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Answers To Questions

Edited by LOUIS C. ELSON

Q. When was the word Nocturne first used in connection with a musical piece?—Music Lover.

A. The word “Nocturne” is often rather poorly defined in the Musical Dictionaries. It is sometimes given as “a pleasant piece for evening recreation.” Of course, its derivation is from “Nox” (Night) and it is a “Night-piece.” Schumann uses the term “Nachtstueck” in this sense, i. e., a piece in which the quiet and calm of Night is reflected. But the earliest nocturnes scarcely did this. John Field, the Irish composer who became so famous as a teacher and pianist in Moscow, was the first to use the word “Nocturne.” His nocturnes are not always of a contemplative, serene character which reflects the peace of night. His twelfth nocturne is probably the best of his pieces under this title. Chopin took the term and used it more graphically, But Field never could appreciate Chopin’s works in this domain, and called him “a talent for the sick-room.”

Q. Could the fine old Irish tune “St. Patrick’s Day be classed as a folk-song? How would you decide whether a thing is a folksong or not?—E. R.

A. I should certainly call St. Patrick’s Day a folk-tune. It is even more than that, it is the national anthem of Ireland. It can he traced back to about A. D. 1700, and was played by the Irish pipers at the battle of Fontenoy, in 1745. A folk-song ought to reflect the character and thought of the people that it represents. Thus a Russian folk-song is often sad and dreamy and sometimes wildly bacchanalian. An American folk-song (as The Old Folks at Home, or My Old Kentucky Home) would present the yearning tenderness that fills much of the music of the plantation. A Scottish folk-song would often give the lilt of the Strathspey or Reel. And thus, in St. Patrick’s Day we find the rollicking insouciance and merriment of the Irish peasantry. It is one of the test signs of modern music that some of the composers are building upon the foundation of the folksong. Tschaikowsky often has used the Kamarinskaia, a wild dance of the Moujiks of Russia; Grieg has employed the Halling, a frenzied Norwegian dance, in which the participants try to kick the rafters of the barn where they are dancing. Chadwick and Dvorak have used the plantation music in the scherzos of symphonies. All this is giving a new life-blood to music, and proves that the folk-song can be the foundation of large classical forms.

Q. Is the Sistine choir at St. Peter’s in Rome famous for its great musical achievements or is its fame due to the fact that it is connected with the great cathedral? Have any very great musicians been connected with the Sistine choir?—S. P. McD.

A. The Sistine choir, Il Collegio dei Cappellani Cantori della Cappella Pontifica, consists of 32 choral singers, who are housed in Rome and sing at those special religious services where the Pope officiates in person. The beginnings of this institution are traced as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries, and therefore the association has all the prestige of great antiquity. Palestrina was connected with this choir. Many are the traditions and mysteries of this ancient choir. Their work is always “A Cappella,” that is without accompaniment of any kind. They have preserved much of the old Catholic music in its purity. A host of great musicians and composers have been connected with the Sistine choir in the centuries of its existence. Its execution has been wonderfully artistic, the vocalists training themselves to sing the intervals of the scale of true intonation, instead of the tempered scale which is used as a compromise in our musical system. Because of this, and because of the excellent acoustics of the Sistine Chapel, their singing has been of remarkable resonance. In recent times some critics have claimed that the institution has been suffered to lapse and has not been kept up as it was a century ago.

Q. I have heard the word “passage-work” used frequently in music. Kindly tell me what it means?—Student.

A. This refers to such parts of a work as are not melodic but merely runs, scales or sequences, leading from one melodic part of the composition to another. Passage-work is often merely a set of modulations.

Q. Are pianos used in orchestras such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas’s Chicago Orchestra, Oberhoffer’s Minneapolis Orchestra, etc.?—R. B. S.

A. I presume that my questioner does not refer to the presence of the piano in concertos, but inquires if it is used as an actual orchestral instrument. It is sometimes, but rarely, so used. Berlioz has used the piano as an orchestral tone-color, and several of the modern composers have employed it exactly as they would a violin or a flute or any other regular orchestral instrument. It is, however, seldom found as a member of the orchestral forces, but very frequently as an “obligato” or solo instrument.

