Tuesday, 30 August 2016


...then Decca Classics and Deutsche Grammophon have just the gift for you! The iconic classical record labels have partnered with the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation to release what the foundation calls "the most authoritative, complete and scholarly box set ever devoted to the work of a single composer."

Slated to be released Friday October 28th, 2016, the 200-CD box set (which comes complete with "autographs" - copies of the maestro's famous works as they were handwritten on paper - and two "lavishly illustrated" hardcover books - including a long-awaited new biography on the Salzburg Wonder authored by leading Mozart Scholar Cliff Eisen of King's College London) arrives just five and a half weeks ahead of the 225th annual observation of the famed Austrian's untimely demise at the tender age of 35 at Vienna (after a period of ultimately fatal physical decline from a still undiagnosed, highly speculative illness). The iconic musician died the 5th of December, 1791.

The set promises a fully updated Köchel catalogue and modern performances featuring the latest Mozart-related discoveries, including a recording of the composer's K.477a solo cantata "Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia"- a work only discovered in 2015, which, much to the astonishment of Mozart-Salieri conspiracy theorists around the globe, featured a collaboration between the two famous "frenemies" (listen to the cantata/learn about this exciting discovery here on unraveling musical myths) alongside "600 world-class soloists and 60 orchestras." Perhaps most exciting to fellow Mozart enthusiasts are 5 solid hours of new recordings featuring the use of the Mozart's personal instruments: his violin, fortepiano and viola - currently preserved on display at the Mozarteum (check them out here).

Dubbed "W.A. Mozart 225 - The Complete Edition," this massive box set (which also incorporates latest technology in the form of a so-named "libretto app" featuring full texts and translations) is the perfect gift for the non-discerning listener who wishes to have in his or her possession the illustrious maestro's fully updated oeuvre.

Those curious can preview artist/orchestra selections on the foundation's website by clicking here: MOZART 225

Teaser below (prepare yourself for possible drooling):

*Approximate value after taxes (Canada). As of August 30, 2016, Amazon's current pre-order price in Canada is $524.36 before taxes and $479.36 in the U.S.A, also before tax. The lowest price for the U.K. I could find on Amazon was £300.50. Do check prices often on this product - I have seen the price fluctuate in Canada from as low as $524 to as high as $700 dollars.

Learn more about the Mozart 225 box set on Youtube.


Sunday, 28 August 2016


A young Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe. The previously unknown
writer was only 23 when he sat to
pen The Sorrows of Young Werther.
August’s aria of the month goes to 19th century romantic composer Jules Massenet’s “Pourquoi me Réveiller” (Why do you wake me) from the Frenchman’s 1892 opera Werther, a drame lyrique loosely based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s highly influential (and remarkably controversial at the time of publication) epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (“The Sorrows of Young Werther” – henceforth referred to as “Werther”), and has been selected in honor of Goethe’s 267th birthday – which is observed in literary Germany – and indeed around the globe, on this day - Sunday August 28th, 2016.

Goethe, Germany’s answer to Britain’s Shakespeare, Italy’s Dante, and Spain’s Cervantes remains a giant in the literary sphere. Most commonly identified in the English-speaking world as the author of the groundbreaking tragic play Faust,[1] it was actually through the publication of his 1774 semi-autobiographical epistolary Werther that the young German would burst onto the international literary scene, catapulting the 24 year old writer into an overnight sensation and securing his status as a leading influential cultural icon.[2]

Das Leiden des Jungen Werther, first edition, 1774.
The novel is composed in the form of a series of “letters” between the fictional Werther (whose character was in fact loosely based on Goethe himself), a young artist of meager pretensions, and his confidante, Wilhelm, in which the love struck romantic rhapsodizes and despairs over the unrequited affections of one Charlotte – a young maiden affianced to Albert – a man eleven years her senior, and the unyielding object of frustration for the novel’s protagonist - consistently driving young Werther to distraction. Both the characters and story line of Werther had roots in the real life of the works’ author: Goethe did indeed fall hopelessly in love with an attached woman – also named Charlotte (Buff) – a hopeful romance which proved most unfruitful when the object of his desire exchanged nuptials with fiancée Johann Christian Kestner, officially excising herself from the singles club. It would be from this very painful experience that the then-23 year old unknown writer would pen his frustrations in the form of art – completing Werther in a relatively short span of just six weeks.

The real Charlotte (Buff-Kestner).
It was she who was the inspiration
for Die Leiden des Jungen Werther
Werther would draw as much criticism as it would praise from Goethe's intellectual peers and the greater public – Napoleon Bonaparte would famously carry with him a copy of the novel whilst campaigning in Egypt, and had even penned a soliloquy wholly inspired by it’s author. Male readers across Europe would don themselves in attire reminiscent of the book’s nominal figure, Werther, in a bizarre display of presenting themselves before prospective mates of the female persuasion as sensitive, romantic figures (so prevalent was this new trend, it even had a name: locals dubbed the phenomenon “Werther Fever”). Goethe himself, however – would notoriously distance himself from the epic work in his later years – listing amongst his many grievances for the novel it’s cultural impact on unstable young men – many of whom acted out in real life the dramatic scenes penned by the author at the conclusion of the novel: swarms of scorned Romeos would take to Germany, committing suicide by self-inflicted gunshot to the head in what they must have believed was the grandest of romantic gestures, in a display of penance for their failed attempts at marital bliss. Goethe would also later claim much guilt for drawing unsolicited attention to the real Charlotte Buff.

The rising body count that tolled as a direct result of Goethe’s magnum opus led to Werther – and the character’s style of dress – being banned in Leipzig by 1775, with both Italy and Denmark quickly following suit.

