sforzando

This may have happened to you at some time – it’s happened to many of us: You’re sitting in church (or, for the non-churchy kind, perhaps at a concert), kinda sleepy, and the organ is noodling away… soft tones tweedling, meandering like little mellow beetles through the gardenscape of your mind as your eyelids sink slowly and SFORZ! suddenly the volume of the organ multiplies with a loud crashing chord, your eyelids flip open, your head whips up, your back jerks straight… And then the music eases off again, but you’re awake now, thank you!

Ah, sforzando. It even sounds like a thundering three-chord bar on a massive pipe organ, doesn’t it? It doesn’t look like English, that’s for sure. It’s not sports and not Schwartz; give the average anglophone a name like, say, Sferry or Sfilip and they might not know what to make of it – might even stick an extra vowel sound in between the /s/ and the /f/. And yet /sf/ does exist in English words; no one seems to have trouble with sphere. Why should sforzando require any extra effort?

Well, of course, a sforzando does require extra effort; that’s what it’s about – it’s almost the musical equivalent of a grunt of exertion. Its abbreviation on the musical page is neatly iconic: sfz – like a line of music that might be going along evenly sss, but suddenly you have that f in the middle sticking out abruptly, and after that don’t doubt but your nerves will have a bit of the electric buzz in them z.

The gesture of saying it has a bit of extra air blown out as well: the /sf/ is like what one does to spit out a watermelon seed or a small hair that’s gotten onto one’s tongue; after the tongue recoils momentarily, there’s the /ts/ in the middle, a little crisper; finally it echoes with a more muffled, voiced /ændo/.

You ought to be able to guess where this word comes from, anyway. If for some reason it doesn’t look Italian enough for you, remember that it’s a musical term, and they’re pretty much all Italian: piano, mezzo, forte, allegro, andante, adagio, dal capo, coda, et cetera. And what does it mean in Italian? “Forcing” – the verb sforzare comes from Medieval Latin exfortiare, which, it just happens, is also the source (by way of French) of our noun effort.

But of course effort seems rather prosaic to us, and forcing no more musical (to say nothing of blast or make them jump). Sforzando, to English eyes, carries that lyrical flavour we associate with Italian, and (stereotypes of Italians – and the behaviour of Berlusconi – notwithstanding) seems more elevated, perhaps in some way closer to the divine. Or anyway to some divine awakening, or at least a vaguely spiritual one: whether or not you are associated with an organ-ized religion, the sforz will be with you.

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