Monday, 29 February 2016


Gioachino Rossini
February’s aria of the month goes to “Dal tuo stellato soglio” (Upon your starry throne) from Act III of master of the opera buffa and “Signor Crescendo" Gioachino Rossini’s epic biblical opera Mosè in Egitto[1] / Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le passage de la Mer Rouge (Moses in Egypt/Moses and Pharaoh, or The Crossing of the Red Sea).

The aria, featuring a prayer sung by a chorus of Jews (the opera’s theme being loosely related to the biblical tale of Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea) was considered unrivaled amongst opera aficionados at the height of the 19th century.

The powerful prayer, led by the Hebrew prophet Moses, who leads the chorus in a brief sermon upon the banks of the Red Sea in the Opera’s third act, was actually an addition to maestro Rossini’s 1819 revision of the work. The aria itself was an immediate and ravishing success. According to 19th century writer and Rossini biographer Stendhal (aka Marie-Henri Beyle) “Dal Tuo…” apparently had some serious psychophysiological effects on a slew of demoiselles in the opera theater's audience, which he describes via a discussion with "noted Neapolitan physician" Dr. Cotugno in his work “Life of Rossini”:

“Cotugno, the most celebrated doctor in Naples, once remarked to me during the furore which first greeted Mosè in Egitto: Among the many and glorious titles which may be showered upon your hero, one should include that of murderer. I could quote you more than forty cases of brain-fever or of violent nervous convulsions among young ladies with an over-ardent passion for music, brought on exclusively by the Jews' Prayer in the third act, with its extraordinary change of key…”

Of course, by modern standards, this cringe worthy display of hysterics sounds both preposterous and reminiscent of the urban legends surrounding the audiences of a certain late-twentieth century cinematic masterpiece, who, according to popular folklore, also succumbed to suffering attacks of syncope and cardiac arrest[2] - I am referring, of course, to the premiere(s) of virtually all of the films belonging to the Exorcist franchise (or, come to think of it, almost any other artistic depiction of the matters of heaven and hell, for that matter), but what it does succeed in conveying to both contemporary and modern melophiles is the accurate portrayal of it's composer as a force to be reckoned with. Such grandiose tales of legend as regaled by Cotugno only serve to underscore Rossini’s placehold as a major contender (albeit a controversial one) in 19th century operatic circles.

Fun Fact: February’s aria of the month was selected in celebration of the 224th birthday of composer Gioachino Rossini, a famous leap year baby who, in 1864, on his 72nd birthday, humorously organized a grand celebration in Paris for his “18th" birthday. He died, 19 years “young,” in November of 1868.

Buon compleanno!

The celebrated prayer from Act III of Mosè in Egitto:

[1]Mosè in Egitto in fact went through two revisions: a ‘minor’ one in 1819 (it was this in this revision that the aria “Dal tuo stellato soglio” would be added to the opera); and a rather grand retooling in 1827 with a new selection of music and a ballet added to the work. This, in addition to setting the opera to a French Libretto prompted Rossini to title the work in French: “Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le passage de la Mer Rouge.” Although both the 1819 version of the opera and it’s 1827 successor contain the aria in question, the latter revision was considered by contemporary audiences as an altogether separate opera from it’s predecessor.

[2]This is not to suggest that the "extraordinary change of key" to which Dr. Cotungno refers is anything but gooseflesh inducing, which it undeniably is.

Friday, 26 February 2016


A rather degrading caricature of the lower classes taking in a public operatic performance.
This early 19th century painting, entitled "Poor Box at the Opera" by artist
offers a rather telling insight into the public perception of high art and culture, and
the shifting of classes and established models prior to the Age of Enlightenment. As we
will see in the entries below (and throughout unravelingmusicalmyths) archives - musical
and stage performance, once limited only to the Church and it's literate few would
endure much change over periods of religious reform with Saints and Gods
being replaced by Princes and Kings (and their courtly exploits) and, as represented in
this crude portrayal, both Classical Music and Opera (and it's royal and aristocratic
) would "suffer" much sacrifice at the expense of Revolutionary War - all of
these factors culminating in the public display for - and patronage of - the common man
in the world of music and theater. This picture fails to depict the final outcome of such
dynamic shifts in the history of Western Classical Music:
we all - common man included - won in the end.
The art forms of Classical Music (and it’s vocally-enriched theatrical counterpart, Opera) seem as old as time itself - from librettos set in ancient Rome and sourced from centuries-old Teutonic legends - to the mythical Greek tableaux and dramatic stage-plays from which opera first drew its inspiration, these aural and visual spectacles of grandiose proportions offer just as much mystique and thrill as any good history book.

