- The Trema on
in music and language and other things
substitute X for Y = substitute Y with X
Some thoughts on what I’ve learned finishing a cherry clavichord, refinishing a maple desk, and fixing scratches in hardwood oak floors.
Mix 1:equal parts boiled linseed oil, prepared varnish, and solventMix 2:equal parts Mix 1, prepared varnish, and solvent (“soft mix,” for a softer, warmer finish)OR equal parts Mix 1 and prepared varnish (“hard mix” for a harder-wearing finish)
We often refer to whole centuries as a shorthand for the predominant culture of a period. We do this usually to distinguish the culture of a given age from that of earlier or later ages. This usage makes immediately obvious and meaningful distinctions—even if the distinctions so made are, necessarily, extremely general in character. Importantly, by referring to “eighteenth-century music,” we may implicitly include aspects of musical culture (events, ideas, developments) which are located outside the chronological eighteenth century. In other words, a “cultural century” is a shorthand only for the large-scale cultural epoch which the corresponding chronological century (mostly, but never precisely) contains, not the chronological century itself which shares its name.
Below is a quick attempt to specify what I think we mean when we refer to musical culture by century. (Let’s assume all years are “circa.“) I’m basing this scheme on developments in the history of composition and musical style, rather than any other musical-historical indicator way may wish to choose. I’d be interested to hear other views as to when the “cultural centuries” begin and end, especially if you think of a scheme based on some other cultural indicator (instrument technology? musical notation?).
|“Century”||Years||Length||Rationale for endpoints|
|12th||1150–1250||100||Notre Dame School|
|13th||1250–1310||60||Roman de Fauvel|
|14th||1310–1377||67||death of Machaut|
|15th||1377–1486||109||retirement of Ockeghem; 1480s: Josquin’s career is taking off|
|16th||1486–1595||109||1594: death of Palestrina; 1597: Dafne|
|17th||1595–1715||120||1713: Handel goes to London and Couperin publishes Book 1; 1717: Bach goes to Anhalt-Cöthen and Couperin publishes L’art de toucher|
|18th||1715–1830||115||Chopin goes to Vienna; Mendelssohn goes to Italy; Symphonie fantastique; 1833: Brahms is born|
|19th||1830–1913||83||1912: Pierrot lunaire; 1913: Le sacre du printemps; 1914: WWI|
An interesting datum.
[Transcript of an excerpt from an actual report by NECN reporter Josh Brogadir. Punctuation is conjectural.]
And so, Latoya [Latoya Edwards, NECN anchor], the death of a twelve-year-old girl, while of course the school will have counselors on hand tomorrow to help out any students. And by the way this girl may have had this for a little while; we’re told the incubation time for this type of meningitis anywhere from one to ten days, but potentially up to fourteen days. Latoya—
Watch the video. (Relevant excerpt begins at about the 2:00 minute mark.)
When is a piano not a piano?
1. When it’s a harpsichord
A harpsichord is a keyboard instrument with one or more (usually not more than two) keyboards, having two or more sets of strings per note (usually not more than three). The action of a key controls a jack, which moves vertically in close proximity to a string. A jack is fitted with a plectrum the plucks the string when the key is depressed, and a small nubbin of felt which dampens the string when the key is released. A sprung tongue mechanism holds the plectrum in the jack, and is contrived to allow the plectrum to pluck the string on the way up, but not the way down; thus a single depression of a key produces one pluck, not two. “Harpsichord” is the name of a specific instrument as well as the name given to a largish family of instruments including spinets, clavicytheria, harpsichords, and others.
2. When it’s a fortepiano
Likewise “piano” is both a genus and a species; the genus includes fortepianos, pianofortes, and pianos. Loosely speaking, a fortepiano refers to the earliest type of piano, namely that which came into common use in the late eighteenth century. In this form, it has one keyboard and two strings per note. The keys control leather-covered hammers which strike the paired strings. Morphologically, they look like harpsichords: these early pianos were conceived as special kinds of harpsichords. Their historical name was “cembalo col forte e piano” (harpsichord with loud and soft) which was shortened to “fortepiano” (metonymy?). This style of piano building initially flourished in Vienna. A Mozart piano is most precisely called a fortepiano. [It is worth mentioning that this archetypal Viennese fortepiano, c. 1790–1810, is but one configuration of the instrument, whose history spans the period c. 1710–1850.]
