ain't baroque! :||
Don't Fix It

ff you

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?

About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


8 thoughts on “ff you

  1. Jenn!

    Long time listener, first time caller… and I promise to stop calling as per court order… but the reason I’m responding is your descriptor, “the conductor who was essentially a blonde manifestation of evil”. She sounds great. Can you send her contact information? I love eHarmony…

    As you know, I teach future teachers how to teach, so I know a thing or two about teaching. And I have to simultaneously congratulate and chastise you for finding out our secret mantra, “secretly hate the spirit of inquiry”. If you continue to expose conductors and educators, I will ban you from Disney… possibly Florida.

    Great to be back… and ff you too.

    Peace out,

    Dr. Carney
    Medal of Violar recipient

    Posted by Dr. Carney | November 8, 2011, 8:55 am
    • Ah, Mr. Bond. You return.

      C is, somehow, married, although depending how evil you like your blondes that may not be an impediment.

      Psh. You’re not telling me anything new. Formal education is just adults trying to break you.

      I could never be banned from FL — the Disney Maquis would smuggle me in.

      I didn’t know you hated Mozart too. We should start a club!

      Posted by Jenn | November 8, 2011, 9:59 am
  2. As someone with an interest in Russian culture and music, I also get frustrated by the multiple variations in transliteration (not really translation) of Russian names. It’s a problem caused by trying to account for the written and spoken renditions of the letters in the Cyrillic alphabet (and this is a problem whenever you’re transliterating from another alphabet or writing system; hence, the variations you’ll see in English spelling of Arabic or Chinese names). The v and ff variations you see for the ends of Russian names, for example, stem from one transliteration approach that tries to reflect the original spelling as close as possible and another approach that reflects the way it is sounded when spoken: v stands in for the original Russian letter for v (which looks like our capital B), but Russians devoice v to an f sound when it comes at the end of a word, so some transliterations reflect the actual pronunciation instead (with a double f either because it looks better or some how emphasizes the devoicing aspect). Your Rimsky-Korsakov was for a time rendered as Rimsky-Korsakoff (that w at the end of Rimsky-Korsakow is just another approach, using w to reflect the v sound as it might be pronounced in a German spelling, but I think it’s out of fashion now. You might even see Tchaikowsky in some old sources.) Some Russian transliteration inconsistencies also come to us via other European languages. The name of the great bass Chaliapin really ought to be rendered as Shaliapin (or Shalyapin) in English, reflecting the letter for the sh sound in Russian, but apparently it comes to us through a French transliteration and that’s how he is known to us today. If he happens to be in the same sentence with Shostakovich, for example, he’ll still be seen as Chaliapin. There are other Cyrillic letters that can be transliterated different ways. All this may not really clarify anything, but there is logic behind the transliterations we see, it’s just that there is more than one kind of logical approach to them.

    Posted by Clayton | January 7, 2012, 8:00 am
    • That’s really nifty information — thank you so much!

      Posted by Jenn | January 12, 2012, 2:27 pm
    • Yup, that’s all absolutely correct. There are different schemes of transliteration around – the most popular is the Yale Convention, which is largely the way we transliterate Russian today.

      However, the reason behind some of the rather archaic transliterations we see sometimes – such as the “-off” ending, the “-icz” combination etc – is primarily for one reason… these were the transliterations the composers and performers *chose themselves* when they performed or were published outside Russia.

      For example the composer Tchaikowski himself either chose or approved this spelling when he was published in Germany. Similarly Medtner has no “d” in cyrillic (where he is purely Метнер) – but his German publishers created a new German-looking spelling for him, and he indeed put his name to this spelling himself. Rachmaninoff is always spelt with the “-off” ending, because he lived in America for many years and adopted the spelling himself. As a prominent recitatlist he often gave autographs after his concerts – and he signed his name “Rachmaninoff”. So who would know better than Sergei Rachmaninoff how his own name ought to be spelt? :))

      So although there are logical transliteration systems, the composer’s own choice of spelling – however picturesque we may think it today! – is always afforded preference.

      Posted by Neil McGowan (in Moscow) | May 7, 2012, 3:01 pm
      • Oh, that’s so interesting – and makes so much sense! Thanks for educating us. 🙂

        Posted by Jenn | May 7, 2012, 3:05 pm
      • I loved reading tghruoh your submit. I’ve reached be honest was the initial content in your website I truly liked as well as exactly where I had a sense of understanding, know what I am talking about? Anyhow, keep up with the posting as well as Im going to be back once again.

        Posted by Vladimir | May 27, 2012, 8:46 pm


  1. Pingback: Next thing you’ll tell me it’s a pah de doo « If it ain't Baroque… - January 27, 2012

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