In the video below, Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, accompanied by the Munich Radio Orchestra under maestro Emerson Buckley performs Massenet’s rendition of Goethe’s Werther in the act 3 aria “Pourquoi me Réveiller,” in which the character of Werther reads to his beloved Charlotte poetry from Ossian. This is an important aria in Massenet’s opera, as it is here that Werther realizes, much to his dismay, that Charlotte does indeed share his feelings of love, but that she is forbidden to act on them due to her marriage to Albert. After an all-too-brief embrace, the two depart: Charlotte, presumably to carry on with her new station as a wife, and Werther – to begin preparations for his impending death. 

[1] Much like the aforementioned Shakespeare and his seminal work “Romeo and Juliet,” which borrowed it’s story outline from domestic legend, so too did Goethe’s “Faust” – in fact, the famed English playwright Christopher Marlowe had set a version of the German fable for his Elizabethan stage play "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" some two hundred years prior to Goethe’s rendering, in 1604.

So acclaimed was Goethe’s version of the legend of Faust and Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, that both writers would inadvertently become synonymous with the famous works, and are often erroneously identified as the originators of the fables.

[2] The successes of Goethe’s Werther and Faust thrust the writer not only into the exclusive realm of the literary elite, but also certified the playwright as a go-to source for libretti. His poetic verses would be interpreted well across the classical music sphere, from Beethoven to Brahms, Liszt to Schubert, Schumann to Wolf – and his famous tragic play Faust would be interpreted in many a format, from opera to oratorio under such prolific composers as Berlioz, Boito, Gounod, Mahler and the aforementioned Liszt, Schubert and Schumann. Music from Liszt’s Faust Symphony was recently used in the late 20th century in a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Royal Ballet production Mayerling.

Did you know?

..that aside from his most gratuitous foray into the realm of authorship, the polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remains a pivotal figure in the history of medicine?

Goethe, as he would have appeared around the time of his discovery.

In fact, Goethe may be considered a pioneer of the Theory of Evolution. Although current research reveals a discovery in 1779 of the ever elusive “intermaxillary bone” (a bone found in the upper jaw of amphibians, reptiles and mammals, previously thought to be absent in humans by contemporary theologians) by the French naturalist Pierre Broussonet, a perhaps unsuspecting Goethe would bring the discovery to light – a discovery he believed to have been his own – in March of 1784, writing to his confidante Johann Heinrich Merck:

“I have found neither gold nor silver, but something that unspeakably delights me—the human Os intermaxillary! I was comparing human and animal skulls…hit up the right track, and behold—Eureka! Only, I beg of you, not a word—for this must be a great secret for the present. You ought to be very much delighted too, for it is like the keystone to anthropology—and it’s there, no mistake!...”

Although Goethe took his findings to mean that there existed no distinction whatsoever between man and apes, the landmark discovery would become key evidence for leading Evolutionists around the globe.

Until Goethe made his announcement, the prevailing theory on the concept of evolution was one based on the Divine Creation Theory. When a Dutch physician – a man of science – living in the mid 18th century announced his findings that what separated man from the apes was the “missing intermaxillary bone” in man – present in almost all other species, the theory of Divine Creation had all but become law.

Although Goethe may or may not have been aware of Broussonet’s finding 5 years earlier (in an age of religion, it would certainly not be thought infeasible that the Frenchman’s findings would have found themselves suppressed by a highly influential Theocratic society), the author's ignorance of the discovery, through the ever revealing bright light of posterity, should be received with some circumspection: this was, after all, the same man who once claimed to have been in possession of the heisted skulls of Beethoven and Mozart - not to mention fellow playwright Friedrich Schiller!

The American Journal of Medical Genetics has a fascinating treatise on Goethe's "Eureka!" moment, with an in-depth analysis of the polymath's 'working' history in the study of craniology and boasts a wealth of diagrams, sketches and images on the subject. It can be found here.

Discover more (Internal Links):

Goethe’s Faust - influence (at unraveling musical myths)

Book Review: Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as translated by Walter Kaufmann at (unraveling musical myths)

Musical works inspired by other literary icons (or created by them):

(External links):

  • Read more about Goethe’s “discovery,” and the crude machinations of Merck, former confidante and proposed intermediary selected by the playwright to present his findings to the revered anatomist Petrus Camper – and discover a possible link between his foe’s duplicity and the character of the devil himself that would come to dominate the German literary scene as Faust’s ally-turned-nemesis Mephistopheles! (at US National Library of Medicine)
  • Read an English translation of Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (at Project Gutenberg)



Today’s Quote of the Day comes to us from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a one time ardent admirer (and later detractor) of 19th century romantic composer and fellow countryman Richard Wagner:

“And those who were seen dancing
were thought to be insane
by those who could not hear the music.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

This month[1] Wagnerites around the globe observed the 146th wedding anniversary of German romantic composer Richard Wagner to one frau Liszt Cosima: illegitimate daughter of prolific pianist Franz, and adulteress formerly wed to famed conductor Hans von Bülow.

Richard Wagner and Cosima
Wagner and Cosima’s whirlwind romance was truly one for the ages, and possessed just the right kind of panache required for writing a veritably delicious libretto.

The bastard child of an illicit affair and daughter of an often absentee father, young Cosima would find herself, in the flower of her youth, craving the affections of her famous father. The virtuosic pianist and composer Franz Liszt, it seemed, employed only sporadic episodes of devotion to his daughter in her early years – it was a devotion, however, that, albeit infrequent, would prove most fruitful for Cosima – for it would be through introductions to Franz' former pupil Hans von Bülow and fellow composer Richard Wagner, that the daughter Liszt would come to meet husbands number 1 and 2.

Within a year of exchanging nuptials with von Bülow and spending more time within his musical sphere, Cosima would find herself the object of unbridled desire by another married man in Richard. Whilst Hans was busy devoting himself to rendering the operatic works of Wagner, the unlikely trio would become closer, to the point of residing together under one roof at maestro Wagner’s home at Biebrich.

It would be here, during a rehearsal that Wagner would observe of Cosima her charm and allure:
"I felt utterly transported by the sight of Cosima ... she appeared to me as if stepping from another world."
Cosima, by all accounts, shared the affections of Richard – just over a year after Wagner’s epiphany the two would succumb to one another:
"with tears and sobs...we sealed our confession to belong to each other alone." 
By 1868, just five years after issuing this undying pact, and two years before divorcing von Bülow, Cosima would move in with Richard permanently.

This famous love match would produce, much like in the music of the future groom, spectacles of rumor and intrigue of the most grandiose fashion. The union would begat a daughter, Isolde – whilst Cosima was still a von Bülow, no less – and a most unusual display of kinship: the scorned Hans went on, as originally planned, to conduct Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, knowing full well the daughter born by his philandering wife and close confidante shared the opera’s namesake. (The adulterous couple would bear three children in total before exchanging nuptials on August 25, 1870, producing two daughters - Isolde and Minna, and a son, Siegfried).  Hans' dedication to Wagner’s majestic oeuvre is not to be understated – the shafted husband conducted Tristan just two months after Isolde was born!)

Learn more about Wagner's dedication to Cosima here
Wagner’s marriage to Cosima would also go on to produce one of the most legendary operatic anecdotes that remains ever present in musical society even today. I am speaking, of course, of Wagner’s sublimely romantic interlude to his wife on her birthday at Tribschen.  It was here, at the couple’s villa in Lucerne, Switzerland that Richard famously roused his inamorata from her slumber with a beautiful serenade: the Tribschen (now Siegfried) Idyll – he, conducting a small orchestra from the home's stair steps his tender symphonic poem, penned especially for Cosima and for the couple’s three children – and she, at the landing, reduced to a puddle of tears.

It would be a grand romantic gesture that would be often repeated through the ages by many an admirer of Wagner – including by one of the maestro’s most ardent admirers, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose adoration for the composer ran so deep, it was claimed the young German sought to "elevate himself" to the “level” (i.e. the social standing) of his idol by not only attempting to become a composer himself, but also by making his Tribschen debut by issuing a dedication to Cosima just as Wagner had done the previous year!

It would be in the year 1871 that Nietzsche would pen a copy of his piano duet “Echo of a New Year’s Eve” with the dedication to Cosima, which, also much like his hero Wagner, he planned to send to her as a celebratory birthday gift.

Cosima, upon receiving the composition in the post, sat to play the work with the conductor Hans Richter, with husband Richard in attendance. It is said that Wagner was so amused by the young amateur’s oeuvre that he had to make a speedy exit from the room, whereupon he would later be found sprawled out on the floor, clutching his stomach, howling with laughter.

Nietzsche’s later attempts at composition fared little better than his first. A year later the philosopher-cum-composer’s latest work "Geburt der Tragödie" would receive harsh criticism from the conductor von Bülow - yet another member of Wagner’s inner circle with which Nietzsche hoped to ingratiate himself  – and who, after initially perceiving the work to be a joke, flat out told the young amateur musician:
“It's more terrible than you think!”
adding that the entire composition was
“the most undelightful and the most amateursical draft on musical paper that I have faced in a long time,”  
and that the only hope the budding musician had of pursuing a serious career in the composition of music was to limit himself to the production of vocal scores so that the voice could distract from the “wild sea of tones” that was synonymous with Nietzsche’s music.

Was Nietzsche’s music truly awful, or was the aspiring amateur composer a victim of straying from the rigid "rules" of German music established during his lifetime? Listen below to the philosophers' "Heldenklage" (A Hero's Sorrow - L) and "Beschwörung" (Entreaty -R)[2]  and decide for yourself:

[1] The Wagners' 146th anniversary was observed Thursday, August 25, 2016.
[1] Lyrics for "Entreaty" are based on a text authored by famed poet and writer Aleksandr Pushkin. A translation of this lied can be found at this external link: lieder.net


Saturday, 13 August 2016


Mikhail Glinka, c. 1840
Today's Quote of the Day comes to us from 19th century composer and trailblazer of Russian opera and ballet Mikhail Glinka, as he reflects on the premiere production of Bel Cantist composer Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera semiseria, La Sonnambula ("The Sleepwalker"):
“…[in] the second act the singers themselves wept and carried the audience along with them.”

-Russian composer Mikhail Glinka
It is easy to see why this influential Russian icon of classical music, duly revered as a master musician found himself and his peers bowled over by Bellini’s pastoral masterpiece. An instant success at it’s March 6th premiere in 1831, La Sonnambula continues to draw both high praise and invoke unbridled displays of emotion even today – most notably during the opera’s second act which features the tender aria Ah! non credea mirarti, Sì presto estinto, o fiore ("I did not believe you would fade so soon, oh flower") as sung by the sleepwalker herself, Amina.
So beloved was Amina’s impassioned display of sorrow, the composer Bellini himself felt moved to have prepared for his own tombstone the doleful lyrics – the inscription can be viewed at his gravesite in Sicily at the Catania Cathedral.

Ah! Non Credea Mirarti... certainly finds itself at the top of my list of most beautiful arias of all time.

Enjoy below my personal favorite rendition of the piece, as sung by mezzo-soprano[1] Cecilia Bartoli, featuring the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez:

[1] Whilst the role of Amina was originally created for a soprano (the original Amina, Giuditta Pasta was described by some as possessing that of a soprano sfogato voice) and has through posterity been recorded numerous times by the soprano voice, it is in the 2010 recording by Bartoli, a leading mezzo-soprano, that I find myself most moved. The recording above is from Bartoli’s exquisite album “Sospiri” (literally, “sighs”) in which the dynamic diva adds the subtle, yet strikingly effective affect to tenderize an already flawless gem.

Discover more (External links):


Friday, 12 August 2016


Unraveling Musical Myths is long overdue for another installment of MAYHEM BEHIND THE MUSIC…so today I share with the reader four salacious episodes of chicanery - grand spectacles of deception, illicit fraud and plain ole' taking the Mickey out of the often pretentious world of Classical Music and it’s highly esteemed, glamorous cohort, Opera.

Below you will find some of my favorite anecdotes involving deception, thievery, and delightfully drôle humor under the guise of ingenious hoaxery. 


We begin in that most historic, most diverse United Kingdom. It is the year 1980, and Stanley Sadie, editor-in-chief of the world renowned scholarly musical tome The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians has just approved the latest edition of the popular Western Music Reference guide, and gave the green light to the pressers to have the massive work set to print.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, an encyclopaedic dictionary of music and it’s practitioners, was the brainchild of writer and Classical music aficionado Sir George Grove. Grove, a highly respected ‘expert’ in the field of music was revered in his day for setting to production a series of orchestral concerts and is notable for his discovery of the formerly ‘lost’ score Rosamunde, an early 19th century play scored by Franz Schubert and for his association with the Royal College of Music, the Royal Academy of Music, and popular musicians like Charles Villiers Stanford. As such, the classical music loving public trusted both the opinions and works held and supported by Grove…

article as it appeared in The New Grove, 1980
that is, until one budding music scholar (and undoubtedly stalwart bibliophile) espied a most peculiar entry – two in fact – in the pages of the New Grove. The names Gulielmo Baldini, a musician from Italy (whose resumé boasted works dedicated to then ruling pontiff Pope Innocent IX); and the ‘composer’-cum-flautist Dag Henrik Esrum-Hellerup of Denmark (who counted among his musical protégés the so-called “Father of Czech Music” Bedřich Smetana - and whose father held an esteemed post as chamber flautist to the Dane King, Christian IX) – seemed at odds to this most inquisitive reader. Odd, in that he was certain he had never heard of either composer.

The "Ersum-Hellerup faux article,
The New Grove, 1980.
Indeed, the nefarious pair were soon discovered to be hoax entries in the dictionary (sometimes, a writer or editor would sneak into print an intentionally false or misleading article in an effort to combat copyright violations – however, in the case of Esrum-Hellerup and Baldini, plagiarism did not seem to be the motivating factor for the gag – which was likely submitted to editors in adolescent-like jest)

When Sadie caught wind of the fake entries, he became outraged and refused the production of a second printing until he was certain all traces of the offending material were wiped clean. To rub salt in the wound, the person of Baldini, it was later discovered, was based on a character created by a German musicologist nearly a century and a half earlier for a bogus dictionary!

The Grove’s sister publication, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, published in Germany, is said to still have the false Baldini and Ersum-Hellerup articles in it’s print, although the latter is clearly identified as being a spoof.


A Daguerreotype (a primitive form of photography/photographic process) allegedly featuring the camera shy widow Mozart re-surfaced in the budding years of the present century. The grainy black and white image depicts a black-haired, somber looking “Constanze,” flanked by Swiss composer and confidante Max Keller and his immediate family and is estimated to have been photographed sometime in October of 1840 at the Keller home.

The alleged "Constanze Mozart," (BL); Max Keller (BC) & the Keller family, c. 1840

The ‘discovery’ initially caused a sensation across the classical music sphere – however this unbridled enthusiasm would prove to be short lived when the print was dissected by modern Mozart scholars: Agnes Selby, author of “Constanze, Mozart’s Beloved,” had recalled reading reports of the hoax - which had been revealed nearly two centuries earlier - as the brainchild of an imaginative and most industrious Keller grandson. The “photo,” as it turns out, was certainly not a new ‘discovery’ – it has also been revealed that the same print had been published on at least two occasions in the mid-twentieth century, and was coined a hoax even then by leading Mozart scholars.

In addition, photography experts have since weighed in with their two cents:
“There are no outdoor photographs of groups of people dating from 1840 because the lenses invented by Joseph Petzval, which were to make such portraits possible, were not available yet."
I think that about puts this Moz-artful fable to rest.


Famed American violinist extraordinaire, Joshua Bell, whose extraordinary talents saw the musician performing as a soloist with the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra under maestro Riccardo Muti at the tender age of just fourteen, and whose sensitive interpretations of former classical masters has since catapulted the now 48 year old virtuoso into an iconic legend status and household name, partook in an experiment in January of 2007, initiated by the newsprint The Washington Post in an effort to conduct a blind study of public perceptions of class, music, fame and status.

Bell, who currently plays on a multi-million 1713 antique Stradivarius, the Gibson ex-Huberman, and who undoubtedly earns a most agreeable wage for his mesmerizing efforts took to Washington’s L'Enfant Plaza metro subway station, clad in casual attire and a baseball cap and began, like so many before and after him, to engage the practise of busking. After reviewing footage of the roughly 45 minute experiment courtesy of strategically placed hidden cameras, it was revealed that out of a total of 1,097 passers-by, only seven felt moved to stop and listen to the violinist – and out of that seven, only a single ‘audience’ member recognized him as Bell. Of the 1,097 people who simply passed by the musician, only 27 offered largesse: making for a grand total of $32.17. 

Bell at L'Enfant Plaza (performing the famous "Chaconne"[1] from J.S. Bach's Violin
Partita No. II in D minor):

After it was revealed via the Post (which earned a Pulitzer Prize for piece) that the (perceived) downtrodden 'busker' was in fact the legend Bell performing for the general public the very same repertoire he had played at a paying concert only days before, the humble musician-turned-sociologist opened to a much greater, far more aware musical public at D.C.’s Union Station in 2014.

...second time's a charm (at Union Station in DC 7 years following the big reveal:)


What list of hoaxes could be complete without laying mention to the name and person of (formerly) critically acclaimed pianist Joyce Hatto?

Hatto, an English concert pianist and music teacher managed to run her scam into the grave with the “assistance” of convicted fraudster and husband to Joyce, one William Barrington-Coupe, who secretly interwove performances of more skilled - and surprisingly, more famous - pianists into the works of Hatto, which were then sold as records for profit. (It should be mentioned, however, that due to the ‘success’ of the scam – that is – that it continued until the death of Hatto, (and even then, for some months postmortem) – that it remains debatable whether her husband acted alone or if Hatto was cognizant of his duplicity)).

Barrington-Coupe, who would later admit wrongdoing, only to recant his confession, then modify it, claimed a romantic act of love for an ailing master musician in Hatto, who suffered in her later years, succumbing to cancer in June of 2006. He has yet to reveal the full extent of Hatto’s involvement in the scheme.

Listen to a play-by-play account of how this remarkable 'discovery' unfolded (with the help of iTunes, no less), as told by James Inverne, editor of Gramophone Magazine at NPR (click the red play button on external site):

don't forget to read the transcript - it details Barrington-Coupe's "confession"- here.

Enjoy below a documentary on the Barrington-Coupe-Hatto debacle: The Great Piano Scam: 

[1] Notorious for being one of the longest, most arduous solo pieces ever written for the violin, Bach’s Chaconne still manages to thrill both audiences and performers alike even in the present era, with violinists of the caliber of Bell and Baron Yehudi Menuhin (22 April 1916 – 12 March 1999) declaring the piece “structurally perfect.”

From Bell:
“[it is] not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect."
The Chaconne’s grandiose allure even captured the attention of megalithic composers throughout posterity. 19th century late-romantic composer Johannes Brahms once described his initial reaction to hearing the piece in a letter to fellow composer Clara Schumann thusly:
“The Chaconne is for me one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music. On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I were to imagine how I might have made, conceived the piece, I know for certain that the overwhelming excitement and awe would have driven me mad.”

Want more? 

The following motley group of otherwise clever hucksters have made their mark on the pages of unravelingmusicalmyths:

More Mayhem at Unraveling Musical Myths:

Did You Know?

..that antique stringed instruments, such as the violins crafted by the famous Stradivari family owed their pristine sounds to the guts of sheep?

The tensile material was extracted from sheep postmortem by a farmhand in a rather crude - yet extremely precise fashion: hung atop a large wooden barrel a specially trained worker would make a small incision at gut level on the cadaver, being careful not to puncture the intestinal wall and expel gas and/or other detritus from the animal. The incision, with the aid of gravity, would be drawn southward toward the anus, whereupon the farmer would extract from the sheep the intact bowels.

The next gruesome bit would involve the manual separation of the small intestine from the large - this and the later stages of string making were perhaps the most nauseating  - not to mention the most dangerous - for the farmhand, who often worked from dawn to sundown as the demand for quality violins increased. Taking portions of the small intestine in hand, the worker would prime the casing by squeezing - with his bare hands - the excrement from the intestine, before beginning a process of manual irrigation using water, and fumigation by using a primitive funnel and the highly toxic chemical agent, sulfur.
The cleansed casings would then be carefully woven in intricate fashion by twisting to create a single string.

The occupation of string making was a highly competitive field, and one compensated for engaging in the works' rather macabre labor by a sense of pride in turning something once so degradable into something quite valuable (the proceeds of such intensive labor, however, went to the violin makers themselves - to famous families such as the Stradivari, who in turn soaked up much critical esteem.)

Perhaps the most significant marker of antique gut-stringed instruments lay not in the sublime sound quality they produce - but rather in the marketable value of the instrument itself as related to it's maker. Violins by brands such as Stradivarius continue even in the present era to appreciate in value: Bell is rumored to have purchased the the Gibson ex-Huberman for an amount approaching a ballpark of four million dollars, well below it's estimated value, which is in excess of 10 million.

The website Cmuse has a comprehensive list of various antique violins, with bonus blurbs regrading each instruments prior owners/loanees. Very interesting stuff. Check them out here.


Tuesday, 9 August 2016


Today's quote:

“Bach and his works have met a strange fate at the hands of posterity. They were fairly well recognized in their day; practically forgotten by the generations following his; rediscovered and revived; and finally accorded an eminence far beyond the recognition they had originally achieved.”[2]

- excerpt from "The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents,"
ed. Hans T. David & Arthur Mendel

...is almost correct – yet not quite. Certainly neither Bach, nor had his sons, had to endure extended periods of obscurity within the classical music sphere – they simply held fleeting levels of fame behind the closed doors of the fiscally elite: the nobility, musicians and bankers, who surprisingly feared little in terms of reprobation by bringing together members of the Christian faith to partake in the amusements of the Jewish - this in a time when Prussia (present day Germany) discouraged the mingling of the two faiths.

Why then, given the heightened state of antisemitism sweeping across Europe, was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach - and that of his descendants - welcome at the Prussian court, as performed by a Jewish musician? 

Anatomical Bust of Bach's head.
Believed to be a close likeness
of the late composer.
In fact, it was a very Jewish family that would shine a beacon of light so brightly onto that of Bach (who was German) and onto his descendants - one that continues to illuminate up to the stars, concert halls and open air arenas to this day. Quite ironically, the efforts of those men and women responsible for re-introducing the works of the Bach family - thereby exposing them to pop culture status - was made possible by the proclamations and the fanfare sprouted off by a single family of Jewish musicians – some of whom were famous in their own right, others, who worked for the nobility and, as such, had friends in very high places – friends, who could make and break trends at the drop of the hat.

The family of which I speak is of course the famous Mendelssohn clan and that of its immediate predecessors. Yes, the same Mendelssohn family that had produced amongst its offspring young Felix - the very same early romantic composer Richard Wagner later wrote of (with much distest) as an antagonizing member of (then) modern music in his infamous and very scandalous diatribe (Das Judenthum in Der Muzik,  found here).

It is certainly conceivable that a young Felix Mendelssohn grew up listening to performances of Bach within his private home. In 1813, Johan Friedrich Reichardt, the last Kapellmeister in the service of Prussia’s Frederick the Great (the latter himself a notorious anti-Semite and composer) had penned in his memoirs of a “Sebastian and Emmanuel [2] cult" at the residence of Daniel Itzig of Berlin (Itzig was Mendelssohn’s great-grand father), who not to mention, held a respectable position himself as a banker of the king and was considered the "most highly prized Jew in all of Prussia." Due to his close standing with the reigning elite, Itzig's words were to be taken with much gravitas.

Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn

So beloved was the music of Bach at the homes of Itzig and later his descendants the Mendelssohn’s, that it would be in the year 1829, nearly 80 years to the passing of maestro Bach, that young Mendelssohn re-introduced to musical circles Bach’s sublime 1727 Matthäus-Passion (St. Matthews Passion).

The "rediscovery"/introduction of Baroque maestro Johann Sebastian Bach nearly a century after the composers death was to be a grand event: in attendance would be Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the reigning ruler of Prussia[1] (who doubled as a musicologist) and his royal family in addition to the Prussian nobility, and notably the intellectual elite of the capital, headed by the theologian Schleiermacher, the philosopher Hegel, and the historian Droysen.
Sarah-Itzig Levy, great-aunt to Felix, would be
instrumental to young Mendelssohn in his
quest to honor the works of Bach.
The "re-birth" of Bach within the Mendelssohn family home is not an accomplishment to be understated, particularly when it comes to ushering the previously unknown piece (the Matthäus-Passion) toward infamy in both contemporary times and in the present era.

Modern listeners of Classical music often take for granted a seemingly instinctive ability recognize a tune by Bach - however were it not for the early support of the Itzig-Mendelssohn family and their strong ties to the Prussian ruling classes that had persisted for centuries, we, in the present era, may never have come to know of the Baroque masters' works.

For generations within the Mendelssohn abode, grandparents taught their grandchildren of the late composer, who in turn taught their children as if the musical kin had made some sort of an eternal pact within the family unit to keep the memory and works of maestro Bach alive. It would be through one Mdme. Sara Levy (sister to Felix Mendelssohn's maternal grandmother and therefore his great aunt) that Felix would be introduced to the music of Bach from a very early age. In fact, so frequent were their appointments of tutelage, the young composer had set out to dazzle audiences with a performance of Bach’s keyboard concerto in D minor: it was a triumph, and had even earned praise from Contemporary composer Robert Schumann who had been in attendance to hear the concerto performed.

As it turned out Mdme. Levy had already performed the solo 30 years earlier!

This oversight, however, would not be considered to be anything out of the ordinary. Performance was a man’s arena, by and large. It is unlikely many would have remembered Mdme. Levy's performance some three decades previous.

Although the works of Bach had undoubtedly been kept preserved and made alive by the Mendelssohn family for so many generations, the lions share of the credit must go to Felix, whose ingenious staging for the audience included men of significant influence (in world leaders), top musicians and the nobility in attendance. Often, just wooing a King or an Emperor would be enough to instill in an artist the belief in success and a level of infamy. 

Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was
famously in attendance at Mendelssohn's 1829
production of Bach's Matthäus-Passion
Adding to the most deviceful plan was the strategic placement of fellow composers in attendance who would be seated in close proximity to the rulers and nobility, and who would, by ego's design then be forced to emulate the style performed that had so moved their King. This was perhaps the most shrewd idea of them all - offering the most profitable outcome - for in creating similar pieces by a multitude of artists, one is almost employed by design to reflect back upon it's originator: Bach. By composing in his vein to satiate the current trend, it seemed all parties concerned would profit: the lower classes could claim to share the tastes of the elite, the up and coming composers and musicians could presently work on a mold they knew would yield results to those who mattered, and the privileged few could ensure for themselves both wealth and fame by renting out concert halls and organizing events to stage works in the style and manner of Bach. The very essence of notoriety surrounding this once-forgotten composer was just the tonic required to woo enterprising musicians over to emulating the sound of Bach. 

Perhaps the most notable - and certainly meaningful - reward to emerge from the tireless campaign of the Itzig/Mendelssohn's concerning the preservation and revitalization of Bach lay in the socio-religious evolution of the Prussian court itself - for it would be through the endavors of one enterprising Jewish family that the warring races of Jews and Christians could bond over a shared love of fine music. The indefatigable work of the Mendelssohn's, along with their praised echoes of Bach would catapult the once neglected composer far beyond the four walls in which the maestro and his oeuvre existed only a product of hushed whispers of adoration - sung and performed from within a private estate - thrusting the Baroque masters' work into the very public concert halls where they justly belonged - and wherein even Prussian audiences set aside prejudice to listen to the music enjoyed by this most enlightened Jew - this Felix Mendelssohn.

Erbarme dic, Mein Gott (Have Mercy on Me, my God) from JS Bach's Matthäus Passion as sung by
Hungarian mezzo-soprano (and sometime (alto) Julia Hamari


[1] Wilhelm reigned as King of Prussia from 1840-1861, making Bach, who died in 1750 a full 90 years in his grave at the time of coronation. Throughout this period, the legacy of Bach (and to some extent that of his children) was kept alive in the private homes of the Itzig and Mendelssohn families by means of preserving the music and legacy of the master musician postmortem through exclusively-attended in-house 'concert' performances.

[2] To reflect the quote offered at the beginning of this article, the works of Bach, whilst living, did manage to achieve some sense of notoriety, yet stood far behind in comparison to his works re-performed postmortem by the Mendelssohns. In contemporary times, Bach did have at least one meeting to then reigning King of Prussia Frederick the Great (1740-1786) who took not Johann Sebastian - but rather one of his sons, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (CPE) under his esteemed wing where he would employ the young musician as a much coveted court musician. As for the father Bach? He was provided a theme on which to build a collection of keyboard canons and fugues (and other works), the source of the theme being the King himself. Bach would publish the set under the title the "Musical Offering".


Thursday, 4 August 2016


Gaspare Pacchierotti: skull (L) and portrait (R)

The results of extensive research concerning the remains of famed 18th century castrato Gaspare Pacchierotti of Fabriano, Italy, unearthed in July of 2013, were officially released to the public Thursday (July 28th, 2016), and reveal for the first time[1] the biological profile of perhaps one of the most famous practitioners of the now extinct vocal class of male singers.

The remains of Pacchierotti, a child soprano and later adult mezzo-soprano, hold the distinction of being the world’s foremost intact skeletal subject of a castrato made available for scientific research. Prior to the landmark study, which was promoted by the Medical Humanities’ Research Group at the University of Padua, Italy, the only attempt made at discovering the biological profile of a castrato using modern techniques was performed on the remains of infamous 18th century singer Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi (otherwise known as the Italian phenomenon “Farinelli”) in 2006, however analysis of Broshi's skeletal remains proved the existence of several bones of a separate biological origin – making the remains of Pacchierotti the first ever complete skeleton of a castrato ever studied.

The skeletal remains of Pacchierotti
What resulted from the analysis of his bones was a profile consistent with what has long been known about the occupational markers of opera singers, and beliefs long held about the biological structure of men post-castration, which have been known since antiquity.[2]

The sopranists Farinelli and Pacchierotti, vocalists of the grandest stature, nonetheless lived and flourished in a place and time of great artistic refrain. It was the tail end of admonishment by the Catholic Church regarding the presence of females on the Italian stage, a ban enforced nearly a century and a half earlier by then-ruling Pontiff Pope Sixtus V, which effectively prohibited the presence of females – and therefore the soprano voice – from appearing on any public stage for purposes of singing and/or acting.[3] The ban, officially issued as a Papal Bull in 1588, would persist, with periodic – and remarkably brief – episodes of abatement and re-instatements until the mid 18th century.[4] 

Following the advancements of Caccini and Monteverdi on Peri’s model of the art form of Opera,[5] which increasingly drew demands for solo vocal parts to perform both recitatives and arias, the necessity for a male substitute to sing the soprano role became of tantamount importance to both composers and audiences alike. It was a desire that showed no hint of yielding to the passage of time, with megalithic composers of the ilk of Bach and Händel[6] creating roles in their respective works specifically for that of the castrati.

The pressure felt by the paternal figures of high ranking choir boys must have been tremendous: in an age where public performance - even by that of males - was viewed by the higher classes as unsavory and unbecoming of a proper gentleman, the singer, and his family - often paupers - would rely on an exhaustive effort of touring and pandering to world leaders and the nobility in order to eke out a livable existence. The birth of the castrato – where opera is concerned – however, was something otherworldly to audiences of high art and to music aficionados: the castrati exuded a sort of freak-show status – and, whether admired or reviled, the ‘new’ vocal type, and peculiar physical stature of the performers themselves – was a subject on the lips of every Italian, and stories of the grand spectacle would soon spread rapidly across Europe. Public curiosity alone would have been a major motivating factor for the parents of a gifted son – for where there lies curiosity, there lies controversy – and controversy – it seemed, could be very profitable.

A caricature of equally renowned castrato Farinelli in
female garb, c. 1724
The skilled boy soprano therefore, would be of utmost importance to the Church choirmaster, who would keep a close eye on the pre-pubescent student. Before the age of 12 (usually at a median age of nine years), with parental consent – almost always the fathers sole consent[7] - the boy, selected for castration, would be led by an elder into a motley brew of scalding hot water, herbs and spices, in which his nether region would be immersed, before being forcibly ‘manipulated’ in the hands of the choirmaster (or other ’practitioner’), who would break down the delicate structure of the testes through a series of pinching and rolling - this before severing the spermatic cord with a rustic pair of clippers. Whether the child remained conscious throughout the procedure, and by what method – if any- he may have been anesthetized is uncertain, however there has been some suggestion made toward the compression of the carotid artery to induce syncope in the victim.

The physical results of pre-pubescent castration were catastrophic, as Pacchierotti’s skeletal remains confirm. Extensive testing showed the presence of advanced Osteoporosis, a bone-degenerating disease highly responsive to fluctuating levels of sex hormones. The report, found here, cites a ten-fold increase in bone loss following castration in men – equivalent to that of a post-menopausal woman. The resulting levels of bone degeneration would have undoubtedly proved problematic for Pacchierotti - tests showed a significant amount of erosion to the cervical vertebrae and other areas of the spine, which would have left the singer in an almost constant state of (possibly excruciating) pain resulting from the compression of the sciatic nerve.

*CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE* "Persistence of Epiphyseal Line" in the Iliac Crest;
Pacchierotti remains (L), Diagram (R)
Aberrations of significance involved the pelvic region of Pacchierotti, and confirmed the long held belief of delayed epiphyseal fusion of the Iliac crest (presenting itself with a tell-tale "epiphyseal line:" see diagram above), a process usually completed by the age of 23 – with “no traces” of the epiphyseal line found in “90-100 percent of males over the age of 35.” Pacchierotti was 81 at the time of death.

