Monday, September 30, 2013
Persian poet Rumi was born Jalal ad Din Muhammad Rumi on September 30, 1207, in Tajikistan. As a young boy in what is now Iran, while fleeing the advance of Mongol hordes, his spiritual nature was recognized, and by age 25 he had become an Islamic teacher. In 1244, after meeting a dervish (ascetic), Rumi became a mystical ascetic and began writing lyric poetry. In what is now Turkey he spent 12 years writing the Masnavi, his masterwork that combines tales of everyday life with spirituality. It strongly focuses on music as a means of union with the divine, whereby the soul is both destroyed and reborn. The ritual practice of “whirling dervishes” was developed from Rumi’s concepts. The core of Rumi’s beliefs is that the soul, separated and devolved from the divine, undergoes an evolutionary journey to be reunited with the divine. All things in the universe are governed by this law, and the process is driven by an inner urge Rumi calls “love.” This cosmic evolution and search for union with God are Rumi’s version of the Fall of Adam and the banishment from Paradise.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Composer and pianist George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, NY. At age 11 he began playing a second-hand piano acquired for his older brother, Ira, with whom he would many write hit songs. He dropped out of school at age 15, played piano in New York nightclubs, and worked as a “song-plugger” (promoter) in Tin Pan Alley (at $15 a week) and a rehearsal pianist for Broadway performers. He sold his first song for $5 in 1916 at age 17. He was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman to compose his first classical work, “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), for orchestra and piano. In 1928 he asked French composer Maurice Ravel to be his teacher, but Ravel told him he would be better as a first-rate Gershwin than a second-rate Ravel, instead recommending he study in Paris with renowned teacher, Nadia Boulanger. She, in turn, promptly refused to compromise his jazz-influenced style through the study of classical music. As a result, Gershwin wrote the innovative symphonic tone poem, “An American in Paris.”
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg. A child prodigy on the piano, he composed his First Symphony at age 19. It was praised by major musical figures, including conductor Leopold Stokowski. But in 1936 he ran afoul of the Communist bureaucracy when Joseph Stalin and the Politburo publicly derided an opera he had composed, and he was denounced by the newspaper Pravda. That year, Stalin began his “Great Purge.” Shostakovich put away his Western-style Fourth Symphony and, in 1937, composed a pivotal work in his career, his heroic Fifth Symphony, which Soviet officials viewed as a personal perestroyka (political "rehabilitation"). Ironically, however, the monumental work was a huge success among the Russian public for its subtle condemnation of Stalin’s brutal repression. Listeners openly wept during the graceful yet mournful Largo movement, which reflected the terrible period in which Stalin sent more than seven million Russians to the Gulag (labor camps).
Saturday, September 21, 2013
Novelist and journalist Herbert George "H. G." Wells was born on September 21, 1866, in a suburb of London. His parents were shopkeepers of little means, and his education was haphazard. In the 1880s he studied under biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who advocated Darwin’s theory of evolution. In 1895 Wells published his hugely successful novella, The Time Machine, the story of a Time Traveler’s journey to a dystopian, dying Earth in the distant future. His second major “scientific romance” – a genre now known as science fiction – was The War of the Worlds (1898), in which Earth is invaded by Martians whose superior force strikes into the heart of Britain at the height of its own imperialism. The novel is a brutal vision of millennial apocalypse at the close of the 19th century, in the tradition of “invasion literature,” addressing many disturbing themes: the rise of total war stripped of moral constraints, the industrialization of weaponry, the grim path of human evolution, race and class issues via Social Darwinism, and the separation of science from faith.
Friday, September 20, 2013
Television producer J Troplong "Jay" Ward was born on September 20, 1920, in Berkeley, California. Following business school, he became involved in producing animated TV programs initially with cartoonist Alex Anderson, a childhood friend who created the characters of Crusader Rabbit, Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Bullwinkle the Moose and Dudley Do-Right the Canadian Mountie. In 1949 he founded Jay Ward Productions, which later produced the animated TV series “Rocky & His Friends” and “The Bullwinkle Show,” which together became “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show,” airing from November 1959 to June 1964 on the ABC TV network, later on NBC. The show’s undercurrent of savvy, intelligent wit made the show popular with viewers of all ages. Ward also produced the characters of Mr. Peabody and his sidekick Sherman, Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, George of the Jungle and Super Chicken. His company designed the characters for three cereals, Cap'n Crunch, Quisp and Quake. Ward came close to death in accidents twice in his life.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
English illustrator Arthur Rackham was born on September 19, 1867, in London. One of 12 children, he began studying art in his teens and by the 1890s had settled into a career of book illustration. Beginning with Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1905), he produced a series of lavishly illustrated books, most published in signed, limited editions and cloth-bound trade editions, often bound in vellum and signed by Rackham. Other major books included J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1907), four volumes of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” (1910-11), English Fairy Tales (1918) and many others. He became the most well-known artist of the period called the “Golden Age” of illustration, spanning the years prior to 1900 through the onset of World War I in 1914. Post-war changes in taste affected the market for Rackham’s fanciful, often dark depictions of fairies and mythic, folkloric figures. His edition of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (pictured) was published posthumously in 1940.
