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Naṭarāja redux

nataraja

In the first half of the 20th century South Indian temple dance underwent a remarkable transformation from a low-caste activity to a national art form—from nautch to bharatanāṭyam. This transformation was nurtured by the Indian nationalist movement, which was deeply rooted in European Orientalism and Victorian morality.

The earlier dance repertoire focused on amorous relationships between a nayaki (female devotee) and nayaka (male deity), the latter often identified as the earthy, sensual, and sometimes philandering Krishna or Murugan. For the newer repertoire, a more suitable nayaka was Shiva as Naṭarāja—resonant with spiritual detatchment and masculine power, an ideal model for both revivers of dance and Indian nationalist politicians.

The Western-educated philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy groomed Naṭarāja for this role and brought him to the attention of artists including Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. Arundale, in particular, moved Naṭarāja to center stage, both as an independent force and as one heavily conditioned by a set of people and ideas.

This according to “Rewriting the script for South Indian dance” by Matthew Harp Allen (TDR: The drama review XLI/3 [fall 1997] pp. 63–100; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1997-28267).

Above, a traditional sculpture depicting Shiva as Naṭarāja; below, a bharatanāṭyam piece that evokes the cosmic dancer.

Related article: Varieties of love

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Random film accompaniment

silent film orchestra

Soon after the Cinematograph Act came into force in 1909, small orchestras became more common in London cinemas than the lone pianist that some previous histories have identified.

Rather than responding moment-to-moment to the images on screen in the manner that an improvising pianist might, these orchestras played through a number of well-regarded musical pieces in their entirety, which might or might not have had a direct correspondence to some aspect of the film or its theme.

Despite exhortations in the trade press for a more logical relationship between music and film, this does not seem to have happened in practice regularly until at least the mid-1910s.

This according to “The art of not playing to pictures in British cinemas, 1906–1914” by Jon Burrows, an essay included in The sounds of the silents in Britain (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 111–125; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-482).

Below, we invite you to experiment with random film accompaniment using your own favorite recordings.

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Filed under Curiosities, Film music

Entertaining the shōgun

An account by the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) of meetings in 1691 with the shōgun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709) evinces examples of exoticism on both sides.

Each man was curious about the other’s culture, but the situation was unbalanced. The visitor was in a position to gain a fairly objective view of the world of his host, although the situation was far too restrictive to allow in-depth research.

On the other hand, while the shōgun could order his guests to perform for his entertainment—to dance, sing, and so on—he did not know whether or not the information that he gained thereby was reliable. For example, when Kaempfer complied with the order to sing a song and was subsequently asked for a translation of the text, he responded that it expressed his deep wish for the health and prosperity of the shōgun and his family.

This according to “Exoticism and multi-emics: Reflections upon an earliest record of culture contact between Japan and Europe” by Osamu Yamaguchi, an essay included in Music cultures in interaction: Cases between Asia and Europe (Tōkyō: Academia Music, 1994, pp. 243–248; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-35931).

Above, a version of the map that Kaempfer brought back from Japan in 1692 (click to enlarge); below, the opening movement of Manzai raku (Ten thousand years of music), an example of the bugaku genre that was flourishing in Japanese courts at the time.

Related article: 17th-century Persian music

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Esoteric orchestration

Gérard Encausee (Papus)

Aligned with the Symbolists, Camille Mauclair considered the orchestra a transposed symbol of the emotions in nature and cited Wagner’s music as an outstanding realization of this concept.

Although he was a staunch Positivist who attacked the Symbolists, Ange-Marie Auzende described the symbolic qualities of instruments and considered the orchestra a mirror of the soul. Ernestine-André van Hasselt wrote for popular audiences, characterizing instruments as expressing or even embodying various personalities and psychological states.

In the 1894 pamphlet Anatomie et physiologie de l’orchestre, co-authored by the popular occult writer Gérard Encausee (writing under his esoteric pseudonym Papus) and the young Frederick Delius, the four instrumental groups—strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion—were associated respectively with God, the head, and the nervous system; man, the chest, and the arterial system; woman, the chest, and the venous system; and nature, the abdomen, and the lymphatic system.

Further subdivisions and associations were outlined in preparation for a larger prescriptive work for composers that never materialized.

This according to “Sound as symbol: Fin de siècle perceptions of the orchestra” by Eric Frederick Jensen (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] pp. 227–240; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-16688).

Above, Papus in the back room of the Librairie du Merveilleux ca. 1890; below, the opening of Delius’s Appalachia from 1896, perhaps an example of his application of such theories.

Related article: F, the keynote of nature

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Uncracking the Nutcracker

Photo from the original 1892 production of “Nutcracker” showing Varvara Nikitina as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt as the Cavalier.

Although the place of Ŝelkunčik (Nutcracker) in the hearts of today’s audiences is secure, its genesis hardly seemed auspicious.

