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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Handel’s Largo

Monday, April 16th, 2018

A few years back, when RCA records issued a boxed set of 100 favorite Boston Pops recordings made by Arthur Fiedler, they included Handel’s celebrated “Largo.” Over a hundred years earlier, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra had established this melody as a favorite with 19th century American audiences. Back then, Handel was best-known for his sacred oratorios, and his “Largo” acquired a kind of honorary “halo” by association. Also, the Italian text for the melody began “Ombra mai fui,” and since “ombra” meant shade, many music lovers probably assumed it had something to do with the dear departed shade or spirit of a loved one—hence its melancholic solemnity. In fact, this melody originated in a decidedly secular, downright whimsical context: as the opening aria of an opera by Handel that premiered in London on today’s date, April 15, in 1738. The opera was entitled “Xerxes,” and dealt with the real-life Persian King who invaded ancient Greece. In the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes is depicted as an all-powerful despot, whose every whim became law. As evidence of the irrational effect of absolute power, Herodotus tells of Xerxes’ fondness for a certain plain tree that he ordered decorated with gold ornaments and put under perpetual military guard as a sign of royal favor. In Handel’s opera, the famous “Largo” is actually Xerxes’s dreamy song to this famous tree—and the “shade” referred to is the sort to be found

Mozart and Constanza/A lovely Tale

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Mozart at his happiest? A little tale whose truth we will never know. But, whether it is true or not, it IS a lovely story.

If Mozart’s widow, Constanza, is to be believed, the happiest days of Mozart’s life occurred in 1780, when he was 24 years old and writing the music for “Idomeneo,” an opera that had its premiere performance in Munich on today’s date in 1781. Mozart had good reason to be happy. For starters, the best orchestra in Europe, the Mannheim Court Orchestra, had relocated to Munich, and that orchestra would be the pit band for his new opera. The lead role was being written for Anton Raff, a famous tenor of his day, and, even better than that, there were some exceptionally talented—and exceptionally good-looking—young sopranos in the cast as well. Mozart promptly fell in love with one of them, a strikingly beautiful diva named Aloysia Weber, but ended up marrying her sister Constanza instead. By contemporary accounts, Aloysia, with her high cheekbones and magnificent carriage, was close to the ideal beauty of the day. But Mozart came to appreciate Constanza’s more sympathetic personality, not to mention, in his own words, her “two little black eyes and pretty figure.” Mozart had written several operas already, but music historians are right when they say the canon of truly great Mozart operas begins with “Idomeneo,” an opera that must have been, literally and figuratively, a labor of love.

Song Writer, Hoagy Carmichael

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

November 22nd is the birthday of songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, born Hoagland Howard Carmichael in 1899 in Bloomington, Indiana. Hoagy got his nickname from a circus performer who once lived with his family. Carmichael’s parents were a horse-and-buggy driver and a piano player for silent film, and his mother got him started playing the piano when he was six years old. Carmichael joined the Army one day before the end of World War I, then came home to Bloomington to play piano for high school dances.

On visits to Chicago, Carmichael got acquainted with speakeasy jazz and was a fan of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. The speakeasy scene set him up with a gig smuggling champagne, and he used the money to put himself through law school. Though his parents were supportive of his musical talents, Carmichael was eager to leave his poor roots, especially after his sister died from diphtheria — a “victim of poverty,” Carmichael said.

Law degree in hand, Carmichael barely got the chance to practice. He formed a band, began to write music, and by 1926 had penned his first hit, “Riverboat Shuffle.” After that, Hoagy dove into music full-time. His career took him to New York and eventually to Hollywood, where he wrote for soundtracks and appeared in many films.

His 1929 hit “Star Dust” quickly became a standard. By 1963, “Star Dust” had been recorded more than 500 times — the century’s most recorded song — and its lyrics had been translated into 40 languages. “Star Dust” was named by a friend, who said of the song: “That one’s all the girls, the university, the family, the old golden oak, all the good things gone, all wrapped up in a melody.”

Carmichael wrote “Star Dust” during a nostalgic visit to his alma mater, Indiana University, while recalling an old girlfriend. He said: “This melody was bigger than I. It didn’t seem a part of me. Maybe I hadn’t written it at all […] I wanted to shout back at it. ‘Maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you.’”

Handel Advertises His Wares

Monday, October 30th, 2017

An interesting tidbit from the 18th Century. From my friend, Dan Garshman.

Handel Advertises His Wares

On October 29 in 1739, Mr. George Frideric Handel took out an advertisement, announcing that he was now accepting subscriptions for his new set of 12 Grand Concertos for strings. He had, in fact, finished the first concerto one month before, on September 29th, and spent the next five weeks polishing off the other 11 at the rate of one every two or three days. Handel’s publisher was John Walsh, Jr, who had a shop in London at the sign of the harp and oboe in Catherine Street on the Strand. In addition to being a music publisher, Walsh also billed himself as “instrument maker to his Majesty.” One hundred twenty-two copies of the music were to be printed and sold at a pre-publication price of two guineas each. His Royal Majesty, George II, and the Prince of Wales were not among the initial 100 subscribers, but the list did include three royal princesses and the Duke of Cumberland, and two copies each were sold to the Academy of Music in Dublin and a certain Mr. Charles Jennens. It was Mr. Jennens who was to provide the text for Handel’s next major oratorio, “Messiah,” and the city of Dublin the venue for its famous premiere. So, in 1739, just as today, it pays to advertise!

Louis Armstrong and American music

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

My friend, Dan Garshman, reminded me of this milestone.

Louis Armstrong and American music

On today’s date, July 6, in 1971, jazz great Louis Armstrong died in New York City at the age of 69. He was born in New Orleans, and for years, all the standard reference books listed his birthday as the Fourth of July, 1900. Well, it turned out that wonderfully symbolic date was cooked up by Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser. Louis himself wasn’t sure when he was born, so the 4th of July seemed as good a date as any, and was accepted as fact for many years. Eventually documents were discovered that proved Armstrong was actually born on August 4, 1901.

Armstrong earned the nickname “Satchmo”-short for “Satchelmouth”-and in later years he was affectionately dubbed “Pops.” If the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is to be believed, Armstrong was the central figure in the development of jazz in the 20th century.

In the 1960s, radical blacks criticized Armstrong as an “Uncle Tom” too eager to please white audiences, forgetting that it was Armstrong, alone among his jazz peers, who courageously criticized President Eisenhower for not defending the black children attempting to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The British music critic Norman Lebrecht offered this assessment: “Armstrong never bowed his head nor sang from anywhere but the heart. He was a figure of enormous dignity and a musical innovator of universal importance.”

Acknowledging his influence in American concert music, composer Libby Larsen subtitled one of her works, a 1990 Piano Concerto, “Since Armstrong>”


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