Vocabulary in Old Books

While surfing the internet looking at t-shirts one day, I came across a shirt with an image of a raven spelling the word “nevermore.” Immediately recognizing the reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem The Raven, I went and grabbed my copy off of the shelf and began to read. However, upon opening the book, a small piece of paper fell out, and upon looking closer I realized it contained a bunch of words on it meant for further research in the dictionary.
One of the great advantages of reading older books is the expansive use of vocabulary found in them. While by no means a universal truth, many older authors (especially the ones who have lasted the test of time) maintained a much stronger mastery of the English language than people do today. This makes old books a great way to learn new (old) English words. However, like just about anything, vocabulary growth cannot be obtained in a desultory manner, because then we just end up writing words down to reference later and stick them in a book.
After rediscovering my list of vocabulary from Poe’s book, I continued on to reread The Raven, it took me all of 5 minutes, but in the process I had discovered several more words to add to my small paper. So, find a good book, and whenever you get a chance – read and learn. There’s a whole wealth of words out there that the majority of people do not know, a whole treasure chest just waiting to be discovered. Here are some of the words that I found through reading Poe:

  1. Quiescence –adj. in a state or period of inactivity or dormancy
  2. Asphodel –n. an immortal flower said to grow in the Elysian fields
  3. Desultory –adj. lacking a plan, purpose, or enthusiasm
  4. Nepenthe –n. any drug or potion bringing welcome forgetfulness
  5. Castellated –adj. having battlements
  6. Surcease –n. cessation; relief or consolation

The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done

This is the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Okay, fine. This is not the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done; this is the story of one of the worst things I’ve ever done. And, obviously, it’s not even really all that terrible, because I have no qualms telling any of you about it, ye anonymous internet reader, ye not-so-anonymous internet reader, or ye rando I’m swapping anecdotes with at a party.

So here it goes. When I was a sophomore in college, I semi-routinely went two-steppin’ with a group of friends at the local dance hall. Not for any great love of country/western music, as I actually dislike the genre. I can claim no higher motives than that all my friends were doing it, I’m a bit of a social caterpillar, and dancing can be objectively fun, especially with people who are good at it. Also, the guy I was into at the time sometimes made an appearance, so I was always hoping to run into him.

This one time, though, this time I’m telling you about, it was just me and a friend. We’ve lost touch since then, this friend and I, for a few valid reasons, but I still think fondly of her. She was, well, the fun friend. Some of you will know what I mean by this very simple description; for others, you should know that she was charming, clever, cheeky and opinionated, extremely generous and also incredibly impulsive. Arguably flighty, and openly flirty, she was fun, and she persuaded me to accompany her and her alone to the dance hall one night, because no one else could go, but she still wanted to go dancing.

It was she who would be the victim of that very bad thing I did, which occurred between the hours of 10 and 11 p.m., on the left-hand side of the first dance floor in the building.

We, two unaccompanied girls, stood on the edge of the shuffling couples, thereby signalling that we were ready to jump in at a moment’s invitation. We didn’t want for partners (well, she especially didn’t). Like most country/western halls, I gather, the atmosphere was congenial, and you, a male, could ask unknown females to dance without being inherently creepy. Unless, of course, you yourself were creepy.

This is the juncture where I will introduce the third player in the upcoming scene: Fedora Guy. In the spirit of charity, I should state that “creepy” is perhaps too strong a word for him. In all of this that I am about to tell, I never felt threatened, and he was perfectly polite in every interaction. But, he was…weird.

First off, he was wearing a fedora, a buttoned vest, slacks, and a pair of dress shoes that had, I think I recall, slightly pointed toes. Not to belabor the point, but this was a country/western dance hall, meaning that jeans and cowboy boots were the unofficial dress code, and if a hat was worn, it was obviously also a cowboy one.

Secondly, it was the way he danced. He danced much as I imagine an oily octopus might. He oozed his way rhythmically across the floor, attempting to exude what he thought was pizzaz while draping his tentacles as best he could around his partner.

Being that partner dancing with him was exactly as awkward as it looked. I know this, because I danced with him when he asked me that one time. I attempted to make small talk with him as we slimed our way across the floor. I thanked him for his trouble when we were done, though it was really all mine. I was determined to never dance with him ever again.

So, on that night out dancing with my Fun Friend, it was with quite a bit of panic that I watched Fedora Guy seep his way over until he was in front of us, and faux-suavely hold out his hand between the two of us, mutely asking: “Do either of you want to dance with me?” And so at last we come to it: the moment of the kind of bad thing I did.

I picked up my friend’s hand, and placed it in his.

He sucked her into his eight-legged orbit, where she remained for the next three to four minutes, while I went and hid.

Afterwards, she was, honestly, pretty much fuming at me, and she did not appreciate my defense at the time: “You said you needed a wingwoman, and look at me! I think I’m being a pretty great wingwoman – I just got you a guy to dance with!”

Postscript: I actually met Fedora Guy a couple years later, outside of the dance hall, at a wedding. Turns out he was good friends with both the bride and groom, who were also friends of mine. He was not wearing a fedora at the time, and he seemed pretty, well, normal. Thus, I’m not really sure whether the moral of this story is “Know when it’s worth it to throw your friends under the bus,” or “don’t wear fedoras.”

Life Lessons From My First Snowboarding Trip

  1. At times, if you are like me, you will end up in a situation that you agreed to be in, but without fully understanding what you were signing up for and the risks involved. This is why a lot of wiser, older folks opine about experience being the best mentor; sometimes it’s good to listen!
  2. Lace your shoes securely.
  3. You will fall down a lot at first; the important thing is to not break any bones and to get back up and keep going. If you do this, eventually, one of the following will happen:
    1. you’ll break something and have to stop.
    2. your bum will go numb and you’ll stop minding the falls as much (preferable to option 1).
    3. you’ll gain experience and fall less (the most preferable option).
  4. Often, an inexperienced boarder (I have no idea who you might be thinking of!) will pick up speed, lose control, and wipe out. Learning to slow down takes practice but is 100% worth it.
  5. Be sure to pack the right equipment for the activity (snow pants, beanies, snowproof gloves, etc.).
  6. Learn from each mistake, and don’t get discouraged when you’re sore and it hurts.
  7. Try not to collide with other people during your journey; it’s less fun for everyone.
  8. We all make it to the bottom of the mountain eventually, just at different speeds and in different conditions; some arrive at the bottom on stretchers (not to be too macabre, but I did see it happen). Experienced boarders tend to arrive at the bottom quickly and with minimal injury.
  9. Regarding chair lifts – sitting and waiting is a big part of snowboarding, and of life! It helps to have a friend alongside you, to pass the time.
  10. While you’re sitting and waiting, remember to enjoy the scenery. Oooh! Ah!

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To those who may be curious: no, I didn’t collide with anybody (whew!). I did fall a lot, but I returned safely home with no major injuries, and with more skill as a boarder than when I arrived. Since I had no experience when I arrived, this is not remarkable. Whether snowboarding is something I would ever do again, well…that is another post.

Divisions on Dividing

We are excited to welcome back our guest author Caroline Bennett! Read on to enjoy her latest music-related contribution.


Music historian James Webster posits that, “One cannot think about, still less investigate, the ceaseless, infinitely complex flow of historical events without segmenting them into time spans.”[1] Webster was speaking of the Classical-Romantic divide in music, but structure in any discipline allows people to understand concepts for themselves. Perhaps more importantly, it enables them to share this knowledge and communicate with others more easily. Thus, dividing music history into distinct periods is logical. The separation between with Classical and Romantic musical eras continues to be useful because it allows people to easily communicate with others by providing the structure and context necessary to better appreciate and interpret music.

James Webster

Musicians can compartmentalize music history in many ways, and when appropriate they can use different methods of periodization. Ultimately, however, music history should be organized in a way that is easy for others to grasp. Although Webster is dissatisfied with the standard division between the “Classical” and “Romantic” eras, suggesting that historians label the late 18th through early 19th centuries as “First Viennese Modernism,” there are significant advantages to adhering to the traditional periods. Music historians do share their findings amongst themselves, but also with other musicians or students who are not as familiar with historical details. Thus it is important that the historical narrative be divided in such a way that related composers, musical works, and concepts are grouped together. The divisions should not be so minute, however, that they become difficult to understand or distinguish. Webster notes that periodization is like a story’s plot because both create a narrative.[2] This is a useful way to think about how intricate the divisions in music history should generally be. In a standard plot, the more layers and partitions there are, the less focused the intention of the story becomes and the harder it is for the reader to understand and appreciate the story as a whole. Novels with complex layers, numerous descriptions, and a multitude of characters are often worthwhile, but only inviting and accessible to a select audience. Choosing a simpler periodization may seem inadequate, but Webster acknowledges that “even if the understanding of historical phenomena that periods offer is always partial and self-interested, the only alternative is—no understanding at all.”[3] Music historians, when writing for themselves or for a very specific audience, should create as detailed a structure as they wish. Nevertheless, because music history is usually meant to be shared with a diverse audience, its divisions and layers should be more straightforward.

Mozart

Dividing the Classical and Romantic eras allows teachers and students to better distinguish the predominant characteristics of music in those time periods. Although concepts carried over from the Classical era to the Romantic, in general the thematic material, harmonic structure, and messages of the music were different. For example, Mozart wrote in 1781 that music must “give pleasure and never offend the ear” else it would not be music.[4] Many composers in the 1700s used music to simply represent concepts and emotions, not to actually provoke the audience’s feelings. In his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck wrote Orfeo’s lament in C major and if it were not for the libretto the aria would not sound sad at all. The orchestral accompaniment is rather energetic and the vocal melody could easily pass as a love song. Although composers did begin to add more and more feeling into their music over the course of the 18th century, audiences still found Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, written in 1803, rather overwhelming in its magnitude and confusing in its modulations and overall structure. The first movement’s development was significantly longer than the exposition and the coda nearly equaled the length of the exposition. Furthermore, the first movement modulated abruptly to unexpected keys and certain passages had distinctly dissonant harmonies. Values in music continued to change after the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, however. By the time music critic E.T.A. Hoffman analyzed Beethoven’s instrumental music in 1813, many audiences were beginning to appreciate music that made them feel uncomfortable. For example, Hoffman was very pleased that Beethoven’s music could “destroy” a listener and stir up a sense of “endless longing.”[5] This transition from Mozart’s view to Hoffman’s was gradual, so putting Mozart squarely in the “Classical” era or composers after Beethoven in the “Romantic” era is somewhat messy. Nevertheless, as long as teachers and students bear in mind that historical events are actually a progression, it is safe to simply label segments of the 18th and 19th centuries as “Classical” or “Romantic.”

When composers like Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Wagner are grouped together, people can easily make connections between the pieces, and musicians have an innate concept of how to approach the music. For example, some of Mozart’s compositions show the direct influence of Haydn, including his Symphony No. 36 in C Major, which audiences can more easily discern when they already expect Mozart and Haydn to be similar. Romantic composers are connected by a number of commonalities, but especially by the influence that philosophers such as Immanuel Kant had on music, art, and culture. In contrast to the philosophers of the 17th and early 18th centuries, who promoted the use of reason, philosophers like Kant argued for a more subjective approach. This ultimately influenced Romantic composers like Wagner. Not only did Wagner write more for his own purposes and pleasure, but he also sought to make his music excite the emotions of audience members. In Tristan und Isolde Wagner did not pander to the music critics or write what was popular; instead he used the harmonies and melodies that he personally believed to be the most effective in expressing the desired emotions. Because he wished to show that the characters were full of longing, Wagner frequently delayed the resolution to the tonic and incorporated unusual chromaticism. This effectively creates a sense of unease and longing in the actual listener. Because musicians are aware the Romantic composers typically sought to express emotions in music and kindle the same emotions in audience members, these artists can approach Romantic pieces understanding that they must use dynamics, rubato, and the like to create the composers’ desired effect.

Although Webster’s argument for a more precise periodization of music history in the 18th and 19th centuries has a place in analyses, the accepted Classical-Romantic divide is still relevant today. No periodization is perfect, but because divisions in history are inevitable music historians should aim to choose a periodization structure that shares knowledge the most effectively.  The simple distinction between the Classical and Romantic era is easy for audiences to grasp—whether they are musicians or not—because of the contextual information that it instantly provides. This means that people can more easily make connections between composers, compositions, and historical events. Consequently, audiences will have a richer understanding and appreciation of music.

Works Cited

Hoffman, E.T.A. “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music.” In Source Readings in Music History, edited by Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, 1193-98. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “Letters to His Father.” In Source Readings in Music History, edited by Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, 965-70. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Webster, James. “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century.” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 108-126.


1. James Webster, “Between Enlightenment and Romanticism in Music History: ‘First Viennese Modernism’ and the Delayed Nineteenth Century,” 19th Century Music, vol. 25, nos. 2-3 (2001-02): 110.

[2]. Webster, “Between Enlightenment,” 110.

[3]. Ibid., 114.

[4]. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Letters to His Father,” in Source Readings in Music History, ed.  Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 967.

[5]. E.T.A. Hoffman, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” in Source Readings in Music History, ed.  Leo Treitler and W. Oliver Strunk, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 1194.