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Questions & Answers

Q. Does it matter if music students play rag-time music during the time when they are striving to become proficient in music? (E. L. W.)

It depends on the amount played, in comparison with the better work done. Ragtime is really an imitation of negro music, the word “rag” being used to describe certain negro jollifications. It is rhythmic and syncopated, and should do no harm if played in moderation. But the student who has not fully developed his musical taste for higher things should decidedly let popular or trashy music alone during the hours of strict practice. Such a student should realize that the too-simple melodies of the popular school are only one unimportant phase of music. He should study Schubert for melody of a more expressive kind, and Grieg for variety in harmony, if he is not ready to attack Wagner at once. Then there is all of musical form to be learned, all the way from the simple song-forms of the “Lieder ohne Wörter” to the sonata-allegro and other movements of the symphony. The latter will illustrate figure treatment and development by which the composer builds an artistic structure from the material of his themes. After that comes the entire realm of counterpoint, canon and fugue. The uncultivated student should certainly be too busy for much rag-time, while the cultivated student will not need much of it.

Yet, is (sic) some of its phases, rag-time is only syncopation driven to excess. The student will find some rag-time in almost all of the Russian, Scandinavian and Bohemian folk-music, and examples in the works of Dvorak, Greig (sic) or Tschaikowsky. The second variation of the Andante in Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 14, No. 2, is a specimen of rag-time as used by a great composer.

Q. Will you please tell me what it means when there is a rest above a note?—Well-wisher.

A. It means that two parts are united upon a single stave, and that one of these parts is at rest. You will find many examples of this mode of writing in the first measures of any fugue, where a single voice is sounding while the others are at rest.

Q. If in a piano piece the right hand is syncopated so that no note is struck on the first beat, is the first beat falling in the left hand accented with the same force that naturally falls upon the first beat af (sic) a measure?—Mrs. L.

A. The note would probably receive at least as strong an accent as if it were upon the first beat, since almost every syncopated note is accented. As syncopation is generally the establishment of a temporary false rhythm, that rhythm is almost always accented to force it upon the mind.

Q. Can you give we a few terse rules for pronouncing Russian names?—V. P. Z.

A. There is no definite rule possible. But very often the accent falls on the penultimate syllable. There are, however, many exceptions. Thus Rachmaninoff is accented upon the second syllable. Most people pronounce Rimski-Korsakoff with the accent on the first syllable of each name, but a pupil of that master assures me that he also accents the penultimate syllable of the last name, Rimski- Korsakoff. The same rule holds with Polish names, as Paderewski, Moszkowski. etc.

Q. Are there traces of Scotch airs in Grieg’s music? Does Puccini follow Wagner, or is he developing along new lines?

A. Grieg’s music is eminently Scandanavian, chiefly Norwegian. If there is any trace of Scotch music in his work it is only the resemblance which is sometimes found in the Folk-music of different nations. Puccini has not followed Wagner, except in the manner in which all the world has been influenced by him, that is in continuity of music, in dramatic libretti, and in uniting the music closely to the sense of the words.

Q. What does “bis” mean? I have seen it over the notes in a French pianoforte piece.— X. Y. Z.

A. “Bis” means twice, and “Ter” (more rarely used) means three times. In Europe one will often hear the audience shouting “Bis” after a well-executed solo, meaning the same as “encore,” that is, “over again.”

Q. I am very much interested in finding out in how many ways a theme may be developed. I know that it can be inverted, contracted and made larger. What are the other ways?—J. C. S.

A. A theme may be augmented, diminished, transposed, rhythmically changed, varied, inverted (contrary motion), reversed (played backwards, as in a Canone per recte et retro) and simplified. With figures there would be these same methods and a few more such as expansion, contraction, rhythmic imitation, etc., besides.

Q. I have been reading your article on the turn, in your dictionary, for authority on how to play the turn in Paderewski’s “Minuet.” I could not decide with which to begin, the principal note or the note above. I have an edition beginning on the principal note. Why should it?

A. Your edition is quite right. The tempo is not very rapid and the note is a quarter-note. To play only four notes to it, which would be necessary if we began on the upper note of the turn (the note above the printed note), would make it sound too slow as an embellishment. There are many deviations in playing turns which depend upon the tempo of the piece and the length of the note.

Q. Are the terms alto and contralto synonymous, or is an alto something different from a contralto?V. de F.

A. There is at present no difference between these two terms, both meaning the lowest female voice. But there was a decided difference even a century ago. Alto then meant a male voice of high pitch, while contralto meant a female voice which sang against it. The very word “alto” gives us an idea of its old usage, for it means “high,” and it was decidedly high in its compass, when sung by a male, but quite low when sung by a female voice. In a book of part-music of three centuries ago, I once found each part defined in a quaint verse. Here are the verses:

Descant. (Soprano.)

Ye little youths and maidens neat,
We want your voices, high and sweet.
Your study to the Descant bring,
The only part that you should sing.


The Alto suits to nice young men,
Who can sing up and down again.
This surely is the Alto’s way,
So study at it night and day.


In middle paths are all my arts.
I sing against the other parts.
They lean on me throughout the song,
Or all the singing would go wrong.


My station is a lower lot.
He who to middle age hath got,
And growleth like a bear so hoarse,
Why let him sing the Bass, of course.


This may show the character of each part as once used. The tenor (derived from the word “to hold”) held the melody, which was then not in the soprano. The highest part, (“Discantus,” meaning “against the melody”) gave a counter to the tune in the tenor part. From all the above it will be seen that the word “contralto” is a little more exact, for female voice, than “alto,” although both are used.



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