He hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. Her name was Boali. She was five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. Then they killed his wife too. And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalized both Boali and her mother. And they presented Nsala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once living body of his darling child whom he so loved. His life was destroyed. They had partially destroyed it anyway by forcing his servitude but this act finished it for him. All of this filth had occurred because one man, one man who lived thousands of miles across the sea, one man who couldn’t get rich enough, had decreed that this land was his and that these people should serve his own greed. Leopold had not given any thought to the idea that these African children, these men and women, were our fully human brothers, created equally by the same Hand that had created his own lineage of European Royalty.
Of all the unfathomable atrocities of the 20th century, there are but a few that feel entirely separate from the tides of history and ideology. The genocide perpetrated on the orders of Leopold II of Belgium for his own personal profit is surely one of the most relentlessly bleak stories of all time, but still one that should be more widely known. Here is a brief article about the genocide:
The third modern olympiad, despite the dropping of such noble sports as kite flying, pigeon racing, cannon shooting and fire fighting, is still talked about as one of the strangest and most misguided sporting events in history.
A few reasons:
The games was moved from the fairly reasonable location of Chicago to the comparative backwater of St Louis, Missouri in order to coincide with the Worlds’ Fair being held there. Consequently most countries didn’t take the event seriously enough to send any athletes
The fair featured a ‘human zoo’ where African exchange students dressed up in tribal costumes and acted out an imagining of tribal life for paying visitors. This apparently not being dehumanising enough, the games organisers made these non-athlete exchange students compete in sporting events, in order to demonstrate that “the savage has been a very much overrated man from an athletic point of view” (to repeat once more, 1900s America was really racist)
A lack of clarity as to what constituted the ‘Olympics’ meant that the competition ended up stretching over an indeterminate period of time up to around 6 months
Some competitors were discovered to be imposters, including local boxing hero Caroll Burton.
George Eyser earned three gold medals in gymnastics, despite being encumbered with a wooden leg
The most bizarre and unforgivable moment in the games, however, was the marathon, which proved to be a perfect storm of poor planning, pseudoscience, lack of concern for human wellbeing and sheer bad luck. – a few highlights from this truly astonishing account of the race:
William Garcia of California nearly became the first fatality of an Olympic marathon we he collapsed on the side of the road and was hospitalized with hemorrhaging; the dust had coated his esophagus and ripped his stomach lining. Had he gone unaided an hour longer he might have bled to death. John Lordon suffered a bout of vomiting and gave up. Len Tau, one of the South African participants, was chased a mile off course by wild dogs… At the nine-mile mark cramps plagued Lorz, who decided to hitch a ride in one of the accompanying automobiles, waving at spectators and fellow runners as he passed… Hicks came under the care of a two-man support crew at the 10-mile mark. He begged them for a drink but they refused, instead sponging out his mouth with warm distilled water. Seven miles from the finish, his handlers fed him a concoction of strychnine and egg whites… Meanwhile, Lorz, recovered from his cramps, emerged from his 11-mile ride in the automobile. One of Hicks’ handlers saw him and ordered him off the course, but Lorz kept running and finished with a time of just under three hours. The crowd roared and began chanting, “An American won!” Alice Roosevelt, the 20-year-old daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, placed a wreath upon Lorz’s head and was just about to lower the gold medal around his neck when, one witness reported, “someone called an indignant halt to the proceedings with the charge that Lorz was an impostor.” The cheers turned to boos. Lorz smiled and claimed that he had never intended to accept the honor; he finished only for the sake of a “joke.”… Hicks’ trainers gave him another dose of strychnine and egg whites, this time with some brandy to wash it down… He began hallucinating, believing that the finish line was still 20 miles away. In the last mile he begged for something to eat. Then he begged to lie down. He was given more brandy but refused tea… His trainers carried him over the line, holding him aloft while his feet moved back and forth, and he was declared the winner.
A man, a plan, a canal; Panama! Not just a palindrome, but a rejected heading for this blog post. 1904 saw the apex of Theodore Roosevelt’s super-sized presidency with work finally beginning on the digging of a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – a project whose scale remains impressive in 2018.
Here is a History Channel documentary on the building of the thing
…and here’s Teddy hanging out at the site, having dug the entire thing himself without catching malaria or yellow fever or even getting a smudge on his snappy suit.
