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Music inspired by Poe's works

By Elana Estrin

While vacationing in Rome in 1907, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter from a cello student whom he had never met. An admirer of Rachmaninoff and of Edgar Allan Poe, the student urged Rachmaninoff to set Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” to music. Rachmaninoff read a Russian translation of “The Bells” and was won over. He completed his choral symphony (“The Bells”) in 1913 and later deemed it his personal favorite of all his compositions.

Rachmaninoff based his composition on a Russian translation of “The Bells” by Konstantin Balmont, which took several liberties with Poe’s poem. Most notable is Balmont’s additions to the “Silver Bells” stanza, in which he adds a meditation on death as a “universal slumber—deep and sweet beyond compare” (retranslation by Fanny S. Copeland). Basing his composition on Balmont’s translation, Rachmaninoff composed cheerful rather than solemn music for the “Silver Bells” stanza.

Rachmaninoff is not the only composer to find inspiration in Poe’s works. Claude Debussy began composing an opera, “La chute de la maison Usher,” based on Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A leaf from the libretto of this opera is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy worked on the opera between 1908 and 1918 but never completed it. More recently, minimalist composer Philip Glass completed an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” that premiered in 1989.

English composer Joseph Holbrooke also caught Poe fever. He set several of Poe’s poems to music, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and created a ballet based on “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Holbrooke’s works and Poe-inspired works of several other composers can be viewed in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

These works are part of the William H. Koester collection, acquired by the Ransom Center in 1966 and the source of most of the items featured in the Ransom Center’s current Poe exhibition.

The ballet performance that sparked a riot

By Elana Estrin

It is 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the audience is screaming, cat-calling, and fist-fighting. It’s the most famous riot in classical music history at the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and premiered by the Ballets Russes.

Accustomed to more “palatable” ballets such as Swan Lake, the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was shocked by the dissonant and jarring music, the violent and unnatural choreography, and the depiction of a Russian pagan tribe celebrating the arrival of spring by choosing a sacrificial virgin to dance herself to death. Upon hearing the opening bassoon solo played in an unrecognizably high register, French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens is said to have fumed: “if that is a bassoon then I am a baboon!” He then stormed out of the theater.

The Ransom Center holds one of the costumes that no doubt helped to spark the legendary riot. The costumes were designed by archeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich. The costume is part of the Ransom Center’s current display in honor of this year’s centenary of the Ballets Russes, located in the Director’s Gallery on the third floor of the Center through December 18.

From the Galleries: Halley's Comet

By Elana Estrin

Halley’s Comet was last spotted by the unaided human eye in 1986, and isn’t estimated to be visible again until 2026. For those who can’t wait another 17 years, the Ransom Center’s exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, offers visitors an early glimpse of Halley’s Comet, as rendered by John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

Halley’s Comet was no novelty for Herschel; she discovered no fewer than eight comets in her lifetime. She drew these four illustrations of Halley’s Comet in her late eighties, after being awarded a gold medal and honorary membership from the Royal Astronomical Society. Also on display are pencil sketches of Halley’s Comet by Herschel’s astronomer nephew, John F. W. Herschel, and six illustrations of comets by various other astronomers.

Hearing Music in the David O. Selznick Collection

By Elana Estrin

Occupying almost 5,000 document cases, the archive of film producer David O. Selznick is the Ransom Center’s largest archive. Nathan Platte, a Musicology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, navigated through this enormous collection last year with a dissertation fellowship jointly sponsored by the Ransom Center and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies. Platte shares his experiences conducting research at the Ransom Center for his dissertation, “Musical Collaboration, Coercion, and Resistance in the Films of David O. Selznick, 1932–1948.”

While writing a dissertation on the films of David O. Selznick, I had the fortunate opportunity to conduct extensive research in the Harry Ransom Center’s gargantuan David O. Selznick collection. When one thinks of a film producer’s archive, images of contracts, correspondences, scripts, photographs, storyboards, and costumes might come to mind. The Selznick collection contains all of these items, but my project focused on a different facet. As a musicologist, I was most interested in the musical scores of Selznick’s films—the famous “Tara” theme that plays as Scarlett and her father watch the sun set in Gone with the Wind (1939), the eerie electronic sounds that waft through spooky sequences in Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945), the brass fanfares that gild scenes of pageantry in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and even the piano piece performed by the icy murderess of The Paradine Case (1947).

What exactly is the archival footprint of film music? The list is actually quite daunting: instructions from Selznick detailing musical ideas and impressions, pencil sketches made by the composer, full orchestral scores arranged by orchestrators, orchestral parts and “short” scores rendered by copyists, recording logs that state when the score was recorded, who played in the orchestra, and how many performances it took before the conductor was satisfied… There are also standard studio documents related to music: contracts for composers, correspondences between Selznick and music directors, and occasional photographs of the musicians who worked behind the scenes. Put simply, the Selznick collection is a treasure trove for the film musicologist.

My dissertation examines the process of scoring a film. This involved documenting many steps, including the collaboration (and arguments) between Selznick and composers. I also studied the input of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Cromwell, whose ideas on music differed from Selznick’s. Music editors also influenced the musical content of Selznick’s films even though they did not compose new music. Audray Granville, for example, reshaped Miklós Rózsa’s score for Spellbound through artful cutting and pasting. Reading her correspondences with Selznick is illuminating; the producer trusted her judgment more than the composer’s!

I was always excited to find music not used in the final film. These rejected passages tell stories of their own, and the reasons for their exclusion reveal more about the musical effects intended by Selznick, his composers, and music staff. At times like these, the process of film scoring changed my understanding of music’s relationship to story and visuals. With the rich sources of the Selznick collection and the generous support of a Ransom Center dissertation fellowship, I found this research to be both exhilarating and revelatory.

Mozart's "A Musical Joke"

By Elana Estrin

ADDENDUM: The Ransom Center is pleased to share new information about the manuscript of Mozart’s “A Musical Joke.” During a recent visit to the Ransom Center, Neal Zaslaw, Herbert Gussman Professor of Music at Cornell University, examined the manuscript and has since been able to shed light on its origins.

Professor Zaslaw has established that the copyist who wrote out the score was Christian Traugott Brunner, born in 1793. He has also determined that the Stadler for whom the copy was made was not Abbé Maximilian Stadler, but probably Albert Stadler, 1794–1888, and that the date in which the copy was made is much later than previously thought. Finally, Dr. Zaslaw concluded that the copy was made not from Mozart’s original manuscript, but from the first German edition of 1803–04.

Professor Zaslaw is a world-renowned expert on Mozart’s music and the editor of the forthcoming Der neue Köchel, a revision of the complete catalog of Mozart’s works.

The Ransom Center thanks Professor Zaslaw for his valuable insights into the history of this item.

Original post: In 1787, more than a century before Weird Al Yankovic penned “Amish Paradise,” Mozart poked fun at the Coolios of the eighteenth century with his parody “A Musical Joke: Village Musicians.”

The Ransom Center houses one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of “A Musical Joke” and a copy of the 1856 edition, one of only two known copies in the world.

Ransom Center visitors can hear the piece performed in tonight’s Music from the Collections event, “Can You Tell a Joke with Music?” University of Texas Professor of Music Robert Freeman will tackle this question using “A Musical Joke,” among other illustrative and humorous compositions. This program will be webcast live.

“It’s a parody of what unskilled musicians and composers may do,” Freeman explains of Mozart’s piece. “There are a lot of untutored, rustic, untalented musicians who don’t know how decently to make music. They get all kinds of stuff wrong.”

Ransom Center librarian Richard Workman shares some examples of these musical jokes told at the expense of incompetent musicians and composers alike.

“Normally in the classical period, everything is in multiples of two and four. But Mozart will have a three-bar phrase, another three-bar phrase, then a four-bar phrase. It does kind of throw you off. At the very end of the piece, some instruments veer off into a different key and go crashing into dissonant chords. I think that joke is aimed at musicians who couldn’t read music very well,” Workman says.

According to Freeman, Mozart got the idea to tell this musical joke from his father, composer and violin pedagogue Leopold Mozart, who wrote a piece titled “Peasant Wedding.” Freeman guesses that “Peasant Wedding” might also have been intended as a parody.

“It’s a very primitive piece. It has a hurdy-gurdy in it, which makes it sound out of tune…[sometimes] cheering, whistling, and gunshots break out. Leopold was always mad at the Salzburg archbishop, so he may have written it to give his boss a hard time,” Freeman says.

According to Workman, the manuscript housed at the Ransom Center was penned by Mozart’s friend and admirer Abbe M. Stadler. Stadler most likely based his copy on Mozart’s original autograph manuscript, which was owned by composer Franz Schubert at one point, but is now lost.

The edition (published in 1856 in honor of the centenary of Mozart’s birth) was most likely based on the manuscript housed at the Ransom Center, according to Workman.

The Ransom Center acquired the manuscript and second edition in 1958, when the Center acquired the library of violinist and bibliophile Edwin Bachmann. During his travels as a violinist, Bachmann collected manuscripts and early editions of music by such composers as Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Frédéric Chopin, among others.

Celebrating Day of the Dead

By Elana Estrin

Artist José Guadalupe Posada’s graphic legacy is as recognizable today as it was in turn-of-the-century Mexico, and his distinctive skeleton print calaveras have become synonymous with the traditional Day of the Dead celebration, which is November 1.

In Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article, “José Guadalupe Posada: Printmaker to the Mexican People,” learn more about the man who ushered in Mexico’s golden age of printmaking and inspired the work of fellow artists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.

Hector Dominguez-Ruvalcaba, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portugese at The University of Texas at Austin, gives an overview of the traditions behind the Day of the Dead:

There were nine levels in the Mesoamerican afterlife. Tlalocan was a paradise reserved for those who died of contagious diseases, while those who died in war walked with the sun to the zenith. The relatives of these dead would lay offerings near their bodies so they could accomplish this task. These offerings would be left for four years, until the dead transformed into hummingbirds and began to nourish themselves by drinking the nectar of local flowers. The final—and darkest—level was called Mictlan, the place of no return. To reach this place, the dead would have to journey for four years.

Relatives would place offerings of food and leave the tools for working in the same job the dead had used in their jobs in life. In this sense death was then an endless cycle of traversing, going through different dimensions of existence. Offerings were the main resource that allowed the dead to reach the next level in their journey beyond the grave. There were particular different dates in the year to honor one or another group of dead, a religious calendar that was completely altered after the Christianization of America.

These offerings survive as a result of the syncretic religions that were established during the Spanish Conquest. Today, offerings to the dead are made on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) of the Christian calendar.

In rural areas of Mesoamerica, November 1 is dedicated to dead infants (which in pre-Columbian times was celebrated in August), while November 2 is dedicated to dead adults. In many areas leaving an offering for deceased loved ones is a dutifully fulfilled obligation. Family comes together, bringing the dead to the reunion through nostalgic conversations.

The Day of the Dead is the day of filial love, but it is also the day of celebrating the harvest in the agricultural calendar. November is the month of bountiful harvest, and generously sharing food is the most sincere expression of gratitude. The altar of the dead is then a cornucopia of fruits, flowers, candies, drinks, and the most precious objects of beloved family members. The colorful ornaments, the saints of family devotion, the elaborate cooking, and even the delicate sugar skulls make death not a terrible image, but the core of human communion.