A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Legato

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LEGATO (Ital., sometimes written ligato; Ger. gebunden; Fr. lié), 'connected'; the sound of each note of a phrase being sustained until the next is heard. In singing, a legato passage is vocalised upon a single vowel, on stringed instruments it is played by a single stroke of the bow, and on the pianoforte or organ by keeping each finger upon its key until the exact moment of striking the next. On wind instruments with holes or keys, a legato passage is played in one breath, the notes being produced by opening or stopping the holes; but a wind instrument on which the different sounds are produced by the action of the lips alone, as the horn, trumpet, etc., is incapable of making a true legato, except in the rare cases in which one of the notes of the phrase is produced by stopping the bell of the instrument with the hand, as in the following example from the Scherzo of Beethoven's 7th Symphony—

{ \time 3/4 \tempo \markup { \italic \smaller Horn. } \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical \repeat unfold 2 { g2\( ~ g8 fis | g4\) r4 r | } }

The sign of legato is a curved line drawn above or beneath the notes. In music for wind or stringed instruments the curve covers as many notes as are to be played with a single breath, or a single stroke of the bow; thus—

Beethoven. Symphony No. 5.

{ \time 3/8 \key aes \major \tempo \markup { \italic \smaller Flute. } \relative a' { r8 r aes16\( d | f8\) f16\( ees d f | aes8\) aes16\( g f aes | c8\) c16\( bes aes g\) | } }

Beethoven. Sympony No. 9.

{ \time 4/4 \key b \minor \tempo \markup { \italic \smaller "Celli & Bassi." } \clef bass fis2( g4 a) | a( g fis e) | d2( e4 fis) | fis4.( e8) e2 | }

In vocal music the same sign is often used, as in Handel's chorus, 'And he shall purify,' but it is not necessary, since the composer can always ensure a legato by giving a single syllable to the whole passage, and it is in fact frequently omitted, as in the air 'Every valley.'

In pianoforte music, all passages which are without any mark are played legato, inasmuch as the notes are not detached; the curved line is therefore used more for the sake of giving a finished appearance to the passage than from any practical necessity. Nevertheless, passages are sometimes met with in which it appears to have a special significance, and to indicate a particularly smooth manner of playing, the keys being struck less sharply than usual, and with slightly increased pressure. Such a passage occurs in the Allegro of Beethoven's Sonata in A♭, op. 26, in which the quavers alone are marked legato, the semiquavers being left without any mark, thus—

{ \time 2/4 \key aes \major << \partial 4 \relative c' { c16 c' e, c' | g c b c bes c g c | aes c f, c' aes'8( f | d bes c d | ees g) }
\new Staff { \clef bass \key aes \major \relative b { bes8( g | e c d e | f aes) bes,16 bes' d, bes' | f bes a bes aes bes f bes | g bes ees, bes' } } >> }

The same plan is followed on each recurrence of the phrase throughout the movement, and since this regularity can scarcely have been accidental, it appears to indicate a corresponding variety of touch.

Instead of the sign, the word legato is sometimes written under the passage, as in Beethoven's Bagatelle, Op. 119, No. 8, or Variation No. 30 of Op. 120. When the word is employed it generally refers to the character of the whole movement rather than to a single passage.

In playing legato passages wholly or partly founded upon broken chords, some masters have taught that the principal notes of the harmony should be sustained a little longer than their written length. Thus Hummel, in his Pianoforte School, gives the following passages (and many others) with the intimation that the notes marked with an asterisk are to be sustained somewhat longer than written, 'on account of the better connexion'—

{ \time 4/4 \relative e' { <e c'>4 a16 g^"*" c, bes' a^"*" d, c' b^"*" e, d' c^"*" c, | s } }
etc.
{ \time 4/4 \relative c' { c16 a^"*" f' e d bes^"*" g' f e c^"*" a' g f d^"*" bes' a | s } }
etc.

This method of playing passages, which is sometimes called legatissimo, would doubtless add to the richness of the effect, especially upon the light-toned pianofortes of Hummel's day, but it is not necessary on modern instruments, the tone of which is so much fuller. Nevertheless it is sometimes of service, particularly in certain passages by Chopin, which without it are apt to sound thin. In Klindworth's new edition of Chopin the editor has added a second stem, indicating a greater value, to such notes as require sustaining, and a comparison of his version with the original edition will at once show the intended effect; for example—

Chopin, Valse, Op. 64, No. 2, Original Edition.

{ \time 3/4 \key e \major \partial 4 \relative g' { gis4 | gis'8( a gis fis dis gis,) | fis'( gis fis e cis gis) | e'( fis e dis bis fis) | dis'( e dis cis a e) | } }

Ditto., Klindworth Edition

{ \time 3/4 \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \key e \major \partial 4 \relative g' { << { \tieDown gis4 ~ gis s4. \once \override Stem #'stencil = ##f gis8 ~ gis4 s4. \once \override Stem #'stencil = ##f gis8 ~ gis4 s4. \once \override Stem #'stencil = ##f fis8 ~ fis4 } \\ { s4 | gis'8 a gis fis dis gis, | fis' gis fis e cis gis | e' fis e dis bis fis | dis' e dis cis a e | } >> } }

An example of legatissimo touch, in which the notes are written of their full value, may be found in No. 5, Bk. ii. of Cramer's Studies.

The opposite of legato is staccato— detached [see Staccato], but there is an intermediate touch between legato and staccato, in which the notes, though not connected, are separated by a barely perceptible break. When this effect is intended the passage is marked non legato. An example occurs in the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, in the passage immediately following the first appearance of the short Adagio phrase.

[ F. T. ]