Tag Archives: Birthdays

Choe Seung-hui and modernism

Choe Seung-hui’s career moved in the reverse of the developmental narrative often associated with non-Western choreographers who study Western dance.

The earliest dance photographs of Choe show her in form-fitting leotards and short tunics, showing off her muscular and flexible body through extended lines, pointed feet, and angular planes, her face expressing seriousness or ecstasy—the epitome what one might envision today as modern dance.

But for her, this style ultimately came to represent imitation and convention rather than innovation and creativity. Whereas those early dances followed in the styles of others and worked in their voices, it was in formulating dances involving traditional Korean models that Choe invented her own style and established something new that would influence others.

For Choe, what looked like modern dance from a Western perspective was less modern than the Korean-style modern choreographies with which she made her mark as a modernist choreographer, dancer, theorist, and pedagogue.

This according to “Locating performance: Choe Seung-Hui, East Asian modernism and the case for area knowledge in dance studies” by Emily E. Wilcox, and essay included in Futures of dance studies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020, 505–22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 202o-14576).

Today is Choe Seung-hui’s 110th birthday! Above, a photo from the 1950s; below, a partial reconstruction of Choe’s choreography.

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Minnie Hauk, American savage

When the U.S. operatic soprano Minnie Hauk (1851–1929) first toured Europe in 1868, her instant success was due largely to shrewd marketing by her teacher and manager Maurice Strakosch.

Capitalizing on Hauk’s childhood on the American prairie, Strakosch’s advance publicity described her as “a kind of half-civilized Pocahontas, who, back in the wilds of her homeland, was accustomed to riding a mustang bareback and being worshipped by the continent’s aborigines as a ‘dusky daughter of the sun.’”

Thanks to widespread curiosity about this exotic creature—and, of course, to her prodigious talent—Hauk remained abroad for the next eight years, performing at all the major opera houses in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, and Russia.

This according to Women in the spotlight: Divas in nineteenth-century New York by Andrea Saposnik (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing).

Today is Hauk’s 170th birthday! Above, the soprano in her highly acclaimed role as Carmen; over the course of her career she performed the work in four languages.

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Filed under Opera, Romantic era

Vincenzo Bellini, zampognaro

When he was growing up in Catania, Sicily, Bellini undoubtedly heard the peasants from the far side of Mount Etna who came to town every Advent with their zampogne (bagpipes). The young prodigy was influenced by these traditional musicians in several ways.

The bagpipers’ improvisations helped to shape the seemingly meandering and unpredictable melodies that Bellini became famous for. Also, the balance between the drones and the chanters influenced his handling of accompaniment and melody. Finally, the music of the bagpipes found its way into Bellini’s uses of modality, his chromaticisms, and his oscillations between major and minor keys. The Mediterranean vibrancy of his slow music was particularly grounded in the traditional music of his youth.

This according to Vincenzo Bellini, zampognaro del melodramma by Salvatore Enrico Failla (Catania: Maimone, 1985).

Today is Bellini’s 220th birthday! Below, a modern-day incarnation of the Sicilian Advent zampognaro.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Opera, Romantic era

Mahalia Jackson and the Black gospel field

Nearly a half century after her death in 1972, Mahalia Jackson remains the most esteemed figure in Black gospel music history. Born in the backstreets of New Orleans in 1911, during the Great Depression Jackson joined the Great Migration to Chicago, where she became a highly regarded church singer and, by the mid-fifties, a coveted recording artist lauded as the world’s greatest gospel singer.

This “Louisiana Cinderella” narrative of Jackson’s career during the decade following World War II carried important meanings for African Americans, though it remains a story half told. Jackson was gospel’s first multi-mediated artist, with a nationally broadcast radio program, a Chicago-based television show, and early recordings that introduced straight-out-of-the-church Black gospel to American and European audiences while also tapping the vogue for religious pop in the early Cold War.

In some ways, Jackson’s successes made her an exceptional case, though she is perhaps best understood as part of broader developments in the Black gospel field. Built upon foundations laid by pioneering Chicago organizers in the 1930s, Black gospel singing, with Jackson as its most visible representative, began to circulate in novel ways as a form of popular culture in the 1940s and 1950s, its practitioners accruing prestige not only through devout integrity but also from their charismatic artistry, public recognition, and pop-cultural cachet. These years also saw shifting strategies in the Black freedom struggle that gave new cultural-political significance to African American vernacular culture.

 This according to Mahalia Jackson and the Black gospel field by Mark Burford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Today would have been Jackson’s 110th birthday! Below, performing in 1962.

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Filed under Black studies, Performers

Liszt’s monster instrument

In September 1854 Liszt wrote to the cellist Bernhard Cossmann “My monster instrument with three keyboards arrived about a fortnight ago and seems to be a great success.”

The 3000-pound instrument, a seven-octave grand piano plus two five-octave harmonium keyboards, was built by Alexandre Père et Fils and Pierre Érard to Liszt’s specifications. Although the critic Richard Pohl reported having heard the composer play this piano-harmonium, apparently it was never heard in concert until Joris Verdin (left) presented a recital on the instrument, newly restored by Patrick Collon and the Manufacture d’orgues de Bruxelles 150 years after it was built, at the Wiener Musikverein.

In addition to the piano and pumping pedals seen above, the original version included a 20-note pedalboard and an attachment allowing an assistant to pump the bellows while the player used the organ or piano pedals; these are lost and have not been reconstructed.

This according to “Liszt’s monster instrument revisited” by Wayne T. Moore (The diapason XCVI/5 [May 2005] p. 15). Today is Liszt’s 210th birthday!

