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Layman`s guide to classical music terms

Definitions of many of the basic terms of classical music, as might be encountered during a performance or lecture on the subject, focusing on foreign language terms.

A capella: Choral music without instrumental accompaniment.

Accelerando: Accelerating or becoming quicker.

Adagio: Slowly.

Agitato: Excited.

Allargando: Slowing down.

Allegro: Fast.

Allegretto: Moderately fast. Slower than allegro, but faster than andante.

Andante: A walking speed, moderately slow.

Animato: Animated or lively.

Appassionato: Passionately.

Arco: With the bow, rather than pizzicato (with the fingers). A designation for string players often seen after a pizzicato section.

Aria: A solo song in an opera, cantata, or oratorio.

Assai: Very, as in allegro assai (very fast).

A tempo: Back to the original tempo.

Attaca: Attack, or immediately begin the next movement without a pause.

Accent: Emphasis placed on a sound or note.

Accidental: A sharp or flat sign next to a musical note, or the black keys on a keyboard.

Atonal: Without tonality, in contrast to tonal or serial music.

Bravo, brava: Good, or well done. Usually exclaimed upon completion of a difficult or very well performed composition.

Cadenza: A sometimes improvisatory, often virtuosic passage played by a soloist during a concerto or aria.

Cantabile: Singing.

Chord: Two or more pitches (notes) played together.

Col legno: With the wood. An instruction for string players to use the wood of their bows, rather than the hair, in producing the sound.

Con brio: With vigor.

Concerto: A musical piece that features a soloist or soloists along with an accompanying instrumental group, usually an orchestra.

Con sordino: With a mute.

Crescendo: Becoming louder.

Da capo, D.C.: An instruction to return to the beginning of the musical piece.

Detache: Detached.

Divisi: Divided, as in a string section dividing into two sections to play two different parts.

Diminuendo: Diminishing or becoming quieter.

Dolce: Sweetly.

Dynamic: Level of loud or soft.

Espressivo: Expressively.

Fine: End.

Encore: The optional addition of an extra piece at the end of a concert, usually in response to applause by the audience.

Falsetto: A male voice singing in an unusually and artificially high register.

Finale: The final movement of a composition or the final act of an opera.

Forte: Loud, strong.

Fortepiano: Loud, then immediately soft. Also an older name for a piano.

Fortissimo: Very loud.

Glissando: Sliding from one pitch to another, or sliding up or down a scale or part of a scale.

Grave: Grave or slow.

Interval: The distance between two pitches or notes.

Larghetto: Not quite as broad or slow as largo.

Largo: Wide, stately speed.

Legato: Smooth.

Lento: Slow.

Libretto: The literary (as opposed to musical) portion or text of an opera, cantata, or oratorio.

Marcato: Marked or accented.

Moderato: Moderately.

Molto: Much or very, as in molto allegro (very fast).

Pesante: Heavy, weighty.

Pianissimo: Very quiet.

Piano: Quiet.

Pitch: The location of a particular sound on the musical scale, determined by frequency (number of vibrations per second).

Piu: More.

Pizzicato: Plucked, in contrast to bowed, on a stringed instrument.

Placido: Peaceful, calm.

Poco: A little, somewhat.

Presto: Quick. Faster than allegro.

Prima, primo: First.

Quasi: Almost, or in the style of.

Rallentando: Becoming gradually slower.

Ritardando: Becoming gradually slower.

Rubato: Lingering on certain notes, not in strict time.

Sans: Without

Scherzando: Playfully or jokingly.

Scherzo: Literally, a joke. Usually the third movement of a symphony, sonata, or quartet, distinguished by a quick tempo in 3/4 meter, vigorous rhythm, and humorous character.

Schnell: Fast.

Secondo: Second.

Segue: Continue in the same style, or proceed to the next movement without pause.

Sempre: Always.

Spiccato: Bounce the bow off the strings, rather than playing smoothly without lifting and dropping the bow.

Staccato: Short and detached.

Stringendo: Hurrying, getting faster.

Subito: Suddenly.

Sul ponticello: An instruction to play with the bow on, or very close to, the bridge of the instrument.

Sul tasto: An instruction to play with the bow over the fingerboard.

Tempo: Speed or pace of a piece.

Tremolo: On stringed instruments, a very quick reiteration of the same note or series of notes.

Troppo: Too much.

Tutti: Everybody.

Vigoroso: Vigorous.

Vivace: Lively.

Volti subito, V.S. Turn the page quickly.

Asavari & Associates

Our incurable wanderlust through Ragaspace brings us to the next port of call: Raga Asavari. With its cachet as an elemental rAga in the Hindustani firmament, Asavari's counsel and influence have profoundly shaped the Indian musical imagination. This compendium explores that engaging melody as well as its derivative rAgas, or Asavariants, as I like to call them.

