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.
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.
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.
SSS addresses a wide range of phenomena, practices, and objects pertaining to sound and music in light of the interconnections between performing traditions and media archaeologies: from opera to musical multimedia, and from cinema to interactive audiovisual platforms. An open-access journal published in English, SSS wishes to redefine the academic study of music as an open field whose boundaries—historical, geographical, and theoretical—are constantly being negotiated.
The resounding success of the premiere of Händel’s Rinaldo, his first opera in England, was tempered by satirical and sarcastic criticism in The spectator, a weekly journal dedicated to combining wit with morality.
The spectacular scenery and costumes, textual weaknesses, and lack of logic were all points of criticism. Joseph Addison, measuring the performance by the standards of reason, truth, and naturalness, hardly found occasion to mention the music and excellent cast.
The main forum for these ideas of a new moral, social, and national function for opera was the London coffeehouse. Thus the Enlightenment, through the medium of opera, came to influence the thought of large groups and stimulated new social behavior and artistic standards.
This according to “Mit Rindern, Schafen und Spatzenschwärmen: Die Londoner Uraufführung der Oper Rinaldo von Händel” by Wilhelm Baethge (Das Orchester XLIII/11  17-22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-14126).
Today is the 31oth anniversary of Rinaldo’s premiere! Below, the opera’s march remains one of its most popular excerpts.
The 2005 film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha is a South African adaptation and reconceptualization of Bizet’s Carmen. The change in culture and context affects the interpretation of the character of Carmen, who emerges as a strong black woman striving for autonomy within a patriarchal and sexist postcolonial South African society.
The film involves an interpretation of identity as a social construct dependent on the interaction between character and place within a specific period of time–in this case, Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, at the beginning of the 21st century. Its portrayal of the modern Carmen as an emancipated woman within a postcolonial and postmodernist context can be traced by interpreting semiotic signs and specific narrative strategies.
The re-encoding of Carmen’s identity questions intransigent or stereotypical perceptions of Carmen as the iconic femme fatale to which audiences have become accustomed; the indigenized production offers recourse to alternative perceptions of Carmen’s identity. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha does not deny the sensuality and femininity attributed to Carmen in the precursory texts, but it depicts her as an even more complex character than the one in Bizet’s opera.
This according to “The same, yet different: Re-encoding identity in U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” by Santisa Viljoen and Marita Wenzel (Journal of the musical arts in Africa XIII/1–2  53–70; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2016-49747).
Luigi Cherubini’s Médée was the first new major operatic work based on classical subject matter to appear on a Paris stage after years of lip service to—but little artistic concern with—the heritage of Gluck. The work’s 1797 premier met a lukewarm reception because it attempted to reinterpret the classical tradition in revolutionary terms at a time when the conservative backlash of the Directoire had already begun.
Dramatically, the character of Médée symbolizes the fury of the Jacobin, while musically the colorful mass effects and harmonic boldness of revolutionary opera are matched with stylistic conventions of prerevolutionary composers. The result is an intermixture of musical realism and expressionism that anticipated not only the last works of Verdi and his veristic successors but also the psychological dramas of Strauss and Berg.
This according to “Cherubini’s Médée and the spirit of French Revolutionary opera” by Alexander L. Ringer, an essay included in Essays in musicology in honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th birthday (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969 281–99; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1969-1154).
Today is Cherubini’s 260th birthday! Above, the composer as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, ca. 1820; below, Maria Callas sings an aria from Médée in a widely used Italian translation.
Occasionally he invited the Italian opera company to perform in his seraglio, before the ladies of his court. The libretti were apparently altered to suit Turkish tastes: for example, a performance of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri ended with the marriage of Isabella and the Bey. The punishment of Taddeo, who received the bastinado on the soles of his feet, drew shouts and applause from the audience.
This according to “‘Each villa on the Bosphorus looks a screen new painted, or a pretty opera scene’: Mahmud II (r.1808–1839) setting the Ottoman stage for Italian opera and Viennese music” by Emre Aracı, an essay included in Ottoman empire and European theatre. II: The time of Joseph Haydn–From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r.1730–1839) (Wien: Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014, 621–30; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2014-88925).
Ernst Krenek’s Karl V is a testimony to the anachronistic—in the best sense of the word—exploitation of the memory of the Holy Roman Empire, or the imperial idea of Charles V as the composer understood it, reflecting the unrealized possibility of a transformation of the medieval concept of empire into a contemporary form.
In its interpretation of the Holy Roman Empire, the opera builds a bridge to the world of values of the Austrian corporative state, which sought to attribute a special mission to Austria by linking it with the supranational idea of the Habsburg Empire. This involves a distinct rejection of the National Socialist idea of empire. On the musical level, this is expressed by the use of the proscribed 12-tone technique. which in various respects corresponds to the conceptual theme of the work.
Krenek’s position can be defined both from the standpoint of music-art and of philosophy-politics, as that of a border-crosser, one which resists classification in any specific direction.
This according to “Die Idee des Reiches in Ernst Kreneks Bühnenwerk mit Musik Karl V, op. 73 (1933)” by Raymond Dittrich, s essay included in Was vom Alten Reiche blieb…: Deutungen, Institutionen und Bilder des frühneuzeitlichen Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (München: Bayerische Landeszentrale für Politische Bildungsarbeit, 2011, pp. 421–33).
Today is Charles V’s 520th birthday! Above, Titian’s La gloria, once owned by the birthday boy, who is depicted in white near the top; Krenek called for the painting to be used as a stage backdrop for his opera. Below, the opening of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production.
Others have maintained that the characters are mere puppets, not real people, so one may relax and enjoy the blameless music. However, Mozart drew fully developed musical characters for all of the roles, musically asserting their reality.
Ultimately, the work is a ruthlessly rational exposure of the instinctive irrationality of human behavior—and therein lies its ability to shock.
This according to “The truth about Così” by Donald Mitchell, an essay included in Tribute to Benjamin Britten on his fiftieth birthday (London: Faber & Faber, 1963, pp. 95–99).
Today is the 230th anniversary of Così fan tutte’s premiere! Above, a handbill for the first performance; below, an excerpt from Act II.
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In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its … Continue reading →
The American traditional song Go tell Aunt Rhody originated as a gavotte composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his opera Le devin du village (1752). An English version of the opera was produced in London in 1766; subsequently the melody attracted … Continue reading →