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"Heroes" by David Bowie

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“Heroes”

Written by David Bowie and Brian Eno (1977)

Performed by David Bowie

The Music

In the summer of 1977, David Bowie was living in Berlin and working on a new album. One evening, he saw his producer Tony Visconti sitting on a bench near the Berlin Wall with a young German woman. “Tony was married at the time,” Bowie recalled, “I think the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that he was very much in love with this girl. It was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”

The song, “Heroes,” about a love that defies borders, was the title track of a landmark Bowie record, part of what later came to be called “the Berlin trilogy.” Bowie’s relationship with the Berlin Wall took an even more poignant turn in 1987, when he performed “Heroes” on a stage near the west side of the wall. He remembered, “There were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert, where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did 'Heroes' it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.”

Note: On January 8, Bowie’s 66th birthday, he surprised the world by announcing his first new album in ten years. The lead-off single, “Where Are We Now?” has several lyrical references to the streets and sites of Berlin, fueling speculation that the album, due in March, may pick up the thread of the trilogy.

The History

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On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of East Germany ordered workers to begin building a wall through Berlin. Within two weeks, the wall had blocked nearly a hundred miles of border between the East and West sections of the city. Made of barbed wire, it was christened by the East German leaders as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” that would shield its population from the corrupting capitalist influences of West Germany. 

But there was a more pressing—though unspoken—reason for the wall. Since 1949, over 3 million East Germans had given up on Communism and defected to the west side of Berlin in search of better lives. Despite the propaganda about anti-fascism, the wall was essentially built to plug that population leak. In time it would come to represent something bigger—the Cold War wedge between Western nations and Eastern Bloc countries.

Two Berlins

How did East and West Germany become divided in the first place? With the defeat of the Nazis and the Axis powers at the end of World War II, Allied leaders met to determine Germany’s future. Shortly after, the country was split into four separate zones. The eastern part went to the Soviet Union, while the west was occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France.

But the modern city of Berlin was an uneasy fit for the Russians. Leader Nikita Krushchev later complained that it “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat.” As early as 1948, a Soviet blockade aimed to starve the western influence out of the city. The response by the United States and its allies was the “Berlin Airlift,” where planes flying overhead supplied sectors of the city with over two million tons of food, fuel, and goods. The Soviets called off their blockade the following year.

A decade later, as Russia continued to watch the best minds—engineers, doctors, teachers—flee East Berlin, they made noise again about ousting the Western occupiers. Conferences, summits and negotiations between Russia and the Allied countries followed, but led nowhere. Then, in 1961, after mass defections (in the first 12 days of August, over 18,000 East Germans crossed over), Krushchev authorized the government to shut down the border for good.

Checkpoints and Death Strips

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Before the wall was built, Berliners from both sides could move around the city freely, to shop and go to movies and so on. Trains and subways regularly crossed the border. After the wall was up, that freedom disappeared. There were only three passages through the border: Checkpoint Charlie, Checkpoint Bravo, and Checkpoint Alpha. Patrolled by East German soldiers, these checkpoints were mainly for diplomats and officials, who were thoroughly screened and questioned. It was nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to pass through these checkpoints.

But the checkpoints didn’t stop defectors from finding ways through, under and over the wall. As time passed, East Germany bolstered the crude barbed wire wall with one made of concrete—12-foot tall, 4-foot wide and topped with a pipe that made climbing over it nearly impossible. And for those still brave enough to attempt escape, they had to deal with the so-called “Death Strips.” In front of the wall on the East German side, there were strips of soft sand (to show footprints), floodlights, attack dogs, trip-wire machine guns, and soldiers instructed to shoot escapees on sight. From 1961 to 1989, around 170 people were killed trying to defect. But over 5000 succeeded in crossing the border (by means of everything from hot air balloons to underground sewer pipes).

Tear Down This Wall!

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In 1987, President Reagan gave a speech in Berlin where he famously urged Russian leader Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” It was an important moment in Cold War history, and as a verbal gauntlet, played a part in bringing about the end of the division between East and West Berlin.

