Category Archives: Literature

Prokof’ev’s bad dog

In 1917 Sergej Sergeevič Prokof’ev briefly returned to one of his childhood interests: writing fiction.

He considered what this pursuit entailed. “My style caused me concern,” he wrote. “Did it have individuality or was it awkward?”

Ultimately he concluded, “If there’s an idea, then the style will be subservient to the idea. If I have an idea, that means I’m an author.”

One of his short stories, Пудель: Мерзкая собака (The poodle: A bad dog) was published in an English translation by Three oranges (3 [May 2002] pp. 6–9; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-9136. The full text is here). A surprise twist at the end is a wry nod to the composer’s interest in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Below, Prokof’ev’s good dog.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Humor, Literature

Modulations and caterpillars

A fragment of Pherecrates’s comedy Chiron, as quoted in Plutarch’s Peri mousikēs, provides insights into aesthetic controversies in ancient Greece.

The scene depicts Dame Music as she recounts to Dame Justice the torments she has undergone at the hands of certain musicians of the time: Melanippides seized, debased, and weakened her with 12 tones; Cinesias ruined her with badly composed modulations; Phrynis bent, twisted, and completely destroyed her by sounding all 12 tones on the kithara; and, most egregiously of all, Timotheus, with his shrill dissonances and sinfully high-pitched and piercing notes and whistles, crammed her with modulations just as a cabbage-head is crammed with caterpillars, depriving her of all decency with his 12 tones.

This according to “Studies in musical terminology in 5th-century literature” by Ingemar Düring, an essay included in Eranos Löfstedtianus: Opuscula philologica Einaro Löfstedt A.D. XVII kal. iul. anno MCMXLV dedicata (Uppsala : Eranos Förlag, 1945; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1945-34).

More posts about ancient Greece are here.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Humor, Literature, Theory

Olympics and music: A brief history. I

The Beijing Winter Olympic Games have become one of the biggest hot spots in the world’s attention at the moment, and among musicians it is no exception. The Olympic Games and music have always been inextricably linked. In ancient Greek times, music was an essential part of the Olympics. The large crowds brought by the Olympics made it an ideal venue for musicians to perform as well. At the same time, many competitions were called by trumpeters to start.

For the modern Olympics, music is even more ubiquitous. Coubertin‘s Olympic ideology was directly inspired by the opera libretto L’Olimpiade; the Olympic Games from 1912 to 1948 included musical competitions and medals were awarded like sporting events; and today’s Olympic-related musical events are a constant source of cultural and commercial competition.

Let’s take a glimpse at the relationship between music and the Olympics through relevant literature included in RILM.

– Qian Mu, Editor, RILM

___________________________________

  • Segrave, Jeffrey O. “Music as sport history: The special case of Pietro Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade and the story of the Olympic Games”, Sporting sounds: Relationships between sport and music, ed. by Anthony Bateman and John Bale (Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2009) 113–127. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-1570]

Abstract: Pietro Metastasio’s popular 18th-century libretto L’Olimpiade publicized and transmitted a particular ideological and historicized conception of the Olympic Games that would ultimately contribute to the rationalization and legitimization of Pierre de Coubertin’s own idiosyncratic Olympic ideology, a philosophical religious doctrine that embraced a noble and honorable conception of sport at the same time as it served discrete class, race, and gendered ends. The hegemony of the contemporary Olympic Games movement is grounded in part on the appropriation of the classicism and Romanticism transmitted in Metastasio’s work. Musicological readings of opera, sociolinguistic conceptions of meaning, and postmodern social perspectives on material culture are addressed. Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade, in narrative, music, and production, sustained a particular image of the games, an image that nourished Coubertin’s own ideological formulation at the same time as it paved the way for further musical representations of the Games that to this day lend authority to the hegemony of the Olympics by appealing to a musically transmitted, mythologized, and Hellenized past.

  • Charkiolakīs, Alexandros. “Music in the first modern Olympiad in Athens in 1896: Cultural and social trends”, Mousikos logos 1 (January 2014) 51–64. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2014-4634]

Abstract: Music, without any doubt, has been one of the main features during both the opening ceremony and on the concert that was given in the end of the first day in the Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens. Actually, there were two new works commissioned for performance during that first day: the Olympiakos ymnos (Olympic hymn) by Spyridōn Samaras on a text of Kōstis Palamas and Pentathlon by Dionysios Lauragkas on poetry of Iōannīs Polemīs. Here, we show the cultural and social trends that are implied in these two works and are characteristic of the developing ideologies in Greece of that time. Furthermore, we emphasized our scope towards the impact that these two works had on the contemporary Athenian society of that time.

