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Elsewhere in 1891


Firsts: Basketball, The London–Paris telephone system, the removable pneumatic bicycle tire, New Scotland Yard, the Tesla coil, the Swiss Army Knife and Stanford University. Carnegie Hall has its grand opening and first public performance, with Tchaikovsky as guest conductor.

Disasters: The Springhill Mining Disaster. The SS Utopia, carrying Italian migrants to New York, sinks in the inner harbor of Gibraltar, killing 564. In Japan the 8.0 Ms Mino–Owari earthquake killed over 7,200, and created fault scarps that still remain visible. The Chinese Juu Uda League in Inner Mongolia massacres tens of thousands of Mongols.

Also: Liliuokalani is proclaimed Queen of Hawaii, and the Portuguese republican revolution breaks out.


Mikhail Bulgakov, Russian writer (d. 1940)
Ole Kirk Christiansen, founder of the Lego group (d. 1958)
Ronald Colman, English actor (d. 1958)
Max Ernst, German painter (d. 1976)
Antonio Gramsci, Italian Communist writer and politician (d. 1937)
Henry Miller, American writer (d. 1980)
Cole Porter, American composer and songwriter (d. 1964)
Sergei Prokofiev, Soviet composer (d. 1953)
Earl Warren, American politician and Chief Justice of the United States (d. 1974)
Grant Wood, American painter (d. 1942)


P. T. Barnum, American showman (b. 1810)
Sir Joseph Bazalgette, English civil engineer (b. 1819)
Helena Blavatsky, Russian-born author and theosophist (b. 1831)
Kalākaua, last reigning King of Hawaii (b. 1836)
Pierre Lallement, French inventor of the bicycle (b. 1843?)
John A. Macdonald, 1st Prime Minister of Canada and Father of Confederation (b. 1815)
Herman Melville, American novelist (b. 1819)
Arthur Rimbaud, French poet (b. 1854)
Wilhelm Eduard Weber, German physicist (b. 1804)



One of the main problems with making this Centuries of Sound thing is representation. The 1890s are the birthplace of ragtime and the blues, Buddy Bolden was playing proto-Jazz down in New Orleans, and over in Europe figures like Dvořák, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Sibelius, Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and Rachmaninoff were leading classical music’s last great popular era. And what do we have in the way of photograph cylinders for this golden age? Marching bands, sentimental ballads, novelty instrumentals and nothing much else.

When I was about 10 I had a “Portable Action Replay Player and Keyring” which played 30-second clips from blockbuster movies, or monster trucks and dirtbikes.


Imagine for a second our civilization was destroyed and this was all that remained.

This is the narrow aperture which sound recording gives us at this point. Without a duplication process, every cylinder had to be an original, played into a brass funnel by at most five or six artists. These recordings were then consumed almost entirely in a small number of “phonograph parlors” which fed recordings to customers through a stethoscope-like device. Why would any fan of the arts consider this to be worth their time when the real thing was infinitely superior? And why would any serious performer take such a thing seriously?

The answer, of course, was that it was a living to be made. In this mix we meet (possibly) the best-selling artist of the decade and (maybe) the first million-seller, George W Johnson. Johnson was born in the South before the civil war, made his way to the streets of New York and found a living as a street performer, soon building enough of a reputation performing at the ferry terminal that both existent recording companies signed him up. Soon he was sitting in a “studio”, singing the same two songs into a bank of gramophones up to fifty times a day, for limited financial returns. “The Whistling Coon” is offensive all the way down the line from awful title to much worse lyrics, but apparently this is what the public wanted, and it made a black man the first star recording artist in the particularly racist post-reconstruction era of the USA. It’s included here as ignoring it would be an insult to his memory.

Also he can whistle very well, and that seems to have been a big deal in the early days of the record industry. Our mix starts with another example, “artistic whistler” John Yorke Atlee with the bird noise vaudeville staple “Listen To The Mocking Bird.” Then we have Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band with another of their jolly marching band anthems, followed by cylinder catalogue staple George J. Gaskin with “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill,” a novelty song about  Irish workers drilling holes in rock to blast out railroad tunnels. Just before George W Johnson we have a much more offensive item from blackface performer Billy Golden, presented for historical reasons but with a serious warning about its content.