That end came on November 9, 1989, when the East German government announced that “permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints.” The wall was inundated with people from both sides, crossing over freely, hugging, kissing, and singing in celebration. Some brought hammers and picks, chipping away at the wall. All those pieces eventually became collectible items. East and West Germany reunified into a single state a year later.

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Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A Note?
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When orchestra members tune their instruments before a performance, it almost always sounds the same. That’s because across the world, most orchestras tune to the same A note, using a standard pitch of 440 hertz.

This is the result of international standards that have been in place since the 19th century, according to WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York City. Currently, standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international group that makes recommendations on everything from what safety labels should look like to how big the hole in a pen cap should be. A standard called ISO 16, first recommended in 1955 and confirmed in 1975, “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

The ISO didn’t pull that frequency out of thin air. During the Industrial Revolution, a rush toward standardization and universality led to multiple international meetings that aimed to bring orchestras all over the world to the same pitch. Standardizing pitch had important ramifications for the international music scene.

Historically, the pitch that orchestras tuned to could differ wildly depending on where the musicians were playing. “In the course of the last 400 years in Europe, the point that has been considered ideal for a reference pitch has fluctuated by some 5 or 6 semitones,” musicologist Bruce Haynes explained in his book, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A.’ In the 17th century, a French performer might tune his or her instrument a whole tone lower than their German colleagues. The standards could even change from one town to the next, affecting how music written in one location might sound when played in another.

As a writer for London's The Spectator observed in 1859, “It is well known that when we are performing Handel's music (for example) from the very notes in which he wrote it, we are really performing it nearly a whole tone higher than he intended;—the sound associated in his ear with the note A, being nearly the same sound which, in our ear, is associated with the note G.”

In the 19th century, a commission established by the French government tried to analyze pitch across Europe by looking at the frequencies of the tuning forks musicians used as their reference while tuning their instruments. The commission gathered tuning forks from different cities, finding that most were pitched somewhere around 445 hertz. Over the years, due to bigger concert halls and more advanced instruments, pitch was rising across most orchestras, and instruments and voices were being strained as a result. So the commission recommended lowering the standard to what was known as “the compromise pitch.”

In 1859, the French commission legally established diapason normal, the standard pitch for the A above middle C, at 435 hertz. (The music world would still be debating whether or not pitch had risen too much more than a century later.) Later, 435 hertz became enshrined as a standard elsewhere, too. In 1885, government representatives from Italy, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Württemberg met to establish their own international standard, agreeing on 435 hertz. The agreement was eventually written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But not everyone was on board with 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London believed the French pitch standard was pegged to a specific temperature—59°F—and decided to adjust their pitch upward to compensate for their concert halls being warmer than that, settling on 439 hertz. Meanwhile, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians declared 440 hertz to be the standard pitch in the U.S.

In 1939, the International Standardizing Organization met in London to agree on a standard for concert pitch to be used across the world. A Dutch study of European pitch that year had found that while pitch varied across orchestras and countries, the average of those varied pitches was around 440 hertz. So it made sense for the ISO to choose A 440. Furthermore, radio broadcasters and technicians like the BBC preferred A 440 to the English A 439 because 439 was a prime number and thus harder to reproduce in a laboratory.

World War II delayed the official launch of the 1939 ISO agreement, but the organization issued its A 440 decision in 1955, then again two decades later. A 440 was here to stay. That said, even now, pitch does vary a little depending on the musicians in question. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra notably tunes to 443 hertz rather than the standard 440 hertz, for instance. While A 440 may be the official “concert pitch” across the world, in practice, there is still a little wiggle room.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Mozart, music: Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Background: iStock.
13 Facts About Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Illustration by Mental Floss. Mozart, music: Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Background: iStock.
Illustration by Mental Floss. Mozart, music: Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Background: iStock.

A genius composer turned pop culture icon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote more than 600 musical works and influenced other maestros like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He continues to inspire everyone from film directors to computer scientists today. Here are some things you might not know about the famous child prodigy.

1. MOZART'S FATHER THRUST HIM INTO THE MUSIC BUSINESS.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756, to his mother Anna Maria and his father Leopold Mozart, who was a composer and music teacher at Salzburg Cathedral. Little Wolfgang and his older sister Maria Anna were taught to play the clavier (a stringed keyboard instrument) from a young age. Both children showed immense musical talent. By the time he was 4 years old, Mozart could learn a song on the clavier in just 30 minutes.

2. MOZART HUNG OUT WITH A YOUNG MARIE ANTOINETTE.

When he was 6, Mozart's family was performing at royal courts, and he began to perform concerts himself. At the Habsburg summer residence outside Vienna, Mozart met Archduchess Marie Antoinette, who was two months his senior. It’s said that she helped Mozart when he slipped on a polished floor. In return, he proposed marriage to the future queen of France. The experience in Vienna would lead to the beginning of a wildly successful tour across Europe that stopped at dozens of cities and royal courts between 1763 and 1766.

3. HE WROTE HIS FIRST OPERA AT 11.

Mozart took in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Versailles, and more as he traveled with his family. At one concert in Munich, Mozart and his sister played together for three straight hours, and they wowed audiences everywhere they went. While playing a series of concerts in Paris, Mozart published his first piece of music: a violin sonata in five parts. He was 8.

At age 11, he wrote his first true opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus. A series of tours of Italian cities beginning in December 1769 confirmed Mozart's preternatural talent. He was commissioned to write operas for Milan's carnival, was admitted to Bologna's prestigious Accademia Filarmonica, and directed the first three performances of his opera Mitridate, rè di Ponto. At 15, he wrote that he was hearing whole operas “at home in my head.” Mozart later admitted to feeling “as proud as a peacock” about his fame.

4. HIS EARLY TRIUMPHS DIDN'T LAST—AND THEN HIS FATHER BLAMED HIM FOR HIS MOTHER'S DEATH.

After the Italian tours, Mozart returned to Salzburg and began composing for the court of its new ruler, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, but the work was unchallenging. In 1778, Mozart's ever-ambitious father sent him to Paris with an order to “put yourself in the company of the great.” But now, Mozart was 22 and no longer the boy wonder who hung out with Marie Antoinette on his three-year European tour. He was an adult musician with “a plain, pockmarked face” who could barely speak French.

Left out of high society and running out of money, Mozart and his mother, who was chaperoning him, holed up in a cold and dilapidated hotel in the 2nd arrondissement. His mother fell ill with a fever, and she died on July 3, 1778 at the age of 57. Mozart was all alone, and too scared to tell his father what had happened to his mother. Instead, he got his friend, Abbé Bullinger, to tell him the news. Leopold Mozart ended up blaming his son for her death, believing that if his mother hadn't accompanied him to Paris, things would have turned out differently.

5. HE KIND OF HATED WORKING IN SALZBURG.

Following the Paris stay, Mozart went back to Salzburg to live with his father and sister via Strasbourg (where he played three poorly attended concerts), Mannheim, Munich, and Augsburg. At home, he found a job as a court organist, but wasn't happy. He wanted more for himself, once writing, “to waste one’s life in inactivity in such a beggarly place is really very sad.” The worst part of staying in Salzburg was dealing with the stinginess of his patron, von Colloredo, who wanted him to compose only music meant for the local church. Despite his difficulties during this period, Mozart nevertheless wrote two important compositions, Symphony No. 32 in G Major (K318) and Symphony No. 33 in B Flat Major (K319).

6. HE MOVED TO VIENNA IN 1781, AND HIS LIFE CHANGED DRAMATICALLY.

In Vienna, the Age of Enlightenment was in full swing. Nights in the capital belonged to the wealthy, who attended the finest masked balls and operas. Starting off as a freelance musician with just one student, Mozart worked his way into the heart of Viennese social life, propelled by the popular appeal of his piano concertos and symphonies. One biographer noted that audiences for his piano concertos had the experience of “witnessing the transformation and perfection of a major musical genre.”

Soon, Mozart could be seen going about town in gold-trimmed hats and red coats with mother-of-pearl buttons. A year after moving to Vienna, he married the soprano Constanze Weber. They had their first child in 1783—a boy named Raimund Leopold.

7. HE INSISTED HIS CHILDREN SHOULDN'T BE BREAST-FED.

He wrote, “I was quite determined that even if she were able to do so, my wife was never to nurse her child. Yet I was equally determined that my child was never to take the milk of a stranger. I wanted the child to be brought up on water, like my sister and myself.”

Feeding infants on barley water instead of milk was common practice among the middle classes at the time. Mozart did eventually give in to his midwife's and mother-in-law's pleas to have a wet nurse breastfeed the child, but unfortunately, Raimund died two months after he was born. Only two of Mozart’s six children survived infancy.

8. MOZART HAD A PET STARLING.

Starlings are amazing mimics, and the one Mozart brought home from a Vienna pet shop on May 27, 1784 had been singing a movement from one of the composer’s pure, bright songs—the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major (K453).

Mozart’s starling was his constant companion. It was there for the composer’s move to a ritzy Vienna apartment in the Domgasse, just steps from St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It was there for the birth of two more sons, Karl Thomas Mozart and Johann Thomas Leopold, and the subsequent death of Johann a month after he was born. It witnessed Mozart achieving real fame for his symphonies and arias.

9. HE DIDN'T ATTEND HIS FATHER'S FUNERAL.

Around a week after Mozart’s father died on May 28, 1787, his pet starling passed away. Mozart didn’t go back to Salzburg for his father’s funeral, but he did bury his starling in the grandest way. Mourners in heavy veils marched in procession, sang hymns, and listened to Mozart recite a poem he’d written for the occasion. By a tiny graveside, the world’s greatest composer spoke with love of his starling “gay and bright” who was “not naughty, quite” [PDF].

10. HIS MUSIC SPANNED EVERY FORM AND STYLE OF HIS TIME.

From chamber music like Serenade No. 13 in G Major (K525), a.k.a. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to beloved operas such as The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and Così fan Tutte, Mozart's compositions redefined many forms of music: symphonies and concertos, harmonie-music for wind instruments, chamber music for string quartets, sonatas for the piano, masses, and choral and church music. All were parts of his oeuvre.

What makes Mozart’s work so revolutionary? Romantic composer Johannes Brahms noted the exceptional “purity” of his music. To the American composer Leonard Bernstein, Mozart’s works were “bathed in a glitter that could have come only from the 18th century, from that age of light, lightness, and enlightenment … over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart’s—the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering—a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.”

Or, in the words of playwright Arthur Miller, “Mozart is happiness before it has gotten defined.”

11. MOZART'S LAST COMPOSITION REMAINED UNFINISHED.

His final commissioned piece was Requiem Mass In D Minor (K626). Mozart died before it was finished, but his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, completed the work and delivered it to Austria’s Count Franz von Walsegg, who had commissioned the piece to memorialize his deceased wife. It’s believed that von Walsegg intended to pass the mass off as his own. That plan was scuppered by Constanze, who let it be known that it was, in fact, Mozart who had received the commission and that she was due a fee for the work.

12. THE REASON FOR HIS EARLY DEATH PROBABLY WASN'T POISON.

Mozart died when was 35 years old, on December 5, 1791. The coroner reported the cause as “severe miliary fever,” but a rumor suggested he had been poisoned by Antonio Salieri—an influential opera composer and an exceptional musician who taught Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt. The rumor became entrenched in pop culture largely due to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the subsequent Academy Award-winning 1984 film adaptation. But the gossip was seen as baseless back in the 18th century, having stemmed from a false report of poisoning in a Berlin newspaper a week after the composer passed away. The real cause behind Mozart’s early death is likely much less nefarious. It was probably a fatal strep infection.

13. HIS MUSIC AND LIFE ARE STILL WIDELY CELEBRATED.

Named one of the “Greatest People of the Millennium” by TIME, Mozart’s fame has only grown since his death 226 years ago. New York City hosts the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center for a month every summer; Salzburg celebrates with an 11-day birthday party for the composer every January. In fact, an impressive percentage of Salzburg’s economy is built on Mozart tourism, with everything from Mozart keychains to t-shirts to chocolate-marzipan Mozart balls for sale in the city’s historic Old Town.

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