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 Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Arnoldstang 
Date:   2014-07-23 17:57

Poco Forte What is the intent of this marking in Brahms. This article doesn't completely satisfy me. http://www.timsummers.org/?page_id=351

Freelance woodwind performer

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: TJTG 
Date:   2014-07-23 18:27

Timothy McGovern and Dennis Michel both taught me that it indicates "more loud", meaning play with more volume than your current dynamic. So a marking of 'poco forte' in a part initially marked 'pianissimo' would indicated to now play 'piano' rather than 'forte'. Many people see it and immediate think "mezzo forte", that is incorrect.

The same for 'poco piano' to mean "more soft", so you would actually play softer than your current dynamic. So a passage initially marked "fortissimo" would be played slightly softer at a "poco piano" marking (forte or mezzo forte).

In the case of the piano quartet I would consider the marking of 'poco forte' to mean "slightly louder" than the 'piano dolce' marking in bar 5. So the piano would start in the realm of a piano dynamic, but be quieter when the cello finally enters. Of the 5 recordings I just listened to, four of the performances started with a rather quiet piano entrance, one of them was noticeably louder but not a true 'forte'. Even in this case I don't think the 'forte' dynamic is being asked for.

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: kdk 2017
Date:   2014-07-23 20:44

TJTG wrote:

> Timothy McGovern and Dennis Michel both taught me that it
> indicates "more loud", meaning play with more volume than your
> current dynamic. So a marking of 'poco forte' in a part
> initially marked 'pianissimo' would indicated to now play
> 'piano' rather than 'forte'. Many people see it and immediate
> think "mezzo forte", that is incorrect.

First of all, poco means little, not more. Poco forte implies a comparison to an unmodified forte. The Italian word for more is piu. It implies a comparison to something previous - piu forte is louder (stronger) than before (whatever went before). The opposite, of course, is meno.

Secondly, when Brahms uses poco f at the very beginning of the F minor sonata, for example, there is nothing to play louder than - it's the beginning. Moreover, in the sonata, the next explicit dynamic is f after a short crescendo. So, clearly, in this case the poco f is less than forte or the big piano chords beginning in bar 12 would lose their drama.

But if Brahms had wanted the opening to be explicitly quiet, he would certainly have marked it - piano or even pianissimo, or at least mezzo-piano. He wanted something reasonably full-voiced, sung freely, but not as loud as the forte to come. That in itself should be enough to get an idea of how to understand poco f over these ten or eleven bars.

Other contexts, of course, may call for different results. The terms forte and piano themselves are not fixed levels that can be measured and described on a decibel scale. Forte in a Tchaikovsky symphony where both ff and then fff follow may have a different meaning from its meaning in other, less dramatic contexts where, perhaps, forte is the loudest dynamic written in the piece. Once you know the meaning of the words themselves (in this case "a little loud (strong)," you next need to look at the musical surroundings to know what makes sense.

Karl



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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: TJTG 
Date:   2014-07-23 20:57

Karl, you are correct, I got my terms mixed up.... thank you.

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Arnoldstang 
Date:   2014-07-24 01:52

Hi Karl, You wrote " He wanted something reasonably full-voiced, sung freely, but not as loud as the forte to come." Wouldn't mezzo forte come to mind?

Freelance woodwind performer

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: kdk 2017
Date:   2014-07-24 07:12

Sure, which is probably why no one I know of except Brahms used poco f - I guess it didn't serve much purpose. I guess you could make a case that pf is somewhere between mf and f. But none of those dynamic markings has an independent meaning outside of its context, so it seems a little nit-picky. You just need to be sure there's room for the crescendo and the forte that follow.

Karl

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: vin 
Date:   2014-07-24 07:41

Brahms' quote in the above link that poco forte is "the character of forte...with the sound of piano" was relayed, I believe, by Diran Alexanian. Now, of course, with anything fourth hand we should be skeptical, but as Karl alluded to, this isn't the same as mf. Brahms could have written mezzo forte, but he chose to write something else. As with the discussion about espressivo elsewhere, it is very helpful if we think about character and color and not just volume. If we are only thinking about volume, poco forte is a fairly confusing marking (after all, why not mf), but if you start looking for the marking in other Brahms works and think about its use on a color/character dimension, you start to understand a little more about what it is.

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Brother Joe 
Date:   2014-07-24 09:18

Think of it as a "veiled" forte.

brother joe

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Arnoldstang 
Date:   2014-07-24 18:30

Yes, "veiled" is an option much like a muted forte but this is contrary to the vibrant quality that Karl spoke of above.. "full voiced" "sung freely". You can't have it both ways.
I note the existence of these two books, "Brahms Performance Practice" by Ian Pace and "Performing Brahms" by Michael Musgrave and Bernard Sherman. Has anyone looked at these?

