Bach’s letter of application, the challenge of new words, Handel washed up, and more on Ida Tarbell; newsletter, April 3, 2020

April 5, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,592) on Friday, April 3, 2020.


During the last couple of years, sometime before Easter, I have included in this newsletter a post about George Frederick Handel and the condition of his life just before he wrote his most famous oratorio, The Messiah. I have included that article again in this newsletter. It’s one of my favorite stories, and this year — more than ever, I think — we need to hear it.

I’m happy to report that all in our circle of relatives and friends are safe and well. We’re doing what we can to remain that way.

I’m also glad to report that we are back in the bee business. Four packages of bees (about 10,000 bees in each package) showed up on Thursday and were installed in the hives on Thursday evening. It’s good to have honeybees back among us. More on that later.

Meanwhile, stay in and stay safe. Start that book that you’ve been meaning to read for a while. If you’ve done that and want to share it with the rest of us, be sure to write.

If you are planning to get marry, you have to look for good professionals in wedding makeup to look fascinating. 

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,597 subscribers and had a 30.8 percent open rate; 3 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Johann Sebastian Bach: a spectacular failure and an ultimate success

It was the greatest letter of application for a job in the history of letters.

It was also a spectacular failure. The applicant didn’t get the job.

The year was 1721 and the 36-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach, whose wife had died the year before leaving him with small children to raise, was looking for a job. He was working in Kolten for Prince Leopold at the time, and his working situation wasn’t all that bad.

But the hard-working Bach was always looking for ways to improve himself. On one of his trips around the province, he met Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, and thinking that he might have a position for an ambitious musician such himself wrote him a letter that to 21-century eyes might see a bit obsequious:

. . . . I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

It is not the letter that we remember. It is the attachments.

Bach included six concertos as part of the application, asking that the Margrave not judge their “imperfections” too harshly.

There is no evidence that the Margrave ever judged them at all, that he ever had them played, or that he even acknowledged the letter or the applicant. The letter and the concertos were packed away and forgotten by all concerned. They remained in that state for more than 125 years until they were discovered in 1849 by a German music teacher. The musical scores were published the next year, and today we know them as the Brandenburg Concertos, a set of compositions that demonstrate the genius of the composer and are the essence of what baroque music is all about.

If you know little or nothing about baroque music (my personal favorite genre), start with the Brandenburg Concertos. From there, get into Bach’s Art of the Fugue or The Well-Tempered Clavier. Don’t try to understand or analyze any of it. Just listen.

We celebrated Bach’s 335th birthday in March (either the 21st or the 31st depending on what calendar you use). Our gratitude for his genius is beyond measure.

Merriam-Webster catches up with the virus

Words are added to the language every day. Sometimes they stick. More often they don’t.

That’s why dictionary makers are slow to add words to their corral. They like to make sure they’ve stuck and are in use.

With the current pandemic, the folks at Merriam-Webster decided that they couldn’t play the waiting game this time around. Words like “coronavirus,” “COVID-19,” and “social distancing” would be with us for a long time to come.

A recent article in Slate magazine by Stefan Fatsis explains what happened in the offices of Merriam-Webster recently:

Last week, Merriam announced a special update of its free online dictionary with about a dozen words related to the pandemic. At the top of the list was COVID-19. The term—a mash-up of coronavirusdisease 2019—was created by the World Health Organization and unveiled on Feb. 11 at a news conference in Geneva. On March 16, Merriam-Webster added it to the dictionary. For a word to go from nonexistent to defined and entered in 34 days isn’t just an unprecedented reflection of a hectic, dire moment in history. It also shows how dictionaries, including America’s oldest and most lexicographically conservative one, are battling for speed, authority, and readers online.

Merriam-Webster dates to Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, published in 1806. Even in the digital age, with none of the space constraints of books, Merriam has clung to a tradition of linguistic fermentation, resisting the temptation to certify trendy words, on grounds they might disappear quickly from the language. Twerk first appeared in 2001 but wasn’t added until 2015. The Twitter sense of tweet took five years. Blog needed six. You will not find smexy or funtastic in Merriam. Source: The coronavirus prompted Merriam-Webster to make its fastest update ever.

