Stung by the mixed reviews of New York critics who apparently preferred their divas to be foreign-born, the operatic soprano Emma Abbott created a highly successful—and somewhat revolutionary—niche for herself.
In 1898 Abbott founded the Emma Abbott English Grand Opera Company with her husband, Eugene Wetherell, as business manager. There were precedents for translating operas into English, and even for Abbott’s role as both prima donna and production manager; the distinctive and brilliant move was to take her company to the U.S. heartland with the perfect persona for 19th-century American tastes.
Having grown up poor in Peoria, Illinois, she had the quintessential American dream narrative. She was openly both devout and patriotic, often interpolating beloved religious and U.S. songs into her opera performances. And the marital bliss projected by her close relationship with Wetherell further burnished the persona that her audiences relished.
As Abbott’s close friend and biographer Sadie E. Martin recalled, “The pleasing voice and manners of the operatic star, and her sympathetic nature, seemed at once to attract towards her the hearts of the public. She was from the first very popular, and after the first year there were many who watched, waited, and longed for her annual appearance, as for that of an old friend.”
By the time she retired, Abbott had officiated at the openings of more opera houses than any singer before her, and—owing also to her canny buisness sense—had amassed a fortune far beyond that of her European counterparts.
This according to Women in the spotlight: Divas in nineteenth-century New York by Andrea Saposnik (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing).
For some decades the back entrance of the Hovedbanegård (Central Station) in København served as a shelter and meeting place for alcoholics, drug abusers, and drug dealers, because this part of the station faces Istedgade Kvarteret (Isted Street Quarter, above), a part of the city that accommodates prostitution and pornography shops and cinemas. When narcotics entered the milieu of prostitution, this part of the city also became the home of junkies and drug dealers.
After a major restoration of the station in the 1990s the management wanted to get rid of the abusers in the back entrance. So did many travelers. And as the police did not succeed, they adopted a concept that had proved its efficiency at the central station in Hamburg. By playing music from the Romantic period through a loudspeaker, they stressed the abusers so much that, after a few days of persistence, they left the entrance hall.
Most of the junkies and alcoholics are not familiar with nor attracted to classical Romanticism, and popular music has been a vital part of their lifestyle. Therefore they feel uncomfortable when smoking, fixing, or dealing accompanied by strange classical music. For the travelers, however, Romantic-era music is a preferred genre compared to, for example, medieval music, atonal music, bebop, or modern jazz, and they are not bothered by it during the half minute it takes to pass through the entrance.
This according to “Musik for misbrugere” by Olav Harsløf (Antropologi LIV [2006–2007] pp. 87–98). Below, an excerpt from Berlioz’s opium-themed Symphonie fantastique, a Romantic-era work suitable for the station’s loudspeaker.
Popular records often include accidents, indicating something about the flexibility of musical practices and the limits of theories. Musical hooks provide useful test-cases because they are normally considered the least accidental part of a song.
One imagines the hook emerging fully formed in a moment of inspiration—the catchy phrase that comes into a songwriter’s head—or at least of calculation: But hooks sometimes incorporate accidents or happen accidentally. If hooks are less than completely determinate, then every aspect of a popular record must be subject to contingency.
This according to “Accidents, hooks, and theory” by Charles Kronengold (Popular music XXIV/3 [October 2005] pp. 381–397).
Above and below, Pérez Prado’s Cherry pink and apple blossom white, one of the examples cited in the article. The intended hook was the prominent trumpet lip slurs; the accidental hook, which made the record a number one U.S. hit in 1955, was Prado’s occasional interpolated vocalizations.
When Rosalyn Tureck was first studying piano, Bach’s keyboard music was widely considered to be primarily didactic—good for training in pianistic skills, but too dry for the concert hall. Tureck, however, was fascinated with this repertoire, and started making a point of memorizing a prelude and fugue pair every week.
At the age of 16 she moved to New York City to study at Julliard, and immediately declared her interest in specializing in Bach. Her teachers there were encouraging, but others were not: at the Naumberg Competition, for example, she made it to the finals but the jury declined to give her the award because they were convinced that nobody could make a career out of playing Bach.
Tureck persevered, keeping her repertoire centered on Bach while continuing to pursue her interest in new music. In the 1950s she began to focus more exclusively on Bach, and in 1957 she moved to London, having found that European audiences were more eager for Bach programs than U.S. ones.
This according to “Rosalyn Tureck, pianist specializing in Bach, dies at 88” by Allan Kozinn (The New York times CLII/52,549 [19 July 2003] p. A:11).
Today is Tureck’s 100th birthday! Below, the prelude and fugue in A minor, BWV 895, in 1962.
ABBA’s music has often been denigrated as bland, mass market pop. However, viewed from the point of view of reception, the ABBA phenomenon is a highly complex text that offers contemporary music consumers diverse, even perverse, pleasures.
Between them, Stephan Elliott’s The adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s wedding (1994) suggest a broad spectrum of ABBA consumers, from the sincere and sentimental to the hip, camp, and kitsch, using this spectrum to map a series of interfaces between culture, identity, the performance of gender, and place.