  • Segrave, Jeffrey O. “‘All men will become brothers’ (“Alle Menschen werden Bruder“): Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Olympic Games ideology”, Sport, music, identities, ed. by Anthony Bateman. Sport in the global society, contemporary perspectives (London: Routledge, 2015) 38–52. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-99]

Abstract: First performed in an Olympic context as part of the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has become a popular mainstay of modern Olympic protocol. Part of a ritualized entertainment spectacle that enhances the appeal and popularity of the Games, the Ninth Symphony elevates the prestige of the Games and helps to sustain the Olympic Movement’s political and commercial dominance within the panoply of institutionalized sport. It is argued here that the normalization of the Finale of the Ninth Symphony in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games not only transmits and reinforces the traditional Olympic ideology, but also reaffirms the ascendant hegemony of the Olympic movement within the world of elite international sport. This study is a critical reading of the Olympic musical ceremonial as a site of ideological production, especially as it pertains to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

  • Dümling, Albrecht. “Zwischen Autonomie und Fremdbestimmung: Die Olympische Hymne von Robert Lubahn und Richard Strauss”, Richard Strauss-Blätter 38 (Dezember 1997) 68–102. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 1997-52827]

Abstract: When the Olympic Games were to be held in Berlin in 1936 Strauss was chosen as composer of an Olympic Hymn. Early in 1933 he agreed in principle, but on the condition that he was provided with an appropriate text. Four poems out of 3,000 entries were selected and sent on to Strauss with no mention of the poets’ names. He decided on a text, written by the hitherto unknown poet Robert Lubahn. Despite the favorable response of committees and German music critics, the belongs to Strauss’s weaker works.

  • Barney, Katelyn. “Celebration or cover up? My island home, Australian national identity and the spectacle of Sydney 2000″, Aesthetics and experience in music performance, ed. by Elizabeth Mackinlay, Denis Collins, and Samantha Owens (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2005) 141–150. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-18443]

Abstract: Addresses the conflicts and complexities inherent in musical statements of Australian national identity as represented by Neil Murray’s My island home and Christine Anu’s performance of it at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Her performance functioned simultaneously as a site for celebration of indigeneity and Australian national identity yet also as a concealment or cover-up of the social and political positioning of indigenous Australians within Australian history and contemporary society. As it celebrated localized Torres Strait Islander culture and identity as part of the Australian national imagination, it also concealed the realities of indigenous issues and race relations within Australia.

  • Newman, Melinda and Michael Paoletta. “Goodsports”, Billboard: The international newsweekly of music, video and home entertainment 118/5 (4 February 2006) 22–23. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2006-2393]

Abstract: Established stars including Andrea Bocelli, Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, and Lou Reed, as well as new and developing acts like James Blunt, Switchfoot, Flipsyde, Morningwood, the Donnas, Rock ‘N Roll Soldiers, We Are Scientists, and OK Go are hoping for a career boost from their ties to the Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy. By using hip, under-the-radar acts, NBC hopes to connect with the much-coveted youth demographic. NBC uses music in four ways for the Olympics: network campaigns in advance of the Games; co-branding opportunities; features and interstitial footage broadcast during the athletic events; and nightly concerts.

  • Lawson, Francesca R. Sborgi. “Music in ritual and ritual in music: A virtual viewer’s perceptions about liminality, functionality, and mediatization in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games”, Asian music: Journal of the Society for Asian Music 42/2 (summer–fall 2011) 3–18. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-12007]

Abstract: Concepts such as liminality, functionality, and mediatization were clearly exemplified in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The fascinating use of the ancient practice of liminal integration of music and ritual in a modern mediatized performance illustrates both indigenous Chinese and contemporary Western performance theories. Despite the spectacular nature of the opening ceremony, however, it is doubtful that international viewers fully understood the complex messages communicated through this modern ritual performance.

  • Juzwiak, Rich. “Village Person says Y.M.C.A. isn’t about gays, is probably lying”, http://gawker.com/village-person-says-y-m-c-a-isnt-about-gays-is-pro-1493380284. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-293]

Abstract: A common reading of the Village People’s Y.M.C.A. (1978) posits the song as a post-Stonewall stealth attack on heteronormative America. From discos to weddings to sports arenas across the country, millions have contorted in acronymal glee, singing the praises of the male-only fitness center/boarding house where you can “hang out with the boys” and “do whatever you feel”. The song first appeared on an album titled Cruisin’. Despite the seemingly obvious subtext, members of the Village People deny any subtextual intent. Victor Willis, the first lead singer of the Village People who played the role of “cop” and co-wrote Y.M.C.A., recently spoke out against using the song as Team USA’s entrance music at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics–intended in protest of Putin’s anti-gay mandate and the rash of violent hate crimes in its wake (not to mention the Sports Minister’s threat to jail gay athletes). The author notes that “the inherent gayness of the Village People has been a point of contention between the people who were (and are) in the group and its creators, Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo. Morali, who died in 1991, was gay and in last year’s documentary about the politics of disco, Secret disco revolution, Belolo said that the Village People were Morali’s statement of his own gay pride, as well as an exercise in double entendre”.

  • Cottrell, Stephen. “Glad to meet you: North Korea’s pop orchestra warms hearts in the South”, The conversation (UK) (9 February 2018) https://theconversation.com/glad-to-meet-you-north-koreas-pop-orchestra-warms-hearts-in-the-south-91499. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-52079]

Abstract: Describes a performance by Samjiyon Band, a well-known fixture from North Korea’s cultural scene, on the first night of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

Part II is here.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Dramatic arts, Literature, Mass media, Popular music, Romantic era, Sports and games, Uncategorized, World music

Dickens and music

Charles Dickens’s works attest to a keen familiarity with the ballads and traditional songs of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Less obvious from his writings is his deep love of Western classical music—he adored the lieder of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, he championed Arthur Sullivan, and he reported being “overcome” by Gounod’s Faust.

Still, Dickens found a rich vein of humor in the music making of the common folk—not least in the character of Mr. Morfin in Dombey and Son:

“He was a great musical amateur in his way…and had a paternal affection for his violoncello, which was once in every week transported from Islington, his place of abode, to a certain club-room hard by the Bank, where quartettes of the most tormenting and excruciating nature were executed every Wednesday evening by a private party.”

“He was solacing himself with this melodious grumbler one evening, and, having been much dispirited by the proceedings of the day, was scraping consolation out of its deepest notes…[but] his landlady…was fortunately deaf, and had no other consciousness of these performances than a sensation of something rumbling in her bones.”

This according to “Dickens and music” by Charles Cudworth (The musical times CXI/1528 [June 1970] pp. 588–590. Today is Dickens’s 210th birthday!

Related article: Musicology and fiction

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Joyce’s musical sirens

In the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses James Joyce made words represent music by playing with or even overcoming certain conventional features of language. Particularly notable are Joyce’s representation of polyphony, melody, rhythm, and of music’s traditional absence of conventional meaning.

The essence of Joycean onomatopoeia in “Sirens” is not that it represents music iconically, but that it makes music linguistically. Joycean onomatopoeia is not the natural union of meaning and form, of signified and signifier—it is the signifier freeing itself from the link with the signified.

“Sirens” is a step toward absolute form and abstraction; it breaks with the representational conventions of naturalistic and realistic fiction and points the way toward modernism.

This according to “Strange words, strange music: The verbal music of ‘Sirens’” by Andreas Fischer, an essay included in Bronze by gold: The music of James Joyce (New York: General Music, 1999).

Ulysses was first published 100 years ago today! Above, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife and muse, on their wedding day in 1931; the novel takes place on the day they met in 1904. Below, Cathy Berberian reads an excerpt from the “Sirens” episode.

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One finger too many

The classical music world knows Alfred Brendel as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Far fewer people know him as a poet, with two books of poetry in German and one—One finger too many—in English translation (New York: Random House, 1999).

The collection’s title poem concerns a pianist who developed a third index finger “not to play the piano with/though it sometimes did intervene/discreetly/in tricky passages/but to point things out/when both hands were busy.”

While some of Brendel’s poems are serious, many are light-hearted. He explains, “At one stage in my life I didn’t laugh enough…some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue.” The title of another poem, “Not Brahms again”, points to a humorous but therapeutic reflection that he describes as “a little revenge for the perversity of the B♭ concerto…the passages which, as they stand, are literally unplayable.”

This according to “The poet speaks” by Michael Church (BBC music magazine, VII/3 [November 1998], pp. 32–33; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1998-4729).

Today is Maestro Brendel’s 90th birthday! Below, Brendel plays Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 899 (op. 90).

BONUS: Cover half of Brendel’s face in the above photograph, then the other half, to see two completely different expressions.

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The refugee as epic hero

 

K’naan’s 2005 debut album, The dusty foot philosopher, can be viewed as a modern-day epic poem that draws on his experiences in Canada’s Somali refugee community.

The album employs many classic epic tropes—including the sea voyage, the exile, the battle with adversaries, the mystical qualities of the heroic figure—and adapts them to the conventions of hip hop culture. Just as the epic poem embodies the core values of the society from which it originates, so The dusty foot philosopher functions as a paradigm of the experiences and challenges of the refugee, one of globalization’s defining figures.

This according to “The survivor’s odyssey: K’naan’s The dusty foot philosopher as a modern epic” by Ana Sobral (African American review XLVI/1 [spring 2013] pp. 21–36).

Today is World Refugee Day! Above and below, the video for Strugglin’, a song from the album.

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Mark Twain on opera

Mark Twain’s reactions to grand opera are epitomized by a passage from A tramp abroad in which he described a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

“The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed.”

“There was little of that sort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down by the footlights, warbling, with blended voices…no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sang his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra of sixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and one was hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, a great chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth.”

“We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven’s sweet ecstasy and peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproduction of the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of people marched around and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding Chorus. To my untutored ear that was music—almost divine music. While my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds, it seemed to me that I could almost re-suffer the torments which had gone before, in order to be so healed again.”

“There is where the deep ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts. A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhere else, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.”

Excerpted from “Mark Twain on opera” (The NATS journal XLIII/3 [January–February 1987] pp. 19, 49).

Above, the author around 1880, the year A tramp abroad was published; below, Hans Neuenfels‘s staging of the “little season of heaven” at Bayreuth in 2010.

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Filed under Humor, Literature, Opera

Metastasio and the Olympic Games

Pietro Metastasio’s popular libretto L’Olimpiade publicized and transmitted a particular ideological and historicized conception of the ancient Olympic Games that would ultimately contribute to the rationalization and legitimization of Pierre de Coubertin’s idiosyncratic Olympic ideology, a philosophical religious doctrine that embraced a noble and honorable conception of sport at the same time as it served discrete class, race, and gendered ends.

The hegemony of the contemporary Olympic Games movement is grounded in part on the appropriation of the classicism and Romanticism transmitted in Metastasio’s work. In narrative, music, and production, L’Olimpiad sustained a particular image of the games, an image that nourished Coubertin’s formulation as it paved the way for further musical representations of the Games that to this day lend authority to a musically transmitted, mythologized, and Hellenized past.

This according to “Music as sport history: The special case of Pietro Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade and the story of the Olympic Games” by Jeffrey O. Seagrave, an essay included in Sporting sounds: Relationships between sport and music (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009, pp. 113–27).

The 2018 Winter Olympics opens today! Above, a production of Josef Mysliveček’s setting of Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade; below, excerpts from Pergolesi’s setting.

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Filed under Literature, Opera, Sports and games

Felice Romani’s libretto reforms

Felice Romani revolutionized the Italian opera libretto, creating a clearly contoured melodramma romantico that was suitable for a through-composed setting.

Romani’s libretto for Donizetti’s Anna Bolena produced a virtually through-composed opera, making the meter conform to the dramatic situation and mood. In Act I, all the characters enter immediately after the prima donna, so that in place of the usual introductory aria there is now an ensemble. The entry of the seconda donna now leads as a rule to a concerted piece, the stretta of the pezzo concertato unleashing all the passions of the protagonists.

Act II proceeds similarly, except that its final scene is treated as a composition in its own right: Out of a stretta the concertato emerges, structured as a concert piece.

This according to Felice Romani–Gaetano Donizetti–Anna Bolena. Zur Asthetik politischer Oper in Italien zwischen 1826 und 1831 by Richard Hauser, a dissertation accepted by Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg in 1980.

Today is Romani’s 230th birthday! Below, Sondra Radvanovsky sings Anna Bolena’s finale.

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