I have had August 21 circled on my calendar since I first heard about the 2017 total solar eclipse. And when I get pumped about anything pop culture, what do I do? I delve into the Music Division’s collections for related collection material, of course!
Let’s start with a piece of total eclipse history. On August 7, 1869, North America saw another total solar eclipse, one that the Philadelphia publisher Lee & Walker decided to commemorate when publishing E. Mack’s “Total Eclipse,” a set of four piano works named after the event: Total Eclipse Waltz, Total Eclipse Galop, Total Eclipse Mazurka, and Total Eclipse Polka. (The complete music for the galop can be downloaded from The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University.) The sheet music covers for each piece feature a wonderful lithograph by Thomas Sinclair of T. Sinclair & Son, a premier 19th-century lithographer. After immigrating from Scotland around 1830, Sinclair settled in Philadelphia where he worked in lithograph shops before managing his own business. Over the course of his career Sinclair created lithographs for a variety of media: maps, political cartoons, book illustrations, landscape views, and yes – sheet music covers. Though the music itself is less than significant (to say the least), I have to say that it offers my absolute favorite eclipse-themed sheet music cover art in the collections!
Composer E. Mack and publisher Lee & Walker were not the only ones to draw upon the eclipse as a marketing tool. In 1889 Giuseppe Bistolfi’s “Eclipse Polka” was published by J.W. Jenkins & Son in Kansas City, MO. (The complete piano music for Bistolfi’s polka can be viewed and downloaded on the University of Missouri-Kansas City Digital Special Collections website). Bernhard Stern published his “Eclipse March and Two-Step” in 1898, marketing the music as “the latest instrumental success.” The Library of Congress has digitized tens of thousands of pieces of 19th-century sheet music registered for copyright where you can also find eclipse-related sheet music, including W.E.M. Pettee’s 1885 “Eclipse Quickstep,” Julis Metz’s 1853 “Eclipse Polka,” G. Kunz’s 1854 “The Eclipse Waltz,” and more. These works have no lyrics or dedications specifically relating the music to an eclipse; titles, however, served as marketing tools to appeal to trends and interests of the day – in this case, an eclipse.
The 1919 London musical farce, The Eclipse, features music by Melville Gideon, words by Adrian Ross, and relies upon an eclipse as a plot point. Kurt Gänzel describes the plot in The British Musical Theatre, Volume II, 1915-1984: “Its basic premise was the Gilbertian lozenge plot and its variations were standard. A louche Professor asserts that a lunar eclipse will deprive everyone of his memory for six hours unless they take a pill of his invention which may possibly kill them. Two desperadoes take the gamble on the pill – Paul (F. Pope Stamper) with amatory motives and George (Alfred Lester) with criminal ones – while everyone else amuses themselves through six hours with presumed impunity until the truth and its consequences come out.” (p. 123) Interestingly, though our 1919 sheet music attributes lyrics to Adrian Ross, the lyrics for both “Chelsea” and “I Never Realised” were actually written by the one and only Cole Porter. Later editions of the sheet music correct that misinformation.
And finally, our music collections feature works that utilize the eclipse as metaphor. The Charles Mingus Collection includes the lead sheet, full score, and additional archival material for “Eclipse” in Mingus’ hand. The voice sings, “Eclipse, when the moon meets the sun. Eclipse, two bodies become as one…Others think it’s tragic, staring at dark midnight. But the sun doesn’t care and the moon has no fear…” As Kim Gabbard writes in Better Git in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus, “In ‘Eclipse,’ he ingeniously creates an extended metaphor for interracial romance…” (p. 118).
Many moons earlier (pun intended!), the masterful George Frideric Handel employed the eclipse as another metaphor in his oratorio Samson. In Samson’s Act I aria, “Total eclipse,” the titular tenor grieves his loss of sight as he sings:
All dark amidst the blaze of noon!
Oh, glorious light! No cheering ray
To glad my eyes with welcome day!
Why thus depriv’d Thy prime decree?
Sun, moon, and stars are dark to me!
As you can see (sorry everyone, pun intended again!), it’s not hard to find eclipse connections in our music collections. There is plenty of music out there to accompany your total eclipse party on Monday (not to mention an obligatory rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”). Happy Total Solar Eclipse to all!