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Composers Datebook

Composers Datebook


Composers Datebook™ is a daily two-minute program designed to inform, engage, and entertain listeners with timely information about composers of the past and present. Each program notes significant or intriguing musical events involving composers of the past and present, with appropriate and accessible music related to each.





Casals and Copland at the White House

Nov 13, 2019 00:02:00


On this date in 1961, cellist Pablo Casals gave a chamber concert at the White House, at the invitation of President John F. Kennedy. The concert was given in honor of Governor Luis Muñoz of Puerto Rico, the home of Pablo Casals. Casals played works of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Couperin, with his own composition, “Song of the Birds,” as an encore. While eminent guests raved over the performance, the cellist’s laconic comment was simply, “It went well.” Casals could afford to be blasé. After all, he had played at the White House before—for President Teddy Roosevelt back in 1904! Aaron Copland was also invited to the November 13th White House concert in 1961. In a diary entry, he noted: “Pierre Salinger and Senator Mike Mansfield were at our table. President Kennedy was in full view the entire time… I was surprised at his reddish-brown hair. No evil in the face, but plenty of ambition there, no doubt. Mrs. K. statuesque… After dinner we were treated to a concert by Pablo Casals. No American music. The next step.” That “next step” came the following spring. In May of 1962, the Kennedys presented Copland’s ballet “Billy the Kid” at the White House for the visiting president of the Ivory Coast Republic, with Copland as guest of honor.

William Schuman writes a "Symphony for Strings"

Nov 12, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1943, the Boston Symphony and conductor Serge Koussevitzky gave the first performance of a “Symphony for Strings” by the American composer William Schuman. Schuman was just 33 years old at the time, but Koussevitzky had already been programming and commissioning Schuman’s music for about 5 years. Koussevitzky had already given the premiere performances of his popular “American Festival Overture” and the Third Symphony. Schuman’s “Symphony for Strings” is dedicated to the memory of Koussevitzky’s wife, Natalie, whose family fortune that enabled Serge Koussevitzky to establish himself as a conductor, found a publishing house, and commission many of the 20th century’s most significant works, including Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” In Russia, the Koussevitzkys championed Russian music. In France, they supported French composers. And, beginning in 1924, when Koussevitzky became the music director of the Boston Symphony, many American composers benefited from this remarkable couple’s enthusiasm for new music. Schuman’s “Symphony for Strings” is just one of a long list of the Koussevitzkys’ American commissions, which includes works by Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Samuel Barber, Walter Piston, and Leonard Bernstein. Taken as a whole, the concert music commissioned by Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky remains one of the most remarkable musical legacies of the 20th century.

Hannibal Lokumbe's "African Portraits”

Nov 11, 2019 00:02:00


At Carnegie Hall in New York City on today’s date in 1990, a new work by the American composer and jazz trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe had its premiere performance by the American Composers Orchestra. November 11th also happens to be the birthday of its composer, who was born Marvin Peterson, in Smithville, Texas, in 1948, but now goes by the name Hannibal. The new work was an oratorio titled “African Portraits,” which traces the story of slavery in America and black culture's contributions to American music. It’s scored for orchestra, jazz quartet, blues guitar, chorus, gospel singer, plus African storyteller and African instruments. In composing this work, which in Biblical terms he calls his personal “burning bush,” Hannibal drew inspiration from a variety of sources, ranging from the spirituals he listened to while working in the cotton fields of Texas to the drums of the Masai people in Africa, with whom he lived for a time. A critic for the Washington Post described the work as follows: “The dramatic power conveyed by "Portraits" is cumulative. It's derived from the drums and the chants, the procession of blues, jazz and gospel refrains, the symphonic sweep and narrative form, the great compression of time, anguish and triumph. It's a listening experience you'll not soon forget.”

A cold welcome for Verdi?

Nov 10, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1862, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Forza del Destino” or “The Force of Destiny” had its premiere at the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. Verdi and his wife, Giuseppina, were present for the opening night. We’re not sure what the outdoor temperature was in St. Petersburg that November evening, but it was something that the Verdis carefully considered before agreeing to attend. Responding to a friend’s letter describing a Russian winter, Giuseppina wrote: “If I were not afraid of committing forgery, I would alter that imposing figure of 22 below zero which will make Verdi open his eyes wide in fright… As for myself, I took refuge under the stove… In any case, I shall try and persuade him to expose his nose to the danger of freezing in Russia.” Perhaps in artistic compensation, the story of “Forza” is set in sultry Spain—and after the premiere in St. Petersburg, the Verdis did indeed set off for warmer climates of Rome and Madrid, where the new opera was to have its next performances. In the early years of the 20th century, “La Forza del Destino”—like most of Verdi’s works—was seldom staged, but in the 1920s it was successfully revived, and its overture has become a concert hall favorite.

Senor Rodrigo's popular Concierto

Nov 9, 2019 00:02:00


The world’s most popular classical guitar concerto, the “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo, had its first performance on today’s date in 1940, in Barcelona. Joaquin Rodrigo was born in Spain in 1901 and lost his sight at the age of three. He wrote all of his music on a Braille music typewriter. The “Concierto de Aranjuez,” inspired by a small town of that name thirty miles south of Madrid, remains his signature piece, though he wrote a number of other successful works. Rodrigo died on July 6th, 1999, at the age of 97. In 1959, a friend had played a recording of Rodrigo’s concerto for the American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Miles Davis said, “After listening to it for a couple of weeks, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.” So, Miles Davis played it for his friend, jazz composer and arranger Gil Evans, and in short order the two collaborated on their own 16-minute version of Rodrigo’s score. Their collaboration was included on their classic 1960 Columbia LP entitled “Sketches of Spain.” At the recording session, Miles paid Rodrigo this compliment: “That melody is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets…”

Musical tales from Stravinsky and Marsalis

Nov 8, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1919, a concert suite from Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” had its premiere in Lausanne, Switzerland—the same city in which the original theatrical version of Stravinsky’s score was first presented in 1918. In that original form, “The Soldier’s Tale” was a kind of musical morality play scored for narrator and small chamber ensemble. Stravinsky incorporated elements of American jazz, although what he knew of jazz was derived entirely from looking at sheet music rather than any firsthand experience of actually hearing American jazz. Eighty years later, for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis composed “A Fiddler’s Tale”—a companion piece to Stravinsky’s work, scored for the same configuration of instruments. Wynton Marsalis said, ''No matter what I do, I'm not going to compare myself to Stravinsky. That would be ridiculous. You have to accept who he is and do what you can do, and hope that what you do is on some level of quality.” Like Stravinsky’s piece, “A Fiddler’s Tale” also exists in two versions: as a theater piece with narrator, and as a purely instrumental suite. Both have been recorded, and both, not surprisingly, feature Wynton Marsalis as the trumpeter.

"Starry Night" variations by McLean and Dutilleux

Nov 7, 2019 00:02:00


In 1971, after reading a book about the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, the American pop singer Don McLean wrote a song he titled “Vincent,” which became a big hit the following year. The song is better known by its opening line, “Starry, starry night,” a reference to one of Van Gogh’s best-known paintings, entitled “The Starry Night.” But McLean wasn’t the only composer inspired by that painting. On today’s date in 1978, a new orchestral work by the French composer Henri Dutilleux was premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., by the National Symphony Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich. Dutilleux titled his new work “Timbre, space, movement,” but added a subtitle, “The Starry Night,” in acknowledgement of the painting’s influence, and said he wanted to translate into music the (quote) "almost cosmic whirling effect which [the painting] produces". Now, painting and music are very different art forms, but the energy, pulsation, and whirling qualities of Van Gogh’s masterpiece do find vivid expression, both visually and musical, in Dutilleux’s work. As a kind of frame, Dutilleux placed the cellos in a half circle around the conductor, omitted violins and violas from his instrumentation, and alternated static episodes and whirling wind and percussion solos to evoke illusion of motion in the Van Gogh painting.

Mr. Sax's instrument and Ms. Perry's Quartet

Nov 6, 2019 00:02:00


The saxophone—whose flashing serpentine figure is now virtually synonymous with jazz clubs and wind bands—was the brainchild of woodwind craftsman Adolphe Sax, born in Belgium on this date in 1814, to a family of prominent instrument makers. Sax moved to Paris in his late 20’s, where he proved himself a restless and prolific inventor of new instruments. Yet only a few of these lived on, of which the saxophone is by far the most popular. John Philip Sousa’s band gave many audiences in this country their first taste of the saxophone, and its important role in jazz can hardly be overestimated—that’s a development that neither Sax nor Sousa could have foreseen. In the symphonic repertory, saxophones are still just occasional visitors to the concert hall, but in the world of chamber music, saxophone quartets have become quite popular. In America alone there are dozens of professional saxophone quartets who commission and perform new works. Take, for example, the “Quartet for Saxophones” by the Canadian composer Anita “A.D.” Perry, a work written for the Amherst Saxophone Quartet of Buffalo, New York. The Amherst Quartet has a 20-year history of commissioning and performing new music, and has recorded a number of compact discs, include one of Perry’s quartet.

Barber offers "two for the price of one"

Nov 5, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1938, two works by the American composer Samuel Barber received their very high-profile premiere performances on a live, coast-to-coast broadcast by the NBC Symphony conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini was impressed by Barber’s First Symphony, which was performed at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, so Toscanini asked the 25-year old composer for a short orchestral piece, which Toscanini might perform with the newly-formed NBC Symphony. Barber offered Toscanini his pick of two short pieces, and must have been surprised when Toscanini agreed to perform BOTH of them: a newly-composed “Essay for Orchestra” and Barber’s arrangement for full string orchestra of a movement from a String Quartet he had written in 1936. Retitled “Adagio for Strings,” it was destined to become Barber’s best-known work. Barber’s “Adagio” acquired a special resonance during World War Two, as a threnody for America’s war dead. It was also performed at the funeral of wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt. More recently, Barber’s “Adagio” has been used to great effect in several successful films, including “The Elephant Man” and “Platoon.” In a memorial tribute to Barber, American composer Ned Rorem wrote, “If Barber [25 years old when the ‘Adagio’ was completed] later aimed higher, he never reached deeper into the heart.”

A second wind for Reicha and Ward-Steinman?

Nov 4, 2019 00:02:00


Take one flute, one oboe, and mix well with one each of a clarinet, bassoon and French horn —and you have the recipe for the traditional wind quintet. In the 19th century, this tasty musical mix was perfected by Europeans like the Czech composer Anton Reicha, who produced 24 wind quintets in his lifetime. In the 20th century, American composers like Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, and John Harbison have all written one wind quintet each—matching Reicha’s in quality, if not in quantity. But other American composers HAVE returned to the wind quintet for a second helping. On today’s date in 1993, the Wind Quintet No. 2 of the Californian composer David Ward-Steinman received its premiere in Sacramento by the Arioso Quintet. Ward-Steinman titled his second quintet “Night Winds,” and asked his five players to occasionally double on some non-traditional instruments such as bamboo or clay flutes, a train-whistle, and even the traditional wind instrument of Indigenous Australians, the didgeridoo—all to create some atmospheric “night-wind” sounds. In addition to wind quintets, David Ward-Steinman composed orchestral works, chamber music and pieces for solo piano. A native of Louisiana, Ward-Steinman studied with Darius Milhaud in Aspen, Milton Babbitt at Tanglewood, and Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Middle-Eastern sounds from Rimsky-Korsakov and Reza Vali

Nov 3, 2019 00:02:00


On this day* in 1888, the orchestral suite “Scheherazade,” the most famous work of the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was first performed in St. Petersburg. The suite evokes episodes from “The Arabian Nights.” Though Rimsky-Korsakov was Russian, and most often concentrated on operas based on RUSSIAN history and fable, it’s ironic that his most popular work was inspired by folklore and fables from the Middle East. Until recently, Western knowledge of the Middle Eastern music was mostly limited to such second-hand accounts. But today, we’re discovering first-hand both the traditional music of the Middle East and new works by contemporary composers from that part of the world. One of these is Iranian-born American composer Reza Vali, who was born in Ghazvin, Iran in 1952 and began his musical studies at the Teheran Conservatory. In 1972, he moved to Vienna and studied at the Academy of Music, and then came to America to study at University of Pittsburgh. Despite his training in Western technique, Vali has returned to the instruments and traditions of Persian music for inspiration. “Music is like the ocean,” he once said in an interview. “It moves between cultures. It doesn’t have boundaries. But that doesn’t mean that you have to lose your identity … you can have a pluralistic approach by also keeping your identity.” *Julian calendar date: October 22

First — and last — orchestral pieces by Brahms and Harrison?

Nov 2, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1873, some music by the German composer Johannes Brahms received its first performance by the Vienna Philharmonic. The piece was titled “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” and was a big success at its premiere. Brahms must have heaved a great sigh of relief. For the previous 18 years, Brahms had struggled to complete his First Symphony, unconvinced that he had “the right stuff” to pull it off. In the summer of 1873, he wrote his “Haydn Variations” as a kind of personal test to see how audiences would react—and to bolster his own confidence. Lucky for us, it worked: Brahms returned to work on his First Symphony, which he managed to complete after another three years of perfectionist tinkering and revisions—and went on to write four symphonies in all! On today’s date in 1990, the Fourth Symphony of the American composer Lou Harrison received its premiere performance by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Much of Harrison’s music has been influenced by non-Western traditions, especially Javanese gamelan music, and his Symphony No. 4 is no exception. Harrison was 73 when this symphony premiered, and he dubbed it his “Last Symphony” —apparently agreeing with Brahms that four was enough when it came to symphonies. When asked what would happen should he decide to write still another, Harrison quipped, “I’ll call it the ‘VERY Last Symphony.”

Copland breaks in a new pony

Nov 1, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1948, Maestro Efrem Kurtz led the first subscription concert of the newly reorganized Houston Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was founded in 1913, but after struggling through the "minor" disruptions of two World Wars and the Great Depression, the symphony's 1948 season marked its rebirth as a major player among American orchestras. Since then, the Houston Symphony's roster of music directors has included some of the 20th century's greatest conductors: Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli, and André Previn, to name just a few. For its 1948 debut concert, the new Houston Symphony commissioned and premiered a new work by Aaron Copland—a concert suite adapted from his latest film score. Copland had gone to Hollywood early in 1948 to write the music for the cinematic version of John Steinbeck's novella, "The Red Pony." Steinbeck himself prepared the screenplay, and Copland spent ten weeks writing about an hour's worth of music for the new film, which was scheduled for release in 1949—and so, his 1948 concert suite from "The Red Pony" debuted even before the movie itself. The Houston Post's review called Copland's suite "clean, joyous, ingenious and irresistibly spirited," and correctly predicted "Mr. Copland's 'Red Pony' has grand little gaits, and will stand playing again—here and in a lot of other places."

Larsen and Waxman do "The Monster Mash"

Oct 31, 2019 00:02:00


It’s Halloween -- that time of year when chains rattle, doors creak, skeletons dance, and when even concert music can get a bit spooky. For example, in 1987, the American composer Libby Larsen composed an orchestral suite titled “What the Monster Saw,” inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein.” Says Larsen, “[It’s] is a musical exploration of the second part of the novel, where the monster confronts Frankenstein, his creator.” In 1990, Larsen’s confronted the same monster at greater length, in a full-length opera titled “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,” again based on Shelley’s classic tale. Speaking of monster music, connoisseurs of horror films consider “The Bride of Frankenstein,” released by Universal Studios in 1935, to be one of the classics. It featured Boris Karloff as the monster, Elsa Lancaster as his bride, and a moody film score by Franz Waxman. Waxman originally composed his Frankenstein music on a pipe organ. His score was then orchestrated by one Clifford Vaughan, who translated many of the organ’s spookiest effects into eerie and effective symphonic colors. So successfully, in fact, that their creation refused to die: chunks of their film score were transplanted into dozens of subsequent Universal Studios thrillers and movie serials. Dr. Frankenstein would have been proud!

"What's in a name?" asks Aaron Copland

Oct 30, 2019 00:02:00


It was on today’s date in 1944 that Martha Graham and her dance company first performed the ballet "Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland. The premiere took place at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C, as part of the 80th birthday celebrations for music patron Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, who had commissioned Copland’s score for $500 – not a bad commission back then! Copland used an old Shaker hymn called "Simple Gifts" as a principle theme for his ballet. The austere but simple elegance of Shaker art reminded him, he said, of Graham’s style of dancing, and tied in with her vague suggestions that the ballet would be about early American pioneers. Copland left the title up to Graham. Arriving in Washington for the rehearsals, Copland wrote: “The first thing I said to Martha when I saw her was, ‘What have you called the ballet?’ She replied, ‘Appalachian Spring.’ ‘What a pretty title. Where did you get it?’ I asked, and Martha said, ‘Well, actually it’s from a poem by Hart Crane.’ I asked, ‘Does the poem have anything to do with your ballet?’ ‘No,’ said Martha. ‘I just liked the title.’” Understandably, Copland said he was always amused when people said, "Oh Mr. Copland, I can just see the Appalachian Mountains when I hear your music!"

Don Giovanni in Prague (and Vienna)

Oct 29, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1787, Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” had its premiere performance in Prague, with Mozart himself conducting. Mozart had arrived in Prague early in October that year, but as singers and instrumentalists alike needed more time than originally planned to prepare his difficult new score, the premiere occurred later than planned. The October 29th premiere was a triumph, and a Prague newspaper reported that Mozart was received with threefold cheers when he entered and left the theater. At the request of Joseph II, the Austrian emperor, “Don Giovanni” was staged in Vienna the following year. The emperor was pleased: “That opera is divine,” he told Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, but, surprisingly, the Viennese audiences didn’t seem to like it. Da Ponte quotes the Emperor as suggesting “Don Giovanni” was just too complicated for their taste: “Such music is not meat for the teeth of my Viennese,” he said. In his Memoirs, da Ponte writes: “I reported this remark to Mozart, who replied quietly: ‘Well, give them time to chew on it, then.’” ”He was not mistaken,” continued da Ponte. “At each performance of Don Giovanni the applause increased, and little by little, even Vienna of the dull teeth came to savor it.”

"Haunted Blue" by Jeremy Walker

Oct 28, 2019 00:02:00


In 2016, the Minneapolis-based jazz composer and pianist Jeremy Walker collaborated with Consortium Carissimi, a Twin Cities early music vocal ensemble in the creation of some brand-new music in the style of the ensemble’s namesake, the 17th-century Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi. One of the pieces Walker composed was a duet for tenor and mezzo-soprano. The mezzo for the premiere performance was Clara Osowski, a singer with a special passion for art songs, past and present. Now since Osowski was as impressed with Walker’s music as he with her voice, after that concert they decided to embark on a project to infuse the modern jazz harmonies of, say, Bill Evans, into the Romantic art song genre of Schubert and Brahms. They chose texts by Whitman, Longfellow, and Minnesota lyricist Greg Foley, for a song cycle Walker titled “Haunted Blue.” “The ‘blue’ in the title refers to the overall mood of the music,” Walker explained. “But it also refers to the type of harmonies I’m using. The ‘haunted’ part is like when you’re half asleep and half awake at night, and dreams combine with reality.” A studio recording and even some music videos were made, and on today’s date in 2018, “Haunted Blue” received its premiere pubic performance at a CD release concert in Minneapolis.

Villa-Lobos meets the harmonica

Oct 27, 2019 00:02:00


Traditionally, the harmonica is the instrument of the loner: the cowboy by the campfire, the hobo riding the rails, the bluesman pouring out his soul at midnight. The Harmonica seems a little out of place in a concert hall — especially when played by someone wearing a tuxedo. But every so often a virtuoso player comes along who commissions a new concert work for the instrument. In the mid-1950s the American harmonica virtuoso John Sebastian asked the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos for just such a work. On today’s date in 1959, Sebastian premiered Villa-Lobos’ Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra in Jerusalem. This work is now regarded as one of the finest concertos ever written for the instrument, but when the British harmonica virtuoso Tommy Reilly wanted to record it some 20 years after its 1959 premiere, he said had a very hard time tracking down the score. Even Villa-Lobos’ own publisher didn’t seem aware of its existence! Truth be told, Villa-Lobos was both a very prolific and not always very organized composer, so his poor publisher may be forgiven for his ignorance of the work. Even Villa-Lobos couldn’t remember all the pieces he had written, and once said: “I am like a father of a family too numerous who doesn’t always recognize his own infants.”

Elgar gets short-changed

Oct 26, 2019 00:02:00


On this day in 1919, Edward Elgar conducted the London Symphony in the premiere performance of his new Cello Concerto, with Felix Salmond as soloist. What should have been a happy occasion turned out to be a frustrating one — there simply wasn’t enough time to rehearse properly, and the premiere was a near-fiasco. Puzzled, the less-than-full house in Queen’s Hall gave Elgar a polite ovation but left shaking their heads. Mrs. Elgar blamed the conductor, Albert Coates, who hogged all the orchestra’s rehearsal time working over the two pieces HE was to conduct on the same program as Elgar’s new Concerto, for which Coates would hand off the baton to Elgar. In her diary for October 26th she writes, “Poor Felix Salmond in a state of suspense and nerves — wretched hurried rehearsal — an insult to Elgar from that brutal, selfish, ill-mannered bounder, Coates.” After the botched premiere of the new Concerto, critic Ernest Newman reported: “Never, in all probability, has so great an orchestra made so lamentable a public exhibition of itself.” Despite this rough beginning, Elgar’s Cello Concerto has gone on to become one of the composer’s best-loved works worldwide, and has proven to be a favorite with the great cellists of our time, including the late British cellist, Jacqueline du Pré.

Tchaikovsky on a Quiz Show?

Oct 25, 2019 00:02:00


Imagine that YOU are playing for high stakes on a TV quiz show and here’s your question: “Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 had its world premiere performance in what city: a) Moscow b) St. Petersburg c) Budapest d) Boston?” Is that your final answer? If you chose d) Boston, you would have been a winner! Tchaikovsky finished his First Piano Concerto in the early months of 1875, and the work received its very first performance on October 25th that year at the Music Hall in Boston. The orchestra was a freelance group, mostly members of the Harvard Musical Association — the Boston Symphony wouldn’t be founded until six years later. The conductor of the Tchaikovsky premiere was one B.J. Lang -- hardly a name most classical music lovers would recognize today -- but the soloist was world-class: the famous German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. In his day, Bülow was one of the great champions of new music, and Tchaikovsky dedicated his new Piano Concerto to Bulow after his one-time teacher, Nicolai Rubinstein, a famous Russian concert pianist and conductor in his own right, had said the piece was unplayable. Von Bülow proved him wrong, and was able to telegraph Tchaikovsky from Boston that his new concerto had been a big success.

Of Crumb and the Crash

Oct 24, 2019 00:02:00


In the year 1929, October 24th fell on a Thursday, and that particular day has the dubious honor of being dubbed “Black Thursday” — for it was on that fateful day that the New York Stock Exchange crashed. A full-blown financial panic ensued, leading to the Great Depression of the 1930s. For many who saw their fortunes wiped out overnight, it must have seemed like the end of the world. Meanwhile, in Charleston, West Virginia, a baby boy was born on “Black Thursday” who would grow up to become one of America’s most original composers. By the 1970s, George Crumb was acknowledged as a masterful creator of impressionistic and mysterious soundscapes, with evocative titles like “Dream Sequence,” “Night of the Four Moons,” and “Eleven Echoes of Autumn.” Most of Crumbs’ pieces are for small ensemble, but in 1977 he composed a large-scale work entitled “Star Child,” scored for antiphonal choirs, bell ringers, and a large symphony orchestra positioned for surround-sound effect in the concert hall. Crumb says it traces a “progression from darkness and despair to light or joy and spiritual realization.” A recording of “Star Child” was issued to celebrate Crumb’s 70th birthday in 1999 — a year, curiously enough, in which the stock market enjoyed an all-time high, just before taking yet another downward plunge!

Night music by Delius and Danielpour

Oct 23, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1913, composer Frederick Delius was in Leipzig for the first performances of two orchestral pieces destined to become among his most popular works. These were “On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring” and “Summer Night on the River,” premiered by the world-famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, led by one of the most charismatic conductors of that time, the legendary Artur Nikisch. In a letter to his wife, Delius reported that the orchestra was “splendid” — as for Nikisch, Delius had this to say: “He played the first piece MUCH too slow, but very expressively. The second piece he played most beautifully — perfect!” Eighty-four years later, on October 23, 1997, another atmospheric orchestra work received its first performance when conductor Zdenek Macal led the New Jersey Symphony in “Celestial Night,” a work by the American composer Richard Danielpour., who wrote: “Part of the inspiration for Celestial Night came to me while star-gazing in New Hampshire and reflecting on the contrast inherent in my life: between summers in rural places where all the driven, frenetic life that I lead in New York City is temporarily suspended and I have a period of peace… [and] the possibility of personal transformation … of discovering something beyond one’s own immediate environment or experience in order to grow.”

Musical Carpentry?

Oct 22, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1942, Bruno Walter conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of the Second Symphony of the American composer John Alden Carpenter. Like Charles Ives, Carpenter led a double life as a composer and successful businessman. He was born into a wealthy family, and from 1906 until his retirement in 1936, served as Vice President of George B. Carpenter & Co., his father’s railroad and shipping supply company. Carpenter studied music at home and abroad, and even took composition lessons from Sir Edward Elgar. In 1914, Carpenter scored a national success with his first big orchestral work, a whimsical symphonic suite titled “Adventures in a Perambulator,” and in 1921 wrote a very popular jazz-inspired ballet titled “Krazy Kat,” based on a wildly popular newspaper comic strip of the day. By the 1940s, Carpenter’s works were being performed by America’s leading orchestras and famous maestros like Bruno Walter and Fritz Reiner. To celebrate his 75th birthday, the newly-formed National Arts Foundation promoted performances of his music in the U.S, Europe, and Australia. But in the decades following his death in 1951, much of Carpenter’s work has been forgotten. This first-ever recording of his Symphony No. 2 was released by Naxos of America in 2001 — 59 years after the work’s 1942 premiere.

Offenbach puts a critic to work

Oct 21, 2019 00:02:00


In the year 1858, the Parisian composer Jacques Offenbach was, as usual, busy writing his next operetta and avoiding his creditors. He found it expedient to work in hotel rooms rather than at home, where he ran the risk of being cornered by bill collectors. Offenbach hoped that maybe, just maybe, one big box office success might clear his debts — and enable him to reupholster the tattered seats in his theater, Les Bouffes-Parisiens. On today’s date in 1858, the audience in those tattered seats saw the premiere of Offenbach’s latest operetta: a farcical send-up of an old Greek myth. “Orpheus in the Underworld” was a modest success and ran well for several weeks. But just as the production would normally be closing, an important Parisian music critic attended a performance, and was shocked, SHOCKED that Offenbach dared make fun of something so noble and edifying as Greek mythology. His outraged review generated a lively debate, especially when Offenbach slyly inserted direct quotes from the review into the operetta itself! Suddenly “Orpheus in the Underworld” was the hottest ticket in Paris. Box office revenue not only paid for new upholstery, but one tune from the show, an infectious ‘Infernal Galop” would, as M. Offenbach’s celebrated “Can-Can,” become a world-famous melody practically synonymous with Paris itself.

Lou Harrison's Piano Concerto

Oct 20, 2019 00:02:00


An unusual Piano Concerto by the American composer Lou Harrison had its premiere performance in New York on this day in 1985. The famous jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, for whom it was written, was the soloist. Now, Lou Harrison’s music was often marked by its eclectic blending of East and West, and on occasion, Harrison employed non-Western or unusual instruments in his scores, including his own home-made Javanese-style gamelan constructed from old brake drums and clay flowerpots. But that wasn’t what made his Piano Concerto so singular. “I’ve always wanted to write a piano concerto which utilizes two or three pianos on stage, each tuned differently,” said Harrison. “And Keith was willing to try that. But in the end, I decided to use one piano in a tuning I really enjoy.” In Harrison’s concerto, the piano is not tuned to the “equal temperament” system in use in Western music since Bach’s day. The black keys are tuned to the medieval system of mathematically exact intervals of 4ths and 5ths, while the white keys reproduce the “just intonation” system common in the Renaissance and Baroque. And so the familiar instrument has an unfamiliar ring, but one that Keith Jarret loved: “At times in the piece,” he said, “whole chords sound like bells.”

"Mass for Double Choir" by Claussen

Oct 19, 2019 00:02:00


From the first millennium of the Common Era to the present day, the Mass have been chanted and sung to music both simple and complex. Most Mass settings are in the original Latin, since that liturgical language, after so many centuries, has the advantage of being very familiar and eminently suitable for singing. On today’s date in 2010, the Kansas City Chorale gave the premiere of a brand-new “Mass for Double Choir” by the American composer René Clausen. Now, Clausen is an established and well-regarded composer of choral works, but even so writing a Mass can be a daunting task, and Clausen’s was his first such attempt. “Let's say it was a new challenge to set a text which has historically been set probably more than any other,” says Clausen. “I tend to be rather text-content driven, nearly always attempting to express the meaning and mood of the words. In the longer movements of the Mass, especially the Credo, it was challenging to express all the text, yet keep the music structurally integrated and proportioned.” René Clausen’s new “Mass for Double Choir” was well-received at its American premiere, and subsequently recorded by the Kansas City Chorale for the British Chandos label. That recording won three Grammy Awards in 2013, including one for “Best Choral Performance.”

Symphonic Mahler and Moross

Oct 18, 2019 00:02:00


On this day in 1904, in Cologne, Germany, Gustav Mahler conducted the first performance of his Fifth Symphony. It was not a success. Applause was light, with loud hissing from some in the audience. Even Mahler’s wife, Alma, complained so much about the orchestration that Mahler kept tinkering with the score until the last year of his life. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Mahler’s Fifth has become a popular showpiece for virtuoso orchestras and its slow movement, marked Adagietto -- supposedly Mahler’s musical love to Alma -- has become one of Mahler’s best-loved pieces. The American composer Jerome Moross also had a symphony premiered on today’s date. The year was 1943, Moross was 30 years old, and Sir Thomas Beecham conducted its premiere performance with the Seattle Symphony. Unlike Mahler, Moross wrote only ONE symphony, and the slow movement of his was inspired by the American hobo tune “The Midnight Special.” Jerome Moross is best known his work in Hollywood. His 1958 score for “The Big Country” was nominated for an Academy Award. Moross also wrote the music for “Wagon Train,” a popular TV Western. As Moross once said: “a composer must reflect his landscape and mine is the landscape of America. I don't do it consciously, it is simply the only way I can write.”

Mendelssohn at Starbucks?

Oct 17, 2019 00:02:00


On this date in 1831, the 21-year old Felix Mendelssohn conducted a concert in Munich consisting entirely of his own works – a concert that included the premiere of his Piano Concerto in G Minor, with its composer as the soloist. Mendelssohn was in high spirits and wrote these lines to family: “It is a glorious feeling to waken in the morning and to know that you are going to write the score of a grand allegro with all sorts of instruments . . . while bright weather promises a cheering, long walk in the afternoon. On the evening of the October 17th at half-past six, think of me, for then I will dash off with thirty violins and two sets of wind instruments [for] my new concerto in G minor. Every morning I have to write, correct and score till one o’clock, when I go to Scheidel’s coffee house in Kaufinger Gasse, where I know each face by heart and find the same people every day in the same position: two playing chess, three looking on, five reading the newspapers, six eating their dinner — with me making up the seventh.” Unfortunately for posterity, Mendelssohn never said if he recognized any of that coffeehouse crowd sitting in the audience for the performance of his new concerto!

Eduardo Martin

Oct 16, 2019 00:02:00


Today’s date in 1956 marks the birthday of the Cuban composer Eduardo Martin, a name that might not be all that familiar to you – unless you play guitar, that is. Martin has written music for orchestra and films but is best known and admired for works he’s written for his own instrument, the guitar -- music infused with the flair and dance rhythms of his native Havana. One of his popular pieces is titled “Hasta Alicia Baila,” roughly translated “Even Alicia Dances,” referencing the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, suggesting that even she couldn’t resist dancing to its beat. “Guitar is my greatest passion,” said Martin in an interview for Cuban radio. “But I have other passions: my country and my family. “In my work, it is easy to notice the attachment to my roots. Even when I travel and see something that I like, I say, ‘Of course, it looks just like home.’ I confess I am an eternal lover of Havana. I find it wonderful and irreplaceable. … And so I reflect in my work some of the impressions that this place has left in me … What I feel when I wake up in my city, when I walk in it, the mix of colors and the sounds that flood through it.”

