Jun. 29, 2010

The Return

by Thomas R. Smith

Unto Him all things return. –The Koran

Walking on the park road
early morning, summer solstice,
we came to a place in the still-
shaded cool where, looking
up a grassy hillside,
we could see, through a gap
in the trees, the rising sun.

Burning clear with all
heat and strength befitting
the day of its longest dominion,
the sun, boiling from that
high nest of foliage,
lit a silver swath
of sparkling, dew-bent

grasses all the way down
the drenched slope.
So brilliant was that carpet
of light the sun unrolled
down the hill to our feet,
we stopped where we were
and sat awhile in pure wonder.

And I remembered an old
secret promise, deemed
unwise to speak, though
who could deny it,
seeing these folk, humble
yet adorned, nodding together
on their way back to the sun?

And soon enough we got up
again and wandered on
into whatever we had to do
on that day, though not unchanged,
having accompanied a little distance
on the morning road of their return
those illuminated pilgrims.

"The Return" by Thomas R. Smith, from The Foot of the Rainbow. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

It was on this day in 1888 that a snippet of George Frideric Handel's oratorio "Israel in Egypt" was recorded on a wax cylinder. It is one of the earliest surviving recordings of music.

In December of 1877, Thomas Edison (books by this author) filed for a patent for his phonograph, a device to record and play back sound. It all started with a little toy he made — when you spoke into a funnel, the vibrations it made on a diaphragm engaged a ratchet wheel and made a little figure of a man saw wood. He wrote later: "I reached the conclusion that if I could record the movements of the diaphragm properly, I could cause such record to reproduce the original movements imparted to the diaphragm by the voice, and thus succeed in recording and reproducing the human voice." And he did just that.

In 1888, the Handel Festival was held at the Crystal Palace in London, a royal tradition that was celebrated regularly since 1784. The performance of his oratorio "Israel in Egypt" took place on Friday at 2 p.m., with doors opening at 11 and a cost between 7 and 25 shillings. Almost 24,000 people attended the show.

Thomas Edison had an agent named Colonel George Gouraud who sold phonographs to the European market and lived in South London. For the "Israel in Egypt" concert, Gouraud got permission to put the phonograph in the theater's press gallery. There was an orchestra of about 500, and a choir of at least 3,000 people. The recording is scratchy and the music is indistinct not only because the technology was so new, but also because there were so many voices and the phonograph was too far away. But it is still recognizable as choral music, and it is the earliest live concert that survives.

A year later, the Columbia Phonograph Company started up and sold gramophones for peoples' homes. In 1890, they produced the first record catalog, which was a one-page list of wax cylinders; two years later Emile Berliner offered discs in place of cylinders. Over the next few years, the recording industry took off, and many homes had some sort of phonograph in them.

Thomas Edison sent George Gouraud to record the voices of famous people, including P.T. Barnum, Florence Nightingale, and Queen Victoria. On August 2nd of 1890, Gouraud went to record Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as the poet recited: "Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward, / All in the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred," from his famous "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Another early recording was of Robert Browning, shortly before his death, reciting part of his poem "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix." He tried twice, but he couldn't remember more than a few lines. But he did say on the recording that it was a "wonderful invention."

In 1992, scholars announced that they had found an 1890 recording that purports to be Walt Whitman reading four lines from his poem "America," written in 1888, and included in one of Whitman's revised versions of Leaves of Grass.

People who have studied the recording are still not sure that it's authentic. The voice fits the description given by Whitman's close friend and caregiver, Horace Traubel: "strong and resonant, full of music, a rich tenor," and the poem is delivered in a convincing New York accent. But most historians believe the recording is too clear, that there was too much bass and the signal was wrong for such an old recording. Unless the wax cylinder turns up, we might not find out who is reciting the lines in the 36-second recording.

It was on this day in 1613 that the Globe Theatre burned to the ground. For more than 10 years, it had been the most popular theater in London, and it was where many of Shakespeare's (books by this author) greatest plays had their premiere, including Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth.

It was a theater in the round, with the audience in a circle around a platform for the actors. It was probably designed this way because most of the actors in Shakespeare's company got their start acting in the street, surrounded by a crowd.

In 1996, a replica of the Globe was built and plays at the new Globe Theatre are performed exactly the same way they would have been performed by Shakespeare's company. The performances take place in the afternoon daylight, there are no microphones and few props, and the roof is open to the weather.

A lot of people didn't think the new Globe would appeal to a modern audience. But it's been a big success. About 700,000 people visit it every year. The actors say that the audience always pays better attention to the play when it's raining.

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




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