Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Word of the day: obbligato

The word of the day, or of my day, because I just learned all about the word’s origins, is obbligato.

As an adjective, used as a direction in music: “not to be omitted : obligatory.” As a noun: “an elaborate especially melodic part accompanying a solo or principal melody and usually played by a single instrument.” The adjective came first, in 1740: “borrowed from Italian, ‘obligatory, essential to a musical composition,’ from past participle of obbligare “to require (someone to do something), oblige,” going back to the Latin obligāre. The noun came along in 1825.

An obbligato is not ad libitum, “omissible according to a performer's wishes.” A performer has an obligation to the obbligato. And who knew that ad lib is a short form of ad libitum, an adverb (1606) and adjective (1786) meaning (as it did in medieval Latin) “in accordance with one’s wishes.” The idea of spontaneous performance came later, in the adjective ad-lib (1819) and the verb ad lib (1910).

Not all obbligatos are a matter of obedience to notation. In improvised music, an obbligato — say, a Lester Young obbligato behind Bille Holiday — might very well be ad libbed. And beautiful.

[Definitions and etymologies from Merriam-Webster. “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” (Carmen Lombardo–John Jacob Loeb): Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra: Buck Clayton, trumpet; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Lester Young, tenor sax; James Sherman, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in New York, June 15, 1937.]

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