Claude Debussy out to sea?

Oct 15, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1905, Claude Debussy’s orchestral suite “La Mer” or “The Sea” was performed for the first time in Paris. Today this music is regarded as an impressionistic masterpiece, but early audiences — especially those in America — found it rough sailing. “We clung like a drowning man to a few fragments of the tonal wreck,” wrote a 1907 Boston critic, and suggested that instead of “The Sea” Debussy should have titled his piece “Sea-Sickness.” “The Sea is persistently ugly,” wrote The New York Times that same year. “Debussy fails to give ANY impression of the sea… There is more of a barnyard cackle in it than anything else.” And in 1909, this on “La Mer” from The Chicago Tribune: “It is safe to say that few understood what they heard and few heard anything they understood… There are no themes… There is nothing in the way of even a brief motif that can be grasped securely enough by the ear and brain to serve as a guiding line through the tonal maze. There is no end of queer and unusual effects, no end of harmonic complications and progressions that sound so hideously ugly.” Ah, the perils of “modern music ” in the early 20th century!

Lully and Moliere send in the clowns

Oct 14, 2019 00:02:00


To most music lovers, the name Jean-Baptise Lully calls to mind pompous and courtly music for Louis XIV, the French “Sun King” who was his great patron. The Italian-born Lully is credited with “creating” French opera in the 17th century — and some of these works, usually based on subjects from classical mythology and poetry, are occasionally revived and recorded today. But that was only one side of Lully’s personality, the, shall we say, “stuffy and serious” side, because Lully was also something of a clown — literally. For over seven years he worked with the great French comedian and playwright Moliere to create joint stage works. In addition to composing the music, Lully acted, sang and danced in these satirical and slap-stick affairs. The most famous of the Lully-Moliere collaborations debuted on today’s date in 1670, when, to cheer up King Louis after an embarrassing incident involving a bogus ambassador from Turkey, Lully and Moliere concocted a ballet spoof they called “Le Turc ridicule” preceded by a musical play about a wealthy upstart from the middle class, titled “Le bourgeois gentilhomme.” Lully played the role of the Grand Mufti, and Moliere the middle-class upstart with upper-class aspirations. Think of Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy in powdered wigs, and you get the idea.

A Diamond premiere

Oct 13, 2019 00:02:00


Today we have a “Tale of THREE Cities” to tell: Boston, Minneapolis, and Seattle — and the coast-to-coast saga of a symphony by the American composer David Diamond. On today’s date in 1944, Diamond’s Second Symphony was given its first performance by the Boston Symphony, with the legendary Russian-born Serge Koussevitzky conducting. Now, Koussevitzky was a famous patron of new music, and in the 1930s and ‘40s, the Boston Symphony premiered many new works, but in this case, Diamond’s symphony was originally written for Minneapolis. The famous Greek-born conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, admired Diamond’s music and had intended to premiere the new work with his orchestra, the Minneapolis Symphony. Mitropoulos had even personally paid for the preparation of the symphony’s orchestral parts. But when it seemed the premiere would have to be postponed, Mitropolous suggested Diamond offer the first performance to Koussevitzky in Boston, who gave the work’s premiere to great acclaim. In 1990, after decades of relative neglect, Diamond’s Symphony came to Seattle. To celebrate the composer’s 75th birthday, a new compact disc recording of Diamond’s Second symphony was made by the Seattle Symphony and its conductor, Gerard Schwarz. The disc sparked renewed interest in Diamond’s work. In 1995, in recognition of his lifetime achievements, Diamond received the National Medal of Arts from then-President Bill Clinton.

Columbus Day music

Oct 12, 2019 00:02:00


Today’s date marks the original Columbus Day, honoring the Spanish explorer who for decades was unquestioningly described as the man who “discovered America.” In recent years Native American leaders have pointed out that indigenous peoples had been living on the continent for thousands of years, and Columbus didn’t “discover” anything — in fact, he didn’t even know where he was, which is why he called the people he found here “Indians.” Some historians now think that Viking explorers from Scandinavia arrived in America long before Columbus – and others suggest the Chinese arrived before those Europeans. Even so, it’s Columbus who has a national holiday (now always observed on the closest Monday in October), and concert music written to celebrate it. For example, there’s a “Columbus Suite” by Victor Herbert, originally commissioned for the 1893 Chicago World Fair to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Columbus voyage, but not actually premiered until 1903. A much more recent “Columbus-inspired” work, and much more elegiac in tone, is by the Native American composer James DeMars. It’s titled: “Premonitions of Christopher Columbus” and is scored for Native American flute, African drum, and chamber orchestra. In this work, DeMars blends sounds of the various ethnic traditions that would come to make up modern America.

Concertos by Nielsen and Adams

Oct 11, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1928, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen conducted the first public performance of his new Clarinet Concerto in Copenhagen. “The clarinet,” said Nielsen, “can, at one and the same time seem utterly hysterical, gentle as balsam, or as screechy as a streetcar on badly greased rails.” Nielsen set himself the task of covering that whole range of the instrument’s conflicting emotions and colors. He wrote it for a Danish clarinetist he admired named Aage Oxenvad, who played both the public premiere on today’s date and a private reading a few weeks earlier. After the private performance Oxenvad is supposed to have muttered: “Nielsen must be able to play the clarinet himself — otherwise he would hardly have been able to find all the instrument’s WORST notes.” The concerto’s wild mood-swings puzzled audiences in 1928, but today it’s regarded as one of Nielsen’s most original works. In October of 1996, another Clarinet Concerto received its premiere when American composer John Adams conducted the first performance of his work entitled “Gnarly Buttons” with soloist Michael Collins. This concerto contains a bittersweet tribute to Adams’ father, a clarinetist who fell victim to Alzheimer’s disease. In Adams’ concerto the swing tunes slide into dementia, but the concerto ends with a kind of benediction.

Berio's "Sinfonia" in New York

Oct 10, 2019 00:02:00


In James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” the thoughts of its major characters keep shifting from the sights and sounds they encounter in and around Dublin to their private, non-stop interior monologues. This narrative technique came to be called “stream of consciousness” writing. In music, something similar occurred on today’s date in 1968, when the Italian composer Luciano Berio conducted the Swingle Singers and the New York Philharmonic in the premiere performance of his new work entitled “Sinfonia.” “Sinfonia” included music quotes from Bach to Mahler intermingled with sung and spoken texts ranging from Claude Levi-Strauss to Samuel Beckett. There’s even a bit of Joyce’s “Ulysses” tossed in as well, alongside slogans from the student protests of 1968. The text of Sinfonia’s second movement was a tribute to the recently-assassinated Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King – and consisted of nothing but the intoned syllables of his name. “Sinfonia” was Berio’s “stream of consciousness” interior monologue on the year 1968 made public with great theatrical flair: a dizzying mix of poignant music and political text. Berio was quoted as saying, “The juxtaposition of contrasting elements, in fact, is part of the whole point.” Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, “Sinfonia” turned out to be a hit, and Columbia Records even released a recording of the work with its premiere performers.

A birthday Beatle

Oct 9, 2019 00:02:00


John Lennon was born on today’s date in the year 1940, in Liverpool, England — during a German air raid on that city, as it happened. With three other young lads from Liverpool, Lennon would eventually become world-famous, courtesy of the band he helped formed in 1959 called the Beatles. The Beatles started out in a Liverpool nightclub called the Cavern, playing pop tunes of the day, but soon began performing original material of their own. Before disbanding in 1970, some recognizable elements of classical music were incorporated into some Beatles songs, including a string quartet, a Baroque trumpet, and even an orchestra. And it wasn’t just a one-sided exchange: Leonard Bernstein played a Beatles song on one of his “Young People’s Concerts” to demonstrate sonata form. Arthur Fiedler performed symphonic arrangements of Beatles tunes at his Boston Pops concerts. And decades after the Beatles disbanded, former member Paul McCartney began composing original chamber works and big concert hall pieces, including a semi-autobiographical “Liverpool Oratorio.” Not surprisingly, some young British and American composers coming of age in the 1960s and 70s credit the Beatles as an influence. One elegant set of solo guitar arrangements of Lennon-McCartney tunes even came from Japan, courtesy of the eminent Japanese composer (and Beatles fan) Toru Takemitsu.

Sharon Isbin and John Corigliano

Oct 8, 2019 00:02:00


1991 was a big year for American composer John Corigliano. The Metropolitan Opera premiered his opera “The Ghosts of Versailles” and the 53-year old composer won two Grammys and the Grawemeyer Award for his Symphony No. 1. Corigliano was increasingly recognized as one of the leading American composers of his generation, and was deluged with commissions for new works. But about 10 years before all that, guitarist Sharon Isbin had asked Corigliano to write a concerto for her, and kept on asking him. On today’s date in 1993, her persistence paid off when, with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and conductor Hugh Wolff, she gave the premiere performance of Corigliano’s “Troubadours — Variations for Guitar and Orchestra.” This piece was inspired by the courtly love tradition of the medieval troubadours, whose songs combined sophisticated word play with simple but elegantly communicative melodies. “For composers the idea of true simplicity — in contrast to chic simple-mindedness — is mistrusted and scorned,” wrote Corigliano. “But the guitar has a natural innocence about it… So the idea of a guitar concerto was, for me, like a nostalgic return to all the feelings I had when I started composing — before the commissions and deadlines and reviews. A time when discovery and optimistic enthusiasm ruled my senses… Troubadours is a lyrical concerto.”

Music and politics with Rimsky-Korsakov and John Adams

Oct 7, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date* in 1909, “The Golden Cockerel,” the last opera of the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, had its premiere in Moscow. Rimsky-Korsakov had died the previous year, after a bitter battle with government censors who objected to the opera’s thinly disguised satire against the bumbling administration of Czarist Russia. For the premiere, the censors won — the opera was performed with all the changes that Rimsky-Korsakov had so stubbornly resisted while alive. The original text was not restored until after the Russian revolution of 1917. Closer to our own time, in October of 1987, American composer John Adam’s “Nixon in China,” debuted at Houston Grand Opera. Alice Goodman’s libretto depicts the historic visit to Red China of President Nixon and then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Adams says he was completely indifferent to what the real-life personages in his opera might have thought of it. No government censors objected, in any case, but Adams said that Richard Nixon’s lawyer, Leonard Garment, did attend a performance of “Nixon in China,” and probably reported back to the former President. Nixon’s reaction is not known — nor that of Henry Kissinger. We’re happy to report, however, that according to John Adams, Leonard Garment DID subsequently became something of a fan of his music. COMPOSERS DATEBOOK is produced by APM, American Public Media, in conjunction with the American Composers Forum, reminding you that "all music was once new." *Julian calendar date September 24.

Brahms and Rzewski for amateurs

Oct 6, 2019 00:02:00


The first performance of the “Liebeslieder — or the “Love Song” Waltzes — for piano four-hands by Johannes Brahms took place on today’s date in 1869. The performers were two distinguished soloists: Clara Schumann, widow of composer Robert Schumann, and Hermann Levi, a famous conductor of his day. But in fact, the “Liebeslieder Waltzes” were intended for amateur musicians to play. These popular scores provided Brahms with some steady income, certainly more than he earned from performances of his symphonies, which some of his contemporaries considered difficult “new” music. Brahms wrote to his publisher: “I must admit that, for the first time, I grinned at the sight of a work of mine in print. Moreover, I gladly risk being called an ass if our ‘Liebeslieder’ don’t give more than a few people pleasure.” Some much more recent piano music designed for amateur performers was collected into a volume titled “Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book.” This volume was conceived by composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and the artistic director of Carnegie Hall, Judith Arron. They were concerned about the lack of contemporary piano works that intermediate-level piano students could perform, so commissioned ten composers to write suitable piano pieces from composers ranging from Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carte to Chen Yi and Tan Dun.

Timely Argento and Takemitsu

Oct 5, 2019 00:02:00


It was on this day in 1972 that “A Ring of Time” by American composer Dominick Argento was premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis. The work was commissioned to celebrate that orchestra’s 70th anniversary. “A Ring of Time” is subtitled “Preludes and Pageants for Orchestra and Bells,” and evokes the hours of the day, from dawn to midnight, and the seasons of the year. Though born in York, Pennsylvania, Argento was of Italian heritage, and after spending a year studying in Italy, returned there often to reflect and compose. Argento said: “On one level the title of ‘A Ring of Time’ refers to the predominant role assigned to bells... those aural signals of time’s passing. But it should also be mentioned the work was wholly composed in Florence where the hourly ringing of church bells is inescapable.” Bells figured prominently in another 20th-century work by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu entitled “From Me Flows What You Call Time,” which was premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1990, in New York City, as a commission to celebrate the centennial of Carnegie Hall. Again, bells play a significant role, and Takemitsu directs that at the end of his piece, a series of small bells be rung gently from the balcony above and around the audience.

How to win friends and influence Shostakovich

Oct 4, 2019 00:02:00


In 1939, Dale Carnegie published a self-help book entitled How to Win Friends and Influence People, suggesting you could change people's behavior to you by changing YOUR behavior toward them. We’re not sure if Carnegie’s book was ever translated into Russian, but we’d like to cite the case of the famous Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich as an example of one way to influence a particular composer. In Rostropovich’s day, the greatest living Soviet composers were Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. In 1949 Prokofiev wrote a Cello Sonata for the 22-year old Rostropovich, and also dedicated his 1952 Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra to him. Not surprisingly, Rostropovich hoped Shostakovich might write something for him, too, and so asked that composer’s wife, Nina, how to ask him. She replied the best way was NEVER to mention the idea in the presence of her husband. She knew Shostakovich was following the cellist’s career with interest, and if the idea of writing something for Rostropovich was his own, rather than somebody else’s, it stood a better chance of becoming reality. Rostropovich followed her advice, and — surprise surprise — on today’s date in 1959, gave the premiere performance with the Leningrad Philharmonic of a brand-new cello concerto specially-written for him by Dimtri Shostakovich.

Ceremonial Beethoven and Schuman

Oct 3, 2019 00:02:00


If you had arrived early for the gala reopening celebration of Vienna’s Josephstadt Theater on today’s date in 1822, you might have heard the theater orchestra frantically rehearing a new overture by Beethoven. They had just received the score, and so at the last minute were getting their first look at the new piece they would perform that evening. Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House” Overture was a last-minute commission and interrupted Beethoven’s work on two bigger projects: his “Missa Solemnis” and the Ninth Symphony. This overture begins with a series of solemn chords, continues with a stately march, and closes with a fugue — a tribute to Handel, whose music was much on Beethoven’s mind at the time. One hundred forty-six years later to the day, another festive occasion was observed with new music, when, on October 3rd, 1968, the New York Philharmonic, as part of its 125th anniversary celebrations, premiered a new orchestral work by the American composer William Schuman. Leonard Bernstein conducted. Schuman’s piece was entitled “To Thee Old Cause,” and was scored for solo oboe and orchestra. Originally, Schumann planned an upbeat, celebratory work, but the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy changed all that and more somber music, dedicated to their memory, was the result.

Joan Tower's "Made in America"

Oct 2, 2019 00:02:00


These days the cost of commissioning a major American composer to write a major orchestral work requires … well, a MAJOR amount of money. Back in 2001, a group of smaller-budget symphonies around the country decided to pool their resources and commission the American composer Joan Tower to write a new orchestral piece for them. What would have been cost-prohibitive individually proved very do-able when they all chipped in, aided by foundation grant or two. 65 orchestras from all 50 states participated, with the idea being each of them would get first performing rights to Tower's new work. "When they asked me to do this," Tower said, "they called the project ‘Made in America,’ and that became the work’s title. [Since] it was going across the U.S., this word 'America' kept popping up in my brain. Also, the tune 'America the Beautiful' started to come in, and I thought, 'I really love this tune. It's a beautiful tune, and I think I'll start with this.” Joan Tower’s “Made in America” received its first performance by the Glen Falls Symphony Orchestra in New York State on today’s date in 2005, then premiered in each of the remaining 49 states over the next two years, ending up in Alaska with the Juneau Symphony in June of 2007.

Flagg-waving in Colonial Boston?

Oct 1, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1768, two regiments of British redcoats marched into colonial Boston accompanied by martial music provided by their regimental wind band. It was that city’s introduction to the exotic sound of massed oboes, bassoons, and French horns. One Bostonian who was very impressed by these new sounds was Josiah Flagg, an engraver by trade, and a boyhood friend of the famous Boston silversmith, Paul Revere. Before long, Flagg had formed his own musical ensemble, which he called “The First Band of Boston.” Flagg organized that city’s first concert series, presenting music by J.C. Bach, Stamitz, and other European composers. Occasionally, the First Band of Boston was augmented by musicians from the same British regiment whose entry into town had inspired Flagg’s own musical ambitions. In October of 1773, Flagg presented a gala concert at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, which proved to be his last. He included music from Britain — excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah” — but closed with the “Song of Liberty,” the marching hymn of Boston’s patriots. We rather suspect the British troops did not participate in THAT concert. Soon after, Flagg moved to Providence, where he served as a colonel in the Rhode Island regiment during the American Revolution, and disappeared from our early musical history.

The Twilight Zone

Sep 30, 2019 00:02:00


“This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality: you're on a through-route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable... Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you're entering the wondrous dimension of imagination…” Next stop The DATEBOOK Zone. OK, all kidding aside, but “submitted for your approval” as Rod Serling used to say, this is the COMPOSERS DATEBOOK for September 30th. I’m John Birge. On today’s date in 1960, the first episode of the second season of “The Twilight Zone,” — the legendary sci-fi/fantasy TV series created by Mr. Serling — aired on CBS. For this season, the producers added a new signature theme written by Marius Constant, a Romanian-born French composer who had studied composition in Paris with Olivier Messiaen, Arthur Honegger, and Nadia Boulanger. Constant had a very respectable career as a “serious” composer, but today he’s best known for his brief but iconic “Twilight Zone” theme. During its five-season run, that show also employed the talents of some famous HOLLYWOOD composers, including Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Rosenman, Fred Steiner, and Franz Waxman. And just in case you’re wondering who wrote the opening theme for the FIRST season of “The Twilight Zone” when the show debuted in 1959, well, that was yet another famous Hollywood composer by the name of Bernard Herrmann.

Holst (and Colin Matthews) in outer space

Sep 29, 2019 00:02:00


One of the most popular works of 20th-century orchestral music, “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, had its first performance on today’s date in 1918. This was at a private concert at Queen’s Hall, London, under the baton of Adrian Boult, who later became one of the most famous interpreters of this work. The first public performance of excerpts from “The Planets” took place in February of 1919, after which it quickly became Holst’s best-known composition. The great success of “The Planets” actually dismayed Holst, who feared it would create a demand for more orchestral works in the same vein, and Holst always liked to do something new and different. He never considered “The Planets” anywhere near his best work, but posterity disagrees. Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite is based on the symbolic astrological associations of the planets. Only seven planets are represented because Pluto had yet to be discovered when the music was written. This omission has recently been rectified by a contemporary English composer, Colin Matthews. At the request of conductor Kent Nagano, Matthews composed a “Pluto” movement, which had its premiere performance in England in May of the year 2000. Matthew’s new piece has also been recorded, as you might expect, as an occasional eighth planetary appendix to new recordings of Holst’s original seven.

Bielawa's "Chance Encounter"

Sep 28, 2019 00:02:00


It happens to all of us: you’re in some public space and overhear someone say something that strikes you as memorable, oddly poetical, or perhaps even moving. The American composer Lisa Bielawa and soprano Susan Narucki started collecting such overheard phrases, and created a musical work incorporating them. Commenting on the phrases, Bielawa says, "I noticed … people often say things … that help locate themselves in space and time : 'Last time I ate here by myself’ or 'Remember – it was snowing horribly? And she was holding the dog?'” Or nostalgic phrases like “We used to have a house here, but then my father lost his job. I never go there now.” The resulting composition for soprano and 12 instrumentalists, entitled “Chance Encounter,” was designed to be performed in a public spaces as well, with the performers arriving and leaving at different times and from different directions, taking up positions scattered around the site, with the soprano singing the overheard phrases as she strolls among them. This unusual work received its premiere performance at Seward Park in New York City on today’s date in 2008. Since then, “Chance Encounter” has been performed in Rome on a walkway along the banks of the Tiber River, and in other public spaces in places ranging from Venice to Vancouver.

In Memoriam: Schubert and Oldham

Sep 27, 2019 00:02:00


On this date in 1828, Franz Schubert attended a party at the Vienna home of one of his admirers and played some of his new piano sonata in B-flat, which he had completed only the previous day. That same month, Schubert composed one of his greatest works, the String Quintet in C Major. Tragically, in less than two months, Schubert would be dead, an apparent victim of tertiary syphilis, the most dreaded sexually-transmitted disease of Schubert’s day. In our time, antibiotics can treat this once fatal disease, but in the early 1980s, its place was taken by the AIDS epidemic, which, before effective treatments were discovered, shortened the lives of many contemporary artists. One of these was the American composer Kevin Oldham, born in 1960 in Kansas City. His piano concerto was premiered to critical acclaim and a standing ovation by the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Bill McLaughlin in 1993. At that time, Oldham was seriously ill in a New York hospital and weighed only 135 pounds. Nevertheless he checked himself out, flew to his home town to solo in his concerto, then returned to the hospital the following day. He died six weeks later at age 32. When Schubert died, he was only 31.

Weill's "September Song"

Sep 26, 2019 00:02:00


The haunting melody “September Song” by Kurt Weill was first heard by the public on today’s date in the year 1938, , during a trial run in Hartford, Connecticut, of a new musical titled “Knickerbocker Holiday.” Kurt Weill was 38 at the time and had been in America just three years. In Europe, he had been a successful composer of both concert and stage works, most notably the enormously popular “Three-Penny Opera” from 1928, a collaboration with the Marxist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. He had left his native Germany after being warned that he was under danger of imminent arrest by the Gestapo. In America, Weill set out to establish himself on Broadway, but to remain faithful to the philosophical thrust of his European work. The text for his “Knickerbocker Holiday,” for example, was by Maxwell Anderson, inspired by Washington Irving’s fanciful “Father Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” But in the Anderson-Weill treatment, the historical Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant comes off as a proto-Fascist dictator, a comic but pointed reference in the year 1938, when both Hitler and Mussolini were at the height of their power. Until his untimely death in 1950, for his Broadway musicals Weill continued to set serious subjects — ranging from psychoanalysis to South African apartheid — in a distinctive yet accessible style.

Shostakovich's 60th

Sep 25, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1966, the 60th birthday of composer Dimitri Shostakovich was celebrated at the Moscow Conservatory with a gala orchestral concert of his music. Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich gave the premiere performance of Shostakovich’s brand-new Second Cello Concerto, and the composer’s son, Maxim, conducted his father’s youthful Symphony No. 1 from 1926. On the morning of the concert, it was announced that, for his outstanding services in the development of Soviet musical culture, the Central Committee had awarded Shostakovich the title “Hero of Socialist Labor,” along with the Order of Lenin and the gold medal “Hammer and Sickle.” Ironically, earlier that year, Shostakovich had composed a self-deprecating parody piece for voice and piano titled “Preface to the Complete Edition of My Works and a Brief Reflection apropos of This Preface,” whose text included a deadpan recitation of just a small portion of the many honorific titles he had received and the imposing but meaningless official posts with which he had been honored — and now, he found, he had been awarded several more to boot! All that must have seemed grimly comic to Shostakovich, who, some 30th years earlier, had written an opera which had so offended Joseph Stalin that the composer had come perilously close to disappearing without a trace into the Soviet prison system.

Bach and Hoover "double their pleasure, double their fun"

Sep 24, 2019 00:02:00


In the age of the Baroque, Double Concertos were quite common: there were concertos written for two flutes, two trumpets, or, like the famous concerto by J.S. Bach, for two violins. These Double Concertos represented a civilized give-and-take between the two soloists, a sense of balance or decorum perhaps typical of 18th century society in general. In the 19th century, however, the concept of the solitary artist as hero — or rebel — helped make the virtuosic solo concerto much more typical of the Romantic age. In our time, the Double Concerto occasionally makes a civilized comeback, and, on today’s date in 1989, one for two violins was premiered in Pittsburgh, Kansas. It’s by the American composer Katherine Hoover, who offered this explanation: “When two violinists get together to perform with an orchestra, its usually a friendly celebration, a chance for colleagues who value each other’s talents and skills to enjoy making music together… So I began to think: If I were one of the players, I would want the piece to be grateful and warm, with lyricism and a sense of playfulness. This is what I have attempted to write.” Katherine Hoover’s 1989 Double Concerto was commissioned and premiered by the Southeastern Kansas Orchestra.

A Mass in Time of Terror?

Sep 23, 2019 00:02:00


If you were a member of the European nobility, the summer of 1798 was a scary time. That revolutionary wild man Napoleon Bonaparte had crushed your armies on land and now word had it his fleet had escaped a British blockade. The possibility that Napoleon would control both land and sea struck terror in many a nobleman’s breast. During this anxious time Prince Nicholas Esterhazy the Second’s favorite composer Joseph Haydn composed a Latin mass titled “Missa in angustiis” or “Mass in Time of Fear.” It opens in the key of d minor, the key employed by Mozart for the spookiest scenes in “Don Giovanni,” an opera that had made a big impression on Haydn at its premiere in Vienna ten years earlier. As Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon puts it, in ‘Don Giovanni,’ 18th century listeners were presented with "the presence of real fear — nay terror.” So, when word reached the rattled princes of Europe that the British Admiral Nelson had destroyed the French fleet, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief, and, coincidentally, Haydn ends his Mass in the more optimistic key of D Major. First performed on today’s date in 1798, Haydn’s work soon came to be known as the “Lord Nelson Mass,” and in Robbins Landon’s view stands as “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition.”

Higdon welcomes Autumn

Sep 22, 2019 00:02:00


As the season begins, we offer you this “Autumn Music” — a woodwind quintet by American composer Jennifer Higdon. Higdon says she wanted to write a companion piece to another famous woodwind quintet titled “Summer Music” by Samuel Barber. Higdon’s “Autumn Music” was commissioned by Pi Kappa Lambda, the national music honorary society, and premiered at their 1994 national convention in Pittsburgh. “Autumn Music,” says Higdon, “is a sonic picture of the season of brilliant colors. The music of the first part represents the explosion of leaves and the crispness of the air of fall. As the music progresses, it becomes more spare and introspective, moving into a more melancholy and resigned feeling.” Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn in 1962, and teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her chamber and orchestral pieces have been performed by ensembles coast to coast. She’s also active as a performer and, as she explains, as an enthusiastic member of the audience: “I love exploring new works — my own pieces and the music of others —in a general audience setting, just to feel a communal reaction to new sounds. Music speaks to all age levels and all kinds of experiences in our lives. I think it can express anything and everything.”

Of froth and Friml

Sep 21, 2019 00:02:00


Today’s date marks the premiere in New York City, in 1925, of a classic operetta “The Vagabond King” by Rudolf Friml, the source of many once-popular sentimental tunes, including “Love Me Tonight,” and “Only a Rose.” Friml was born in Prague in 1879, and he studied composition there with no less a master than Antonin Dvorak. He started his career as a piano accompanist to the famous Czech violinist Jan Kubelik, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1906. In 1907, he appeared as a soloist in his own First Piano Concerto with the New York Symphony, and decided to make America his home. Friml wrote two piano concertos, a symphony, solo piano pieces—and three film scores for Hollywood. But he’s remembered today chiefly for 24 stage works, beginning in 1912 with “The Firefire,” his first big musical success, and continuing with many others, including the 1924 operetta “Rose Marie” — which in 1936 was made into a successful film starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Their rendition of Friml’s “Indian Love Call” has become a campy cult classic. Even Friml was occasionally embarrassed by the success of some of his flufflier pop works, and would publish some of these under the pseudonym of Roderick Freeman. He died in Los Angeles in 1972, aged 92.

Sibelius passes

Sep 20, 2019 00:02:00


Today’s date commemorates the death, in 1957, of the most famous Finnish composer of modern times, Jean Sibelius. Born in 1865, Sibelius studied at the University of Helsinki, developed a strong sense of nationalism in the 1890s, and achieved world fame in the first years of the 20th century. He wrote little after the First World War, however, and lived his last 30 years in almost complete seclusion. Even so, he was one of the most popular composers of his time. In 1938, a recording of his tone-poem “Finlandia” was selected as one of only three pieces of music to be deposited along with other artifacts of modern civilization in an indestructible time capsule buried on the site of the New York World’s Fair. By 1957, the enormous acclaim that Sibelius enjoyed during his lifetime had faded somewhat, but these days his reputation seems on the rise once again, as does the influence of Finnish music in general. A remarkable number of talented composers are thriving in that tiny nation today, and operas, orchestral works, and chamber pieces by contemporary Finnish composers like Aulis Sallinen, Einojuhanni Rautavaara, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho are increasingly finding worldwide audiences. Sibelius would have been very pleased.

On the Transmigration of Souls

Sep 19, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 2002, just a little over one year after two passenger jetliners had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere performance of a new work by the American composer John Adams. Entitled “On the Transmigration of Souls,” this high-profile commission sought to address a nation still in shock and grief at the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. "I realized right up front that the public didn't need any more reiteration of the narrative of that day,” Adams said in an interview. “Certainly it didn't need some tasteless dramatization of the events… If I was going to do something meaningful, I was going to have to go in the opposite direction." Adams chose to set some of the words scribbled on posters plastered around Ground Zero by families searching for their loved ones. "They were a mixture of hope and a slowly dimming acceptance of reality," Adams said. “When people are deeply in shock… they don't express themselves in fancy language… they speak in the most simple of terms." Adams said he hoped his new piece would provide "memory space,” a musical work that could be at once a platform for either communal or personal reflection.

Prokofiev and Leifs agree: "There's no place like home!"

Sep 18, 2019 00:02:00


On this day in 1918, Russian composer Serge Prokofiev arrived in America to give a recital of his piano works in New York. He told interviewers that despite the revolution in his homeland and widespread conditions of famine, Russian musicians continued to work. Prokofiev himself, however, stayed away from his homeland for years. His opera “The Love for Three Oranges” and his Third Piano Concerto received their premieres in Chicago in 1921. From 1922 to 1932, Prokofiev lived mainly in Paris before eventually returning home for good. Another temporary expatriate composer, Jón Leifs of Iceland, also has an anniversary today, when in 1950, his “Saga-Symphony” was performed for the first time in Helsinki. Leifs was born in Iceland in 1899 and died there in 1968. He studied in Leipzig, where, in his words, he (quote) “began searching whether, like other countries, Iceland had some material that could be used as a starting-point for new music… some spark that could light the fire.” Leif’s years in Germany coincided with the rise of the Nazis, who at first found him a sympathetic Nordic composer. When Leifs married a Jewish woman, however, he soon fell out of favor and eventually fled to Sweden with his family. After the war he returned home and today is honored as Iceland’s first great composer.

Cowell in Tehran

Sep 17, 2019 00:02:00


Teheran might seem an unlikely venue for the premiere of an American chamber work, but on today’s date in 1957, Henry Cowell’s “Persian Set,” had its first performance in the Iranian capital. Cowell once said: “I want to live in the whole world of music,” and from the 1930s on, Cowell practiced what he preached: He was one of the first to advocate that what we now call “world music” should be integrated into American concert life. In 1956, a major grant allowed Cowell to embark on a world tour to introduce American music abroad to study other musical traditions. Cowell spent the winter of 1956 in Iran, and early the following year completed his “Persian Set.” “Of course, I made no attempt to shed my years of Western symphonic experience,” Cowell said, “nor did I used actual Iranian melodies or rhythms. Instead, I tried to develop some of the musical behavior that the two cultures had in common.” Cowell was born in California in 1897, and died in New York in 1965. He was active as a teacher and music publisher and wrote 900 pieces of very original music — most of it still unfamiliar to American audiences.

Duke Ellington plays Grace Cathedral

Sep 16, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1965, this notice appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle: “Opening Today: Sacred Concert — Duke Ellington with a company of 75, including musicians, singers and dancers, at 8 p.m., Grace Cathedral, Nob Hill.” Duke Ellington’s First “Sacred Concert” raised some eyebrows at the time. The Chronicle’s review the following day was titled “Duke Swings at Grace Cathedral,” and reported the performance (quote): “appeared to leave many of the audiences discomfited, nervous, or edgy, not completely willing to accept the idea that the wild sound of a sax should pierce the austere heights of the Episcopal cathedral’s nave. ‘It’s all very strange’a high churchman commented during intermission, ‘but oh, lordy, it’s fascinating!’ The point of the performance, according to Grace Cathedral’s dean, the very Reverend C. Julian Bartlett, was that any offering to God is sacred, whatever its form.” Ellington himself commented as follows: “It has been said once that a man who could not play the organ or any of the instruments of the symphony accompanied his worship by juggling. He was not the world’s best juggler, but it was the one he thing he did best, and so it was accepted by God. For my part, I regard this concert as the most important thing I have ever done.”

