ATTACCA

August 23, 2010

It is painful to see the New York Times blatantly misusing a musical term — through the agency of its Chief Music Critic, no less. The Italian word segue has been used in music scores since at least operas of the 18th century, in which such instructions as segue l’aria are common. The meaning is simply that the next musical item (in the example, an aria, most commonly after a recitative) follows immediately without anything intervening. The word attacca is a synonym. In a review of the final Mostly Mozart concert, however, we see the word used to mean exactly the opposite — music specially composed to join two elements:

Mozart even wrote some orchestral transitions as segues from arias to choruses.

It is not meaningless pedantry to protest such terminological malpractice in such a place.

For an example of correct employment of the term — a term whose meaning is too valuable to confuse with its direct opposite, for heaven’s sake — see this blog post.

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A Bumper Crop

January 24, 2010

Anthony Tommasini has an article in today’s New York Times about the coincidence of the Schumann and Chopin birth-bicentenaries falling in 2010. The link between them, as he tells us, was Schumann’s earnest championing of Chopin’s music. Since Schumann was a very influential writer on music, this was significant to the success of a Polish immigrant to Western Europe who rarely played in public. (Tommasini passes over the less affirmative fact that Chopin, in return, treated Schumann and his music with something like contempt.)

While the 2010 double anniversary deserves to be celebrated, and will be, I’m equally interested in the fact that so short a period of time as four years produced such a large helping of the most influential musicians of an era. A simple and selective list is striking:

1809 Mendelssohn
1810 Chopin
1810 Schumann
1811 Liszt
1813 Wagner

(Am I alone in often carelessly thinking of Liszt as being much older than Wagner — perhaps because Liszt’s daughter married a man who turns out to be about the same age as her father?)

And this is to deal only with some who are now considered composers of the very first rank. What about Félicien César David (1810 – 1876), Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai (1810 – 1849), Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810 – 1876), Charles Louis Ambroise Thomas (1811 – 1896), Ferdinand Hiller (1811 – 1885), Sigismond Thalberg (1812 – 1871), Stephen Heller (1813 – 1888), or Charles-Henri Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888)? They all made real marks on a music world very unlike our own, though the esteem in which they’ve been held has been markedly variable over the years.

Speaking of someone whose reputation was very high, then sank for a time, and is now perhaps more exalted than ever: one Giuseppe Fortunino Frencesco Verdi was born down in Italy in the same year as Wagner, showing that it must have been the air of those four years, not the soil, that yielded such an unexampled bounty.

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It is a perennial accusation made against worshipers that they make their gods in their own image. I’m on record below as being a big fan of Le Poisson Rouge, but in today’s New York Times we are told

So you can imagine how gratified the composer [Arnold Schoenberg] would have been to hear this fresh, keenly dramatic account of “Pierrot Lunaire” presented at an informal club for an eager and receptive audience.

Whoa there.

Schoenberg famously put on his ideal concerts for years in Vienna. These were notoriously ernst affairs. Would the man who didn’t even allow applause take to the easy-going Poisson Rouge atmosphere? I think not. Not the man who said, “If it is art, it is not popular. And if it is popular, it is not art.”

Another thing that the chief critic of the Times may be forgetting is that, if Schoenberg had had his way, said critic might not even have been allowed at the Poisson Rouge performance, since Schoenberg customarily posted a sign at the door saying, Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (“Critics are forbidden entry”).