The great composer Gustav Mahler was born on this day in 1860. Truthfully, for years, my main interest in him was a line from Educating Rita. Rita’s roommate Trish says, “Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?” She was a very expressive intellectual. Over time, I’ve come to agree with her. Mahler is technically a Romantic composer, but he is best thought of as a transitional composer moving from the Romantic period to the modern period. These tend to be the most interesting periods in music because there is a lot of innovation going on. That’s why they are transitional periods.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mahler wasn’t that well regarded in his lifetime. He was a very successful conductor, but it was only after his death that people really began to appreciate his work. Sadly, he only lived to be 50. He was born with a problem heart vale that lead to endocarditis, a bacterial growth inside the heart vales. If he lived today with antibiotics, he would almost certainly have survived. Back then, the disease was always fatal. Here is just a little bit from the start of his Symphony No.4, but you can find lots of his work complete on YouTube and I recommend that you do so.
Another great artist, the painter Marc Chagall was born on this day in 1887. It is hard to nail down his style even while his work is unmistakable. His lesser work—which is still wonderful—reminds me of the better works of Picasso and Paul Klee. But his best works combine elements of primitivism with pre-perspective religious painting. It’s hard to pick any one thing of his to focus on. I highly recommend doing a Google image search; it is quite rewarding. But here is a particularly lovely painting, Circus:
And probably the greatest baseball pitcher ever, Satchel Paige was born in 1906. Because he was black, he was only allowed in the Major League at the age of 42. He was more than up to the competition for the six years he pitched there, with an MLB lifetime record of 28-31. His first year, he was 6-1, but clearly his best days were behind him. Paige was only one of many great black ball players to be so abused, but he was probably the greatest. When the Sporting News put out its Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players, they listed Paige at number 19. They listed Walter Johnson at number 4. I’m a big fan of Johnson, but I don’t see that. Johnson could throw fast, but he never even developed a decent curve ball. Paige threw everything well—and fast.
The day, however, belongs to one of my favorite directors, Vittorio De Sica who was born on this day in 1901. As you can see in the picture above, he’s a good looking man. He got his start as an actor, but we all know him for the movies that he directed. Everyone knows Bicycle Thieves, of course. Just a quick note about this film. The original English title was “The Bicycle Thief.” That’s a telling error because it misses the broader theme of the film, which is that crime is not only (or indeed primarily) about villainy. When Antonio steals a bike at the end of the film, we pity him because we know why. It shines a different light on the man who stole Antonio’s bike at the beginning of the film. Maybe if we understood his story, we would pity him.
De Sica directed a number of other great films, especially Shoeshine and Umberto D. The first film has a tragic ending, so let’s leave that for another time. The second film ends in much the same way as Bicycle Thieves: hope for poor people. Umberto spends most of the movie getting thrown out of his apartment. Finally, homeless and desperate, he tries to find a home for his dog. Failing at that, he decides to kill himself and the dog. But it all works out:
Happy birthday Vittorio De Sica!