Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Musical Glossary for Mendelssohn's World

Music, like anything else, has it's own “language.” If you're playing football or baseball, you have terms and “lingo” that refer to how the game is played and how the players play it. If you're cooking, you need to understand the difference between certain terms so that you “braise” the meat, not burn the heck out of it.

Or computers - geez, have you tried to explain to your parents how to use a computer??

So music has a lot of terms which not everybody's going to understand what they mean. To make it worse, many of them are in Italian.

I used a lot of terms in the earlier post about pieces of music Mendelssohn composed. There will be more in the future. It doesn't mean you MUST KNOW all of these to enjoy the music – just like you can enjoy a football game or a nice dinner without knowing absolutely everything about it.

When I talk about how a piece of music is put together – how it's written and how it's being played – I can use a whole barrage of fancy-sounding vocabulary. When I listen to my auto mechanic tell me what's wrong with my car and what he has to replace to make it work (even before he tells me how much it's going to cost), I think “that's what *I* sound like, talking to somebody about music!”

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Cantata – (kuhn-TAH-tuh) - a work written for concert or church performance, often in several sections, for singers with orchestral accompaniment, usually setting a religious text or some thematic story (not to be confused w/opera which would be staged and acted out) – originally it meant “something sung – Cantare, to sing; as opposed to Sonare, to play.

Concerto – (kun-CHAIR-toh) - usually a work for a solo instrument with an orchestra. The soloist (or in some cases, a number of soloists) might be contrasted to a larger group of musicians (the orchestra), coming from an old Italian word concertare meaning “to compete as brothers” (that doesn't always mean brothers who are always fighting each other). Most common soloists in concertos are pianists and violinists, though you could write a concerto for any instrument. It usually is written with a high level of accomplishment in mind for the soloist (see Virtuoso).

Incidental Music – music written to enhance a performance of a play in a theater. It does not set the play to music but would consist of short pieces of music that would set the mood, like musical scenery. It could consist of an overture, short pieces between the acts, background music for a dance or a storm that takes place on stage. 19th Century composers wrote lots of “incidental music” - today, they would be writing for the movies.

Key – a key is not always something that unlocks a door but in this musical sense it could help you unlock the mystery of how a composer puts a piece together. If it's listed as being in E-flat Major, that means the “home key” is around the pitch E-flat and the scale is an E-flat Major scale and all the pitches usually relate in some way to that scale. A piece or a movement can move from one key to another. From the 18th to the 21st Centuries, attitudes about how strict all this is has changed. It's one of the things that creates variety in the “surface language” of music (I'll get into that later). A $25 word for key is “tonality.”

Movement – when a work is in several sections, they're usually called “movements” - they can be self-contained or a “part-of-the-whole.” It depends on how the composer wants to use them and also what order they should go in. A typical 4-movement structure would be a “Fast Movement” to open, a “Slow Movement” for contrast, a “dance-like movement,” that could be fast or moderate in tempo and is often light-hearted, and a “finale” that could also be a fast tempo but would contrast in nature to the others.

Musicale – (myoo-zih-KAAL) - a musical party or private concert given in someone's home: common form of entertainment in the 19th Century. Sometimes it could be members of the family singing with piano accompaniment; other families might have more room for more musicians and friends in the audience. Aristocrats had large rooms – usually called a salon (not like our concert halls, more like, say, taking an open space like the cafeteria, removing the tables and putting out chairs for the audience; not that you would ever think of your cafeteria as a salon) and might have their own orchestras, too. The Mendelssohn family's home in Berlin was famous for its Sunday afternoon musicales.

Opera – (AW-p'ruh) - a musical dramatic work that is staged (acted out) with singers singing roles of characters with an orchestra in the pit. It tells a story through singing. There are dramatic operas, tragic operas, comic operas, all kinds of operas, just like there are all kinds of stories. Mendelssohn wrote mostly “comic operas” which are usually lighter in sound and story and included spoken dialogue as well as singing – this was called, in German, a “singspiel” (“sing play”) and might be compared to a “Broadway musical” compared to a standard opera.

