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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, December 2, 2019: Harmonica Used Aboard Gemini 6

Wally Schirra’s 8-note Hohner “Little Lady” harmonica. Gift of Walter M. Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford Jr.

From turntables to banjos, drumsticks, pianos, and beyond, musical instruments tell powerful stories about the multiple meanings of music in everyday life, highlighting how musical objects are never just things. Rather, they are often the result of complex processes arising from their production histories and circulation, accruing multiple layers of meaning through their varied uses and their associated cultural, ideological, affective, and economic values. Enter the humble harmonica, the free-reed wind instrument also known as the mouth organ or the French harp. How did a harmonica reach outer space in 1965? And what might it mean that it was the instrument of choice for the first song ever to be played outside planet Earth?

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When you pack your astronaut bag, you might smuggle a harmonica and miniature bells, if you are anything like Walter “Wally” Schirra or Tom Stafford. There is always some extra room next to the oxygen and the medication. Schirra and Stafford packed a Hohner “Little Lady,” a harmonica now given “The space traveler” moniker on the maker’s website, capable of playing one octave through its three-and-a-half–centimeter body. Why a harmonica, of all instruments? For one, it is portable, possessing a travel-readiness that has allowed it to circulate globally. The history of the harmonica is linked to that of its sister instrument, the accordion, especially during the mid-19th century. German instrument makers offered an extensive catalogue of accordions and harmonicas, pioneering a transformation of musical instruments into mass-produced commodities. As part of its global circulation, it has become a ubiquitous fixture in imagery that is, appropriately, about travel, as in the prototypical American Old West scene; characters like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the harmonica, and Abraham Lincoln is reported to have often carried a harmonica in his pocket. Remarkably, it is also present as a shamanic instrument of power used in healing rituals within some Amerindian shamanic traditions in the Amazon. A small instrument can travel far.

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The rendition of “Jingle Bells,” the first song (just its melody) played in outer space, is a precedent to the famous 1977 Voyager recording and the first instance in a long list of musical activities in space. These have included, among many others, the recording of a music video for “Space Oddity,” played by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013 and the 20-day radio transmission of the song “Dongfang Hong,” or “The East Is Red,” from China’s first space satellite of the same name, in 1970.

Commander Chris Hadfield Performs a Version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Rare Earth Series, Published by Onward Music Limited 

“The East Is Red” with English Subtitles, Posted by User Joaquin2123

Other instruments that have traveled outside the Earth include the flute brought onboard by Ellen Ochoa, a classical musician and NASA‘s first female Hispanic astronaut, Carl Walz’s keyboard, and Aleksandr Laveykin and Yury Romanenko’s guitar, among many others. The recurrence of the musical within extraterrestrial voyages demonstrates the ubiquity of music as part of shared human activities, be it in mundane settings or in the extraordinary context of riding in a spaceship or living in a space station. Which is a more fitting rhetorical question: Why music in space? or, Why not music in space? If astronauts in close quarters going through physically and intellectually demanding activities of massive proportions still have to monitor closely their physical needs, such as eating, breathing, sleeping, and digesting, the presence of music in the spectacular encounter between the earthly and the extraterrestrial is a wonder in its own right.

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The first song played in outer space was “Jingle Bells.” The first SMS (short message service) text message, sent in 1992, read “Merry Christmas.” These instances demonstrate the embeddedness of technology with specific cultural contexts; even though the Gemini 6 mission was completed in December 1965, the song played by its crew could have been any other. “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–93) and first published as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” was originally about a (sleigh) ride, but not one linked to the imagery of Christmas holidays beyond the shared snow. “Jingle Bells” is also reported to have been one of the songs selected in the first recording of a Christmas record in an 1889 Edison cylinder. As the theater historian Kyra Hamill has demonstrated, the song gained prominence in 1857 after being performed as part of the blackface minstrel repertoire. That Schirra and Stafford performed it for humorous reasons tells us something about music and comic relief at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, only a few years before the historic moon landing. That this specific context is one of many that are a part of the song’s history demonstrates the multi-layeredness and depth of any one musical object, no matter how trivial it might seem.

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On December 16, 1965, the following three-way conversation took place between Gemini 6, Gemini 7, and the NASA Mission Control Center (“Houston”), with a reported sighting of Santa Claus in outer space:

Gemini 6: We have an object. It looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory, traveling from north to south. It has a very high [fineness] ratio. It looks like it might be [inaudible]. It’s very low; it looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by, One. It looks like he’s trying to signal us. [Stafford and Schirra play “Jingle Bells”]. 

 Gemini 7: We got him, too! [Laughter].

 Gemini 6: That was live, Seven, not taped.

 Houston: You’re too much, Six.

Performance in Space by Astronauts Schirra and Stafford, Posted by User Buzzlab

The objective of the Gemini 6 mission was to test the ability of two crewed spaceships to rendezvous. The musical moment performed through “Jingle Bells” highlights the desire and possibility of contact and communication. Effectively, Gemini 7 and the Houston ground control were morphed into audience members, with Gemini 6 clarifying that what they had indeed witnessed was a live performance. Both of their acknowledgments close a communicational loop of great significance. Communicating with the beyond and the non-human has also been a constant preoccupation in space travel, as explored in the selection of “world music” onboard the Voyager, or in Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures Project,” which includes a “micro-etched disc with one hundred photographs, encased in a gold-plated shell, designed to withstand the rigors of space and to last for billions of years. Inspired by years of conversations and interviews with scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers, the images chosen for The Last Pictures tell an impressionistic story of uncertainty, paradox, and anxiety about the future.”

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The presence of the harmonica brings a certain nostalgia to the fore in the musical moment created by the Gemini 6 mission. As a quintessential travel instrument, the harmonica in outer space can be interpreted as an instance of employing the familiar in order to ground a sense of place in the face of novelty, given its mainstream recognizability as part of the folk revival movement that peaked in the decade of the 1960s. The juxtaposition of tradition and modernity could not be starker in the moment it was brought to life through a Hohner “Little Lady” playing a Christmas song with a troubled racialized history hundreds of miles outside planet Earth. Yes, it was a funny moment, but it was more than the laughter.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Andrés García Molina, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bermúdez Cujar, Egberto. “Beyond vallenato: The accordion traditions in Colombia”, The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more!, ed. by Helena Simonett. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) 199–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-10356]

Accordion music in Colombia has a much longer history than the music that is called vallenato, and is not confined to the Valledupar region that allegedly gave it its name. This essay examines the development of accordion music in Colombia (including Panama before its separation from Colombia in 1903) and its role in Colombian traditional and popular music. Drawing on archival research and oral history, the author begins with the accordion’s arrival in Colombian territory in the second half of the 19th century and concludes with vallenato’s incorporation into the national and international popular-music circuits. (author)

Field, Kim. Harmonicas, harps, and heavy breathers: The evolution of the people’s instrument (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-13329]

García Molina, Andrés. “Labor and the performance of place in the Upper Putumayo”, TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review 20 (2016) 27–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-45171]

I develop a problematic around two interrelated themes: labor and the performance of place. Drawing from fieldwork conducted among taitas, or shamans, from the Colombian Upper Putumayo region, I investigate the varied ways in which taitas understand and use sound in their ritual practice. Taitas sing and perform songs for long periods of time and under strenuous circumstances during tomas de yajé, rituals that involve drinking yajé, a psychoactive brew made from local plant species. Taitas claim one main reason they sing and play during the ritual is to recreate the sensorium of Amazonia, performing a ritual place that becomes replicable wherever they might conduct rituals, whether in rural Colombia or in urban centers of the West. I argue for the importance of understanding what taitas do—and conversely, shamanic practices in general—as a form of labor; in doing so, I propose a framework that permits theorizing the commodification of cultural practices that, even though embedded in present-day capital relations, exist concurrently in imaginaries that situate them in a distant precapitalist past. The increasingly common encounter between taitas, non-indigenous Colombians, and Westerners in general, allows us to reconsider basic questions of labor and place through the music—and more broadly, sounds—that taitas perform in ritual. (author)

Hamill, Kyna. “‘The story I must tell’: Jingle bells in the minstrel repertoire”, Theatre survey: The American journal of theatre history 58/3 (September 2017) 375–403. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-51193]

Krampert, Peter. The encyclopedia of the harmonica (Pacific: Mel Bay Publications, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-12510]

Lankford, Ronald D., Jr. Sleigh rides, jingle bells, & silent nights: A cultural history of American Christmas songs(Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-8609]

