When he was about ten years old, Joseph Pujol discovered that he had the rare ability to draw air into his anus and expel it at will.
Not content to have a simple party trick, he trained his sonic instrument just as others would train their vocal chords, and by young adulthood he could produce a startling range of sounds, nuanced with tonal, timbral, and dynamic variation, and animated by his natural sense of humor. By the 1890s he was performing as Le Pétomane to packed audiences at the Moulin Rouge.
Pujol’s idiosyncratic career has rarely been considered as an historical object—and when it has, the gaze has been light-hearted and filled with puns, much like those that surrounded him in his lifetime. But if the temptation to giggle is resisted for a moment, Le Pétomane can teach us much about symbolic physiological meanings in late nineteenth-century Paris.
This according to “The spectacular anus of Joseph Pujol: Recovering the Pétomane’s unique historic context” by Alison Moore (French cultural studies XXIV/1  pp. 27–43).
Today is Pujol’s 160th birthday! Below, Le Pétomane in action (silent).
BONUS: A recording from 1904.
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.
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.
Robert Schumann’s celebrated assessment of Frédéric Chopin—“Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie!” (Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!)—appeared in his 1831 review of Chopin’s variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano, op. 2. This rhapsodic description, cast as a conversation between imaginary characters, somehow reached Chopin’s hands. While relations between the two composers were cordial, a letter from Chopin to a friend hints at his unvarnished reaction:
“I received a few days ago a ten-page review from a German in Kassel who is full of enthusiasm for [the variations]. After a long-winded preface he proceeds to analyze them bar by bar, explaining that they are not ordinary variations but a fantastic tableau. In the second variation he says that Don Giovanni runs around with Leporello; in the third he kisses Zerlina while Massetto’s rage is pictured in the left hand—and in the fifth bar of the Adagio he declares that Don Giovanni kisses Zerlina on the D-flat…I could die of laughing at this German’s imagination.”
This according to “Schumann and Chopin: from Carnaval to Kreisleriana” by Judith Chernaik (The musical times CLVII/1934 [spring 2016] pp. 67–78). This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Below, Alice Burla performs the work in question.
Rock mockumentaries like The Rutles: All you need is cash lampoon the notion of high art and satirize the image of the solitary, suffering genius in an attempt to recuperate the carnivalesque heart of the music.
All you need is cash offers a complex and subtle relationship to the documentary tradition and the history of rock and roll. Its target is not simply The Beatles themselves, but the mythology that surrounded them and that they alternately promoted and assaulted. The film also targets the solemn documentary and critical tradition that upholds the mythology.
While the mythology needs to be challenged and the kings dethroned, the parodic elements of the carnival also affirm and create. Rock and roll documentaries need their uncanny doubles: Mockumentaries remind us of the music’s power, and remind us that behind any domesticated narrative we find a potentially transgressive force—one that is, in this case, unleashed through laughter.
This according to “The circus is in town: Rock mockumentaries and the carnivalesque” by Jeffrey Roessner, an essay included in The music documentary: Acid rock to electropop (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 159–70).
Above and below, The Rutles in their heyday.
Virgil Thomson first met Gertrude Stein in the winter of 1925–26. Early in 1927 he asked her to write an opera libretto, and the plans for Four saints in three acts began to take shape; the text was completed in June of that year and the music was finished in July 1928.
The opera concerns two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, who are surrounded by groups of young religious figures. In fact the work has four acts and over 30 saints. A compère and commère introduce the characters and announce the progress of the action. The strangely haunting and at times repetitive poetry of Stein is declaimed by the singers in a musical language derived from many sources, including Gregorian and Anglican chant, children’s songs, and Sunday School hymn singing, with a harmonious accompaniment for small orchestra. Although the setting of the words is deceptively simple and direct, there are considerable subtleties in the music to parallel the implied imagery of the words.
Four saints in three acts was first heard in Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1934, produced by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the production moved to New York City it created theatrical history with its all-black cast. The opera received over 60 performances within a year, and Thomson’s reputation was made almost overnight.
This according to “Thomson, Virgil Garnett” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [Abington: Routledge, 2005] pp. 456–59); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Thomson’s 120th birthday! Above, the 1934 New York production; below, the opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s 2006 production.
BONUS: A brief documentary with archival footage from 1934, including the voice of Gertrude Stein.
An event billed as A Concert for the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, held in London on 14 May 1880, featured a performance of Bernhard Romberg’s Toy symphony in which prominent London musicians performed on various mechanical birds and toy instruments; all but two of the musicians in the ensemble played instruments other than those that they were accustomed to performing on.
The evening also included performances of the Chœur des soldats from Gounod’s Faust and several children’s songs by a kazoo ensemble conducted by the operatic contralto Zelia Trebelli-Bettini.
This according to “Famous Victorians in a toy symphony” by Herbert Thompson (The musical times LXIX/1026 [1 August 1926] pp. 701–702); this issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, the participants at a rehearsal; below, a more recent performance of the featured work.
In its 1 May 1925 issue The musical times included the following notice in “The amateurs’ exchange”, a regular column that printed free announcements by amateur musicians wishing to collaborate with others:
“A very young man wishes to meet another very young man who has violently ultra-modern tendencies in all four creative arts. M.J. Howe, 185 Marlbro’ Avenue, Hull”
The anonymous editor of the column (perhaps Harvey Grace, who was then the Editor of The musical times) appended a note:
“The above announcement is somewhat beyond the scope of this column. We feel, however, that if this extremely young man has a prototype anywhere, the two should meet, in order that they may go through their artistic scarlet fever together.”
This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, the English modernist Roger Fry’s portrait of the English modernist poet Edith Sitwell. Below, Gustav Holst’s Mars, the bringer of war from The planets, an early English modernist work.
Indie pop has had a complicated relationship with mass culture—it simultaneously depends upon and deconstructs notions of authenticity and truth, and it is especially adept at generating personal authenticity.
It is useful to turn to the concept of kitsch, understood as an aesthetic and not a synonym for bad. Kitsch functions to cultivate personal attachment in the face of impersonal mass culture; it is this aesthetic that indie pop has cultivated through its lo-fi and often nostalgic sound world and through its dissemination, which has relied upon dedicated collectors.
The honesty of indie pop does not arise from an illusion of unmediated communication, but instead from the emphasis on the process of mediation, which stresses the materiality of the music and the actual experience of listening.
This according to “‘…This little ukulele tells the truth’: Indie pop and kitsch authenticity” by Emily I. Dolan (Popular music XXIX/3 [October 2010] pp. 457-469).
Above and below, Stephin Merritt, whose music and career serve as a case study in the article.