Monday, August 05, 2013

No, you can't reach a crescendo. Or can you, if you're a famous writer?

Miles Hoffman, a fine fellow I'm sure, takes umbrage with F. Scott Fitzgerald, the historian James M. McPherson, George F. Will, William Safire, and others, for using some variant of the phrase "reach a crescendo." This strummed a mystic chord of memory for me. Sometime in my tween years, I read a Walt Disney comic in which Donald Duck got into a noise war with a neighbor. Donald decided to finish it off by turning his record player to top volume and putting on "the fortissimo crescendo from Bombpopoff's 'Eruption of Vesuvius.'" I was pretty sure there wasn't a real composer named Bombpopoff, but I couldn't resist mentioning this to my music teacher. He laughed, and said there could be no such thing as a "fortissimo crescendo." "Fortissimo," he said, means "as loud as it can get." "Crescendo" means "getting louder." Nothing can be as loud as possible and getting louder at the same time.

This, essentially, is Hoffman's argument. To say or write, "The battle reached a crescendo," is nonsensical. a crescendo is a process, not a completion. It may end at fortissimo, or somewhere below that, but once it gets there, it's not a crescendo anymore. I could only agree.

But then I read a letter to the Times editor by Jamie Apgar, of Berkeley, California, in part as follows:
I am disappointed by Mr. Hoffman’s article. “To reach a crescendo” is an idiom. Idioms are suited for neither syntactical analysis nor literal interpretation. ...
More broadly, the point of language is to convey meaning. I doubt that any of the sentences by the famous authors that Mr. Hoffman mentions are rendered opaque by including the “crescendo” idiom. They may indeed be clearer or more powerful because of the metaphor. I think that I’ll stick with Fitzgerald.
Well, to say, "The battle reached a fortissimo," seems silly and confusing. One could instead say, "reached a climax," thereby substituting a sexual reference for a musical one. Or, there's "reached its acme," which might bring to mind Wile E. Coyote.

Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein, wrote to the editor that she was "gratified indeed" by Hoffman's piece for its "elucidation on the word 'crescendo.'" She went on to suggest "a reason for the pervasiveness of the misuse":
I’m certain that it’s because the sound of the word so felicitously evokes the crashing of cymbals: “the crash at the end-o.”
Be that as it may, I'm inclined to agree with Apgar: "reach[ed] a crescendo" is one of those usages that, through repetition, has come to mean something specific to most readers, although it may be at variance to what musicians and students of music understand "crescendo" to mean. I suspect John McWhorter would concur. (You can read the full texts of Ms. Apgar's and Ms. Bernstein's letters here.)

Perhaps the best known example of a crescendo, one that extends for the entire length of the composition, is Ravel's Bolero. Anyway, I couldn't resist the opportunity to send you to another of my posts.

Image:Best Clip Art Blog.