To honor Brahms’s 180th birthday, let’s recall the article about his birthplace that ignited a musicological firestorm!
In “Brahms era chileno” (Pauta: Cuadernos de teoría y crítica musical, no. 63 [July-Sept 1997] pp. 39–44), the Argentine composer Juan María Solare states that Johann Jakob Brahms (1806–72), accompanied by his wife, Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen (1789–1865), took part in a tour of South America as a performer in the orchestra of the Alsterpavillon in Hamburg, and that Johanna gave birth to Johannes Brahms in the village of Copiapó, northern Chile, on 6 February 1833.
He further states that the birth is documented in a letter that Johanna wrote to her sister in Hamburg, but which was lost and eventually ended up in the archive of an obscure village in Patagonia, where it can still be seen; the birth was concealed from German society, and Brahms was baptized under a false place and date of birth upon his parents’ return to Germany.
Later, in an interview, Solare clarified his intention: He wrote the article as a piece of speculative fiction, a type of writing that Pauta sometimes publishes; but since the journal also presents peer-reviewed research, the piece was mistaken for authentic musicology, generating widespread controversy among Brahms scholars.
BONUS: Brahms was from New Orleans:
Schroeter’s films abound with the artifice, staginess, recontextualizations, and quotations typical of both camp and kitsch.
His achievement in Der Bomberpilot (1970) involves overturning mainstream interpretations of kitsch as a rejected externality by bringing what he called Kulturscheisse into productive play with contemporary German identities and their efforts to engage with alterity and the past. The film’s score is a grab bag that includes selections from Verdi, Sibelius, Wagner, Strauss, and Elvis, along with U.S. show tunes and German pop songs.
This according to “Embracing kitsch: Werner Schroeter, music and The bomber pilot” by Caryl Flinn, an essay included in Film music: Critical approaches (New York: Continuum, 2001, pp. 129–151).
Above, a still from Der Bomberpilot ; below, the beginning of Mondo Lux: Die Bilderwelten des Werner Schroeter, a documentary finished shortly after Schroeter’s death in 2010.
Jokes about accordions often involve their destruction. (The difference between an accordion and an onion: People shed tears when they chop up an onion.) Presumably this is due to their sound. (The difference between an accordion and a macaw: One makes, loud, obnoxious squawks; the other is a bird.)
Indeed, the very presence of the instrument is counted as a misfortune. (A man had to park on the street, and he left his accordion on the back seat. When he returned, he was shocked to see that one of the car’s back windows was smashed, and there were now two accordions on the back seat.)
But the sound of the accordion is identical to that of the reed organ once found in genteel parlors; the instrument’s true fault is its lower-class associations, often involving marginalized ethnic groups and non-mainstream music.
This according to “Accordion jokes: A folklorist’s view” by Richard March, an essay included in The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more! (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012 pp. 39–43). Above, Gary Larson’s classic meditation on accordions in the afterlife. Below, “Werid Al” Yankovic discusses the misfortunes of accordion ownership.
A performance that occurred almost daily in a public square in Marrakech in the early 1980s traded on ethnic identity for fun and profit.
The performance began with an Arab duo singing in Arabic; as a crowd began to gather around them, a Berber—a member of a rival ethnic group—leaped into the circle with a song in Tashlit. After a few moments of cacaphony a shouting match began, with the Berber and one of the Arabs trading insults while the other Arab took one side and then the other, upping the ante.
“Monkey, block-headed windbag, long-fingernailed King Kong, hick, salt stealer, son of a whore!” Each string of insults was preceded by an ethnic designator, and audience members were encouraged to contribute money to the aggrieved party to demonstrate their own ethnic pride. Occasionally fisticuffs between audience members ensued.
The high point of the performance came when the monetarily losing antagonist was figuratively turned into a donkey and the winner climbed onto his back and called for his instrument; victory, however temporary, meant both being on top and singing one’s own song there.
This according to “Saints, prostitutes, and rotten sardines: The musical construction of place and ethnicity in a Moroccan insult contest” by Philip D. Schuyler, an essay included in Ethnomusicological encounters with music and musicians: Essays in honor of Robert Garfias (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 249–259). Above and below, examples of street music in Marrakech.
