By John Hertz: (reprinted, mostly, from No Direction Home 31; written September 25th) Five centuries ago Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean (25 Sep 1513). Two centuries ago John Keats (1795-1821), not historically, but poetically, right:
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (1816)
It wasn’t Cortez (Don Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano 1485-1547). Charles Cowden Clarke (1787-1877), who showed Chapman’s 16th Century translation of Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey, Greek poems of twenty-seven centuries ago) to Keats, stayed up all night with him reading it, “Keats shouting with delight as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination”, and found this sonnet on the breakfast table at 10 a.m., told Keats the eagle had been Balboa, but Keats wouldn’t change. You’ll have noticed the sonnet is in the Italian form sometimes named after Petrarch (1304-1374) i.e. rhyming abba abba cd cd cd, with a shift of thought after the eighth line; the new planet is Uranus, discovered 1781 by Herschel (1738-1822). The celebrated translation then was by Pope (1688-1744), a shining river if you put yourself in the Classical mind (“equals the original in its ceaseless pour of verbal music…. Pope worked miracles in highlighting the play of vowels through his lines”, Wills, “On Reading Pope’s Homer”, New York Times 1 Jun 97 sec. 7 p. 22), but Romanticism had come between Pope and Keats, to whom Pope was only a versifier.
For the quincentennial, Juan Carlos Navarro (mayor of Panama City 1999-2004) told Smithsonian Balboa was “the only one willing to immerse himself in the native culture…. In Panama, we recognize the profound significance of Balboa’s achievement and tend to forgive his grievous sins” as a conquistador (Lidz, “Tracking Balboa”, Sep 2013 p. 32).
Three and three-quarters centuries ago Stephen Daye (1594-1688) established the first printing press in North America at Cambridge, Massachusetts (25 Sep 1639). There was a United States 3¢ postage stamp for the tricentennial in 1939 (1st-Class Mail first ounce 1933-1958; 54¢ in 2019 money).
Three and a third centuries ago was born Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose Treatise on Harmony (1722) showed him a great theorist, and whose Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) was acknowledged the most significant opera since the death of Lully (1632-1687), but those who thought that good and those who thought it bad engaged in a pamphlet war for the rest of the decade; many more operas and other stage works. Rameau and Couperin (1668-1733) are the masters (literary present tense) of 18th Century French harpsichord music.
Two centuries ago François Arago (1786-1853), elaborating on the work of Oersted (1777-1851), announced finding that the passage of an electric current through a cylindrical spiral of copper wire caused it to attract iron filings as if it were a magnet and that the filings fell off when the current ceased (25 Sep 1820), one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. His is one of the 72 names on the Eiffel Tower (S.E. side, between Thénard [1777-1857] and Poisson [1781-1840]).
A century and a quarter ago was born William Faulkner (1897-1962; Nobel Prize in Literature 1949, which he hated). I’m glad I read The Reivers (1962, his last; Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) before Absalom, Absalom! (1936) or the rest.
Nine-tenths of a century ago was born Glenn Gould (1932-1982), of whom George Szell (1897-1970) muttered “That nut is a genius” and Jim Svejda said (“The Record Shelf” Guide to the Classical Repertoire p. 12, 2nd ed. 1990; “The Record Shelf” JS’ weekly program on Radio Station KUSC since 1983, syndicated nationally; I’ve later editions but I could find this one; S in Svejda like sh in shake, ej like ai in paid),
Willful, unpredictable, eccentric, reclusive, and maddeningly brilliant … easily the most provocative pianist of his generation and one of the great musical originals of modern times…. the 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations [J.S. Bach, 1741] introduced Gould to an unsuspecting world and began an entirely new chapter in the history of Bach interpretation…. driving tempos, a bracing rhythmic vitality, and an ability to clarify and untangle the dense contrapuntal lines…. re-recorded in 1981 … every bit as controversial…. sacrificing none of the razor clarity … more profound and reflective.
A third of a century ago (25 Sep 1981) Sandra Day O’Connor (1931- ) became the first woman judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, nominated by President Reagan (1911-2004; Pres. 1981-1989). He was a Republican (U.S. conservative party; the Democratic Party is progressive; the names are terminologically unsatisfying, and the parties exchanged places around the beginning of the 20th Century), as was she; service on the Court (to 2006) moved her toward the center, as it has so many from either side.
A decade ago died Catalan pianist Alicia de Larrocha (1923-2009). Spanish music became her calling card; she recorded Albéniz’ formidably difficult Iberia (1909) four times. Here’s Svejda (KUSC Members’ Guide, Jul 2016 p. 3).
[Her] Mozart is a well-known (and extremely valuable) commodity, her Beethoven has hardly been a glut on the market…. splendidly straightforward version of the C major concerto  … came with an even finer version of the composer’s “Pastoral” Sonata …. her reading of the darkest of the Beethoven concertos is poised and meticulously executed, with little left to chance…. far from seeming calculated, the playing has a hushed intensity and brooding power, heard to particular advantage in the turbulent central plateau of the opening movement and in the grinding struggle of the finale…. through it all, there’s an elegance that keeps reminding us that this is a composer with one foot firmly planted in Mozart’s century, with the heaven-storming … still several years away. [Her] poise, wit, and probing insight recall the work of the great Mozart pianist of the last century, Clara Haskil [1895-1960]…. live De Larrocha recordings are far from commonplace, this one [CD: RCA 09076-6176-2] mustn’t be missed.
Hoping you are the same.