Wednesday, 30 March 2016


This month Unraveling Musical Myths takes a look back at Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, born March 30, 1566. (*REPOST FROM: DECEMBER 2015 - see original article here)

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa
October 16, 1590. The sun had set at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, Italy - both below the horizon and in the private bedchamber of Donna Maria D’Avalos, first wife of Composer and Prince of Venosa Carlo Gesualdo.

Inside, the steamy quarters reeked with the stench of death. Amidst the blood-soaked enclosure, crumpled sheets and general disarray set-stage a scene of obvious whirlwind violence, leaving in it’s wake the grisly and horrific aftermath of plot, treason, and debauched primal furor. It was a hellish display of pre-determined destiny that would make the fate of Paolo and Francesca of Dante fame seem like a punishment fit for Paradise.

Deep within the caverns and alcoves of this magnificent castle, elicit and treasonous carnal exploits would meet their due restitution - at the end of a dagger and by the barrel of a still smoking gun.

The Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza was born into nobility. Born in late March c.1566 he was the nephew of a Pope (his mother was niece of Pope Pius IV) and nephew of Calo Borromeo, (later made Saint Charles Borromeo

As the second surviving son of Fabrizio Gesualdo and Geronima Borromeo, the would-be Prince obtained carte-blanche status in Italy when he was crowned Prince of Venosa (a Principality handed down to Gesualdo through the paternal line via his grandfather, made First Prince of Venosa by the King of Spain) following the death of his elder brother, Luigi.

A dedicated Composer of madrigals and other sacred and secular works, accomplished lutenist and harpsichordist, Carlo Gesualdo would use his status as Prince to excess, obsessive in his display of dominion over music, his servants, his wife and her paramours, and later, toward his own person.

In 1586, Carlo would marry his first Cousin (a practice not uncommon among royal houses, dedicated to preserving the familial bloodline of future Princes and Kings), Donna Maria D’Avalos.

Donna Maria was a noted and celebrated beauty, and quickly caught the eye of a young Carlo. Unfortunately for Maria and for posterity, her charm and smouldering allure also grasped the attention of Gesualdo’s blood-uncle, Don Giulio.

Ever the provocateur, Giulio, after witnessing for himself Donna’s Maria’s comeliness, began a pursuit of unrequited romance in the form of trinkets, protestations and tears. They were all rebuffed. Giulio, however, fancying himself quite irresistible, persisted. It wasn’t long before Gesualdo's wife had had enough. Eventually, she put her foot firmly down, warning the wannabe Romeo that she would inform her husband, Prince Carlo Gesualdo, should he continue to pursue her.

This was enough to stop Giulio in his tracks - for the moment. What was to brew next inside of this bizzare love triangle was an episode so horrific, so full of brutality and betrayal that it shook Italy and the Gesualdo Principality to it’s core - creating shockwaves that still continue to permeate through the streets of Naples to this very day.

Donna Maria D'Avalos
Giulio would soon discover that Donna Maria, for her own transgressions, was also plagued by the elusive wandering eye and fickle heart. Already too deep into a passionate romance with the Duke of Andria, Don Fabrizio Carafa (himself a described “model of beauty”), Donna Maria would soon find herself, again, under the maleficent sombre wings of her Uncle-in-law.

And maleficent he was. Furious and feeling personally emasculated, Giulio set out to blackmail his niece in law - his idée fixe, now a whore in his eyes and her prettyboy lover had but two choices: either die steadfast and in the face of adulteries sin, or go out of this world in protest, kicking and screaming. Indeed, it wasn’t much of choice.

The jealous Uncle immediately informed Carlo of his wife’s indiscretion with the Duke, knowing full well ahead of time of Gesualdo’s penchant for possession and avarice. With this scandalous bit of information, both Uncle and Nephew would seal the fate of the adulterous traitors. The Gesualdo bloodline was wracked with inherited mental illness (perhaps as a result of incestuous marriages and the subsequent births resulting from their unions
.) This ‘mutation’ of the Gesualdo gene pool would be on full display at the Prince’s home in an intricate series of well planned traps and a nefarious use of psychological warfare.

October 16, 1590. The bait was set. Carlo, set to go on a hunting excursion that evening, leaving Donna Maria alone in La Palazzo San Severo, calmly “left” the premises he shared with his various servants and wife, allegedly off to bring home a fresh kill for a later feast. The Lady Maria hadn’t suspected anything was amiss, despite the fact that her villainous Uncle in law had told her lover the Duke of Andria that their extra-marital dalliance had been revealed to the Prince. Donna Maria, suspicious of her uncles protestations, probably imagined this to be a false claim under the cloak of blackmail, intended to be used as a underhanded tactic to resume courting her. Indeed, Carlo had said nothing of the matter to her, or to the Duke.

Carlo Gesualdo
It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Carlos’ web was already spun. There was, in fact, no hunting excursion to be had that evening - at least, there was to be no hunting of wild game for sport or for sustenance. Instead, the fresh kill would be in the shape and form of his beloved Donna Maria and her paramour, Fabrizio Carafa, Duke of Andria.

Leaving all of the doors within the castle unlocked so as not to arouse suspicion of a coup d’état within the Gesualdo abode, wife Donna Maria and her handsome lover would find themselves succumbing to one another in her bedchamber. The two had already declared a pact between them, in the event her Uncle-in-law was telling the truth about revealing their relationship to Carlo.

In a dictated manifesto that read like a discourse on unyielding love, the two disgraced lovers vowed to die with and for one another. This was immediately preceded by a lamentation made by the Lady D’Avalos, who chastised the genial Duke as undeserving of a Knight and man, and therefore undeserving of her after he suggested they cool things off and let the dust settle. In an age where men were made Knights and Kings on the battlefield, this was an insult of castrating proportions.