Asavari is a very ancient rAga as is the allied Raga Gandhari; both find mention in Sarangdeva's treatise Sangeeta Ratnakara. In his great exegesis, Hindustani Sangeet Paddhati, Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande plies his fine-toothed comb through the (often conflicting) major ancient works, cutting as best as he can the Gordian knots of rAga nomenclature and structure in their journey through time. The curious reader is referred to his magnum opus for historical minutiae concerning both the surviving rAga forms as well as those of the ancien regime. We will here train our sights on contemporary musical practice. Throughout this discussion, M =shuddha madhyam and m =teevra madhyam.

Click on the image to enlarge

Front row, sitting (l-r): Unknown, Nissar Hussain Khan, Ahmad Jan Thirakhwa, Hafiz Ali Khan, Mushtaq Hussain Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Rajendra Prasad (First President of India), Kesarbai Kerkar, Allauddin Khan, Kanthe Maharaj, rest in the row unknown.

Second row (l-r): Ghulam Mustafa Khan, unknown, unknown, Keramatullah Khan, Radhika Mohan Moitra, Illayaz Khan, Bismillah Khan, Kishan Maharaj, unknown, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan, Narayanrao Vyas, Vinayakrao Patwardhan, D.V. Paluskar.

Third row (l-r): First four not known, Ghulam Sabir Khan, S.N. Ratanjankar, Gyan Prakash Ghosh, next four unknown.

Fourth row (l-r): Unknown, Vinaychandra Maudgalya, next three unknown.

Raga Asavari

Asavari denotes a thAT, a rAgAnga and a rAga. The Asavari thAT, introduced ad hoc by Bhatkhande as one of his 10 basic sets, represents the scale corresponding to the 20th Carnatic melakartA Nata Bhairavi: S R g M P d n. The rAga, Asavari, itself comes in three flavours, each distinguished by the manner of rishab use. They are, respectively, the shuddha rishab-only (R) Asavari, the komal rishab-only (r) Asavari, and the third type employing both r and R. The swaras of the R- only Asavari are aligned with the Asavari thAT proper whereas those of the r- only Asavari belong to the Bhairavi thAT.

The oldest version, the r -only Asavari, is the preferred choice of the Dhrupadiyas. The switch to the R- only is relatively recent and has come about through the agency of the Gwalior school. Bhatkhande alludes to the Khayals by the Gwalior pioneers Haddu Khan, Hassu Khan and Natthu Khan in support of this claim. The augmented rishab facilitates fast tAns so dear to the Khayaliyas over the original S r M movement. Bhatkhande writes that the Rampur Dhrupad performers favour the r -only Asavari. However, he also records, and this will be borne out when we hear Allauddin Khan later, that he heard Vazir Khan render Asavari with both the rishabs.

The Aroha/avaroha set for the r -only Asavari is:

S r M P (n)d, (n)d S" :: S", r" n d P, d M P (M)g, r S

The shuddha rishab Asavari is obtained by appointing R in lieu of r in the above contour. The essential features of Raga Asavari and Asavariants such as Jaunpuri, Gandhari and Devgandhar are contained in Raganga Asavari. In the abstract proposed below the r -only Asavari is used for the purpose of illustration.

S r P (n)d, d M P (M)g, r S

The key idea here is avarohi movement from P to g with only a hint of M (langhan alpatva). Neighbourly amity between r and g must be held in check, for a potential tirobhAva (disappearance of the swaroopa of the rAga under consideration) due to Todi lies in wait (see The Empire of Todi for details of Raganga Todi).

M P (n)d, (n)d S", r" n d, P, M P n d, P, d M P (M)g, r S

The langhan alpatva of n en route to the shaDaj in Arohi movements is an Asavari signpost. The dhaivat and pancham are locations of repose (nyAsa bahutva). The gandhAr is also a nyAsa swara but less so than P and d. Notice the Bilaskhani Todi-esque descending contour. The prescribed pause on P from d puts paid to any Bilaskhani aspirations.

 Pandit Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" -- >

That was the gist of the Asavari Raganga, according to Hoyle. Not every subtlety and nuance can be conveyed or put down in words. While we do not wish to make light of the details, our guiding spirit is that espoused by Einstein: "I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are mere details."

Obiter dicta: An oft-heard phrase, P M P S" (n)d P, serves as a conduit for uttarAnga forays. The M P (n)d swara ucchAraNa (enunciation) above radically differs from that in Darbari (see The Kanada Constellation ). The motivated reader is encouraged to think up possible tirobhAvAs due to Bhairavi. Although a kosher Asavari omits the nishad in Arohi runs, it is sometimes solicited in clusters around the shaDaj, the tAra shaDaj in particular. To wit, n S" or n S" r" .

Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" takes us through a running tour of Asavari. In him are joined the twin virtues of clarity of thought and gift of expression. The exposition was taped off a telephone line and reins in all the points made above and more:

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