Throughout his career in Paris (1658–73), Molière regularly incorporated music and dance into his plays. Account books, bills and receipts, contracts of association, musical scores, and other documents attest to Molière’s employment of professional instrumentalists, singers, dancers, choreographers, and musical directors at the Grande Salle du Petit Bourbon and the Théâtre du Palais Royal.
In 1671, in response to the success of Pierre Perrin’s Académie Royale des Opéras, the Troupe du Roy embarked on a new direction in music theater. The troupe’s renovation of the Palais Royal and their installation of a state-of-the-art transformation stage indicate an increased commitment to large-scale performances involving music, dance, and spectacle. This gives credence to the hypothesis that, before their split, Molière and Lully planned to acquire Perrin’s privilège and move into opera.
This according to “Musical practices in the theater of Molière” by John S. Powell (Revue de musicology LXXXII/1  5–37).
When the U.S. operatic soprano Minnie Hauk (1851–1929) first toured Europe in 1868, her instant success was due largely to shrewd marketing by her teacher and manager Maurice Strakosch.
Capitalizing on Hauk’s childhood on the American prairie, Strakosch’s advance publicity described her as “a kind of half-civilized Pocahontas, who, back in the wilds of her homeland, was accustomed to riding a mustang bareback and being worshipped by the continent’s aborigines as a ‘dusky daughter of the sun.’”
Thanks to widespread curiosity about this exotic creature—and, of course, to her prodigious talent—Hauk remained abroad for the next eight years, performing at all the major opera houses in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, and Russia.
When he was growing up in Catania, Sicily, Bellini undoubtedly heard the peasants from the far side of Mount Etna who came to town every Advent with their zampogne (bagpipes). The young prodigy was influenced by these traditional musicians in several ways.
The bagpipers’ improvisations helped to shape the seemingly meandering and unpredictable melodies that Bellini became famous for. Also, the balance between the drones and the chanters influenced his handling of accompaniment and melody. Finally, the music of the bagpipes found its way into Bellini’s uses of modality, his chromaticisms, and his oscillations between major and minor keys. The Mediterranean vibrancy of his slow music was particularly grounded in the traditional music of his youth.
This according to Vincenzo Bellini, zampognaro del melodramma by Salvatore Enrico Failla (Catania: Maimone, 1985).
Today is Bellini’s 220th birthday! Below, a modern-day incarnation of the Sicilian Advent zampognaro.
Darker than a musical comedy, less imposing than an opera, more balletic than a song-and-dance show, West Side story’s tightly integrated movement, drama, design, and music signaled an important shift in U.S. musical theater.
Although its unity and coherence have drawn popular and scholarly attention, further study of the work reveals myriad interpretations and approaches—the inevitable result of a collaborative process. The choreographer Jerome Robbins wanted to create a classic, tragic dance vehicle combining ballet and popular styles; for Leonard Bernstein, it would mark the second attempt at writing the long-sought major American opera.
Torn between conflicting desires for popular success and status as a “serious” composer, Bernstein used eclecticism as a starting point for the creation of an accessible American art music. At the same time, pressure to create something “serious” within the compositional environment of the 1950s seems to have led him to employ the tritone both as a structural tool and a unifying surface detail, as well as reflecting the unusually dark subject matter of the work.
West Side story brought together some of the most prevalent and pressing issues of musical and cultural life of its day, from the New York Puerto Rican “problem” to the insurgence of juvenile delinquency. In addition, Robbins’s strongly ritualistic, tableau-oriented vision, with its privileging of male over female characterization, suggests a reading linking the work to longstanding mythical and literary archetypes—but also bringing up questions of the depiction of gender and ethnicity.
Such archetypes also inform Arthur Laurents’s book, one of the shortest on record for a Broadway musical. As in his other socially conscious works, Laurents mirrored Robbins’s dramatic agenda: the creation of an American mythology of urban life that could be contemporary but also lasting.
This according to West Side story: Cultural perspectives on an American musical by Elizabeth A. Wells (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-402).
Georges Enescu’s use of elements of Romanian traditional music is well known; his most popular works today, the Rhapsodies roumaines, attest to his enthusiasm for his homeland’s music. Less known is his interest in the Turkish melodic type makam (pl. makamlar) and its influence on his masterpiece, the opera Œdipe.
In this work, Enescu used three makamlar: Müsteâr, for music associated with the characters Creon and Jocasta; Hisâr, for the motif of fate, and Nişâbûr, for the motif of justification.
