Classical Music Terms Unravelled (or Unravel-Ed)

By McVeigh, Alice | Verbatim, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Classical Music Terms Unravelled (or Unravel-Ed)


McVeigh, Alice, Verbatim


The terminology preferred by classical musicians is, on the whole, pretty blackly humorous. To classical music fans this may come as a surprise, as classical music's image has never married with its reality. To the general public, orchestral players appear to be sedate, stiff-backed gents in white tie and tails (or, these days, just as possibly disciplined young women wearing long, cover-up black dresses or suits) playing with awesome skill and creativity. Sadly, the truth is that these same players are statistically also likely to be single-parent, twice-divorced soft-drug-users, not only seriously overdrawn on their credit cards but requiring regular therapy in order to cope with performance nerves. Beyond this notable lack of sedateness, numerous studies have proven that orchestral musicians boast comparable job satisfaction to factory employees, and roughly as much self-esteem. The very level of dedication and creativity required to achieve the orchestral musical heights stands in sharp and painful contrast to the amount of artistic freedom permitted once one has "made it," as one is immediately obliged to play one's every note at the time, in the style, at the dynamic, and with the articulation of the conductor's own choosing.

For this reason there are lots of terms used for conductors, or music directors, but most of them are unprintable. The most common term is carver, as in, "Who's carving on Saturday? Will he notice if I'm ten minutes late?" The historical term is, of course, Maestro (master), which was in vogue (at least, to the conductor's face) throughout most of the 20th century, representing as he then did the hirer and firer of all the players. However, in these days of self-governed orchestras Maestro tends to be used ironically, if at all. ("Don't tell me, let me guess. We owe these flakey bowings to the Maestro himself, right?")

And yet great conductors can still be held in high esteem. There is a joke that a viola player in a famous orchestra comes home one night to find his house razed to the ground. A neighbour tells him, "I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you, but the conductor came here with a meat cleaver, killed your family, and burned your house to the ground." Upon which the violist says, in complete disbelief, "You're kidding. The conductor came to my house?"

The very term orchestra comes from the area of the hall where what was originally known as the band played. The principal violin-player's being called the concertmaster (in Europe, the leader) dates back to the baroque-period pre-conductor age when he led the concert from the front of the first violins. Nowadays their role is much reduced, something many leaders have still not come to terms with. The other co-principals, associate principals, assistant principals, and sub-principals within his (and, indeed, other's sections, whether first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, or basses) sometimes call to mind the cellist joke: "How many cellists does it take to change a light-bulb?" (Answer: "Ten. One to change the bulb and nine to think they could have changed it rather better.")

Section players in the strings who have not attained even the heady rank of sub-principal are simply known as rank and bile, a corruption of the middle and late 20th-century term rank and file, which came originally from the military. They are also occasionally colloquially known as pondlife, as in, "Right, we've finished rehearsing the chamber number. Have the pondlife shown up yet?" A wrecker is somebody, usually in the string sections, who routinely either comes in too early or hangs on to a note too late, as in "He's a wrecker, and always has been, but his heart's in the right place."

Orchestral concerts are referred to as gigs, as in "I've only got a gig a week this whole month." Many people think that this is short for giggle, as there are not nearly as many of them around as there used to be, but jazz players have spoken of their "gigs" for years, and orchestral musicians apparently began to adopt the term around the middle of the 20th century. …

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