What is… Largo?

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

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Largo is an Italian tempo marking meaning ‘broadly’ or, in other words, ‘slowly’.

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There are nuances in tempo markings – I mean the basic tempo markings, not emotionally directive add-ons such as giocoso (merry), mesto (sad) or Elgar’s favourite, nobilmente (noble). In music, largo and adagio both signify a slow pace, but they convey separate meanings to modern Italians.

You might see a warning adagio painted on a Tuscan road surface (most Tuscans will probably ignore it, but they’ll know what it means), but largo might make them slow down in sheer perplexity. In Italian, largo means ‘broad’, which is how Florida’s Key Largo island gets its name.

It also explains the initially baffling circumstance that Rossini’s most notoriously tongue-twisting rapid patter song is known as Largo al factotum: ‘Broadly’, ie ‘Make space’ for the all-purpose manservant Figaro. It could hardly be less largo for the singer.

Largo and adagio clearly meant something very different to Baroque composers too, but what kind of difference? In his Dictionary of Music (1768), the Enlightenment sage Jean-Jacques Rousseau decreed that largo was the slowest of all tempo markings.

But for Purcell and some of his English contemporaries, it was somewhere between adagio and andante. In time, Rousseau’s definition won out.

What Rousseau doesn’t say, but which seems at least semi-explicit by this stage, was that largo also suggests heartfelt personal intensity, as in the aria ‘Ombra mai fù’ from Handel’s Xerxes, famous as ‘Handel’s Largo’. (The original marking is the diminutive larghetto, but the mistake is significant.)

Haydn reserved largo for special, personal utterances, such as the Cantabile e mesto slow movement from his Quartet Op. 76 No. 5. When Beethoven uses largo, he often means something so slow that the music’s heartbeat is almost suspended, as in the near-timeless introductions to the Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 (Tempest) and the finale of Op. 106 (Hammerklavier). 

After Beethoven, there’s something of a largo lacuna in the standard repertoire, though the cor anglais-haunted Largo from Dvoπák’s Symphony From the New World (No. 9) is a splendid exception.

The great 20th-century exponent is Shostakovich: the Largo of his Fifth Symphony apparently had members of its first audience audibly sobbing. After this, whenever he uses this term – in the first movement of the Symphony No. 6, or in three movements of his Eighth Quartet – it hints at more than pulse: ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now’. 

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This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine