“Rumors about the impending exit have swirled for months, reaching a crescendo in recent days.” — Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2013.

Awhile back I commented on music critic Scott Cantrell’s non-use of the word crescendo, the implication being that the word is too technical for a general circulation newspaper. I disagreed, asserting that it’s a perfectly good word, found in Webster’s no less, and an easy concept to understand.

Along comes Kingsley Amis. In his “The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage,” he has this typically curmudgeonly thing to say on the topic:

“Once a musical term meaning ‘(passage played) with increasing volume’ and a derived figurative term meaning ‘progress towards a climax’. For many years now taken to be a fancy synonym for ‘climax’ as in ‘the gunfire reached a crescendo’ or ‘the chorus of vilification rose to a crescendo’ and rendered useable only by the unwary or vulgar. Outside of a strictly musical context, that is.”

Yes. The important distinction to remember is that a crescendo is not a particular point in a musical composition, but a process therein, i.e. a process of getting louder. The musical marking for it is quite simple and illustrative, consisting of an elongated “lesser than” sign (as used in mathematics) placed directly under the passage for which the composer wants a gradual (or fairly sudden, but never instantaneous) increase in volume. A crescendo sign varies in length, depending upon the length of the crescendo desired.

The definition, however, is complicated, I now see, by Webster’s. The second definition of the word in my old collegiate edition says it’s synonymous with “climax,” which is entirely wrong from a musical point of view.

The longest crescendo in music is probably Ravel’s “Bolero,” which is, in fact, one long crescendo. Another very long crescendo occurs in the first movement of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. I’m not sure how long it is, exactly, but it’s something around 10 minutes I think. “Rossini crescendos” are much shorter but quite effective. The one in the Overture to “La Cenerentola” is particularly delicious.

Related posts: Another note on classical nomenclature; Premiere and premier