Sep. 30, 2011

A Child's Wedding Song

by Glyn Maxwell

Thumb and finger make a ring
              to see the future through.

I can see the world through it
              only the world and you,

only the world and you alone.
              If I should break this ring,

where will I find you in the world
              though I find everything?

"A Child's Wedding Song" by Glyn Maxwell, from One Thousand Nights and Counting: Selected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1452, the first section of the Gutenberg Bible was finished in Mainz, Germany, by the printer Johannes Gutenberg. Little is known of Gutenberg's early history or his personal life except that he was born around the year 1400, the youngest son of a wealthy merchant, but from the time of the appearance of his beautiful Bibles he has left an indelible mark on human culture.

Ancient books had primarily been written on scrolls, though an innovation in the second century A.D. — that of the codex, a sheaf of pages bound at one edge — gave us the familiar book form we recognize today. Early codices were produced by hand by monks in scriptoriums, working with pen and ink, copying manuscripts one page at a time so that even a small book would take months to complete and a book the size of the Bible, rich with color and illuminations, would take years.

Gutenberg's genius was to separate each element of the beautiful, calligraphic blackletter script commonly used by the scribes into its most basic components — lower case and capital letters, punctuation, and the connected ligatures that were standard in Medieval calligraphy — nearly 300 different shapes that were then each cast in quantity and assembled to form words, lines, and full pages of text.

He also invented a printing press to use his type, researching and refining his equipment and processes over the course of several years. In 1440, Gutenberg wrote and printed copies of his own mysteriously titled book, Kunst und Aventur [Art and Enterprise], releasing his printing ideas to the public. And by 1450, his movable-type printing press was certainly in operation.

It is unclear when Gutenberg conceived of his Bible project, though he was clearly in production by 1452. He probably produced about 180 copies — 145 that were printed on handmade paper imported from Italy and the remainder on more luxurious and expensive vellum. Once complete, the Bibles were sold as folded sheets, the owners responsible for having them bound and decorated, so that each surviving copy has its own unique features like illumination, dashes of color, marks of ownership, and notes and marginalia.

Only four dozen Gutenberg Bibles remain, and of these only 21 are complete, but what Gutenberg created went far beyond the reach of those volumes. By beginning the European printing revolution, he forever changed how knowledge was spread, democratized learning, and allowed for thoughts and ideas to be widely disseminated throughout the known world. In his time, Gutenberg's contemporaries called this "the art of multiplying books," and it was a major catalyst for the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and even the Protestant Reformation. In 1997, Time magazine named Johannes Gutenberg "Man of the Millennium" and dubbed his movable type as the most important invention of a thousand years. His name is commemorated by Project Gutenberg, a group of volunteers working to digitize and archive cultural and literary works, while making them open and free to the public. His name was even placed in the skies as the planetoid Gutemberga.

Mark Twain wrote in 1900, in a congratulatory letter to mark the opening of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz: "What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg. Everything can be traced to this source, but we are bound to bring him homage ... for the bad that his colossal invention has brought about is overshadowed a thousand times by the good with which mankind has been favored."

On this day in 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's two-act opera The Magic Flute premiered at the Freihaus Theater in the composer's hometown of Vienna, Austria.

Mozart had been a child prodigy, a court musician to a prince, a touring musician, and an extremely popular composer, but by the 1780s, his fortunes had diminished. While Mozart's popularity away from home was on the rise, in Vienna he was facing a slight decline. He had neglected to save any money during the height of his popularity and, despite giving music lessons, playing recitals, and writing stacks of instrumental music, his wife's costly health problems coupled with the expense of supporting their two children and a pair of servants was taking a toll on his earnings and he began borrowing substantial sums of money and flirting with financial disaster.

To supplement his income, Mozart had for some time been contributing musical compositions to the resident theater troupe at the Freihaus Theater. The theater's director, Emmanuel Schikaneder, was an old Mozart family friend, and under his direction the Freihaus had begun specializing in singspiels — "song-plays" — lighthearted musical dramas that combined spoken dialogue with songs, ballads, and arias. Schikaneder was also a singer, dancer, actor, playwright, and librettist, and had composed a number of original singspiels. Mozart had as well, including The Abduction from the Seraglio, and when the two began collaborating on what would become The Magic Flute, it was the singspiel they considered for its form.

For his libretto, Schikaneder looked to several volumes of fairy tales that were popular in Germany and Austria at the time, adopting elements of their magic and myths. He and Mozart were devoted Freemasons and lodge brothers, and they also incorporated many Masonic elements and references into the libretto, the stage settings, and even the musical score — from the repetition of the number three to the inclusion of a secret, temple-based society that is painted as nefarious but is found by the end to be utterly honorable and benign.

Mozart tailored his score to the abilities of the opening cast and was skilled at incorporating varying levels of difficulty into the piece. In some cases, he would first state a vocal line in the strings so that a performer could find his or her pitch before beginning, for those that needed a little guidance. But within the same piece, the role of the duplicitous Queen of the Night, which would be sung by the composer's sister-in-law who by all accounts had an extraordinary vocal agility and upper register, became famous for its notoriously difficult "Hell's vengeance" aria that Mozart composed especially for her.

Mozart fell ill a few weeks before the opening performance of The Magic Flute, but worked through September revising and finishing his opera and even conducted the orchestra on the opening night. The opera's immediate success seemed to buoy his spirits and despite being sick he attended almost nightly with friends and relatives. He wrote to his wife, who was away with their children, to say that "I have this moment returned from the opera, which was as full as ever ... what always gives me the most pleasure is the silent approval! You can see how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed."

It is generally thought that Mozart was suffering from rheumatic fever, which worsened until he was finally bedridden by November, depressed and suffering from swelling, pain, and vomiting. Those who were with him in his final days would write in their letters and memoirs that the composer was preoccupied with his music and with finishing as much as possible of the Requiem he was then composing. On the evening of December 4th, his final night, he whispered to his wife for quiet for just then, he told her, across Vienna, the Queen of the Night was storming the stage and taking her high notes.

There were no reviews of those first performances, but The Magic Flute continually drew immense crowds to hundreds of performances in the first few years alone. Had Mozart not died just two months after the opening, it is clear that the success of the opera would have changed his life. Two hundred and twenty years later, The Magic Flute has never wavered in popularity and has inspired numerous diverse works of literature, from a children's book by John Updike to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Night's Daughter to a retelling with classical Japanese elements by Yoshitaka Amano. In 1977, The Magic Flute was launched into space on the twin Voyager spacecraft, a recording of the famed Queen of the Night aria included on the Golden Record they each carry, currently traveling outward through the darkness at a distance of 10 billion miles, on their way to interstellar space.

Today is the birthday of the writer Truman Capote (books by this author), best known for the short novel Breakfast at Tiffany's and the groundbreaking work In Cold Blood, with which he single-handedly created a new literary genre — the nonfiction novel. Capote was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1924, his parents divorced when he was four, and he was sent to live a mostly lonely and solitary existence with some elderly aunts in Alabama. In his mid-teens, he went to live with his mother and her new husband in New York City but didn't adjust well to city life and ended up dropping out of school when he was 17 to take a job with The New Yorker. This was effectively the start of his professional writing life, and within a few years Capote was writing for a number of publications.

With his literary success came social celebrity, and the young writer's talents were often overshadowed by his now-famous flamboyance and eccentricities. Capote's artistic genius was well matched by his penchant for glittering high society, which lionized him in return, and he was seen at all the best parties, restaurants, clubs, and social circles.

While Capote was a society darling before the publication of In Cold Blood, it was really that book that cemented his place among society's elite. In Cold Blood was an instant success, selling out immediately, becoming one of the most talked-about books of its time and bringing its author millions of dollars and a level of fame rarely experienced by a literary author. In Capote's own words, In Cold Blood was "a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."

Capote had apparently attempted something similar as a child. In a 1957 interview with the Paris Review, he discussed his first foray into nonfiction, when he had been a member of the Mobile [Alabama] Press Register's Sunshine Club, originally lured in by the free Nehi and Coca-Cola and also by the short-story writing contest with the prize of a pony or a dog. As he said, "I had been noticing the activities of some neighbors who were up to no good, so I wrote a kind of roman à clef called 'Old Mr. Busybody' and entered it into the contest. The first installment appeared one Sunday, under my real name of Truman Streckfus Persons. Only somebody suddenly realized that I was serving up a local scandal as fiction, and the second installment never appeared. Naturally, I didn't win a thing."

When Capote was around 12, the principal at his school announced to his family that the boy was "subnormal," and that it would be only humane to send him to a special school "equipped to handle backward brats." Understandably, Capote's family took umbrage at this, and in an effort to prove the principal unequivocally wrong, they "pronto packed me off to a psychiatric study clinic at a university in the East where I had my IQ inspected. I enjoyed it thoroughly and — guess what? — came home a genius, so proclaimed by science. I don't know who was more appalled: my former teachers, who refused to believe it, or my family, who didn't want to believe it — they'd just hoped to be told I was a nice normal boy. Ha ha!" For his part, his genius scientifically proven, Capote took to staring in mirrors, sucking in his cheeks and naming himself Proust, or Chekhov, or Wolfe — whoever was his idol of the moment. It was around this time that the boy started writing in earnest. His mind "zoomed all night every night," and he felt it must have been several years before he slept properly again.

Genius or no, Capote understood the only way to improve was to do the work and keep doing it, again and again, because "Work is the only device I know of [for improving one's technique]. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
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  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
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  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
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  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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