In a Word

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stridulous
adj. emitting a particularly harsh or shrill sound

tumultuary
adj. restless; agitated; unquiet

emportment
n. a fit of passion; anger, fury

bangstry
n. masterful violence

Of the numerous war scenes in operas of all ages, it is worth noting one in particular for its extraordinary tempo marking. The opera Sofonisba (1762) by Tommaso Traetta (or Trajetta) opens with a battle scene in which two oboes, two horns (pitched in C and D respectively), and a string band are instructed to play ‘Allegrissimo e strepitosissimo,’ literally, ‘very joyfully and with much animation and gaiety and extremely noisily and boisterously.’

— Robert Dearling, The Guinness Book of Music Facts & Feats, 1976

Exercise

In 1927, Ukrainian conductor Nikolai Malko played Vincent Youmans’ song “Tea for Two” for Dmitri Shostakovich and bet 100 roubles that the composer couldn’t reorchestrate it from memory in less than an hour.

Shostakovich did it in 45 minutes.

He later incorporated the arrangement into Tahiti Trot and used it as an entr’acte in his 1930 ballet The Golden Age.

(Thanks, Allen.)

An Oldie

In the 1950s, archaeologists unearthed a cuneiform tablet from an ancient palace in northern Syria. Dating to 1400 BC, it contained lyrics for a hymn to Nikkal, a Semitic goddess of orchards, as well as instructions for a singer accompanied by a nine-stringed lyre.

That makes the “Hurrian hymn” the oldest surviving example of a written song.

Homage

French composer Charles Koechlin rarely watched films until he saw The Blue Angel in 1933 and became captivated by “the formidable realm of the cinema.” He set to work and in a few weeks produced a Seven Stars Symphony, with a movement dedicated to each of seven actors of the day: Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin.

Interestingly, Robert Orledge writes in his biography of the composer, “The fifth, sixth and seventh movements, depicting Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin, are based on a cipher system of Koechlin’s own devising, in which the themes spell out the stars’ names, and in the case of the Emil Jannings movement virtually tell a film story in music.” I’ll try to find out more about that.

Something Different

Between 1769 and 1771, Austrian composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger wrote at least seven concerti for Jew’s harp and strings.

He went on to teach Beethoven.

Drammatico

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Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was alarmingly accident-prone as a child:

Before he was two, he fell headlong down three flights of stairs and cracked his head on a stone floor. When only three he almost expired through drinking a mixture of vitriol and water in mistake for milk, being narrowly saved by the application of liberal doses of olive oil. Three other poisoning mishaps followed involving white lead, copper oxide and arsenic as well as the swallowing of a pin. A gunpowder explosion gave him severe burns and threw him a considerable distance; he was again burned when a frying pan was knocked over. A lifelong scar on his head was caused by a falling roof-stone. Once he went to bed in a room where some newly varnished objects were drying, being found in time to prevent asphyxiation from the fumes. No wonder the people of the locality called him, ‘Young Sax, the Ghost!’

When he was pulled, nearly drowned, from a river, his mother said, “He’s a child condemned to misfortune; he won’t live!” But he survived to 79 and died in 1894.

(From Wally Horwood, Adolphe Sax 1814-1894, 1980.) (Thanks, Jonathan.)

Podcast Episode 195: A Case of Musical Plagiarism

joyce hatto

When the English concert pianist Joyce Hatto died in 2006, she was remembered as a national treasure for the brilliant playing on her later recordings. But then doubts arose as to whether the performances were really hers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review a surprising case of musical plagiarism, which touched off a scandal in the polite world of classical music.

We’ll also spot foxes in London and puzzle over a welcome illness.

See full show notes …

Precocious

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According to Barry Cooper’s Child Composers and Their Works, Frederick Ouseley (1825-1889) is “possibly the youngest child ever to compose a complete and coherent piece of music that still survives.” This piece is dated November 18, 1828, when Ouseley was 3 years and 98 days old. It was “apparently written down by his sister Mary Jane, for he began composing long before he learned to write; but his sisters appear not to have attempted to ‘correct’ his music in any way.”

Composer Sir John Stainer observed in 1889, “From the natural and easy way in which all the chords would fall under a tiny hand, there can be no doubt his sister succeeded in writing down exactly what he played and as he played.”

Perhaps ashamed of this trifling effort, Ouseley went on to compose an opera at age 8.

Diminuendo

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At his death in 1794, Czech composer František Xaver Pokorný had written more than 160 symphonies, concertos, serenades, and divertimentos. But more than half of them were then reattributed to other composers. The culprit was apparently Theodor von Schacht, a competing Regensburg composer who may have been jealous of Pokorný’s large output. After Pokorný’s death it appears that Schacht went through more than half his compositions, systematically removed Pokorný’s name, and inserted the name of another composer who he thought might not find out. He assigned most of the pieces to composers whose names began with A or B, which suggests that Schacht might have intended to eradicate Pokorný’s name entirely.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that musicologists Jan la Rue and J. Murray Barbour uncovered this strange crime and Pokorný was given proper credit. “It would seem as if Baron von Schacht had been galled by the fact that his lowly colleague (the name ‘Pokorny’ means ‘humble’) had written six or seven times as many orchestral works as he had himself,” Barbour wrote. “So, after Pokorny’s death, he had tried to bring him down to his level by falsifying … 109 works. This is a most extraordinary piece of jealousy and arrogance. But, after all, he almost did get away with it!”

(J. Murray Barbour, “Pokorny Vindicated,” Musical Quarterly 49:1 [January 1963], 38-58.)