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).
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.
After earning a degree in agricultural engineering in Cairo, Halim El-Dabh traveled to outlying Egyptian villages to assist with agricultural development projects. During these visits he became increasingly drawn to traditional music and dance.
Fascinated by the possibilities of manipulating sound, he borrowed a wire recorder from a Cairo radio station and began recording folk songs, religious rites, and vendors’ cries in the city’s streets. The experience gave rise to an early electronic composition using his recording of the zaar, a traditional exorcism ritual, which he manipulated in the studio.
“I was carving sound,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1974. “I used noise like I would a piece of stone”.
That work, later released as Wire recorder piece, was well-received, and became one of the catalysts for El-Dabh’s decision to pursue a career as a composer. In the late 1950s he became associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a hotbed of sonic ferment.
Today would have been El-Dabh’s 100th birthday! Above, a photo by Robert Christy (Kent State University; used with permission); below, Leiyla and the poet, which brought him international recognition in the early 1960s.
BONUS: An excerpt from Wire recorder piece, often cited as the earliest example of musique concrete.
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Heifetz also composed popular songs, including “When you make love to me (don’t make believe)” and “So much in love”. “When you make love to me” (1946) was published under the pseudonym “Jim Hoyl” (maintaining the initials J.H.) to prove Heifetz’s point that the name of the composer would have little bearing on its success. The song was recorded by Bing Crosby and sold 300,000 copies when first released.
This according to “Heifetz, Jascha” (Biographical dictionary of Russian/Soviet composers Westport: Greenwood, 1989).
Today is Heifetz’s 120th birthday! Below, his own recording of “When you make love to me”.
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.”
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.
The feature film Kalpana (Imagination) is the only kinetic record of Uday Shankar’s choreographic work. Directed by and starring Shankar himself, it is semi-autobiographical and also stars his wife, Amala Shankar.
The film involved a fair amount of social commentary, and Shankar’s opening statement in it still feels strikingly appropriate:
“I request you all to be very alert while you watch this unusual picture—a Fantasy. Some of the events depicted here will reel off at great speed and if you miss any piece you will really be missing a vital aspect of our country’s life in its Religion, Politics, Education, Society, Art and Culture, Agriculture and Industry.”
“I do not deliberately aim my criticism at any particular group of people or institutions, but if it appears so, it just happens to be so, that is all. It is my duty as an Artist to be fully alive to all conditions of life and thought relating to our country and present it truthfully with all the faults and merits, through the medium of my Art.”
“And I hope that you will be with me in our final purpose to rectify our own shortcomings and become worthy of our cultural heritage and make our motherland once again the greatest in the world.”
This according to “Uday Shankar’s Kalpana” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 195 [December 2000] 53–57).
Today is Uday Shankar’s 120th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from the film.
Dave Brubeck helped to rekindle jazz’s mainstream popularity in the 1950s and 1960s with recordings like Time out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and Take five, the still instantly recognizable hit single that was that album’s centerpiece.
In a long and successful career, Brubeck brought a distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility that won over listeners who had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. He experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, Baroque compositional devices, and non-Western modes.
Brubeck did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic, and—a word he particularly disliked—stolid. But his very stubbornness and strangeness—the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone—make the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.
This according to “Dave Brubeck 1920–2012: His music gave jazz new pop” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 6 December A1; RILM Abstracts 2012-10080).
W.F. Bach did not treat the polonaise as a light, unpretentious dance form for dilettantes; rather, he approached the genre with the same compositional refinement and sophistication found in his large forms.
Written during the period when the popular galant style dominated, these pieces display aspects of the older contrapuntal art and a level of complexity that rarely appears in light popular dance genres of the time.
This according to “‘…welche dem größten Concerte gleichen’: The polonaises of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach” by Peter Wollny, an essay included in The keyboard in Baroque Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 169–83; RILM Abstracts 2003-4580).
While Aaron Copland’s works are widely celebrated for their elegant formal coherence, his compositional method was strikingly nonlinear; in fact, he spoke of himself as an artist who primarily assembled materials.
Rather than writing pieces from start to finish, Copland wrote down fragments of musical ideas when they came to him. When it was time to produce a complete work he would turn to these ideas—he called them his “gold nuggets”—and if one or more of them seemed promising he would write a piano sketch and proceed to work on them further at the keyboard.
This piano phase was so integral to Copland’s creative process that it permeated his compositional style in subtle and complex ways. His habit of turning to the keyboard tended to embarrass him until he learned that Stravinsky did the same.
This according to Copland. I: 1900 through 1942 by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984, 255; RILM Abstracts 1984-3448).
Today is Copland’s 120th birthday! Above, the composer in 1962; below, a selection of his “miniature” piano works suggests how he worked with his gold nuggets.
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