Freelance woodwind performer

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: kdk 2017
Date:   2014-07-24 19:18

Arnoldstang wrote:

> Yes, "veiled" is an option much like a muted forte but this is
> contrary to the vibrant quality that Karl spoke of above..
> "full voiced" "sung freely". You can't have it both ways.

Well, I'm not so sure you can't. First, "the character of forte" is very much within my description. Second, "the sound of piano" may well refer to a round, unforced sound that in my ear could still be vibrant (colorful, not dull) and freely sung. I don't think any of us wants to say the real dynamic level of the opening of the sonata (since that was my original example) is really meant to be in the piano area. And no one that I've heard plays it that way.

When composers use verbal descriptors, especially when they're non-standard (like poco f is), it's both a problem and a strength. In any case, it allows or forces the player (depending on whether you see a strength or a problem) to follow his own logic to make sense of the composer's meaning, to give meaning to the words and symbols on the page. Pitch notation and most rhythmic notation, within the realm of "classical" music and even many jazz styles, have been largely standardized and unambiguous in the Western music tradition since the 17th century. The meanings of verbal descriptors aren't nearly so universally agreed on. The result, of course, is the difference between Klemperer and Muti (to date myself slightly) or perhaps Milstein or Elman and Pearlman or Bell. If these "expressive" terms were straightforward and had universally accepted meanings, there'd be no point in marketing 15 recorded versions of anything.


> I note the existence of these two books, "Brahms Performance
> Practice" by Ian Pace and "Performing Brahms" by Michael
> Musgrave and Bernard Sherman. Has anyone looked at these?
>

No, I wasn't aware of either book and will be interested to see what each says about a number of issues.

Karl

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: brycon 
Date:   2014-07-24 19:54

Quote:

I note the existence of these two books, "Brahms Performance Practice" by Ian Pace and "Performing Brahms" by Michael Musgrave and Bernard Sherman. Has anyone looked at these?


I've read Performing Brahms (Dr. Musgrave was also one of my professors). He edited the book, which includes essays that range from insightful--such as George Bozarth's essay on Fanny Davies--to pedantic--Robert Pascall and Philip Weller's Derridean deconstruction of a single correspondence with regard to the tempos of the fourth symphony. Professor Musgrave also contributed fine essays on the German Requiem and Brahms's piano music.

Many of the essays focus on flexibility of tempo--both in Brahms's own playing and in the performance of his orchestral works. The essay on Fanny Davies is particularly important for clarinetists insofar as it focuses on the late chamber music. I'm sure it's been covered here, but Davies notes (with certainty) that Brahms thought of his hairpin cresc/decresc (and performed them) not as dynamic nuance but a rhythmic one. Although I don't have the book with me at the moment, I don't recall there being anything that could authoritatively settle this thread (though I agree with what Karl writes, e.g. dynamic markings also refer to expression, not only loudness/softness).



Post Edited (2014-07-25 02:47)

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Arnoldstang 
Date:   2014-07-24 21:58

Karl, Perhaps you misunderstood me. (maybe not) I was saying that "veiled" and "full blown" don't go together. If they do then I really am sunk. I can't imagine performing a full blown , singing, veiled mf. I think I would hurt myself in the process.

Freelance woodwind performer

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Arnoldstang 
Date:   2014-07-24 23:44

I opened this topic up without doing much homework myself. I have just looked at a score of his third symphony. Brahms does use sotto voce and mezza voce in this work in conjunction with dynamic markings. In the case of the Piano Quartet in A major he chose Poco Forte not mezza voce with Forte. He must have intended something else other than mf or F mezza voce.

Freelance woodwind performer

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: kdk 2017
Date:   2014-07-25 00:29

Arnoldstang wrote:

> Karl, Perhaps you misunderstood me. (maybe not) I was
> saying that "veiled" and "full blown" don't go together. If
> they do then I really am sunk. I can't imagine performing a
> full blown , singing, veiled mf. I think I would hurt myself
> in the process.
>

I was reacting more to "the character of forte...sound of piano," which Brother Joe re-characterized as "veiled" with your agreement. I don't really agree with the characterization. "Veiled" makes me think of the opening curtain of a play which reveals the scene obscured by a scrim that only later lifts. For me, that covering defeats "the character of forte."

Maybe "full blown" was a poor choice of words on my end. Perhaps "free blown" is a better way to express it - a lack of emotive or affective restraint at any loudness level.

But at this point we perhaps get even more mired in semantics than we started with the original question. Mahler often wrote long instructions at various places in his scores, presumably because he didn't trust mono- and bi-syllables, even German ones, to explain clearly what he had in mind. Even then, non-German speakers may have a hard time translating some of those instructions and sometimes end up disregarding them. The Italian and French adjectives and adverbs we most often use can only point us generally in the right direction. The details have to come from the music itself and our own logical response to the combination of words and music on the page.

