Elliott Carter’s Au Quai for Bassoon and Viola

On March 30th I performed Elliott Carter’s Au Quai for Bassoon and Viola with my colleague Sheila Browne, viola teacher at UNCSA. Carter wrote this about the piece’s origin:

The title of this piece was suggested by Arnold Schoenberg’s short story “To the Wharfs” in which he describes the mounting anxiety of the members of a French fishing village as the boats and the sea-bound fisherman failed to appear after a storm and several days’ absence. When they were suddenly sighted all shouted “to the wharfs, aux quais, O.K!”

Au quai (‘to the quay’) was supposedly used by French-speaking cotton pickers around New Orleans to signal that the cotton was packed and ready to send down to the docks for transport.

There is certainly no conclusion as to the origin of the phrase OK. There is no shortage however of explanations, some more likely than others.

  • The oldest written references to ‘OK’ result from its adoption as a slogan by the Democratic party during the American Presidential election of 1840. Their candidate, President Martin Van Buren, was nicknamed ‘Old Kinderhook’ (after his birthplace in New York State), and his supporters formed the ‘OK Club’.
  • During the American Civil War, soldiers relied on a biscuit called Orrin Kendall for rations and a port in Haiti called Aux Cayes was famous among American soldiers for its rum, known as ‘OK rum’.
  • There lived a popular native American chief called Old Keokuk who signed all his treaties by using only his initials.
  • It derives from the Scots expression ‘och aye’, the Greek ola kala (‘it is good’), the Choctaw Indian oke or okeh (‘it is so’), the French aux Cayes (‘from Cayes’, a port in Haiti with a reputation for good rum), or the initials of a railway freight agent called Obediah Kelly who is said to have written them on lading documents he had checked.
  • When box cars would be loaded and locked up, the shift boss would then write on the side of the car: OK, signifying it had been checked and was correct. But in fact, when that custom first began, the guy who wrote the letters couldn’t spell and thought the words were spelled Oll Korrect. Legend has it he was german and the words reflected what ‘all correct’ would have been in that language.
  • It was a telegraphic signal meaning “open key,” that is, ready to receive. Others say OK was used for “all right” because A and R had already been appropriated for other purposes. Big problem with this theory: the first telegraph message was transmitted in 1844, five years after OK appeared
  • It stands for O. Kendall & Sons, a supplier of army biscuits that stamped its initials on its product.

Leave a Comment