Category Archives: Curiosities

The Siena piano

 

A legendary instrument whose sonorities reputedly have no equal anywhere, praised by musicians such as Liszt and Saint-Saëns, the Siena piano is surrounded by an aura of mystery due to its astonishing history.

Its soundboard was supposedly made of wooden pillars from the ancient Temple of Solomon in Israel. Stolen by German soldiers during World War II, it was discovered half buried in the sands of the African desert.

The instrument was saved from destruction in the nick of time and restored by an Isreli craftsman; subsequently it aroused enormous media attention before being largely forgotten.

This according to La légende du piano de Sienne: Récit instrumental by Florent Ploquin (Plouharnel: Menhir, 2017).

Below, Marisa Regules performs Debussy’s Estampes on the Siena piano.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Romantic era

Mozart’s carriage and the Haydn cartwright tradition

 

In 1762 Leopold Mozart purchased a horse-drawn coach in Pressburg: a well-sprung, covered travel carriage for four at the price of “nur 23 duccatten”. Leopold described it as a “guten Reisewagen”. It brought the family safely back to Vienna (a trip of 12 hours) and from there home to Salzburg, leaving Vienna on 31 December 1762. Half a year later the Mozart family used the same carriage for their grand tour of Western Europe (1763–66), which took them as far as London.

It is likely that the carriage Leopold purchased in Pressburg came from the workshop of the Haydn family, which was for several generations involved with carriage production and shared the market with just a few others. The family profession of carriage building began with Thomas Haydn, Joseph’s grandfather, who was allowed to open a workshop in 1686.

Joseph Haydn stayed interested in the work of cartwrights, blacksmiths, and other manual professions. His letters and notebooks from London in particular show his interest in the working conditions of craftsmen there, and his preference for technical and practical matters, numbers, and measurements. Even at the peak of his international success, Haydn stayed connected to the family’s cartwright tradition.

The carriage trade was still on his mind during his second stay in London, when he made several visits to a Mr. March, an 84-year-old dentist, wine merchant, and carriage maker. The aged gentleman impressed Haydn not only because of his very young mistress and a daughter of nine, but also because each coach sold by Mr. March earned him at least £500.

This according to “Did Mozart drive a ‘Haydn’? Cartwrights, carriages and the postal system in the Austrian-Hungarian border area up to the eighteenth century” by Käthe Springer-Dissmann, an essay included in Ottoman empire and European theatre. II: The time of Joseph Haydn–From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r.1730–1839) (Wien: Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014, 257–80; RILM Abstracts 2014-88916).

Above, an Austrian carriage from around 1790; below, a carriage ride through Mozart’s Vienna.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities

Mahmud II and Italian opera

 

The Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II enjoyed Italian opera so much that his new Dolmabahçe Palace incorporated a small but sumptuous opera house; decorated by Charles Séchan of the Paris Opéra, it was said to rival that of Versailles.

Occasionally he invited the Italian opera company to perform in his seraglio, before the ladies of his court. The libretti were apparently altered to suit Turkish tastes: for example, a performance of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri ended with the marriage of Isabella and the Bey. The punishment of Taddeo, who received the bastinado on the soles of his feet, drew shouts and applause from the audience.

This according to “‘Each villa on the Bosphorus looks a screen new painted, or a pretty opera scene’: Mahmud II (r.1808–1839) setting the Ottoman stage for Italian opera and Viennese music” by Emre Aracı, an essay included in Ottoman empire and European theatre. II: The time of Joseph Haydn–From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r.1730–1839) (Wien: Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014, 621–30; RILM Abstracts 2014-88925).

Above, a portrait of Mahmud II by Henri-Guillaume Schlesinger; below, a rousing excerpt from the Schwetzinger Festspiele.

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Filed under Curiosities, Opera

Uncracking the Nutcracker

 

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on Ŝelkunčik (The nutcracker), and complained bitterly about the project to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from working on 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 1984-12142).

Today is Čajkovskij’s 180th birthday! Above, the composer in 1893, a year after Ŝelkunčik’s premiere. Below, Part I of Mark Morris’s alternative version of the work, which he called The hard nut.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era

Muotatal yodeling redux

 

Thirty years after the making of his film series on Swiss yodeling, Hugo Zemp returned to his investigation of the particular yodel style—called jüüz—of Muotatal, a small valley in the Swiss Prealps.

Shot in the early 1980s, the earlier films presented the traditional jüüz sung at work or while socializing, in contrast to stage presentations of yodel choirs, which are federated in a national association under the direction of choral conductors.

Wondering how the situation had evolved in the second decade of the 21th century, Zemp went back and found a 37-year-old man whom he had filmed singing with his parents and sisters 30 years earlier. During his adolescence, like many teenagers, Bernhard was enthusiastic about American rock and country music (which he still performs), but when he watched the old films he felt the urge to return to the tradition that he had learned during his childhood. With five friends from his village he founded a traditional group, Natur Pur, to revive casual singing.

Zemp’s new film, Swiss yodelling: 30 years later (Kanopy Streaming, 2015) shows performances in various situations, including singing with women and teaching at a workshop. Informal conversations between the singers, where humor is not absent, treat serious topics around tradition and change.

Above and below, scenes from the film.

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Filed under Curiosities, Europe

Personality and alcohol consumption by genre

 

A 2017 study compared the personality traits of Croatian classical and heavy metal musicians with norms for the Croatian population, and data on alcohol consumption with a representative sample of the general Croatian population.

