A Basic Guide to German Markings in Classical Music

Oh, Mahler, how I love thee.
Thy notes make mine ears perk
and mine skin appear bumped
as a plucked chicken.

But, why must thee
mark thy parts in German?
Are you not aware that mine eyes
read those notes in Italian? Or English?
Spare me the sorrow of not knowing
the intent of your German words.

Gustav Mahler is a late Romantic-era composer who, along with Strauss, Wagner and several other famous composers, didn’t limit his music notation to Italian. With titles such as “Das Lied Von Der Erde,” “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and “Götterdämmerung,” it is obvious these composers stayed loyal to their native German-speaking tongues.

For non-German-speaking musicians, the language barrier creates an extra hurdle to bringing this music to life. Every word, note and symbol is a hint from the composer on how a piece should sound. So, if you have a bad habit of glossing over the words you don’t understand, you are essentially missing elements of a composer’s musical instructions.

This bad habit extends beyond beginner and intermediate players. When I was learning a Mahler audition excerpt, my teacher — a professional orchestra member — told me that many good players actually go to professional auditions not knowing the German, which puts them at a huge disadvantage. I was shocked. Who wouldn’t want to totally rock their performance or audition? Not me!

So, let’s start demystifying the German. Here is a three-step process for tackling the unknown German in your music. Mahler Symphony No. 9 from rehearsal 12-13 is a common orchestra audition excerpt, so we’ll use it to illustrate the process.

1. Make a List, Check it Twice, and Look Up the Translations

The first step is to scan the music for any unfamiliar words or symbols. The top of the page, above the staff and below the staff are places where words and symbols may appear. Dynamic, tempo and style markings may still be in Italian. If any of these words are still unfamiliar, German or not, add them to the list. Each word and symbol is part of the musical direction the composer has laid out, so resist the urge to skip over any words or symbols that you don’t fully understand.

After you have your list, look up the meaning of each word, phrase, or symbol. The age of the internet has spoiled us on this one. Can you believe people actually used to pick up a heavy book to find translations? While there are still great reference books to use, a simple Google search can sometimes be the quickest and easiest way of obtaining this information. Beware: Sometimes, words or phrases may have more than one meaning depending on context. So, if using an internet search as your source of information, make sure you get the musical meaning. Typing “musical meaning,” for example, after the keyword word can make the process faster.

Mahler – Symphony No. 9 in D Major

For this excerpt, I have made a list of all German words in the order they appear in the music. Duplicate terms have been omitted.

German Notation English Meaning
Leidènschaftlich Passionate/Passionately
G-Saite G string
Langsamer Slower
Nicht eilen Don’t rush
Stets mit höchster Kraft Always with maximum strength/power
Sehr mäßigend Very moderate
Schon langsam Nice and slow
D-Saite D string

2. Put Pencil to Paper

Just like tying a red string around a finger or sticking a Post-it, it is important to have a method of remembering musical terms; for musicians, this system is marking the music.

Marking parts

Mark any musical part all starts with a pencil. Pen is a giant no-no, just like in math. This is because there will inevitably be times when changes need to be made to markings. Cross-outs can make the page confusing. It can also make music difficult to read quickly when the conductor is taking that prestissimo — translated as “very, very fast” — seriously. The ability to erase can be priceless, so always keep a good No. 2.

With pencil in hand, go for clarity and write with penmanship that’s readable. Marking parts sometimes requires very small writing. Writing in rehearsals means writing on a music stand, and working fast can turn beautiful penmanship into chicken scratch. These are reasons well-intentioned markings become mystery smudges when you need to remember them most. In the end, marking the part becomes pointless if you can’t read them. So, if it’s not clear, erase and write it again.

The physical location of the markings should also be deliberately chosen with clarity in mind. In our Mahler example, if “slower” was written under the staff, it could be mistaken as the translation for “sehr” instead of “langsamer.” The music would then be understood to begin to be played slower a line too late. With this said, markings should be written in a place that makes it easy to associate the word with the meaning. I have written the translations in our example above, below, or next to the German words, depending on what space allowed.

Marking parts

3. Apply the Contextual Meaning

All the translations are now written in the part. But, what is this music really supposed to sound like? How slow is the langsamer? Are the accents more vibrato accents or bow accents? What are the possible nuances of the phrasing? These types of questions apply to the last step of putting the notation into a musical context.

Listen to recordings. Whether on YouTube, CD, live concert, vinyl or any other medium, it is important to listen and create a mental recording of the piece. There may be variations of interpretations from recording to recording, but listening gives a general picture.

It is also helpful to get a background on the piece. This can be done through reading about the composer and story behind the piece.

“Mahler was thinking about death when he composed the Ninth,” wrote John Magnum of the LA Philharmonic. And Conductor Michael Lewanski explained further, “The development section begins with a reminder of the heart-beat motif and spends some time mired in bitterness and stasis. Slowly the violins return us to D major.” Knowing the dark subject matter of the piece will help any musician understand and interpret the piece accordingly.

There are a lot of traditions with the sound, with the rubato, not that have to be copied exactly, but at least should be understood and digested a little.”

Since much of classical music is passed on from teacher to student, it is a good idea to ask your teacher questions. When I first played this excerpt, I was studying it under the direction of Nathan Cole, assistant concertmaster of the LA Philharmonic.

“There are a lot of traditions with the sound, with the rubato, not that have to be copied exactly, but at least should be understood and digested a little,” Cole said about this excerpt. “It is hard to play this music literally as it is off the page and expect to make a good impression. What these excerpts have in common is they have a gutsy sound and strong rhythm. The expression is very outward. These are not the most subtle excerpts. But you do need a strong pulse.”

He went on with more specifics and this insight was priceless to my ability to play the piece. Most teachers are open to students bringing orchestra and audition materials into lessons, so remember that your teacher is a good resource.

Once all this is preparation is done, it’s time to practice, polish and perfect. Refine it to your heart’s content and celebrate your progress. When you’re ready, apply this process to the rest of Mahler No. 9 or any other piece with mystery words and symbols.

O, Mahler, how I love thee.
Mine eyes now sees thy words
And knows no mystery.

After study of thy work,
And practice with mine heart,
I will make thou not want to
Roll in thy grave.