Composers’ whimsies


During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was normal for composers to give speed indications for their music in Italian. Beethoven started to vary this with German, and Schumann followed suit, but Italian is still the main language for tempi – even this word is the Italian one.

Sometimes these indications are hard to interpret, and here are three that I’ve come across. They don’t bother me as a pianist – they all appear in choral music, and as I’m ‘only’ the accompanist, I just follow the conductor, so it’s up to him/her to decide how fast or slow to take the music.

Handel – tempo ordinario (appears quite often in oratorios)

Rossini – Allegro cristiano (Credo from his Petite Messe Solennelle – a piece that is neither ‘petite’ nor ‘solennelle’, but definitely a ‘messe’)

Beethoven – Andante con moto, assai vivace, quasi allegretto ma non troppo (Kyrie from Mass in C, Opus 86)

Beethoven in particular seems to be hedging his bets with this one.


  1. The maestro of whimsicality is of course Erik Satie.

  2. John – It wasn’t only his music. We visited his birthplace in Honfleur a couple of years ago, and learned that when he died, one room of his house contained three pianos, stacked on top of each other. Did you know that his parents were married in Richmond (Surrey), and that his mother was Scottish? Anecdotes go on and on. When Debussy asked him his opinion of “La Mer”, after the first performance, Satie replied that he liked the bit around 10 o’clock in the morning.

  3. Graham,

    Thank you for the Debussy anecdote. I had not heard that, or if I had, I had forgotten about it.

    You might be interested in a couple books about ES.

    Erik Satie by Alan M. Gillmor, The Macmillan Press, 1988.

    Satie Seen Through His Letters by Ornella Volta, trans. Michael Bullock, Marion Boyars, 1989

  4. Thanks, John, I’ll look out for them.

  5. Other tempo indications that are less than useful are quite frequent: Waltzes marked “Tempo di Valse” and Marches “Tempo di Marcia”.

  6. Yes.

    Satie’s ‘Comme un rossignol qui aurait mal aux dents’ seems much more illuminating.

  7. John – I hadn’t come across this one – is it for a piano piece?

  8. Graham,

    It appears in Embryons desséchés for piano(1913), I. d’Holothurie.

  9. Thanks, John! It’s a piece I don’t have. The 3rd Gnossienne gives very exact (but incomprehensible) instructions. The whole piece is “Lent” – so far so good, but then we have the successive “Conseillez-vous soigneusement” … “Munissez-vous de clairvoyance” … “Seul, pendant un instant” … “De manière à obtenir un creux” … “Très perdu” … “Portez cela plus loin” … “Ouvrez la tête” … “Enfouissez le son”.

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