When Bing Crosby’s White Christmas debuted in 1942, no one imagined that a holiday song would top the charts year after year. One of the best-selling singles ever released, it remains on rotation at tree lighting ceremonies, crowded shopping malls, and at warm diners on lonely Christmas Eve nights. Over the years, other favorites have been added to America’s annual playlist including Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas, the King Cole Trio’s The Christmas song, Gene Autry’s Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Willie Nelson’s Pretty paper, and of course, Elmo & Patsy’s Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Under the surface of familiar melodies and words there lie jolly Santas, winter wonderlands, and roasting chestnuts—both masking and representing an intricate cultural landscape crowded with the meanings of a modern American Christmas. Songs that most readily evoke those meanings, desires, and anxieties have become classics, painting a portrait of the American psyche past and present. Viewing American holiday values through the filter of familiar Christmas songs, the author examines popular culture, consumerism, and the dynamics of the traditional American family. He surveys more than 75 years of songs and reveals that the “modern American Christmas” has carried a complex and sometimes contradictory set of meanings. Interpreting tunes against the backdrop of the eras in which they were first released, he identifies the repeated themes of nostalgia, commerce, holiday blues, carnival, and travesty that underscore so much beloved music. (publisher)

Licht, Michael S. “Harmonica magic: Virtuoso display in American folk music”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 24/2 (May 1980) 211–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1980-3491]

In the USA a virtuoso tradition of harmonic playing developed that used special mouth, hand, and nose techniques. It was influenced more by African than by European traditions. Public competitions fostered the development of special effects such as the fox chase and the locomotive. With the growth of audiences (e.g., for television and radio), the practice of accompanying spoken narratives became increasingly widespread. The author explores the symbolic meaning of some harmonic music genres, referring to the conflict of man and nature (in fox-chase pieces), and the growth of industrialization (in locomotive pieces). (Jeffrey Rehbach)

McCrory, Knox. “Notes on the harmonica: Toy or musical instrument?”, Missouri Folklore Society journal 20 (1998) 159–166. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-23779]

Simonett, Helena, ed. The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more! Music in American life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, no. 2012-10346]

An invention of the Industrial Revolution, the accordion provided the less affluent with an inexpensive, loud, portable, and durable “one-man-orchestra” capable of producing melody, harmony, and bass all at once. Imported from Europe into the Americas, the accordion with its distinctive sound became a part of the aural landscape for millions of people but proved to be divisive: while the accordion formed an integral part of working-class musical expression, bourgeois commentators often derided it as vulgar and tasteless. This rich collection considers the accordion and its myriad forms, from the concertina, button accordion, and piano accordion familiar in European and North American music, to the exotic-sounding South American bandoneón and the sanfoninha. Capturing the instrument’s spread and adaptation to many different cultures in North and South America, contributors illuminate how the accordion factored into power struggles over aesthetic values between elites and working-class people who often were members of immigrant and/or marginalized ethnic communities. Specific histories and cultural contexts discussed include the accordion in Brazil, Argentine tango, accordion traditions in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, cross-border accordion culture between Mexico and Texas, Cajun and Creole identity, working-class culture near Lake Superior, the virtuoso Italian-American and klezmer accordions, Native American dance music, and American avant-garde. (publisher)

Studwell, William E. “From Jingle bells to Jingle bell rock: Sketches of obscure or fading American popular Christmas songwriters, 1857–1957 (and a little beyond)”, Music reference services quarterly 5/1 (1996) 1–20. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1996-1302]

Although many people are familiar with the enduring and even classic American popular Christmas songs that are reprised every holiday season, the creators of these songs are obscure or fading from the collective American consciousness. In an effort to help preserve their names and accomplishments, biographical sketches of 34 writers of popular Christmas songs are presented.

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Afroperuvian feminisms

Black women’s cultural activism in Lima, Peru, enacts a vibrant geohistory of respatializations of raced and gendered embodiment, advancing deprovincialized manifestations of the historical continuities, transnational ties, and internationalist impulses that connect otherwise localized and specific stories of diasporic cultural formation in the Black Americas.

The analytics and vocabularies of sound studies, critical race and gender studies, and feminist geography illuminate convergences within the cross‐generational work of Peruvian black women performers from the mid-20th century to the present. Despite differences in content and form—and at times in approach or aspiration—their collective work as political activists and cultural producers can be understood as both formed by and formative of performance geographies of feminist diasporicity.

This according to “Afroperuvian feminisms and performance geographies of diasporicity, 1953–2013” by Kirstie A. Dorr (Journal of popular music studies XXIX/4 [December 2017] 21 p.).

Above and below, Susana Baca, one of the musicians discussed in the article.

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Tina Turner’s second act

 

 

In 1958 Anna Mae Bullock, a backing vocalist in the Kings of Rhythm, married the group’s leader, Ike Turner; in 1960, ahead of the group’s first release with her as lead singer, Ike changed her name to Tina. The recording, A fool in love, became the group’s first million-copy hit.

Rebranded as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, the group became a world-famous soul band; but the Turners’ relationship was deteriorating drastically due to Ike’s abusive behavior, and in 1976 Tina finally left him and the band, sneaking out of a motel room with only the clothes she was wearing and the 36 cents in her pocket. She subsequently relinquished all legal rights to the songs she had recorded with them.

After appearing with major artists including Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones, Tina began to reestablish her career, and in 1984 she signed with Capitol Records. Three Top 40 hits and three Grammy Awards soon followed, and to promote her 1986 album Break every rule she toured for 14 months, performing 230 concerts. The effort paid off: the album went platinum, and its lead track, Typical male, was another Top 40 hit. By the 1990s she was firmly established as a major pop star and film actress, with an enormous and devoted international fan base.

This according to “Tina Turner” by Steve Valdez (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 641); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Tina Turner’s 80th birthday! Above, her 50th Anniversary Tour, 2008–09; below, Proud Mary in 2000.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, November 22, 2019: Jenny Lind Concert Program

Jenny Lind Concert Program, 1850, National Museum of American History, Gift of Sarah Ella Cummings.

“Music is prophesy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible. It is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.” –Jaques Attali

Jenny Lind, aka the “Swedish Nightingale,” was a nineteenth-century European opera singer who helped birth American popular music and celebrity culture as we know it today. By the estimation of historian Neil Harris writing in his book Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum, following the massive success of her 1850–52 tour of American concert halls (including Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia), “Jenny Lind had become and would remain the greatest musical sensation of the nineteenth century.” How and why did this happen, and what did it mean for the future of popular music and celebrity culture? In his chapter on Lind, whose U.S. concert tour was proposed and publicized by Barnum—an equal partner in the tour’s profits of course—there are several salient factors.

For one, Lind was promoted not only as a marvelously talented artist, but also as an avatar of nature itself, as suggested by the “Swedish Nightingale” sobriquet that was first bestowed by the English. Praised by American audiences as much for her plain clothes, modest deportment, and charity work as for her voice, Jenny Lind’s natural authenticity was as crucial to her popularity as was the labor-intensive effort and artifice more commonly associated with the operatic voice.

Under P.T. Barnum’s supervision, “biographies were prepared and distributed” months before Lind arrived in the States, “emphasizing Jenny’s piety, her character, her interest in philanthropy and good works.” The enthusiasm that Barnum managed to whip up for Lind’s tour led to a phenomenon then known as “Lindomania.” On her arrival to the New World, the New York Herald reported “the spectacle of some thirty or forty thousand persons congregated on all the adjacent piers,” people described as being “from all quarters [and] crowds.” Compared with the advent of Beatlemania and their similarly-hyped arrival in New York, Lind attracted crowds ten times as big as the Fab Four.

A final crucial point in this publicity campaign, returning again to the Harris text, is that “all of this extraordinary enthusiasm” was “designed to reflect credit not only on the object of veneration but the venerators themselves.” Landing in an America that had yet to develop well-known artistic and expressive forms distinctly its own, the nation suffered somewhat of an inferiority complex, especially when faced with venerated art and artists from the Continent. As Harris points out, “The spectacle of a proud republic voluntarily paying homage to a young woman (Jenny was already thirty but invariably described by Americans as a young girl) of great artistry demonstrated that the finer values, which Europeans had insisted were swamped by money-getting and chicanery, still ruled the New World.” Crucially, Barnum and Lind would flip the script here, the tour serving as a turning point in American culture where art and talent, money and chicanery, would be fused into a distinctly American art world later labeled as “popular culture” and “popular music,” and where fame was transformed into celebrity.

Fame is often contrasted to celebrity as a matter of talent and accomplishment (fame), versus mere notoriety for whatever reason or through whatever means (celebrity). But above and beyond this distinction—and bearing in mind that even so-called “meritocracies” are riven with subjective distinctions and prone to the biases of the already-powerful classes—celebrity is all about celebration. And this celebration extends far beyond the object of veneration (Jenny Lind in this case), but also to those doing the celebrating, who see their own ideals, tastes, and morals either reflected in a famous figure, or perhaps (in many of celebrity’s more recent manifestations) celebrate themselves as superior to the “pathetic” celebrities who will do anything to be famous. And finally, celebrity celebrates its own mechanisms and operational aesthetics. In a celebrity culture, credit is openly bestowed upon the publicists and other promoters (including celebrities themselves when serving in this capacity) and to the wider entertainment industry and advertising industry that perpetuate celebrity culture. Prescient evidence of this perspective is seen in the concert program pictured here—where advertisements for daguerreotype artists, portraitists, hairdressers, and tailors (nineteenth-century image-making enterprises one and all) were placed alongside the musical program itself, implicitly celebrating the image making behind Lind’s own celebrity.

