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Answers to Questions

Edited by LOUIS C. ELSON

In securing the services of Mr. Louis C. Elson as editor of this department, our readers are to be congratulated upon having placed at their service the rich experience of one of the best known specialists upon subjects of this kind. Mr. Elson has been at the head of the theory department of one of the foremost American musical schools for years. We request our readers in sending in their questions to observe the following simple regulations:

Always send your full name and address. No questions will be answered when this has been neglected.

Only your initials or a chosen nom de plume will be printed.

Make your questions short and to the point.

Questions regarding particular pieces, metronomic markings, etc., not likely to be of interest to the greater number of Etude readers will not be considered.

Q. Who was the first American musician to achieve prominence in Europe? (L. M.)

A. William Billings, a prominent composer of hymns and other music before and during the Revolution, must have been well known by the English, but he worked in a primitive epoch of American music. Dr. William Mason went to Europe in 1849. He studied at Leipsic with Moscheles, Hauptmann and Richter, taking a later course with Dreyschock, at Prague, and finishing with nearly two years under Liszt. Dr. Mason played In public twice at London and several times at Weimar. This was probably the first time that a talented American musician had attracted attention in Germany. In 1867 a large American composition was heard abroad, for John K. Paine directed his first great work, a Mass in D, at the Berlin Sing-Akademie.

Q. What is the correct abbreviation for Doctor of Music? (Observer.)

A. The abbreviation should be “Mus. Doc.,” or sometimes “D. Mus.” The degree is given in England, but not in Germany.

Q. How much lower is the lowest note of the grand organ, or orchestra, than that of the pianoforte? (J. E.)

A. The lowest note of the largest organs is sub-contra C, a sixth below the lowest A of the piano. This C has only sixteen vibrations a second, and is the lowest note that can be heard by man. Of the deep orchestral instruments, the contra-bassoon sometimes reaches sub-contra B flat, the lowest note but one of the piano. Among brass instruments Wagner called for a contra-bass trombone that could give the lowest E of the piano. Of the bowed instruments, the four-stringed contra-bass can give the same E, while an extra string sounds the lowest C of the piano. No orchestral instrument gives as deep a tone as the lowest one of a full-sized piano, or goes as high (in practical music) as the highest note. Almost all orchestral music is within a compass of six octaves.

Q. Kindly explain what is really meant by counterpoint. (S. W. C.)

A. Counterpoint is part-writing, frequently vocal,  and always so in mediæval times. Counterpoint is the support of melody by melody instead of by chords. This resulted in the saying by Hauptmann that music was formerly horizontal, but is now vertical. The word “counterpoint” comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum, or note against note. In modern teaching note against note is called counterpoint of the first order. The second order has two notes (or three) against one, and the third order four against one. A fourth species introduces syncopation, while a fifth (florid counterpoint) combines any or all of the others. All these are varieties of simple counterpoint. In double counterpoint the parts may be transposed up or down an octave, or any other specified interval crossing each other. The origin of counterpoint is found in England at least as early as the twelfth century. Such an admirable canon as “Sumer is icumen in,” on a British Museum manuscript dating from 1215, proves that the English school must have been well advanced at that time. There was also an early French school, spoken of by Jean de Muris in his “Speculum Musicæ” (1325). The Flemish schools flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the Italian in the sixteenth. In early counterpoint the tenor part held the melody (from the Latin teneo, hold). Chords were formed by the union of the different voices, but very few of the early works on counterpoint gave them any consideration as such. In counterpoint melodies are intertwined much as the strands of a rope intertwine, while in harmony a single melody is supported by pillars (chords) as a bridge might be supported.

Q. Kindly tell, in a few words, what is meant by 2 ft. and 4, ft., and the so-called twelfth and fifteenth stops of an organ. Why are the fifteenth stops called 2 and 2/3 ft.? (Reader.)

A. The ordinary tone given by an organ key is spoken of as an 8-ft. tone; 4-ft. pipes, being half the length, would sound an octave higher for the same key, while 2-ft. pipes would sound the double octave, or fifteenth. The vibrations vary in number inversely as the length of the pipe. Thus the 16-ft. tone would be an octave below the 8-ft. tone from the same key, the lower note having half as many vibrations as the tone an octave higher. The twelfth above a note has three times as many vibrations as the note, so one-third the length of pipe is needed. The 2 and 2/3-ft. tone, then, having pipes one-third the length of the ordinary 8-tt. series, is the name of the twelfth stop, and not the fifteenth. These “upper partial” tones are used to blend with the lower notes to make them more brilliant. In an open pipe the air column is not merely vibrating as a whole, but sub-divides into halves, thirds, quarters, etc., which give faint higher tones (overtones, harmonics) that blend with the fundamental note. In pipes that are stopped at one end half the overtones are missing, making the tone dull in quality, so that the extra series of tones is needed to brighten it. Summing up, then, “8 foot” is on the pitch of the key (as on a piano), “4 foot” is an octave higher,‘“2 foot” two octaves higher, “16 foot” an octave lower, etc.

Q. Why are consecutive fifths forbidden? (W. I.)

A. In the tenth century the monk, Hucbald of St. Amand, invented the “organum,” an accompaniment of empty fourths and fifths instead of a unison chant. This remained in use for some time, but its harsh sound caused a revulsion, and after other intervals crept in the fifths were forbidden; but great composers use them when desired. Beethoven was once questioned about his using some consecutive fifths in a certain composition, whereupon he replied. “I allow them.” Puccini has a whole series of them in the beginning of the third act of “La Boheme.” But the young composer will do well to avoid them, at least until he has won as much fame as Puccini.

Q. Is a song like Grieg’s “Ich liebe dich” considered better music than a song like “The Old Folks at Home?” If so, why? (L. S. O.)

A. Grieg’s song is considered decidedly better. The reason for this goes rather deeply into the fundamental nature of music and our perception of it, but may be briefly treated here. To begin with, the trained musician, and not the public, must be considered the judge. No one would presume to dispute the judgment of painters or trained critics in matters of art, though an untrained public does often wrongly arrogate the right to judge of music. As to musical perception, it is based on many things, but chiefly, of course, on differences in pitch, or the mathematical rate of vibrations of different tones. In general, if we perceive some relation between different tones or chords in a progression we understand and appreciate it; so that those who have the keenest and best trained perception will be most competent to judge. Now, the untrained outsider says, “I do not understand your classical songs,” while the trained musician says, “I do understand your popular music, but do not care for it, as it is too simple. It relies for its effects on the most conventional of chords, while in music of a higher type we perceive a wealth of more delicate harmonic beauty that the non-musician misses entirely.” The writer would not be understood as casting a slur at popular music, for its appeal to the masses is of the greatest value; but those who have not the chance or the ability to appreciate more advanced music miss a finer pleasure than that afforded by the average popular song. Grieg’s music is an excellent illustration, for it is full of beautiful harmonies and modulations.

Q. What is an Arabesque? (O. H. Y.)

A. An Arabesque is a piece of music in which the theme is surrounded by tonal embroideries of ornamental delicacy. Hegel said that “Architecture is frozen music” (though the remark has been attributed to Mme. de Stael and many others), and an Arabesque is an excellent tonal equivalent of the intricate and exquisite tracery that decorates Moorish or Oriental buildings. Schumann’s “Arabeske” is an excellent example.

Q. Is smoking tobacco in any form considered injurious to the singer’s vocal organs ?

A. Tobacco is ruled against by vocal physicians because it dries the throat unnaturally. Many defy this rule.

Q. Can a double sharp or double flat be played on a black key? (I. D.)

A. Yes. E double sharp, B double sharp, F double flat, C double flat.


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