Decoro, sprezzatura, grazia

...illustrated by comparing different performances of the same piece of music.

© Bradley Lehman, 2000-2001

[Principles] [Examples] [Reception] [Competition and ecstasy] [From beauty to grace]

The principles

Musical performances, speeches, acting, conversation, waiting tables, painting, cooking, or any other type of creative project (even a person's entire way of being) can be assessed by the presence or absence of decoro, sprezzatura, and grazia.


Decoro is basic poise and orderliness, getting the right notes with application of a good technique, being well prepared. It is correct pronunciation and good grammar. It is an understanding of the parts and the whole. It is knowledge of methods of expression. It is decorum, appropriateness. It is unity with the character of the material.


Sprezzatura is a deliberate nonchalance, the illusion that even the most difficult things are easy. A loose, casual delivery, an absence of strain, the ability not to be self-conscious. Anything unessential is disdained. The presentation is so direct that it seems to be improvised, and so natural that it seems it could not go any other way. We see a relaxed whimsy: the performer speaks confidently and comfortably, responding to the audience's presence and rewarding their attention. The performer creates something new in the moment. The audience thinks, "What's the problem? I could do that!"...until they try it. (In this definition of this term sprezzatura, I know I am going somewhat beyond the normal use: the rhythmic flexibility in the performance of early 17th century vocal music. Indulge me! And my thanks go to a careful reader who pointed this out.)


Grazia is a divine grace that shines through, the impression that the performer alone is not doing it, but something is happening through the performer. The performer is necessary but not sufficient. The performer is a catalyst. Grazia cannot be captured, but only allowed to happen. It is the divine sparkle: we are seeing something inevitable and right. The moment is perfect. The elements are in a delicate graceful balance, all essential. Devoted attention is repaid and magnified: subtle details seem infinitely interesting when explored in the imagination.

It is rare that grazia appears unless decoro and sprezzatura are both very strong. Both the decoro and sprezzatura have to be so well in place (as givens, in the background) that there's room for something fresh to come in. If the audience becomes focused on "Is he going to get those notes?" or "Why didn't she practice that part more?", they're not hearing grazia. If they're focused on "Wow, that looks hard!", they're not seeing grazia. When grazia is present, the audience and performer are both caught up in it, giving themselves to the experience: it is bigger than any person. Even if the audience can't identify what it was, they know that something remarkable happened. They might not know that until long after the event has ended.

Decoro without sprezzatura

Some performers or creators focus only on decoro, and don't know anything about sprezzatura or grazia. They slave away in the practice room trying to avoid mistakes, and hope that that's enough. They work hard to put every note or every figure into place. They produce a technically flawless object. Decoro without sprezzatura is laborious and affected, even boring: it seems too studied and can be difficult to understand. It doesn't breathe. It lacks a natural elegance. The hard work is worth something, to be sure, but it comes across as work rather than play.

Think of a skater or gymnast whose routine was technically perfect, but obviously difficult...the performer projected a sense of caution to get everything right, hoping to do as well as it went in practice, but not responding to the current moment. We don't want to see the caution, the concentration, the willful effort. We want to see easy flow, even a graceful irrationality that is more natural than perfect symmetry. The irregularities in a tree make it more interesting and beautiful than a completely regular tree would be...and a tree gracefully changes some of its shape in response to the wind.

A reviewer who cites the performer's "virtuosity" probably was not hearing much beyond a flashy decoro. The point of sprezzatura is to make the difficulties sound inconsequential, not drawing any attention to themselves.

Sprezzatura without decoro

Some performers don't have polished technique, but have a real naturalness, strong sprezzatura. (Think of a child playing a piano piece she knows well. Direct expression.) This is worth a lot to the audience. And it's a valid thing to like. The soulful expression matches the performer's level of involvement and experience. We get a sense that something is happening at this moment that could not happen at any other moment: the performer is going with the flow and speaking directly to the occasion. The performer is taking risks that are paying off, not merely playing it safe. Such a strong sprezzatura makes the performance immediately convincing. Mistakes are forgiveable if they are the natural result of taking risks. A wrong accent is forgiveable if the performer makes up for it in obvious commitment.

