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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.

Scholar explores Hemingway family papers

By Mary Dearborn

As a fellow at the Ransom Center last year, independent scholar Mary V. Dearborn uncovered new information about the Hemingway family while studying the Ernest Hemingway collection and Leicester Hemingway’s New Atlantis collection. She’s currently working on a book based on her findings: The Hemingway Family: The Human Cost, which is scheduled for publication in 2011. Her research at the Ransom Center was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Dearborn says her book will “tell for the first time the hundred-year story of a tragic American family,” and shares some highlights from her research at the Ransom Center:

I was working in the Hemingway family papers, and I was astounded by what I found there. The papers were mostly Ernest’s mother’s, containing all her correspondence, records, and photographs. None of Hemingway’s previous biographers seem to have really looked at this material, perhaps dismissing it as “domestic” and thus trivial.

Grace Hemingway is usually written off as a cold, castrating shrew—the picture of her that her son wholesaled, blaming her for his father’s suicide. She was definitely difficult, but she was a fascinating woman, and her marriage was a complicated and nuanced relationship of power that Ernest learned a great deal from, for good and ill.

The added bonus is that in these papers there are numerous anecdotes and descriptions of Ernest’s upbringing, contributing to a far more well-rounded picture of the boy and young man than we have previously been given. Ernest once confided to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner, that he couldn’t write freely while his mother was still alive—not at all the impression he commonly gave out! Their relationship was, until her death in 1951, fraught and intense—and heretofore unexplored.

From the Galleries: Poe's "The Bells"

By Alicia Dietrich

The poems published just after Edgar Allan Poe’s death are among his most popular: “Annabelle Lee” and “The Bells.”

“The Bells” was written with the assistance of Poe’s good friend Loui Shew, whom he visited one evening in 1848, complaining that he lacked inspiration to write a poem. According to one version of the story, she offered the opening line and he completed the first stanza, she offered an opening line for the second stanza, and so on. “The Bells” is a masterpiece of onomatopoeia: the sounds of the words directly reflect the mood evoked by each bell described. This manuscript, which is featured in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition on Poe, shows the poem’s earliest form, which Poe eventually expanded to four stanzas.

You can listen to Charles Keating doing a reading here from The Big Read audio guide CD:

The Bells

Researching 1959

By Jennifer Tisdale

Fred Kaplan worked in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms while researching his book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which was released last month. He describes his work at the Center:

I came down to the Harry Ransom Center for a few days in the summer of 2008 as part of my research for a book that wound up being titled 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley, 2009). I focused mainly on the papers of Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. Without the materials that I found there, my book would have been less rich and complete than it is. Certain letters and diary entries in the Mailer papers forced me to revise my concept and chronology of where and when Mailer acquired or devised some of his most original and influential ideas. Poring through the Ginsberg papers, I was hoping to find connections between his poetry and two excitements of the era: jazz and space exploration. I found both.

Playwright Terrence McNally's connections

By Alicia Dietrich

Four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally is a frequent focus of theater news these days. This summer he completed a workshop production of his new drama, Unusual Acts of Devotion, at the La Jolla Playhouse, that starred Richard Thomas and Doris Roberts. His latest musical—a stage version of Catch Me If You Can, originally a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio—just closed in a workshop production in Seattle and will move to Broadway sometime in 2010. McNally will also be represented on Broadway this season by revivals of his musical Ragtime and his dramedy Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In March, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is mounting a mini-festival of his work titled “Three Nights at the Opera with Terrence McNally” that will include productions of his The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, and will feature a newly commissioned play focused on the opening night performance of Bellini’s I Puritani that will be titled The Golden Age.

McNally has thus far made three gifts of his papers to the Ransom Center, and researcher Raymond-Jean Frontain recently wrote an article about his work with the Ransom Center’s McNally papers. Frontain is a professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas, where he focuses on seventeenth-century literature.

So how does a specialist in seventeenth-century devotional literature find his way from the religious lyrics of John Donne to the work of contemporary playwright McNally?

