Music History Monday https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/blog/ Speaker, Composer, Author, Professor, Historian Fri, 03 Apr 2020 21:12:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.4 Exploring Music History with Professor Robert Greenberg one Monday at a time. Every Monday Robert Greenberg explores some timely, perhaps intriguing and even, if we are lucky, salacious chunk of musical information relevant to that date, or to … whatever. If on (rare) occasion these features appear a tad irreverent, well, that’s okay: we would do well to remember that cultural icons do not create and make music but rather, people do, and people can do and say the darndest things.<br /> Music History Monday episodic Music History Monday robertgreenbergsocial@gmail.com robertgreenbergsocial@gmail.com (Music History Monday) Exploring Music History with Robert Greenberg Music History Monday https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/28114845/MusicHistoryMondays.jpg https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/blog/ Music History Monday: Be Nice to the People You Meet On the Way Up, ‘Cause You’re Going to Meet Them Again on the Way Back Down https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/mhm-be-nice-to-the-people-you-meet-on-the-way-up/ Mon, 30 Mar 2020 18:48:39 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6584 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/mhm-be-nice-to-the-people-you-meet-on-the-way-up/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/mhm-be-nice-to-the-people-you-meet-on-the-way-up/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/30113526/4.-Cheetos-Can-Touch-This-Super-Bowl-Commercial.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />March 30 is a good day for birthdays in the world of pop and rock. Let’s acknowledge three of them before moving on to the fourth of our birthday babies, someone whose fascinating life and even more fascinating financial foibles will make up the bulk of today’s post. We gratefully mark the birth on March 30, 1945 – 75 years ago today – of the guitarist, singer, and songwriter Eric Patrick Clapton CBE (that’s “Order of Chivalry of the British Empire”) in the village of Ripley, in Surry, England, roughly 20 miles south-west of London. Clapton is one of the most gifted and influential musicians to grace his time. He is the only person to ever have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame three times: as a solo performer and separately, as a member of the Yardbirds (in which he played from 1963 to 1965) and Cream (from 1966 to 1968). For what it’s worth – as such rankings are entirely subjective – Rolling Stone Magazine ranks Clapton as the second of its “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. (Utter arrogance on the part of Rolling Stone, which should call its list “100 Greatest Rock ‘n’ […]

March 30 is a good day for birthdays in the world of pop and rock. Let’s acknowledge three of them before moving on to the fourth of our birthday babies, someone whose fascinating life and even more fascinating financial foibles will make up the bulk of today’s post.

Eric Clapton (born 1945)
Eric Clapton (born 1945)

We gratefully mark the birth on March 30, 1945 – 75 years ago today – of the guitarist, singer, and songwriter Eric Patrick Clapton CBE (that’s “Order of Chivalry of the British Empire”) in the village of Ripley, in Surry, England, roughly 20 miles south-west of London. Clapton is one of the most gifted and influential musicians to grace his time. He is the only person to ever have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame three times: as a solo performer and separately, as a member of the Yardbirds (in which he played from 1963 to 1965) and Cream (from 1966 to 1968). For what it’s worth – as such rankings are entirely subjective – Rolling Stone Magazine ranks Clapton as the second of its “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. (Utter arrogance on the part of Rolling Stone, which should call its list “100 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Guitarists of All Time.” For our information, Jimi Hendrix is rated as “number one.”)

Tracey Chapman
Tracey Chapman (born 1964)

We mark the birth on March 30, 1964 – 56 years ago today – of the singer-songwriter Tracey Chapman in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Ms. Chapman and her music. Raised in poverty by a single mother, she graduated from Tufts University (with a degree in Anthropology and African Studies) and has been a tireless activist for causes true and just. We would wish her many, many more happy, healthy birthdays before she hangs up her guitar.

Céline Dion
Céline Dion (born 1968)

We mark the birth on March 30, 1968 – 52 years ago today – of the singer Céline Marie Claudette Dion, in Charlemagne, Quebec, some 15 miles northeast of Montreal. A native French speaker, Dion recorded eight studio albums in French before recording her first one in English. To date she has recorded 15 studio albums in French and 12 in English.

And now on to our special birthday-dude for today.

Cheetos Commercial with MC Hammer
Stanley Kirk Burrell (AKA Hammer, on the right; born 1962)

We mark the birth on March 30, 1962 – 58 years ago today – of the rapper, hip-hopper, dancer, producer, and entrepreneur extraordinaire Stanley Kirk Burrell (better known as MC Hammer or just “Hammer”) in Oakland, California. 

It is a distressingly familiar story among musicians and athletes who, when faced (often quite suddenly) with financial fortune after a lifetime of penury, often squander it all and go bust. Leaving aside athletes for now, musicians whose financial lives have traced a rags-to-riches-to-rags trajectory include Tony Braxton (born 1967), whose 67 million record albums sold and seven Grammy Awards won did not save her from declaring bankruptcy twice; David Crosby (born 1941), whose drug-infused life unraveled when he became a solo act, leading to bankruptcy; Willy Nelson (born 1933), who lost his fortune to the IRS when the managers he trusted to pay his taxes instead tried to hide his money in tax shelters (Nelson eventually owed the IRS $32 million; gulp); Jerry Lee Lewis (born 1935), who threw his career away by marrying his 13 year-old second cousin, spiraled into seven-figure debt and had to declare bankruptcy; and Michael Jackson (1958-2009), who was rumored to be $400-$500 million in debt when he died. 

But when it comes to spectacular financial crash-and-burns, no one – not even Michael Jackson – measures up to the sheer, magnificent, painfully-disastrous flamboyance of MC Hammer/Stanley K. Burrell.

The Oaks Card Club
The Oaks Card Club on San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville, about 10 minutes away from where I am writing this blog and about 50 feet away from Pixar Studios
Pixar Studios
Pixar Studios

One of nine children, Hammer grew up in a small, 3-room apartment in the projects of East Oakland. His mother was a secretary and his father split his time: as a professional gambler and manager of the Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, California (a tiny city squeezed in between Oakland and Berkeley) and as the manager of a warehouse. 

Young Stanley hustled for money in the parking lot of the nearby Oakland Coliseum, home of the Oakland A’s, selling stray baseballs and dancing to a beatboxer (that’s a vocalist mimicking a drum machine). In 1973, when Burrell was 11 years old, Charlie Finley, the owner of the Oakland A’s saw him dancing and doing the splits and hired him on the spot as a clubhouse assistant and batboy, dual positions he would hold for 7 years. It was the Oakland A’s right-fielder Reggie Jackson who took the credit for giving Burrell his nickname:

“I nicknamed him ‘Hammer,’ because he looked like Hank Aaron [whose nickname was ‘The Hammer’].”

MC Hammer at Oakland Coliseum
The newly minted “Hammer” circa 1976 at the Oakland Coliseum

Burrell/Hammer graduated from McClymonds High School in Oakland, took a few junior college classes in communications, tried out (unsuccessfully) for the San Francisco Giants as a second baseman, and then served a three-year stint in the Navy. All the while he performed at various clubs when on the road with the A’s and then later, as well, when he was in the Navy. He acquired the further nickname “M. C.” – meaning “Master of Ceremonies” – which he appended to “Hammer” when performing. On being Honorably Discharged from the Navy in 1984, Hammer self-produced a number of rap and hip-hop albums which were underwritten by, among others, the former Oakland A’s players Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy. His big break came in 1988 while performing in a club in Oakland. An executive from Capitol records was there that evening who, according to the New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll:

“didn’t know who he was, but knew he was somebody.”

Capitol signed Hammer to a multi-album contract and gave him a $1,750,000 advance. 

And so, almost overnight, Hammer achieved fame and fortune. Over the next ten years he was everywhere and appeared with everyone. He made recordings, commercials, music videos, voiced over a Saturday morning cartoon called “Hammerman” and got involved in all sorts of business and internet ventures. He won three Grammys, guest hosted Saturday Night Live, and appeared in movies. In 1991, Hammer earned a reported $33 million (the equivalent of $56.8 million today) and continued to earn roughly $30 million a year through the mid-1990s. But, incredibly, he spent that money faster than he could make it. 

Where to start? Let’s start with the hired help. Hammer’s lifestyle gave new meaning to the phrase “it takes a village” (or in Hammer’s case, a small city), because at any given moment, his personal staff numbered around 200 people. He rolled with an entourage of some 40 people; hey, someone’s got to look after and launder those funky/baggy Hammerpants. The total payroll for all these good people exceeded $500,000 per month. (To his credit, we would observe that the majority of Hammer’s entourage consisted of out-of-work family members and friends from his old neighborhood. Still, this was no way to run a business.)

Then there were the rides. At one point he owned 17 luxury cars (including a Lamborghini), a stretch limo, a private jet, and two helicopters.

Then there were the racehorses. In 1991, Hammer created what he called “Oaktown (as in ‘Oakland’) Stable” to house what would eventually be his 19 Thoroughbred horses. (One of those horses, a colt named Dance Floor, finished third in the 1992 Kentucky Derby.) The purchase price for the horses was between $250,000 and $1 million each.

But finally and most ruinously, there was the house. Hammer built his little pied a terre on 12.5 acres at 44896 Vista del Sol in the hills of Fremont, California, roughly 20 miles south and a thousand light years away from the East Oakland neighborhood in which he grew up. 

Video tour of the house Hammer built, made in 2012

The construction cost $30 million. For his money, Hammer got an 11,000 square foot mansion (not 40,000 square feet, the number plastered all over the internet), which included a bowling alley, a hair salon, a complete gym, a reflecting pool, two swimming pools (one of them indoors, the other in the shape of someone dancing in Hammerpants), Italian marble floors, multiple tennis courts, a 17-car garage, a baseball diamond, a recording studio, a 33-seat theater, marble statues of Hammer himself, a helipad, sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, gold-plated driveway gates emblazoned with the phrase “Hammer Time” and, of course, the requisite golden toilet in the master bathroom.

Gold Toilet
”U Can’t Flush This”: Hammer’s potty

We are told that in addition, Hammer and the missus spent untold millions furnishing the place with rare antiques. 

It is estimated that Hammer blew through roughly $73 million between 1990 and 1995, by which time he was not just broke but $13 million in debt. In April 1996 he filed for bankruptcy. The cars, jet, helicopters, horses, and antiques all went bye-bye. The entourage evaporated. Hammer’s $30 million dream house was listed for $6.8 million and sold in 1997 for $5.3 million (it most recently sold in August 2012 for $5.4 million).

Then the IRS descended, and things got really bad. Suffice it for now that Hammer, father of five (three boys and two girls), who today lives with his wife in a ranch house in the Bay Area suburb of Tracy, California, will very likely be paying off the United States Treasury, the State of California, and the County of Alameda for the rest of his days. 

Ever the entrepreneur at heart, Hammer has clawed his way out of the red (for which he might now consider calling himself “Claw-Hammer”) with all sorts of business and performing ventures and has additionally dedicated a significant portion of his time and energy to the Pentecostal Church.

The one place today that the larger public will regularly see Hammer is in TV commercials, commercials in which he not only banks off his once great fame but – I think most admirably – pokes fun at himself and the financial disaster that befell him. 

Among his many commercials are a 2020 Super Bowl ad for Cheetos, in which the protagonist, his fingertips smeared orange from eating Cheetos, can’t touch anything, as in the song U Can’t Touch This:

Cheetos, 2020

Making fun of his name “Hammer”, Mr. Burrell made a series of ads for a 3M product called “Command Hook”, which allows someone to hang pictures without the use of a hammer and nails:

A commercial for Lays Potato Chips, made in 2015, makes fun of Hammer’s disappearance from the larger public eye:

“M. C. Hammer, where you been?”, 2015

Finally, in a 2009 commercial made for a financial service called “Nationwide”, Hammer addresses his own financial follies:

Nationwide, 2009

Any person who has experienced what M.C. Hammer has experienced and can still manage to keep his head and his sense of humor deserves our respect. Happy birthday, Mr. Burrell: may the years to come bring you nothing but joy and not another penny of debt!

Please, if you haven’t already, consider joining me at the subscription platform Patreon!

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

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March 30 is a good day for birthdays in the world of pop and rock but we're focusing today's Music History Monday on Stanley Kirk Burrell, aka MC Hammer. March 30 is a good day for birthdays in the world of pop and rock. Let’s acknowledge three of them before moving on to the fourth of our birthday babies, someone whose fascinating life and even more fascinating financial foibles will make up the bulk of today’s post. Music History Monday Be Nice to the People You Meet On the Way Up, ‘Cause You’re Going to Meet Them Again on the Way Back Down 16:07
Music History Monday: A Bevy of Firsts and Number Ones! https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-bevy-of-firsts-and-number-ones/ Mon, 23 Mar 2020 19:07:42 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6562 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-bevy-of-firsts-and-number-ones/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-bevy-of-firsts-and-number-ones/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/23115402/1.-4203222876_e826ed105f_b.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />Before moving on to our “firsts” and “number ones”, we would acknowledge an event that picks up on the Music History Monday post of March 2, 2020. That postmarked the death in 1830 of the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Schuppanzigh was a loyal friend and supporter of Beethoven and his music, despite Beethoven’s often abusive fat-shaming of the admittedly zaftig violinist. Schuppanzigh participated in more premieres of Beethoven’s music than any other musician other than Beethoven himself, and his unwavering devotion to Beethoven and his music continued after Beethoven’s death. On March 23, 1828 – 192 years ago today – the Schuppanzigh String Quartet posthumously premiered Beethoven’s final string quartet: the F major, Op. 135 of 1826 in Vienna. At the time of the premiere Beethoven had been dead for just under a year: for 362 days. With this posthumous premiere, Schuppanzigh’s life-long service to Beethoven as a first performer came to an end. On March 23, 1956 – 64 years ago today – RCA Victor records released Elvis Presley’s debut LP (long-playing) record, catalog number LPM-1254. There are 12 songs on the album, six on each side, recorded between July 5, 1954 and January 30, 1956, totaling 28 […]
Ignaz Schuppanzigh
Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830)

Before moving on to our “firsts” and “number ones”, we would acknowledge an event that picks up on the Music History Monday post of March 2, 2020. That postmarked the death in 1830 of the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Schuppanzigh was a loyal friend and supporter of Beethoven and his music, despite Beethoven’s often abusive fat-shaming of the admittedly zaftig violinist. Schuppanzigh participated in more premieres of Beethoven’s music than any other musician other than Beethoven himself, and his unwavering devotion to Beethoven and his music continued after Beethoven’s death. On March 23, 1828 – 192 years ago today – the Schuppanzigh String Quartet posthumously premiered Beethoven’s final string quartet: the F major, Op. 135 of 1826 in Vienna. At the time of the premiere Beethoven had been dead for just under a year: for 362 days. With this posthumous premiere, Schuppanzigh’s life-long service to Beethoven as a first performer came to an end.