At the same time, though, a lack of decoro can be distracting. If words are mispronounced, or if the performer seems not fully aware of the meaning of the material in other ways, our attention is diverted. We become too aware that the performance is artificial: it seems insincere or inadequately prepared. Does the performer care enough about the material to have worked on it? Why didn't the performer learn the language well enough to have picked up the right accent? Why didn't the performer choose material more in line with his/her abilities? Mistakes are annoying if it seems the performer has no focus, or inadequate skill. Enthusiasm is necessary but not sufficient.

Some introductory sources for good decoro are here.


Of course, not every piece of music responds to the same approach; all are different. It varies from section to section, piece to piece, performance to performance. The performer must figure out how much to interpret the music at each particular moment. The performer responds to the room, the audience, the instrument, any new analytical insights or whims, his/her own feelings, and any other circumstances that make the moment what it is. The performer needs a range of expressive tools that can be called upon instantly as needed, confident that the one chosen in the moment will work. That is the risk of the sprezzatura, leading to grazia when the moment is going perfectly.

Musical examples

Here are six performances of the same composition. I believe they illustrate different amounts of sprezzatura and grazia. Most of them are quite good at the decoro, since these are professional recordings.

A slow movement is one of the best places to observe these principles (or their lack!), since slow music is some of the most difficult to perform well. If the notes are relatively easy to play accurately, we see what the performer is able to give beyond the delivery of the notes...if anything.

The piece is Maurice Ravel's piano trio, third movement (Passacaille), and each excerpt is 3'30" in duration. A passacaille is a slow, often solemn dance in triple time.

I present these performances in my order of preference, going from the least satisfactory to the best. My comments show why I give such an assessment. Of course, other listeners may hear these differently and perhaps prefer a different one. But I believe that these qualities of sprezzatura and grazia are objective enough that they can be perceived by almost anyone.

The files to download are mp3's sampled at 64K/sec: 1642K each. You will probably want to download all of them first, then listen to them in direct comparisons.

(February 2002: the links to sound files are broken as the hosting service went away. The sound files are available by request: send e-mail to -- sorry for the inconvenience!)


[Listen...] Deadly slow, lugubrious. The performers obviously feel the tempo in six rather than in three. They place every note carefully into its place, as a series of pretty notes. The phrasing never shows much direction. The tempo is steady, but it seems artificially steady, as if they are deliberately making it easy for the engineer to edit a technically perfect product. The performers "love each note to death," rather than letting the notes take their natural course. Hardly any sprezzatura here: the overall effect is studied, not graceful. There is some sense of spaciousness that is nice, and a bit of grazia. But it sounds as if they don't understand the music (low decoro), else they'd be able to make something more of the phrases and feel the music in three.


[Listen...] It starts well in the piano. But when the string players come in, everybody rushes. They are impatient. The carefully calculated vibrato effects draw attention to themselves, and to each note. The phrasing has decent direction, but seems pushed rather than inevitable. The performers are making the music happen, rather than letting it happen. Good decoro but not much sprezzatura. We're constantly aware of the performers at the expense of hearing the composition (or anything hiding behind the composition): not much grazia.


[Listen...] An easier flow than #5. But the cellist's crescendo seems studied and artificial. When the violin enters, he and the pianist both rush the tempo. These performers project the long phrases well. But I still get a sense that they are also focused too much on individual notes, fitting them into a cerebral plan. Good decoro, and a bit of sprezzatura. They are more selfless than #5, so that helps the grazia, but it doesn't really take off: it would need more flow above the cerebral analysis.


[Listen...] Every note has personality. The tempo is faster (at the edge of being too fast). Everything seems fairly easy and songful, then impassioned: a nice sense of drama. But it's perhaps too much! The performers obviously know why every note is there, and they play those notes and phrases well (excellent decoro). There is good sprezzatura, too, a direct expression and supreme confidence. The performers and the audience are certainly engaged in the proceedings: it's a blockbuster experience. But the music isn't quite playing itself: we can hear that the performers are making it happen through their strong personalities. That is a pleasing end in itself, but it isn't everything that could happen. The intensity is there because of the performers rather than coming through the performers.