To be sure, Lind came by her fame honestly. While no recordings of her exist, by all reports her singing was impressive enough that many listeners described it in transcendent terms. But she was also one of the first celebrities in the modern sense of the word—famous not only due to observable talent and accomplishment, but celebrated also for her sheer visibility, celebrated as a highly-promoted persona, one who was considered highly relatable to her public, a Platonic ideal of socially-desirable traits as perceived by her audience (notably, in more recent decades, it’s just as often the case that these “Platonic ideals” are the undesirable traits of a given anti-hero celebrity whose métier is controversy and outrage). For Jenny Lind, the constructed nature of her celebrity is highlighted by the fact that most of her “fans” had never heard her sing before, including P.T. Barnum himself as he undertook his publicity blitz before her arrival. By his own account, Barnum effectively “transformed the admittedly already famous ‘Swedish Nightingale’ into a celebrity, accompanied by endorsements, spin-off products, and fabulously successful concerts in many American cities” (Barnum).

Most readers today are familiar with P.T. Barnum as the famed American figure who turned carnival barking into a mass-mediated, wildly lucrative art form of its own—in many ways laying the foundation for the American entertainment industry and the advertising industry. Widely perceived as a hustler and a flim-flam man, or as an ahead-of-his-time impresario and the ultimate self-made man (see Hugh Jackman’s portrayal in 2017’s sleeper hit film The Greatest Showman, dir. Michael Gracey), the truth likely lies somewhere in between. Barnum was a man who created mass entertainments that combined pure spectacle, earnest pedagogy-for-the-people, and shameless chicanery (often at the people’s literal expense) at legendary institutions like Barnum’s American Museum and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth (later, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). His promotion of Jenny Lind, well after his public image was cemented in place, was Barnum’s (largely successful) attempt to go legit—a famed hoaxer and huckster applying his promotional acumen to the highest of high culture.

As it turns out, the carnivalesque “low culture” that Barnum trafficked in was more than compatible with the elite culture of opera. Thanks in large part to Barnum’s promotional efforts in the months leading up to her arrival, once Lind reached American shores the operatic wunderkind was already “venerated like a saint…because of her modest character and her charitable activities” (BruckmüllerSchindler) as much as for her singing. Despite the highbrow, elite affiliations associated with opera in the nineteenth century, especially among Americans who were far removed from European cultural centers, Barnum ingeniously aimed his advertising at those very “non-elite” outsiders with Lind portrayed as an outsider in her own right—a public image “constructed from her humble origins, demonstrations of concern for the underprivileged, her rejection of the opera stage and its elite audience, and her embodiment of the American ideal of womanhood” (Caswell). When it comes to the latter, her image was framed as “[running] counter to cultural associations of prima donnas with women of dubious lifestyles and questionable character” (Biddlecombe). In other words, she was a prima donna suitable for the established gender norms and the lingering Puritan morals, whether in practice or merely in principle, of the American audience.

While Jenny Lind’s largely-unheralded role in American popular music history may seem a bit contradictory—a European who helped birth a distinctly American culture, an opera singer who was one of the first icons of modern popular culture—it only reinforces how such contradictions lie at the heart of any definition of “the popular” as widely understood in contemporary culture. Popular music, in particular, is defined equally by its bottom-up populist nature (the music of the people) and its top-down commercial basis (filtered through the machinations of the music industry). What’s more, given the perceived inauthenticity of “popular culture”—even among many of those who most enthusiastically participate in the popular culture and consume its products—an offsetting “authenticity discourse” is central to much of popular music culture in which musical celebrities are constantly at pains to establish and maintain their perceived authenticity.

As laid out by Barker and Taylor (see bibliography below), far from being a simple metric, authenticity can be divided between various subcategories such as “representational authenticity” (the talents and abilities of a musician on display minus any behind-the-scene deception or technological enhancement), “cultural authenticity” (Does the musical expression arise “naturally” from a given subculture or other rank-and-file social grouping?), and personal authenticity (Does the music speak to and about the performer’s real life and identity?). These parameters are all the more potent in measuring the authenticity of singers, whether amateur or professional, given that, “voice has a long history in modern Western culture as a transparent signifier of subjectivity and presence” (Vella), and Jenny Lind was perceived as the gold standard of all three categories in her day.

This is all closely linked to what Neil Harris refers to as an “operational aesthetic” in which the hidden story behind a given person, object, or activity—and it’s factual recounting—is just as important as the person, object, or activity itself. In the world of celebrity, the “hidden” star narratives, especially when recounted in breathless Behind the Music­­ style, are just as central to popular music stars’ reception as the music itself. This aesthetic is likely attributable to a range of factors as laid out by Harris in his critical/cultural biography of P.T. Barnum, ranging from American individualism and do-it-yourself aspirational ideas (“the self-created man”) to the rapid rate of advancement in technology (making the seemingly impossible possible) and advertising (the science of convincing others through whatever means). Harris sums up the operational aesthetic thusly: “an approach to reality and to pleasure [that] focused attention on their own structures and operations…an approach to experience that equated beauty with information and technique, accepting guile because it was more complicated then candor.”

Entire sectors of the entertainment industry are now based around “behind the scenes” forensic examination of plainly false realities (e.g., reality television). Reality show producers and music documentarians understand exactly what Barnum came to understand over a century and a half ago: “that the opportunity to debate the issue of falsity, to discover how deception has been practiced, was even more exciting than the discovery of fraud itself…[where] people paid to see frauds, thinking they were true, [and] paid again to hear how the frauds were committed.” Perhaps, echoing into the new millennium, this operational aesthetic still resonates in part, given the routine unrealities of our own lives and the constant self-aware exertion that lies behind our own self-authoring. Whether trolling for “likes” on Facebook, or tweeting at and about celebrities on another social media platform, most of us today inhabit a celebrity-like ecosystem, authoring our own personal star-texts minus the actual stardom. In this and other respects, Jenny Lind anticipated the current age of social media and its promise of celebrity-for-all.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Barker, Hugh and Yuval Taylor. Faking it: The quest for authenticity in popular music (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2007-4996]

Whether it be the folklorist’s search for forgotten bluesmen, the rock critic’s elevation of raw power over sophistication, or the importance of bullet wounds to the careers of hip-hop artists, the aesthetic of the “authentic musical experience”, with its rejection of music that is labeled contrived, pretentious, artificial, or overly commercial, has played a major role in forming musical tastes and canons, with wide-ranging consequences. The question of authenticity in popular music is not only fundamental to understanding the music’s history, but fundamental to thinking about, listening to, and performing it as well. This question is tackled by examining turning points in popular music’s authenticity in relation to the blues, segregation in the Southern U.S., Alan Lomax’s field recordings, blackface minstrelsy, the birth of modern country music, Elvis Presley’s reinvention of rock ‘n’ roll, bubblegum pop in the era of singer-songwriters, the Monkees’ decision to play their instruments, Donna Summer’s 17-minute faked orgasm as the defining moment of disco, the “public image” of the Sex Pistols and punk rock, Kurt Cobain’s choice of a Leadbelly song as his swan song on MTV’s Unplugged, and Moby’s use of Alan Lomax’s field recordings in a sample-based electronic-music setting. The careers of John Lennon, Jimmie Rodgers, John Hurt, Neil Young, and the KLF are examined through the lens of authenticity. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Barnum, Phineas Taylor (P.T.). “P.T. Barnum and the Jenny Lind fever”, Music in the USA: A documentary companion, ed. by Judith Tick and Paul E. Beaudoin. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) 185–189. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2008-36741]

The American promotion of the great soprano Jenny Lind by P.T. Barnum represents a watershed in the music business. Barnum transformed the admittedly already famous “Swedish Nightingale” into a celebrity, accompanied by endorsements, spin-off products, and fabulously successful concerts in many American cities. A risk taker, as shown in this selection from his Struggles and triumphs, or, Forty years’ recollections of P.T. Barnum (Hartford, J.B. Burr, 1869), Barnum offered Lind a huge contract for an American tour without hearing her sing. He exercised his genius in marketing and publicity, foreshadowing the extent to which these would become industries unto themselves in the following century. (editors)

Biddlecombe, George. “Jenny Lind, illustration, song and the relationship between prima donna and public”, The idea of art music in a commercial world, 1800–1930, ed. by Christina M. Bashford and Roberta Montemorra Marvin. Music in society and culture (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016) 86–113. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-2056]

Focusing on the role of imagery in promoting an idealized notion of Jenny Lind in Britain and the U.S., this essay explores how constructions of Lind’s persona in sheet music and other material commodities ran counter to cultural associations of prima donnas with women of dubious lifestyles and questionable character. By analyzing images of Lind on the sheet-music covers of ballads that she sang publicly, the author demonstrates that most of the illustrations were based on two paintings of her that signal femininity, innocence, and physical attractiveness. Some of the covers, along with commercially available prints of Lind, also enhanced her body and facial features to create an aura of beauty and unimpeachable morality. Since sheet music was mostly intended for the middle-class domestic sphere and likely purchased, played, and sung by young, often unmarried, women (for whom music-making was an important part of courtship), the Lind products were targeted at this group, in the hope of encouraging consumers to identify with the soprano and even to believe that a famous female singer was endorsing their own domestic space. Moreover, the author explores the qualities that attached to the English-language ballads Lind sang in concerts in both Britain and the U.S., arguing that this repertoire connoted modesty, domesticity, emotional restraint, and even national character and political values. Her performance of the repertoire created an ideology that further revealed the singer’s “internal self” and complemented the idea of Lind that was circulating in printed imagery. (Christina M. Bashford)

