Passion vs eloquence

“After a period of nearly four years’ study, I left Leipzig and settled in London. One day I bethought myself of applying to Signor Piatti, whose kindness to young players was notorious, for advice and guidance. […] When I first played something to him, at his request, with all the fervent vibrato of youth, he laid a kindly hand on my shoulder, and remarked gently, ‘My dear friend, we cannot always be in a passion’.” -Harold Gorst, “Masters of the ‘Cello”

I first came across this quote in George Kennaway’s excellent book, Playing the Cello 1780-1930, in the context of historical attitudes to vibrato; “the fervent vibrato of youth” is such a value-packed little phrase that I had read the quote several times before I started thinking about the point Piatti himself was trying to make.

The term “espressivo” occurs everywhere in 19c score markings, but there are also more specific terms for excited emotional states such as “appassionato” or “con fuoco”, and these occur much less often. I had grown up conflating musical expression with passion – I even took pride in being a “passionate player” – so the notion that you could be expressive without being passionate baffled me at first. 

I eventually noticed that in our speaking voices, we are often at our least expressive when we are in the grip of a strong emotion. When we say “I love you” for the first time, or when we recount a traumatic event, we speak in muted, almost drab tones. When we are relaxed, on the other hand, our voices are free to follow the rhythms and cadences of whatever it is we are trying to say. What we lose in passion, we gain in eloquence.

It was Fanny Davies who showed me what poised eloquence can sound like in romantic music: she is telling a story full of feeling and significance, but she is the poet rather than one of the characters.

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