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. Interlude.hk 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 theft@gardnermuseum.org

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.


Wednesday, 24 May 2017


Giuseppe Torelli
Today's Quote of the Day comes to us from a quoted summarization of the late 17th - early 18th century composer, teacher and musician Giuseppe Torelli of Verona, as published in the American periodical The Nation in 1871.

You’ve likely heard of Corelli and his famous 12 concerti grossi - but what about Torelli? This master of the baroque, violinist and maestro di concerto to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Georg Friedrich II – although scarcely spoken of in present times - was lauded in his era as one of the forerunners of the Baroque concerto and concerto grosso (much like Arcangelo).

According to an article written in The Nation, Torelli’s influence on the 18th century musical scene would continue to earn him high praise from fans in the upper echelon of European society for more than a century after his death, with the Senator of the Kingdom of Italy (former Prime Minister of Sardinia), The Honourable Grace Massimo d'Azeglio - who had corresponded with the musician whilst Torelli was still living - opined later of the composer that his 

"… style [was like] Blondin's* free and easy movements on the tightrope, without ever tumbling into the Niagara."

With music like this, it’s easy to see what so enamored both noble and political Europe:

Listen below to Giuseppe Torelli's Concerto for 4 Violins in A Minor:

*Charles Blondin was a famous French tightrope walker and acrobat living in the 19th century. Watch the short clip below to learn more about his incredible, death-defying feats (topic ends at 1 minute, 45 seconds):



Constanze Mozart (née Weber), widow of Wolfgang Amadé

"A child that disappoints their parents... will encounter disgrace and misery. Let these words be a warning to my lovely (son)."

Those heavy handed words were written in a private exchange, from mother to son, at Salzburg in 1801.

Undeniably harsh and exceedingly expectatious, Constanze’s – the widow Mozart – letter of fair warning to her youngest son, Franz Xaver, 9, is just one of the fascinating surviving artifacts currently on display at Salzburg’s Mozarteum in a special exhibition honoring the minor composer.

The private correspondence between the domineering mother and assiduous son was donated to the museum foundation in 1844 by the last surviving Mozart – Wolfgang’s second son with Constanze - Karl Thomas, who, unlike his kin and father before him chose a life in politics over composition - around the time of the government official’s death.

Cumulatively, the artifacts provide a unique insight into the private lives of the Mozart family post-Wolfgang. Of unique interest to fans of the iconic composer is the revelation that Franz Xaver, – who was born in 1791, a mere four months prior to his famous father’s passing – would, under the steely guiding hand of his mother, enter the tutelage of one Antonio Salieri recently recognized Mozart collaborator, and historically (erroneous) assassin.

The widow Mozart (née Weber) fully intended for at least one of her two surviving children to carry on in the spirit of her late husband, and perhaps, even create a legacy for himself as “the next Mozart.” Surely, her motives for Franz Xaver’s success may not have been altogether altruistic: left to inherit her husbands debts following his mysterious and untimely death weeks shy of the Christmas season in 1791, Constanze and her boys would be forced to relocate from their comfortable lodgings into the home of the Weber family. The destitute state of the family soon attracted the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and friends of the late composer, who would set up benefits in her honor. Constanze herself would resort to selling several of Wolfgang’s compositions in the first several years following his death - to the King of Prussia in 1792, and to publisher Johann André of Offenbach in 1799.

Mozart's only surviving sons: Franz
Xaver (L), and Karl Thomas (R), c. 1800
Although she would later marry in 1809 (to a Danish Diplomat no less, and subsequently sell a biography on Wolfgang, co-authored with her beau, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen), by the time Constanze penned this demanding letter to Franz Xaver, it was evident the widow needed to seek out any possible means of procuring a sustainable income just to stay afloat.

Speaking to the press, Mozarteum curator Armin Brinzing noted that Mrs. Mozart wasted no time in getting started. As soon as little Franz Xaver could walk and speak, he was hauled off to study the art of composition and performance:

"At the age of two, she already made him take piano and music theory lessons," he told reporters.

It is believed the widow Constanze was only able to finance her son’s education under the elite professorship of the period (Johann Nepomuk Hummel taught for the boy lessons on the piano, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger on the art of composition, and with Salieri and Abbé Volger (Georg Joseph) providing vocal mentorship) through the generous donations of her former husband’s friends and admirers. The lessons couldn’t have come cheap: Aside from being a notable composer himself, Salieri had also proved himself many times over as a more than capable tutor and vocal coach: he famously mentored Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven.

In order to cement into the impressionable mind of her young son the notion that failure could never be an option, Mrs. Mozart began to refer to Franz as “Wolfgang Amadeus” – a patronymic employed by the boy Mozart himself, who would sign his manuscriptsWolfgang Amadeus Mozart, son.”

According to letters exchanged between Franz and his brother Karl Thomas, the youngest of the surviving Mozart kin expressed a foreboding and constant feeling of “immense pressure,” indicating to his older sibling that he was “not treated very well at home.”

Such a sad perspective from a half-orphaned lad who was essentially robbed of an otherwise ‘normal’ childhood: young Franz (“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, son”) forced to endure relentless study until such time as he was stage-ready. This came at age 13, at a packed concert hall in Vienna, where the boy-musician performed "a nice if slightly slow rendition of his father's piano concerto." The performance was met with mixed reviews – according to an editorial in Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung – one of the leading music magazines of the time: "May he never forget that although the name Mozart currently grants him some indulgence, it will place great demands on him later on," with another critic warning the composer “not to rest on his laurels.”

In the end, it would seem Franz Xaver's star would pale in comparison to the blinding glare of his father’s – that most famous of the Mozarts, from then until infinity -Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart...Father.

Although he would experience some success in the Ukraine and across Europe as a tutor and choirmaster – and was lauded for his skills in performing works of his father - Franz’ compositional output failed to impress. From Brinzing: "That last spark of genius was missing in him. He was considered a gifted musician and composer, but not one of the great ones."

The Franz Xaver Exhibition will be on display at the Salzburg Mozarteum from the present through August 2017. For admission information visit the Museum website here.

Listen below to Franz Xaver’s first composition, his Piano Quartet in G-minor, Op.1. Although the video commentary states that Franz penned the Quartet in 1800, it is more likely the composer authored the work in 1802:

Compare Franz Xaver’s 11th year composition above to an 11-year old Wolfgang Amadé (Amadeus) Mozart's recently discovered "Allegro Molto in C major," found in the attic of a recently deceased church music and band leader at Tyrol (Austria) in 2012 (performed at the Mozarteum by pianist Florian Birsak on Mozart's personal fortepiano):

Did You Know?

Franz Xaver as an adult. The minor
composer would perish in 1844 at
the age of 53, leaving behind no
children. Thus, the Mozart family
line would perish with him - and
with elder brother Karl Thomas, who
died 3 years later, also childless.
Wolfgang would once more eclipse
his son - even in death: Franz' epitaph
famously pays homage to the elder:
"May the name of his father be his
epitaph, as his veneration for him
was the essence of his life."

Apparently, Franz was more than aware of his marginal talent in contrast to his father’s – whether the fact was rooted in public perception and the lackluster critical response received for his works, or simply by the psychological abuse and the emasculation the musician undoubtedly carried with him from childhood thanks to a domineering mother – for in 1842, when asked to compose a piece of music for the unveiling of a monument dedicated to his father at Salzburg, the humble composer outright refused, citing “little ability.” Instead, Franz would combine two compositions of his father's – both of which the senior Mozart left unfinished prior to his death – into a cantata, which he performed at the inauguration.

Allegedly, spurned on by the applause received at the unveiling, Franz messengered a signed copy to Emperor Ferdinand I. If the composer meant to impress the imperial ruler, he was sorely mistaken: Ferdinand offered a mere pittance to the musician – and only after having inquired of his advisors as to exactly who Franz Xaver was in the first place!

Legend has it, the official in whom the Emperor queried replied most barbarously: "As everyone knows, the famous father's talent has not been transferred to his son so we should give him some money!"


Monday, 22 May 2017


Installment XI coming soon
Good news! 

The eleventh installment of reader favorite series "Trivia & Humor" is currently in the works! 

As usual, Unraveling Musical Myths will explore the dark and often dirty demi-monde of Western Classical Music and Opera: the forthcoming edition will feature the expected cast of operatic bad boys, inept psychoanalysis, a smattering of the "supernatural," and perhaps, even a soupçon of anti-Semitic behavior freshly extracted from the bowels of musical hell. 

In the interim, take a stroll down the debauched side of pomp and circumstance by visiting the Trivia Archives.

Below: David Tudor performs John Cage's 4'33"



Herr Richard Wagner
Today’s Quote of the Day comes to us from the private correspondence of 19th century German composer Richard Wagner – who was born on this spring day at Leipzig in 1813 – to the editor of the weekly journal "Berliner Musikalische Zeitung," Karl Gaillard, dated January 30 1844 at Dresden, in which the composer discusses his third opera, Rienzi, and his unique method of composition:

“I at first took to writing for myself of necessity, since no good librettos were offered me. I could not now, however, compose on anothers' operatic text for the following reasons. It is not my way to choose some story or other at pleasure, get it versified, and then begin to consider how to make suitable music for it. For this mode of procedure I should need to be twice inspired, which is impossible...

The way I set to work is quite different. In the first place I am only attracted to matter the poetic and musical significance of which strike me simultaneously. Before I go on to write a verse or plot or scene I am already intoxicated by the musical aroma of my subject. I have every note, every characteristic motif in my head, so that when the versification is complete and the scenes arranged, the opera is practically finished for me; the detailed musical treatment is just a peaceful meditative after-labor, the real moment of creation having long preceded it.”
Posting for the premiere production of
Wagner's Rienzi at the Hofoper Dresden,
October 20, 1842
This quote in particular dates from the early portion of Wagner’s career as an operatic composer. He had just staged, with the assistance of confidante and future foe Giacomo Meyerbeer, his third and fourth operas Rienzi (1842) and Der Fliegende Holländer (1843) at Dresden. Both operas - and this extract - are historically significant to fans of the larger-than-life composer in that they originate from a transitional period in terms of Wagner’s stylistic output. 

Known famously for touting the idea of “all-encompassing works of art,” (his "Gesamtkunstwerk" ideal), Wagner – who wrote all of his own libretti - would begin his journey from opera to epic music drama with the creation of these two works: ending with the traditional grand opera stylings of Rienzi and beginning with the signature use of leitmotifs in Der Fliegende Holländer. By the time Wagner premiered his megalithic opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876, the composer’s envisionment for unifying all works of art via the theatre would come to a glorious – if controversial – fruition.

Looking back on Rienzi, and on the concept of grand opera itself (a “monstrosity” of a style according to a more mature Wagner) the composer would, some seven years post debut, pen a letter to future father-in-law Franz Liszt from his sojourn in Zurich, in which Richard would later claim of his early work:
 “I as an artist and man, have not the heart for the reconstruction of that, to my taste, superannuated work, which, in consequence of its immoderate dimensions, I have had to remodel more than once. I no longer have the heart for it, and desire from all my soul to do something new instead.”
It would be here, in self-imposed exile that Wagner would reinvent himself as a musician “of the future” – it would also be in Zurich that the composer would begin work on the aforementioned epic Ring cycle, and the incredibly lush Tristan und Isolde.

One could posit that, in regards to Wagner’s reflections on Rienzi, that the composer spoke perhaps too harshly – although rarely performed in the 21st century thanks to the descendants of Wagner at Bayreuth who, to comply with the wishes of the widow Cosima Wagner, - who famously banned all performances of Richard’s most personally detested opera from the family built and owned festspielhaus following the composers’ death in 1883[1] - gems like Allmächt'ger Vater (otherwise known as Rienzi's Prayer) from the opera's final act continually make the rounds as an outstanding standalone aria for established tenors around the globe.

Though, who among us can argue the with the maestro on the majesty that is Tristan?

Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!

Listen below to the famous prayer Allmächt'ger Vater from Richard Wagner's 1842 opera Rienzi. René Kollo performs.

Did you know?

Josef Tichatschek
The original Rienzi, tenor Josef Tichatschek (who was also the first heldentenor in operatic history, not to mention a favorite of Wagner himself) was apparently so taken with a since redacted passage from the third act of Rienzi, he and each of the soloists who performed it donated a silver groschen to a ceremonial fund that Tichatschek had started. According to music scholars, the singers were unaware that a poverty-stricken Wagner was pocketing the funds in order to purchase his next meal!

[1]The ban was lifted in 2013, with maestro Christian Theilemann conducting performances of Rienzi, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot.
Further reading:
Learn more about Herr Wagner by perusing the Wagner Archives here at Unraveling Musical Myths.

Sunday, 21 May 2017


This edition of Weekend at the Movies with Rose showcases the brilliant talent of Dame Kira Te Kanawa, arguably New Zealand’s greatest musical export and undoubtedly one of the leading sopranos of the 20th century.

Kiri Te Kanawa: A Portrait (1991, directed by Nigel Wattis), stars Dame Kanawa herself, in an intimate, in-depth interview with English broadcaster Melvyn Bragg in which the superstar soprano discusses her meteoric rise to fame.

Topics range from Dame Kanawa’s rough beginnings as an unwanted child put up for adoption (and the subsequent racial turmoil she endured as bi-racial youth of both Maori and European lineage – known as “half-caste” to her classmates), to her “discovery” and vocal tutorship by a local Catholic nun who doubled as a vocal coach (Dame Sister Mary Leo, DBE, RSM); to her jaw dropping debut as Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden in 1971 – a role and performance that transformed the budding diva into an overnight international sensation – and which, according to then-conductor Colin Davis, a performance that “knocked the place flat;” before delving deep into the everyday life of the dynamic diva as the documentary crew follow her around the globe - from New Zealand to San Francisco - capturing the star at her very best: both on stage and behind the scenes in rehearsal, preparing for her role as Countess Madeleine in Richard Strauss' Capriccio.

"A Portrait" not only features exclusive personal footage of Dame Kanawa (including rehearsals under the tutelage of Sister Mary Leo) but also exquisite performances of the highest caliber - including (from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess), “Summertime” (incidentally, the only aria - and version of - by Gershwin that I can stomach), and a special open air performance of Francesco Cilea's breathtaking "Io Son L'Umile Ancella" (Adriana Lecouvreur) - the latter filmed by the documentary crew at New Zealand’s Trentham Park in 1990.

The nearly two-hour documentary includes tributes by Sir Georg Solti, Dame Joan Sutherland, Richard Bonynge and Jeffrey Tate.

Watch it with me below:


Saturday, 20 May 2017


Royal Standard of Canada (flag)
As Canadians look to the long weekend to celebrate the ‘birth’ of the nation’s former Head of State, celebrated annually in the country on the last Monday preceding the 25th (the ‘actual’ date of birth of the 19th century British monarch Queen Victoria), I - a Canadian-born citizen - am reminded of our much beloved former ruler’s penchant for beautiful music, and her role as patroness to the celebrated French-Canadian operatic soprano, Emma Albani.

Of course, Victoria’s association with the musical arts goes far beyond the mere stewardship of this national idol. The Queen famously patronized an up-and-coming Edward Elgar, who would go onto serve as Master of the King’s Musik under Victoria’s grandson, King George V, and helped a struggling Johann Strauss (the elder) resurface from the depths of a dismal abyss that threatened to erase the composer from the pages of London's historical almanac before his career in the English capital could even get started. 

The musically literate monarch famously wed German Prince Albert of Saxe-Gotha – a royal consort who openly admitted he’d rather have spent a life solely in the pursuit of music than as a slave to the monarchy. Together, they would host private soirées with the composer Felix Mendelssohn, of whom Victoria in particular found herself enamored (a feeling that was more than mutual). Together, the threesome would engage in song - perhaps now singing a lied penned by Albert, and then, on another occasion, improvising on the piano - each taking turns performing on the instrument (a favorite piece being an arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, or, Songs Without Words, Op. 85, No. 6), [1] which both husband and wife could play together whilst the composer of the work looked on in amusement.

Victoria’s contributions to realm and stage weren’t solely relegated to Great Britain. She also extended much generosity and gratitude to Canada and the Commonwealth:

Canada both revered and honored their Queen – many times over: her name would become permanently fixed on provincial city titles and on both major and minor roadways and streets; and her wishes to permanently designate and name the nation’s Capital as "Ottawa" was granted without discourse. Her very namesake would become affectionised: following the country’s Confederation in July of 1867,  during which the monarch still occupied the throne, our “Queen Victoria” became known colloquially as the “Mother of Confederation.”

Emma Albani
There is one Canadian in particular who owed much of her success and livelihood to the Queen. She was Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse of Chambly (in present day Quebec) – later Dame Emma Albani following a name change (to sound more English) and an entrance into knighthood under King George V (grandson to Victoria and Albert) in 1925.

An undisputed favorite of the Queen, Albani would make herself available for her royal patron's beck and call – and, it seems, Victoria ‘called’ often: after a brief, yet successful run in Messina (Sicily), Emma would turn her sights to London. 

Following her debut as Amina in Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula in 1872 and a brief stint in St. Petersburg, the blossoming chanteuse came to the attention of Queen Victoria, who had undoubtedly heard of the singer’s recent success in Russia (it is said the Tsar Alexander II was present in the audience during one of her performances) and wished to hear for herself this crown jewel of French Canada. The Queen would invite Albani to her royal lodgings at Windsor castle to perform before her in a private setting. To visit the monarch meant that Emma would have to forgo the upcoming season at Covent Garden where she was currently riding the wave of newfound success in the English capital. She decided the trade-off was worth it: throwing caution to the wind, she traveled west to Windsor to serenade the Queen. On the musical menu were arias, both sacred and secular (and folk) song, and local popular music: "Caro nome" from Verdi’s Rigoletto, the folk ballad "Robin Adair," Bach/Gounod’s arrangement of "Ave Maria," and the popular song "Home! Sweet Home!"

Victoria was sufficiently pleased by the starlet – enough to invite her back to Windsor Castle to perform a repertoire especially chosen by the monarch herself: works by Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, George Frederic Handel and Felix Mendelssohn – to be peppered with traditional French and Scottish compositions – in essence, whatever best suited her royal fancy.

Final portrait of Queen Victoria
Albani's appearances at the Windsor court would help solidify her status as Canada’s first international vocal performer, and secure her place at the very top of the hierarchical pyramid which represented the elite soprani of 19th and 20th century Western Classical music.

Victoria’s favoritism of the Canadian vocalist would prove most unyielding: together the two would greet their golden years, with a fifty-something Albani privately serenading an octogenarian Victoria – again at Windsor - always at Windsor – in 1898 with Wagner (as Elsa from Lohengrin). This performance in particular, would in fact reveal the true depths of the ladies’ mutual adulation: it would be one of the last – if not the last – vocal performances received by the Queen whilst she was still living, and the appearance at the side of her most loyal employer would cement Albani’s place card at the monarch’s royal funeral 3 years later in 1901, when the celebrated singer performed solo – an endearing tribute to the patron and friend of both Canada and chanteuse.

Listen below to an early wax cylinder recording (c. 1903) of Emma Albani (56) performing Handel’s famous aria Ombra Mai Fu from the composers’ 1738 opera Xerxes. It is a distinct possibility the whimsical aria was one of the works by Handel performed by the singer before the Queen during her first arrival at Windsor Castle in 1874:

Did You Know?

Queen Victoria laying the foundation stone at Royal Albert Hall in London
On this 20th day of May in the year of our Confederation, Canada’s Queen Victoria was busy on her own home turf at Kensington in London, laying down the foundation stone on a site that would grow to become that most prestigious of concert halls, the Royal Albert Hall.

Victoria, who had ceremoniously arrived to much fanfare (before a crowd of some 7,000 monarchists who had gathered under a massive marquee especially erected for her arrival), is said to have employed a golden trowel to lay the stone. As a thoughtful gesture to future generations, Her Royal Highness slipped underneath the stone a ‘time capsule’ made of glass, in which she had inserted a private inscription, and, for good measure, a quantity of both gold and silver coins.

The ceremony itself was a much fêted event for both monarch and civilian: just prior to laying the stone, Queen Victoria had been greeted not only by a very vocal and adoring crowd, but also a 21-gun salute at Hyde Park (which, along with the trumpet fanfare - performed by
HM guards - that immediately followed, echoed through the crowd). A performance of her husband’s (Prince Albert) composition “Invocation to Harmony,” led by the esteemed conductor and Italian émigré Michael Costa and a Benediction delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury were also performed for the monarch at the ceremony.

Addressing the crowd, the much admired Queen of Great Britain and the Commonwealth proclaimed the site
“Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences:”

“It is my wish that this Hall should bear his name to whom it will have owed its existence and be called The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences”
-Queen Victoria, South Kensington, London, May 20, 1867

Learn more about the laying of the stone and Victoria (and find out where in the venue you can take a peek at the stone itself) at royalalberthall.com.

[1]The solo version of Lieder Ohne Worte, Op. 85, no. VI comes from the collection's 7th book. The manuscript for the "duet" version, arranged for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, titled "Lied ohne Worte für das Piano vierhändig" (Song Without Words as a Piano Duet), is currently in the collection of the Royal Trust under Queen Elizabeth II. View it here.
Further reading:
To learn more about Queen Victoria, her relationships with 19th century composers, Canada, and the Victoria Day holiday, visit "PATRON PROFILE: QUEEN VICTORIA - ROYAL PATRON, FAN & MUSICIAN" here on Unraveling Musical Myths.