Bruckmüller-Schindler, Magdalena. “The diva between admiration and contempt: The cult state of exceptional music artists in the 19th century”, Europe in the time of Franz Liszt, ed. by Valentina Bevc Varl and Oskar Habjanič. (Maribor: Pokrajinski muzej Maribor, 2016) 150–161. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-44231]

Discusses aspects of the star cult of female opera singers at the beginning of the 19th century. It starts with a short introduction about stars and virtuosos who were deeply burnt into the collective memory, such as Liszt or Paganini, and then focuses on the “prima donnas”, who during their lifetimes were enormously successful and even venerated as almost godlike. Nowadays, they have been almost forgotten, but during their lifetimes some of them filled newspapers with gossip, leading to astonishment, but also to extreme forms of admiration. The apotheosis of the “diva”, Maria Malibran (1808−36) in the hour of her early death is the first of three episodes that are told in this article. The second is about the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (1820−87), who was equally venerated like a saint also because of her modest character and her charitable activities. Adelina Patti, as the third in the group, shows how the word diva was reversed into a negative sense. Diva became synonymous with a scandalous and wasteful lifestyle—and was even used in a chauvinistic way.

Caswell, Austin B. “Jenny Lind’s tour of America: A discourse of gender and class”, Festa musicologica: Essays in honor of George J. Buelow, ed. by Thomas J. Mathiesen and Benito V. Rivera. Festschrift series 14 (Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press, 1995) 319–337. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1995-12612]

Jenny Lind, during her 1850–52 tour of the U.S., attracted a predominantly non-elite audience that took her as their own. This identity was constructed from her humble origins, demonstrations of concern for the underprivileged, her rejection of the opera stage and its elite audience, and her embodiment of the American ideal of womanhood. A tangible service to her credit and class was to temporarily restore to the non-elite the very music that others appropriated as a private preserve. (author)

Gallagher, Lowell. “Jenny Lind and the voice of America”, En travesti: Women, gender subversion, opera, ed. by Corinne E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith. Between men—between women: Lesbian and gay studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) 190–215. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1995-1209]

The prima donna who enacted the part of the long-suffering female victim must be a chaste goddess able to transcend earthly existence. During her mid–19th-century tour, Jenny Lind’s audience looked to her magical power to heal the social divisions of the nation. Lind made every attempt to fulfill her devotees’ expectations, and the playful perversity of opera’s gender-bent past gave way to a fetishist mode of diva-worship. (Judy Weidow)

Harris, Neil. Humbug: The art of P.T. Barnum (Repr. ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1981-24440]

This carefully researched study of America’s greatest showman, huckster, and impresario is both an inclusive analysis of the historical and cultural forces that were the conditions of P. T. Barnum’s success, and, as befits its subject, a richly entertaining presentation of the outrageous man and his exploits. (publisher)

Newman, Nancy. “Gender and the Germanians: ‘Art-loving ladies’ in nineteenth-century concert life”, American orchestras in the nineteenth century, ed. by John Spitzer. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012) 289–309. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-3608]

Drawing upon the work of Adrienne Fried Block (particularly the article abstracted as RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2008-1343) on the continuum of female activity, from audiences and patrons to teachers and performers, as the mechanism through which U.S. women became incorporated into public musical life in the 19th century. This essay applies Block’s perspective to the situation of the Germania Musical Society. The members solicited women’s interest in multiple ways, offering matinees, engaging accomplished female artists, and publishing sheet music. The picture that emerges is that the Germanians recognized that women were essential to their corporate, commercial, and musical success. They also seem to have found their dealings with the opposite sex personally rewarding. This combination of professional and personal motives offers insights into the U.S. orchestra’s role in the evolving gender relations of modern urban life. Among the featured women performers were Jenny Lind (1820–87), Henrietta Sontag (1806–54), Camilla Urso (1842–1902), and Adelaide Phillipps (1833–82). (author)

Oakes, Jason Lee. “Listen to me now: Social media, celebrity, and popular music”, IASPMUS (2011) http://iaspm-us.net/pop-talk-listen-to-me-now-social-media-celebrity-and-popular-music-part-i-by-jason-oakes/. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2011-4108]

Celebrities dominated much of the public discourse of the 20th century, especially given the endless media coverage of their every triumph and tribulation. In the 21st century, many of these same “triumphs and tribulations” have bled over into the lives of the non-famous, with certain aspects of daily life coming to resemble the rarefied world of celebrities. Consider the rise of surveillance and resulting loss of privacy for the average citizen; the newfound power to broadcast one’s thoughts, actions, and movements to a limitless audience on social media; the addictive pull of self-validation, and the dread of being ignored or anonymously harassed this can produce; and the lack of financial security in a jackpot economy with increasingly long odds at success, but ever-more outsized rewards. Celebrity culture can thus be thought of as an emergent formation, one that is moving toward being a dominant formation, helped along by the rise of social media. Popular music has played a central role in these cultural transformations. When it comes to celebrity, popular music is the realm where fame has been most consistently, deliberately, and insightfully thematized. In many cases, stars and fans of popular music have taken on the role of organic intellectuals, analyzing the “fame game” at the same time they participate in it (the commentary around music-based Internet celebrities such as Rebecca Black, Chris Crocker, Tad Zonday, and Gary Brolsma, aka The Numa Numa Guy, provides one recent example). When it comes to social media, popular music has been at the center of every major development, both in terms of new technologies and in terms of people’s engagement with and understanding of social media. Napster, MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook are examined in this light. Given this track record, and given music’s prophetic power as theorized by Jacques Attali, it is likely that popular music will continue to point the way forward in the rapidly evolving social and technological landscapes of the 21st century.

Samples, Mark C. “The humbug and the nightingale: P.T. Barnum, Jenny Lind, and the branding of a star singer for American reception”, The musical quarterly 99/3–4 (fall–winter 2016) 286–320. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-40602]

Analyzes P.T. Barnum’s pre-arrival promotional campaign for Jenny Lind’s American tour, and the effects that it had on Lind’s reception in the American press after her first concert in New York on 11 September 1850. This campaign constitutes the crucial process by which Barnum transformed Lind’s reputation in the American mind from a little-known European singer to a household name. The author interprets Barnum’s campaign as an early example of branding, a brand being defined as a dynamic, designed system of signs that mediates the relationship between producers and consumers. To create the “Lind brand”, Barnum orchestrated a campaign unprecedented in cost, scale, duration, and coherence. It established the main reception narratives that followed. From a musical perspective, it is perhaps easy to overlook this promotional campaign as peripheral and therefore subordinate to concerns such as repertoire selection and performance. Yet Barnum’s skilled guidance of the public’s view of Lind was not subordinate but generative, teaching listeners of all classes how to receive Lind, how to experience her artistry, and how to distinguish her from previous star singers who had toured in the United States. Though he would not have called Lind’s publicity campaign “branding”, Barnum bore in mind the tastes of the time as he launched it. He set the context for Lind’s American reception, as well as for the conversations about her in newspapers and other arenas of public discourse. The Lind campaign is notable both for its influence on musical promotions after the Lind tour and as an example of the potential that branding theory has as a methodological tool in cultural musicology. (author)

Vella, Francesca. “Jenny Lind, voice, celebrity”, Music & letters 98/2 (May 2017) 232–254. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 2017-33082]

Voice has a long history in modern Western culture as a transparent signifier of subjectivity and presence. This ideology of immediacy has meant that exploration of singing voices as mediated has mostly been confined to classic technological turns marked by specific sound devices. This article examines voice in connection with the mid–19th-century soprano Johanna Maria Lind-Goldschmidt, known as Jenny Lind, and the broader London context of contemporary Lind mania. Mediation lends itself to canvassing questions at the crossroads of voice and celebrity studies, for the invocation of a linear, unmediated communication between particular individuals and their audiences lies at the heart of modern celebrity culture’s apparatus. The tension between voice and techne, presence and absence, evinced by printed and visual materials, suggests mediation was key to the perceptual and ideological system surrounding Lind’s voice. Attending to voice within a more porous, relational framework can help us move away from a concern with individuality and authenticity, and listen to a rich tapestry of human and material encounters. (journal)

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Filed under Iconography, Performers, Romantic era

Johnny Mercer, America’s troubadour

 

Raised in Savannah, Johnny Mercer brought a quintessentially southern style to both his life in New York and to his lyrics, which often evoked the landscapes and mood of his youth (Moon river, In the cool, cool, cool of the evening).

