Category Archives: Literature

Rahmaninov and Tolstoj


In January 1900 Rahmaninov and the bass Fëdor Ivanovič Šalâpin were invited to perform for a gathering at Tolstoj’s home; they were both 26 years old. Their excitement was tempered with no little trepidation about meeting the revered author, but they could not have foreseen what transpired.

Šalâpin recalled that after the performance Tolstoj accosted him and asked “What kind of music is most necessary to men—scholarly or folk music?”

Rahmaninov’s own experience was no less harrowing, as he later described it:

“Suddenly the enthusiastic applause was hushed and everyone went silent. Tolstoj sat in an armchair a little apart from the others, looking gloomy and cross. For the next hour I evaded him entirely, but suddenly he came up to me and declared excitedly: ‘I must speak to you. I must tell you how I dislike it all!’

“And he went on and on: ‘Beethoven is nonsense, Puškin and Lermontov also.’ It was awful….

“After a while Tolstoj came up to me again: ‘Please excuse me. I am an old man. I did not mean to hurt you.’ I replied: ‘How could I be hurt on my own account if I was not hurt on Beethoven’s?’”

This according to Sergei Rachmaninoff: A lifetime in music by Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, and Sof’â Aleksandrovna Satina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001 [reprint] pp. 88–89).

Today is Rahmaninov’s 140th birthday! Below, Šalâpin sings one of his romances.

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Filed under Curiosities, Literature, Romantic era

Dead fiction

dead fiction

The storyteller speaks: Rare & different fictions of the Grateful Dead (Bellingham: Kearney Street Books, 2010) is a Grateful Dead-inspired collection of literary short stories. Genres represented include horror, romance, time-travel, family saga, zombie, western, science fiction, and mystery noir.

Below, Jerry Garcia discusses storytelling in Terrapin station.

Related article: Dead studies


Filed under Literature, Popular music

Albéniz and Shaw


While there is no evidence that Isaac Albéniz and George Bernard Shaw ever met, the latter attended and reviewed some of the former’s London recitals.

The outspoken Shaw pointed out what he perceived as the composer and pianist’s limitations—dismissing, for example, his renditions of Mozart’s works as “monotonously pretty”—but he had some approving  words as well.

Arriving at an 1891 recital at one minute before three, Shaw was “intending to have the usual twenty minutes or so over the evening paper before business began. To my amazement Albéniz appeared at the stroke of three as if he had been sent up on the platform by electric wire from Greenwich…I shall henceforth regard Albéniz not only as one of the pleasantest, most musical, and most original of pianists, but as a man of superior character.”

This according to “Albéniz and Shaw” by Colin Cooper (Classical guitar XXV/1 [September 2006] pp. 30–31). Below, a recital for Alfonso XII from Louis César Amidori’s Albéniz (1947).

Related article: Franck and Rodin

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Filed under Literature, Reception, Romantic era

Blake and Jerusalem

In its stirring setting by Hubert Parry, William Blake’s Jerusalem furnishes the text of one of England’s most popular hymns—it has been called the country’s second national anthem. It is particularly favored for weddings, as it was for the 2011 marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

Nevertheless, the work has been banned by clergy who believe that Blake’s version of Christianity is too radical, and that the poem falls short in theological matters. As recently as 2001, a bride in Cheadle cancelled her wedding when the rector refused to allow her to include a performance of Jerusalem.

“As a poem it is interesting, but Blake was a bit of a weirdo,” the rector explained to the press. “Blake appeals to the proto-atheists and proto-socialists, camps which—although they weren’t known by name back then—the poet fell into.”

This according to “William Blake, Hubert Parry, and the singing of Jerusalem” by Mark Chapman (The hymn: A journal of congregational song LXII/2 [spring 2011] pp. 41–51). Above, Blake’s Jerusalem: Emanation of the giant Albion (click to enlarge); below, the performance at the royal wedding on 29 April 2011.


Filed under Literature, Romantic era

Prokof’ev’s bad dog

In 1917 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?”

“If there’s an idea, then the style will be subservient to the idea,” he concluded. “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; 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

Sendak and Mozart

The beloved author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who died yesterday, was deeply influenced by Western classical music, particularly by the works of Mozart.

“Art has always been my salvation,” he said in an interview, “and my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain. I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart.”

Below, the full interview with Bill Moyers in 2004.


Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Literature, Visual art

Sherlock Holmes, violist

A close reading of the canonical texts yields conclusive evidence that the celebrated sleuth was not a superb violinist—he was a superb violist.

The mistake was likely perpetuated by an early printer’s error. After all, Watson was a doctor, which means that even at best his handwriting was nearly illegible; he undoubtedly wrote “viola”, not “violin”. References to Holmes’s playing such as a “low, dreamy, melodious air” and “low melancholy wailing”—as well as to his habit of playing it “thrown across his knee”—clearly indicate that his instrument must have been a viola.

In fact, further textual references point to a historical mystery solved. Holmes referred to his instrument as a Stradivarius bought from a shady broker for only 55 shillings; surely this was the one Stradivarius viola, dated 1695, whose whereabouts has eluded instrument historians.

This according to “Quick, Watson, the fiddle” by Rolfe Boswell (The Baker Street journal, October 1948; reprinted in Journal of the American Viola Society online 26 [summer 2010] pp. 14–18). Above, a classic depiction by Sidney Paget, Conan Doyle’s original illustrator; below, Jeremy Brett holds forth.

Related article: Dickens and music


Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Instruments, Literature

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 200th birthday!

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Filed under Literature, Romantic era

Patti Smith and Rimbaud


Patti Smith’s direct assimilation of Arthur Rimbaud’s work into hers presents a case of cultural cross-fertilization in which the poetry of a foreign high-cultural figure enters into and influences a popular and countercultural discourse, illustrating how a nonacademic reading of a canonical text can help to produce a musical style that disseminates a message of social deviance.

Smith has foregrounded her debt to Rimbaud in several ways, explicitly referring to him as her major poetic influence and participating in a hermeneutic activity as she transformed his texts into her own. The poet has served as Smith’s most credible archetype of subversive behavior, and his work has provided the richest source for the development of her innovative aesthetic practices.

This according to “Rimbaud and Patti Smith: Style as social deviance” by Carrie Jaurès Noland (Critical inquiry XXI/3 [Spring 1995] pp. 581–610). Below, Smith performs Rock n roll nigger, one of the songs analyzed by Noland, in 2011; listen for Rimbaud’s name around 3:20.

Related article: Punk & post-punk


Filed under Literature, Popular music, Reception

Musica ragionata

Libreria Musicale Italiana launched the series Musica ragionata in 2009 with Musica poetica: Retorica e musica nel periodo della Riforma by Ferruccio Civra; the book explores Reformation treatises on rhetoric and on music, illuminating the connections between them. The series is overseen by Alberto Basso.

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Filed under Literature, New series, Renaissance, Theory