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!



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