Thursday, 23 November 2017


Here at Unraveling Musical Myths, we have, on more than one occasion, “visited the dead” via horrific, gruesome – and, occasionally, even amusing – tales of grisly lore and gore, passed down to us through the musical ages; describing (in often macabre detail) the lengths some people will go to preserve, profit on – or even destroy – the legacy of some of Western Classical Music’s most iconic and beloved masters.

From bodies uprooted from their tombs and callously tossed in the corner of a funeral vault, to grave robbing and skull-heisting (we’ve even “bore witness” to tales of mob-like guard posts at the grave, to composers themselves engaging in bizarre episodes non-sexual necrophilia).

In this edition of TRIVIA & HUMOR, we begin our downward spiral into the seventh circle of hell with both the savagely barbaric and the surprisingly tender: two tales of post-mortem action by the living – in one instance, the tender: in 19th century late classical/early romantic composers Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven:


Franz Schubert idolized Ludwig van Beethoven. The
pair ran in different circles and rarely met - however
this didn't stop Franz from wanting to be close to his
idol in life - and, so it would appear, in death.
As 31 year old Schubert lapsed in and out of consciousness in the final throes of what would, in posterity, be considered an early and agonizing death, the young Austrian master of the Art of the Lied grew delirious – a likely result of both neurosyphilis and mercury poisoning (the only tonic then available to treat the deadly disease which had run rampant throughout Napoleonic Europe). It would be during one of these moments of semi-consciousness (heavily marked by delirium) that the composer, believing himself already six feet under and buried alive, audibly posed the question “Am I resting next to Beethoven?” (Ludwig being both Franz’ muse and devotee during both icon’s lifetimes – with the younger Schubert even dedicating his Variations on a French Song - Op. 10, D.624 - to his idol). Those who witnessed the outburst took the bizarre moment of quasi-lucidity as a declaration of intent to be laid to rest alongside the composer’s musical hero. This wish was thrice granted, first by burying Franz as close as possible (a mere two plots away) to his beloved at Vienna's Währing Cemetery.

Beethoven, who had died only one year previous, had perished in Schubert’s hometown of Vienna in Austria. His funeral was both a grandiose and somber spectacle, with tens of thousands of mourners lining the streets of Vienna to witness the procession, and bid farewell to their maestro, each clamoring over one another to gain a closer view as the casket dolefully made it’s way to the cemetery, with Schubert himself at the helm, first as pallbearer helping to hoist the coffin, and, at graveside, acting as a torchbearer. By the time the Währing was shuttered in June 1888, a decision was made to move and re-bury both composers – this time side by side, with nary a plot between them to separate their vessels into eternity - at the recently opened Zentralfriedhof on the city‘s South side.

The now permanently gated Währing Cemetery became known as Schubert Park, and atop the vacant plots (forever preserved for their former inhabitants) stands a memorial dedicated to the two musical giants. 

8 Variations on a French song in E Minor, Op. 10, D. 624 - Schubert's dedication to his idol, Ludwig van Beethoven.


As for the barbaric, regular readers of Unraveling Musical Myths with be familiar with the ‘practice’ and cult of phrenology – a pseudo-“science” funded and operated by resurrectionists, shady surgeons and so-called scientists (in fact, keeping on the subject of both Beethoven and Schubert, the exhumation of the corpses of the composers for reburial in 1888 at the Zentralfriedhof was but the second time the graves of the musical giants were disturbed. In October of 1863, whilst still interred at Wahring, both composers’ coffins were exhumed for ‘scientific’ purposes – chiefly, for the study of phrenology – in which both musician’s skulls were examined, their skeletons analyzed, coffins refurbished, and re-buried (this time adjacent one another), with the exception of Beethoven – who was re-buried sans cranium. (You can read more about Beethoven’s well traveled and heavily dissected skull here at Unraveling Musical Myths. Shockingly, ‘testing’ on the relic has continued through the ages - well into the 21st century!) In today’s entry of TRIVIA… however, we re-visit the heisted skull of Herr Joseph Haydn, infamously looted from his grave by the cover of night (and by bribing the gravedigger, who had recently been robbed of all of his earthly possessions by French soldiers – or by men hired to dress as French soldiers) by Haydn’s friend, one Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, certified accountant and music devotee, and Rosenbaum’s quack of a friend, the self-styled ‘phrenologist’ Johann Nepomuk Peter, governor of the lower Austria provincial prison.

Haydn's skull.
The sick pair were said to have performed a “test-run” on de-fleshing human skin, muscle and tissue from a fresh corpse (as the heist of Haydn’s skull was to be acted upon with impending haste due to the popularity of phrenology and prolific nature of ‘resurrectionists’ then making the rounds at local cemeteries. The more famous the subject, the greater the profit for the heartless looter). The diabolic duo "practiced" on recently deceased Viennese theatre actress Elizabeth Roose, who had succumbed to complications during the process of childbirth in 1808.

Rosenbaum, being a confidante of the composer Haydn, of course knew well ahead (ahem) of time compared to other potential looters as to when his friend became terminally ill, and feigned sympathy for his close mate whilst all the while concocting a devious plan to not only steal his compadre’s skull, but to later hold it as ransom from Haydn fan and former employer Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy (“The Magnificent”) of Eisenstadt (whose family happened to be one of the most wealthy and influential families within the Austro-Hungarian empire).

