Classical Connections: Linguistic Roots

Bohuslav Martinu in 1943.

It’s curious how music is so full of inconsistencies, especially in the language used to describe musical things. Only this morning, it occurred to me that while the expression “saxophone quartet” means a group of four saxophones, a “piano quartet” certainly doesn’t mean four pianos. It actually means a piano plus three stringed instruments, nearly always violin, viola and cello. A piece described as a horn trio can be music for three horns, but it’s more likely to mean a piece for horn plus violin and piano. A “piano trio” can describe the ensemble (in this case piano, violin and cello) or the music written for one, as in Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op 1 No 3 in C minor, or even the professional name of the ensemble, as in Vienna Piano Trio. Yes, it’s all a bit confusing.

As you know, we use the words trio, quartet and quintet for musical groups made up of three, four or five players respectively. These words show a classical influence, similar to bicycle, biped, tricycle, quadrangle, decade and centipede. But have you ever wondered why a piece for two instruments is called a “duo” rather than a “bio”? And why is music for four players called a “quartet” and not a “quadret”?

Although Italian has been the main contributor to international musical vocabulary, a few words have Latin origins. Even the word “music” comes from the Latin musica. Other Latin borrowings include the words triad (meaning a basic chord of three different notes); octava (the name for tones eight notes apart) and fuga (a type of composition popular in the baroque). The word tenor comes from Latin tenorum and the word soprano comes from Latin supra. There are probably dozens of others.

But the Greeks had a hand in it too. “Duo” comes from the Greek as in the word deuteraio which means “every second day” and “trio” also comes from the Greek tritaio meaning “every third day”. While it’s quite common to hear the terms octet (eight players) and nonet (nine players) the term for a ten-player ensemble – the decet – is rarely used. A group of eleven musicians, such as found in the piece The Carnival of the Animals, is called either a hendecet or an undecet and a group of twelve is called a duodecet. However these terms are so rarely used that even professional musicians might scratch their heads at the sight of them. In practice, a composer would probably describe a piece for these numbers as being “for small ensemble” or “for twelve instruments”.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Octet in F major, D 803. Janine Jansen and Friends (Duration: 01:06:13; Video: 1080p HD)

Scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello and double bass the work was commissioned by Count Ferdinand von Troyer, an employee of Archduke Rudolph who had once studied with Beethoven. Troyer was a skilled clarinet player and Schubert wrote the clarinet part with him in mind. The Mozart-like Adagio movement was especially tailored to Troyer’s expressive and technical mastery. Although it’s rather a long work running at over an hour, it contains some of Schubert’s most delightful and light-hearted music – full of warmth and captivating melodies. It’s a work of many moods too and the six-movement structure was based loosely on the 18th-century serenade.

Schubert wrote the work in just a few weeks during February and March 1824. It was first performed privately but the first public performance didn’t take place until three years later. As so often happened with Schubert’s music, the score was not published until a quarter-century after his death. Recorded at the Utrecht Chamber Music Festival, these fine musicians give a splendidly balanced performance with a superb sense of style. This is as good a performance as you are likely to hear.

Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959): Nonet No. 2 H374.  Soloists from the Round Top Festival Institute (Duration: 17:43; Video: 1080p HD)

Martinu’s work is not heard often these days. This is a great shame for I believe he was one of the major voices in 20th century music. He was a prolific composer who wrote six symphonies, fifteen operas, fourteen ballet scores and a wealth of other music. His music has a blend of French and Czech influences and he was greatly influenced by the neo-classical movement. This second Nonet was composed in 1959, the last year of his life and first performed at the Salzburg Festival. The work is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello & bass. This is the second work that Martinu wrote for nine instruments; the first one was written in 1925 with almost the same instrumentation.

From the opening moments, you’ll be transported into a kind of Stravinskian neo-classical world that positively brims with life. Like the Schubert work, it has many moods but listen out for the lovely wistful slow movement. In a way, it speaks of an earlier age, when melody and harmony dominated the musical language. This wonderful richly-composed music is vibrant, full of charm and blessed with many magic moments.

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