Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Today's Words

Today's words are élan and limpid. In a review for the New York Sun, my favorite journalist, Jay Nordlinger, said that pianist Emmanuel Ax's playing was "limpid" and that parts of the concert were lacking in "élan." Here are the quotes (italics mine):

"Mr. Ax showed ample technique, and much of what he did was limpid."

"The Mendelssohn has more élan, and more cohesiveness [than the Prokofiev]."

Now, I've looked up "limpid" before, but at some point, I lost its meaning. When I hear "limpid," I think of ... well, limp things. I think of wishy-washy. I think of Pliable from Pilgrim's Progress. (The GRE and SAT designers, of course, would take full advantage of this mind-picture and ensure that I got the the limpid vocabulary question wrong). Still, I imagine Mr. Ax's hands flowing gracefully over the keyboard, but weakly, without a lot of force. Limply. Sort of the annoying, wormy way that some people (no! not I!) play Chopin. I was especially confused, as the review was of Ax's performance of a Chopin Piano Concerto.

And "élan"? Isn't that a kind of egg-rich, custard-filled or cheese-filled tart? The Prokofiev lacked a certain ... rich creaminess? The audience failed to "egg" it on? It was but the "shell" of a performance, with no real life to it?

Sadly, "élan" is yet another word I've looked up before. Its meaning must have slipped out the last time my head exploded. That happens sometimes.

So. Emmanuel Ax's playing was weak and delicate, but the Prokofiev that preceded it was not adequately rich and creamy. Which made the entire concert a bit like a Weight Watcher's cheesecake--disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying.

Or so it was, according to my poor grasp of vocabulary.

As it turns out, I was somewhat wrong about both words (though Nordlinger does give the impression that the concert was, like that cheesecake, disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying).

Here are the correct definitions, compliments of

LIMPID (adj.) Characterized by transparent clearness; pellucid. See synonyms at clear. 2. Easily intelligible; clear: writes in a limpid style. 3. Calm and untroubled; serene.

ETYMOLOGY: Latin limpidus (clear, liquid)

QUOTATIONS: The heart of the wise man lies quiet like limpid water. (Cameroonian proverb)

THERE a little unpretending Rill

Of limpid water, humbler far than aught

That ever among Men or Naiads sought

Notice or name! (Wordsworth)

There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun. (Willa Cather, My Antonia)
(I know I didn't need to include the entire Cather quote, but it was just so delicious that I couldn't help it. Perhaps it tastes the way élan would taste in my vocabularic universe.)

Speaking of élan ...

ELAN: (NOUN) 1. Enthusiastic vigor and liveliness. 2. Distinctive style or flair.

According to the pronunciation guy, "élan" sort of rhymes with "c'est bon."

ETYMOLOGY: French, from Old French eslan, rush, from eslancer, to hurl : es-, out (from Latin ex-; see ex–) + lancer, to throw (from Late Latin lancere, to throw a lance, from Latin lancea, lance).

Here are some quotes from a random Google search (italics all mine):

From a review of the Hartford Symphony: "It wasn't a perfect performance of the symphony. The strings and winds weren't together in the first movement's Allegro moderato and there was a wrong entrance in the grandiose finale. One also wished

that Cumming would loosen up still more, in sympathy with the music's sweep and élan."

From another review: "Trpceski’s performances are extraordinarily pure, even in the most challenging opuses, but he also plays with exceptional élan and elegance.”

So, élan is often used, apparently, when referencing musical performances.

And it does sort of imply a certain deliciousness, a certain appealing "bite." And you know what? A good way to remember the pronunciation is to remember that one might say "c'est bon!" if a performance is found to have élan!

And limpid ... I wasn't totally, completely wrong there, though I'd say I was a good 90% wrong. And I think the clarity and gracefulness I imagined can certainly be included in an observation of Ax's limpid style.

I had the good fortune to see Emmanuel Ax perform at the Brevard Music Center last summer. Now that was a performance with both limpid playing and a great deal of élan. I believe that the conductor, David Effron, must have had a plate of creamy, custardy élan before the concert.* He certainly hadn't had any limpid Weight Watcher's cheesecake.** Because that concert was dee-lish.

*It's a joke. I'm using the word incorrectly as a joke.

**See above. It's a joke.


Stacey said...

You may not have an extensive vocabulary, but you are one of the funniest writers I know. You is hilarious. And, by the way, you have a great vocabulary, you just don't know words that nobody else knows. Who uses the words elan and limpid anyway?

Cousin Stacey

Waterfall said...

Why thank you!

My favorite journalist, Jay Nordlinger, uses words like elan and limpid. And we can use 'em too, now! So, next time you go to a musical performance or any kind, throw those words out to your musical-snob friends (like Lindsey), and watch their eyebrows raise with a sort of condescending approval. Such fun!

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