Category Archives: Curiosities

A transatlantic decolonization anthem

Written and recorded in 1975 by the Angolan popular singer António Sebastião Vicente (Santocas), Valódia is derived from African praise songs, with their characteristic heroic laudatory epithets. The song demonstrates the timeless quality of such praise songs, as it turns a young soldier into a socialist hero.

Traditional African poets served as both praise singers and court historians, and their successors are in the vanguard of political song movements. Santocas’s lyrics capture the essence of the fallen subject, who fought against neocolonialism, capitalism, and imperialism.

When Valódia was recorded by the Cuban singer Beatriz Márquez it became a transatlantic anthem advocating sociopolitical and economic change framed by communist doctrine, advancing an agenda of decolonization that still lingers over the destinies of both Angola and Cuba.

This according to “Valódia: A transatlantic praise song” by Jorge Luis Morejón-Benitez, an essay included in Indigenous African popular music. I: Prophets and philosophers (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022, 303–20; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-2996).

Below, the original recordings.

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Filed under Africa, Central America, Curiosities, Politics, Popular music

Random film accompaniment

silent film orchestra

Soon after the Cinematograph Act came into force in 1909, small orchestras became more common in London cinemas than the lone pianist that some previous histories have identified.

Rather than responding moment-to-moment to the images on screen in the manner that an improvising pianist might, these orchestras played through a number of well-regarded musical pieces in their entirety, which might or might not have had a direct correspondence to some aspect of the film or its theme.

Despite exhortations in the trade press for a more logical relationship between music and film, this does not seem to have happened in practice regularly until at least the mid-1910s.

This according to “The art of not playing to pictures in British cinemas, 1906–1914” by Jon Burrows, an essay included in The sounds of the silents in Britain (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 111–125; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-482).

Below, we invite you to experiment with random film accompaniment using your own favorite recordings.

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Filed under Curiosities, Film music

Stravinsky mashups

As Stravinsky circulates in the digital age, his work is valorized in the context of digital transformation—a phenomenon reflected in YouTube mashups.

The composer’s iconic Le sacre du printemps provides a rich basis for such tributes; examples include Beyonce in “Dance of the Single Young Girls” by Igor Stravinsky (posted by Stephen Rathjen on 29 March 2015), Stravinsky meets Steely Dan (FM/Rite of Spring mashup) (posted on 20 June 2021 by the English guitarist Howard Wright), and Adam Neely’s 31 March 2017 All Star, but its the rite of spring by igor stravinsky.

These mashups highlight the ways in which pre-existing content from two sources is amalgamated in the form of hybridization (the very idea of a mashup)—for example, in the crossing between Stravinsky and Beyoncé or Steely Dan or Smash Mouth, all unlikely encounters that show an interest in the flagship ballet of the musical avant-garde and the search for stylistic fusion. The originality of the gesture lies in the choice of Le sacre du printemps and the ensuing process of desacralization.

Above, a Cubist mashup portrait of Stravinsky by Albert Gleizes from 1914, the year after Le sacre’s premiere (WikiArt, public domain); below, the video mashups in question.

More articles about Stravinsky are here.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Humor, Reception

Entertaining the shōgun

An account by the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) of meetings in 1691 with the shōgun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709) evinces examples of exoticism on both sides.

Each man was curious about the other’s culture, but the situation was unbalanced. The visitor was in a position to gain a fairly objective view of the world of his host, although the situation was far too restrictive to allow in-depth research.

On the other hand, while the shōgun could order his guests to perform for his entertainment—to dance, sing, and so on—he did not know whether or not the information that he gained thereby was reliable. For example, when Kaempfer complied with the order to sing a song and was subsequently asked for a translation of the text, he responded that it expressed his deep wish for the health and prosperity of the shōgun and his family.

This according to “Exoticism and multi-emics: Reflections upon an earliest record of culture contact between Japan and Europe” by Osamu Yamaguchi, an essay included in Music cultures in interaction: Cases between Asia and Europe (Tōkyō: Academia Music, 1994, pp. 243–248; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-35931).

Above, a version of the map that Kaempfer brought back from Japan in 1692 (click to enlarge); below, the opening movement of Manzai raku (Ten thousand years of music), an example of the bugaku genre that was flourishing in Japanese courts at the time.

Related article: 17th-century Persian music

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities

Lucia’s cadenza

In the final act of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor Lucia is forced to marry Arturo, murders him, and promptly goes insane. In the modern tradition, as exemplified by Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas (above), the mad Lucia sings a cadenza accompanied by a flute, in which the instrument takes on the mantle of a ghostly Doppelgänger. Donizetti’s original written cadenza, however, is little more than a short ornament to be sung in one breath on the dominant chord.

The first Lucia, Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani, probably improvised her own version in performance using the skeletal guide provided by the composer, and developed a cadenza to be sung in two breaths instead of one.

At some point during the second half of the 19th century a new way of executing this cadenza appeared: with obbligato flute. This practice must have drawn upon the composer’s use of an obbligato flute that faithfully follows the soprano in thirds and sixths during the moments leading up to the cadenza. Donizetti had originally indicated the eerie sound of the glass harmonica here, but he had to recast the line for flute following a dispute between the theater and the intended glass harmonica player.

The earliest surviving Lucia/flute cadenza has been attributed to Mathilde Marchesi, who composed a version for her protégé Nellie Melba; when Melba performed Lucia for the first time at the Paris Opéra in 1889 the flutist in the orchestra was Paul Taffanel, who may have assisted in the cadenza’s composition. However, there were at least three singers who executed their own voice/flute cadenzas earlier: Christina Nilsson, Ilma de Murska, and Emma Albani; Nilsson’s cadenza was composed by Luigi Arditi.

The flute-accompanied cadenza marked an important shift in the performance practice of the Lucia role. Being a duet, it could no longer serve as a spontaneous display of the soprano’s vocal virtuosity—it became a preconceived and well-rehearsed collaboration in a more complex form.

This according to “Manacled freedom: Nineteenth-century vocal improvisation and the flute-accompanied cadenza in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor” by Naomi Matsumoto, an essay included in Beyond notes: Improvisation in Western music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Turnhout: Brepols 2011, 295–316; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-15429).

Below, some historical versions of Lucia’s cadenza.

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Filed under Curiosities, Opera, Performance practice

Esoteric orchestration

Gérard Encausee (Papus)

Aligned with the Symbolists, Camille Mauclair considered the orchestra a transposed symbol of the emotions in nature and cited Wagner’s music as an outstanding realization of this concept.

Although he was a staunch Positivist who attacked the Symbolists, Ange-Marie Auzende described the symbolic qualities of instruments and considered the orchestra a mirror of the soul. Ernestine-André van Hasselt wrote for popular audiences, characterizing instruments as expressing or even embodying various personalities and psychological states.

In the 1894 pamphlet Anatomie et physiologie de l’orchestre, co-authored by the popular occult writer Gérard Encausee (writing under his esoteric pseudonym Papus) and the young Frederick Delius, the four instrumental groups—strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion—were associated respectively with God, the head, and the nervous system; man, the chest, and the arterial system; woman, the chest, and the venous system; and nature, the abdomen, and the lymphatic system.

Further subdivisions and associations were outlined in preparation for a larger prescriptive work for composers that never materialized.

This according to “Sound as symbol: Fin de siècle perceptions of the orchestra” by Eric Frederick Jensen (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] pp. 227–240; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-16688).

Above, Papus in the back room of the Librairie du Merveilleux ca. 1890; below, the opening of Delius’s Appalachia from 1896, perhaps an example of his application of such theories.

Related article: F, the keynote of nature

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Filed under Curiosities, Romantic era

Uncracking the Nutcracker

Photo from the original 1892 production of “Nutcracker” showing Varvara Nikitina as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Pavel Gerdt as the Cavalier.

Although the place of Ŝelkunčik (Nutcracker) in the hearts of today’s audiences is secure, its genesis hardly seemed auspicious.

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on the project, and complained bitterly about it to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from it, or why he ultimately persevered, remain unknown.

The problems probably involved the libretto, which the fastidious composer may well have found vexing. Parts of it lack any rationale, the balance of mime and dance is lopsided, and the overall arc of the story is incoherent, with several essential plot elements entirely missing.

These issues can be resolved by rendering most of the ballet as Drosselmayer’s thoughts rather than Clara’s dream. One can easily imagine the composer taking delight in this solution.

This according to “On meaning in Nutcracker” by Roland John Wiley (Dance research III/1 (fall 1984) 3–28; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1984-12142).

Today is the 130th anniversary of Nutcracker‘s premiere!

Below, part I of Mark Morris’s approach, which he called The hard nut.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era

Luiz Gonzaga and traditional ecological knowledge

The Brazilian recording star Luiz Gonzaga made a career of singing about the drought-plagued northeastern Brazil countryside, where he is still revered as emblematic of the region.

For individuals who predict the weather based on natural patterns in the northeastern backlands, Gonzaga’s music continues to lend credibility, clarity, and local significance to the practice known as rain prophecy.

For example, his Acauã clearly conveys the meaning of the laughing falcon’s cry for the region’s inhabitants: it augurs and “invites” drought. “In the joy of the rainy season/sing the river frog, the tree frog, the toad/but in the sorrow of drought/you hear only the acauã.” The song ends with Gonzaga mimicking the bird’s call, evoking a sound that arouses powerful emotions in the region’s inhabitants.

When northeastern rain prophets cite Gonzaga’s songs, they add credibility to their own expertise, framing it in a context that most Brazilians can comprehend. Enhanced by his national fame and legendary status, Gonzaga’s voice continues to play a significant role in the maintenance of traditional ecological knowledge.

This according to “Birdsong and a song about a bird: Popular music and the mediation of traditional ecological knowledge in northeastern Brazil” by Michael B. Silvers (Ethnomusicology LIX/3 [fall 2015] 380–97).

Today is Gonzaga’s 110th birthday! Above, Gonzaga performing in the traditional costume of the northeastern rancheiros, in 1957 (Arquivo Nacional, public domain); below, his 1952 recording of Acauã.

BONUS: Gonzaga performs Acauã in a film intended for television broadcast. In his introduction he compares the local significance of the laughing falcon’s call with that of the purple-throated euphonia, which heralds rain.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Popular music, South America

Charles Schultz and classical music

Having once considered himself “one of the staunchest opponents of classical music”, Charles Schultz discovered the symphonies of Beethoven in 1946 and became an avid fan of classical music with a prodigious record collection. He also created the piano-playing Schroeder, a Beethoven fanatic, for his comic strip Peanuts.

A well-worn 1951 LP in Schultz’s collection by the pianist Friedrich Gulda of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata may have inspired a series of strips from the early 1950s in which Schroeder is seen playing this work. The one reproduced above is the only one in which the piece is named, though it still relies on the reader to read music—and German!—for a full identification. Note Schultz’s imitation of German Fraktur script for both the work title and his signature.

This according to “Michaelis’ Schulz, Schulz’s Beethoven, and the construction of biography” by William Meredith (The Beethoven journal XXV/2 [winter 2008], pp. 79–91; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2008-8914).

Today is Schultz’s 100th birthday! Below, Gulda performs the Hammerklavier sonata in 1970.

Related articles: Beethoven in Bibliolore

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Humor, Visual art

Tut’ankhamūn’s trumpets

Tut trumpet

On this day 100 years ago, a British excavation team exploring Egypt’s Valley of the Kings discovered a step that proved to be the beginning of a descending staircase. Thus began the opening of the first known largely intact royal burial from ancient Egypt— Tut’ankhamūn’s tomb.

Among the “wonderful things” that Howard Carter saw when he entered inner chamber were two trumpets—one made of silver, and one made of bronze.

Seeing the potential for an extraordinary recording, in 1939 the BBC persuaded the Matḥaf al-Miṣrī (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) to schedule a world broadcast. The British Army bandsman James Tappern was engaged to perform on the historic instruments.

In what some people saw as the notorious “curse of King Tut”, five minutes before the live broadcast was to begin the watchmen’s lanterns failed and the museum was plunged into darkness; but candlelight saved the day, and enthralled listeners heard what were presumably sounds last heard more than 3,000 years earlier.

This according to “Recreating the sound of Tutankhamun’s trumpets” by Christine Finn (BBC news: Middle East 17 April 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-22278).

Above, a photograph of Tappern at the museum. Below, a narrative fleshes out the story; the recordings of Tappern playing the trumpets begin around 10:45.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Instruments