• Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Jazzification of Musical Terminology

February 27, 2011

In the modern period, now more than ever due to the spread of electronic media, popular culture seeps upward into high culture, whereas in the pre-modern period the reverse was true. In particular, this (invidious) movement from below has come to affect the terminology of classical music, as follows.

Forty or fifty years ago, no classical musician would have been caught dead referring to an engagement as a “gig,” a word which applied strictly to jazz but is now routinely uttered by young and old alike when referring to classical music. Nor would the syntactic means to designate performing on an instrument in classical music have omitted the direct article, as is routine in jazz. Thus whereas one says “on the saxophone” in naming the soloist in the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto in E flat major (Opus 109A), a jazz musician’s role is designated as “on sax,” e. g., “John Coltrane on sax.” Note also the typical abbreviation of the instrument’s full name in referring to jazz instruments, a usage  not to be found in the language of classical music (except for words canonized by tradition such as “cello” for violoncello and “bass” for contrabass).


Latter-Day Homage to Pushkin: A Linguistic Exemplum

February 20, 2011

We are defined by the language we speak, whatever else may be true of us as humans. “My language is the sum total of myself.” (Charles S. Peirce).

This story begins with three elegiac distichs (dactylic hexameters) by Pushkin (with rough prose translations):


Урну с водой уронив, об утес ее дева разбила.
Дева печально сидит, праздный держа черепок.
Чудо! не сякнет вода, изливаясь из урны разбитой;
Дева, над вечной струей, вечно печальна сидит.


[Statue at Tsarskoe Selo

Having dropped an urn with water, a maiden shattered it against a cliff.
The maiden sits sadly, holding the empty crock.
Miracle! the water doesn’t run dry, flowing out of the shattered urn;
The maiden, above the eternal stream, sits eternally sad.]


Невод рыбак расстилал по брегу студеного моря;
Мальчик отцу помогал. Отрок, оставь рыбака!
Мрежи иные тебя ожидают, иные заботы:
Будешь умы уловлять, будешь помощник царям.


[The Youth[1]

The fisherman spread out a net along the shore of the frigid [= White] sea;
A boy was helping his father. Youth, leave the fisherman!
Other nets await you, other tasks:
You will capture minds, you will be a helpmeet to tsars.]


Юношу, горько рыдая, ревнивая дева бранила;
К ней на плечо преклонен, юноша вдруг задремал.
Дева тотчас умолкла, сон его легкий лелея,
И улыбалась ему, тихие слезы лия.


[A youth, bitterly weeping, a jealous maiden was chiding;
Leaning on her shoulder, the youth suddenly dozed off.
The maiden immediately fell silent, cherishing his light sleep,
And smiled on him, shedding quiet tears.]

The story continues with the following homage to Pushkin by a twentieth-century Russian émigré poet, Constantine Shapiro (Константин Исаакович Шапиро [1896-1992], father of Michael)[2]

Другу японоведу

Резвой игрою увлекшись, над бездною отрок склонился.
Крепкой рукою его друг, подоспев, удержал.
Много за это грехов простится тебе, брат Михайло.
Видно, не даром Руси были питомцами мы.


[To a Japanologist Friend

Carried away by a playful game, a youth leaned over a precipice.
With a strong hand his friend, coming just in time, held him back.
Many sins will be forgiven you for this, brother Mikhajlo.
Apparently, we weren’t Russia’s foster-children for nothing.]

[1] Alludes to Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), the great Russian poet and scientist.
The “back-story” (as they say now) is as follows. While living in Japan and mixing with other Russian refugees, my father was helped with his work on translating Japanese poetry by a certain fellow Japanologist named Mikhailov, hence the reference to brat Mikhajlo ‘brother Mikhajlo’ in the third line.
Constantine Shapiro was a musician, composer, poet, and essayist. A direct descendant through his father of the founder of the yeshiva system of Jewish education, Hayyim of Volozhin (the «Volozhiner Rebbe»), he was born in Saratov into a family that included the distinguished philologists, Viktor Zhirmunsky and Yury Tynianov. He graduated from the Medvednikov Gymnasium in Moscow in 1914 and in 1915 matriculated at the Law Faculty of Moscow University where he studied with I. A. Il’in, a direct continuator of the Russian philosophical tradition of Vladimir Solovyov and Sergey Trubetskoy. His studies were interrupted by the Revolution, and he emigrated to Germany in 1919, first to Freiburg, where he studied philosophy at the University under Edmund Husserl, then Leipzig, where he received a certificate in cello from Julius Klengel. Until his departure from Germany for France and Palestine in 1926, he was first cellist with the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra. Constantine Shapiro was among a small group of Russian and German Jewish refugees who pioneered the establishment of Western classical music in Japan. In 1928, at the invitation of Viscount Hidemaro Konoye, he settled in Japan where he remained through the Second World War, lecturing as professor of composition at the Tôyô Conservatory, conducting a number of Japanese orchestras, including the NHK Symphony, and concertizing extensively with his wife, the pianist Lydia Shapiro. In the 1930s they made recordings for RCA Victor (JVC) and Columbia Records (Japan). After the war he appeared on the U. S. Armed Forces Radio Service. Constantine Shapiro immigrated to the United States in 1952 and made his home in Hollywood, California, where he occupied himself chiefly with musical pedagogy and writing. He died in 1992 in his ninety-sixth year. (From the «Editor’s Foreword» to Constantine Shapiro, Selected Writings, 2nd. ed., ed. Michael Shapiro [Charleston, S.C.: BookSurge Publishing, 2008]).

It took my father twenty-five years to get over his nostalgia for Russia. This happened when he finally realized that he would never return to Russia and took up residence in America. At that moment he stopped being an émigré and became an immigrant, then finally an American citizen––and a proud one at that.


The Poetic Frisson of Archaism

Continuing a theme broached in an earlier post (“Sprig of Palestine,” June 25, 2010), I want to point out the stylistic power of archaisms in a poetic text, this time in one by the greatest Russian poet, Pushkin. Here is the poem, “Elegy,” written during Pushkin’s most productive period, the so-called Boldino Fall of 1830:


Безумных лет угасшее веселье
Мне тяжело, как смутное похмелье.
Но, как вино – печаль минувших дней
В моей душе чем старе, тем сильней.
Мой путь уныл. Сулит мне труд и горе
Грядущего волнуемое море.

Но не хочу, о други, умирать;
Я жить хочу, чтоб мыслить и страдать;
И ведаю, мне будут наслажденья
Меж горестей, забот и треволненья:
Порой опять гармонией упьюсь,
Над вымыслом слезами обольюсь,
И может быть – на мой закат печальный
Блеснёт любовь улыбкою прощальной.

There are two archaisms in this lyric poem, one morphological, the other phonetic. The fifth word of the first line in the second stanza, drúgi ‘friends [pl.]’, was already archaic in Pushkin’s own time, the normal nominative plural form of drug ‘friend’ being the same as the present-day one, viz. druz’já. Pushkin uses the archaism here because the word is syntactically in the vocative case (“oh, friends”), which had already disappeared from Russian except for relics (like Gospodi ‘Lord’ and  Bozhe ‘God’) but which ipso facto comports well with the elevated style of the whole poem.

The second archaism, already receding in frequency even in Pushkin’s time, occurs in the rhyme word of the penultimate line, viz. pechál’nyj ‘sad’ in the accusative case. In contemporary standard Russian pronunciation, this case does not rhyme with instances of the oblique cases (here, the instrumental): proshchál’noj ‘farewell’ [adj.] has a schwa for the post-tonic (unstressed) desinential vowel, whereas the direct cases (nominative and accusative) have a so-called barred i for the Cyrillic ы (transliterated y). For Pushkin, however, the accusative and the instrumental cases did rhyme, both having the schwa post-tonically. Hence, in order to preserve stylistic/poetic fidelity in reading this poem (out loud or silently), one must pronounce the word pechál’nyj with a schwa in the final syllable.

The effect of both instances of archaism is the same despite their disparate origins: a stylistic frissson, a heightened feeling of poetic texture, a fleeting but potent realization that in uttering these words one is reproducing––for the nonce––the speech of its author in just those respects where his differs from ours, thus joining Pushkin in the artistic pleasure of his creation.


[Addendum on a personal note: As I silently declaimed Pushkin’s poem this morning while looking out on the glistening Vermontian snowscape, I thought of what my mother tongue means to me psychically. This put me in mind of another immigrant’s musings, Nabokov’s final sentence in the afterword to Lolita (“On a Book Entitled Lolita”): “My private tragedy . . . is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses . . . which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”]

A Stress Shift in a *Triblet of Trisyllables

February 6, 2011

More and more often one hears the triplet of trisyllabic (common) verbs ending in /-trib-ute/, namely contribute, distribute, and attribute, being pronounced with stress on the initial syllable instead of the standard stress on the penult. This shift has occurred in dialects of British English (and in those of its closest derivatives, notably Australian, South African, and Anglo-Indian) but not in North American. (Only for the rarer verb retribute does the OED list an alternative stress on the first syllable.)

The reason seems clear. Whenever verbs end in a derivational morpheme or quasi-morpheme like {-ize} or {-ate}, the stress falls typically on the second syllable preceding the suffix, hence ironize like soliloquize, ululate like proliferate, etc. Even a class of trisyllabic verbs of a mere three or four members ending in the same sequence of sounds lends itself to reinterpretation as part of derivational morphology, i.e., as involving suffixation, thence giving rise to the shift from medial to initial syllable as a contemporary innovation that is consonant with the historical drift of English prosody.


Anglo-Saxon vs. Latinate: The Semantics of Verbal Inanition

February 5, 2011

There is a tendency in latter-day English on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in America, to substitute the combination of native verbs + postpositions for simplex Latinate verbs, e.g., push back for resist, step down for resign, reach out for extend (oneself), give back for recompense, etc. The last example in particular, in the meaning of donating or making a contribution (to charity, to the community, etc.), is now ubiquitous despite being catachrestic (for omitting the direct object, i.e., giving [something] back). Although avoidance of the Latinate synonym for an Anglo-Saxon word has long been recognized as a stylistic desideratum in the service of plainspokenness,  there is no gainsaying the effeteness and vacuity of these verb combinations, since step down and its congeners have only the fuzziest relation, if any, to the action they have been lazily adapted to connote.


Grates otiosae sunt odiosae

February 2, 2011

The contemporary practice in American English, particularly in media interviews, of responding to “Thanks” or “Thank you” with the identical word(s) instead of “You’re welcome,”  “Don’t mention it,” “Not at all,” etc. is both otiose and odious. It amounts to insinuating the idea that the recipient of thanks is (and must be!) every bit as or more thankful than the interlocutor who first uttered the word; and that, moreover, the simple acknowledgement connoted by the traditional “You’re welcome” is somehow both insufficient and possibly even supercilious. The traditional license granted “Thank yóu”––i.e., with an emphatic stress on the pronoun––as an appropriate response when the recipient does indeed feel impelled to express greater gratitude than what actuated the original utterer’s expression of thanks is in the process of ceding its currency to a general linguistic tendency that aligns itself with the general American cultural attitude that tends to blur both grammatical and social hierarchies, heedless of its distortive effect on both language and mores.