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Béla Bartók, entomologist

Béla Bartók is renowned as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and as one of the founders of ethnomusicology. Less known is his love of animals, particularly his fascination with insects.

When he was a child he bred silkworms, and later he systematically collected insects, assembling a beautiful assortment. His son Béla Jr. recalled helping him with this hobby. “The most important instruction that he gave…was that no pain whatsoever was to be inflicted on the animals. And so he always took the appropriate drug with him on his insect-collecting expeditions. The insects, therefore, died and came into his collection without any suffering.”

This according to “The private man” by Béla Bartók, Jr. (as translated by Judit Rácz), which is included in The Bartók companion (London: Faber & Faber, 1993; RILM Abstracts 1993-4867).

Today is Bartók’s 140th birthday! Above, a watercolor caricature of him as an insect enthusiast by his cousin Ervin Voit. Below, his “Mese a kis légyrõl” (From the diary of a fly, Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Sz. 107, VI/142).

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Nature, Science

The female harp

The harp in its winged-maiden form was the standard symbol of Ireland in the eighteenth century, and with the rise of Romantic nationalism the harp was increasingly personified as a female symbol of Ireland and her struggle for political independence.

The iconography of the harp in the context of the United Irishmen of the 1790s formed the basis for the Romanticization of the harp symbol and the female personification of Erin (Ireland) in the poetry of Thomas Moore. While more realistic forms of the Irish harp emerge in nationalist iconography of the nineteenth century, Moore’s imagery inspired paintings and other illustrations of the harp as a woman by artists including Robert Fagan and Daniel Maclise.

This according to “The female harp: The Irish harp in 18th- and early–19th-century Romantic nationalism” By Barra Boydell (RIdIM/RCMI newsletter XX/1 [spring 1995] 10–17; RILM Abstracts 1995-5656).

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Above, Maclise’s The origin of the harp (1842), inspired by Moore’s poem of the same name. Below, Michelle Mulcahy plays The mountains of Pomeroy, Martin Hardiman’s jig, andThe lark on the strand on the Irish harp.

Related article: The female accordion.

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Filed under Iconography, Instruments, Politics, Romantic era

Telemann’s wit

Georg Philipp Telemann’s ability to produce high-quality works at lightning speed is well known; less remembered today is his mischievous sense of humor. He was known among his friends for writing wickedly clever satirical verses and playing musical practical jokes, as he once did with a cantor from a nearby village.

Seeking to aggrandize himself, this cantor determined that he would honor a certain festival day by performing a new sacred work by the local master. He repeatedly requested that Telemann write something for him and his choir, and, knowing that their musicianship was decidedly inferior, the composer repeatedly declined. At last the cantor made such a pest of himself that Telemann told him that he and a few friends would arrive with the new work for a rehearsal before the performance.

On the appointed day the composer handed the new work—a treacherously difficult fugue—to the cantor, whispering to his friends “Now the thieves shall confess their sins.” The singers proceeded to produce a dismal, discordant rendition as they unknowingly made fun of themselves. Telemann had set the line “Wir können nichts wider den Herrn reden” (We cannot speak against the Lord) in such a way that the hapless singers were “confessing” their ineptitude by repeating the words “Wir können nichts” (We cannot)!

The composer laughed heartily. “That certainly won’t do” he said. “Let’s see how we can remedy this.” He then took out a different composition, and he and his friends performed it—both saving the day and humiliating the presumptuous cantor.

This according to “Images of Telemann: Narratives of reception in the composer’s anecdote, 1750–1830” by Steven Zohn (The journal of musicology XXI/4 [2005] 459–486; RILM Abstracts 2004-6402).

Today is Telemann’s 340th birthday! Below, a merry bit of tone-painting—“Postillion” from his Tafelmusik.

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Humor

Concio et cantio

 

In the preface to his collection Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica (1619) Michael Praetorius engaged in a play on words, juxtaposing the similar-sounding Latin terms concio and cantio. But the passage is not a mere display of cleverness—it is a theological assertion that musicologists have described as a manifesto on liturgical music.

Praetorius wrote (translated here): “it is essential to the highest ideals of church government, as well as to a corporate worship service, that there be not only concio, a good sermon, but also cantio, good music and singing.” By stating that worship would be incomplete without “good music and singing” he was expressing the underlying premise of his entire career as a Lutheran church composer and cantor.

This according to Michael Praetorius Creuzbergensis: The man, the musician, the theologian by David Susan, a Master of Divinity thesis accepted by Concordia Seminary in 1971 (RILM Abstracts 1971-15384).