Well into their conjugal tryst that autumn evening, Carlo, sneaking through the corridors of the Palazzo, burst into the bedchamber of Donna Maria D’Avalos, catching his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. Overcome by her gall, and overpowered by rage, he stormed the chamber,
dagger (or possibly sword) in hand, accompanied by three of his trusted guards, and slit the throat of his philandering spouse, and repeatedly stabbed her for having the audacity to try to “make [him] a cuckold”.

In the end, it was difficult to tell who bore the greatest brunt of Carlos' and his henchmen’s brutality. Duke Don Fabrizio (described, oddly, as dressed in “only a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom, with ruffs of black silk.”..this at a time where homosexuality and “sodomites” were considered agents of primal sin both blasphemous and injurious to Christianity, one can only imagine Carlos’ shock at espying his romantic nemesis in transgender garb) was himself repeatedly stabbed. His body was found “covered with blood and pierced with many wounds.”  

He had also been shot: arquebusade through his elbow and side, with two shots, and an arquebusade on the eye on the side of the temples, which went from one side to the other, and a bit of the brain had oozed out; and he also had wounds on his head, face, neck, chest, stomach, kidneys, arms, hands and shoulders - wounds made by sharp sword thrusts, quite deep, many of them passing through the body from one side to the other...* 

when the Duke’s body was removed from the room, it was revealed he had been several times impaled through the torso and the floor underneath by a sword long enough to pass through the breadth of his chest and abdomen and leave tell-tale holes in the planks below his currently mangled corpse.

His now deceased inamorata also suffered a further abuse after her violent attack: Donna Maria, her throat already having been cut, had been stabbed in a count so numerous modern day detectives would label it overkill of a pre-meditated order. Carlo was seen leaving and then re-entering the domicile, his hands and clothes dripping blood, shouting  “Kill that scoundrel, along with this harlot! Shall a Gesualdo be made a cuckold?”  In all of his blind rage and inherited insanity, it seems he played his carte blanche privilege to it’s full reaches, unaware or unconcerned of any form of condemnation or punishment for his gruesome crime. After publicly shouting this murderous demand at his fellow executioners, Gesualdo himself took to Donna Maria, stabbing her already mutilated body another 28 times, declaring in a fit of insanity, “I do not believe they are dead!”

Of the contemporary accounts that survive, much is made of the additional crimes alleged to have been committed post-mortem. In those accounts, and, in current Neapolitan folklore, it has been suggested that Don Carlo ordered the corpses to be taken out of the Palazzo and splayed out in a crude fashion on the stairs leading up to the castle. (It has been regaled by contemporary local witnesses that the Lady D’Avalos was positioned spread eagle, and her corpse later violated by a passing Monk.)

Elizabeth I of England at her Coronation
Of course, these, and other similar claims could be the result of embellishment. On the other hand, however, 16th century Europe was far from immune to such ghastly displays of the flesh: over to the northwest in what is now part of the United Kingdom, a young Elizabeth Tudor, newly crowned, ruled over England, itself fresh from the public burnings-at-the-stake made popular by the previous, Catholic, Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary.")

Although brutal punishments like hanging, drawing, and quartering were left behind by the predecessors Tudor and their antecedents, Elizabeth I of England would, throughout the course of her reign, execute more Catholics than all of the protestants executed by her sister Mary and in the Spanish Inquisition combined.  In then quite recent England, those convicted of treasonous offenses found their severed heads hacked off by a dull axe at the block, parboiled and left to rot on a spike over the River Thames, and their torso and limbs impaled and planted fermement in the ground as a warning at the borders of then-warring Scotland.

Also to the northwest in just under a mere two decades earlier, Catherine de Medici and her son, the future Henri IV, had orchestrated a devious coup to oust the Huguenots from the face of France by organizing a marital union between the Catholic house of Valois with the Protestant House of Bourbon through her only daughter, Margot, a Valois, and the King of Navarre, Henri III from the House of Bourbon. Scores of Protestants flooded Paris to witness the outdoor union at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. They were later slaughtered in the streets and pulled out of hostels as they slept and were made slain.

16th century Europe, for all of the wonders and social and political advancements of the Renaissance, was a very violent place to live. Church and State, for the most part still reigned supreme, with repeated uprisings and revolts across the continent (indeed, even after England’s Henry VIII broke from the Church of Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn and establish the Church of England, the country would see the execution of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Day Queen," a Papal Bull and countless plots to overthrow Elizabeth in the Northern Uprisings and the notorious Babbington Plot that would leave Queen Mary of Scotland dead - her head hacked off by an executioner in the employ and command of her cousin Elizabeth I, no less

In matters of high treason or offences against the Church, public displays of brutality in the form of executions and the display of corpses was Standard Operating Procedure. It served two benefits: first, it acted as a “deterrent” (in reality, the outcome of its efficacy was highly negligible: a public suffering and death was considered amongst religious zealots to be a gateway into the realm of martyrdom
.) Second, the mutilation of the flesh itself, it was believed, was a necessary evil to warn any would-be conspirators of a preordained refusal of the soul into afterlife..wherein the mutilated spirit, unaccepted by heaven and unwanted by hell, would be doomed to roam the earth, disassembled, for eternity.

Catherine de Medici's forced union between the Protestant Henri III
of Navarre and her Catholic daughter Margaret de Valois set off one
of the bloodiest massacres known to French history. The onslaught
would become known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.
If one considers the barbarous brutality that went into punishments such as hanging, drawing, and quartering, Carlo Gesualdo’s alleged treatment of his scorned cadavers seems, rather..commonplace in an era that was still ages away from the dawn of the period of Enlightenment. What can be argued as inordinate and especially cruel was that Gesulado’s actions were committed outside of the Church and based solely on primitive jealousy and an overabundant sense of vanity.

