Friday, May 31, 2013

Albrecht Berblinger, the Tailor of Ulm and His Flying Machine

Albrecht Berblinger's Glider
On May 31, 1811, Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger, also known as the Tailor of Ulm, failed to give the proof that his machine was able to fly and fell into the Danube river during the demonstration. He is famous for having constructed a working flying machine, presumably a hang glider.

Albrecht Berblinger became a tailor at the age of 13, even though he mostly enjoyed mechanical tasks. Eventually he focused next to his career on various inventions, such as leg prostheses with joints and other orthopedic tools.

When he noticed his increasing interest in human flight, Berblinger began observing owls and made first attempts to build his very own wings. For several years the curious inventor improved and reconstructed his glider, very much to the despise of his city. He was literally mocked and told to quit his insane experiments, but he wouldn't.

Berblinger had to perform his tests secretly until Frederick I of Württemberg showed interest in his efforts and proposed to support the inventor financially in case he was able to demonstrate the functionality of his glider. Originally, he intended to jump off the Ulm Minster's roof, which was back then about 100m high. However, Berblinger's flying abilities were not trusted wherefore he was supposed to jump off a wall near the Donau river. To be able to cross the river completely, the 13m wall was added by a 20m scaffold.

During the morning of Berblinger's memorable event, the inventor noticed the bad wind conditions and postponed his flight to the later afternoon. A big crowd came to see him flying but for about an hour, Berblinger just stood on his platform wihtout moving. The audience began to lose it's temper, wherefore a police officer suddenly pushed him. Due to the moment of surprise and the difficult weather conditions, Berblinger was not able to reach the needed speed and failed to glide across the Donau river. Fisherboats waiting nearby saved the failed pilot and with the downfall the social contempt towards the valiant little tailor increased.

This disaster ended Berblinger's flying career as well as his success in the tailer business, since he was from then on believed to be a traitor and liar. But, even though the city of Ulm did not really appreciate Albrecht Berblinger's efforts during his lifetime, he was posthumously honored numerous times. And by the way, it was demonstrated in the 1980's, that Berblinger's glider actually was able to fly, but the conditions at the Donau river are just too difficult, even for today's modern gliders.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a talk by Marc Millis on the future of flight.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mikhail Bakunin and the Anarchism

Mikhail Bakunin
(1814 – 1876)
On May 30, 1814 (julian calendar May 18), Russian revolutionary and philosopher Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin was born. Although many scholars argue if he is the founder of anarchist theory in general, he was the leading theorist of collectivist anarchism.

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin grew up in a quite politically active family with his father being a diplomat. At the age of 14, he was sent to military school in Saint Petersburg followed by his duty as an officer in the Russian Imperial Guard until 1835. After disputes with his family, Bakunin left his career for Moscow, where he hoped to become a philosopher.

Settled in Moscow, Bakunin made numerous friends forming a philosopher circle discussing the ideas of Kant, Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel. The young philosopher then moved to Berlin to begin his academic career, where he was influenced by a rising socialist movement. The career his father wished for was quickly abandoned, after Bakunin put more and more effort in the revolution, which highly dissatisfied the Russian government as well.

In the following years, Mikhail Bakunin lived in various European cities, being influenced by the philosophies of Marx, Engels, and befriended philosophers. He wrote several articles, eventually calling himself a communist at certain times. His activities in the revolution were showing increasing effects in Europe and the governments of several countries, including his own Russia and Austria searched for him and threatened life time imprisonment and death penalty.

In the 1850's a long term imprisonment of Mikhail Bakunin followed after Austria handed the revolutionary over to the Russian officials. During these years, he suffered physically and mentally, and seven years later he was sent to permanent exile near Tomsk. Bakunin managed to escape from exile and traveled through Europe, but always focusing on Italy, which he arrived in 1864.

His stay in Italy was a great influence to Bakunin, since he developed his initial anarchist theories there. Bakunin founded the secret Alliance of Revolutionary Socialists along with like minded across Europe. The group was active all over the continent, opposing all kinds of hierarchical systems, authority and religion. Mikhail Bakunin rejected capitalism as he found it completely incompatible with everyone's individual freedom. He also criticized many of Marx's ideas, claiming that a communist state Marx's pledged for would enforce a dangerous dictatorship.