In contrast to such developmental delays were aberrations of the upper torso, highlighted by the “insertion of three important respiratory muscles on the second ribs, the scalenus posterior, which elevates the second rib, the serratus anterior, which can lift the ribs and assist in respiration, and the serratus posterior superior, that elevates second to fifth ribs and aids deep inspiration..."  
and that "...both scapulae had a marked infraglenoid tubercle due to a strong insertion of the long head of the triceps brachii muscle, which acts on the shoulder joint and is involved in retroversion and adduction of the arm. Probably Pacchierotti was using a lot his arms to act during his performances.”  Such aberrations previously existed as speculative occupational markers known to that of castrati, who have long been noted to possess “a large barrel-shaped chest..."  this, in addition to an "infantile larynx [and] long, spindly legs.” 

*CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE* Anatomy - Skeletal, Muscular - Male
It had been observed for some time by both contemporary intelligentsia and their predecessors that the limbs of a castrato, which suffer from the delay/absence of fusion and/or hardening at the joints due to lack of testosterone (a direct result of pre-pubescent castration) experience a growth markedly longer than that of a pubescent male. This aberration, quite fortunately for the adult male soprano, included the ribs. The evidentiary findings of highly developed muscles supporting the ribcage as found in the remains of Pacchierotti, are therefore significant for the anatomist/musicologist seeking to understand the lung power and breath capacity of an adult male versus an adult female singing in a soprano’s vocal range. The two appear incomparable – from Wikipedia: 
“...thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice. Their vocal range was higher than that of the uncastrated adult male...”
Whilst one cannot duplicate the physical stature and biological makeup of a true castrato in the present era, perhaps the closest known example of the timbre of the castrato voice lay in the performances of 20th/21st century Romanian/Moldavian sopranist Radu Marian, a so-called "endocrinological castrato" or "natural castrato" - a male vocalist who has never experienced the onset of puberty or the so-called “broken” voice caused by the release of sex hormones by the testes during reproductive age:

Radu Marian, a endocrinological castrato, performs the soprano aria “Lascia, Ch’io Pianga” (Allow me to Weep) from Händel’s 1711 Opera Rinaldo:

Compare Radu’s rendition with that of a ‘natural-born female’ soprano voice (in Cecilia Bartoli, who, like Pacchierotti before her, is classified as a “mezzo-soprano”:

..and that of the modern era’s answer to the castrato: the countertenor (who sings in a mixture of a falsetto and "chest voice" in the ranges of female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice. Sung here by Philippe Jaroussky):

Highlighted among these, and other notable findings on the remains of Pacchierotti, is a glimpse into the psychological profile of the singer: tests showed a high level of hygienic observance by the castrato, particularly where the mouth is concerned. Evidence of “abrasive brushing” and the use of some early form of dental floss have been linked to the relatively well preserved condition of the subject’s teeth (although, the report also notes the presence of dental erosion due to a chronic case of bruxism (grinding of the teeth), that researchers liken to a habitual response to early childhood trauma – the castration itself.

The "well preserved" teeth of
Gaspare Pacchierotti
The researchers compare the “compulsion” of teeth grinding to the “psychic distress…as it happens in prisoners or people forced to do something.” The observance of hygiene by Pacchierotti in 18th century Europe is significant in and of itself: conceivably the celebrated vocalist may have taken cue from one of his royal patrons – perhaps the French Queen Marie Antoinette – just one of the elite faction of musical society in whom Pacchierotti found himself rubbing shoulders. The Queen was a notorious outcast from the marginalized Parisian public, not only for her Austrian heritage and seemingly endless spending - she indulged in what was then viewed as the most peculiar, highly unnecessary extravagance: spending hours immersed in the bath. In an age where even the glorious Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at the Palace of Versailles, where she and reigning King Louis XVI held court functioned as meeting ground, zoo, and open latrine – the concept and practice of cleanliness was considered a strange taboo – the connection between poor hygiene and disease still decades away (see germ-disease connection: Louis Pasteur here at unravelingmusicalmyths). 

In some ways, we can consider Pacchierotti’s conscious effort to preserve his most valuable asset (or at least part of it) an early foray into the realm of germ theory.

In many ways, this ancient, now extinct art form, much like the late Pacchierotti, existed in an era centuries ahead of it's time. 

External Links:

Footnotes / Internal Links:
[1] in the body of a castrato; full remains of

[2] It has for many centuries been observed that the elongated limbs of Eunuchs were part and parcel of castration – and existed as a direct result of the primitive “operation.”

[3] It is believed the motivating factors for the Pope lay in Scripture. Discover which passages influenced the Papal Bull here at unravelingmusicalmyths

[4] Although this era effectively saw the ban of the archaic practice of castration for purposes of preserving the treble (or, boy soprano) voice, the “operation” continued to exist in occulto across Italy, with the last known castrato, one Alessandro Moreschi, even surviving into the dawn of the recording age. While certainly not considered pleasing to the modern ear, his rendition of Bach’s setting of Ave Maria is nonetheless legendary. View it here at unravelingmusicalmyths

[5] Explore the birth of modern opera at unravelingmusicalmyths
[6] Händel would later prove to be instrumental in the quest to seek for the Italian stage female performers, creating roles in later operatic compositions officially scored for castrati, yet sneaking onto the stage females in drag for the performance. See: “trouser roles" (footnotes)  here at unravelingmusicalmyths

[7] Parental consent was not always required for the galling choirmaster: Prolific composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) narrowly escaped the clippers as a young star soprano when his father caught wind of the offer of castration made to his young son by the Church in the early 18th century. Read more about it here at unravelingmusicalmyths