[Listen...] Here comes the sprezzatura. Things seem so much more natural and direct than with the previous performances. The music flows in an easy three. The intensity surges and is varied, growing directly out of the piece rather than being something the performers have added. The decoro is so well in the background that it doesn't draw any attention (except that the string players' vibratos are very different from one another in the first section). Grazia is starting to happen here: the music has a life of its own, and it's possible to hear something coming through the music. How could it be better?


[Listen...] This is how it can be better. This has everything #2 has, but also a space, an aura, a complete rightness. We don't even think about what the performers are doing, the music is just coming to us directly. In its economy and simplicity, this is the type of playing that brings goosebumps and tears. It has wistfulness, it has poised grace, it has passion, and those things happen seemingly by themselves. The listener picks them up and adds to them internally. This performance "has us at 'Hello'..." (as they say in Jerry Maguire). That is grazia.


What is the typical outcome of these performances?

The type of playing in #6 is OK. The notes are in place. It is even thought-provoking as an alternative way of hearing the music. It gets all kinds of reactions, from perplexity to boredom to polite applause to standing ovations.

The type of playing in #5 and #4 is pleasing. Nothing goes terribly wrong, and we hear a nice (if somewhat generic) piece of classical music. It doesn't grab us, but some people assume this is all there is to classical music, a pretty sound played with decent balance and fluency. It gets polite to warm applause.

The type of playing in #3 is impressive. It wows us with its obvious intensity and commitment, its showmanship. Aren't the performers great? This type of performance gets standing ovations.

The type of playing in #2 is wonderful. We are aware of how well the music is composed. The performers are selfless enough that the music is given primacy. It gets polite to warm applause from the public, while connoisseurs rave about it. The public probably wanted to be more intensely and immediately entertained.

The type of playing in #1 is divine. We hear thoughts and emotions and balance coming through the performers, even coming through the music. We don't think of how great the composition is, or how well the performers are doing. We are transported somewhere else. We experience something new inside ourselves. The music shows us something else happening beyond itself. There might be no applause if the audience is sitting there pensive or in tears, and if the performers sustain the mood past the last note of the piece. The applause wouldn't belong to anybody in the room, anyway. The public is confused. Was it good or not? Such a level of performance is uncommon, and there is no customary way of dealing with it.

Why not aim for sprezzatura and grazia all the time?

If strong sprezzatura and grazia are such noble and uncommon goals, should a performer or other creator try to attain them all the time? Probably not!

Like any other type of intimacy, grazia is not always welcome. A listener may not want that intensity that requires participation or attention. The listener may not want to be transported at that moment: swept away, out of control of emotions or thoughts. I can listen to recording #1 only when I have some energy to devote to it; when I want a more mundane experience, or just some music for the background, I choose something else. Some other listeners may not want music to do that to them at all, to make them uncomfortable: the listener loses control. Sometimes a client or patron wants to be merely served, not touched or challenged.

It is reasonable to fear grazia. If a fine piece of pottery has grazia to it, being stunningly well-made, elegant, and one-of-a-kind, the buyer is afraid to put it on the table: it might break and be lost. It becomes more precious as a piece for contemplation than a piece for daily use. If a poem makes the reader weep or changes the reader's life in some other way, the reader has lost control. If a film shakes the viewer's soul, it is difficult to watch.

Sprezzatura is not always welcome either. In some situations it is a valid goal to impress someone with outstanding decoro and have the difficulty thoroughly appreciated. If something looks too easy, it might lose some value. Sprezzatura gives a less obvious type of high quality to something than decoro does. Sprezzatura pleases the connoisseurs more than grabbing the attention of the general public. If one needs more widespread attention, the sprezzatura has to be toned down.

If the primary goal is to sell large quantities of something, a facade of terrific decoro is paramount. Everything else is (unfortunately!) much less important. Great decoro gets the casual buyer and the impulse buyer to part with their money. The packaging and the marketing hype sell the product; then the other qualities determine if the product gives years of good use.

Therefore, a focus on sprezzatura and grazia is perhaps best for those who don't have to "make a living at it." They help the starving artist to starve.

Competition and ecstasy

The following excerpts are from an article by Glenn Gould, High Fidelity, December 1966: "We who are about to be disqualified salute you!" He is reviewing a violin competition. I believe they illustrate another awareness of decoro/sprezzatura/grazia, though without using those terms.

