A note on classical music terms and usage

“Rumors about the impending exit have swirled for months, reaching a crescendo in recent days.” – Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2013.

Awhile back I commented on music critic Scott Cantrell’s non-use of the word “crescendo,” his contention being that the word is too technical for a general circulation newspaper. I disagreed, asserting that it’s a perfectly good word, found in Webster’s no less, and an easy concept to understand.

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 “crescendo”:

“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, 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 I think. “Rossini crescendos” are much shorter but quite effective. The one in the Overture to “La Cenerentola” is particularly delicious.

Premiere and premier

I see these two words misused constantly.

“Premiere” is a noun. Webster’s defines it as “a first performance or exhibition.” Premiere can also be a verb, but more on that in a sec.

“Premier” is an adjective! Webster’s: “first in position, rank or importance.”

Thus, you can have the premier conductor of Mahler giving the premiere of a newly discovered work by the composer.

Premiere is often, and apparently correctly, used as a verb, as in “the symphony orchestra premiered a new work by Michael Daugherty.” But premiere wasn’t always accepted as a verb. I had a professor in college, the musicologist Piero Weiss, an astounding language expert, who would not allow the use of premiere as a verb, and in fact practically blew a gasket when I did. To this day, I do not like to use premiere as a verb, and instead would write the sentence above as “the symphony orchestra gave the premiere of a new work by Michael Daugherty.”

By the way, I also think that ensembles that play symphonies are best referred to as orchestras, or symphony orchestras, rather than symphonies. It’s more elegant, and it avoids confusing the reader. Philharmonic is also an adjective, but a lost cause. I refer to the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic with impunity, though technically both those groups should properly have the word “Orchestra” after Philharmonic.

Note: Yes, premier can be a noun when you are referring to a prime minister, as in Premier Khrushchev.

Hi-Yo, Silver!

A few years ago, in a couple of reviews that I read of the then new Lone Ranger movie, I noted that the reviewers said the film made use of the “William Tell Overture” (sic), a piece commonly thought to have been composed by Rossini.

He did no such thing, of course. The piece is correctly called the Overture to “William Tell” in AP style, or the Overture to William Tell, when style guides using italics for titles are favored. The same goes for every overture written for an opera – i.e. the Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” the Overture to “Gwendoline,” the Overture to “Candide,” etc., etc.

(Foreign titles are fine, of course. Say or write the Overture to “Le Nozze di Figaro,” or even better, the Overture to “Le nozze di Figaro” to your heart’s content. Only I, and a good many other writers, usually use English titles when a work is well known in that form.)

The punctuation of the titles of classical music pieces can get a little confusing. The easy rule, though, is that when a piece’s title is simply a type of piece – as in Symphony No. 1, or Nocturne No. 2, or Requiem – the title takes no quotes. If that same piece has a nickname, as in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” the nickname takes quote marks, as you see.

Opera titles take quotes, of course. But an overture is a type of piece written to launch an opera, so it doesn’t take quotes. The case of concert overtures is different, though, and these pieces are usually given names, as in Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” and Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire Overture,” in which case the quotes are necessary. Sometimes you will see “Tragic” Overture or “Le Corsaire” Overture, which I suppose is OK, but then you run into things such as Britten’s “An American Overture,” which seems to me to require quotes around the entire thing. Which makes me feel that it’s best, for uniformity’s sake, just to use quotes (or italics, as the case may be) for entire concert overture titles.

On a related subject, opus and catalog numbers give many readers fits. They do not understand them, or even know what they signify. But they are mostly unnecessary when writing about classical music and I avoid using them whenever possible. Simply put, my attitude is that, in most cases, a reader only needs to know what piece has been or will be performed, and most pieces are easily identified without opus or catalog numbers: Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is enough (or Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”), lose the opus number unless you are writing about the “Eroica” in a context of where it falls in Beethoven’s output.

Opus and catalog numbers are very helpful, however, in identifying many pieces – such as Haydn’s string quartets, Chopin’s piano pieces and much of Mozart’s, Vivaldi’s and Scarlatti’s music – because they happen to be the quickest way to do so with the work in question. Including the key of a piece in the title usually ends up being superfluous. Use the key as an identifier when necessary, or when the context requires it. Otherwise, forget about it. — TM

A note on classical music terms and usage
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