To perform the "test run," Rosenbaum had to first secure the corpse of Roose, then proceed to decapitate her, and, finally, to soak her skull in a mixture of quicklime in order to eat away at the flesh. She would prove to be his first successful relic. With Haydn, however, it was different: perhaps succumbing to a soupçon of guilt for prizing his former close mate’s head, the friend-turned-foe set the skull down atop the table and proceeded to vomit at the very sight of the still life-like skull. Oddly, instead of doing the dirty deed himself, as he had de-fleshed Roose, Rosenbaum instead turned the cranium over to his personal physician (who he likely also bribed), who in turn sent it off to a Viennese Hospital for ‘cleaning.’ The chalky white skull, now unrecognizable as his one-time running mate, would be returned to the accountant Rosenbaum, who had already constructed an ornate black case for stowing the skull, adorned with golden lyre.


Most fans of Western classical music know Robert Schumann, and his wife Clara, as composers of the romantic era. Fewer may be aware that the married duo were habitual diarists. At the behest of Robert, the young Clara (née Wieck, born 9 years after her spouse) would take turns with her more famous husband, documenting the joys, triumphs and tragedies of their martial union, in an effort to consult the diary in times of romantic strife and to reflect on the couple’s growth through better or worse.

One salacious subject concerning the musical couple - that of a double life shared on the part of the groom - was seemingly ‘proven’ by music historians who, upon inspecting the documents, found substantial evidence that would seem to show, without refute, that Clara knew exactly what she was getting into when she vowed to love her husband for "better or worse”. 

Robert’s early entries in the diary include an unabashed, very explicit blow-by-blow (pun intended) of his very salacious carnal relationship with a woman named Christel (Schumann would later refer to her as "Charitas"), whom the composer met through none other than fiancée Clara Wieck’s father! (Christel is believed to have been a member of staff  - a maid - at the Wieck household). 

During the same period as his romantic escapade with “Charitas,” Robert makes frequent reference to his declining health, making note of symptoms which, according to scholars of both music and medicine, are notorious markers for early stage syphilis.

Robert Schumann, you naughty boy. Pictured here
alongside his wife, Clara.
In one entry in particular penned by Robert after May 1831, the composer references his “John Thomas” – a hardly inconspicuous moniker for his genitals – and the immensely painful, persistent wound upon it. It was a gift that would keep on giving, awarded the wounded composer by one ‘Christel,’ whom Schumann would later adorn with what he referred to as "a more beautiful and appropriate name" –  the aforementioned moniker “Charitas” –  which, interestingly, is Latin for “Charity” (alternatively spelled "Caritas" after the Greek "Agape," or the practice of self-sacrificing love.)

The true full name of this seductive siren of Schumann's self sacrifice, according to recent research, was actually Christiane Apitzsch, and she was more than just a former maid to the Wieck household; more than just a lover to the gifted genius that she may very well have wound up killing through the composer’s later attempts at mercury treatment for advanced stage syphilis – but quite possibly the mother of the adulterous composer’s illegitimate daughter, Ernestine, born January 5th 1837! Schumann is believed to have attempted to pay off Charitas for her silence, and is alleged to have never met his daughter.

Clara was also not the only member of the Wieck clan who knew of her future husband's improprieties - upon discovering Robert was wooing his daughter, Friedrich Wieck, head of the Wieck household, threatened to shoot Schumann on sight if he continued courting his daughter!

It seems Robert paid Clara's father no mind - in lieu of the father Wieck's "permission" for Robert to "take his daughters hand" (which seems to have been legally required at the time),
the betrothed sued Friedrich, winning a judgement on behalf of the court, which granted permission for the lovebirds to wed.
The couple married - warts and all - on September 12, 1840.


Wednesday, 22 November 2017


It was just last December that UNRAVELING MUSICAL MYTHS revealed the news of a newly formed fantastic trio making a 2017 appearance in my hometown of Toronto, Canada.

It would be a once-in-a-lifetime affair (quite literally) for almost everybody involved in planning the production. World renowned reigning diva, the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, her tenor husband Yusif Eyazov, and the equally renowned baritone – beloved across the globe - Siberian born Dmitri Hvorostovsky would make their anxiously awaited worldwide debut with their aptly named Trio Magnifico – right here on the stage of the country’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

It would also mark Netrebko’s Canadian debut. This "once in a lifetime affair," we opera fans knew, would be especially true for Hvorostovsky – the one-time rapscallion (binging on booze, drugs, and brawls) – turned media sensation following his 1989 win at the Cardiff Singer of the World vocal competition (he beat out the effervescent and immensely talented Bryn Terfel) had only recently revealed to the world a grim diagnosis of brain cancer. After several pullouts from non-related performances, Torontonians were left wondering if the bassy Russian could survive the trip to the bustling metropolis, much less get through what promised to be a demanding and lengthy performance. Speaking honestly, many of us wondered if he would have survived into Spring of 2017 at all.

Hvorostovsky in a separate performance, expertly singing Avant de quitter ces lieux from Charles Gounod’s
adaptation of Faust, Moscow, 2008.

Although officially retiring from the opera stage one year shy of his public announcement of terminal illness, Hvorostovsky promised his fans he would, come rain or shine, undoubtedly be at the premiere in Toronto – and it seemed the former bad boy who once almost gave up on life – embraced his final moments with all of his might.

The April 25th performance went off without a hitch, and we Torontonians, and the Operatic world at large – salute you, Mr. Hvorostovsky – for your bravery and outstanding contribution to the arts; for your talent, and most sincerely, for your dedication to your fans. Your story of triumph overcoming trial and tribulation is truly inspiring, and we thank you for your endurance, fighting that good fight until the very end. Your life story is truly a story worth telling.

View a performance from the historic evening below, with an unrecognizable Hvorostovsky (resembling a young/middle aged Liszt) singing solo: Anton Rubenstein’s The Demon’s aria:

Mr. Hvorostovsky, you will be missed.

May you Rest In Peace.


Sunday, 10 September 2017


French composer Georges Bizet
Before I begin with today’s Quote of the Day, I must thank the reader for the many emails received upon my person inquiring as to my whereabouts: “Where are you…when will you be posting again?...” and the like.

I assure you, dear reader, I will return – I am currently engaged in quite a bit of multi-tasking, which has resulted in sparse time spent in the isolation required for dedicating my full attention toward presenting an article of quality.

Fret not, such articles have been and are currently being worked on non obstante during the interim period between my last full-length post and my upcoming articles/regular features.

In the meantime, I leave the visitor to my blog with a rather apt quote by the French Romantic composer, Georges Bizet on the tribulations one is wont to encounter in the vain quest to both reach and exceed in quality an art form already established as unsurpassable:

"...the more beautiful the model, the more ridiculous the imitation."

I relate the quote posted above, authored by the Parisian composer in May 1871 in a private written exchange with mother-in law Léonie Rodrigues-Henriques (Madame Halévy) with the often imitated, yet never duplicated recording of “Au Fond Du Temple Saint” (In the Depth of the Sacred Temple) - that most famous of operatic duets from Bizet’s often underrated early opera “Les pêcheurs de perles” (The Pearl Fishers) - as performed by American baritone Robert Merrill and the irreplaceable Swedish heldentenor Jussi Björling in an exclusive in-studio performance recorded by record label RCA-Victor in 1950. The recording of the now famous aria has since been placed with relative regularity on many mainstream “greatest recordings of all time” lists.

It’s easy to see why – to my taste, there has never been a duo that, to date, has ever surpassed this sublime rendition.

Enjoy below, truly one of the "greatest recordings of all time” Au fond du temple Saint by maestros Robert Merrill and Jussi Björling. Les pêcheurs de perles will celebrate its 154th anniversary at the close of the month – marking its 19th century première at Paris on September 30, 1863:

Did You Know?

It wouldn’t be until some two decades following he premiere of Les pêcheurs that Georges Bizet would finally achieve the international notoriety and acclaim so craved upon by composers of unrecognized merit. Unfortunately for Bizet, the massive adulation lauded upon the musician would greet him in absentia – quite – post mortem, in fact – and the recognition placed on Georges would not be for Les pêcheurs de perles (or even for the sublime duet, for that matter, which had received a rather stale and indifferent critical response following it’s premiere in 1863), but rather, for the composer’s final opera, Carmen, which itself earned acclaim only some ten years after it’s scandalous premiere at Paris’ Opéra-Comique in 1875. The seductive “immorality” of the opera’s famous titular Gypsy, Carmen, along with the on-stage death of the work’s main character, has, in posterity, been credited with revolutionizing French opera. It’s catchy first and second act arias "Habanera" and the "Toreador Song" have since infiltrated even the captious barriers of mainstream pop culture, much like (although with arguably more success) Les pêcheurs de perles’ Au fond du temple Saint (known colloquially as the Pearl Fishers duet), which also received lukewarm-to-hostile reviews immediately following it’s premiere at Paris’ Théâtre Lyrique in September of 1863.

(German Born) French composer
Jacques Offenbach
Modern critics have been gentler in their praise in regard to Bizet’s early opera - commissioned when the composer was but just 24 years old, and a past recipient of the prestigious Prix de Rome, a highly coveted award earned by Georges in 1857 following his participation in a composition competition held at the highly regarded the Conservatoire de Paris by the noted French composer Jacques Offenbach.

Bizet was awarded the Prix de Rome – a scholarship/ bursary programme for students of the arts to pursue international study in Rome at the expense of the state (established in 1663 under the reign of Louis XIV of France) – for his winning entry, his first one-act opera, Le docteur Miracle.

Had it not been for the Offenbach and the Conservatoire, the then-unknown 18 year old budding composer Georges Bizet – nor the succès de scandale  known as “Carmen” that had infamously rocked Paris in 1875 - and certainly nor the exquisite first act duet from Les pêcheurs, this diamond of a recording would never have existed nor so spectacularly injected itself within the pages of musical infamy. 

Sunday, 2 July 2017


What better way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the creation of this great land than with a tour of my hometown - 1979 Toronto - guided by, and from, the Gouldian perspective of the nation's former greatest musical export?

"Glenn Gould's Toronto" remains a staple of autobiographical film featuring the late enigmatic virtuoso.  In this intimate, Genie-nominated 48 minute documentary, the world renowned pianist delivers to the viewer his unique - often sardonic - perspective of the Ontarian capital: discussing it's then-archeological advances, it's culture (with coy references to the ever enduring Toronto-Montreal oneupmanship) and offering reflections on what the city itself - and city living - means to him, delivered all with the pianist's famous trademark wit.

I can think of no better musical representative for Canada than Gould, in whom I identify with in more ways than I can count - both psychologically and on principle - and as a fellow Canuck. Thus, I have chosen Glenn Gould's Toronto for this special edition of Weekend at the Movies with Rose and to celebrate the historic sesquicentennial.

Bonne Fête, Canada! 

Parts: I (below), II, III, IV, V, VI on YouTube

Discover more:

Friday, 9 June 2017


Thank you for your inquiries. I am on a temporary hiatus due to a hectic schedule. I am up to my eyeballs in multi-tasking!

I will return shortly with all new posts, including the much awaited eleventh installment of TRIVIA & HUMOR.

In the interim, enjoy some Liszt:

Evgeny Kissin performs "La campanella" (Grandes études de Paganini no. III):


Saturday, 3 June 2017


Another legend of Western Classical Music has sadly passed.

Sir Jeffrey Tate - who was knighted this April by Prince William for his services to British music - suffered a heart attack Friday afternoon in Lombardy whilst touring the Accademia Carrara art gallery at Bergamo.

The iconic conductor (and chief of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra), who famously attracted much attention to the little-known disabling conditions Spina Bifida (a neural tube birth defect - in which the spinal column fails to properly fuse around the spinal cord whilst in utero) and kyphosis (an exaggerated forward curvature of the spine) - both of which he struggled with his entire life - was considered renowned in his field, an expert interpreter of Wagner and Strauss, a champion of modern British composers, and, to my taste, was one of the finest Mozart conductors of the 20th and present century.

He was 74 when he passed.

Rest In Peace, Sir Tate.

Listen below to an excerpt of the Benedictus from Herr Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (I couldn't find a full version on YouTube), performed by the English Chamber Orchestra & Tallis Chamber Choir with Sir Jeffrey Tate at the helm. A fine rendition:

Learn more about Jeffrey Tate here at Unraveling Musical Myths:
the Accademia Carrara
isiting the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy, and could not be revived. - See more at:
isiting the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy, and could not be revived. - See more at:

Tuesday, 30 May 2017


It may just have been the first of many bad omens to come: 

247 years ago today, newlywed royal couple Marie Antoinette, (formerly archduchess of Austria and present Dauphine de France), and Louis-Auguste, (heir to the French throne and the future Louis XVI; both 14 and 15 respectively) would receive the shock of their young lives when, during the final festivities held for the future monarch’s recent nuptials, which had been hosted across Paris for some two weeks straight following the May 16th wedding – an errant firework (a rocket) veered off course and set fire to the Temple de l'Hymen (the Temple of Hymen), a specially constructed and elaborate structure erected especially for the royal couple at the Paris' Place de la Concorde.

The disaster would not only echo the calamity that befell Handel in London of 1749 – which also involved the presence of an elaborate structure (erected to serve as a dazzling backdrop for the display of lights) and it’s destruction by an errant firework – but would also succeed it many times over in scale of sheer catastrophe: whereas the tragedy at St James Park of 1749 only claimed two lives, the present disaster in Paris would number over 132 fatalities by the time the final body count had been tallied.

Below, Marie Antoinette biographer Charles Duke Yonge describes, in horrific detail, the deadly actions of the Parisian people as they went from awe to sheer terror - one moment admiring the pyrotechnic feat (even marveling at the raging inferno that lit up the Temple as the rocket struck, thinking it a newly created special effect), and the next, stomping on the bodies of their neighbors as they frantically clawed their way toward safety, running at full speed toward safe terrain (in as much speed as one might acquire whilst in the midst of a full blown stampede).

Perhaps most disheartening of Yonge’s account is the revelation that most of the victims were of the lowest economic class, who had likely come out to celebrate the union of the future king and queen of France, believing in the heirs to the throne as potential saviors to their financial woes. Many would not live to find out – those who were not trampled or otherwise suffocated in the stampede were callously tossed into a river and left to drown by their fellow spectators as they made a mad dash toward safety.

In any event, fate would see to it that the royal couple could have never served as saviors anyhow – the condemned couple would be famously stripped of their titles, beheaded under the sharp blade of the guillotine at the Place de la Révolution in 1793 Revolutionary France, and their corpses dumped in a common grave at the Cemetery of the Madeline – ironically, the very same resting grounds for the victims of the May 30th disaster at the Place de La Concorde.
*CLICK TO ENLARGE* A Contemporary mock-up of the Temple de l'Hymen

From "The Life of Marie Antoinette" by Charles Duke Yonge (1876, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York):
Little as was the good-will which subsisted between Louis XV and the Parisians, the civic authorities thought their own credit at stake in doing appropriate honor to an occasion so important as the marriage of the heir of the monarchy, and on the 30th of May they closed a succession of balls and banquets by a display of fire-works, in which the ingenuity of the most celebrated artists had been exhausted to outshine all previous displays of the sort. Three sides of the Place Louis XV were filled up with pyramids and colonnades. Here dolphins darted out many-colored flames from their ever-open mouths. There, rivers of fire poured forth cascades spangled with all the variegated brilliancy with which the chemist's art can embellish the work of the pyrotechnist.

The centre was occupied with a gorgeous Temple of Hymen, which seemed to lean for support on the well-known statue of the king, in front of which it was constructed; and which was, as it were, to be carried up to the skies by above three thousand rockets and fire-balls into which it was intended to dissolve. The whole square was packed with spectators, the pedestrians in front, the carriages in the rear, when one of the explosions set fire to a portion of the platforms on which the different figures had been constructed. At first the increase of the blaze was regarded only as an ingenious surprise on the part of the artist. But soon it became clear that the conflagration was undesigned and real; panic-succeeded to delight, and the terror-stricken crowd, seeing themselves surrounded with flames, began to make frantic efforts to escape from the danger; but there was only one side of the square unenclosed, and that was blocked up by carriages.

The uproar and the glare made the horses unmanageable, and in a few moments the whole mass, human beings and animals, was mingled in helpless confusion, making flight impossible by their very eagerness to fly, and trampling one another underfoot in bewildered misery. Of those who did succeed in extricating themselves from the square, half made their way to the road which runs along the bank of the river, and found that they had only exchanged one danger for another, which, though of an opposite character, was equally destructive. Still overwhelmed with terror, though the first peril was over, the fugitives pushed one another into the stream, in which great numbers were drowned. The number of the killed could never be accurately ascertained: but no calculation estimated the number of those who perished at less than six hundred, while those who were grievously injured were at least as many more.

The dauphin and dauphiness were deeply shocked by a disaster so painfully at variance with their own happiness, which, in one sense, had caused it. Their first thought was, as far as they might be able, to mitigate it. Most of the victims were of the poorer class, the grief of whose surviving relatives was, in many instances, aggravated by the loss of the means of livelihood which the labors of those who had been cut off had hitherto supplied; and, to give temporary succor to this distress, the dauphin and dauphiness at once drew out from the royal treasury the sums allowed to them for their private expenses for the month, and sent the money to the municipal authorities to be applied to the relief of the sufferers. But Marie Antoinette did more. She felt that to give money only was but cold benevolence; and she made personal visits to many of those families which had been most grievously afflicted, showing the sincerity of her sympathy by the touching kindness of her language, and by the tears which she mingled with those of the widow and the orphan.

Did You Know?

Inside the Royal Opera House at Versailles
The Temple of Hymen wasn’t the only structure to have been created in anticipation of the royal marriage of the Dauphin to the archduchess. 

In 1770, King Louis XV commissioned the construction of a large event hall at Versailles to serve as a ballroom for the wedding banquet and subsequent wedding related festivities. 

It would also serve as the first opera hall in France built in the shape of an oval. The Opéra Royal, as it was then called, was an architectural and technological wonder: boasting finely sculpted depictions of Greek gods and symbols marking the Zodiac, and a mechanically operated flooring system which could both raise the orchestra flush with the stage during balls, and lower it for more intimate occasions.

The newly installed opera hall at Versailles couldn’t have served as a better gift for the newly minted Dauphine de France - a musician and minor composer herself, who would later serve as musical patron, most notably to her musical hero (and former teacher) Christoph Willibald Gluck.

The first opera Marie Antoinette would have attended at the Royal Opera House (as the hall would later become known) was Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Persée, composed in 1682. It would serve as the inaugural performance for the venue, and the former archduchess of Austria would witness the occasion whilst still Dauphine.

Although the interior mechanism behind the rising floor may
appear rickety by modern standards, the design was considered
state-of-the-art technology in the late 18th century. The
complex system, consisting of winches and hoists, was
designed by the First Theatre Technician to the King,
Blaise-Henri Arnoult.
Although the state-of-the-art opera hall and its breathtaking acoustics – owed largely to the wooden structure of the venue – were considered a marvel and a sight to behold in it’s day, the opera house was expensive to maintain, and was only used some 40 times before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Memorable performances during this period included Lully’s Persée in 1770 on the day of the royal wedding; a revival of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 
Castor et Pollux in honor of the visiting Emperor and brother to the Dauphine, Joseph II in may 1777; and the revivals of Marie-Antoinette favorite composer Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide in late May of 1782 and Armide in June 1784. The latter production saw in attendance the King of Sweden, Gustav III, who was visiting the French court.

Listen below to the third act aria from Lully's Persée, "O tranquille sommeil" performed by the American tenor Rockwell Blake:


Monday, 29 May 2017


The "ungraceful" choreography of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring caused a riot in
1913 Paris. The jarring movements of the original production and the ballet
itself are now widely considered to have been ahead of their time.
Today, fans of the ballet are likely to reminisce upon a tale of a scandal so outlandish – and of such legendary status – it has infiltrated the invisible barrier between space and time, and permeated the seams of 21st century pop culture.

But the Ballet Russes’ premiere staging of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps – and the sensational scandal it so infamously provoked 104 years ago - was far from the last time the famous French Ballet Company - or the city of Paris - encountered such vitriolic strife.

A mere four years after the avant-garde innovations of Russian émigré Vaslav Nijinsky (that world famous ballerina-cum-choreographer) and his cohort, 20th century 'neo-classical' composer Igor Stravinsky infamously rocked Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (a succès de scandale allegedly fully anticipated by the Ballet Russes’ founder and impresario Sergei Diaghilev), yet another star-powered enterprise would violently shake up finely manicured Parisian tail feathers – and leave one highly celebrated (and very much disgruntled) composer to sit and stew behind the steely bars of a French jail cell.

Picasso's cubist-inspired costume for Satie's "Parade."
Some of the costumes, which were made of cardboard
and were therefore quite rigid, allowed for only the
smallest of movements by the dancers on stage, much
to the chagrin of many in the audience.
The pugilistic melée would occur, also in the month of May, in the year 1917. Involved in the latest scandal would be some of the famous characters of Stravinsky 1913: the Ballet Russes, and their aforementioned leader, Sergei Diaghilev.

The key players, however, have changed: swapping out Stravinsky for French hero Erik Satie, Vaslav Nijinsky for Léonide Massine, and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées for Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. The new production would also include two powerhouse names: the French writer Jean Cocteau, who wrote the libretto; and renowned artist Pablo Picasso – who, unlike his infamous presence at the Rite of Spring in 1913, opted for the role of participator rather than spectator: taking on the hired role of set and costume designer.
Together, the super group would produce and stage the premiere production of a one-act extravaganza in Satie’s inaugural ballet “Parade.”

If sensitive Parisians were aghast at the “primitive” dress and the “sheer cacophony” of the Rite, they would undoubtedly find themselves abhorred with Picasso’s material of choice for the dancers of the Ballet Russes: cardboard.

And incensed they were. As if to rub salt in their wounds, patrons were left horrified by the sounds of typewriters, pistols, foghorns, and a vast array of noisemakers marking the score – undoubtedly leaving some to henceforth remember Le Sacre du Printemps in a more glorified light.

To make matters worse, rumor had it that the new principal dancer of the Ballet Russes (the aforementioned Léonide Massine), had only secured his coveted position with the company by bedding Diaghilev – whom gossips mused was using the ballerina as a replacement for former lover and principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, who had been dismissed by the impresario in 1913 following a missed performace and the latter's marriage to the Hungarian countess Romola de Pulszky.

The evening had "scandal" written all over it.

Tensions between audience and stage would reach a fevered pitch midway through the performance, as sections of the audience divided amongst one another – with one camp in favor of the avant-garde work - endeavoring to make themselves heard by enthusiastically applauding and cheering at the top of their lungs, and in the other – far more unruly – camp were the (very vocal) detractors - who booed, hissed and shouted obscenities – at one point even resorting to spewing racial epithets: shouts of "Sales boche!" ("Dirty Krauts!") were hurled at Satie and co.

Even the famous American poet and playwright E.E. Cummings, who was in attendance the eve of the premiere, partook in the tempest, attempting to ‘shout down' the critics whose noisemaking was beginning to reach deafening heights. Satie himself was incensed, and injected himself directly in the middle of the ruckus – and, quite literally, got slapped across the face for daring to do so by an angry audience member.

The scandal didn’t end when the curtain was drawn that evening – nor did the composer’s rage.

Erik Satie: eccentric is thy name
After being lambasted in the press, Satie - who wouldn’t, who couldn't, who outright refused to leave well enough alone - sent out a barrage of vitriolic postcards to critic Jean Poueigh, who had recently published a negative review of the ballet in the French newspaper Les Carnets de la Semaine.

Particularly annoyed by Poueigh's assertion that Satie lacked "competence, taste and musicality,” the composer addressed the pundit thusly:

“[To] Monsieur Fu_kface,” 

and, not to be outdone by any of Les Carnets’ readers who may have agreed with Poueigh and wished to chime in with a well placed barb of their own, Satie decided to beat them to the punch by referring to Poueigh (and his readers) as “[a] famous Gourd [headcase] and composer for nitwits!” 

In another exchange, Satie chose to keep it succinct:
“Sir and dear friend – you are an arse, an arse without music! Signed, Erik Satie."
Now, like any good anecdote, one might expect the story to have ended there.

But it didn’t:

Poueigh sued Satie for libel, and the composer was ultimately taken to trial and found guilty, fined 1,100 francs and thrown in jail for a little over a week. The disgruntled composer had not felt himself defeated, however: writing to the Princesse de Polignac[1] (who had offered to pay for the fine and damages awarded the plaintiff, and who, along with Diaghilev patron Misia Edwards, helped to secure his release) in 1918, Satie made it clear that he had “no intention of giving one cent to the noble critic who is the cause of my judiciary ills." I have a better idea, he wrote the princess, why not comp me for my living expenses instead? Polignac agreed, and in doing so, allowed Satie the luxury of having the last laugh.

Below: highlights from a recreated performance (1973) by the Europa Danse Academy:


[1] Winnaretta Singer, noted American émigré and patron of the arts; daughter of inventor Issac Merritt Singer (who created the modern sewing machine). Singer would play hostess at her private salon for a slew of influential and renowned 20th century musicians, writers, painters, and other members of the arts from 1888 well through to the outbreak of the Second World War. The Princess, who earned her title through marriage to the French Prince Edmond de Polignac, is widely considered to have been one of the most important patrons of classical music and the arts during the early twentieth century. 
Singer would also not only commission several works, but would also serve as dedicatee, the most notable among them being perhaps "Socrate" by Erik Satie, for which she served as commissioner, and Gabriel Fauré's  Les Cinq Mélodies de Venise, which was only but the first and major work to have been dedicated to the Princess by the celebrated French composer. has a lovely introductory piece on her life and on her many contributions to the arts - read it here. 

Thursday, 25 May 2017


Johannes Vermeer's "The Concert," c. 1664
Officials at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston announced Tuesday a twofold increase in reward money (from $5 to $10 million USD) for the recovery of some 13 highly prized works of art stolen during the infamous American art heist of 1990.

Among the pilfered masterpieces by artists such as Rembrandt, Manet and Degas, (collectively worth around $500 million USD) includes a metaphoric representation of harmony in love in Johannes Vermeer’s music-themed oil on canvas, “The Concert,” created by the Dutch painter around 1664.

Vermeer’s masterpiece depicts a trio of musicians performing in unison: a young woman on the harpsichord, a man plucking a lute, and another young female showcased engaging in song, whilst a playerless viola da gamba gently lays on the floor in the foreground, as if absorbing into it’s hollow wooden shell the very vibrations of unified harmony - thus making the ambient noise produced by the group an unseen, representational fourth player.

The Concert, along with the other 12 stolen works of art vanished in the early morning hours of March 18th, 1990 when a duo of uniformed men - disguised as Police Officers - gained entry into the building by informing the museum’s on-duty guard that they were there responding to a call.

From the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum website:

“Once inside, the thieves asked that the guard come around from behind the desk, claiming that they recognized him and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The guard walked away from the desk and away from the only alarm button. The guard was told to summon the other guard on duty to the security desk, which he did. The thieves then handcuffed both guards and took them into the basement where they were secured to pipes and their hands, feet, and heads duct taped. The two guards were placed 40 yards away from each other in the basement.

The next morning, the security guard arriving to relieve the two night guards discovered that the Museum had been robbed and notified the police and director Anne Hawley.”

The museum’s Board of Trustees, as they have been since 1990, are appealing to the public for help in solving this case, touted as the largest art heist in US history.

Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigation should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617 278 5114 or email him at

The $10 million price tag currently offered for the recovery of “The Concert” and the other 12 missing paintings (listed here) expires at midnight, December 31, 2017.

Did you know?
The art heist of 1990 wasn’t the first time Vermeer’s famous painting went ‘missing’: it seemingly vanished from the art world in 1696 after being sold in Amsterdam and would not be ‘recovered’ until nearly a century later, in 1780.

The viola da gamba (literally, “leg viol”) - a large, bowed string instrument played between the legs made popular in Europe during the baroque and renaissance eras – makes a total of four appearances in Vermeer’s music-themed paintings (the other three being The Music Lesson (1664), The Woman with a Lute (1665) and A Lady Seated at a Virginal (1672). The instrument, for reasons never revealed by the artist, remains unattended – and thus unperformed – by any of the figures depicted in the famous works.

Listen below to an exquisite recording of late 16th-early 17th century Scottish soldier, musician and composer Tobias Hume’s “Harke, Harke,” performed by the eminent gambist and Catalan conductor Jordi Savall (ends at 2 minutes in):



Beverly Sills
Today’s Quote of the Day comes to us from the late 20th century American soprano Beverly Sills, who would have turned 88 today.

The world renowned and highly accoladed starlet – known affectionately as “Bubbles Silverman” (a name the singer used as a child radio star) – would begin her operatic career with a successful run with the Philadelphia Civic Opera and the New York City Opera, where she appeared to solid critical reviews as Rosalinde in Johann Strauss' (II) Die Fledermaus.

But it would be in the late 1960’s that Sills would soar to international fame, following her role as Cleopatra in George Frideric Handel’s Julius Caesar.

Beloved abroad and at home (superstar soprano Leontyne Price is said to have remarked of the singer that she found herself: “flabbergasted at how many millions of things she can do with a written scale”), Sills incredibly dynamic voice continues to amaze – and mystify – fans of the opera and the art of coloratura to this day.

“A primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture in the environmental sense and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgment.”

- Beverly Sills, 25 May 1929 - 2 July 2007

Enjoy below one of my favorite performances by Ms. Sills – performing the stratospheric "Dal soggiorno degli estinti from Gioachino Rossini’s L'Assedio di Corinto (Le siège de Corinthe):



Contemporary engraving depicting the second fire of La Salle Favart
It was the spark heard across the globe: on this 25th day of May in 1887 Paris, spectators who had patiently lined up to attend the Opéra-Comique production of Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon calmly filed into the Salle Favart Theatre and settled into their assigned seats for the evening’s main event.

What the patrons of the opera didn’t know was that the main event would be anything but a spectacular show of sopranos expertly belting out bravura arias - but rather a spectacular show of a far more sinister kind.

It was only halfway though the Goethe-inspired opera’s first act that a flame of illuminated gas from a primitive lamp used to light the stage set fire to one of the wings, setting off a horrific chain reaction of unimaginable disaster: with the entire stage now engulfed in flames, the formerly calm and orderly members of the audience - who had only moments before entered the venue in such a dignified manner - were now elbowing their neighbors in a frantic effort to escape the blazing inferno that threatened to bring the entire house down. It was nothing short of a stampede toward safe terrain.

An article published in the Australian periodical The Bendigo Advertiser would report some 8 days later on the full extent of the damage caused by the entirely preventable disaster – and, most shockingly, on the present running tally of fatalities – both known and assumed - and of those who were still missing for more a week after a large portion of the theatre burned to the ground.

Here are some of the most hair-raising (and pity inspiring) quotes from the article:

“… A fire broke out in the Opéra-Comique last evening during the first act of "Mignon." One of the wings caught fire from a gas jet, and the entire stage was immediately enveloped in flames. The fire soon spread to the whole house... All the actors ran out in their stage costumes. The audience got out... but it is feared that some were left in the upper tiers. The roof soon fell in, sending showers of sparks as far as the Place de la Bourse. With the exception of Mme. Sellier, who perished, all the actors escaped, though a number were seriously injured. Five bodies were terribly burned and were conveyed to the National Library, among them the body of a woman clasping a little baby in her arms…

An artificial fire apparatus, which had been placed in a position in readiness for the burning of the palace in the second act, rolled down from its place near the roof, and exploded below. The flames spread with great rapidity. In 15 minutes the stage was a vast furnace... The scene outside was one of the wildest excitement. The falling embers struck horses in the surrounding streets, causing them to plunge and rear. The flames shot out of every window, forcing the crowd into the narrow streets, where the crush was terrific…

Ambroise Thomas never could have foreseen such a
disastrous production of his 1866 opera Mignon at Paris.
The opera in three acts is famously based on
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's second novel, Wilhelm
Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship),

published in 1795.
it is believed that the staircase became blocked. Charles A. Duvivier, of New York, who was in the house with his son, says:—"Toward the end of the first act we noticed piles of burning canvas falling from the flies, and we concluded to get out. As we were passing along the aisle, Takin, who was singing the part of Lothario, besought the audience to remain seated. His courage was magnificent, but his judgment was faulty, for I reached the foyer amid a mass of flames. Cries could be heard on all sides and the house began to fill with smoke. I believe I saw nobody descending the stairway leading to the galleries, and everybody in the parterre escaped alive, but I am sure many people were suffocated in the galleries...

The loss of life by the fire at the Opéra-Comique was much greater than at first reported. Today 156 missing persons have been inquired for by relatives. They are supposed to have perished in the flames… The bottom of the theatre is flooded with water to a depth of 5 feet. Sixty bodies have been found floating in the water by firemen. The remains are principally those of ballet girls, choristers and machinists, the remains of three men and two women were found in a stage box, where the victims had taken refuge from the flames. It is ascertained that many bodies are buried in the upper galleries, where escape was exceedingly difficult.

The Government proposes to close several Paris theatres because of their deficiency in exits. Late this afternoon the bodies of 18 ladies, all in full dress, Were found lying together at the bottom of the staircase leading from the second story. These ladies all had escorts to the theatre, but no remains of the men were found near where the women were burned to death. In the Rue Favart a sudden gust of wind cleared away the dense smoke, when a woman and two men were seen standing on the edge of the uppermost corner. The woman tried to jump, but the men prevented her. When all were finally rescued the woman was a raving maniac.

A singer had a miraculous escape from his dressing room by an edge at the top of the building. He says the wind kept the flames off that part of the building, but a river of molten lead poured from the roof, the course of which he diverted with a board to prevent its weight carrying down the shaky floor.

The walls of the theatre began falling this evening, and search for the bodies had to be abandoned for the day. The library attached to the theatre was entirely destroyed, with all its contents, including many valuable scenes. Six thousand costumes were burned in the wardrobe. The work of searching for bodies was resumed to-night, and a number more were exhumed. The official statement says that 50 bodies have already been recovered. Revillion, speaking in the Chamber of Deputies this afternoon, estimated that at least two hundred persons lost their lives in the fire."

The fire of 1887 was not the first fire to ravage the Salle Favart. The presently burning home of the  Opéra-Comique - who had settled on the site in 1840 - had built its foundation upon the ruins of a previous fire that had destroyed the first hall two years previous. According to the article in the Bendigo Advertiser, the “interior construction” of the venue, which could seat around 1,800 persons,  
“was in every way defective, and it has often been remarked that should ever a fire break out terrible damage would result."

Although the conclusive report on the 1887 disaster would alter the death toll by more than half – from 200 fatalities by fire to 84 by asphyxiation, the damage and loss of life incurred by those fateful souls of May 25th remains catastrophic in scope.

For his “role” in the disaster, theater director Léon Carvalho was quickly rounded up and imprisoned for “negligence” leading to death and was forced to resign from the venue. He would later be acquitted of all charges after making a successful appeal and reinstated 4 years later.

The third La Salle Favart, designed by the architect Louis Bernier opened for business on December 7, 1898, with French President Félix Faure attending the inauguration ceremony.

Listen below to Spanish mezzo soprano Teresa Berganza performing a rendition of "Connais-tu le pays" from the first act of Ambroise Thomas' 1866 opera Mignon (arranged for soloist and piano). It is a distinct possibility the tender aria was the last echo of beauty heard by the audience of La Salle Favart on May 25th, 1887 before the sounds of blood-curdling screams and the crackling of flames arose to a deafening pitch:

Did You Know? / More articles like this:
The primitive use of gas lamps and candlelight for stage illumination claimed the lives of many an opera/musical spectator throughout the early 17th to late 19th centuries. Although the application of such hazardous materials (some employed lime for illumination) seems an obvious and entirely foreseeable disaster waiting to happen, in the earliest days of theatre and prior to the invention of the incandescent electric lamp in 1878, venues were left with little other option for lighting theatres at night. It wasn’t until 1881 at London's Savoy Theatre that the world's first electric lighting system was installed – and not until the close of the century that the majority of ‘modern’ theatres followed suit.

Unraveling Musical Myths previously covered another fire related disaster – this time by the excessive use of lit candelabras. Read about the Covent Garden tragedy here.