Tag Archives: Curiosities

Helen May Butler, American bandleader

Helen May Butler’s career provides a welcome counternarrative to the men’s professional bands—such as John Philip Sousa’s—that were the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Butler had the professional and musical clout to attract the top female talent needed to form a first-rate professional ensemble. Her Ladies’ Military Band rose to prominence during a time when being a professional woman required sacrifice, in terms of both family life and customary female identity. Butler’s perseverance and tenacity in creating an accomplished ensemble of women in a male-dominated field is an important and inspirational addition to the history of both U.S. concert bands and the women’s movement of her time.

This according to “Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band: Being professional during the golden age of bands” by Brian D. Meyers, an essay included in Women’s bands in America: Performing music and gender (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, pp. 15–49).

Today is Butler’s 150th birthday! Below, an undated photograph of her Ladies’ Brass Band, which toured between 1901 and 1912 (click to enlarge).

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

May Day and mayhem

On this first day of May, let’s look at a vivid depiction of Dublin May Day customs from a ballad that was first published in 1843, though it was already flourishing at least 60 years earlier.

De May Bush takes place amid a longstanding feud between the Liberty and Ormond factions—weavers and butchers, respectively—and revolves around the tradition of selecting, cutting, and guarding a handsome May Bush throughout the night before May Day. The vigil involved much revelry and drinking, and on this particular occasion the butchers fell asleep and the weavers stole their May Bush. The butchers’ leader exacted revenge in the form of driving a bull into the heart of the weavers’ turf to wreak havoc and create mayhem.

Like the song itself, the action depicted is a performance genre; the theft of the bush resembles the recurrent motif of the abduction of a bride. The butchers and the weavers were just as capable of manipulating multivalent social language as they were of ribald, full-bodied expression in song—complementary performance genres that meet around the May Bush.

This according to “May Day and mayhem: Portraits of a holiday in eighteenth-century Dublin ballads” by Cozette Griffin-Kremer, an essay included in The flowering thorn: International ballad studies (Logan: Utah State University, 2003, pp. 101–27).

Above, an Irish hawthorn, a popular choice for the May Bush; below, a tourist video shows decorated May Bushes in Galway.

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Alfred Pringsheim, beer-mug thumper

At the time of the 1876 Bayreuth premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Alfred Pringsheim, the future mathematician and father-in-law of Thomas Mann, then a 25-year-old postgraduate student, displayed a sometimes unseemly fervor for Wagner’s masterpiece.

In October of that year he fought a duel with pistols with the Berlin theater critic Isidor Kastan, who Pringsheim believed had insulted Wagner (fortunately no one was hurt), and after the premiere of Siegfried he fell into an argument with the Shakespeare scholar Friedrich August Leo in a tavern, leading him to hit the professor on the nose with a beer mug. The latter incident earned Pringsheim the nickname der Schoppenhauer (the beer-mug thumper).

This according to “Der ‘Schoppenhauer’ und das Pistolenduell: Alfred Pringsheims kämpferischer Einsatz für die Bayreuther Sache” by Dirk Heißerer, an essay included in Alfred Pringsheim, der kritische Wagnerianer: Eine Dokumentation (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2013, pp. 63–80).

Below, Pringsheim’s arrangement of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for strings and piano.

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Richard Wagner, animal lover

In 1879 Richard Wagner joined the growing movement in Germany opposing the cruel medical practices of animal experimentation with an open letter published in the Bayreuther Blätter.

His arguments for the pointlessness of these experiments were original; they followed from his experiences with traditional medicine and his well-developed critique of civilization. His contemporary allies, however, ignored these arguments and simply used the Wagner name.

The open letter led directly to Wagner’s much-discussed essay Religion und Kunst, in which, among other things, he paints a horrific scenario of the unimpeded development of science and technology.

This according to “Richard Wagner als Gegner von Tierversuchen: Ein visionärer Zivilisationskritiker” by Ulrich Tröhler and Joachim Thiery (WagnerSpectrum XI/1 [2015] pp. 73–104). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above, the composer with his dog Pohl; below, no horses were annoyed during this performance.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Opera

Spoof articles

Many reference works for music—and presumably other topics—contain articles about fictitious characters. Sometimes writers for these works slyly slip them by their editors (an article on “Verdi, Lasagne” was almost typeset for printing in The new Grove dictionary); others are incorporated with the collusion of all parties.

For an example, look up Otto Jägermeier in Komponisten der Gegenwart (available through RILM music encyclopedias) or in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (available through MGG Online). You will find that Jägermeier composed, among other intriguing works, an opera called Der Idiot with a libretto by Fëdor Dostoevskij, and a work for solo clarinet called Psychosen. The name Jägermeier is a play on Jägermeister, a popular German cordial (above).

RILM is not above adding a spoof article or two to its database. Of course we won’t tell you which ones they are, but we’ll give you a hint: One includes a reference to the very real and wonderful Malcolm Bilson, who favors us with a Mozart concerto below.

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When women play

kulintang

In many societies musical roles are divided along gender lines: Women sing and men play. Men also sing and women sometimes play; yet, unlike men, women who play often do so in contexts of sexual and social marginality.

