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From Sonic Youth's Guitars to LA Tubas: 4 Famous Stolen Instruments

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1. Sonic Youth’s Guitars

Fans of the rock band Sonic Youth were shocked to see an online letter from guitarist Lee Ranaldo in July 1999 complaining that a thief had broken into the band’s truck and stolen its equipment before a gig (warning: some NSFW language). The stolen goods included everything from guitars to amps to drums, although Ranaldo warned that some of it was “mostly older and either very modified and/or f***ed up/beat up.” Still, the band was forced to purchase all new equipment for the rest of their shows and recording sessions.

Slowly, some of the equipment has been coming back. In 2005, two guitars were returned to the band by a man claiming to be the nephew of one of the original thieves. And in 2009, a Sonic Youth fan in the Netherlands saw a red and orange guitar on eBay that looked like one of the stolen instruments. He outbid the competition and posted the news on a message board with the title “The OH MY GOD! I BOUGHT ONE OF SONIC YOUTH'S STOLEN GUITARS thread.” He contacted the band and returned the guitar, which was confirmed to be Ranaldo’s. There’s still plenty of equipment missing, so fans should be advised to keep an eye out on eBay.

2. The Tubas of Los Angeles

Band teachers and school officials are baffled by a string of thefts in the Los Angeles area. The loot? Not computers or money, but tubas. In the past year, there have been 23 tubas reported stolen from L.A. schools. Security footage has even shown thieves breaking in and specifically targeting tubas and sousaphones, bypassing anything more valuable or easier to carry.

Police haven’t been able to figure out what’s behind the crime spree. Some think the instruments are being sold for scrap metal. But others say there’s a booming black market for the instruments due to the growing craze of banda music. Banda, a dance music similar to polka, uses the tuba as its strong bass, putting the instrument in high demand. According to the Los Angeles Times a high-end tuba sells for $5,000, but a beat-up one stolen from a school could bring in as much as $2,000.

3. Stradivarius Violins

With just some 450 Stradivarius violins still around today, it’s incredible to note how many have been stolen. For example, one violin, worth about $2 million, was nabbed in 2010 from a London sandwich shop right under the nose of violinist Min-Jin Kym. The thieves were nabbed less than a month later after trying to sell the instrument to a stranger for around $150 (they were seen in an Internet café looking up “Stradivarius”). But the violin has not been found and investigators fear it is no longer in Britain.

Another missing Strad remained MIA for nearly 50 years after being stolen from the Carnegie Hall dressing room of Bronislaw Huberman in 1936. It was only recovered in 1985, when violinist Julian Altman made a death bed confession to his wife that the violin he had been playing for years was the same one that had been snatched. Whether Altman actually took it is still unclear (he claimed he bought it on the night of the theft). It actually marked the second time that violin had been stolen – the first time, the instrument was recovered a few days later. That violin now belongs to classical superstar Joshua Bell.

One of the more famous stolen violins may actually have never been stolen, but the $800,000 Duke of Alcantara violin did fall into a sensational ownership struggle. The instrument was being watched by UCLA musician David Margetts in 1967 when it went missing while he was running errands. He says it may have been stolen or he may have left it on the roof of his car and driven away, but either way the violin somehow ended up on the side of the highway. The instrument was found and later passed down to a number of unsuspecting owners until it ended up in the hands of musician Teresa Salvato. When a music repair shop realized what she had, she and the university got in a lengthy court battle over the instrument before it was finally returned. For more details, the Los Angeles Times tracked the instrument’s fascinating path, although the story came before the final settlement.

4. Rosanne Cash’s Guitar

To anyone, a guitar signed by Johnny Cash would be valuable. But to Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne, the guitar given to her with a note from her father was priceless. So she was heartbroken when she got off a plane in 1979 and found out the guitar had not arrived with her. The guitar has not yet turned up, but Cash hasn't given up hope that it will be returned, especially since it's inscribed to her and can't be mistaken for another.

Tuba image by flickr user the justified sinner.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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