October 26th, 2011

Mozart and the Angel of Death

Requiem_MozartWhen I was a teenager, my parents had the wisdom to give me a gift that I didn’t yet know I’d want. My love for Alanis Morissette and Red Hot Chili Peppers – the other two CDs I was given that year – has long since passed (RIP), but my gushing adoration for Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor lives strong.

Forgive me for being dramatic, but Requiem is truly the most powerful music I’ve ever heard. At times furious and zealous, then tender and solemn, Requiem is a fourteen-movement experience. When I saw the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform it, I was totally overwhelmed and emotional, much in the same way people get when they see Handel’s Messiah performed. The library’s copy of Requiem, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, has an urgency and command that makes it very compelling.

And the mystery behind the music makes listening to it all the more exhilarating. Exhausted and broke, 35-year-old Mozart is visited by a stranger dressed in gray. The stranger hands him an anonymous letter, commissioning him to compose music for a funeral. The request is given with a blank check, so despite Mozart’s misgivings, he’s in no position to decline. Even still, Mozart is struck by the chilling nature of the circumstances. Sickness befalls Mozart, making him increasingly convinced that the mysterious visitor was the Angel of Death himself. The taste of death is now on my tongue, and I can already smell the grave.*

The inexplicable foreboding proved prophetic. Mozart died that year, never completing Requiem, arguably one of his finest works. Thanks to Franz Süssmayr, Mozart’s protégée, the unfinished parts were completed.

The exact details of Mozart’s brush with “Death” have been subject of scholarly debate and artistic imaginings, most notably the play-turned-movie Amadeus. In Amadeus, the Angel of Death is Antonio Salieri, a fellow composer, embittered by Mozart’s success and talent. While it made for great drama, we now know that the commission actually came from Count Franz von Walsegg, an unscrupulous aristocrat who stole musical scores in order to feign authorship. In this case, the Count was mourning the loss of his wife and wanted a musical masterpiece written in her honor.

While you might not be familiar with its name, you’ve likely heard parts of Requiem many times. Here’s a short list of where you might have heard it:

Advertisements: Droid, DirectTV, Halo, and Air Jordans
Movies: The Big Lebowski, Elizabeth, Eyes Wide Shut, Primal Fear, X2, Watchmen, and Amadeus

Want to know more? Place a hold on Amadeus (winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture) here online or ask our staff. Learn more about Mozart’s life and legacy in Jeremy Siepmann’s book Mozart: His Life & Music here. (CDs included!)

What are you listening to this time of year?

*words spoken to Sophie, Mozart’s sister-in-law


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August 19th, 2011

Steampunk Mania

twenty thousandDear Librarian: What in the world is a Steampunk book?

Dear Reader,
Oh, I am so glad you asked that question. I love Steampunk! Excessive amounts of coffee and Steampunk books are my two favorite guilty pleasures. According to Dictionary.com, Steampunk is “a genre of science fiction set in Victorian times when steam was the main source of machine power.” Technically, that definition is right on, but it sounds a bit too boring for me. Personally, I like this definition from Steampunk.com: “To me, Steampunk has always been first and foremost a literary genre, or at least a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, or rebellion against parts of it (the punk).”

Dear reader, keep in mind that there is no strict, absolute or final definition for this imaginative fiction genre, so you may find some disagreements out there. Classic Steampunk titles include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Some current popular Steampunk titles are The Map of Time by Felix Palma, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld & Keith Thompson, Clockwork Angel (Book One of the Infernal Devices series) by Cassandra Clare and my personal favorite Soulless (Book One of the Parasol Protectorate Series) by Gail Carriger. For even more titles, try out this list of favorites from our staff, Steampunk: Gears, Goggles and Great Adventure. Cecil County Public Library carries all the titles mentioned here, plus lots more!

Steampunk has even influenced fashion, decor and movies in recent years.  To see interesting pics of Steampunk styles and read more about the trend, check out this New York Times article.

What do you think of the Steampunk movement? Are you a fan?

This article is an excerpt from a recent “People Are Asking” column, published each Tuesday in the Cecil Whig.


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