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.

6 responses to “solfatara

  1. “I really do love (most) Christmas music; it has such nice associations for me, of course, but the sounds are to my taste too.”

    James, don’t you think that ‘really’ and ‘do’ together make too much of emphasis. I think you could seldom used ‘I do love…’ without ‘really’, in such sentences; but, in my opinion, ‘I really love..’ should be fine in most of the cases? What do you suggest?

    I also wanted to ask you about X-mas. How did the trend to write ‘Christmas’ in this way begin? if ‘Christ’ was replaced by ‘X’, then ‘X’ might represent ‘cross’ ( the symbol of sacrifice); but on the other hand ‘X’ as a sign of hanging is evil so it’s not a good replacement of ‘Christ’.

    [ This etymological misconception is as much of a misconception as many others have had about X-mas being secularized abbreviation of Christmas]

    • No, I don’t think they make too much emphasis; if I did, I wouldn’t have used it. The difference here is not one of added emphasis but of discursive positioning. In general, positive “do” is not simple emphasis; it is a marker of discursive response, an affirmation in the face of real or posited questioning. “I really love X” is a straightforward assertion out of the blue; “I really do love X” presents itself in response to a real or conjectured pre-existing discourse or conception on the topic. It may imply that I’ve been thinking it over, or that other people have doubts about its lovability, or similar pre-existing lines of thought and argument.

  2. X is the shape of the Greek letter chi, which is pronounced as -kh-. In the early underground years of Christianity, the first two letters of Khristos –Greek for Christ — chi and rho (shaped like our X and P) were superimposed as a secret symbol. The X in Xmas is a partial survival of the chi-rho monogram.

    While we are on the subject of Greek Christian symbolism, the fish symbol that one sees both in catacombs and on the back of modern Christians’ cars is an acronym. The Greek for fish is ΙΧΘΥΣ, ichthus. This stands for

    ΙΗΣΟΣ Jesus
    ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ Christ
    ΘΕΟΥ of God
    ΥΙΟΣ Son
    ΣΩΤΗΡ Saviour

  3. Perhaps we might co-opt solfatara into the musical lexicon to describe the first piece performed on a pipe organ that has lain unused for decades, its pipes filling with dust that fills the air on the first chords.

    Remember the organ scene in “Goonies”?

  4. I got the point James, thanks.

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