Read the entire article.

My guess is that “social distancing” will compete for Word of the Year when it comes time to select that next year.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Ida Tarbell: Life after Standard Oil (part 3)

Part 1: Ida Tarbell — the sharp, powerful arrow of her words (part 1)

Part 2: Ida Tarbell: Madame Roland, Napoleon, and Abraham Lincoln (part 2)

Ida Tarbell developed her life as an independent thinker and writer. She asserted her right to be and think in whatever way she saw fit, and she did not conform to any ideology about which she had doubts.

That mode of thinking drove her into one of the great anomalies of her life: she refused to join the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement of the first two decades of the 20th century. In fact, she became an anti-suffragist.

Historians, biographers, and feminists have scratched their heads about that ever since.

Tarbell had achieved her greatest success in 1902 with the publication of A History of Standard Oil, a series of 19 articles for Samuel McClure’s magazine for which she was an editor as well as reporter and writer. The series and the book that followed had profoundly impacted the public’s thinking about the state of business in America and had made Tarbell one of the most famous people in the country. Sales of the book and stock in the magazine had made her financially comfortable.

By 1906, the ground had shifted in her journalistic world. McClure’s absence from the magazine and his erratic behavior and decision-making while he was there had driven Tarbell and other editors to distraction. She, John Phillips, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffans, and John Sidell resigned, and Tarbell and Phillips invested in The American Magazine, where she became associated editor. She spent the next years researching articles on business-related topics, but the magazine took a decidedly different tack from the muckraking McClure’s Magazine.

In 1911 she sold her interest in the magazine and wrote on a freelance basis. Tarbell had grown up with the suffrage movement — her mother was a suffragist, and there were suffrage meetings in her home — but that did not blind her to some of what she considered the movement’s less attractive qualities. Tarbell was very much a traditionalist in her thinking about roles men and women should play in society. While she had taken a different path, she still believed that motherhood and domestic duties were the main vocations that women were best suited to accomplish. Tarbell believed that the growing militancy of the suffrage movement was devaluing and denying the legitimacy of these traditional pursuits.

Suffragists, infuriated by what they saw as Tarbell’s betrayal, were highly critical. Those critics included her mother, but Tarbell, who had suffered withering criticism before, stuck to her beliefs, writing a series of articles and then publishing them as a book in 1912 titled The Business of Being a Woman.

Suffrage was not the only issue that Tarbell dealt with during this decade. She was was concerned about poverty, public transportation, protections for women in the workplace, and world peace. She was part of President Woodrow Wilson’s Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. She attended the 1919 peace conference in Paris as a journalist. Wilson wanted her to be a part of the official delegation, but another member of the delegation, Robert Lansing, objected.

Tarbell continued her journalism through the 1920s and 1930s, writing about business issues and several biographies of business leaders. She completed her autobiography, All in a Day’s Work, in 1939 and died five years later in 1944 at the age of 86.

Tarbell’s business reporting, especially the muckraking articles for McClure’s, had a lasting effect on American society, but perhaps her most important legacy was the impact she had on journalism itself. Her careful, painstaking, and meticulous research and her straightforward, simple style of writing taught journalists of the 20th century how good journalism should be done. She was the example that the rest of us — whether we realized it or not — followed.

Handel was washed up; then came the Messiah

He was finished, they said. Washed up. He’s had his day, and he’s done.

The year was 1740, and the man they were talking about was George Frederick Handel.

Everybody in London knew who he was — and “was” was the operative word. Handel had once been the toast of the town, a composer without peer. His operas had thrilled and astonished audiences in a town that was tough to astonish.

Handel, who had lived in England for more than a quarter of a century. had never really ruled the operatic circles of London. It was too tough of a town for that. But the German-born musical genius had led his faction, and they loved him for it. By the mid-1730s, however, Handel had begun to lose his grip.