Henry Brant's Northern Lights

Sep 15, 2019 00:02:00


If you’ve ever witnessed a spectacular display of the Northern Lights, you’ll know the feeling: jaw-dropping wonder at the powerful forces unleashed in the vast spaces of the night sky. The American composer Henry Brant experienced something like that in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1982 during a visit, and later translated the experience into his “Northern Lights over the Twin Cities,” a work commissioned by Macalester College in St. Paul to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1985. Like most of Brant’s works, this piece employs several distinct groups of performers separated by space, a technique called “spatial” composition. For his Macalester Centenary commission, Brant utilized all the musical ensembles the College had to offer, including its chorus and orchestra, its wind, marching, and jazz bands, and even its bagpipe ensemble, all positioned at various points around the College’s cavernous Field House. Brant said his own “spatial” works were inspired by the antiphonal works of the Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli, the multiple brass ensembles in the “Requiem Mass” by the French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, but above all by “The Unanswered Question,” by the modern American composer Charles Ives. Brant was born on today’s date in 1913. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2002, and died at the age of 94, in 2008.

A ghost story by Henry James and Benjamin Britten

Sep 14, 2019 00:02:00


Do you enjoy a good ghost story? The American novelist Henry James did, but liked to give the ones he wrote an extra twist – another “turn of the screw” you might say. In fact, one of his classic ghost stories from 1898 is titled just that: “The Turn of the Screw.” In it, a young British governess is entrusted with the care of two orphaned children, who may – or may not – have been abused by their previous governess and her lover, both now dead, who may – or may not -- have returned as ghosts to continue their torment of the children. The manner in which Henry James tells the story leaves open the question whether the ghosts are real or just figments of the young governess’s lurid imagination. “The Turn of the Screw” has been adapted for both stage and screen, and, on today’s date in 1954, an operatic version by the British composer Benjamin Britten received its premiere performance at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Each of the 16 scenes in Britten’s chamber opera is preceded by a variation on a ghostly 12-note theme, a “tone row” in the style of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, and since we see and hear the ghosts on stage, it’s pretty clear Britten is suggesting the ghosts and the evil in the tale are disturbingly real.

Bernstein meets Wharton

Sep 13, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1993, the first gala preview screening of a new film, "The Age of Innocence," based on the novel by Edith Wharton, took place at the Ziegfield Theater in Manhattan, as a benefit for the New York Historical Society. That was only appropriate, since Wharton's historical novel describes upper-class New York society of the 1870s — an age, if the film is to be believed, so emotionally repressed that the unbuttoning of a woman's glove can be a breathtakingly sensual moment. The new film was directed by Martin Scorsese, famous for decidedly UN-repressed thrillers likes "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," and "Cape Fear" – and initially some thought Scorsese a poor choice to film Wharton's novel. The skeptics were proven wrong. Much of the success of the film can be attributed to its ravishing orchestral score by American composer Elmer Bernstein. "It was my personal tribute to the music of Johannes Brahms," said Bernstein, who also credited Scorsese for appreciating the importance of music in bringing a movie to life: Unlike most directors today, Scorsese brought in Bernstein before "Age of Innocence" was filmed – not after. "We started talking about the character of the music long before Scorsese ever shot a frame of film," recalls Bernstein, with admiration. Bernstein's "Age of Innocence" score was nominated for an Academy Award — the 12th time Bernstein had been so honored in his long and productive cinematic career.

Reisenberg and Mozart

Sep 12, 2019 00:02:00


During her lifetime, pianist Nadia Reisenberg was regarded as one of this country’s finest concert artists. She performed at Carnegie Hall 22 times, often with the New York Philharmonic. But she made history on today’s date in 1939 as she embarked on a series of concert performances encompassing of all 27 of the Mozart Piano Concertos. These were live radio broadcasts conducted by Alfred Wallenstein, originating at WOR in New York, relayed coast-to-coast via the Mutual Network and the CBC in Canada, and overseas via short wave. There were 29 broadcasts in all, one a week, starting on September 12, 1939 and ending on March 26, 1940. Mozart’s 27 piano concerts were first published in 1850, almost 60 years after the composer’s death, but before Reisenberg’s broadcasts, no one had performed ALL of them in such a series. The French composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saens played 9 Mozart concertos in Paris in 1864/1865, and 11 during a series in London in 1910, but Reisenberg was the first to perform all 27 in one concert sequence, since even Mozart himself never played them all in just one season. Amazingly, live aircheck recordings of most of these historic radio broadcasts have survived and are now part of the Nadia Reisenberg Collection in the International Piano Archives at Maryland.

Hanslick and Thomson, critics at large

Sep 11, 2019 00:02:00


Today we take the unusual step of honoring that frequent bane of composers, the music critic. Specifically, Eduard Hanslick, born on this date in Prague, in 1825. He’s remembered today as the arch-conservative 19th century critic who once said an uncut performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” would be, quote, “a kind of murder committed upon singers and listeners alike.” Wagner had his revenge in “Die Meistersinger,” where the Philistine critic Beckmesser is a thinly-disguised parody of Hanslick. Reviewing “Die Meistersinger,” Hanslick wrote that in that opera’s Overture “all the opera’s themes are dumped consecutively into a chromatic flood and finally tossed about in a kind of tonal typhoon.” A famous and equally quotable 20th century music critic was the late Virgil Thomson, who once defined a music critic as a person “who seldom kisses, but always tells.” In his years as chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, his barbs were often as sharp as Hanslick’s. He called Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” “fake folklore,” with “fidgety accompaniments.” Like all music critics, Virgil Thomson called some right — and others wrong. Unlike most critics, though, Thomson was a composer himself — so, in addition to his witty reviews, there’s his genial music to enjoy as well, such as this brass suite titled “Family Portrait.”

Berlioz and the Parisian prudes

Sep 10, 2019 00:02:00


We tend to think of Paris as the most sophisticated and worldly of European capitals – a city whose residents are unlikely to be shocked by anything they see or hear. Ah, but that’s not always the case, as poor Hector Berlioz discovered on today’s date in 1838, when his new opera “Benvenuto Cellini” premiered at the Paris Opéra. One line in the libretto about the cocks crowing at dawn was considered, as Berlioz put it, “belonging to a vocabulary inconsistent with our present prudishness” and provoked shocked disapproval. And that was just the start of a controversy that raged over both the morality and the music of this new opera. Following the dismal opening night, Berlioz wrote to his father: “It’s impossible to describe all the underhanded maneuvers, intrigues, conspiracies, disputes, battles, and insults my work has given rise to… The French have a positive mania for arguing about music without having the first idea – or even any feeling – about it!” From the fiasco of the opera’s premiere, however, Berlioz did retrieve some measure of success. His famous contemporaries Paganini and Liszt both admired the work — and said so — and one flashy orchestral interlude from “Benvenuto Cellini” did prove a lasting success when Berlioz recast it as a concert work: his “Roman Carnival Overture.”

Edward Burlingame Hill

Sep 9, 2019 00:02:00


Today is the birthday anniversary of the American composer and teacher Edward Burlingame Hill, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872. Hill studied at Harvard, which was not surprising, since his grandfather had been President of the college, and his father taught chemistry there. “My father sang the songs of Schubert,” recalled Hill, “and was a great admirer of Bach. Thus at an early age I was imbued with a deep love for serious music.” Hill studied with the 19th century American composer John Kowles Paine, who had established at Harvard the first music department in any American university. After Hill took all of Paine’s courses, he went on to study in Paris with Charles Widor. Hill’s early works were in the French style, and you might say that he “wrote the book on the subject” — literally. In 1924, Hill published a study titled “French Music” and was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his efforts. During his lifetime, major American orchestras performed Hill’s music, but today, if he’s remembered at all, it’s as a teacher at Harvard. Toward the end of tenure, one his students was Leonard Bernstein, who, in 1953, made a recording of his teacher’s “Prelude for Orchestra.” Hill died in New Hampshire in 1960, at the age of 88.

Bernstein's "Mass"

Sep 8, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1971, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was inaugurated with a gala performance of a new work by Leonard Bernstein. Entitled “Mass,” this was a musical and visual extravaganza which reinterpreted the text of the Latin liturgy and involved more than 200 singers, dancers, and instrumentalists. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had asked Bernstein to write a piece to open the new Center but was conspicuous by her absence. President Richard Nixon also chose to stay away, rightly fearing that Bernstein’s “Mass” would be interpreted as an embarrassing protest against the war in Vietnam. The Washington Post’s front-page review, titled “A Reaffirmation of Faith,” was glowing in its praise, but Time magazine’s assessment was condescending, quoting some New York wits who dubbed it the “Mitzvah Solemnis.” The New York Times review was brutal, calling Bernstein’s Mass “a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness . . . [and] the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce.” But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, when she finally did hear Bernstein’s work, sent the composer an inscribed photograph which read: “Lenny – I loved it, yes, I did, and I love you, too. Thank you for making ‘Mass’ so beautiful.”

Hymnus Paradisi by Herbert Howells

Sep 7, 2019 00:02:00


“The Three Choirs Festival” is one of England’s oldest musical traditions. Established around 1715, it showcases the cathedral choirs of Gloucester, Worcester, and Herford, and presents both choral and orchestral works by British composers Vaughan Williams' “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” was premiered there in 1910, and in the audience was an 18-year-old aspiring composer named Herbert Howells, who later would relate how Vaughan Williams had sat next to him for the remainder of the concert and shared his score of Elgar's “The Dream of Gerontius” with him. Howells studied music at Gloucester Cathedral before heading off to London and the Royal College of Music. He also got married and had two children. In 1935, his 9-year-old son Michael contracted polio and died three days later. The grief-stricken Howells began composing a memorial work as private therapy, choral sketches he considered too painful to complete and too personal to have performed. But in 1950 Howells was asked for a new work to be premiered at Three Choirs Festival, and, at the urging of Vaughan Williams and others who had seen Howell’s private sketches, Howells completed a work he titled “Hymnus Paradisi,” and led the premiere himself on September 7, 1950, one day after the 15th anniversary of his son's death.

Henry Kimball Hadley

Sep 6, 2019 00:02:00


Works by Henry Kimball Hadley rarely shows up on concert programs anymore, but in the early years of the 20th century, he ranked as a major and very popular American composer. In 1910, Gustav Mahler, during his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, conducted Hadley’s tone poem “The Culprit Fay,” and in 1920, Hadley’s opera “Cleopatra’s Night” was staged at the Metropolitan Opera. But by the time of his death on today’s date in 1937, Hadley’s full-blown, late-Romantic style was falling out of fashion in the modernist age of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In other aspects of his musical career, however Hadley was quite avant-garde and forward-looking: In 1921 he became associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic -- the first American-born conductor to hold a full-time post with any major American orchestra. In 1926, he was invited by Warner Brothers to conduct the Philharmonic at the New York premiere of their silent film “Don Juan,” starting the legendary actor John Barrymore, and the following year wrote an original score for a second Barrymore silent feature entitled “When A Man Loves.” Hadley is also credited with making the first symphonic “video,” a 10-minute Vitaphone film of Hadley conducting Wagner’s “Tannhauser” Overture that was shown in movie theaters back then and you can still see today via YouTube!

Amy Cheney and Mrs. Beach

Sep 5, 2019 00:02:00


Amy Marcy Cheney Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire, on today’s date in 1867. Amy Beach — or, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, as she was also called — was one of America’s first major women composers and a gifted concert pianist to boot We probably have Mr. Beach to thank for Amy’s decision to devote herself more to composition than performance. In the spring of 1885, at the age of 18, Amy debuted as a soloist with the Boston Symphony, and it seemed a major concert career was in the offing. But later that same year, she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent New England physician. In respect to his wishes and the custom of the day for women in high society, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach curtailed her concert career and concentrated instead on writing music. Her first published work was a setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a long-time family friend. Only after her husband’s death in 1911, did Amy revive her career as a concert pianist with a concert tour throughout Germany, returning to America at the outbreak of World War I. In her later years, she acted as mentor to a whole new generation of American women pursuing careers in music. She died in New York in 1944.

Milhaud's "Symphonies"

Sep 4, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1892, Darius Milhaud was born in Aix-en-Provence. He was one of the most amiable — and prolific — of 20th century French composers, producing over 400 works, including a dozen symphonies. Milhaud spent many years in America teaching at Mills College in California, whose climate reminded him of his beloved Provence. Despite the rheumatoid arthritis that eventually confined him to a wheelchair, and the fact that he was forced to flee his native country when the Nazis arrived, Milhaud titled his 1973 autobiography: “My Happy Life.” In his autobiography, Milhaud says that after composing his Twelfth Symphony, his publisher, half in jest, asked him to please stop and that surely twelve symphonies were enough. “I did not stop writing symphonies,” Milhaud slyly noted, “but a minor incident prompted me to give them other titles.” That incident occurred after a concert with the Boston Symphony when Milhaud conducted some of his own music. He heard the grandmother of one of his students remark, “All that is very nice, but it is NOT music for Boston!” Amused, Milhaud composed a work he titled: “Music for Boston,” and soon embarked on a whole NEW series of symphonic works, referred to generically as the “Music For” series, which include “Music for” Indiana, New Orleans, Lisbon, and Prague.

Ives in San Francisco

Sep 3, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1931, a short notice appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, which began: “Music never before heard in San Francisco will make up the program of the New Music Society to be conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky of Boston tonight in the Community Playhouse.” In addition to new works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Slonimsky conducted pieces by three American composers, including the world premiere of “Washington’s Birthday,” by Charles Ives. Ives had written “Washington’s Birthday” in 1909, and the following year had talked some theater musicians into giving the work a run-through. “They made an awful fuss about playing it,” Ives recalled, “and only after some of the parts that seemed to me to be the best and strongest were cut.” About 10 years later, he asked some players of the New York Symphony to give the score a private reading at his home. Again, the musicians complained it was just too difficult. Slonimsky’s 1931 performance in San Francisco presented the score complete and as originally written. Ives, who lived on the East Coast, was not present for the San Francisco premiere, but was delighted to learn — as he put it: “Neither the audience nor the critics were disturbed to the point of cussing.

Haydn at Esterhazy

Sep 2, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1773, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa was visiting the country estate of Prince Nikolaus of Esterhazy. Among the attractions there were an opera house, a marionette theater, and the Prince’s impressive chamber orchestra led by Franz Joseph Haydn. It’s possible that Haydn’s Symphony No. 48 was performed for the Empress — in any case, this symphony came to be nicknamed the “Maria Theresa.” We do know that Haydn and his orchestra did perform for the Empress — and that they were all dressed up in Chinese costumes for one performance during her visit! Among other “duties as assigned,” Haydn shot three wild game hens that were cooked up for the Empress’s dinner. Ah, the life of a court musician in the 18th century! It’s also reported that Haydn told the Empress an amusing story from his childhood in Vienna. Apparently repair work was being done on St. Stephens Cathedral when Haydn was a boy soprano in the Cathedral Choir. The Empress was annoyed at the racket made by choirboys playing on the scaffolding and ordered that the next one caught playing up there would get a spanking. The following day Haydn climbed the scaffold, was caught, and received the promised punishment. Apparently they both got a good laugh out of recalling the story.

Pachelbel and his "Canon"

Sep 1, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 17th century Germany, a baby boy was christened who would grow up to be one of the leading composers and organists of his time. No, it wasn’t Johann Sebastian Bach — although the child we’re discussing here would become the teacher of the teacher of J.S. Bach and did serve as godfather to one J.S. Bach’s older relations. It was Johann Pachelbel who was baptized on today’s date in Nuremberg in the year 1653. A famous musician in his day, after his death in 1706, Pachelbel would be pretty much forgotten by most music lovers until late in the 20th century, when an orchestral arrangement of a little chamber piece that he had written would, as Pachelbel’s “Canon,” suddenly become an unexpected hit. In 1979, the American composer George Rochberg even included a set of variations on Pachelbel’s Canon as the 3rd movement of his own String Quartet No. 6. Like Bach, some of Pachelbel’s children also became composers, and one of them, Karl Teodorus Pachelbel, emigrated from Germany to the British colonies of North America. As “Charles Theodore Pachelbel,” he became an important figure in the musical life of early 18th century Boston and Charleston, where he died in 1750, the same year as J.S. Bach

Weill's "Three-penny Opera" in Berlin

Aug 31, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1928, Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera,” whose cast members portrayed thieves, murderers, and sex workers, debuted at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin. “The Three-Penny Opera” was a 20th century updating of a satirical 18th century British ballad-opera by John Gay, titled “The Beggar’s Opera.” A new German text was provided by playwright Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill provided a jazzy score. “The Three Penny Opera” was a smash success in Berlin, and within a year was taken up by theaters all over Europe. But in 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, all performances of “The Three Penny Opera” were banned, since Kurt Weill was Jewish, and Bertolt Brecht a communist sympathizer. Just as “The Three Penny Opera” was being banned in Germany, its 1933 American premiere in New York was a flop, and the show closed after only a dozen performances. It wasn’t until 1952 that it was successfully revived in America. With a new English translation by the American composer Marc Bliztstein, the “Three Penny Opera” was reintroduced by Leonard Bernstein at a Music Festival at Brandeis University, and in 1954 reopened off -roadway in Greenwich Village to sold-out houses and rave reviews.

Sousa gets stiffed in Minneapolis

Aug 30, 2019 00:02:00


It was on this day in 1929 that a new march by John Philip Sousa was played for the first time —ONCE— and then promptly forgotten until almost 60 years later. The “Foshay Tower Washington Memorial March” was commissioned by Wilbur Foshay, a high-flying Minneapolis businessman of the Roaring 20s who fell victim to the stock market crash and criminal charges of mail fraud. One of his extravagant projects was the Foshay Tower he built in downtown Minneapolis, a building shaped like the Washington Monument. The building still stands, with Foshay’s name carved in huge letters on all sides of the obelisk, now renovated as a historic site. In the lobby hangs Wilbur Foshay’s portrait, along with the score of Sousa’s march, which the March King himself conducted in Minneapolis on today’s date in 1929. Soon after Wilbur Foshay’s empire of public utilities, factories and banks crumbled to dust, and he was convicted of fraud, spending two years and eleven months in Leavenworth prison. Not surprisingly, John Philip Sousa never got paid for his commission. He considered giving it a new name: “The Washington Memorial March,” but then decided to withdraw the piece completely, and the music was not published or performed again until 1988.

John Cage at Woodstock

Aug 29, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1952, at the aptly named Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor premiered two new works by the American composer John Cage. The first, titled "Water Music," was scored for a "prepared piano" — a piano into whose metal strings various items had been inserted to alter its sound — plus a duck call and transistor radio. For the second work, Tudor simply closed the lid of the piano, set a stopwatch for the length of the work's four sections — 4 minutes and 33 seconds to be exact — and then sat quietly on the piano bench. The composition consisted of whatever sounds occurred in that amount of time at that particular moment in time, including any breathing, coughing or snickering from the audience. Some likened the piece to the all-white canvases of the avant-garde painter Robert Rauschenberg, on which accidental aspects of dust or bumps in the canvas created an arbitrary texture. Others thought it an outrageous affront at worst, or a bad joke at best. Whatever else one might think of it, as pianist David Tudor put it, "Cage's 4:33 is one of the most intense listening experiences one can have." Cage once said: "I'm interested in making sounds that I don't understand," and insisted that random, unplanned sounds were as welcome to his ears as those he organized himself, as in this Cage piece for prepared piano titled "Mysterious Adventure."

Liszt and Milhaud celebrate Goethe

Aug 28, 2019 00:02:00


Franz Liszt, the inventor of the "symphonic poem," wrote 13 of them. The second, "Tasso," had its first performance on today's date in 1849. The occasion was a festival celebrating the 100th birthday of the great German national poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the author of "Faust." The festival was in Weimar, Germany, the city where Goethe died and was buried in 1832. Liszt's "Tasso" was written to serve as the overture to Goethe's drama about the Italian poet "Torquato Tasso," and its premiere performance was conducted by its composer. The main theme of the work is said to be a tune Liszt claimed he heard sung by an Italian gondolier in Venice. One of the more surprising tributes to Goethe occurred not in Germany, but in scenic Aspen, Colorado, when the Aspen Music Festival was founded in Goethe's honor in 1949 — on the 200th anniversary of his birth. The Aspen Music Festival has grown over the years and today draws some 30,000 visitors annually. One of the original founders of the Festival was French composer Darius Milhaud, who taught at the Aspen Music School for many years. This music is from Milhaud's "Aspen Serenade," written in 1957. More recently, during conductor David Zinman years as the Festival's Music Director, many contemporary American composers, including John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour, Christopher Rouse, and Augusta Read Thomas, have had their works performed — and occasionally premiered — in Aspen.

Copland does Mexico (and Mexico does Copland)

Aug 27, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1937, in Mexico City, the Mexican composer and conductor Carlos Chavez conducted the first performance of this music by Aaron Copland. The music owes its existence to Copland's friendship with Chavez, which led to Copland visiting Mexico in 1932. Copland and Chavez paid a visit to a wild Mexico City Dance Hall called "El Salon Mexico." Quoting a guide-book description of the place in his memoirs, Copland noted its "Three halls: one for people dressed up, one for people dressed in overalls but shod, and one for the barefoot." A sign on a wall over the dance floor read: "Please don't throw lighted cigarette butts on the floor so the ladies don't burn their feet!" "In some inexplicable way," Copland recalled, "while milling about in those crowded halls, I felt a live contact with the Mexican people — their humanity, their shyness, their dignity and unique charm. I remember quite well that it was at such a moment I conceived the idea of composing a piece about Mexico and naming it 'El Salon Mexico.'" Five years later Chavez conducted Copland's music in Mexico City. Copland admits he was nervous about how Mexican audiences would react. He had little to fear — Chavez and the musicians loved it, and so did the local critics, who called it "as Mexican as the music of Revueltas," which at the time, says Copland, was like saying, "as American as the music of Gershwin."

Mendelssohn and Glass for chorus

Aug 26, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1846, Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah" was performed for the first time at a choral festival in Birmingham, England. Mendelssohn had visited England a number of times, and contemporary English audiences took both Mendelssohn and his music very much to heart. Mendelssohn himself conducted the Birmingham premiere of "Elijah," which was so well received that no fewer than eight numbers from the new work had to be encored. In fact, Mendelssohn's "Elijah" went on to become one of the best-loved and most-often performed choral works written in the 19th century. Like many of Handel's 18th century oratorios, the story of "Elijah" came from the first books of the Bible — texts sacred to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. In August of the year 1999, a new choral symphony was premiered at the Salzburg Music Festival in Austria, whose text was drawn from a number of the world's great sacred books, including the Book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible alongside texts from the Sanskrit "Rig Veda," the Arabic "Koran," and texts from the Persian, Asian, and African sacred traditions. This work was the Fifth Symphony of the American composer Philip Glass, commissioned and conceived as a millennium celebration for the Salzburg Festival. "Besides being a compendium of reflection on the process of global transformation and evolution," said Glass, "I hope that the work served as a strong and positive celebration of the millennium year."

Bach's Letter

Aug 25, 2019 00:02:00


You almost feel sorry for the guy – after all, how would YOU like to go down in history as the fellow who tried to stiff J.S. Bach? That’s what happened to Herr Johannes Friedrich Eitelwein, a rich merchant of Leipzig who thought he could avoid paying the customary wedding fee apportioned to that city’s church musicians by getting married OUTSIDE of the city limits. Back then such fees provided a significant portion of their income, and so on today’s date in 1733, Bach and two other church musicians sent a letter to the Leipzig City Council complaining that, whether married inside or outside of the city, as a Leipzig resident, and a wealthy one to boot, Eitelwein should pay up. Now in the 18th Century, such petitions required a delicate balance of formal flattery and firm persistence, so the letter begins: “Magnificent, most honorable gentlemen, our wise and learned councilors, distinguished Lords and Patrons: may it please you to condescend to hear how Herr Johannes Friedrich Eitelwein was married on the twelfth of August of the present year out of town, and therefore thinks himself entitled to withhold the fees due us in all such cases, and has made bold to disregard our many kind reminders.” Bach’s letter survives, but not any records letting us know if Eitelwein ever paid up!

Pomp and the MJQ

Aug 24, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1907, the "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 4 by Sir Edward Elgar had its premiere performance in London. Say "Pomp and Circumstance" to most people and they will start humming the tune of Number One, later set to words as "Land of Hope and Glory." That march accompanied many of us down the aisle at our high school or college graduations. In all, Elgar composed five "Pomp and Circumstance" marches, and meant to write a sixth, but just never got around to it. No. 1 is the most familiar, but No. 4 runs a close second, with another very noble, very British main tune. During World War II, Sir Alan Herbert fitted his "Song of Freedom" to this music and with its opening line of "All men must be free," it became an unofficial alternate British national anthem. Meanwhile on these shores, we note that one of America's classic chamber jazz ensembles was founded on today's date in 1951 in New York City , when the Modern Jazz Quartet was formed by pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Kenny Clarke. Under the direction of Lewis, the Quartet fused jazz improvisation with classical forms and Baroque counterpoint. Instead of playing in smoky bars, MJQ made a point of playing in concert halls and even wore tuxes, asking audiences to afford their chamber jazz the same attention and respect usually reserved for classical music.

Barney Google meets Igor Stravinsky?

Aug 23, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1944, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky completed an orchestral score he titled "Scenes de Ballet" or "Ballet Scenes." Now, considering Stravinsky had achieved international fame for his earlier ballet scores for "The Firebird," "Petroushka" and "The Rite of Spring," perhaps the generic title "Ballet Scenes" was not all that surprising. What was surprising was that the commission for this 1944 score came from an unusual source — Broadway. New York impresario and nightclub owner Billy Rose had achieved fame the previous year for his Broadway production of "Carmen Jones" — an updated American version of Bizet's opera "Carmen" with an all-black cast and a jazzed-up score. Rose decided to capitalize on this popular success with something more "upscale and highbrow." Rose conceived of a stage review titled "The Seven Lively Arts," and for the dance component decided to commission the most famous living composer of ballet scores, Igor Stravinsky, who was then living in Los Angeles. Rose liked the score when he heard it played on the piano, but he thought Stravinsky's orchestration a bit too far-out, and this led to a famous coast-to-coast telegraph exchange. After a preview performance in Philadelphia, Rose sent this telegram message to Stravinsky: "Great success, but could be sensational success if you would authorize Robert Russell Bennett to retouch orchestration." Stravinsky telegraphed this reply to Billy Rose: "Satisfied with great success."

A Silly Symphony Debut

Aug 22, 2019 00:02:00


We have a silly anniversary to note today – seriously! On today's date in 1929, Walt Disney released his first "Silly Symphonies" cartoon. Entitled "The Skeleton Dance," it depicted four skeletons dancing and making music in a graveyard, employing bizarre instruments, including an unfortunate cat played like a fiddle and the skeletons' own bones, played like a xylophone. While its release on Halloween might have been more appropriate, perhaps "The Skeleton Dance" provided some pleasurable spinal chills for moviegoers on a hot August evening back in 1929. In any case, this "Silly Symphony" was a huge success for Disney, became an instant classic, and was voted #18 in a 1994 poll of "The 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time" by professional animators. And speaking of classics, a bit of Edvard Grieg's spooky "March of the Trolls" was used to great effect in "The Skeleton Dance." But credit for its success should go first to Carl W. Stalling, a legendary composer and arranger of cartoon music and absolute master of unexpected segues, witty allusions, and surreal orchestration, and second, to pioneering Disney animator Ub Iwerks, likewise a master in his field. | Chuck Jones, an animator famous for his much later Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, had worked for Iwerks' studio in his youth, and put it this way: "Iwerks is Screwy spelled backwards."

1968 Proms

Aug 21, 2019 00:02:00


For over 120 years the late summer music festival known as the BBC Proms has been presenting memorable concerts in London, but one of the MOST memorable occurred on today’s date in 1968. The scheduled performers at the Royal Albert Hall were the USSR State Symphony, its conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, and the virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. As the musicians took to the stage, boos and cat-calls were mixed with the applause, and some shouts of “Go home!” and “Russians out!” The reason? Earlier that same day, the Soviet Union and its East Block allies had invaded Czechoslovakia, sending troops and tanks into the country to crush the so-called “Prague Spring,” a period of liberalization and reform that threatened Communist control of that nation. By a cruel stroke of irony, one of the works on the scheduled program of the Soviet orchestra was the Cello Concerto of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. There were some shouts of protests as Rostropovich began to play, but by the end of his intense performance, all was quiet. Rostropovich had played with tears streaming down his face, and after finishing held up the conductor’s score of the concerto as both a sign of solidary with the Czech nation and act of mute protest of the invasion.

A famous -- and a not-quite-as-famous -- overture

Aug 20, 2019 00:02:00


Two concert overtures —one very famous and one not so famous — had their premiere performances on today's date. In 1956, this music by British composer Sir Arthur Bliss provided a festive opening to that year's Edinburgh Festival of Music and Drama. The Edinburgh Festival Overture is a salute to Scotland's premiere arts festival, presented annually in late summer and early fall since 1947. Also premiered on today's date was Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," commissioned for an international Exhibition of Industry and the Arts in Moscow, and first played at an all-Tchaikovsky concert on today's date in 1882. As pleased as Tchaikovsky was that his music was to be presented at the Exhibition, he was definitely not enthusiastic about the commission. "There is nothing less to my liking," he wrote, "than composing for the sake of some festival. What, for instance, can you write on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition except banalities and generally noisy passages?" On top of all that, the commission called for something (quote) "with a hint of church music, which must certainly be Orthodox." Glumly, Tchaikovsky to work, writing to another friend: "I don't think it has any serious merits, and I shouldn't be at all surprised and offended if you find that it is in a style unsuitable for symphony concerts." Ah, Peter Ilyitch — you certainly got that one wrong!

Bernstein's air-conditioned urban jungle

Aug 19, 2019 00:02:00


If you were in Washington, D.C. on today's date in 1957, and wanted to escape the summer heat, tickets for a new musical at the air-conditioned National Theater would run you between $1.10 and $5.50 — and you could boast for years afterwards that you attended the world premiere performance of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." Actually, the three-week trial run of "West Side Story" at DC's National Theater was a hot ticket. The premiere attracted a fashionable crowd of Washington elite as well as those who trained or planed their way to the national's capitol to catch the latest work of America's musical "boy wonder" — the 38-year old Leonard Bernstein. Even so, The Washington Post reported Bernstein was able to wander the lobby at intermission largely unrecognized — to eavesdrop on audience reaction. One woman who did recognize him identified herself as a former social worker in a rough neighborhood like the one depicted in his musical. "It's all so real, so true," she told Bernstein. "It chills my blood to remember." Bernstein was a little taken aback. "It isn't meant to be realistic," he said. "Poetry — Poetry set to music — that's what we were trying to do." But gang violence as the subject for a musical was shocking to 1957 audiences. When the show opened on Broadway, the New York "Times" expressed its impact as follows: "Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable… 'West Side Story' is a profoundly moving show."

Salieri Slandered?

Aug 18, 2019 00:02:00


Today is the birthday of Antonio Salieri, one of the most unjustly maligned composers in history. The successful stage play and movie "Amadeus" have helped to repeat the notorious charge that the jealous 18th-century Italian composer Antonio Salieri was directly or indirectly responsible for Mozart's early death. Historians have acquitted Salieri of this crime, but more people are familiar with the fiction than the facts. The truth is that Salieri was often quite friendly to Mozart during his lifetime, and after Mozart's death served as a music teacher to Mozart's talented son, Franz Xaver Mozart. The long-lived Salieri also gave lessons in the Italian style to Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt —surely signs of a nature more generous than jealous. Salieri was born in Legnano, Italy in 1750. He came in Vienna in 1766, when he was 16 years old, and Vienna remained his home until the end of his life. A protégé of the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II, Salieri even accompanied that very musical monarch, who played the cello, at royal chamber music sessions. As a composer, Salieri enjoyed imperial patronage from his arrival in Vienna until 1800, a period of some 35 years. Some of the operas Salieri wrote for Vienna have been revived and recorded in our time. He wrote over 40 of them, including a comic opera entitled "The Talisman" —an opera composed to a text by Mozart's favorite librettist, Lorenzo da Ponti.

