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LesMu--Lessico della letteratura musicale italiana 1490-1950.

LesMu--Lessico della letteratura musicale italiana 1490-1950. Edited by Fiamma Nicolodi and Paolo Trovato. Information retrieval programme DBT (Textual Database) produced by Eugenio Picchi. User Manual and Bibliography (English translation by Aloma Bardi and Carolyn Demcy), pp. 167 + CD-ROM. Firenze: Franco Cesati Editore, 2007. [Requires Windows 98, ME Millennium Edition, XP (Home Edition and Professional), 500 MB hard disk free space minimum, 128 MB RAM. ISBN 978-88-7667-342-9. Pricing: [euro]900.00.]

If we allow musicology any axiom, it would be that it is a metalanguage, as it uses verbal language to investigate and illustrate a nonverbal language. How has the discipline been conceptualized over time? The Italian linguist Fabio Rossi demonstrated in his article "Tra musica e non-musica: le metafore nel lessico musicale italiano (Between music and non-music: metaphors in the Italian musical vocabulary)" (Musica e storia 10, no. 1 [2002]) that most of the essential vocabulary of musicology and music criticism has metaphorical origins. Metaphors loquaciously blossom in the attempt to describe without words the techniques and effects of a completely different system of signs--that of notes, tones, and tempos. How did this language become specialized? The answer involves centuries and many words, or "musical talks." In his article, Rossi made extensive use of working material from the electronic music lexicon Lessico della Letteratura Musicale Italiana 1490-1950 (The Lexicon of Italian Musical Literature, 1490-1950), henceforth referred to as LesMu, for which the linguist Rossi acted as an editorial assistant. LesMu represents a remarkable corpus of sources in musical literature, stretching from the fifteenth century to the twentieth, from the invention of printing to "before the development of electronic music, before the mass spread of popular music, and before the enormous proliferation of musicological publications" (User Manual, p. 69). LesMu's title is due in large part to the fact that beginning in the sixteenth century, Italian--in addition to its text having been frequently set to music--was a leading language of western art music. This does not mean, however, that LesMu is a resource solely intended for lexicographers, linguists, or musicologists engaged in Italian studies.


LesMu is comprised of the lexicon on CD-ROM and a bilingual, printed user guide in Italian and English; the latter contains a lengthy bibliography which is also available in electronic format on the CD-ROM. Published in 2008, LesMu is the final outcome of a synergy of multiple disciplines. Over sixty accredited musicologists, philologists, linguists, computer scientists, and typists have worked on this project since 1989. The database contains approximately 22,500 lexicographical records, a total of over 8,000 entries (mostly locutions), 3,600,000 words, and 2,000 illustrations. The bibliography--which consists of 800 works chosen with knowledge and sensibility--includes treatises, periodicals, librettos, reviews by notable Italian authors such as Bruno Barilli, Fedele D'Amico, the Nobel author Eugenio Montale, and Alberto Savinio, correspondence, memoirs, and narrative (even novels by Carlo Collodi, author of Pinocchio). Entries are not exclusively about music but all are of some interest from a lexical point of view.

LesMu was made possible by funds from the Italian Ministero dell'Istruzione, dell'Universita e della Ricerca (Ministry of Education, University and Research), and the "Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche" (National Research Council), the largest public research institute in Italy. Compared to updatable and augmentable online encyclopedias with cheap subscription costs, or compared to Google books or digital libraries that offer free access to some of the sources referenced in LesMu, the price of this CD-ROM is unreasonably high. I would also like to mention another resource, Saggi Musicali Italiani (SMI), which shares the same field of interest with LesMu. SMI is an evolving full-text database of Italian music theory and aesthetics initiated and directed by Andreas Giger at Louisiana State University, in affiliation with the Center for the History of Music Theory and Literature (CHMTL) at Indiana University, the same center responsible for the monumental Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum (TML). The entire SMI database is freely available on the Internet (, by download to one's personal computer, or on CD-ROM upon request. It currently contains only thirty-two titles; however, when complete, SMI will eventually allow full-text study of many printed materials (major treatises, reviews, and journal articles) from the Renaissance to the present. Should we consider resources like SMI and LesMu, however, of the same standards as commonly-used, fee-based encyclopedias like Grove Music Online or as free, full-text repositories?

LesMu is neither simply a musical dictionary nor is it a full-text database. More than a traditional dictionary--although the list of entrywords is admittedly neither particularly extensive nor designed to coyer all the main semantic areas of musicology--LesMu provides large textual examples as tools for broader historical and linguistic contexts for the sources, thereby conserving the original reading as much as possible. More than most of the current full-text repositories, LesMu provides corpus-driven definitions, or definitions related to the specific meaning of words in their respective contexts, scholarly annotations to point out obvious errors, and details on the meaning of the entries and their semantic history.

LesMu enables users to search for single words, locutions, and other expressions of musical, linguistic, historical, literary, or philosophical interest, from a simple preposition to technical terms, slang expressions, neologisms, and authors' idiosyncrasies, to name a few. Linguists can delight in exploring word formation by searching for prefixes or suffixes (see tristanismo) and users can analyze polysemies (see aria, modo, tono, voce) and their figurative uses. LesMu also makes it possible to track and date word origins (see baritono as a vocal category, whose current first attestation dates bark to 1612 in Viadana's Basso Generale per gli Organi; or mezzosoprano, used by Doni in 1640). It also allows the retrieval of idioms (see fare fiasco), adaptations, translations or words borrowed from other languages--mostly Ancient Greek, Latin, and, starting from the second half of the eighteenth century, French (for example, see the entry for the word opera, without any other specification; probably, as LesMu points out, this word began as Italian jargon which, after circulating outside, later came back to Italy as a borrowed word from French).