As Bakunin's disagreements with Karl Marx grew, he is now remembered as one of his greatest opponents, even though Marx and Bakunin had much in common. Mikhail Bakunin's ideas influenced many political activists of during his life time and beyond. For instance Noam Chomsky, the famous American philosopher, logician, historian, political critic, and activist was critically influenced by Bakunin just as Neil Postman.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by history Professor John Merriman, talking about Radicals as part of his 'European Civilization, 1648-1945' lecture at Yale University.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Oswald Spengler and the Decline of the West

Oswald Spengler
(1880 - 1936)
Image: Bundesarchiv
On May 29, 1880, German historian and philosopher Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler was born. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), published in 1918 and 1922, covering all of world history. He proposed a new theory, according to which the lifespan of civilizations is limited and ultimately they decay.

Already in Oswald Spengler was highly interested in historical events and he used his vivid phantasy to design fictional states into smallest details. After high school he decided to enroll at the universities of Halle, Munich, and Berlin studying philosophy, mathematics, and nature science. During his years in school and university, Oswald Spengler's most significant influences were Ernst Haeckel, Hans Vaihinger, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Spengler originally planned on becoming a teacher, but after inheriting a large amount of money from his mother, he began his career as a writer.

First, Oswald Spengler authored several articles in magazine's and newspaper's culture sections and started working on 'The Decline of the West' in 1911. His masterpiece was published in 1918 as well as 1922 and Spengler face a wide ranged criticism. In certain social areas, he was praised as a political, literary, and cultural genius, and in others he was deeply despised.

In his work, Spengler emphasizes how the Western world is about to end while its civilization witnesses the last season he titles as winter time. In his views, a western civilized person has a tragic role in history as he will never be able to reach his final goals. Oswald Spengler describes in his book that nearly all cultures somewhat undergo a similar patterns and the western world was about to reach its end. These theories were highly controversial and further explanations emphasized the author's anti-democratical and anti-liberal view. He developed new thoughts on races, but his further explanations reject Hitler's philosophy.

After his major work, Oswald Spengler distributed his philosophies and theories on the future of western civilizations in smaller works. He often mentioned his anti-democratic views and wished for a dictator, able to master the country's inner and foreign policies, but at the same time he openly refused to accept Hitler as a leader and was known to be an emphatic opponent of the National Socialism.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a six part video lecture by John David Ebert on Oswald Spengler and his significant theories.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Louis Agassiz and the Ice Ages

Louis Agassiz
(1807 - 1873)
On May 28, 1807, Swiss paleontologist, glaciologist, and geologist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born, who is considered a prominent innovator in the study of the Earth's natural history. He was the first to scientifically propose that the Earth had been subject to a past ice age.

Louis Agassiz studied medicine at the universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich, but educated himself also in nature sciences and botany. To his early mentors belonged Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, who motivated the young scientist to keep up his interest in geology, zoology and ichtyology. In the 1820's, Agassiz undertook a research journey to Brasil to study fish, which depicted a turning point in his career. After Johann Baptist von Spix, who joined his travel, passed away, Agassiz was asked to complete the researcher's studies which he greatfully did. Several publications followed the trip and Agassiz' reputation across the continent grew.

While being occupied as professor in Neuchâtel, Louis Agassiz proceeded his research on fish and fossils at the Swiss canton of Glasrus, which depicted the foundation for his later works that made him internationally famous. For many decades, researchers tried to find out how boulders were transported over quite large distances, especially in the foothills of the Alps. Several scientists already thought of glacier-activities but had difficulties to prove their ideas. Other ideas included volcanos or floods.

In the 1830's Karl Friedrich Schimper mentioned his theories on a possible ice age and therefore a solution to the boulder problem. Louis Agassiz visited the researcher during his scientific journey to the Black Forest and was finally convinced by Schimper's ideas. They began working on the topic together and Agassiz presented their results on the ice age theory in Switzerland in 1837 dramatically. Firstly, Louis Agassiz did not find many supporters, wherefore he put further work in researching and proving his proposition.

For the next 5 years, Agassiz traveled to glacier areas observing their structures and possible movements. In further publications, he explained his new and improved studies. He described the movements of glaciers and their historical importance to the Alpine area, as well as clarified how certain areas were once completely covered in ice. Louis Agassiz then began working together with William Buckland, finding out how Scottland, Endland and Wales were formed by glaciers, which they also published.

Unfortunately, their theories were not immediately accepted throughout the scientific community and beyond. However, after decades of attempting to convince his fellow researchers and several publications, more and more scientists began to focus on his subject as well. One of the most sceptic researchers was Charles Lyell, who at first supported Agassiz but later rejected his theories for several years. A few years after Louis Agassiz' passing, many scientists were finally convinced by the ice age theory and it slowly reached everyone across Europe, an achievement which Louis Agassiz is mostly remembered for today.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video talk by James Balog on global warming and immense ice loss.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Isadora Duncan and the Art of Dance

Isadora Duncan (1877 - 1927)
Photo by Arnold Genthe
during her 1915–18 American tour
On May, 27, 1877, American dancer Angela Isadora Duncan was born, who restored the dance to a high place among the arts. Breaking with convention, she traced the art of dance back to its roots and developed within this idea, free and natural movements inspired by the classical Greek arts.

Angela Isadora Duncan grew up in a poor family in California and dropped out of school to support the family very early. Later on, the talented young lady became part of a theater company in New York. Her dance style was known to be improvised and full of fantasy, since she began giving lessons at the age of six and continued until her late teenage years. To be able to life her style in her dances, Duncan moved to London, where she found much inspiration in Greek arts while visiting museums. Another influence to Isadora Duncan depicted the visits in Paris, especially the exhibitions at the Louvre.

Duncan began performing small shows in her studio in London and was finally asked by Loise Fuller, a pioneer of modern dance herself, to join her tour through Europe. On tour, Isadora Duncan was able to improve and optimize her very own dancing style concentrating on rather natural movements and moving away from the classical ballet. About her style, she once said: “I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement.” Her dancing performances polarized. The critics often found many negative aspects in her movements but in general the reactions turned out rather positive and her fame across Europe grew. To her admirers belonged Auguste Rodin and Antoine Bourdelle.

Throughout her career, Duncan lived the mission to follow her creativity and emotions in her dancing and to educate younger people. In order to achieve this, she opened dancing schools distributing her lifestyle and dancing philosophy. To bring her mission to a higher level, Isadora Duncan moved to the United States, opening another dance school, and in the 1920's, she opened another one in Mowscow.

As already mentioned, her dancing often reminded the audience of the ancient Greek through her poses and her tunic. Later one, she managed to merge this style with her understanding of American freedom mostly dancing bare foot. Another significant inspiration to the dancer depicted the waves and the sound of the sea, which she also transferred into her movements.

Isadora Duncan was not only known for her extravagant dancing style. She is also remembered for always wearing flowing scarves, which unfortunately cost her young life. In a car accident on September 14, 1927, the dancer was strangled by her own scarf and declared dead on the same day. Isadora Duncan left behind a natural and free dancing style and had a great impact on future dancing schools and movements. Even today, many followers exist, performing the art of Isadora Duncan.

At yovisto you may enjoy a dance choreography by Isadora Duncan performed by Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company to the music of Hector Berlioz.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Kaspar Hauser, the Story of a Foundling

Painting of Kaspar Hauser
On 26 May 1828, a teenage boy appeared in the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. The boy, who answered to the name Kaspar Hauser, claimed to have grown up in the total isolation of a darkened cell. Hauser's claims, and his subsequent death by stabbing, sparked much debate and controversy. Some theories about him at the time linked him with the grand ducal House of Baden to be the hereditary "Prince of Baden". Nevertheless, these have long since been rejected by professional historians. On the other hand, Kaspar Hauser fits into the contemporary European image of the "wolf child", despite the fact that he almost certainly was not one. As a result, his story inspired numerous works.

If you are not a native German you might have probably never heart of Kaspar Hauser. In Germany, well among the people of my generation, the story of the foundling Kaspar Hauser is very well known, because it is and was always a big mystery and also subject to conspiracy theories. So, let me tell you more about the strange stories.

It was on May 26, 1828, that a strange a teenage boy appeared in the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He carried a letter with him addressed to the captain of the 4th squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment, Captain von Wessenig with the heading 'From the Bavarian border / The place is unnamed / 1828)'. The anonymous author said that the boy was given into his custody as an infant on 7 October 1812 and that he instructed him in reading, writing and the Christian religion, but never let him "take a single step out of my house". Enclosed also was a letter that stated that his name was Kaspar, that he was born on 30 April 1812 and that his father, a cavalryman of the 6th regiment, was dead. A shoemaker named Weickmann took the boy to the house of Captain von Wessenig, where he would repeat only the words "I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was" and "Horse! Horse!" Further demands elicited only tears or the obstinate proclamation of "Don't know." He was taken to a police station, where he would write a name: Kaspar Hauser. He showed that he was familiar with money, could say some prayers and read a little, but he answered few questions and his vocabulary appeared to be rather limited.

He spent the following two months in Vestner Gate Tower in the care of a jailer named Andreas Hiltel. He was in good physical condition, but appeared to be intellectually impaired. He refused all food except bread and water. At first it was assumed that he was raised half-wild in forests. But Kaspar told, for as long as he could remember he spent his life totally alone in a darkened cell about two metres long, one metre wide and one and a half high with only a straw bed to sleep on and a horse carved out of wood for a toy. He claimed that he found bread and water next to his bed each morning. Hauser claimed that the first human being with whom he ever had contact was a mysterious man who visited him not long before his release, always taking great care not to reveal his face to him. This man, Hauser said, taught him to write his name by leading his hand. Before taking him to Nuremberg, the stranger allegedly taught him to say the phrase "I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was", but Hauser claimed that he did not understand what these words meant. Of course, this tale aroused great curiosity and made Hauser an object of international attention. Rumours began to circulate that he might be related to the Grand Duke of Baden, to whom he bore a startling resemblance, but there were also claims that he was an impostor. Speculation began to grow that he was indeed the son of Karl, Grand Duke of Baden, and Stephanie de Beauharnais, adopted daughter of Napoleon I of France. The couple had had a male child who was believed to have died.

Hauser was given into the care of Friedrich Daumer, a schoolmaster and speculative philosopher, who taught him various subjects and who thereby discovered his talent for drawing. He appeared to flourish in this environment. Daumer also subjected him to homeopathic treatments and magnetic experiments. Kaspar began to write his autobiography and he proudly showed it to his numerous visitors. This, perhaps. was considered too dangerous an activity by his enemies. On October 17, 1829, a hooded man tried to kill him with a large knife. He only succeeded in giving the young man a long gash in the forehead. The apparent assassination attempt further fuelled rumours of Kaspar's possible close connection to the House of Baden. On December 14, 1833, Kaspar was lured to a park on the promise of receiving information about his background. He was stabbed in the chest by a stranger. He managed to get home, but died three days later at the age of twenty-one.

So, was Kaspar Hauser really a royal descendant? In 2002, the Institute for Forensic Medicine of the University of Munster analysed hair and body cells as well as clothing said to have belonged to Kaspar Hauser. They were compared to DNA samples from Astrid von Medinger, a descendant of Stephanie Beauharnais, who would have been Kaspar's mother, if he were indeed the true prince of Baden. There was a 95% match. The House of Baden refuses to comment on the Hauser matter and does not allow any medical examination of the remains of Stéphanie de Beauharnais or of the child that was buried as her son in the family vault at the Pforzheimer Schlosskirche. Thus, the story still remains a mystery...

At yoviyto, you may enjoy a video lecture by John Cacioppo at the University of Missouri about his experiments on Social Isolation.

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalism Movement

Ralph Waldo Emerson
(1803 – 1882)
On May 25, 1803, American essayist, lecturer, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was born, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society. He disseminated his philosophical thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures.

Ralph Waldo Emerson enrolled at Harvard College at the age of 14 and throughout his time at the institute, he took jobs as teacher and was known for his activities as class poet reading various works to his classmates. Also from early age on, Emerson started to create a list of read books and poems with personal journal entries he named 'Wide World'. Waldo Emerson moved to Floria, which critically influenced his future being. He met Prince Achille Murat with whom he had long discussions of philosophy, politics, religion and society, agreeing on many topics. Also, Emerson began writing his own poetry very intensively and made first contacts to slavery, which had a long lasting effect on the student Emerson.

He began thinking of becoming a lecturer in the 1830's and started his career in Boston. The content of this lecture later formed the fundamentals of his famous essay 'Nature'. The essay was published anonymously and depicted the foundation of transcendentalism, a way of non traditionally appreciating nature and the belief that only through studying nature reality can be actually understood. He divided the use of nature into four aspects being Beauty, Commodity, Language, and Discipline. The essay is known to have had a great impact on Henry David Thoreau. It essentially influenced his writing, especially his book Walden, published in 1854. Emerson became Thoreau's mentor and together they became two of the most important transcendentalists of all times.

After the success of 'Nature', Emerson delivered his famous speech 'The American Scholar', which depicted the foundation for both, his philosophical and literary career. Emerson and befriended intellectuals hosted several gatherings, which formed the Transcendental Club. In later years, the movement established a journal, of which Margaret Fuller was occupied as an editor.

A setback to Emerson's career as a lecturer depicted his speech at Harvard. In it he openly made his doubts on Christianity clear, for which he was proclaimed an atheist. Indeed, Waldo Emerson used to be a great Christian believer as well, but after his first wife passed away he began questioning the Church's methods and began to turn away from his original religion. However, he recovered from this provocative lecture and gave many more until a fire at his home occurred in later years. Emerson's health began to decline and from then on he only lectured in front of small, familiar groups. Still, he kept publishing poetry and anthologies like 'Parnassus'.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video discussion on Ralph Waldo Emerson and American Idealism

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit and the Measurement of Temperature

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit
(1686 – 1736)
On May 24, 1686, Dutch-German-Polish physicist, engineer, and glass blower Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was born. He is is best known for his invention of the mercury-in-glass thermometer in 1714, and for developing a temperature scale that is now named after him.

