Miles Hoffman, the violinist with the American Chamber Players, and an NPR music commentator, wrote an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times on July 29. He took to task those who use a musical term, crescendo, in a way that is totally inconsistent with its true meaning.
Now this is a common theme among wordsmiths. Is it acceptable to appropriate a word and use it over and over again without concern for the validity of its meaning? I have commented numerous times that it is a common practice, and that after an extended period of mis-use, editors of dictionaries and linguistic guides seem willing to let it slip into acceptable usage. If you read linguistic studies they will tell you that English is a fluid language, an amalgamation of several other languages which has never really settled into a concrete form. Therefore, the flexibility of admitting new words or new meanings of words should be okay.
But Mr. Hoffman disagrees when it comes to musical terminology. He points out that the use of crescendo as a static point, an achievement, is contrary to its true meaning as a sound in progress. To accomplish a crescendo, a musician gradually (or suddenly) increases the volume. That doesn’t mean, he says, that it has to be noisy. If a piece is being played in a quiet, somber tone, a crescendo could be a subtle increase in volume to one which is just barely more than quiet.
His point is that the misuse of the word crescendo, as in an article that says “criticism has reached a crescendo over the actions of the former Representative,” makes it sound as if the criticism has reached a stable point, some degree of loudness that makes it qualify for the word crescendo. In truth, a period of criticism which is in a crescendo mode is still growing. It hasn’t reached its peak. It is in the process of getting louder.
This may seem like a silly distinction, hardly worth the space it took up on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, but it is an important one, especially to a musician for whom the language of music is vital. To use a word from the music lexicon incorrectly is to damage the meaning as applied to a performance. If musicians think that crescendo means to arrive at some point of loudness, it distorts the interpretation of a piece.
Now maybe there’s something to be said for the use of the word in other contexts, but it doesn’t hurt for someone with a vested interest in the word to try to put brakes on before the meaning of the word becomes totally trashed. I, for one, appreciate the clarification by Mr. Hoffman. It makes good sense, and preserves a meaning which is helpful, even apart from music.
Photo Credit: Hoffman