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
On September 17, 1683, Dutch merchant and early scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek wrote to the Royal Society of England describing and illustrating five different kinds of objects, which he called “animalcules,” he had found in his own saliva and plaque. The father of microscopy had discovered bacteria. As a tradesman in Delft, he had used magnifying glasses to count threads in cloth, which led to his interest in lensmaking, accomplished in secret by processing thin rods of glass into very small spheres offering high magnification (more than 200x). His “microscopes” consisted of a brass plate a few inches long, with the lens in a tiny hole (pictured). Though he had first observed microscopic life in 1674, his letter of 1683 reported with “great wonder … many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving.” He also described “enormous numbers” of animalcules from the mouths of two old men who had never cleaned their teeth in their lives. In hundreds of other letters, Van Leeuwenhoek also described the life in a drop of water and blood corpuscles circulating in capillaries.
Sunday, September 15, 2013
On September 15, 1835, naturalist Charles Darwin arrived at the Galápagos Islands, nearly 1,000 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. He was a crew member of the second voyage of the HMS Beagle, on its mission to survey South America and circumnavigate the globe. In the next five weeks, Darwin and others made geological and biological observation on four of the 18 main islands of the volcanic Galápagos archipelago. Though Darwin focused on geology and had no expertise in ornithology, he collected what he called mockingbirds (later known as “Darwin’s finches”) and other birds on each of the islands, though he did not label them for location. Back in England, in 1837, an ornithologist found that the birds were differing species of finches, each unique to specific islands, each with beaks that had been adapted over time to specific habitats. This discovery, and the knowledge that tortoises differed from island to island, were critical in the development of Darwin's theory of natural selection explaining evolution, presented in The Origin of Species (1859).
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was born on September 14, 1769, in Berlin. His youthful interest in identifying and collecting natural objects – plants, shells and insects – developed into a passion for travel, inspired by a friendship with Captain James Cook’s illustrator who had sailed on Cook's second world voyage. During his scientific explorations of South America with a botanist, from 1799 to 1804, he collected 6,000 new species of plants, herbs, rocks, minerals and animals, and amassed a vast trove of maps and information about the natural world, ranging through geology, astronomy, meteorology, botany, anthropology and linguistics. On South America’s west coast, he discovered and measured what is now called the Humboldt Current in the Pacific Ocean. After exploring Mexico in 1803, he settled in Paris and later explored Russia. In 1845 he published the first of five volumes of “Cosmos,” a scientifically holistic treatise on the Earth and the universe. As famous as Napoleon in his time, von Humboldt promoted the interrelatedness of the natural sciences.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
September 12, 490 BCE, is the likely date of the Battle of Marathon, fought in Attica in southern Greece during the first invasion of the Persians who, under generals of King Darius, sought to subjugate Athens and mainland Greece after a revolt by Greek colonists in Asia Minor. Athens' army was far less than half the size of the Persian forces, which had advanced across the Aegean Sea, but it blocked the two exits from the plain of Marathon and encircled and defeated the Persians. It then thwarted a surprise attack on Athens by quickly marching back to the city. The Persians fled to their ships and would not return again for another 10 years. The victory at Marathon was a pivotal moment for the young Athenian democracy, marking not only the start of its classical “golden age” – lasting nearly three centuries – but also fundamentally the birth of Western civilization. The story of the Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who brought news of the victory to Athens, then collapsed and died, is historically inaccurate but is the source of the modern “marathon” footrace.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Movie director and editor Robert Wise was born on September 10, 1914, in west-central Indiana. After landing an odd job at RKO Radio Pictures in Hollywood at age 19, he eventually became a film editor and performed that function on two landmark films by Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942). Later in the 1940s he began directing low-budget “B” movies, including “The Body Snatcher” (1945), and then achieved success in a wide range of film genres, including horror, western, war, science fiction, drama and musical. Many of his most notable movies deal with the futility of war, conflict or arms proliferation. These include “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), now acclaimed for its moral significance; “Run Silent, Run Deep” (1958), about submarine warfare; “West Side Story” (1961), which won an unprecedented 10 Oscars; “The Sound of Music” (1965), the highest-grossing film of all time and winner of five Oscars; and “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), viewed as an early statement about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák was born on September 8, 1841, near Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. Encouraged by his parents, he became a working musician and composer. In the 1870s he followed in the footsteps of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, producing a range of works inspired by Czech, Moravian and Slavic traditional music, including Symphonies 4-6, his lyrical serenades for strings and for winds, his violin concerto and the popular first set of Slavonic Dances. Largely because of political tensions under Austro-Hungarian rule, Dvořák found much of his success abroad – first in London with his cantata “Stabat Mater” (1877), then in New York in the 1890s, where as director of the National Conservatory of Music he studied and promoted "American music," including African-American and Native American songs and idioms. In 1893 the New York Philharmonic premiered his Symphony No.9, "From the New World," and he spent that summer in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, where he composed his superb String Quartet in F (the "American").