During his apprenticeship in Amsterdam, Daniel Fahrenheit began building instruments and traveled through Europe, meeting and exchanging knowledge with contemporary instrument makers. By 1714, he built his first thermometers containing alcohol, which he later changed to mercury and already made use of a new scale standard even though it did not catch on in the scientific community yet. Furtherly, Daniel Fahrenheit began experimenting with the different properties of water. Based on previous works of Ole Rømer and his scale, he investigated the boiling point of water while changing the pressure. Also, he managed to discover the ability of supercooling water, meaning that water can be cooled below its freezing point without actually freezing.

With these new findings, Fahrenheit began to question the general reliability of freezing and boiling points of fluids and developed his temperature scale, ranging from 0 to 212. He noted that the zero point on his scale was the temperature of ice melting in a salt water solution and 32 degrees depicted the temperature of ice melting in clear water. Fahrenheit began building thermometers that became more and more popular. He decided that a cylinder shaped bulb would be more efficient and made further improvements, which he kept secret for almost 18 years.

Despite Daniel Fahrenheit's success with building and distributing thermometers as well as his research on the Fahrenheit scale, the Celsius scale named after the Swedish scientist Anders Celsius slowly replaced Fahrenheit's scale during the metrication process. It is still used in the U.S., some territories of Puerto Rico, and Belize in everyday life, while scientists throughout the world mostly use Celsius or Kelvin.

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At yovisto, you may enjoy Dr. Jerzy Wrobel explaining the Concepts of Heat Transfer.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Otto Lilienthal, the Glider King

Otto Lilienthal and his flying apparatus
On May 23, 1848, German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal was born, who was the first person to make well-documented, repeated, successful gliding flights. For his contributions to aviation he is often referred to as "The Father of Flight."

Otto Lilienthal received a good education at a grammar school in Anklam despite the sudden death of his father and the financial struggles of his family. In the 1860's, Otto Lilienthal moved to Potsdam, Germany, where he began an apprenticeship at local engineering works.

In the later years of the same decade, Otto Lilienthal along with his brother completed first tests of buoyancy, which they created with flapping of wings. As a result, a maximum of 40kg was lifted. In contemporary physical studies, the exact features of buoyancy were not clear yet, and the opinions on Lilienthal's flying attempts polarized. By the end of the 1860's, he received a scholarship to study at Berlin's Technical University. Through inventions and risky experiments, Lilienthal earned himself a good reputation in early years. While stationed in Paris, the curious inventor noticed the frequently flying hot air balloons and he admired their success.

Motivated to start his own business as well, Lilienthal and his brother intended to patent some of their inventions, like the Stirling engine (as it was known later on), but stayed unsuccessful. In the 1880's, the brother's financial outcome finally improved. They constructed a kind of boiler that sold well and let the company grow up to 60 employees. Also they began distributing the 'Normalsegelapparat' ("Normal soaring apparatus"), a glider that became known as the very first widely sold airplane in history. The brothers then also led the first aircraft factory in the world.

The fundamentals to the success of his flying apparatus depicted a long term theoretical understanding of flight and physics. Lilienthal himself published one of the most important books on the techniques and possibilities of flight based on the experiments he made. He explained in detail his knowledge on the importance of a wings shape and angles when operated and demonstrated arguments pro wing based machines instead of hot air balloons, which were preferred widely throughout Europe. The Brothers Wright later noted that Lilienthal's theoretical foundations influenced their plans for the later constructed airplane.

When it came to taking the theoretical foundations to actual experiments, Otto Lilienthal's brother Gustav quit, wherefore Otto is now the one credited for the most achievements. With the beginning of the 1890's, he began looking for places near Berlin to jump off small hills. He achieved flight lengths of about 250m with his gliding apparatus, which he edited and improved after every attempt. Lilienthal even began constructing engine powered wings for his glider, but could never use them due to his tragic accident in 1896. Otto Lilienthal's achievements wrote history, he became known and admired world wide, and was awarded numerous times posthumously for his courage and his inventive genius.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a talk by Marc Millis on the future of flight

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Richard Wagner - Genius and Megalomania

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
On May 22, 1813, German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor Richard Wagner was born. His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration. His music is characterized by elaborate use of leitmotifs, i.e. musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. His advances in musical language greatly influenced the development of classical music and made way to modern music. And of course, Wagner counts to the most important German composers. However, opinions about Wagner tend to differ sharply. Either nearly unconditional worship or irrepressible aversion. Myself, I'm somehow in between. On the one hand, I deeply admire his works, although I don't like everything he had written. On the other hand, I don't like his opinions and especially I don't like the rites how many people are celebrating the 'Maestro', esp. in Bayreuth. But, let's take a look at Wagner and his work...

Richard Wilhelm Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, as the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, a clerk in the Leipzig police service, and his wife Johanna Rosine, the daughter of a baker. Unfortunately, Wagner's father died of typhus only six months after Richard's birth, after which Johanna began living with Carl's friend, the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer in Dresden. Until Richard Wagner was age 14, he most likely had no idea that Geyer was not his biological father, because he was only known by the name Richard Wilhelm Wagner. Young Richard Wagner entertained ambitions to be a playwright, and first became interested in music as a means of enhancing the dramas that he wanted to write and stage. He soon turned toward studying music, for which he enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831. One of his early musical influences was Ludwig van Beethoven. In January 1828 he first heard Beethoven's 7th Symphony and then, in March, the same composer's 9th Symphony. Wagner even wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony, whereas he was also greatly impressed by a performance of Mozart's Requiem.

In 1833, at the age of 20, Wagner had finished composing his first complete opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), which would go unproduced until half a century later. Meanwhile, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg, during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, which was more or less a desaster. On November 24, 1836, Wagner married actress Christine Wilhelmine 'Minna' Planer, but only a few weeks afterward, Minna ran off with an army officer who left her penniless. Wagner accepted her back, but it was the start of a troubled marriage. Throughout thirty years of marriage, for the most part, their relationship was estranged. In 1840, Wagner completed his third opera, Rienzi, which was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre. In 1842, Wagner and his wife moved to Dresden to live there for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he wrote and staged Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, the first two of his three middle-stage operas. Convinced of his greatness, he continued composing and conducting, but meeting with little success. Eventually he became involved with the Dresden revolutionary uprising of 1849, the outcome of which made him a wanted political criminal, and he fled to Switzerland.

During this time Wagner was continually composing operas and finding his mature style. He envisioned the creation of the "total art work": a conception of a music drama based on classic Greek prinicples, in which there would be a unity of music, drama, text, design, and movement. The subject matter of these works were to be the indigenous myths and legends of the German people. In 1853 Wagner formally began composition on the Rheingold, the first opera of 'The Ring' cycle, followed by serious work on the Walküre (part 2 of the Ring cycle), which was finished in 1856. At this time he was toying with the notion of writing the drama Tristan and Isolde. In 1857 he finished the composition of Act II of Siegfried (part 3 of The Ring cycle).

In his private life, Wagner should find a soulmate in the form of Cosima Liszt, the young daughter of the composer Franz Liszt. Wagner and Cosima first met in 1853 when she was just 16. When they finally fell in love in 1864, Cosima was 27 and married, while Wagner was already at age 51 and still married to Minna. After Minna's death in 1866 and after Cosima was able to obtain a divorce from her husband, Wagner and Cosima finally married on August 25, 1870. In 1862, Wagner was granted full amnesty and received permission to reenter Germany again (except for Saxony). That year he began the music for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremburg), which was completed in 1867 with the first performance taking place in Munich the following year. Only then did he pick up the threads of the Ring cycle and resumed work on Act III of Siegfried, followed by the final piece, Götterdämmerung, which was finished in 1874. The first entire Ring cycle ( Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung ) was given at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the shrine Wagner built for himself, in 1876, over thirty years after the idea for it had first come to mind. He should finish one more opera, Parsifal, his final drama, in 1882, before he died on February 13, 1883, in Venice, Italy.

At yovisto you can learn more about the great composer Richard Wagner and his work in the lecture of Prof. Eero Tarasti from University of Helsinki entiteled 'Richard Wagner - Music History: style periods and aesthetics'.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Albrecht Dürer - Master of Northern Renaissance

Albrecht Dürer
(1471 - 1528)
On May 21, 1471, German painter, engraver, printmaker, mathematician, and theorist Albrecht Dürer was born. He was considered as one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance. Aside from painting, he also excelled in prints. Many of his works focused on Roman Catholicism, mostly altarpieces and other related religious art, but he also did numerous self-portraits. Moreover, his works were also backed up by theories, which join concepts in math, idealistic proportions and perspective.

In order to becoming a goldsmith, Dürer was apprenticed by his father, and during the year after he began studying art under the painter Michael Wolgemut. His earliest works were accomplished in this period, in which Dürer experimented with his first copperplate engravings and vellum sketches. During a journey through Italy in the mid 1490's, Dürer painted several water colored pictures showing landscapes and several pictures in the style of Quattrocento, which he was critically influenced by during his trip.

