In 1821 the German operatic scene was dominated by foreign composers. Carl Maria von Weber was known as a gifted composer of songs and instrumental music, but his earlier operas had not been undisputed successes, and for the last ten years he had done nothing at all in that line; the premiere of his new opera, Der Freischütz, was anticipated with widespread suspense and excitement.
The composer could not but feel that much was at stake, both for himself and for the cause of German art. His friends feared that this new work would not have a chance; but Weber alone, as if with a presentiment of the event, was always in good spirits. The performance was fixed for 18 June, a day hailed by the composer as a good omen, being the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.
Weber’s presentiment did not fail him; the occasion was as great a triumph as ever fell to the lot of a musician. The applause of a house filled to the very last seat was such as had never been heard before in Germany. That this magnificent homage was no outcome of mere nationalism was shown by the fact that it was the same wherever Der Freischütz was heard. After conducting a performance in Vienna in March 1822 the composer wrote that “Greater enthusiasm there cannot be, and I tremble to think of the future, for it is scarcely possible to rise higher than this. To God alone the praise!”
This according to “Weber, Carl Maria Friedrich Ernest, Freiherr von” in A dictionary of music and musicians, A.D. 1450–1889 (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser, 1895, IV/387–429); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Weber’s 230th birthday! Above, the composer ca. 1825; below, an excerpt from the 2010 film by Jens Neubert.
While they may not know the title or the composer, millions recognize Jay Ungar’s Ashokan farewell as the melodic centerpiece of the soundtrack for Ken Burns’s celebrated television series The Civil War.
Still fewer of those who love the tune realize that the title refers to a site that is now known as The Ashokan Center, an outdoor education, conference, and retreat located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that Ungar—together with his wife and musical partner, Molly Mason—was using for summer traditional music and dance camps.
Decades after Ungar composed Ashokan farwell, and following his performance of it at the White House and in various U.S. ceremonial settings, Ungar managed to leverage its emotional connections in a successful effort to preserve the location and create a $7.25 million campus there dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts.
This according to “Catskill cultural center saved, and renewed, thanks to a fiddler’s tune” by Dennis Gaffney (The New York times 12 May 2013, p. A15).
Today is Ungar’s 70th birthday! Below, a performance with Mason and some friends.
Chinese presenters have made their bid for grand opera’s international ranks with the very piece that marks the end of that tradition—Puccini’s Turandot.
The irony reaches further. In the country where Chinese singers have the greatest advantage, these productions have primarily featured Western performers; a piece that had been conspicuously absent from the country where it purports to take place has wound up essentially becoming China’s national opera; and the original story was never about China in the first place—it came from a French translation of a Persian folk tale that was adapted by an Italian playwright and later reinvented by a German writer whose version inspired Puccini.
This according to “A princess comes home” by Ken Smith (Opera LXIII/12 [December 2012] pp. 1473–1479). Below, excerpts from Turandot at the Forbidden City, directed by Zhang Yimou.
Medieval music has been made and remade repeatedly over the past two hundred years.
For the nineteenth century it was vocal, without instrumental accompaniment, but with barbarous harmony that no one could have wished to hear. For most of the twentieth century it was instrumentally accompanied, increasingly colorful, and widely enjoyed. At the height of its popularity it sustained an industry of players and instrument-makers, all engaged in re-creating an apparently medieval performance practice.
During the 1980s medieval music became vocal once more, exchanging color and contrast for cleanliness and beauty. Radical changes in perspective such as these may have less to do with the evidence of how medieval music sounded and more to do with the personalities of scholars and performers, their ideologies, and musical tastes.
This according to The modern invention of medieval music: Scholarship, ideology, performance by Daniel J. Leech-Wilkinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Below, the Early Music Consort of London in 1976.
In more than 40 years at The New Yorker, Whitney Balliett encouraged readers to hear jazz through his vividly metaphorical writing.
Writing during the years of jazz’s greatest development and ferment, Balliett used comparatively little technical vocabulary, favoring a sensual rendering. Of the trumpeter Roy Eldridge, he wrote: “His tone at slow tempos still supplicates and enfolds and at fast speeds hums and threatens.” The trumpeter Doc Cheatham’s solos were “a succession of lines, steps, curves, parabolas, angles, and elevations.”
Balliett also used metaphor to great effect in describing appearances. Of Teddy Wilson: “His figure, once thin as a stamp, has thickened, and his hawklike profile has become a series of arcs and spheres.” And of the drummer Big Sid Catlett, who inspired some of his finest writing, he wrote: “Everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms and giant, tapering fingers, the cannonball fists, the barn-door chest and the tidy waist, his big feet, and the columnar neck.”
This according to “Whitney Balliett, New Yorker jazz critic, dies at 80” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 3 February 2007).
