Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 debuts

Year
1824
Month Day
May 04

On May 4, 1824, Ludwig van Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony debuts at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor. Having lost his hearing years earlier, the celebrated composer nonetheless “conducts” the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, now widely considered to be one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.

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Having established himself as one of the greatest composers of the era in the early 1800s, Beethoven had almost completely lost his hearing by 1814 but continued to compose. The Ninth Symphony required the largest orchestra ever employed by Beethoven, and was unusual at the time for its use of voices in addition to instruments. Beethoven hand-picked two young singers, 18-year-old Henriette Sontag and 20-year-old Caroline Unger, for the soprano and alto parts. He stood on stage and appeared to conduct the orchestra when the Ninth debuted, although due to his deafness the players were instructed to ignore the composer and instead follow Michael Umlauf, the actual conductor. Beethoven was several bars off from the actual music by the time the piece concluded. As he could not hear the applause, Unger had to turn him to face the audience as they hailed him with five standing ovations, raising their hats and handkerchiefs in the air.

Critics consider the Ninth one of Beethoven’s crowning achievements. The choral section, adapted from the Friedrich Schiller poem “Ode to Joy,” has transcended the world of classical music and become one of the most often-played and easily recognizable pieces of music of all time. The “Ode to Joy” has been interpreted in almost every way imaginable, and has been employed as an official or unofficial anthem by an enormous range of entities, including the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Nazi Party, the East-West German Olympic Team and the European Union.

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Willie Nelson releases “Red Headed Stranger”

The following content is sponsored by Legacy Recordings.

On May 1, 1975, Willie Nelson releases “Red Headed Stranger,” a concept album that would become the country music maverick’s first smash hit.

Born and raised in Texas, Nelson made his way to the country mecca of Nashville, Tennessee by 1960. He quickly earned a reputation writing songs for other artists—including “Crazy,” which became a huge hit for Patsy Cline in 1961—and went on to record more than a dozen albums of his own.

In the early ‘70s, frustrated by the smooth, heavily orchestrated Nashville sound, Nelson moved to Austin, Texas. Amid the city’s growing hippie music scene, Nelson felt free to be his offbeat, bandanna-wearing self. He released “Shotgun Willie,” considered one of his best albums, in 1973, followed by “Phases and Stages.”

But like his previous albums, neither of them sold that well, and when his record company, Atlantic, closed its country branch, Nelson was left without a label. Fortunately, his agent managed to negotiate a contract with Columbia that gave Nelson complete artistic control (a rare thing in the music business).

In January 1975, while driving home from a ski trip in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Nelson’s then-wife, Connie, reminded him of “Red Headed Stranger,” a ‘50s ballad written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz about a grief-stricken cowboy that Nelson had played on the radio during his years working as a DJ. By the time they got back to Texas, he had spun the story of the song into the concept for his next album.

Combining Nelson’s songs with other songwriters’ work, “Red Headed Stranger” tells the story of the Stranger, a man with long red hair and blue eyes (like Nelson himself). After catching his wife cheating on him with another man, he kills them both, then goes on the run.

Nelson recorded the album in a small studio in Garland, Texas with a trusted group of musicians, including his sister and longtime collaborator, Bobbie. It took about a week and cost just $4,000 in studio costs. The sound was so spare—mostly just piano, guitar and drums—that executives at CBS Records (Columbia’s parent company) didn’t want to put the album out, saying it sounded like a rough demo and people wouldn’t want to buy it.

In fact, “Red Headed Stranger” hit number 1 on the country charts, and eventually went multi-platinum. The first single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (written by Fred Rose) gave Nelson his first number 1 country hit, and his first Grammy Award, for Best Country Vocal Performance. In 2003, Rolling Stone put “Red Headed Stranger” at No. 183 on its list of the top 500 greatest albums, while Country Music Television (CMT) went even further, calling it the greatest country album of all time. 

Check out “Red Headed Stranger” from our sponsor, Legacy Recordings.

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Apple’s iconic “1984” commercial airs during Super Bowl XVIII

Year
1984
Month Day
January 22

During a break in the action of Super Bowl XVIII on January 22nd, 1984, audiences first see a commercial that is now widely agreed to be one of the most powerful and effective of all time. Apple’s “1984” spot, featuring a young woman throwing a sledgehammer through a screen on which a Big Brother-like figure preaches about “the unification of thought,” got people around the United States talking and heralded a new age for Apple, consumer technology and advertising.

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The ad was directed by Ridley Scott, who directed the genre-defining dystopian science fiction film Blade Runner in 1982. The spot was in a similar vein, depicting a bleak and monocrhome future where a crowd of bald extras—many of them actual skinheads from the streets of London—stood before an enormous screen broadcasting a message of conformity. A runner enters, pursued by police, and hurls the hammer at the screen, destroying it just as the Big Brother figure announces “We shall prevail!” The text in the last shot makes the references to George Orwell explicit: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs loved the ad, but Apple’s board did not. They asked the agency that produced it, Chiat/Day, to sell back the time they had purchased for the ad, and “1984” only aired because Chiat/Day resorted to subterfuge, intentionally failing to sell back the time. It was the right decision: the ad achieved every company’s dream of becoming news itself, receiving free replays on news broadcasts the next day. Super Bowl ads were already big business, but many in the advertising world point to “1984” as the moment when the big game became a venue for innovative, marquee ads, which soon became e a major part of the overall spectacle of the Super Bowl. The spot also cemented Apple’s reputation for being iconoclastic, disruptive and forward-thinking, an image that has been central to its brand ever since. By telling a somewhat high-minded story and barely mentioning the product it was selling—no computers appear in the ad—it also helped establish that bolder, less literal advertising could be just as effective, if not more so, than simpler commercials.

READ MORE: They Can’t All Be iPhones: The Story of Apple’s Forgotten Flop

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Kendrick Lamar becomes the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize

Year
2018
Month Day
April 16

On April 16, 2018, the Pulitzer Prize Board awards the Pulitzer Prize for Music to rapper Kendrick Lamar for his 2017 album, DAMN. It was the first time the award had gone to a musical work outside the genres of classical music and jazz, a watershed moment for the Pulitzers and Lamar and a sign of the American cultural elite’s recognition of hip-hop as a legitimate artistic medium.

Born and raised in Compton, California, Lamar grew up in a community with a singular connection to the genre, and even witnessed two idols of 90s rap, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, filming the video for their legendary single “California Love” in his neighborhood as a child. Even as rap took over the American music scene, many music and art critics refused to take it seriously, an attitude that only began to change in the 2000s as artists like Kanye West—whose 2013 tour featured Lamar as an opener—pushed it to new heights of musical complexity and social relevance. Lamar became known for the social commentary in his music, which Pitchfork has called “radio-friendly but overtly political,” as well as the breadth of his influences, which range from the West Coast rappers of his youth to jazz and spoken word. Plenty of Lamar’s lyrics referenced police brutality, systemic racism and other political topics, but many critics have praised his albums, DAMN. in particular, for placing personal stories within this context of societal conflict.

The Pulitzer committee called DAMN. “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Administrator Dana Canedy said that the decision to give the award to Lamar was unanimous, adding that it was “a big moment for hip-hop music and a big moment for the Pulitzers.” Lamar’s win was widely seen as a deserved recognition of his talent as well as an overdue acknowledgement of hip-hop’s contributions to American culture. Although some in the classical music community criticized the selection, former winners and nominees praised it. Ted Hearne, a composer who was nominated alongside Lamar, called him “one of the greatest living American composers, for sure.”

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Metropolitan Museum of Art opens in New York City

Year
1870
Month Day
April 13

On April 13, 1870 the Metropolitan Museum of Art is officially incorporated in New York City. The brainchild of American expatriates in Paris and a number of wealthy New Yorkers, the Met would not put on an exhibition until 1872, but it quickly blossomed into one of the world’s premier repositories of fine art, a position it holds to this day.

In 1866, a group of Paris-based American socialites that included the lawyer John Jay resolved to create “a national institution and gallery of art.” Jay and his friends appealed to the Union League Club of New York, which in turn gathered the social and political clout, as well as the financial backing, necessary for such an endeavor. On this day in 1870, the city granted them an Act of Incorporation, stipulating that the collection be kept open to the public year-round and free of charge.

The Met acquired its first object, a Roman sarcophagus, the following November. Its subsequent purchase of the Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art, completed in 1876, made the Met North America’s premier destination for artifacts and artwork from Antiquity. Thanks in part to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Jay was able to acquire a stunning 174 pieces by the Dutch Old Masters in 1871, giving the museum a substantial collection by the time it opened at its first location in 1872. In 1880, ten years after its founding, the Met moved to its current location on Fifth Avenue at 82 Street. The Met continues to display some of the world’s largest collections of European and Antique art, and has expanded to include works from every continent and nearly every medium. Today, the Met is not only one of the leading artistic and social institutions in New York but one of the best-known and most-visited museums in the world, hosting around 7 million visitors a year.

READ MORE: 10 Works of Art That Made People Really Mad

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Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorce


Year
1960
Month Day
March 04

After 20 tumultuous years of marriage, actress Lucille Ball divorces her husband and collaborator, Desi Arnaz, on March 4, 1960. The breakup of the couple, stars of the hit sitcom I Love Lucy and owners of the innovative Desilu Studios, was one of the highest-profile divorces in American history at the time.

Ball met Arnaz, five years her junior, while she was acting and he was leading a band in the film Too Many Girls. They married six months later. Though the two were, by all accounts, deeply in love for most of their lives, the relationship was always tumultuous, due to both of them being in showbusiness and to Arnaz’s womanizing and problems with alcohol. Ball first sought a divorce four years into the marriage, but they reconciled and determined to strengthen their relationship by finding opportunities to work together. When CBS asked her to develop a sitcom, Ball insisted on having her real-life husband play her husband on the show. The network was hesitant to cast a Cuban-American as a co-lead, but the couple convinced them by putting on a live show and conducting a successful tour.

I Love Lucy ran from 1951 until 1957. It was popular for the entirety of its run, won five Emmys, and continues to be regarded as one of the most influential programs in American history. Once again challenging the powers that be, Ball and Arnaz wrote her pregnancy with their second child into the show, making it the first television program to depict a pregnancy. Desilu Studios, which they founded to produce the show, was for a time the largest independent production company in the country, and it produced a number of shows besides I Love Lucy, including Mission: Impossible and the original Star Trek. I Love Lucy and its successor, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, lovingly poked fun at married life in modern America; however, the underlying problems of the real-life marriage it was based on never went away. Ball filed for divorce in 1960 and bought out Arnaz’s share in Desilu two years later, becoming the first woman to run a major television studio. Though the divorce was reportedly contentious, the two remained close for the rest of their lives, which they each spent in showbusiness.

READ MORE: How Lucille Ball Went From Comedic Actress to Television Pioneer

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“The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan is published


Year
1963
Month Day
February 16

Though perhaps not the typical housewife—she had been involved in radical politics from a young age and had a degree in psychology from Smith College—Betty Friedan is often credited as the first to give voice to the suffering of millions of seemingly-content American women. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, published on February 19, 1963, shook the ground beneath an American society rooted in a myth of pleasant domesticity and supported by the physical and emotional labor of women.

The book examines the many ways in which women were still oppressed by American society. In addition to scholarly research, Friedan drew on first-hand accounts from housewives to explain how women were taught that homemaking and raising children was their sole purpose in life, how the education system and field of psychology made women who sought fulfillment elsewhere seem “neurotic” and the myriad ways that women’s magazines, advertisers and other elements of society reinforced women’s secondary status.

Even before it was published, The Feminine Mystique was called “overstated” and “too obvious and feminine” by people within the company that published it. After its release, much of the criticism essentially labeled Friedan a hysteric, while many women took offense at her suggestion that they were not fulfilled by their family and domestic duties. Other critics pointed out that Friedan focused almost exclusively on straight, married, white, middle-class women, or charged that she was complicit in the demonization of stay-at-home mothers.

Some of these criticisms have persisted, but only because The Feminine Mystique has remained relevant from the moment of its publication through the present. One the first signs of the emerging Second Wave Feminism, Friedan’s work was crucial in giving language to the frustrations women felt in the ’50s and ’60s. The book is credited with mobilizing a generation of feminists who would tackle a number of issues left unresolved by First Wave Feminism. Friedan influenced the push for the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the budding pro-choice movement, and other activists, both through her writing and through her co-founding of the National Organization for Women, whose charter she drafted in language similar to that of her book. On the 50th anniversary of its publication, The New York Times wrote that “it remains enduring shorthand for the suffocating vision of domestic goddess-hood Friedan is credited with helping demolish.”

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Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini calls on Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses”


Year
1989
Month Day
February 14

Salman Rushdie likely understood he would cause a controversy when he published a novel titled The Satanic Verses. The book mocked or at least contained mocking references to the Prophet Muhammad and other aspects of Islam, in addition to and a character clearly based on the Supreme Leader of Iran. On February 14, 1989, that Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued just about the strongest response possible, calling on “all brave Muslims” to kill Rushdie and his publishers.

Although many of the most controversial things said about Islam and Muhammad in the book come from the mouths of disreputable or comic characters, it was undeniably critical and insulting. The title refers to passages said to have been removed from the Qur’an in which the Prophet spoke the words of Satan instead of God, and many were particularly incensed by the depiction of a brothel where the prostitutes shared the names of Muhammad’s wives. Khomeini, who had suddenly deposed a U.S.-backed monarch a decade before, was the leader of a group of clerics who had turned Iran into a theocracy. As such, he was perhaps the most prominent Shi’a authority in the world. Muslims around the world had already condemned The Satanic Verses—it was publicly burnt in Bolton, UK, sparked a deadly riot in Pakistan and was banned entirely in multiple Muslim countries—but Khomeini’s fatwa brought the controversy to new heights.

Booksellers the world over, including many Barnes & Noble stores in the United States, refused to sell The Satanic Verses for fear of retribution. Many that did sell it were bombed. Free speech advocates and anti-religious figures vociferously defended Rushdie, but many Muslim leaders and even moderate Muslim cultural figures outright condemned him or at least stated he had gone too far. Rushdie apologized both to the Ayatollah and to Muslims around the world in 1989 and 1990, but protests and violence continued. The novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991, while its Italian translator was critically wounded by an assailant. Rushdie later said he regretted apologizing.

A fatwa is a judgement issued by a religious scholar and can only be repealed by that same scholar, meaning that the fatwa against Rushdie could never be taken back after the Ayatollah’s death in June of 1989. In 1998, the Iranian government declared it would neither “support nor hinder” Rushdie’s assassination, and private groups inside Iran and elsewhere continue to raise money to put towards the bounty on his head. Though Rushdie has had to hire security teams and has received countless threats since the book’s publication, no assassin has yet come close to killing him. The author, who was knighted in 2007, said that year that he saw the fatwa as “a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.” While Rushdie remains unharmed, the backlash to his novel is responsible for dozens of deaths and injuries around the world, one of the deadliest—and possibly the most widespread—instances of conflict between religious fundamentalists and free-speech activists of the 20th century.

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Superman Christopher Reeve dies at age 52

Year
2004
Month Day
October 10

On October 10, 2004, the actor Christopher Reeve, who became famous for his starring role in four Superman films, dies from heart failure at the age of 52 at a hospital near his home in Westchester County, New York. Reeve, who was paralyzed in a 1995 horse-riding accident, was a leading advocate for spinal cord research.

Christopher Reeve was born on September 25, 1952, in New York City, and graduated from Cornell University and the Juilliard School. He made his Broadway debut in 1976 in A Matter of Gravity, starring Katharine Hepburn. The 6’4” actor shot to fame in 1978 when he was selected over some 200 other actors for the lead in Superman. Although he would play the action hero in three more films, Reeve was determined to “escape the cape” and avoid being typecast. As a result, he took on a variety of stage and screen roles. His film credits included Somewhere in Time (1980), Deathtrap (1983), The Remains of the Day (1993) and Village of the Damned (1995).

On May 27, 1995, Reeve, a strong athlete and avid horseman, was left paralyzed from the neck down after being thrown from his horse and breaking his neck during an equestrian competition in Virginia. The actor then became a crusader for people with spinal cord injuries and also lobbied for government funding of embryonic stem-cell research. During a speech at the 1996 Academy Awards, Reeve urged the Hollywood community to make more movies about social issues. In addition to his fundraising and advocacy work, Reeve wrote two books about his life experiences and continued his acting career. In 1997, he made his directorial debut with HBO’s In the Gloaming, which was nominated for five Emmy Awards, and in 1999, he starred in a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Rear Window, The Brooke Ellison Story, a movie based on a true story about the first quadriplegic to graduate from Harvard University.

In 2000, Reeve, who maintained an intensive physical therapy regime since the time of his accident, was able to move his index finger. He stated publicly that he was determined to walk again. In Reeve’s New York Times obituary, one of the doctors who treated him said: “Before [Reeve] there was really no hope. If you had a spinal cord injury like his there was not much that could be done, but he’s changed all that, he’s demonstrated that there is hope and that there are things that can be done.”

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Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” tops the charts

Year
1987
Month Day
October 10

On October 10, 1987, the song “Here I Go Again” by English hard-rock group Whitesnake tops the Billboard pop singles chart in the United States. Today, what most people remember about the song is its saucy video: The actress Tawny Kitaen spends a great deal of it in a white negligee, writhing and cartwheeling across the hoods of two Jaguars parked next to one another. It is one of the most iconic music videos of the 1980s, and it features two of the most famous cars in pop-culture history.

Whitesnake first released “Here I Go Again” in 1982, on the album “Saints and Sinners.”  That early version didn’t crack the charts–so, five years later, the band re-recorded the song and included the new, more amped-up version on their album “Whitesnake.”  While they were working on the record, the band’s lead singer David Coverdale started dating a young woman named Tawny Kitaen, who had recently starred opposite Tom Hanks in the movie “BachelorParty.”  When director Marty Callner met Kitaen, he was smitten too–and he cast her immediately in the video for “Here I Go Again.”  “I knew I wanted to have a sexy woman in it,” Callner told a reporter. “Sex is a part of rock ‘n’ roll and the song was about sex.”

The video was mostly unchoreographed: Coverdale and Callner simply parked their Jaguars side by side in the middle of the set, blasted the song and ran the cameras as Kitaen improvised. After “Here I Go Again” became such a massive hit, however, directors and record companies deduced that fast cars and scantily clad women were a winning combination, and they scrambled to include them in their videos whenever they could.

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