smorzando

People who read sheet music are likely familiar with sforzando, the dynamic instruction usually marked on the page with sfz, which might look like a logo for some luxury item but to me resembles the mark and sound made when swatting or stifling a small insect – not an inapposite impression, since a sforzando is a sudden bit of loudness, a thing that could make the audience jump.

Well, this is not that. There is only one letter of difference in the word, but smorzando is more of a smothering counterpart to the firework of the sforzando.

The difference starts in what you see on the page. It’s not typically written out in full in a score, but it’s also not written as smz. Nope, it’s on the page as smorz. So the first thing you think is likely along the lines of “S’mores! Oh yes!” Ah, toasted marshmallows and melting chocolate between graham crackers. Things are going to get mighty gooey mighty quick around here! And, to reinforce that, there’s a s’mores-themed breakfast cereal called… oh, yes it is… Smorz. Imagine eating a whole box of those! Smorz stupebit indeed!

But there’s our cue. Just as the actual line that I just punned on from the requiem is mors stupebit, “death will be stunned,” the morz in smorzando refers to dying. Well, in this case, not dying the death of deaths, but dying away. S’mores may be moreish, but smorzando is decidedly lessish. Here’s your musical lesson: smorz means ‘lessen’. Or, more precisely, smorzando means ‘extinguishing’. The sound dies away, getting fainter and slower.

You can almost see it, can’t you? Someone smothering a fire with a wet blanket: smorz, smorz, smorz. (It helps to remember that in Italian, and in this loan from Italian, the z is [ts]. So it’s “smorts.” Or, to be more in line with the Italian pronunciation, “zmorts.”) If a smorzando is well accomplished, you may be snoring by the end, your wakefulness also extinguished (until the person next to you swats you after one of your snorts).

Know what else is extinguished? The beginning of the word. Have you noticed how Italian has an assortment of words that begin with s followed by another consonant that we wouldn’t put s before in English? Aside from sforzando you may (or may not) recognize sbarro, perhaps sbaglio, sfortunato, sdraiarsi, sdegnare, sfogato, sfumato, sveglia, svolgere, or any of quite a few others. What many of these have in common with smorzando is that the s is what’s left of a prefix that used to have a full syllable – often dis. The di has faded away.

In some cases this dis is a negator; in others, it’s an intensifier. In the case of smorzando it intensifies or supports. Smorzando is the present participle of smorzare, which comes from dis and morzare, which is related to morire, which means ‘die’. It’s more closely related to a causative form – i.e., ‘cause to die’. So ‘extinguish’. ‘Snuff out’. ‘Smother’. ‘Force to plotz’.

Out, out, brief candle. You flare up with a sfz and then, over your embers, we cook s’mores (obviously this is a biiiig candle) as you die away and are ultimately extinguished… deliciously, of course: it’s all about the musical effect, the beautiful slow deliquium.

One response to “smorzando

  1. You mentioned “sfumato” which in painting is a “dying away” of one color into another, just as smorzando is is dying away of sound into silence.
    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sfumato

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