Monday, December 31, 2012

December 31

Henri Matisse was born on December 31, 1869, in the northeast of France. Primarily a painter, his art rarely came easily to him; he questioned, repainted and reevaluated his work throughout his lifetime. Initially a leader of the Fauvists (who emphasized strident colors), he returned to a traditional style in the 1920s, as did his friend Picasso. He began spending time on the Côte d'Azur (at Nice and Vence), where his works reflected the Riviera’s sensual colors. In 1941 Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer and was permanently confined to a wheelchair. In what he called his “second life” he completed the magnificent Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, and created his playful, colorful cut-paper collages (gouaches découpés), including the Blue Nudes series (pictured), in a technique he called "painting with scissors," blending simplicity with intense power.

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

December 30

The Second Symphony of composer Johannes Brahms was first performed on December 30, 1877, by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Brahms completed it in one year, in sharp contrast to his First, which had taken most of 21 years to finish (and was solemnly viewed as “Beethoven’s Tenth”). Brahms’ contemporaries found much of the Second dark and melancholy, even “tragic,” but today it is considered one of his sunniest works and the most endearing of his four symphonies, as spontaneous and pastoral as Beethoven’s glorious Sixth. Though partly meditative, it builds to an ending filled with joy and exhilaration virtually unparalleled among Brahms' major works. The composer had his greatest success, however, with small-scale, popular works for domestic music-making – dances, waltzes and songs, which included his simple “Lullaby” (1868).

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

December 29

Legendary Catalan cellist Pau Casals i Defilló, known as Pablo Casals, was born on December 29, 1876, near Barcelona. At age 11 he committed himself to the cello, and in 1890, at age 13, he discovered second-hand sheet music of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, which he practiced daily for the next 13 years before performing them in public. He is renowned above all for his sublime 1936-1939 recordings of the Bach Suites, through which he created a mass audience for these masterpieces (previously viewed as mere exercises). In the process he re-invented perceptions of the cello, casting aside hidebound conventions of proper cello technique. Casals fervently supported the Spanish Republican government in the 1930s, fiercely opposing dictator Francisco Franco, whose regime vowed to cut off both his arms.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

December 28

Westminster Abbey in London was consecrated on December 28, 1065, though it was not completed until 1090. The largely Gothic church was begun between 1042-1052 in the Norman Romanesque style, by the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor, as a royal burial church. William the Conqueror was crowned here (1066) and many English and British monarchs thereafter (since 1308, sitting in King Edward’s Chair, pictured). Little of the original structure remains. The present church was begun in 1245, and the two Gothic Revival towers were started in 1722. Westminster was England’s third seat of learning after Oxford and Cambridge until the 19th century. Scholars translated the first third of the King James Bible Old Testament and the last half of the New Testament at Westminster. The structure suffered minor damage during the German Blitz in 1940.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 27

Radio City Music Hall in New York opened to the public on December 27, 1932. At the time it was the largest movie theater in the world, with seating capacity exceeding 6,000. Its austere, graceful, geometric Art Deco interior by Donald Deskey was a sharp break from the ornate rococo ornamentation of movie palaces of the 1920s and ‘30s. The Great Stage (pictured), 144 feet wide, resembles a setting sun, with radiating proscenium arches that tend to unite the vast space, providing intimacy with grandeur. The Hall’s concept of high-class variety shows quickly gave way during the Depression to movies on a giant screen combined with staged spectacles. It now hosts concerts and live events. The annual Christmas Spectacular, which debuted in 1933, draws more than a million people. It features the high-kicking Rockettes, a precision dance troupe originally founded in St. Louis in 1925.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

December 26

On 26 December 1898, physicists and chemists Marie and Pierre Curie announced in Paris the existence of a new element they named "radium" for its intense radioactivity – a word they coined. The element (symbol Ra) is an almost pure-white earth metal that luminesces a faint blue color because of its instability. Before radioactivity’s adverse health effects were understood, radium was added to products such as toothpaste, hair creams and even food items for its supposed “curative” powers. It also was used in self-luminous paints for watch dials, clocks and other instruments. "Radium Girl" dial-painters using the paints became ill with anemia, sores and bone cancer. Marie Curie’s papers from the 1890s are still considered too dangerous to handle; they are kept in lead-lined boxes, and researchers must wear protective clothing. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

December 25

The birth of Jesus is mentioned in two of Christianity’s four canonical gospels, but the birthdate of an historical Jesus is unknown. Some historians place it between 7 and 2 BCE, though few in the first two Christian centuries claimed any knowledge of the exact day or year in which Jesus was born. By the early-to-mid 4th century, the Western Christian church had placed Christmas on December 25. The reason for this remains obscure, but most researchers believe Christmas originated as a Christian substitute for Roman/pagan celebrations at the winter solstice (the natalis solis invicti). The date also occurs nine months after the spring equinox, at which both the world and Jesus were believed to have been conceived. Pictured: “The Nativity,” Sandro Botticelli, 1490.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

December 24

44 years ago: On December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 read the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis, King James version, as they orbited the moon in what was at that time the world’s most watched television broadcast. Launched on December 21, Apollo 8 was the first crewed spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, reach the Earth's Moon, orbit the Moon (10 times) and return safely to Earth. The three-astronaut crew (Borman, Lovell and Anders) became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, the first to see Earth as a whole planet, and the first to directly see the far side of the Moon. The mission was also the first crewed launch from the new John F. Kennedy Space Center. Pictured: “Earthrise” from Apollo 8, Christmas Eve, 1968. This phenomenon is visible only for someone in orbit around the Moon, since the Moon’s rotation is synchronous with the Earth.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

December 23

Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh was born on December 23, 1908, in Ottoman Turkey and grew up amid massacres of fellow Armenians. He emigrated to Canada in 1924 and, as early as 1936, began taking portraits of visiting statesmen and celebrities, becoming known worldwide as “Karsh of Ottawa.” A master of studio lights, often lighting his subjects’ hands separately, he took renowned portraits of W. H. Auden, Humphrey Bogart, Pablo Casals, Fidel Castro, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, George Bernard Shaw, Andy Warhol and many others. He took his most famous portrait in 1941 when he politely removed the cigar Winston Churchill was smoking and captured a look of defiance that epitomized the fighting spirit of World War II. It is one of the most reproduced photos of all time.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

December 22

Italian composer Giacomo Puccini was born on December 22, 1858, into a musical dynasty in Tuscany. He started his career at age 14 as an organist at local churches until an 1876 performance of Verdi's "Aida" lured him into opera. The hallmark of his works is a rich, unrivalled fusion of erotic passion, sensuality, tenderness, pathos and despair. His first major opera, "Manon Lescaut" (1893), achieved great success, but "La bohème" (1896), with its mix of the lighthearted and sentimental in a conversational style, was not appreciated. "Tosca" (1900), his first "verismo" work (realistic depiction of life), was a huge hit, but "Madama Butterfly" (1904) was a failure he revised five times. Puccini’s final work, the fantastical “Turandot,” was unfinished at his death in 1924, but its tenor aria “Nessun dorma” is one of the most moving and beautiful pieces in all of opera.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

December 21

On December 21, 1620, the first landing party of English religious separatists, later known as “Pilgrims,” arrived at the site of what would become the Plymouth settlement. Congregationalists from Nottinghamshire were the core group, led by William Bradford. They were not the first people in the area. Besides indigenous tribes, Europeans including  
Englishman John Cabot had explored, fished and settled North America’s east coast for nearly a century. In 1605 Frenchman Samuel de Champlain had studied the Plymouth Harbor area, and his maps showed the native village of Patuxet (where Plymouth would be built) as a thriving settlement. But an epidemic in 1617–1619 wiped out 90% of Native Americans along the Massachusetts coast. Lack of serious native opposition to the Pilgrims was pivotal to their success and to English colonization.

Correction: John Cabot was an Italian explorer, sailing for Henry VII of England.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

December 20

Prince George, Duke of Kent (George Edward Alexander Edmund) was born on December 20, 1902, at the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, England. He was the fourth son of King George V and Queen Mary, and younger brother of King Edward VIII (who abdicated the throne in 1936) and King George VI, father of Elizabeth II. Before and after his marriage to his third cousin, Prince George had a string of affairs with women and men, from socialites to Hollywood celebrities, including prolific author Barbara Cartland and (apparently) multi-talented playwright Noel Coward. He is said to have been addicted to drugs, particularly morphine and cocaine. One of his illegitimate children is believed to have been the first husband of Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He died in the crash of a flying boat in Scotland, while serving in the Royal Air Force in 1942.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

December 19

Industrialist and financier Henry Clay Frick was born on December 19, 1849, in Pennsylvania. Vowing to be a millionaire by age 30, he began his rapacious career in the coal and coke industry, then became chairman of Carnegie Steel and a major player in the formation of U.S. Steel. He also financed the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads. Frick was known as “the most hated man in America” and, to this day, he is vilified for his ruthlessness and lack of morality in business, notably his actions during the Homestead Steel labor strike (1892). In 1913-1914 he built an opulent mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue (at 70th), with private gardens on the Avenue and in an interior courtyard. Now known as “The Frick,” it houses his collection of Old Masters and objets d'art. Pictured: central Living Hall of the Frick Collection, showing El Greco’s “Saint Jerome” (1590).

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

December 18

Swiss-born painter Paul Klee was born on December 18, 1879, near Bern. In much of his work, he aspired to achieve a naïve, untutored quality, but his art is also among the most cerebral of the 20th century. His intellectual curiosity shows in works informed by structures and themes drawn from music, nature and poetry. Titles play a major role – ironic, poetic, irreverent, deadpan, flippant – and set up the perspectives from which he wanted his works to be seen. He worked in many media, including oil paint, watercolor, ink, pastel, etching and others, often combining them in one work. In his own words, Klee said he liked to “take a line for a walk.” Pictured: “Senecio” (1922), portrait of an artist performer in harlequin. Color and geometry show the shifting relationship between art, illusion and the world of drama.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

December 17

On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the air in their Wright Flyer near the Kill Devil Hills south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They made two flights each in the first successful powered aircraft, from level ground into a freezing headwind gusting to 27 miles per hour. The first flight, by Orville, spanned 120 feet in 12 seconds, at a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour (pictured, in a famous photograph). The Wright brothers focused on developing reliable pilot control as the way to solve "the flying problem," not on a powerful engine. Their first U.S. patent did not claim invention of a flying machine, but a system of aerodynamic control that manipulated a flying machine's surfaces. A piece of fabric and wood from the Wright Flyer was taken to the Moon’s surface by Apollo 11, the first lunar landing mission, in July 1969.

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

December 16

December 16, 1770, is the accepted birthdate of German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven. Born in Bonn, he moved to Vienna in 1792 to study with Joseph Haydn (the father of the symphony and string quartet), where he became known as a virtuoso pianist. His first public performance in 1795 was one of his first two piano concertos. The following year, at age 26, he began losing his hearing, suffering from severe tinnitus that made it hard for him to hear music; he also avoided conversation. The cause of his deafness has been variously attributed to typhus, auto-immune disorders and his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. When he died in 1827 an autopsy showed a "distended inner ear" that had suffered lesions over time. In his later years Beethoven and his friends communicated via 400 conversation books, more than half of which were later destroyed.

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Saturday, December 15, 2012

December 15

On December 15, 1944, Swing Era bandleader and trombonist Glenn Miller, a captain in the U.S. Army, boarded a single-engine aircraft near London bound for Paris to perform for American troops that had recently helped liberate the city. He was never seen again as the plane went missing over the English Channel. Miller’s big band, one of the best known of its time, featured trademark orchestration that put the high-pitched clarinet on the melody line, doubled by the saxophone section an octave below. His wildly popular recordings include "Moonlight Serenade" (1939), "Little Brown Jug" (1939), "In the Mood" (1940), "Pennsylvania 6-5000" (1940), "Tuxedo Junction" (1940), "Chattanooga Choo Choo" (1941), "At Last" (1941), and "(I've Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo" (1942). Miller is still Missing in Action. His death may have been the result of “friendly fire.”

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

December 12

Singer and actor Francis Albert "Frank" Sinatra was born on December 12, 1915. He first became popular in the 1940s swing era, recording his first album in 1946. After winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “From Here to Eternity” (1953), he signed with Capitol Records and his career took off with a series of highly praised albums: In the Wee Small Hours (1955), Songs for Swingin' Lovers! (1956), Come Fly with Me (1958), Only the Lonely (1958) and Nice 'n' Easy (1960). He founded Reprise Records in 1961 and scored massive hits with his albums September of My Years (1965), Strangers in the Night (1966) and My Way (1969). He also starred in “On the Town” (1949), “Guys and Dolls” (1955), “High Society” (1956), “Pal Joey” (1957) and “The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Pictured: Sinatra intensely disliked this album cover, saying it looked like an ad for TWA.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

December 11

French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz was born on December 11, 1803. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works, and he performed several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. Between 1830 and 1840, he wrote many of his most popular works, including the Symphonie fantastique (1830), Harold en Italie (1834), the Grande messe des morts (Requiem) (1837) and Roméo et Juliette (1839). The Requiem calls for a vast orchestration of woodwind and brass instruments, including four antiphonal offstage brass ensembles placed at the corners of the concert stage. Berlioz composed the Symphonie fantastique (subtitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts”) for an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, with whom he fell in love after seeing her as Ophelia in a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet. They married in 1833 but separated in bitterness.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

December 10

“The soul should always stand ajar, / That if the heaven inquire, / He will not be obliged to wait” … Poet Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She briefly attended Mount Holyoke before returning to her family's house in Amherst, where she lived a mostly introverted, reclusive life, known for wearing white clothing. Despite prolific writing, fewer than a dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime. Her poetry is varied in form and style, resonating with hymns and song forms and also with psalms and riddles, marked by the use of dashes, unconventional capitalization, and highly idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery. In her most creative period, 1861-1865, she wrote a high volume of vigorous, emotional poems and developed her themes of life and death. Before she died in 1886, her last letter simply stated, "Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily."

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

December 9

“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” … English poet and scholar John Milton was born on December 9, 1608. He wrote with fierce conviction at a time of upheaval in Britain. During the English Civil War, he wrote tracts serving the Puritan and Parliamentary cause, advocating radical topics that included the morality of divorce, sanctioned regicide and, in Areopagitica (1644), freedom of speech and the press. While serving Cromwell he steadily lost his eyesight and was blind by 1651. His vast epic poem, “Paradise Lost” (1667), one of the greatest works of the English language, tells the Fall of Man: Satan’s tempting of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Eden. Milton's purpose was to "justify the ways of God to men" and debate fundamental issues of freedom, free will and self-determination.

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Saturday, December 8, 2012

December 8

Inventor Eli Whitney was born on December 8, 1765, in Massachusetts. As a youth during the Revolutionary War, he made nails with a device he invented. After graduating from Yale, he pursued a tutoring job in Georgia but wound up inventing a centerpiece of the Industrial Revolution: the cotton gin (short for “engine”), patented in 1794, that quickly, efficiently removed seeds from cotton using a system of hooks, wires and a rotating brush. It reshaped the economy of the Antebellum South by altering a previously labor intensive process, making “King Cotton” a practical, profitable crop – and reinvigorating slavery as a means of producing it. Whitney never became wealthy because the gin was easily, widely copied. He began making firearms and championed the interchangeable-parts system, which revolutionized manufacturing. Pictured: The gin and its patent.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

December 7

40 years ago: In the early morning of December 7, 1972, Apollo 17 was launched from Cape Kennedy to the Moon. It was the eleventh and final mission of the Apollo program, the first night launch of U.S. human spaceflight, the final crewed launch of a Saturn V rocket, and the sixth and last mission to land humans on the Moon. Crew were Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, who returned to Earth after a 12-day mission that included the longest total lunar surface extravehicular activities, the largest lunar sample return and the longest time in lunar orbit. Five hours after launch, at a distance of 28,000 miles, the crew took a photo known as “The Blue Marble” (pictured), one of the most widely distributed photographic images in existence. It is one of the few to show a fully illuminated Earth, since the Sun was behind the astronauts when they took the image.

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

December 6

On December 6, 1884, the Washington Monument was completed with the placement of a nine-inch aluminum pyramid at its top, 555 feet in the air. The original design by architect Robert Mills included a Greek temple at the base. Construction began on July 4, 1848, though funds fell far short of the $1 million needed. Work halted in 1854-1877 due to obstruction by the nativist Know-Nothings, lack of funds and the Civil War. Construction resumed with visibly different exterior marble. The monument is the world's tallest stone structure and tallest true obelisk. The apex was the largest single piece of aluminum cast at the time, when the metal cost nearly as much as silver. The apex was put on public display beforehand and stepped over by visitors who could say they had "stepped over the top of the Washington Monument." Pictured: Instagram, National Park Service.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

December 5

Film animator, producer, director and entrepreneur Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago. He grew up in Marceline, Mo., and Kansas City, where he became interested in drawing, movies and a nearby amusement park. He started an early animation business that went bankrupt in 1923, so Walt and his brother, Roy, went to Hollywood and began Disney Brothers' Studio, which was stolen in its entirety by a New York distributor. They quickly made silent animated shorts featuring a character Walt created, Mickey Mouse, then the popular “Steamboat Willie” (1928) in sound, voiced by Walt. His first full-length animated film was the historic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937, pictured), which won eight Oscars. In the next five years, Disney completed “Pinocchio” (1940), “Fantasia” (1940), “Dumbo” (1941) and “Bambi” (1942).

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