Thinking about Tempo, Part 3 - Allegro

Thinking about Tempo, Part 3 - Allegro

At the present day, "Allegro" is widely considered "fast and energetic" tempo. Giving the fact that the literal meaning of the word "allegro" in Italian is "cheerful" or "joyous", it is easy to imagin that such moods resulted quick tempo, rather than slow one. But how fast is it? 

Today's topic is the first appearance of the term "Allegro". 



Tempo marks were practically unknown before 1600. Let's begin with some examples of very early concept of "Allegro".


Opera Intitulata FonteOpera Intitulata Fonte

One of the first appearances of the word "allegro" is found in "Opera Intitulata Fontegara" by Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego published in Venice in 1535, a treatise on playing the recorder and ornamentation. In this book, he points to a type of trill as the means of cheerful playing (allegro). 

Ganassi was also known as the first theorist who called "cadenza" together with Pietro Aaron(1523). This was the ancestor of today's "cadenza" but it was what we'd call "cadential embellishment".



Libro de música de vihuela de mano intitulado El maestro (1536)

The earliest written example of tempo indications

In terms of the earliest written example of "tempo indications" in music history, here is the book called Libro de música de vihuela de mano. Intitulado “El maestro (1536)” by Luis de Milán. Luis de Milán was a composer and vihuelist from Spain and was the first composer in history to publish music for the vihuela (this book was dedicated to King John III of Portugal). In this book, Luis de Milán provided verbal tempo indications such as "neither too quickly nor too slowly but with a moderate measure", "(play) chordal parts slowly and scales quickly" or "rubato" for his fantasias.


"Le Istitutioni Harmoniche" (Venice, 1558) by Gioseffo Zarlino

One of the very early examples of the concept of "Allegro" can be found in the theory book called "Le Istitutioni Harmoniche" (Venice, 1558) written by Gioseffo Zarlino, a well known Italian music theorist and composer in the Renaissance period. 

Gioseffo Zarlino
Gioseffo Zarlino
Le Istitutioni Harmoniche

In the book, Zarlino says that harmony and rhythm should follow the words and not the words follow the rhythm or harmony. By the way, don't this idea remind you of Monteverdi? 

Zarlino uses the words "allegro", "allegre", and "allegramente" throughout the book mostly meaning "cheerful". But, interestingly, he also refers to rhythms and the speed of the word "cheerful". Let's see what he says.


As to singing:

"sing according to the nature of the words in composition in such a way that when the words contain materials that are cheerful, they should be sung cheerfully…"


As for a composition:

"if a text deals with subjects that are cheerful or sad, grave or without gravity, and modest or lascivious, a choice of harmony and rhythm must be made in accordance with the nature of the subject matter contained in the text"


As for rhythms and speed:

"the subject matter contained in the text is cheerful, one should proceed with powerful and fast movements, namely, with note values that convey swiftness of movement, such as the minim and the semiminim. But when the subject matter is tearful, one should proceed with slow and long movements"


Do you see how a vague concept of "Allegro (cheerful) is taking shape of "Allegro (lively, fast) gradually? 

Next: Thinking about Tempo, Part 4 - Allegro