Today is Praetorius’s 450th birthday! Below, the Monteverdichor Würzburg and the Monteverdi Ensemble, conducted by Matthias Beckert, perform his Puer natus in Bethlehem from the same collection.

 

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities

One finger too many

 

The classical music world knows Alfred Brendel as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Far fewer people know him as a poet, with two books of poetry in German and one—One finger too many—in English translation (New York: Random House, 1999).

The collection’s title poem concerns a pianist who developed a third index finger “not to play the piano with/though it sometimes did intervene/discreetly/in tricky passages/but to point things out/when both hands were busy.”

While some of Brendel’s poems are serious, many are light-hearted. He explains, “At one stage in my life I didn’t laugh enough…some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue.” The title of another poem, “Not Brahms again”, points to a humorous but therapeutic reflection that he describes as “a little revenge for the perversity of the B♭ concerto…the passages which, as they stand, are literally unplayable.”

This according to “The poet speaks” by Michael Church (BBC music magazine, VII/3 [November 1998], pp. 32–33; RILM 1998-4729).

Today is Maestro Brendel’s 90th birthday! Below, Brendel plays Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 899 (op. 90).

BONUS: Cover half of Brendel’s face in the above photograph, then the other half, to see two completely different expressions.

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Filed under Humor, Literature, Performers

New Year’s fertility dances

 

During New Year’s celebrations, transplanted Northern Thracian farmers perform fertility rites to coax a bountiful harvest from the earth.

Three forms of the important wedding dance type συγκαθιστό (syngathisto)—which is seldom seen outside a matrimonial context—are performed during New Year’s rituals; two of them, ντιβιτζήδικoς (divitzīdikos, “camel driver’s dance”) and κατσιβέλικος (katsivelikos, “gypsy’s dance”), employ phallic objects and involve improvisation. The three forms differ in style, kinemics, and morphokinemics.

This according to “Structure and style of an implement dance in Neo Monastiri, central Greece” by Rena Loutzakī, an essay included in The 16th symposium of the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology (Studia musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae XXXIII/1–4 [1991], pp. 439–452).

Below, a divitzīdikos from Thessalonikī.


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Famous Victorians in a toy symphony

toy-symphony

An event billed as A concert for the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, held in London on 14 May 1880, featured a performance of Bernhard Romberg’s Toy symphony in which prominent London musicians appeared performing with various mechanical birds and toy instruments; all but two of the musicians in the ensemble played instruments other than those that they were accustomed to performing on.

The evening also included performances of the Chœur des soldats from Gounod’s Faust and several children’s songs by a kazoo ensemble conducted by the operatic contralto Zelia Trebelli-Bettini.

This according to “Famous Victorians in a toy symphony” by Herbert Thompson (The musical times LXIX/1026 [1 August 1926] pp. 701–702. This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above, the participants at a rehearsal; below, a more recent performance of the featured work.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor

Frank Zappa and classical music

 

Although he was best known as the guitarist and leader of The Mothers of Invention and other rock bands, Frank Zappa grew up with a keen interest in 20th-century concert music and aspired to be an orchestral composer as well; his scores have been recorded by Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and others.

Appropriate listening strategies for Zappa’s pieces for acoustic concert ensembles should be based primarily on models developed from his more abundant commercially successful output, and less so on the music of early–20th-century composers, such as Stravinsky and Varèse, whose music he admired.

This according to “Listening to Zappa” by Jonathan W. Bernard (Contemporary music review XVIII/4 [2000] pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts 1999-44563).

Today would have been Zappa’s 80th birthday! Below, conducting his G-spot tornado in 1992 with Ensemble Modern and dancers Louise Lecavalier and Donald Weikert.

Related article: Frank Zappa and Uncle Meat

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Dance, Humor

Beethoven and Peanuts

Having once considered himself “one of the staunchest opponents of classical music”, Charles Schultz (1922–2000) 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 the Hammerklavier sonata, op. 106, 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 2008-8914).

Today is Beethoven’s 250th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter celebrates with the Hammerklavier sonata.

Related articles: Beethoven in Bibliolore

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Humor, Visual art

Uncracking the Nutcracker

 

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on Ŝelkunčik (The nutcracker), and complained bitterly about the project to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from working on 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 1984-12142).

Today is Čajkovskij’s 180th birthday! Above, the composer in 1893, a year after Ŝelkunčik’s premiere. Below, Part I of Mark Morris’s alternative version of the work, which he called The hard nut.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era