“In 1993, I caught the Broadway production of A Perfect Ganesh with Frances Sternhagen, which was one of the most luminous performances that I had experienced in a long while,” Frontain explains. “The actor led me to the play. I’ve been exploring the religious bases of McNally’s drama ever since.”

Read Frontain’s article “Terrence McNally’s Connections,” in which he explores McNally’s relationship with John Steinbeck, Angela Lansbury, and others.

Poe Mania: View more than 4,000 Poe-related images, but "I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer"

By Alicia Dietrich

Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847
Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847

The Ransom Center has launched the Poe digital collection, where online visitors have the opportunity to see collection and exhibition items, ranging from manuscripts in Poe’s meticulous hand to his annotated copies of the “Tales and Poems” and “Eureka.” The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram, who curated the From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, shares his thoughts on Poe and the digital collection:

Edgar Allan Poe has always been a favorite author for visitors to the Ransom Center who want to see a few manuscripts but don’t have a formal research agenda. So many people find a personal connection with Poe. When I was nine, I discovered “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I loved the chill down the spine and Poe’s use of “big words” that sent me rushing to the dictionary. Here was an adult author who could also tell a good story!

Poe’s widespread popularity led us to mount digitized versions of all of his manuscripts at the Center, alongside printed copies of his works with his annotations and related materials. We anticipate considerable use of the digital collection by scholars and students, although much of the material has already been published. Whatever the reason for visiting the site, online viewers will be fascinated by Poe’s eerily precise and beautiful script (of course visitors to the Center can see the real thing in the upcoming exhibition devoted to Poe, opening September 8).

Many discoveries were made along the way as we assembled materials for the exhibition and the digital collection. We uncovered some uncataloged materials from the vast Poe collection of manuscripts and printed materials assembled by the Baltimore collector William H. Koester. Among these was a large group of sheet music based on Poe’s poems—these are now all online. Not to mention the book that Poe left by mistake in his doctor’s office shortly before his miserable death in Baltimore. It bears the mysterious notation “Augusta” (in quotes and not in Poe’s hand) on one page.

Even if you work your way through the collection and go on to read or re-read his works and letters, I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer. He remains fascinatingly elusive. There is, for example, the matter of his mysterious death from unknown causes, still under debate. Some critics regard him as a talented humbug, while others claim that he is the most original American author of his century. Take, for example, the manuscript of one of his lesser-known stories, “The Domain of Arnheim,” which is in the exhibition and online. No one can really tell if this is a carefully crafted work of literary irony directed against the excesses of Romantic prose, or an example of Poe’s own tendency to overblown rhetoric. For me, this very elusiveness is the essence of his appeal.

Apply for a fellowship at the Ransom Center and "watch works develop in their different stages"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center announces its application process for the more than 50 fellowships that are awarded annually to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must apply by February 1, 2010, and demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

Recent fellow Daniel Worden, who received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, describes his experience at the Ransom Center:

This summer, I worked in the Norman Mailer papers at the Harry Ransom Center, through the support of a Dorot Foundation Fellowship. This research trip allowed me to begin work on my new book project, “Cool Realism: The New Journalism and American Literary Culture.” This book will focus on literary non-fiction from the 1960s and 1970s that adopts techniques from fiction writing. Norman Mailer is key to this project, and the Ransom Center’s collections proved to be a perfect starting point for my research.

Since I was primarily interested in Mailer’s non-fiction writing, I was able to focus the first two weeks of my research on a few key texts, namely, The Armies of the Night, The Fight, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. On my first day at the Ransom Center, I was thrilled to find an early introduction to The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s book about the 1967 March on the Pentagon, that compared his journalistic method to Truman Capote’s, as realized in In Cold Blood. Mailer argued in this draft introduction that he relies less on fact and more on “mood” in documenting events. It is precisely this type of comparison, and the resulting ideas about what constitutes “true” writing and meaningful journalism, that I was hoping to find.

Working at the Ransom Center was a joy. The curators and librarians were incredibly helpful, and I was able to accomplish much during my stay because the environment at the Ransom Center is so conducive to archival work. As an added bonus, Austin is such a vibrant city—there was always something to do after the reading room closed.

Watch the video of Worden discussing his research and describing how one “can watch works develop in their different stages.”