We mark and celebrate two composers born on this date. Zdeněk Fibich was born on December 21, 1850; 170 years ago today. Frank Zappa was born on December 21, 1940, 80 years ago today.
The two had more in common with each other than just a name that started with the letter “z”. They were both eclectic composers, who brought to bear in their music a wide variety of influences, influences that were deemed “incompatible” by their critics. Oh yes, their “critics”: as composers, both Fibich and Zappa were controversial. They both suffered from poor health and they both died young: Fibich at 49 and Zappa at 52.
Frank Vincent Zappa was born on this date in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest of four children in an Italian-American family. Zappa’s father Francis was a defense-industry scientist, and as such the family lived a peripatetic existence: Baltimore, then to Florida; back to Maryland; then to Monterey, California; Claremont, California; El Cajon, California; San Diego, California; and finally, in 1956 (when Zappa was sixteen) to Lancaster, California, an aerospace and farming community in the Antelope Valley, in the Mojave Desert, near Edwards Airforce Base.
The young Frank Zappa was chronically ill; suffering from asthma, earaches, and all sorts of sinus issues. While still a child he had pellets of radium inserted into his nose to treat his sinusitis; something that was, at the time, called “therapeutic radiation”, but what we’d call today really stupid. It’s now understood that even such small amounts of radiation can cause cancer, and Zappa did indeed die of cancer – prostate cancer – on December 4, 1993, 17 days before his 53rd birthday.
He joined his first band – as a drummer – while attending Mission Bay High School in San Diego. From the first, Zappa’s musical tastes were entirely catholic, something that set him far apart from most rockers. According to Peter Buckley, writing in The Rough Guide to Rock (Rough Guides, London, 2003):
“As a teenager Zappa was simultaneously enthralled by black R&B (Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Guitar Slim), doo-wop (The Channels, The Velvets), the modernism of Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, and the dissonant sound experiments of Edgard Varèse.”
Affirming this statement, Zappa himself wrote:
“Since I didn’t have any kind of formal training, it didn’t make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin’ Slim, or a vocal group called the Jewels, or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music.”
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