Charles Dickens’s works attest to a keen familiarity with the ballads and traditional songs of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Less obvious from his writings is his deep love of Western classical music—he adored the lieder of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, he championed Arthur Sullivan, and he reported being “overcome” by Gounod’s Faust.
Still, Dickens found a rich vein of humor in the music making of the common folk—not least in the character of Mr. Morfin in Dombey and Son:
“He was a great musical amateur in his way…and had a paternal affection for his violoncello, which was once in every week transported from Islington, his place of abode, to a certain club-room hard by the Bank, where quartettes of the most tormenting and excruciating nature were executed every Wednesday evening by a private party.”
“He was solacing himself with this melodious grumbler one evening, and, having been much dispirited by the proceedings of the day, was scraping consolation out of its deepest notes…[but] his landlady…was fortunately deaf, and had no other consciousness of these performances than a sensation of something rumbling in her bones.”
This according to “Dickens and music” by Charles Cudworth (The musical times CXI/1528 [June 1970] pp. 588–590. Today is Dickens’s 210th birthday!
In the “Sirens” episode of UlyssesJames Joyce made words represent music by playing with or even overcoming certain conventional features of language. Particularly notable are Joyce’s representation of polyphony, melody, rhythm, and of music’s traditional absence of conventional meaning.
The essence of Joycean onomatopoeia in “Sirens” is not that it represents music iconically, but that it makes music linguistically. Joycean onomatopoeia is not the natural union of meaning and form, of signified and signifier—it is the signifier freeing itself from the link with the signified.
“Sirens” is a step toward absolute form and abstraction; it breaks with the representational conventions of naturalistic and realistic fiction and points the way toward modernism.
This according to “Strange words, strange music: The verbal music of ‘Sirens’” by Andreas Fischer, an essay included in Bronze by gold: The music of James Joyce (New York: General Music, 1999).
Ulysses was first published 100 years ago today! Above, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife and muse, on their wedding day in 1931; the novel takes place on the day they met in 1904. Below, Cathy Berberian reads an excerpt from the “Sirens” episode.
Today, on Delius’s 160th birthday, let’s eavesdrop on the reminiscences of his friend Percy Grainger.
“Composer never had truer colleague than I had in Frederick Delius, and when he died I felt that my music had lost its best friend.”
“Our outlook on life was very similar, our artistic tastes met at many points. Both of us considered the Icelandic sagas the pinnacle of narrative prose. Both of us knew the Scandinavian languages and admired the culture of Scandinavia as the flower of Europeanism.”
“Both of us worshipped Walt Whitman, Wagner, Grieg, and Jens Peter Jacobsen. Both of us detested music of the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven period. ‘If a man tells me he likes Mozart, I know in advance that he is a bad musician’ Delius was fond of saying.”
“One year he would ask for Bach; the next year he would say ‘You know, Bach always bores me.’ But Chopin and Grieg he never turned against. He preferred Ravel to Debussy. He had no patience with Richard Strauss, Mahler, or Hindemith.”
This from “About Delius”, reprinted in Grainger on music (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999, pp. 361–368). Above, Grainger and Delius in 1923. Below, Delius’s On hearing the first cuckoo in spring.
“The music of Chopin has been with me my entire life, since when I was a boy. My love for the music of Chopin has become greater and greater for years, perhaps because I understand better this music…Each note speaks in a more clear, convincing way to the audience.”
“Chopin is an innately seductive composer. But there is an incredible depth to Chopin, and this depth should come, finally, from a performance of him…What was extraordinary is, he was able to achieve universality. It is amazing that music so completely personal is able to conquer everybody.”
Quoted in “Pollini speaks! (in his fashion)” by Daniel J. Wakin (The New York times 7 May 2006, p. AR9).
Today is Pollini’s 80th birthday! Below, a recent Chopin performance.
BONUS: The pianist at the 1960 Chopin competition.
When the U.S. operatic soprano Minnie Hauk (1851–1929) first toured Europe in 1868, her instant success was due largely to shrewd marketing by her teacher and manager Maurice Strakosch.
Capitalizing on Hauk’s childhood on the American prairie, Strakosch’s advance publicity described her as “a kind of half-civilized Pocahontas, who, back in the wilds of her homeland, was accustomed to riding a mustang bareback and being worshipped by the continent’s aborigines as a ‘dusky daughter of the sun.’”
Thanks to widespread curiosity about this exotic creature—and, of course, to her prodigious talent—Hauk remained abroad for the next eight years, performing at all the major opera houses in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, and Russia.
When he was growing up in Catania, Sicily, Bellini undoubtedly heard the peasants from the far side of Mount Etna who came to town every Advent with their zampogne (bagpipes). The young prodigy was influenced by these traditional musicians in several ways.
The bagpipers’ improvisations helped to shape the seemingly meandering and unpredictable melodies that Bellini became famous for. Also, the balance between the drones and the chanters influenced his handling of accompaniment and melody. Finally, the music of the bagpipes found its way into Bellini’s uses of modality, his chromaticisms, and his oscillations between major and minor keys. The Mediterranean vibrancy of his slow music was particularly grounded in the traditional music of his youth.
This according to Vincenzo Bellini, zampognaro del melodramma by Salvatore Enrico Failla (Catania: Maimone, 1985).
Today is Bellini’s 220th birthday! Below, a modern-day incarnation of the Sicilian Advent zampognaro.
In addition to the piano and pumping pedals seen above, the original version included a 20-note pedalboard and an attachment allowing an assistant to pump the bellows while the player used the organ or piano pedals; these are lost and have not been reconstructed.
Dvořák had tremendous admiration for technical inventions, particularly locomotives—in the U.S. he might be called a railfan.
“It consists of many parts, of so many different parts, and each has its own importance, each has its own place,” he wrote. “Even the smallest screw is in place and holding something! Everything has its purpose and role and the result is amazing.”
“Such a locomotive is put on the tracks, they put in the coal and water, one person moves a small lever, the big levers start to move, and even though the cars weigh a few thousand metric cents, the locomotive runs with them like a rabbit. All of my symphonies I would give if I had invented the locomotive!”
Georges Enescu’s use of elements of Romanian traditional music is well known; his most popular works today, the Rhapsodies roumaines, attest to his enthusiasm for his homeland’s music. Less known is his interest in the Turkish melodic type makam (pl. makamlar) and its influence on his masterpiece, the opera Œdipe.
In this work, Enescu used three makamlar: Müsteâr, for music associated with the characters Creon and Jocasta; Hisâr, for the motif of fate, and Nişâbûr, for the motif of justification.
This according to “Modale Strukturen in Annäherung zur orientalischen Kirchenmusik im Oedip von George Enescu” by Adriana Şirli, an essay included in Enesciana II-III: Georges Enesco, musicien complexe (Bucureşti: Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, 1981).
Today is Enescu’s 140th birthday! Below, an excerpt from the 1970 production of Œdipe by the Opera Naţională Bucureşti; above, the Enescu statue in front of the opera house. For more Enescu iconography, see Music on money.
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Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by … Continue reading →