In honor of the many gifts of operatic and orchestral delight bestowed upon audiences in the 21st century, Unraveling Musical Myths takes a moment to pay homage to Western Classical Music's Founding Fathers in a retrospective I am calling:






Composer Jacopo Peri dons a costume for the premiere
performance of his own Opera, "Dafne" in 1598.
The holder of this honorific is often erroneously identified as 17th Century Italian Renaissance-turned-Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi, and his early Opera "L’Orfeo," composed in 1607. In reality, the first Opera ever written was by composer Jacopo Peri, whose Opera “Dafne” (based on the titular character’s placehold as the object of affection for the Greek ‘god’ Apollo) held it’s premiere roughly a decade prior to “L’Orfeo” in Florence, in 1598.

Peri would also pen, alongside contemporary composer Giulio Caccini, the world’s second opera: a recitative-laden tribute to the lost art of ancient Greek tragedy-plays, entitled "Euridice" in 1603.
 It was at the latter’s premiere at an exclusive camerata that Monteverdi - who was in attendance - drew his inspiration for Orfeo. While Peri and Caccini sat at the forefront of this new art form, it is Monteverdi that holds the distinction of shaping opera into the more modern form of which we are exposed today, combining the recitative-fluent aspects of L’Orfeo and Dafne and it’s legendary libretti into a more flowing and musically transplendent display of poetry, acting, scenery, music and song into one all encompassing work of art.



The first public opera house appeared in Venice, Italy in the year 1637. The Teatro San Cassiano, named after it’s own parish, is notable for being the first institution readily accessible to the paying general masses as opposed to being exclusively patronized and attended by only members of the nobility.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Just when you thought he couldn’t be more impressive, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart comes along to astonish us once again with a notable entry into Classical and Operatic Firsts.

Our beloved Austrian virtuoso of all things musical, Wolfgang Mozart existed in a very dogmatic – yet also a very progressive (in both music and in society) time. As one of the classical era’s "Major Three" Composers (the two other being Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven), Mozart would experience and contribute quite heavily to the period’s power shifts - from writing under the influence and patronage of the church to composing for royal courts and Kings - and having the distinction of experiencing first hand the rise of freedom of religion[1] brought about by the Age of Enlightenment, and drawing from it both valuable and historical inspiration.

Mozart’s contributions, from a contemporary perspective, would have been bittersweet: although the one-time wunderkind created for the musical sphere some of the most harmonic, melodic and exquisite music known to man, Wolfgang would struggle for the greater part of his life to secure for himself and his wife Constanze a steady salary by vying for a royal post at the court of Emperor Joseph II of Austria. Court politics - and not, as it is commonly believed, blackmail and devious machinations behind the scenes by alleged nemesis to Mozart, Antonio Salieri - were the catalyst for Mozart’s slow moving ascent to the court of Vienna, and, further compounding the issue of a steady income was the fact that Wolfgang existed in a period of Revolution: the rising costs of war brought with it a marked decrease in both royal and noble patronage – almost forcing musicians to resort to freelancing (and compounding the issue even further, musicians in the 18th century were still perceived as servants!)

Indeed, the exceedingly ambitious Mozart would become one of the first musician freelancers in history, making the composer's stratospheric rise to musical infamy, in the face of such a rich array of obstacles positively awe inspiring, and certainly, all the more impressive.

This entry makes the quote I featured in Tuesdays “Quote of the Day” post all the more apt.


Looking very dapper in his younger years, the
pianist, composer and heart-throb Franz Liszt
sent throngs of 19th century women into a
state of fanatical hysteria, openly weeping and
succumbing to syncope before their idol.
The cringe-worthy displays of overzealous fans fawning, fainting and swooning over their musical idols is not a modern phenomena by any means. While he may not have been the first ‘icon’ to be subjected to fanatical mobs, 19th century pianist and composer Franz Liszt holds the distinction of being the first documented victim (depending on how one looks at the situation) of overzealous, and overabundant ‘groupies.'

The fanatical mob was viewed, even in 19th century Europe, as outrageous. Famed German poet Heinrich Heine dubbed the phenomena surrounding the composer “Lisztomania” (a rather biting insult for the period, the suffix –mania, in that era, referred to mental derangement, not the modern translation as a subject or object of excess).

Legend has it that the demoiselles present at concert performances of the long-locked pianist were so overcome by lust they would throw undergarments at the stage[2] and collect stray hairs that would fall from the composers head. Liszt was said to have capitalized at the expense of his admirers – cutting off locks of hair which he would then put up for auction – even clipping hairs from his canine companion and passing them off for his own to make a quick buck!


The wildly successful 20th century tenor Enrico Caruso
This landmark historical event of 1910 began as an experimental transmission and ended as a world record.

It was on the thirteenth day of January over a century ago that famed tenor Enrico Caruso’s concert performance featuring arias by Pietro Mascagni (from his Cavalleria Rusticana) and Ruggero Leoncavallo (from Pagliacci) at New York’s (former) Metropolitan Opera House was broadcast – in a historical first event that was heard “over the turbulent waters of the sea to transcontinental and coastwise ships and over the mountainous peaks and undulating valleys of the country.”

The transmission is considered to be the “birth of public radio broadcasting, with a contemporary New York Times journalist reporting (in full):

“Opera broadcast in part from the stage of the New York City Metropolitan Opera Company was heard on January 13, 1910, when Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn sang arias from Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, which were "trapped and magnified by the dictograph directly from the stage and borne by wireless Hertzian waves over the turbulent waters of the sea to transcontinental and coastwise ships and over the mountainous peaks and undulating valleys of the country.”


Ludwig van Beethoven
This entry can be filed under "Operatic Firsts" two times over:

Beethoven’s first and only opera “Fidelio” owns the distinction of being the first live opera performance to be transmitted through shortwave.

Originating from Dresden in Germany, the historic musical transmission was received in the United States by NBC in New York on March 16, 1930.
 The exciting event was only a minor success for American audiences, however – reception was poor, it is estimated only 20 minutes or so were audible.


A cheerful portrait of Gioachino Rossini
This honorific goes to 19th century master of the opera buffa, Gioachino Rossini, when his opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia (better known as The Barber of Seville) was performed by a small family-run operatic troupe at the city’s Park Theatre in 1816.

The "family troupe" was famous in it's own right: it's chief member was one Manuel García (fun miscellaneous fact: the baritone García would later be credited with perfecting - although some historians credit him as having invented - the medical device known as the laryngoscope! García, a true 19th century polymath doubled as a vocal pedagogue).
 The family troupe included his sister, a pre-wed Maria Malibran, who would herself become wildly successful as a mezzo-soprano.

Il Barbiere would go on to become one of modern classical music's most recognized and beloved operas.


Camille Saint Saëns
The French film La Mort du duc de Guise (The Death - later titled 'Asassination' - of the Duke of Guise) featured the first ever original film score, composed by French Romantic Camille Saint-Saëns, in 1908.

The 15 minute biopic retells the (unsurprising) fate of Le Balafré : Henri, 1st Duke of Guise and his slaughter by the French King Henri III at the Château de Blois following an impassioned attempt to overhaul the throne of France that culminated in the final conflict (the so-called War of the Three Henrys”) during the countries infamous and spectacularly bloody Wars of Religion.

By the time La Mort... premiered with the music of Saint-Saëns, the composer had already accomplished yet another first of sorts (albeit a loosely related first): he, Camille Saint Saëns, French composer, had won over the English (by no means an easy feat!) For at least two decades prior to this historical event, the musically inclined Frenchman and his symphonic (and operatic) repertoire had become a staple of English high society, earning him a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London in 1886 for his highly prized Third Symphony (the so-called "Organ Symphony") and earning him the moniker of "Greatest Living French Composer."

Listen below eerily modern sounding soundtrack courtesy of Saint-Saëns:

[1]"freedom" quite literally: Mozart would allegedly join the Austrian Masonic Order after attending a Viennese lodge in 1784, becoming a Freemason shortly thereafter.
[2]this is hard to believe given the intricate fashion of the time, but it sure is fun to imagine!


Wednesday, 24 February 2016


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
2016 has scarcely just begun and already the year, in the world of music, has unveiled several historic discoveries of note:


Just shy of one month prior to conductor Harry Christophers’ historic Service of the Mass in Latin alongside the Genesis/Sixteen at Hampton Court Palace’s Chapel Royal in England (as discussed here on, librarian James Mason at Canada’s University of Toronto discovered a composition long believed to have been lost or destroyed by late 19th - early 20h century Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen among the Universities vast archives.

The work – a violin concerto - believed to have been the product of a donation by 20th century renowned Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow is set to debut in Norway as part of the International Musicological Society's annual conference in the summer of 2016.
(**NOTE: See "UPDATE" at end of post).


This month, an exciting and historical debut was held at the Czech Republic's Museum of Music on Tuesday February 16th 2016. Playing for the first time a collaborative compositional effort by the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his pop-culture-implied nemesis, Antonio Salieri, harpsichordist Lukáš Vendl was effectively performing a piece that until now existed only as a product of legend. Although the four minute piece - a solo cantata - is scored for soprano accompaniment, Vendl performed as an instrumental soloist before a select group of a dozen or so spectators.[1]

Antonio Salieri
Entitled "Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia" ("For the recovered health of Ophelia"), this piece for harpsichord and soprano (with libretto[2] by 18th century favorite Lorenzo da Ponte), is said to have been originally composed in the year 1785 as a tribute to English soprano Nancy Storace[3] who at various times, held employment under both Mozart and Salieri. The piece was discovered by musicologist Timo Jouko Herrmann in November of 2015 after the library at the Czech Museum of Music in Prague opted to digitize it’s archives, allowing Herrmann to research with greater attention to detail its records whilst perusing the Museums vast database. His original search query was for Antonio Casimir Cartellieri, a possible pupil of Salieri. What returned from his search would be a discovery of epic and ground-breaking proportions.

The historic composition was performed this month at the Museum, likely for the first time in over two centuries and is cataloged under the Köchel number K. 477a.