Elvis Presley’s first LP
Elvis Presley’s first LP, released on March 23, 1956

On March 23, 1956 – 64 years ago today – RCA Victor records released Elvis Presley’s debut LP (long-playing) record, catalog number LPM-1254. There are 12 songs on the album, six on each side, recorded between July 5, 1954 and January 30, 1956, totaling 28 minutes and 3 seconds of music. The now-iconic photo of Elvis on the album jacket was taken during a performance at the Fort Hesterly Armory in Tampa, Florida on July 31, 1955.

The album took off like a toddler on a sugar high. It shot to number one on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart – the first rock ‘n’ roll album to do so – and stayed there for ten weeks. It was an astonishing length of time given that both Elvis and the genre of rock ‘n’ roll were considered “untested properties” by the major record labels. Well, not after Presley’s eponymous first LP! Faster than you can say “John Jacob Jingleheimerschmidt”, the album became the first rock ‘n’ roll LP to sell a million copies.

Bless him, the King had shown that there was industrial-strength profit to be had from rock ‘n’ roll and overnight, rock ‘n’ roll went mainstream. Presley (1935-1977) made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, 1956 – 5½ months after the album was released – and the rest (as we are wont to say) is history. (For lots more on this epochal television appearance, see Music History Monday for September 9, 2019.)

Obviously, Elvis Aaron Presley was not the first recording artist to score a first, and neither was he the last. Consequently, I’ve thought to offer up some recording industry firsts and number ones, some of which surprised me as I expect they will surprise you as well.

For example, what was the first recording of concert music or opera (or so-called “classical music”, a phrase I find as useless as “compassionate meter-maid”) to sell a million copies? I would have guessed that first million-seller to have been recorded by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) conducting Beethoven or Rachmaninoff in the 1920s or 1930s; or Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) conducting Mozart or Beethoven in the 1940s; or the 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations made by Glenn Gould (1932-1982). But my guesses aren’t even close. The first million-seller concert music/opera recording was Enrico Caruso’s performance of “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the costume”) from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci (composed in 1893), a recording made in 1902!

Caruso’s million-plus selling recording of “Vesti la giubba”, recorded in Milan in November of 1902 with Salvatore Cottone at the piano
Enrico Caruso performing “Vesti la giubba”
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) performing “Vesti la giubba”

So incredibly popular was Caruso’s 1902 recording of “Vesti la giubba” that he recorded it again in 1904 and 1907 for the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was the predecessor of RCA Victor. Collectively, these three recordings are among the greatest selling records of the 78-rpm era. (In a gesture that might be headlined as being “better late than never”, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded Caruso a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, 66 years after his death.)

The Dave Brubeck Quartet circa 1962
The Dave Brubeck Quartet circa 1962: left-to-right Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, Gene Wright, Dave Brubeck

The alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s Take Five, as recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet (in which Desmond was a member) on July 1, 1959, takes home double honors. One, it was the first jazz single (that is, a 45-rpm record) to sell a million copies. (For our information, side B was occupied by Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk). Two, the Dave Brubeck Quartet album entitled Time Out in which Take Five is featured (an album released on December 14, 1959) was the first jazz LP to sell a million copies.

The Outlaws: Wanted
The Outlaws: Wanted

We must as well recognize and honor our friends in the world of country music, by noting that the first million-selling country album, titled Wanted!, was recorded by The Outlaws and released on January 12, 1976.

“The Outlaws?” you ask. “Who the freak are ‘The Outlaws’”? In fact, such a group never existed. The album is, in reality, a compilation of Willie Nelson and Wayland Jennings songs recorded by various groups at various times, tied together by their Western/cowboy themes and the faux wanted poster that is the album’s cover art. It was a case of great marketing. One of the album’s producers, Tompall Glaser, later said in an interview: 

“People were so hungry for something different than what was on the radio that they just ate it up. And it sold a million in the first two weeks and it went on up to five million.”

Harry Belafonte, Calypso
Harry Belafonte (born 1927), Calypso (born 1948)

The 12-inch LP record, rotating at 33 1/3 rpm (revolutions per minute), was introduced by Columbia Records in September 1948. (That first commercial 12-inch LP was a recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, performed by Nathan Milstein and the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Bruno Walter; its catalog number is ML-4001.) However, it took some time for LPs – this new software – to catch on, as they required an entirely new generation of hardware (turntables capable of rotating at 33 1/3 rpm equipped with microgroove styli). It wasn’t until 1956 that an LP record sold over a million units. That record was Harry Belafonte’s third studio album, titled Calypso and released by RCA Victor (catalog number LPM-1248). The album’s popularity (31 weeks as number one on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart!) was due in large measure to its first track: Day-O (Banana Boat Song), which became Belafonte’s signature song.

Oh, the myriad joys of the internet! Once the information starts pouring out it’s well-nigh impossible to turn off the spigot. For example, would you like to know what are the 10 best-selling artists of all time by album sales? As of 2017, here they are:

  1. The Beatles: 178 million albums sold.
  2. Garth Brooks: 148 million albums.
  3. Elvis Presley: 136 million albums.
  4. Led Zeppelin: 111.5 million albums.
  5. Eagles: 101 million albums.
  6. Billy Joel: 82.5 million albums.
  7. Michael Jackson: 81 million albums.
  8. Elton John: 78 million albums.
  9. Pink Floyd: 75 million albums.
  10. AC/DC: 72 million albums.

(For those who need to know, Barbra Streisand comes in at #12; The Rolling Stones at #13; Bruce Springsteen at #15; and Madonna at #16.)

The single, best-selling album of all time? That would be Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with over 47 million albums sold worldwide.

The best-selling individual musician of all time, combining sales of singles, albums, videos and downloads? According to that most unimpeachable of sources, the Guinness Book of World Records, the highest-selling individual musician of all time is – right back to where we started – Elvis Presley, with sales of well over a billion, worldwide. 

By comparison, the numbers of best-selling concert/opera albums are absolutely poverty-stricken. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the top two. 

Curiously, these two-best-selling concert/opera recording projects were both initially turned down by recording industry executives before they were finally produced.

Georg Solti and John Culshaw in the studio during the recording of Wagner’s Ring
Georg Solti (1912-1997) and John Culshaw (1924-1980) in the studio during the recording of Wagner’s Ring

At number one is Georg Solti’s epic recording of Richard Wagner’s epic, four-part The Ring of the Niebelung. The producer John Culshaw had to fight not only for the project but for his chosen conductor, the Hungarian-born Jew Georg Solti, who was considered as an “inappropriate” choice to conduct Wagner. Culshaw persevered, and the resulting set – recorded in Vienna between 1958 and 1965 – was called “The Greatest Recording of All Time” by Gramophone Magazine in 1999 and the BBC Music Magazine in 2011. Its popularity was instantaneous; when the first part of Solti’s Ring (The Rheingold) was issued, it shot to the top of the Billboard charts in May of 1959, one slot below Elvis Presley! (This amazing set, remastered to near perfection in 2012, will be featured in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post on Patreon.)

The Three Tenors
The Three Tenors

The second best-selling concert/opera recording also met with skepticism when it was first discussed. The plan: put on an open-air concert at the Baths of Caracalla during the 1990 soccer World Cup in Rome featuring three tenors: José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti; film and record the concert and then sell VHS tapes and CDs of the event. Five major labels turned the project down before Decca reluctantly signed on. As it turned out, there was nothing to be reluctant about, as the sales went ballistic. 

(Referencing my Music History Monday post of February 10, “it ain’t over until the fat man sings,” why any of those recording company honchos would pass on any project featuring Luciano Pavarotti is a mystery to me!)

Again, please join me on Patreon for tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, which will discuss the making of Georg Solti’s unequaled recording of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Niebelung.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

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On March 23, 1828 – 192 years ago today – the Schuppanzigh String Quartet posthumously premiered Beethoven’s final string quartet: the F major, Op. 135 of 1826 in Vienna. On March 23, 1828 – 192 years ago today – the Schuppanzigh String Quartet posthumously premiered Beethoven’s final string quartet: the F major, Op. 135 of 1826 in Vienna. At the time of the premiere Beethoven had been dead for just under a year: for 362 days. Music History Monday 1 Music History Monday: A Bevy of Firsts and Number Ones! 15:33
Music History Monday: Puff the Magic Dragon https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-puff-the-magic-dragon/ Mon, 16 Mar 2020 19:48:48 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6547 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-puff-the-magic-dragon/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-puff-the-magic-dragon/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/16124119/5.-1965.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />Before getting to the Puffster, I’d like us to recognize three other noteworthy musical events that have fallen on this date. On March 16, 1736 – 284 years ago today – the Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi died in Pozzuoli Italy, a city that today is part of metropolitan Naples. Pergolesi passed away at the utterly obscene age of 26. He was born in Jesi, in central Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea. He spent his professional life – what there was of it – in Naples, where he experienced great success. He died of tuberculosis and, according to one source, “his ill health was probably due to his notorious profligacy”. Profligate or not, he was amazingly talented, and his early death robbed us all of someone special. We’re reminded of Schubert’s epitaph, written by Franz Grillparzer: “Music here has buried a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes.” On this day in 1947 – 73 years ago today – the coloratura soprano Margaret Truman (1924-2008), the daughter of then-President Harry Truman, made her professional radio debut when she sang with the Detroit Symphony. Ms. Truman continued to perform on stage, radio, and television through 1956. In the early years of […]

Before getting to the Puffster, I’d like us to recognize three other noteworthy musical events that have fallen on this date.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1726)
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1726)

On March 16, 1736 – 284 years ago today – the Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi died in Pozzuoli Italy, a city that today is part of metropolitan Naples. Pergolesi passed away at the utterly obscene age of 26. He was born in Jesi, in central Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea. He spent his professional life – what there was of it – in Naples, where he experienced great success. He died of tuberculosis and, according to one source, “his ill health was probably due to his notorious profligacy”. Profligate or not, he was amazingly talented, and his early death robbed us all of someone special. We’re reminded of Schubert’s epitaph, written by Franz Grillparzer: “Music here has buried a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes.”

Margaret Truman and her father, President Harry S. Truman, in 1947
Margaret Truman and her father, President Harry S. Truman, in 1947

On this day in 1947 – 73 years ago today – the coloratura soprano Margaret Truman (1924-2008), the daughter of then-President Harry Truman, made her professional radio debut when she sang with the Detroit Symphony. Ms. Truman continued to perform on stage, radio, and television through 1956. In the early years of her career, she received neutral or positive reviews, no doubt out of deference to her father, the sitting POTUS. However, sooner or later someone was going to point out that the Emperor’s daughter had little by way of vocal clothing, and that event occurred in 1950. That was when Paul Hume, the highly respected music critic for The Washington Post, wrote that Margaret Truman:

“cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time. And still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.” 

President Truman took this less-than-glowing review of his only child poorly. He wrote to Hume:

“Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” 

Well, of course, Truman’s letter was published by The Washington Post and it became something of an international scandal.

Ernst Lecher Bacon (1898-1990)
Ernst Lecher Bacon (1898-1990)

On March 16, 1990 – 30 years ago today – the American composer Ernst Bacon died in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Orinda at the age of 91, two months shy of his 92nd birthday. During the spring of 2019, I dedicated my Dr. Bob Prescribes posts (which appear every Tuesday on my Patreon subscription page) to the music of a bevy of underappreciated, under-played mid-twentieth century American composers. Bacon is one of those composers I have not yet written about but be assured that before too much more time passes I will.

On now to the major topic of today’s Music History Monday.

Puff the Magic Dragon

Puff and Jackie
Puff and Jackie

We mark the first appearance on the Billboard charts on March 16, 1963 – 57 years ago today – of the song Puff, the Magic Dragon. Written by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow, recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and released on January 15, 1963 as a 45-rpm single by Warner Brothers, the song climbed to number 2 on the Billboard charts on March 30, two weeks after it hit the charts on March 16.

I am frequently asked by parents “how do we get our kids interested in music.” As I’ve said before, I have no magic-bullet answer to this question beyond encouraging parents to expose their kids to a variety of music whenever they can: in the car, at home, wherever, and to show an equal willingness to listen to the music their kids like, as well. 

In terms of learning to listen to music, nothing had a greater impact on me than my parents’ record collection. Crummy though was the fidelity of our monaural “record player”, I loved those records, with their great cover art and the tactile pleasure of sliding them out of their jackets and putting them on the turntable. 

My folks loved all sorts of music, and through their records – which they gratefully allowed me to play and probably mess up to my heart’s delight – I learned to love that music as well. I learned the Beethoven symphonies from Toscanini’s set with the NBC Orchestra (on RCA). I learned much of the nineteenth century piano repertoire from recordings by our household’s pianistic deities: Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, and Artur Rubinstein; the violin repertoire from Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, and Nathan Milstein; the bel canto repertoire from Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Roberta Peters, and Maria Callas. I discovered jazz through Erroll Garner’s miraculous Concert by the Sea (on Columbia) and Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond’s Time Out album. My folks had scads of Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops records, as well as original cast albums from Broadway Shows (which I adored). 

My parents also had a lots of folk albums; nothing so young and hip as Bob Dylan, but rather the Kingston Trio, Theo Bikel, and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Peter (Yarrow; right), Paul (Stookey; left) & Mary (Travers; center) in 1965
Peter (Yarrow; right), Paul (Stookey; left) & Mary (Travers; center) in 1965

OMG, how I loved Peter, Paul & Mary (in particular, Mary Travers [1936-2009] who, for the eight, and nine, and ten-year-old me, was only the most perfect, beautiful, and talented person in the world). The songs Peter, Paul & Mary sang, and the innocence and purity (and pain) those songs embodied became an indelible part of my DNA. I know I’m speaking for every one of us: the music we loved as children is virtually part of who we are today and will remain so to our dying breaths.

Lenny Lipton (born 1940) circa 2010
Lenny Lipton (born 1940) circa 2010

Like pretty much every other kid, I had a special place in my heart for the fairy-tale song Puff the Magic Dragon. The song’s lyrics are based on a poem written in 1959 by the American author, filmmaker, lyricist, and inventor Lenny Lipton (born 1940), who was then a 19-year-old student at Cornell University. Lipton’s lyric had been inspired by a poem by Ogden Nash (1902-1971) titled The Tale of Custard the Dragon. Nash’s poem was written in 1936 and it tells the story of a “realio, trulio little pet dragon.”

For all of its appeal to children, the real story of Puff the Magic Dragon is the loss of innocence and imagination that sadly but almost inevitably occurs as we grow older. 

The action of the song takes place “by the sea” in an imaginary place called “Honalee.” It’s there that a little boy named Jackie Paper and a ferocious dragon named Puff become the greatest of friends, and they “froliced together in the autumn mists” on a daily basis. But as Jackie grows older, his mind, heart, and interests go elsewhere, and one day he fails to visit Puff. Puff understands what has happened and is devastated; heartbroken, he retreats to his cave, presumably never to be seen again. (For our information, this same plot device – an aging child’s loss of interest in his “imaginary friends” – powers the Pixar movie Toy Story 3.)