Atterberg's "$10,000" Symphony

Aug 17, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1928, the Columbia Phonograph Company of New York announced that the Symphony No. 6 by the Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg was the winner of its $10,000 Schubert Memorial Prize. The Competition was intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Schubert's death, and originally, Columbia wanted the prize to go to the composer who most successfully "finished" Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony." After protests that this was an insult to Schubert's memory, Columbia expanded the competition to include the best original score conceived in the spirit of Schubert's music. Attenberg's Symphony was chosen as the winner by an international jury, which included several composers. Now, in 1928, $10,000 was a small fortune—and about 10 times the normal commission fee for a big symphonic work. Not surprisingly, Atterberg's score was soon nicknamed "The Dollar Symphony." Some even accused him of cynically tailoring his music to appeal to the conservative taste of the competition's jury, and even quoting from works by the composers on the panel to curry their favor. Atterberg defended himself by pointing out the Symphony's opening movements were very much in his normal style, but admitted the final movement was, in fact, intended as a parody of the competition's requirement to write in Schubert's style. "It brought me special pleasure," Atterberg said, "to observe that all the critics who found reminiscences of other composer's works were not able to identify a very obvious quotation of a Schubert theme in my Rondo-Finale."

The King is Dead

Aug 16, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date, Elvis left the building — permanently. On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died in Memphis, Tennessee. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935, Elvis first earned his living as a mechanic and furniture repairman who occasionally played cowboy ballads on the guitar at parties. But somehow Elvis reinvented himself and became the archetypal rock 'n' roll superstar, revered more as the modern day reincarnation of the Greek god Dionysius than a mere mortal. His funeral caused such an outpouring of hysteria and that two people died in the chaos and many more were injured. There was even a bizarre plot at the time to kidnap Elvis' corpse and hold it for ransom. And, of course, some people claim he never died at all. American composer Michael Daughtery has taken pop icons like Elvis as the inspiration for a number of his concert works. He has even written a bassoon concerto titled "Dead Elvis" — a set of variations on the Dies Irae theme from the Latin Mass for the Dead. In performance, the composer asks that the soloist enter in the familiar costume of Las Vegas Elvis — sunglasses and a rhinestone-encrusted white jumpsuit with a plunging, open, neckline. Hip gyrations are optional. Michael Daugherty writes: "Elvis is a part of American culture, history, and mythology, for better or for worse. If you want to understand American and all its riddles, sooner or later you have to deal with Elvis."

A Mass for Machaut

Aug 15, 2019 00:02:00


In the Catholic Liturgical calendar, today is celebrated as the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. In the Middle Ages, when the veneration of Mary as Notre Dame – French for "Our Lady" – was at its peak, a "Lady Mass" would be sung on a day like this. And it's quite likely that one of the earliest-known settings of the Latin mass, the "Notre Dame Mass" by Guillaume de Machaut, was performed as a Lady Mass at one particular chapel in the Cathedral of Reims for many years in the 14th century. Guillaume and his brother Jean were both canons at that Cathedral and had arranged an endowment for a mass in honor of Mary to be sung there every Saturday. In our day, Guillaume de Machaut's Notre Dame Mass is his most famous work, but in his own time, the age of Chaucer, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, he was far better known as a secular poet of Courtly Love. Machaut had been a widely-travelled and extremely well-connected artist before returning to his native Reims at the end of his life. Before that, employment by various members of the royalty took him from Paris to Prague and on trips to Italy, Poland, and Lithuania. It's ironic that Machaut is nowadays famous for his sacred music – this one Mass in particular – when the vast majority of his music was decidedly secular in tone.

Hot new operas by Saariaho and Wagner

Aug 14, 2019 00:02:00


The fact that a new opera might debut at the Salzburg Festival in Austria is not in itself an unusual occurrence. But in August of the year 2000, the new opera in question was "L'Amour de Loin" or "Distant Love" by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho — making it the first opera by a female composer ever to be staged at the prestigious international Festival, and one that opened to rave reviews. Born in Helsinki in 1952, Saariaho now lives with her husband and children in Paris. She has said that though she loves Helsinki, she's more comfortable in a city where she is not a celebrity. "I'm too well recognized in Finland," says Saariaho. "When I say this to colleagues in America, they think it's fantastic that there is a country where contemporary music composers can be esteemed public personalities." Speaking of summer-time opera premieres, Richard Wagner's "Die Walküre" had its first performance as part of his "Ring cycle" on today's date in 1876, at Wagner's own theater in Bayreuth, a small town in Southern Germany. Some early critics thought building a big theater in such an out-of-the-way place was a monumental act of folly, but Wagnerites have been making the midsummer pilgrimage there for over 125 years — despite the lack of air-conditioning in Wagner's theater. Appropriately, it's some of the warmest music from "Die Walküre" — the "Magic Fire" scene that brings the opera to its close.

Martinu in California

Aug 13, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1950, the orchestra of the Musical Arts Society of La Jolla, California gave the premiere performance of this music by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The "Sinfonietta La Jolla" was Martinu's response to the Society's call for a tuneful and approachable piece of new music for their chamber orchestra. Martinu modeled his 20th century work on the 18th century symphonies of Haydn, a composer he very much admired. In fact, in 1890, when Martinu was born, his native Bohemia was still a part of the Austria-Hungarian empire in which Haydn had lived and worked a hundred years earlier. Martinu's music blends the modernism of 20th century composers like Stravinsky with the rich 19th century tradition of Czech national composers like Dvořák — but Martinu's relations with his native land were anything but smooth. He was twice kicked out of the Prague Conservatory for his supposed lack of academic discipline, and instead established himself as a freelance composer in France and Switzerland. Then, just as his music began to receive some recognition and performances back in Prague, the Nazi invasion of World War II led to his works being banned. In 1941, Martinu settled in the United States, where his music was very well received. In 1948, Martinu returned briefly to Prague, but found the new Communist government there as distasteful to him as the Nazis. Martinu's "Sinfonietta La Jolla" was written shortly after he returned to the United States.

"Twilight Butterfly" by Thomas

Aug 12, 2019 00:02:00


Each summer, music lovers congregate about 25 miles north of downtown Chicago for the annual Ravinia Festival, the oldest outdoor music festival in America, and since 1936 the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. But on today’s date in 2013, Ravinia was the venue for world-premiere performances of several new art songs, including “Twilight Butterfly,” by the American composer Augusta Read Thomas, a setting of a poetic text written by the composer herself. “The poetic is always in my music”, explained Thomas. “In writing ‘Twilight Butterfly’ … I began with a mental picture … [of] someone, viewing a butterfly fluttering on a deep summer evening beneath the twilight moon. This imagery became so specific that writing my own lyrics was almost inescapable.” Now even at their most poetic, composers must keep practical considerations in mind, as Thomas explained: "Beyond the evocative, impressionist nature of the piece … I sought to provide a comfortable performance environment for the singer. My lyrics integrate words whose open vowel sounds suit the voice ... The piano gives the singer pitches at every entrance … [and] rubato indications allow the singer delicate rhythmic and interpretive flexibility.”

Bernstein in Hollywood

Aug 11, 2019 00:02:00


Elia Kazan's film, "On the Waterfront," a 1954 black and white classic starring Marlon Brando, won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was also nominated for — but didn't win — that year's Oscar for best original score. It was Leonard Bernstein's first film score, and his last. He didn't enjoy the experience: "I had become so involved in each detail of the score," Bernstein recalled, "that it seemed to me the most important part of the picture. I had to keep reminding myself that it really is the LEAST important part… Sometimes the music would be turned off completely to allow a line to stand forth stark and bare, and then be turned on again. Sometimes the music, planned as a composition with a beginning, middle, and end, would be silenced seven bars before the end… And so the composer sits by, protesting as he can, but ultimately accepting with a heavy heart the inevitable loss of a good part of the score. Everyone tries to comfort you. 'You can always use it in a suite.' Cold comfort. It's good for the picture, you repeat numbly to yourself… it's good for the picture." But Bernstein did fashion a concert suite from "On the Waterfront" and, not one to waste time, conducted the first performance with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood on today's date in 1954, exactly two weeks after the film opened.

Two by Mozart

Aug 10, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date, Wolfgang Mozart completed two of his most famous works: on August 10th, 1787, the Serenade known as "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," and, on the same day exactly one year later, the "Jupiter Symphony" — Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C Major. Despite the fame of "Eine kleine Nachtmusik"—which translates as "A Little Night Music" — nothing is known for certain about the circumstances of its composition. Since a Serenade is a suite of orchestral movements normally written as background music for some rich patron's patio party, we can assume "Eine kleine" filled such a function some pleasant evening in Vienna. We can only hope the patrons appreciated what they got for their money. Hardly any more is known about the composition of Mozart's final symphony, the "Jupiter," as no relevant letters or documents survive from this period of his life. The "Jupiter" nickname appears to have originated years later in London. In Germany it was just called "the symphony with the fugal finale." There's a classic recording of Mozart's symphony favorites featuring the Marlboro Festival Orchestra with Pablo Casals conducting. The Marlboro Festival is held each summer for seven weeks in a cluster of old farm buildings on a hilltop in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Talented young professional musicians from all over the country gather here, principally to study, secondly to perform, for audiences eager to hear both the emerging and established Marlboro musicians.

Berlioz, Beatrice, and Benedict

Aug 9, 2019 00:02:00


In the 19th century, the German spa town of Baden-Baden was the place to be in the summer. Wealthy international tourists could bathe in artesian wells by day and by night gamble at the casino or attend performances at a splendid theater modeled on the Paris Opera. That theater opened on today’s date in 1862 with the premiere of a new comic opera by the French composer Hector Berlioz, based closely on Shakespeare's comedy ‘Much Ado About Nothing', and titled “Beatrice and Benedict” after the witty pair of lovers in the play. The composer himself conducted. “A great success,” Berlioz wrote the next day. “… applauded from beginning to end. I was recalled to the stage I don’t know how many times.” Despite the success, Berlioz confessed, “My infernal neuralgia was so bad that I mounted the podium … without feeling the slightest emotion. This bizarre indifference meant I conducted better than usual!” Despite making light of his increasing illness, possibly Crohn’s Disease, this opera proved to be his last work, and Berlioz had only a few more years to live. His biographer David Cairns writes: "Listening to the score's exuberant gaiety, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death.”

Chaminade in America

Aug 8, 2019 00:02:00


The French composer and concert pianist Cecile Chaminade was born in Paris on this date in 1857. She wrote symphonic works and even operas, but it was her piano pieces and songs that became enormously popular with amateur musicians around the turn of the century, especially in America. In the decade before World War I, over a hundred "Chaminade Clubs" sprouted up in America, where Chaminade's music was performed by and for her fans. So imagine the excitement when it was announced that Madame Chaminade herself would be giving a concert tour of Eastern and Midwest states in 1908. Chaminade's American tour opened and closed at New York's Carnegie Hall, and over a two-month period she performed in Philadelphia, Louisville, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Boston, and Washington DC. In 1908, the majority of amateur musicians in America were women, but the majority of music critics were men – the latter gave Chaminade's concerts mixed reviews at best, and downright sexist put-downs at worst. For her part, Chaminade was used to that sort of reception in Europe – and the limited role society allowed women artists in her day. But in a Washington Post interview published during her American tour, Chaminade remained optimistic: "There is no sex in art," she said. "Genius is an independent quality. The woman of the future, with her broader outlook, her greater opportunities, will go far, I believe, in creative work of every description."

Mendelssohn gets wet and wild

Aug 7, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1829, the German composer Felix Mendelssohn and his friend, Karl Klingemann, were on the North Sea bound for Glasgow. Klingemann was not impressed with Scotland and wrote home that the rough North Sea passage had made most of the passengers sick — with one remarkable exception. “An 82-year old woman,” he wrote, “sat calmly by the smoke stack, warming herself in the cold wind. She was determined to see Staffa before she died. Staffa, with its silly basalt columns and caves, is in all the picture books. So, we were put into boats and clambered past the hissing sea on stumps of columns up to the odiously celebrated Fingal’s Cave. I must say, never did such green and roaring waves pound in a stranger cave. The many pillars make the inside resemble a monstrous organ. Black, resounding, and utterly without any purpose at all…” Well, perhaps not utterly without purpose, since Felix Mendelssohn sent a letter home to HIS family on August 7 which included a scrap of musical notation. “To give you an idea of how strange I felt,” wrote Mendelssohn, “this music occurred to me.” It was the opening theme of what would become his concert overture titled “The Hebrides, or Fingal’s Cave.”

An opera debut for Britten and Bernstein

Aug 6, 2019 00:02:00


On today's date in 1946, Leonard Bernstein conducted the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera, "Peter Grimes," at the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts. "Peter Grimes" had received its very first performance in London the previous year, and had already been staged elsewhere in Europe before reaching America. In fact, this quintessentially British opera was originally an American commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation run by the famous conductor and music patron Serge Koussevitzky, who was the founder and guiding spirit of the Tanglewood Festival. Opera News covered the American premiere with a feature titled "Peter Grimes On Trial — A Symposium of Verdicts," beginning by quoting with the grudging praise of the New York Times' very conservative critic that the opera was "a very interesting modern work in a provocative form." Also included were quotes from the lead singers, who noted its "strange intervals, harmonies, and difficult counter-play of the various voices." But Boris Goldowsky, the music director of the Tanglewood Center, provided the most accurate assessment, given the hindsight of history: "The opera has lasting merit," said Goldovsky, "and it will join the standard repertory. Like all new works, it was difficult at first, but future productions will be easier." Here's an additional historical footnote: the Tanglewood premiere of "Peter Grimes" was the first opera Leonard Bernstein conducted professionally, and the opera's instrumental "Sea Interludes" were on the program of the last orchestral concert he ever conducted, 44 years later, in August of 1990, and again at Tanglewood.

Of Mountains and Messiaen

Aug 5, 2019 00:02:00


The gourmet composer Gioachino Rossini had a beef dish, Tournedos Rossini, named after him, and over the centuries countless towns have honored their native composers by naming streets after them — but few can top the honor bestowed on the late Olivier Messiaen by the citizens of Parowan, Utah. They named a mountain after him. On today's date in 1978, the citizens of Parowan resolved to name a local mountain Mt. Messiaen in honor of the French composer, who had spent a month in Utah five years earlier while working on his symphonic suite titled "From the Canyons to the Stars." Messiaen had been commissioned to write a work for the American Bicentennial in 1976. Apparently back in France he owned of a series of books titled "Wonders of the World," which included striking color pictures of the canyons of Utah, which so fired Messiaen's imagination that he made a special pilgrimage to Bryce Canyon in Utah see them with his own eyes. The result was an orchestra score titled "From the Canyons to the Stars," which includes a movement titled "Bryce Canyon and the Red-orange rocks." "Colors are very important to me," Messiaen once said. "I have a gift — it's not my fault, it's just how I am — whenever I hear music or even if I read music, I see colors. The colors do just what the sounds do: they are always changing, but they are marvelous."

David Raksin goes "noir"

Aug 4, 2019 00:02:00


Today marks the birthday of American composer David Raksin, born in 1912 in Philadelphia. He studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, was friends with Igor Stravinsky, and has written a wide range of concert music. Yet Raksin is best known for one haunting tune — the theme he wrote for a classic 1944 film noir entitled "Laura." David Raksin said the true story behind this music sounds like something out of a Grade-B movie. The very weekend he faced a deadline and simply had to come up with a theme for "Laura," Raksin says he received a "Dear John" letter from his wife stating she was leaving him. Unwilling to believe she was serious (she was); he stuck the letter in his pocket and tried to lose himself in his work. "By Sunday night," recalled Raksin, "I realized I had a very painful case of writer's block. From the time I was a boy, when the music wouldn't flow, I would prop a book or a poem on the piano and improvise. The idea was to divert my mind from conscious awareness of music-making… I took the letter out of my pocket, put it up on the piano and began to play… and then, without willing it — I was playing the first phrases of what you now know as the 'Laura' theme."

Rossini asks "Who was that masked man?"

Aug 3, 2019 00:02:00


A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty “Hi-yo, Silver!” Generations of American baby boomers first heard Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture as the opening credits of the old Lone Ranger TV western, but we suspect only a few of them ever realized the overture by an Italian composer was written for a French opera about a Swiss archer, which was adapted from a German play by Friedrich Schiller. Like a Facebook relationship, “It’s complicated.” Anyway, Rossini’s “William Tell” was first heard in Paris on today’s date in 1829. Rossini hoped “William Tell” would be considered his masterpiece. Ironically, the complete opera is only rarely staged these days, but the “William Tell” overture became a familiar concert hall showpiece – SO familiar, in fact, as to become something of a musical cliché. The Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich gave a dark 20th-century spin to Rossini’s overly familiar theme, when he quoted the “William Tell” overture in the opening movement of his Symphony No. 15. In the context of Shostakovich’s enigmatic final symphony, Rossini’s jaunty little theme comes off like a forced smile, and audiences are free to read whatever political subtext they wish into its rather sinister context.

Gluck and Glass in the Underworld

Aug 2, 2019 00:02:00


In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a priest of Apollo and a fabulous musician, who attempted to bring his dead wife Eurydice back from the underworld. On this day in 1774, in Paris, the first performance of the French version of the opera “Orpheus and Eurydice” by Christoph Willibald Gluck took place. Gluck originally wrote the opera in Italian, but for the French version in 1774, he added some new instrumental music, including a serene interlude depicting the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” —an excerpt that has become one of Gluck’s most famous and best-loved works. Over the centuries, more than 60 operas have been written on the theme of Orpheus and Eurydice. In fact, two of the very FIRST operas ever written are based on this legend, both by Italian composers of the late Renaissance: one by Jacopo Peri performed in 1600 and another by Claudio Monteverdi from 1607. One of the more recent operas based on the Orpheus legend is by the American composer Philip Glass, based on a libretto he adapted from the 1950 movie, “Orpheus,” by the surrealistic French poet and film director Jean Cocteau. The American Repertory Theatre and the Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Glass’s version in 1993.

Dvorak's "American" Quintet

Aug 1, 2019 00:02:00


Most classical music lovers know and love Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, Opus 95, and his “American” String Quartet, Opus 96, but fewer know the work he wrote next: his String QUINTET, Opus 97. We think that’s a shame, since all three rank among the finest things the Czech composer ever wrote. Dvorak’s Quintet is also nicknamed the “American” – and for good reason: It was completed in 1893 on today’s date in Spillville, Iowa, during the composer’s summer vacation in that small, rural community of Czech immigrants, where he and family could escape the noise and bustle of New York City and his duties there at the National Conservatory. Dvorak had been brought to America to teach Americans how to write American music, but, like any good teacher, Dvorak was as eager to LEARN as to teach. In New York, Henry T. Burleigh, a talented African-American Conservatory student taught Dvorak spirituals, and in Spillville Dvorak eagerly attended performances of Native American music and dance by a group of touring Iroquois Indians. Traces of those influences can be heard in Dvorak’s “American” works. In his Quintet, for example, unison melodic lines and striking rhythms seem to echo the Iroquois chants and drums Dvorak heard during his summer vacation in Spillville.

Bach at rest

Jul 31, 2019 00:02:00


Two or three days after his death on July 28, 1750, the final rites were held in Leipzig, in St. John’s Church, for Johann Sebastian Bach, considered by many the greatest composer who ever lived. Bach was buried in the churchyard of St. John’s. In 1894, his remains were discovered during excavations and were reburied inside. Although not unappreciated in his lifetime, and not completely forgotten for nearly a century as myth would have it (Mozart and Beethoven both revered him), it’s true that Bach’s real stature was not fully recognized by the wider public until Felix Mendelssohn’s famous revival performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in Berlin in 1829. And since Mendelssohn’s 19th century revival, Bach’s Passion settings and cantatas have been staged as operas or ballets in the 20th and 21st. His music has survived arrangements for solo piano, full symphony orchestra, Moog synthesizer, authentic “period” instruments, Japanese koto orchestra, shakuhachi flute, and the various jazz stylings of the Swingle Singers and the late pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Lewis. However it was adapted or altered by the passing fashion or fads of the day, Bach’s music continues to touch whoever plays it or listens to it.

Ellington honored -- finally!

Jul 30, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1965, the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere performance of an orchestral work by Duke Ellington, titled “The Golden Broom and the Golden Apples,” with the composer conducting. On the same program, Lukas Foss conducted the very belated, posthumous premiere of “From the Steeples and the Mountains,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Charles Ives. In 1965, Duke Ellington, too, had been nominated for the Pulitzer, but didn’t get it. The Pulitzer jury did, however, recommend that Ellington receive a Special Citation in honor of “the vitality and originality of his total productivity.” That recommendation was rejected, and when word leaked out, a scandal ensued. The 66-year old Ellington remained unflappable, and said, with just a tiny hint of irony, “Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” “I work and I write,” said Ellington. “My reward is hearing what I’ve done. I’m hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without official honor at home. Most Americans will take it for granted that European music—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind. Jazz is like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” In 1999, the Pulitzer Committee made amends, and Ellington was awarded a Special Citation—belatedly and posthumously—to commemorate the centennial year of his birth.

Caruso sings Cohan

Jul 29, 2019 00:02:00


In 1917, on the day the United States declared war in Germany, the American song-writer and former vaudeville showman George M. Cohan composed a song titled “Over There,” based on the first three notes of a military bugle-call. On today’s date the following year, the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso performed Cohan’s song for an audience of 10,000 at an open-air concert in Ocean Grove, N.J. Musical America reported (quote): “It was a great opportunity for the rocking-chair brigade, which had never in its whole life witnessed such an outpouring of humans. And the automobiles! The Ocean Grove police department had BOTH its hands busy directing the traffic, extricating Fords from Rolls-Royces and preventing them from parking on the pathways.” Caruso’s 1918 rendition of “Over There,” despite his heavily Italian-accented English, was the smash hit. “The audience got up on its 20,000 feet and yelled with delight,” reported Musical America, which also noted that Cohan had completed a brand new patriotic song addressed to the troops overseas, ending with the lines, “When you come back, and you will come back, There’s a whole world waiting for you.” In 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to World War I morale, in particular for his songs "You're a Grand Old Flag” and "Over There."

Berlioz gets hot

Jul 28, 2019 00:02:00


Playing in a marching band isn’t always as easy as it looks. Imagine the predicament in which Berlioz found himself on today’s date in 1840, conducting 210 musicians under a broiling noonday sun as they slowly progressed to the Place de Bastille. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the French “July” Revolution of 1830, a memorial column had been erected on the spot where the Bastille once stood, and the remains of fallen revolutionary heroes were being transferred to a cenotaph at the foot of the column, accompanied by Berlioz’s specially commissioned “Funeral and Triumphal Symphony,” composed for massed military bands. Berlioz himself, in full military uniform and conducting with a saber, led the solemn procession that hot July day. In a letter to his father, Berlioz wrote: “The old know-it-alls were claiming that I’d never manage to have my symphony performed on the march and that my 210 musicians wouldn’t stay together for even 20 bars. So I placed the trumpets and drums in front so that I could give them the beat while walking backwards. I planned it so that in the opening bars these instruments play by themselves, so they could be heard by the rest of the band. The symphony’s march and finale were played six times, on the march, with an ensemble and effect that were truly extraordinary.”

Lindberg by Weill, Hindemith and Waxman

Jul 27, 2019 00:02:00


It was on this day in 1929 that the first performance was given of a radio cantata—not on the radio, oddly enough, but in a concert hall in Baden-Baden, Germany. It was entitled “Lindbergh’s Flight,” with a text by Bertolt Brecht, and music by both Kurt Weill AND Paul Hindemith. This cantata was intended for a later radio broadcast and meant to illustrate both the literal and philosophical aspects of Charles A. Lindbergh’s first-ever solo flight across the Atlantic two years earlier in 1927. Today, when planes whiz back and forth across the Atlantic every day, carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers, we have to remember that in 1927, the number of people flying to Europe nonstop was just ONE, namely Lindbergh, and the feat made headline news around the world. Three decades after Lindbergh’s flight, composer Franz Waxman would write the film score for “The Spirit of St. Louis,” a 1957 Hollywood version of the Atlantic crossing starring Jimmy Stewart. And speaking of Atlantic crossings, Waxman, Weill and Hindemith—all German-born composers—would emigrate to the U.S. in the 1930s, their flight a result of the racial laws and artistic repression that followed the rise of Nazi ideology in Europe.

"Parsifal" in Bayreuth

Jul 26, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1882, the eminent German conductor Hermann Levi led the first performance of Richard Wagner’s new opera, “Parsifal”—a work that would also turn out to be his last, as Wagner would die the following year in Venice. No other Wagner opera would arouse the same level of controversy as “Parsifal.” Some thought it a blasphemous parody of the Catholic Mass, others, like the anti-religious Friedrich Nietzsche, saw it as a sanctimonious sell-out. Wagner helped fuel the controversy by calling the work a “sacred stage festival play.” Despite the notorious anti-Semitism of Wagner and his circle, the bulk of those Bayreuth performances, like the very first, would be conducted by Hermann Levi, who was Jewish. Levi wrote to his father about an unusual occurrence that took place during the final performance of the first run of “Parsifal” at Bayreuth: “Just before the final scene, Wagner appeared in the pit, twisted and turned his way up to my desk, took the baton from my hand and conducted the performance to the end. I remained at his side, because I was afraid he might slip up, by my fears were quite groundless—his conducting was so assured that he might have been nothing but a Kapellmeister all his life. At the end, the audience burst into applause which defies all description.”

Copland and Kernis on the air

Jul 25, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1937, one of Copland’s less familiar works had its premiere performance—on the radio. The radio premiere was the result of a commission from the Columbia Broadcasting System, and was premiered by the CBS Symphony Orchestra. This work has at least three different titles. Originally titled simply “Music for Radio,” as requested by the network, it was given the more colorful name “Saga of the Prairies” as the result of an on-air listener contest sponsored by CBS. Later, when Copland himself published the music, it bore the title: “Prairie Journal.” So—take your pick. Copland received a $500 commission—quite generous in those days—and was thrilled that his music would reach millions of listeners with a single broadcast. Today, new music by contemporary composers is still occasionally commissioned by radio stations and radio networks. In 1993, “Still Movement with Hymn” was commissioned from Aaron Jay Kernis by American Public Radio (now American Public Media) and broadcast nationally on one of their program offerings. “Still Movement with Hymn,” is one of a series of elegiac works by Kernis, written in memory of American composer Stephen Albert, who was killed in a car accident the year before.

Hindemith for Winds

Jul 24, 2019 00:02:00


In 1926, the German composer Paul Hindemith was the director of that year’s Donaueschingen Music Festival, which, since its inception in 1921, had quickly established itself as an important showcase for new and progressive music. For the 1926 Festival, Hindemith decided to spotlight a genre of music overlooked by many composers, namely music for wind bands, and contributed a work of his own, entitled “Concert Piece for Wind Orchestra,” which premiered on today’s date in 1926 and was published as his Opus 41. The critics of the day opined that the music was interesting, but lamented that such talented composers would waste their time writing for bands. In his book “Winds of Change,” a history of band music and its reception, Dr. Frank Battisti explains: “In 1926, serious works for band were of no interest to German and Austrian band directors, who preferred to continue performing the standard repertory of transcriptions, arrangements, and marches. Critics, after hearing these works, remained convinced that the wind band would never become a medium of artistic musical expression.” With the passage of time, and a dramatic change in the attitudes of band director and critics alike towards concert music for bands, Hindemith’s 1926 concert programming seems downright prophetic.

A West-Coast premiere for Still

Jul 23, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1940, the “Standing Room Only” signs went up early as a crowd of 23,000 stormed the Hollywood Bowl to hear the great Paul Robeson perform. On the program was Earl Robinson’s “Ballad for Americans,” a work for solo voice and orchestra that was for a time one of the most popular musical works in America. Earl Robinson had studied with Copland, and in 1934 had joined the Federal Theater Project. His “Ballad for Americans” quickly became a popular concert hall vehicle for Paul Robeson, and, in election year 1940, it was even performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Republican Party’s National Convention. Robeson made a famous recording of the work, but nowadays “Ballad for Americans” is seldom, if ever, heard or performed. Also on the Hollywood Bowl’s program for July 23, 1940, was the first complete West Coast performance of William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, subtitled the “Afro-American Symphony” by its composer. Still had settled in Los Angeles to work for the film industry, but by 1940 had also achieved fame as the country’s foremost African-American composer of concert music. Unlike “Ballad for Americans,” the “Afro American Symphony” still shows up on concert programs these days.

Falla and Sierra

Jul 22, 2019 00:02:00


London might seem an unlikely venue for the premiere of this quintessentially Spanish music—but it was a decidedly international affair when Manuel de Falla’s ballet “The Three-Cornered Hat” received its premiere performance at the Alhambra Theatre in London on today’s date in 1919. The ballet was choreographed by the Russian dancer Leonide Massine, who performed in the premiere with the Ballet Russe company headed by Serge Diaghilev, who had commissioned de Falla to write the work in the first place. The conductor for the premiere, Ernest Ansermet, was Swiss, but the scenery, costumes and curtain, at least, were designed by de Falla’s countryman, the famous Spanish artist Pablo Piccasso. Andalucian by birth, but living in Paris, de Falla must have found it frustrating that during this time his music was sometimes snubbed in Spain as sounding too cosmopolitan, and then pigeon-holed abroad as sounding too Spanish! The career of Latino-American composer Roberto Sierra has also turned out to be similarly cosmopolitan. Born in Puerto Rico in 1953, Sierra studied in Europe—with the Hungarian composer György Ligeti among others—before returning to the United States where he now lives and works. His music has been performed by leading American ensembles and orchestras—including the Philadelphia Orchestra, where Sierra served as composer-in-residence. This chamber work by Sierra, titled “Eros,” was written for flutist Carol Wincenc.

Mendelssohn for Winds

Jul 21, 2019 00:02:00


In the summer of 1824, the fifteen-year-old Mendelssohn spent a holiday with his father in the fashionable spa town of Bad Doberan, on the Baltic coast near Rostock. Writing home to his family in Berlin he confessed that, although he was "comfortably lodged… with friendly people, a decent piano, [and a] pretty view... so far I have not written a note." That would change, however, as Mendelssohn befriended musicians employed by the local Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, whose court ensemble was a wind-band. For them, the young Mendelssohn composed a Nocturno, scored for the classical octet of double winds, plus a flute, trumpet, and an odd brass instrument called a “Como Inglese di Basso," roughly similar in shape to a bassoon, but with a cup mouthpiece and both open and keyed holes. Mendelssohn described it in a letter he wrote on today’s date in 1824 as "a large brass instrument with a fine, deep tone, that looks like a watering can or a stirrup pump." Music for that original 1824 Nocturno has not survived, but eventually Mendelssohn reworked and enlarged the piece, adding new music, and much later, in 1838, expanded the scoring to a full wind ensemble and published the result as his Overture for Winds, Op. 24.

Music at Watergate

Jul 20, 2019 00:02:00


In the summer of 1972, five burglars broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC, and soon the term “Watergate” came to signify a political scandal that nearly led to the impeachment of then-president Richard Nixon. But if you had said, “Watergate” to someone in D.C. in July some 30 years earlier, you probably were referring to a series of outdoor concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra, whose “Watergate Concerts” were held on the banks of the Potomac near the Lincoln Memorial. These concerts presented a mix of old and new music, classical favorites and recently composed works by American composers. For example, on today’s date in 1945, the weather in DC was clear and warm when Alexander Smallens conducted an outdoor Watergate Concert that included the recently-composed suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet “Rodeo,” and “Newsreel,” an orchestral suite by William Schuman. Schuman’s suite was inspired by the popular newsreel features shown at movie theaters in those days—a time when radio ruled, and if people wanted to SEE footage of faces and places in the news, they had to turn to the movies, not CNN or the internet.

