Everybody knows that crescendo means getting louder – except it doesn’t. As any Italian knows what it actually means is ‘growing’. Which is not at all the same as saying “poco a poco piu forte” – something any decent composer would undoubtedly have indicated if that’s what they wanted.
Let me explain, with a little help from William Wordsworth. As he so eloquently put it:
“Spring has sprung, the grass is riz,
I wonder where the daff’dils is …”
Well the daff’dils have been poking their shoots up through the snow and sodden grass for a couple of weeks now. First a mere millimetre, next day a centimetre, then 2, 4, 8, a hint of a yellow crown – until one glorious morning the whole world is suddenly transformed into a carpet of nodding yellow heads.
Now THAT’s what you call growing. Not a perfectly even progression, but an ever-increasing rate of growth until a revelation bursts through! And THAT’S what “crescendo” means. Not steadily getting louder bit by bit, but a slow start growing at an ever-increasing rate to an heroic splendour.
Or if you want another analogy, think of climbing a hill which gets ever steeper the closer you get to the top – it’s the last steepest-of-all steps that take you over the crest to a landscape revealed in all its grandeur.
A crescendo that does this has a very different – and infinitely more exciting – effect than the boring bit by bit approach which 90% of pianists adopt. Try it and hear for yourself. One more point. If you are going to get louder (however you choose to go about it), there’s only so much “loud” a piano can give. Which obviously (if only!) means to GET louder, you first have to GET quieter.
Next time you see crescendo in your score interpret it as meaning “now play quietly.” And then apply the same logic to ‘dim’, ‘accel’, ‘rit’ and ‘rall’.
BTW, if you want to know what Wordsworth didn’t write, it goes like this –
Spring has sprung, the grass has riz,
I wonder where the birdies is?
The bird is on the wing …
But no that’s too absurd
The wing is on the bird.