Another U.S. Marine Band recording follows, this one allegedly a “Mexican dance” and providing a deal more subtlety than usual. Then we have Welsh baritone J.W. Myers with a bit of light operetta,  an unknown singer called Will White with another bit of light operetta, a mournful trumpet solo from D.B. Dana, then the first of many selections from the 1890s foremost spoken word artist, Russell Hunting, here barely audible in his Irish ethnic stereotype “Casey”. This fades out into a pair of Julius Block recordings, firstly of noted Russian pianist and composer Sergei Taneyev, then of soprano Maria Klimentova-Muromtzeva, with Taneyev accompanying. Mixed into these we have the final words of C.H. Spurgeon, a British Baptist preacher whose influence was massive at the time. The words were, of course, not recorded at his bedside, but later by his son Thomas Spurgeon.


John Yorke Atlee – The Mocking Bird
U.S. Marine Band – Farewell to Dresden
George J. Gaskin – Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill
Billy Golden – Turkey in the Straw
George W. Johnson – The Whistling Coon
Hager’s Band – La Media Noche
J.W. Myers – Bell Buoy
Will White – Third Verse of Mary & John
D.B. Dana – Cujus Animam
Russell Hunting – Michael Casey as Physician
Sergei Taneyev – Mozart: Fantasie in C Minor, K. 396
Thomas Spurgeon – C. H. Spurgeon’s Last Words
Maria Klimentova-Muromtzeva and Sergei Taneyev – Schumann: Widmung, no. 1 from Myrthen, op. 25

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James McNeill Whistler – The Gentle Art of Making Enemies


James McNeill Whistler is mainly known these days as a painter, albeit one sometimes found in books of witty quotations reprimanding Oscar Wilde for plagiarism, but at the time of his death he was arguably better known for this scandalous book in which he recounts in biting, sarcastic detail  his libel case against John Ruskin for describing the above painting ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket’ as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

With 117 years distance, it’s clear that Whistler has history on his side here – but while this is of some benefit to the paintings, it makes the book into a painful slog. We know that figurative painting is a perfectly valid artform, and reading through hundreds of pages of newspaper letters and court transcripts is unlikely to either sway or entertain even the most ardent fan.

James McNeill Whistler – The Gentle Art of Making Enemies
James McNeill Whistler – The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (full text at Project Gutenberg)

1890 in art

Morris & Co – Adoration of the Magi


Henri Rousseau – Self-portrait


Vincent Van Gogh – Wheatfield With Crows


Claude Monet – Boating on the River Epte


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Moulin Rouge


Hedda Gabler


1890 is very much a landmark year in the psychological development of fictional characters.

So specious is the dramatist, so subtle is his skill in misrepresentations, so fatal is his power of persuasion that for a moment we believe Hedda Gabler is a noble heroine, and not a fiend, and that Lovborg is deserving of our pity and not our condemnation. (Clement Scott – The Daily Telegraph, 1891)

Ibsen’s greatest play and the most interesting woman that he has created – she is compact with all the vices, she is instinct with all the virtues of womanhood. (Justin Huntly McCarthy, London Black and White, April 25, 1891)

What a hopeless specimen of degeneracy is Hedda Gabler! A vicious, heartless, cowardly, unmoral, mischief-making vixen. (The Ledger, Philadelphia, February 13, 1904)

What a marvel of stupidity and nonsense the author did produce in this play! It is incredible to think that only a score of years ago the audience sat seriously before its precious dullness. (G.B. Shaw)

Ibsen created a masterpiece in Hedda Gabler, a crystal example of a maladjusted woman. She has sisters in every city, for she belongs to the widely dispersed sorority of moderately comfortable women whose restlessness and envy arise from their false standards of happiness, as well as from their egotism and uselessness. No doubt she existed in the past but her specific type is undeniably modern. Unlike the women of the older middle class who had their noses to the grindstone of the hearth, who reared children and ran their home, the Heddas described by Ibsen are rootless… (John Gassner – Masters of the Drama)

Henrik Ibsen – Hedda Gabler
Henrik Ibsen – Hedda Gabler (full text at Project Gutenberg)
Henrik Ibsen – Hedda Gabler (audio play at Librivox)

…and of course the TV version from 1963 starring Ingrid Bergman.

Monkeyshines, #1 and #2

Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray

I first read The Picture of Dorian Gray aged 18 and found it to be life-changing. Not for the witticisms which Wilde is so famous for, but for the philosophy of art and morality which it expressed. When I got to university I enlarged the preface and put it up on the wall of my room in halls. Pretentious twat? Yeah, quite possibly. But this all still rings true to me.

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray (full text at Project Gutenberg)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (audio at Librivox)