Listen below to "Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia:"

Footnotes (external links):

Soprano Nancy Storace
[1] A section of two stanzas from the cantata's libretto was also performed, penned by a (currently) unknown composer who contributed as a third author to the historic piece.

[2] details regarding which composer contributed to which stanzas are listed on the Wikipedia page for "Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia"

[3] Storace owed her dedication to the recovery of her voice, which she has lost during an alleged ‘nervous breakdown’. It is unsurprising that both composers would choose to honor her thus: Storace was a classical era favorite, having worked for both composers and even having earned the coveted first spot as Susanna in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. So beloved by the Viennese public was Storace, she even had compositional works created entirely for her.

UPDATE: Listen below to a recording (released by Naxos on February 10, 2017) of Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud performing Halvorsen's "lost" Concerto for Violin and orchestra (Op. 28) alongside the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.

The lively concerto originally held it's 'modern' premiere at Norway's
Risør Chamber Music Festival on July 3, 2016 with Kraggerud performing alongside the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra:


Tuesday, 23 February 2016


The Ugly Renaissance at Amazon
One of the books I am currently reading is Alexander Lee's "The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence & Depravity in an Age of Beauty," a modern scholar's unabashed and unapologetic foray into the demi-monde of Renaissance icons Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo, the "Ugly's" preface featured a dialogue that, for me, leapt right off of the pages. Below I quote from the book a paragraph that I found especially poignant:

“…precisely because it is so very easy to be seduced by the beauty and elegance of the art and literature of the Renaissance, the uglier side of the period is all too easily forgotten and overlooked. Perhaps by virtue of the Romantic aura that surrounds its cultural achievements, the titillating private lives of its artists, the sordid concerns of its patrons, and the superabundance of intolerant hatred in its streets are regularly swept under the carpet and glossed over with the illusion of unblemished perfection. At the level of historical accuracy, this tendency is unfortunate merely because it introduces a somewhat artificial separation between high culture and social realities. But at a much more human level, it is also unfortunate because it robs the period of its excitement, its vividness, and its true sense of wonder. For it is only by appreciating the seamier, grittier side of the Renaissance that the extent of its cultural achievements really becomes clear.”

Although Lee is speaking of a thesis shared[1] by 15th century philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in his magnum opus Oration on the Dignity of Man and Michelangelo's David, I think the sentiment applies wholeheartedly to the genre of Classical Music and Opera and of its practitioners as well as it's patrons (and critics). It is exactly the premise that seeks to convey. 

While there is something to be said about an aura of mystique, the notion that true creative genius is best appreciated when viewing the picture as a whole, in my opinion, cannot be overstated when it comes to the lives and works of our great composers. In every triumph there lurks the shade of failures past - in every beauty, the blemish of matter defiled - it is through attuning one self to the shaky first steps of our icons, walking with them through their fumbles and forays into the field of excellence that we can appreciate the full extent of their efforts and the choice of material found within their oeuvres. Furthermore, if we take into context the social, political and economic factors of the state in which each of our favorite composers' lived - in times of revolution, in times of war - and almost never in détente, we can further understand precisely why certain decisions were made: in regards to libretto, style and genre, and critical acclaim or public outrage.

It is only in this vein that we may begin to view our musical heroes not as demi-gods with unearthly talents, but rather as very much - very uniquely -

It is when we choose not to deify our beloved composers that their respective talents become that much more impressive.

Listen below to Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli's (c. 1554-1612) exquisite setting of "O Magnum Mysterium"

[1]that of man’s placement amongst the arts (and his supposed innate genius) as being identified by the amalgamation of free will and sociological influence.


Saturday, 20 February 2016

TODAY IN MUSIC HISTORY: Georg Frideric Händel becomes British, becomes George Frederick Handel

At the beginning of the 18th century, German-born icon of the late baroque Georg Händel could arguably be called a British composer. The young 25 year old citizen of Halle would make a move to the English capital in in the years following his first visit to the country in 1710 – a move that would become a most prosperous and fateful decision for the master of the oratorio and opera.

 Georg Frideric Händel
Within two years of his first arrival at London, Händel, finding much success in England following the premieres of his operas Rinaldo and Il Pastor Fido decided the Scepter’d Isle is where he was meant to flourish to his full potential, and the iconic composer made plans to set up permanent residency in the English capital.

Händel’s official move to London in 1718 was prefaced by an assumed position at the English court via the composer’s connection to the Elector of Hanover, the German Prince George, who had appointed Georg Frideric with an aristocratic post as Kapellmeister to his court in 1710, and who was strongly favored to become the future King and founder of the House of Hanover on the throne of Great Britain – which he became, in 1714, as King George I.

