Wednesday, July 27, 2016

"Charmed with their Civility and Beauty": Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 2


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (detail), by Jonathan Richardson (?), ca. 1719

The journey to Turkey

In August 1716 Edward Wortley Montagu was appointed British ambassador to the Ottoman court. Lady Mary and their three-year-old son accompanied him on the lengthy journey across Europe to the Ottoman capital, Constantinople.

Wortley's mission was to represent Britain in the peace negotiations that followed the Ottoman defeat by the forces of the Hapsburg Empire at the battle of Peterwardein, in what was then southeastern Hungary. As recently as 1683 Ottoman armies had besieged Vienna, and lately new conflicts had broken out between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers. The human cost of those conflicts was made vividly apparent to the Wortleys. Their route to the Ottoman lands crossed the Peterwardein battlefield, where the bodies of those slaughtered only a few months previously were still visible. Lady Mary wrote of
...the feild being strew'd with the Skulls and Carcases of unbury'd Men, Horses and Camels. I could not look without horror on such numbers of mangled humane bodys, and refflect on the Injustice of War, that makes murther not only necessary but meritorious. [1]
The public baths

Lady Mary approached Ottoman culture with an open mind, and found much to admire and even emulate. In Sofia, an Ottoman-held city about 150 miles from the frontier, she visited the "Hot Baths that are resorted to both for diversion and health." [2] Her experience of the baths is worth quoting at length:
I was in my travelling Habit, which is a rideing dress, and certainly appear'd very extrordinary to them, yet there was not one of 'em that shew'd the least surprize or impertinent Curiosity, but receiv'd me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European Court where the Ladys would have behav'd them selves in so polite a manner to a stranger. I beleive in the whole there were 200 Women and yet none of those disdainfull smiles or satyric whispers that never fail in our assemblys when any body appears that is not dress'd exactly in fashion...

The first sofas were cover'd with Cushions and rich Carpets, on which sat the Ladys, and on the 2nd their slaves behind 'em, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any Beauty or deffect conceal'd, yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest Gesture amongst 'em. They Walk'd and mov'd with the same majestic Grace which Milton describes of our General Mother [Eve in the Garden of Eden]. There were many amongst them as exactly proportion'd as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shineingly white, only adorn'd by their Beautifull Hair divided into many tresses hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or riband, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.

I was here convinc'd of the Truth of a Refflexion that I had often made, that if twas the fashion to go naked, the face would hardly be observ'd. I perceiv'd that the Ladys with the finest skins and most delicate shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, thô their faces were sometimes less beautifull that those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough to wish that Mr. Gervase [the painter Charles Jervas] could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improv'd his art to see so many fine Women naked in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking Coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their Cushions while their slaves (generally pritty Girls of 17 or 18) were employ'd in braiding their hair in several pritty manners. In short, tis the Women's coffee house, where all the news of the Town is told, Scandal invented, etc. They generally take this Diversion once a week, and stay there at least 4 or 5 hours without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cool room, which was very surprizing to me.

The Lady that seem'd the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would fain have undress'd me for the bath. I excus'd my selfe with some difficulty, they being all so earnest in perswading me. I was at last forc'd to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfy'd 'em very well, for I saw they beleiv'd I was so lock'd up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my Husband.

I was charm'd with their Civility and Beauty, and should have been very glad to pass more time with them... [3]
The contrast with contemporary British hygienic practices was stark. Immersion baths were uncommon in Britain at this time, and were generally taken while wearing a shift (rather than fully naked). It was more common for people to bathe using a sponge or cloth that had been dipped in a basin of cold water; warm baths were thought to be unhealthy. The pleasure Ottoman women took in bathing naked would indeed have been "surprizing."


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (detail), by Godfrey Kneller (?), ca. 1715

Smallpox inoculation

Lady Mary's observation that when surrounded by beautiful naked bodies she didn't pay much attention to faces is also worth noting. In late 1715 she had nearly died from a severe case of smallpox. The disease had left her face scarred and caused her "very fine eye-lashes" to fall out. She had been a celebrated beauty before the infection, with comment particularly focussing on her eyes (Alexander Pope had written that "other Beauties envy Wortley's Eyes"). [4] After her recovery she wrote a bitter eclogue, "Satturday, The Small Pox," whose refrain is "Now Beauty's Fled":
The wretched Flavia on her Couch reclin'd,
Thus breath'd the Anguish of a wounded mind.
A Glass revers'd in her right hand she bore;
For now she shunn'd the Face she sought before.
How am I chang'd! Alas, how am I grown
A frightfull Spectre to my selfe unknown! [5]
Worse, of course, than disfigurement was death: smallpox had very high fatality rates (nearly one-third of those who contracted the disease died) and was easily transmissable. It has been estimated that in the eighteenth century nearly half a million people died of smallpox in Europe every year.

From Adrianople, a city in northwest Turkey about 100 miles from Constantinople, Lady Mary wrote to her friend Sarah Chiswell about a curious practice she had witnessed:
The Small Pox so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting (which is the term they give it). There is a set of old Women who make it their business to perform the Operation...[T]he old Woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox and asks what veins you please to have open'd. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lye upon the head of the needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens 4 or 5 veins... [6]
Lady Mary reported that after about a week those inoculated come down with a mild form of the disease, and that the few telltale spots that appear "never mark." After another week or so, the patients "are as well as before their illness," and immune to the disease.
Every year thousands undergo this Operation...There is no example of any one that has dy'd in it, and you may beleive I am very well satisfy'd of the safety of the Experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little Son. I am Patriot enough to take pains to bring this usefull invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our Doctors very particularly about it if I knew any one of 'em that I thought had Virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their Revenue for the good of Mankind, but that Distemper is too beneficial to them not to expose to all their Resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps if I live to return I may, however, have courage to war with 'em. [7]
As Lady Mary foresaw, the struggle to establish smallpox inoculation in Britain would indeed be long and bitterly fought. Her biographer Isobel Grundy has written that her attempt to introduce inoculation after her return from Turkey became a "scandal":
This first step in preventative medicine stemmed not from scientific theory or the medical establishment, but from the female folk-practices of a culture both remote and despised. The battle to naturalize the new practice in England was fought out in the press with no holds barred. Not only was this no place for a lady; it was no place for a woman, since antifeminist rhetoric was one of the trustiest weapons of the anti-inoculation faction. This left another indelible mark on Lady Mary's reputation.

Conspicuous as an icon, she is hidden as an agent. The extent of her inoculation activity has to be inferred from hints in pamphlets and from the way her friends' children fill the roster of early inoculees. [8]
Later Lady Mary said that she "never would have attempted it, could she have foreseen the vexation, and even persecution, it was to bring on her." [9] British surgeons also insisted on "improving" the Turkish inoculation technique by making larger, more painful wounds, introducing a greater amount of infected matter, and accompanying the procedure with (unnecessary and dangerous) purging and bleeding.

Still, inoculation was so much a success that Lady Mary felt "much pull'd about and solicited to visit" those undergoing the procedure.  And ultimately her inoculation campaign was vindicated by the praise of no less a luminary than Voltaire. In his letter "On Inoculation" he described her as "a woman of as fine a genius, and end[ow]'d with as great a strength of mind as any of her sex in the British kingdoms." He further wrote that that "ten thousand children, at least, of persons of condition, owe in this manner their lives to her majesty [Princess Caroline of Wales, who set an example by inoculating her children in 1722] and to the lady Wortley Mountague." [10]

Next time: In the harem
Last time: "I tremble for what we are doing": Lady Mary's elopement



  1. Quoted in Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 133.
  2. Letter of 1 April 1717 to Lady —. From Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, p. 147.
  3. Letter of 1 April 1717 to Lady —. Selected Letters, pp. 148-149.
  4. Quoted in Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 101.
  5. Isobel Grundy, The Verse of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: A Critical Edition, Doctoral thesis, Oxford University, 1971, pp. 383-384.
  6. Letter of 1 April 1717 to Sarah Chiswell. Selected Letters, pp. 158-159.
  7. Letter of 1 April 1717 to Sarah Chiswell. Selected Letters, pp. 159-160.
  8. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. xix.
  9. Quoted in Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 220.
  10. Voltaire, Letters Concerning the English Nation, https://archive.org/stream/lettersconcerni00conggoog#page/n90/mode/2up

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"I tremble for what we are doing": Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 1


Portrait of a Lady, possibly Lady Mary Pierrepont (detail), studio of Charles Jervas (?)

Lady Mary Pierrepont Wortley Montagu is perhaps best known as "Sappho," the object of a misogynistic attack by Alexander Pope in his "Imitations of Horace" (1733). Pope wrote that the fate of her male acquaintances was to be either "P—x'd by her love, or libell'd by her hate." "P—x'd" can only be read as "poxed," a cruel reference to Lady Mary's disfigurement by smallpox, and also a salacious insinuation of venereal disease.

This vicious attack (who, in fact, is libelling by hate here?) has obscured most of what makes Lady Mary such an extraordinary figure: she was the medical heroine who introduced smallpox inoculation to Britain, saving thousands of lives. She was also an acclaimed poet, a woman noted for her learning and wit, and the first Western woman to give an account of Ottoman culture. And our understanding of Lady Mary's accomplishments is based on only a portion of her writing: her lifelong diaries, many of her letters and a work entitled "History of My Own Time" were burned, the last by Lady Mary herself.

Paradise, Hell, and Limbo

One reason Lady Mary, her family and her correspondents may have destroyed so much of her work is that she can be amazingly frank in her judgments of others and in the description of her own feelings. This frankness is apparent from the first group of her letters to have survived, those sent as a young woman to her girlfriends and to her wary, jealous, reproachful and censorious suitor Edward Wortley Montagu.

These letters read like something out of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747), although they were written almost forty years earlier. This was a connection Lady Mary made herself when, as an old woman, she read Richardson's novel a few years after it was published: "This Richardson is a strange fellow. I heartily despise him and eagerly read him, nay, sob over his works in a most scandalous manner. The 2 first Tomes of Clarissa touch'd me as being very ressembling to my Maiden Days." [1]

In Clarissa the heroine's father arranges her marriage with a man she not only doesn't love, but towards whom she has a positive aversion. Her father remains deaf to Clarissa's pleas to allow her to remain unmarried rather than force her to unite with a man she despises. In desperation she begins a secret correspondence with her suitor Lovelace in the hope that he can rescue her from her unhappy fate.

This situation has some remarkable parallels to that of Lady Mary. For young women of the aristocracy, potential marriage partners were generally selected by the male heads of families on the basis of financial, social and political advantages they would bring to the family. The daughters whose happiness was involved were rarely consulted.

As Lady Mary's biographer and editor Isobel Grundy writes, "[Mary's friend] Philippa Mundy shared with Mary and [Mary's sister] Frances a playful secret code for use in their letters, in which Paradise meant marriage for love, Hell meant marriage with reluctance and detestation, and Limbo meant marriage with indifference. Each of the three confided in the others about a Paradise whom she truly loved. But none of them expected to be able to marry her Paradise, and none of them did." [2]

Edward Wortley Montagu was not Lady Mary's Paradise, but Limbo. He was the eldest surviving son of a prominent and wealthy family and a friend of the writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. He was also the brother of Anne Wortley, a woman Lady Mary had "tenderly lov'd" but who had died during the winter of 1710. Edward, who had taken over his sister's correspondence with Lady Mary, entered into marriage negotiations with Lady Mary's father a few months after Anne's death. The proposed financial settlements had broken down, however, and ultimately Wortley broke off contact with Lady Mary for more than a year.


Portrait of Lady Mary Pierrepont as a shepherdess (detail), by Godfrey Kneller, ca. 1712

In the meantime, Lady Mary's father arranged a marriage which she considered Hell to a man with the infelicitous name of Clotworthy Skeffington. In the summer of 1712, as the settlements with Skeffington were being made final, Wortley began secretly sending letters to Lady Mary again. He apparently asked Lady Mary if she was still interested in marrying him; she replied,
...I am very far from a thought of what you seem to hint at the end of your Letter. My Family is resolv'd to dispose of me where I hate. I have made all the Opposition in my power; perhaps I have carry'd that opposition too far. However it is, things were carry'd to that height, I have been assur'd of never haveing a shilling, except I comply...That Threat would not have oblig'd me to consent, if it had not been joyn'd with an Assurance of makeing my Maiden Life as miserable as lay in their power, that is so much in their power I am compell'd to submit...

You see, Sir, the Esteem I have for you. I have ventur'd to tell you the whole secret of my Heart...By this real and sincere Account of my Affairs you may see I have no design of any Engagement beyond freindship with you, since should we agree, tis now impossible, my fortune only following my obedience. [3]
Wortley continued to write to her, though, and she wrote back with further details:
I see all the Misfortune of marrying where it is impossible to Love...I said every thing...I thought proper to move him [her father], and proffer'd in attonement for not marrying whom he would, never to marry at all...He told me he was very much supriz'd that I did not depend on his Judgment for my future happynesse, that he knew nothing I had to complain of etc., that he did not doubt I had some other fancy in my head which encourag'd me to this disobedience, but he assur'd me if I refus'd a settlement he has provided for me, he gave me his word, whatever proposalls were made him, he would never so much as enter into a Treaty with any other; that if I founded any hopes [for inheritance] upon his death, I should find my selfe mistaken...

...I told him that I prefer'd a single life to any other, and if he pleas'd to permit me, I would take that Resolution. He reply'd, he could not hinder my resolutions, but I should not pretend after that to please him, since pleaseing him was only to be done by Obedience; that if I would disobey, I knew the consequences — he would not fail to confine me where I might repent at Leisure....

He spoke this in a manner hinder'd my answering. I retir'd to my chamber, where I writ a letter to let him know my Aversion to the Man propos'd was too great to be overcome, that I should be miserable beyond all things could be imagin'd, but I was in his hands, and he might dispose of me as he thought fit. — He was perfectly satisfy'd with this Answer, and proceeded as if I had given a willing consent. [4]
Soon she began to see Wortley as her only possible escape from Hell. The marriage settlements with Skeffington were about to be signed; the marriage would follow only days afterwards. Wortley, though, did not seem to grasp that a crisis was at hand, or perhaps he was wavering. "You talk of next Winter. All the preparations for the finishing of this hard Affair are allready concluded," she wrote him on August 2. "If you have anything to say, write by the same direction. It must be soon. When I go into the Country, tis in order to —" [5]

The elopement

Four days later, she wrote him a bold declaration: "I will venture all things for you." [6] Eloping seemed the only way out, although it would sever her from her family and many of her friends and leave her financially dependent on Wortley. He, though, was still waffling: eloping meant that he would gain nothing monetarily from the marriage. Even at this late date he was holding out hope that her father would negotiate with him; Lady Mary had to repeatedly try to disabuse him of that notion.

His uncertainty placed her in a precarious position. In the middle of her clandestine correspondence with Wortley she wrote Philippa, "Limbo is better than Hell. My Adventures are very odd; I may go into Limbo if I please, but tis accompanny'd with such circumstances, my courage will hardly come up to it, yet perhaps it may. In short I know not what will become of me." [7] She wrote to Wortley on August 11, "Consult your own heart, and let that determine you." [8]

But her heart was in turmoil. "I tremble for what we are doing," she wrote him on August 15. "Are you sure you will love me forever? Shall we never repent? I fear, and I hope." [9]

Her correspondence with Wortley may have been betrayed to her father, because on August 17 he told her in anger that the next day she would be sent from Acton, then just west of London, to the family's place in West Dean, about 45 miles to the southwest. She wrote to Wortley early in the morning of August 18, "I send you this Letter at 5 a Clock, while the whole family is asleep. I am stole from my Sister to tell you we shall not go till 7, or a little before. If you can come to the same place any time before that, I may slip out...If this is impracticable, Adeiu, I fear for ever." [10]

Although Lady Mary watched from her balcony for an hour, Montagu did not come in time. But a short time later, on horseback, he followed the route of her carriage. That evening he stopped at the same inn at which she was staying, but she had already gone to bed. He contrived to get a note to her early the next morning; she wrote back, "Why did you not bring a coach etc. to be set up at another Inn? I would fain come but fear being stopp'd." [11] Her travelling companions, her brother and a new lady's maid, had orders to watch her closely and made it impossible for her to get away. She continued on in their company to West Dean, and wrote to Wortley the next day, "We have more ill luck than any other people...All things conspire against the unfortunate, but if you are still determined, I still hope it may be possible one way or another...Adeiu. I am entirely yours if you please." [12]

A few days later she stole away from the house to Wortley's carriage waiting for her on the road. They drove to Salisbury, only a few miles away, where they were married the same day.

Two months later her sister Frances wrote to Philippa, "...she's perfectly happy, and it seems has found paradise...when she expected but limbo." [13] On their first anniversary, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote to her husband, "This night last year I gave my selfe to you; was that to do again I would repeat the Gift, thô from all Mankind I could chuse a Master." [14]

Only later would disillusionment come.

Next time: "Charm'd by their Civility and Beauty": The journey to Turkey



  1. Letter of 22 September 1755 from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to her daughter Lady Bute. From Montagu, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, p. 415.
  2. Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 25. 
  3. Letter of 11 June 1712 from Lady Mary Pierrepont to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 66.
  4. Letter of 26 July 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, pp. 68-69.
  5. Letter of 2 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 71.
  6. Letter of 6 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 73.
  7. Letter of August 1712 to Philippa Mundy, Selected Letters, p. 80.
  8. Letter of 11 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 81.
  9. Letter of 15 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 87.
  10. Letter of 18 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 92.
  11. Letter of 19 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 94.
  12. Letter of 20 August 1712 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, pp. 94-95.
  13. Selected Letters, p. 95, note 2. 
  14. Letter of 23 August 1713 to Edward Wortley Montagu, Selected Letters, p. 111.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Opera Urns

The opera urns being filled in the basement of the Paris Opera, Dec. 24, 1907. Photo from the NY Times.

Format wars

In my lifetime I've seen the rise and fall of many formats of recorded music, from LPs and singles to cassettes to compact discs to DVD-Audio to digital streaming to the vinyl revival. Different formats have always existed simultaneously, and it hasn't always been clear which new format had a sufficient commercial or technological advantage to dominate the market: remember Laserdiscs from the early 1980s, MiniDiscs from the early 1990s, or Super Audio CDs from the early 2000s?

Such format wars have been fought since the advent of recorded sound. In the first decade of the 20th century the dominant audio format was the Edison wax cylinder. But a new technology was beginning to make inroads into the market: the shellac gramophone disc. Gramophone discs were becoming popular thanks in large part to a rising young Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, who was recorded in the new format by one of Edison's commercial rivals, the Gramophone Company. Caruso was the gramophone's killer app: the ten recordings issued from his first session in 1902 were international hits and fueled the sales of both playback machines and discs.


The 1907 urns. Photo from BnF, Le feuilleton des urnes de l’Opéra: 2, by Pascal Lafay / BnF

The opera urns

It was in the middle of the Gramophone Company's marketing struggle to establish their format over cylinders and competing disc systems that its president, Alfred Clark, had the idea for a brilliant publicity stunt: a gramophone time capsule. In 1907 he offered 24 discs to be placed in hermetically-sealed metal canisters, or "urns," to be stored in the basement of the Paris Opera and opened in 100 years.

The ostensible purposes were scientific (to demonstrate to future generations the current "state of sound-recording devices") and cultural (to preserve "the voices of the foremost singers of our age"). The more immediate purpose, of course, was to gain free publicity for the Gramophone Company and the imprimatur of the Paris Opera and the French government for the company's audio system and recording catalog. It worked so well that in 1912 Clark donated another 24 discs, plus a gramophone, spare needles, and instructions for playback.

Over the decades the four urns sat neglected in a basement storage room at the Opera. As time passed, of course, audio technology continued to change. Electrical recording using microphones replaced acoustic recording using horns in the mid-1920s; magnetic tape, which made it possible to edit audio performances, was invented in the 1930s and commercialized in the 1940s; vinyl long-playing 33⅓ rpm records were introduced in the late 1940s, and soon replaced 78s; stereo was developed in the late 1950s and quadraphonic sound in the early 1970s; and the compact disc debuted in the 1980s.

In 1989, during renovations at the Paris Opera, the basement storage room was entered and the urns were rediscovered. One of the urns had been broken into, and the gramophone had been taken; the remaining three were moved to the Bibliothèque Nationale.

After remaining sealed for a century, two of the urns were opened in 2007. It was discovered that the records had been separated by glass plates (many of which were now broken) and wrapped in asbestos cloth (!), rendering them unplayable without extensive (and hazardous) cleaning and restoration.

The cleaning of the recordings. Photo from BnF, Le feuilleton des urnes de l’Opéra: 3, by D. Cueco/BnF

However, each of the two urns (one from 1907 and one from 1912) contained a list of all the titles that had been included in those years, and so it was possible to find matches for all of the recordings in existing collections. In 2009, EMI Classics, a corporate descendant of the Gramophone Company, issued a three-CD set of the music contained in the urns (Les Urnes de l'Opéra, 50999 206267 2 3).

Emil Berliner with an early prototype of his invention, the gramophone acoustic recording system

The recordings

The first thing to say about these recordings is that it's amazing to be able to hear legendary singers such as Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Emma Calvé, Pol Plançon, and Feodor Chaliapin. However, ears accustomed to modern stereo sound must definitely make adjustments when encountering historic recordings.

In The Grand Tradition: Seventy years of singing on record, 1900-1970 (Scribner's, 1974), J. B. Steane quotes the soprano Emma Eames on what it was like during gramophone recording sessions:
To a sensitive person the conditions were unnerving. We had to sing carefully into the very center of a horn to the accompaniment of an orchestra that inevitably sounded out of tune, owing to the fact that metal horns were substituted for the wooden sounding-boxes of the violins. In the case of a brilliant and vibrant voice like mine, as one approached the climax, or high note, the climax was turned into an anti-climax for fear of a blast, so-called; one was gently drawn back from the horn, so that instead of a ringing high note one sounded as though one had suddenly retired into the next room. The process enervated me, as I felt that with even the most satisfactory results, my voice would be diminished and deformed, and the cross-vibrations eliminated completely. (p. 9)
The sound of a gramophone recording was also "diminished and deformed" in other ways. Arias were shortened because the discs could only hold about four minutes of music on a side. Orchestras were reduced in size, because the acoustic horn could not easily pick up sounds from more than about ten feet away. Brass and wind instruments were substituted for string instruments because acoustic recordings couldn't capture either high or low frequencies very well. This limitation also affected the sound of the singers' voices, as Steane describes:
The distortions of 'pre-electrical' recording (that is, the 'acoustic' process prevalent until electric recording was established in 1925) affect the singer's tone, intonation and artistic freedom. The frequency range was limited so that a voice would be shorn of the full richness of its harmonics....A voice remarkable for its purity of tone, as [Nellie] Melba's was, would be reduced to something pipelike when the harmonics were cut; a contralto whose voice was naturally rich would sound plummy as the edge was blunted; a bass would seem hollow or wooden when the qualities that made for a rich depth were removed. Tenors generally came off best; the characteristic tenor sound is bright-edged, and the voice is well in the middle of the gramophone's frequency range. (p. 7)

Enrico Caruso in 1910

That tenors' voices were reproduced relatively faithfully is a key reason why Caruso's recordings became such huge hits. It's still possible to hear what contemporary listeners found so thrilling about his records. Here is an example from Urn 3: Caruso singing "Celeste Aida" from Act I of Verdi's Aida, recorded in 1908:



This recording was restored by Bob Varney and made available by the invaluable Internet Archive.

Nellie Melba in 1902

But as Emma Eames suggests, the recording process could be less kind to sopranos. From Urn 2, here is Caruso's frequent partner Nellie Melba in "Caro nome" from Act I of Verdi's Rigoletto, recorded in 1907:



The digital transfer of this recording was done by Tim Ecker and the clip is made available by Internet Archive.

Steane says of Melba's recordings that "for all their faults and limitations they present a marvelous singer" (p. 40). Interpretive questions aside, Steane writes that "hers was the purest and firmest of voices, the most perfect scale, the most exact trill." But he also writes that "the occasional faults are mercilessly exposed when such a voice as hers is shorn of its natural harmonics by the old recording process." Certainly the passage from about 1:02 to 1:14 doesn't seem to display the "accurate intonation" that "all contemporary accounts mention...as one of her outstanding characteristics" (all quotes p. 37). My ears have not yet fully adapted to the sound of historic recordings, but I would agree that on this recording Melba's voice sounds "pipelike" and "hollow"; on this evidence, it's not apparent why Steane judges Melba to be this era's "best of all recorded singers" (p. 37).

The recording limitations can also, to my ears, flatten not only the voices but the sense of immediacy and drama. From Urn 3 here is "Addio, dolce svegliare alla mattina" (Goodbye, sweet awakening I knew each morning) from Act III (not Act IV as the CD booklet has it) of Puccini's La bohème, recorded in 1907. In this scene Mimi (Geraldine Farrar) and Rodolfo (Enrico Caruso) are bidding each other a farewell so tender that it leads to a reconciliation, while at the same time in the background (beginning at about 1:25) Marcello (Antonio Scotti) and Musetta (Gina Viafora) are having a nasty breakup. But because all of the singers had to crowd around the horn in order to be heard, there can be no background. For me, this lessens the poignancy (and humor) of the scene:




This recording was restored by Bob Varney and made available by the Internet Archive.

The selection

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Verdi (whose operas were frequently performed then and now) is the composer with the greatest representation: 11 recordings among the 48 discs. And as you might imagine, Francophone composers were also well represented. Charles Gounod leads this group with seven recordings, and overall there are 28 sides featuring French music.

It's not clear who made the selection of the recordings. Were the selections made by the Gramophone Company's Clark in order to gain approval for the project from the staff of the Paris Opera and French government officials? Or did he allow the Opera staff or the officials themselves to make the choices? There is no indication in anything I've read about the opera urns; perhaps at this distance from the original events it is unknowable.

Whatever the case, we can be grateful that the selector(s) included recordings of Reynaldo Hahn singing and accompanying himself on two songs. From Urn 4, here is Hahn singing Emmanuel Chabrier's "L'île heureuse" (The island of happiness), recorded in 1909:



Recordings like this one remove the barriers of time and technology that separate us from these performers, and let us experience their art with a surprising vividness and immediacy.

Many thanks to M. Lapin, who sent me the EMI set along with his own translation of its booklet essay by Elizabeth Giuliani, Directeur du département de la Musique of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, together with Alan Riding's New York Times article about the urns.

Information in this post is taken from those sources, the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and from J. B. Steane's The Grand Tradition.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Do men deserve women?: Amrita Rao in Love U...Mr. Kalakaar!

Amrita Rao in Love U...Mr. Kalakaar!

Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! (Love U...Mr. Artist!, 2011; written and directed by S. Manasvi) is the latest Amrita Rao film to ask the question: are men deserving of women?

In Ishq Vishk (Love and all that, 2003), Rajiv (Shahid Kapoor) must finally realize that his pursuit of popularity (and a popular girlfriend with whom he has little in common) is empty. To win back his childhood sweetheart Payal (Rao), whose true love he has spurned, he has to muster the courage to make a huge and public apology/confession to her. In Main Hoon Na (I'm here now, 2004), Laxman (Zayed Khan) isn't aware that his tomboyish college buddy Sanjana (Rao) is in love with him. Like Rajiv, Laxman must understand the shallowness of his pursuit of girlfriends for their looks, and recognize Sajana's devotion and inner beauty (though her outer makeover from jeans and t-shirts to salwar kameez doesn't hurt).

And in Vivah (Marriage, 2006), on the eve of her marriage to Prem (Shahid Kapoor), Poonam (Rao) is terribly burned while rescuing her sister from a raging house fire. Prem, hearing of the disaster, rushes to the hospital. In an inversion of the Ram-Sita story, the trial by fire becomes a test of Prem's worthiness of Poonam:


https://youtu.be/cgJ3c1OwyA0?t=4m56s
(Warning: if you follow this link rather than viewing the embedded video,
you may want to stop watching at 9:00 to avoid a mild spoiler)

Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! makes literal the test of the man's worthiness, with the twist that instead of proving himself to his partner, he must also prove himself to her father. Successful industrialist Deshraj Diwan (Ram Kapoor) values one quality above all others:

Discipline is the most important

But his daughter Ritu (Rao) falls for a man who is her father's opposite: the unbusinesslike artist Sahil (Tusshar Kapoor). On a couples trek she urges him to embrace the moment and open his heart to her in "Bhoore Bhoore Badal" (Gathering clouds):


The music is by Sandesh Sandilya, with lyrics by Manoj Muntashir; the playback singers are Shreya Ghoshal and Kunal Ganjawala.

This moment in the story, where Ritu and Sahil are tentatively reaching out to one another, each clearly attracted but unsure of the other's feelings, is one of the best parts of the film. Not coincidentally, it is told largely from Ritu's perspective, and draws on Rao's ability to make her character immediately sympathetic.

One thing I noticed in trying to take screencaps of the film is that it is hard to catch Rao holding a fixed expression. "Bhoore Bhoore Badal" is a perfect example: Rao doesn't pose for the camera; instead she fully inhabits her character, and at every moment her face is expressive of the mix of emotions Ritu is feeling. Rao's acting is very natural; she is animated without overemoting. This ability to portray small, fleeting emotions as well as large ones is one of the qualities that makes her so appealing as an actress.

The growing love between Sahil and Ritu does not make her father a happy man. He is worried that Sahil will be a failure:

An artist ends up selling himself but is unable to sell his art

He sets Sahil a trial: he will be given three months as managing director of Diwan Enterprises. If at the end of that time the company shows a greater than typical profit, Sahil can marry Ritu; if he fails, he will be banished from her life. (Never mind the unlikelihood that the "Businessman of the Decade" would endanger his 1000-employee firm in this way, or that either Sahil or Ritu would agree to this unfair arrangement.)

As if the trial weren't difficult enough, Mr. Diwan adds three other hurdles. He provides Sahil with a secretary, Charu (Snigdha Akolkar), who has been instructed to flaunt her ample charms:

Charu offering Sahil a pen

He also separates the lovers by sending Ritu away for a month to visit her grandfather (Prem Chopra). And he asks Ritu's old friend Aman (Prashant Ranyal), who clearly still carries a torch for her, to keep her company.

While these rather obvious machinations don't work, after just one month Sahil is failing his test. Unwilling to place the livelihoods of the employees at further risk, and despairing of his ability to rise to the challenge, he is ready to resign and sacrifice his love. Only Ritu's last-minute return saves Sahil, and the couple—at least temporarily.

Sahil is given the task of selecting three employees from an underperforming unit to be fired. Not only is this a nearly impossible choice for the sensitive Sahil, it is Diwale, and he can't bring himself to lay off workers in the middle of the holidays.

It is also Ritu's birthday. In "Tera Intezaar" (I've been waiting for you) Aman straps on his old guitar and confesses his feelings for Ritu. "I've been waiting for you all along," he sings. "I've been yearning for you...let me fill your life with happiness."

While on the surface "Tera Intezaar" is a somewhat generic Latin-flavored disco number, it is staged by director Manasvi as its own mini-drama. Ritu—concerned by Sahil's absence and troubled by Aman's overtures, which obviously have her father's approval—leaves the party and calls Sahil. Charu answers instead. At first she tries to convince Ritu that she and Sahil are "working late," but she soon confesses that they really are working late: Sahil is trying to negotiate a solution that will allow all of the workers to be retained but still meet the budget. On hearing this news Ritu returns beaming to the party and dances with Aman. When she sings about yearning for her lover's passionate embrace, Aman imagines that she is addressing him—but she is thinking only of Sahil:



The playback singers are Mohit Chauhan and Shivangi Kashyap. Even with its somewhat awkward choreography, this number shows off Rao's grace and precision as a dancer—already abundantly evident in Main Hoon Na's near-continuous-take "Chale Jaise Hawaien" and "Tumse Milke"—not to mention her ability to rock a vintage hairstyle.

As is probably apparent by now, Rao is by far the best reason to watch Love U...Mr. Kalakaar!. Her Ritu is smart, steadfast, and good-hearted. Sahil should clearly never be allowed to make a major financial decision—at least, not one affecting anyone else—but Ritu's openness, empathy and sound judgment provide Sahil with much-needed support. And it is her support and wise guidance that gives him the courage to stand up to her father and do his best to succeed, on his own terms. Perhaps in the end Sahil has to prove that he is deserving of Ritu's love not only to her father, but to himself.

But like its hero the movie faces three hurdles, and it stumbles at each one. The first is the implausibility of the premise (although despite this Rao still manages to make us care about the fate of these characters). The second is Sandilya's largely unmemorable music, "Bhoore Bhoore Badal" excepted. But the final (and for some viewers, no doubt fatal) issue is Tusshar Kapoor's stolidity as Sahil. It's hard to believe that this guy is a passionate artist, or passionate anything. Rao could generate chemistry with a brick wall, but it's too bad Sahil couldn't have been played by a more expressive actor such as her Ishq Vishk and Vivah co-star Shahid Kapoor. Sahil may ultimately show that he is worthy of Ritu, but on the evidence of Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! Tusshar Kapoor still has work to do to show that he deserves the role of leading man.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Kim Gordon: Girl in a Band


Sonic Youth always seemed to exude an aloof, supercilious cool, which is perhaps why some people can't stand them. In part because I too was put off by the band's air of self-importance, it took me a while to appreciate their music. What finally won me over in the late 1980s, though, was not only their glorious guitar squall, but bass player Kim Gordon's voice: half-talking, half off-key singing. Her delivery suggested a certain vulnerability behind the bravado, and an unwillingness to care that she didn't have a conventionally "good" voice. While Thurston Moore's drawling sneer could be annoying, Gordon's hoarse whisper, occasionally rising to a strangulated shout (on, for example, Sonic Youth's cover of the Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on 1983's Confusion is Sex), was compelling.

Here's a sample: "Starpower," from Sonic Youth's breakthrough album Evol (1985):



Sonic Youth was always half-great and half-... well, not. (Evol as an album title is a case in point.) This half-great, half-not problem crops up again and again in their music and self-presentation, and it's also an issue with Gordon's memoir. Girl in a Band (Dey Street, 2015) is really two books: the first is the story of how Sonic Youth came to be formed and and then managed to stay together for 30 years. The second is a breakup memoir about the end of Gordon's marriage to guitarist Moore and the resulting split-up of the band in 2011.

Clearly Gordon's impetus for writing the book was her divorce, but the most interesting part of the book (and of the story of the band) is not how it ends, but how it begins: Gordon's description of her troubled family dynamics, the confusions of growing up in LA in the 1960s and 70s, and coming to New York in 1980 to make art and music.

The title, by the way, is taken from an interview question Gordon was asked repeatedly during Sonic Youth's heyday: "What’s it like to be a girl in a band?" She was hardly a girl, of course: when she met Moore and formed the band she was 27. There had been women rock musicians before Gordon, and in the punk and postpunk era The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Au Pairs, and Kleenex/Liliput—and in New York, Mars, Ut, the Bush Tetras, and The Bloods, among others—featured women as songwriters, instrumentalists and singers. But in the 1980s as lower Manhattan was beginning to gentrify and as the punk and No Wave scenes were dissipating, Gordon assumed a particular prominence. This despite the effort it cost her to stand in front of an audience, especially at the start:
When I first began playing onstage, I was pretty self-conscious. I was just trying to hold my own with the bass guitar, hoping the strings wouldn't snap, that the audience would have a good experience. I wasn't conscious of being a woman, and over the years I can honestly say I almost never think of "girliness" unless I'm wearing high heels, and then I'm more likely to feel like a transvestite. When I'm at my most focused onstage, I feel a sense of space with edges around it, a glow of self-confident, joyful sexiness. It feels bodiless, too, all weightless grace with no effort required. (p. 125)
...the only really good performance is one where you make yourself vulnerable while pushing beyond your familiar comfort zone. I liken it to having an intense, hyper-real dream, where you step off a cliff but don't fall to your death. (p. 132)

Steve Shelley, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth

When it reaches the point of Gordon's discovery of Moore's betrayal of their marriage, though, Girl in a Band cannot avoid the banality of a midlife crisis narrative. Contrary to Tolstoy, unhappy families are often alike. This is not to question how hurtful this experience must have been for Gordon: "It was like a nightmare you don't ever wake up from...—just like in the movies, only this was painfully real" (p. 252).

Moore, a middle-aged husband and father, had begun having an affair with a younger woman. When Gordon discovered incriminating texts and confronted him about the other woman, "...he denied it, then admitted it, then promised things were all over between them. It was a pattern that would happen over and over again. I wanted to believe him" (p. 252).

Gordon's sense of betrayal and hurt are clearly still raw. But what's also clear is that once her trust in Moore was destroyed, the marriage was over, even if she didn't yet recognize it: "...I had told Thurston that as someone who had been betrayed by him, I felt I had every right to look at his laptop, especially if, as he kept saying, he had nothing to hide" (p. 254). Gordon doesn't seem to be aware of how counterproductive her vigilance is. When you are reduced to searching your partner's e-mails and texts for evidence of his or her infidelity, your relationship is done whether they are lying or not.


The book is also peppered with Gordon's dismayingly superficial musings about larger historical and cultural events. Here are some samples, chosen more or less at random:
  • "Female singers who push too much, and too hard, don't tend to last very long. They're jags, bolts, comets: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday" (p. 127).
Janis Joplin died at age 27 only three years after coming to prominence at the Monterey Pop Festival, so no argument there. But although Billie Holiday also died far too young—she was only 44—at the time of her death she had been performing professionally for 30 years, and had recorded hundreds of songs. Tragic as her death was, she was not exactly a bolt of lightning streaking across the sky.
  • "The crack of idealism between the performer and the audience signaled the end of the 1960s. Altamont, inner-city riots, Watts, Detroit, the Manson murders, the Isle of Wight Festival" (p. 260).
This is a very strange statement on many levels. Not least of which is the clear indication that neither Gordon nor her editors bothered to consult even Wikipedia. The Watts riots were in 1965, and the Detroit riots were in 1967—both too early to signal the end of The Sixties, particularly if you think that the decade began (in pop culture terms) with the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964.

But apart from the factual slippage, is Joni Mitchell crying during her Isle of Wight Festival set due to the audience's indifference or hostility equivalent to the deaths of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, the 34 people killed during the Watts riots, the 43 people killed in the Detroit riots, or the five people slaughtered by the Manson cult?
  • "The 1970s were the first era that learned how to exploit youth culture, and it was the birthplace of corporate rock" (p. 260).
Really? There was no corporate rock or exploitation of youth culture before the 1970s? In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Brill Building was essentially an assembly line for the creation of hit singles using interchangeable performers. I also seem to recall a group called the Monkees, formed in 1965 by two TV producers, and another group called the Archies created in 1968 for a comic-book cartoon series. (Both groups were immensely popular: both achieved #1 singles, and the Monkees had four #1 albums within a 12-month period in 1967 and 1968.)

Gordon's lazy and lazily-expressed ideas, together with occasional lapses into Artforum-speak ("the three of them [Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler] eschewed the conceptual mantle of seventies formalism and mixed high and low culture"), detract from what is most powerful in her book: the articulation of her experience as a girl—or rather, a woman, a writer, a musician, a mother, and a visual artist—in a band:
From the beginning, music for me was visceral. I loved playing music. When it was going well, it was an almost ecstatic experience. What could be better than sharing that feeling of transcendence with a man I was so close to in all other areas of my life, someone who was having the same experience? It was a feeling impossible to communicate with someone outside the two of us. I wanted deliverance, the loss of myself, the capacity to be inside that music. It was the same power and sensation you feel when a wave takes you up and pushes you someplace else. (p. 146)
At its unsettling best Sonic Youth's music can feel exactly like a slowly building wave of sound, both harshly dissonant and ethereal. "On the Strip," from 1992's Dirty: