History Hunt: Zitkála-Šá

For this week’s History Hunt, we’re back to North America and have moved forward several hundred years to meet Zitkála-Šá, a Sioux violinist and composer!

Zitkála-Šá, also known as Gertrude Simmons (and later by her married name of Gertrude Bonnin) was born on February 22, 1876 on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. When she was eight, she was sent to a Christian residential school, White’s Manual Labor Institute. At this school, she wasn’t able to live according to her beliefs and culture, but was forced to conform to the beliefs of the people running the school. One of the only things that brought her happiness during these years was learning to play the violin.

Eventually, though she left after three years, Zitkála-Šá went back to the school. Among other subjects, she continued her studies of the violin and learned how to play the piano. Eventually, she took over from the music teacher until she went to Earlham College. She graduated when she was 21.

Like Ruby Elzy, who featured in a previous History Hunt, Zitkála-Šá ran into difficulties getting her music to be heard. While she was able to collaborate with another composer, William F. Hanson, her partnership was not the equal one it should have been. Hanson, who was white, took most (and sometimes all) of the credit for the opera they created together, The Sun Dance. The opera provided an opportunity for First Nations to perform important dances that had been made illegal by the U.S. government at that time, but many of the audiences who viewed The Sun Dance did not watch it with the respect it deserved. Hanson also tried to make the Sioux music Zitkála-Šá taught him sound more like the music he was used to hearing, rather than accepting it as it was–an equally important and valid way of making music.

Zitkála-Šá, in addition to being a composer and musician, also fought for the rights of First Nations people all over the United States, as well as for equal rights for women. She was an author of political works, shining light on corruption and racism, and she collected traditional First Nations stories so that First Nations children could hold onto their heritage.She has a crater on Venus, “Bonnin,” named in her honour–lucky her!

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To Learn More (sources):
Zitkala-Sa at Encyclopaedia Britannica
A Cultural Duet: Zitkala Ša and The Sun Dance Opera by P. Jane Hafen of the University of Nevada, Los Vegas
Zitkala-Sa at Wikipedia


He’s Got Rhythm!

Anything can be a musical instrument, as the percussion group Stomp have proven for years, and that includes washing machines!

Jonathan was ten years old when he performed in this video. He was featured in numerous publications worldwide and appeared on two separate TV shows in the United States and Japan–and small wonder! With skills like that, he’s another kid with a very bright future!

John Blanke

History Hunt: John Blanke

Today’s featured musician for the History Hunt series is a particularly good example of how some stories are much harder to hear about than others. When I was growing up and reading about English history, through history books and story books, I learned a great deal about what it was like to live hundreds of years ago. But I didn’t learn that there were People of Colour (POC) living all over England in that time, too, doing all kinds of jobs–my History Hunting skills weren’t good enough to find their stories just yet.

One of the people who I’ve only recently learned about is royal trumpeter John Blanke, who made music for two kings during the early 1500s. Nothing is known of his life as a young man, and no one is sure whether “Blanke” is his true family name or a nickname, but obviously he must have been a great musician!

His first employer on record was King Henry VII, starting in 1507, and when King Henry VIII was crowned in 1509, the new king let him continue his job as one of eight royal trumpeters. That he was highly valued as a musician in the court of Henry VIII is clear: when he got married in January 1512, the king himself sent him a wedding gift!

Unfortunately, after 1514, historians lose track of Blanke, which isn’t uncommon–record-keeping wasn’t always the best in those days. I can only hope his was a happy marriage and that he enjoyed playing the trumpet for the rest of his life.

To give an idea of the sort of music that was popular while Blanke was alive, here’s a recording of a performance by the Canadian Brass. The pieces the group plays were written a little later than when Blanke was active as a royal trumpeter, but they’re still worth listening to!

To Learn More (sources):
Blanke, John at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (podcast version available here)
John Blanke, Black Trumpeter at The National Archives

The Symphony of Science

When I was deciding which degree to pursue in university, for a while, I was split between music education and chemistry. Though I obviously went the route of music education and am glad I did, I’ve still loved science all my life. And so, several years ago when I first heard of the Symphony of Science, I fell instantly in love.

The composer behind the Symphony of Science, John D. Boswell, uses pitch correcting software (like Auto-Tune) to make melodies out of the speeches of scientists. He then composes music to accompany the newly-made tunes and turns the finished product into music videos. The results are inspiring!

Wendy Carlos

History Hunt: Wendy Carlos

This week’s History Hunt is different from the last few, in that the featured musician is actually still alive and working!

Wendy Carlos was born in 1939 and started taking piano lessons when she was six. She majored in music and physics at Brown University, then went on to get another music degree at Columbia University.

Though Wendy composed her first piece when she was ten (for clarinet, accordion, and piano), it was electronic music that made her famous. In the 1960s, electronic music was still very new, and so Wendy was able to really make her mark and become one of the major influences shaping the genre. Her first album was Switched-On Bach, which was an album of Bach music performed with the new Moog synthesizer. It hit platinum status when it was released in 1968–a huge accomplishment for both electronic and classical music in those days!

Switched-On Bach

Bach has a new way to compose music!

Wendy went on to compose music for classic films like the original Tron, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange, and in 2005 she received the SEAMUS 2005 Life Achievement Award. In addition to composing, her other interests include “solar eclipse chasing, surround sound, astronomy, color vision, photography and other visual arts, map making, reading, gourmet food, film, and a love of animals.” (Wendy Carlos Biography)

To listen to tracks from Switched-On Bach, click here. (I couldn’t find them in embeddable or downloadable format, unfortunately–can anyone point me in the right direction?) And for more information about buying Wendy’s work, check out her website for information about the latest CD releases and Amazon.ca.

To Learn More (sources):
Wendy Carlos’ official site
Wendy Carlos on Wikipedia

Elsa Meets Vivaldi

Given the weather everyone in North America seems to be having lately, it seems to be the right time to feature this really terrific music video by The Piano Guys:

By now, I’m sure most people are familiar with “Let It Go” from Frozen, but what about that other song?

“Winter” is part of a musical series by Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons. Vivaldi wrote three parts, or movements, for each season, making twelve movements altogether. He also paired up each season with a type of poem called a sonnet that he may have written himself. Here’s a translation of the sonnet for winter, divided up by movement:

1. Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

2. Largo
To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

3. Allegro
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

And here’s a performance of “Winter” by Mari Samuelsen. Why not follow along with the sonnet as you listen to see how it matches up with the music?

(Source: Baroque Music.org.)

Ruby Elzy

History Hunt: Ruby Elzy

While I was getting my Bachelor of Music Education degree, I studied a lot of opera–European opera, that is. The operas of other countries, such as China and the United States, were unfortunately not part of the program. If they had been, one of the singers I hope I would have learned about would have been Ruby Elzy.

Ruby Elzy was born in 1908 to an extremely poor family in Mississippi. While she was growing up, there were strong restrictions on what African-American people could do because of the racism of the time, but Elzy’s incredible voice allowed her many opportunities. She studied at one of the most famous music schools in the world, the Julliard School, and she even sang at the White House at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the First Lady and married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Probably her most famous role was as Serena, in white composer George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. Although she played the part over eight hundred times, very few recordings still exist. Below is a rehearsal recording where she’s introduced by Gershwin before singing her part.

In spite of Elzy’s genius, there were only so many roles open to her. Even though her career was given a tremendous boost by her role in Porgy and Bess, it’s important to remember that the opera itself has been protested for its racist portrayals of African-Americans since its debut.

Recently, a collection of Elzy’s work has been released, Ruby Elzy in Song. Anyone wanting to hear more of her beautiful singing can buy it here.

To Learn More (sources):
The Sweet Sound of Ruby Elzy at NPR.org
Ruby Elzy at Classic Ladies of Color on Tumblr (Note for parents/guardians: Tumblr asks its members to be 13+. This entry is safe for all ages.)
Ruby Elzy at Wikipedia.org