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Subject: ‘Music’

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Frederick the Great, the warrior-king of Prussia

Posted in Historical articles, History, Music, Philosophy, Politics, Royalty, War on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about Frederick the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Frederick the Great, picture, image, illustration
Frederick the Great with Count Agarotti (far left) and Voltaire (right) in the music room of his palace at Sans Souci by Roger Payne

“My motto is ‘Die or conquer.’ In other cases there is a middle course; in mine there is none.” The speaker was Frederick the Great, King of Prussia; writer, philosopher, poet, musician and one of the greatest military strategists Europe has ever produced.

For the most part Frederick did conquer; at least he never had to carry out the implied threat of suicide in his motto. But after plunging all Europe into a continuous turmoil of war in the 18th century – in the Seven Years War alone he was involved in 17 major battles – it is interesting to reflect upon what Frederick has left in Europe nearly 200 years after his death.

His kingdom of Prussia in North Germany no longer exists. His famous palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam lies, almost inaccessible to western travellers, behind the Iron Curtain. And the land of Silesia, in the 18th century a country in its own right for which Frederick fought for two decades, has now been swallowed up as a part of Poland.

Only Frederick’s name and his achievements, rather than his possessions, remain of any use to Western Europe. Certainly the greatest of those achievements was that he gave to the German people a sense of unity. A German historian has said of him: “He not only raised his country to the rank of a great power, but he also lighted for it a torch of truth so powerful that the way to further light and glory can be missed only by the most reckless carelessness.”

It was this greatness, this “torch of truth” which gave the Germans pride in themselves, which led on to their great contribution to the worlds of science and art, and in particular music, in the 19th century.

Yet astonishingly, Frederick had little personal preference either for German people or German things. When he founded an Academy of Sciences in Prussia it was a French Academy, using the French language. When he wrote, it was always in French, the language he preferred to speak. He paid Frenchmen twice as much as Germans. After his first meeting with Voltaire, the French poet and philosopher who subsequently became a great friend, he wrote joyously, “I have now seen the two things nearest my heart – the French army and Voltaire.”

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Wotan’s farewell to Brunnhilde in Wagner’s ‘Die Walkure’

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Wotan's farewell,  picture, image, illustration
Wotan's farewell to Brunnhilde in Wagner's 'Die Walkure' by Konrad Dielitz

In Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Die Walkure’, Brunnhilde, favourite daughter of Wotan, defies her father’s command and tries to protect Siegmund the Walsung in his battle with Hunding. Wotan, however, ensures the outcome of this fight and sees that Hunding stabs Siegmund to death. After Brunnhilde has gathered up the shattered fragments of the Walsung’s sword, Nothung, she hurries away in order to give them to Sieglinde, pregnant with Siegmund’s child, the future hero, Siegfried. Wotan pursues her, and after a lengthy argument punishes her by removing her divine powers, and puts her into a deep sleep on a mountain peak. “Leb’ wohl” he sings, in the famous ‘Farewell’ scene for which Wagner composed some of his most intensely moving music. She has begged him to make sure that only a hero can claim her, so Wotan surrounds the rocky eminence with fire to test any future adventurer. It will be Siegfried who finally crosses those flames to take Brunnhilde for his bride.

Many more pictures relating to opera can be found at the Look and learn picture library.

Verdi’s ‘Aida’: On the banks of the Nile, near the Temple of Isis

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Aida act three,  picture, image, illustration
Aida and Radames sing a love duet in Act III of Verdi's 'Aida' by William de Leftwich Dodge

In Act III of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, the heroine is torn between her love for Radames, the Captain of the Egyptian Guard, and her father and countrymen, who are anxious to discover where and when the Egyptian army will attack the Ethiopians. The captive Aida, a princess of Ethiopia disguised as a slave girl, finds herself faced with a terrible dilemma. She and Radames sing a love duet on the banks of the Nile, the spectacular setting for the Third Act of this grandest of grand operas, which was composed for Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt.

Many more pictures relating to opera can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Mozart’s Commendatore asks Don Giovanni to repent

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Don Giovanni,  picture, image, illustration
The statue of the Commendatore visits Don Giovanni at the end of Mozart's opera buffa, by William de Leftwich Dodge

In the penultimate scene of Act II of Mozart’s opera buffa ‘Don Giovanni’, the dissolute Don has had a splendid meal served for him by Leporello, with pastiche C18 popular music provided by an onstage band. Donna Elvira enters and forgives him his sins, only asking that he change his ways to save his soul. His characteristic mockery drives her away, but her terrible screams disturb the party atmosphere, and when the Don answers heavy knocking at the door, he is horrified to see the statue of the dead Commendatore. “Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m’invitasti”, sings the phantom, and when the irrepressible Don refuses to repent, the statue drags him screaming down to the bowels of the earth and Hell itself.

Many more pictures relating to opera can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

C. H. Simpson Esqr., Master of Ceremonies at Vauxhall

Posted in Actors, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

C H Simpson Esq,  picture, image, illustration
C H Simpson Esquire, Master of Ceremonies at the Royal Gardens, Vauxhall, with a distant view of his Celestial Likeness in Variegated Lamps

C H Simpson was the Master of Ceremonies at Vauxhall Gardens “for upwards of 56 years”, and held several retirement benefits, as was often the case with artistes reluctant to leave their profession and their adoring public. He claimed to have served in the West Indies with Admiral Rodney in 1782 as a teenage Midshipman, and was famous for his elaborate courtesy, which involved an unusually exaggerated extension of his right leg on tip-toe, whilst simultaneously raising his magnificent top hat. This posture became his trademark, his modus operandi, his widely acknowledged claim to theatrical fame, and on the bill he issued for another of his retirement benefits in 1833, he was depicted performing the florid welcome routine for the Duke of Wellington, while in the background his likeness was “exhibited in variegated lamps”. It is unknown when this ageing dandy finally retired from his ceremonial role for the very last time.

Many more pictures relating to London entertainments can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Sir Henry Wood and the invisible pianists

Posted in Famous artists, Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music, Oddities on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Henry Wood concert,  picture, image, illustration
Sir Henry Wood and the invisible pianists

A remarkable concert was recently held at Queen’s Hall, where a ‘Pianola’ Piano (‘Duo-Art’ Reproducing Model) – untouched by human hands – played Harold Bauer’s interpretation of Saint-Saens’ Concerto in G minor, accompanied by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under the direction of Sir Henry J. Wood. It adequately accompanied Miss Carrie Tubb in vocal numbers, and Mr William Murdoch in a pianoforte duet. Pianoforte recordings by Paderewski, Madame Chaminade, Busoni and Pachmann were also given, the latter listening to his own playing from a seat in the stalls.

Many more pictures relating to London entertainments can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

John Henry, a sinewy giant steel driver with an awesome hammer

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Legend, Music, Railways on Friday, 14 February 2014

This edited article about American folk legends first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 552 published on 12 August 1972.

American Folk Tales,  picture, image, illustration
American Folk Legends including John Henry (bottom, centre) by Richard Hook

Man has always written songs, ballads and poems about heroes and their deeds. These stories have then been passed on from man to man and from generation to generation, surviving the ravages of time even through centuries. In England much of what we know of such people as Robin Hood, Rob Roy, Hereward the Wake has been handed down to us in ballads, songs and poems. This process exists in practically every country in the world. Although America has a history that is much younger than that of England, it is just as rich in folk songs, ballads and work songs telling of the heroes of long ago.

One such legend is that of a giant black American, John Henry. Obviously the stature of John and his deeds have grown with each telling of the story; but there is little doubt that John Henry, a giant fellow of more than average size and strength, did exist and did work on the construction of the Big Bend tunnel on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad towards the end of the 19th century. This version of the legend is pieced together from many of the folk ballads telling John Henry’s story, many of which are still being sung today.

Even as a baby John Henry showed signs of his future strength and size. His appetite was incredible. His mother did not feed him on the normal baby diet, but on such sundries as hog jowls and turnip greens. Then a colossal helping of black-eyed peas, for which John never lost his appetite. Then, to keep the child quiet while his next meal was being prepared, he was supplied with a ham bone to help him cut his teeth. John grew very fast. He developed gigantic muscles, and upon reaching manhood stood at a height of over seven foot tall.

John Henry left the tiny homestead of his childhood and set out to find employment or adventure suited to his strength. During his travels he met his wife. We know little of this lady apart from her name, Polly Ann, and that she proved a devoted and faithful wife, staying by John’s side through thick and thin. Farming, wood cutting, factory work – John tried them all, but none of these jobs contented him or proved any challenge for his strength; for a challenge was what he was seeking.

Then Henry found his vocation. His travels led him and Polly Ann to the construction sites of the C and O railroad line. The construction foreman, instantly recognising the man’s enormous strength, presented John with a hammer. His job was to “drive steel” – to hammer cold steel drills through rock and stone.

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Wagner immortalised the legend of the Flying Dutchman

Posted in Historical articles, Legend, Music, Mystery, Ships on Monday, 10 February 2014

This edited article about the Flying Dutchman first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 548 published on 15 July 1972.

Flying Dutchman is sighted,  picture, image, illustration
Sighting of the Flying Dutchman's ship by Ralph Bruce

At one time sailors were notoriously superstitious people with a folklore which abounded with mysterious sea monsters and ghost ships whose sudden appearance out of nowhere was generally an omen for disaster. The ghost ship in particular cropped up in tale after tale, which had been handed down from one generation of seafaring men to the next. There was the slave ship which roamed he oceans of the world carrying a cargo of corpses. There was a Phantom Ship seen only in the Baltic which brought death and disaster to all those who encountered her, and there was a ship manned by skeletons which had been condemned to cruise the oceans of the world until someone had the courage to board her and say a Mass for the souls of her crew.

Today, we dismiss these stories as being nothing more than the tall tales that ancient mariners used to tell to earn themselves another tankard of ale from their open-mouthed listeners. But are we entirely justified in dismissing these stories with good natured contempt? Was there, perhaps, some element of truth in them?

Let us take for an instance one of the most fanciful legends of them all – the story of the Flying Dutchman.

First, the story itself.

Once upon a time, many centuries ago, there was a Dutch sea captain named Vanderdecken who feared neither God nor the Devil. While he was on a voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, he ran into a great storm which placed his ship in great danger, so much so that everyone on board begged him to turn back before they all inevitably perished.

But the Captain merely laughed at the fears of his crew and passengers, and instead of at least sending up a prayer to Heaven, asking for their deliverance, he began to sing blasphemous songs. Then he calmly settled down to smoke his pipe and drink his beer, like a man safely seated in a tavern at home. Even when some of the ship’s masts were broken and the sails were carried away, he merely laughed.

Finally, however, the Captain’s mood began to change as the storm persisted with such force that it kept him from rounding the Cape. Again and again he turned his prow into the teeth of the gale and tried to tack against it, but without success. It was then that he swore with a mighty oath that he would sail around the Cape, even if it took him till Doomsday.

No sooner had he uttered the oath than a Form appeared on the deck which was said to have been the Almighty Himself. Pointing a stern finger at the Captain, the Form spoke out in a loud spectral voice, saying that it would keep the Captain to his word by making him sail the ocean until the end of the world. After making this pronouncement, the Form cast a spell on the whole crew, by which they could not die and their ship could not sink. Then it disappeared on the next gust of wind.

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George II consolidated the Hanoverian succession

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Music, Politics, Royalty on Monday, 10 February 2014

This edited article about George II first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 548 published on 15 July 1972.

George II at Dettingen,  picture, image, illustration
George II became the last British king to lead his soldiers into battle, on the field at Dettingen in 1743 by Clive Uptton

A chip off the old block. There was no better way of summing up the character of George the Second when at last his irascible old father died and surrendered his throne to the son he had come to hate.

George was 44. Like his father, he was obstinate and not particularly intelligent – a gloomy pair of weaknesses in kings. It gave him a temper which was always creating sullen scenes at best, and hysterical rages at worst. And it began at breakfast time, when he joined his family:

‘Coming in upon the breakfast party he snubbed the Queen for being always stuffing; the Princess Emily for not hearing him; the Princess Caroline for being grown fat; the Duke of Cumberland for standing awkwardly; Lord Hervey for not knowing what relation the Prince of Sultzbach was to the Elector Palatine; and then carried the Queen to walk and be re-snubbed in the garden.’

Like his father, too, George loved music alone of all the arts. He would go a long way to hear the latest work of Handel and it is thanks to the king’s patronage that the German composer continued to live in England.

And like his father, George hated his eldest son, the Prince of Wales. He was, said George, ‘the greatest villain that ever was born.’ Frederick, the Prince, was the latest victim of the Hanover family’s curse on its offspring, probably the most consistent feature in that strangely inconsistent family.

In certain essential qualities, however, George was different from his father. He spoke English for one thing; for another he was a keen businessman when his own interests were at stake. When the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, hinted that he could induce the House of Commons to increase the king’s income, George told him.

‘Sir Robert, what makes me easy in this matter will prove for your ease, too. It is for my life it is to be fixed, and it is for your life.’

Unlike his father, too, George was extremely fond of his wife. George the First locked up his wife for 32 years, an imprisonment from which only death released her. George the Second, by contrast, leaned heavily on his queen, Caroline of Ansbach, listening to her views and acting on her opinions.

Knowing this the prime minister, Walpole, made great use of it. When he wished to convince the king about something he would first tell the queen about it.

Thus it was, after darkness had fallen, the late night strollers in London’s streets might see the short, dumpy prime minister descending from his carriage and entering the queen’s apartments at St. James’s Palace by the private staircase. And in those apartments the laws of England would be drafted.

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A foundling boy assists at a performance of Handel’s Messiah

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Institutions, London, Music, Philanthropy on Saturday, 1 February 2014

This edited article about the Foundling Hospital first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

 The Chapel in the Foundling Hospital,  picture, image, illustration
The Chapel in the Foundling Hospital where Handel's Messiah was performed

Pinned to the grubby, cotton smock of a small boy, left by his pauper parents to toddle homelessly through the filthy streets of 18th century London, was a torn strip of paper bearing the words, “Necessity knows no laws.”

Who was he? Nobody knows, but a kind passerby saw him sleeping in a doorway and took him to a foundling hospital in St. Pancras. This was started by Captain Thomas Coram, especially for deserted children like this young lad.

Sometimes, the children taken here were named after the parish in which they were found. Others were given the name of a famous churchman, soldier or scholar.

Our foundling might have become John Finsbury, Oliver Cromwell or Isaac Newton. But it so happened that one of the governors had been to the theatre on the evening before the child’s arrival and been so impressed by a play by William Shakespeare that he decided to give the lad Shakespeare’s name.

By the time he was ten William, for that is what he was called, had shown little talent for writing. But the governors were not unduly worried. A boy given the name of John Milton had become an excellent chimney sweep and another called Geoffrey Chaucer was doing well as a carpenter.

William’s talents, if they existed at all, appeared to be musical. He had a good ear and a pleasant voice, and when he was put among the blind foundlings to learn an instrument, he quickly mastered the fife.

The governors marked him down for a career in His Majesty’s Armed Forces as a musician. But first they sent him to the organist, Mr. Smith, to help with the preparations for the annual performance of “Messiah” composed by George Frederick Handel.

Mr. Handel was very interested in the hospital in which William found himself. This was because Captain Thomas Coram, who had started it, had practically beggared himself to keep it going.

Fortunately, a number of prominent people, like Handel, came to its aid. In 1749, Handel offered to put on a concert in aid of their funds. The governors accepted the offer eagerly. The event was so successful that it was repeated. Handel was made a governor and presented the chapel with an organ. His former pupil and secretary, John Christopher Smith, became organist and performed “Messiah” there annually.

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