Related article: 50 best literary insults
The role of the belly dancer at elite weddings in Cairo illuminates Egyptian attitudes toward sexuality.
The dancer plays on ambiguous evaluations, using the wit associated with baladī-class women to subvert patriarchal constructions of sexuality. Song lyrics, dance forms, and musical styles are all important aspects of raqṣ baladī.
Using wit, gestures, and the raqṣ baladī genre of dance and music, the performer Fifi Abdou entertains through an elaborate joke form in which she deconstructs and reconstructs sexualized assumptions about Egyptian dance and herself as a sexualized dancer.
This according to “‘Oh boy, you salt of the earth’: Outwitting patriarchy in raqs baladi” by Cassandra Lorius (Popular music XV/3 [October 1996] pp. 285–298). Above and below, historic performances by Ms. Abdou.
Related article: Exotic dance and civil liberties
The 1969 double album Uncle Meat by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention is a collage of rock, jazz, modernist art music, parodies of 1950s pop songs, and documentary-style spoken passages; two recurring themes and their variations unite it as a single musical statement.
Other unifying factors include the collage approach itself, which is echoed in Cal Schenkel’s cover and booklet art, the alienation aroused by the shocking elements in the musical and spoken episodes and in Schenkel’s art, and the anachronistic contrast provided by the pop song parodies.
Throughout his career Zappa successfully positioned himself as an outsider to both the rock and art music worlds, thus managing to maintain a unique place in both; Uncle Meat stands as his strongest single statement in this regard.
This according to “The Mothers of Invention and Uncle Meat: Alienation, anachronism and a double variation” by James Grier (Acta musicologica LXXIII/1  pp. 77–95). Above, Schenkel’s front cover art (worthy of today’s Halloween posting!); below, the Uncle Meat theme.
The earliest known secular stage play with music, Adam de la Halle’s Le jeu de Robin et de Marion, has been touted as the first musical comedy.
Of the two extant sources, the Paris version is by far the rowdier one—three characters that do not appear in the Aix version engage in mooning the audience, playing with sheep dung, and speaking in unimaginable metaphors worthy of Hungarians.
Common to both versions, Robin, Marion, and the seducing knight are more stock characters, but their lines are pithy and suggestive—e.g., from the scene depicted above:
Knight: You surely won’t put up a fight—you’re just a peasant, I’m a knight!
Marion: Money can’t buy love, you know.
Knight: It can buy something like it, though.
This according to “The hows and whys of Adam de la Halle’s Robin & Marion” by Lucy E. Cross (Early music America XVII/1 [Spring 2011] pp. 38–42). Below, a complete family-friendly performance of the work.
Although we think of Bach as a paragon of devotion to duty and hard work, school records indicate that as a child he was an inveterate class cutter. This gives a wrong impression, however; he was most likely helping out in the family business—singing, that is (he had a very fine soprano voice) at weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, and burials.
Still, when the 22-year-old Bach resigned his first major job in 1707 the management may have felt relieved, because he had accumulated quite a list of complaints: he had introduced too many surprising variations into the chorales, confusing the congregation; he had extended a four-week professional-development leave to study with Buxtehude to a full four months; and he was known to slip temporarily off the organ bench during a Sunday sermon to refresh himself at the local winery.
This according to Bach-ABC (Sinzig: Studio-Verlag, 2007). Above, a portrait of Bach when he was a young man; below, Robert Tiso plays Bach’s music on wine glasses.
In 1917 Prokof’ev briefly returned to one of his childhood interests: writing fiction.
He considered what this pursuit entailed. “My style caused me concern,” he wrote. “Did it have individuality or was it awkward?”
“If there’s an idea, then the style will be subservient to the idea,” he concluded. “If I have an idea, that means I’m an author.”
One of his short stories, Пудель: Мерзкая собака (The poodle: A bad dog) was published in an English translation by Three oranges (3 [May 2002] pp. 6–9; the full text is here). A surprise twist at the end is a wry nod to the composer’s interest in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Below, Prokof’ev’s good dog.