Wednesday, November 18, 2009


One of my standard post-concert cocktail party jokes has been about someday writing a history of music based entirely on the use and development of the fermata and the caesura, bearing the name Birds' Eyes and Railroad Tracks.  But now, lo and behold, what piece of musicological obscuria should have just landed in my mailbox but a history of the accent, Orchestral Accents (1960) by one Richard Korn?  Yep, analysis and history of the use of the accents, and there are two of them: < and sf(z).  (There is, to be sure, also a brief appendix discussing the ^/v markings which are somewhat different beasts, more articulation than accent).  Notated accents, according to Korn,  begin with the vertical lines of C.P.E. Bach and the equivalent wedges of the early classicists, and their use gradually changes from a notation for emphasis of a tone other than the first in a measure (syncopations) to an expressive device of its own (peaking in Stravinsky who has entire movements with more notes carrying accents than accentless).  Korn classifies their appearances: whether they occur on the attack or carry through an entire tone, whether they use sharpness of attack, timbre or volume (or some combination of the above) to create relief within the prevailing dynamic context.  I can't speak to the currency of the text today as I am sure that there has been significant musicological work done in the field since Korn's book appeared, and one would surely like to extend the American music chapter to composers besides Gershwin and Copland, but jeez, by coming up with an account of a good stretch of music history from the point-of-view of an item or two of notation, it sure ruined a reliable old bit of post-concert repartee.  But did I ever mention my pan to write a history of the repeat signs?    

1 comment:

Thomas Dent said...

Hans Keller believed, with a great deal of pertinent example, that 'sf' in 'classical' notation mostly didn't mean the stereotypical 'surprise accent' that you get taught in conservatory.

Rather it could well mean 'this note which otherwise you would have played quite weakly is actually not weak' or 'the main accent of the phrase is not where you might have expected but actually at this point'.

For example the Beethoven G major violin sonata, second subject of the first movement: performers make a hideous delayed 'surprise' accent, where the sf just means 'aim towards me rather than the first beat'. Or the finale of Haydn op.77 no.1 where you might otherwise play the a's weakly...