Like most newcomers to America, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1920s faced homesickness, deprivation, and language difficulty. Yiddish musicals helped them to come to terms with their environment by reminding them of home while highlighting the benefits of the New World.
Confronting the past with the present and fusing the folkloric songs, liturgical chants, dances, and theater styles of Jewish tradition with American rhythms and social topics, the genre helped to resolve onstage the conflicts in the lives of the new inhabitants. These comic and dramatic musical works chart the evolution of a community in its acculturation and eventual assimilation.
Di goldene kale (The golden bride) premiered at the 2000-seat Second Avenue Theater in New York on 9 February 1923, one of 14 Yiddish programs in the city that night. It ran for 18 weeks and was then performed throughout the U.S. and in venues in Europe and South America. The music is by Joseph Rumshinsky, the undisputed dean of Yiddish operetta composers in the U.S., who wrote the music for well over 100 such works.
Written and produced at a critical time of transition, between a law passed in May 1921 that greatly limited immigration from eastern Europe and another, in 1924, that reduced such immigration to a trickle, the work illuminates the period in which the arrival of some two million Russians and other east-Europeans in the U.S. had peaked.
A new edition and study of Di goldene kale (A-R Editions, 2017) provides multifaceted insights into the absorption, not only of Jews, but of every immigrant group, into the American mainstream
Below, excerpts from a 2016 production.
The catalogue arias of late eighteenth-century Italian opere buffe focus on lists; subjects may include enjoyable activities, foods, things for sale, or types of people (by nationality, social rank, occupation, personal qualities, and so on).
Their progress often involves shorter and shorter syntactic units: Sentences give way to phrases, then to one- or two-word groups, accelerating the rate of accumulated information—the comic frenzy is actually built into the text itself. This textual compression often involves two rhetorical devices: asyndeton (omitting conjunctions) and anaphora (beginning successive lines or phrases with the same word).
This according to “Catalogue arias and the ‘catalogue aria’” by John Platoff, an essay included in Wolfgang Amadé Mozart: Essays on his life and his music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 296–311).
Above, Lorenzo da Ponte, author of the celebrated catalogue aria Madamina, il catalogo è questo, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni; below, Luca Pisaroni does the honors.
Nickelback is one of the most successful rock bands of the early 21st century; it is also one of the era’s most publicly derided groups.
Nickelback hatred became trendy when the band was signed to Roadrunner Records in 1999, and the extreme metal label lost its subcultural cache even as it raked in the profits. From there the circle of scorn grew ever wider. In 2006 Nickelback released their most despised single, Rockstar, with lead singer Chad Kroeger’s reputation taking hit after hit.
Finally, with the birth of Web 2.0, contempt for the band was democratized and made available to all. Memes and a steady stream of jokes at Nickelback’s expense assured their “worst band ever” punch-line status. Around 2012 Nickelback finally took the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em escape clause, reinforcing their butt-of-the-joke status with self-deprecating humor.
This according to “Nickelback the meme: A complete history of how we came to hate a successful band” by Sage Lazzaro (Observer 26 January 2016). Below, the official (and widely loathed) Rockstar video.
Donald Francis Tovey left thousands of marginal comments on the sheet music he owned, dating from different periods of his life.
Here and there one finds a score that is chock-full of pencil scribblings, critical, historical, personal—clearly remarks that Tovey meant for his own eyes alone, though it is impressive that he often wrote complete sentences with full punctuation. Most commonly he sang the praise of some compositional marvel in words of simple rapture: “Splendid!” “Magnificent climax!” “Wonderful!”
But Tovey was at his wittiest with composers he didn’t much like. Muzio Clementi came in for some particularly choice remarks, such as “Silly little beast in bad Mozartian style with one or two idiotically difficult bits of pianistics.” A passage in Clementi’s op. 50, no. 3, subtitled Didone abbandonata, elicited the comment “and here comes the Bishop, or the Pope with triple crown.” This whimsy is petulantly crossed out, and below, in a different but equally Toveyan hand, are the words “Pretentious NONSENSE” (see above). Where the theme is inverted he wrote “Here Dido stands on her head.”
This according to “Tovey’s marginalia” by Raymond Monelle (The musical times CXXXI/1769 [July 1990] pp. 351–53). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Today would have been Monelle’s 80th birthday! Below, the jovial finale of Tovey’s Sonata for two cellos.
When he was about ten years old, Joseph Pujol discovered that he had the rare ability to draw air into his anus and expel it at will.
Not content to have a simple party trick, he trained his sonic instrument just as others would train their vocal chords, and by young adulthood he could produce a startling range of sounds, nuanced with tonal, timbral, and dynamic variation, and animated by his natural sense of humor. By the 1890s he was performing as Le Pétomane to packed audiences at the Moulin Rouge.
Pujol’s idiosyncratic career has rarely been considered as an historical object—and when it has, the gaze has been light-hearted and filled with puns, much like those that surrounded him in his lifetime. But if the temptation to giggle is resisted for a moment, Le Pétomane can teach us much about symbolic physiological meanings in late nineteenth-century Paris.
This according to “The spectacular anus of Joseph Pujol: Recovering the Pétomane’s unique historic context” by Alison Moore (French cultural studies XXIV/1  pp. 27–43).
