What is...Staccato?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is...Staccato?
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‘Staccato' is one of those musical terms that’s entered common parlance. And on this occasion common parlance seems to have got it broadly right.

When musicians and non-musicians use the word today they evidently mean more-or-less the same thing. Staccato notes or words walk on tip-toe or jab you emphatically in the solar plexus.

Gerard Hoffnung’s drawing of staccato as a sharply angular man, all anglepoise legs and knife-edged boots, stiletto toecap barely touching the floor, doubly merits Jeeves’s Latin approval: ‘rem acu tetigisti’ – ‘you have touched it with the fine point of a needle’. 

Even so, the Italian word ‘staccato’ does not mean ‘sharp’ or ‘pointed’ – as I once mistakenly presumed in a Milanese knife shop. It means ‘detached’.

When the term was first used in music, in the early baroque period, its meaning varied, but it seems to have been widely understood as an antonym for legato, which meant ‘bound together’. A legato phrase was one played with one continuous bow or sung with one continuous breath – which is why the word is sometimes understood to mean ‘smooth’.

Staccato, by contrast, was broken up, but that didn’t necessarily mean needle-sharp. If a baroque or classical era composer wanted that effect, he would probably have written ‘staccatissimo’ – ‘very’ or ‘extremely detached’.  

For around 100 years notation has been fairly standardised. A staccato sign is a dot: shorten the note by about a half. Staccatissimo is more like a tiny black wedge: shorten the note by about three quarters. Its opposite, legato, looks like a horizontal curved bracket stretched over the relevant number of notes.

It wasn’t always so clear. Pointing to one set of dots/wedges in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt observed, ‘it could be staccato, it could be accents, it could be the excrement of a fly’. And what do composers in any age mean when they put staccato dots under a legato line? Surely that’s a contradiction in symbols? 

Not for string players, for whom it translates as ‘all in one bow, but still detached’.

The soloist’s falling-rising phrase that rounds off the slow movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto is a classic example: it sounds like a voice catching – just a hint of a sob. Which is presumably the effect Schubert wanted when he marked a long phrase the same way in the Scherzo of his D845 Piano Sonata – lovely, but difficult to bring off.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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