Excelsior by Longfellow, a tale of hubris

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Excelsior (1841), a classical poem, by the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was set to music dozens of times. The cover above illustrates the music for the poem composed by John Blockley.  Excelsior is the most parodied of all Longfellows poems, being almost a parody of itself. The theme of the poem is punishment for human hubris or excessive pride. A boy, bearing a banner ‘Excelsior’, wants to climb higher and higher in the Alps. He ignores all warnings from the local villagers and ends up dead. Half-buried in the snow he is found by a St. Bernard and some monks.

Excelsior was also illustrated for the magic lantern. We found the images of the slides hereunder on Laterna magica’s website. The projection of slides during a singing performance led to a new, often lucrative business of producing these ‘illustrated songs‘ (1). These slides were remarkable because they were handcoloured photographs made of real life models and decors constructed in a studio. These slides immediately preceded cinema.

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(1) The Magic Lantern Slide Set to Music: The Illustrated Song Slide, by Nancy A. Bergh, in: ML Bulletin, vol. I, no. 4, January 1980 

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