However, even though Albrecht Dürer gained first experiences during these years, his real life as an artist began in 1503 when he went into business by himself and led a workshop with already three employees. In this period, the artist accomplished mostly the self portraits he is now (among the numerous engraved copperplates) so widely known for.

The second trip to Italy during the beginning of the 16th century influenced Dürer even more. He finished the 'Rosenkranzfest', one of his best known works significantly influenced by the Venetian art culture and was deeply admired for this work. He was also asked to stay in Italy for a high monthly wage, but preferred to return to his hometown. During the following 10 years, Dürer created mostly copperplate and wooden engravings before intensively concentrating on his studies of proportions and further mathematical issues related to painting, like perspectives.

Dürer's reputation across Europe grew and during a journey though the Netherlands, he was celebrated and admired by fellow artists and governments, and received numerous presents and awards during his travel. After returning to Nuremberg, Albrecht Dürer led the decoration of the city's hall. Also he donated two impressive panels to the city of Nuremberg showing the apostles Paulus, Petrus, Markus, and Johannes. These belong to Dürer's most influential works.

Dürer's works as an artist helped to establish a whole new art genre of wooden engravings, like the Rhinocerus from 1515 and he improved the techniques of copperplate engravings critically. He authored several works on the problem of perspective in paintings and was one of the few artists during the Renaissance to be mathematically well educated. Albrecht Dürer read and understood geometrical problems very well, publishing a few works himself, in which he emphasized the meaning of accurate measurement and created new ways of construction geometrical shapes which put him often in contrast to contemporary artists.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by Thomas Dacosta Kaufman on Albrecht Dürer and contemporary artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Honoré de Balzac and the Comédie Humaine

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)
Portrait by Nadar (1842)
On May 20, 1799, French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac was born. He is best known for his his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, which is reflected in his opus magnum, the Comédie Humaine, sequence of short stories and novels, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy (1815–1848). Overall, La Comédie Humaine was supposed to comprise 137 novels and short stories, of which Balzac could only finish 91volumes during lifetime, which makes Balzac a rather prolific writer, considering that he already died at age 50. By reusing already introduced characters in his stories, he created a connective linking everything together to a series. His goal was to "depicting all society, sketching it in the immensity of its turmoil".

Honoré Balzac was born on May 20, 1799, as the second of five children to Bernard-François Balzac, Secretary to the King's Council and a Freemason, and Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, who came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. She was eighteen at the time of the wedding, and Bernard-François fifty. His father, never called himself de Balzac and Honoré only assumed the noble particle after 1830. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse followed by his younger sister the next year. When both siblings returned home, they were kept at a frigid distance by their parents, which affected the author-to-be significantly. From 1807 to 1813 Balzac visited boarding school at the collège des oratoriens de Vendôme in the Centre region of France. However, from sixteen years of age he left his native region to study in Paris. Honoré was placed as a clerk in a attorney’s office and enrolled at the Sorbonne where he studied civil and criminal law. But, against his father’s wishes he turned to a career in writing. As a journalist, Balzac wrote essays on various topics including politics which garnered much of his attention, while working on his short stories and novels. Extremely poor and living in a garret in Paris, he published under pseudonyms. These books were without literary merit, but he earned his living by them.

Searching for ways to make his fortune more rapidly, Balzac next entered a series of business ventures using borrowed funds. But, these commercial ventures were also failures, leaving him with very large debts. Finally, at age 29 he had given up all hopes to live a prosperous life, he published the first novel signed with his own name entitled Le Dernier Chouan, a historical novel. Since historical novels were the fashion, the book was well received. But real fame came to him two years later, when he published La Peau de chagrin, a fantasy that acts as an allegory of the conflict between the will to enjoy and the will to survive. In 1832, Balzac conceived the idea for an enormous series of books that would paint a panoramic portrait of "all aspects of society." When the idea struck, he raced to his sister's apartment and proclaimed: "I am about to become a genius." Although he originally called the series Etudes des Mœurs (Study of Mores), it eventually became known as La Comédie Humaine, and he included in it all the fiction that he had published in his lifetime under his own name. This was to be Balzac's life work and his greatest achievement.

Balzac counts as a representant of the 19th century realism movement. As a hard working writer, he worked on his writing continuously for long hours without sleep. His preferred method of working was to eat a light meal at five or six in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, fueled by innumerable cups of black coffee. His consumption of coffee is considered legendary. He would often work for fifteen hours or more at a stretch. He wrote numerous notes and revised his work obsessively. The characters he wrote about carried a realistic element in them, they neither were super heroes nor completely evil, they represented the everyday person. His characters also came from an array of social states and classes. His detailed description of the location of the story entrapped the reader making the story sound as real as possible. He wrote "The author firmly believes that details alone will henceforth determine the merit of works...."

Balzac influenced the writers of his time and beyond. Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and also Henry James were deeply influenced by the works of Balzac. He has been compared to Charles Dickens and critic W. H. Helm actually called one "the French Dickens" and the other "the English Balzac". Also Karl Marx made ongoing references of Balzac in his seminal work "Das Kapital". At age 50, only five months after his late wedding, on 18 August, 1850, Honoré de Balzac passed away. The funeral at the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris was attended by "almost every writer in Paris.

At yovisto you can learn more about the daily life of the French people, esp. about the raise of the bourgeoisie, as also Balzac has describe in his Comédie humaine, in the lecture of Prof. John Merriman of Yale University.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the German Idealism

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814)
On May 19, 1762, German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte was born, who was one of the founding figures of the philosophical movement known as German idealism, which developed from the theoretical and ethical writings of Immanuel Kant. Thus, Fichte often is regarded as a bridging figure between Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Like Descartes and Kant before him, he was motivated by the problem of subjectivity and consciousness. Maybe you have never heart of Fichte. It was also only recently that philosophers and scholars have begun to appreciate Fichte as an important philosopher in his own right due to his original insights into the nature of self-consciousness or self-awareness. So, let't get to know Johann Gottlieb Fichte a little bit better....

Fichte was born on May 17, 1762, in Rammenau, Upper Lusatia as the son of Christian Fichte, a ribbon weaver. The Fichte family was noted in the neighborhood for its probity and piety. There is the story that Fichte owes the chance of a good education his profound memory. One day, the Freiherr von Militz, a country landowner, arrived too late to hear the local pastor preach. He was, however, informed that a lad in the neighborhood would be able to repeat the sermon practically verbatim. As a result the baron took the lad, who was young Fichte, into his protection, which meant that he paid his tuition. After having visited the the celebrated foundation-school at Pforta near Naumburg, where also the brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel as well as Friedrich Nietzsche had spent their school days, Fichte began study at the Jena theology seminary in 1780. Unfortunately, his patron Freiherr von Militz died in 1784 and Fichte had to end his studies prematurely, without completing his degree. For the next years, he worked as a private tutor and in 1790 finally, Fichte began to study the works of Immanuel Kant, but this occurred initially only because one of his students wanted to know about them. However, they had a lasting effect on his life as well as on his thought.

In 1791, Fichte had the chance to see Kant at Königsberg. But the interview was rather dissapointing. He shut himself in his lodgings and threw all his energies into the composition of an essay to raise Kant's attention and interest. The Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, 1792) was written in five weeks only. There, Fichte investigated the connections between divine revelation and Kant's critical philosophy. The first edition of the book was published without Fichte's name and signed preface. Therefore, it was thus mistakenly credited to be a new work by Kant himself. When Kant cleared the confusion and openly praised the work and author, Fichte's reputation skyrocketed. Now, the French revolution was creating excitement all over Europe. Inspired by its principles Fichte wrote and published anonymously two pamphlets which led to him being seen as a devoted defender of liberty of thought and action and an advocate of political changes. The same year, he received an invitation to fill the position of extraordinary professor of philosophy at the University of Jena, which he gladly accepted. With extraordinary zeal, he expounded his system of “transcendental idealism.” His success was immediate.

After publication of his essay “Ueber den Grund unsers Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltregierung” (On the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine World-Governance) in 1798, in which he wrote that God should be conceived primarily in moral terms: "The living and efficaciously acting moral order is itself God. We require no other God, nor can we grasp any other.", he was finally dismissed from Jena in 1799 as a result of a charge of atheism. Since all the German states except Prussia had joined in the cry against him, he was forced to go to Berlin. In 1805, Fichte was appointed to a professorship in Erlangen. One year later, in 1806, Napoleon, who had brought war all over Europe, completely crushed the Prussian army in the battle of Jena-Auerstadt. The deplorable situation of Germany stirred him to the depths and led him to deliver the famous Addresses to the German Nation (1808) which guided the uprising against Napoleon. In 1809, Fichte became a professor of the new founded university at Berlin and was unanimously elected its rector. When the campaign against Napoleon finally began in 1812, Fichte's wife devoted herself to nursing, where she caught a virulent fever. Just as she was recovering, Fichte himself was stricken down and died in 1814 at age only 51.

At yovisto you can learn more about Fichte and his philosophy in the lecture of Prof. Fred Amrine entiteled "Kicking Away the Ladder", where he is referring to Kant, Goethe, and finally to Fichte's idealism.

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