I’ve just come home from singing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s annual Festival of Carols. I really do love (most) Christmas music; it has such nice associations for me, of course, but the sounds are to my taste too. A good choir can make the harmonies so beautiful and clear, from crisply quiet to erupting with force. And it’s especially something when the organ blasts in – like a volcano, a cracking good Krakatoa of sound. So much air displaced! So many people moved! Such divine afflatus!
On the way to tonight’s performance, I happened to see, in a magazine I was reading, the word solfatara. Now, isn’t that a musical-sounding word? Sol, fa, like two notes (G and F), and tara as in taralala and ta-ra-ra-boom-dee-ay and so on. But I knew from the context that the note emitted by a solfatara is a steady one, often low, not always so pleasant, and don’t expect the smells of Christmas pudding and turkey and pine trees and so on. A solfatara displaces a lot of gas, but it’s not the CO2 of exhaling choristers. In place of divine afflatus we have chthonic – Stygian – flatulence. Miasma.
Yes, alas. A solfatara is a fumarole – a volcanic vent – that emits sulphurous gas. The G and F of sol-fa here may as well stand for gas and, uh, flatulence. Somehow I feel the word is too nice – perhaps if we rearranged it to something like asolfarta or something like that. But that would obscure the origin. You can probably spot sulphur in solfa; the word is Neapolitan Italian from Latin sulpha terra, “sulphur land”. It’s actually the name of a specific volcanic crater near Naples; from Solfatara we get the generic solfatara, just as from Geysir in Iceland we get the generic geyser.
That makes it rather more difficult to link to a Christmas concert. I might try to connect it to a reading done during the concert: “The Little Match Girl” used matches, which have sulphur… Bit of a reach, though. I can’t do “Gift of the Magma” – solfataras don’t erupt magma anyway. They just blow off steam, vent, produce noxious gases… Not a very Christmassy attitude, though common enough among those stuck in shopping malls. But that can be quite disconcerting. Better to welcome in the crisp, fresh air and the falalalalas.