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October 9, 2009

Book Notes - Colin Dickey ("Cranioklepty")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Colin Dickey's new book, Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, is a fascinating history of the stealing of skulls. Well-researched and thoughtfully illustrated, these tales of grave robbing (and often the medical and pseudo-medical reasons behind the crimes) are easy to read, yet hard to forget.

The Brooklyn Rail wrote of the book:

“Dickey spins these stories with a storyteller’s grace and a historian’s exactitude. Cranioklepty will join those books for popular audiences that delve into the origins of eccentric intellectual lore, whether madness and lexicography (see: The Professor and the Madman) or inventions and visions by depressives, maniacs, and malcontents. So be it: volumes dedicated to unearthing the historically obscure and perversely attractive have a place on my shelf near where my souvenir skull should be."

In his own words, here is Colin Dickey's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius:

I broke this list into two halves. Since many of the more famous skulls that were stolen were in fact musicians, I built a playlist around the key pieces of music that appear in the book. But also, in keeping with the somewhat gothic theme of the book, it seemed important to include the type of songs one might listen to while digging up skulls.

Here's the first half, of some of the more notable pieces of music that get featured in the book:

Haydn, The Creation

Based on the Book of Genesis, The Creation was a hallmark of the Romantic notion of the sublime—as Gustav Schilling would write thirty-five years after its premiere, "there is still no music of greater sublimity than the passage ‘And There Was Light' which follows ‘and God said' in Haydn's Creation." This became, in some ways, the central piece of music for the book, since it was the sublime—that mixture of both ecstasy and of terror—that seemed to me motivating this very odd form of thievery that I was exploring.

Mozart, Requiem

Performed during Haydn's funeral mass, while the entire city of Vienna was occupied by Napoleon's army. This one already has its own gothic aura attached to it, and while this solemn, if sparsely attended ceremony was taking place, some members of the audience that day were already planning how to remove the great composer's head from his body, a theft which would take place only a few days later.

Gluck, Orpheus

Haydn had himself composed an unfinished opera on the theme of Orpheus and Eurydice, entitled The Soul of the Poet, which retells the famous story of the world's greatest musician venturing to the underworld to win back his dead love Eurydice from Hades. But since Haydn's opera was never finished or staged, most music-lovers at the time would have known Gluck's piece above all others, and it was perhaps this piece of music that was on the minds of those who ventured once more into the world of the dead—Gumpendorf cemetery—to retrieve the head of Haydn.

Mozart, The Magic Flute

The Queen of the Night's part is often recognized as an incredibly difficult role, and in the first decade of the nineteenth century, one of the few sopranos well known for this role was Therese Gassman, whose husband would later go on to be directly involved in the theft of Haydn's skull. While she herself was generally horrified by his macabre pursuits, Therese (who had known Haydn in life) would ultimately have her own ghoulish part to play in the theft.

Handel, "For Unto Us a Child Is Born"

Handel's Messiah was Beethoven's favorite piece of music, and this oratorio was his most beloved. When he knew he was dying in 1827, it was this piece he quoted to his doctor, when he said, "My work is done; if any doctor could still help, his name shall be called Wonderful!" He died only a few days later, but that phrase would in time come to have some odd, iconic resonances.

And a short collection of music that one might listen to while stealing skulls….

Band of Skulls, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey

Boy, I didn't think I'd like this band, but it turns out to be great to dig skulls with—if by skulls you mean the Damien-Hirst-encrusted-in-diamonds kind.

Mayhem, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

If you already know about this band's bizarre saga, you might understand why they're on this list. I'm certainly not going to go into it here.

Burzum, Aske

Deeply problematic individual, not to mention a confessed murderer (see #2 above), and certainly someone I hesitate to endorse, though a friend assures me that, on a playlist of songs to dig up skulls to, this one's a "no-brainer."

Grateful Dead, Skull and Roses

Grew up on this. It seemed like the right thing to follow Norwegian death metal.

Sonic Youth, "Screaming Skull" (from Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star)

Because why wouldn't Sonic Youth be on this list?

Colin Dickey and Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius links:

the book's website
the book's blog
the author on Twitter
Win a copy of the book from the publisher

A.V. Club review
Author Exposure review
Bookmarks review
The Brooklyn Rail review
Denver Post review review
Mile High News review
Publishers Weekly review
The Second Pass review

Boston Globe interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks


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