This then is the bittersweet and very adult message behind Puff the Magic Dragon. 

Until it wasn’t.

It started with an article in Newsweek magazine, which in 1964 ran a cover story discussing “hidden drug references” in popular music. The song Puff the Magic Dragon was singled out as carrying just such an insidious message to the children of America, a song that encouraged the smoking (taking a “drag on” or puffing) MARIJUANA! 

REEFER MADNESS!!

And so the piling on began. It was pointed out that in China, “chasing the dragon” was a well-established reference to inhaling narcotic vapor. The name of Puff’s friend “Jackie Paper” was identified as a reference to rolling paper. The phrase “by the sea” was reinterpreted as meaning “by the C”, as in the letter “C” for cocaine. The “autumn mists” evoked in the song were said to represent marijuana smoke, and the land of “Honalee” was identified as a thinly veiled reference to the area around the Hawaiian village of Hanalei, where a particularly potent strain of weed was grown. 

Everybody involved in creating, performing, and recording the song was flabbergasted. The poet Leonard Lipton wrote:

 [“Puff is about the] loss of innocence and having to face an adult world. It’s surely not about drugs. I can tell you that at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass. I find the fact that people interpret it as a drug song annoying. It would be insidious to propagandize about drugs in a song for little kids.”

The song’s co-writer Peter Yarrow, the “Peter” in Peter, Paul & Mary stated unequivocally:

As the principal writer of the song, I can assure you it’s a song about innocence lost. It’s easier to interpret ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as a drug song than Puff, the Magic Dragon. This is just a rumor that was promulgated by Newsweek magazine. There is no basis for it. It’s inane at this point and really unfortunate, because even in Hong Kong it’s not played because of the allegation it’s about drugs. But I assure you it’s not. When Puff was written, I was too innocent to know about drugs. What kind of a meanspirited SOB would write a children’s song with a covert drug message?”

Mary Travers – my Mary Travers – could only shake her head:

“Peter wrote the song, and it is not about marijuana. Believe me, if he wanted to write a song about marijuana, he would have written a song about marijuana.”

Mary, we believe you. 

My friends – and you are my friends if you are with me right now – we are presently living in trying times. But these times will pass; they always do. They will pass more easily with the help of the tremendous gift, really, the miracle that is music. So: pull out your Peter, Paul & Mary; your Dylan; your Simon and Garfunkle; your B.B. King; your Louis Armstrong; your Tupac; your Beatles and Stones and Led Zeppelin and Milli Vanilli; your Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Bartók, whomever, and let their music do what it was designed to do: uplift our spirits and transform our lives.

We’ll get through this. Financially poorer, no doubt; but with our spirits intact.

For lots more on Peter, Paul & Mary and the American folk music scene in the 1950s and 1960s, I would invite you to join me on Patreon for tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

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We mark the first appearance on the Billboard charts on March 16, 1963 – 57 years ago today – of the song Puff, the Magic Dragon. We mark the first appearance on the Billboard charts on March 16, 1963 – 57 years ago today – of the song Puff, the Magic Dragon. Written by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow, recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and released on January 15, 1963 as a 45-rpm single by Warner Brothers, the song climbed to number 2 on the Billboard charts on March 30, two weeks after it hit the charts on March 16. Music History Monday 1 Puff the Magic Dragon 14:36
Music History Monday: Unspeakable Catastrophe and Unqualified Triumph! https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-unspeakable-catastrophe-and-unqualified-triumph/ Mon, 09 Mar 2020 17:31:49 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6532 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-unspeakable-catastrophe-and-unqualified-triumph/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-unspeakable-catastrophe-and-unqualified-triumph/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/09102127/1.-1842.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the first performance on March 9, 1842 – 178 years ago today – of Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and first operatic masterwork, Nabucco, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901) was born on either the ninth or tenth of October 1813, in the north-central Italian village of Le Roncole in the Duchy of Parma.  At the time, the Duchy of Parma was part of Napoleon’s “First French Empire” and as such Verdi’s birth name was recorded in French as “Joseph Fortunin François”. Thus, this great Italian patriot was born– much to his later annoyance – as a citizen of France. Verdi’s family moved to nearby Busseto when he was still a child, and it was there that Verdi acquired the padrone – the patron – who would shape his life: a wealthy merchant named Antonio Barezzi. Barezzi paid for Verdi’s musical education, arranged for Verdi’s first full-time music position (as Busetto’s “town music master”), and sponsored Verdi’s first public performance. But even more, Antonio Barezzi “gave” Verdi the greatest gift any father can give, and that was the hand of his daughter Margherita; the two were married on May 4, 1836. Margherita in turn […]
Giuseppe Verdi in 1842, age 29
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in 1842, age 29

We mark the first performance on March 9, 1842 – 178 years ago today – of Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and first operatic masterwork, Nabucco, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901) was born on either the ninth or tenth of October 1813, in the north-central Italian village of Le Roncole in the Duchy of Parma.  At the time, the Duchy of Parma was part of Napoleon’s “First French Empire” and as such Verdi’s birth name was recorded in French as “Joseph Fortunin François”. Thus, this great Italian patriot was born– much to his later annoyance – as a citizen of France.

Antonio Barezzi
Antonio Barezzi (1787-1867)

Verdi’s family moved to nearby Busseto when he was still a child, and it was there that Verdi acquired the padrone – the patron – who would shape his life: a wealthy merchant named Antonio Barezzi. Barezzi paid for Verdi’s musical education, arranged for Verdi’s first full-time music position (as Busetto’s “town music master”), and sponsored Verdi’s first public performance. But even more, Antonio Barezzi “gave” Verdi the greatest gift any father can give, and that was the hand of his daughter Margherita; the two were married on May 4, 1836. Margherita in turn quickly gave Verdi two children, a girl – Virginia Maria Luigia (born in March 1837) and a boy Icilio Romano (born in July, 1838).

Life was not kind to Giuseppe and Margherita Verdi. Both children died: Virginia of some unknown malady at the age of 16 months and Icilio of bronchial pneumonia at the age of 17 months. Verdi later wrote that:

“The poor little boy, languishing, died in the arms of his utterly desolate mother.” 

Buried in grief and debt, Verdi and Margherita gamely struggled on. 

On November 17, 1839, just a few weeks after his son Icilio’s death, Verdi’s first opera – Oberto – received its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, then as now the most prestigious opera theater in Italy. 

The reviews of Oberto ranged from so-so to very good. However, the most important review didn’t appear in the papers; it was the evaluation of Oberto made by La Scala director Bartolomeo Merelli. So impressed was he that the morning after the premiere he made Verdi an offer no one could refuse. Verdi remembered Merelli’s offer as being:

“lavish at that time: he offered me a contract for three operas to be written at eight-month intervals, to be performed at either La Scala or in Vienna, where he was also the impresario; in return he would pay me 4,000 Austrian lire per opera, [and split] the profit from the sale of the scores half and half with me.”

So there you have it: by late November 1839, Verdi had an opera on the boards, a contract and a publisher. Giuseppe and Margherita, each 26 years old, assumed that the bad times were behind them. And who could blame them if they thought so? Verdi had a three-opera contract. They could pay off their debts. And though they grieved for their children, they were still young and assumed they would have more. 

I wish I could tell you that they were right, but sadly, I cannot.

Margherita Verdi
Margherita Verdi (1814-1840)

Verdi began work on his next opera, the first of the three operas contracted by Merelli, a comedy entitled Un Giorno di Regno, “King for a Day”. A few months later, in June of 1840, Margherita suddenly became ill. While the illness was diagnosed as rheumatic fever, it was probably encephalitis. She died there in Milan on June 18, 1840.

Verdi was despondent:

“A third coffin went out of my house. I was alone. Alone! In the space of [22 months] three loved ones had disappeared forever. I no longer had a family. And in the midst of this terrible anguish, I was compelled to write and finish a comic opera!” 

Verdi returned to Busseto and collapsed. According to Verdi’s friend Giuseppe Demalde:

“His profound sorrow led him to give up everything completely and forever. He thought of nothing but hiding himself in some dark corner and living out his miserable existence.” 

The magnitude of Verdi’s grief and rage were such that his friends and family were concerned for his sanity. For his part, Verdi wrote Merelli to tell him that he would not be returning to Milan and that he would not finish the opera. But the opera had been announced and the rehearsals scheduled, and Merelli, may he be blessed forever, dug in his heels and refused to let Verdi out of his contract. A broken man, the 27-year-old Verdi dragged himself back to Milan, went back to the little apartment he and Margherita had so recently shared and finished composing this “comic opera” in a little under six weeks. 

Un Giorno di Regno – “King for a Day” – was premiered on September 5, 1840, and it was a flop; some of the numbers were applauded, but others were whistled at and booed. It was, for Verdi, an excruciating, humiliating evening, one he never, ever forgot. Twenty years later, still stinging with hurt, Verdi wrote:

“[The audience] abused the opera of a poor, sick young man, harassed by the pressure of the schedule and heartsick and torn by horrible misfortune! Oh, if the audience had – I do not say applauded but had borne that opera in silence – I would not have had the words to thank them. Today, I accept the public; I accept its whistles on the condition that I am not asked to give back anything in exchange for its applause.” 

Bartolomeo Merelli
Bartolomeo Merelli (1794-1879)

The morning after the premiere of Un Giorno di regno, Merelli called Verdi into his office. Verdi later said he expected to receive a full blast dressing-down, but Merelli, bless him once again, encouraged Verdi to take heart. The remaining performances of Un Giorno were cancelled, and in their place Merelli remounted Verdi’s first opera – Oberto – which received an additional 17 performances, performances that were cheered by the very same Milanese audiences that had just hissed Un Giorno

Nabucco

As far as Verdi was concerned, the audience could take those cheers and put them where the sun didn’t shine. In December of 1840, he announced he was through with music, finito. A day or two later Verdi ran into Bartolomeo Merelli on the street there in Milan. If we are to believe Verdi’s account of the story – and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t – then their “accidental meeting” was one of the most serendipitous moments in the history of music. Verdi recalled:

“Large snowflakes were falling and [Merelli], taking me by the arm, invited me to come with him to the director’s office at La Scala. As we walked along, he told me that he was in a terrible fix because of a new opera he had to present. He had given the assignment to [the composer Otto] Nicolai, who was unhappy with the libretto.

‘Imagine’, Merelli said, ‘a libretto by [Tomisticle] Solera: stupendous, magnificent, extraordinary! Effective dramatic situations; grand, beautiful lines; but that crank of a composer refuses to look at it, saying that it is an impossible libretto!’

We reached the theater. Merelli took a manuscript in his hand and exclaimed:

‘See, here it is! Solera’s libretto! Such a beautiful plot! Imagine turning it down. Take it. Read it.’

‘What the devil do you want me to do with it? No! No! I have no desire to read libretti!’

‘Well it’s not going to bite you’, Merelli said. ‘Read it and then bring it back to me.’ And he handed me a huge sheaf of papers written in big letters, the kind they used then. I rolled it up; and, saying goodbye to Merelli, I went off to my house. I went to my place, and with an almost violent gesture, I threw the manuscript on the table, and stood straight in front of it. The bundle of pages, falling on the table, opened by itself: without knowing why, I stared at the page before me and saw the line ‘Va pensiero sull’ali dorate’ (“Fly, thought, on golden wings”). 

(As it would turn out, Verdi’s choral setting of Va pensiero became the unofficial anthem of the “Risorgimento”, the nineteenth century Italian revolt against foreign occupation and oppression. When performed in the opera, the chorus is sung by the Israelites who are being held captive in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar (in Italian, Nabucco). When the opera was first performed at La Scala and then across Italy, it didn’t take long for audiences to decide that the Israelites’ dream of freedom and homeland was their dream of freedom and homeland as well. Verdi’s chorus almost immediately achieved the status of a national hymn, and to this day it will be sung by Italians at any time, in any place.

Back to Verdi’s recollection of his rebirth:

“I threw the manuscript on the table. The bundle of pages, falling on the table, opened by itself: I stared at the page before me and saw the line ‘Va pensiero sull’ali dorate’, I ran through the lines that follow and got a tremendous impression from them. I read one section; I read another; then, firm in my decision not to compose again, I forced myself to close the manuscript and go to bed. But yes! Nabucco was racing through my head! I could not sleep: I got up and read the libretto, not once, not twice, but three timers, so that in the morning I knew Solera’s whole libretto from memory. In spite of all that, I was still [resolved never to compose again]. The next day I went back to the theater and gave the manuscript back to Merelli.

‘Beautiful, eh?’ he said to me.

‘Very beautiful.’

‘All right, then, set it to music!’

‘Not a chance! I would not even dream of it! I don’t want anything to do with it!’

[Merelli chanted:] ‘Set it to music! Set it to music!’

And, saying this, Merelli took the libretto, stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat, took me by the shoulders, and, with a big shove, pushed me out of his office. Not just that: he closed the door and locked it!

What was I to do?

I went back home with Nabucco in my pocket. One day, one line; one day, another; now one note, then a phrase. Little by little, the opera was composed.” 

Verdi finished Nabucco in 10 months, in early October of 1841. Merelli scheduled its premiere for March 9, 1842, at the tail-end of Milan’s Carnival season. The cast featured the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi who, in time, would become Verdi’s second wife. A measly twelve days were scheduled for the rehearsals, hardly adequate for a new work of such monumental proportions. But a remarkable event took place during the rehearsals, and Verdi later claimed that it was at that moment he knew his luck had changed. Verdi:

“The [common] people have always been my best friends, from the very beginning. It was a handful of carpenters who gave me my first real assurance of success. 

[It was during a rehearsal.] The [performers] were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed bent only on drowning out the noise of the workmen who were making alterations in the building. Presently, the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, ‘Va Pensiero’, but before they had gotten through half-a-dozen bars the theater was as still as a church. The [carpenters] had stopped working one by one, and there they were, sitting about on the ladders and scaffolding, listening! When the number was finished, they broke out in the noisiest applause I have ever heard, crying, ‘Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!’ and beating on the woodwork with their tools. Then I knew what the future had in store for me.” 

When Verdi took his place in the pit to conduct the premiere of Nabucco on March 9, 1842, the cellist Vincenzo Merighi said to him:

“Maestrino [a term of endearment, meaning, literally, “little maestro”], maestrino, I wish I were in your place this evening.” 

And well he might have wished, because Nabucco was a triumph. Verdi was called repeatedly to the stage by the ecstatic audience. The reviews were uniformly rapturous. Verdi’s father called it a miracle. Verdi went to bed that night and woke up famous. 