Karl

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: kdk 2017
Date:   2014-07-25 00:56

Arnoldstang wrote:

> I opened this topic up without doing much homework myself. I
> have just looked at a score of his third symphony. Brahms
> does use sotto voce and mezza voce in this work in conjunction
> with dynamic markings. In the case of the Piano Quartet in A
> major he chose Poco Forte not mezza voce with Forte. He must
> have intended something else other than mf or F mezza voce.
>

If Brahms had something specific in mind and didn't provide the explanation to anyone in a position to pass it on to posterity, we have no way to know what it was. I won't say these are distinctions without a difference, but I suspect the differences are often overwhelmed by performance conditions that tend not to respect either a composer's or a performer's idealized conception of a piece.

How are andante and moderato different? They translate differently, but how do knowledgeable performers generally treat them? If one were to set a blind test of examples of music marked with each term, do you think they could reliably be identified as one or the other?

Karl

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: BobD 
Date:   2014-07-25 15:41

Karl: Admirable, insightful comments.....thanks.

Bob Draznik

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Arnoldstang 
Date:   2014-07-26 02:26

Thanks Karl for your thoughtful comments. I am still investigating whether Brahms did actually pass down information that would help us here. I located the book Performing Brahms by Musgrave. Here are some interesting points that are made.
1. Performance practice was different in this time...eg. Brahms would arpeggiate chords when not indicated but not always.
2. He once praised a performance of his 'Serious Song' which ends with dim. and p in the score as well as praising a performance of the same work that ended fff.
3. Likewise he appreciated interpretations that were widely different
4. Musicians of the day often used accel in conjunction with crescendo.
5. Brahms had a life long aversion to the metronome. Much is written about his tempo markings.
6. It is thought his markings starting with capital were to be taken more seriously
7. Brahms used dynamic markings specifically to balance the ensembles. 8. With the written hair pin in the score Brahms might slow the entire phrase down to highlight the idea rather than make a bulgy gesture that would emphasize one note in the phrase.
So I don't have an answer yet.

Freelance woodwind performer

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: kdk 2017
Date:   2014-07-26 06:55

Arnoldstang wrote:

> 1. Performance practice was different in this time...eg.
> Brahms would arpeggiate chords when not indicated but not
> always.

From the pictures I've seen, Brahms was quite short and so probably had smallish hands. I wonder if he arpeggiated those chords because he couldn't span them all at once.

Karl

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Ken Shaw 2017
Date:   2014-07-26 18:43

Any pianist who can play the two Brahms concertos will have no trouble with un-arpeggiated chords.

Some of the greatest pianists had small hands, for example, Josef Hofmann https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FObgaNh9DQ&index=1&list=RD4FObgaNh9DQ and Leopold Godowsky http://www.marstonrecords.com/godowsky/cover_godowsky_lg.jpg.

Ken Shaw

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: Arnoldstang 
Date:   2014-07-26 20:09

I forgot to mention Richard Muhlfield's use of vibrato. Brahms was taken with his playing. edit. It seems there is some disagreement here so I'll just leave it that Musgrave and Sherman related Muhlfield did use vibrato.

Freelance woodwind performer

Post Edited (2014-07-27 06:14)

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: D Dow 
Date:   2014-07-30 19:58

This brings the Beethoven remark Sfz to mind and the often heated discourse which ensues..

and of course Bruckner's strange markings over certain chords etc.

http://afortmadeofbooks.blogspot.ca/2009/07/reading-bruckners-5th.html

If it was piano we might be talking about pedaling technique for sure which does affect the timbre as the pedal recedes.

I never heard Muhlfeld play but do know he like beer greatly. I remember how the dePeyer Brahms Sonatas were disparaged but I generally like his musicality and thoughtful playing over the straight tone school in this business.

Some conductors could use a metronome for sure!

David Dow

Post Edited (2014-07-30 20:00)

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 Re: Poco Forte marking in Brahms
Author: elmo lewis 
Date:   2014-08-02 05:32

Brahms (and Beethoven) rarely used mp and mf. A standard dynamic range would be ppp-pp-p-mp-mf-f-ff-fff. A Brahms dynamic range would be pp-piu piano-p-poco forte-f-piu forte-ff. I think of a Brahms piano as mp and a poco forte as mf. It is important to distinguish the 4 types of fortes-most orchestras see the the letter "f" and just play loud. The case of the 3 types of piano is complicated by Brahms' use of p dolce and p sotto voce. I take these to be more of a change in tone quality than in dynamics.

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