The public’s appetite for Italian opera, Handel’s specialty, was waning, and his last few productions had not gone well. Handel had made plenty of money during his career, but the operas were expensive to produce. Handel was facing bankruptcy.

There was also the issue of Handel’s health. In 1737, at the age of 52, he suffered what was like a stroke and lost the use of his hands and arms for playing and conducting. His doctor predicted that his career was over. But Handel fought his way back from that and by 1740 was ready to compose again. By April 1741, Handel conducted what he — and just about everyone else — thought might be his last performance.

Four months later, Charles Jennens, a poet and former collaborator, handed Handel the libretto for an oratorio about the life of Christ. Handel had composed oratorios earlier in his career, and Handel realized they coming back into fashion,

Handel set to work on composing the music for the oratorio and kept at it night and day. He hardly ate and slept very little, if at all. Those who looked after him became concerned, even though he would often work in this furious, non-stop style.

Handel himself reported being overcome with emotion and joy at what he was creating.

Three weeks after he began, in September 1741, Messiah was a completed work. Handel premiered the work in Dublin the next April, and the audience response was enthusiastic. The Dublin Journal wrote:

Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.’

Hallelujah Chorus


The London audience was cooler to the work when it was played there, but eventually Messiah found adherents and was recognized as a masterpiece. Today Messiah, especially its Hallelujah chorus, is one of the most popular and recognizable works in the history of music.

Handel composed other oratorios that were brilliant and well-received. One was Solomon, produced in 1749, which contains a sinfonia, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, at the beginning of the third act that is still a favorite today.

Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

By the mid-1750s, Handel had gone blind and was generally in ill health. He died in London in 1759.

His music, even 250 years after his death, is hard to avoid.

David VickersThe story behind the triumphant premiere of Handel’s Messiah

The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian



Check out last week’s newsletter

Glynn W.: One thing leads to another and your comments on Woody Allen set me off on my contacts with a convicted felon, but a comedian who, I think, matches Allen and is the closest thing we’ve had lately to Mark Twain.

That’s Bill Cosby. I might have mentioned Cosby before, but he was a Navy nurse looking after premies at the Quantico Marine Base, when he was assigned to the track team in the spring of 1957 to tape our ankles, etc. Bill did little of that when he went to track practice and easily cleared 6 feet in the high jump and was an even better triple jumper.
I’ve told that other story elsewhere, and have little to say about his crimes, except that they reflected an aspect of the larger male culture of the time. On the other hand, the best of his comic writing (Noah and the Ark, for example} belong with Woodie’s best and is not far behind the best of Twain.
And we must also remember Samuel Clemens has had his critics over his relations with a member of the opposite sex.
Bonita B.: The 7 Rose’s watercolor is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

Bill G.: I enjoyed the Crime Drama segments of your last issue. I was also glad to see you mention the Gutenberg Project. I have used them to download hundreds of books to my Kindle.

I was also interested in the crime drama segments because I have been reading short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Surprisingly, he has almost 500 stories that have nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes.
Kate C.: We do live in not only, interesting, but prophetic times. I have been in isolation for weeks here in Australia, due to my faulty immune system. Allowed to go see a pathologist only, fully masked and gloved, once a week to get blood drawn.No friends, no shopping. My poor husband has to do the lot while I wait in the car. The benefits that as I not ALLOWED out otherwise, I am getting some craft done that I was doing BEFORE I stroked 8 times in the last 8 years. None in the last 2. And a chance to look at emails.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: What’s Goin’ On? – Marvin Gaye (caricature)

Best quotes of the week:

You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate. / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today. Marvin Gaye, singer and songwriter (1939-1984)

The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. Vincent van Gogh, painter (1853-1890)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: A founder of modern true-crime writing, the poison pen in real life, more on Ida Tarbell, and podcast recommendations: newsletter, March 27, 2020


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