This according to “Music and camp: Popular music performance in Priscilla and Muriel’s wedding” by Catherine Lumby, an essay included in Screen scores: Studies in contemporary Australian film music (North Ryde: Australian Film, Television, and Radio School, 1999, pp. 78–88).
Below, ABBA’s Waterloo in Muriel’s wedding.
In 1823 Louis Spohr’s article “Aufruf an deutsche Komponisten” appeared in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. He wrote it to encourage young German composers to contribute to the genre of German opera, but he may have had other intentions as well.
Spohr was determined to promote his latest opera, Jessonda, which he mentioned as a model for his ideas of German opera—but a closer look at that work reveals that Spohr did not think along nationalist lines. In a way its dramaturgy depicts Kant’s definition of Enlightenment and aims at a united and enlightened mankind; so did the composer in his personal life.
Indeed, Spohr’s liberal and enlightened ideas are so prominent in his operas that they became increasingly neglected in the 1870s, when chauvinistic tendencies became more widespread. This development culminated in the 1940s, when the Nazis banned Jessonda from the German stage. As Spohr’s original resisted attempts to align it with the Nazi idea of German opera, the Reichsstelle für Musikbearbeitungen commissioned an amended version; the end of World War II curtailed this effort.
This according to “Zwischen nationalem Anspruch und lokalpolitischen Zwangen: Entstehungs- und Rezeptionsbedingungen der Kasseler Opern Louis Spohrs” by Wolfram Boder (Studia musicologica LII/1–4 [March 2011] pp. 311–321).
Today is Spohr’s 230th birthday! Above, the composer’s self-portrait; below, some excerpts from Jessonda.
Since the mid–19th-century discovery of the sinfonia concertante for winds, sometimes labeled K.297b, the work has been considered authentic by some and dubious by others, and its reception in the concert hall has paralleled these critical vicissitudes. An examination of 168 texts discussing this composition reveals that the authors’ reactions to the work are closely bound to their opinions on who wrote it.
For example, authors who believed that the work was by Mozart described it as strong, sturdy, and solid, while those that did not called it flimsy, arbitrary, illogical, and incomprehensible; those crediting Mozart rated the work highest level and a masterpiece, while those who considered it spurious rated it not first class; and the Mozart designators considered it delightful, celestial, and enchanting, while the non-Mozart camp described it as tasteless, inept, and cheap.
This according to “Musical attribution and critical judgment: The rise and fall of the sinfonia concertante for winds, K.297b” by John Spitzer (The journal of musicology V/3 [summer 1987] pp. 319–56). Below, we invite you to form your own opinion.
While there is no evidence that Isaac Albéniz and George Bernard Shaw ever met, the latter attended and reviewed some of the former’s London recitals.
The outspoken Shaw pointed out what he perceived as the composer and pianist’s limitations—dismissing, for example, his renditions of Mozart’s works as “monotonously pretty”—but he had some approving words as well.
Arriving at an 1891 recital at one minute before three, Shaw was “intending to have the usual twenty minutes or so over the evening paper before business began. To my amazement Albéniz appeared at the stroke of three as if he had been sent up on the platform by electric wire from Greenwich…I shall henceforth regard Albéniz not only as one of the pleasantest, most musical, and most original of pianists, but as a man of superior character.”
This according to “Albéniz and Shaw” by Colin Cooper (Classical guitar XXV/1 [September 2006] pp. 30–31). Below, a recital for Alfonso XII from Louis César Amidori’s Albéniz (1947).
Related article: Franck and Rodin
In an address delivered on 10 January 1932 William Cardinal O’Connell described crooners as “whiners and bleaters defiling the air.”
“No true American would practice this base art,” he continued. “I like to use my radio, when weary. But I cannot turn the dials without getting these whiners, crying vapid words to impossible tunes.”
“If you will listen closely when you are unfortunate enough to get one of these you will discern the basest appeal to sex emotions in the young. They are not true love songs—they profane the name. They are ribald and revolting to true men.”
This according to “Cardinal denounces crooners as whiners defiling the air” (New York times 11 January 1932, p. 21), which is reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012) pp. 319–20.
Below, Rudy Valée defiles the air in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Glorifying the American girl).
A letter published in the June 1925 issue of Gramophone noted the magazine’s general absence of women correspondents: “are the sweet little things too shy, or what?” A response published in August of that year dismissed the idea of women enjoying the gramophone: “ladies…want to be seen and also to see. They don’t want to listen. That will never interest them.”
The October issue included a letter from a woman reader who noted that women have less money at their disposal for entertainment than men, and that when she attends concerts she sees many women, including poor ones, listening attentively. “I can only conclude,” she wrote, “that certain of your correspondents have been singularly unfortunate in the circle of women they have drawn about them.”
The letters are reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). Below, on a record from the year in which the letters were first published, Margaret Young sings Red hot Henry Brown.
Related article: Gramophone ethics