Today would have been Balliett’s 90th birthday! Below, Big Sid in action (wait for him trading fours near the end).
In a study of the development of children’s ability to relate musical forms to extramusical concepts, four- and six-year-old children matched appropriate animal pictures to excerpts from Sergej Prokof’ev’s Petya i volk (Peter and the wolf) significantly better than chance, but identified the wolf and bird more readily than the cat and duck excerpts.
Three-year-olds participating in a simplified version of the task experienced a comparable order of difficulty in matching the various music-animal pairs.
A third experiment replicated the first, but with the less familiar music of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le carnaval des animaux. Again, performance was above chance, increasing the likelihood that children’s success in the first two experiments was not attributable to previous exposure to the music.
This according to “The development of referential meaning in music” by Sandra E. Trehub and Laurel J. Trainor (Music perception: An interdisciplinary journal IX/4 [summer 1992] pp. 455–70).
Below, the Saint-Saëns work.
While the boy band genre has mutated and evolved, its popular portrayal has altered little since groups like New Edition and New Kids on the Block conquered the charts back in the late 1980s.
Recent critical commentaries suggest that four discourses—youth, exploitation, gender, and fandom— interlock to determine how writers discuss the genre. Collectively their result is a relative stasis in critical commentary that helps to allay wider anxieties about the idea that, in a capitalist society, any of us can actively and pleasurably engage with a musical genre led by its own marketing.
This according to “Multiple damnations: Deconstructing the critical response to boy band phenomena” by Mark Duffett (Popular music history VII/2 [August 2012] pp. 185–97). Below, New Edition in the 1980s.
Rovereto claims the distinction of being both the first stop in the series of trips that Mozart undertook in Italy—he arrived with his father on Christmas Eve in 1769—and the first city to erect a monument in Mozart’s honor.
The monument was designed by Giuseppe Antonio Bridi (1763–1836), a banker who had befriended Mozart and was passionate about music. Bridi’s relationship with Mozart and his family continued until his death, including a regular correspondence with Constanze that was carried out until 1833. The monument was erected in 1825 at Bridi’s villa in the suburbs of Rovereto.
This according to “Sulla via del ritorno: Il primo monumento alla gloria di Mozart” by Renato Lunelli, an essay included in Mozart in Italia: I viaggi, le lettere (Milano: Ricordi, 1956); the volume was issued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Today is Mozart’s 260th birthday! Below, the symphony K.112, composed during his first Italian sojurn.
The group New Order’s World in motion, commissioned by the British Football Association to mark the 1990 World Cup soccer finals, “is probably the least likely official football theme song ever recorded: Denying its own status as a football song, introducing elements of subcultural love lyrics, and becoming a gay club hit, but also assuming the burden of combating football’s major peripheral problem, hooliganism, the song is ultimately unheimlich, even despite its closing chorus that speaks of ‘playing for England; playing this song.’”
This according to “Playing for England” by Paul Smith (South Atlantic quarterly 90/4 [fall 1991] pp. 737–752). Smith goes on to note that “both the BBC and the independent television companies forewent the pleasure of having ‘Love’s got the world in motion’ going across the airwaves every night, and the BBC used as their World Cup theme another piece of music that quickly became a number one hit: Luciano Pavarotti singing his version of the Nessun dorma aria from Turandot.”
Today would have been Pavarotti’s 80th birthday! Below, singing Nessun dorma in 1994.
BONUS: By way of contrast, New Order’s song:
Stung by the mixed reviews of New York critics who apparently preferred their divas to be foreign-born, the operatic soprano Emma Abbott created a highly successful—and somewhat revolutionary—niche for herself.
In 1898 Abbott founded the Emma Abbott English Grand Opera Company with her husband, Eugene Wetherell, as business manager. There were precedents for translating operas into English, and even for Abbott’s role as both prima donna and production manager; the distinctive and brilliant move was to take her company to the U.S. heartland with the perfect persona for 19th-century American tastes.
Having grown up poor in Peoria, Illinois, she had the quintessential American dream narrative. She was openly both devout and patriotic, often interpolating beloved religious and U.S. songs into her opera performances. And the marital bliss projected by her close relationship with Wetherell further burnished the persona that her audiences relished.
As Abbott’s close friend and biographer Sadie E. Martin recalled, “The pleasing voice and manners of the operatic star, and her sympathetic nature, seemed at once to attract towards her the hearts of the public. She was from the first very popular, and after the first year there were many who watched, waited, and longed for her annual appearance, as for that of an old friend.”
By the time she retired, Abbott had officiated at the openings of more opera houses than any singer before her, and—owing also to her canny buisness sense—had amassed a fortune far beyond that of her European counterparts.
This according to Women in the spotlight: Divas in nineteenth-century New York by Andrea Saposnik (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing).