- e.g ., Marin Marais's "Tombeau de M de Ste-Colombe", or Robert de Visée's "Tombeau de Mlles. de Visée"-- are later than the Tudor English dumps, but they may have had a long pre-history. Certainly English dumps continue into the 17th century, so probably overlap in time with their French equivalents."

How do I perform the little notes in Mozart's "alla turca"?

I have written a file elsewhere on this topic.

How do I perform a Pralltrill?

I have written a file elsewhere on this topic.


copyright 1996-2009, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.


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Last updated January 30, 2009.