What did that opening night audience see and hear that so inspired them? They heard music that was lyric, memorable, magnificent and magnificently wrought, music that spoke, as Beethoven would have said, “from heart to heart”. They saw a powerful opera seria in which the story was a thinly veiled allegory for the state of the Italian nation itself: a proud and ancient people, divided and largely controlled by oppressive foreigners, longing to be free. Nabucco spoke directly to the patriotic heart of the Italian people. 

Nabucco immediately earned a place in the operatic repertoire, where it has remained to this day. It received an incredible 75 performances at La Scala alone during the year of its premiere, not counting other performances that took place across Italy. 

Of Nabucco, Verdi later wrote:

“With this opera, you can truly say that my artistic career began.” 

It was a career that would completely dominate Italian opera for the next 59 years!

For lots more on Verdi and Nabucco, I would direct your attention to my Teaching Company/Great Courses survey, The Operas of Verdi, which can be examined and downloaded here at RobertGreenbergMusic.com

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

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We mark the first performance on March 9, 1842 – 178 years ago today – of Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and first operatic masterwork, Nabucco, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. We mark the first performance on March 9, 1842 – 178 years ago today – of Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and first operatic masterwork, Nabucco, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Music History Monday 1 Unspeakable Catastrophe and Unqualified Triumph! 18:11
Music History Monday: M’Lord Falstaff https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-mlord-falstaff/ Mon, 02 Mar 2020 20:16:05 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6516 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-mlord-falstaff/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-mlord-falstaff/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/02115919/1.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the death, in Vienna, on March 2, 1830 – 190 years ago today – of the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Born in Vienna on November 20, 1776, he was 53 at the time of his death, reportedly of “paralysis”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Speaking generally but accurately, a measure of professional contentment can be hard to come by in the professional musical world. That’s because a professional career – for composers and performers alike – consists (particularly early in our careers when we are most vulnerable) of a seemingly endless sequence of (often failed) auditions; rejection; criticism (sometimes fair but more usually unfair); rejection; scratching out a living that is in no way commensurate with one’s talents and skills; and rejection. (Did I remember to mention “rejection”?) Sure, what audiences see and hear during a concert performance are skilled musicians, playing their hearts out and receiving – in the end – applause for a job well done. But hang out afterward and scratch the scab that is any professional musician’s psyche, and the frustration will likely spurt forth like goobers from a lanced boil. One will rarely – if ever – meet a professional musician who, […]
Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830)
Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830)

We mark the death, in Vienna, on March 2, 1830 – 190 years ago today – of the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Born in Vienna on November 20, 1776, he was 53 at the time of his death, reportedly of “paralysis”, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Speaking generally but accurately, a measure of professional contentment can be hard to come by in the professional musical world. That’s because a professional career – for composers and performers alike – consists (particularly early in our careers when we are most vulnerable) of a seemingly endless sequence of (often failed) auditions; rejection; criticism (sometimes fair but more usually unfair); rejection; scratching out a living that is in no way commensurate with one’s talents and skills; and rejection. (Did I remember to mention “rejection”?)

Sure, what audiences see and hear during a concert performance are skilled musicians, playing their hearts out and receiving – in the end – applause for a job well done. But hang out afterward and scratch the scab that is any professional musician’s psyche, and the frustration will likely spurt forth like goobers from a lanced boil. One will rarely – if ever – meet a professional musician who, on being asked “how are you?” will respond “I can’t complain.” Because complain we must. Along with our opposable thumbs, the ability to complain elevates us from the beasts, and a career in the arts is perhaps the surest path to developing a virtuosity in the fine art of “the whine.”

It is my experience that composers are the most accomplished complainers of all. And why not? The sense of victimization that burns in the souls of so many musicians flares extra bright for composers. Hats in hands, we approach conductors with the same deference as Oliver Twist asking for more food, “a performance, please, Sir?”, only to be treated like a maggot discovered in oatmeal. Grantmaking organizations and competition juries dispense their largesse with a degree of arbitrariness that shames even those on the grant committees. Publishers and recording companies either reject our music outright or, having accepted it for publication, demand that the composer underwrite all or most of the costs involved. (When Beethoven accused his publishers of cheating him, he was not behaving well but he was probably correct.) 

Having observed this often painful professional landscape let us celebrate the two things without which no composer could survive and for which every composer must be eternally grateful: our patrons and our performers. 

Our patrons are those blessed, sainted individuals who out of love, artistic conviction, and the sheer goodness of their hearts finance the composition of works and/or the performance of those works. 

Finally, in the end, it’s all about the performers. Without dedicated professional-level performers willing to take risks and spend their precious time learning new music that is not-infrequently unworthy of their time, the compositional community would wither and die. Which brings us, finally, to what was arguably the greatest one-two punch of patron and performer in the history of Western music: Count Andreas Kyrillovich Razumovsky and the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

Count Andreas Kyrillovich Razumovsky
Count Andreas Kyrillovich Razumovsky (1752-1836)

Count (and later Prince) Andrey Razumovsky was a fabulously wealthy Russian diplomat posted to Vienna. With his own ducats he built a magnificent, neoclassic-styled palace just outside the old city walls in Vienna’s Landstrasse district (it can be visited today at Rasumofskygasse 24). Rasumovsky stocked his less-than-modest town house with the best ancient and modern art his great wealth could buy. But even more importantly, Razumovsky – himself a most competent violinist – stocked his casa with a professional string quartet.

Anton Schindler – Beethoven’s assistant and secretary on and off between 1822 and Beethoven’s death in 1827 – observed that:

“Count Razumovsky was a practicing musician. [He] would gather musicians in his palace to perform string quartet music, in which he himself played second violin. He placed a permanent quartet under a life-long contract. This was the first example of its kind in Austria. Other rich art lovers followed his example, establishing permanent quartets in their households. But none of them did what Razumovsky did, namely, to provide those artists with pensions for the rest of their lives.”

Schindler continues:

“This model quartet was composed of [Ignaz] Schuppanzigh, [Louis] Sina, [Franz] Weiss, and [Joseph] Linke. Under the name ‘Razumovsky Quartet’, they achieved not only a European fame but also a place in the history of music, for in fact, Razumovsky’s Quartet became equally ‘Beethoven’s Quartet’: it was as if this noble patron had engaged them exclusively for this purpose; they were placed at Beethoven’s complete disposal.”

The Palais Razumovsky in Vienna as it appears today
The Palais Razumovsky in Vienna as it appears today

At a time when string quartets were performed by amateurs or by professionals in informal, pickup groups, this Razumovsky String Quartet, ensconced in Count Razumovsky’s Palace (pictured above) and headed by its first violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, was the first full-time, fully professional string quartet. It became, as Schindler correctly points out, the model for every professional string quartet that followed. 

Ignaz Schuppanzigh would have met the 22-year-old Beethoven soon after Beethoven arrived in Vienna from Bonn in late 1792, as he – Schuppanzigh – participated in informal string quartet readings at the home of Beethoven’s principal patron, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. Beethoven very likely studied violin with Schuppanzigh in 1793 and 1794, and they became great friends. 

Schuppanzigh was reportedly a slim and handsome young man, though by the time he became important enough to have his portrait painted, he was anything but. By early middle age he became what today would be considered morbidly obese, and Beethoven – who, Don Rickles-like, teased his friends without mercy – never let him forget it. Beethoven called Schuppanzigh “M’lord Falstaff”, after Shakespeare’s fat, booze-swilling clown, a nickname equally inspired by Schuppanzigh’s rotundity and jollity. Beethoven even composed a couple of pieces in honor of Schuppanzigh’s girth, one of which is a short, comic choral work titled Lob auf den Dicken (which translates as “Praise to the Fat One”), WoO 100.

Beethoven circa 1801
Beethoven (1770-1827) circa 1801

(Beethoven composed this little ditty in 1801, setting the following words of his own invention:

“Schuppanzigh ist ein Lump.
Wer kennt ihn nicht,
den dicken Sauermagen,
den aufgeblasnen Eselskopf?
O Lump Schuppanzigh,
o Esel Schuppanzigh,
wir stimmen alle ein,
du bist der größte Esel,
o Esel, hi hi ha.”

Schuppanzigh is a scoundrel
Who doesn’t know him,
the fat sour-belly,
the inflated ass’s head?
Oh scoundrel Schuppanzigh,
Oh donkey Schuppanzigh,
We all agree
that you are the biggest ass,
Oh ass, hahaha.

Nice. Hahaha. We can be sure that Schuppanzigh just loved that.)

When it was suggested to Beethoven that, perhaps he should lighten up on Schuppanzigh, he scoffed, telling Ferdinand Ries that Schuppanzigh:

“ought to be grateful if all my insults have caused him to lose a little weight!”

Beethoven’s student and friend Carl Czerny described Schuppanzigh as being:

“a short, fat, pleasure-seeking man . . . one of the best violin-players of the time, unrivaled in quartet playing, a very good concert artist and the best orchestral conductor of his day. No one knew how to enter into the spirit of the music better than he.” 

The constant fat-shaming notwithstanding, Schuppanzigh’s loyalty to Beethoven never wavered, and he played a major role in Beethoven’s career in Vienna from the beginning to the end. He participated in more of Beethoven’s premieres than any other musician, from the Septet (in 1800) to the three opus 59 string quartets (composed in 1805 and 1806, and collectively known as the “Razumovsky Quartets”), to the String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (of 1810), and five of the six late string quartets: Opuses 127, 130, 132, 135 and the Grosse Fugue Op. 133. He performed as concertmaster for the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on May 7, 1824 and participated in tens – if not hundreds – of other performances of Beethoven’s chamber and orchestral music. 

Schuppanzigh lived in St. Petersburg from 1816 to 1823, and it is likely that he was responsible for convincing the Russian aristocrat Prince Nikolai Borisovich Galitzine to commission Beethoven to compose the string quartets Opuses 127, 130, and 132! Like Razumovsky and Schuppanzigh, Galitzine and Schuppanzigh are a portrait of patron and performer in service of a composer!

Finally, it was “M’lord Falstaff” – Ignaz Schuppanzigh – who triggered one of Beethoven’s most famous outbursts.

As a reminder, the Russian ambassador to the Habsburg Court in Vienna was Count Andreas Razumovsky, who underwrote a performing quartet called – logically enough – the Razumovsky Quartet, a quartet that featured Ignaz Schuppanzigh as its first violinist.

The Count commissioned Beethoven to compose three string quartets for his house quartet. Composed on the heels of Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony No. 3 (of 1804), these three “Razumovsky” string quartets of Op. 59 (of 1805-1806) were, at the time they were first performed, considered to be incomprehensible new music.

(I do not exaggerate. Beethoven biographer Alexander Thayer wrote that:

“Perhaps no works of Beethoven’s met a more discouraging reception from musicians and connoisseurs than the Op. 59 string quartets.”

One contemporary critic battered the Op. 59 quartets with a critical sap made from Beethoven’s own Op. 18 string quartets, which he had composed between 1798 and 1800. The critic wrote that Beethoven’s Opus 18 string quartets were distinguished by:

“Unity, utmost simplicity, and character, which raise them to the rank of masterworks and validate Beethoven’s place alongside the honored names of our Haydn and Mozart. [In contrast, these “new” quartets] indulge without consideration in the strangest and most singular whims of Beethoven’s bizarre imagination.” 

Another, rather more sympathetic critic wrote that the Op. 59 quartets were:

“Deeply thought through and of excellent workmanship, but not comprehensible to the ‘public’”.

Taken all together then, we cannot fault the members of the Razumovsky Quartet or Ignaz Schuppanzigh entirely for what happened when they began reading through the first of Beethoven’s Op. 59 quartets, the F major. The members of the quartet began to giggle, thinking that Beethoven was just messin’ with their heads. Carl Czerny recalled:

“When Schuppanzigh and his quartet played the Quartet in F Major for the first time, they laughed and were convinced that Beethoven wanted to play a joke and that this was not the promised quartet at all!”

Beethoven – who was not known for having a sense of humor about his music – said nothing but rather, went into slow-burn-mode. 

The explosion came soon enough. Schuppanzigh, perhaps beginning to realize that the quartet was not intended as a joke, stopped playing, turned to Beethoven, and complained that the music was hard to play. Beethoven’s furious response has become the stuff of legend:

“Do you think I worry about your [expletive deleted] fiddle when the MUSE SPEAKS TO ME?!?!???”

We can be assured that at that moment, the giggling – and the complaints about the difficulty of music – stopped.

For lots more on Beethoven’s string quartets, I would direct your attention to my Teaching Company/Great Courses survey Beethoven’s String Quartets, which can be examined and downloaded at here at RobertGreenbergMusic.com.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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We mark the death, in Vienna, on March 2, 1830 – 190 years ago today – of the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh. We mark the death, in Vienna, on March 2, 1830 – 190 years ago today – of the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Born in Vienna on November 20, 1776, he was 53 at the time of his death, reportedly of “paralysis”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Music History Monday 1 16:02
Music History Monday: The Game Changer https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-game-changer/ Mon, 24 Feb 2020 20:17:11 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6494 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-game-changer/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-game-changer/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/24120353/3-3.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the first performance on February 24, 1607 – 413 years ago today – of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, in Mantua, Italy. I suppose I should apologize. I have been advised, gently but firmly, to diversify these Music History Monday posts as much as possible: to spread the topics around by focusing on relatively “contemporary musical events” (a euphemism for “popular musical events”) as well as on concert music and opera. And this I have done, as best as I can. For example, we celebrated the great Broadway composer Richard Rodgers on December 30; we discussed the fortunate/unfortunate patenting of the accordion on January 13; we dined on bat tartare together with Ozzy Osbourne on January 20.  Certainly, there is no shortage of (relatively) contemporary musical events we could celebrate here on February 24. For example, on February 24, 1965, the Beatles began filming the movie Help in the Bahamas. On February 24, 1978, “The Second Barry Manilow Special” was broadcast on ABC-TV with guest star Ray Charles (OMG; be still our hearts!).  On February 24, 1988 the delightful Alice Cooper (born 1948) announced he would run for Governor of the great state of Arizona as a member of […]

We mark the first performance on February 24, 1607 – 413 years ago today – of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, in Mantua, Italy.

I suppose I should apologize. I have been advised, gently but firmly, to diversify these Music History Monday posts as much as possible: to spread the topics around by focusing on relatively “contemporary musical events” (a euphemism for “popular musical events”) as well as on concert music and opera. And this I have done, as best as I can. For example, we celebrated the great Broadway composer Richard Rodgers on December 30; we discussed the fortunate/unfortunate patenting of the accordion on January 13; we dined on bat tartare together with Ozzy Osbourne on January 20. 

Certainly, there is no shortage of (relatively) contemporary musical events we could celebrate here on February 24. For example, on February 24, 1965, the Beatles began filming the movie Help in the Bahamas. On February 24, 1978, “The Second Barry Manilow Special” was broadcast on ABC-TV with guest star Ray Charles (OMG; be still our hearts!). 

Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper (born Vincent Damon Furnier; 1948)

On February 24, 1988 the delightful Alice Cooper (born 1948) announced he would run for Governor of the great state of Arizona as a member of the “Wild Party” (tragically, he was not elected). On February 24, 1992 Courtney Love (born 1964) married Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. 

Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson Lee
Pam and Tommy in happier times

February 24, 1998 was an especially rich day in music history: Tommy Lee (born 1962; the drummer for and founding member of Mötley Crüe) was arrested and charged with assaulting his then-wife Pamela Anderson Lee (born 1967), for which he eventually served four months in jail; Elton John (born 1947) was knighted by QEII at Buckingham Palace; and Virgin Records America Inc. filed suit against the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins for alleged breach of contract and non-delivery of albums (imagine!). 

Finally, on February 24, 1999, Johnny Rotten (born John Joseph Lydon in 1956) emceed VH1’s live Grammy coverage.

Wow. 

Where do we start? Which of these ever-so-scintillating events do we choose to celebrate?

Not a single one of them. Because epoch-making though these incidents may have been (particularly, to my mind, Alice Cooper’s gubernatorial run), there is an event from the world of opera so seminal that it trumps them all, hands, feet, fingers, and toes down.

“Not another opera post!”, sputter my gentle but firm advisors. “Dude, this’ll be three opera posts in a row! C’mon, write about Barry, or Tommy and Pam, or Elton, or Alice, or Smashing Pumpkins!”

No can do, say I. Because the premiere of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in 1607 went a long way to changing life here on earth as we understand it, or at least music here on earth as we understand it which is, for me, pretty much the same thing. 

Claudio Monteverdi
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was the game changer, the single work that revealed that these newfangled “dramas with music” (which soon enough would come to be called “operas”) had the potential to be the transcendent Western art form, in which almost every one of the arts – music, drama, poetry, stage design (meaning architecture, painting and sculpture), costuming, and dance – combined into a whole a gazillion (or two) times greater than its parts. 

Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was the game changer because it is a first-order masterwork: the first great opera (and as such, the earliest opera that is regularly performed). As the first great opera, it demonstrated as nothing before it the awesome expressive potential of the art form. 

A bit of background; indulge me. 

That period of time we so blithely call the “Renaissance” (or “rebirth”; a term that was coined by the French Historian Jules Michelet in the 1860s) is understood as running in music between (roughly) 1400 and 1600. What was “reborn” during this hunk o’ time was an awareness of and appreciation for ancient (primarily ancient Greek) art, architecture, philosophy, literature, and drama. This rebirth was an inherently humanistic, inherently secular (non-religious), movement, as its inspiration – the ancient world – pre-dated Christianity. 

William Shakespeare
Monteverdi’s exact contemporary William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

By the late sixteenth century – the late 1500s – this ancient Greek-inspired fascination (“fetish” would not be too strong a word) for things human (as opposed to things divine) led to an astonishing flowering of dramatic art, in which the feelings of and relationships between individual people were explored and celebrated to a degree almost entirely new. (For our reference, Shakespeare’s plays were written between 1590 and 1612, at precisely the same time opera was being invented and first popularized among Italy’s ruling elites.)

The inventors of opera were convinced that the ancient Greeks had sung (or at least chanted) their dramas, and that only this could account for the impact the Greeks themselves claimed their drama had on the human heart. Opera was born in Florence, Italy (as opposed to Florence Township, New Jersey, Exit 6A off the Turnpike) during the last years of the sixteenth century as an attempt, in modern guise, to recapture the dramatic art of the ancient Greeks. (For our information, the first surviving work that we today define as an opera is Jacopo Peri’s and Ottavio Rinuccini’s L’Euridice, which was first performed at the Pitti Palace in Florence on October 6, 1600. That first performance – and with it, the invention of opera – was discussed in my Music History Monday post of August 20, 2018.)

Early opera, like owning racehorses and sports teams today, was a rich person’s game. These so-called “court” operas were commissioned by wealthy aristocrats, to be staged as part of a major celebration: a wedding, a Christening, Carnival, a bar mitzvah; whatever. (For example, Peri and Rinuccini’s L’Euridicewas commissioned and performed for the marriage of King Henry IV of France and Maria de Medici.)

Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua
Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (1562-1612)

The life and job history of Maestro Claudio Monteverdi is described in some detail in my Music History Monday post for August 19, 2019. Fort now, we’d observe that the Cremona-born Monteverdi worked for Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, from 1590 until 1612, initially as a string player but starting in 1601, as the Duke’s maestro della musica (master of music).

In late 1606 or very early 1607, Monteverdi was tasked with composing his first opera, to be performed as part of the court of Mantua’s Carnival (pre-Lent) celebration. With words by the poet Alessandro Striggio, La favola d’Orfeo (“The Fable of Orpheus”) recounts (as did Peri’s L’Euridice) the story of the golden-throated Orpheus and his journey to the underworld in search of his snake-bitten nymph-squeeze Eurydice. What sets Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo apart from everything that preceded it and made it a model for the next four generations of composers is the manner in which Monteverdi synthesized recitative; rhymed, “pop”-styled songs and dances; madrigal choruses; and what was, at the time, a huge orchestra of some forty instruments into a singularly convincing, powerfully moving dramatic whole. 

With Monteverdi’s 19 stage works in the lead (of which, tragically, only 6 have survived intact), opera became a public entertainment in Venice in 1637 and from there spread across Europe. 

The overwhelming impact of opera on Western music and culture is not limited to the opera house itself, as the spin-offs from opera constitute a virtual “what’s what” in Western music over the last four centuries. 

For example.

The ancient theater at Delphi with the “orchestra” at center
The ancient theater at Delphi with the “orchestra” at center

The “orchestra” as an instrumental entity owes its name and existence to opera. An “orchestra” is the circular or semi-circular area directly in front of the stage in a Greek theater, an area occupied by the Greek chorus during a play. The word was borrowed and applied to the instrumental ensemble that occupied that same space in an opera performance. 

As opera houses grew bigger, so did the instrumental “orchestras” that accompanied those operas. The development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of woodwind and brass instruments that could by tuned – like oboes, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets – was largely due to the demand for ever more instrumental color and effect in opera orchestras.

The development of the instrumental genre “concerto” in the 1680s and 1690s, which pits a solo instrument or group of solo instruments against the collective of the orchestra, grew directly out of operatic practice. 

The multi-section orchestral overtures that preceded the performance of Italian-language operas evolved into the self-standing genre of “symphony” in the 1730s and 1740s. 

The religious genres of oratorio and church cantata grew directly out of operatic practice and became, virtually, religious operas.

The tonal harmonic system was brought to its height of perfection in order to accompany recitative in the opera house. The small group of instruments that played those accompanimental harmonies – something called the “basso continuo” – became a universal element in Baroque era instrumental music. 

Most importantly, the cultivation and depiction of individual emotions and individual emotional expression – of “feeling” – in both instrumental and vocal music can all be traced back to the invention of opera. And the invention of opera received its kick-start from Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

So: sorry Johnny Rotten. We’re sure you did a wonderful job emceeing VH1’s live Grammy coverage on February 24, 1999, a job worthy of notice and perhaps, even, praise. But in a head-to-head with Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, you lose, buddy. Consider it Rotten luck.

For lots more on the birth of opera and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses surveys How to Listen to and Understand Great Music and How to Listen to and Understand Great Opera, which can be examined and downloaded here at RobertGreenbergMusic.com.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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Music History Monday: The Game Changer - Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, in Mantua, Italy We mark the first performance on February 24, 1607 – 413 years ago today – of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, in Mantua, Italy. Music History Monday 1 The Game Changer 14:58
Music History Monday: The Case Against Madama Butterfly https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-case-against-madama-butterfly/ Mon, 17 Feb 2020 19:47:35 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6477 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-case-against-madama-butterfly/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-case-against-madama-butterfly/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/17112946/1-1-686x1024.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the world premiere performance on February 17, 1904 – 116 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly at the storied opera house of La Scala, in the Italian city of Milan. I would tell you a story. Some 34 years ago my first wife and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the San Francisco Opera (I know it was that long ago because my wife was pregnant with our first child, my daughter Rachel. Having mentioned Rachel, or Rocqui as she is known to me, I would play the supreme bore and note that she and her husband Jon delivered up our first grandchild in December. Her name is Celeste Marigold Shahvar, and her royal adorableness is pictured below.) Pardon me my distraction. Back to where we were: some 34 years ago my first wife and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the San Francisco Opera. Sitting behind us were four guys; my guess is that they were in their early-to-mid 40’s. We chatted a bit. They told us that they were something of an opera club, and that as their partners didn’t share their operatic passion, they attended with each […]
Cover of the first edition of the score of Madama Butterfly, by Leopoldo Metlicovitz
Cover of the first edition of the score of Madama Butterfly, by Leopoldo Metlicovitz

We mark the world premiere performance on February 17, 1904 – 116 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly at the storied opera house of La Scala, in the Italian city of Milan.

I would tell you a story.

Some 34 years ago my first wife and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the San Francisco Opera (I know it was that long ago because my wife was pregnant with our first child, my daughter Rachel. Having mentioned Rachel, or Rocqui as she is known to me, I would play the supreme bore and note that she and her husband Jon delivered up our first grandchild in December. Her name is Celeste Marigold Shahvar, and her royal adorableness is pictured below.)

My granddaughter Celeste
My granddaughter Celeste, born December 10, 2019

Pardon me my distraction. Back to where we were: some 34 years ago my first wife and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the San Francisco Opera. Sitting behind us were four guys; my guess is that they were in their early-to-mid 40’s. We chatted a bit. They told us that they were something of an opera club, and that as their partners didn’t share their operatic passion, they attended with each other.

Madama Butterfly is an unabashed tearjerker. It’s about a 15-year-old Japanese geisha named Cio-Cio San who is “purchased”, sweet-talked, and then knocked-up by an American naval officer named “B. F. Pinkerton.” In the end, after promising her the Moon and Mars, Pinkerton abandons Cio-Cio San, only to return three years later with his “proper” American wife, a white chick named “Kate”. Pinkerton and Kate take Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio’s now 3-year-old son from Cio-Cio San and return to America. The opera concludes with the brutalized and distraught Cio-Cio San committing seppuku (prompting the audience to conclude that the “B. F.” in “B. F. Pinkerton” stands for “Big F*ck”).

By the time the final notes sounded at that performance back in ‘86, the four guys behind us had been balling uncontrollably for a good ten minutes. Honestly, those of us sitting around them didn’t know what had been more entertaining: the conclusion of the opera itself or their reaction to it.

Giacomo Puccini in 1908
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) in 1908 (a life-long chain-smoker, the cigarettes killed him; he died of throat cancer)

The tears are a common response. Puccini’s music can make basalt weep, and the story of Madama Butterfly resonates with anyone who has experienced heartbreak, loss, and grief, which means just about anyone over the age of 10. Whether or not you like Puccini, no one can deny that he was a brilliant dramatist, and Madama Butterfly, with its sex, betrayal, and suicideis superbly effective theater. 

Unfortunately, much eighteenth and nineteenth century opera – including Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – has run afoul of today’s gender and racial politicians, to the degree that no small number of otherwise semi-sane observers are demanding its removal from the repertoire entirely for what they claim are its racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation. A Google search of “racism in Madama Butterfly” will reveal numerous such articles, including ones from The Atlantic, The Telegraph, and the Seattle Times.

(Let’s make fast work of “cultural appropriation” in Madama Butterfly right now. Indeed, there are moments in his score during which Puccini evokes the Japanese locale of the opera by employing pentatonic scales and thus stereotypically evoking East Asian music. If this constitutes “cultural appropriation”, then so does every film score ever written that attempts to evoke location; so does Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which features a “Turkish March” in its fourth movement; so does Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Ravel’s Bolero, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and so forth, ad infinitum. Please: these are not instances of “cultural appropriation” but rather, of shared musical heritage employed to evoke associations through that shared heritage.)

Regarding racial stereotyping in Madama Butterfly, we are going to turn to a very recent article, one that appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times on December 19, 2019. It was written by one Katherine Hu, a Junior at Yale. Ordinarily, like most cranky older people, I would reject the opinions of such a youngster as being half-formed at best. However, we will not hold Ms. Hu’s youth against her as her father is a professional opera singer and, as she points out: 

“I’ve been watching operas since I was a child. Our family vacations happened wherever my father was performing that year.”

Hu’s thesis is as follows:

“To survive, opera has to confront the depth of its racism and sexism point-blank, treating classic operas as historical artifacts instead of [as] dynamic cultural productions. Opera directors should approach the production of these classics as museum curators and professors — educating audiences about historical context and making stereotypes visible.”

The bulk of this comment could not be more wrong. Ms. Hu would have us condescend to ghettoize what she considers to be “offending operas”, sending them to their room and only letting them out when properly chaperoned by curators/professors who can explain their delinquency to modern, presumably enlightened audiences. 

Hu is correct about one thing, though, and that is that art, no matter how universal its message, must also be understood within the context of its time.

Ms. Hu has every right to be offended by what she perceives as Asian stereotypes in Madama Butterfly, should she so choose to be offended. However, one wonders if she is equally offended by the stereotype perpetrated by the Italian creators of the opera of an officer of the United States Navy: of Pinkerton as a typical, amoral sailor, with a “girlfriend in every port”, knocking up teenagers where ‘ere he goes, promising them everything only to walk out on them with nary a flip of his roguish eyebrows (and stealing their children from them, to boot)? I would ask the white, male, Navy or Merchant Marine veterans out there, is that an accurate appraisal of your actions while on shore leave? It certainly doesn’t describe my father who was a Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy during World War Two. When his crew was on shore leave in Zamboanga (in the southern Philippines) after its liberation from the Japanese in early 1945, they helped rebuild schools and hospitals; my guess is that not a single one of them purchased and impregnated a 15-year-old girl. 

No doubt then, there’s lots of offense to go around. 

We will all acknowledge that this does not excuse the negative portrayals of Asians, Blacks, Africans, Hispanics, Jews, Arabs, and Native Americans (to name a few) in Western media over the centuries. Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Sidney Toler’s portrayal of Charlie Chan in 22(!) movies made between 1939 and 1946, and Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the whacky Okinawan Sakini in the movie Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) are, for those disposed to be offended, offensive. But I will be forgiven for asking the obvious: what, in this often vile, crazy world isn’t offensive to someone? The titillation that is, by its very nature entertaining, is often entertaining because it is, in some way, offensive: it goes beyond the norms of decorum and sometimes even decency. 

Should we be so disposed, there are very few things out there that cannot, in some way, be construed as being offensive. In his attempt to define what is and what is not pornographic, the great Tom Lehrer put it this way:

“When correctly viewed, 
everything is lewd; 
I can tell you things about Peter Pan, 
and the Wizard of Oz: there’s a dirty old man!”

