Thursday Feb. 25, 2016

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Becoming Bostonian

I hear the music of seven languages
on a four-block stretch of Harvard Square,
see the copper glow of the Hancock
Tower at sunset, feel the familiar

bump of cobblestones under my feet.
Mark Twain said people in New York ask
“How much is he worth?” while Bostonians
ask “How much does he know?” That burning

desire to discover keeps the city humming,
yet we’re grounded in history, too,
still treading on sidewalks made of
baked clay. I stand

one night on Beacon Hill, gaze up at the
few stars city lights allow to shine,
feel myself stretched between past and future
the pull of the earth on which

our forefathers stood, the pull of the moon,
which they could not have dreamed their descendants
would visit. Or perhaps they did.
One historian reports that

“there were books on Beacon Hill while wolves
still howled from the summit.” Perhaps some
Englishman closed his book one night and stood
where I stand, dreaming of what we’ve become.

“Becoming Bostonian” by Lawrence Kessenich from Age of Wonders. © Big Table Publishing, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of former Beatle George Harrison (books by this author), born in Liverpool, England, in 1943. He was the youngest of Harold and Louise Harrison’s four children, and the youngest of the four Beatles as well. He joined the band when he was only 14, and there was a tendency ever after for his bandmates to treat him like a tag-along kid brother. He was often crowded out of the limelight by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and he was only granted two tracks on every album. When the band split in 1970, he finally recorded and released several of the songs from this backlog; he had enough material for a triple album, 1970’s All Things Must Pass.

His memoir, I Me Mine (also the title of a Beatles song he wrote), was published in 1980, and is dedicated “to gardeners everywhere.” He died of cancer in 2001, and former bandmate McCartney said of him: “He was a lovely guy, and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humor. He is really just my baby brother.”

It’s the birthday of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, born in Limoges, France (1841). He began painting when he was 13 years old, first on porcelain, then later painting on fans. He went on to form the style of painting known as Impressionism, along with the painters Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley. Renoir became severely disabled by arthritis starting in 1902, but he continued to paint. By 1913, he was completely crippled, and he instructed his assistants in creating several of his last sculptures. Renoir said, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

It’s the birthday of the first recording star in the history of music, Enrico Caruso, born in Naples (1873). He grew up extremely poor, in the slums of Naples, but he sang in his local church choir, and he was known around his neighborhood as “the little divo.” When he was a young boy, his mother insisted that he go to school, but when he was 12 years old, his father made him quit school and take a job in a factory. He worked there for four years, but he still sang in church. Then when he was 15, he was performing at church one night when he received word that his mother had died. He left the church in the middle of the song, one of only two times in his life that he interrupted a performance. The only other time he didn’t finish a concert was his last.

A year after his mother’s death, he decided that he wanted to pursue a career as a singer and ran away from home. He began supporting himself singing at local resorts, weddings, and funerals. He later said that he had to cut his shirtfronts out of white paper, because he couldn’t afford to buy real shirts. He also wore his suit so many times that it turned green from mold, and he had to dye it black again.

He entered the military when he was 21. An officer noticed his beautiful voice and introduced him to a wealthy nobleman who was connected to the opera industry. And that was how Caruso got his first role in an opera. He was paid $16 for his first two performances in 1895. The first opera he sang in was a failure, but he worked his way up in the minor opera houses until he was singing in the most prestigious houses in Naples. By 1898, he was so famous that he was invited to sing in St. Petersburg, Russia. After his performance, the czar gave him a pair of gold cuff links set with diamonds. At that time, the New York Met was the one of the world’s leading opera houses, and when the manager of the Met heard Caruso sing in England, he signed Caruso to a five-year contract for 50 performances a season. Unfortunately, the manager of the Met resigned before Caruso arrived, and that meant that his contract was null and void. The new manager had never heard of Caruso, and was only willing to commit to 25 appearances for an unknown tenor.

There was a good deal of anticipation among opera aficionados for his Metropolitan debut in Rigoletto in 1903, and most critics agreed that he did a good job, but it wasn’t a standout performance. Over the course of that first opera season, Caruso began to relax, and he sang better and better with each performance. By the end of the season, audiences were going into hysterics. After one of his last performances of the season, the audience members began yelling, stamping, and screaming his name. One woman jumped up on stage as Caruso came out for a bow. She tore a button from his coat and immediately burst into tears.

Less than three months after his Metropolitan debut, Caruso made some recordings for the Victor Company. At the time, the gramophone was just a curiosity, but Caruso had become a household name, and people all over the country wanted to hear his voice. His records inspired thousands of people to buy their first gramophones, and his were the first records ever to sell more than a million copies. It can therefore be argued that Caruso’s voice was responsible for the beginning of the musical recording industry.

Caruso went on to perform 17 consecutive seasons at the Met, giving a total of 626 performances in New York, in 37 different operas. He gave his final performance at the Met on December 11, 1920, but he had to leave the stage after the first act, because he was coughing up blood. It was the final performance of his life. He died a few months later.

Enrico Caruso once said, “[A great singer needs] a big chest, a big mouth, 90 percent memory, 10 percent intelligence, lots of hard work, and something in the heart.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®