3. When it’s a pianoforte
It must be said, first of all, that many people would argue that the class “pianoforte” is not fully distinct from the class “modern piano”: that is, some would say alta voce, “A pianoforte is a piano!” What they mean is that these classes are not actually disjunct from each other in the way each of them is completely disjunct with “fortepiano.” This is nuance of organology which seems pointless to expand further here. In practice, the word “pianoforte” refers to something quite different than the instruments to which “piano” refers, in practice. “Pianoforte” instruments represent the next phase, after the “fortepiano,” of piano technology. We see the term often in regency novels; this is because it was the word for “piano” before it was shortened to “piano.”
3′. What is a nineteenth-century piano?
The nineteenth century was a period of great diversity and innovation, so many different designs exist. The most important ones are the following. The Broadwood grand is an English pianoforte which is similar to the fortepiano, but louder and heavier. These are most prized. The Streicher (German) and Pleyel (French) pianofortes experimented with new designs including the use of metal bracing, cross-stringing (stringing of fortepianos and harpsichord had always been in parallel) enabling higher string tensions, and felt-covered hammers—features which would ultimately be adopted in the modern piano. In a regency novel “pianoforte” probably refers to a Broadwood grand in a large house, or a small “square piano” (actually, rectangular) in a smaller house. The square pianos were small and of very simple construction, and were therefore cheap and quite popular. They are in many ways musically deficient instruments (like a modern upright, perhaps?) but they show the increasing prevalence and cultural importance of musical amateurism.
4. When it’s (not) a Steinway
The modern piano is the large cast-iron-framed, cross-strung-in-steel machine with felt hammers, of which the archetypical example is the Steinway grand. Amongst early music specialists, one will often hear the word “Steinway” to mean “modern piano, as distinguished from some historical fortepiano”: “Steinway” in this usage might in fact ultimately mean “Bösendorfer” or “Fazioli.” Or, a concert pianist may refer to a “Steinway” to mean not a “Bösendorfer” or “Fazioli” or any other make of piano: many pianists prefer a specific make of piano, preferences which are often enshrined in exclusive endorsement contracts.
Therefore, be careful when you say “piano”
Really, there have been so many different designs in so many periods that in the biz labels like fortepiano or piano or pianoforte are hopelessly vague. We usually refer to them all as “pianos,” (that is, in professional usage “piano” is a genus not a species) but specify the builder or, for a modern replica, the historical model. Thus we speak of Silbermanns, Steins, Walthers, Broadwoods, Grafs, Erards, Pleyels, Bösendorfers, Steinways, and many, many others. Note, however, that saying “Steinway” when you really just mean “modern piano” in the generic sense (that is, “Steinway” as a synecdoche) could be seen as fatuous or pretentious, or (worse) could even be confusing.
In sum, very generally speaking it is possible to say that fortepiano refers to eighteenth-century examples (very often Viennese), pianoforte refers to middle or late nineteenth-century examples (often English), and piano in the narrow sense of its common usage is the twentieth-century modern machine.
Semantics and discourse pragmatics at work.
It strikes me that the Uneven Bars are no less parallel than the Parallel Bars—they are just parallel in a different plane. The Parallel Bars might be more completely characterized as:
the Horizontally Coplanar and Parallel Bars;
and the Uneven Bars more accurately as:
the Non-horizontally Coplanar but Parallel Bars.
