Wednesday Jan. 27, 2016

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I don’t know any more what it used to be
Before I saw you at the table sitting across from me
All I can remember is I saw you look at me
And I couldn’t breathe and I hurt so bad I couldn’t see.

I couldn’t see but just your looking eyes
And my ears was buzzing with a thumping noise
And I was scared the way everything went rushing around
Like I was all alone, like I was going to drown.

There wasn’t nothing left except the light of your face,
There might have been no people, there might have been no place,
Like as if a dream were to be stronger than thought
And could walk into the sun and be stronger than aught.

Then someone says something and then you spoke
And I couldn’t hardly answer up, but it sounded like a croak
So I just sat still and nobody knew
That since that happened all of everything is you.

“Song” by Edwin Denby from The Complete Poems. © Random House, 1986. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Wolfgang Mozart, born in Salzburg in what was then the Holy Roman Empire (1756). He was a true child prodigy. His father, Leopold, was a successful composer and court musician who pushed his two young children — Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl — to excel in music. Young Wolfgang began playing pieces from Nannerl’s keyboard lessons when he was four years old, and wrote his first compositions at the age of five. That same year, he gave his first public performance, at the University of Salzburg.

When Mozart was seven years old, his father took the family on a three-year tour of European cities, where the children played for kings and queens. They spent a year in London, and there the eight-year-old boy befriended 28-year-old Johann Christian Bach, the son of Johann Sebastian. The younger Bach was one of the most famous and respected composers of his time, and had recently been appointed Music Master to the Queen. Nannerl wrote in her diary: “Herr Johann Christian Bach [...] took Wolfgang between his knees. He would play a few measures; then Wolfgang would continue. In this manner they played entire sonatas. Unless you saw it with your own eyes, you would swear that just one person was playing.” The two became close, and Mozart flourished under Bach’s mentorship, and remained loyal to his teacher for the rest of his life. In a letter to his father in 1777, Mozart complained about a fellow composer who insulted Bach to his face; Mozart wrote: “I thought I should have to seize his front hair and pull it hard.”

When Mozart was 13, he and his father took a trip to Italy. Mozart performed for nobility and worked on his own compositions. In Rome, they visited the Sistine Chapel for a performance of Gregorio Allegri’s piece Miserere. It had never been published, but after hearing it once, the teenage Mozart was able to write out the entire nine-part choral piece from memory, and he made only a few minor errors.

For several years, Mozart worked as a court musician in Salzburg, but his relationship with the archbishop was difficult; he felt confined by the archbishop’s limited musical tastes. To the dismay of his father, he eventually left Salzburg permanently for the city of Vienna, where he struggled to make a living but had more artistic freedom.

In July of 1782, a month before he got married, Mozart began working on his great unfinished piece Mass in C Minor. His father did not approve of his fiancée, Constanze Weber; Leopold and Nannerl did not attend the wedding, and Leopold’s formal letter of consent arrived in the mail the day after the couple was married in Vienna. Mozart wrote to his father: “When we had been joined together, both my wife and I began to weep. And then all present, even the priest, wept too at seeing how much our hearts were moved.” A few months later, Mozart wrote to his father to say that he was writing a Mass in honor of Constanze and her recovery from a serious illness, and that he would perform it in Salzburg when the couple came from Vienna for a visit later that year. To further this peace offering, Mozart wrote the first soprano part for Constanze to perform, hoping to show his father that she was a serious musician and a devout woman. Despite Mozart’s efforts, the visit did not go well. Both Leopold and Nannerl continued to disapprove of Constanze, even after the debut of the unfinished Mass in C Minor at St. Peter’s Church in Salzburg, in which Constanze sang at least pieces of the soprano part.

Mozart lived just eight more years, and despite long trips, his home base remained near or around Vienna — despite Leopold’s wishes, he never returned to live in Salzburg. Mozart died in poverty of unknown causes at the age of 35, but he had already written more than 600 pieces of music.

On this day in 1302, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (books by this author) was exiled from Florence for his political sympathies. Dante was a leading supporter of the white Guelph party, which was opposed to extreme papal power. When the black Guelph party seized power in Florence in 1302, they immediately expelled Dante from the city. He spent the next two decades wandering from place to place in northern and central Italy, estranged from his wife and kids and often living in poverty. His only solace during his exile was writing. It was during this time that he wrote his greatest work, The Divine Comedy, an epic poem about a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Just before his death, his children visited him in Ravenna; it was the first time he had seen them since he left Florence almost 20 years before.

It’s the birthday of the man who created the Periodic Table of Elements — Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, born in Tobolsk, Siberia (1834). When he was 35 years old, Mendeleev organized the chemical elements into a table in order of increasing atomic number.

Earlier this month, four new elements were added to the periodic table, finally completing the table’s seventh row. For now, they’re known by placeholder names, like ununseptium and ununtrium, but they will receive permanent names soon. The elements, discovered by scientists in Japan, Russia, and America, are the first to be added to the table since 2011.

New elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist.

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