King George I of Great Britain and Ireland
George I was an ardent admirer and generous patron of the prolific composer, appointing Händel ‘Composer of Musik for his Majesty’s Chappel Royal’ in 1723 and moving him into what is now the Handel House Museum - a modest house in Lower Brook Street, London, where the composer resided until his death in 1759. Händel’s compositional talents and allegiance to Britain most probably first garnered the King’s full attention in the brief span between 1711 and 1713, following the wildly successful premieres of Händel’s opera Rinaldo in 1711, Il pastor Fido, and Teseo in 1713; and later that same year, the stalwart German boldly composed an Ode for the Queen’s Birthday (the queen at the time, being British: Queen Anne of England) and the Utrecht Te Deum. Queen Anne, being no lover of music, was reportedly so bowled over by the honor bestowed upon her by Händel, she granted the composer an annual generous allowance of £200. Upon her death the following year and the succession of the Elector George to the British throne, Georg Frideric had already sealed the deal for a position at court. He would become director of music to James Brydges, 1st duke of Chandos, under whose patronage the composer would begin his foray into the creation of the English oratorio, and, by 1723, Händel would become composer of music for the King's Chapel Royal.
Händel’s influence on the classical music sphere was incalculable. Ever attuned to the needs of the British, Georg Frideric, at the height of his career, would shape his compositional oeuvre to answer to the social demands of the day, creating large scale choral works and oratorio (the most famous of which is the Messiah, from which the wildly popular Hallelujah Chorus draws it’s home) that were specifically British (such as in the case of the secular oratorio Dettingen Te Deum, which celebrated English victory over the ever troublesome French at the battle of Dettingen) and sensitively democratic (appealing to the oft-ignored religious middle classes who had grown tired of Italian works and their frequent bans
, often campy and fantastical story lines and foreign tongue)

By presenting librettos in the English language, Händel was systematically setting in motion a small class warfare of sorts by elevating the middle classes from textual obscurity by presenting them with both a language and subject matter which they not only freely understood, but which they also could instill in themselves a sense of English pride by sharing the contents of the libretti - which showcased their beliefs, their victories - with other potential fans and patrons. Indeed, it was a win-win situation for both composer and audience. 

Händel's prestigious masterpiece, Music for the Royal Fireworks, commissioned by King George II in 1749 for an all night celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle - disaster aside (there was a sizable fire caused by explosion in one of the pavilions that would leave at least three persons dead) - was most celebrated throughout posterity, and his royal coronation anthem Zadok the Priest continues to be the royal anthem for any and all succeeding British monarchs.

View of the display at London's Green Park on the occasion of the premiere for Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks.

These were just but the tip of the monumental mountain of artistic refinement the former German brought to England – and none of it would have been possible were it not for the events that occurred on this day of the 20th of February in 1727, just prior to the death of King George I and the succession of his son, King George II. It was on this day nearly 300 years ago that Georg Frideric[1] Händel, citizen of Germany became George Frederick Handel, naturalized British subject, exactly one week after applying for citizenship to the land, which, to Händel, had already become home. This would be a necessary step for the foreign-born composer to obtain and secure his status as a true Briton, and one in which the ailing George I fully supported, granting George Frederick Handel royal assent exactly 279 years ago today, ensuring the now British subject would continue on as Composer of the Chapel Royal, and of the hearts and ears of generations to come.

THE MOST CELEBRATED THREE: Hallelujah, from Messiah; Zadok the Priest, coronation anthem to King George II (and every British monarch since); and Music for the Royal Fireworks, in celebration of the ending of the War of the Austrian Succession by the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1729.

                   Hallelujah Chorus                              Zadok the Priest                       Music for the Royal Fireworks

[1]Some contemporary reports use the Friedrich spelling. This was not at all unusual for the period. For many centuries previous, surnames (or in this instance, middle names) were spelled phonetically, and, as a result, one can often find vast and varied spellings of the same name and individual. This method of sounding out a name would often affect even one's forename.



In honor of the 390th anniversary of renowned lutenist and composer John Dowland, who left this musical, this earthly sphere on this 20th day of February in 1626[1], takes a look back at that delicate sounding, calm inducing instrument known as the lute and it’s otherwise deranged and diabolical practitioners (and those who were disenchanted by them) of the famed precursor to the modern guitar by re-examining the fates of four of the lute’s most infamous historical figures.


John Dowland and his lute.
Dowland is often referred to as an Elizabethan composer. In reality, this British lutenist[2] never, in fact, secured the patronage or a post under the 16th century Queen (although he did dedicate two compositions, in the form of galliards, to her – one of which had been recycled from a previous dedicatee – posthumously). It’s not that Dowland didn’t try: upon arriving in England from a four-year aristocratic post in France in 1594, the hopeful lutenist arrived in the British Isle fully expecting to win Elizabeth’s favor and secure for himself a post with the ‘Virgin Queen’. He was flatly denied the position. England in the late 16th century was at the height of a religious unrest and, while the Queen herself attempted to present to her citizens (to whom she declared herself “wed”) the exterior façade of neutrality within the confines of England’s’ tumultuous secular divide, her administers and advisors remained largely Protestant. Dowland naturally attributed his rejection at Court to have been the direct result of his recent conversion in France to Roman Catholicism (there could be more at play here, however – court composer and member of the Chapel Royal – over the course of four monarchs Tudor Thomas Tallis,was an open and indefatigable “unreformed Catholic”. He was also, as we have seen in my recent posts on the 16th century composer, a favorite of the Queen).