Not incidentally, we’d observe that Westerners have fared no better when portrayed in Japanese and Chinese art. For example, the famed Yokohama woodblock prints created between 1860 and the mid-1880s depict Westerners as perceived by Japanese artists in Yokohama. These depictions are not flattering: the Westerners are depicted as being hairy, lumpish, loutish and uncouth, as in the 1861 image below of a Sumo wrestler throwing a foreigner by the famed artist Utagawa Yoshifuji pictured below.

Sumo wrestler throwing a foreigner by Utagawa Yoshifuji
Sumo wrestler throwing a foreigner (1861) by Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828-1887)

Sadly, even despairingly, racism cuts to the very bone of human nature. And since art is the distillation and crystallization of human experience into literary, visual and sonic media, we cannot for a moment assume that art won’t on occasion employ controversial and potentially even offensive content.

Which brings us – me – to what I believe is the core of this matter. 

Statement: the expressive power of opera is rooted in its ability, as a genre, to create simpatico with its audience through its presentation of myth and archetype.

Question: how should we to distinguish between archetype and stereotype? 

Definitions. Archetype: “a very typical example of a certain person or thing; types that fit fundamental human motifs.” Stereotype: “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

Question: Had the poets Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa who wrote the libretto of Madama Butterfly (based on a short story by John Luther Long) ever met a 15-year-old Japanese Geisha? 

Answer: No, they had not. But they needed to evoke a stereotype in order to create an archetype. And there it is: Cio-Cio San is both a stereotype and an archetype. She is a stereotypical Asian female adolescent as perceived by Westerners in the late nineteenth century: a small, docile, sex object who is desperate to please. By invoking that stereotype, she becomes an archetype: a naïve and trusting innocent living in an elegant, refined environment that nevertheless exists within a cruel and unforgiving world, someone with whom we can all sympathize and identify with. 

The point: the stereotype of Cio-Cio San, irksome though it may be to some modern eyes and ears, is only a means to a dramatic end as embodied by the archetype she represents.

To those arbiters of moral rectitude who would claim that an opera like Madama Butterfly serves primarily to perpetuate racist tropes, I would say you are wrong: at its core, the opera is about innocence lost, betrayal, and soul-searing grief; loss, betrayal and grief with which we can all identify. Those guys sitting behind my wife and I weren’t weeping at a “Japanese stereotype”; they were weeping with and for a young woman who had lost everything, and for the parallels she represented in their own lives.

To our contemporaries who are offended by the depiction of Cio-Cio San, I feel your pain but believe it to be misplaced. Because whatever our sex or race, we all fall in love with the vulnerable Cio-Cio San and feel nothing but disgust for Pinkerton and everything he represents. In the end, Cio-Cio San’s pain is ours; she becomes us and we become her. 

What, in heaven’s name, can be more transcendent, more heart-rending, more extraordinary than an audience’s virtual melding with the now 18-year-old geisha at the end of Madama Butterfly? Excuse me, but such issues as stereotypes and cultural appropriation shrink to less than nothing in the face of the transformational power of the opera’s conclusion. This is the breath-taking, soul-changing power of opera. 

Here’s what should be done to contextualize such operas as Madama Butterfly for today’s audiences. 

One: educate. An essay should be provided to audiences that puts the opera within its historical context. Such an essay should be provided in a number of different formats: as a program note, as an on-line post, and as a podcast. 

Two: engage. An opera’s director can get up on stage for five minutes before the curtain and explain some of the challenges faced and solutions reached in staging the opera. Audiences love being so engaged, provided it is done clearly and with dispatch.

Three: cast accordingly. Whenever it is possible, have Asians sing Asian roles, blacks sing black roles, etc. Okay, no one can replace Placido Domingo singing Otello, but really: in this day and age, with great singers from everywhere, do we need to look at and listen to white singers made up in yellowface or blackface?

Four: innovate. Be bold in rethinking productions. Yes, like every operagoer I’ve seen a few disastrous restagings, but I’ve seen some brilliant ones to. The point: contrary to Katherine Hu’s assertion, an opera house cannot be treated likea museum or worse, a mausoleum. Rather, it is a virtual reality facility where we, the audience, leave our disbelief at the door and become fully engaged in what is, very nearly, a full-body experience. 

As for those who would actually ban certain operas because they do not live up to the ideals of today’s gender/racial politics, we rightly ask, what’s next? Should we sequester visual art not to our tastes and call it degenerate? Shall we start removing “inappropriate” books from our library shelves, or simply burn them? I’m not advocating we require middle-schoolers to read Mein Kampf, but ban Madama Butterfly? Insanity. 

For lots more on Puccini, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses/Teaching Company survey How to Listen to and Understand Great Opera. And encourage you to follow me on Patreon

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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We mark the world premiere performance on February 17, 1904 – 116 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly at the storied opera house of La Scala, in the Italian city of Milan. I would tell you a story. We mark the world premiere performance on February 17, 1904 – 116 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly at the storied opera house of La Scala, in the Italian city of Milan. Music History Monday The Case Against Madama Butterfly 19:27
Music History Monday: It Ain’t Over Until the Fat Man Sings! https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-it-aint-over-until-the-fat-man-sings/ Mon, 10 Feb 2020 19:19:12 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6448 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-it-aint-over-until-the-fat-man-sings/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-it-aint-over-until-the-fat-man-sings/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/10111014/4-1.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We would note two major events on this day from the world of opera. We will mark the first event in a moment; the second event – which constitutes the body and soul of this post – will be observed only after we’ve had a chance to do some prep. We mark the birth on February 10, 1927 – 93 years ago today – of the glorious soprano Leontyne Price. (More than just a soprano, Price in her prime was a lyric-spinta, or “pushed lyric soprano”, meaning that she had all the high notes of a lyric soprano but could also push her voice to realize dramatic climaxes without any strain. The great lyric-spinta roles include Aida, Desdemona from Verdi’s Otello, the Marschallin from Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, and Floria Tosca.) Every inch the true diva (in the best sense), Price is alive and we trust well at her home in Columbia, Maryland. Happy birthday, you stunning goddess you.  Preliminaries A “malaprop” (or “malapropism”) “is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance.” “Gibberish” (a.k.a. jibber-jabber or gobbledygook) is a tad different; it is defined as […]

We would note two major events on this day from the world of opera. We will mark the first event in a moment; the second event – which constitutes the body and soul of this post – will be observed only after we’ve had a chance to do some prep.

Leontyne Price
Leontyne Price (born 1927)

We mark the birth on February 10, 1927 – 93 years ago today – of the glorious soprano Leontyne Price. (More than just a soprano, Price in her prime was a lyric-spinta, or “pushed lyric soprano”, meaning that she had all the high notes of a lyric soprano but could also push her voice to realize dramatic climaxes without any strain. The great lyric-spinta roles include Aida, Desdemona from Verdi’s Otello, the Marschallin from Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, and Floria Tosca.) Every inch the true diva (in the best sense), Price is alive and we trust well at her home in Columbia, Maryland. Happy birthday, you stunning goddess you. 

Preliminaries

A “malaprop” (or “malapropism”) “is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance.”

“Gibberish” (a.k.a. jibber-jabber or gobbledygook) is a tad different; it is defined as being “nonsense speech that may include speech sounds that are not actual words, or language games and specialized jargon that seems nonsensical to outsiders.”

Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015) in 2008, age 83
Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015) in 2008, age 83

I would suggest that the greatest English language-speaking master of both malaprops and gibberish was the baseball catcher, coach, manager, and Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015). Malaprops and gibberish poured forth from his 5’7” frame like that proverbial poop from a goose; that they were uttered inadvertently make them all the funnier. 

Should we want to (and I will admit that I am tempted), the remainder of this post could consist entirely of what have come to be known as “Yogi-isms.” Among the untold number of malaprops he uttered over his 90 years of life are such gems as:

“It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility.”

“I take that with a grin of salt.”

“Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” (As opposed to “electoral” votes.)

But truly, Berra’s greatest verbal creations are his gibberish: nonsense sentences, some of which have actually become part of our everyday lexicon. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations features eight such Yogi-isms. A quick sampling must include such gems as:

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”

 “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

“No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”

“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”

“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.”

And finally, 

“Never answer an anonymous letter.”

Thank you, Maestro Berra; these are wonderful; just wonderful. 

Such was Yogi Berra’s reputation that every now and then he was credited with having said something he never in fact said. Perhaps the most famous such misattribution (aside from “anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined”, which was, in fact, articulated by the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn) is:

“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

(Yes, Yogi Berra did indeed coin the phrase “it ain’t over till it’s over”, but there was no rotund, obese, zaftig, corpulent or Rubenesque lady in his utterance.)

“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

No one is exactly sure where the phrase came from, although today it does tend to be used – when it is used at all – to state that anything is still possible during the course of a sporting event. 

Having said that, it appears likely that the phrase was minted in response to Richard Wagner’s massive, four-evening, 17-hour long Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”). The cycle consists of four music dramas; in order: Das Rheingold (“The Rhine Gold”), Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”).

Amelie Materna as Brünnhilde in 1876
Amelie Materna as Brünnhilde in 1876; please, no jokes about which one is the horse

In the end, the “star” of the Ring Cycle is the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, who single-handedly brings about the destruction of the old, corrupt world of the gods and heralds in the dawn of the age of man. (“Age of person”? How might we make “age of man” gender-neutral?). The role of Brünnhilde is one of the most difficult soprano roles in the entire repertoire; the singer must have the stamina of an ultra-triathlete and the power of a super-heavy weightlifter. That sort of stamina and power typically requires a thorax the size of a Volkswagen bus, and a woman with a thorax that size will typically appear to be packing some significant heft. While it might be unkind to call such a woman a “fat lady”, it is not – from an observer’s point of view – particularly inaccurate. 

The final 20 minutes of Götterdämmerung, and therefore the final twenty minutes of the entire 17-hour Ring Cycle, consists of a huge “aria” sung by Brünnhilde. And there it is: “it (meaning the Ring Cycle) ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

A reminder: the title of this post is “It Ain’t Over Until the Fat Man Sings!”

Luciano Pavarotti

Luciano Pavarotti
Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

On February 10, 2006 – 14 years ago today – Luciano Pavarotti concluded the opening ceremony of the XX Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy by singing his trademark aria “Nessun Dorma” (“No one sleeps”) from Puccini’s opera Turandot. His performance was the hit of the show and received – by far – the longest and loudest ovation of the evening.

It was a long, crazy-complex show. Aside from the traditional march of the athletes (“The Parade of Nations”) and lighting of the Olympic flame, the ceremony consisted of thirteen separate acts, each with its own theme, music, and choreography. 6340 performers were involved. The central theme of the show was Italy itself; the ceremony was an unabashed celebration of things Italian; the official “Patroness (Mistress) of Ceremonies” was none other than Sophia Loren. Some 35,000 people were there at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin to witness the show live, an audience that included numerous heads-of-state and hundreds (if not thousands) of international celebrities. 32 cameras were involved in the live television broadcast, which was watched by an estimated two-billion people worldwide. 

The thirteenth and final act of the ceremony was entitled “Fortissimo: Allegro with Fire”; it ran seven minutes in length. It began with the largest curtain ever constructed to that time opening on the 4000 square-meter/43,056 square-foot stage to reveal a full orchestra and Luciano Pavarotti who, as you have already deduced, is the “fat man” of this post’s title. (Please, THERE’S NO FAT SHAMING GOING ON HERE, we’re just dealing in facts. Pavarotti loved his food. He stood 5’11” tall, and at his heaviest – in 1978 – he topped out at 396 pounds. Like many of us, yours truly included, he struggled with his weight for most of his adult life. Sadly, for him, the weight won, and his health suffered significantly. Our hearts go out to him, but none of this changes the fact that he fit to a “T” the stereotype of the rotund opera singer.)

Pavarotti performing at the opening ceremony of the XX Winter Olympic Games in Turin on February 10, 2006
Pavarotti performing at the opening ceremony of the XX Winter Olympic Games in Turin on February 10, 2006

Pavarotti – dressed in a tuxedo with a black cape embroidered with silver Olympic rings – brought the opening ceremony to its conclusion with his rendition of “Nessun Dorma,” which itself concludes with three repetitions of the word vincerò, meaning “I will win!” It was an awesome and awe-inspiring performance; the audience hooted and hollered and stomped their feet, prompting NBC’s broadcaster Brian Williams to remark:

“And the master brings the house down.”

And thus the opening ceremony was over when the fat man sang. 

Sadly, it wasn’t the only thing that was over because, as it turned out, the ceremony was to be Pavarotti’s last public performance. Five months later, in July of 2006, while in the midst of planning what would have been his “farewell (or retirement) tour”, the 70-year-old Pavarotti was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He fought hard and long, but the cancer took him at his home in Modena on September 6, 2007, five weeks short of his 72nd birthday.

An Ironic Postscript

For all its glitz and hoopla and visibility, Pavarotti had no desire to perform at the opening ceremony of the Turin games. According to Pavarotti’s manager Terri Robson, the singer had repeatedly turned down invitations from the Winter Olympic Committee to sing at the ceremony. His reasons? Along with his health issues (or perhaps because of his health issues), he had no intention of singing outdoors, at night, in Turin’s frigid, mid-winter weather.

In the end, the Winter Olympic Committee persuaded Pavarotti to participate by allowing him to pre-record the aria and lip-synch the performance, about which no one was the wiser until 2008. That’s when the conductor at the ceremony, Leone Magiera, spilled the beans in his memoirs titled Pavarotti Visto da Vicino, in which he confessed that the entire performance – orchestra and voice – had been recorded in a nice, toasty studio weeks before. Magiera wrote:

“The orchestra pretended to play for the audience, I pretended to conduct, and Luciano pretended to sing. The effect was wonderful.”

Wonderful? Not so wonderful, we think. And there’s the irony: that the magnificent Luciano Pavarotti’s “final performance” was as a mime, and not as a singer.

For lots more on the foibles of singers and the world of opera in general, I would humbly direct you to my Great Courses/Teaching Company survey How to Listen to and Understand Great Opera, and to follow me on Patreon.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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We would note two major events on this day from the world of opera. We will mark the first event in a moment; the second event – which constitutes the body and soul of this post – will be observed only after we’ve had a chance to do some prep. We would note two major events on this day from the world of opera. We will mark the first event in a moment; the second event – which constitutes the body and soul of this post – will be observed only after we’ve had a chance to do some prep.



Leontyne Price (born 1927)



We mark the birth on February 10, 1927 – 93 years ago today – of the glorious soprano Leontyne Price. (More than just a soprano, Price in her prime was a lyric-spinta, or “pushed lyric soprano”, meaning that she had all the high notes of a lyric soprano but could also push her voice to realize dramatic climaxes without any strain. The great lyric-spinta roles include Aida, Desdemona from Verdi’s Otello, the Marschallin from Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, and Floria Tosca.) Every inch the true diva (in the best sense), Price is alive and we trust well at her home in Columbia, Maryland. Happy birthday, you stunning goddess you. 