These more specific names assume no prior frame of reference, but declare the relevant frame explicitly in the name itself. The conventional terms for the apparatuses are only meaningful if we assume they describe some property of the bars from a horizontal frame of reference. That assumption is induced by the names themselves: the Parallel Bars are only parallel in the horizontal plane. The Uneven Bars, by contrast, do not share a horizontal plane. It is interesting to note that the Uneven Bars do not share a vertical plane either (they are spaced some distance apart, laterally), and in this sense the Parallel Bars are just as uneven as the Uneven Bars. However, we assume that uneven must describe some property of the apparatus not shared by the Parallel Bars. Thus the names of the apparatuses both independently make reference to an implicit horizontal, and so mutually reinforce this implicature.
The above is an explanation of the linguistic semantics of these names—what must be true, or assumed true, for the names to have interpretable meaning; it does not, however, explain why the horizontal should be a salient frame in reference to which the names should distinguish the apparatuses. It would be possible, for example, to contrive names which distinguish them with respect to a vertical frame of reference:
the Colinear-in-the-Vertical-Projection Bars (Parallel Bars)
the Non-Colinear-in-the-Vertical-Projection Bars (Uneven Bars)
We could even stipulate a reference plane that is at a 45° angle to the standard frame in which case we might aptly name the equipment:
the Uneven Bars (Parallel Bars)
the Parallel Bars (Uneven Bars)
Why in fact is the horizontal frame of reference used? This is the domain of pragmatics—the context which conditions the linguistic usage. Here are some hypotheses as to why horizontalness may be more salient than any other frame of reference:
The “trema” (as the “¨” is called, pl. “tremata”) is used in native English spelling—that is to say, in English words which are not foreign borrowings—to indicate diaeresis: vowels which are not pronounced as a single sound (diphthong) but separately (“in hiatus”, e.g. coöperate, archaic seeër). This is also the significance of the trema in French spelling (cf. naïf). The English trema does not indicate umlaut (vowel mutation), as it does in German; the usual German umlaut is fronting (cf. konnte/könnte), but other types exist in various languages.
Often, the diacritic will be referenced as “the diaeresis” or “the umlaut” depending on its particular function; this distinction based on the diacritic’s (or diacritics’?) significance raises the question, Are there two or one diacritics? The diaeresis-indicating trema derives from the Greek upsilon (υ), and dates from antiquity; the umlaut-indicating trema derives from the German Kurrentschrift hand “e,” and dates from the nineteenth century. Thus they are distinct in orthographic function and graphical origin, yet they represent the very same development—the use of a front vowel as a diacritic to indicate some kind of vowel assimilation—in disparate languages in disparate periods. (It is likely that the ultimate two-dots form of the German umlaut was influenced by an awareness of the classical diaeresis.)
“Trema” is a generic term which refers to the diacritic’s form irrespective of function (from the Greek τρῆμα, meaning “dot,” as on dice). The terms “diaeresis” and “umlaut” further specify the diacritic by association with specific functions; yet this is inconsistent with the naming conventions of other diacritics. For example, there is but one acute diacritic (´), notwithstanding its varying functions in the various languages in which it is used. It would be inelegant to postulate the existence of n acute-looking-diacritics, where n is the number of distinct functions it may have. The use of the terms “diaeresis” and “umlaut” to refer to the diacritic itself (rather than the underlying phonological phenomena) is similarly inelegant, as it implies a distinction between two diacritics, where in fact there is but one.
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Consider how radically different Landowska’s performance style is to our modern, “historically-informed” style. If this difference represents the extent to which style can evolve in living memory—in just 70 years or so—then we are indulging a silly fantasy if we suppose our playing will not necessarily differ in substantive ways from the 17th- and 18th-century styles we claim as our models. At the same time, Landowska’s playing is not wholly foreign. It sounds like a kind of harpsichord playing; and it sounds like Bach. So it would be equally silly to suppose that what she was doing, and what many of us are trying to do now, is completely unrelated to what music was like in the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems to me that early modern musical culture, if we could observe it directly, would resemble our modern revival of it (pace, all you post-post-modern nihilists). The uncertainty lies only in the extent of the resemblance.
All this to say nothing of Landowska’s (fantastically grotesque) technique, our modern harpsichord technique, and what we suppose the technique(s) of the great virtuosi from the period might have been like.