Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Archive for April, 2009

A Brief History of the Triangle as Solo Musical Instrument

I was chatting with my musician friend in a great café called Le Petite Triangle (said with a haughty French accent) when the subject turned to the triangle as a musical instrument. Since retiring from the saxophone in twelfth grade, I had been trying to find that secret shortcut to musical stardom. Could I be a solo trianglist?


My friend, who is a classically trained violinist, quickly dismissed the validity of the triangle exclaiming, “It’s part of the percussion section.” Of course, he meant that if I ever wanted to classically master the triangle as an instrument, I would have to become a percussionist. However, almost in the same breath he suggested that the triangle did have a type of tonal complexity that should not be taken lightly and could be quite demanding to master.


All jokes aside, that did get me thinking about the viability of the triangle as a solo instrument. Could it be more than a novelty? More than an Ed Grimley punchline? Were there musicians out there who took on the musical discipline of the triangle as seriously as Yo Yo Ma with the cello? If so, were the parts even available for them to play in an orchestral setting?


Could the triangle be more than a one-note instrument?

Could the triangle be more than a one-note instrument?

According to James Blades, author of Percussion Instruments and their History, the triangle in its ancient form had rings strung to the lower bar.


Yet the first mention we find of a triangle in tenth-century manuscript, is of an instrument without rings. A triangle without rings is depicted in the King Wenceslaus IV Bible (late fourteenth century) and again on a mid-fifteenth-century window in the Beauchamp Chapel, St Mary’s, Warwick. This latter triangle with its open corner has a curiously modern appearance, except that at the top angle the steel bar is twisted into a loop through which the thumb of the performer (an angel) passes.


Blades continued:


Like its ancestor the sistrum, the triangle was clearly used for religious ceremonies, quite widely in mediaeval churches judging from the frequency and virulence of the denunciations launched against them, and the necessity every few years to issue another edict prohibiting them. The triangle occurs more often than any other instrument except the cymbals in paintings of Bacchic processions and similar occasions, and angels will often be seen singing and playing a triangle at the same time.


So the triangle has a long and prestigious musical history. However, what of the triangle in its modern form, consisting of a rod of steel, open and slightly curved at one corner and meant to be struck with a steel stick or wooden handle? This was the instrument associated with the masters such as Mozart or Beethoven


According to the book, Modern Music and Musicians, “Beethoven, Mozart and many of classical as well as modern composers, have made use of this little instrument in some of their works. [The composer] Weber has used it prominently Gypsy music, as, for example, in his ‘Preciosa.’”


But in most classical musical pieces, the triangle was relegated to the background. I wanted to know if there was a composer that might utilize the triangle as a solo instrument. Could it be possible?


In my research, I discovered that Franz Lizt composed a piece, Piano Concerto No. 1, which featured the triangle as a solo instrument in the third movement. At last, I had found it, proof that the triangle should be taken seriously. It’s nickname, in fact, is called “the triangle concerto.”


So, armed with this information, I took my discovery to my musician friend. I exclaimed, “Liszt! Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 features the triangle on solo!” He looked at me unimpressed and replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve played that.”


Still no respect, the journey continues.



A Pilgrimage to the Tomb of Chef Boyardee

 When I tell people that Chef Boyardee started his multi-million dollar spaghetti-in-a-can business empire in Cleveland, the reaction I usually get is: “Chef Boyardee was a real person?”

Unlike fictional product icons such as Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, who were invented for marketing purposes, Chef Boyardee, whose real name was Hector Boiardi, was indeed an actual person.

Born in Italy in 1897, Boiardi came to America with the assistance of his brother, who worked in the hotel business.

According to foodreference.com, Boiardi was a hit in the American kitchen from the very start:

Three years later [after coming to Cleveland] he opened his own restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, where his spaghetti sauce was so popular, he was soon selling it in milk bottles for his customers to take home. He was soon producing the sauce in an adjacent building, expanded to include dry pasta and packets of cheese to go with the sauce.

Donna Gabbacia, author of We Are What We Eat, adds further insight:

He decided to can and distribute his sauce, initially packaging it with dry spaghetti and a packet of grated cheese, through his own business Chef Boiardi Food Products Company. Boiardi changed the name of his company (and its product) to Boyardee in the 1930s, mainly to ease pronunciation by non-Italians, as he sought a regional, cross-over market of multi-ethnic consumers. By the late 1930s, Boiardi was successfully selling canned spaghetti to A&P stores and reaching a national market. Boiardi even became a supplier to the U.S. army during World War II, further building a taste for Chef Boyardee among returning GIs.

Boiardi eventually sold his company to a large conglomerate that turned his idea into a multi-billion dollar business that is today owned by Con/Agra. He died in Parma, Ohio in 1985, an icon of American processed food and Italian-American pop culture.

It was the latter that inspired me to make a pilgrimage to his final resting place in order to pay homage. Since he died in Parma, I assumed that he was interred in a Parma-area cemetery. But after careful research, I discovered that he was in fact interred in a Cleveland suburb on the completely opposite side of town in Chardon’s All Souls Cemetery.

Enlisting a friend, we both set out on a countryside excursion in search of the Boiardi mausoleum. After finding our way through several winding roads in the middle of nowhere, we arrived at All Souls Cemetery.

Since we knew it was a mausoleum, we thought that it would stand out in a sea of grave markers and thus be easy to locate.  However, we soon discovered that was not the case.  We had to ask for directions.  Fortunately I had jotted down the cemetery office number on a post-it note just in case. 

Phone call to the staff office: “Good afternoon.  Can you please tell me where Chef Boyardee is interred?”

“One moment,” she replied, “Lot 23 in the Crucifixion Mausoleum under the name Hector Boiardi.”


The grave marker of Chef Boyardee

And so my friend and I made our way to the mausoleum and there he was, placed beside his wife, Helen. After a brief moment of silence and some personal reflection on the legacy of Chef Boyardee, my friend and I said arrivederci to the man, the mausoleum and All Souls. Both of us knowing that we would never look at a can of spaghetti and meatballs in quite the same way ever again.