Lesson #331: Lucia Popp Was a Mezzo. WHUT?

It’s probably not a secret, if you’ve been reading his blog for a while, that music is something that exists in my life in more than just a passing capacity.

So…Lucia Popp. She was a famous Slovak opera singer who played a whole slew of leading roles, including the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard the Queen of the Night’s aria before. Because you exist. But just in case you don’t exist, this is it. In fact, that is it sung by Lucia Popp. 

Who was a natural mezzo-soprano.

A mezzo who hit an F6 with perfect clarity.  In one of the most famous roles in opera. At the Met. At 28.

Learning things like this kind of makes me want to throw myself from the highest bridge I can find.

Anyway, here she is performing one of my favourite pieces of music, Solvejg’s Song from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Which is much more mezzo.

Her obit (she died of brain cancer in 1993 at the age of 54) is here.


Lesson #311: Irena Sendler’s Resistance Movement

For someone who studies revolutions, I do an amazing job of neglecting the individual in favour of the larger picture. But sometimes, I get reminded of the individual. Today’s lesson comes on the heels of something my sister-in-law posted on Facebook yesterday. My problem with it wasn’t that it wasn’t accurate (well, it was mostly accurate), it was that it minimized the accomplishments of a single woman into a handful of talking points to argue against Al Gore. I get that that was sort of the purpose of this “let’s list all the awesome SO YOU CAN SEE WHERE THE NOBEL COMMITTEE WENT HORRIBLY WRONG!”* post, but if can’t be timely with your point, at least be thorough.

Irena Sendler was born with rebellion in her genes; her great-grandfather was shipped off to Siberia,** her father — a doctor — spent a lot of time caring for Jews, who, let’s be honest, have never historically been the most popular group of people. While her father’s colleagues shunned the Jewish community, her father embraced them and wound up dead of typhoid in 1917. Due to the financial support of the Jewish community, she was able to attend the University of Warsaw, where she defaced the part of her student card that allowed her to sit on the “Aryan” benches in her classrooms*** after seeing a Jewish friend beaten by a group of nationalists. The university suspended her for three years.

And then there was the war.

As early as the first days of the German occupation of Poland in 1939,**** Sendler and like-minded gentiles were forging papers to help Jewish families escape the country. Before she even joined the resistance movement, Żegota, when it was created in the autumn of 1942 (after mass transports between late July and late September sent somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 of the ghetto population to Treblinka), Sendler and her co-conspirators had drafted more than 500 false papers.

The ghetto was established in the autumn of 1940. It crammed the entire 400,000 person Jewish population of Warsaw, which was about 30% of the city’s population, into four square kilometres, which was roughly 3% of the city’s area.*****At that time, Irena Sendler was a 30-year-old social worker for the city. This bit of information was crucial to her work. Because she was a social worker (or had false papers stating she was a nurse, depending on what you read), she was able to pass freely in and out of the ghetto under the guise of health checks and delivering medication and vaccines to a population that was particularly susceptible to epidemics (overcrowding will do that) and illnesses related to being in close quarters with corpses (roughly 100,000 Jews starved to death). In December of 1942, Sendler was put in charge of the children’s division of the resistance movement. By that time, there were only around 55,000 Jews remaining in the ghetto.

Using her legal loophole to access the ghetto’s children, Sendler and about 30 collaborators, most of whom were women, managed to get 2500 children out of the ghetto and safely placed with gentile organizations, mostly churches, convents, and orphanages. By her own estimates, getting children from the ghetto to a safe location required no fewer than 12 people be in on the secret. (Hint: that’s a lot.) Not only did she do this, she kept a list of all of them in the hopes of reuniting them with their families after the war, despite the fact that if the list had ever been discovered, it would have meant immediate death (because that’s what the penalty was for giving aid to Jews). In fact, in October of 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo, who thought she was just a minor part of the conspiracy. She was tortured, though gave up no information, and sentenced to death, but a well-timed bribe allowed other members of the Żegota to secret her away in February of 1944. Her name was added to the list of those executed, and she spent the rest of the war continuing her work with the resistance under an assumed name.

After the war, Sendler retrieved the list — which a colleague hid in her underwear (or armpit, depending on what you read) to keep it from being discovered the night Sendler was arrested and then buried in a jar under an apple tree in a friend’s back yard — in the hopes of reuniting the children with their families. It should be unsurprising to learn that the vast majority of them had no surviving family members.

Irena Sendler was honoured by Yad Vashem as one of the first Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, though the government of Poland refused to let her collect the award until 1983. In 2003, she was awarded Poland’s highest civilian decoration, the Order of the White Eagle. In the end, Irena Sendler helped save more than twice as many people as Oskar Schindler…but she didn’t have a movie made of her life so she’s mostly overlooked. (To be clear, I’m not saying that Schindler was a slouch…saving people is good.) In fact, it seems her story had been mostly lost to archives in Jerusalem until 1999, when a bunch of schoolgirls in Kansas learned, in talking to some of the children she rescued, that she was still alive, went to Warsaw to speak with her and wrote a play about her, that her story gained outside renown.

All of this information can be found here and here. Also in her obituaries (she died in May of 2008) in: The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The LA Times. There are a slew more, but those five should give you a pretty good indication of what was being said about her at the time of her death. (Incidentally, the NY Times has the information about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising wrong; it took 28 days to quash, not the “more than a month” they state.)

*(six years ago and we’re all obviously still very bitter about it)

**Poland, you’ll remember was part of the Russian Empire.

***This was actually the most interesting part of this lesson for me; classrooms in Poland were segregated before the war. I imagine there wasn’t much need for that segregation after it considering the Nazis wiped out more than 90% of Polish Jews.

****Remember how I mentioned the other day that the number one reason for large-scale killing across all of history was land? This is a perfect example of how a land grab started a war.

*****You’ll get no sources for this because it’s information I know off the top of my head; Warsaw was the first revolution I studied.

Lesson #280: The Man Who Sold the Papacy

Pope Benedict IX was maybe the youngest Pope in history, having taken the position (the first time) in the early 11th century at some point between the ages of 11 and 20.* And that’s all well and good for him, but though interesting, it’s not that surprising; at the time, the papacy was granted more on who you knew and could pay off than it was on being ultra pious. Benedict, it turns out, was the nephew of his two immediate predecessors, Pope John XIX and Pope Benedict VIII and his daddy bought him the office.

What’s awesome about Benedict IX is that he was about the least qualified person to ascend the Papacy, was accused by more than one person of rape, murder and adultery, and more interestingly, he’s the only man ever to have sold the Papacy. There’s also speculation that he was the first gay Pope. (Heresy! I love it!)

Benedict was born in Rome around 1012 and became Pope** in 1032. In 1044, he was forced out by opposition and Sylvester III ascended the Papacy (sort of — politics are messy). When Benedict returned to Rome in April 1045, he resumed control of the position before resigning the office a month later (so he could marry) and selling it to his godfather, who took the title as Gregory VI. Not long afterwards, regretting the decision, he returned to Rome, reclaimed the office — though Gregory VI was still technically Pope — and sort of duked it out with Sylvester, who popped up again to stake his claim to the office. In July of 1046, King Henry III intervened and the Council of Sutri declared in December of the same year that both Benedict and Sylvester were deposed and asked that Gregory tender his resignation. Clement II was then installed as Pope and ruled*** until his death a year later, at which point Benedict, having rejected his deposition, swooped back to Rome, seized the Lateran Palace and continued to hold it until German troops forced him out in July 1048. He was brought up on simony charges, for which he refused to appear, and was excommunicated in 1049. Unsurprisingly, he’s not one of the canonized Popes.

His three recognized terms as Pope are as follows:

Term 1: Election (1032) to Sylvester III (1044)

Term 2: Return to Rome (April 1045) to Sale of Papacy (May 1045)

Term 3: Forcible seizure of Lateran Palace (November 1047) to Expulsion (July 1048)

Best. Papacy. Ever!

More can be read here, here and here.

*Most sources say he was between the ages of 18 and 20 when he first took the position, but some say he was as young as 11.

**The first time. In fact, he was Pope three times, the only person ever to be Pope more than once.

***For some reason I can’t hear the word “rule” anymore without thinking “…over all this land and we will call it…This Land!” “I think we should call it Your Grave.” “Ah! Curse your sudden, but inevitable betrayal!”, which is one of the first scenes of the Firefly pilot. And one of the best character introductions ever.

Lesson #277: On Bach and (not) Albinoni

Pandora might be my favourite thing ever to be invented because it allows me to play music with the same eclectic mix as my iPod a. without draining my battery and b. with a bit more variety that allows me to hear things I wouldn’t normally because I don’t own them.

I was listening to Pandora just now and it started playing me the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, which until now I have never heard. Because I have a general aversion to baroque. As a rule, it’s too predictable for me. Baroque pieces all seem to end with the same chord progression and then you’re just kind of left going, “oh, it’s over.” I present Pachelbel’s Canon in D as example. There are certainly exceptions to this rule. Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor* and Chaconne for Violin (the final movement of Partida No. 2 in D Minor)** are both excellent pieces of music. But mostly, it leaves me cold.

Every so often, Pandora gets it right by getting it wrong and this is one of those cases. Imagine my surprise when I heard the Chaconne mixed with what is usually called Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor despite the fact that Albinoni didn’t write it. Oddly enough, it’s a neo-baroque piece that I love. Ignoring the history of the composition of the piece, which though odd and kind of awesome, is not something I don’t already know*** and, more, the amazing story of Vedran Smajlovic and his use of it in Sarajevo during the war, what’s important here is that Bach ripped himself off and then Remo Giazotto, who actually composed the Albinoni’s Adagio, ripped him off. So listening to a lesser known Bach piece is an incredibly odd experience.

This isn’t actually research so much as it is (excuse the pun) playing to the things filed away in my head, but it’s what you get because that’s what interests me today. There’s research coming tomorrow. I’m going to get to the whole Indo-European language thing, I promise!

And yes, it does seem that I like my baroque in minor keys…including the Scarlatti piece in C minor I’m working on on the piano at the moment.

Also, randomly, Pandora has just informed me that Modest Mussorgsky, who composed my very favourite piece of music ever, died as a result of his alcoholism. It doesn’t add, “well, he was Russian and an artist, after all.”****

*Which is a fantastic piece to run to.

**A piece that is at the heart of one of the most interesting (and tragic) articles to come out in recent years on the social value of classical music, a Washington Post article about virtuoso Joshua Bell playing in the DC Metro.

***Though this is apparently not common knowledge because even Lawyer (Former) Housemate was surprised to learn this when I mentioned it to her in passing a few months back.

****Lest you think I’m mocking Mussorgsky, the Russians and/or alcoholism, this was the time of the bohemians. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that any particular artist/musician/writer in Europe at that time died of some form of overindulgence or another.

Lesson #274: Winters Blizzards and Rogers Hornsby

22/7 edit: A note from my friend in the Texas capital… “It’s the Blizzards, plural. A student is a Blizzard, the team is the Blizzards. West Texas doesn’t go for those communist singular names!” My mistake. I have corrected it.

A quick second post for today (though technically, as it is after midnight, this will post to Friday, not Thursday). This comes from my friend in the Texas capital because I was somehow subconsciously triggered into having the song Sleigh Ride in my head. I couldn’t think of the name of the song and gave him Winter Wonderland at first, whereupon he informed me that that’s the school song for the Winters school district, whose mascot is the Blizzard.*

“Also,” he informs me, “Rogers Hornsby is from Winters. I don’t know why I know that.”

Good pub quiz information!

*Grammatically, I think this is still right. Unless the school there are more than one costumed mascot? Whatever, they’re the Winters Blizzards.

Lesson #250: Mickey and Minnie Mouse

Just a quick lesson for today, but one I found really entertaining.

Wayne Allwine, who voiced Mickey Mouse from 1977 until his death last year,* was married to Russi Taylor, who has been the voice of Minnie Mouse since 1986.**

*He was the third voice, following Walt Disney and Jimmy MacDonald.

**This information is in Allwine’s obituary, which can be found here.

Lesson #236: Dvorak’s Insufficient Cello

I ran across an interesting tidbit today that, when googled, popped up 20 sites all used the exact same wording, none of them citing anything. That’s weird. That’s a lot weird. I figured out fairly quickly that they were all plagiarizing the liner notes for the Virgin Records release of French cellist Gautier Capucon playing Dvorak (and Herbert, but he’s incidental to the whole thing)’s cello concertos.

Anyway, I read this afternoon that Dvorak considered the cello to be insufficient for a starring role in a concerto. I find that funny given the brilliance of his Cello Concerto in B Minor. In reality, the Cello Concerto was the last concerto Dvorak composed before his death in 1904, so it was the only cello concerto he ever wrote. However, in 1865, he had begun composition on a Cello Concerto in A Major that remained unfinished.

According to the liner notes, the concerto was composed in 1894-5 while Dvorak was in his third term as Director of the National Conservatory in New York. “Up till then Dvorák had always refused, stating that the cello was a fine orchestral instrument but totally insufficient for a solo concerto.”

There is also a brief mention of Dvorak’s cello concerto trepidation in Michael Steinberg’s book The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide. Although it makes no mention of Dvorak finding the instrument “insufficient”, it does note that he had “always been distrustful of the cello’s upper range, which he found thin and nasal.”*

*That can be found here on page 182.