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Classical Notes

What's in a name?

Posted at 3:12 PM on January 19, 2007 by Alison Young

This is my first winter in Minnesota. Although I've lived in Chicago, Northern Michigan, New York and Cleveland; for the past eighteen years, I was a southerner. So this winter has been kind of fun for me, almost like a novelty. Just the other day it snowed; big gorgeous flakes gently falling, perfect for skiing. In fact, I went out in it, up and down the mini-hills at Como Park. I proudly came home and spoke authoritatively about this particular type of snow being just right for my Nordic skis. I even went so far as to wonder aloud what word the Eskimos would use for this kind of snow. "What's the word for fluffy, but packed, not too icy, but squeaks under the foot?" I asked. No sooner did that query come out of my mouth then I came across an article that completely debunked the idea that Eskimos have countless words for snow. For starters, there's not one Eskimo language (it's part of the Inuit or Yupik language family.) But the key fact is, the Eskimos have just about as many words to describe snow as we do: powder, sleet or slush.

It kind of got me thinking about music. When I taught high school flute students, they would often identify their pieces with the one-word "title" at the top of the page like canon, allegro, andante, or this clear identifier, piece. They had little perspective or maybe lacked curiosity about what criteria sets a Mozart Allegro apart from a Tchaikovsky Allegro. Well, what really does? Maybe it would be clearer if the composer created a distinctive title like "sonata-form collection of notes in the key of C moving rather rapidly and sounding a bit more colorful than the other collection of notes in C I wrote last year."

I guess the argument is that unless it's incidental music or an overture or tone-poem, music doesn’t really need to have a title that defines it, or even a word that describes it perfectly. The "title" is simply a direction to give the performer some idea of what tempo to take or what mood to create. An allegro is an allegro is an allegro, but what's inside the music - the reason notes are used instead of words - is what makes music something unto itself.

Maybe letting the urban legend melt away that there are all these wonderfully descriptive words in "Eskimo" for the many types of snow is not the end of the world. It might mean a single word is inadequate to describe that cold, white stuff. To say it right may even require music.