Category Archives: Literature

Marie-Louise Desmâtins in life and death


The novel La musique du diable, ou Le Mercure galant devalisé (Paris: Robert le Turc, 1711) describes  the arrival and subsequent activities of Marie-Louise Desmâtins and Lully in Hell; it also recounts events leading up to the soprano’s demise.

In the absence of any historical record of her last days, one might ask whether there could be a modicum of truth in the novel’s reports that Desmâtins had grown so obese that she engaged the finest butcher of the day to remove her fat; that she then mounted a lavish party for which all of the food had been prepared using this fat; at that she died soon thereafter from unknown causes. The reader is assured that she was welcomed to Hell with the highest honors, and that she is happier there than she ever was in her earthly life.

This according to “La musique du diable (1711): An obscure specimen of fantastic literature throws light on the elusive opera diva Marie-Louise Desmatins (fl. 1682–1708)” by Ilias Chrissochoidis (Society for Eighteenth-Century Music newsletter 11 [October 2007] pp. 7–9).

Above, a rather alarmingly corseted Desmâtins in a contemporaneous portrait; below, the final scene of Lully’s Armide, which Desmâtins starred in in 1703 (note that this is not an attempt to replicate the original staging).

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Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Food, Humor, Literature, Opera

Händel and Johnson


Samuel Johnson lived in London during a struggle between English and foreign composers—epitomized by the rivalry between Händel and Thomas Arne—and witnessed its climax, which was to have a devastating impact on English musical morale through the 19th century.

During Johnson’s first decade in London this rivalry was characterized by Händel concentrating on his own affairs and ignoring Arne, while Arne was highly conscious and jealous of Händel. Their fortunes fluctuated, the one prevailing in public taste and then the other, but the spectacular performance of Händel’s 1749 Music for the royal fireworks, HWV 351, and the triumphant revival of his Messiah the next year finally established him as London’s pre-eminent composer. When he retired from the music scene in 1759 neither Arne nor any other English composer managed to achieve comparable public acclaim.

The 1784 commemoration of Händel at Westminster Abbey featured some 275 singers and an orchestra of about 250. Johnson chose to go to Oxford that week, but Boswell, having accompanied Johnson there, returned to London after three days to attend the event. Although Johnson died that year, he had lived to see the victory of a composer whose work would prove as enduring as his own.

This according to “Music in Johnson’s London” by Bruce Simonds, an essay included in The age of Johnson: Essays presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 411–420).

Below, Händel’s 1749 work with appropriate visuals.

Related article: Operatic degeneracy


Filed under Baroque era, Literature

Epic memories


The Tibetan saga of King Gesar of Ling comprises some 120 epics; individuals have been documented performing as many as 40 of these, and some claim that they are able to perform all of them.

While most performers study and learn in the usual oral fashion, those known as ’babs-sgrung seem to have acquired the ability to reproduce them without effort: Often after a mysterious dream, they discover that they suddenly have the power to recite whole epics at will.

This according to “Bab sgrung: Tibetan epic singers” by Zhambei Gyaltsho (Oral tradition XVI/1 [2001] pp. 280-293). Above, a mural depicting King Gesar; below, a brief documentary on one of the genre’s practitioners.

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Filed under Asia, 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

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

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