Category Archive 'Music'
20 Aug 2018

Funniest Musical Notation


HT: Karen L. Myers.

15 Aug 2018

Music from Ancient Greece

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Armand D’Angour, an associate professor in classics and a fellow of Jesus College at the University of Oxford, in Aeon, claims to be able to reconstruct the music of Ancient Greece.

    They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
    They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed;
    I wept as I remembered how often you and I
    Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.
    And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
    A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
    Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
    For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

This epigram by Callimachus, in a moving translation by the Victorian poet William Johnson Cory, speaks of the timeless survival of Heraclitus’ songs. Ironically, the poem is the only evidence of their existence: the poet’s ‘pleasant voices’ must remain unsung. Most classical poetry, spanning around four centuries from the songs of Homer in the 8th century BCE to those ­of Aristophanes in the 4th century BCE, was in fact composed to be sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments such as the lyre and aulos (double-pipe). It was, in other words, music; but what did that music sound like?

Despite a wealth of ancient writings, archaeological remains of instruments, and even inscriptions with musical notation, the question has long been thought intractable. ‘Research into Ancient Greek music is pointless,’ pronounced Giuseppe Verdi in the 1880s. By the 1980s little had changed. Recently, however, the subject has experienced exciting developments, with credible realisations of musical scores and the remains of auloi being accurately reconstructed and beautifully played.


HT: The Passive Voice via Karen L. Myers.

31 Jul 2018

Renaissance Musical Notation Knives

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From the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Open Culture:

These knives, which have musical scores engraved in their blades, brought a table together in singing their prayers, and may have been used to carve the lamb or beef in their “striking balance of decorative and utilitarian function.” At least historians think such “notation knives,” which date from the early 1500s, were used at banquets. “The sharp, wide steel would have been ideal for cutting and serving meat,” writes Eliza Grace Martin at the WQXR blog, “and the accentuated tip would have made for a perfect skewer.” But as Kristen Kalber, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses the knives at the top of the post, tells us “diners in very grand feasts didn’t cut their own meat.” It’s unlikely they would have sung from the bloody knives held by their servants.

The knives’ true purpose “remains a mystery,” Martin remarks, like many “rituals of the Renaissance table.” Victoria and Albert Museum curator Kirstin Kennedy admits in the video above that “we are not entirely sure” what the “splendid knife” she holds was used for. But we do know that each knife had a different piece of music on each side, and that a set of them together contained different harmony parts in order to turn a roomful of diners into a chorus. One set of blades had the grace on one side, with the inscription, “the blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat.” The other side holds the benediction, to be sung after the dinner: “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.”


Kristen Kalber, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, discusses these knives.


Maya Corry discusses the Fitzwillian Museum’s musical notation knives starting at 2:30.

30 Dec 2017

Ça, bergers, assemblons-nous

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Québecois tenor Raoul Jobin with choir.

29 Dec 2017

Il est Né le Divin Enfant


28 Dec 2017

“In the Bleak Midwinter”

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27 Dec 2017

Russian Christmas Carols

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26 Dec 2017

St. Stephen Carol

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From “Some Ancient Christmas Carols” (1822).

26 Dec 2017

Good King Wenceslaus

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13 Dec 2017

Es ist ein’ Ros’ Entsprungen


Es ist ein’ Ros’ Entsprungen is an early German Christmas carol and Marian hymn performed in a harmony written by Praetorius in 1609 by the Dresdner Kreuzchor.

14 Oct 2017

Popular Music in the Politics of Ancient China

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A rather fascinating article by Harvard professor Xiaofei Tian in Lapham’s Quarterly.

[A Chinese] monarch created an institution that put [the] musical aspect of political ideology into imperial practice. The institution was the Yuefu, the “Music Bureau.” The monarch was Emperor Wu of Han, an ambitious, energetic ruler who ascended the throne as a teenage boy in 141 BC and reigned for fifty-four years, a record not to be broken for more than eighteen centuries. During his rule, he centralized state power, expanded the territories of the empire, opened up the Silk Road and sent many missions to Central Asia, adopted Confucian doctrine as mainstream ideology, and was an ardent lover and patron of musical and poetic arts. Around 120 BC he ordered the establishment of the Music Bureau.

There is not much information about the workings of the bureau in extant historical sources; what little we know about it comes from terse statements made about the office and its leader, whose title, director of music, was apparently coined by the emperor and literally means “commandant of harmony.” According to the historian Ban Gu (32–92), the bureau was in charge of “collecting song-poems [during the day] and having them rehearsed at night.” The song-poems were reportedly “ballads selected from the lands of Zhao, Dai, Qin, and Chu,” encompassing all four directions of the empire. Music, like state power, was centralized in the imperial court, and in turn it was seen as a unifying force embodying all regions of the empire.

Before Emperor Wu established the Music Bureau, court music had fallen under the aegis of court ritualists. This new office now institutionalized imperial music and for the first time gave it an independent identity. Although the office did produce ceremonial music for state rituals, an equally important purpose was to provide well-managed imperial entertainment. As such, it was appropriately led not by a hoary ritualist versed in ceremonial music but by a young, handsome, talented castrato musician named Li Yannian, who made for a rather extraordinary and unconventional appointment.

Li Yannian was from a family of professional entertainers. When he was a young boy, he had received the punishment of castration for some offense. Being a castrato led him to career choices beyond his family’s usual orbit: as a eunuch, he found employment in the Directorate of the Palace Kennels, even though his true gift was apparently in music rather than in breeding and caring for the imperial hunting dogs. While Li Yannian was employed there, Emperor Wu met his sister, a stunning beauty and consummate dancer, and became smitten with her. Soon, Lady Li bore the emperor a son, cementing her eminent status in the harem. Meanwhile, the emperor came to appreciate Li Yannian’s musical talent deeply. The boy became the emperor’s favorite musician—as well as the emperor’s lover.

Having been castrated at a young age must have given Li Yannian, already a good-looking boy, a striking appearance (as we now know, the loss of testosterone can result in unusually long limbs and make a castrato taller than average). It was not a known custom in premodern China, as it was in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italy, to castrate a talented young boy singer to keep his prepubescent voice. But we may well imagine how Li Yannian’s accidental acquisition of a voluptuous and sublime voice as a castrato might have greatly contributed to the charm of his singing. “All mouth and no trousers,” goes the saying—yet his fame came even more from his gift as a composer.

At the emperor’s commission, Li Yannian produced new music for state rituals, which were constantly being invented by Emperor Wu, who was obsessed with worship of the empire’s deities. (Neither these deities nor his devised rituals, however, were necessarily approved by orthodox-minded Confucian ritualists.) Li Yannian was apparently at his best in the composition of “new fancy tunes” that represented a “permutation” of serious ritual music (yayue, literally “elegant music”). He had modern, catholic, unconventional tastes: he not only reinvented contemporary regional melodies but also embraced foreign influences. He was famous for creating twenty-eight tunes inspired by the Central Asian music of what were called the Western Regions, astride the Silk Road. Even when the music was lost in later times, some of the tune titles endured and became established titles in the poetic genre known as yuefu, after the bureau.

At the peak of his career, Li Yannian would “sleep and rise with the emperor” and had his ear when recommending associates to offices. But the Li family’s good fortune did not last very long. Li Yannian’s sister died young, and the emperor’s favor faded. When Li Yannian’s little brother was caught having an affair with a palace lady, both brothers were executed, and, history tells us, “the entire family was exterminated.”


06 Jan 2017

We Three Kings


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