Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Proper Spelling

For the better part of my life, Chopin’s first name was Frederic (and usually not “Frederick”).  However, the European countries tend to recognize that this was his name in Paris, where it was properly spelled with acute accents:  “Frédéric Chopin.”  This is the way we find his name spelled in the Munich-based Henle editions of his piano works.  Now that we live in a Unicode world, more and more English sources (including Wikipedia) go with this European spelling.

I thus found it a bit of an amusing jolt to discover that, in his review of Jonathan Kregor’s Liszt as Transcriber for The New York Review of Books, Charles Rosen chose to spell Chopin’s name “Fryderyk.”  This is the spelling we find in the edition of Chopin’s complete works whose chief editor was Ignacy Jan Paderewski.  It is the Polish spelling, although I have to wonder as I write this while looking at the two facing pages of the Preludes volume.  The right-hand page lists the publisher as “Instytut Fryderyka Chopina;  Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne.”  The page facing this on the left side reproduces this as “The Fryderyk Chopin Institute;  Polish Music Publications.”  So, strictly speaking, because of grammatical details, “Fryderyk” is the proper spelling of Chopin’s first name when one wishes to use the Polish spelling while writing in English.

Is that what Rosen is doing, or is he just putting on a show?  After all, if he wishes to respect an individual’s nationality, then, by all rights, Liszt’s “first name” should be spelled “Ferencz;”  and his Wikipedia entry states that more modern Hungarian would spell this “Ferenc.”  Furthermore, the scare quotes around “first name” serve as a reminder that, in Hungarian, Liszt’s name is “Liszt Ferenc!”

I believe that standards can be useful for matters other than pedantry, particularly when you are dealing with search engines that often make up their conventions as they develop.  When it comes to spelling, I still use my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.  I also use it to decide when to add a common noun to my Microsoft Word Custom Dictionary.  For the names of composers, however, I have decided to stick to the form that appears in large type at the top of the Wikipedia page.  By all rights I should go with Grove, but I prefer using a source that anyone reading me can consult for free.  (Mind you, I have free access to Grove through my San Francisco Public Library card;  but I cannot expect all of my readers to be so lucky.)  This also addresses questions of how many names to use;  so Mozart is “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” while Haydn is “Joseph Haydn.”  This is probably not the perfect scholarly convention, but it provides for a “convenient consistency.”  That amounts to a virtue for anyone who writes as much as I do!

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