Philosophy and scope

LesMu's declared model of reference is Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht's Handworlerbuch der Musikalischen Terminologie (Steiner, 1972-2006), henceforth HmT. Following the pioneering studies of Eggebrecht, other projects like LesMu were started bark in the 1980s in Italy: the Lessico Italiano della Didattica Vocale and Lessico italiano della musica net Rinascimento (LIRM), the latter of which is still under development. Like HmT, LesMu does not aim to provide to each term a decisive definition, one correct meaning compared to which any other would he considered an improper, exceptional, or inaccurate use of the word. The mainly historical scope of HmT, however--to investigate musical words through the meanings they have assumed throughout the centuries--is only one of the purposes of LesMu. Corpus linguist John Sinclair's theory that "words enter into meaningful relations with other words around them" ("The Search for Units of Meaning" Textus 9, no. 1 [1996]: 76) seems well-suited to illustrate LesMu's philosophy, as the resource's primary objective is to achieve a broad documentation of musical terminology and bring out the meaning of its corpus, its collection of texts.

If "the main advantage of LesMu is the extensiveness of its corpus" (User Manual, p. 34) as the editors proudly say, the qualifications and competencies of the individuals behind it were of crucial importance during this product's development. The three editors--historical musicologists Fiamma Nicolodi and Renato Di Benedetto, and the historical linguist Paolo Trovato--embody the perspectives of LesMu. Unlike HmT, LesMu is not built on a pre-established list of entrywords; LesMu compilers worked directly on "real" texts and selected the most significant, rare, or unusual terms and locutions as entrywords. The compilers were also responsible for providing definitions, assessing the different contexts, and setting the length of quotations from the original texts, which range from a few sentences--sometimes too short to clarify the broader context of use--to longer excerpts, making it also possible to classify LesMu as a source of books not otherwise easily found.

Technical features

LesMu's information retrieval program is a structured textual database produced by Eugenio Picchi of Pisa's Istituto di Linguistica Computazionale (ILC-CNR). Though the support as well as the search, retrieval, and analysis tools are not exactly at the forefront as a multimedia product, nor is the software intuitively straightforward, the program is quite flexible. Installing the program and its archives from the CD-ROM only takes a few seconds and the instructions are very easy to follow. When the program starts, the Ricerca parola (word search) window appears. It allows browsing or searching in either a selection of all twenty-nine fields or in all of them. Results are displayed in chronological order. From there on, however, do-it-yourself intuition is not sufficient. Given the wide range of content, the variety of data processing functions, the possibilities of crossing, arranging and filtering the results using an alphanumeric system of sorting, abbreviations and siglums (which are quite unfriendly, even though they are translated inside the manual), querying the database correctly requires strong familiarity with the LesMu User Manual and with the Italian language.

Unfortunately, LesMu is only published in Italian. This includes all of its core content: definitions and any other scholarly annotations, commands, buttons, and windows. In the User Manual available on the CD-ROM, "Search" and "How to Use Help" functions are in English, whereas the text of the Help itself--accessible through the index displayed inside the homepage--is available only in Italian. Furthermore, the English translation of the manual (parallel to the Italian version) is at times obscure and shows evidences of editorial inaccuracy For example, the programmatic sentence "Non e stata seguita una lista di lemmi stabilita a priori," which clearly refers to having not deliberately conceived any precompiled list of headwords, is translated as "The original list of headwords was not followed."

Variants are another challenging aspect of language-setting. In LesMu, variants have not been standardized under one form. With a transliterate proper name like Tchaikovsky, for example, the manual warns users to put together the results of three different searches: Caikovskij, Tschaikowski and Tchaikowsky, whereas the English standardized form Tchaikovsky (also the form intuitive to Angloamerican specialized users) is different from the Italian Ca-j-kovskij. Fortunately, there are not many cases similar to this one, although when searching in older texts the spelling often varies. Though search results cannot be sent through e-mail, they may be saved as LEX files and printed, if desired.

LesMu's collection of scanned images of musical examples and instruments is remarkable. These images can be resized and users can adjust brightness and contrast. Opening them, however, might be slow and the manual warns that a VGA 640 x 500 size screen would not effectively display color images. The manual acknowledges errors in displaying items and error messages that indicate insufficient memory (like the "Running error 213" message which annoyed me in my searches, popping up after a simple double-click). In such cases, the manual advises simply to close the program (if it doesn't actually vanish after closing the "R. e. 213" window) and re-navigate to it to restore the correct operation. This is too drastic an action to expect of a user, and it does not always lead to a solution.

If one wishes to have a hint of the great potential of LesMu, the body of research already conducted on it through 2002 (see pages 10-11 of the manual) speaks for itself. In addition to the above-mentioned issue of the journal Musica e storia, which collected the proceedings of the Twenty-fifth Study Seminar of the Levi Foundation La musica fra suono e parola ricerche sul lessico musicale in Europa (Venice, 26-28 October 2000), I would like to draw attention to more recent Italian research on the history of musical concepts (see the research project directed by Gian Mario Borio) that focuses on words, their use and meanings over the centuries (the first, three volumes on armonia, tempo [Roma, 2007]; espressione, forma, opera [Roma, 2007]; and melodia, stile, suono [Roma, 2009] have been already published).

We look forward to the promised unification of parallel research under one multi-language lexicon someday coming to fruition; a wider international public than ever before could truly benefit from these endeavors.


Rome, Italy
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Author:Macchione, Daniela
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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