This according to “Modale Strukturen in Annäherung zur orientalischen Kirchenmusik im Oedip von George Enescu” by Adriana Şirli, an essay included in Enesciana II-III: Georges Enesco, musicien complexe (Bucureşti: Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, 1981).
Today is Enescu’s 140th birthday! Below, an excerpt from the 1970 production of Œdipe by the Opera Naţională Bucureşti; above, the Enescu statue in front of the opera house. For more Enescu iconography, see Music on money.
SSS addresses a wide range of phenomena, practices, and objects pertaining to sound and music in light of the interconnections between performing traditions and media archaeologies: from opera to musical multimedia, and from cinema to interactive audiovisual platforms. An open-access journal published in English, SSS wishes to redefine the academic study of music as an open field whose boundaries—historical, geographical, and theoretical—are constantly being negotiated.
The resounding success of the premiere of Händel’s Rinaldo, his first opera in England, was tempered by satirical and sarcastic criticism in The spectator, a weekly journal dedicated to combining wit with morality.
The spectacular scenery and costumes, textual weaknesses, and lack of logic were all points of criticism. Joseph Addison, measuring the performance by the standards of reason, truth, and naturalness, hardly found occasion to mention the music and excellent cast.
The main forum for these ideas of a new moral, social, and national function for opera was the London coffeehouse. Thus the Enlightenment, through the medium of opera, came to influence the thought of large groups and stimulated new social behavior and artistic standards.
This according to “Mit Rindern, Schafen und Spatzenschwärmen: Die Londoner Uraufführung der Oper Rinaldo von Händel” by Wilhelm Baethge (Das Orchester XLIII/11  17-22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-14126).
Today is the 31oth anniversary of Rinaldo’s premiere! Below, the opera’s march remains one of its most popular excerpts.
Luigi Cherubini’s Médée was the first new major operatic work based on classical subject matter to appear on a Paris stage after years of lip service to—but little artistic concern with—the heritage of Gluck. The work’s 1797 premier met a lukewarm reception because it attempted to reinterpret the classical tradition in revolutionary terms at a time when the conservative backlash of the Directoire had already begun.
Dramatically, the character of Médée symbolizes the fury of the Jacobin, while musically the colorful mass effects and harmonic boldness of revolutionary opera are matched with stylistic conventions of prerevolutionary composers. The result is an intermixture of musical realism and expressionism that anticipated not only the last works of Verdi and his veristic successors but also the psychological dramas of Strauss and Berg.
This according to “Cherubini’s Médée and the spirit of French Revolutionary opera” by Alexander L. Ringer, an essay included in Essays in musicology in honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th birthday (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969 281–99; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1969-1154).
Today is Cherubini’s 260th birthday! Above, the composer as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, ca. 1820; below, Maria Callas sings an aria from Médée in a widely used Italian translation.
Johann Sigismund Kusser (or, as he was known in England and Ireland, John Sigismond Cousser) was a Hungarian-born musician who, after a varied and successful career in the German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, settled in Ireland in July 1707.
In Dublin Kusser composed and directed the performances of at least 21 festive serenatas that marked important state occasions in Dublin between 1709 and his death in late 1727. Presented before the elite of local society in semistaged productions featuring costumes, stage machinery, and dancing, these works functioned as something of an operatic substitute in the city’s cultural life.
In 2020 A-R Editions issued Kusser: Serenatas for Dublin (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2020-1963), a critical edition comprising the three serenatas for which music remains extant. Two of these can be proven definitively to be of Kusser’s own composition, and the third, due to its musical style, overall structure, and subject matter, is almost certainly his creation as well. These works provide remarkably rare musical evidence of a key component of the artistic offerings of Dublin’s viceregal court during the early decades of the eighteenth century.
Below, “Come, lovely peace, the conqu’ror calls” from An idylle on the peace, one of the works included in the volume.
“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”
“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”
“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”
Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-89300).
Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.
From 4 to 8 October 2021, The Barry S. Brook Center for Music Research and Documentation hosts the virtual conference Responses in Music to Climate Change. The event brings together scholars, performers, composers, and activists, with the goal of exchanging … Continue reading →
Introduction: Dr. Philip Ewell, Associate Professor of Music at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, posted a series of daily tweets during Black History Month (February 2021) providing information on some under-researched Black … Continue reading →
For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →
Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by … Continue reading →