I use dynamics and articulations quite liberally, but I generally do not go to the extreme like Tchaikovsky or George Crumb, who use multiple fortes and pianos (fortisisisisisimos and pianisisisisisimos). I usually limit myself to three f 's and three p's at both extremes.
Without question, the dynamic I obsess over the most is mezzo-piano, a delicate herb of a dynamic. Used sparingly, it is simply lovely; overused, it can leave a distinctly bitter aftertaste.
Students love mp: you can always tell a student work by how many mp's there are, sprinkled throughout the score. It is a dynamic that is neither here nor there, and claims no real allegiance to either loud or soft, although it implies that it is the softer of the two mezzos. I think some composers—particularly young ones—like mezzo-piano because it seems ambiguous, and makes them feel sensitive, subtle and complicated. If the players get it wrong, they can say, "no, it should be a little softer, can't you hear the mf in the flutes?" Or "no, you idiot... a little louder... it's not like I wrote pianissimo."
You can actually smell the anxiety in a room full of professional musicians when asked to play a true mezzo-piano. It is a dynamic that actually incites stress—a quiet, restrained stress. I think some composers think they are being cool when they use them liberally, but really, they are just being pretentious and difficult. Really then, mezzo-piano is the dynamic equivalent of pretension.
Out of curiosity, I recently flipped through a bunch of "classic" scores to seen how many mp's I could find. In three of Debussy's major orchestral works—Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Nocturnes and La Mer—I found three. In Mahler's Symphony No. 9, I only found a few. Two highly sensitive, colorful composers, yet they barely use mezzo-piano, at least in these works.
Then I opened up Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps—a work just bursting with mezzo-pianos. I haven't taken a close work at works by other Russian composers from that period, or at Second Viennese School works, but I will bet there are a lot of mp's in those works as well.
So what does this mean? I think Le Sacre du Printemps was a seminal work that started the trend. It is a work that is relentlessly revered and studied intensely in schools. Once composers got permission from Stravinsky—and later, from a few French composers—this extra level of dynamic shading became normal. But just because Stravinsky did it, does that make it right? How did he do it? I think part of the problem is that some composers don't use this dynamic correctly.
On that note, and with continued tongue-in-cheek, I now present a brief, little draft of the official, one and only Mezzo-Piano Manifesto:
- Never use mp as a tutti starting dynamic. However, mp may be used as a terminal dynamic.
- If there is nothing else happening, opt for piano or mezzo-forte.
- Mezzo-piano is appropriate when two or more instruments are playing together and you need tiered dynamics.
- Never use mezzo-piano for non-pitched percussion instruments that do not have dynamic contrast, for example, a vibraslap.
- Never use mp for very high flutes or trumpets, or Alphorn.
Do we really need two mezzo dynamics? Are there other alternatives? Sure—we can use p (molto) or mf (poco), but these options do not elicit that special mezzo-piano pain that we all love. Ultimately, I think we should have one, all-purpose middle dynamic, and just call it mezzo. But, you see, in our hyper-detailed world, just the mere thought of less makes us feel like we are missing something.
Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that mp is worthless, just poorly used. I say we all unite and rid the world of useless mp's, and give poor little piano a leg up.
Any additions or ideas? Let me know your thoughts, amendments additions and what have you, and I'll post an updated version on a future date.