Legato: the thread of thought

The legendary conductor Wilhelm Fürtwangler speaks of Legato as if it is one of the holy grails of music.

It is the “greatest goal a conductor can achieve”: the legato melody, the “living, breathing flow.”

As Thomas Hemsley writes in his wonderful book, ‘Singing and Imagination‘, legato is often confused for sostenuto.  He asks why we most often to look to singers for examples of ‘great legato’, as opposed to, for example – a clarinet (no offense to clarinettists!)

So why singers? Indeed, many do equate legato with sostenuto – the act of consistently sustaining a sound from one note to the next. I think the key is that a singer (normally) has a text to project. And with a text comes thoughts and ideas, expressed through words. There’s a natural progression of thought that runs through the text, and a good singer has this ‘thread of thought’ underlying the phrase just as we do – naturally – when speaking to each other. At its best the listener feels as though she herself is being spoken to – directly.  Just as in a conversation with another person, but through the heightened medium of music.

In other words, if music is the language of the soul, it’s through a great ‘legato’ that we might understand it.  Merely hearing, and understanding (i.e. getting meaning) – are two different things; one does not necessarily lead to the other. Surely it is meaning that we’re after. We know it when it happens – we know it because we feel it. You can argue with a thought; you can’t argue with a feeling.

This thread of thought originates in the idea to be expressed; and the idea acts as both the ‘context’ and ‘detail’ which binds the words together with meaning. In music we often call the ‘idea’ a phrase, and musicians talk about phrasing.

One pithy way it’s explained (Hemsley also) is that when ‘one note is irresistibly attracted to the next, THEN you have legato’.

I think this is certainly in the right direction. But it’s not all. The key is surely this ‘thread’ that binds all. The underlying context. Each note points forward – indeed – is irresistibly attracted – to the next, and so on, as the idea is expressed; ultimately it points back to its origin. A good phrase – even an entire movement – feels like ‘one thing’ – a whole. Mozart famously spoke of the incredible sensation of being able to perceive of an entire movement in one moment – as one.

We often assume that we hear music solely retrospectively. We ‘understand’ the meaning of one moment by what has gone before. Yet at the same time, we have expectations, set up by musical precedent, both in the piece itself and its surrounding genre. We as the audience also listen forward.

As a performer, we generate continuing meaning by continually putting our attention on what comes after – all bound by just this ‘thread of thought’ operating in the same way in music as it does in spoken language. In speech the speaker has the microcosm of the idea present before he speaks – words are then spoken like an unravelling tapestry – and it’s the ‘thread of thought’ that connects that all up. Here is legato.

Just as in music as in words; the words don’t need to be joined up (sostenuto) at all – and in fact there can be significant space between them. A good orator has good command of this. Baroque music in its time was indeed likened to good oratory.

That ‘thread’ – the thing we don’t see or hear directly, but feel intuitively – is what makes the speech come alive. Words recited mechanically without this either bore or disappoint us just as music ‘recited’ in this way.

Each note/gesture/phrase is the outcome of both the past and the future – all connected by this thread of thought. The entirety of the idea – whether or not consciously conceived as such – is somehow contained in the beginning, as a tree is to a seed. Notes and/or text are just the unravelling or outgrowth of it.


Conductors often say that it’s ‘what’s between the beats’ that counts. Perhaps a more helpful definition of this might be that the conductor must conduct through the beats, with just this idea-thread. Moreover, using the visible context of the beat, the conductor has the possibility to make this normally hidden thread visible. When looking at Carlos Kleiber at his best (I suggest the 1989 New Years Concert as a great place to start), to me this is exactly what he is doing.

The connection with sostenuto is that the idea is sostenuto. The context is sustained throughout the expression of the idea, just as we talk to each other. In this way, sustaining is critical. But not of the notes themselves. Of the way through.

We do it naturally when we speak. We don’t even think of it. Why not always with music?

I think a good musician – one that ‘speaks’ to us most directly – does just this, intuitively. Sometimes you hear a tendency for a musician to focus directly on the notes themselves (you could call it a kind of note-sport); and while this can lead to a kind of perfection of execution, it is no more than than skin deep, even if layered with gestures intended to make it seem ‘musical’. Some may be fooled with this, but ultimately there is no substitute for sincerity. The playing is somehow lacking the original foundation of music making – the simple urge to communicate.  It’s a shame – for both them and the listener – as they’re missing the mark – really, music comes through notes, not from them.