James MacMillan's "The World's Ransoming"

Jul 19, 2019 00:02:00


Many composers have produced works inspired by their deep religious faith: in the 18th century, the sacred music of the devout Lutheran church musician Johann Sebastian Bach being a notable example. Even in our more secular age, this is sometimes the case. The contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan’s works have explicit Christian themes, and, like Franz Liszt in the 19th century, MacMillan has even taken minor religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church. On commission from the London Symphony, MacMillan wrote three interrelated orchestral works, two concertos and a symphony, all based on the Passion and Resurrection story. The first of these, entitled “The World’s Ransoming,” for English horn and orchestra, focused on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, and was premiered at the Barbican Center in London on today’s date in 1996. Of this piece, MacMillan wrote, “’The World's Ransoming’ includes musical references to [traditional liturgical] plainsongs for that day, as well as a Bach chorale … which I have heard sung in the eucharistic procession … The title of the piece comes from St. Thomas Aquinas's [Latin] hymn ‘Pange Lingua’”. An English translation of part of the Aquinas hymn reads: Sing, my tongue, the Savior's glory, Of His Flesh, the mystery sing; Destined, for the world's ransom, From a virgin’s womb to spring.

Sallinen and Kronos

Jul 18, 2019 00:02:00


To some it seemed an act of sheer madness for a String Quartet to announce in the 1970s that it would not perform the classic repertory of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, but devote itself instead to music written after 1900, especially newly-composed works. But the Kronos Quartet has proved the skeptics wrong. Founded in Seattle in 1973, and reformed in San Francisco five years later, the Kronos Quartet has established itself as a major player on the international music scene, premiering hundreds of new works by living composers. On today’s date in 1984, the Kronos Quartet was at the Kukmo Music Festival in Finland, where they gave the premiere performance of the 5th String Quartet of the Finnish composer, Aulis Sallinen, subtitled “Pieces of Mosaic.” This quartet is a string of 16 short fragments, and, as the composer explained, reflected a pessimistic view of world affairs, circa 1984, the ominously Orwellian year of its composition. “It seems somehow crazy,” said Sallinen, “that a composer should create extended symphonic forms for the world we live in. This quartet is the kind of work the world deserves: one which is smashed into fragments.” Sallinen is one of the best-known Finnish composers since Sibelius, and in addition to chamber works like his Fifth Quartet, he has written symphonic works and a number of successful operas.

Water music by Handel and Larsen

Jul 17, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1717, King George and his entourage took a barge trip on the river Thames, traveling from Whitehall to Chelsea, accompanied by about 50 musicians, also on barges. A contemporary newspaper account reported that they performed “the finest Symphonies, composed express for this occasion by Mr. Handel, which his Majesty liked so well that he caused it to be played three times in going and returning.” Another report refers to “trumpets, horns, oboes, bassoons, flutes, recorders, violins and basses” being employed. In our time, Handel’s “Water Music”—as the three suites have come to be known—is one of the best-known and best-loved works of the entire Baroque Age. In 1985, three hundred years after the birth of Handel, American composer Libby Larsen composed a Symphony she titled “Water Music,” written as a tribute to Handel and as an expression of her own enthusiasm for sailing. Libby Larsen is one of today’s busiest American composers, and in the year 2000 the American Academy of Arts and Letters presented Larsen with its Award in Music, honoring her lifetime achievements as a composer. When asked how she finds time to balance her busy life as a composer, Larsen answers: “I can’t not do it —having a life and a life in music is as natural and necessary to me as breathing.”

Dale Trumbore's "How to Go On"

Jul 16, 2019 00:02:00


Following the death of a loved one, the American poet Barbara Crooker wrote, “How can we go on/knowing the end of the story?” The American composer Dale Trumbore attempted to answer that question with her haunting choral work entitled “How to Go on,” given its premiere performance on today’s date in 2016 in Anaheim, California by the Choral Arts Initiative. Rather than setting the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass like Verdi, or passages from the Bible like Brahms, Trumbore crafted a kind of “secular requiem,” choosing texts by Crooker and two other contemporary American poets addressing fundamental questions of life, love, and loss. “I have moments of utter panic about my own mortality,” confessed Trumbore, “and I know many other people do as well, although we may not openly discuss or address our fears about death. Taken together, the seven poems of ‘How to Go On’ recognize these fears while also cultivating a feeling of everything ultimately being at peace. Hopefully the music adds to that visceral feeling of reassurance. “ New Jersey native Dale Trumbore studied with the great choral composer Morten Lauridsen at the University of Southern California and her own vocal works are noted for what The New York Times described as her “soaring melodies and beguiling harmonies.”

Bernstein's sabbatical psalms

Jul 15, 2019 00:02:00


In 1965, Leonard Bernstein took a sabbatical year from his duties as music director of the New York Philharmonic. In 1964, the busy Mr. Bernstein had just finished conducting Verdi’s opera “Falstaff” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in 1966, would make his debut at the Vienna State Opera, conducting the same work. But he reserved 1965 to concentrate on composing. “In the course of that year,” recalled Bernstein, “I had the luxury to do nothing but experiment. And part of my experimentation was to try to write some pieces that, shall we say, were less old-fashioned. I wrote a lot of music, 12-tone music and avant-garde music of various kinds, and a lot of it was very good, but I threw it all away. What I came out with at the end of the year was a piece called ‘Chichester Psalms,’ which is simple and tonal and as pure B-flat as any piece you can think of… because that was what I honestly wished to write.” Bernstein conducted the premiere performance at Lincoln Center with the Camerata Singers and the New York Philharmonic on July 15th, 1965, and later in the month, traveled to Chichester Cathedral in England, which had commissioned the work in the first place, for the British premiere of his “Chichester Psalms.”

"La Marseillaise" by Lambert

Jul 14, 2019 00:02:00


Today is Bastille Day, and on today’s date in 1900, the Opera-Comique in Paris premiered a patriotic opera entitled “La Marseillaise,” which melodramatically depicted how, on a spring night during the French Revolution, Rouget de l’Isle supposedly wrote the words AND music for the song which later became the French National Anthem. The opera has been long forgotten, but its composer, the French-born Lucien-Leon-Guillaume Lambert, JUNIOR.—alongside his father, the American-born composer Charles-Lucien Lambert, SENIOR —is getting some renewed attention. Both are included in a landmark new reference work: The International Dictionary of Black Composers, published by the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. The elder Lambert was born in New Orleans around 1828, and was a contemporary and friendly rival of the famous piano virtuoso and composer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The elder Lambert settled in Brazil, and njoyed an internation career in both Brazil and France, performing and publishing his piano dances and salon pieces, and often appearing in concert with his son. Lucien Lambert, Jr. was born in France in 1858, and studied with Jules Massenet, among others. He won the prestigious Concours Rossini competition, and enjoyed a productive career in France and Portugal, composing ballets, concertos, and several operas—including the one that premiered in Paris on today’s date in 1900. He died in Portugal in 1945.

Strauss, Shostakovich, Hitler, and Stalin

Jul 13, 2019 00:02:00


Decades after their deaths, Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich still remain politically controversial. Strauss worked in Nazi Germany under Hitler, and Shostakovich in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Was their art compromised by politics —and should that influence how we hear their music today? In July of 1935, Strauss pleaded with Hitler for a personal meeting to explain his resignation as President of Germany’s office of musical affairs. He needn’t have bothered: the Gestapo had intercepted a letter Strauss had sent to the Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, the Austrian librettist of Strauss’ latest opera. In that letter, Strauss mocked the Nazi’s obsession with race and urged Zweig to continue to work with him, even if they would have to meet in secret. Strauss was asked to resign, and, anxious to avoid further trouble for himself and his family, appealed directly to Hitler, who never responded. Dmitri Shostakovich also ran afoul of his dictator when, in 1936, Stalin attended Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and hated it. The next day Shostakovich was harshly condemned in the official press, and lived in terror for the rest of Stalin’s reign, redirecting his music according to Party line and making obsequious political utterances whenever asked. Even so, many today claim to hear both terror AND heroic—if coded—resistance in Shostakovich’s best scores.

Requiems and Elegies by Faure and Rouse

Jul 12, 2019 00:02:00


On this day in 1900, the world first heard the Requiem of Gabriel Fauré in its full orchestral version at a concert at the Paris World Exhibition. Faure’s Requiem ranks today among his best-known and best-loved compositions, and omits all reference to the terrors of the Last Judgment which appear in the traditional liturgical text, concentrating instead on comforting the bereaved. The Requiem was originally written for chorus and a more intimate chamber ensemble, and was occasioned by Fauré’s sorrow at the death of his own father. The American composer Christopher Rouse has written a number of works dealing with the passing of friends and colleagues—works half-seriously, half-jokingly referred to as Rouse’s “Death Cycle.” Rouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Trombone Concerto from 1991 is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Bernstein; his Symphony No. 2, from 1994, contains a tribute to the young composer Stephen Albert, who died in a car crash; and a section of his Flute Concerto from 1993 reflects the composer’s shock upon reading an account of the senseless tragedy of a two-year-old child, abducted from an English shopping mall and killed by two ten-year-olds. Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed has noted that much of Rouse’s work is “music of leave-taking… but it is also a music of catharsis, survival and a celebration of being alive.”

Hollywood Anniversaries

Jul 11, 2019 00:02:00


Today’s date marks two events in American musical history—one sad, one happy. It was on today’s date in 1937 that George Gershwin died at 10:35 in the morning in a Hollywood hospital after an operation for a brain tumor. He was only 38 years old. Gershwin was the idol of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, and also admired by the “serious” composers of his day, such as Maurice Ravel and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Even Arnold Schoenberg, the fearsome leader of the 12-tone school—and Gershwin’s regular tennis partner in Los Angeles—said, in tribute, “there is no doubt that he was a great composer.” A Gershwin memorial concert was held in the Hollywood Bowl later that year, featuring notables from both classical and popular music, including Otto Klemperer, Fred Astaire, and Lily Pons. The happier anniversary we note is the founding of the Hollywood Bowl itself, on today’s date in 1922. This open-air auditorium was constructed in a natural canyon in the Los Angeles area, and hosted its first public concert with the fearsomely-bearded German conductor Alfred Hertz on the podium. An audience of 5,000 cheered music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Rossini. Works by those composers still show up on Hollywood Bowl programs today, often alongside selections from now-classic Hollywood film scores, often conducted by their composers—bearded or otherwise.

Handel declines, Schuman accepts

Jul 10, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1733, Georg Friderich Handel paid a visit to Oxford to conduct the premiere performance of his new oratorio, “Athalia,” at the Sheldonian Theater. Handel had been invited by the University to add some musical pizzazz to an elaborate ceremony know as “The Publick Act,” during which honorary degrees were bestowed on worthy individuals. It was apparently a terrific performance, with one visitor from London reporting: “Never has there been such applause and marks of admiration.” But not everyone in Oxford was happy. One crusty don, apparently not a fan of new music, complained of the presence of “Handel and his lousy crew—a great number of foreign fiddlers.“ Handel was offered an honorary degree by Oxford, but he did not accept, claiming he was “too busy,” but maybe he just balked at paying the University’s required fee of 100 pounds to receive the honor. In the 19th century, Oxford and its rival Cambridge would bestow honorary degrees on other major composers like Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, and, in our own time, between 1949 and 1990, one American composer, William Schuman received no fewer than 28 honorary degrees. In fact, Schuman had so many that he had a quilt sewn together from pieces of his ceremonial gowns, so that, as he liked to quip, “He could take his naps by degrees.”

Respighi and Chihara

Jul 9, 2019 00:02:00


Today we note the birthday anniversaries of two composers, one Italian, and one American. On today’s date in 1879, Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna, Italy. Respighi is one of the few Italian composers more famous for orchestral works than operas. In 1902, Respighi studied with the Russian master of orchestration, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and the result was a series of brilliantly scored instrumental works for large orchestra. In 1913, Respighi settled permanently in Rome, and he immortalized that city in a famous trilogy of Roman tone poems: “The Pines of Rome,” “The Fountains of Rome,” and “Roman Festivals.” Respighi died in Rome in 1936. July 9th is also the birthday of American composer Paul Chihara, who was born in Seattle in 1938. Chihara is of Japanese-American descent, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of WWII, his family, like that of many Japanese-Americans, was relocated to an internment camp. Chihara studied literature at the University of Washington, and composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Chihara has written a number of film scores, and his television credits include “China Beach” and “100 Centre Street.” For ten years Chihara was composer in residence with the San Francisco Ballet, and this music is from his ballet score titled “The Tempest,” after the play by Shakespeare.

"The Composer is Dead!"

Jul 8, 2019 00:02:00


It’s a book – it’s a YouTube video – it’s a concert hall work! It’s by Stookey and Snicket! Now, “Stookey and Snicket” is not the name of a law firm in some obscure novel by Charles Dickens, but is in fact the collaborative team of American composer Nathaniel Stookey and American novelist Daniel Handler, who writes popular children’s books under the pen name of Lemony Snicket. Stookey was the youngest composer ever commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony's New and Unusual Music Series when he collaborated with Handler on a piece for narrator and orchestra. Their collaboration, entitled “The Composer Is Dead,” premiered on this date in 2006. This “new and usual” work with a macabre title is similar to Prokofiev's “Peter and the Wolf” and Britten's “The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra” in that it intends to introduce young audiences to the instruments of the orchestra. But anyone familiar with Lemony Snicket books can expect something a little quirky, and, in fact, “The Composer Is Dead” is a murder mystery, complete with a police inspector rounding up the usual suspects, and eventually pointing the finger… And if you want to find out “whodunit”—well, you’ll have to buy the book!

"The Ballad of Baby Doe"

Jul 7, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1956, one of the most successful of all American operas had its first performance at the Center Opera House in Colorado. “The Ballad of Baby Doe” was created by composer Douglas Moore and librettist John Latouche, and was based on a real-life tale of love and loss that had played out in that state. Elizabeth McCourt Tabor, better known as “Baby Doe,” became the second wife of the Colorado prospector, businessman, and politician Horace Tabor in 1883. Tabor's messy divorce and remarriage to the young and beautiful Baby Doe was a major scandal at the time. Tabor was immensely wealthy, and had built an Opera House that bears his name and still stands in Leadville, Colorado, where he met Baby Doe. In 1899, Tabor had lost his entire fortune, and after his death, Baby Doe lived on in a poor miner’s shack near Leadville, where she was found frozen to death in 1935. And it was on a cold winter’s day—a year before the premiere of their new opera—that Moore and Latouche paid a visit to Tabor’s Opera House in Leadville, and stood on its stage for inspiration. A witness of their visit recalled: “I was intensely aware of a great and eerie silence that suddenly came over the building. If ever there were ghosts of the past in the Tabor Opera House I could believe that they were there at that moment!”

Noteworthy Boulanger and Zwilich

Jul 6, 2019 00:02:00


It was on this day in 1913 that the French Academy of Fine Arts—for the first time in its history—presented its highest award, the Prix de Rome, to a woman. The honor was awarded to Lili Boulanger, who was just 19 years old at the time. She was born in Paris in 1893, the younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, who would become the most famous teacher of composition in the 20th century, numbering an amazing array of famous American composers among her students, ranging from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass. Nadia’s sister Lili, however, suffered from poor health. Her tragically short career was interrupted by World War I, when she volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers. She died before the great conflict was over, on March 15th, 1918, at the age of 24. Nearer to our own time, another woman, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, made history when she became the first woman composer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. That was in 1983, and the piece was her Symphony No. 1. Born in Miami, Florida, in 1939, Zwilich studied composition with Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions at Juilliard, and accomplished another “first” by becoming the first woman to earn the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition at the famous school. Her Third Symphony was commissioned in 1992 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic.

Meyerbeer at the Opera

Jul 5, 2019 00:02:00


For opera composers of the 19th century, Paris—not Vienna, Milan, or Berlin—was the center of the operatic universe. Money had a lot to do with that, since the Paris Opera paid better than anyone else, and boasted musical and visual resources far beyond other European theaters. All the great 19th century opera composers, including Verdi and Wagner, sought commissions from the Paris Opera. On today’s date in 1823, a 33-year old German composer living in Venice appealed to one of the Paris Opera’s stars, the French bass Nicolas Levasseur, for help in securing just such a commission. “I assure you it would be a much greater honor for me to write for the French opera than for all the Italian theaters put together,” this composer wrote. “Where else but in Paris can one find the immense resources that French opera offers the composer who longs to write truly dramatic music?” The flattery, honest or feigned, must have worked. The German composer, Jakob Meyerbeer by name, got his toe in the door, and in 1831 his opera “Robert the Devil” debuted in Paris to great acclaim. And Meyerbeer didn’t forget M. Levasseur’s help: in “Robert the Devil” he thanked the singer with a tailor-made lead role for the bass voice.

Born on the Fourth of July?

Jul 4, 2019 00:02:00


Today we celebrate three legendary figures in American popular music. The first is Stephen Foster, the great American songwriter of the 19th century who composed 189 classic songs including “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Old Folks at Home.” Foster was born on this date in 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. The second figure we honor today is the incredibly influential 20th century jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, who claimed to have been born on this date in New Orleans in the year 1900. It seems too good to be true that Foster and Armstrong should both have been born on the Fourth of July—in fact, Armstrong’s real birthday occurred on August 4, 1901. Apparently, Armstrong wasn’t sure of the exact details, so he and his agent decided that it would be good publicity for Armstrong to be born on the Fourth of July and at the start of the new century. The great Vaudeville and Broadway song and dance man, George M. Cohan, also believed he was born on the Fourth of July, in 1878—a public misconception reinforced by the famous 1942 biographical film of Cohan’s life, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” starring James Cagney as George M. The belated discovery of Cohan’s birth certificate, however, proved that a Yankee Doodle Dandy he may have been, but one actually born on the THIRD of July.

Plucky music with Landowska and Harbach

Jul 3, 2019 00:02:00


The piano became the dominant keyboard instrument in Mozart’s lifetime in the late 18th century. Before that, the harpsichord had ruled. But for more than a hundred years after Mozart’s day, the harpsichord seemed as dead as the dodo, and even the great harpsichord works of Bach and other early 18th century masters were always played on the piano—that is, until Wanda Landowska came on the scene. This indomitable woman was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1879, and single-handedly brought the harpsichord back to life. It was on today’s date in 1927 that she inaugurated an historic series of harpsichord concerts at her summer home near Paris—and, two years later, in 1929, Landowska premiered the “Concert champêtre,” by Francis Poulenc, a brand new harpsichord concerto written specially for her. Very much in the spirit of Wanda Landowska, the contemporary composer and performer Barbara Harbach is in the vanguard of today’s advocates for the harpsichord. A passionate advocate for new music, she has recorded several compact discs of “20th Century Harpsichord Music” for the Gasparo label, featuring works by American composers from Samuel Adler to Ellen Taafe Zwillich.

Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"

Jul 2, 2019 00:02:00


On this date in 1723, church-goers in Leipzig were offered some festive music along with the gospel readings and sermon. The vocal and instrumental music was pulled together from various sources, some old, some newly-composed, and crafted into a fresh, unified work, a church cantata entitled “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben”—which in English would be “heart and voice and thought and action.” The idea was that text and music would complement and comment on that day’s scripture readings and sermon. Now this sort of thing was not all that uncommon back then for the hard-working composer Johann Sebastian Bach. On average Bach would prepare and present around 50 church cantatas a year, and Bach’s cantata No. 147, presented on July 2, 1723, concluded with a catchy melody that would be revived to great effect some 200 years later. In 1926, the concluding choral section of Bach’s cantata, “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” in the original German, was arranged by the British pianist Dame Myra Hess and given an English title, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It became a popular piano recital selection, and, over time, a very popular piece to play at weddings—even though Bach’s original cantata text had nothing at all to do with tying the knot.

Brahms and Berg on busman holidays?

Jul 1, 2019 00:02:00


“Where to go for summer vacation?” That’s always been the question for any city-dweller fortunate enough to be able to escape to somewhere cool and green, with perhaps an ocean beach or at least a lake nearby. In the summers of 1877 and 1878, Johannes Brahms abandoned urban Vienna for the rural Austrian district known as Carinthia and specifically the small town of Pörtschach on Wörthersee. Even today, this is prime vacation territory, with rolling green hills, dark pine trees, bright blue lakes, and the snow-capped Alps along the horizon. And the wildflowers have to be seen to be believed. We can’t show you all that, but perhaps you can hear a sense of that landscape in the Second Symphony and Violin Concerto of Brahms —two works he composed during his summer holidays there. In Carinthia, said Brahms, the melodies are so abundant that one had to be careful not to step on them. There just might be something in that, at least with respect to great Violin Concertos. In July of 1935, 57 years after Brahms wrote his Concerto in Pörtschach, the Viennese composer Alban Berg would finish his Violin Concerto in the same town, on the opposite shore of the Wörthersee from where Brahms stayed during his summer vacations. Berg’s Concerto even includes a quote from a risqué Carinthian folksong.

Anton Arensky

Jun 30, 2019 00:02:00


Under the old Julian calendar in use in Czarist Russia, on today’s date in 1861, the Romantic composer Anton Arensky was born in Novgorod. If you prefer, you can also celebrate Arensky’s birthday on July 12—the same date under the modern Gregorian calendar, but Arensky was such a Romantic that the Old Style date seems, well, more appropriate somehow. Arensky studied with Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov, and admired the music of Tchaikovsky. Arensky taught at the Moscow Conservatory and published two books: a “Manual of Harmony” and “A Handbook of Musical Forms.” His own students included a number of famous Russian composers, including Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Glière. Arensky wrote three operas, two symphonies, concertos, chamber works, and suites for two pianos—but it’s his Piano Trio in D minor that gets performed and recorded more often than any of his other works. A victim of tuberculosis, Arensky spent the last years of his life in a Finnish sanatorium. He died young—just 44 years old—in 1906.

A modern Monteverdi premiere

Jun 29, 2019 00:02:00


The reign of the Roman emperor Nero, notorious for his horrific deeds, was chronicled by the historian Tacitus. His account of the rise of the courtesan Poppea from Nero’s mistress to his empress, provides the plot of one of the operas written by the 17th century Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” was first performed in Venice at the Teatro Sanctae Giovanni e Paolo in the autumn of 1643. The first performance of Monteverdi’s “Poppea” in modern times had to wait until 1913, when the French composer Vincent d’Indy presented his arrangement of “Poppea” in Paris. In America and Britain, “Poppea” was first staged in 1927, at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts and at Oxford University in England. It wasn’t until today’s date in 1962 that a full professional staging of “Poppea” occurred at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, in a version prepared and conducted by Raymond Leppard. Monteverdi did not prescribe specific vocal ranges for the characters, and since there was no standardized orchestra in the 17th century, it was customary back then to simply give a list of some suggested instruments and leave it to the performers to decide who played what and when. Therefore, any MODERN performance of a Monteverdi opera is always somebody’s “version” of the surviving notes, based on educated guesswork and the available performers.

Leoni in San Francisco

Jun 28, 2019 00:02:00


A decidedly UN-politically correct opera had its premiere at London’s Covent Garden on today’s date in 1905. It was entitled “L’Oracolo” or “The Oracle” by the Italian composer Franco Leoni. Here’s a witty one-sentence précis of the opera prepared by Nicolas Slonimsky for his chronology “Music Since 1900”: “L’Oracolo, an opera in one long act, dealing with multiplex villainy in San Francisco’s Chinatown, wherein a wily opium-den keeper kidnaps the child of the uncle of a girl he covets, kills her young lover, and is in the end strangled by the latter’s father, with a local astrologer delivering remarkably accurate oracles; an Italianate score tinkling with tiny bells, booming with deep gongs, and bubbling with orientalistic pentatonicisms.” Another wag described “L’Oracolo” as “Puccini-and-water,” suggesting that if Puccini were whisky, Leoni music was definitely a less potent brew. But when a touring Italian opera company announced a performance of “L’Oracolo” in San Francisco in 1937, the city’s Asian residents protested, demanding they cut the most racially offensive scenes or, better yet, stage a different opera altogether. A compromise was reached, whereby the House manager preceded the performance with a speech assuring the capacity audience that the opera’s locale and action were pure fiction, and bore no resemblance to San Francisco’s Chinatown past or present.

Schoenberg for Winds

Jun 27, 2019 00:02:00


According to Emerson, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Well, we’re not sure if the composer Arnold Schoenberg ever read Emerson, but we think the 20th-century Austrian composer must have shared this principle with the 19th-century American essayist. Just when many people had Schoenberg comfortably pigeon-holed as an “atonal” composer, he went and wrote a big TONAL piece, resolutely set in the key of G minor. In the 1940’s, Schoenberg’s publisher asked him to write a piece for high school or amateur wind band. The work Schoenberg finished during the summer of 1943 was entitled “Theme and Variations,” and was described by its composer—with his customary modesty—as (quote), “one of those compositions which one writes in order to enjoy one’s own virtuosity and… to give a certain group of music lovers something better to play.” Schoenberg’s music proved a little too difficult for high school bands, however, so its first performance was given on today’s date in 1946 by the Goldman Band, America’s top wind ensemble of that day, at a Central Park concert in New York City conducted by Richard Franko Goldman, an enthusiastic supporter of new works for band.

Mahler's Ninth

Jun 26, 2019 00:02:00


In the summer of 1912, the Vienna Philharmonic presented a week-long Music Festival that offered three “Ninths”—Beethoven’s Ninth conducted by Felix Weingartner, Bruckner’s Ninth conducted by Artur Nikisch, and, on today’s date, the world premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth, conducted by Bruno Walter. Mahler had died the previous year, and the Viennese public greeted the posthumous premiere of his last complete work with a roar of applause—and decidedly mixed reviews. The work’s elegiac opening won over most of the professional critics, but many were frankly puzzled by some of the symphony’s raucous middle movements. Bruno Walter, the Mahler protégé who conducted the premiere, was singled out for praise, however. Walter made two famous recordings of Mahler’s Ninth: The first made live during a January 16, 1938, concert of the Vienna Philharmonic. On January 16, 1961—exactly 23 years to the day after that 1938 recording—Walter began making a stereo recording of Mahler’s Ninth at the American Legion Hall in Hollywood, with the Columbia Symphony. Walter was 84 in 1961, and despite repeated pleas from the control room, couldn’t stop himself from vigorously stamping his foot 17 seconds into the second-movement, Laendler—a thump not written in Mahler’s score, but now part of Walter’s classic second recording.

Mendelssohn's Second

Jun 25, 2019 00:02:00


In the middle of the 15th century, a German printer by the name of Johann Gutenberg invented a method of printing from moveable type cast in metal. His invention revolutionized the way books were printed, and the widespread dissemination of Gutenberg Bibles made him famous in Europe. In the summer of 1840, the city of Leipzig planned to unveil a new statue of Gutenberg, and commissioned composer Felix Mendelssohn for two new works. The first, for two choirs, would accompany the unveiling of the statue of Gutenberg, and would take place in the city’s open marketplace after the morning church service on June 24th. The following day, June 25th, there would be a gala concert in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church featuring the church choir and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performing a new symphony by Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, entitled “Lobgesang,” or “Hymn of Praise,” is modeled on Beethoven’s Ninth, opening with purely instrumental movements, and concluding with a finale for vocal soloists and chorus. Mendelssohn’s text was taken from Martin Luther’s German-language translation of the Bible. Since the premiere was intended for St. Thomas Church, where the master of counterpoint Johann Sebastian Bach had once been Kantor, Mendelssohn chose to end his Symphony with a big fugue.

Harry Partch and Terry Riley

Jun 24, 2019 00:02:00


Today’s date marks the shared birthday of two of America’s most famous “maverick” composers, both hailing from California. June 24, 1901, is the birth date of Harry Partch, an Oakland native. Partch devoted his life to developing an alternate system of tuning. Instead of the conventional Western system of equal temperament, in Partch’s harmonic world, microtones were welcomed. To play his expanded scales, Partch designed and built new instruments with colorful names like “marimba eroica” and “cloud chamber bowls.” For Partch, music was a synthesis of theory and theater, ritual and dance -- intensely physical in nature and best experienced live. Harry Partch died in San Diego in 1974. Another Californian, born on this date in 1935, is Colfax native Terry Riley. It was in San Francisco in 1964 that Riley’s most famous piece, entitled “In C”, received its premiere. The score consists of 53 phrases, or modules, with each player freely repeating each phrase as many times as desired before proceeding to the next. The result is an unpredictable, unique music work of canonic textures and polyrhythms, capable of being performed by any group of instruments ranging from a marimba ensemble to a full symphony orchestra, and now regarded as one of the seminal works of the so-called “minimalist” movement in music.

Reinhold Gliere

Jun 23, 2019 00:02:00


Today we remember the Russian composer Reinhold Glière, who died in Moscow on today’s date in 1956. These days Glière is probably best known for the popular “Russian Sailor’s Dance” from his ballet “The Red Poppy.” Glière was born in Kiev in 1875, and studied at the Moscow Conservatory, where he later became professor of composition. That was after the Russian Revolution, and Glière could count among his students Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Miaskovsky. With the success of works like “The Red Poppy,” Glière is often cited as the founder of Soviet ballet. Glière also wrote several symphonies, all intensely Russian in color and character. The most famous of these is his Third, subtitled “Ilya Murometz” after a legendary Russian folk hero. Glière was also intrigued by the folk music of the far eastern republics of the then USSR, incorporating folk themes from the Soviet Union’s Trans-Caucus and Central Asian peoples into some of his orchestral scores. He was a very prolific composer, but apart from a handful of very popular works, most of Glière's operas, ballets and orchestral works remain largely unfamiliar to most music lovers in the West.

Wagner in New York (and Philadelphia)

Jun 22, 2019 00:02:00


For eight summers starting in 1868, the German-born American conductor Theodore Thomas lead concerts at New York City’s Central Park. As usual with Thomas’s programs, there was a calculated mix of old and new music, and more than a few premieres. On today’s date in 1871, for example, Thomas conducted the first American performance of “Kaiser March,” a brand-new work by the German opera composer Richard Wagner completed earlier that year to honor Wilhelm of Prussia who had just become Emperor of a united German Reich. It went over very well back in Germany, and, considering that: a) everybody likes a good march, especially at summertime pops concerts and, b) a sizeable percentage of New York’s musicians in Thomas’s day were either German-born or German-trained, we can assume Wagner’s “Kaiser March” was well-received at its American debut. Five years later, in 1876, Thomas would conduct the premiere of another celebratory march by Wagner, this one commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the American Revolution. Wagner was paid $5000, an enormous sum of money in those days, to compose an “American Centennial March” for national festivities in Philadelphia. Both of these marches are seldom performed today, and are regarded as pretty thin stuff, musically speaking. Wagner himself quipped that the best thing about his “American Centennial March” was the fee he received for writing it.

Sean Hickey's Cello Concerto

Jun 21, 2019 00:02:00


There are dozens of famous cello concertos that get performed in concert halls these days, ranging from 18th century works by the Italian Baroque master Antonio Vivaldi to dramatic 20th century works of the Russian modernist Dmitri Shostakovich. In 2007, the American composer Sean Hickey was commissioned by Russian cellist Dmitry Kouzov to write a new concerto, which received its premiere performance on today’s date two years later, in 2009. “In this work,” Hickey recalled, “I wanted to fuse my interest in neo-classical clarity and design with the songful, heroic nature of the greatest cello concerto literature … My Cello Concerto had its Russian premiere at the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, a neo-Baroque edifice on the banks of the Fontanka River in Saint Petersburg … [It] was then recorded in the legendary Melodiya Studios on Vasilevsky Island in St. Petersburg, known from Soviet times as producing recordings from the likes of Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Mravinsky, and many others. “One moment of personal satisfaction came when the Russian orchestra, after rehearsing the piece for days, picked up on a buried quotation from Shostakovich’s Seventh, his ‘Leningrad Symphony’ in the final pages of my piece. It’s easy to forget in the glittering and watery metropolis, which rivals any European city for beauty and culture, that St. Petersburg is a city full of ghosts.”

Anderson and Golijov for the record

Jun 20, 2019 00:02:00


It’s a mark success when a new musical work is recorded shortly after its premiere, and even more when the recording session itself IS the premiere. But that was the case with many works written by the American composer Leroy Anderson, whose short and tuneful compositions from the 1940s, 50s and 60s proved enormously popular during his lifetime. On June 20, 1962, Anderson was at New York’s Manhattan Center, conducting for Decca Records the premiere of his “Clarinet Candy.” By recording in the summer months, when many of New York’s best symphonic players were available for studio work, Anderson was able to round up top-notch musicians for his recording sessions. The contemporary Argentinean-born composer Osvaldo Golijov has also proved popular enough to have many of his brand-new works recorded either at their premieres or shortly thereafter. This Klezmer-style clarinet piece is entitled “Rocketekya,” and was written for the 20th anniversary of New York’s Merkin Hall. Golijov explained: “I thought it would be interesting to write a different sort of celebratory piece, and I had an idea of a shofar blasting inside a rocket—an ancient sound propelled toward the future.”

