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Gift of book is about knowledge


It was one of those odd, offbeat Christmas gifts for the geezer on my son’s list: A music dictionary.

Because he’s a thought geek working on a Ph.D., he gave me the one published by Harvard, throwing me a bone by overlooking the fact that I’m not really a musician but a drummer.

Playing along, I flipped through the pages, and stopped at the entry for “akzessist,” mostly because of the strange spelling.

After the new Hobbit movie, the word seemed dwarfish.

It turns out to be German.

Back in the princely courts of the 18th century, an akzessist was “a younger member of a princely musical establishment who performed for little or no salary until a permanent position became available.”

He was a singing intern.

I was starting to catch on.

Soon, even though I speak Buckeye, I began recognizing word equivalents in other languages – words like Russia and Versailles that others mispronounce but spell the same as we do.

Take agitato, Italian for playing in an agitated or excited fashion.

Every drummer knows that goes back to the Latin word for the washing machine agitator that stirs up the jeans in a way that sometimes widens the holes in the knees or the seat.

It’s kind of like the word agende, which the dictionary says refers to “the formularies for Devine service” in the German Protestant church and goes back to the 4th century.

Get Vanna to replace that last e with an a and you’ve got agenda.

Things got even more interesting in entries that showed how music history is inbred with human behavior.

Taken the word minstrel.

Monty Python and Shakespeare fans can imagine this definition spoken in a voice from John Cleese or Capt. Jean Luc Picard: “In English-speaking lands since ca. 1570, a wandering singer of ballads; formerly, one skilled in the performance of music as opposed to its theoretical aspect.”

But the high tone gets knocked down when the definition says there were low-life minstrels “on the fringe of society, unprotected by feudal and civil law,” which means they had friends in low places.

I really looked up minstrel to see how the dictionary would describe blackface minstrel shows.

Here’s the ugly bottom line: “Crudely drawn stereotyping of African Americans and their culture provided the show’s coherence.”

In short, stereotypes were what made the whole thing hang together.

What the dictionary doesn’t say – except by mentioning how long minstrel shows ran – is how popular they were for how long and what that says about human behavior.

Speaking of stereotypes, the Harvard geniuses decided to overlook Hee-Haw in their dictionary but did mention the Grand Ole Opry in connection with Bluegrass music. The Opry was mentioned as the place Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys first had their music broadcast in the 1940s. Adds the entry: “The term (Bluegrass) refers to Monroe’s native state, Kentucky.”

I found some other stuff that surprised me.

Armed Man – “A 15 century melody that was wide used (in) Masses from the second half of the 15th century through the first part of the 17th.”

Bladder pipe – “A wind instrument consisting of a short blowpipe, an animal bladder and a chanter (pipe with fingerholes) whose reed is enclosed in the bladder.”

A bagpipe is one and has variations across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and India – all fashioned, we might assume, after somebody got someone else’s goat.

Hydraulis, I found, was an ancient Greek and Roman organ that used water to regulate air pressure in the pipes, something any plumber can appreciate.

And, oddly enough, Jew’s Harp “seems to have no connection with the Jewish people.”

Liedertafel caught my eye for the name of the club on Springfield’s South Burnett Road.

“Originally, a group of men gathered around a table (tafel) for singing and refreshment; later an occasion for such singing and refreshment to which male and female guests might be invited as auditors.”

The failure to mention beer in the definition seems a monumental oversight by the editors.

Then came “Quarrel of the Buffoons.”

Although I wrongly assumed that involved the debt ceiling, I wasn’t far off.

It’s the name for “a dispute, carried on principally in an exchange of several dozen published letters and pamphlets in Paris in the years 1752-54 over the relative merits of French and Italian music.”

Quartet for the End of Time, on the other hand, is suitably haunting.

It’s a piece “premiered in 1941 by the composer Olivier Messiaen and his fellow prisoners in a German prison camp …. using the Book of Revelation as a point of departure.”

As for relish?

It’s a term for a musical “ornament,” a kind of condiment of sound.

“The term single relish was used for any ornament (trill) formed by the alternation of two adjacent notes. The double relish consists essentially of a trill upon each of two successive notes.”

Finally, there is “blown fifth” interval.

Although I didn’t really expect it would refer to a too hastily consumed bottle of distilled spirits (see binge drinking), the real definition seems stranger still.

“In the theory of Erich M. von Hornbostel (1877-1935) a fifth equal to 678 cents (as compared with the pure fifth of 702 cents or the tempered fifth of 700) resulting from the overblowing of a stopped bamboo pipe.”

Erich M. von Hornbostel?

Stopped bamboo pipe?

Just knowing all that is a real gift.


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