Mercer also absorbed the music of southern blacks—the lullabies his nurse sang to him as a baby and the spirituals of Savannah’s churches—and that cool smooth lyrical style informed some of his best-known songs, such as That old black magic.

Mercer took Hollywood by storm in the midst of the Great Depression; putting words to some of the most famous tunes of the time, he wrote one hit after another, from You must have been a beautiful baby to Jeepers creepers. But it was also in Hollywood that Mercer’s dark underside emerged. When he drank, Mercer tore into friends and strangers alike with vicious abuse.

During World War II Mercer served as America’s troubadour, turning out such uplifting songs as My shining hour. He also helped to create Capitol Records, the first major West Coast recording company, where he launched the careers of many talented singers, including Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. During this period, he also began an intense affair with Judy Garland, which rekindled time and again for the rest of their lives. Garland became Mercer’s muse and inspired some of his most sensuous and heartbreaking lyrics, such as Blues in the night, One for my baby, and Come rain or come shine.

This according to Skylark: The life and times of Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).

Today is Mercer’s 110th birthday! Above, a publicity shot from around 1947; below, the Moon river sequence from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, November 13, 2019: Art Blakey’s Drumstick

Art Blakey’s Drumstick, 1947-1990, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Peter Bradley

“Let the punishment fit the crime.”
-Art Blakey

Art Blakey, Stoker of Modern Music

During an interview published in a 1978 issue of Modern Drummer, Art Blakey (1919–1990) asserted, “It doesn’t matter what kind of instrument the drummer has. It isn’t the instrument, it’s the musician…I got the fundamentals and rudiments down pretty good. There’s no technique or anything. I don’t think it has anything to do with the stick, ‘cause most of the sticks that come out today are crooked.” Later, in 1986, Blakey relayed the surprised reactions he received from some musicians after they confronted his “unconventional” (read: “not classically trained”) way of playing: “You know, like in England, the guys was there from the symphony orchestras, and the great drum teachers was there, and I was playing. They said, ‘Well, you play so unorthodox,’ I said, ‘Well, what is orthodox? Whether I play orthodox or not, I get results’.” When asked to elaborate on what specifically was so unconventional about his playing, the drummer responded, “Oh, the way I’ll pick up my sticks, or the way I’ll do something. There’s no certain way to do it; you don’t hold the sticks a certain way.” Even a quick listen to his 1973 drum battle with Ginger Baker, throughout which he alternates using a traditional grip and a matched grip, convincingly demonstrates the power of “unorthodox.”

For a drummer often credited for the development of hard bop—an R&B-, blues-, Latin-, and gospel-inflected extension of the bebop jazz strain rhythmically pioneered by drummers like Max Roach, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, and Chick Webb in the 1940s to 1960s—Blakey’s disinterest in technique (or at least conventional conceptions of technique) seems somewhat counterintuitive. But perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, “bop,” along with whatever prefixes or qualifiers appended to it, was an industry and fan term for what practitioners typically called “modern music” (or just “music”). And as a self-taught musician honing his skills in the Depression era, it should not be surprising that, for Blakey, abandoning traditional notions of technique or “right” and “wrong” became a precondition for exploration, a liberation of sorts. During wartime, as Blakey recounts, “[Y]ou just couldn’t get no sticks. We played with chair-arms, and it sure did swing, man.” And for all his innovative spirit, swing remained at the heart of his craft.

The stick pictured above, even if just as sufficient as any other in Blakey’s estimation, played a role in transmitting that feeling of incessant drive, motion, explosive power, subtlety, dynamic contrast, and, most importantly, swing. Although it would be going too far to assume that Blakey considered drumstick type to be completely fungible, there is some evidence to suggest that he used different models at different times across his career. Advertised as being “reproduced exactly from his ‘60s model stick,” Bopworks’s Art Blakey Centennial Edition stick is an 8D with a length of 16” and width of .530”. This can be contrasted with the stick made for him by Gretsch—one of his sponsors for a time—which was a 1A. Classification systems vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it is hard to know the exact differences. With a height, width, and diameter of 15 7/8”, 5/8”, and 5/8”, respectively, the stick featured here approximates Bopworks’s commemorative stick in size, and its triangular tip presents another commonality.

The drumstick as shown here is well worn, particularly in its tip, shoulder, and upper shaft. As a right-handed drummer, we might speculate that this stick, with its gradual tapering and numerous nicks and gashes, was used for striking crash or ride cymbals. As the foundational time-keeper, replacing the kick drum’s danceable four-on-the-floor pattern, rhythms on the ride accommodated the modernists’ breakneck speeds, unconventional phrasings, and general fluidity. However, any such conjecture is likely futile, as Blakey’s exploration of “extended techniques” was part of his innovative spirit. Expounding upon the drummer’s time playing with Thelonious Monk around 1947—a collaboration that helped solidify the transformation from swing proper to modernist reaches—Burt Korall explains in his Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz—The Bebop Years that, “Blakey plays two basic roles: time player and interpreter-commentator. He adds both reason and the unexpected to the music. Using all the elements of the set, snare, tom-toms, the bass drum, the rims, the drum’s shells, the cymbals—all parts—the hi-hat cymbals and hi-hat stands, and even the sounds of the drumsticks themselves, he simultaneously defines Monk and himself.” One wonders how many “smokin’ press rolls”—Blakey’s common way to introduce soloists, as can be heard at 2:08 of the live recording of Bobby Timmons’s now classic “Moanin’” below—were executed on this drumstick.  

Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (drums: Art Blakey, trumpet: Lee Morgan, tenor sax: Benny Golson, piano: Bobby Timmons, bass: Jymie Merritt), ca. 1958-1959.

Regardless of time, personnel, or style, Blakey always sought to bring out the best in those with whom he shared the bandstand. Conceiving of his drumming more as a method through which to enliven others than as conduit for flashy drum solos—though there is no paucity of the latter, to be sure—one of Blakey’s greatest contributions was his ability to accompany, to facilitate, to empathize. In more than one interview, Blakey contends, “Let the punishment fit the crime”; when he played briefly for Duke Ellington, he “played Ellington,” and when he played with Monk, he played Monk, in the words of Burt Korall, “responsively and responsibly.”

Blakey’s impressive career has been well documented, if at times imprecisely relayed by the drummer himself. From the tale of his being forced at gunpoint in 1934 to move out from behind the piano to behind a drum set (to make way for Erroll Garner), to his work in New York City with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra from 1939 to 1941, to his time with Billy Eckstine’s band between 1944 and 1947 (playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944), to his brief stint studying religion and philosophy in Africa in the late ‘40s (around which time he adopted the Muslim name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, or just “Bu” to friends), to eventually taking leadership of his own ensemble, The Jazz Messengers, for roughly 35 years. But across all accounts of Blakey’s life, there is one constant: his vehement drive to accompany and support young, talented jazz musicians. The list of formidable young players who developed their own musical voice as one of Blakey’s Messengers include Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter, Wallace Roney, Benny Golson, Wynton Marsalis, and Keith Jarrett, to name just a small selection.    

Blakey’s success in accessing “the guts of the human soul” was fueled by a profound sensitivity to the desires and abilities of the musicians with whom he worked and the audiences he took care to entertain. If the drumstick here could tell a story, it would be just as much about the musicians it stoked to greatness as it would be the great musician who wielded it.   

 This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Blakey, Art. “Art Blakey”, Reading jazz: A gathering of autobiography, reportage, and criticism from 1919 to now, ed. by Robert Gottlieb. (New York: Pantheon, 1996) 205–213. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1996-23592]
Art Blakey, the dedicated and influential drummer, talks about his start, his career, and his ideas in this excerpt from a long interview recorded in 1976 in Jazz spoken here (1992). (editor)

Blakey, Takashi Buhaina, ed., “Art Blakey”, Art Blakey Estate, http://www.artblakey.com. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2015-82562]

Giese, Hannes. Art Blakey: Sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten (Schaftlach: Oreos, 1990). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-12184]

Goldsher, Alan. Hard bop academy: The sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-9125]
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was one of the most enduring, popular, reliable, and vital small bands in modern jazz history. Blakey was not only a distinguished, inventive, and powerful drummer, but along with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, he was one of jazz’s foremost talent scouts. The musicians who flowed seamlessly in and out of this constantly evolving collective during its 36-year run were among the most important artists not just of their eras, but of any era. Their respective innovations were vital to the evolution of bebop, hard bop, and neo bop. The multitude of gifted artists who populated the many editions of the Jazz Messengers are critically examined. In addition to dissecting the sidemen’s most consequential work with Blakey’s band, profiles are offered of everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Terence Blanchard to Hank Mobley to Wayne Shorter to Horace Silver to Keith Jarrett to Curtis Fuller to Steve Davis. Over 30 interviews with surviving graduates of Blakey’s hard bop academy were conducted, with many speaking at length of their tenure with the legendary Buhaina for the first time. (publisher)