Gesualdo would soon flee Naples, perhaps consumed by guilt, where further atrocities would be reported, one in the case of an unidentified infant (believed to be either his own offspring, or the illegitimate son of Donna Maria and Duke Fabrizio Carafa of Andria) who he is said to have ordered murdered by swinging in a bassinette hung from a palace balcony while his servant-musicians sang madrigals of death - his own compositions - below until the child expired, for reasons that range from jealousy to preventing the child from inheriting his barbarity and familial insanity (depending on which contemporary account one chooses to believe

He would also go on to physically abuse is second wife, a punishment likely as a result of her condemning his two female lovers as witches and ordering them to stand trial. It was said that Gesualdo became obsessed over one of his lady loves, and willingly participated in her explicit and disgusting (I will spare the reader the details) spells on him, so taken was he by her charms. That mock-trial ended in Gesualdo hosting the convicted ‘witches’ in his castle alongside his wife, both of whom were spared execution and given house arrest under his roof instead! Again, it would seem Carlo was untouchable. But, this sense of invincibility toward accountability would not last. Over the course of the last 15 years of his life, the troubled Prince of Venosa inflicted upon himself a seclusion that would last until his death.

A contemporary depiction of flagellents
Gesualdo rarely left his castle as his mental state rapidly began to deteriorate. He single-handedly cut down entire forests in a frenzied episode of schizophrenic-like paranoia around his castle by his own hand over the remainder of his life, afraid of unannounced villains who might be laying in wait outside of the fortress, plotting an attack; he procured a 3rd or 4th century BC ‘disk’, etched in hieroglyph-like carvings, and suffered upon himself a life long struggle with insomnia as he tried in vain night by mind-wracking night to decipher it’s mysterious code, even penning a letter to his alchemist, promising a large sum of money to enlist his services in cryptology (the disk exists today in a museum in Italy just on the outskirts of the scene of his horrific crime. It’s mysterious message remains unsolved.)

It is said the Composer-Prince became consumed by depression during this period, an impression made all the more palpable by a painting he had commissioned ("Perdono di Carlo Gesualdo" by Italian Mannerist Giovanni Balducci) of a pensive-looking Gesualdo, flanked by his uncle and gazing up to a pointing Redeemer -  an unidentified cherub-like infant hovering above his head just below Christ Himself. Could this baby be that of his son? Could Gesualdo, now a recluse, finally have found remorse while idling away in his castle? The Prince was also rumored to practice self-flagellation, a religious ‘practice’ condemned by the Catholic church that involved whipping one’s own back in a display of penance, in Gesualdo’s case with an alleged three-tailed whip. Could this accusation also be true?

It is difficult to say either way. The Prince of Venosa kept a close circle of trusted men in his employ, and never ventured beyond the reaches of the now deforested landscape surrounding his castle.

Even in spite of his madness, Carlo Gesualdo remained acutely aware of the spoils of his own nobility. It is said the Prince would order his male servants to cling to his back while he slept in an effort to keep him warm. He continued to enjoy the carnal pleasures of his convicted ‘witches’, and committed himself to the composition of music. If he was indeed depressed, Gesualdo certainly was productive about it.

In his remaining 15 years, Carlo Gesualdo would shift his focus in between his deforestation efforts, cryptology and music. He would produce some of the most chromatic vocal compositions the world had yet seen or heard - and which would not be heard again until Classical music's Romantic Period in the late 19th century in the works of prolific composer Richard Wagner and later, in the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky.

German Composer Richard Wagner
Much like Wagner and especially in the case of Stravinsky, who would cause a riot in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées some two centuries later with his and choreographer/ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s premier staging of “Le Sacre du Printemps”, Gesualdo’s style was equally controversial, widely panned by contemporaries and critics for their “ugliness” and unusual dissonances and peculiar harmonic tensions. Gesualdo penned works -  now considered virtuosic - in a style and manner 16th century melophiles had never before heard. Like any unchartered territory, what was ‘new’ was considered ‘strange’. Certainly, this ‘new sound’ was far removed from the exquisite and ingenious innovations of Monteverdi in his use of polyphony. Monteverdi’s was a purer technique - a more blended sound.

It is of interest to note that while largely critically panned in his era, Gesualdo’s frequent use of chords that seemed to contrast in tonality would later be declared to be predecessive of Wagner in his exquisitely ground breaking ‘Tristan Chord’ over two hundred and fifty years after Gesualdo’s death in 1613.

‘Wagnerites’ and later scholars would cite Gesualdo’s madrigal “Moro Lasso” as being highly influential for the infamous and celebrated chord employed by Wagner wherein there exists “little tonal interrelation”, “strange harmonic tension” and “chords far apart in tonality”. Wagner’s Tristan Chord would enter into the realms of infamy and go on to become one of the most influential and extensively analyzed innovations to modern classical music - nay, to music itself.

Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” would also find virtuosic roots in posterity. Stravinsky himself acknowledged Carlo’s premature stylistic genius and would go on to pay homage to Gesualdo in his lifetime by making pilgrimage to Naples and composing a work entitled “Gesualdo Monument," in honor of the late murderous Composer.

If anything positive can be drawn from the tragic life of the Prince of Venosa, it is this: that even drowning beneath the turbulent and undulating undercurrent of mental illness, it’s iron fisted grip on the fragile human psyche cannot undermine the hidden genius that exists in man... that in judging any given event in any given region in the annals of human history, one must consider the social, economical and political factors that surrounded the State in it’s epoch.

One simply must take into account the violent and dogmatic time in which men like Gesualdo lived in order to have for him or herself a concise picture in mind of the period in which the transgressor and victims met their fates. Abstract analysis favors neither the condoning nor excusing of actions.

