What is an…Apoggiatura?

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

Appoggiatura_Final_cmyk-e5738c3-9e14095.jpg

‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963,’ wrote Philip Larkin ruefully, ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban, And the Beatles’ first LP.’ Beside those epochal events you might think that the rediscovery of the acciaccatura and the appoggiatura were pretty low down on the culture shock scale.

Advertisement

Not in my house. My father had learned his Handel Messiah in the days when what was written on the page was the music. The very idea of doing anything extra with it: adding embellishments, or even just bending the rhythms… Great Heavens, it was tantamount to jazz! 

In fact, the early 1960s marked the beginning of a cultural revolution in classical music: the Period Performance Movement. Among other things, this brought the realisation that the way baroque composers expected their music to be performed was, in many ways, quite a lot like jazz. Take the matter of ‘grace notes’.

When a contemporary observed that Purcell sang his own music ‘with many graces’, he didn’t mean that he sang it with supreme elegance, rather that he was lavish with ornamentation. 

Then dawned another, still more terrible realisation: this might even apply to Mozart! The way people performed Mozart’s recitatives began to change. Endings of phrases that used simply to drop down onto the home note, solidly on the beat, now came with a lingered-out ‘dying fall’, a sighing downward step.

This was the appoggiatura – literally a ‘leaning’ note. Musically one didn’t just throw oneself down, one lowered oneself slowly, relishing the sense of taking the weight off one’s feet. 

One also had to learn to distinguish between different kinds of written grace notes (the ones in tiny print before the main note). Previous practice had been to snatch them out of the way as quickly as possible, or just ignore them.

Now we had to differentiate between those that were meant to be played as quickly as possible, ahead of the beat (acciaccature), and those that signified a languorous ‘leaning’ (appoggiature). A line through the stem of the note meant acciaccatura; without a line, appoggiatura. 

How to remember which is which? The ‘cciacc’ of ‘acciaccatura’ is pronounced like ‘catch’ – and the effect is like a catch in the voice; conversely the ‘ppoggi’ part of appoggiatura might suggest a ‘podgy’ human form lowering itself into an armchair.

Either way, today Handel – and Mozart – would sound bare without them.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine