If classical music mystifies, read this

December 28, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

TO MY MIND, ONE of the most charming classical music programs is National Public Radio's "Performance Today," with host Martin Goldsmith. Among the show's many delights is a weekly commentary titled, appropriately enough, "Coming to Terms."

The segment features author and musician Miles Hoffman, who chats knowledgeably about musical terminology and concepts.

For listeners who don't instantly know what expressions like "adagio ma non troppo" mean (slow, but not too slow), Hoffman's commentary is a painless alternative to a college-level music appreciation course, served up in bite-sized pieces.

Now Hoffman, who lives in Maryland, has collected his thoughts in a charming volume, "The NPR Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts From A to Z." It is an engaging guide in which Hoffman demystifies the terms and concepts of classical music.

Have you ever wondered, for example, what makes a good conductor or a bad one? Or what's the difference between a pianoforte and a fortepiano? How about the most misused musical term? And, by the way, who invented opera and why?

To these and a hundred other questions, Hoffman offers clear, informative and witty answers that make reading his book an irresistible pleasure.

"The tangle of foreign terms and technical jargon surrounding classical music often forms an unfortunate barrier, distancing or discomforting people unnecessarily," he writes in the preface. "To chip away at that barrier seemed a very good thing."

Though Hoffman's guide assumes no prior knowledge on the reader's part, even people already familiar with basic musical terms and concepts will find many interesting new tidbits.

For example, I've played the guitar since I was a teen-ager, but never really considered the function of the frets on the fingerboard until I read Hoffman's explanation.

"Without frets, the fingertips themselves would be 'stopping' the strings on the fingerboard," he writes. "But fingertips are soft, and they absorb vibrations. In the absence of frets they would dampen the sound considerably.

"When the fingertips push the strings against frets, however, the frets actually stop the strings, not the fingertips. Because the frets are made of a hard material, the absorption of vibrations is minimal, and the strings are free to sound much longer and louder."

Or take Hoffman's entry on the harp, an instrument that has always been a mystery to me:

"Here's a little secret: harpists don't use their pinkies," he writes. The pinkie is too weak to provide much sound, he goes on, so harpists use only their thumbs and the first three fingers of each hand.

He also mentions that harps are expensive (anywhere from $15,000 to $60,000 for a good one), only last between 10 and 25 years and are notoriously hard to play.

("In the words of the great French harp virtuoso and teacher Carlos Salzedo [1885-1961], 'You have to work like ze devil to play like ze angel.' ")

Other examples of Hoffman's unpretentious erudition abound in this volume, which has more than 130 entries arranged alphabetically by subject. Along the way, he delves into definitions and etymologies, explores terms with reference to famous composers and works, and calls upon many amusing analogies to make sense of music's finer points.

On Opera: "Opera was invented by a group of Italian composers and poets called the Camerata who came together in Florence in the late 1500s and whose goal was to recreate what they imagined to be the musical style of ancient Greek tragedy.

"The earliest surviving opera, 'Euridice,' by Giulo Caccini and Jacopo Peri, was written in 1600. The Italian word opera means 'work,' from the Latin opus, and the term was originally an abbreviated version of opera in musica, 'work in music.' "

Madrigals: "Madrigal is an interesting word. Some scholars theorize that it derives from the Latin matricalis, meaning 'mother,' as in 'mother tongue,' or 'mother church.'

"Others think it might be related to mandrialis, another Latin term, meaning, roughly, 'My, what a lovely shepherdess you are. Mind if I help you tend your flock for a few weeks?'

"A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but mandrialis does mean 'pastoral,' and whatever the etymological Truth, madrigals are secular Italian vocal pieces -- poetry set to music -- that often have to do with love or pastoral settings or both."

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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