What is… Andante?

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

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Andante is a musical tempo marking meaning moderately slow.

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For an enthusiast without musical training, listening to musicians throwing around terms can be painfully excluding – one might as well be a non-Latinist eavesdropper at one of Harry Potter’s magic lessons. They can, though, take comfort from the word ‘Andante’.

Before writing this article I checked with three reputable music dictionaries, and came away with three quite different stories. ‘Stories’ is the mot juste. Andante is one of those terms that’s undergone a circuitous semantic journey, and contention today as to what it might mean is as fierce as ever. 

The literal meaning of the Italian word ‘Andante’ is ‘at a walking pace’, with suggestions of ‘easy-going’; or it could be simply ‘uniform’, like the regularity of a walker’s tread. That seems to be the implication of the andante marking for the B minor Prelude from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

And since the following Fugue is marked largo (‘broad’ or ‘slow’), some kind of contrast would seem to be demanded – in other words, this should be quite a lively ‘regular’ tread. But contemporary German musicians define Andante as anything from ‘very slow’ to ‘fairly mobile’.

Haydn and Mozart clearly saw Andante as signifying something not just faster than Adagio – the classic slow movement marking – but lighter in character.

Which would make sense of the potentially puzzling molto andante at the point in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro where Susanna is found hiding in the closet. Simply: ‘Lighten up lots’ – a lovely effect after the long, expectant allegro build-up.

In the 19th century it all gets messy. Schubert’s, and even Brahms’s, Andante markings still seem to have some notion of walking – again regularity, whether determined striding or dreamy strolling, seems to be essential. In which case what do they mean by più andante (‘more andante’) – slower, faster, or what?

And what does Liszt mean by andante religioso in Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne? The character of the music suggests that what the mountaineer has heard has brought him to a meditative standstill. Still more the imaginary spectator in Debussy’s Clair de lune (marking: andante très expressif), where metrical regularity would destroy the atmosphere.

But my prize for the ultimate andante-based brainteaser goes to the 1876 version of the slow movement of Bruckner’s Third Symphony: Bewegt, quasi Andante, feierlich – ‘Lively, quasi Andante, solemn’. Take your pick…

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This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine