Let’s talk about v, ff, and w.
Specifically, let’s talk about the Russians. So they’ve got their Cyrillic alphabet, and when we translate their names there’s a bit of room for interpretation. In English you’ve got your vuh sound, your ffuh sound, and your wuh sound. If translators are to be believed, the Russians somehow have a sound that combines all three.
Which is why you sometimes see Prokofiev but other times you see Prokofieff. However, I, for one, almost always see Prokofiev (spell check won’t even accept Prokofieff, if you need a further argument). By contrast, I almost always see Rachmaninoff, rarely Rachmaninov. But I do see some swappage. Between v and ff I accept some mixing.
This story, however, is about w.
The scene: eleventh grade. That all-county orchestra with the conductor who was essentially a blonde manifestation of evil. Her favorite piece was Scheherazade. Okay, fair enough. One night at the beginning of the second semester she gave us the Kalendar Prince movement. I looked at the top of the first page and there it was: Rimsky-Korsakow.
Korsakow? Who you callin’ fat, Mr. Sheet Music Publisher?
I pointed this out to my friend Paul, who was for some unfathomable reason my stand partner in the second violins even though he’s like 12,000 times better on his worst day than I am on my best.
“That is weird,” he said, all deceptive innocence, although Paul speaks Russian and might have known. “You should ask Mrs. C.”
“You think so?” I said, doubtful, because conductor C was without a doubt the devil incarnate (someday I’ll tell you about the Mozart Incident. It is not what you think).
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “She’ll love it.”
I am an idiot. I know this because I raised my hand and asked why Rimsky-Korsakov was spelled with a w.
She looked at me. There was enough of a lengthy pause to make the whole orchestra start to giggle.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why would you ask?”
“I — “
“Don’t worry about it. We need to get started.”
Later on, at the concert, the whole movement almost dissolved into chaos, prompting one audience member to turn to his friend and say, “It sounds like it’s falling apart, but I think it’s supposed to be that way.” Coincidence? I don’t think so.
What have we learned here? Well, we learned that you should never ask questions because teachers secretly hate the spirit of inquiry. We learned that it is really hard to tell if Paul is actually trying to mess with you. What we did not learn is who decides how to spell the names of Russian composers and why. Where are my Russian scholars?