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on the project, and complained bitterly about it to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from it, or why he ultimately persevered, remain unknown.

The problems probably involved the libretto, which the fastidious composer may well have found vexing. Parts of it lack any rationale, the balance of mime and dance is lopsided, and the overall arc of the story is incoherent, with several essential plot elements entirely missing.

These issues can be resolved by rendering most of the ballet as Drosselmayer’s thoughts rather than Clara’s dream. One can easily imagine the composer taking delight in this solution.

This according to “On meaning in Nutcracker” by Roland John Wiley (Dance research III/1 (fall 1984) 3–28; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1984-12142).

Today is the 130th anniversary of Nutcracker‘s premiere!

Below, part I of Mark Morris’s approach, which he called The hard nut.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era

Charles Schultz and classical music

Having once considered himself “one of the staunchest opponents of classical music”, Charles Schultz discovered the symphonies of Beethoven in 1946 and became an avid fan of classical music with a prodigious record collection. He also created the piano-playing Schroeder, a Beethoven fanatic, for his comic strip Peanuts.

A well-worn 1951 LP in Schultz’s collection by the pianist Friedrich Gulda of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata may have inspired a series of strips from the early 1950s in which Schroeder is seen playing this work. The one reproduced above is the only one in which the piece is named, though it still relies on the reader to read music—and German!—for a full identification. Note Schultz’s imitation of German Fraktur script for both the work title and his signature.

This according to “Michaelis’ Schulz, Schulz’s Beethoven, and the construction of biography” by William Meredith (The Beethoven journal XXV/2 [winter 2008], pp. 79–91; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2008-8914).

Today is Schultz’s 100th birthday! Below, Gulda performs the Hammerklavier sonata in 1970.

Related articles: Beethoven in Bibliolore

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Humor, Visual art

Balinese aesthetics

besakih temple

In Bali, the concept of désa kala patra (place-time-context) anchors the levels of meaning enacted in performances of tembang (vocal music), informs the construction of traditional dance and theater events, and underlies pedagogical methods.

The preservation of this ideological core is fundamental to Balinese identity as modern elements, such as electronic sound technology, are woven into the cultural fabric. The concept of taksu (spiritual energy) illuminates the religious underpinnings of Balinese artistic values.

This according to Voices in Bali: Energies and perceptions in vocal music and dance theater by Edward Herbst (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997).

Above, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple of Besakih) is a stunning example of Balinese aesthetics; below, a taste of Balinese gamelan and dance.

More posts about Bali are here.

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The beggar’s opera

beggar-s-opera-1729

Several aspects account for the success of  John Gay’s ballad opera The beggar’s opera when it premiered in London in 1728.

Gay’s skillful transformations of well-known songs contained many witty references to the originals, adding a rich subtext that his audience would have understood fully.

His audience would also have appreciated his caricatures of grand opera, which included references to recent London productions—particularly Händel’s Floridante (1721) and Alessandro (1726)—and to the highly public rivalry of the local operatic sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni (1696–1778) and Faustina Bordoni (1697–1781).

Gay’s facility as a writer was also a factor; he created clever, well-wrought lyrics and dialogue, vivid characters, and an irresistible ironic tone. An accomplished musician, Gay was certainly the musical arranger—not Pepusch, as some have argued.

This according to “The beggar’s opera” by Bertrand Harris Bronson, an essay included in Studies in the comic (Berkely: University of California Press, 1941, pp. 197–231).

Above, William Hogarth’s 1729 painting of a scene from the work (click to enlarge); below, a gallant and dashing excerpt from Peter Brook’s 1953 film.

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Filed under Baroque era, Humor, Opera

Gandy dancers

Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by Black men.

The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.

The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-38971).

Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.

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Tut’ankhamūn’s trumpets

Tut trumpet

On this day 100 years ago, a British excavation team exploring Egypt’s Valley of the Kings discovered a step that proved to be the beginning of a descending staircase. Thus began the opening of the first known largely intact royal burial from ancient Egypt— Tut’ankhamūn’s tomb.

Among the “wonderful things” that Howard Carter saw when he entered inner chamber were two trumpets—one made of silver, and one made of bronze.

Seeing the potential for an extraordinary recording, in 1939 the BBC persuaded the Matḥaf al-Miṣrī (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) to schedule a world broadcast. The British Army bandsman James Tappern was engaged to perform on the historic instruments.

In what some people saw as the notorious “curse of King Tut”, five minutes before the live broadcast was to begin the watchmen’s lanterns failed and the museum was plunged into darkness; but candlelight saved the day, and enthralled listeners heard what were presumably sounds last heard more than 3,000 years earlier.

This according to “Recreating the sound of Tutankhamun’s trumpets” by Christine Finn (BBC news: Middle East 17 April 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-22278).

Above, a photograph of Tappern at the museum. Below, a narrative fleshes out the story; the recordings of Tappern playing the trumpets begin around 10:45.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Instruments