Category Archives: Europe

Radio Caroline and U.K. pirate radio

Pirate radio stations on offshore ships were only significant for less than a decade but had an enormous impact on broadcasting. In the United Kingdom independent radio had been heard since the 1930s on Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg. These stations were founded by Captain L. F. Plugge and had offices in London. The U.K.’s General Post Office (GPO), the state postal system and telecommunications carrier at the time, refused them telephone facilities to transmit concerts live, so they recorded concerts by touring seaside resorts and recording bands on 16-inch 78 rpm gramophone records that were then shipped to Brussels and taken by train to Luxembourg to be relayed.

Radio Luxembourg had the most powerful transmitter in Europe at the time. British firms were soon paying a total of £400,000 a year for advertising on programs and sponsoring them. One of the most popular was the Ovaltine Show featuring the Ovaltineys and the Ovaltineys’ Orchestra. These first commercial stations were largely lost in World War II when most of the transmitters were destroyed—although the Germans took over Radio Luxembourg to transmit propaganda. It survived after the war and took the new format of the Top 20 series from U.S. radio.

On March 29, 1964, a new development hit the airwaves and captured the imagination and loyalty of the younger listeners. Radio Caroline first broadcast from a ship anchored off the Essex coast just outside British territorial waters. There had been other pirate offshore radio stations before that, broadcasting to Scandinavian and other northern European countries, but Radio Caroline was to become the most successful and long-lived. It was started by an Irish businessman called Ronan O’Rahilly, who had been trying to promote a young singer named Georgie Fame. He was turned down by the main record companies and decided to start his own company. He even took the records to Radio Luxembourg and was rejected by them as their airtime was mostly taken by the large record companies. In desperation, O’Rahilly decided to start his own radio station.

He bought an old passenger ferry and secretly refitted it in a southern Ireland port before mooring it off the coast of Harwich. The first disc played on Radio Caroline was The Beatles’ Can’t buy me love by DJ Simon Dee. Other pirate stations proliferated off the British coast in the coming years: Radio Atlanta, transmitted from the ship Mi Amigo, and later merged with Radio Caroline while the original Caroline ship went north to anchor off the Isle of Man to become Radio Caroline North.

Read the full entry on pirate radio in the Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Listen to the opening broadcast of Radio Caroline with Simon Dee on 29 March 1964.

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Filed under Europe, Mass media, Popular music

Basel’s early musical life

The musical history of Basel, Switzerland dates back to the founding of the Augusta Raurica by Caesar’s general Munatius Plancus and the construction of an amphitheater where music, pantomime, and ballet performances took place after the city’s founding in 44 B.C. A diocese was established in Basel as early as the 4th century, and Gregorian chant was popularized there in the 9th century under the aegis of Haito (Bishop of Basel from 807 to 823). Little is known about the musical life of Basel in the first millennium; however, it appears to be similar to that of other bishoprics.

There were also several singing schools in Basel, and choral singing was practiced by monks. From the middle of the 13th century onward, the names of professional singers regularly appeared in the accounting books of the city’s church institutions, although the services of these musicians were probably already in demand earlier. Choral singing had become a permanent fixture in urban churches around the middle of the 15th century. Conrad von Zabern, author of Opusculum de monochordo (1462) and De modo bene cantandi (1474), apparently learned to sing at the Basel Cathedral. The surviving treatises and liturgical manuscripts belonging to the Carthusian, Preacher, and Dominican orders also document the diverse musical life of the urban monasteries.

Read on in an entry on Basel in MGG Online. Below is a video of contemporary choral singing at the 2023 European Festival of Youth Choirs held in Basel. Above is a panoramic map of Basel dating back to around the late 15th century.

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Filed under Antiquity, Europe, Middle Ages

Shane MacGowan, the last of the spailpíns

The Pogues’ pugnacious punk frontman may well be the last inheritor of the wayward spailpín singers. Throughout its history, Ireland has found figures to express its dreams and torments, or at least its boisterous fighting spirits. Mid-19th-century Ireland found such figure in James Clarence Mangan. Mid-20th century Ireland discovered a few such figures in Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, and Luke Kelly. In Shane Patrick Lysaght MacGowan, a native of Puckane, a village in County Tipperary, Ireland found a late 20th-century inheritor to this wayward legacy.

Ever since planter colonialism beat down the haughty, aristocratic-minded bards, Ireland has maintained a consistent subaltern tradition of poets and singers. The tributaries that fed into this tradition, which for lack of a better term, might be called a spailpín culture, ranged from sean nós and folk ballads to music hall and dancehall fare. Songs of hard labor and hard living, of wandering and exile, resentment, and loss emerged from this culture, nurtured by two languages to form part of the musical repertoire.

The Pogues in 1990.

Shane MacGowan came of age in 1970s England when the rock world, no stranger to its own forms of dissolution, was being convulsed by punk, a raucous, aggressively atonal anti-musical genre that gave the finger not just to the soppy pop of the mainstream culture industry but to all bombastic stadium rock. Out of the merging of these two unlikely patrimonies was born the legend of The Pogues. If Riverdance announced the birth of a slick and synchronized new 21st-century neoliberal, post-nationalist Ireland, was it the fate of The Pogues, and specifically MacGowan, to be the last of the spailpíns, the tail-end of a tradition stretching back to Eoghan Rua and Cathal Buí?

Read on in the article “Shane MacGowan: The tail-end of a great Irish tradition?” by Joe Cleary (The Irish times [13 January 2017]). Find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below, MacGowan and The Pogues perform with The Dubliners an epic version of The Irish rover.

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Filed under Europe, Performers, Popular music

Amália Rodrigues and the politics of fado

Amália Rodrigues was born into a family of immigrants from the northern province of Beira Baixa in 1920. She initially performed as an amateur at local clubs before starting her self-taught professional career at the age of 19 in Lisbon’s fado clubs. From 1940 to 1946 she appeared in various productions of traditional Portuguese vaudeville (revista), playing the lead in the two films in 1947 Capas Negras and Fado. The film História de uma Cantadeira consolidated her reputation as a fado star. Amália’s first international performance took place in 1943 at the invitation of the Portuguese embassy in Madrid. From 1944 to 1946 she had two major engagements in Brazil, where she made her first recordings in 1945 for the Brazilian label Continental.

In 1950 she began recording for the Lisbon music label Valentim de Carvalho, to which she returned in 1961 after briefly switching to the French label Ducretet-Thompson in 1958. In 1949, Amália sang in Paris and London under the patronage of the Portuguese government. As part of the Marshall Plan cultural program in 1950, she gave a series of concerts in Berlin, Rome, Trieste, Dublin, Bern, and Paris. Some of these concerts were broadcast globally by The Voice of America (VOA) radio network, which contributed significantly to making her better known internationally. Although the Portuguese government supported her first international appearances, Rodrigues’ career was not dependent on political protection, especially considering her performances in communist Romania and the Soviet Union.

In 1952 she successfully performed a series of concerts at the New York club La Vie en Rose over the course of several weeks. This was followed by tours of Mexico and the United States, where she performed in 1953 as a guest on the Eddy Fisher Show. In 1955, she appeared in the French film Les Amants du Tage and recorded her hit song Barco negro. The film achieved record sales in France which led to an invitation to perform at the Olympia in Paris, the most renowned music hall in Europe at the time. Over the next two decades, Amália gave concerts throughout Europe, Brazil, the United States, Japan, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East and performed at many festivals, including two appearances at the Brasov Festival in socialist Romania.

In the 1970s, Amália became a scapegoat for fado’s perceived ties to fascism after the genre became associated with the regimes of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the dictator who ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968, and Marcelo Caetano until 1974. Contradicting her reputation as a fascist sympathizer, Amália tapped into fado’s earlier radical tradition staying ahead of the censors by singing artfully subversive songs with lyrics inspired by socialist and anarchist poets and donating to underground antifascist political organizations. She continued to record and perform until 1990 and retired from public life in 1994 for health reasons that had already affected the quality of her voice. Amália received numerous awards and decorations both in her native Portugal and internationally.

Read the newly published entry on Amália Rodrigues in MGG Online. Listen to her recording “Saudades de ti” below.

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Filed under Europe, Film music, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Bach or the Devil (revisited)

During his life, Bach was primarily known as a dazzling organist with virtuoso improvising abilities. Not surprisingly, his prowess gave rise to a number of urban legends.