Q. What is meant by “The movable Do” and “The fixed Do?—K. F.

A. The syllable “Do” originally meant the note C. In some countries this has never changed. In Italy “Do” means C, and that note is not called by any other name. In France the older syllable “Ut” is applied to C, and it is not known by any other name. This being the case, all the other syllables of the vocal scale are similarly applied to definite notes. Thus in France or Italy a sonata in D would be called a sonato in “Re,” and a symphony in G would be named as being in “Sol.” This is what is meant by a “fixed Do.” But we can also regard these syllables as relative merely calling the first note of any scale “Do,” its fifth note “Sol,” etc. That is what is meant by the “movable Do.” It is, to my mind, a great simplification of vocal reading to use this system and to think of the vocal syllables as relative merely. But there is such intense feeling upon this matter (the older musicians holding that “Do, Re, Mi, Fa,” etc., ought to mean fixed notes) that I scarcely dare to voice this opinion lest I should bring a hornet’s nest about my ears.

Q. What is the real meaning of impresario? How does an impresario differ from a concert manager?—Contralto.

A. The word “Impreso,” in Italian, signifies an undertaking, or an enterprise. Therefore an “Impresario” literally means one who undertakes some enterprise. This makes a very good description of a manager who sometimes undertakes very risky enterprises. It is generally applied only to Italian operatic managers, where the Italian term has most fitting application. The term can be properly applied to concert as well as to operatic managers.

Q. I was taught that a sextuplet should be played as three groups of two notes rather than as two triplets. Taking for instance, the fourth page of the piano arrangement of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde Prelude,” this can be done until the right hand has two sixteenth notes against a sextuplet of thirty- seconds in the left. Here inevitably the bass breaks into triplets. Should the rhythm be changed here or should all the sextuplets be played as triplets? I am often confronted with this dfficulty (sic) and shall be glad of a rule to follow. It does not seem to me possible to play a group of six notes without tending one way or the other.—S. H. B.

A. There are thousands of misprinted, or wrongly written, sextolets in music. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and numerous other famous composers, have written this group carelessly. No artificial group is correct if the rhythm or the accompaniment divides it into two groups. Every such sextolet ought to be written as two triplets. I am sorry to say that this rule is more often violated than observed.

“‘Tis a custom

    More honored in the breach than in the observance.”

The sextolet is always equal to four of the denomination of notes that it is written in. For the rest one can state that it is correct if it is an undivided group of six notes, and also if it divides into three groups of two notes each. It is incorrect when written any other way, but you must expect to find it so very often. See Elson’s Mistakes and Disputed Points of Music, Pages 84 and 85.

Q. Who was the first composer to mark the pedal indications in his works?—Musicus.

A. There were pedal effects used upon the old harpischords at least two or three centuries ago. They were worked by stops, like the organ stops of the present, drawn out or pushed back by the hand. About 1670 a real pedal was invented, worked by the foot, to allow the hands more freedom in playing. Some makers used a knee action (like the knee swell on a cabinet organ) in preference. Stein, of Augsburg, invented the “una corda” action pedal towards the end of the 18th century. Broadwood, in England, about 1784, first applied the pedals very much as they are used to-day. Mozart was among the first to mark the pedal in a modern way. Beethoven made many experiments with the pedals and marked them copiously. But I regret to say that I cannot discover who was the very first to use pedal markings.

Q. Do composers of the highest grade find it necessary to go to the piano for their musical ideas or do they sit down and write their music straight off?—B. T. E.

A. The great composer rarely goes to the piano while writing his works. Beethoven wrote the first sketches of his works in his note-books during his long walks or sometimes seated in a tree in Schönbrunn, the park just outside of Vienna. Subsequently he would write the score at a desk or a table, Schubert would get up in the middle of the night if a musical thought came into his mind, and would go to the table by his bedside and write his composition. He once wrote a great song, (Hark, Hark, the Lark) on the back of a bill of fare in a restaurant, on a Sunday morning, while waiting for his breakfast.

An orchestral score is never written “straight off,” but sketched out in its different divisions (strings, woodwind and brass) piecemeal. But even the great composer will go to the piano frequently to play over something that he has written at his desk, to hear the actual effect of its sounds. In Germany many maintain that even the greatest composer does not get the full idea of his musical thought until he has heard it played, that he cannot fully judge it from the sight of the score. Nevertheless the thorough composer does not actually compose at the piano, but at his desk or writing-table.

Q. How does one play such a passage as the following? Is one supposed to hold down the note by means of the pedal, or does one hold the tone with the fingers?—W.

A. Sustain with the finger. The note is to be counted as a quarter-note but sustained as a dotted half, overlapping the other two. It may sometimes signify that two voices are written upon the same staff, the upper voice giving three quarter-notes, the lower one a dotted half.


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