C. Saraswati Bai (1874–1974) began studying Karnatak music at the age of 6, and by the time she was 9 her exceptional talent was so evident that the harikathā guru Tiruvaiyaru Krishnachar took her under his wing.
By the age of 11 she was gaining local notoriety, and as it became clear that she was contemplating a professional career the established performers of this male-dominated genre moved to undermine her, effectively blackmailing performance venues into refusing to engage her. Saraswati persevered, and public support for her grew; at last, those who had sought to squelch her career relented and tried to make amends.
In early 1911 she embarked on a highly successful tour of India and Sri Lanka, and by the age of 22 she had become one of the most acclaimed harikathā performers of the time.
From 1913 through the 1930s Saraswati traveled almost continually, performing standing up for six to seven hours in a different town each night. She recorded nine successful records for Odeon, and often performed on the radio; she was also in great demand for performances at weddings. At the height of her career she earned 2000 rupees each night, more than any other harikathā performer at that time.
From the 1940s until the early 1960s Saraswati performed less and less, due partly to a decline in audiences with the advent of sound films, and partly to the intense physical demands of traveling and performing. She took a keen interest in developing cultural organizations, and was an ardent supporter of Gandhi.
This according to “C. Saraswati Bai” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (writing as Sriram V; Sruti 262 [July 2006] pp. 21–31 and 263 [August 2006] pp. 17–38). Below, one of her Odeon recordings.
When Maria Callas returned to Greece to inaugurate the 1957 Athens Festival her demand for an unusually high fee created much antagonism, and she vowed that she would not perform in the country again.
However, in 1959 Κostis Bastias (1901–72) took charge of the administration of the Ethnikī Lyrikī Skīnī (Greek National Theater) and invited Callas to star in an opera in the ancient theater of Epidaurus. Since its opening in 1954, the Epidaurus Festival had only included performances of ancient Greek dramas by Ethnikī Lyrikī Skīnī; performances by other troupes were not allowed.
Finally, Callas consented to present Bellini’s Norma at the festival in 1960, and decided to donate her fee to a scholarship foundation. The performance was a resounding success, and she returned to Epidaurus a year later to present Cherubini’s Médée, further eroding Ethnikī Lyrikī Skīnī’s monopoly.
This according to “Callas: The conflict for Epidaurus” by Georgia Kondyli (Hellenic journal of music, education and culture III/1 [2010; open access]).
Today is Callas’s 90th birthday! Above, a Greek stamp commemorates her Norma at Epidaurus; below, an excerpt from her subsequent performance of the work in Paris.
For his 1972 album Sail away Randy Newman took practically all pre-rock American vernacular music styles and reworked the genres with ironic, sarcastic, and sometimes caustic lyrics that might have shocked Tin Pan Alley-era audiences.
Because of the elaborate settings of many of the songs—including Newman’s piano, traditional rock instruments, and symphony orchestra—the pieces take on a parallel life as a kind of song cycle that explores the ironies of life throughout much of recorded history. The universality of the subject matter and the deliberately retro style of the song forms, rhythmic styles, and harmonic and melodic vocabulary all combine to make Sail away an album that continues to ring true.
This according to “Randy Newman: Sail away (1972)” by James E. Perone, an essay included in The album: A guide to pop music’s most provocative, influential, and important creations. II: The golden age of the singer-songwriter, 1970-1973 (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012).
Today is Randy Newman’s 70th birthday! Above, the original album cover; below, Newman performs the title song in 1994.
The novel La musique du diable, ou Le Mercure galant devalisé (Paris: Robert le Turc, 1711) describes the arrival and subsequent activities of Marie-Louise Desmâtins and Lully in Hell; it also recounts events leading up to the soprano’s demise.
In the absence of any historical record of her last days, one might ask whether there could be a modicum of truth in the novel’s reports that Desmâtins had grown so obese that she engaged the finest butcher of the day to remove her fat; that she then mounted a lavish party for which all of the food had been prepared using this fat; at that she died soon thereafter from unknown causes. The reader is assured that she was welcomed to Hell with the highest honors, and that she is happier there than she ever was in her earthly life.
This according to “La musique du diable (1711): An obscure specimen of fantastic literature throws light on the elusive opera diva Marie-Louise Desmatins (fl. 1682–1708)” by Ilias Chrissochoidis (Society for Eighteenth-Century Music newsletter 11 [October 2007] pp. 7–9).
Above, a rather alarmingly corseted Desmâtins in a contemporaneous portrait; below, the final scene of Lully’s Armide, which Desmâtins starred in in 1703 (note that this is not an attempt to replicate the original staging).
The Beatles, a.k.a. The white album, contests the arbitrary distinction between popular music and political engagement through its radical eclecticism and self-reflexivity. The album outlines a new way of being political—a postmodern politics—that was and still is to a large extent erroneously seen as escapism.
Critics from the New Left charge that the disparate styles and self-conscious references on the record signal the Beatles’ disregard of politics; but this perspective implies that there is only one way of being political, and fails to consider the historical circumstances that give any use of parody its particular significance.
