Monday, 3 October 2016

TRIVIA & HUMOR: Fun Musical Facts VI (Feat. Did You Know?)

It’s time for another installment of MAYHEM BEHIND THE MUSIC: TRIVIA EDITION! Feat. Did you Know?

Today’s entry features an amusing cornucopia of insanity – from Antonio Vivaldi’s delightfully charming perfectionism to the violent wiles of a homophobic King who was literally losing his mind, with a sprinkling of Beethoven’s infamous rage (this time unleashed upon a member of the press) and a dash of racism to boot.

This may just be the most scandalous installment of MAYHEM yet! 

 We begin in Italy:

Did You Know?

…that the much beloved Four Seasons concerti (thought to be the world’s first tone poem collection), with it’s famously frenzied violin work, carried with it much in the way of performance instruction of the most humorous nature?

Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi included alongside his score for the catchy work highly descriptive instructions for each movement, including directions for the viola to embody the sound of the composers “most faithful dog barking” in the second movement of “Spring,” and, as for the Adagio Molto in “Autumn?” why, that was to represent “drunkards who had fallen asleep” after a morning of getting hammered alongside their fellow peasants at a harvest celebration. 

Vivaldi, clearly catering to class perception of the time, notes in an additional accompanying sonnet for the concerto (there were sonnets for each of them - which the composer likely wrote himself):  

“The cup of Bacchus[1] flows freely”

Celebrating the Fall season with Antonio Vivaldi’s L’autunno (Autumn): Concerto No. 3 in F major, Op. 8, RV 293 with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante:

The god of wine. See Anacreon in Heaven at unravelingmusicalmyths

Did you know?

...that at the height of the nineteenth century – and well into the early twentieth, music critics posessed absolutely no qualms about unleashing scathing attacks - not only on the works of composers they detested – but also on the person of the composer himself? Case in point: theater critic James Gibbons Huneker, writing for the New York Sun in July of 1903 went straight for the gut, unleashing a barrage of insults (and some rather curious racial epithets to boot) concerning the physical appearance of French composer Claude Debussy:

“I met Debussy at the Café Riche the other night and was struck by the unique ugliness of the man. His face is flat, the top of his head is flat, his eyes are prominent - the expression veiled and somber – and altogether, with his long hair, unkempt beard, uncouth clothing and soft hat, he looked more like a Bohemian, a Croat, a Hun, than a Gaul. His high, prominent cheekbones lend a Mongolian aspect to his face. The head is brachycephalic, the hair black...the man is a wraith from the East…”

Debussy’s Asian-inspired Pagodes, from his 1903 composition for solo piano Estamps, L.100:

Speaking of critics,

Did you know?

…that Mozart wasn’t the only famous composer with a potty mouth?

19th century German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, famous as much for his groundbreaking music as for his allegedly ferocious temperament, became frustrated at a negative review by critic Gottfried Weber concerning the maestro’s 1813 orchestral work “Wellington’s Victory” (his 91st opus). Immediately upon receiving wind of the panning press, the notoriously mercurial composer set to angrily scratching out a scathing reply to the most pestering pundit: marked on a piece of parchment with a furiously heavy hand, Beethoven scrawled out the words “Was ich scheisse ist besser als du je gedacht!” (which, loosely translated means “What I sh!t is still much better than anything you ever thought!”)

This rather enlightening anecdote makes Beethoven’s ever-advancing scowl in portraiture seem all the more apropos.

Wellington’s Victory, Berlin Philharmonic under maestro Karajan:

Did you Know?

..that Frederick II (“The Great”), former King of Prussia and (transverse) flautist, may never have become revered as an esteemed and magnanimous patron of music, much less a minor – yet respectable – composer had his father, Frederick William I of Prussia gotten his way?

The two monarchs, whilst sharing genetics, a kingdom and a family name, could not have been more different: young Frederick II shared alongside his sister an impassioned affinity for music and all things French – and was from a young age both curious and eager to assimilate himself toward knightly interests. The father King, however, detested the frivolous practice of music education, and utterly despised the French – an uncivilized class of men he considered most “effeminate” – unworthy of their gender distinction. He was also both mentally and physically abusive (the former - and to a large extent, the latter - likely a direct result of the inherited illness porphyria – a malady of kings said to assail it’s victims with a lewd litany of symptoms ranging from severe head and stomach pains to unsightly boils, pus-filled abscesses and most notably, an acute sense of paranoia).

It so happened on one unfortunate occasion early in young Frederick II’s childhood that the father King burst into his son's private chamber where he was discovered in the midst of a secret musical rendezvous with his sister Wilhelmina, both of whom who were espied jamming away on their trusty flutes – the boy, clad in French attire and periwig – and to the King’s added humiliating measure, his most opportunistic son completed his look with a touch of face powder and a smattering of rouge. The two siblings had sought refuge at the Palace of their mother, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover where they felt free to engage in their most cherished pastime of musical performance and study, unassaulted by an indignant King. When Frederick II stumbled upon the scene, he grew most enraged – his son, the pubescent future ruler of Prussia, undoubtedly beaten with a cane for his transgressions. (Frederick William was notorious among those who had the misfortune of residing within his inner circle for keeping numerous canes – his weapon of choice – in rooms around his Palace, ensuring easy access for the gouty mad monarch. When he grew unable to walk, almost any object within reaching distance became a projectile – including fine chinaware, which he would fling like a lethal Frisbee at the heads of those unfortunate few who dared to cross him!)

By the age of 18, a teenage Frederick attempted to make an escape west, to England, for political - and undoubtedly personal reasons (i.e. to escape the wrath of his father’s unpredictable moods). It was of no use: the prince's plan was quickly discovered, and the price to pay would be huge: after being court-martialed by his father, the King forced his son to bear witness to the decapitation of his best friend!

It would not be until the King’s passing at the age of 51 in 1740 that a nearly 30-year-old Frederick would at last obtain the luxury of being able to practice music freely and perfect his budding composition skills. 

A kingly creation: Frederick the Great's Symphony no. 3 in D Major: Il Rè pastore

...and that concludes this edition of MAYHEM BEHIND THE MUSIC: TRIVIA. Keep posted to Unraveling Musical Myths for future installments!

In the meantime, feel free to peruse and enjoy the Mayhem archives:
More Mayhem!



  1. classical_music_fan5 October 2016 at 15:07

    Loving this... "what I shit is still better than anything you ever thought!" Ha! What could the critic have wrote to illicit such a strong response? Do you have any more of these types of reactions?

    (Also, are those guns??!)

    Awesome content Rose! Looking forward to your next post!


    1. Hi classical_music_fan,

      Thank you for your readership and kind words.

      Yes, you heard correctly – Karajan’s recording does indeed include sound effects of musket fire (and cannon!) Wellington’s Victory is a depiction of the British-French battle at the 1813 Battle of Vittoria (see: Battle of Vittoria), and a celebration of British Triumph. What you are hearing is a “re-enactment” (of sorts) of the battle.

      Perhaps even more interesting than the "artillery" employed in this piece is the history of the composition itself. Wellington’s Victory was originally written for a new and complex instrument known as the “panharmonicon” – a bizarre instrumental concoction created from the mind of 19th century inventor Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (who had approached Beethoven personally to create the score for “Wellington’s Victory) that could produce sounds that mimicked many instruments, including the sound of artillery (It never caught on, and would later be destroyed during an air raid in WWII).

      As for the critic Gottfried Weber, the pesky pundit had insinuated that Beethoven had disgraced art itself!

      Weber’s critique:

      “Should not everyone, the dearer Beethoven and his art are to him, the more fervently wish that oblivion might very soon draw an expiratory veil on such an aberration of his muse, through which he has desecrated the glorified object, Art, and himself.”

      If you enjoyed Beethoven’s response, you will love Verdi’s tag-team takedown of an ‘unsatisfied customer’ who had attended the maestro’s opera Aida – Verdi’s response includes a humorous exchange between the composer, his publisher Giulio Riccordi, and the ‘critic’ himself! It can be found here on unraveling musical myths.

      If you haven’t already, do pay a visit to the Mayhem Archives (as listed at the end of this post) – there exist many and varied tales of humorous anecdotal contrivances.