Today is Pujol’s 160th birthday! Below, Le Pétomane in action (silent).
BONUS: A recording from 1904.
At the time of the 1876 Bayreuth premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Alfred Pringsheim, the future mathematician and father-in-law of Thomas Mann, then a 25-year-old postgraduate student, displayed a sometimes unseemly fervor for Wagner’s masterpiece.
In October of that year he fought a duel with pistols with the Berlin theater critic Isidor Kastan, who Pringsheim believed had insulted Wagner (fortunately no one was hurt), and after the premiere of Siegfried he fell into an argument with the Shakespeare scholar Friedrich August Leo in a tavern, leading him to hit the professor on the nose with a beer mug. The latter incident earned Pringsheim the nickname der Schoppenhauer (the beer-mug thumper).
This according to “Der ‘Schoppenhauer’ und das Pistolenduell: Alfred Pringsheims kämpferischer Einsatz für die Bayreuther Sache” by Dirk Heißerer, an essay included in Alfred Pringsheim, der kritische Wagnerianer: Eine Dokumentation (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2013, pp. 63–80).
Below, Pringsheim’s arrangement of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for strings and piano.
Many reference works for music—and presumably other topics—contain articles about fictitious characters. Sometimes writers for these works slyly slip them by their editors (an article on “Verdi, Lasagne” was almost typeset for printing in The new Grove dictionary); others are incorporated with the collusion of all parties.
For an example, look up Otto Jägermeier in Komponisten der Gegenwart (available through RILM music encyclopedias) or in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (available through MGG Online). You will find that Jägermeier composed, among other intriguing works, an opera called Der Idiot with a libretto by Fëdor Dostoevskij, and a work for solo clarinet called Psychosen. The name Jägermeier is a play on Jägermeister, a popular German cordial (above).
RILM is not above adding a spoof article or two to its database. Of course we won’t tell you which ones they are, but we’ll give you a hint: One includes a reference to the very real and wonderful Malcolm Bilson, who favors us with a Mozart concerto below.
Robert Schumann’s celebrated assessment of Frédéric Chopin—“Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie!” (Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!)—appeared in his 1831 review of Chopin’s variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano, op. 2. This rhapsodic description, cast as a conversation between imaginary characters, somehow reached Chopin’s hands. While relations between the two composers were cordial, a letter from Chopin to a friend hints at his unvarnished reaction:
“I received a few days ago a ten-page review from a German in Kassel who is full of enthusiasm for [the variations]. After a long-winded preface he proceeds to analyze them bar by bar, explaining that they are not ordinary variations but a fantastic tableau. In the second variation he says that Don Giovanni runs around with Leporello; in the third he kisses Zerlina while Massetto’s rage is pictured in the left hand—and in the fifth bar of the Adagio he declares that Don Giovanni kisses Zerlina on the D-flat…I could die of laughing at this German’s imagination.”
This according to “Schumann and Chopin: from Carnaval to Kreisleriana” by Judith Chernaik (The musical times CLVII/1934 [spring 2016] pp. 67–78). This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Below, Alice Burla performs the work in question.
Rock mockumentaries like The Rutles: All you need is cash lampoon the notion of high art and satirize the image of the solitary, suffering genius in an attempt to recuperate the carnivalesque heart of the music.
All you need is cash offers a complex and subtle relationship to the documentary tradition and the history of rock and roll. Its target is not simply The Beatles themselves, but the mythology that surrounded them and that they alternately promoted and assaulted. The film also targets the solemn documentary and critical tradition that upholds the mythology.
While the mythology needs to be challenged and the kings dethroned, the parodic elements of the carnival also affirm and create. Rock and roll documentaries need their uncanny doubles: Mockumentaries remind us of the music’s power, and remind us that behind any domesticated narrative we find a potentially transgressive force—one that is, in this case, unleashed through laughter.
This according to “The circus is in town: Rock mockumentaries and the carnivalesque” by Jeffrey Roessner, an essay included in The music documentary: Acid rock to electropop (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 159–70).
Above and below, The Rutles in their heyday.
Virgil Thomson first met Gertrude Stein in the winter of 1925–26. Early in 1927 he asked her to write an opera libretto, and the plans for Four saints in three acts began to take shape; the text was completed in June of that year and the music was finished in July 1928.
The opera concerns two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, who are surrounded by groups of young religious figures. In fact the work has four acts and over 30 saints. A compère and commère introduce the characters and announce the progress of the action. The strangely haunting and at times repetitive poetry of Stein is declaimed by the singers in a musical language derived from many sources, including Gregorian and Anglican chant, children’s songs, and Sunday School hymn singing, with a harmonious accompaniment for small orchestra. Although the setting of the words is deceptively simple and direct, there are considerable subtleties in the music to parallel the implied imagery of the words.
Four saints in three acts was first heard in Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1934, produced by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the production moved to New York City it created theatrical history with its all-black cast. The opera received over 60 performances within a year, and Thomson’s reputation was made almost overnight.
This according to “Thomson, Virgil Garnett” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [Abington: Routledge, 2005] pp. 456–59); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Thomson’s 120th birthday! Above, the 1934 New York production; below, the opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s 2006 production.
BONUS: A brief documentary with archival footage from 1934, including the voice of Gertrude Stein.