Oratorio – (or-uh-TOR-yoh) - a choral work with vocal soloists and orchestra, usually telling a religious story based on a religious text, frequently inspired by Biblical stories. These are “sacred” works as opposed to operas which are “secular” - and they're not staged, meant to be performed in a concert hall or church. Handel's “Messiah” is probably the best known oratorio, today. Mendelssohn wrote two: based on Elijah and on St. Paul.

Overture – an instrumental work, usually something self-contained that precedes or opens a larger work, like an opera or a suite of “incidental music.” It might set the mood or summarize the story before the curtain goes up. A “concert overture,” which is what many of Mendelssohn's are, just tell the story without needing more music to fill it out. Later, these kinds of overtures would be called “symphonic poems” or “tone poems.”

Piano Quartet – not four pianos but four players – 3 strings and 1 piano (strings are usually violin, viola and cello, the high, middle, and low voices of the string family).

Piano Trio – three musicians, usually a violin, cello and piano.

Requiem – (REH-kwee-em) - usually a setting of the text for the Catholic liturgy's “Mass for the Dead” but it can be used as any memorial tribute written to observe, honor or commemorate a person's death. Though it has nothing to do with an actual Requiem, technically, Mendelssohn wrote his last string quartet while grieving over the death of his sister and referred to it as her requiem.

Scale – a collection of usually 7 notes that form a kind of “universal set” of pitches in a certain key. The “tonic” of the scale is how we identify the key: the tonic note of E-flat Major is E-flat. Other pitches in a scale have names that refer to their hierarchy or protocol in the scale. You can have different scale configurations or “protocols” (to use a computer term): the two most common in Classical Music have been Major and Minor but ancient music and more recent music (including a lot of popular music) use other configurations called Modes and they have specific names for each code-form. If you play ALL the white and black keys between one C on the piano and the next C higher up on the keyboard, you have 12 pitches and this a “chromatic scale.”

Scherzo - (SKAIR-tzo) Italian for joke, it is a fast movement, generally light-hearted, perhaps with a sense of humor

Sonata – (suh-NAH-tuh) - an instrumental work that could be for piano solo or violin and piano (or some instrument and piano) – compositions with more instruments are usually called something else: for orchestra, it's usually a Symphony. From the Latin word meaning “something played” -- Sonare, to play (see Cantata).

Sonata Form – a type of structure often found in the first movements of sonatas and symphonies where there's a theme in one key (see Key) followed by another theme in a contrasting key. These musical ideas are then “developed” or expanded, often moving into additional keys, before the initial themes come back, all in the main key.

Song – in Classical Music, “song” refers specifically to a short work setting a poem to music for a singer with piano accompaniment. Because most pop music is kind of like a song – voice with back-up instruments – people tend to call any piece of music a “song” – which can be confusing if you're trying to describe a 35-minute-long Beethoven symphony as a “song”

String Quartet – four string players, specifically 2 violinists, a viola and a cello (see piano quartet).

String Quintet – five string players, usually 2 violins, 2 violas and a cello (though Schubert wrote a famous one with 1 viola and 2 cellos, instead)

String Octet – not many composers wrote for 8 string players (more often, octets mix winds and string players for variety) – Mendelssohn's often breaks down the possible combinations to have the 1st Violinist (the part Odin Rathnam will be playing in our performance) with the rest of the strings like a back-up orchestra, other times as different combinations of more-or-less equal parts, sometimes as two opposing string quartets.

Symphony – (SIM-fuh-nee) - a work for orchestra in several movements (see sonata) – in the 19th Century, these usually became large works in scope. Mendelssohn's early “string symphonies” are often very short and not always 'strict' symphonies. He also wrote five large-scale symphonies.

Tempo – (TEM-poh) - the speed at which the notes in the music move or should be played. We can describe them as fast, slow, or moderate but generally musicians tend to use Italian terms so you might hear (or see) allegro (uh-LEG-roh), adagio (uh-DAH-jyoh), andante (on-DON-tay) instead. “Crazy” is not a tempo but some musicians think when it gets really really fast, sometimes “crazy” works. (Robert Schumann wrote a piano piece where he marks the tempo “as fast as possible” then a page later tells the pianist to play “still faster!”)

Virtuoso – (ver-tyoo-OH-soh) - a musician playing at a very high level of performance, but keep in mind, even the best started playing “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” somewhere in their lives...

- Dr. Dick