Printer-friendly version
Emily Grossman

Usage Determines Meaning

August 21, 2013 at 12:11 PM

This year, the Kenai Summer Music Festival included a short aria, "E Lucevan Estelle", from Act 3 of Puccini's Tosca. Sung effectively, it is one of the most passionately heart-wrenching pieces of music written in all of opera. However, if you've never heard it and sit down with the viola part for a sight-read, you will see just a bunch of non-melodic, nondescript quarter notes and and eighth rests. My stand partner and I had great fun trying to pronounce the unfamiliar Italian words that were printed over some of the apparently more important notes: sostendo vagamente, stentate un poco, and con slancio, for instance. "What do you think they mean?" she asked me.

"Well, like this," I said, and I clenched my fist and made an anguished face. "And like this," and I dropped my hand open in despair. "And..."

Here, let me tell you a story.

It all began last November while I was in Hawaii, attending my best friend's wedding as the maid of honor. Such a bright and happy occasion warranted much celebration, and celebrate we did... but those stories will stay in Hawaii. This is the story about what happened at home while I was away. Sunday morning after the wedding, my husband called with bad news: Ben, my dog, was not well at all, and needed to get to the vet as soon as possible, only the clinics were all closed for the day. By Monday, he was dying, and no one could see him until later that day. I waited with my cell phone in hand for the news. Finally, the phone call: his spleen had ruptured, probably due to a cancerous tumor. He'd lost a lot of blood and they didn't think that he would survive the surgery.

"You realise that if it's cancer, we have to put him down, right?" Still numb from the shock, my mind functioned with only practical problem-solving skills--not the best comfort to the person on the other end of the line, which had fallen silent. "You okay?" I asked. "NO!" came the sound of my husband's voice through his tears. In all the years I'd been married to him, I'd only witnessed him crying one other time, when a good friend of his died. The sudden comprehension of his grief moved me, and then, I was weeping, too. In a hotel lobby. In downtown Waikiki, as the slack key guitar played over the PA system and the smell of hibiscus and tourism overwhelmed me.

The other people in the wedding party wanted to go to Pearl Harbor and other sight-seeing destinations. We only had one rental car, and since I didn't want to be the emotional sandbag, I opted to stay at the hotel. "How will you get to the airport tonight?" they asked. I told them I'd take a cab, since they weren't coming back my direction.

I needed to grieve unnoticed, so I slapped on some sunscreen and started walking. It's easy to disappear in Honolulu, and no one noticed anything behind my sunglasses. I walked to Chinatown, and when it began to rain torrentially, I used my last bit of cash to buy an umbrella. And since I didn't have enough cash to hail a cab, I kept walking. In the rain. In Chinatown, as the sun began to set, and the skies cleared, and I made my way, mile by mile, in the dusky twilight toward the airport, hoping not to get stuck in Chinatown after dark. After six miles, I had enough change to hail a cab for the last three (where I discovered that most cabs take credit card, of course). Then, as I waited for the plane, and waited for time to tell what would become of my dog, I pulled out my friend's i-pod and browsed his musical selection. In the album "Classical Heartbreakers," I stumbled upon Puccini's tragic aria, and listened to it on a short little loop probably at least thirty times, just so I could feel the grief one more time.

Not that he was singing about a dog with a cancerous spleen, or about crying in the rain in Chinatown. The point of my story is, he was singing about his personal grief in a way that matched my own. Yes, the words were Italian--I believe he'd been betrayed by his lover and was fixing to endure the firing squad--and I don't speak a lick of the Romantic languages, and I'm pretty sure they don't do firing squads in Alaska, but I connected intimately with the lamenting lover, and it was comforting to my sorry soul.

A grammar teacher once told me, "Usage determines meaning." Meaning, the word in question draws its meaning from whatever the context provides for definition. So, it is not the words themselves that carry meaning, so much as how we use the words. Music has this way of being able to convey something ever so much more specific than a word could ever express, yet allows room for both the performer's and the listener's own personal experience to connect with the meaning.

It's true: I admit, I never did look up the definitions for sostendo vagamente, stentate un poco, and con slancio; I already knew exactly how to play those quarter notes and eighth rests--and then some--because I knew what I wanted to communicate with the music. And it's so much more than words.

It's about crying over a dog that's dying from a ruptured cancerous spleen. While walking through Chinatown in downtown Honolulu. In the rain...

(Side note: my dog is alive and well today, and one of two dogs in the vet clinic's history that has survived a ruptured cancerous spleen removal more than three months. Not only that, he fathered nine puppies in May, one of which belongs to me now.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 21, 2013 at 12:58 PM
Emily - very interesting blog. I guess, as they say, you can always tell if they are singing your song, even if you cannot understand the words. I am glad your story about Ben had such a happy ending. I know you are very attached to him.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 21, 2013 at 1:28 PM
Oh, what a touching story and just love the side note - it made me so happy. : )
From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 22, 2013 at 5:50 PM
Yeah, it's great to have Ben around, old dog... can't believe he's ten already!

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine