Archive for June, 2015

Summer Romance: Music

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

This Summer we’re posting about the Romantic era. Today’s post is an introduction to Romantic music.

The Romantic era brought major developments to the world of what we now call “classical” music. The cliched image of the stormy, tempestuous composer comes from this time period, and our modern orchestra is in many ways still modeled on that of the Romantic era.

In a very small nutshell, Romantic era music was known for:


In the 19th century, concert performances moved out of the exclusive realm of the aristocracy, and audiences became larger and more diverse. And Romantic era composers and performers loved to show off in front of the crowd.

Programmatic music

Music was used to tell stories, and convey a narrative outside of the music. The above example, from Hector Berlioz’ classicly programmatic Symphonie Fantastique, presents an imagined Witches’ Sabbath in the mind of the “hero” of the symphony.

Speaking of witches… Romantic-era music was also known for its

Focus on the supernatural, gothic, and terrifying

It was the age of gothic literature, and this brand of horror found its way into music as well. The above clip is from Carl Maria von Weber’s classic horror opera Der Freischütz.

Preoccupation with nature

As written in a previous post, the Romantic era saw nature as wild and threatening, and felt that by facing the horrifying wilderness, man could come face to face with the sublime. The above clip is a piece of music Felix Mendelssohn wrote, inspired by his visit to Fingal’s cave in Scotland. The music attempts to convey the power and beauty of the cave as well as the wild, rolling sea outside.

Preoccupation with emotions

Romantic music was full of intense emotion, the more tragic or tormented the better. The above clip is from Schubert’s Winterreise, a song cycle about a young man tormented by a failed love affair. In this video the singer is lying on the ground, the type of extreme posture the Romantic era seemed to celebrate.

Interest in myth

Nearly all of the operas of Richard Wagner are based on ancient Germanic myths. Many other composers looked back on the past of their cultures for inspiration. This included an

Interest in folklore

Composers brought common folk music to the orchestra. Chopin made the Polish mazurka a standard piano form, and the polka and other dances made their way into “highbrow” music.

Nationalistic music

The Romantic era saw the birth of modern European nationalism, and with that, “national” composers began to write the music of their people. This era saw the rise of Russian composers drawing on Russian themes, English composers inspired by English folk music, and Polish composers bringing Polish dance music to the concert hall, just to name a few examples. The above clip, Vltava, from Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast (My Homeland), describes the path of the mighty Vltava river from a small spring through the city of Prague. This piece combines many elements of Romantic music: nationalist feelings, a programmatic structure, and the musical description of nature.


Shared Birthdays: Emma Goldman and Helen Keller

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Two activists, one birthday! Emma Goldman was born on June 27, 1869 and Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880.


Keller and Goldman as young ladies

Here are some facts about these two women:

Emma Goldman’s father was an abusive man who tried to marry her off at age 15.
Helen Keller’s father was a captain in the Confederate Army.

Emma Goldman was born in Kaunas, Lithuania. Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

Leon Czolgosz was inspired to assassinate president William McKinley after hearing a speech by Emma Goldman. Helen Keller met McKinley. (In fact, she met every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson.)

Goldman worked closely with fellow-anarchist (and her occasional lover) Alexander Berkman. Keller worked closely with her teacher Annie Sullivan, whose husband introduced Keller to socialism (Keller is not believed to have been the lover of either of them).

Helen Keller wrote a book called “Out of the Dark,” chronicling her discovery of socialism.

Goldman and Keller were both radical activists. Keller co-founded the ACLU, joined the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, and supported Eugene V. Debs in his several campaigns for president under the Socialist banner. She campaigned for rights for disabled people, women’s rights, and worker’s rights throughout the world. Goldman was an anarchist, feminist, and labor organizer, on the forefront of the leading labor and rights issues of her day. Both campaigned for birth control.

Goldman and Keller wrote numerous books and articles and were acclaimed public speakers.

Industrialist Henry Clay Frick donated $2,500 in financial aid to Helen Keller. Emma Goldman tried to kill Henry Clay Frick.

Helen Keller’s political views were unpopular in her day and have been marginalized from her life story since her death. Emma Goldman was a victim of the US’s first Red Scare and was deported.

Emma Goldman opened and ran an ice cream parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Helen Keller introduced the Akita dog breed to the United States.

Maureen Stapleton won an academy award for playing the role of Emma Goldman in Reds. Helen Keller accepted the Academy Award for the 1954 documentary Helen Keller in Her Story and played herself in Deliverance, a silent movie about her life.


Keller and Goldman later in life.

Summer Romance: Wild Nature

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

This Summer we’re posting about the Romantic era. Today’s entry is about the depiction of nature in Romantic art.

The Romantic era embraced disorder and extremity in contrast to the ordered universe of the Enlightenment. This is evident in their artwork, particularly in the visual depiction of nature.

The Enlightenment tamed nature and lived in harmony with her.


Not so for the Romantic era. Romantic painters preferred to depict nature’s uncontrollable power.


The Romantics felt that confronting the terror of nature induced the sublime. As a result, they spent a lot of time in the mountains. Writing poetry, contemplating, heroically braving the elements, their coats fluttering in the breeze, that kind of thing.


This idea of nature as a place of violent upheaval reflected the political and social upheaval of the time, which was a big departure from the age of Enlightenment.

For example, compare these two sea journeys – Enlightenment on the left and Romantic on the right.


And how about this trek through nature?


Composers were inspired by the violent power of nature too. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony includes a musical thunderstorm featuring music that mimics the sound of thunder, wind, lighting, and a torrential downpour.



Gee, We Used to Have Fun

Friday, June 19th, 2015

On June 16, 1884 the Switchback Railway in Coney Island – offspring of coal mining railways – became the first amusement park roller coaster.

Its builder was inventor La Marcus Adna Thompson (“The Father of Gravity”), who came to hold dozens of roller coaster patents. He started with Richard Knudsen’s designs for “Inclined Plane Railway” and patented his own improvements for a contraption “to be used as a means of pleasure and-amusement.”

The Switchback Railway was a hit from the day it opened and before it had been operational for a month, it had recouped its cost and was generating a profit of $600 a day (at a nickel a ride)!

Thrill-seekers climbed a fifty-foot wooden tower, clambered aboard the wooden cars, found a place on the bench, and experienced acceleration to speeds of a little over six miles an hour!

Though a “switchback” is a hairpin turn or zig-zag, the Switchback Railway track featured neither; it was a wavy up-and-down track and the roller coaster you had to “switch back” to its origin. (The track was straight and had a beginning and an end so roller coasters didn’t zoom around in a loop.)

So the next time you’re “stuck in traffic” in a “moving parking lot,” remember how spoiled you are. When riders of the Switchback Railway were going at the speed of a bus making local stops, they weren’t muttering, “Come on, come on, come on already!”

They were shouting, “Wheeeeeeee!”

Summer Romance

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015


Away with 18th century rationalism, and three cheers for passion, the mysterious, and the individual!

The Romantic Era (approx 1750-1850, although it is also considered to reach shorter or longer in both directions) came of age through the French Revolution and was forged in the wars of Napoleonic conquest and the Industrial Revolution.

As European political upheavals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries challenged the old aristocratic order and brought the common man to the fore, an intellectual movement that reflected the times was born. Art, music, and literature addressed audiences with the personal voice of the artist, and emotion became more prized than reason. “The artist’s feeling is his law,” wrote German painter Caspar David Friedrich. The Romantic era saw the birth of the “genius” as novelty and virtuosity were celebrated.

In the Romantic era, as society became more mechanized, the modern world was deemed as corrupt and nature and folktales were seen as more “pure.” The spiritual mysticism found in old myths was rekindled, sowing the seeds of nationalism. People looked back towards an idealized past, casting aside the rationality of the present.

This was the era of the exclamation point, of young ladies swooning at poets, of thunderous Beethoven symphonies, of tormented young lovers, of Sturm und Drang.

This summer we’ll be posting about a few of the notable people, events, and achievements of this dramatic – even occasionally melodramatic – era.


The (NSFW) Life of Jelly Roll Morton

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

On June 9, 1924, Jelly Roll Morton recorded the song he copyrighted as “Original Jelly-Roll Blues” – soon after and better known as “Jelly Roll Blues,” the first jazz composition ever published.

Jelly Roll was one of those geniuses whose accomplishments live in a bawdy and ambidextrous thicket of quotation marks.

Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe Mouton was known as “Ferd” before he was known as “Jelly Roll.”

At first, he didn’t play the piano, but learned other, more masculine instruments – guitar, the trombone – as he was afraid he would be “misunderstood.”

After the death of his mother, Ferd moved in with his great-grandmother and got a job. However, she threw him out of the house when she discovered his “job at a barrel factory” was actually a slew of gigs as a piano “professor” at Mahogany Hall and other “questionable little frame houses on the streets down by the railroad station” and “various dives in the restricted Storyville part of town” and “sporting houses.”

He changed his last name from Mouton to “Morton” and started going by “Jelly Roll.”

As for his nickname… let’s just say it’s “gynecological slang” and your little old grandpa would not approve of it and the network censors would bleep you right out if you nicknamed yourself its contemporary equivalent.

However, “Jelly Roll” was appropriate for a jazz musician, as “jazz” is thought to owe its derivation to the vulgar and energetic “jass” – a slang word as spunky as “spunk.”

Jelly Roll was a gambler and pool player, a producer and promoter, a fierce professional competitor in “cutting contests” with other musicians, and – in lean times – a “procurer.”

His music inspired luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and generations of musicians that followed.

Ferd played ragtime, the blues, and barrelhouse, with its flights of improvisation that became his and jazz’s trademarks. He challenged W.C. Handy’s claim to the title “Father of the Blues.” He decried Paul Whiteman’s billing as the “King of Jazz.”

He was indisputably among the progenitors of jazz. He defined the form and paved the way for swing. Jelly Roll Morton was the first to make musical notations of his arrangements. On many occasions he made the claim: “I invented jazz.” But that wasn’t so.

Jelly Roll Morton “invented” jazz.



Grover + Frances Up in a Tree

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

On June 2, 1886, Stephen “Call Me Grover” Cleveland was the first U.S. President to marry in the White House. You’d think a big splashy society wedding at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be a dream come true for any girl, but a few of the details sit squarely on the fence between romantic and unsettling:

Grover’s fiancée, Frances Clara Folsom, was the daughter of his deceased law partner.

__ Dreamy

__ Creepy


Grover did not invite Frances to his inauguration, but proposed later that year in secret.

__ Dreamy

__ Creepy


Frances was Grover’s ward for 11 years (not legally).

__ Dreamy

__ Creepy


Grover proposed by mail.

__ Dreamy

__ Creepy


Frances was 21 when they got married. Grover was 49.

__ Dreamy

__ Creepy


The first present Grover bought Frances was a baby carriage (when she was a baby).

__ Dreamy

__ Creepy


When Frances was 49 years old, she married an archeology professor from her alma mater, Wells College.

__ Dreamy

__ Creepy