William Herschel’s career shift from art to science can be regarded as a symbol of the change that music aesthetics underwent in the eighteenth century.
The traditional view of music’s dual nature as both art and science was widely accepted as the century opened, but it was challenged by a growing interest in issues such as genius and the role of inspiration in the creative process. The nature of musical expression defied rational explanation.
The conclusion that genius and inspiration were beyond the law of nature, and that music is not just an expression of natural order but a means by which feelings and emotions can be expressed and thoughts and ideas transferred, contributed to the philosophical background for the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. The arts and sciences had come to a crossroads, and Herschel chose to follow the path of science.
This according to “Music: A science and an art—The 18th-century parting of the ways” by John Bergsagel (Dansk årbog for musikforskning XII  pp. 5-18).
Today is Herschel’s 280th birthday! Above, a portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott; below, his viola concerto in C Major.
François Couperin’s first attempts to reconcile French and Italian musical tastes came shortly after 1700, at the height of a prolonged conflict between the two musical nationalities. Despite Couperin’s authority, this contention was not to abate until the close of the 18th century, when both Italians and French were confronted with the rise of German music.
Already in the last decades of the 17th century, an Italianizing tendency had appeared under the tyranny of Lully and his followers in both Paris and the provinces. When Couperin intervened as a mediator in the resulting polemic he was not the first to do so—others less eminent had preceded him.
While his celebrated trio sonatas (1691–92) were strongly influenced by Corelli, the greater part of his output was purely French in character. But toward the end of his career, Couperin’s Les gouts rénuis (1724) and Le Parnasse ou l’apothéose de Corelli (1725), provided eloquent testimony to his desire to appropriate without partiality the best features of the different styles.
This according to “François Couperin et la conciliation des goûts français et italien” by Marc Pincherle (Chigiana XXV/5  pp. 69–80).
Today is Couperin’s 350th birthday! Below, Gli Incogniti plays l’Apothéose de Corelli.
The life of the jazz trumpeter Rowland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan resembles nothing less than an ancient Greek tragedy: a heroic figure who rises from obscurity to dizzying heights, touches greatness, becomes ensnared by circumstances, and comes to a disastrous early end.
Berigan was a charismatic performer. His artistry made a deep and lasting impression on everyone who heard him play, while the body of recorded work he left continues to evoke a wide range of emotions. He played a key role in a golden age of American popular music and jazz.
This according to Mr. Trumpet: The trials, tribulations, and triumph of Bunny Berigan by Michael P. Zirpolo (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011).
Today is Berigan’s 110th birthday! Below, his classic 1937 recording of I can’t get started, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975.
For the opening of a 1976 exhibit on Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the curator, Don Vlack, created an aperitif inspired by Lenya and named in her honor.
Vlack described the drink, which is made with Mandarine Napoléon liqueur and Kritter Brut sparkling wine, as “very much like the great singer in that it is slightly bittersweet, gentle but potent (even volatile), and is, in color, a light orange, the tint of her hair.”
This according to “Lenya: A moment in history (and a drink)” (Kurt Weill newsletter XXIX/2 [fall 2011] p. 9).
Today is Lenya’s 130th birthday! Above, enjoying her namesake aperitif at the opening reception; below, singing Seeräuber-Jenny, one of her signature songs.
Gertrud “Trude” Rittmann was on her way to becoming one of Germany’s most promising young composers when the rise of Nazism forced her to flee to the United States in 1937.
Through her work as accompanist and music director in the New York ballet world, Rittman met Agnes De Mille; the two subsequently collaborated closely on the creation of dance music for several landmark Broadway shows.
Rittmann also created choral arrangements and underscoring for Richard Rodgers, making major contributions to The King and I, The sound of music, and South Pacific, and she worked on every musical composed by Frederick Loewe, including Brigadoon, My fair lady, and Camelot. One of her finest achievements was the original dance music for the Small house of Uncle Thomas ballet in The King and I, created with the choreographer Jerome Robbins.
This according to “A composer in her own right: Arrangers, musical directors and conductors” by Jennifer Jones Cavenaugh, an essay included in Women in American musical theatre: Essays on composers, lyricists, librettists, arrangers, choreographers, designers, directors, producers and performance artists (Jefferson: McFarland, 2008, pp. 77–91).
Today is Rittmann’s 110th birthday! Below, a performance of Small house of Uncle Thomas in 2012.
In 2005 and 2006 Joan Tower’s Made in America embarked on a tour of all 50 American states, featured on programs by some 65 orchestras. In an interview just after the work’s premiere, the composer looked ahead to the experience:
“I’m very curious as to the way they view me as a living composer, because I’m a litmus test. I’m very curious as to how they’ll negotiate my piece. Now, I know some of them are much better than others; there are all levels. But I’m curious whether the piece is strong enough to make them want to work harder and what the level of passion is that’s going to be in there. Part of that depends on the piece and part of that depends on the nature of their community orchestra and the people in their orchestra.”
“If my piece has some impact, and draws the players in a little bit, or a lot, and draws the audience in a little bit or a lot, then it has some reverberation. I’m putting the entire burden of this thing on me, because the music is the center of everything no matter what anybody’s telling you. Whatever the PR, marketing, historical value, blah, blah, blah, that’s going on around it, you still have this living entity in front of you that has to do its work, whatever that is.”
Quoted in “Joan Tower: Made in America” by Frank J. Oteri (NewMusicBox 1 October 2005).
Today is Tower’s 80th birthday! Below, a performance from 2012.
The complexity and range of Meshell Ndegeocello’s hip-hop works extend largely from her willingness to push boundaries—but in pushing sexual and gender boundaries, Ndegeocello declines to traffic in singular dimensions. Danyel Smith has described her as “an African American, woman, lesbian, musician, and mother” who thrives on “pondering the riddles that accompany all her selves.”
In Berry farms Ndegeocello addresses a female lover: “Can you love me without shame?” Giving way to the bass groove, she aggressively concludes: “Yeah, you like to mess around!” She goes on to suggest that her girlfriend prohibits them from sharing honest, enduring love for fear of public scorn because they are lesbians and because she desires the material things her “boy” can give her.
“You know how we like material things,” she observes, reminding us of the dominant perception that most black women effortlessly and willingly sacrifice substantive self-fulfillment for social approval and material gratification. The discursive modes of many of the tracks on Cookie: The anthropological mixtape strike an unambiguously combative chord with this perception by elaborating the tensions of same-sex female desire, fulfillment, and repression.
This according to “‘You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass’: Rhythms of black female sexuality and subjectvity in Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie: The anthropological mixtape” by Nghana Lewis (Black music research journal XXVI/1 [spring 2006] pp. 111–30).
Today is Ndegeocello’s 50th birthday! Below, the song in question.
The legendary nāgasvaram player T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai performed in two films—once just in a cameo as himself, but once as the star!
In 1940 Rajarathnam Pillai appeared in Kalamegam, portraying the 15th-century Tamil poet Kavi Kalamegam. The film’s director, Ellis R. Dungan, recalled working with him:
“When Rajarathnam was sober, he was fine and took direction well with interest. But when he was lit, he could not be controlled and proved a nuisance and a pest on the set. Of course, when he became sober, he would apologize for his unruly conduct. People treated him like some kind of god because he was a big gun…I also found that he was very fond of women! But then who is not?”
The role required Rajarathnam Pillai to sing, which he did beautifully—but unfortunately his many fans only wanted to hear him play the nāgasvaram, and the film failed at the box office. No prints remain; only a handful of stills and recordings attest to Rajarathnam’s single appearance as a film star.
This according to “Foray into films” by Randor Guy (Sruti CLXXI [December 1998] pp. 39–42).
Today is Rajarathnam Pillai’s 120th birthday! Above and below, rare artefacts of the film.
BONUS: Rajarathnam Pillai plays the nāgasvaram!
Filed under Asia, Performers
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Telemusik represents an effort to create universally valid music.
In an analogy to Le Corbusier’s modulor concept, Telemusik is based on a proportional framework constructed on the Fibonacci series, through which so-called Klangobjekte—both found sounds and electronically modulated ones of the most diverse ethnic provenance—acquire musical form.
Still, the limits of the universalism sought by Stockhausen are seen in conspicuous traces of Western compositional practice.
This according to “Universalismus und Exotik in Karlheinz Stockhausens Telemusik” by Peter W. Schatt (Musica: Zweimonatsschrift XLIII/4 [Juli-August 1989] pp. 315–20).
Today would have been Stockhausen’s 90th birthday! Above, the composer around the time of Telemusik; below, the work in question.