Perdono di Carlo Gesualdo, 1609.
In the case of Carlo Gesualdo, certainly, one inevitably finds inexcusable criminal brutality. This finding however, is foreshadowed by a class warfare, immature scientific discovery in the annals of medicine, and in a particularly archaic and misogynistic series of laws that seemed to favor the privileged man. Laws that may have left the critically insane like Carlo Gesualdo free to engage in unpunished criminal behavior. Indeed, it was custom in Italy at the time of the slaying of Donna Maria D’Avalos and the Duke of Andria, for the cheating wife of a man and her lover to be tried and sentenced to death for adultery. Had this not been the case, had the disastrous effects on the human psyche and products of incest been common knowledge, and had mental illness been recognized as an actual condition, instead of the protestations of an angry God, punishing mankind for it’s manifold sins, perhaps the crimes of the Prince of Venosa would have been taken more seriously, and perhaps - just perhaps - the biography of Carlo Gesualdo may have read differently.

But then, that is a lot to have expected from that distant period. Indeed, it is a lot to expect today, where, in various parts of the world, sin is still punished by death, and examples are still being made by exacting the ultimate punishment through a barrage of unbridled violence and brutality. Many of the tortures and punishments the world sees today are in fact nothing more than archaic methods, inherited by modern man that have continued to exist since some of humanities most primitive times..the bedchambers and boudoirs of yesteryear become today’s battlegrounds and bunkers. Mankind continues, and will continue for the foreseeable future, to live and die by their ‘honor,’ by their station in this world, and by God.

If you listen closely, it is said you can hear the anger, angst, passions - and perhaps even guilt - in the music of Carlo Gesualdo.

Carlo Gesualdo's Moro Lasso, Al Mio Duolo from book IV, Madrigali Libro Sesto.

READ MORE OF MY POSTS ON THE "PRINCE OF DARKNESS" in the Gesualdo archives here.


Monday, 28 March 2016


It’s that time again! As we bid adieu to the month of March, unravelingmusicalmyths is ready to regale to the readers a cornucopia of scandal and intrigue in this month's entry of Mayhem Behind the Music: Trivia and Humor.

The current posting will re-visit three of Western Classical Music's most notorious premieres that are waist-deep in the muck of ethical debauchery. Featuring the cunning hands of guile, the back-stabbing chicanery of former "frenemies," and a ballet whose subject matter was deemed so foul, it was banned by a leading city Mayor!

I) Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)

We begin in Rome, at the premiere of Gioachino Rossini’s opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Teatro Argentina one cool February evening in 1816. Appearing under an alternate (and Italian) title Almaviva, o sia L'inutile precauzione, Rossini’s première was an organized disaster – that is, rumor has it that Almaviva’s audience was carefully hand selected and likely even coached by a rival composer, Giovanni Paisiello, who was in attendance during that evening’s premiere. It is believed Paisiello was enraged at Rossini for upstaging his own opera, which, coincidentally, was also based on the comical story of Figaro  - and which also happened to share the same history in terms of libretto: both Cesare Sterbini, who wrote for Rossini, and Giuseppe Petrosellini, who wrote for Paisiello, would use as their source of inspiration the play "Le Barbier de Séville"  by the celebrated playwright Pierre Beaumarchais of France. 

It soon became clear to Rossini that Paisiello had acted as saboteur to his orchestral superior: seated in the crowd were throngs of Paisiello’s supporters, many of them likely to have been claquers – paid to drown out any would-be enthusiastic displays of clapping with very audible jeering, booing and hissing. 

The scandalous critique of Rossini’s version of Il Barbiere… and that of its origin and instigator would also soon come to light when Rossini staged the opera for a second time, this time without Paisiello or his hired cronies in the audience, and the crowd went wild with enthusiastic approval. Almaviva… or, Il Barbiere di Siviglia – was a success, and it was here to stay.

View below to a great rendition of Largo a factotum from Il Barbiere… as performed by baritone Simon Keenlyside:

II) The Miraculous mandarin

For our next entry, we journey North to mid-twentieth century Germany at the premiere of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók's one-act pantomime ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.

As we have already seen in the premieres of Stravinsky, Rossini and Boito, scandalous premieres were anything but a once in a blue moon occasion. This time the uproar would appear in the German city of Cologne, at Bartók’s calumnious first staging of his epic classical masterpiece for pantomime ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.

Written during the outbreak of WWI, Bartók would begin composing music for the work in the summer of 1918 only to briefly abandon his project as the war progressed, before completing the final version of The Miraculous Mandarin in 1922. It’s raucous premiere would be held in Cologne in 1926, creating such an outrage amongst the audience and local press that the work was effectively banned from the country after its first performance on “moral grounds.”

So outraged was the public sentiment, even the mayor of Cologne had weighed in, as documented by a local contemporary journalist present at the premiere:
“Cologne, a city of churches, monasteries and chapels... has lived to see its first true [musical] scandal. Catcalls, whistling, stamping and booing... which did not subside even after the composer’s personal appearance, nor even after the safety curtain went down... The press, with the exception of the left, protests, the clergy of both denominations hold meetings, the mayor of the city intervenes dictatorially and bans the pantomime from the repertoire [only one performance was given]... Waves of moral outrage engulf the city...”
Perhaps the attending audience would have found Bartók’s music less shocking (although not any less offensive for the time) had they known previously of the text which had inspired the work before suiting up in tux and furs.

It would be after reading a short story by the same name in a new years day edition of Hungarian literary magazine Nyugat ("West") by famed writer Menyhért Lengyel that Bartok felt overcome with the burning desire to set the text to music. In an abstract later published by the composer, Bartók describes the plotline thusly:
“Just listen to how beautiful the story is. Three thugs force a beautiful young girl to seduce men and lure them into their den, where they will be robbed. The first turns out to be poor, the second likewise, but the third is a Chinese, a good catch, as it turns out. The girl entertains him with her dance. The Mandarin’s desire is aroused. His love flares up, but the girl recoils from him. The thugs attack the Mandarin, rob him, smother him with pillows, stab him with a sword, all in vain, because the Mandarin continues watching the girl with eyes full of yearning... the girl complies with the Mandarin’s wish [i.e., for sexual consummation] whereupon he drops dead.”
Bartók himself describes, in a letter to his wife during the early stages of composing the work, that the orchestral masterpiece would prove to be “..hellish music,” describing the first ‘scene’ thusly:
“The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium... the audience will be introduced to the [thieves’] den at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis.”
As perfectly suited as the music was to the composers' sentiment and indeed to the text (one can actually “hear” and visualize a highly congested traffic jam, full of anxiety ridden men and women, scurrying about the streets (as represented by a rapidly fluctuating string section), and frazzled drivers laying down on their horns (perfectly executed by a jarring interruption from the orchestral fray of horns and trombones), The Miraculous Mandarin would not be appreciated during the composers lifetime as an orchestrally ingenious composition that shatters any boundaries of the audible/visual divide, instead becoming limited only to the form of a concert suite in future productions, which would remove from the original ballet a vast portion of it's music.

Listen below to the highly provocative Miraculous Mandarin:

II) Artaxeres

For our final installment in this month's edition of Mayhem Behind the Music: Trivia & Humor,  we visit late 18th century England and the composer Thomas Arne at his own raucous premiere of what would become recognized as the first English Opera Seria: Artaxerxes, a so called “serious” opera loosely based on the ruler Artaxerxes I of Persia.

Arne, whilst anything but a present day household name, will undoubtedly be most familiar with modern classical music aficionados and even laymen through his music. Certainly, the reader will have heard at least a dozen or so times his famous patriotic song Rule, Britannia!, a staple piece at the annual BBC Proms, commonly employed by both the Royal Navy and the British Army; and as composer of Disney favorite "A-Hunting We Will Go." Arne would also pen a setting of God Save the King, in a form that is quite familiar to the present version of the British National Anthem.

Therefore, from the perspective of posterity, it is difficult to imagine a time in which such a highly respected and most influential composer would encounter such public disdain that he would find himself on the receiving end of a riotous mob - not at the premiere performance (when it would have been unwelcome, yet not uncommon) of his opera Artaxerxes, but, most peculiarly, during the opera’s second run at England’s Covent Garden Theatre.

So enraged was the mob at having to pay full price admission following the theatres abolition of half priced fares, the crowd would display a sense of violence and calamity that would make the infamous “Riot at the Rite” in Stravinsky's Paris the following century look and feel like a walk in the park. In Arne’s case, it wasn’t so much that the mob tore at each other, but rather at the theatre itself, which they proceeded to tear asunder, ripping at chandeliers, benches, and glass fixtures, as recorded by an eye witness account in the contemporary “Gentleman's Magazine”:
“The mischief done was the greatest ever known on any occasion of the like kind: all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads.”

Listen below to the aria "The Soldier Tir'd" by my most beloved belcantist, the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland from Thomas Arne's
1762 opera Artaxerxes:

Talk about a rocky head start!


Sunday, 27 March 2016


Excerpt of Ludwig van Beethoven's 1813 letter to the
Countess of Fuchs, Maria Eleonora.
SOURCE: Beethoven-Haus Bonn; Digital Archives
The museum acquired the historic letter Tuesday
(March 22, 2016)
The historic Beethoven-Haus Museum at Bonn has recently acquired a letter written by the 19th century classical era composer, penned in 1813 to a Maria Eleonora, Countess of Fuchs – an acquisition made possible through a joint collaboration between the Federal Government Commissioner of Culture and Media; the Ministry of Family, Youth Culture and Sport of North Rhine-Westphalia; and the German Cultural Foundation. The acquisition, procured from the hands of a private owner, coincides with the Beethoven-Haus’ much advanced advertisements of the late composer's 250th anniversary (since birth) in the museums home state - occurring in December of 2020 - which is sure to be quite the musical spectacle in Beethoven’s native Bonn.

According to curators at the Beethoven-Haus museum, the letter, believed to have been unsent, was “unusually emotional” in tone, in contrast to the composers known writings, and are quite intimate in nature: The Countess Fuchs (1786-1842), was sister-in-law to Giulietta Guicciardi, a one-time paramour and emotional rock to the often melancholic composer (she had aided a dismal Beethoven during a time of great despair in which he toyed with visions of suicide in the premier years of the 19th century).

Now, eleven years later, in January of 1813, Ludwig would sit with pen in hand, this time to express his grievances with the Countess Maria Eleonora.

As the letter to the Countess suggests, Beethoven would
undergo a period of self isolation during which he would
seldom appear in public. It is said that during this period of
mental and physical deterioration, the composer began to
pay a decreasing amount of attention to his own person,
with those close to the icon declaring Beethoven to be in a
frequent state of discord with his own appearance, seeming
to others to be disheveled and unkempt. This portrait dates
from 1815, and was painted under the brush of
Willibrord Mähler.
The very intimate exchange details both a physically and mentally frustrated composer. According to the letter, Beethoven expresses a feeling of lackluster productivity from a creative standpoint. His politically inspired pieces that had achieved much acclaim during the period in question, to Beethoven at least, were lacking in compositional technique (in reality, in the year 1813 Beethoven could arguably considered at the very Zenith of his career). In addition to this personal tribulation, the folksong arrangements the German icon was composing during the same period proved to be rather unsatisfactory for the composer’s ego: it has been well documented that in spite of repeated demands for the text associated with the melodies, the Scottish patron to which he was employed cited tradition in refusing to do so. The period in question would also see the eventual shift in compositional style as reflected most notably in the composers later works and, as such, the letter itself, whilst relatively intimate in nature is of utmost significance to both the Beethoven-Haus museum and to present and future progenitors of classical music.