This month’s mix features one of the only recordings in existence by a ‘castrato’ – a man who was castrated as a youth in order to maintain his choirboy-like vocal range. Most recordings featured in my mixes have little, if any, information available about them, and few of the artists even have a biography online, but Alessandro Moreschi has multiple books and documentaries dedicated to him. Naturally, this is less to do with his qualities as a performer than the sheer alienness of his existence to a 21st century audience. The music industry has done some terrible things recently, but the idea of permanently mutilating children in order to dedicate them to a life as an artist has such a bizarre combination of brutality and aestheticism to it that it’s simply incomprehensible that people could let such things happen. But with the horrors of the 20th century in mind, we should know that humans are capable of this and worse.
And of course there’s the curiosity. The sound of an extinct (human) creature lost to time until these recordings emerged, and then, well… Most listeners – that is, people interested in the history of opera, so not exactly representative of the public at large – find Moreschi’s voice not only strange, but actually not very nice to listen to. It isn’t just in a higher octave, the manner of singing is distinctly different, highly mannered, with a deliberately emotional style which sounds like the cheesiest of melodrama. Judging Moreschi on these lines betrays an understandable lack of experience of listening to opera recordings from the first years of the 20th Century.
Recording into a brass horn always changed a performance. Most singers would naturally attempt to do what they always did, perform as if they were on a grand stage in a theatre to a packed crowd, with all the theatricality that would entail. A few – notably Enrico Caruso – realised that an entirely different approach was needed, directing their voice carefully into the horn, exploiting the particular dynamics of the medium, and working with engineers to ensure that the instrumentation was matched to their voice. Most important, perhaps, was the move from ‘chest voice’ to ‘head voice’ – which made most of this possible. This different style fueled the boom in home listening, and formed not just the expectations of audiences, but the earliest training of the next generation of singers. Within a couple of decades the chesty emoting style of the Victorian stage would be forgotten, save for a few forgotten cylinders and discs. And maybe that’s a shame.
Here is Moreschi’s recording of ‘Ave Maria’. I’ve decided that I quite like it.
Here is very good article by Samantha Ellis about castrati, and here is a really quite excellent episode of an actually-always-excellent podcast called ‘Between The Liner Notes’ on Moreschi and castrati in general.
Samuel Hynes described the Edwardian era as a “leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag” – but aside from the fashionable cliques of the upper class, nothing could be further from the truth. Radical politics was in the air on both sides of the Atlantic, with Socialist and Suffragist movements gaining strength all the way up to the start of the First World War.
Most of the cultural artifacts of the age bear the mark of this turbulence in one way or another, and no more so than The Landlord’s Game – a board game designed by American Socialist Elizabeth Magie as a “practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” It ended up in the hands of Parker Brothers within three decades, now morphed into Monopoly, a game which celebrated the same terrible forces its predecessor aimed to eradicate.
99% Invisible have an episode on the topic, and of their usual high standard. You can listen to it here:
One of the least thought about, but perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the way we listen to music is its loudness – that is, the quantity rather than just the quality. Modern day audiophiles will be familiar with the “loudness war” of the late 1990s and early 2000s, where mastering engineers applied compression techniques to commercial recordings to ensure they sounded louder than anything else on FM radio – and radio engineers then ran software to make everything level again, between them destroying the dynamic range of music and making everything sound much more flat.
To sacrifice fidelity for volume is not a new phenomenon. While the earliest sound recordings were relayed through stethoscope-like proto-headphones, by the mid 1890s recordings were being played through brass horns of the sort you would expect to find on an old gramophone or Victrola. These acoustic horns take small sound waves (which are large pressure variations with a small displacement area) and stretch them out (into a low pressure variation with a large displacement area.) This messes with the resonance of the sound, making mid-level tones boom and high-level or low-level sounds disappear or distort, but it at least means that you can play a record to a room full of people, so long as the room isn’t particularly big. Beyond a certain horn size the distortions became too disruptive, so playing music in concert halls was at first an impossibility.
The first attempt to do something about this problem was the “Triplephone” – a device which tripled the volume by having three gramophones playing the same recording. In some cases two triplephones could be used at the same time. You may think that this would cause problems with sychronisation, and this does appear to be the case, as such experiments soon faded away. A better solution was the ‘Auxetophone’, which used an electric fan to push air through the horn and force up the volume. It was much louder and much more expensive, too much so for home use, but it found a home in dance halls and theatres.
As the horn was a two-way device, its limitations also caused problems with recording. Loud recordings with greater dynamics caused stiff playback arms to force needles to hit the sides of the groove, resulting in records becoming unlistenable after less than 50 plays – not good value if you only owned a handful of cylinders or discs. Around this time engineers in the USA began to use dampening techniques – like encouraging artists to perform further away from the horn – and consequently mainstream recordings from this time often sacrifice their vividness for a reduction in distortion.
Sound engineering was so much in its infancy that it didn’t even have a name yet, so thankfully this new norm was confined to the studios of New York. Around the world vastly different techniques continued to be used. For some reason (please tell me if you know what it is) there seem to be a disproportionate amount of French recordings available in 1904 – so much so that I was able to dedicate a whole quarter of the mix to la francophonie. Russian and Italian opera singers also seem to dominate the repositories of available music. There was a lot of this to wade through this time, but the few nuggets I’ve picked out really are something special. One opera singer to pay particular attention to this time is Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to ever be recorded. More about him soon.
Edison Modern Minstrels – Louisiana Minstrels 0:00
Bohumir Kryl – Sweet Sixteen Waltz 0:05
Len Spencer – Lincoln’s Speech At Gettysburg 2:08
Vess L. Ossman – The Darkie’s Awakening 2:27
Byron G. Harlan And Frank C. Stanley – Two Rubes At The Vaudeville 4:43
W. W. Whitlock – Come Under My New Gamp 4:54
Albert C. Campbell & Bob Roberts – An Interrupted Courtship On The Elevated Railroad 6:57
Albert Sandler Trio – Kashmiri Song (Four Indian Love Lyrics) 7:30
Charlus – La Noce Du Chef D’orchestre 10.53
Grisard – Une Visite Au Jardin Des Plantes 11.35
Paul Fayol – Bonsoir Mam’zelle 12:36
Harry Fragson – L’anglais Triste 14:47
Harry Fragson – Le Flegme 15:14
Jean Péheu – Au Premier De Ces Messieurs 17:06
Léonne Et Willekens – Chez Le Dentiste 18:35
M. Bergeret – Chant D’afrique 19:16
Performers Unknown – Les Deux Pinsons 21:12
Martin Bendix – Eine Feine Familie 23:20
Kaiser Franz Garde-Grenadier Regiment Nr. 2 – Mill In Schwarzwald 23:46
Anonymous – Two Visitors to the St Louis Worlds Fair 25:11
J.W. Myers – Come Take A Trip In My Airship 25:28
Albert Benzler – Come Take A Trip In My Airship Medley 26:21
Len Spencer – Reuben Haskin’s Ride On The Cyclone Auto 27:42
Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan – Woah, Bill! 27:58
Edison Military Band – Good Humor Quadrille 2nd Figure 29:43
Cal Stewart – Uncle Josh And The Insurance Agent 31:22
Unknown – Lumbering Luke (Concertina Solo) 32:00
Booker T. Washington – The Atlanta Compromise Speech 32:35
Enrico Caruso – Una Furtiva Lagrima 33:02
Alessandro Moreschi – Ave Maria 36:20
Mary Garden – Chant Vénitien 39:29
Antonina Nezhdanova – La Tenera Parola 40:40
Isabel Jay – Poor Wandering One 41:34
Gypsy Choir Of V.V.Panina – Sasa Grisha 43:25
R.H. Robinson – Jarabe Tapatio 45:24
Orquesta Tipica Lerdo – Consentida 46:30
Haydn Quartet – New Years At Old Trinity 47:28
John Hazel, Frank R. Seltzer And The Edison Military Band – Two Of Us 48:01
Burt Shepard – The Boy And The Cheese 49:31
Billy Murray – I Can’t Do That Sum 49:47
Unknown Performer – Backyard Conversation Between Two [Jealous] Irish Washerwomen 50:47
Arthur Pryor’s Band – Mignon Overture 50:58
Byron G. Harlan And Frank C. Stanley – An Evening Call In Jayville Center 53:15
Fontbonne, L – Chasse Aux Papillons 53:15
Sir Harry Lauder – Tattie Soup 54:02
Edison Symphony Orchestra – Down Tennessee – Descriptive Barn Dance 55:04
Edison Modern Minstrels – Georgia Minstrels 55:53
Frank S. Mazziotta – Bluette 56:16
Cal Stewart And Ada Jones – Uncle Josh’s Courtship 57:18
Unknown Performer – La Chanson Des Nids 57:35
Albert Whelan – Scrooge’s Awakening 58:23
Edison Male Quartet – Breeze Of The Night 58:39