Whatever the reason(s) for Dowland’s rejection, rejoicings of the undeniable talent of the lutenist-composer reached beyond the religious divide and even beyond borders: the ever-hopeful Dowland published in England in 1597 the first ever publication of English lute songs, “The First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute” which earned him high praise from both members of aristocracy and 16th century intelligentsia. Even members of royalty took notice: at some point after the year 1598, Dowland moved to the Danish Court of Christian IV of Denmark, where the melophilic King lavished the now infamous composer with the then-grand annual salary of 500 daler – far more than the going rate for the position, making the lutenist one of the Courts highest paid servants (this was still the 16th century, where musicians were considered not as idols, but as common workers – making the donation of largesse bestowed upon the composer even more impressive).

An excerpt from Dowland's "First Booke of Songes or Ayres of Foure Partes with Tableture for the Lute"

Dowland continued, in spite of the generosity of the Danish King, to publish his works in England in the hopes he could garner the interest of the Queen. His life-long wish to secure for himself a placement at the English court was not achieved until the year 1612, after a 6 year otherwise uneventful stay back in the Scepter'd Isle following his dismissal at the Danish Court due to his over-extended stays in the country whilst on publishing duty. It would not be under Elizabeth that Dowland would compose his future works – she was already nine years into the grave – instead, he  was appointed one of the lutenists to the Father of the Union of the Crowns that would eventually see England and Scotland merge into Great Britain – the King James I (son to the fateful queen in our next story). 

In a conclusion most peculiar to a life chasing patronage at the English Court, Dowland would produce very few compositions during his lifelong post under James I.


The Murder of David Rizzio

Across England’s border, in its frequently warring counterpart of Scotland, a diminutive Italian had infiltrated the Royal Stuart Court (and, allegedly – but likely falsely – it’s Queen, Mary Stuart, the so-called “Queen of Scots”). Rizzio was first brought to the attention of the hapless Queen as a singer most excellent (he sung as a bass) through a carefully orchestrated set of meetings with Mary’s own set of musicians, whom she had brought over from her exile in France following the death of her husband, King François II of an abscessed ear and the seizing of power by the indomitable ex-queen Catherine de’ Medici, Mary’s former mother-in-law.

Mary’s time in Scotland, where she had been rightful Queen since her succession at six days old following the death of her father King James V was never prosperous, and had been doomed from the beginning: her father, upon finding out the birth of his child and successor to the crown of Scotland was but a lowly girl, on his deathbed, foretold the disaster to come, protesting "It cam wi' a lass and it will gang wi' a lass!" (this was repeated in even more disparaging tones by protestant leader John Knox immediately upon the queens arrival at the shoreline of Scotland, where he had traveled through the night to greet her with his disapproving orations.

Unlike England to the South, Scotland, although possessing a monarch, was in fact ruled by rivaling noble factions, who it seemed were always engaged in civil war.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots
By the time Mary had arrived back in Scotland, she had already experienced attacks on her life and livelihood by the former English King Henry VIII, who had orchestrated a devious plan to secure for his only legitimate son Edward VI, a marriage with the young Queen. Mary was to be removed from Scotland at once and brought to England to learn it’s ways and it’s customs before reaching marriageable age. There was nothing romantic about this "deal” – Henry’s entire objective was to secure hegemony over the North through a marital union between England and Scotland – creating a forced ally in his neighbor, and in turn removing it from the grips of it’s friendly relationship with France (with whom England was frequently engaged in battle). By wedding a royal Scot to a future English King, Henry would effectively secure the border between both nations from invading enemy troops from "L’hexagone." Mary of Guise, mother to the Queen of Scotland had second thoughts, and after a violent series of attacks on the Heathered Isle by the King, known as the rough-wooing - where orders were to destroy, to kill and eventually to kidnap the young queen - was forced to appeal to France, begging the French King, Henri II exile for the little royal and for the countries’ protection – to which Henri unreluctantly obliged (at a cost - Mary would have to marry Henri’s first son, the sickly dauphin François).

By the time Mary had returned to Scotland thirteen years later at the age of eighteen, she found her country, formally Roman Catholic, had begun to go the way of the English, with many of it’s citizens converting to the protestant faith.

It was to this turmoil the person and character of Mary was related, and to this turmoil that she returned to her motherland. It was of little surprise when Mary appointed Rizzio as Queen's secretary for relations with France - a diplomatic and administrative post extremely close to the crown - the Scottish populous found themselves in an outrage. Most outraged of them all was the narcissistic (and probably sadistic) husband to the Queen of Scots, Lord Darnley – whose jealousy and source of vitriol went beyond Rizzio interfering with matters of state. Seeking to find any legitimate reason to find the musician and his wife guilty of a treasonous offense in order to secure for himself the throne of Scotland, a close circle of Darnley’s political cohorts convinced the indignant King consort of an illicit affair occurring between Rizzio and his Queen, citing the many late nights spent in her chambers serenading the Queen with music performed on his trusty lute, which he could often be heard playing and seen carrying about the court.

It was those late night jam sessions on the lute and an outrageous accusation of impregnation of the Queen by Rizzio that would cause the unfortunate musician to meet his early – and excessively violent – end.

Lord Henry Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots
On the evening of March 9th, 1566, whilst dining alongside Mary and several intimate guests of the Queen in her private dining room at the palace of Holyroodhouse, Darnley and his group of rebels stormed into the tiny supper chamber, turning up the table in the process of rushing the terrified lutenist, who instinctively ran to hide behind the Queen’s skirts. Mary begged for leniency, but was both rebuffed and overpowered by the rebels.

Darnley and his men seized the diminutive Italian, began to stab him in count reported to be as high as 56 wounds inflicted by both sword and knife, before throwing him down a flight of stairs - possibly still alive and dying from his many fatal wounds - and stripping him nude of both jewelry and clothing for added humiliating measure.

Darnley would get his just desserts for the crime – It is believed Mary and alleged future lover Lord Bothwell orchestrated a nearly aborted coup d’état to end the king’s life – first by attempting to blow him up, finally by strangulation as the murderous prince fled his temporary residence in only his nightshift.  


Fans of composer and music publisher Andrea Antico may be familiar with this rather biting woodcut of a musician at the keyboard (believed to be Antico himself), the Medici coat of arms before him in place of a score (Pope Leo X famously supported Antico’s printing ventures, even granting the composer the exclusive right to print organ tablature – see below the table of contents from Antico’s Liber Quindecim Missarum of 1516 – the first ever piece of sacred music published in Rome). 

Situated in the middle of the engraving is the figure of a woman, pointing to what appears to be a monkey playing a lute. The feminine figure is holding up a score for all to see. Musical scholars of this period translate the woman and the monkey as a rather insulting jab at the composer Ottaviano Petrucci, a frequent rival and competitor of Antico who was only made allowed to publish polyphonic music for the comparatively lowly instrument of the lute after his request to the Pope for the "privilege" (equivalent to the modern "copyright") to be the exclusive printer of polyphony was granted, minus the rights to the keyboard. 

It seems Petrucci's nemesis liked to rub salt in the wound!


“Plantagenet, I will; and like thee, Nero,

Play on the lute, beholding the towns burn.”

-Henry VI, Shakespeare

I will close this post with a little myth-busting. Hard pressed is any lover of history or music to find any scholar or layman ignorant of the plight of Rome and it’s nefarious ruler Nero, who was said to have arrogantly played his fiddle while Rome burned. 

Perhaps this perception came from the former Emperor’s macabre playboy lifestyle that involved immense psychological and physical cruelty to both man and animal, kin and commoner.

The common expression “Nero fiddled while Rome burned" is highly problematic, and at best, one of mere suggestion popularized by the Roman historian Tacitus – who himself admitted, the story of Nero and his infamous fiddle was only but a rumor. One of the major issues with the legend is the presence – or more accurately the absence – of the fiddle. At the time of Nero, the fiddle (later referred to as the lute) did not yet exist! In fact, the class of instruments to which the ‘fiddle’ belongs, the viol class – would not be developed until the 11th century AD. There did exist, however, a precursor to the fiddle, or lute – a four-to-seven stringed instrument known as the cithara. It is also the subject of rumor that Nero enjoyed partaking in playing this instrument, however later biographers of the controversial Emperor would add even more doubt to the fiddle story when they placed the ruler at his villa, some 35 miles outside of Rome – at Antium, at the onset of the blaze. 

And you thought the lute delicate?

[1]The actual date of Dowland's death is uncertain, however he was buried on February 20th in the year 1626.
[2]Dowland may not even have been English: later biographers would place his origin of birth in Dublin, making him (possibly) Irish.


Friday, 19 February 2016

TODAY IN BIRTHDAYS: LUIGI BOCCHERINI - February 19, 1743 - May 28, 1805

Luigi Boccherini
Newcomers to the exquisitely indulgent world of classical music will undoubtedly file this 18th century Italian-born cellist and composer under the category of "intimately familiar musicians whose name eludes pop culture status."

Boccherini should indeed be a household name – his music, after all, has almost certainly provided the backdrop to a peaceful evening spent alone or alongside a loved one, in front of a television set, computer screen or radio.

I am referring, of course, to the infamous String Quintet in E major (Op. XI, no. V), in particular the celebrated third “minuet” movement (which you may have heard performed on a solo instrument – usually a violin), originally composed in 1771 as part of a “string quartet” (a four-piece string ensemble) for 2 violins, 1 cello and 1 viola, it would become a “cello quintet” (a five-piece string ensemble) with the addition of a second cello, for which the work is famous.

Boccherini himself was a skilled and avid cellist, who often performed as a fifth instrumentalist to his own compositions – all of them quartets – alongside the “Font String Quartet”, an ensemble formed by one Don Luis, Cardinal-Infante of Spain and brother to King Charles III of Spain, and aristocratic patron of Boccherini, who briefly wrote exclusively for the group.

Surprisingly, though the popularity of the quintet would only gain renown through posterity, the works produced and performed under this royal patronage would assist Boccherini in introducing the musical art form of the string quartet accompanied by a fifth (cellist) to prominence. It is said that Boccherini devoted much of his compositional output (up to a period of 10 years) to penning various string quartets. While Boccherini did not invent the string quintet per-sae, his substitution of 2 violins and 1 viola to 2 cello in place of the standard scoring of 2 violins, 2 violas and 1 cello often earns him the honorific amongst modern string ensembles.

Boccherini’s talents were well known across the European continent. Although plagued by a life of misery (the composer suffered many a visit from the reaper, losing two wives and three children and his aristocratic patron in the Infante in just under a two decade span), the venerable cellist would attract the attention of Frederick William II, King of Prussia, who would become his royal patron. 

Certainly, the works of this multi-talented member of the arts continues to be well known today, although I must say it's high time the name "Boccherini" achieve pop-culture status.

Listen below to the famous third movement of the celebrated String Quintet in E Major:


Wednesday, 17 February 2016


February 17, 2016 marks the 363rd anniversary of the birth of composer, innovator and virtuosic violinist Arcangelo Corelli, the most influential - and arguably, the most important - figure to come out of Western Classical Music’s late baroque period.

Arcangelo Corelli (compare this image to the Corelli-Vivaldi likeness)
Dubbed the “Founder of the Modern Violin Technique,” Corelli single-handedly brought much attention and praise to the musical art form of concerto grosso[1]  as both an innovator on it’s technique, as a teacher of it’s art form, and composer of the wildly successful set of XII Concerti Grossi, his 6th Opus, first published in 1714 in the year following the musicians death at the ripe age (at least, for that period) of 60. The famed German-turned-British baroque composer Georg Friedrich Händel would use these concerti as a model for his own set of XII Concerti Grossi: op. 6.  

Händel wasn’t alone in his reverence for the “world’s greatest violinist” (another moniker attached to the composer by fans and patrons of Corelli): the virtuosic Arcangelo’s innovations on the instrument and the concerto grosso were lauded across the European continent during the composers lifetime and reverence to the musician extended even after his death, with such prolific composers of note paying homage to, and citing the influence of Corelli as an objet d’inspiration: baroque composer Tomaso Albioni of Italy, the young Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, of the then Papal State of “Jesi” (now the Province of Ancona), Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti, composer to Italy and later Spain; Georg Philipp Telemann of the German baroque and Antonio Vivaldi, also of Italy (revered in his day as second only to Corelli) and even Johann Sebastian Bach of Germany was said to have been heavily inspired and influenced by Arcangelo (Bach would pen the “Fugue in B Minor on a Theme by Corelli” (BMV 579) after the Vivace[2] of Corelli’s Trio Sonata Op. 3 no. 4 in c. 1710).

Corelli's XII Concerti Grossi, Op. 6:

Unlike many composers and musicians of the late Baroque and subsequent periods of Western Classical Music, Arcangelo Corelli lived and died in both reverence and wealth. He had acquired the patronage of 17th century gender-bender and Queen of Sweden, the regnant Christina following her abdication to Rome, whom he served until her death, immediately followed by an ecclesiastical post with the clergy under the service of a Cardinal Pamphili (who granted Corelli accommodations at his palace), and later, under Pamphili’s nephew, Cardinal Ottoboni, who paid top dollar for the virtuosos services and who would gainfully employ the musician until the end of his life.

Corelli’s refined taste extended to other areas of the arts – quite literally – his acquisition of many and varied works of art culminated in a substantial sum to be added the late composer’s net worth of 120,000 marks. He died with the wages of a Prince – quite appropriate for a man who dominated the era of late baroque like a King.[3]

Buon compleanno maestro Corelli!

[1]The implementation of two groups of musicians who share the same stage and alternate from a single composition musical material: a minor group of solo instrumentalists, called “concertino”, contrasted by a larger orchestral group (the “ripieno,” or “concerto grosso”).

[2]The fugal subject of the second movement.

[3]In a grand gesture befitting such an important and influential figure of the arts, Arcangelo Corelli's body was interred at the historic Pantheon in Rome, where he is buried alongside High Renaissance painter Raphael.

Listen below to one of my favorite pieces by Corelli, on the "Folia" theme: the Violin Sonata in D Minor (user's pt. I of II):