A Monster Concert for Peace

Jun 19, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1869, a visitor to Boston’s Back Bay could have marveled at a huge, specially-erected wooden structure sporting American flags and surrounded by a mini-village of peanut vendors and lemonade stands. Inside, an orchestra of 1000 sat surrounded by a chorus of 10,000. Over the stage hung giant portraits of Handel and Beethoven, and higher yet depictions of two angels gazing heavenwards by a banner reading “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.” This June 19th concert marked the end of a 5-day Jubilee Festival of Music and Reconciliation, as America tried to mend the wounds caused by its recent Civil War. Former Union General and current President Ulysses S. Grant was on hand, and the New York Times opined that the Festival offered proof that, “our people can think of something beyond … the almighty dollar.” During the Festival, the massive orchestra and chorus performed selections ranging from “classical” works by Bach and Mozart to more recent works by Meyerbeer and Verdi. A review by John S. Dwight, Boston’s leading music critic of that day, found the immense chorus “glorious and inspiring” and the huge orchestra “splendid.” However, he dismissed a performance of Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus,” accompanied by 100 real anvils, as a “childish, trivial thing for such a grand occasion.”

Pleyel in the Old World (and the New)

Jun 18, 2019 00:02:00


Drop the name “Pleyel” among classical music aficionados and one might say, “Oh, yeah, Pleyel. He was a French piano maker. I think Chopin liked Pleyel pianos.” Another might add, “He was a composer, too, but... I don’t think he was really French…” Another might add, “Didn’t he have something to do with Haydn?” Well, they’re ALL right. Ignace Joseph Pleyel was born near Vienna on today’s date in 1757. As a teenager, he became a pupil of Haydn, and in 1791, ended up in London, where, for a time, Pleyel’s orchestral concerts competed with Haydn’s. The two remained friends, however, dined together and attended each other’s concerts. In 1795, Pleyel set up shop in Paris, where he founded a publishing house and piano factory. His own compositions remained enormously popular. In 1805, Pleyel travelled to Vienna, visited the aging Haydn and heard that young upstart Beethoven improvising at the piano. In 1822, the whaling port of Nantucket, Massachusetts, formed a Pleyel Society ‘to chasten the taste of listeners,’ in the words of a local newspaper. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music, “The most telling evidence of the appeal of Pleyel’s music lies in the thousands of manuscript copies that filled the shelves of archives, libraries, … and private homes, and in the thousands of editions of his music produced in Europe and North America.”

Bach and Mattheson

Jun 17, 2019 00:02:00


Back in 1714, today’s date fell on a Sunday, and, if you had happened to be attending a church service at the German Court of the Duke of Weimar, you might have heard some new music by the Duke’s court composer and organist, Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s possible that Bach’s Cantata No. 21 received its first performance that day: its first part before the sermon, its second part right afterwards. The opening text, which Bach sets as a fugue, begins “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” or, in English, I had much affliction.” Now even in Bach’s day, composers were afflicted with critics. In 1725, a then-famous composer—and critic—Johann Mattheson took Bach to task for the way in which he had set his text by quoting exactly what is being sung: "I, I, I, I had much affliction, I had much affliction, in my heart, in my heart. I had much affliction, in my heart…” etc… Mattheson’s point, apparently, was that vocal music should not stutter, but flow gracefully in the “gallant” style that was becoming more fashionable and trendy back then. Even so, Mattheson knew that Bach was the real deal, and earlier had praised Bach in print for church and keyboard music so well written that (quote), “we must certainly rate this man highly.”

Charles Ives and Henry Brant

Jun 16, 2019 00:02:00


The American composer Henry Brant is famous for his avant-garde “spatial” music—works that require groups of musicians stationed at various points around a performance space. But hard-core film music buffs might also know Brant as a master orchestrator of other composers’ scores for Hollywood productions in the 1960s. On today’s date in 1995, Brant conducted the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa, Canada, in the premiere of one of his orchestrations—in this case, a symphonic version of the “Concord” Piano Sonata of Charles Ives, first published in 1920. In the long preface to his Sonata, Ives wrote: “The [Sonata] is an attempt to present [an] impression of the spirit of transcendentalism… associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts… impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality… found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.” Henry Brant had been profoundly influenced by Ives’s music long before he got to know the “Concord” Sonata, but when he did, Brant set to work orchestrating it. “I sensed that here was a tremendous orchestral piece,” Brant wrote. “It seemed to me that the complete Sonata, in a symphonic orchestration, might become the ‘Great American Symphony’ that we had been seeking for years… What better way to honor Ives.”

Byrne and Eno in Minneapolis

Jun 15, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1980, a week-long festival entitled “New Music America” came to a close in Minneapolis with a concert at that city’s Guthrie Theater. The program included the premiere of “High Life for Strings,” composed by David Byrne, a musician best known for his work with a rock band called The Talking Heads. Byrne later recalled, “When I participated in the New Music America festival in Minneapolis, minimalism and New-Age noodling were making big in-roads into a scene that had been more insular and academic. My piece, for a dozen strings was on a program with Philip Glass.” Byrne says he was influenced by the intricate rhythms of West African pop music. Brian Eno was another rock musician represented during the Festival in Minneapolis. Some years earlier, Eno had been so irritated by the inane, chirpy muzak he heard while traveling that he composed a soothing ambient synthesizer score he called “Music for Airports.” Appropriately enough, during the 8 days of the Festival, Eno’s score was broadcast 24 hours a day throughout the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Decades after its composition, composer Michael Gordon arranged Brian Eno’s synthesizer score for acoustic instruments, and recorded this arrangement of “Music for Airports” with the “Bang on a Can All-Stars.”

Godfrey's Quartet No. 3

Jun 14, 2019 00:02:00


It’s summertime, the livin’ is easy, and all across the country music festivals large and small are getting underway. In addition to the big symphonic festivals at Ravinia and Tanglewood, there are smaller ones devoted exclusively to the intimate art of chamber music. These festival often offer young, emerging composers the chance have their brand-new scores heard in workshop settings. Sometimes composers themselves are in charge of these summer festivals, partnering with established or specially-organized performing ensembles. In 1995, for example, two American composers, Daniel S. Godfrey and Andrew Waggoner, started up the Seal Bay Festival, a two-week series of performances and workshops of recently composed chamber music in the Penobscot Bay area of Maine. On June 14th, 2001, this newly-revised string quartet by Daniel Godfrey received its premiere by the Cassatt Quartet at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport. The quartet is inscribed to the memory of Godfrey’s mother, who died in 1997. “Her passing,” says Godfrey, “came to represent for me the losses, and the necessity of letting go, that have accompanied my arrival at late middle age. To oversimplify, perhaps, the first movement grieves, the second looks back wistfully, and the third looks ahead with determination and, ultimately, with hope.”

Milhaud's "French Suite"

Jun 13, 2019 00:02:00


In 1944, the French composer Darius Milhaud was in California, teaching at Mills College in California, and received a commission to write a piece suitable for school bands. With a world at war, the Jewish composer had found safe refuge in the U.S., and so eagerly accepted the commission for a number of reasons. Milhaud, confined to a wheelchair for most of his adult life, sent his wife Madaleine to the College library to obtain a collection of French folk tunes. His idea was arrange of some these into a suite. As the composer himself explained after his “Suite Française” was finished: “The five parts of [my] Suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the American and Allied armies fought together with the French underground for the liberation of my country. I used some folk tunes of these Provinces, as I wanted the young American to hear the popular melodies of those parts of France where their fathers and brothers fought on behalf of the peaceful and democratic people of France." Milhaud’s “Suite Française” was premiered by the Goldman Band in New York City on today’s date in 1945, and rapidly became one the best-known and most often performed of Milhaud’s works, and one of the established classics of the wind-band repertory.

Jennifer Higdon

Jun 12, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 2002, a high-profile musical event occurred at Philadelphia’s new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The city was hosting the 57th National Conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was celebrating its 100th anniversary with eight new commissions, all to be premiered in the Orchestra’s new Verizon Hall. On June 12th, the new piece was a Concerto for Orchestra by a 39-year-old composer named Jennifer Higdon. Higdon’s “Concerto” opened the Philadelphia Orchestra’s program, followed by Richard Strauss’s tone-poem “Ein Heldenleben.” Both pieces were performed before an audience of orchestral professionals from around the country—not to mention Higdon’s proud mother. Higdon, understandably a little nervous, quipped to a newspaper reporter, "You'll know my mother because she'll be the one crying BEFORE the piece starts." Higdon needn’t have worried. Her “Concerto for Orchestra” was greeted with cheers from both its audience and performers—the latter in typically irreverent fashion, dubbed the new piece “Ein Higdonleben.” Higdon, the only woman among the eight composers commissioned for the orchestra's centennial project, calls herself a "late bloomer" as a composer. She taught herself the flute at age 15 and didn't pursue formal music training until college. She was almost finished with her bachelor's degree requirements at Bowling Green State University when she started composing her own music.

Riegger in Paris

Jun 11, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1931, the Russian-born American composer Nicolas Slonimsky was in Paris, conducting the second of two concerts of modern music from the Americas bankrolled by a retired insurance executive named Charles Ives. This second concert showcased Latin American composers like Pedro Sanjuan, Carlos Chavez, and Alejandro Caturla, as well as works by the Franco-American composers Carlos Salzedo and Edgard Varese. North America was represented by Wallingford Riegger’s “Three Canons” for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Normally, chamber music for just four players doesn’t require the services of a conductor, but in this case Slonimsky did beat time for the Parisian wind players hired for the gig. As Slonimsky put it, “Some instrumental parts were written in 5/8 and others in 2/8. I started beating time in 5/8, whereupon the binary musicians began to gesticulate at me to show their discomfort. What was I to do? OK, I said, I will conduct 5/8 with my right hand and 2/8 with my left. I was so delighted with my newly found ambidextrous technique that I applied it in other pieces as well, notably in the second movement of Ives’ Three Place in New England, played on the first of the two Parisian concerts. Someone quipped that my conducting was evangelical, for my right hand knew not what my left hand was doing.”

Some Brits in New York

Jun 10, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1939, the King and Queen of England were in New York City. Despite the perilous situation back home in Europe, their royal majesties George and Elizabeth Windsor crossed the Atlantic to attend the 1939 World’s Fair, and sample exotic native delights such as a hot dog picnic with President Franklin Roosevelt. That same evening at Carnegie Hall, another visiting Brit, conductor Adrian Boult, led the New York Philharmonic in premiere performances of three brand-new works by leading British composers of the day, including the world premiere of the Seventh Symphony of Arnold Bax, a work commissioned by the British Council and dedicated to the American people. Also premiered that night was a virtuoso Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ set of variations for strings and harp on the old English carol, “Dives and Lazarus.” The music critic for The New Yorker, covering the premieres, wrote: “The symphony wandered, as Bax symphonies seem to do, yet wandered into many characteristic eloquences. The variations were soundly charming, and the piano concerto was a roaring triumph.” There seems to be no documentation on the quality of the hot dogs served to their royal majesties, but we’re willing to bet they, too, were top-notch.

Belated Haydn Premieres

Jun 9, 2019 00:02:00


Contemporary composers may bemoan that their newly-composed opera or concerto might languish unperformed for years. “Haydn was lucky,” they whine, “His stuff got played right away!” Well, it’s true that Haydn DID have his own orchestra at Prince Esterhazy’s estate and got his music played while the ink was still wet. But even Haydn had to wait for a premiere on occasion—in two instances, for a very, VERY long time. Consider the last opera Haydn wrote, entitled L'anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice—or, in plain English, The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Euridice. This was supposed to premiere in 1791 in London. But a spat between the Prince of Wales and his pop, King George III, meant the performance was off. The opera was eventually premiered 160 years later—on today’s date in 1951, at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, with a cast including Maria Callas and Boris Christoff, led by the German conductor Erich Kleiber. And the public premiere of a Cello Concerto in C, a work some think Haydn wrote at Esterhazy in the 1760s, took place in the 1960s. Haydn’s score was presumed lost until 1961, when it was discovered at the Prague National Museum and finally played by cellist Milos Sádlo and the Czech Radio Symphony, led by Sir Charles Mackerras, on May 19, 1962.

Elliott Carter's “Two Controversies and a Conversation”

Jun 8, 2019 00:02:00


The American composer Elliott Carter lived to be 103 and remained amazingly productive, publishing more than 40 works between ages 90 and 100, and over 20 more AFTER he turned 100 in the year 2008. On today’s date in 2012, a new chamber work by Carter with an odd title received its first performance at a concert in the New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! Series. The work was titled “Two Controversies and a Conversation” and showcased the percussive aspects of the piano, highlighting that instrument alongside a solo percussionist. The premiere was an international triple-commission from the New York Philharmonic, the Aldeburgh Festival in England, and Radio France. An earlier version of part of the new work, titled just “Conversations,” had been premiered in the UK the previous year. The composer explained the title as follows: “How does one converse?” asked Carter. “One person says something and tries to get the other person to respond, or carry on, or contradict a statement. Those conversing are also all the time playing a kind of game with each other. I tried to put all that into my music … After the premiere of ‘Conversations’ at the Aldeburgh Festival in June of 2011, [the British composer] Oliver Knussen suggested I expand this piece. I decided to add two more movements, which became the two ‘Controversies.’"

Alice Parker and ChoralQuest

Jun 7, 2019 00:02:00


Boston-born American composer Alice Parker is a respected figure in the world of choral music. She studied with the legendary choral conductor Robert Shaw and collaborated with him in a series of folk-song arrangements that are performed by choruses all over the world. Parker was approached by the American Composers Forum to write a new work for their “Choral Quest” series specially designed for middle school children. Parker was intrigued by the challenge, realizing that many scores written for elementary schools would be too easy for middle schoolers, but works written for high school choirs might be too difficult. Also, parts written for middle school boys would have to accommodate voices in the process of changing from treble to tenor, baritone, and bass. Parker collaborated with students from the Amherst Regional Middle School Choir in her home state, and found some Native American texts that intrigued her, including one that began “What I am, I must become.” That text seemed perfect, since, as Parker put it, “Children that age have so much ‘becoming’ to do… what they don’t realize—yet—is that is true for all of us, all of our lives!” That text became the first of a three-part suite entitled “Dancing Songs,” premiered by the Amherst Regional Middle School Choir and their director David Ranen on today’s date in 2011.

Cowell in Paris

Jun 6, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1931, the Russian-born American conductor, and composer Nicolas Slonimsky was in Paris conducting the first of two concerts of ultra-modern music from the New World. These were presented under the auspices of the Pan American Association of Composers, and funded by an anonymous philanthropist Slonimsky later identified as retired insurance executive and fellow composer Charles Ives. Slonimsky had approached Ives early in 1931 with the idea of presenting a series of new music concerts in New York. When that proved too costly, they suggested mounting the same concerts in Paris. “In 1931, the dollar was still almighty among world currencies,” recalled Slonimsky. “Ives gave me a letter of credit to the Paris branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank in the amount of $1500, an enormous sum of money in French francs at the time. The prestigious Orchestra Straram was engaged for my first Paris concert. I had a brilliant audience: composers, journalists, painters, Italian futurists. There was applause, but also puzzled responses.” One French music critic even entitled his review “The Discovery of America,” writing, “We have, (without joking), just discovered America, thanks to a Christopher Columbus called Slonimsky.” As for Ives, he was very pleased with the success of the concerts, and for a time jokingly addressed Slonimsky as either “Columbus et Vespuccius,”

Corigliano Dances

Jun 5, 2019 00:02:00


Merriam-Webster’s defines a “gazebo” as “a freestanding roofed structure usually open on the sides. To most Americans, however, “gazebo” conjures up warm, summer days spent out-of-doors: If you imagine yourself inside a gazebo, you’re probably enjoying a cool beverage while gazing out at the greenery—or, if you fancy yourself outside one, you’re probably seated in a lawn chair, gazing at a group of gazebo-sheltered band musicians playing a pops concert for your entertainment. In the early 1970’s, the American composer John Corigliano wrote a series of whimsical four-hand piano dances he dedicated to certain of his pianist friends, and then later arranged these pieces for concert band, entitling the resulting suite “Gazebo Dances. “ “The title,” explained Corigliano, “was suggested by the pavilions often seen on village greens in towns throughout the countryside, where public band concerts are given in the summer. The delights of that sort of entertainment are portrayed in this set of dances, which begins with a Rossini-like Overture, followed by a rather peg-legged Waltz, a long-lined Adagio, and a bouncy Tarantella.” The concert band version of Corigliano’s “Gazebo Dances” was first performed in Indiana on today’s date in 1973, by the University of Evansville Wind Ensemble, with Robert Bailey conducting.

Brahms rediscovered

Jun 4, 2019 00:02:00


In the summer of 1853 Johannes Brahms had just turned twenty and was touring as the piano accompanist of the Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi. On today’s date, they arrived in Gottingen, where they were hosted by Arnold Wehner, the Music Director of that city’s University. Wehner kept a guest book for visitors, and over time accumulated signatures from the most famous composers of his day, including Mendelssohn, Rossini, and Liszt. Now, in 1853, Brahms was not yet as famous as he would later become, but as a thank-you to his host, he filled a page of Wehner’s album with a short, original composition for piano. Fast forward over 150 years to 2011, when Herr Wehner’s guest book fetched over $158,000 at an auction house in New York City, and this previously unknown piano score by Brahms attracted attention for many reasons. First, few early Brahms manuscripts have survived. Brahms was notorious for burning his drafts and sketches, and second, the melody Brahms jotted down in 1853 showed up again in the second movement of his Horn Trio, Op. 40, published 12 years later. Finally, there's a still-unresolved controversary about who had rediscovered the long-lost score: the auction house had the manuscript authenticated in 2011, but in 2012 the British conductor Christopher Hogwood claimed he had stumbled across it while doing other research.

Dvorak's "The Water Goblin"

Jun 3, 2019 00:02:00


In the late 19th Century, there were two rival musical camps: one favored “absolute music” like the symphonies, concertos, and chamber music of Brahms; the other the “music of the future,” namely the operas of Wagner and the tone poems of Liszt, works that told dramatic stories in music. Now, Dvorak’s mentor was Brahms, and Dvorak was famous for his symphonies, concertos, and chamber music. But on today’s date in 1896, at a concert of the Prague Conservatory Orchestra, three TONE POEMS by Dvorak premiered: “The Water Goblin,” “The Noonday Witch,” and “The Golden Spinning Wheel,” all three based on Czech folk legends -- and rather lurid, even gruesome ones at that. Not surprisingly, the “absolute music” camp was shocked. The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick lamented: “It is strange that Dvorak now indulges in ugly, unnatural, and ghastly stories which correspond so little to his amiable character and to the true musician that he is. In ‘The Water Goblin’ we are treated to a fiend who cuts off his own child’s head!” But another Czech composer, Leos Janacek, heard something quite different: “In all the orchestral tone poems that I have known, the ‘direct speech’ of the instruments, if I might describe it thus, has never sounded with such certainty, clarity and truthfulness within the wave of melodies, as it does in ‘The Water Goblin.’”

Walton and the Royals

Jun 2, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1953, thousands crowded the route to and from London’s Westminster Abbey for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and, at the Queen's own request, the event was televised live by the BBC. British composer William Walton was asked to write two new pieces. The first Walton’s “Coronation Te Deum”, a work that he had begun almost a decade earlier for a quite different occasion, namely the opening night of the 1944 London Proms. The piece got shifted to a back-burner when Walton was asked to work on Lawrence Olivier’s wartime film of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” For the new Queen’s Coronation, Walton returned to his abandoned score, writing to friends, “I’ve got cracking on the Te Deum. Lots of counter-tenors and little boys Holy-holy-ing, not to mention all the Queen’s Trumpeters and a side drum. You will like it, I think, and I hope He will too.” “He” was capitalized, so presumably Walton was referring to either the Deity -- or Winston Churchill, perhaps. Walton was also asked to compose a “Coronation March,” which he entitled “Orb and Scepter” after a line, coincidentally, from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” Walton’s March may have seemed a bit jazzy to the more conservative audiences of the day, but one critic, slipping into Cockney slang, gushed, “It sounds like a right royal knees-up!”

Handel's Testament

Jun 1, 2019 00:02:00


When most people hit 65, they’re anticipating their first social security check, but on today’s date in 1750, when George Frederick Handel turned 65, he was making out his will. To John Christopher Smith, Handel left, “my large harpsichord, my little house organ, my musick books, and 500 pounds sterling.” John Christopher Smith, born Johann Christoph Schmidt, was an old friend of Handel’s from his university days in Germany. Handel persuaded Herr Schmidt to give up the wool trade and come to England. As MISTER Smith, he established a famous copyists’ shop in London, became Handel’s business partner. Seven years later, Handel modified his will, leaving his larger theater organ to John Rich, whose Covent Garden Theater had staged Handel’s most recent operas and oratorios. To Charles Jennens, who had arranged the Biblical verses for Handel’s “Messiah,” the composer bequeathed some paintings. To the Foundling Hospital, a charitable institute that had performed “Messiah” as a successful fundraiser, Handel left “a fair copy of the score and all parts” for that famous oratorio. Shortly before his death, Handel bequeathed 1000 pounds to the Society for the Support of Decayed Musicians, a charity in aid of musicians’ widows and orphans, and directed that 600 pounds be used to erect his own monument in Westminster Abbey.

Peter Sellars and John Adams

May 31, 2019 00:02:00


For fans of British comedy, the name Peter Sellars conjures up an actor famous for his iconic role as the bumbling Chief Inspector Clouseau in “Pink Panther” movies. But for opera fans, the name refers to a completely different fellow: an American theater director born in 1957. The American Peter Sellars is notorious for staging classic operas as if they were set in present-day America. For example: Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in a dangerous, drug-dealing neighborhood in New York City's Spanish Harlem, or “The Marriage of Figaro” in a luxury penthouse in Trump Tower. Sellars is also the frequent partner of American composer John Adams in brand-new operas and concert projects. On today’s date 2012, a new oratorio by Adams and Sellars titled “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” received its world premiere at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The new work’s libretto, crafted by Sellars, tells the Biblical story of the passion and death of Jesus from the point of view of "the other Mary," Mary Magdalene, alongside texts and scenes from contemporary American life, including a women’s shelter, labor and social justice protests, and the opioid crisis. If Jesus were alive today, Sellars and Adams seem to be saying, He would be ministering to the suffering margins of American society, not to the rich and powerful.

Britten's "War Requiem"

May 30, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1962, Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus, and orchestra, had its premiere performance at Coventry Cathedral in England. The Cathedral had been virtually destroyed in World War II bombing, and Britten’s big choral work was commissioned to celebrate its restoration and reconsecration. Britten was a committed pacifist, and his “War Requiem” text combines poems by Wilfred Owen, who had been killed in the First World War, with the traditional Latin text of the Mass for the Dead. For the premiere, Britten requested soloists representing nations who had fought during the Second World War. With Britten’s life-time partner, tenor Peter Pears, representing England, the plan was to have a German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and a Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, for the 1962 premiere. As a young man, Fischer-Dieskau had been drafted into the German army, and had been a prisoner of war, but was eager to participate. Unfortunately, the Soviet authorities wouldn’t issue a visa for soprano Vishnevskaya to sing in the new Britten piece. “How can you, a Soviet woman, stand next to a German and an Englishman and perform such a political work,” they told her. The British soprano Heather Harper substituted for her. For many, Britten’s “War Requiem” is his masterpiece, and shortly after its premiere, Britten wrote to his sister, “The idea did come off, I think... I hope it will make people think a bit.”

Stravinsky's "Rite" at 100+

May 29, 2019 00:02:00


It was on today’s date in 1913 that Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, provoking catcalls and fisticuffs from some in the audience. Most scholars suggest it was the ungainly, deliberately primitive choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky, more than Stravinsky’s score, that provoked the most negative response. Pierre Monteux’s concert performance—without the dancing—at the Casino de Paris the following Spring marked the start of the score’s success as pure music. On that occasion, Stravinsky was carried in triumph from the hall on the shoulders of his admirers. Shortly before his death in 1929, Sergei Diaghilev, who had commissioned Stravinsky’s score, was enthusiastically quoting a review in the London Times that suggested (perhaps ironically) that the “Rite of Spring” would be for the 20th century what Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was for the 19th. Well, that has rather turned out to be the case, in fact, and by 2013, a piece of orchestral music that in 1913 was considered almost unplayable is routinely programmed as a classic orchestral showpiece. One New York Times critic even wrote “… now everybody knows “The Rite.” [It’s] an audition piece that every music student practices, so that now any conservatory orchestra can give a fleet and spiffy performance of what used to stump their elders, and professional orchestras can play it in their sleep, and often do…”

John Williams and Alfred Hitchcock

May 28, 2019 00:02:00


Unless you’re Tony Soprano, if your boss turns to you and says, “Murder can be fun,” the prudent reaction would be to: a) start looking for a new job, and b) wait for a discrete opportunity to call the police. But in 1975, when Alfred Hitchcock made that statement to composer John Williams, Williams probably just nodded in agreement. After all, it was a great honor to be asked by Hitchcock to write music for what would turn out to be the last film completed by the famous Master of Suspense. That film was “Family Plot,” and Williams completed its music for recording sessions at Universal Studios early in 1976. Williams recalled that the already-ailing Hitchcock stayed just an hour, pronounced the music “fine,” and said, “I’ll leave this to you,” before departing. Now, film buffs will recall that Hitch, a notorious micro-manager, had abruptly fired composer Bernard Herrmann, his legendary former collaborator, during a recording session for his 1966 film “Torn Curtain,” when Hitchcock realized Herrmann had NOT followed his instructions for a trendy pop music score. “Family Plot,” was shown at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival but was not officially entered in the competition. Still, it’s ironic that on today’s date that year, the Festival’s top prize, the coveted Palme d’Or, was awarded to “Taxi Driver,” a film by Martin Scorsese, with—you guessed it—music by Bernard Herrmann.

Higdon's "Rhythm Stand"

May 27, 2019 00:02:00


The American composer Jennifer Higdon is used to having her new works premiered by some of this country’s major orchestras. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, gave the premiere performance of her “Concerto for Orchestra” in 2002. The following year, another Higdon work, a piece for wind band entitled “Rhythm Stand,” premiered in Philadelphia. Now, if Higdon’s “Concerto for Orchestra” was composed for the virtuoso members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, “Rhythm Stand” was intended for amateur musicians—middle-school students, to be precise, and its premiere was given by the kids of the Baldi Middle School Band, led by Sandra Dylan. “Rhythm Stand” was commissioned by the American Composers Forum for their “BandQuest” series of new scores, all written by leading composers, but intended for young performers. Higdon explains the title of her new piece as follows: “Composing is merely the job of combining interesting sounds into interesting patterns. And interesting patterns create cool rhythms. So... I'm making a STAND FOR RHYTHM… rhythm is everywhere… ever listened to the tires of a car running across pavement, or a train on railroad tracks? Because music can be any kind of sound arranged into an interesting pattern, I added sounds that you normally wouldn’t hear coming from band instruments, sounds created out of ordinary things that might be nearby… like music stands and pencils, for example…. And some performers in this piece get even more basic...they snap their fingers.”

Edward Collins premieres

May 26, 2019 00:02:00


In 1923, the Chicago North Shore Festival sponsored a competition for new orchestral works. Of the 47 scores submitted, five finalists were selected by a distinguished panel of judges that included two leading American composers of that day: George W. Chadwick and Henry Hadley. Two of the five works that made the final cut were by the same composer, a 33-year-old Illinois native named Edward Collins. On today’s date in 1923, conductor Frederick Stock and his Chicago Symphony played through the five finalists’ scores at a public event at Northwestern University, with Collins in attendance to hear his two contrasting pieces. The first was called “Mardi Gras,” and, as you might expect, it was an upbeat work in a party mood. The second Collins piece was entitled “1914”—a grim orchestral evocation of World War I that Collins later retitled “Tragic Overture.” It was that work that won the competition’s $1000 first prize, and so impressed conductor Stock that he performed the piece in New York and Chicago. Although Collins was famous in his day, after his death in 1951, his music was largely forgotten. Perhaps his unabashedly Romantic style seemed dated in the avant-garde 50s and 60s. After more than half a century after his death, a series of new recordings of Collins’ orchestral works made by the Concordia Orchestra under Marin Alsop have helped to reintroduce his music to a new generation.

Verdi, Wagner and Sousa for the Red Cross

May 25, 2019 00:02:00


When the United States entered World War I, American animosity against all things German resulted in a ban on German symphonic music and operas. During the Second World War however, musically-speaking, things were VERY different. With America at war with Germany and Italy, music by Wagner and Verdi, for example, continued to be performed in our concert halls and opera houses. In fact, just as the Nazis tried to appropriate German classical music for their propaganda purposes, the Allies adopted the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth as a Morse Code "V" for Victory motive, and in OUR wartime propaganda, Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," accompanied images of Allied bombers racing through the clouds to strike German cities. On May 25, 1944, the combined orchestras of the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony presented a Red Cross Benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. The first half of the program was all-Wagner, the second half, all-Verdi. During the intermission, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia auctioned off maestro Toscanini's baton. As a grand finale, after the German and Italian music, Toscanini closed with a rousing all-American encore—his own arrangement of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." So, as Walter Cronkite would put it: "That's the way it was, May 25, 1944."

Carter and Copland in dancing shoes

May 24, 2019 00:02:00


In 1935, a 26-year-old American named Elliott Carter returned to the States after composition studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Carter found work as the music director of Ballet Caravan, an ambitious and enterprising touring ensemble whose mission was to present specially-commissioned new dance works on quintessentially American themes. Virgil Thomson, for example, wrote a ballet entitled "Filling Station," and Carter himself, decades before the animated Disney movie, wrote a ballet version of the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. While on tour, these new scores were presented in two-piano versions, but on today's date in 1939, the orchestral version of Carter's "Pocahontas" Ballet was presented by the Ballet Caravan at its home base at the Martin Beck Theater in New York. The New York Times reviewer didn't much care for the staging or Carter’s music: "The costumes are in the manner of the old-fashioned cigar box Indian," he wrote, "and after the first amusing glimpse their psuedo-naiveté begins to grow irksome. Mr. Carter's music is so thick it is hard to see the stage through it." The Times reviewer DID like another new ballet also receiving its orchestral debut that same night. This was Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid.” "A perfectly delightful piece of work," enthused the same critic, concluding, "Aaron Copland has furnished an admirable score, warm and human, and with not a wasted note about it anywhere."

Daniel Pinkham's "Nocturnes"

May 23, 2019 00:02:00


An old music dictionary’s definition of “nocturne” reads as follows: “A night piece, a musical composition that suggests a nocturnal atmosphere, for example Haydn’s ‘Notturno’ or Mozart’s ‘Serenata Notturna,’ but more specifically a short piece of romantic character. First to use this title for this genre was John Field, followed by Chopin.” Hundreds of composers since Field and Chopin have tried their hand at writing nocturnes. This particular one was written for flute and guitar by the Boston-based composer Daniel Pinkham, as part of a five-movement suite of Nocturnes, all premiered on today’s date in 1993, at the First and Second Church in Boston. Now, as any insomniac will tell you, there are all sorts of night moods, and the descriptive titles of Pinkham’s set of five “Nocturnes” ranges from the sprightly to the serene, with others entitled “brooding,” “sultry,” and “restless” tossed in for good measure. Daniel Pinkham was particularly fortunate in his teachers. Imagine studying composition with Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, and Samuel Barber, or harpsichord with Wanda Landowska and organ with E. Power Biggs. Pinkham did -- and in turn became a successful teacher himself, with a long tenure at the New England Conservatory of Music. He served as music director of Boston’s historic King’s Chapel, and as a composer was particularly honored by his church musician colleagues for his many works for chorus and organ.

Richard Wagner at 200+

May 22, 2019 00:02:00


Today’s date marks the anniversary Richard Wagner’s birth in 1813. During Wagner’s lifetime, his most famous—and perhaps most perceptive—critic was a Prague-born Viennese writer on music named Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick knew Wagner personally, and described him as follows: “A stranger would have seen in his face not so much an artistic genius as a dry Leipzig professor or lawyer. He spoke incredibly much—and fast—in a monotonous sing-song Saxon dialect and always of himself, his works, his reforms, his plans. If he mentioned the name of another composer it was always in a tone of disparagement.” For Wagnerians, Hanslick was a crusty old conservative who preferred Brahms and was too thick-headed to appreciate the “Music of the Future” epitomized by Wagner’s operas. But if one actually reads Hanslick’s writings on Wagner, a more nuanced and balanced picture emerges. “I know very well,” wrote Hanslick, “that Wagner is the greatest living opera composer and the only one in Germany worth talking about in a historical sense … But between this admission and the repulsive idolatry which has grown up in connection with Wagner and which he has encouraged, there is an infinite chasm.” Upon learning of Wagner’s death in 1883, Hanslick wrote: “Wagner stands at the head of the moving forces of modern art. He shook opera and all its associated theoretical and practical issues from a comfortable state of repose bordering on stagnation.”

Brubeck's "Pange Lingua Variations"

May 21, 2019 00:02:00


In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas penned a Latin hymn in praise of the holy sacrament of the last supper in which bread and wine are mystically changed into the body and blood of Christ. Aquinas’s text begins, “Pange lingua, gloriosi” or “Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s Glory.” Aquinas’s words have been set to a melody much older than his text, possibly derived from a Roman marching song or an even earlier Hebrew chant. On May 21, 1983, this ancient text and tune underwent yet another transformation at the hands of the American composer and jazzman Dave Brubeck, when his “Pange Lingua Variations” for chorus, jazz ensemble and orchestra had its premiere at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, California. In Brubeck’s setting, each stanza is sung first in original Gregorian chant style, followed by a variation. Brubeck said, “I searched for the meaning of each stanza, and tried to convey that thought musically, so that each variation is a miniature meditation.” The third variation, taking its cue from the music’s possible origin as a Roman marching tune, is given an appropriately martial treatment by both the chorus and jazz ensemble. While jazz fans associate Dave Brubeck with the sophisticated jazz he developed in the 50s and 60s, many church musicians also know him as the composer of many oratorios on sacred themes, which often incorporate jazz elements into their scoring.

Alfons Diepenbrock

May 20, 2019 00:02:00


It was the fashion in the late 19th century to decorate concert halls with the names of famous composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Of course, over time some composers once very popular fell out of favor, and many old concert hall walls included names like Cherubini and Meyerbeer, composers who nowadays are performed only on rare occasions. In Amsterdam, the main hall of the acoustically famous Concertgebouw boats a pantheon of over two dozen composers’ names as part of its interior decoration, and, not surprisingly, a few Dutch composers are included in the mix. Most of the native sons so honored are probably unfamiliar outside of the Netherlands, however. Take for example Alfons Diepenbrock, a self-taught composer and conductor born in Amsterdam who lived from 1862 to 1921. Diepenbrock composed a small body of big orchestral works in the late Romantic style of Gustav Mahler, who was a close friend. In Amsterdam on today’s date in 1906, the Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor Willem Mengelberg premiered a work of Diepenbrock’s entitled “In Great Silence – a Mood Poem based on an Aphorism of Friedrich Nietszche.” This music sounds a little like a lost movement from some big Mahler symphony, and while these days the name Diepenbrock might not be as familiar as Mahler, maybe that’s something we should work on correcting!

Jodie Blackshaw's "Letter from Sado"

May 19, 2019 00:02:00


Australian composer Jodie Blackshaw is passionate about music for wind band and is fond of quoting her famous compatriot composer Percy Grainger on the subject: “Why this cold-shouldering of the wind band?” asked Grainger. “Is the wind band – with its varied assortments of reeds (so much richer that the reeds of the symphony orchestra), its complete saxophone family that is found nowhere else ... its army of brass – not the equal of any medium ever conceived? As a vehicle of deeply emotional expression it seems to me unrivalled.” For her part, Blackshaw has chosen to compose primarily for wind band. She also appears as a guest clinician and adjudicator for band festivals throughout Australia. “The Wind Band offers a varied and colorful contribution to instrumental music,” says Bradshaw, “and with literally millions of children world-wide entering musical performance through this medium, it is worthy of our serious attention.” On today’s date in 2014, a new work by Bradshaw intended for middle-school band students was premiered by the Rosemount Middle School Band of Rosemont, Minnesota, under the direction of John Zschunke. The new piece was titled, “Letter from Sado,” and was inspired by a Japanese haiku and traditional Japanese taiko drumming. This work is part of the BandQuest series commissioned by the American Composers Forum, intended to offer young musicians a diverse variety of fresh new wind band works by leading composers of our day.

Milhaud's "Sacred Service"

May 18, 2019 00:02:00


Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco is one of America’s foremost reform congregations. For some 50 years its cantor was Reuben Rinder, who, in addition to his liturgical duties, was a composer, impresario, and musical mentor. Cantor Rinder influenced the careers of two of the 20th century’s greatest violinists, Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern, and also commissioned two of the 20th century’s most famous concert versions of the Jewish liturgy, the Evening and Morning Sabbath Service settings of Ernst Bloch and Darius Milhaud. Milhaud’s Sabbath Morning Service was first heard at Temple Emanu-El on today’s date in 1949, with its composer conducting. Milhaud was born in Provence and wrote that the Provencal Jewish tradition evoked in his score differs somewhat from the more standard Ashkenazi liturgy prevalent in most American synagogues then and now. The composer’s intention was to create a personal musical statement that could serve as both an actual liturgy for the faithful and as an ecumenical musical experience for any and all who hear the work, whether in temple or concert hall. In that respect, Milhaud’s Sacred Service was a great success. Alongside Bloch’s setting, written in the early 1930s, shortly before the onset of the Holocaust, Milhaud’s setting, written in the years following the conclusion of World War II, remains a powerful and moving affirmation of religious faith.

Ned Rorem for eleven

May 17, 2019 00:02:00


While many great composers have also been great conductors, this can be the exception rather than the rule. On today’s date in 1959, the American composer Ned Rorem tried his hand at conducting the premiere of one of his own compositions, a chamber suite entitled “Eleven Studies for Eleven Players.” Rorem recalled: “I learned that the first requisite to becoming a conductor is an inborn lust for absolute monarchy, and that I, alone among musicians, never got the bug. I was terrified. The first rehearsal was a model of how NOT to inspire confidence. I stood before the eleven players in all my virginal glory, and announced: ‘I’ve never conducted before, so if I give a wrong cue, do try to come in right anyway.’” Fortunately for Rorem, his eleven musicians were accomplished faculty at Buffalo University, and, despite his inexperience, Rorem certainly knew how his new piece should sound. Rorem’s Suite incorporated a few bits recycled from music he had written for a successful Broadway hit—Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer”—plus a bit from an unsuccessful play entitled “Motel” that never made it past a Boston tryout. Rorem’s own tryout as a conductor convinced him to stick to composing, although he proved to be a fine piano accompanist for singers performing his own songs. As for “Eleven Studies for Eleven Players,” it’s gone on to become one of Rorem’s most-often performed chamber works.

Smetana and the National Theatre in Prague

May 16, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1868, the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana helped lay the foundation stone for Prague’s future National Theatre. As the stone was driven into the soil with a ceremonial mallet, Smetana exclaimed, “In music is the life of the Czechs!” That same evening at Prague's New Town Theatre Smetana conducted the premiere performance of his new opera “Dalibor.” It’s worthy of note that one of the players in the orchestra was a 26-year old violist and fellow composer named Antonin Dvorak. The subject matter of “Dalibor” seemed theatrically apt for the occasion: a Czech legend about a rebellious 15th century knight imprisoned for supporting a peasant uprising. During his imprisonment, according to the legend, Dalibor learned to play the violin so beautifully that people came to listen to him outside the window of the Prague Castle tower in which he was held. Thirteen years after the premiere of “Dalibor,” the National Theatre opened on June 11, 1881. For that gala occasion, another Smetana opera, “Libuse,” received its premiere performance. Sadly, by that time Smetana was completely deaf, mentally ailing, and desperately poor. To add insult to injury, the directors of the new theater had neglected to invite him to the gala premiere of his own opera! Despite the inexcusable snub, Smetana found his way into the theater, and, when called on the stage and recognized by the audience, was acknowledged with thunderous applause.

Jerod Tate's "Children's Songs"

May 15, 2019 00:02:00


The American composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and its Composer-in-Residence. He was born in Norman, Oklahoma, and his chamber and orchestra works, all infused with themes and musical elements from his Native heritage, have been performed by major orchestras like the Detroit Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Colorado Ballet, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. But during the fall of 2011, Tate began working with a non-professional ensemble closer to home—at Dickson Middle School in Dickson, Oklahoma. Tate had been commissioned by the American Composers Forum to write a new work for their ChoralQuest series for middle-school choirs. The resulting work, entitled Taloowa' Chipota, which in the Chickasaw language means “Children’s Songs,” was premiered on May 15, 2012, by the children at the Dickson School. “The songs,” explained Tate, “are reminiscent of traditional stomp dancing and are based on old Chickasaw melodies. Stomp dances begin at dusk and end at dawn. The first movement depicts the beginning sunlight of the morning. The second is full of abstracted textures emulating the shell shaking in stomp dances.” For his part, Tate says he’s pleased how it all turned out: “I was able to introduce a Chickasaw experience to a diverse group of students… I strengthened my own relationship with my Chickasaw community and demonstrated to the Chickasaws in the chorus how our culture can positively impact classical music.”

Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever!" March

May 14, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1897, John Philip Sousa was in Philadelphia and leading his band in the premiere performance of “The Stars and Stripes Forever!” Sousa wrote his most famous march on Christmas Day, 1896, in a New York hotel room—completing the score, he said, in just a couple of hours. The work’s title was a tribute to one of Sousa’s mentors, another legendary bandmaster named Patrick S. Gilmore, whose favorite toast was, "Here's to the Stars and Stripes forever!” The 1897 premiere of the march went over well, but at first sales didn’t surpass the other Sousa marches available at the time. It was the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the subsequent national eruption of patriotic fervor, and some cagey showmanship on Sousa’s part that catapulted “The Stars and Stripes Forever!” into its unique status. Sousa crafted a touring patriotic pageant involving hundreds of performers, which ended with “The Stars and Stripes Forever!” playing, as soldiers from all three branches of the military marched on-stage with flags unfurled, culminating in the entrance of an attractive local beauty decked out in red, white, and blue. Despite the thousands of times Sousa and his band were required to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever!” they claimed they never tired of it. And in its now 100+ year history, it’s become one of the most frequently performed pieces of American music worldwide.

New York "novelties" by Liszt et. al.

May 13, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1862, the front page of The New York Times offered some encouraging news to the Northern side in the American Civil War: Union troops had captured Norfolk, Virginia, and there were other advances being made by General McClellan’s troops. Under “Amusements” on the inner pages of that same edition could be found an announcement of a “Grand Vocal and Orchestral Concert” at Irving Hall to be conducted by a 27-year-old musician named Theodore Thomas. Thomas had been a major figure on the New York music scene since 1855, performing as the principal violinist in that city’s first ensemble giving a regular series of chamber concerts. That chamber group presented hot-off-the-press works by Brahms and other ultra-modern composers of the day. This big orchestral concert, which marked Thomas’s debut as a conductor, was no different. The Times noted, “We have never before had so much musical novelty presented to us. Such plentiful instrumental music equally new to our musical world, under the capable conductorship of the young musician, must insure a crowded audience of the more critical as well as the more fashionable portion of our public.” Tickets were $1 each—quite a lot of money in 1862—and the program offered the American premieres of orchestral pieces by Wagner, Meyerbeer, and Liszt’s flashy orchestration of Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy.”

Darryl Brenzel's "Rewrite" of "The Rite of Spring"

May 12, 2019 00:02:00


The Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”—arguably the single most-influential piece of concert music composed in the 20th century—occurred in May of 1913. At is premiere, fist-fights broke out in the audience between those who liked – or loathed – the ground-breaking new score. On today’s date in 2010, at Baltimore’s Metro Gallery, a new version of Stravinsky’s famous score had its premiere. Dubbed the “The RE-Write of Spring,” this was the work of Darryl Brenzel, who had been asked by Baltimore’s Mobtown Modern music series to create a jazz version of Stravinsky’s score. From the start, Brenzel wanted his version to sound true to the original but also to sound like real jazz. “Uh-oh, I’m in big trouble!” was Brenzel’s reaction when he looked at Stravinsky’s original score. Some months later, that score was covered with what Brenzel described as “yellow highlighter marks, cryptic notes of all kinds, and many new bar lines drawn in to re-organize the music.” What emerged is something that sounds very much like Stravinsky’s evocation of a primitive Russian ritual AND very much like some fine big-band jazz in a sophisticated modern vein. Brenzel was pleased with the result, which was recorded live for compact disc release, allowing both classical and jazz enthusiasts the opportunity to compare and contrast Stravinsky’s “Rite” and Brenzel’s “RE-write.” And whether you like or loathe what Brenzel has done – please, no fist-fights!

Maazel's "Ring without Words"

May 11, 2019 00:02:00


In 1987, Telarc Records asked the late conductor Lorin Maazel if he would make a purely orchestral distillation of the four operas that make up Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung.” Telarc wanted it all to fit on just one CD. Now, with these four Wagner operas clocking in at about 15 hours, that’s a slimming-down assignment worthy of The Biggest Loser. Maazel crafted a 75-minute sequence, played without pause, beginning with the opening pages of the first opera and ending with the closing pages of the last, with all the music appearing in the same order as it does in Wagner’s four operas. For the Telarc CD release, Maazel recorded his “Ring without Words” with the Berlin Philharmonic. But what had started as a purely studio affair proved an attractive orchestral showcase for other ensembles, so on today’s date in 1990, Maazel led the Pittsburgh Symphony in the debut of his “Ring without Words” as a concert hall work. Since then, he has performed it with orchestras ranging from the New York to the Vienna Philharmonic. Maazel confessed he resisted the idea at first. "I said… it would be desecrating a unique masterpiece. But they kept after me.” In the end, Maazel capitulated, but insisted there couldn't be one note by Lorin Maazel. When one instrumentalist shuddered at a particularly abrupt transition, Maazel told him, "Sorry! That's the composer."

Maxwell Davies at a wedding (with sunrise)

May 10, 2019 00:02:00


In 1970, British composer Peter Maxwell Davies moved to the remote and rugged Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. At first, he said, the natives thought he was just some weirdo from the south, and the more Puritanical islanders would pray the might find a more respectable means of earning a living than writing music. But over time Davies and the islanders got used to each other. The composer found inspiration in the landscape and legends of the area, while the community warmed to the fact that the newcomer found them so fascinating. In 1978, Davies attended a neighbor’s wedding, which inspired a musical work he called “An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise.” “It is a picture postcard,” said Davies, “We hear the guests arriving, out of extremely bad weather. This is followed by a processional and first glass of whiskey. The band tunes up and we get on with the dancing, which becomes ever wilder, until the lead fiddle can hardly hold the band together. We leave the hall into the cold night. As we walk home across the island, the sun rises to a glorious dawn.” “The sun,” Maxwell Davies concluded, “is represented by the highland bagpipes, in full traditional splendor.” Despite its local color, “An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise” was actually an AMERICAN commission from the Boston Pops, who gave its premiere on today’s date in 1985, with John Williams conducting.

Tavener's "wake up" call?

May 9, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1998, a work by the British composer John Tavener received its European premiere at the Beauvais Cello Festival in France. It’s scored for solo cello and just the cello section of a symphony orchestra and was commissioned by Sony Classical to fill out a CD of Tavener’s music featuring that label’s star cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. Two years earlier, in 1996, Yo-Yo Ma had recorded another Tavener piece for cello entitled “The Protecting Veil,” but since that piece ran only about 45 minutes, Sony needed something to fill out the disc and so – perhaps acting on the principle that there’s “always room for cello” -- this 20-minute work for cello and celli was commissioned to fill out the disc. Tavener gave the new piece a VERY strange title, namely “Wake Up and Die.” The mystically-minded Tavener explained he was referring to the spiritual paradox that, as he put it, “If you wake up spiritually, then you will die to all that is not of God.” Perhaps Tavener knew first-hand what he was talking about: In 1990, during surgery to remove a tumor in his jaw, he actually DID die -- clinically speaking -- on the operating table but was fortunately resuscitated by the surgical team. “Before my illness,” Tavener wrote, “I'd always had a morbid fear of death, but since the operation it’s not terrifying anymore.”

Beethoven's Second on first?

May 8, 2019 00:02:00


Hold on tight—we’re about to cover 150 years of musical—and presidential—history in just 2 minutes! On today’s date in 1821, back when James Monroe was president, Beethoven’s Second Symphony was performed in Philadelphia at a concert of the Musical Fund Society. That occasion marks the first documented performance of a complete Beethoven symphony in America and occurred when Beethoven was 50 years old and residing in Vienna. In 1853, when Franklin Pierce was in the White House, the Germania Musical Society took Beethoven’s Second on its American tour, presenting it in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. That 1853 tour marked the first time an entire Beethoven Symphony was performed in the windy city. Additional 19th century “firsts” for the Second occurred over the next two decades in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, during the administrations of James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Jackson. Ulysses S. Grant was president in 1870, when Beethoven’s Second debuted in Washington DC, and Grant was still President in 1872, when the Second was the first symphony EVER to be performed in Minneapolis. A hundred years later, in the NINETEEN-Seventies, when Richard Nixon was in the White House, you could hear performances of Beethoven’s Second from Maine to Hawaii, all while sitting comfortably in your own “Executive Mansion,” courtesy of your local government-assisted public radio station. If you wish, you may now stand and salute your radio!

Thomson's "Mother of Us All"

May 7, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1947, a new opera entitled “The Mother of Us All” debuted at Columbia University in New York City. The libretto was by the American poet Gertrude Stein, and dealt with the life and times of Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century champion of women’s rights. In Stein’s dream-like account, iconic figures from America’s past like President John Adams, orator Daniel Webster, and entertainer Lillian Russell interact even though they lived at different times in history. Two of the opera’s 27 characters, playwright Constance Fletcher and Yale librarian Donald Gallup, in fact, were contemporary friends of Stein’s. The music was by the American composer Virgil Thomson, whose score evoked seemingly familiar 19th century hymns, sentimental ballads, circus band music, drum rolls, and fanfares. The tunes were, in fact, all original creations. The mix of Thomson’s music and Stein’s text results in a rambunctious opera about American life and politics, at turns both amusing and strangely touching. It became an unlikely success. Thomson wrote two other operas: “Four Saints in Three Acts,” from 1933, was an earlier collaboration with Gertrude Stein, and “Lord Byron,” from 1972, sets a witty libretto by Jack Larson, an actor famous for his portrayal of Daily Planet cub reporter Jimmy Olson on the old “Superman” TV series. “Lord Byron” was intended for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but never made it there, and performances these days are rare.

Larsen's "Lyric" Third

May 6, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1992, Joel Revzen conducted the Albany Symphony in the premiere of the Third Symphony of American composer Libby Larsen. Larsen subtitled her new work a “Lyric Symphony.” Now, the early 20th century Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky had written a “Lyric Symphony,” one that involved vocal soloists. As a composer, Libby Larsen is noted for her songs and choral works, but for her own “Lyric Symphony” she opted for a purely instrumental work that would be somehow quintessentially “American.” In program notes for her new symphony, Larsen wrote: “As I struggle with the definition of ‘American’ music, it occurs to me that in all of our contemporary American genres, the dominating parameter of the music is rhythm. Rhythm is more important than pitch. This is a fundamental change in the composition of music in the 20th century. Here we speak American English, an inflected, complex, rhythmic language. “What is lyric in our times?” continued Larsen. “Where is the great American melody? Found, I would say, in the music of Chuck Berry, Robert Lockwood, Buddy Guy, George Gershwin, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, James Brown, Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, and those composers who create melodies that are defined more by the rhythm than their pitch. My Symphony No. 3—the Lyric, is an exploration of American melody.”

Debussy's Violin Sonata

May 5, 2019 00:02:00


The French composer Claude Debussy was too sick to be called up for service when World War I broke out in 1914. His private battle with cancer on top of his nation’s battle with Germany plunged him into depression. But by the spring of 1915, Debussy decided to keep on composing. “I want to work,” he wrote, “not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small it may be, that not even 30 million Boches can destroy French thought.” He knew his remaining time was precious, so decided to write small chamber works rather than big orchestral pieces. Debussy planned to write SIX chamber sonatas but completed only three. Working, as he put it, “like a madman,” he finished a Cello Sonata and a Trio Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp by the fall of 1915. In December of that year, the side-effects of radium treatments and morphine injections for his cancer brought Debussy’s Sonata project to a grinding halt. Rallying somewhat by the by the summer of 1916, Debussy vowed to keep on working. He wrote: “If I am doomed to vanish soon, I desire at least to have done my duty.” On May 5, 1917, Debussy made his last public appearance in Paris at the Salle Gaveay, accompanying violinist Gaston Poulet in the premiere of his final work -- a Sonata for Violin and Piano. Debussy would die the following spring.

Dvořák salutes the flag

May 4, 2019 00:02:00


On today’s date in 1895, the New York Choral Society gave the premiere of a choral work by Antonin Dvorak entitled “The American Flag.” Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, who brought Dvorak to New York City to teach at her National Conservatory, had asked him to set a patriotic poem of that name. The idea was the new work would be performed to coincide with Dvorak’s arrival in the fall of 1892, and the big celebrations planned that year for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Unfortunately, Dvorak didn’t get the text in time, and so another choral work, his recently completed “Te Deum” was performed during the big Columbus Quadricentennial. “The American Flag” was put on a back burner, as it were, and wasn’t performed until AFTER Dvorak returned to Prague. Dvorak never heard the work performed at all, in fact. The blustery, outright chauvinistic tone of its pro-New World, anti-Old World text would hardly endear it to European audiences of his day. In fact, this work hasn’t proven to be a big hit with AMERICAN audiences, either. “The American Flag” remains one of Dvorak’s least-performed pieces. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a recording of it timed for release in 1976 during the American Bicentennial. Ironically for so “American” a work, that recording was made in Berlin with a German orchestra and chorus!

A chamber quintet by Cowell

May 3, 2019 00:02:00


By the 1960s, the prevailing trends dictated that modern music should be austere, brainy, complex, and preferably written in the 12-tone “serial” technique developed by Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils. Igor Stravinsky had started writing serial pieces in the 1950s, and even Aaron Copland had a go at writing a 12-tone piece in his “Connotations” for Orchestra, composed for the opening of the New York Philharmonic’s new hall at Lincoln Center in 1962. Well, the American composer Henry Cowell was not one to be so easily pigeon-holed. In 1962 he composed an airy little quartet for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord—a piece very much in the neo-classical style. Cowell then re-scored the harpsichord part for harp at the request of Mary Spalding Sevitzky, the harp-playing wife of the Russian émigré conductor Fabien Sevitzky, to whom the quartet was dedicated. Sevitzky’s real last name was Koussevitzky, and, yes, he was the nephew of the famous Russian conductor and music patron Serge Kousseviztky. At his uncle’s request, to avoid confusion, Fabien shorted his last name to Sevitzky when he became a conductor in his own right. He led the People’s Symphony of Boston in the 1930s before becoming the director of the Indianapolis Symphony from 1937 to 1955. Like his more famous uncle, Fabien Sevitzky was a great champion of American composers. In his later years, he moved to Florida, where he taught and led the University of Miami Symphony. It was in Miami that a distinguished quartet—including Mrs. Sevitzky—premiered Henry Cowell’s quartet on today’s date in 1963.

"Tempest Fantasy" by Paul Moravec

May 2, 2019 00:02:00


When Patrick Stewart began his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the Los Angeles Times called him an "unknown British Shakespearean actor." Ouch! That must have caused a wry smile to cross the face of this star actor of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theater. In any case, in 1995, when Stewart played Prospero in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” at New York’s Public Theater, one reviewer said he acted “with white hot fury.” (Who knows, maybe he was thinking of that L.A. Times critic?) Composer Paul Moravec was in the audience for one of those New York performances, found Stewart “extraordinary,” and began writing a chamber work he titled “Tempest Fantasy.” Moravec describes it as follows: "'Tempest Fantasy' is a musical meditation on various characters, moods, situations, and lines of text from my favorite Shakespeare play. ... Rather than trying to depict these elements in programmatic terms, the music simply uses them as points of departure for flights of purely musical fancy. The first three movements spring from the nature and selected speeches. ... The fourth movement begins from Caliban's uncharacteristically elegant speech from Act III, scene 2: ‘Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight, and hurt not.’” Paul Moravec’s “Tempest Fantasy” debuted in New York City on this date in 2003 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2004.

Graupner (and Haydn) in Boston

May 1, 2019 00:02:00


Today in 1825, a benefit concert was arranged in Boston for one of that city’s favorite musicians: Johann Christian Graupner—not a household name for music lovers today, but in the early 19th century, Graupner was an important musical link between the Old World and the New. Graupner was born near Hanover in 1767. The son of an oboist, young master Graupner mastered that instrument, too—and many others. After service in a German military band, he made his way to London, where in 1791 he was picked as the principal oboist for the first of Haydn’s symphonic concerts there. In 1797, Graupner’s itchy feet took him to Charleston, South Carolina, where he met and married a pretty English actress and opera singer. The couple moved to Boston and became active in the musical life there. Graupner opened a music store, importing from Europe both those newfangled fortepianos and the latest in sheet music. In 1810, he became the first president of Boston’s Philharmonic Society, and in 1815 helped organize that city’s Handel and Haydn Society—a performing organization that still exists today. For Graupner’s benefit concert on May 1, 1825, Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 was included on the program, marking that symphony’s first documented performance in America. It was presumably an “authentic” performance, too, since Graupner had most likely played it under the composer’s own direction back in London some three decades earlier.

Del Tredici's In Wartime

Apr 30, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2003, the Wind Ensemble of the University of Texas at Austin, led by Jerry Junkin, premiered a new work for wind band by the American composer David Del Tredici. Its title was “In Wartime,” as its composition and premiere coincided with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by the United States alongside the United Kingdom and smaller contingents from Australia, Denmark, and Poland. “’In Wartime,’ my first piece for wind symphony, was begun on November 16, 2002, and completed on March 16 (my birthday), in 2003—as momentous a four-month period in U.S. history as I have experienced,” recalled Del Tredici. “With my TV blaring, I composed throughout this period, feeling both irresistibly drawn to the developing news and more than a little guilty to be unable to turn the tube off. Composing music at such a time may have seemed an irrelevant pursuit, but it nevertheless served to keep me sane, stable and sanguine, despite the world's spiraling maelstrom.” Del Tredici’s “In Wartime” has two sections: “Hymn” and “Battlemarch.” The first has the character of a choral prelude, with fragments of “Abide with Me” sounding through a welter of contrasting material. An ominous drum roll introduces the “Battlemarch” section, with the confrontation of East vs. West symbolized by musical quotes from “Salamti, Shah!” (the national song of Persia) and the opening of Wagner’s opera, “Tristan und Isolde.”

Herbert's Earthquake Benefit

Apr 29, 2019 00:01:59


April 29th fell on Sunday in the year 1906, and readers of The New York Times photogravure supplement were able to view scenes of the terrible destruction in San Francisco that followed the great earthquake that struck that city just 11 days before. The paper was filled with accounts of the suffering caused by the quake, and undoubtedly, many New Yorkers asked themselves what they could do to help. The New York musical community provided one answer by quickly arranging a number of benefit concerts. The largest of these occurred on today’s date that year at New York’s Hippodrome, and was organized by the popular composer Victor Herbert, who conducted his orchestra with Metropolitan Opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink as a featured soloist. The vast Hippodrome was completely sold out, with standing-room-only tickets filling the aisles. Seven thousand dollars were raised, which by today’s standards seems a rather modest sum, but by 1906 standards was impressive enough to make newspaper headlines. Perhaps New York musicians and their audiences felt a personal affinity with the quake victims, as their own Metropolitan Opera Company, including its star tenor Enrico Caruso, was on tour in San Francisco when the quake struck on April 18th, and, as the Times reported, the Met’s touring orchestral musicians, almost without exception, lost their instruments. That bit of news must have struck a special chord with Victor Herbert. In 1886, both he and his wife had come to America from Europe to join the Metropolitan Opera—he as an orchestral cellist, and she as a soprano soloist.

Diamond's Elegy

Apr 28, 2019 00:01:59


Despite its relation to both the physics of sound and pure mathematics, music, for most people—including composers—is essentially an emotional language. Despite its abstract sound, that’s the case of this orchestral piece, which premiered in Rochester, New York, on today’s date in 1938. The music was by a then 22-year-old American composer named David Diamond, and bears the title: “Elegy in Memory of Ravel.” Nine years earlier, as a precocious adolescent, Diamond had met Ravel during the French composer’s American tour of 1928. Ravel was impressed with the lad’s talent, and encouraged Diamond to pursue a career in music, as did George Gershwin who served on a jury that awarded one of Diamond’s works first prize. Diamond lost both these important mentors in 1937, with the sudden deaths of first Gershwin, then Ravel. The day after learning of Ravel’s death, Diamond began work on his “Elegy.” “It is an expression of terrible loss,” recalled Diamond in an interview many decades later. “As the piece began to take shape, almost unconsciously, I heard it as a ritual—an elegy, but a ritualistic one. I asked that there be no applause at the end.” The work’s 1938 premiere performance was conducted by Howard Hanson, then the head of the Eastman School of Music and the conductor of its famous orchestra. Diamond’s modern, frankly dissonant idiom didn’t sit well with Hanson’s more conservative tastes. Diamond recalled Hanson asking “David, why do you have to write such modern music?” Even so, Hanson respected both Diamond and his music enough to conduct the new piece.

Nicholas Slonimsky, Date-Meister

Apr 27, 2019 00:01:59


We have a special DATEBOOK birthday to note today, for on this date in 1894, one of music’s great “date-meisters,” Nicholas Slonimsky, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. A self-described “failed wunderkind,” Slonimsky became an accomplished conductor and relentless new music promoter, giving the first performances of avant-garde works by Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Edgard Varese, to name just a few. A composer himself, Slonimsky’s own works include settings of actual advertisements he found in the Saturday Evening Post circa 1925, and a symphonic work that culminates in the triple-forte explosion of 100 colored balloons. Slonimsky was an obsessive collector of the dates, venues, and premiere performers of concert music in the 20th century. Slonimsky’s chronicle, entitled Music Since 1900, runs well over 1000 pages and went through several editions during his long lifetime. Slonimsky also served as the editor for several editions of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary, writing many of the wittiest contributions himself. Slonimsky’s scholarly writings include a 1947 Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, an inventory of all conceivable and inconceivable tonal combinations, a work that became a cult classic among BeBop jazz musicians, including the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. In 1952, Slonimsky published his Lexicon of Musical Invective, a collection of some of the juiciest bits from the devastatingly bad reviews many musical masterpieces received at the hands of contemporary critics, and in 1968, for the Music Library Association of America, a painstakingly researched report entitled Sex and the Music Librarian. Nicolas Slonimsky died in Los Angeles in 1995, just 4 months shy of his 102nd birthday.

Tchaikovsky in New York

Apr 26, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1891, a small group of music patrons gathered at one of New York’s docks to greet the Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who had been invited to America to take part in the grand opening of a new music hall. Back then, it was just called “The Music Hall,” but over time it took on the name of the wealthy steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who funded its construction. “Carnegie is an amazing eccentric,” wrote Tchaikovsky to his friends back in Russia. “He rose from being a telegraph boy, transformed with the passing of years into one of America’s richest men, but one who has remained a simple, modest man who does not at all turn up his nose at anyone.” And, despite his legendary melancholic funks and chronic bouts of homesickness, Tchaikovsky admitted he found the rest of New York rather impressive: “American customs, American hospitality, the very appearance of the town, the remarkable comfort of my accommodations—this is all very much to my taste and if I were younger I would probably be greatly enjoying my stay in an interesting new country.” On the down side, Tchaikovsky reported you couldn’t buy cigarettes on a Sunday, and it was sometimes hard to find a public bathroom when you needed one—a common complaint of New York tourists even today! “All told,” Tchaikovsky concluded, “I am a much bigger fish here than in Europe. Incidentally, Central Park in magnificent.”

Prokofiev and Rochberg chamber premieres

Apr 25, 2019 00:01:59


Today’s date marks the anniversary of the first performances of two 20th century chamber works. On April 25, 1931, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 received its premiere performance by the Brosa Quartet at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Accepting the commission from the Library’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Prokofiev set about studying pocket scores of the string quartets of Beethoven, which he perused on trains while shuttling between concert engagements. Prokofiev himself described the work’s opening as “rather classical,” but when the new quartet was premiered in Moscow, the verdict of the all-powerful Association of Proletarian Musicians was that it was too “cosmopolitan,” a pejorative adjective in Soviet arts criticism in the Stalinist Era that meant something like “unacceptably modern.” Our second chamber music premiere occurred on April 25th in 1980, when the Octet for Winds and Strings by the American composer George Rochberg was performed for the first time at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. The occasion was a concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, who had commissioned the new piece. At the time, Rochberg was a rather controversial figure for shifting from his earlier, strictly atonal style into a more emotionally charged neo-Romantic approach to music making, often referencing earlier composers and musical styles of the past. The music critic of The New York Times thought he heard a touch of Rachmaninoff in Rochberg’s new piece—an observation that some at the time would translate as really meaning the work was “unacceptably old-fashioned.”

