Shadow Governments

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In 1907 an anonymous turner produced a vase that threw a shadow of Queen Victoria.

Seventy years later, for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, a vase was produced that evoked the profiles of both Prince Philip and Elizabeth II.

Is this a tradition? It might lead us to see too much.

First Impressions

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In 1842, a Mrs. Simon was traveling by train through the English countryside when a torrential downpour began. The kind-looking elderly gentleman sitting opposite her suddenly arose, opened the window, put his head out, and kept it out for nearly nine minutes. Finally he withdrew it, dripping with water, closed the window, and sat with his eyes closed for a quarter of an hour.

Unable to suppress her curiosity, the young lady arose, opened the window, and put her own head out.

At the next year’s Academy, as she was viewing Rain, Steam, and Speed, someone behind her said, “Just like Turner, ain’t it. Whoever saw such a ridiculous conglomeration?”

She said quietly, “I did.”

The Emperor’s New Pose

exaltation - disumbrationism

In 1924, irritated with the undiscerning faddishness of modern art criticism, Los Angeles novelist Paul Jordan Smith “made up my mind that critics would praise anything unintelligible.”

So he assembled some old paint, a worn brush, and a defective canvas and “in a few minutes splashed out the crude outlines of an asymmetrical savage holding up what was intended to be a star fish, but turned out a banana.” Then he slicked back his hair, styled himself Pavel Jerdanowitch, and submitted Exaltation to a New York artist group, claiming a new school called Disumbrationism.

The critics loved it. “Jerdanowitch” showed the painting at the Waldorf Astoria gallery, and over the next two years he turned out increasingly outlandish paintings, which were written up in Paris art journals and exhibited in Chicago and Buffalo.

He finally confessed the hoax to the Los Angeles Times in 1927. Ironically, “Many of the critics in America contended that since I was already a writer and knew something about organization, I had artistic ability, but was either too ignorant or too stubborn to see it and acknowledge it.” Can an artist found a school against his will?

A Leitmotif

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“Richard Wagner the composer and the number 13 is worthy of note. It takes 13 letters to spell his name; he was born in 1813; these figures added (1, 8, 1, 3) make 13; hence the letters in his name and the sum of the figures of his birth-date make twice 13; he composed exactly 13 great works; ‘Tanhäuser’ was completed April 13, 1845; it was first performed March 13, 1861; he left Buyrenth September 13, 1861; September is the ninth month, and hence 9 added to the figures 1, 3, make 13; finally he died February 13, 1883.”

Miscellaneous Notes and Queries, September 1893

Enough Already

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Acclaimed English actress Sarah Siddons made her Dublin debut in May 1784. Evidently some Irish theatergoers felt the hype was excessive — here’s one sardonic review, quoted in English as She Is Wrote, 1883:

“On Sunday, Mrs. Siddons, about whom all the world has been talking, exposed her beautiful, adamantine, soft, and lovely person, for the first time at Smock Alley Theatre in the bewitching, melting, and all tearful character of Isabella. From the repeated panegyrics of the impartial London newspapers, we were taught to expect the sight of a heavenly angel, but how were we supernaturally surprised into almost awful joy at beholding a mortal goddess! … When she came to the scene of parting with her wedding ring, ah! what a sight was there! the very fiddlers in the orchestra, albeit unused to melting mood, blubbered like hungry children crying for their bread and butter! and when the bell rang for music between the acts the tears ran from the bassoon players’ eyes in such plentiful showers that they choked the finger stops, and making a spout of the instrument poured in such torrents on the first fiddler’s book that not seeing the overture was in two sharps, the leader of the band played it in one flat. But the sobs and sighs of the groaning audience and the noise of corks drawn from smelling bottles prevented the mistakes between sharps and flats being heard. One hundred and nine ladies fainted! forty-six went into fits! and ninety-five had strong hysterics. The world will scarcely credit the truth when they are told that fourteen children, five old men, one hundred tailors, and six common councilmen were actually drowned in the inundation of tears that flowed from the galleries, the slips, and the boxes, to increase the briny pond in the pit. The water was three feet deep. An Act of Parliament will certainly be passed against her playing any more!”

Performance Note

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This is bar 66 of Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 5. The red F is noteworthy because it’s the only point in the whole composition where the right hand touches a white key — apart from that, it plays black keys exclusively.

Jascha Heifetz once asked Ayke Agus to close her eyes while he played the piece for her. “It sounded strange,” she wrote, “and when I peeked I saw that he was playing it with an orange.”

Domestic Harmony

The Musical World of London, Nov. 28, 1874, reports a surprising project — apparently a Massachusetts composer set the entire American constitution to music:

The authors of the Constitution of the Union thought more of reason than of rhyme, and their prose is not too well adapted to harmony, but the patriotic inspiration of Mr. Greeler, the Boston composer, overcomes every difficulty. He has made his score a genuine musical epopœia, and had it performed before a numerous public. The performance did not last less than six hours. The preamble of the Constitution forms a broad and majestic recitative, well sustained by altos and double basses. The first clause is written for a tenor; the other choruses are given to the bass, soprano, and baritone. The music of the clause treating of state’s rights is written in a minor key for bass and tenor. At the end of every clause, the recitative of the preamble is re-introduced and then repeated by the chorus. The constitutional amendments are treated as fugues and serve to introduce a formidable finale, in which the big drum and the gong play an important part. The general instrumentation is very scholarly, and the harmony surprising.

The music has been lost, but it would be out of date now anyway — we’ve added 12 amendments since then.