Today is sometimes called “The Day the Music Died” after singer-songwriter Don McLean referred to it as such in his song “American Pie” in 1971. On this date in 1959, rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with pilot Roger Peterson. But we can also refer to it as “The Day the Music Was Born” because today is the birthday (1809) of Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, widely known simply as Felix Mendelssohn, one of the most influential composers and performers of the early Romantic period. I will take a stab at both anniversaries, Mendelssohn first (birth comes before death – and, besides, he was born well before rock and roll was invented). Because this is an omnibus post I cannot really do full justice to any of the musicians in it. I promise I will give each his due in later posts.
Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, which at the time was an independent city-state. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was a prominent banker and son of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelsshon’s parents did not wish to raise him in a traditional Jewish manner, so they did not have him circumcised, nor give him any religious training. At the age of 7 they had him baptized as a Reformed Christian. Felix had an elder sister, Fanny, whom I have dealt with in a previous post: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/manet-and-mendelssohn/ . Both Fanny and Felix showed early talents as both pianists and composers, and I argued in the previous post that Fanny might well have rivaled her brother if she had been encouraged to continue. As it is, her oeuvre is impressive.
Felix was recognized early as a musical prodigy, but his parents were cautious and did not seek to capitalize on his talent. As a young man Mendelssohn enjoyed success in Germany, and revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, notably with his performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. He became well received in his travels throughout Europe as a composer, conductor and soloist. His 10 visits to Britain – during which many of his major works were premiered – form an important part of his adult career. His essentially conservative musical tastes set him apart from more adventurous musical contemporaries such as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Hector Berlioz.
Mendelssohn wrote symphonies, concertos, oratorios, piano music and chamber music. His best-known works include his Overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which includes the Wedding March), the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony, the overture The Hebrides, his Violin Concerto, his String Octet, and Songs Without Words (which include “Spring Song”). Mendelssohn’s music fell into relative disfavor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due partly because of changing musical tastes, and partly because his music was viewed by critics and concert promoters as rather backward-looking rather than innovative for its time. Later in the 20th century his creative originality was re-evaluated, and he is now among the most popular composers of the Romantic era.
Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” in C major, is perhaps his most frequently performed work because it is the commonplace recessional at the end of the vast majority of Christian weddings in the West. He wrote it in 1842, for his suite of incidental music (Op. 61) to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first time that Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” was used at a wedding was when Dorothy Carew wed Tom Daniel at St Peter’s Church, Tiverton in England, on 2nd June 1847. It was performed by organist Samuel Reay. However, it did not become popular at weddings until it was selected by Victoria, the Princess Royal for her marriage to Prince Frederick William of Prussia on 25th January 1858. The bride was the daughter of Queen Victoria, who loved Mendelssohn’s music and for whom Mendelssohn often played while on his visits to Britain.
Franz Liszt wrote a virtuoso transcription of the “Wedding March and Dance of the Elves” (S. 410) in 1849-50. Vladimir Horowitz transcribed the Wedding March into a virtuoso showpiece for piano and played it as an encore at his concerts.
“Spring Song” is also incredibly well known because of its constant use (maybe overuse) as theme music for cartoons evoking spring or the dawn. It is #6 from Book 5 (Opus 62) of his Songs Without Words. Only a few of these short lyrical pieces have names, but he called this one “Frühlingslied.” In England it is sometimes called Camberwell Green, after an area in South London where Mendelssohn was living when he composed it.
The plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson occurred while they were playing on the “Winter Dance Party” tour across the United States Midwest.
The long journeys between venues on board the cold, uncomfortable tour buses adversely affected the performers, with cases of flu and even frostbite. After stopping at Clear Lake to perform, and frustrated by such conditions, Holly chose to charter a plane to reach their next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota with members of his band. Richardson, who had the flu, swapped places with Jennings (Holly’s bassist), taking his seat on the plane, while Allsup (Holly’s lead guitar) lost his seat to Valens on a coin toss. Soon after takeoff, late at night and in poor, wintry weather conditions, the pilot lost control of the light aircraft, a Beechcraft Bonanza, which subsequently crashed into a cornfield. Everyone on board was killed.
The “Winter Dance Party” tour was Holly’s first tour after splitting up with the Crickets. The tour was set to cover 24 Midwestern cities in as many days. New hit artist Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Dion DiMucci and his band The Belmonts joined the tour to promote their recordings. The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The amount of travel soon became a logistical problem. The distances between venues had not been properly considered when the performances were scheduled. Instead of “circling” around the Midwest to each town, the tour zig-zagged with distances between cities sometimes over 400 miles. One musician said:
It was like they threw darts at a map … The tour from hell — that’s what they named it — and it’s not a bad name.
The entire company of musicians traveled together in one bus, although the buses used for the tour were wholly inadequate, breaking down and being replaced with astounding frequency. Griggs estimates that five separate buses were used in the first 11 days of the tour — “reconditioned school buses, not good enough for school kids.” The artists themselves were responsible for loading and unloading equipment at each stop, as no road crew assisted them. Adding to the disarray, the buses were not equipped for the weather which consisted of waist-deep snow in several areas and varying temperatures from the 20s to as low as -36 °F. One bus had a heating system that broke down shortly after the tour began, in Appleton, Wisconsin. Later, Richardson and Valens began experiencing flu-like symptoms and drummer Bunch was hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet, after the tour bus simply broke down in the middle of the highway in subzero temperatures near Ironwood, Michigan. The musicians replaced that bus with another school bus and kept traveling. After Bunch was hospitalized, Carlo Mastrangelo of The Belmonts took over the drumming duties. When Dion and The Belmonts were performing, the drum seat was taken by either Valens or Holly. As Holly’s group had been the backing band for all of the acts, Holly, Valens, and DiMucci took turns playing drums for each other at the performances in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Clear Lake, Iowa.
On Monday, February 2, the tour arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa, having driven 350 miles from the previous day’s concert in Green Bay. The town had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom, Carroll Anderson, and offered him the show. He accepted, and they set the show for that night. By the time Holly arrived at the venue that evening, he was frustrated with the ongoing problems with the bus. The next scheduled destination after Clear Lake was Moorhead, Minnesota, a 365-mile drive north and northwest (and, emphasizing the poor planning, a journey that would take them directly back through two towns they had already played within the last week.) No let up after that was in sight, as the following day, they were scheduled to travel back almost directly south to Sioux City, Iowa, a 325-mile trip.
Holly decided to charter a plane to take his band and him to Fargo, North Dakota, which is adjacent to Moorhead. The rest of the party would have picked him up in Moorhead, saving him the journey in the bus and leaving him time to get some rest. Surf Ballroom manager Anderson called Hubert Jerry Dwyer, owner of the Dwyer Flying Service, a company in Mason City, Iowa, to charter the plane to fly to Hector Airport in Fargo, the closest one to Moorhead. Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old local pilot described as a “young married man who built his life around flying”.
The flying service charged a fee of $36 per passenger for the flight on the 1947 single-engined, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza which could seat three passengers plus the pilot.The most widely accepted version of events was that Richardson had contracted flu during the tour and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said jokingly: “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded: “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” a response that haunted him for the rest of his life.
Ritchie Valens, who once had a fear of flying, asked Tommy Allsup for his seat on the plane. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide. Bob Hale, a DJ with KRIB-AM, was working the concert that night and flipped the coin in the ballroom’s side-stage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss for the seat on the flight.
After the show ended, Anderson drove Holly, Valens, and Richardson to the Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet (910 m) AMSL with sky obscured, visibility 6 miles (9,700 m), and winds from 20 to 30 mph (32 to 48 km/h). Although deteriorating weather was reported along the planned route, the weather briefings pilot Peterson received failed to relay the information. The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today’s runway 18) at 12:55 am Central Time on Tuesday, February 3. Dwyer, the owner of the flight service company, witnessed the take-off from a platform outside the control tower. He was able to see clearly the aircraft’s tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 ft. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view. Around 1:00 am, when Peterson failed to make the expected radio contact, repeated attempts to establish communication were made, at Dwyer’s request, by the radio operator, but they were all unsuccessful.
Later that morning, Dwyer, having heard no word from Peterson since his departure, took off in another airplane to retrace his planned route. Within minutes, at around 9:35 am, he spotted the wreckage less than 6 mi (9.7 km) northwest of the airport. The sheriff’s office, alerted by Dwyer, dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl.
Maybe Iowa corn casserole is a little ironic for my recipe today, but somehow it seemed fitting.
Iowa Corn Casserole
1 lb bacon, diced
2 cups bread crumbs
¼ cup minced onion
½ cup chopped green pepper
2 cans (16.5 ounces each) cream-style corn
In a skillet, fry the bacon until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.
Pour ¼ cup of the bacon drippings over the bread crumbs. Set aside.
Sauté the onion and green pepper in 2 tablespoons of the remaining drippings onion and green pepper until tender. Stir in the corn and bacon. Spoon into a 1-qt. baking dish and sprinkle with crumbs.
Bake at 350° for 20-25 minutes until bubbly and heated through.