Gourse, Leslie. Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger (New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-47104]
In the 1950s, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers introduced hard bop, a blend of bebop, blues, gospel, and Latin music that has defined the jazz mainstream ever since. Although Blakey’s influence as a drummer and bandleader was enormous, his greatest contribution may have been as a mentor to younger musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and Wynton Marsalis. Leslie Gourse chronicles Blakey’s colorful life and career, from his hardscrabble childhood in Pittsburgh to his final years as an international jazz icon. (publisher)

Havers, Richard. Blue Note: Uncompromising expression—The finest in jazz since 1939 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2014-11338]
Purveyor of extraordinary music and an arbiter of cool, Blue Note is the definitive jazz label—signing the best artists, pioneering the best recording techniques, and leading cover design trends with punchy, iconic artwork and typography that shaped the way we see the music itself. The roster of greats who cut indelible sides for the label include Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Norah Jones, and many more. Published for Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, this volume is the first official illustrated story of the label, from its 1939 roots to its renaissance today. Featuring classic album artwork, unseen contact sheets, rare ephemera from the Blue Note Archives, commentary from some of the biggest names in jazz today, and feature reviews of 75 key albums, this is the definitive book on the legendary label. (publisher)

Hentoff, Nat. “Jazz Messengers: Jazz Messengers blazing a spirited trail”, DownBeat: The great jazz interviews—A 75th anniversary anthology, ed. by Frank Alkyer. (New York: Hal Leonard, 2009) 52–53. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-23860]
An interview with the group published in the 22 February 1956 issue of DownBeat.

Howland, Harold. “Art Blakey: The eternal jazzman”, Modern drummer 2/4 (October 1978) 16–23, 39. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1978-20471]

Korall, Burt. Drummin’ men: The heartbeat of jazz—The bebop years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-8511]
Biographical sketches based on interviews with drummers of the 1940s through the 1980s, tracing the transition from swing to bebop, and highlighting some of the most innovative musicians. These include Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Lou Fromm, Billy Exiner, Denzil Best, Irv Kluger, Jackie Mills, J.C. Heard, Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, Max Roach, Stan Levey, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Don Lamond, Tiny Kahn, Philly Joe Jones, Mel Lewis, Ed Shaughnessy, Art Taylor, and Ike Day.

Mathieson, Kenny. Cookin’: Hard bop and soul jazz, 1954–65 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-18555]
Examines the history and development of hard bop and its offshoot, soul jazz. Hard bop was the most vital and influential jazz style of its day, and today remains at the core of the modern jazz mainstream. Drawing on bebop and the blues for its foundation, filtered through gospel, Latin, and rhythm-and-blues influences, hard bop was notable for the instrumental virtuosity it required and the elaborate harmonic structures it was built upon. The founding fathers of the form are profiled, Art Blakey and Horace Silver, along with Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green, and J.J. Johnson. (publisher)

Monson, Ingrid T. “Art Blakey’s African diaspora”, The African diaspora: A musical perspective, ed. by Ingrid T. Monson. Garland reference library of the humanities 1995 (New York: General Music Publishing Co., 2000) 329–352. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2000-8650]
Illuminates the principal political, religious, and musical contexts through which Art Blakey’s travels to Africa and his African diasporic musical explorations of the 1950s might be interpreted. Unraveling his relationship to the African diaspora necessitates exploration of three contexts pertinent to understanding the relationship of African American music and culture to Africa in the mid-20th century: anticolonialism, pan-Africanism, and Islam from the 1920s through the 1940s; African independence, Afro-Cuban music, and religion in the 1950s; and the indefinite nature of musical signification. The masterful disjunction between what Blakey said about his relationship to Africa and African music and what he actually played reveals the complex pathways through which music has mediated and continues to mediate the African diasporic experience. (author)

Rosenthal, David H. “Conversation with Art Blakey: The big beat!”, The black perspective in music 14/3 (fall 1986) 267–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1986-4417]

Squinobal, Jason John. West African music in the music of Art Blakey, Yusef Lateef, and Randy Weston (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-48924]

Discography

The Jazz Messengers. Moanin’. The Rudy Van Gelder edition. CD (Blue Note Records 724349532427, 1999). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-61955]

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Filed under Instruments, Jazz and blues, Performers

Punk rock and the fall of the Berlin Wall

It began with a handful of East Berlin teens who heard the Sex Pistols on a British military radio broadcast to troops in West Berlin, and it ended with the collapse of the East German dictatorship.

Punk rock was a life-changing discovery. The buzz-saw guitars, the messed-up clothing and hair, the rejection of society, and the DIY approach to building a new one: in their gray surroundings, where everyone’s future was preordained by some communist apparatchik, punk represented a revolutionary philosophy—quite literally, as it turned out.

As these young kids tried to form bands and became more visible, security forces—including the dreaded secret police, the Stasi—targeted them. They were spied on by friends and even members of their own families; they were expelled from schools and fired from jobs; they were beaten by police and imprisoned.

But instead of conforming, the punks fought back, playing an indispensable role in the underground movements that helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

This according to Burning down the Haus: Punk rock, revolution, and the fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2018).

Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall! Above, punks gathering on Alexanderplatz in East Berlin in 1981; below, the iconic punk anthem Überall wohin’s dich führt by Planlos, recorded live in 1983.

BONUS: The East German punk scene is reimagined in the 2001 film Wie Feuer und Flamme; the group in the clip is performing Überall wohin’s dich führt.

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Filed under Curiosities, Politics, Popular music

Beyoncé and the politics of looking

 

A close reading of Beyoncé’s Video phone illuminates the strategic interplay of subjectivities in a video that essentially disrupts and complicates heteronormative notions of viewing.

In this analysis, the workings of female power versus the male gaze lead to a theoretical conception of gender that contextualizes masculinity and hegemonic femininity. Ultimately, it is in the aestheticized landscape of Video phone that a counter-argument to mainstream heterosexual male imaginary emerges, one where the posthuman figure, in all its hyperreality, is musicalized in a way that defies all conventions.

This according to “Gender, sexuality and the politics of looking in Beyoncé’s Video phone (featuring Lady Gaga)” by Lori Burns and Marc Lafrance, an essay included in The Routledge research companion to popular music and gender (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, pp. 102–16).

Below, the video in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 29, 2019: Fred Becker’s “Beale Street Blues”

Fred Becker, Beale Street Blues, 1937-1938, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from D.C. Public Library.

Beale Street Blues has been widely exhibited in post-WPA years, particularly in the last decade [1976–85]. Becker’s wonderfully jumbled composition, with its askew, disordered lines, suggests the melancholy dissonant notes of the trumpet player in his rather down-and-out surroundings.” 

– Harriet W. Fowler, University of Kentucky Art Museum

“The twelve-bar, three-line form of the first and last strains, with its three-chord basic harmonic structure (tonic, subdominant, dominant seventh) was already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their under-privileged but undaunted class from Missouri to the Gulf, and had become a common medium through which any such individual might express his personal feelings in a sort of musical soliloquy. My part in their history was to introduce this, the “blues” form to the general public, as the medium for my own feelings and my own musical ideas.”

– W.C. Handy, composer of “Beale Street Blues” 

Whether coincidental or not, there are some interesting parallels between W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” (1916) and Fred Becker’s wood engraving on cream wove paper (1937–38). Both are defined by a dynamic sense of motion, “wonderfully jumbled compositions” mixing various artistic elements and cultural antecedents, a product of parallel and perpendicular vectors, which taken together lead the viewer or the listener into unexplored, new territories.

Fred Becker’s Beale Street Blues depicts a musician alone in his room—if not a cheap hotel or flophouse given the looks of his surroundings—captured in a moment of intimacy. He sits on an unmade bed, one bare foot propped up on a chair strewn with tossed-aside clothing, the other foot pointing toward the empty bottle of gin on the floor next to his one remaining glass of alcohol, playing his horn in a state of deep repose, or drunkenness, or despair, or all of the above (it’s impossible to say). The immediate impact of this despondent musician sitting alone in a disheveled room brings to mind the school of social realist art—a prominent style in Depression-era America—but mixed with some abstract elements that are clearly not aiming for “realism,” such as the cubist-like illogical angles of the walls and their Lego-like disorienting wallpaper pattern.

While the viewer obviously cannot hear the music being played, there’s something here that suggests a talented musician whose time has come and gone (and perhaps never “came” in the first place). One can easily imagine the beautiful sounds being produced in the room with no one to hear them, swallowed up within the tough, unforgiving environment that many musicians (and other workers) faced in the midst of the Depression. There’s also a notable contrast between the trashed room and the sense of composure of the trumpet player, his inward gaze indicating he is lost in the music, in sorrow, in alcohol, or some combination thereof.

Fittingly, this was a work produced for the Federal Art Project, also simply known as “the Project,” a division of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA)—a governmental relief program that’s never been equaled before or since—and his larger New Deal ideology. The WPA employed some three million Americans, only about 2% of those through the Federal Arts Project, which supported artists across various mediums. Despite being educated at relatively elite institutions such as the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles—Becker was born in Oakland and raised in Hollywood, where his father worked as an actor in silent films—the artist was commissioned by the Graphic Arts Division of the Program in 1935. This is also around the time he began creating realist/surrealist works with jazz musicians and other urban scenes as his primary subjects.