Saturday, September 7, 2013
Folk painter Grandma Moses was born Anna Mary Robertson on September 7, 1860, near Glens Falls in Upstate New York. She was one of 10 children. For two decades starting in 1887 she and her husband farmed in Virginia, then ran a farm in Eagle Bridge, NY, near her birthplace. Her earliest work was embroidery, done as a hobby. In her 70’s, arthritis made needlework painful, so at her sister’s suggestion she took up painting. Her individualistic folk style, heedless of perspective and depicting everyday scenes, evolved from early works that were more realistic and “primitive” in nature. She sold paintings locally ($2 for small, $5 for large) until fame courted her in the form of an art collector, Louis Caldor, who bought her paintings on display in a pharmacy window. Gallery shows in New York in 1940 rocketed her to fame at age 80. She painted more than 1,600 pictures, many reproduced in ads and other commercial media – all popular for reflecting traditional American values. Pictured: “Sugaring Off” (1943), a version of which sold for $1.36 million in 2006.
Friday, September 6, 2013
The Marquis de Lafayette was born Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier on September 6, 1757, in Auvergne, in south central France. At age 13 he became a wealthy orphan. In 1775, he supported the cause of the American Revolution and joined efforts to help the colonials fight France’s major enemy, England. When the Continental Congress could not pay for his voyage, he bought a ship, La Victoire, instead. King Louis XVI forbade him to leave France, and the British ambassador ordered seizure of his ship at Bordeaux. But in April 1777, disguised as a woman, he sailed for America, leaving behind his pregnant wife. To avoid possible arrest in the West Indies, he bought the ship’s entire cargo and sailed directly to an island off South Carolina’s coast. He served as a major-general in the Continental Army under Gen. Washington, was wounded in the Battle of Brandywine, served in the Battle of Rhode Island, and in 1781 blocked Cornwallis’ troops at the Battle of Yorktown while Continental armies prepared to battle the British to defeat.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
220 years ago: The Reign of Terror was begun in France when the Revolutionary government made “terror” an official policy in a decree issued on September 5, 1793. The First French Republic’s Committee of Public Safety was formalized the next day to suppress counter-revolutionary activities and raise military forces to fight wars with European powers seeking to crush the Revolution and stop its influence. “La Terreur” resulted from conflict between political factions, the relatively moderate Girondins and the radical Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre. The latter prevailed, using the guillotine (the "National Razor") to execute more than 16,500 “enemies” of the Revolution, including King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, the Girondins, even the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who recognized and named oxygen and hydrogen. Many thousands more were killed throughout France. When bloodshed greatly increased in June and July 1794 (“la Grande Terreur”), a coup overthrew Robespierre, who lost his head to the blade, and ended the Terror.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Architect and city planner Daniel H. Burnham was born on September 4, 1846, near Watertown, NY, and raised in Chicago. He apprenticed as a draftsman with noted architect William LeBaron Jenney, who in Chicago designed and built the first skyscraper (1884-5). He partnered with John Wellborn Root, forming Burnham and Root, which prospered after the Great Chicago Fire (1871). By 1891 the firm had designed nearly 300 structures, including railroad stations, warehouses, office buildings, schools, churches and many private homes. The 21-story, steel-framed Masonic Temple (1892) was the world’s tallest office building in occupied floors. After Root’s death, Burnham was the chief coordinating architect for the World Columbian Exposition (1893) and its vast Beaux-Arts plan. He also designed New York’s Flatiron Building (1902) and Union Station (1907) in Washington, DC, which was part of his replanning and expansion of the National Mall. His masterwork was the “Plan of Chicago” (1909), which is considered a landmark in the history of urban planning.
Monday, September 2, 2013
At 2.00 a.m. on Sunday, September 2, 1666, the Great Fire of London began at the house of a baker in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. Fanned by strong winds, flames spread westward over the following three days and destroyed what was the medieval City, inside the ancient Roman walls. A long summer drought had heightened the danger of fire among the City’s old timber houses overhanging haphazard, narrow streets. For years the aristocracy had shunned the City and lived either in the country, beyond suburban slums, or in posh Westminster (today’s West End), where King Charles II held court during the Restoration. Celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys recorded much of the conflagration and described a huge, shocking encampment of homeless refugees in a public park, "poor wretches carrying their good(s).” The Great Fire consumed the dwellings of an estimated 70,000 of the 80,000 Londoners. But by 1711, a reconstructed London included 50 new churches by architect Christopher Wren, including today’s majestic St. Paul’s Cathedral.