Contemporary anthropological theories regarding the interrelationship between social structure and gender stratification illuminate how women’s use of musical instruments is related to broader issues of social and gender structure; changes in the ideology of these structures often reflect changes that affect women as performers.

This according to “When women play: The relationship between musical instruments and gender style” by Ellen Koskoff (Canadian university music review/Revue de musique des universités canadiennes XVI/1 [1995] pp. 114–27; reprinted in A feminist ethnomusicology: Writings on music and gender [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014]).

Above and below, kulintang, a women’s instrumental genre discussed in the article.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Instruments, Women's studies

Haiti’s celebrity president

michael-martelly

With his country descending into its worst political crisis since the 2004 coup d’etat, and thousands of people demanding his resignation in the streets, in early 2016 Haiti’s outgoing president, Michel Martelly, went back to basics: He released a new song insulting and taunting in crude and sexualized terms a female journalist known to be critical of him.

Before becoming head of state in 2011, Martelly was a pop star known as Sweet Micky who performed Haitian compas (kompa direk). Micky was famous for saying or doing anything to get a reaction, and his genius was combining the image of the rock rebel with the anything-goes, upside-down spirit of kanaval, the Haitian equivalent of Mardi Gras—for example, one can find video footage of Haiti’s president performing in a halter top and miniskirt.

Bringing a similar strategy to his presidential run, he was the anti-politician who openly insulted competitors, critics, and the media. Before his election Martelly’s supporters argued that, because he was already so rich and famous, their candidate couldn’t be bribed or bought. The competition dismissed Martelly’s candidacy as a joke, at first, and the press did too, all the while giving him blanket coverage.

With support by foreign investors and the backing of the U.S., Martelly won a surprise victory. But after five years of stalled and canceled elections, rising insecurity and poverty, political violence, and accusations of corruption, Sweet Micky’s novelty wore off—and in his last weeks in power any vestiges of presidential restraint also wore off, as evidenced by the song referenced above. It may turn out that Haiti was, as it has been so many times, ahead of the historical curve, anticipating the rise of other populist celebrity political figures worldwide.

This according to “What happens when a celebrity becomes president” by Jonathan Katz (The Atlantic monthly 9 February 2016).

Above, Martelly dancing at a presentation ceremony; below, the song in question.

BONUS: Sweet Mickey performs in drag.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Politics, Popular music

The Golden Shower Waltz

emile-waldteufel

Émile Waldteufel (1837–1915) served as pianist to Empress Eugénie and was renowned as a composer of elegant polkas, waltzes, and other occasional pieces. His Pluie d’or valse (Golden shower waltz, op. 160) is one of several of his works that won acclaim beyond the court of Napoleon III.

Further information on Waldteufel and his family can be found in Skaters’ waltz: The story of the Waldteufels by Andrew Lamb (Croydon: Fullers Wood Press, 1995).

Below, a vintage recording.

#GoldenShowers

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January 11, 2017 · 1:32 pm

Silvesterklausen, a New Year’s Eve ritual

silvesterklaus1

On New Year’s Eve men and boys in Urnäsch, Switzerland, disguise themselves in various costumes and, bearing harnesses with heavy bells, walk in groups from house to house; at each house they sing wordless yodels. The custom is called Silvesterklausen, and the men and boys are known as Silvesterchläus.

At the crack of dawn they march off in single file. Arriving at a house, they shake their bells rhythmically to announce their presence. The inhabitants are expecting them, and the husband and wife step out to greet them; the wife bears a tray with a bottle and glasses.

The Silvesterchläusen then form a circle and sing polyphonic yodels, which are received with great favor by the household. Each visitor is offered a drink; the yodelers accept their drinks, shake hands with their hosts, and march off to the next house.

silvesterklaus

This according to Progress and nostalgia. Silvesterklausen in Urnäsch, Switzerland by Regina Bendix (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985). Below, Silvesterklausen in 2013.

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A pipe organ for a vaudevillian

charles-herbert-barritt-memorial

Charles Herbert Barritt (1869–1929, more generally known as Clifton Barritt) spent much of his life as a vaudevillian and music hall entertainer and his last years as a London publican.

Born in Manchester, Barritt was already treading the boards in his early twenties. Local newspaper notices chart a twelve-year career that took him from Ulster to the Isle of Man, Reigate to Grantham, and all points in between—there seems hardly a pier or stage that did not feature Barritt’s mellow baritone and perfect comic timing at some time between 1892 and 1904. One of his many favorable reviews praised his ability to imitate the styles of various composers, performers, and instruments, adding that he was “always funny, but without being vulgar.”

Barritt remains a notable figure to this day, as his funerary monument in London’s Hampstead Cemetery replicates the form of a life-size pipe organ (he was not known to play the organ at all).

This according to “‘Always funny, but without being vulgar’: Charles Herbert ‘Clifton’ Barritt (1869–1929), Hampstead Cemetery” by David Bingham (The London dead, 25 February 2015). Above, the monument in question.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dramatic arts, Humor, Iconography, Instruments