Category Archives: Performers

Pauline Viardot’s legacy

Pauline Viardot was one of the most influential women in nineteenth century European classical music. As a singer, her prodigious talent and charisma on the stage inspired dedications, premieres, and roles written specifically for her. Her music salon hosted many major composers of the time—including Berlioz, Liszt, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Meyerbeer, Brahms, and Wagner—allowing them to showcase and perfect their works.

Throughout her career, Viardot also worked as a composer. She composed over 100 lieder and mélodies, many intended for use as teaching tools for her own students. She also composed five salon operettas mainly intended to be sung by her pupils and children. As word of her operettas spread, she followed with larger stage works, including the very successful Le dernier sorcier, with a libretto by Ivan Turgenev.

Viardot’s later songs often involved intricate piano writing and elaborate bel canto vocal cadenzas. Jamée Ard aptly described them as “dramatic and virtuosic, painting the musical atmosphere with the broad strokes of Bizet rather than the impressionism of Debussy.”

This according to “The life of Pauline Viardot: Her influence on the music and musicians of nineteenth century Europe” by Katherine LaPorta Jesensky (Journal of singing LXVII/3 [January-February 2011] 267–75; RILM Abstracts 2011-21).

Today is Viardot’s 200th birthday! Below, Cecilia Bartoli sings her Havanaise.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Performers, Romantic era

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” period

Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue is one of her most universally recognized works. Generations of people have come of age listening to it, inspired by the way it clarified their own difficult emotions, and critics and musicians admire the idiosyncratic virtuosity of its compositions. The largely autobiographical albums of what might be called Mitchell’s Blue period lasted through the mid-1970s.

In 1970 Mitchell was living with Graham Nash in Laurel Canyon and had made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter notable for her soaring voice and skillful compositions. Soon, though, feeling hemmed in, she fled to the hippie community of Matala, Greece. Here and on further travels, her compositions were freshly inspired by the lands and people she encountered as well as by her own radically changing interior landscape.

After returning home to record Blue, Mitchell retreated to British Columbia, eventually reemerging as the leader of a successful jazz-rock group and turning outward in her songwriting toward social commentary. Finally, a stint with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and a pivotal meeting with a Tibetan lama prompted her return to personal songwriting, which resulted in her 1976 album Hejira.

Mitchell’s Blue period featured her innovative manner of marrying lyrics to melody; her inventive, highly expressive chord progressions that achieved her signature blend of wonder and melancholy; her pioneering approach to personal songwriting; and her contributions to bringing a new literacy to the popular song.

This according to Will you take me as I am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer (New York: Free Press, 2009; RILM Abstracts 2009-1442).

Blue is 50 years old today! Below, the full album.

Related article: Joni Mitchell and 1960s sexuality

Comments Off on Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” period

Filed under Performers, Popular music

Erroll Garner and “Misty”

When Clint Eastwood was asked to “play Misty for me” in the classic movie of the same name, the song was played by its composer Erroll Garner, one of jazz’s most popular and prolific artists.

A completely self-taught pianist who never learned to read music, Garner created a unique and idiosyncratic but always accessible style. His musical approach was based on elements of swing and bop, while being harmonically reminiscent of French impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel. This style, combined with a winning stage persona, made him arguably the most successful jazz artist of the 1950s.

Garner composed several songs that went on to become jazz standards, but the one with which he will be linked forever is “Misty” (1954). With lyrics by Johnny Burke, the song became a hit for such artists as Johnny Mathis and Sarah Vaughan

The critic Leonard Feather eulogized him as a pianist who played “cascades of jubilant chords that seemed to tell you, ‘Boy, am I having a ball!’”

This according to “Garner, Erroll” by Michael R. Ross (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 641); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Garner’s 10oth birthday! Below, the composer holds forth.

Comments Off on Erroll Garner and “Misty”

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Melissa Etheridge’s creative process

In a 2020 interview, Melissa Etheridge recalled the genesis of her Grammy Award-winning Come to my window.

“I almost didn’t put it on the album. I thought it was a little too ambiguous of a song, that maybe people wouldn’t quite know what I’m talking about.”

“The chorus came first. Actually, I wanted to write a chorus that had a lifting melody, that kind of went up.”

“I was in a relationship that was the kind of relationship you have in your early 30s. You think you’re all in it, but it’s all complicated.  I had just hung up from a conversation where we didn’t say anything.  And I just hung up and said, ‘Why did I do this?’ Oh, well, ‘I would dial the numbers, just to listen to your breath.’  I just want to connect with you so badly.”

“It certainly wasn’t what I thought a hit song was. And then, man, it came out and it just kept going and going and going. What do I know, you know?”

This according to “Melissa Etheridge: The Rolling stone interview” by Brian Hiatt (Rolling stone 16 September 2020; RILM Abstracts 2020-57467).

Today is Etheridge’s 60th birthday! Above, a photo from 2011 by Angela George (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0); below, a live performance.

Comments Off on Melissa Etheridge’s creative process

Filed under Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Enya and the female myth of Ireland

The personification of Enya as a modern archetype of female Ireland has become irrevocably intertwined into the grand narratives of popular culture that make up the last decades of the 20th century.

Her music has many cultural significations; Celticism, romance, fantasy, spirituality, and femininity. The common denominator in Enya’s translucent embodiment of this myth is her seemingly unconscious femininity and her self-distancing from the media and her followers. The unwillingness of Eithne Ní Bhraonáin and her co-creators to discuss their work in turn assists the reading of Enya as a text rather than as an object of ethnographic inquiry.

The significations in the music of Enya’s How can I keep from singing? interrelate with the significations in the lyrics, and a semiotic analysis of the visual imagery in the song’s music video further illuminates how her work perpetuates and reinvigorates the myth of Ireland and Irish womanhood for popular culture.

This according to “How can I keep from singing?” Enya and the female myth of Ireland by Anna Maria Dore, an M.A. thesis accepted by the University of Limerick/Ollscoil Luimnigh in 2003 (RILM Abstracts 2003-21780).

Today is Enya’s 60th birthday! Above and below, the video in question.

Comments Off on Enya and the female myth of Ireland

Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

The Yandong Grand Singers

The Yandong Grand Singers are a choir of the Kam/Dong people from Guizhou province, China, specializing in the galao (grand song), a form of polyphonic song through which the Kam people transmit much of their history, culture, and knowledge. In 2009 the Grand Song was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Nearly every Kam person sings in a choir at some time in their life. From a community singing group of the Yandong township, the Yandong Grand Singers have gradually made their name known internationally through their album Everyone listen close—Wanp-wanp jangl kap and international tours. In 2019 they toured five cities in the United States to give concerts and workshops, which turned out to be a special experience of cultural exchange for both the musicians and audiences.

This according to “From the mountain to the world: My travels with the Chinese Yandong Grand Singers” by Mu Qian (Folklife 19 April 2021; RILM Abstracts 2021-1649).

Below, excerpts from the 2019 tour.

More posts about China are here.

Comments Off on The Yandong Grand Singers

Filed under Asia, Performers

Jack Cole’s double bind

Jack Cole is often called “the father of theatrical jazz dance”, and “Cole technique” has strongly influenced both film dance and American theatrical dance generally. In his heyday he was one of the most powerful choreographers working in Hollywood, with contractual control over the movement design, camerawork, costuming, lighting, and editing of his dance numbers.

Cole’s status as an “invisible” gay man is crucial to more than an understanding of the satiric, parodic, or camp elements of his film work; it is also a necessary precondition for his particular mode of deployment of so-called Oriental dance practices.

Cole engaged the double bind that both women and men are prisoners of gender roles. His use of the body’s physical beauty to stand for more than spiritual power combined the theatricality and spirituality of Denishawn, the voluptuousness and intensity of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Oriental and other ethnic dance styles. His approach to dance and gender had profound effects on mid-20th-century hegemonic dance culture.

This according to “The thousand ways there are to move: Camp and Oriental dance in the Hollywood musicals of Jack Cole” by Adrienne L. McLean (Journal for the anthropological study of human movement XII/3 [spring 2003] 59–77; RILM Abstracts 2003-42184).

Today would have been Cole’s 110th birthday! Above, a portrait by Carl Van Vechten from 1937 (public domain); below, the Denishawn parody “Greek ballet” from Down to earth (1947).

Comments Off on Jack Cole’s double bind

Filed under Dance, Performers

Selena crosses over

As a musician, Selena Quintanilla Pérez will be remembered for her ability to transform traditional Latino musical styles such as cumbia into viable pop mainstream commodities. As a personality, she has acquired a larger-than-life status, symbolizing tejano music’s increasing profile within the record industry during the 1990s.

Born in Freeport, Texas, Selena was encouraged to perform and record as a preteen. In 1989 the family band, Selena y Los Dinos (simply called Selena by 1991), graduated from generic synth-flavored, dance-pop released on indie labels to a more individualized sound.

The emotional depth of her singing, along with her brother A.B.’s clever songs and slick rhythmic arrangements, netted a Grammy for  Selena live in 1993. Amor prohibido, the last album released prior to her tragic shooting by a former fan in 1995, demonstrated the band’s wide range of styles, including reggae-inflected dance fare, hard-edged rock, and torchy ballads.

This according to “Selena” by Frank Hoffman (Encyclopedia of recorded sound; this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works).

Today would have been Selena’s 50th birthday! Above, Selena live in concert in 1994 by hellboy_93 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0;  below, performing in 1993.

Comments Off on Selena crosses over

Filed under Performers, Popular music

The Bristol sessions

In the summer of 1927 a group of musicians gathered for a recording session in Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, including musicians who would become some of the most influential names in American music—the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman, and more.

Organized by Ralph Peer for Victor Records to capitalize on the popularity of “hillbilly” music, the Bristol sessions were a key moment in country music’s evolution, producing the first commercial recordings by these artists.

The musicians played a variety of styles largely endemic to the Appalachian region. Rather than attempting to record purely traditional sounds, however, Peer sought a combination of musical elements, an amalgam that would form the backbone of modern country music. The reverberations of the Bristol sessions are still felt, yet their influence is widely misunderstood, and popular accounts of the event are more legend than history.

This according to The Bristol sessions: Writings about the big bang of country music (Jefferson: McFarland, 2005; RILM Abstracts 2005-19593).

Below, all four tracks from the Carter Family’s Bristol session.

Comments Off on The Bristol sessions

Filed under Performers, Popular music

Jascha Heifetz and popular culture

Throughout Jascha Heifetz’s career he was celebrated as an epitome of highbrow taste; but he was no stranger to popular culture. He appeared in three films: Carnegie Hall, Of men and music, and They shall have music, in which he performed the finale of the Mendelssohn violin concerto and four other works.

Heifetz also composed popular songs, including “When you make love to me (don’t make believe)” and “So much in love”. “When you make love to me” (1946) was published under the pseudonym “Jim Hoyl” (maintaining the initials J.H.) to prove Heifetz’s point that the name of the composer would have little bearing on its success. The song was recorded by Bing Crosby and sold 300,000 copies when first released.

This according to “Heifetz, Jascha” (Biographical dictionary of Russian/Soviet composers Westport: Greenwood, 1989; this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works).).

Today is Heifetz’s 120th birthday! Below, his own recording of “When you make love to me”.

BONUS: The Bing Crosby version:

Related article: Paganini and Marfan syndrome (featuring Heifetz on the violin)

Comments Off on Jascha Heifetz and popular culture

Filed under Performers, Popular music