Below, Professor Verdin demonstrates Liszt’s monster instrument.

More posts about Franz Liszt are here.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Romantic era

Jon Hendricks, grand master of vocalese

Jon Hendricks was not the first jazz singer to practice the art of vocalese—crafting lyrics to jazz instrumental compositions and solos—but was widely considered its standard-setting grand master.

After hearing King Pleasure’s 1952 record of “Moody’s mood for love” with lyrics by Eddie Jefferson, Hendricks was inspired to write his own verses to jazz instrumentals. “It opened up a whole world for me” he said in a 1982 interview. “I was mesmerized. I’d been writing rhythm-and-blues songs, mostly for Louis Jordan. But I thought ‘Moody’s mood for love’ was so hip. You didn’t have to stop at 32 bars. You could keep going.”

Dubbed “the James Joyce of jive” by Time magazine, Hendricks gained international fame as part of the trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, which often featured his vocalese creations.

This according to “Jon Hendricks, vocalese pioneer, dies at 96” by Allen Morrison (DownBeat LXXXV/2 [February 2018] 25; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-1066).

Today would have been Jon Hendrick’s 100th birthday! Below, LH&R perform his Cloudburst.

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Antonín Dvořák, railfan

Dvořák had tremendous admiration for technical inventions, particularly locomotives—in the U.S. he might be called a railfan.

“It consists of many parts, of so many different parts, and each has its own importance, each has its own place,” he wrote. “Even the smallest screw is in place and holding something! Everything has its purpose and role and the result is amazing.”

“Such a locomotive is put on the tracks, they put in the coal and water, one person moves a small lever, the big levers start to move, and even though the cars weigh a few thousand metric cents, the locomotive runs with them like a rabbit. All of my symphonies I would give if I had invented the locomotive!”

This according to Antonín Dvořák: Komplexní zdroj informací o skladateli / A comprehensive information source on the composer, an Internet resource created by Ondřej Šupka. Many thanks to Jadranka Važanová for her discovery and translation of this wonderful quotation.

Today is Dvořák’s 180th birthday! Below, the EuroCity 77 “Antonin Dvorak” leaving Prague for Vienna.

Related article: Johannes Brahms, railfan

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Filed under Curiosities, Resources, Romantic era, Science

Enescu and makam

Georges Enescu’s use of elements of Romanian traditional music is well known; his most popular works today, the Rhapsodies roumaines, attest to his enthusiasm for his homeland’s music. Less known is his interest in the Turkish melodic type makam (pl. makamlar) and its influence on his masterpiece, the opera Œdipe.

In this work, Enescu used three makamlar: Müsteâr, for music associated with the characters Creon and Jocasta; Hisâr, for the motif of fate, and Nişâbûr, for the motif of justification.

This according to “Modale Strukturen in Annäherung zur orientalischen Kirchenmusik im Oedip von George Enescu” by Adriana Şirli, an essay included in Enesciana II-III: Georges Enesco, musicien complexe (Bucureşti: Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, 1981).

Today is Enescu’s 140th birthday! Below, an excerpt from the 1970 production of Œdipe by the Opera Naţională Bucureşti; above, the Enescu statue in front of the opera house. For more Enescu iconography, see Music on money.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Opera

Doctor Love’s diagnoses

The Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Paul Matavire was widely celebrated for his witty but sharply pointed songs addressing themes of intimacy, romance, and social relations, earning him the nickname Doctor Love.

Matavire’s well-calculated social commentary, disseminated through sungura music, continues to hold a special place of reverence in Zimbabwe, even long after his death. His songs are unique in the ways that he used humor to drive his concerns home.

For example, in Akanaka akarara (A person is only good when asleep) Matavire code-switches between Shona and English phrases and expressions, joking that his wife may be possessed by spirits, and maintaining that he is not asking her to cook sadza for him—he just wants money for beer to treat his hangover. Using intrinsic Shona linguistic structures, the song satirizes the foibles of both men and women as they grapple with tensions between traditional and modern gender roles.

This according to “Tracing humour in Paul Matavire’s selected songs” by Umali Saidi (Muziki: Journal of music research in Africa XII/1 [May 2015] 53–61; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-6205).

Today would have been Doctor Love’s 60th birthday! Below, his recording of Akanaka akarara.

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Filed under Humor, Performers, Popular music

Billy Taylor, jazz advocate

“There’s no question that being an advocate eclipsed my reputation as a musician” Billy Taylor said in a 2007 interview. “It was my doing. I wanted to prove to people that jazz has an audience. I had to do that for me.”

Taylor’s career spanned nearly 70 years and included collaborations with almost every significant performer in jazz, from Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker to Wynton Marsalis; but he had an even rarer gift for explaining his music and drawing people to it.

With a doctorate in education, Taylor was considered perhaps the foremost jazz educator of his time. He taught in colleges, lectured widely, served on panels, traveled the world as a jazz ambassador, and organized events that took renowned jazz musicians directly to the streets.

Fully conversant as a performer in the complexities of bebop, he was among the few musicians who were comfortable with explaining it to the uninitiated. “It bothered me when Diz and Bird would start talking bebop and giving nonsensical answers to what they were intelligent enough to know was a seriously meant question” he said in 1971. “It bothered me so much that every chance I got, I tried to set the record straight.”

This according to “Billy Taylor, revered musician, broadcaster and spokesman for jazz, dies at 89” by Matt Schudel (The Washington post 30 December 2010; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-50027).

Today would have been Taylor’s 100th birthday! Above, Billy Taylor in 2000  by John Mathew Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; below, Taylor plays Ellington’s In a sentimental mood.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers