I was at the New York Philharmonic the other night for a Beethoven piano concerto and a Brahms symphony. (You too can hear the concert, at nyphil.org, YouTube and Facebook–or so a program footnote informs me.)
The program notes were written by James M. Keller, and read the way he looks (click on link, take a look at him, come back here): erudite, ebullient and fun.
The notes always include fascinating history about the piece of music we’re listening to, often quotes from the composers’ letters and/or friends, and photos of art related to the music.
For instance, the program is showing me a small B&W photo of what I’m sure is an immense full color portrait of an imperial Napoleon painted by Ingres. Tons of gilt, lots and lots of ermine. (Who does this remind you of? Who? I didn’t mean to do that, and I’m not a bit sorry I did.)
The Beethoven concerto was the Fifth, known as The Emperor–and Keller explains why: a possibly apocryphal story certainly infuriating to Beethoven, if he learned of it. But that’s how pieces of music often get their nicknames: some foreign invader in the audience at the premiere yells out.
But I wander. This is about Brahms, not Beethoven.
One page of the program is headed “At the Time. In 1892-83, as Brahms was composing his Symphony No. 3, the following were taking place…” The snippets of events are particularly entertaining. Some are eerily relevant. Isn’t everything, nowadays, as we get yanked back in time? Here are excerpts:
- In England…a new law, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, allows women to buy, own, and sell property.
- In the United States, one square mile of lower Manhattan is illuminated when Thomas Edison flips a switch at the first commercial electric power plan (hello, ConEd). Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, putting a stop to legal immigration of Chinese laborers, the first such restriction imposed nationally.
- In the United States, Life and Ladies’ Home Journal magazines are first published. The Brooklyn Bridge opens, and one week later rumors of the bridge’s collapse cause a stampeded in which 12 people die; P.T. Barnum later leads Jumbo the elephant over the bridge as a sign of its strength.
- In England, public outcry leads to the defeat in Parliament of a bill that would allow native judges in India to try Europeans.
- In Germany, the first social security law, designed by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, is enacted.