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A while back I wrote a post enthusing about Roberto Poli’s book The Secret Life of Musical Notation . I continue to find Poli’s chapter on hairpins (the music-notational kind) not only fascinating but also useful in everyday life as a pianist, particularly when it comes to bits of the Tchaikovsky ballet repertoire. Whether one can ever prove that the hairpin meant more than merely louder/softer to Tchaikovsky doesn’t really matter, because it’s still a useful frame to bring to an interpretation.

Nonetheless, I haven’t seen this referred to that much elsewhere, and I have sometimes wondered whether I was enthusing slightly too much about Poli’s book for my own good. Until today, that is, when I discovered “The Brahmsian Hairpin,” an article by David Hyun-Su Kim in 19th Century Music. Hyun-Su Kim investigates similar territory with particular reference to Brahms’s music. He analyses recordings made by those closely associated with the composer, to see how his contemporaries interpreted hairpins in practice. It is better to think of them, he suggests, as “becoming more/less” rather than “louder/quieter”:

“Becoming more/less” is already context-dependent; “more” in a lyrical context is quite different from “more” in an energetic one. And because they were understood descriptively, hairpin markings inspired a great variety of realizations in performance. The recordings exhibit a wide range of expressive techniques—agogic inflection, vibrato, portamento, chord-rolling, hand displacement (i.e., not playing the left and right hands simultaneously) and dynamics—all of which seem to be correlated to some extent with the hairpin symbol.

Hyun-Su Kim identifies different connotations of the hairpin in performances of Brahm’s associates or contemporaries, which are nonetheless consistently applied at particular locations in a score. I particularly like his term lingering hairpin for the < > that you get in the middle of a lyrical passage, because this seems to capture something that is so native to ballet performance, the suspense and fall (as well as waltz music). It puts a kind of movement into music notation that transcends the apparent dryness of the printed score.


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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist