The music world is full of countless tales of visionary inventors, strange encounters, and colorful characters. Many of the songs we take for granted have a rich history to them, whether it’s a drinking song that became the anthem for a nation or an instrument that traveled continents to spawn a brand new style. It’s a testament to music’s power for change, transcending this crazy world to inspire those who are entranced by the beauty of a song.
Here are five more stories from the wild world of music.
5. Sax’s Musical Revolution
Adolphe Sax didn’t have the easiest time showcasing his new instrument on the streets of Paris. On April 22, 1845, he squared off against French Traditionalists in a park where the Eiffel Tower stands today, ready to show the government the future of music.
Things would go downhill from there. Seven of his musicians were bribed by enemies to stay away, and Sax was forced to play two instruments to fill in. Soon his new sound was the talk of Paris, and Sax had proved the worth of his sensational new instrument called the saxophone. Still, even he probably couldn’t predict the sax’s future association with the controversial and exciting new sound of jazz.
4. Handel Saved by a Button
The glorious classic that is Handel’s Messiah nearly didn’t happen. In his youth, the hotheaded violinist had gotten himself involved in a duel with composer and music critic Johann Mattheson over who should play harpsichord during the finale of the opera Cleopatra. It soon got ugly.
Near the end of the duel, Mattheson got the better of Handel and lunged at him with a sure-fatal stroke. Instead, his blade caught on a large metal button and snapped its tip off. Handel was saved, and classical music fans can say Hallelujah to that.
3. The Theremin Takes the World by Storm
Back in the late 20s, Leon Theremin dazzled huge crowds with his mind-boggling new invention. It worked as if controlled by a strange power as Theremin waved his hands around to elicit the strange and eerie noises that caught the imagination of the entranced crowds. He was even offered $35,000 to appear at Carnegie Hall and showcase the new wonder.
But Theremin had another invention that would go on to have a completely different purpose in international relations. In 1960, the United States revealed to the world a listening device they had found in the office of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. It was wireless, required no batteries, and came to be called “The Thing.” It was also created by none other than Leon Theremin.
2. From Drinking Song to National Anthem
Not many modern Americans know the roots of the song that has become a rousing anthem for the United States. It was originally titled “Defence of Fort McHenry” after the British shelling of the fort in Chesapeake Bay, penned by Francis Scott Key the day after he witnessed the attack while detained aboard a British Frigate. He wrote the song in a Baltimore hotel room and got it published for the first time a week later.
Though none of this sounds too extraordinary, the interesting thing is that he set his song to the tune of an old drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven”, forever changing the meaning of the uplifting melody and capturing the hearts of Americans in the process. Now you’ll feel more appropriate when you toast your beer to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
1. The Sad Story of the Banjo
Slave ships are one of the saddest parts of human history, full of tales of abuse, dehumanization, and misery of all kinds. Mortality rates were high, and captains were concerned about the loss of profit this incurred on them, so they hatched a plan to keep their captives healthy. What they did was make the slaves dance, and to do so they let them play their own music. Members of the crew were sent out to gather up the slaves’ traditional instruments and bring them on board. One of these unique instruments was changed and adapted until it became a staple of American music and loved by folk musicians, the banjo.