Participants in the study were men (N = 249) playing either classical (N = 113) or heavy metal music (N = 136). Personality was measured with the IPIP-50 personality questionnaire, and participants answered several questions about alcohol consumption.

The study found no significant differences in personality traits between classical and heavy metal musicians, but both classical and heavy metal musicians differed significantly in personality from the norms, having higher scores on extraversion, agreeableness, and especially intellect.

Belonging to a heavy metal group was associated with consuming alcohol more often, and the frequency of alcohol consumption was statistically higher for heavy metal musicians than in the general population.

This according to “Personality traits and alcohol consumption of classical and heavy metal musicians” by Ana Butkovič and Dunja Rančić Dopuđ (Psychology of music XLV/2 [March 2017] pp. 246–56).

Above and below, members of Hladno Pivo (Cold Beer) discuss the study’s findings.

Related article: Eläkeläiset inebriated

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Science

Psychedelia and children’s literature

 

In contrast to their American counterparts, English musicians in the late 1960s found psychedelic inspiration in their childhood reading lists, which, for just about every English child, included Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne.

Songwriters like Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Peter Daltrey (Kaleidoscope), and others went on to create their own fantastical characters, nonsense verses, and imagery around themes of anthropomorphism, lost childhood, and The Quest.

This according to “Grumbly grimblies, frozen dogs, and other boojums: Eccentricity from Chaucer to Carroll in English psychedelia” by Peter Grant, an essay included in The Routledge companion to popular music and humor (New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 49–57).

Above, Richard Dadd’s The fairy feller’s master-stroke, a painting beloved by fans of psychedelia; below, Syd Barrett’s The gnome, from Pink Floyd’s debut album.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music

Music and handwashing

 

In an attempt to determine the effects of a training song in maintaining a self-help skill that was taught with the aid of a song, 21 preschool children were first taught to wash their hands as a ten-step procedure; then they received ten training sessions in which they washed their hands with the aid of the Handwashing song.

After training they were post-tested, then divided into four equalized groups for maintenance. The first group served as a control; the second group heard the music only from the training song as they washed their hands; the third group heard only the words, spoken in a normal voice; and the fourth group heard the complete song while washing their hands.

None of the maintenance procedures showed effects that were statistically significant when compared to any of the other procedures; however, subjects who received the words-only and complete-song conditions showed better maintenance of their post-test scores than subjects assigned to the first two groups.

This according to “Effects of music as a cue in maintaining handwashing in preschool children” by Shirley A. Kramer (Journal of music therapy XV/3 [fall 1978] pp. 136–44).

Many thanks to Improbable Research for reminding us of this timely study! Below, Danial Kheirikhah offers a dramtic demonstration.

Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay

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Filed under Curiosities, Science

Bobby McFerrin and science

 

In an interview, Bobby McFerrin responded to being termed a “science guy”:

“I’m not really much of a science guy, but I’ve been privileged to work with Daniel Levitan and Elaina Mannes, scientists who are interested in how music affects people. Well, every time I give a concert I spend my whole time observing how music affects the people! So it’s very interesting to me.”

“The piece I did at the World Science Festival is called the Pentatonic romp. I’ve performed it all over the world, and people everywhere can sing that scale by ear. Doesn’t matter what language they speak or what kind of music they listen to. It’s like it’s built in. I’ve done it for decades now and I still think it’s amazing!”

Quoted in “Science, faith and improv: An interview with Bobby McFerrin” (Bandwagon 17 February 2015).

Today is McFerrin’s 70th birthday! Above, performing at !Sing: Day of Song in 2010 (photo by Michael Koschinski); below, the 2009 World Science Festival performance.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Science

“Wild rover” redux

 

On this St. Patrick’s Day, countless fans of Irish traditional music will sing along to The wild rover, with its irresistible “no, nay, never” refrain. Little will they realize the song’s multifarious past.

The text originated in The good fellow’s resolution, a 17th-century English broadside written by Thomas Lanfiere—one of any number of moralistic broadsides of the period describing the wayward behavior and subsequent regrets of “bad husbands” and the duplicity of alewives.

Over the course of 300 years several distinct textual and musical changes altered the moral thrust of the song, assisting its enduring popularity. Lanfiere’s 13-verse text was edited and condensed, appearing in late 18th- and early 19th-century chapbooks and broadsides with the “bad husband” being converted to a “wild rover” along the way.

Stages in the song’s evolution are preserved in these print versions, which found their way into English oral tradition (sung to a different tune from the currently familiar one) by the early 19th century, when a harmonized version cropped up in Thomas Hardy’s grandfather’s songbook.

The song was also reproduced in mid-19th century American songsters, and was extremely popular in Australia, where three different strains and a country & western rewrite all made the rounds.

At some point the “no, nay, never” chorus replaced the original “wild rover, wild rover” refrain. The form with the distinctive four-beat pause was first recorded in Nova Scotia in the early 20th century, and the version familiar today is the result of further adaptation by performers in the 1960s British folk revival.

This according to “The well-travelled Wild rover” by Brian Peters (Folk music journal X/5 [2015] pp. 609–36). Above, in 1958 Burl Ives identified the song as Australian; below, in 1965 The Clancy Brothers did too.

BONUS: A lesser-known variant.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Reception