Becker’s employment at the WPA ended in 1939. It’s almost surely not coincidental that this was the same year that many Project artists came under attack by conservative political operatives, accused of spreading Communism to the masses through their art. Never before had public art been so widely disseminated in the United States, outside the sway of elite institutions that gauged their worth and in large part selected the audience for Art with a capital ‘A’. Although some viewed the social progressivism of the artworks produced by Project artists as a boon for artists and for the general public alike, others saw a form of propagandistic art where, in the words of art historian Harriet W. Fowler, “politics created it and politics permeated it.”

After Fred Becker lost his commission, he went on to a successful career, ultimately ending up on the faculty of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Massachusetts. He also shifted his artistic style notably, exchanging the social realism of the 1930s for more abstract expressionist tendencies. Whatever the motivations for this shift may have been is impossible to say. But, quoting again from Fowler, it’s notable that,

[F]rom the standpoint of art history, the rise of abstract expressionism and other abstract art movements beginning in the late 1940s made some Project art look passé indeed. For many critics in those later decades, New Deal art, with its socially-minded mix of Art Deco, surrealism, Bauhaus, Mexican and Renaissance influences appeared studied, naïve, or just plain boringly academic—a “dropout” in the progress of art.

This brings us directly to W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” and to the blues in general. The blues is a form that rejects the hegemony of unilinear development—notions of the “progress” of art were closely related to the social Darwinism also popular in some quarters at that time—in favor of a more circumnavigational model. Rooted in musical techniques such as call-and-response, repetition and variation, overlapping polyrhythms, and musical themes not as ends-in-themselves but rather as the basis of improvisational exploration, this model creates a space of uninterrupted flow, cyclical time, and relatively equitable sharing of power (whether among musicians, between musicians and audiences, or between various spheres of musical influence).

More than just a mix of “black” and “white” elements, the African-American blues incorporated influences ranging from field hollers to Tin Pan Alley, from African musical retentions to European ballads, from the use of the “Spanish tinge” in general to the use of Cuban habanera rhythms more specifically. Although arrangements and individual performances vary, in almost all versions, the crux of W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” is the pivot from the conventional four-line, 16-bar ballad stanzas organized in linear, squared-off fashion heard in the opening of the song—“You’ll see pretty Browns in beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men and pickpockets skilled / You’ll find the business never closes ‘til somebody gets killed’’—to the 12-bar blues AAB structure. Here the first vocal phrase is repeated before closing with a new rhymed line that sets the first line in new perspective, accompanied by a cyclical chordal progression and melodies that make prominent use of non-chord tones that lie outside the established tonality of chords.

Notably, this musical pivot in “Beale Street Blues” is aligned with a perspectival shift in the lyrics, obviously composed to reflect the double-consciousness at the heart of the early blues and the musicians who created the music. The early stanzas of the song describe a touristic gaze, taking in the wonders of Memphis’s Beale Street (the historical black district of Memphis and ultimately the center of blues culture in the city) from an outsider’s perspective. The opening lines of Handy’s original composition compare Beale Street to iconic tourist destinations in the USA and in Europe (“I’ve strolled the Prado, I’ve gambled on the Bourse”) before concluding that the listener should “take my advice, folks, and see Beale Street first.” The first section of “Beale Street Blues” provides a dualistic depiction of Memphis and the Beale Street district (see the “pretty Browns” stanza quoted above) that recognizes both “honest men” and murderers as a part of the cultural mix.

The last line of this section concludes with the following lyrics, the first of which is still well-known thanks to the 1974 James Baldwin novel that quotes it and the well-regarded 2018 movie version of his novel: “If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner who sings the Beale Street blues.” The song then takes a literal perspectival shift, where the singer takes on the voice of the “blind man on the corner” who sings “I’d rather be here than any place I know / I’d rather be here than any place I know / It’s going to take the Sergeant for to make me go.” At the same time, the music shifts noticeably to the 12-bar blues chordal pattern and to a melody that makes heavy use of the blue notes that define the genre perhaps even more than the familiar chord progression. The representation of double-consciousness provided by W.C. Handy here could not be much more literal, where the singer inhabits the voice and the persona of another singer being observed in the song.

As Nick Bromell describes in his article, “‘The Blues and the Veil’: The Cultural Work of Musical Form in Blues and ‘60s Rock,” “Blue notes wouldn’t be possible, wouldn’t have any meaning, without the strictness with which musical pitches are treated in Western playing style and in the Western scales. Blue notes violate the distinctiveness of individual, discrete pitches, just as the so-called blues scale violates the principle of major/minor tonality. Like hip language, the blues signifies on an established musical language.” Through the use of both “bent” notes that violate the discrete boundaries of “consistent” pitches idealized in Western music, and the setting of flat 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths against the major key established by the harmony, these blue notes are a striking and resonant representation of double-consciousness as first defined by W.E.B. Du Bois.

In a way this is reflective of the city of Memphis itself as depicted by W.C. Handy. Memphis has long stood as a crossroads of the American South. The birthplace of revolutionary American businesses such as FedEx, Holiday Inn, and Piggly Wiggly (the first self-service grocery store), Memphis is synonymous with the mobility, flexibility, and cultural interchange that defined postwar America. But, on the other hand, it’s the central urban outpost of the Delta region of the American South, and as such, a repository for much more long-standing American traditions and for the most rural, and the most Southern lifeways of the rural South. Accordingly, it was also the urban center of the rural Delta blues, which bubbled up with the help of songwriters like W.C. Handy who brought the music to a much broader audience.

The son of former slaves, his father had gained status through his career as a preacher. Handy was formally-trained in music and culturally distant from the Delta blues. Raised in northern Alabama, and against his father’s advice, Handy left home, still a teenager, and led a peripatetic existence for a number of years as he tried to make it as a musician. Somewhat ironically, it was through playing in a minstrel show that he eventually found his way to being a respected professional musician. But it was during his briefly homeless period in St. Louis that he made his most important musical connection, albeit fleeting. In his autobiography, Handy describes encountering a street musician in St. Louis: 

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. “Goin’ where the Southern cross the dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

Through this brief encounter, “the blues” as we know it today was born; born at a crossroads, but not the Devil-and-soul-selling crossroad widely associated with the blues. Handy later moved to the cultural crossroads of Memphis and rearranged the music he heard by the destitute musician. Perfectly timed to the technological transition precipitated by sound recording technology—blue notes really need to be heard rather than read off the page—he published the first blues-music sheet music and created a triumvirate of geographically-centered blues standards (“Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues”) that would transform the blues from an obscure, local form of music-making to a world-spanning and world-transforming musical revolution.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Becker, Fred. “The WPA Federal Art Project, New York City: A reminiscence”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 74–92. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-47387]

Briggs, Ray Anthony. Memphis jazz: African American musicians, jazz community, and the politics of race (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2003). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2003-10637]

A chronological ethnography that reconstructs the history of the Memphis jazz tradition, identifies key musicians and individuals associated with it, and contextualizes the musical activity within a social-political framework, namely Jim Crow politics and the dismantling of legal segregation. The Memphis jazz community was, in part, shaped by the same social, political, and economic forces at work within the African American community at large, particularly legal segregation, which proved to be a significant factor in the livelihood of the jazz community, and at times worked as a galvanizing agent among African American musicians who honed their skills on Beale Street and other locales designated for Memphis’s African American citizens. In addition to the extramusical elements of the Memphis jazz heritage, individuals who have contributed to the music on a regional, national, and international level are also discussed. The Memphis jazz community has produced a number of renowned performers who have gone on to international recognition within the jazz tradition. A brief survey of artists who have carried the Memphis jazz heritage to the attention of jazz fans around the world is also included. (author)

Bromell, Nick. “‘The blues and the veil’: The cultural work of musical form in blues and ’60s rock”, American music: A quarterly journal devoted to all aspects of American music and music in America 18/2 (summer 2000) 193–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 2000-8321]

Originally, the blues form was an expressive version of what W.E.B. Du Bois, in a famous passage from The souls of black folk, called the “veil” in reference to the African American experience. The blues form performed a different kind of cultural work as it was absorbed into rock and roll of the 1960s and heard by white audiences. The specific formal features of the blues are understood to be blue notes, call-and-response structure, blues licks, and a tension inherent in the paradigmatic blues chord progression. These traits and their relationships to lyrics are observed in two different blues styles: classic blues (illustrated with Ruby Smith’s recording of Fruit cakin’ mama) and Chicago blues (illustrated with Muddy Waters’s recording of Willie Dixon’s (I’m your) hoochie coochie man). (Julie Schnepel)

Cantwell, Robert. If Beale Street could talk: Music, community, culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-22]