Beethoven’s letter to the Countess also details of an unspecified invitation of which the composer, due to lack of finance, a desire to isolate from the outside world and a “torn heart” would not be in attendance. Full of despair, the composer expresses sacrifice over fear of “d[ying] of hunger,” a mournful sense of loss at his ailing brother’s[1] imminent death, and openly questions his place – and worth – in society as his own mental state deteriorates.

How one is moved to pity.
Oh Beethoven, if only you knew how much you were, and continue to be appreciated:

Brussels Philharmonic & the Vlaams Radio Koor (Flemish Radio Choir) defiantly stand in unison for Brussels - and for greater Europe - following the March 2016  terrorist attacks at Belgium.
 Performing before local spectators and press at Brussel’s Place de la Bourse, the orchestra and choir featured an empowering performance of An die Freude (Ode to Joy) from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

[1]The brother mentioned in Beethoven's letter to the Countess is that of Kaspar Karl Beethoven, who had taken ill in 1812 with Tuberculosis, and would linger in deteriorating health until his death roughly three years later in November of 1815.

External links (Deutsch):


Saturday, 26 March 2016


? December 1770 - March 26 1827

Today's Did You Know? trivia comes to us from one of the late classical-early romantic period's most prolific composers, Ludwig van Beethoven - in honor of his of highly influential and deliciously rich oeuvre, life and legacy. 

Did You Know?

Ludwig van Beethoven, whose life was observed Saturday (March 26, 2016) on the 189th anniversary of his death at Vienna in 1827, was, according to unsubstantiated legend, defiant to his last breath, with a near companion to the composer and fellow musician Anselm Hüttenbrenner offering a first hand account of his close friend’s passing in dramatic detail (as recounted by contemporary journalist and Beethoven biographer A.W. Thayer):
“At this startling, awful peal of thunder, the dying man suddenly raised his head from Hüttenbrenner's arm, stretched out his own right arm majestically—like a general giving orders to an army. This was but for an instant; the arm sunk back; he fell back; Beethoven was dead!”
A conclusive cause as to Beethoven’s death remains speculative, although the initial autopsy reports seemed to suggest advanced liver damage brought on by the late composers alleged alcoholism. DNA testing of biological material belonging to Beethoven has continued even until modern times. Unravelingmusicalmyths has discussed the iconic German’s demise at length: peruse the Beethoven Archives to learn more about the life and times of Ludwig, and of his fascinating post-mortem scientific journey.

Enjoy below the much beloved 
Allegretto from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major, op. 92. This Symphony, Beethoven’s 7th, in particular it’s second movement proved so affecting to the audience at it’s premiere in December of 1813 (the audience was comprised of wounded soldiers from who had fought in the Battle of Hanau, and charitable patrons), that it had to be immediately encored. 
 Originally intended as grand show of gratitude for those killed and injured in the war,[1] the Allegretto in and of itself has become somewhat of a standalone piece in the West, and has become somewhat of a documentarian favorite: the allegretto can commonly be heard in present times in both independent and mainstream film, usually appearing when commemorating the death of a respected individual or loved one, or in honoring the nearing departed. The structure of the piece makes the symphony's second movement perfectly adaptable to almost any emotionally charged scene: it's string sections seeming at once both foreboding and majestic, as we will hear in the video below.
This version is performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of maestro Herbert von Karajan, whose slower tempo (in contrast to versions performed under other conductors) is absolutely divine:


[1]Prior to the charity concert’s commencement, Beethoven (who was conducting) faced the audience and dedicated the work to the soldiers in attendance, proclaiming his solidarity thusly:
“We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us."



The Painted Veil, first edition;
1925, W. Somerset Maugham
Today's Quote of the Day comes to us from one of my personal favorite novelists, the late British writer (and playwright), William Somerset Maugham, from his 1925 epic "The Painted Veil" :

"I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead."

- W. Somerset Maugham

Suggested Reading: 



*George Frederick Handel, as he became known after receiving
British citizenship in February of 1727 through naturalization.
While the present century in the west celebrates annually the Christmas season with grand performances of George Frederick Handel’s 1741 epic oratorio “Messiah,” from which the famous “Hallelujah” chorus draws it’s home, the three-part sacred work was in fact originally intended as an Easter offering by the composer.

As eminent as Handel’s masterpiece may be (in particular the Hallelujah proclamation, which is instantly recognizable even to the classical music layman), the oratorio itself experienced rather shaky first steps as the composer sought to bring the work to prominence.

Originally created at the request of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and 3rd Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, who invited the German-turned-English composer to create and perform music as part of a fundraising effort for three Dublin charities, Handel’s three part sacred oratorio would not achieve popular acclaim until quite some time after it's inaugural performances in Dublin and in London in the mid-18th century.

Charles Jennens, Handel's go-to librettist, whom the composer has used previously for his Oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt, would provide the newly minted Englishman* with a combination of biblical texts from both the Old and New Testaments, enraging some of Ireland’s most noted journalists of music who considered such organization of sacred texts to be both “blasphemous” and "sacrilegious" in nature. It remains speculative as to whether Jennens would have even accepted commission to ‘pen’ the work in the first place had he known the invitation to create the piece had come from Dublin. Jennens had wrote to his peer, the English classical scholar and poet Edward Holdsworth about the subject in quite disparaging tones: “… it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it.”

Despite the text receiving rather lukewarm reviews initially, the finished product of the Messiah would premiere at the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street in Dublin to a packed audience (so much so that ladies were requested to “remove the hoops” from their dresses, and men their swords from their waists, to make standing room for more patrons) and to much critical acclaim. The three charities of the Lord Duke’s fancy (the prisoners' debt relief, the Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary), would divvy up between them the profits of £400 and secure the release of 142 indebted prisoners.

Thomas Coram, founder of the Foundling Hospital at London.
Coram was inspired to create the charity - commonly
believed to be the world’s first ever incorporated
– following his tenure as Captain of a
merchant vessel
during which he bore witness
to first mate Lord Matthew Sazooki save the
life of his youngest offspring.
The London premiere of the work echoed the earlier, rather critical sentiments of the journalists in Dublin who had considered the organization of texts “blasphemous” when, after holding the work’s first performance at London’s Covent Garden Theatre, both patron and critic viewed the subject matter “too exalted” to be performed in a theatre – this sentiment was only further compounded by the composer’s insistence on employing for the work secular performers.
 In fact, the Messiah and it’s famous Hallelujah Chorus may have been shelved forever had it not been for the composer’s frequently adaptable contributions of music in ever-changing times, and what would become his lifelong patronage of a small Children’s charity in London known as the Foundling Hospital, (today known as Coram).

The outrage of the Messiah held by religious concertgoers in London had forced the rotund composer to rename the work under a less exalted Handel (I had to!), changing the name of the work from “Messiah” to simply “a sacred Oratorio,” which had pulled the wool over the eyes of...absolutely no one. Even rearranging the music and penning a new setting for soprano did nothing to appease dissidents, and the composer was left to reduce the works' scheduled performances for the season by half, from six performances to three.

It would be in 1742 that the English philanthropist Thomas Coram had been commissioned by King George II to establish for London a charity that would house and support abandoned and neglected babies and children. By May of 1749, Handel would appear before the Hospitals' governors presenting the idea of a benefit concert - an idea of which the hospital could not be more pleased to oblige. In addition to ‘penning’ the Foundling Hospital Anthem (which was really more of a recycled effort: the anthem consisting of text adapted from the 41st Psalm and music from his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, his oratorio Susanna, among other compositions created by Handel – and, most notably, ending with the Messiah’s Hallelujah Chorus), the benefit also would include a performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.
 The latter edition to the concert billing was a rather deliberate (and deliciously shrewd) decision by the composer: including a performance Handel’s popular “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” which had notoriously caused a three hour “carriage jam” (equivalent to our modern day “traffic jam”) at it’s premiere in London the previous month, the adroit composer would almost guarantee a high turnout for the occasion - creating in the process what was in essence a "test audience" for a future production of the Messiah - by re-showcasing the Hallelujah Chorus to those patrons who were drawn to the hospital by the success of the Fireworks.

The Foundling Hospital Anthem by George Frederick Handel:

The concert was a ravishing success - and, when Handel was requested to perform at the hospital for a benefit concert the following year, the opportunistic composer chose to stage once more the Messiah, in the hopes of drawing attention and praise to the work in London by using the audience turn out expected (which had been ever present in massive force the previous year, and which, indeed, would once more prove quite grand), to re-showcase the work, and, ultimately bring it into the blinding light of popularity.

Handel's mission proved to be successful - overwhelmingly so: the Messiah, as conducted (or as attended) by the composer Handel himself, would become an annual tradition at the hospital’s chapel (for the benefit of the children’s charity) long after Handel expired in 1759. The Messiah would continue to be performed at the chapel until late into the 18th century, raising some £7,000 for the children and securing it’s placehold as one of Britain’s greatest national exports.

Indeed, even in the 21st century, it is nearly impossible to find anyone in the Western world who has not been observed at least once, quietly humming to his or her own person the famous Hallelujah Chorus.

Were it not, however, for Handel’s ingenious ability to both read and adapt to the British public, and, quite frankly, to exploit them (more on that later – stay tuned to unravelingmusicalmyths) to his fiscal advantage, Hollywood, and indeed the world, would never know the of the celebrated superlative:

“For the lord God omnipotent reigneth,
Hallelujah! hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah!”

George Frederick Handel's Messiah. The Hallelujah Chorus begins at 1:40:29


Thursday, 24 March 2016


"He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings."

-George Meredith, the Lark Ascending, 1881

Wednesday, 23 March 2016


Author's Choice: Scroll down to
view my Easter Selections!
As Easter approaches us, one can only marvel at the overflowing bounty of exquisite music to have been written in the spirit of the Christian faith’s observance of the Passion of Christ. One certainly does not have to be of the Christian faith - nor adhere to any religion for that matter - to indulge in the intoxicating beauty found amongst Western Classical Music’s vast catalogue of sacred – and yes, even secular works – inspired by the theological credo that helped create this ancient holiday. The only matter that should concern the modern melophile is the task of selecting just which composition to choose from such a massive tome of relative and vocally lush material.

In a nod to my Christian readers and in acknowledgement of the religion’s central tenet of the Resurrection of Christ who “...died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4)  and in an homage to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, unravelingmusicalmyths presents to the reader three personal favorite pieces that are sure to enrich the 'spirit' of even the non-theologian:

I) Lento – Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile: "SYMPHONY OF SORROWFUL SONGS"
(Symphony no. 3, op. 36); Henryk Górecki

This gut-wrenchingly evocative entry is in the form of a Lament dating back to the 15th century: Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery. It is from a Marian perspective of the sufferings of Christ on the Cross in which the Holy Mother bids a mournful farewell to her dying Son as she pleads to share with Him the pain of His wounds.

The architect of this three-movement symphony is the late Polish composer Henryk Górecki. Although not a newcomer to the world of classical music by any means, it would be through a combination of extraneous factors outside of the composer's immediate control that the exquisite work would rise to prominence: the cultural and political shift that culminated from the fall of communism, which would increasingly expose to the world music written by Polish composers; and the rise of the compact disc. Górecki's third symphony had first been recorded in the then-restrictive confines of Poland in 1978, and while a subsequent performance would premiere at Royan in France, the work was met with much hostility. It would not be until the American soprano Dawn Upshaw recorded the Symphony in 1991 under conductor David Zinman that the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (and it's composer) would achieve international acclaim, becoming one of the best selling contemporary classical albums in history.

Listen below to an excerpt from Henryk Górecki's Symphony no. III, containing the soprano solo from
the 1st movement:

II) Stabat Mater: Dolorosa (SEQUENCE)
(Grave, in F Minor; Movement I);  Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

My second entry was a difficult choice between Italian baroque composers Vivaldi and Pergolesi’s settings of the Stabat Mater (in particular the "Dolorosa"). Both will make the hairs on the back of the listeners neck stand on end - both are equally revered for their remarkably controlled beauty. All things considered, I chose for my second selection for this post the majestic hymn as rendered by Giovanni Battista Perogolesi. The Stabat Mater, also a nod to the Holy Mother Mary, probably dates from the early 13th century. It is not that of a lament - but rather of a hymn. It’s text is likewise not from the perspective of Mary, but instead in observance of her.

Hard pressed is any aficionado of sacred music to find among his or her musically enlightened sect  anyone who does not immediately recognize the mournful Latin testimonial:
“Stabat Mater Dolorosa,
Juxta Crucem Lacrimosa,
Dum Pendebat fililius”

("At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.”)

Pergolesi’s setting to music of this ancient Latin hymn proved so impacting to the senses, Johann Sebastian Bach (who was just one of many composers), would later set the young talent Pergolesi's music to his own work “Tilge Höchster, meine Sünden” (Blot out Highest, my Transgressions), recycling (and adding his own slight touches throughout) the music for his vocal and orchestral interpretation of a German text based the 51st Psalm, catalogued under the BWV number 1083.

The 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also an ardent admirer of the work: declaring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, in particular the Dolorosa to be “the most perfect and touching duet to come from the pen of any composer.”

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was only 26 when he penned his monumental achievement. He would die within weeks of it’s completion on the 16th of March 1736 from Tuberculosis.

Listen below to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. *The Dolorosa runs from start until 4 minutes, 32 seconds in.

III) Requiem Mass in D Minor: Recordare (MASS)
(K. 626);  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

My final entry for this posting will be the Recordare from Mozart’s famous Requiem Mass in D Minor. An exquisite plea of the dying to his Savior Jesus Christ for salvation and a tender entreaty from the nearing-departed to his Lord to remember His promises of deliverance and His suffering on the Cross, as the ailing sinner seeks absolution from his transgressions and begs his Creator to honor man's offerings of repentance with forgiveness and a place at His Holy “Right Hand.”

Unravelingmusicalmyths has discussed Mozart’s Requiem at length, and while the composer's magnum opus is rich with quandary and a somewhat scandalous history in terms of it’s publication, authorship, and indeed, even those surrounding Mozart in his final days spent composing the piece whist slipping in and out of states of delirium and lucidity, the sheer cosmically breathtaking beauty of the Mass supercedes even the hand of Süssmayr, who, if one if being brutally honest, could not possibly make sullen the legacy of the composition or that of it’s composer: it would be impossible, after all, to tamper with such perfection.

Enjoy the often neglected (by pop culture's fanatic usage of the Requiem Mass) Recordare, from
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem Mass in D Minor:

Unravelingmusicalmyths accepts, and deeply appreciates the historical context of all faiths, and lack thereof. Whatever be your personal beliefs, please enjoy the music above (you are sure to fall in love with them!) and have yourself a safe holiday - and as always, stay posted for more Mayhem, Music and Myths!

Bonus, somewhat miscellaneous commentary:
Did you know?

The famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was himself an accomplished composer of the late baroque-early classical style, composing some seven operas, one of which would inspire the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven to pay homage to the Francophone Genevan by rearranging the duet Non, Colette n'est point trompeuse from Rousseau’s one-act opera Le devin du Village into a standalone song which he added to his Aus den Liedern verschiedener Völker (Songs of Various Nationalities) in the early 19th century!


Tuesday, 22 March 2016


'Listen' to the 'natural' music of Jupiter, whose
"electromagnetic particle vibrations" of
the Gas giant was 'captured' by Nasa's spacecraft Voyager.
If you are like me, and took to the night yesterday evening to gaze up at our celestial heavens, you would have been lucky enough to behold the spectacular sight of our majestic (nearly) full moon flanked by the gas giant Jupiter.

From my perspective here in Canada, the weather could not have been more ideal for naked eye viewing of our solar system's largest planet (according to NASA, not only can every planet in our solar system easily fit inside of the behemoth sphere, a whopping count of "1000 earths" could do just as well - and still spare some elbow room!)

As I gazed up into the (relatively) clear night sky, there, shining with a luminescence more than twice as bright as our brightest star Sirius - was a sparkling diamond, back lit by a glowing ring of yellowish-white castoff from the light reflected by the sun onto a swelling waxing gibbous moon. It was glorious.

If you missed out on last night's gorgeous spectacle, not to worry. The month of March continues to be very active and easily visible from our vantage point here on Earth. 'The Canadian Magazine of Astronomy and Stargazing' Sky News has a detailed chronology of what to expect in the coming days and weeks: SKY NEWS.

In honor of the heavens' grand exhibition, enjoy below music from a unravelingmusicalmyths favorite astronomer-composer: the Symphony No. VIII from the astronomically musical 18-19th century polymath who first discovered the planet Uranus! (Read more about William Herschel below)

and lets not forget film industry favorite, "Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity" from 20th century English composer Gustav Holst's epic Planets Suite:

Today's Quote of the Day comes to us from Holst:

"The Heavenly Spheres make music for us,
The Holy Twelve dance with us,
All things join in the dance!
Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing."

Happy viewing! Get out there, and look up!