Preliminaries



A “malaprop” (or “malapropism”) “is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance.”



“Gibberish” (a.k.a. jibber-jabber or gobbledygook) is a tad different; it is defined as being “nonsense speech that may include speech sounds that are not actual words, or language games and specialized jargon that seems nonsensical to outsiders.”



Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015) in 2008, age 83



I would suggest that the greatest English language-speaking master of both malaprops and gibberish was the baseball catcher, coach, manager, and Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015). Malaprops and gibberish poured forth from his 5’7” frame like that proverbial poop from a goose; that they were uttered inadvertently make them all the funnier. 



Should we want to (and I will admit that I am tempted), the remainder of this post could consist entirely of what have come to be known as “Yogi-isms.” Among the untold number of malaprops he uttered over his 90 years of life are such gems as:



“It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility.”“I take that with a grin of salt.”“Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” (As opposed to “electoral” votes.)



But truly, Berra’s greatest verbal creations are his gibberish: nonsense sentences, some of which have actually become part of our everyday lexicon. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations features eight such Yogi-isms. A quick sampling must include such gems as:



“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”“You can observe a lot by just watching.” “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”“No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.”



And finally, 



“Never answer an anonymous letter.”



Thank you, Maestro Berra; these are wonderful; just wonderful. 



Such was Yogi Berra’s reputation that every now and then he was credited with having said something he never in fact said. Perhaps the most famous such misattribution (aside from “anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined”, which was, in fact, articulated by the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn) is:



“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”



(Yes, Yogi Berra did indeed coin the phrase “it ain’t over till it’s over”, but there was no rotund, obese, zaftig, corpulent or Rubenesque lady in his utterance.)



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Music History Monday 14:10
Music History Monday: A Model of Utopian Perfection to this Day! https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-model-of-utopian-perfection-to-this-day/ Mon, 03 Feb 2020 21:31:07 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6425 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-model-of-utopian-perfection-to-this-day/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-model-of-utopian-perfection-to-this-day/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/03132140/1.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the presumed birth on February 3, 1525 – 495 years ago today – of the Rome-based Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Unlike virtually every other great composer of the Renaissance, a list of which includes such formidable names as Josquin des Prez, William Byrd, Giovanni Gabrieli, Guillaume Dufay, Orlande de Lassus, and Johannes Ockeghem, Palestrina’s name, reputation, and music have never faded from view since his death in 1593. The staying power of his name, reputation, and music can be attributed to three of factors, all of which will be explored in today’s Music History Monday post and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post (which can be accessed at Patreon.com/RobertGreenbergMusic). These factors are, one, Palestrina’s posthumous reputation as the ostensible “savior” of Catholic church music during the conservative, austere artistic climate of the Counter Reformation (which will be discussed in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes); two, his personal compositional style, which was (and still is) embraced as a paradigm of utopian perfection and has thus been employed in teaching counterpoint since the early seventeenth century; and three (and most importantly), the fact that he wrote a tremendous amount of first rate music, the great bulk of which is sacred.  […]
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1593)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1593)

We mark the presumed birth on February 3, 1525 – 495 years ago today – of the Rome-based Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Unlike virtually every other great composer of the Renaissance, a list of which includes such formidable names as Josquin des Prez, William Byrd, Giovanni Gabrieli, Guillaume Dufay, Orlande de Lassus, and Johannes Ockeghem, Palestrina’s name, reputation, and music have never faded from view since his death in 1593. The staying power of his name, reputation, and music can be attributed to three of factors, all of which will be explored in today’s Music History Monday post and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post (which can be accessed at Patreon.com/RobertGreenbergMusic). These factors are, one, Palestrina’s posthumous reputation as the ostensible “savior” of Catholic church music during the conservative, austere artistic climate of the Counter Reformation (which will be discussed in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes); two, his personal compositional style, which was (and still is) embraced as a paradigm of utopian perfection and has thus been employed in teaching counterpoint since the early seventeenth century; and three (and most importantly), the fact that he wrote a tremendous amount of first rate music, the great bulk of which is sacred. 

His collected works include 104 Masses (an extraordinary number and by strange coincidence the same number of symphonies attributed to Joseph Haydn); well over 300 motets (which are vocal liturgical works of varying length); over 140 madrigals (secular vocal works of varying length); 68 offertories (that is, music that accompanies the procession of the faithful bearing the bread and wine – the symbolic body and blood of Christ – as well as other gifts/offerings for the Church); 35 magnificats (which means “magnifies”, as in “My soul magnifies the Lord”), a setting of the “Song (or canticle) of Mary”, the text of which comes from the Gospel of Luke; 72 hymns; 11 litanies; numerous sets of lamentations; etc.; all told, a lot of music. 

Giovanni Pierluigi was born in Palestrina, an ancient city in the Sabine Hills 22 miles (or so) east-southeast of Rome. While his earliest education took place there in Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi (or “Gianetto” as he was nicknamed) spent the great bulk of his student days, apprenticeship, and career within the confines of the three most important churches in the holy city of Rome:  Santa Maria Maggiore, Saint John Lateran, and Saint Peter’s.

Pope Julius III, pope from 1550-1555
Pope Julius III, born Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte (1487-1555), pope from 1550-1555

In 1554, the 29-year-old Palestrina dedicated his first published book of masses to Pope Julius III, who had previously been known to Palestrina as the Bishop of Palestrina. (The truism holds: it’s not just what you know, but who you know.) The dedication to Pope Julius was clearly the politic thing to do, because just a few months later, on January 13, 1555, Palestrina was appointed as a chorister in the single most prestigious choir in Christendom: that of the Sistine Chapel, the pope’s “personal” chapel. Palestrina’s hiring was controversial: he was neither a priest nor even celibate, but rather married (*gasp!*). According to the “Diarii Sistina” – the diaries of the Sistine Chapel – Palestrina was hired:

“on the orders of His Holiness Pope Julius, without any examination and without the consent of the singers.” 

We can safely assume that Palestrina’s extraordinary talents quickly overcame any residual resistance from his fellow choristers. Unfortunately, Pope Julius III died just three months after Palestrina’s appointment to the Sistine choir, and he was succeeded by Cardinal Marcello Cervini, who took the papal (as distinct from “PayPal”) name of Marcellus II. Sadly, the shelf life for popes was on the short side at the time, and Marcellus’ papacy lasted for all of three weeks. However, it’s very likely that the title of Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass – the topic of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post – reflects an event that took place on the third day of the Marcellus’ all-too-short reign, when, on Good Friday of 1555, he informed his singers:

“that the music for Holy Week should be more in keeping with the character of the occasion and that as far as possible the words should be clearly understood.”

Pope Paul IV, born Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), pope from 1555-1559
Pope Paul IV, born Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), pope from 1555-1559

Marcellus was succeeded by the ancient, 79-year-old (this was when 79 years was 79 years!), existentially crotchety Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa, who ruled under the name of Paul IV. In his four years as pope, Paul IV managed to earn a reputation as one of the cruelest and most hated popes in history. (Immediately after his death, his statue on the Campidoglio was decapitated by a mob and then thrown into the Tiber River, certainly not a sign of high popularity.) Anyway, among the first things Paul IV did on attaining the papacy was to enforce the Sistine Chapel’s long-ignored rule on celibacy, with the result that along with two other married singers, Palestrina was summarily fired in September 1555, just nine months after having been appointed to the Sistine choir.

From there Palestrina went on to become maestro di cappella (director of music)at the Archbasilica Saint John Lateran and later, at the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Through it all Palestrina composed, not just for the churches of Rome but for churches across Italy. His reputation as a composer continued to grow, and by the 1570s we are told that he was held in awe by his contemporaries. In 1575, an official working for the Duke of Ferrara wrote that Palestrina was:

“now considered the very first musician in the world.” 

By the early seventeenth century Palestrina’s music was being praised by not just listeners and other composers, but by music theorists as well. These theorists perceived Palestrina’s subtle, refined, carefully controlled, intensely lyric compositional style – in which the words remained clear no matter how dense the polyphony – as being an ideal sort of music, a sort of music that should be a model for other composers.“Palestrinan counterpoint” became a discipline and a course of study unto itself. 

Johann Joseph Fux
Johann Joseph Fux (ca. 1660-1741)

Palestrina’s compositional style was codified by an Austrian composer, theorist and pedagogue named Johann Joseph Fux (ca. 1660-1741), whose book Gradus ad Parnassum (meaning “Steps to Paradise”) was published in 1725. Fux broke Palestrina’s contrapuntal technique down into five types or “species” of counterpoint. In the nearly 300 years since, Palistrinan “species counterpoint” as codified and described by Fux has been the bedrock of counterpoint pedagogy, making Fux’s Gradus among the most important and widest read books on music ever written.

Johann Sebastian Bach, who was 40 years old when Gradus was published, held the book in the highest esteem. 

According to Joseph Haydn’s first biographer, his personal friend Georg August von Griesinger (1769 – 1845):

“Haydn took infinite pains to assimilate the theory of Fux; he went through the whole work laboriously, writing out the exercises, then laying them aside for a few weeks, to look them over again later and polish them until he was satisfied he had done everything exactly right.”

Leopold Mozart instructed his son Wolfgang from his personal copy of Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum; that copy – inscribed “1746 Ex Libris Leopoldi Mozart” – rests today in Salzburg. Perhaps even more importantly, Mozart himself used the Gradus later in life when he himself taught. 

Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809)
Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809)

When Beethoven moved to Vienna to study composition with Haydn in 1792, that instruction came from Fux’s Gradus. When Beethoven “demanded a more systematic instruction than Haydn was, by age and temperament, disposed to give”, he turned to a pedant named Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809), who also instructed Beethoven from Fux’s Gradus. Beethoven went on to use the Gradus in the instruction of his composition student Archduke Rudolph Johann Joseph Rainier (to whom Beethoven dedicated fourteen compositions, including his Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor” (Opus 73; 1809); the Archduke Piano Trio (Opus 97; 1811); the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata (Opus 106; 1818); and the Missa Solemnis (Opus 123; 1823). 

When Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum was translated into French in 1833 and sold by subscription, the subscribers included Hector Berlioz, Luigi Cherubini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Frédéric Chopin, Gioachino Rossini, Niccolò Paganini, Ignaz Moscheles, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Franz Liszt. Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, and Anton Bruckner all studied Palestrinan counterpoint using the original, Latin-language version of Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum.

Alfred Mann, The Study of Counterpoint
Alfred Mann, The Study of Counterpoint (W. W. Norton, 1965)

And so it has continued. My Freshman year music theory and counterpoint textbook was The Study of Counterpoint, which is Alfred Mann’s English-language translation of Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. The course in species counterpoint that was my Freshman year music theory curriculum provided the basis for my own compositional technique, as well as the techniques of my fellow students. 

It is in this way that the substance and spirit of Palestrina’s music and compositional style survives today as a living, breathing, utterly contemporary thing. As such, he must be considered among the most influential composers of all time. Here’s how Felix Mendelssohn put it:

“I always get upset when some praise only Beethoven, others only Palestrina and still others only Mozart or Bach. All four of them, I say, or none at all.” 

For more on the music of Palestrina, I would humbly direct your attention to my 48-lecture course, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music (Published by The Great Courses).

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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We mark the presumed birth on February 3, 1525 – 495 years ago today – of the Rome-based Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Unlike virtually every other great composer of the Renaissance, a list of which includes such formidable names a... Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1593)



We mark the presumed birth on February 3, 1525 – 495 years ago today – of the Rome-based Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Unlike virtually every other great composer of the Renaissance, a list of which includes such formidable names as Josquin des Prez, William Byrd, Giovanni Gabrieli, Guillaume Dufay, Orlande de Lassus, and Johannes Ockeghem, Palestrina’s name, reputation, and music have never faded from view since his death in 1593. The staying power of his name, reputation, and music can be attributed to three of factors, all of which will be explored in today’s Music History Monday post and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post (which can be accessed at Patreon.com/RobertGreenbergMusic). These factors are, one, Palestrina’s posthumous reputation as the ostensible “savior” of Catholic church music during the conservative, austere artistic climate of the Counter Reformation (which will be discussed in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes); two, his personal compositional style, which was (and still is) embraced as a paradigm of utopian perfection and has thus been employed in teaching counterpoint since the early seventeenth century; and three (and most importantly), the fact that he wrote a tremendous amount of first rate music, the great bulk of which is sacred. 



His collected works include 104 Masses (an extraordinary number and by strange coincidence the same number of symphonies attributed to Joseph Haydn); well over 300 motets (which are vocal liturgical works of varying length); over 140 madrigals (secular vocal works of varying length); 68 offertories (that is, music that accompanies the procession of the faithful bearing the bread and wine – the symbolic body and blood of Christ – as well as other gifts/offerings for the Church); 35 magnificats (which means “magnifies”, as in “My soul magnifies the Lord”), a setting of the “Song (or canticle) of Mary”, the text of which comes from the Gospel of Luke; 72 hymns; 11 litanies; numerous sets of lamentations; etc.; all told, a lot of music. 



Giovanni Pierluigi was born in Palestrina, an ancient city in the Sabine Hills 22 miles (or so) east-southeast of Rome. While his earliest education took place there in Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi (or “Gianetto” as he was nicknamed) spent the great bulk of his student days, apprenticeship, and career within the confines of the three most important churches in the holy city of Rome:  Santa Maria Maggiore, Saint John Lateran, and Saint Peter’s.



Pope Julius III, born Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte (1487-1555), pope from 1550-1555



In 1554, the 29-year-old Palestrina dedicated his first published book of masses to Pope Julius III, who had previously been known to Palestrina as the Bishop of Palestrina. (The truism holds: it’s not just what you know, but who you know.) The dedication to Pope Julius was clearly the politic thing to do, because just a few months later, on January 13, 1555, Palestrina was appointed as a chorister in the single most prestigious choir in Christendom: that of the Sistine Chapel, the pope’s “personal” chapel. Palestrina’s hiring was controversial: he was neither a priest nor even celibate, but rather married (*gasp!*). According to the “Diarii Sistina” – the diaries of the Sistine Chapel – Palestrina was hired:



“on the orders of His Holiness Pope Julius, without any examination and without the consent of the singers.” 



