Word: ‘Crescendo’

(One in an occasional series)

Let us now consider an oft-misused and misunderstood word: Crescendo. Musicians get it, of course, but others don’t. Take this recent example:

“After seven years of political fireworks over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a vote on the Senate’s bill to repeal and replace key elements of the law could be the prelude to a grand finale – or at least a crescendo – this week.” — Anne Phelps, Health Care Current, June 27, 2017.

Or this, a few years ago, in The Los Angeles Times:

“Rumors about the impending exit have swirled for months, reaching a crescendo in recent days.”

A musician will cringe when reading either of these examples. Some music critics, especially in general circulation publications, try to avoid using technical terms in their writing. But my own feeling was always that if the term was in Webster’s (and not just a music dictionary) then it was fair to use it. Crescendo is in Webster’s and it seemed easy enough for most readers to understand anyway.

Not so fast. Along comes Kingsley Amis. In his “The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage,” he has this typically curmudgeonly thing to say on the word:

“Once a musical term meaning ‘(passage played) with increasing volume’ and a derived figurative term meaning ‘progress towards a climax’. For many years now taken to be a fancy synonym for ‘climax’ as in ‘the gunfire reached a crescendo’ or ‘the chorus of vilification rose to a crescendo’ and rendered useable only by the unwary or vulgar. Outside of a strictly musical context, that is.”

Yes. The important distinction to remember is that a crescendo is not a particular point in a musical composition — such as the climax — but a process therein, i.e. a process of getting louder. The musical marking for it is quite simple and illustrative, consisting of an elongated “lesser than” sign (as used in mathematics) placed directly under the passage for which the composer wants a gradual (or fairly sudden, but never instantaneous) increase in volume. A crescendo sign varies in length, depending upon the length of the crescendo desired.

The definition, however, is complicated, I now see, by Webster’s. The second definition of the word in my old collegiate edition says it’s synonymous with “climax,” which is entirely wrong from a musical point of view.

The longest crescendo in music is probably Ravel’s “Bolero,” which is, in fact, one long crescendo. Another very long crescendo occurs in the first movement of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. I’m not sure how long it is, exactly, but it’s something around 10 minutes. “Rossini crescendos” are much shorter but quite effective. The one in the Overture to “La Cenerentola” is a particular delight. — TIMOTHY MANGAN

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