(...) For these ears, the most satisfying, stimulating, and individualistic talent was consigned, not surprisingly, to fourth place. The name, Jean-Jacques Kantorow--and I urge you to keep it in mind. One of two French contestants to attain the finals, Kantorow made a unique experience of the Brahms Concerto--approaching it through an extraordinary amalgam of deliberation and inventive freedom. (...) [S]o assured was Kantorow's architectural scheme that he was able to invest even the most funereal moments with the sort of stylistic diversions which seldom endear contestants to jurors. Sometimes he was heard to drop nonchalantly beneath the orchestra as, in much earlier repertoire and on other instruments, a continuo player might do. The first movement's cadenza was delivered as an interior monologue with phrases casually thrown away like asides in a soliloquy--something no self-respecting graduate of the Moscow Conservatory would risk. (...)

In the finale, Kantorow isolated the motives of the opening theme, imposing a series of what at least seemed like unpremeditated apostrophes, and produced thereby an effect of such irresistable buoyancy and hasteless momentum that the orchestra, which, to a sideman, had until then appeared determined to unhorse him, found themselves harnessed to the contagious spirit of his reading and joined with him in a devilish stretch-drive for the coda. On the basis of this performance I would judge Kantorow a spectacular talent, the most prodigiously original violinist I have heard in this generation.

Prodigality may indeed be courted in the competitive quest, but originality must at all costs be discouraged. It is surely one of the considerable ironies of the contemporary musical scene that these gatherings of the best young talent from each continent ignore the ethnographic revelations implicit in their regional distinctiveness in the interest of preserving a consensus of mediocrity--a mean line of temperamental indifference. If the future is kind to Jean-Jacques Kantorow, it will be precisely because of those special qualities which stamped him a loser (or, more accurately, a lesser winner) at Montreal.

It is sometimes argued that without the competitive frenzy consensus engenders, the aspirants would fail in the perception of their own potential. But I suspect that what happens, rather, is that because of consensus the observant contestant--and no other kind turns up a winner--becomes uncomfortably aware of the potential of his fellows, becomes conscious of all the misguided traditions which constitute "style" in musical performance, his initiative blunted by the supreme fallacy that performance is essentially a repetitive act, and this precisely at that time in his life when a muted response to the world outside and sharpest attention to the vibrations of the inner ear could most propitiously shape and characterize his art. (...) Most frequently, (...) competitions merely befriend the artist whose vision, though perceptive, falls short of the ecstatic, whose merits, though unexceptionable, fail to attain the transcendental. (...)

It would be foolish to discriminate against a level of competence without which our musical life would be the poorer. But while it is entirely proper to speak of competent electricians and plumbers, and hazardous--if not indeed in contravention of civic maintenance bylaws--to bargain for ecstatic ones, the notion of ecstasy as the only proper quest for the artist assumes competence as an inclusive component. The menace of the competitive idea is that through its emphasis upon consensus, it extracts that mean, indisputable, readily certifiable core of competence and leaves its eager, ill-advised suppliants forever stunted, victims of a spiritual lobotomy.

(Incidentally, in recording #1 above, the violinist is Kantorow....)

From beauty to grace

These notes are from the Naïve CD catalogue 2000, part of a short essay by Jordi Savall :

A song or instrumental piece will never succeed unless you try to express the beauty of the work, beauty which is inherent in respect for the composer and a faithful rendering, but tempered by a certain freedom on the part of the performer. And freedom is a sine qua non for music to live again. Of course, each era had its own style. But over and beyond beauty, as La Fontaine expressed it so well, there is grace. And it is in all humility that I search for grace. Defining it is no easy task, for grace is by its very essence indefinable. At best I could liken it to certain harmonies, to the sense of equilibrium that is obtained when space is correctly filled, to the proof you have when something is right and emotions ring true and everything falls into place. Grace defines itself. It cannot be sought (whereas beauty can!). Perhaps that is grace: beauty taken over by the power of the spirit.

See also:

  • basic elements of decoro in Baroque music (expression, keyboard fingering, etc.)
  • this essay about preparation and performance
  • listen to some of my own harpsichord and organ performances
  • my review of Zhu Xiao-Mei's recording of the Goldberg Variations on piano: showing many of the things I feel are important in musical performance

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