The many “directions” of legato
December 4, 2019
Legato is the existential complaint and rebellion by the piano against its mechanically percussive nature and thereby against the inevitable decline in loudness of every note it makes once that note starts.
When we play legato we tend to confine it to a single line, voice or hand, sometimes to a series of chords.
The ramifications of legato however can sprout in many directions at once.
If we liken the layers and voices of a piece to the trunk and the larger and smaller branches of a tree, then the following seven situations are analogous depictions of legato situations.*
#1. The trunk separating into branches (a legato connection goes simultaneously from a single note to two or more different notes).
#2. Branches diverging into smaller branches (for instance each note of a the current chord connecting legato to each and every note in the next chord).
#3. Higher branches of a tree converging back into the single trunk (connecting legato several notes sounding at once all to the same note).
#4. A single shunt or off-shoot from a single more major branch (a primary voice dividing into the continuation of the major voice while a subsidiary off-shoot voice moves away from the primary voice).
#5. Overlapping branches and twigs and leaves creating a dense
pattern against the sky (many notes connecting simultaneously to many
other notes, including the possibility that connections starting from
a plurality of notes sometimes converge into a single note).
#6. Within case 5: forming a continuous line out of one section of a small branch to another small branch where the two cross (in other words using a legato connection to fall off one voice’s track and onto another voice’s track).
#7. Joining with the eye nearby places within the tree that have similar structural patterns (forming a legato line out of different parts of different voices based on where their rhythms are the same, or forming one rhythm but of legato connections among two or more voices that sound at once).
The salient aspect to be derived from the image of the tree is that when one branch subdivides into two branches it is as if the matter of the tree extrudes itself at its tip so that it continues its material existence as more than one branch.
There is no single physical or aural technique to accomplish all legato connections, even if they all belong to one of the seven categories listed above. Each individual legato connection often requires a unique approach. The pianist must discover this on a moment to moment basis. To put it in an equivalent way: don’t assume that two legato connections, just because they come one after another, require the same physical technique to achieve the same smoothness in sound connection. We have be infinitely adaptable in the plasticity of our technique. Musically we can think of general ‘cases’ of legato but in the moment to moment act of playing it is often a serious mistake to treat two legato connections as sounding the best if we use the same technical considerations for both.