One such legend had him traveling incognito, dressed as a village schoolmaster, going from church to church to try out the organs—prompting one local organist to cry out, “I don’t know who’s playing, but it’s either Bach or the Devil!”

Read on in “Tod und Teufel” by Frieder Reininghaus, an essay included in Bach-ABC (Sinzig: Studio-Verlag, 2007, pp. 91–93). This post originally appeared in Bibliolore on March 21, 2015 but it seems appropriate for Halloween 2023.

Below is the tocatta and fugue in D minor, BWV 565, which is also always appropriate for Halloween!

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Filed under Baroque era, Europe, From the archives

A famous gondola song

La biondina in gondoletta is likely the most famous gondola song in Europe. The music had long been attributed to the German-born composer Johann Simon Mayr, whose authorship, however, can be ruled out. Until now, the composer of the tune has remained anonymous, but the lyrics in Venetian dialect were written by Antonio Lamberti and date back to the 1770s. They appear to address Contessa Marina Querini Benzon, whose salon near San Beneto in Venice, had been frequented by the poet and other local but also foreign artists and intellectuals.

Because of its salacious verses and wide dissemination, La biondina in gondoletta was prohibited during the Napoleonic occupation of Venice (1805–15). Nonetheless, the song with its catchy melody made a truly European career in the course of the 19th century. Abroad, it functioned as a symbol of Venetian vitality and Italian lightheartedness, combining stereotyped imaginations of an Italian national character with a nostalgic view of the glorious past. Many European composers worked with the melody of La biondina in gondoletta, cited it, or improvised on the theme. Beethoven, for instance, used the song, referring to it as the epitome of Venetian popular music, without ever traveling to Italy. Given the manifold versions and settings of the piece, it can be considered an early transnational hit song.

The astonishing success of La biondina in gondoletta continued into the 20th century, when it was used within the Festival Internazionale della Canzone di Venezia, held for the first time in July 1955. Six European nations, namely Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Monaco and France (or rather their radio stations), competed in this first edition of the popular song festival, which was broadcast in all participating countries. With a festive ceremony the song contest came to an end, when musicians of all six nations played La biondina in gondoletta together. In the following years, the custom of ending the event by intoning the famous gondola song was maintained, clearly demonstrating how La biondina in gondoletta, in the course of the 19th century, on a Europe-wide scale, had been deeply rooted in the collective memory as a clichéd musical symbol of Venice.

Read on in “La biondina in gondoletta: The transnational success story of a popular gondola song” by Henrike Rost, an essay included in the volume Popular song in the 19th century (Turnhout: Brepols, 2022).

Celebrate the La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale) and the Biennale Musica 2023 (www.labiennale.org/en/music/2023) taking place in Venice October 16-29. Listen to a performance of La biondina in gondoletta below.

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Filed under Classic era, Europe, Popular music

Jenő Jandó, prolific pianist and Naxos Records founder

The British newspaper The Independent once described Jenő Jandó as “the most prolific recording pianist alive”. Born in Pécs, southern Hungary in 1952, he founded the Naxos record label in 1987 and became the label’s house pianist over the next 15 years, during which he recorded more CDs than any other pianist in the world. He produced complete recordings of the piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, Bach’s Wohltemperirtes Clavier and Goldberg variations, and recordings of all Bartók’s piano works and large parts of Liszt’s piano oeuvre. On one occasion, Jandó was asked once what he would inquire of Liszt if he were alive. He replied, “I wouldn’t ask Liszt a question, but would instead point to the piano and ask him to play me something! I could ask him about the tempo, for example, but what for? I’m sure he never played anything twice the same way. If he were sitting here with us, I would be watching and listening to him attentively from the corner of the room to observe how he makes tones sound, to what extent he feels aware of himself, and what sounds he would get from the piano in this small room.”

Jandó also recorded the complete piano concertos by Mozart and Bartók as well as the better-known concertos by Schumann, Brahms, Grieg, Dvořák, and Rachmaninov. He also recorded all of Mozart’s and Grieg’s violin sonatas with the violinist Takako Nishizaki. As a result of his outstanding playing technique, quick comprehension, and a straightforward, objective, and clarity-oriented approach to interpretation, Jandó was able to record one CD every month on average. He received his training at the Budapest University of Music from Bartók’s student Katalin Nemes and later Pál Kadosa. Jandó won prizes in piano competitions in Hungary, France, Italy, and Australia; he taught at the Budapest University of Music from 1975 onward and was appointed professor there in 2003.