Demonstrates the intimate connections among our public, political, and personal lives, and explores the vernacular culture of everyday life in order to understand the cultural ecology of the contemporary world. The examination shows how cultural practices become performances and how performances become artifacts endowed with new meaning through the transformative acts of imagination. It traces, for instance, how a blues song becomes a blues recording and enters a collection of blues recordings, joining other energies, both creative and exploited, both natural and human, that represent the residues of modern life and culture. Points of departure range from the visual and the literary—a photograph of Woody Guthrie, or a poem by John Keats—to major cultural exhibitions, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition or the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife. (publisher)

Chametzky, Jules. “Introduction to Fred Becker’s WPA graphics”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 69–73. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-47388]

Fowler, Harriet W., and Sophia Wallace. New Deal art: WPA works at the University of Kentucky—University of Kentucky Art Museum, August 25–October 27, 1985 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1985). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1985-28412]

Handy, William Christopher (W.C.). Father of the blues: An autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1941). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1941-249]

The author’s blues compositions—Memphis blues, Beale Street blues, St. Louis blues—changed American music forever. Here William Christopher (W.C.) Handy presents his own story: a vivid picture of American life now vanished. The versatile musician grew up a sensitive child who loved nature and music; but not until he had won a reputation did his father, a preacher of stern Calvinist faith, forgive him for following the “devilish” calling of black music and theater. Handy tells of this and other struggles: the lot of a black musician with entertainment groups in the turn-of-the-century South; his days in minstrel shows, and then in his own band; how he made his first $100 from Memphis blues; how his orchestra came to grief with World War I; his successful career in New York as publisher and songwriter; and his association with the literati of the Harlem Renaissance. Handy’s remarkable tale reveals not only the career of the man who brought the blues to the world’s attention, but provides a unique vantage point over a wide scope of American music–from the days of the old popular songs of the South through ragtime to the birth of jazz. (publisher)

Ryan, Jennifer D. “Beale Street blues? Tourism, musical labor, and the fetishization of poverty in blues discourse”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 55/3 (fall 2011) 473–503. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2011-5464]

Examines discourses of authenticity concerning the blues venues in Memphis, particularly those of Beale Street, one of the country’s largest and best-known districts for blues tourism. The case of Beale Street invites a thorough examination of the authenticity discourses surrounding blues and the potential damage they can cause. The views held by Memphis musicians require that we rethink blues performance not as an idealized music but as a professional endeavor. In this article, the author argues that dismantling these discourses requires that we reconsider music as labor. She sets the views of Memphis musicians as a counterpoint to some of the most common discourses about them. She traces the transition of Beale Street from a vibrant African American commercial district to a tourist destination, and then examines in detail the most common treatments of blues authenticity, tracing their origins to discussions of essentialism in black music and to an emphasis on authenticity in folklore studies. She turns to the lives of Memphis musicians with an examination of their views on playing in Beale Street. The conclusion reconsiders these musicians as working professionals, an idea at odds with the expectations of the mythical bluesman. This approach reveals the lasting and pervasive nature of authenticity discourses and their incompatibility with an understanding of music as labor. (author)

Wechsler, James. “Fred Becker and experimental printmaking”, Print quarterly 10/4 (December 1993) 373–384. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-28755]

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 24, 2019: Grand Piano Gifted to Prince Albert from Queen Victoria, 1854

Erard grand piano

Anyone who saw the PBS Masterpiece series Victoria last year knows that Prince Albert was an avid music lover and a pretty good pianist. There are quite a few scenes in which the romantic feelings of both Albert and Victoria (not a bad pianist herself) are expressed at the piano. In this light, the gift of Victoria of a grand piano to her husband means more than just any gift of a precious object; the piano represented the emotional bond between them, which lasted until Albert’s untimely death in 1861. They often played piano duets together and, in the tradition of pre-recording times, this included four-hand arrangements of symphonies, operas, and overtures. Whenever they travelled, they brought a pile of sheet music for their own entertainment, and in each one of their palaces there was at least one piano. In addition, they frequently hosted chamber music concerts or piano recitals by all the famous artists of their time.

Victoria and Albert owned no less than three grand pianos made by the Erard firm: apart from the above instrument, Victoria commissioned an 18th-century-style gilded instrument in 1856, similar to one she had owned in the 1830s at Buckingham Palace, as well as the 1848 Erard piano, which was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1849. Reportedly, Prince Albert had designed the case: a tulip-veneer design with nine porcelain depictions of famous old paintings. 

White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace: S & P Erard grand piano, 1856 RCIN 2426
Drawing Room, Osborne House: Erard grand piano, c.1848 RCIN 41322

Why did the royal couple seem to have a preference for Erard pianos? The Erard firm was the most forward-looking piano firm of its time, in line with Prince Albert’s interest in the crossroads between art and industrial progress. The founder of the firm, Sébastian Érard (1752–1831), was born in Strasbourg and settled in Paris in 1768. In 1779 he first travelled to London with the intention of setting up a piano firm, a plan he realized in 1792, while at the same time running a flourishing piano factory in Paris where he sold hundreds of instruments each year. Most of the pianos he sold were square pianos, but he also built grand pianos from 1790 or even earlier. Initially, the piano actions Erard used were based on the so-called “English action” used by John Broadwood in London, but Erard modified it to create a lighter touch. In 1821 he revolutionized piano building with the invention of his “double-escapement action,” which allowed for a greater ease of playing and louder sound. In addition, Érard was famous for the wood artistry and decorations of the cases of his most expensive models, such as were found in palaces around Europe. There were some differences between Erard’s pianos made in London and those made in Paris: the London pianos (such as the 1854 piano) tended to be plainer and sturdier, and there were also subtle differences in stringing and hammer-covering. As one can see in the illustration, it does not yet have the full-size iron frame, but rather iron bars across the length of the instrument to help withstand the string tension.

For more on musical instruments in the collection of Victoria and Albert: https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/music-in-the-royal-collection/queen-victoria-1819-1901-and-prince-albert-1819-61

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM and its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Maria Rose, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Budds, Michael Joe. Music of the court of Queen Victoria: A study of music in the life of the Queen and her participation in the musical life of her time (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1987). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1987-2692]

Victoria was a patroness and an enthusiastic consumer of music. An accomplished amateur, she was known for her appreciation of opera and opera singers. Her understanding was broadened, though not defined—as is generally thought—by Prince Albert. (author)

Clarke, Christopher. “Érard and Broadwood in the Classical era: Two schools of piano making.” Musique, images, instruments: Revue française d’organologie et d’iconographie musicale 11 (2009) 98–125. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-9536]

French pianos of the Classical period have long been considered as having been copied from English models. While it is undeniable that there was a strong English influence on the French school, the inventive genius of Sébastien Érard led him to design both grand and square pianos that were ideally suited to the requirements of French musicians. Their demands for rapid repetition and a bright, powerful tone led him not only to invent a revolutionary series of piano actions which culminated in the famous double-escapement actions of 1821 and 1822, but also to re-think the structure and the tone-producing aspects of his instruments. Érard’s work is compared with his sources of inspiration; particularly the work of John Broadwood, but also that of Robert Stodart, the firm Crang & Hancock, Schoene, and others. In particular, two grand pianos and two squares, one each from Broadwood’s and Érard’s workshops, are discussed and compared. (author)

Epenhuysen Rose, Maria van. L’art de bien chanter: French pianos and their music before 1820 (Ph.D. diss., New York University, New York, 2006). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2006-13693]

Influenced by vocal styles, the development of French pianos and their music followed a different path from that in other regions of Europe. The Viennese-style piano, used in Paris concerts in 1784, was criticized for its lack of harmonie; the English piano for its heavy action. Sébastien Érard achieved a successful fusion of both types of piano in 1809 with the étrier-action piano. The reception of the piano in France is traced, using a variety of sources, including Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni’s 1794 list of confiscated instruments. Piano styles are analyzed in the works of Johann Schobert, Johann Gottfried Eckard, Nicolas Joseph Hüllmandel, Edelmann, Louis Adam, and others. Ca. 1790 a densely textured piano style became the norm, which relied on overlapping legato, rather than the pedal to create sustained sounds. After 1795, the focus on technique at the Conservatoire contrasted increasingly with the application of bel canto singing styles in private music making. (author)

Roudier, Alain. “Les pianos Érard en forme de clavecin (1790–1797)/The Érard grand pianos in the shape of a harpsichord/Die Érard-Flügel in Cembaloform”, Sébastien Érard: Ein europäischer Pionier des Instrumentenbaus: Internationales Érard-Symposium, Michaelstein, 13.14. November 1994, ed. by Rudolf Frick. (Blankenburg: Kultur- und Forschungsstätte Michaelstein, 1995) 12–14. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1995-3167]

It appears certain that the Érard firm made grand pianos before they patented them in 1794. The concept of this instrument and its English escapement mechanism reveal the influence of Broadwood, who had in fact been a source of inspiration to Sébastian Érard since 1779. The existence of an Érard grand piano from around 1790 is also confirmed by the firm’s register book, which lists numbered grand pianos, and by its sales books, which lists unnumbered instruments. Seventeen of these instruments—13 of them numbered—have been identified so far. A list of grand pianos made before April 1797 is included. (author)

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