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The employment in vocal or instrumental music of the notes of a chord in succession instead of simultaneously; also, in pianoforte music, the breaking or spreading of a chord, either upwards or downwards.

The introduction of the arpeggio as an accompaniment to a melody marks an important epoch in the history of pianoforte music. It is said to have been invented about 1730 by Alberti, a Venetian amateur musician, in whose ‘VII Sonate per Cembalo’ are found the earliest signs of emancipation from the contrapuntal form of accompaniment exclusively used up to that time. The simple kind of arpeggio employed by him, which is still known as the ‘Ablerti bass’ has since become fully developed, not alone as accompaniment, but also as an essential part of the most brilliant instrumental passages of modern music.


Arpeggio passages such as those alluded to are almost invariably written out in full, but the simple spreading of the notes of a chord (in contradistinction to concento, the sounding of all the notes together) is usually indicated by certain signs. According to Turk (‘Clavierschule’) the signs for the arpeggio, beginning with the lowest note, are as below in 2., those for the descending arpeggio as in 3. The latter is however only met with in old music; the downward arpeggio, which is but rarely employed in modern music, being now always written in full.


The arpeggio in modern music is usually indicated as in 4., and occasionally (as for instance in some of Hummul’s compositions) by a stroke across the chord as in 5. This is however incorrect, as it may easily be mistaken for the combination of arpeggio with Acciaccatura, which, according to Emanuel Bach, is to be written and played as in 6 below.


In the arpeggio as above, the notes when once sounded are all sustained to the full value of the chord, with the exception only of the foreign note (the acciaccatura) in 6 above. Sometimes, however, certain notes are required to be held while the others are released; in this case the chord is written as in 7 below.


The arpeggio should, according to the best authorities, begin at the moment due to the chord, whether it is indicated by the sign or by small notes, and there can be no doubt that the effect of a chord is weakened and often spoilt by being begun before its time, as in the bad habit of many inexperienced players. Thus the commencement of Mozart’s Sonata in C, 8 below, should be played as in 9 below, and not as in 10 below.


Nevertheless it appears to the writer that there are cases in modern music in which it is advisable to break the rule and allow the last note of the arpeggio to fall upon the beat, as for instance in Mendelssohn’s ‘Lieder ohne Worte,’ Book v. No. 1, where the same note often serves as the last note of an arpeggio and at the same time as an essential note of the melody, and on that account will not bear the delay which would arise if the arpeggio were played according to rule 11 below, which could scarcely be played as in 12 below.


In music of the time of Bach a sequence of chords is sometimes met with bearing the word ‘arpeggio’; in this case the order of breaking the chord, and even the number of times the same chord may be broken, is left to the taste of the performer, as in Bach’s ‘Sonata for Pianoforte and Violin,’ No. 2 in 13 below, which is usually played as in 14 below.


Sometimes the arpeggio of the first chord of a sequence is written out in full, as an indication to the player of the rate of movement to be applied to the whole passage. This is the case in Bach’s ‘Fantasia Cromatica’ in 15 below, which is intended to be played as in 16 below. Such indications, however, need not always be strictly followed, and indeed Mendelssohn, speaking of the passage quoted, says in a letter to his sister: ‘I take the liberty to play them (the arpeggios) with every possible crescendo and piano and ff., with pedal as a matter of course, and the bass notes doubled as well… N.B. – Each chord is broken twice, and later on only once, as it happens.’ In the same letter he gives as an illustration the passage as in 17 below.


When an appoggiatura is applied to an arpeggio chord, it takes its place as one of the notes of the arpeggio, and occasions a delay of the particular note to which it belongs equal to the time required for its performance, whether it be long or short.


Chords are occasionally met with (especially in Haydn’s pianoforte sonatas) which are partly arpeggio, one hand having to spread the chord while the other plays the notes all together; the correct rendering of such chords is as follows:


Another instance, where it is of great importance to observe the difference between the arpeggio and the plain chord, is in Brahm’s intermezzo in E, op. 116, No. 4.

A distinction is, or ought to be, made between the long arpeggio mark joining both staves, and a separate arpeggio mark for each stave.


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