We can safely assume that Palestrina’s extraordinary talents quickly overcame any residual resistance from his fellow choristers.]]>
Music History Monday 14:27
Music History Monday: A Day That Can Mean Only One Thing! https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-day-that-can-mean-only-one-thing/ Mon, 27 Jan 2020 19:14:29 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=6386 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-day-that-can-mean-only-one-thing/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-day-that-can-mean-only-one-thing/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/05085917/Mozart-Portrait.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the birth on January 27, 1756 – 264 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart.  There are certain dates that are so universally recognized that once invoked they can mean only one thing for a majority of people living on this planet. For example. Did we all know that January 1 is, among other things, Apple Gifting Day? It is also Bonza Bottler Day, Copyright Law Day, Ellis Island Day, Global Family Day, National Bloody Mary Day, and Public Domain Day. Did we all know that? And really, do any of us care? Because January 1 is New Year’s Day and every other observance shrinks to insignificance by comparison (excepting, perhaps, “National Bloody Mary Day”). Despite the fact that December 25 is Constitution Day in Taiwan and National Pumpkin Pie Day in the United States, the mention of that date can mean only one thing in much of the world: Christmas Day. May 1 is, in the northern hemisphere, May Day: a traditional celebration of spring. Planet wide, it is International Workers’ Day.  Since at least the fourteenth century, April 1 has been “international prank day”: April Fool’s Day. From its beginnings as a Celtic harvest festival, Halloween […]
Joseph Lange Mozart Portrait | Mozartian Comspiracy Theories
A portrait of Mozart dating from 1782/83 by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange. The portrait is incomplete; Lange planned to depict Mozart playing a piano. Incomplete or not, Lange’s portrait was considered by Mozart’s contemporaries to be the most accurate depiction of Mozart ever made.

We mark the birth on January 27, 1756 – 264 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart. 

There are certain dates that are so universally recognized that once invoked they can mean only one thing for a majority of people living on this planet. For example. Did we all know that January 1 is, among other things, Apple Gifting Day? It is also Bonza Bottler Day, Copyright Law Day, Ellis Island Day, Global Family Day, National Bloody Mary Day, and Public Domain Day. Did we all know that? And really, do any of us care? Because January 1 is New Year’s Day and every other observance shrinks to insignificance by comparison (excepting, perhaps, “National Bloody Mary Day”).

Despite the fact that December 25 is Constitution Day in Taiwan and National Pumpkin Pie Day in the United States, the mention of that date can mean only one thing in much of the world: Christmas Day.

May 1 is, in the northern hemisphere, May Day: a traditional celebration of spring. Planet wide, it is International Workers’ Day. 

Since at least the fourteenth century, April 1 has been “international prank day”: April Fool’s Day.

From its beginnings as a Celtic harvest festival, Halloween (a.k.a. October 31, Hallowe’en, Allhallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve, and All Saints’ Eve) has today become an international celebration, the promotion of which can be cynically attributed to a dark element within the international dental community, whose ministrations must repair the tooth damage perpetrated by all that ingested candy. 

We must now acknowledge another date that can only mean one thing, a date that once uttered should be recognized by each and every one of us as representing something wonderful, something miraculous, a gift without which our lives would be bereft: the birth of Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart.

(We would also take a moment to acknowledge the horrific irony that January 27 is also both Auschwitz Liberation Day and International Chocolate Cake Day.)

Where do we start when talking about Mozart? His music is so consistently glorious, his life was so tragically short, and his impact on global culture so immense that he stands as a singularity even among the giants of Western art. And yet for all of his fame and visibility, there is no major composer whose life and personality are more shrouded in myth and mistruth than Mozart’s. 

I’ve written extensively about the so-called “Mozart myths”: the half-truths and un-truths that have accreted over Mozart’s memory like guano on sea-side rocks. He was not the fair-haired, boy-god of music created by nineteenth century Romantic era mythologists. Neither was he an idiot savant or autistic, as some biographers have suggested. Nor was he – as has been claimed – “the Hegelian apotheosis of musical perfection taken to god’s bosom at 35, once all his musical branches had borne fruit, the Christ of music.” 

For now, we are going to deal with the most outrageous and familiar of the Mozart myths, “familiar” because it was set-in-stone in our communal consciousness by that movie: Amadeus. 

Tom Hulce as Mozart in Amadeus
Tom Hulce (born 1953) as Mozart in Amadeus

That Movie

Our most enduring image of Mozart today is the one we’ve received from Amadeus.

The movie was – and remains – excellent entertainment. It won eight Academy Awards in 1985, including best actor and best picture. It depicts Mozart as being a horse-laughing lout with the emotional age of a 12-year-old child. 

For the record: that depiction of Mozart as being essentially nothing but a potty-mouthed punk is categorically, absolutely false. 

The questions we must ask ourselves is why would the adult Mozart be portrayed in such a manner? And who should we blame for such a libelous portrayal? Should we blame Peter Shaffer, who wrote the screenplay for the movie based on his own stage play of the same title? Or should we blame the Russian playwright Alexander Pushkin, whose own play Mozart and Salieri provided the basis for Shaffer’s Amadeus?

No; let’s lay the blame where it belongs: at the feet of Mozart’s father, his sister, and his wife.

Constanze Mozart in 1802, by Hans Hansen
Constanze Mozart (1762-1842) in 1802, 11 years after Mozart’s death, by Hans Hansen

If it is true that the “victors” write the histories, it is also true that the living write the biographies.

No one who knew Mozart in his lifetime wrote responsible accounts of him during his lifetime or after his death. Yes: Mozart’s widow Constanze “edited” a biography of her husband in 1828, by which time she had been spinning her dead husband’s memory for 37 years. And why would she do that?

Here’s why. It was well known at the time of Mozart’s death in December of 1791 that he and his wife were deeply in debt. They were both big spenders – often irresponsible spenders – and the years 1788, 1789, and 1790 saw Wolfgang’s income crater for reasons quite outside his control. After Mozart’s death in 1791, Constanze passed herself off as the blameless victim of her husband’s financial excesses. In 1794 – three years after his death – Mozart’s first biographer Friedrich Schlichtegroll wrote this:

“In Vienna he married Constanze Weber and found in her a good mother of [their] two children and a worthy wife who sought to restrain him from [his] many excesses. Despite a considerable income, he left his family nothing beyond the glory of his name.” 

Who do we think fed Friedrich Schlichtegroll that story?

In 1856, Mozart’s first important biographer, Otto Jahn, continued to perpetrate the myth of Mozart’s childlike irresponsibility and Constanze’s ongoing sacrifice when he described Constanze as:

“a patient martyr, suffering from the thoughtlessness of a man of genius, who remained a child to the end of his days.” 

Maria Anna Mozart
Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), circa 1785

To the day she died, Mozart’s sister Maria Anna claimed that her brother was just a big ol’ kid. In 1792, a year after his death, she wrote:

“Wolfgang was small, thin, pale. Apart from his music he was almost a child, and thus he remained: and this was the essential feature of his personality. He always needed a father’s, a mother’s or some other guardian’s care.” 

Mozart’s father Leopold – who predeceased his son by 4½ years – went to his grave claiming his son was a child in a man’s body. Why would Mozart’s father and sister propagate that alternative fact: what were their motives? Like Constanze, their motives were personal enrichment and self-aggrandizement.

Leopold Mozart by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni
Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), circa 1765, by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni

Mozart’s father Leopold – who predeceased his son by 4½ years – went to his grave claiming his son was a child in a man’s body. Why would Mozart’s father and sister propagate that alternative fact: what were their motives? Like Constanze, their motives were personal enrichment and self-aggrandizement.

Wolfgang Mozart was born on this day in 1756 in “salt city” – Salzburg – in modern Austria. His father Leopold was a violinist who worked for the Archbishop of Salzburg. Mozart’s mother, Anna Marie, served up seven children, only two of which survived their infancy: Wolfgang and his elder sister Maria Anna.

Two-out-of-seven: a tragic survival rate, but oh what survivors! By 1759 – when Wolfgang was three and Maria Anna was eight – Leopold Mozart had come to realize that arrayed around his family dinner table was a gold mine of talent, particularly the boy. Sickly and undersized though he was, Leopold referred to him as “[the] miracle which god let be born in Salzburg!”

Wolfgang was a miracle, and Leopold – as a professional musician and teacher – was in a perfect position to appraise, teach, and exploit his son’s talent. 

This Leopold did. He became his son’s teacher, his ghost-writer, concert producer, travel agent, booking agent, public relations huckster, investment counselor, valet, and, in the end, oppressive tyrant. 

From the time he was a toddler, little Wolfgang’s role was to “play” the part of a sweet, impossibly gifted child in order to pile money, fame, and social standing at his father’s feet. It was to the Mozart family’s advantage for Wolfgang to appear to be an “eternal” child, and to that end Leopold Mozart routinely lied about his son’s age, in order to make his abilities appear to be that much more “prodigious”. At some point the entire Mozart clan came to see Wolfgang as a permanent child. But he was not a “permanent” child; he grew up. But that didn’t stop his immediate family from continuing to consider him as being “the child”. 

As a small child, young Wolfgang idolized his father. But even the most compliant children become surly with age (on this I can speak with the authority of experience), and by the time Wolfgang was an adolescent, Leopold could no longer count on his unqualified obedience. Leopold Mozart was nothing if not adaptable, and so over time his bullying took ever new forms, including harangues and guilt trips that would make even my Jewish mother blush, and no slouch was she. Leopold Mozart was the original tennis father and tiger mama, but nothing he did could prevent his son from growing up.

Mozart circa 1780, detail from portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce
Mozart circa 1780, detail from portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

In May of 1781, completely against his father’s wishes, the 25 year-old Wolfgang quit his day gig in Salzburg and put out his shingle in Vienna. Completely against his father’s wishes he married a singer named Constanze Weber in 1782. (For this Leopold Mozart disinherited his son, thereby denying Wolfgang his share of the money he had earned during the concert tours of his childhood! The beneficiary of Wolfgang’s disinheritance? His sister: Maria Anna.) 

But what really, really irked Leopold and his weasel of a daughter was how wrong they were about Wolfgang. Their predictions that he would crash and burn once he was on his own were completely wrong. Having settled in Vienna, Mozart quickly became a man about town: a celebrity whose activities were the stuff of gossip. 

Mozart’s quick (though unfortunately temporary) success in Vienna was due to his work ethic, his perseverance, his entrepreneurial spirit and business savvy. He was a tireless worker. Between 1782 and 1785 he composed over 150 pieces of music which spanned every conceivable genre and style, from solo keyboard music and concerti to duos, trios, quartets, quintets, songs, arias, operas, wind ensembles and symphonies: something for everyone.

In a letter to his father dated March 4, 1784, Mozart listed 22(!) concerts he was slated to give:

“You must forgive me if I don’t write very much, but it is impossible to find time to do so, as I have three concerts coming up, beginning on the 17th. I have 100 subscribers already and shall easily get another thirty. As you may imagine, I must play some new works – and therefore I must compose. The whole morning is taken up with pupils and almost every evening I have to perform. Well, haven’t I enough to do?”

“Haven’t I enough to do?” Wolfgang was rubbing rock salt into his father’s suppurating emotional wound: “Look, pops, at what a success I am. And I did it all without you!”

It galled Leopold so! He was forced to recognize that he was not only wrong about his son, but that his son did not need him. And so he lashed out at Wolfgang; he called him a “child” and died an angry, embittered man. Maria Anna, ever the “good daughter”, continued to propagate the lies about the “child” Mozart until her death in 1829 (38 years after Wolfgang’s death), by which times the lies had become accepted fact. As for Mozart’s widow Constanze, who lived until 1842 (and thus outlived Mozart by 51 years!): rich from Wolfgang’s posthumous musical legacy, she could claim that it was her forbearance that allowed the “man-child” to create the extraordinary music he did, and she was thus morally entitled to the huge profits his music generated after his death. 

All told, Mozart’s memory deserves better. A lot better.

Happy birthday, Maestro, and bless you for having existed.

For scads more on Mozart and his music, I would direct your attention to my website at RobertGreenbergMusic.com, where you can examine and download my numerous courses on Mozart, including surveys of his life, chamber music, and operas. And to encourage you to join me on Patreon.

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We mark the birth on January 27, 1756 – 264 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart.  There are certain dates that are so universally recognized that once invoked they can mean only one thing for a majority of people living on this planet. For example. A portrait of Mozart dating from 1782/83 by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange. The portrait is incomplete; Lange planned to depict Mozart playing a piano. Incomplete or not, Lange’s portrait was considered by Mozart’s contemporaries to be the most accurate depiction of Mozart ever made.



We mark the birth on January 27, 1756 – 264 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart. 



There are certain dates that are so universally recognized that once invoked they can mean only one thing for a majority of people living on this planet. For example. Did we all know that January 1 is, among other things, Apple Gifting Day? It is also Bonza Bottler Day, Copyright Law Day, Ellis Island Day, Global Family Day, National Bloody Mary Day, and Public Domain Day. Did we all know that? And really, do any of us care? Because January 1 is New Year’s Day and every other observance shrinks to insignificance by comparison (excepting, perhaps, “National Bloody Mary Day”).



Despite the fact that December 25 is Constitution Day in Taiwan and National Pumpkin Pie Day in the United States, the mention of that date can mean only one thing in much of the world: Christmas Day.



May 1 is, in the northern hemisphere, May Day: a traditional celebration of spring. Planet wide, it is International Workers’ Day. 



Since at least the fourteenth century, April 1 has been “international prank day”: April Fool’s Day.



From its beginnings as a Celtic harvest festival, Halloween (a.k.a. October 31, Hallowe’en, Allhallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve, and All Saints’ Eve) has today become an international celebration, the promotion of which can be cynically attributed to a dark element within the international dental community, whose ministrations must repair the tooth damage perpetrated by all that ingested candy. 



We must now acknowledge another date that can only mean one thing, a date that once uttered should be recognized by each and every one of us as representing something wonderful, something miraculous, a gift without which our lives would be bereft: the birth of Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart.



(We would also take a moment to acknowledge the horrific irony that January 27 is also both Auschwitz Liberation Day and International Chocolate Cake Day.)



Where do we start when talking about Mozart? His music is so consistently glorious, his life was so tragically short, and his impact on global culture so immense that he stands as a singularity even among the giants of Western art. And yet for all of his fame and visibility, there is no major composer whose life and personality are more shrouded in myth and mistruth than Mozart’s. 



I’ve written extensively about the so-called “Mozart myths”: the half-truths and un-truths that have accreted over Mozart’s memory like guano on sea-side rocks. He was not the fair-haired, boy-god of music created by nineteenth century Romantic era mythologists. Neither was he an idiot savant or autistic, as some biographers have suggested. Nor was he – as has been claimed – “the Hegelian apotheosis of musical perfection taken to god’s bosom at 35, once all his musical branches had borne fruit, the Christ of music.” 



For now, we are going to deal with the most outrageous and familiar of the Mozart myths, “familiar” because it was set-in-stone in our communal consciousness by that movie: Amadeus. 



Tom Hulce (born 1953) as Mozart in Amadeus



That Movie



Our most enduring image of Mozart today is the one we’ve received from Amadeus.



The movie was – and remains – excellent entertain...]]>
Music History Monday 17:05