Mercoledi Musicale

A Touch of Irish Music for the Season

I suppose it is the time of year, and possibly the fact that there has been no travel for an extended period of time, that has led me to go back over photos of our trip to Ireland, England and the North Atlantic last September.  That and you are now reading a missive from the newest member of the Benevolent Irish Society of Prince Edward Island – founded in 1825 it is one of the oldest organizations on the Island.  It was established to assist Irish immigrants and as an aid society for families in need.  Today the emphasis is on preserving and presenting Irish history, arts, culture and its heritage here on PEI. A major part of that heritage is a musical one; not the “Irish” music of tin-pan alley or the pseudo-Celtic sounds mingling with the healing potpourri that drifts through your local holistic food shop but the music as it was and is played in the Four Provinces.

I’ve mentioned previously that on our journey on the Grand Hibernian we had entertainment every evening after dinner in the Observation Car.  Traditional artists include a Celtic harpist (from Trois Rivières Quebec????), a local storyteller, The Baileys and a husband and wife duo.  All were exceptionally fine performers but unfortunately Belmond didn’t provide us with the names of the performers and had the Baileys not given us one of their fine discs I would not have been able to give them their credit.

Nan Tom Teaimin – one of the great Sean-nós singers – at Ard Bia in Galway.

Perhaps the most serious omission when it came to introducing artists was on our visit to Galway and our lunch at Ard Bia.  We were in a private room on the second floor and prior to a splendid lunch begin served a singer was introduced.  Though the room had a country charm it was strangely set up and all angles; this meant that one end of the room could neither see nor hear the lady and the other couldn’t hear the introduction.  That introduction was perfunctory at best , and hardly worthy of Nan Tom Teaimín one of the great singers of Sean-nós or “old style” Irish music.   It is a style of music that I knew only very slightly but have started to investigate more deeply – it is certainly not what most people think of as “Irish” music and many of our fellow travellers were puzzled by her performance.

The first of these three pieces on this clip is a Sean-nós song The Flowereen Bán as sung by Nan Tom Teaimín – unfortunately I haven’t been able to come up with a translation except I do know that “bán” means “white”.  The two pieces that follow are performed by Martin Dowling and are traditional Irish fiddle music: an Air: An raibh tú ag an gcarraig? (Have you been to the rock?) and a reel: The mother’s delight.

As I was writing this I thought of my late brother who, where ever he may be, is chortling and I hope highly pleased at all this.   A chuimhne grámhara mo dheartháir.

On this day in 1888:  the Anglo-Tibetan War of 1888 begins.

Mercoledi Musicale

In which the marriage of two wonderful friends is celebrated!

After a trial run of twenty years our dear friends Doctor Spo and Someone finally decided that maybe their relationship was on solid enough ground to stop living in Sin (a suburb of Phoenix) and commit marriage.

To honour that momentous occasion here’s Jane Krakowski* telling us – and them – all about life as a “Sadie”.

We were sad that we couldn’t be there with them but happy that Harper’s legitimacy will no longer be questioned at the dog park.

Congratulations dearest friends – welcome to Sadie’s world!  Loving hugs and fond kisses.

*Yes I know that Barbra Streisand “owns” this and every other song from Funny Girl  but at the risk of losing the toaster I got in the gay recruiting contest I’m not exactly a fan of the lady but absolutely love Ms K.

On this day in 1956: IATA finalizes a draft of the Radiotelephony spelling alphabet for ICAO.


Mercoledi Musicale

A French stamp issued in 1946 to commemorate François Villon.  A highly fictionalized portrait of the poet by Albert Decaris.

As often happens what I intended to post today is going by the wayside for another time.  In response to yesterday’s post where I quoted from the French poet François Villon my friend Yvette sent along a link to a musical version of the ballade where the line is found.  The poem appears simple as Ballade in  Villion’s Le Testement, a collection of ballades and rondeaux that was first published in 1461.  In a 1533 edition it was renamed by Clément Marot and became known as Le Ballade des dames du temps jadis (The Ballad of the Ladies of the Bygone Times).

Mais où sont les neiges d’antan! That famous last line is best known in English in the Dante Gabriel Rossetti transliteration as “where are the snows of yester-year”.  However it also appears in paraphrase in several other works.  As my friend David mentioned yesterday Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmanssthal’s Marschallin wistfully – and also a little ruefully – expresses the sentiment in Der Rosenkavalier.  Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler have a hard-bitten prostitute express the same thought coldly in Leid de Nana from Die Rundköpfe und die Spitzköpfe.

And Yvette introduced me to this version of the complete poem by singer-songwriter Georges Brassens – a performer unknown to me until today.  Many thanks for the introduction to this fascinating man and performer Cara.

The text with translation can be found here.

There have been many other paraphrasings, adaptations, and references to Villion and his work in popular novels, plays, TV series (Downton Abbey, go figure), poetry and music.  In 1925 composer Rudolf Friml and playwright Brian Hooker turned If I Were King, a popular play of the period, into an operetta.  The Vagabond King, a fictional account of a Robin Hood-like Villion’s day as king of France and wooing of a noble lady, played over 500 performances on Broadway and spawned two movie versions.  It is highly romanticized and being an operetta has some rousing drinking choruses, jaunty comedy numbers and of course several love songs.

As a belated Valentine’s Day present here is the unmatchable Jussi Bjorling singing the best known number from Friml’s opus:  Only A Rose.

On this day in 1954: Canada and the United States agree to construct the Distant Early Warning Line, a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska.


Mercoledi Musicale

The New Year had hardly begun when news arrived of the death of Roberta Peters, an opera singer who I had grown up listening to on so many Met Saturday afternoon broadcasts.   She had begun studying singing at the age of 13 with William Herman, known to be an exacting and thorough voice teacher.  Herman included the study of French, German and Italian as well as fencing, ballet and gym exercises in his teaching methods.  And he also taught Peters many of the roles she was to sing on stage in North America and Europe.

The 20 year old Roberta Peters on the evening of her unscheduled debut at the Metropolitan Opera on November 17, 1950.  Max Rudolf (l)  the musical administrator and Rudolf Bing the great General Manager of the Met flank her. 

One of those roles was Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  This was to prove serendipitous when at three o’clock on the afternoon of November 17, 1950 Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of the Met, called her to replace an ailing Nadine Connor that evening, a full two months before her scheduled debut.  She had never sung a full opera before, had never been on a stage nor had so much as a piano rehearsal but she delivered a performance that set the tone for the next 35 years.  The critic for the World Telegraph said, “The voice came through the big house as clear as a bell, the notes equally bright and focused and the phrasing that of a true musician. And the girl – she is all of five feet-two – turned in a very smooth job of acting, too. She will bear watching – and listening.”  And watch and listen we did as she sang over 520 performances at the Met until her retirement in 1985.

Peters had just turned 20 when she made that unscheduled debut and here she is two years later in an early TV broadcast singing Zerlina’s first aria “Batti, batti o bel Masetto”.

Though she sang many, what are considered, soubrette roles – Despina, Adele, Adina, Sophie, Rosina, Zerbinetta – she was also sang the more dramatic Gilda, The Queen of the Night, Lucia,  Amina and Susanna.

Her “Deh vieni, non tardar” in Marriage of Figaro had that combination of gentle teasing and a expression of true desire that drove so many Figaros mad with jealousy over the years.

As well as being a well-loved member of the Met she was well-known to TV audiences of the 1950s-1970s.  She held the record for number of appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show – 65 in all.  And she was a frequent guest on  TV talk and variety shows trading quips and appearing in skits with Jack Benny,  Captain Kangaroo, Johnny Carson and Jack Parr.  She was so well known to TV audiences that  American Express had not problem featuring her in their “Do You Know Me?” commercials.

It is perhaps of measure of the lady that she never forgot Rudolf Bing and the way he mentor her and so many other young singers.  When Bing developed Alzheimer’s and became the subject of tabloid fodder with a gold digging young wife who went through his money leaving him in financial distress, she and Teresa Stratas took care of his well-being and visited him until his death in 1997.

On this day in 1915:  D. W. Griffith‘s controversial film The Birth of a Nation premieres in Los Angeles.




Lunedi Lunacy

Back in the late 1970s I went to London with alarming regularity – as I recall I was there at least once every three months. It was the perfect time for travel – I had my airline passes, the pound was low, hotels were cheap and the theatre was highly affordable. It meant that I saw some of the finest and greatest (not always the same thing) performers of the period.

It seemed that my friend Barry, his roommate Angus, and I were out almost every evening – Covent Garden, the Coliseum, Royal Albert Hall, Old Vic and more theatres in the West End than I can remember. Barry taught me the fine art of getting tickets for sold out performances at Covent Garden – as I recall you stood outside the opera house on the Floral Street side with a five pound note folded in your fingers (oh stop it!  Such minds!) and waited for someone to come by who wanted to sell their ticket.  And more often than not you got the ticket for whatever the person had paid for it or a bit above – not some exorbitant scalper’s price.  Lynn Seymour and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Romeo and Juliet,  Jon Vickers in Otello, and Montserrat Caballé in concert the evening she tried a few flamenco steps, caught the hem of her dress, and fell on her posterior.  After our initial gasp of horror she broke into laughter and we all joined in.

1976: Dame Edna all set for Ascot with her Sydney Opera House Hat – sharks and all.

But as well as the tried and true Barry and Angus introduced me to a wide range of entertainers that I would have missed but for them. It was then that I had my first experience of Dame Edna Everage from one the “ashtrays” at the Apollo Theatre;  as I recall Barry had worked on Dame Edna’s famous Sydney Opera House hat for Ascot.

And Angus introduced me, not formally of course but as an audience member, to those two dear ladies Doctor Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Brackett. It’s difficult to explain the Doctor and Dame to anyone who hasn’t experienced them.  Of course the humour is very British, based on a certain knowledge of a long-gone theatrical past, a familiarity with English operetta and music hall, the English club tradition of female impersonation, and frankly outright camp.  The two performers (George Logan and Patrick Fyffe) always gave interviews and made appearances in character and there was never the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” of someone like Danny LaRue.  They “were” Hinge and Bracket and an entire backstory and life had been created for these “dear ladies”.  And that became the name of their BBC TV series based on their lives and (fictitious) life in their village of Stockton Tressel.

But rather than explain them the best way to view them is to see them in action:

Here they are in a BBC recreation (much sanitized) of a Edwardian Music Hall:

And with the wonderful Ronnie Corbett.  I dedicate this little video to my old friend from The Boy Friend:  Linda, Vicki and Jon.  Remember Camp Woebegone?

And here they are with Michael Barrymore doing something a far cry from their usual Ivor Novello or Gilbert and Sullivan:  Kander and Ebb’s “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” –  one of my favourite songs from 70 Girls 70, a show that was sadly a failure on Broadway.

Sadly Patrick Fyffe died in 2002 and George Logan retired to the south of France.

On this day in 1847: Yerba Buena, California is renamed San Francisco, California.