Forgotten Mozart, Handel’s Money, and Dating the Shroud of Turin
The critic John Simon has died. He was 94. His wife announced his death on Facebook and encouraged readers to go “see a play or read a great book or poem or watch some tennis in his honor.” His last post on his blog (where he revealed once that Yoko Ono supported it with $500 a month) was on the state of criticism: “One person’s critic is another person’s crackpot. That they are not united in their opinions is ascribable to the Latin saying: quot homines, tot sententiae. I myself prefer being considered a creep, but that is what you get for having what Vladimir Nabokov called ‘Strong Opinions.’ It is odd that in a country so wallowing in negativity, starting with mass shootings and climaxing with Trump, such an unimportant matter as theater criticism should generate so much hostility. The only target patently more important is lead in the drinking water.”
Unfortunately, The Washington Post mostly focuses on Simon’s controversial remarks and “Strong Opinions” in its obituary. It’s all fine and good to remember these, but there was more to the man than a nasty comment in 1973 or a negative review in 2005. I’m sure remembrances are being written today. As we wait for those, here’s Richard Brookhiser: “Beneath that often ferocious exterior, there was a humility before the works he esteemed, and almost a shyness about praising them, maybe along the lines of the Biblical text, pearls before swine. Hard on the swine, but very devoted to the pearls.”
In other news: 70% of British youth have never heard of Mozart. 20% think Johann Sebastian Bach is still alive.
Handel’s money: “George Frideric Handel was a master musician — an internationally renowned composer, virtuoso performer, and music director of London’s Royal Academy of Music, one of Europe’s most prestigious opera houses. For musicologists, studying his life and works typically means engaging with his compositional manuscripts at The British Library, as well as the documents, letters, and newspapers that describe his interaction with royalty, relationships to others, and contemporary reaction to his music. But when I began to explore Handel’s personal accounts at the Bank of England twenty years ago, I was often asked why. For me the answer was always ‘follow the money’. Handel’s financial records provide a unique window on his career, musical environments, income, and even his health.”
Christopher Bray reviews the letters of Cole Porter: “Suavely edited by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh, this hefty collection is a lot less fun than Porter fans might expect. For one thing, it’s full of tales of his (generally bad) and his wife’s (generally terrible) health. For another, a little wordplay on enemas aside, the letters are virtually wit-free. I’m happy that Porter was happy when his friend Sam Stark gave him a washing machine. But do we really need to see the thank-you note calling it ‘sensational!’?”
A “spirited, if flawed,” defense of Epicureanism.
A study of Pre-Raphaelite women and models shows us “how clients were tended, studios managed, costumes stitched, parallel careers pursued, opportunities for work seized and respectability either sought or rejected. It unfolds a fascinating series of interconnected life stories.”
Essay of the Day:
In 1988, the Shroud of Turin was declared a medieval fake after it was tested by carbon dating. The results of those tests, however, may not be as conclusive as originally thought:
“Even though it was unlikely to be real, most people thought that the radiocarbon dating would be the silver bullet that would either confirm the inauthenticity of the Shroud or dispel Shroud doubters once and for all. Vatican agreement for testing took decades to obtain and then, finally, in 1987, laboratories in Arizona, Oxford, and Zurich were selected to perform independent tests. On April 21, 1988, a sample was taken from one corner of the cloth and distributed to the three sets of scientists. The resulting publication declared that there was ‘conclusive evidence’ that the linen of the shroud dates to 1260-1390 CE with 95 percent confidence in those results.
“Since 2005, however, a growing number of scholars have questioned the results of the now 30-year-old tests. Some claimed, for example, that the area tested was a portion of the cloth that was repaired and that the tested strands reflect those repairs. We know, for example, that efforts were made to restore the Shroud in the 16th century. The fact that testing only used samples from one corner of the cloth makes it impossible to know if this is a claim is correct or not.
“Oddly, though, neither academic institutions involved or the British Museum would respond to requests for the original raw data that were held in their archives. (The British Museum also did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.) It was only when Tristan Casabianca made a request under British law that he received a favourable reply. According to his co-authored article in Archaeometry, the British Museum ‘made all its files [hundreds of pages worth] “not dated or arranged in any order,” available’ to his team.”
Photo: Hot-air-balloon swing
Poem: Sally Thomas, “First Sunday”
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