Sunday, 11 December 2016


It’s time for another installment of MAYHEM BEHIND THE MUSIC: Trivia & Humor.

This edition examines some rather curious American inventions and humorous innovations, a famous father-son rivalry – and an even more famous little mutt by the name of Nipper.

Featuring a rowdy premiere that could stand toe-to-toe with Stravinsky’s infamous riot in Paris.


A "Yankee Doodle" - riding on a pony.
We begin in the good ole U.S. of A - in a little town named Lexington, in the “Bay State” of Massachusetts. It is the 19th day of April in the year 1775. As a band of British troops presently serving on North American soil march northwestward from Boston to Lexington and Concord, the high-pitched ring of a fife and the rat-a-tat-tat of drums can be heard playing most jovially through the temperate spring air. Rising over both flute and drum are the rousing voices of the Brits, singing a mocking air about the plight of the dandy – the Yankee Doodle Dandy to be precise. The crude lyric “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” a direct assault on the American colonials obsessed with dressing the part of a finely manicured - and most effeminate - Italian gentleman and foolishly attempting to adopt his perfecting aires. The Brits, it seemed, had a running joke - so uncouth was the American – so much of a refined wannabe was their innermost desire (running around spouting off catch Italian phrases in an effort to appear more cultured in addition to adopting their dress) – that the Brits began to refer to them as “Macaronis.”

When the Americans heard the offending satirical song rising up over the plains, they reacted not with a sense of vitriol, but rather turned the Brits - and their mocking joke - on its head, by repeating the song – mocking lyrics and all - back to the enemy amidst rebel fire. Proudly adopting the crude humor of the Brits in a charmingly self-deprecating manner, the Americans would again serenade the Europeans – when the Brits were forced to surrender at Saratoga and Yorktown.

Kind of makes the Yankee’s adoption of the crass "To Anacreon in Heav’n" seem all the less ironic in retrospect.

[Fun Fact] Now considered a patriotic air, "Yankee Doodle" can be heard most often in the northeastern state of Connecticut - where it serves as state anthem! Listen to a recording of the famous tune below:


Benjamin Franklin seated at his glass armonica
13 years earlier to the Southwest, American Founding Father and future President of Pennsylvania Benjamin Franklin was busy making music history with the creation of a new instrument similar in sound to the celesta which he would dub "the glass armonica" – a curious looking contraption consisting of thirty seven glass bowls attached to a spindle which could be spun via a foot pedal to produce an eerily crystalline resonance reminiscent of wet fingers circling the rims of various sized wineglasses (which is exactly how Franklin came up with the idea after first hearing a demonstration of this technique at a concert in 1761).

The glass armonica would win the praise of some notable physicians in the both the American medical sector and overseas who lauded it’s (alleged) soothing abilities for those stricken with melancholia (a supposition later proven to be false when the safety of the instrument was roundly bashed in it's own revised operating manual in 1788 - which would lead to the glass armonica becoming temporarily banned in Germany as a preventative precaution against potential madness - or even succumbing to an untimely death).   

Talk about a turnaround...

Whether friend or foe to the new instrument, one thing remained certain: the glass armonica created quite the stir in the musical sphere. Even major composers would express interest in Franklin's invention - a few even wrote music for it – the most famous of which can be heard below: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Adagio & Rondo for glass harmonica in C minor:


The Brits would once more leave an indelible mark on Western Americana – and indeed on the rest of the world – via a curious little mutt named Nipper – a Jack Russell mix who hailed from Bristol, England. When Nipper (named after his naughty penchant for ‘nipping’ at the heels of visitors to his masters home) unexpectedly died in 1895, just seven years after his owner Mark Henry Barraud passed, Baurrad's surviving brother Francis decided he would pay tribute to both master and mutt by painting a portrait of Nipper, his head curiously cocked to one side – sitting most intently before a wind-up Edison-Bell cylinder phonograph – a music player inherited from his late sibling.

The painting, completed in 1898, might also serve as a means to make a quick profit for the brother Barraud. Francis would present the portrait to James E. Hough, manager at the Edison-Bell Company in New Jersey USA, who promptly rejected it on the basis that “Dogs don't listen to phonographs.”

Undeterred, Francis took the portrait back to London, to the Maiden Lane offices of The Gramophone Company where he would be met with an unexpected surprise - Manager William Barry Owen would buy the painting – provided Barraud replace the portrait’s old-fashioned Edison cylinder phonograph with their brand new Berliner Disc Gramophone – the latest in musical technology. An astonished Francis readily obliged, painting a revised edition he dubbed “His Master’s Voice” in 1890 which he sold to Owen for 100 pounds sterling (50 pounds for the copyright and to grant Berliner leave to register the trademark phrase for use in the United States; and 50 pounds for the painting). The Victor Talking Machine Company would promptly adopt the now infamous logo that year, followed by HMV,  the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and RCA Victor in 1929.

Today, you can find Nipper adorning the labels of the following brands: Victor Talking Machine Company, Gramophone Company, Berliner Gramophone, His Master's Voice, HMV, EMI, RCA, RCA Victor, Victrola, Electrola, Bluebird, Zonophone, JVC and Deutsche Grammophon.



On a hot summer’s eve in 1830’s Belgium, a riot was about to erupt at the Théâtre de la Monnaie that would rival Igor Stravinsky’s spectacularly rowdy première in early twentieth century Paris.

The opera produced for the evening was Daniel Auber’s La Muette de Portici – a patriotic tale of revolutionary spirit that depicted a poor man’s uprising against the powerful Spanish rulers occupying Naples. It was a curious choice of libretto for the French composer, who chose to stage it as an homage to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands' (to which Belgium then belonged) reigning King, William I during the King William I Festival launched in celebration of the 15th year of His Majesty's reign. Apparently Auber hadn’t received the memo that a pre-ordained revolt had been scheduled to take place on the eve of La Muette’s performance at the Theatre – nor did it appear that the Frenchman possessed any idea whatsoever that William was, to many of the citizens of Belgium, a tyrannical oppressor.

As La Muette sauntered into its second act – and right before the duet "Amour sacré de la patrie" could get it’s first notes off the ground, the theater abruptly erupted into chaos. One contemporary eyewitness account details the horror that unfolded that fateful evening:
"When Lafeuillade and Casscl began singing the celebrated duet. "Amour sacre de la patrie" enthusiasm exploded irresistibly and [the singers] found it necessary to start afresh in the midst of the cheering. Finally, when Masaniello (Lafeuillade) launched into his entreaty, the invocation "Aux Armes!," the public could no longer be restrained. They acclaimed aria and actor, they booed the fifth act in order to stop the performance, and the delirious crowd [hurled itself] out of the hall... welcomed by the other crowd which waited outside, it joined in the demonstrations which loosed the revolution of 1830."

As raised voices became lost in the calamitous fray and fists began to fly freely from man to man, newly formed mobs who were freshly energized by the riot in the theater took to the streets of Brussels, looting local businesses and laying waste to factories, destroying the machineries found inside. The uprising would quickly spread throughout the country.

If Stravinsky sought any form of comfort after the infamous riot at the rite in 1913, he needn’t have looked any further than Auber.. his predecessor in social outrage.

Speaking of outrage, Did You Know?

Composer-King Frederick the Great wasn’t the only musician to have been corporally punished by his father for daring to dream of a life spent making music.

The newly-crowned "King of the Waltz"
Johann Strauss.. Junior, thankyouverymuch.
Viennese "Waltz King" Johann Strauss the elder famously sparred with his son – also named Johann (the second) – when the boy had the audacity to take up the violin. No son of Strauss’ was going to dare try to take his father’s place – no, not for young Johann. The father Strauss demanded his son take up a “more respectable” vocation: in matters of law or in finance. Much like the King of Prussia, who was soundly cane-whipped across the arse by an enraged father when he was discovered practicing on his trusty flute in secret, a young Johann would receive regular beatings at the end of a three-tailed whip from Johann Sr. for his transgression of stealing away for private lessons on his violin. This cruel form of corporal punishment was immediately preceded by the elder Strauss warning his son that he would "beat the music" out of him.

Johann Jr., however, was undeterred by his fathers malevolence – by age 19, he bravely informed his father of his intent to not only compose, but also to publicly stage a waltz – to which his father unceremoniously scoffed “you have no idea how to write a waltz!”

The senior Strauss took matters even further, hiring a rowdy band of claquers to rise from the audience and hiss. He even rounded up a bunch of brutes to surround the casino where his sons concert was being held in order to incite a riot. Much like in the case of Stravinsky, police had to be called to disperse the crowds.

So much for blood being thicker than water.

Listen below to what is perhaps the most famous waltz of all time, Johann Strauss Junior's "Blue Danube":

Did you know?

...that the United States National Anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” has some salaciously scandalous, rather comical - and very British - roots?

Anacreontick's in full Song by caricaturist James Gillray.
Upon revisiting the powerful, testosterone fueled lyrics and melody that makes this Anthem truly one of the worlds most impacting and instantly memorable tunes, the average Partiot would feel quite the sense of irony upon discovering that the melody of the “Star-Spangled Banner” is not only English (and not American as most previously believed), and as for it’s lyrics...well..let's just say, they were less than patriotic. 

Originally titled “To Anacreon in Heav’n,” the true progenitor of what we now know as The Star Spangled Banner was in fact nothing more than a lewd drunkard's tune,  one that was so frequently sung by the often raucous and inebriated members of a special "Gentleman's Club," that it became the club's official drinking song! The name of the 15th century men's only pub? "The Anacreon" making the current anthem an Ode to Freedom and Democracy, and it's grandfather's an Ode to "Free Lovin' " and Drink! [Fun Fact]

The Anacreontic Song (Listen to the song below):

"To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be;
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:
Voice, fiddle, and flute, no longer be mute,
I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot
And besides I'll instruct you like me to intwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine."

–Words by Ralph Tomlinson, music by John Stafford Smith, C.1775.

Read more history on the anthem here, including details on Stravinsky’s near arrest and Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture! (which I’ve always ‘heard’ –at least in similarity- to “ proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming…”)

Flag of the United States of America
[Fun Fact] Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet who was known to boast proudly as an advocate of drink and held a special penchant for sex in his -ahem - heart. In essence, "To Anacreon in Heaven" is actually a tribute, or an ode to a sex crazed, famous alcoholic! (Note the rather raunchy repetitive: "And besides I'll instruct you like me to intwine / The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine," "Venus" being the goddess of love, and "Bacchus" the god of wine).

For the modern listener/reader, To Anacreon in Heaven's text may appear, at first listening, a rather chaste song paying homage to some ancient Greek gods. Digging a little deeper into the characters featured the music, and into the inspiration source of it's authors melody and lyrics and one will find a litany of lewd and lascivious innuendo that would make your mother blush. Read the full text of "To Anacreon in Heaven" here (external link).

For more stories like these, check out the Mayhem archives listed below.

More Mayhem!


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