Jenő Jandó passed away at the age of 71 in Budapest on 4 July 2023. Read his obituary in MGG Online.

Below is a video of Jandó performing Béla Bartók’s “Allegro barbaro” with the Muzsikás Hungarian folk music ensemble.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Europe, Performers

Grace Bumbry at Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Grace Bumbry’s appearance as the first African American singer in the role of Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser from 1961 through 1963 sparked fierce reactions. By the age of 23, Bumbry had created such a stir in the opera world that she was invited to audition in Bayreuth for Wieland Wagner, the grandson of the composer Richard Wagner, where he would be producing a new production of Tannhaeuser. When the press discovered that the new Venus was a Black singer, protests began to appear publicly in various publications. Wieland Wagner stated that his grandfather would want the best voice for the part and remained steadfast in his decision to cast Bumbry. Her racial background did not dissuade him, and neither did the negative press. Bumbry courageously performed the role and changed the history of opera by becoming the first person of color ever to be cast in a major role at the prestigious Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The next day, the critics called her “Die Schwarze Venus” (The Black Venus), and a new star was propelled into international stardom.

In those performances, Bumbry paved the way for opera singers of color. She grew up in modest surroundings in St. Louis, Missouri and as a young girl became interested in music after attending concerts given by Marian Anderson. Bumbry’s life was forever altered by the concerts, and she soon absorbed every recording of classical music she could find. At age 16, she won first prize in a local radio contest which provided her the opportunity to appear on The Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show, a popular U.S. radio and television variety show, where she sang “O Don Fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Bumbry later studied at Boston University after encountering racist policies at the St. Louis Conservatory. She continued her studies with Lotte Lehmann in Santa Barbara, California in 1955 and finally with Pierre Bernac in Paris, where she made her debut at the age of 23 as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida at the Théâtre National in 1960. She made her debuts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden London, as Princess Eboli in Don Carlos in 1963, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1965, and at La Scala in Milan in 1966. Around 1970 she shifted her full, energetic mezzo-soprano voice to soprano and went on to sing Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Salome in Richard Strauss’s eponymous opera. From the late 1980s onward, she returned to her lower voice and took on character roles such as Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Salzburg Festival in 1994.

Bumbry passed away on 7 May 2023 at the age of 86 in Vienna.

Read the full obituary on Grace Bumbry in MGG Online. A previous posting on Bumbry in Bibliolore can be found here: https://bibliolore.org/2017/01/04/grace-bumbry-black-venus/

Below is a video of her performing Vissi d’arte, a soprano aria from the opera Tosca by Giacomo Puccini.

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Filed under Black studies, Europe, Opera, Women's studies

Discovery of eight new arias by Gluck

A new discovery is on its way to boost the Gluck Complete Edition, headed by the Mainz Academy of Sciences and Literature, as the editing project nears its completion. Project manager Tanja Gölz authenticated eleven vocal pieces from Gluck’s opera Poro found in a Berlin antiquarian bookshop and originating from an anonymous private collection. These include eight arias that had previously been considered lost and were therefore completely unknown to Gluck researchers. Composed in 1744 for the Teatro Regio in Turin, Poro is one of Gluck’s early opere serie, of which only individual numbers have survived in the form of copies, subsequently created parts, or isolated selections.

On this basis, the historical-critical edition of the fragmentary opere serie is presented in two parts of the Gluck Complete Edition published by Bärenreiter, thus making another facet of the hitherto almost unknown early work of the opera reformer available to scholars and performers. As a result of the newly found short score and canto e basso copies, which were likely made for rehearsals and thus within the immediate context of the world premiere, the proportion of Poro’s musical text has increased to a total of 14 complete numbers (including the sinfonia), which is almost 50 percent of the original, full-length work.

Learn more in the news section of MGG Online.

The image above features È prezzo leggiero, Gandarte’s entrance aria from Gluck’s opera Poro (Turin 1744). Listen below to pieces from Gluck’s Alceste, including the work of U.S. soprano Jessye Norman.

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Filed under Europe, Opera, Opera