By 1968 corporate attempts to manipulate rock artists and fans were reaching a peak, and early rock and roll had lost much of its initially subversive allure. Concurrently, the Beatles found themselves lauded for their masterpiece, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Beatles’ turn to parody then serves not as an escape from but as a specific response to key cultural tensions: the self-reflexivity and ironic appropriation of various styles on the album allowed the Beatles to contest the commodification of rock music even as they challenged assumptions about what constitutes political relevance.
This according to “We all want to change the world: Postmodern politics and the Beatles’ White album” by Jeffrey Roessner, an essay included in Reading the Beatles: Cultural studies, literary criticism, and the Fab Four (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006, pp. 147–158).
Today is The white album’s 45th birthday! Below, the entire album for your listening pleasure.
Zoomusicology is an area of intellectual endeavor that developed outside of music studies, among scholars interested in animal behavior.
Although this field is almost 30 years old, people operating in ethnomusicology, who are potentially the better equipped to understand the goals and challenges of zoomusicology, are often not aware of how compatible the two fields are.
Zoomusicology and ethnomusicology have much to gain from each other. Moreover, if ethnomusicology indeed has the ambition to be a field that brings together musical knowledge in a worldwide perspective, then one would have to maintain that zoomusicology should be seen as part of ethnomusicology.
This according to “Zoomusicology and ethnomusicology: A marriage to celebrate in heaven” by Marcello Sorce Keller (Yearbook for traditional music XLIV  166–83). Above and below, lupine group vocalizations.
Samuel Johnson lived in London during a struggle between English and foreign composers—epitomized by the rivalry between Händel and Thomas Arne—and witnessed its climax, which was to have a devastating impact on English musical morale through the 19th century.
During Johnson’s first decade in London this rivalry was characterized by Händel concentrating on his own affairs and ignoring Arne, while Arne was highly conscious and jealous of Händel. Their fortunes fluctuated, the one prevailing in public taste and then the other, but the spectacular performance of Händel’s 1749 Music for the royal fireworks, HWV 351, and the triumphant revival of his Messiah the next year finally established him as London’s pre-eminent composer. When he retired from the music scene in 1759 neither Arne nor any other English composer managed to achieve comparable public acclaim.
The 1784 commemoration of Händel at Westminster Abbey featured some 275 singers and an orchestra of about 250. Johnson chose to go to Oxford that week, but Boswell, having accompanied Johnson there, returned to London after three days to attend the event. Although Johnson died that year, he had lived to see the victory of a composer whose work would prove as enduring as his own.
This according to “Music in Johnson’s London” by Bruce Simonds, an essay included in The age of Johnson: Essays presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 411–420); the book is covered RILM retrospective abstracts of music literature.
Below, Händel’s 1749 work with appropriate visuals.
Related article: Operatic degeneracy
The Strong Women from the Tiwi Islands (northern Australia) are concerned that young Tiwi people are straddling two cultures, losing their language and their Tiwi identity.
To address this problem, the women and their grandchildren have composed a song that emphasizes connection to the ancestors, to country, to language, and to the elders. With lyrics in English, traditional Tiwi song language, and the contemporary spoken language, and with a hip-hop dance-mix sampling an ethnographic recording made in 1912, Ngariwanajirri (Strong kids song) is an example of new music helping to preserve tradition.
This according to “Ngariwanajirri, the Tiwi Strong kids song: Using repatriated song recordings in a contemporary music project” by Genevieve Campbell (Yearbook for traditional music XLIV  1–23).
Below, a music video of Ngariwanajirri; the song changes dramatically around 2:00.
Italian opera has played an important role in Russian musical life since the early 17th century, but by the 19th century it was being promoted there more than Russian opera. In retaliation, Russian composers used their operas to make fun of Italian opera’s stock situations and styles, and brought Russian opera back into prominence.
For example, in his early comic farce Богатыри (Bogatyri, Heroic warriors), Borodin used familiar music and arias from Italian and French operas (by Rossini, Verdi, Offenbach, Meyerbeer, and others) to set up situations where the original intention of the music and its new setting were at humorous extremes.
This according to “Italians in a Russian manner: One step from serious to funny” by Svetlana Sergeevna Martynova (Fontes artis musicae LVI/1 [January–March 2009] pp. 1–6).
Today is Borodin’s 180th birthday! Below, the opening of his B-minor symphony, which Massine used for his ballet Bogatyri, illustrated with images of the heroic warriors of Russian folklore.
In 2013 Alpuerto and Centro de Investigación y Documentación Musical (CIDoM) launched the series Investigación y patrimonio musical with Música policoral de la catedral de Cuenca: Motetes al Señor y los Santos de Alonso Xuárez (1640–1696), edited by José Luis de la Fuente Charfolé.
The activities of the composer Alonso Xuárez (1640–96) were crucial for the development of the religious repertoire at the Catedral de Santa María y San Julián de Cuenca. Xuárez was responsible in great measure for the stabilization of the music chapel and its repertoire, bringing Cuenca on a par with neighboring cities in regard to the quality and breadth of its liturgical music.
The motets collected in this edition address general liturgical rituals and pay tribute to local saints and regional traditions. A list of singers and performers connected with the music chapel of Cuenca’s cathedral for the period 1661–74 is appended.