Monday, December 12, 2011

The Language of Music

Christmas is coming, and with it Handel’s Messiah. Today I’m celebrating them, and my own 250th column. And since one pleasure of writing the column is following a train of thought into areas of my ignorance, I’ve consulted a qualified friend, Donald Cullington.

Why are the notes named by letters, and why these letters? The earliest names in European music to be written down were not letters, but words or syllables: ut re mi fa sol la. These were the first syllables of the six lines of the Latin hymn Ut queant laxis. Each successive line began a step higher, giving a six-note series or scale. Guido d’ Arezzo founded this notation, or solmization. Letters took over, giving fixed not relative pitch. A-G are not the only letter-names: in Germany ‘B’ = B flat and ‘H’ = B natural, which is how Liszt could compose a fantasy and fugue on the name B-A-C-H.

From pitch to length
Notes lengthen from crotchet to breve, both names reaching Middle English from French. But breve means ‘ brief’, which it was once but now isn’t. For shorter notes, a crotchet divides into quavers. They “shake, tremble, or trill”, rapidly. But then the OE base-word divides into semi-, demi-semi-, and hemi-demi-semi-quavers, larger and larger names for smaller and smaller fractions, by absorbing words for “half” from other languages. The system of the signs has the accretive quaintness of generations of musical life and language invention.

Many marks of expression come from Italian: forte, piano, affettuoso, allegro, andante (“walking pace”), including the complex fuga (fugue, because it “chases”) or the mysterious stretto (“tight”). Did other language-groups feel shut out? German composers pointedly put their expressional guidance in German: maessig bewegt, “at a moderate tempo”. It does make sense to guide your singers in words of their own tongue, as Britten does. However, composers may transliterate their words, so that the sounds remain but not the script, as in Arvo Pärt’s bogoroditse dyevo radujsja. The Russian sounds cacophonous, but only till you hear it or better still sing it. It’s his tender, uprushing version of the Hail Mary, written for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Oh to be there at this season!

If nothing else could hook a child on music, it would be the curious beauty of musical instruments; lumps of wood or metal making glorious sounds. Their names are a delight too. Take wind instruments. Trombone is Italian for big trumpet. The racket, racket or raggett has cylinders drilled inside a chamber to get the length needed for deep notes. It sounds like a bee in a jamjar; not that far from a kazoo, named from its gawky noise. The liquid majesty of an oboe (hautbois, French for “high or deep wood”) comes from the same physics as these superseded or comical contraptions. An illustrated history of musical instruments is a most satisfying book.

It is a language
Deryck Cooke, in his book The Language of Music (the Cooke-Booke) expounds the idea that music itself is a language. It “speaks” to us. Music makes sorrow bearable (Gorecki, Britten, blues). It charms and soothes the savage breast. Music enhances joy (calypso, Schubert, Bach). If we hear it or perform it together, we share its language. All this, and more, is waiting in the City Choir’s Messiah, that work which Handel wrote in 24 days, premiered in Dublin in 1742. It’s in the Regent Theatre this year, on Tuesday 13 December.

By John Hale,

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