Tower's Violin Concerto

Apr 24, 2019 00:01:59


“In an ideal musical world,” says Joan Tower, “a composer should have a friendly, creative, and ongoing working relationship with performers for whom she writes.” For Tower, who has emerged as one of the most successful American composers of her generation, a friendly, creative, and ongoing relationship with chamber ensembles, symphony orchestras, and soloists has resulted in a number of musical works. Tower’s Violin Concerto, for example, was written for the American violin virtuoso Elmar Oliveira, who gave its premiere performance on today’s date in 1992, at a Utah Symphony concert. Tower wrote the piece with Oliveria in mind: “A lot of violinists are speed freaks,” she wrote, “but Elmar can play both virtuosically and with an innate singing ability.” The more lyrical and emotional heart of the work was written as memorial to Olivera’s older brother, also a violinist, who died of cancer during work on the new concerto. That’s not to say Tower didn’t supply some flashy, pyrotechnical passages for her star soloist, however. As Oliviera put it: “It’s the kind of flashiness an audience can relate to. Joan doesn’t need avant-garde gimmicks, because now she’s completely comfortable speaking her own language, one that is expressive and natural to her.” Or, as Tower herself put it: “Sometimes it’s a struggle to find out what you’re good at. It took me a number of years to decide how I wanted to write with my own voice.”

Gabriela Lena Frank's "Three Latin American Dances"

Apr 23, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2004, the Utah Symphony and conductor Keith Lockhart premiered “Three Latin-American Dances” by the American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Just a few days later, the same forces recorded Frank’s music for a compact disc release, to be sandwiched between Bernstein’s Symphony Dances from “West Side Story” and Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony Dances.” Frank’s first dance, entitled “Jungle Jaunt” opens with what she calls “an unabashed tribute” to the URBAN jungle evoked in Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Her second dance, “Highland Harawi,” is more melancholy, perhaps a nod to that strain in Rachmaninoff’s music, and evokes the sounds of the bamboo quena flute of the Andes. Her third dance is titled “The Mestizo Waltz,” a pun on the famous “Mephisto Waltz” by Franz Liszt. As Frank explains: “This final [dance] is a lighthearted tribute to the mestizo or mixed-race music of the South American Pacific coast. It evokes the romancero tradition of popular songs and dances that mix influences from indigenous Indian cultures, African slave cultures, and western brass bands.” Frank herself is of mixed Peruvian and Jewish background. When asked about how her heritage affects her music, she replied: “Sometimes the Latin influences are quite evident, and sometimes they are quite subtle. And of course, ‘Latin’ can mean so many different things. There is no one single Latin identity, as any Latino/Latinoamericano would tell you.”

Husa's "Apotheosis of This Earth"

Apr 22, 2019 00:01:59


Today is Earth Day—an annual event started in 1970 by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin as an environmental teach-in. Senator Nelson wasn’t the only one concerned back then, either: the Czech-born composer Karel Husa had noticed dead fish floating on a lake located near a power plant. “The plant was producing hot thermal pollution which in turn killed all those fish,” Husa recalled. “In addition, I noticed more beer cans in the water and algae in greater quantities.” A wind band commission provided Husa with an opportunity to create a work he called “Apotheosis of This Earth.” In explaining its title, Husa wrote: “Man’s brutal possession and misuse of nature’s beauty—if continued at today’s reckless speed—can only lead to catastrophe. The composer hopes that the destruction of this beautiful earth can be stopped, so that the tragedy of destruction—musically projected here in the second movement—and the desolation of its aftermath—the “postscript” of this work—can exist only as fantasy, never to become reality.” “Apotheosis of this Earth” was commissioned by the Michigan School Band and Orchestral Association, and its premiere performance took place on April 1, 1970, with Husa himself conducting the University of Michigan Symphony Band at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. It proved a powerful piece of music. “As the Postscript finished,” recalled the composer, “I saw that the students in the band were somehow moved—there were even some tears.”

Copland's Hurricane for kids

Apr 21, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1937, one of Aaron Copland’s least well-known works had its premiere performance. This was an opera written for high school students, New York’s Henry Street Settlement Music School, to be exact, and entitled “The Second Hurricane.” In his memoirs, Copland recalled that at the time he wrote it, he was living at the Empire Hotel in Midtown Manhattan for $8.50 a week, and that he wrote the score in a studio he rented, located at what is now the site of Lincoln Center. To direct the premiere of his school opera, Copland hired a young actor-director named Orson Welles. Copland’s score also called for some adult performers as well, including one professional actor by the name of Joseph Cotton, who was paid $10 for his performance. “The newspapers seem to enjoy the idea that a dyed-in-the wool modernist was writing an opera for schoolchildren,” recalled Copland, “so they gave a great deal of attention to every step along the way, particularly the casting. Those kids must have gotten a kick out of seeing their names in the Times and Tribune! The idea of an opera for high school performers appealed to the press, I suppose, for the same reason it appealed to me. My motives were not all unselfish, either: the usual run of symphony audiences submitted to new music when it was played at them, but never showed signs of really wanting it. The atmosphere had become deadening. Yet the composer must compose. A school opera seemed a good momentary solution for one composer, at any rate.”

Biblical Torke

Apr 20, 2019 00:01:59


Religious music, like the religious experience itself, comes in all shapes, forms, moods, and colors. On today’s date in the year 2002, for example, this setting of the Song of Isaiah had its premiere performance at the Milwaukee Art Museum during a concert by the Present Music ensemble. The composer of the new setting was a native of Milwaukee named Michael Torke, who writes: “I have always considered that a central religious experience is one of uplifting joy, as opposed to other spiritual expressions of pleading, suffering, atonement, or wrath. It is that state of joy and thanksgiving I am trying to express.” Song of Isaiah was commissioned for Present Music's 20th anniversary, and to honor the Archbishop Rembert Weakland. The piece is scored for a singer, clarinet, bass clarinet, string quintet, piano, vibraphone, and a percussionist who plays the rhythmic underpinning with a tambourine, claves, and in the center of the piece, a triangle. “This spirited rhythm,” writes Torke, “embodies slower embedded forms that are etched out melodically by the clarinets in octaves, and also by the strings and piano in octaves. In essence, there are no climaxes, as I wish the music to be a meditation, though the feeling is quite lively. Nine sections of the piece serve as episodic variations, and explore different small chunks of text from the Book of Isaiah. The form is a mirror: the first and ninth sections relate, as do the second and eighth, and so on; the fifth section (using the triangle) is in the exact center.”

Anthony Braxton's operas

Apr 19, 2019 00:01:59


In the 19th century, Richard Wagner composed a cycle of four operas collectively titled “The Ring of the Nibelungen,” lasting 16 hours in performance. In the 20th century, another German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, wrote a cycle of seven, collectively titled “Light,” which runs about 29 hours. Not to be out-done, for several decades now a 21st century American composer has been working on a cycle of TWELVE operas, titled “Trillium,” which, if completed, will probably last much longer. This composer’s name might not be familiar to opera fans, since MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Anthony Braxton is better known in jazz circles. As a saxophonist, Braxton has made over a hundred recordings, sometimes with jazz greats like Dave Brubeck or Chick Corea. Braxton resists being labeled, however, stating, “Even though I have been saying I'm not a jazz musician for the last 25 years, in the final analysis, an African-American with a saxophone? Ahh, he's jazz!” The sixth opera in the Braxton’s cycle, “Trillium J, or The Non-Unconfessionable,” had its first complete performance at Roulette in Brooklyn on today’s date in 2014. To the question “why write operas,” Braxton says, “I believe the medium of opera is directly relevant to cultural alignment and evolution." Time will tell if Braxton’s “Trillium” project unfolds a culturally relevant message to rival Wagner and Stockhausen’s, or simply acts as a framework for the wide-ranging moods and colors of Braxon’s music.

"King's Row," Korngold, and "Star Wars"

Apr 18, 2019 00:01:58


On today’s date in 1942, Warner Brothers released a film entitled “King’s Row,” which included in its cast a 31-year-old actor named Ronald Reagan, who claimed the film “made me a star.” The film’s musical score was by someone already a star – the Austrian-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold, famous for his earlier work for Hollywood swashbucklers like “Captain Blood” and “Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn. Korngold’s music for “King’s Row” proved unusually popular, and Warner Brothers prepared a form letter politely declining inquiries for sheet music or recordings. Back then, film score recordings were not common, and the big studios were jealously protective of anything – including music – that they owned. It wasn’t until 1979 -- 37 years after the release of the movie – that a full soundtrack recording of “King’s Row” was released, produced by the composer’s son, George, who was responsible for a major revival of interest in his father’s work. In fact, Korngold’s main title music from “King’s Row” may have provided the model for the American composer John Williams when he wrote his main title music for the 1977 sci-fi swashbuckler “Star Wars.” It’s also curious to note that the main title music for “King’s Row” was requested by the White House in 1981 for use at the inauguration of President Reagan, who, you may recall, later promoted a ballistic missile defense shield nicknamed by its critics – wait for it -- “Star Wars.”

Holst and Hammersmith

Apr 17, 2019 00:01:59


The British composer Gustav Holst lived and worked in a West London neighborhood called Hammersmith for many years—and in 1930, Holst gave that name to a work for wind band he wrote on commission from the BBC. “Hammersmith” opens with a "Prelude" representing the river Thames, which, said Holst, "goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned." A “Scherzo” section represents the hustle and bustle of Hammersmith’s market, exemplified, according to Holst’s daughter, by a large woman at a fruit stand who always called her father 'dearie' when he bought oranges for their Sunday picnics In 1931, “Hammersmith” was first performed in England in the composer’s own orchestral arrangement by the B. B. C. Symphony led by Adrian Boult—and the piece was booed. Holst’s bad luck continued the following year: He was scheduled to conduct the premiere of the original wind band version of “Hammersmith” on today’s date at the 1932 American Bandmasters Association Convention in Washington, D.C., but had to cancel his trip due to illness. The DC premiere took place as scheduled, but with the U.S. Marine Band led by Taylor Branson, rather than the composer. For the next 22 years, the original, wind band version of “Hammersmith” remained neglected until Robert Cantrick and the Carnegie Institute of Technology Kiltie Band in Pittsburgh gave what they thought was its world premiere performance in 1954. It seems even Holst’s publisher had forgotten all about its 1932 American premiere.

Persichetti and Tania Leon for band

Apr 16, 2019 00:01:59


In the years following the end of World War II, the “baby boom” led to a dramatic rise in the number of high school and college music programs across the country. By the mid-1950s, a number of well-known American composers started receiving commissions from these schools for new works for wind band. In the past half-century, the Symphony for Band, by American composer Vincent Persichetti, has been one of the most frequently performed. It was commissioned by the Washington University Chamber Band, and received its first performance by the ensemble in St. Louis, Mo., on today’s date in 1956. In keeping with this tradition, in the late 1990s the American Composers Forum started commissioning major composers to write new works for middle-school bands. The series was dubbed BandQuest, and in addition to new scores by composers like Chen Yi, Michael Colgrass, Libby Larsen, Robert X. Rodriguez, and Alvin Singleton, the series offers music teachers interactive CD-ROMs, which place each piece of music in a wider cultural and historical context. This music is from Alegre, by Cuban-born composer Tania Leon. “Alegre” is a Spanish word meaning “joyful,” and Leon’s piece is meant to demonstrate the link in Latin culture between music and dance. That’s something the New York-based Leon knows more than a little about — she was a founding member and the first music director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. A music educator as well as a composer, she also set up the theater’s music school and orchestra.

Handel's famous Largo

Apr 15, 2019 00:01:59


A few years back, when RCA records issued a boxed set of 100 favorite Boston Pops recordings made by Arthur Fiedler, they included Handel’s celebrated “Largo.” Over a hundred years earlier, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra had established this melody as a favorite with 19th century American audiences. Back then, Handel was best-known for his sacred oratorios, and his “Largo” acquired a kind of honorary “halo” by association. Also, the Italian text for the melody began “Ombra mai fui,” and since “ombra” meant shade, many music lovers probably assumed it had something to do with the dear departed shade or spirit of a loved one—hence its melancholic solemnity. In fact, this melody originated in a decidedly secular, downright whimsical context: as the opening aria of an opera by Handel that premiered in London on today’s date in 1738. The opera was entitled “Xerxes,” and dealt with the real-life Persian King who invaded ancient Greece. In the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes is depicted as an all-powerful despot, whose every whim became law. As evidence of the irrational effect of absolute power, Herodotus tells of Xerxes’ fondness for a certain plane tree that he ordered decorated with gold ornaments and put under perpetual military guard as a sign of royal favor. In Handel’s opera, the famous “Largo” is actually Xerxes’s dreamy song to this famous tree—and the “shade” referred to is the sort to be found under its gold-bedecked branches.

Delibes on stage and TV

Apr 14, 2019 00:01:59


A number of the quintessentially “French” operas are set in other lands. Bizet’s “Carmen” is set in Spain and Gounod’s ”Faust” is in Germany, to cite just two examples. But Spain and Germany were familiar next-door neighbors for 19th century Frenchmen, and in that colonizing age, Parisian audiences also enjoyed traveling to much more exotic corners, all the while safely ensconced in their plush balcony seats, of course. One of the grandest of French grand operas, Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine,” has as its eponymous heroine the African Queen of an imaginary East Indian isle, with none other than European Vasco da Gama as her love interest. Another famous French opera set in the mysterious East had its premiere performance on today’s date in 1883, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. This was “Lakmé” by Leo Delibes. In this one, the title heroine is an East Indian priestess of Brahma whose taboo love for an English Colonial officer leads to tragedy and death—but not before lots of gorgeous singing. The popular “Flower Duet” from “Lakmé” achieved a particularly late 20th-century brand of fame when it was used as the soundtrack to a British Airways TV commercial.

Gould at West Point

Apr 13, 2019 00:01:59


In 1952, the West Point Military Band celebrated that famous military academy’s Sesquicentennial by asking prominent composers to write celebratory works to mark the occasion. Among those who responded with a new piece was the American composer Morton Gould, whose “West Point Symphony” received its premiere performance on today’s date in 1952, at a gala concert featuring the West Point Academy Band conducted by Francis E. Resta. There are two movements in Gould’s “West Point Symphony.” They are titled “Epitaphs” and “Marches,” and the composer himself provided these descriptive comments: “The first movement is lyrical and dramatic… The general character is elegiac. The second and final movement is lusty… the texture a stylization of marching tunes and parades cast in an array of embellishments and rhythmic variations… At one point,” concludes Gould, “there is a simulation of a Fife and Drum Corp, which, incidentally, was the instrumentation of the original West Point Band.” Of all the pieces written in honor of West Point’s Sesquicentennial in 1952, Gould’s Symphony is probably the best-known. The score of the West Point Symphony calls for a “marching machine,” but on this classic 1959 recording under the late Frederick Fennell, the required sound was provided by the very real marching feet of 120 Eastman School of Music students.

Henri Lazarof

Apr 12, 2019 00:01:59


Today’s date marks the birthday of a significant American composer with an intriguing name, sounding at once both French and Slavic. Henri Lazarof was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, on April 12, 1932, and began his musical studies at the age of 6. He graduated from the Sofia Academy at the age of 16, studied composition in Rome with the Italian modernist Goffredo Petrassi, came to the United States in 1957 for further study, and eventually settled in California, securing a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught not only composition, but French language and literature as well. Lazarof organized L.A.’s first festival of contemporary music in 1963 and has continued enthusiastically promoting new music. In a Festival brochure, Lazarof once wrote that his music series was “dedicated to the presentation of the entire broad range of this historically evolving art without adopting a single ideology but the one of continuity—accepting tradition and altering it in terms of contemporary experimentation, which in turn is to become the legacy for the next generation to alter." The American conductor Gerard Schwarz has championed Lazarof’s music on both coasts, making recordings with both the Seattle Symphony and New York Chamber Orchestra.

A Purcell premiere?

Apr 11, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1689, London celebrated the coronation of William and Mary of Orange as the new Protestant monarchs of Britain. Thirty-nine musicians participated in the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, all wearing specially-tailored scarlet robes. One of them was Henry Purcell, today regarded as the greatest British composer of his time. That same date is sometimes offered as marking the premiere performance of Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” a few miles away in Chelsea at Josias Priest’s School for Young Ladies. This exact date and circumstance of this work, widely regarded as the first great British opera and one of Purcell’s masterworks, remains very uncertain. April 30th is also cited as a possibility for its premiere, being the date of Queen Mary’s birthday. In any case, the premiere occurred sometime that year, as the libretto by Nahum Tate was published in London that December. Three years earlier Tate had written a poem that compared the deposed Catholic King James II to Aeneas, and constructed an allegory implying that James had been led astray by witches, the result being that he abandoned the British people, just as the legendary Trojan Prince Aeneas had abandoned Queen Dido of Carthage in order to found a new empire in Rome. Since the Catholic King James II had also fled to Rome, some have speculated that Purcell’s opera was a political allegory, commissioned by Mr. Priest’s School for Young Ladies to celebrate either the coronation or birthday of the new Protestant Queen.

Skrowaczewski's "Imaginary Passacaglia"

Apr 10, 2019 00:01:59


In 1960, composer and conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski emigrated from Poland to become the music director of the Minneapolis Symphony, as the Minnesota Orchestra was called in those days. In the decades that followed, Skrowaczewski, or “Stan” as his friends and admirers affectionately called him, became one of the most respected conductors of our time, famous for his interpretations of a wide range of repertory from Bruckner, Bartok and Stravinsky to the works of his Polish contemporaries, Lutoslawski and Pendereceki. Skrowaczewski was born in Lwow in 1923. He composed an orchestral overture at age 8, played a piano recital at age 11, and at 13 performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, conducting from the keyboard. His career as a budding piano virtuoso ended when his hands were injured by a collapsing brick wall during a World War II bombing near his home. After the war he won a French scholarship that enabled him to study composition with Nadia Boulanger and conducting with Paul Kletzki. His American debut occurred with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1958. Skrowaczewski’s busy career as a conductor left little time to nuture his own talents as a composer, but even so he’s written a respectable number of chamber and orchestra works, including this one entitled “Passacaglia Immaginaria,” which received its premiere performance on today’s date in 1996, at a Minnesota Orchestra concert. A few of his works have made their way onto compact discs, including this recording of “Passacaglia Immaginaria” by the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony, conducted by Skrowaczewski himself.

Festival Music for Vienna, by Strauss

Apr 9, 2019 00:01:59


In 1943, before allied bombing made it unsafe, Vienna was the primary residence of the German composer Richard Strauss. Now, in a city mad about music and opera, the presence of a composer of Strauss’s stature was not something that went unnoticed or unappreciated. The previous year, the Vienna City Council awarded Strauss its Beethoven Prize, and the composer, for his part, felt obliged to write a little something as a thank-you gesture. The resulting piece was entitled “Festival Music for the City of Vienna,” and was scored for a brass ensemble sufficiently large to provide pomp and pageantry—and written in a style guaranteed to swell the breasts of the City Council with civic pride. Strauss himself conducted the Vienna Trumpet Corps in the premiere at the city’s Town Hall on April 9, 1943. It’s a stirring piece, and went over so well that Strauss quickly made an arrangement for a smaller ensemble than the original, rather lavish, version for ten trumpets, seven trombones, two tubas, and timpani. It’s also quite possible that working on this piece reminded Strauss of some of his earliest compositions, which were also written for wind ensembles. In any case, to keep himself busy while the disastrous course of the war meant the closure of theaters and fewer commissions for new music, Strauss began work on a piece for a small ensemble of wind and brass instruments, which would become his Sonatina No. 1.

Larsen's "Calamity Jane" songs

Apr 8, 2019 00:01:59


Song settings form a significant part of the output of the American composer Libby Larsen. Like many other composers, she’s set poems of Emily Dickinson and Rainer Maria Rilke—but she has also penned a song-cycle entitled “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII.” Another, for mezzo-soprano and handbell choir entitled “Hell’s Belles,” is set to words of formidable women such as Talulah Bankhead, Billy Jean King, and Gertrude Stein. On today’s date in 1989, Larsen’s “Songs from Letters: Calamity Jane to her Daughter, Jenny” had its premiere performance in New York City. As the title indicates, the texts are drawn from the correspondence of Martha Jane Canary, popularly known as “Calamity Jane,” a hard-drinking, gun-toting woman of the Wild West, who lived from 1848 to 1903. Calamity Jane had a daughter, possibly by Wild Bill Hickok. Calamity Jane sent the child to live with a man she called a "normal daddy,” her friend Jim O'Neil, paying child support by both legal and not-so legal means. As Calamity Jane put it: “I ain’t no lady.” Larsen says she was fascinated by “the struggle of an individual soul, a woman and pioneer on many frontiers.” As Larsen put it: “Calamity Jane was a working woman, good in her profession, doing what she loved and making choices because of her will to work. In her time she was odd and lonely. She chooses rough-tough words to describe her life to her daughter. I'm interested in that rough-toughness and in Calamity Jane's struggle to explain herself honestly.”

A Passion for Bach

Apr 7, 2019 00:01:59


In 1723, the Leipzig Town Council appointed Johann Sebastian Bach as the new Kantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Despite what he might have felt about everything they expected him to do, Bach apparently did like that Church: it was there that his family worshiped and 12 of his 20 children were baptized. But Bach was responsible for music at TWO Leipzig churches: St. Thomas and St. Nikolaus Church. In Bach’s day, St. Thomas was regarded as the lesser of the two, with St. Nikolaus Church the official venue for most important occasions, including the premiere performances of many of Bach’s sacred works. For example, it was at St. Nikolaus Church on today’s date in 1724 that Bach’s “Passion According to Saint John” was premiered. Bach apparently intended his new Passion to be performed at St. Thomas Church, ignoring the Council’s specific request for the other venue, and changed his plans ONLY after the Council authorized more space for performers in the choir loft at St. Nikolaus—and after they repaired that church’s harpsichord. Chalk up one victory for the cagey cantor! Alas, Bach’s tussles with the Council didn’t end there. While posterity regards Bach’s years in Leipzig as one of the most glorious epochs in music history, it’s quite likely that both Bach AND his employers might have recalled it as one long battle of wills over matters large and small.

Don Shirley

Apr 6, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2013, the Jamaican-American pianist and composer Donald Shirley died at age 86 in New York City. His death set into motion a plan that had been long in the works: a movie based on Shirley’s concert tour to the deep South in 1962, accompanied by Tony “the Lip” Vallelonga, a bouncer at the famous Copacabana night club who Shirley hired for protection. In the 1960s Shirley was at the height of his popularity as the leader of a jazz trio he founded after being told by the great concert impresario Sol Hurok a career as a classical pianist was impossible due to his skin color. In the 1980s, Vallelonga’s son Nick told Shirley and his father he wanted to make a movie about the indignities they suffered during that 1962 tour and the life-long friendship that developed between them. Shirley agreed, but said only after his death. "'You should put in everything your father told you, and everything I told you,” said Shirley. "'You tell exactly the truth, but wait until I pass.'" In 2018, five years after Shirley’s death, the film was released, titled GREEN BOOK, after a guide for Negro motorists listing hotels and restaurants open to them in segregated states. Fact-checkers confirm the film is largely accurate, and, yes, for over 50 years Shirley did live in an elegant apartment over Carnegie Hall, where his jazz trio often performed.

Barber's Cello Concerto

Apr 5, 2019 00:01:59


In a 1964 essay, the American composer Samuel Barber wrote: “I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to enhance their lives... I do not write for posterity.” And in a 1979 interview, he said: “I write for the present, and I write for myself... I think that most music that is really good will be appreciated by the audience—ultimately.” Barber was 35 years old when he composed his Cello Concerto in 1945, finishing the work around the same time he was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Corps. The Concerto was written for the cellist Raya Garbousova, who gave the premiere performance of the work with the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky on today’s date in 1946. The new Concerto was warmly received in Boston, and even won an award from New York music critics. Oddly enough, soon after its premiere, Barber’s Cello Concerto was pretty much ignored for several decades, and to date has yet to catch on with performers or audiences to the same degree as his earlier Violin Concerto—another work that took quite a while to become popular. Still, in recent years both performers and audiences seem more than willing to revisit ALL of Barber’s scores, including his Cello Concerto, and a major reappraisal of Barber seems well underway, and, to paraphrase the composer, we think most of Barber’s music that is really good will be appreciated by audiences—ultimately.

A Sondheim opening (and closing)

Apr 4, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1964, a new musical called “Anyone Can Whistle” opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theater. The book was by Arthur Laurents, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The show told the story of a town that's gone bankrupt because its only industry manufactured something that never wears out. To spark tourism, the town’s Mayor fakes a miracle—water flowing from a rock—and when patients from a local mental hospital called the “Cookie Jar” escape and mix in with townspeople and tourists, chaos ensues. The only conventional thing about the new Sondheim-Laurent musical was the inclusion of a love story. The New York Daily News called the first act "joyously daffy," and the Journal-American reported that the opening night audience cheered several numbers. The New York Times, unfortunately, panned the new show, opening its review with this statement: "There is no law against saying something in a musical, but it's unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit." Ouch! It didn't help that the new Laurent-Sondheim musical’s competition on Broadway that year included crowd pleasers like Hello, Dolly, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof. The show ran for just one week. But one person who liked the show happened to be a Columbia Record executive named Goddard Lieberson, who assembled the original cast the day after it closed to make an original cast recording that became something of a cult classic.

Carter's "Boston Concerto"

Apr 3, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2003, a new orchestral work by the American composer Elliott Carter had its premiere in Boston. Carter was then 94 years old—he would live to be a month shy of 104, and, even more remarkable, he was composing new works almost to the end of his days. Now, when you live that long, you experience a lot of changes. Carter had studied English and Greek at Harvard, and recalled a time when at Boston Symphony concerts conservative members of the audience would joke that the emergency exits signs should read “Exit – in case of Brahms.” Apparently, even in the 1920s, for some Boston Brahmins, Brahms was still “difficult music.” For his part, Carter felt the complexity of his own music reflected the complex world into which he was born—the world of Proust, Picasso, and Stravinsky. His music was technically very, very difficult, but Carter always insisted it was all in service of the greater freedom and fantasy of his imagination, not difficult for difficulty’s sake. Carter’s “Boston Concerto” was dedicated to the memory of his wife, Helen, who died shortly before its premiere. Carter prefaced his score with the opening lines from a poem entitled “Rain” by William Carlos Williams: “As the rain falls So does your love bathe every open Object of the world—“

Beethoven's First

Apr 2, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1800, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 had its first performance in Vienna, at a benefit concert for the 29-year-old composer. It would be several years before any of Beethoven’s orchestral music reached American shores, but it did occur during Beethoven’s lifetime. In 1819, for example, a “Grand Piano Concerto” by Beethoven was performed in New Orleans—only we have no idea which one. On today’s date in 1825, when Beethoven was 54, his “Egmont” Overture was performed at the City Hotel in New York, and was performed again in Philadelphia on March 28, 1827—just two days after its composer had died back in Vienna. By the 1840s, Beethoven’s overtures and symphonies appeared with some regularity on the East Coast, and slowly worked their way Westward. In 1853, Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 was performed in San Francisco by musicians gathered from that city’s gambling houses. A letter describing the event recalled, “there were many Chinese present,” and that it “lasted four hours owing to an overwhelming demand for encores, which the performers dared not refuse in the face of rugged California individualism.” In 1856, when San Francisco’s German Society gave the West Coast premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth, The San Francisco Chronicle review the following day noted: “The pieces were very beautiful, but it must be said that some of them appeared to be considered very tedious by the greater number of the audience. The Adagio, Scherzo and Finale of Beethoven’s Symphony, for instance, caused many to yawn.”

The truth about Alkan

Apr 1, 2019 00:01:59


For many years, the BBC celebrated April Fools’ Day by trying to pull radio listeners’ legs with outrageously fabricated news stories. One year, for example, BBC TV aired footage of an Italian spaghetti farm where happy peasants harvested that year’s crop from bushes that the BBC production crew had draped with limp noodles for the filming. On another April 1st, the BBC’s classical service featured a profile of an eccentrically reclusive 19th century French composer who concocted unplayable works in his apartment on a bizarre instrument that combined an organ pedal board with a grand piano. He was, the story claimed, as fantastic a performer as Liszt or Chopin, and supposedly was crushed to death by his own bookcase when he attempted to remove a heavy volume from its top shelf. Only in this case, the story was more or less true, and the composer, Charles-Valetin Alkan, was a very real person. Alkan was born in Paris in 1813 and was buried there on today’s date in 1888. Only the bit about Alkan’s “death by bookcase” in the BBC profile is disputed by some historians. That story originated with Isidore Philipp, one of only four mourners who attended Alkan’s April 1st interment, and who claimed to have been present when the composer’s body was found in his apartment. Philipp was a highly respected and long-lived French composer and piano teacher who came to America in 1940 and died here in 1958. He seems a credible witness—so who to believe?

Dvořák's "Rusalka"

Mar 31, 2019 00:01:59


We tend to think of the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak as a 19th century composer—but he lived a few years into the 20th and one of his major works, his opera “Rusalka,” had its premiere in Prague on today’s date in 1901. We mostly think of Dvorak as primarily a composer of symphonies and chamber works, but in his final years, Dvorak devoted himself chiefly to opera. In a 1904 interview, given just two months before his death, Dvorak said: “Over the past five years I have written nothing but operas. I wanted to devote all my powers, as long as the dear Lord gives me health, to the creation of opera. Not out of any vain desire for theatrical glory, but because I consider opera to be the most suitable medium for the Czech nation, and listened to by the widest audience, whereas if I compose a symphony I might have to wait years before it is performed.” Dvorak was undoubtedly gratified that his opera “Rusalka” was a big success at its 1901 premiere, and would subsequently become one of his most popular works with Czech audiences. More recently, thanks to soprano Renee Fleming, “Rusalka” has won over a new generation of American audiences as well.

Symphonies by Strauss

Mar 30, 2019 00:01:59


By the time of his death in 1949, the German composer Richard Strauss was famous worldwide as the composer of operas like “Der Rosenkavalier” and tone-poems like Don Juan and “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.” These operas and tone-poems are so famous, we tend to forget that Strauss also composed symphonies—two of them, both written when the young composer was just starting out. Strauss’s Symphony No. 1 in d-minor, for example, was premiered in his home town of Munich on today’s date in 1881, when the composer was just 16. That performance was given by an amateur orchestra, but was conducted by one of the leading German conductors of that day, Hermann Levi, who would lead the premiere of Wagner’s “Parsifal” the following year. Another eminent Wagnerian conductor, Hans von Bulow, subsequently took up the teenager’s symphony, and also commissioned him to write a Suite for Winds. In short order, the young composer also dashed off a violin concerto, a cello sonata, and a horn concerto for his father, Franz Strauss, a famous virtuoso on that instrument. The American conductor Theodore Thomas was an old friend of Franz Strauss, and while in Europe during the summer of 1884, Thomas looked over the score for the younger Strauss’s Second Symphony, and immediately arranged for its premiere in New York City the following winter.

Sheng's "Silent Temple"

Mar 29, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in the year 2000, the Shanghai Quartet premiered a new chamber work at the University of Richmond in Virginia. This was the String Quartet No.4 by the Chinese composer Bright Sheng. Sheng was born in Shanghai in 1955, but since the 80s he’s made the United States his home, and now has an enviable reputation as both a composer and teacher. But back in the late 1960s, during the tumultuous years of Madame Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” Sheng worked as a pianist and percussionist in a Chinese folk music and dance troupe near the Tibetan border, where he also studied and collected folk music. Sheng’s String Quartet No. 4 is subtitled “Silent Temple.” He explains that title as follows: “In the early 1970s I visited an abandoned Buddhist temple in north-west China. As all religious activities were completely forbidden at the time, the temple, still renowned among the Buddhist community all over the world, was unattended and on the brink of turning into a ruin. The most striking and powerful memory I had of that visit was that, in spite of the appalling condition of the temple, it was still a grandiose and magnificent structure. Standing in the middle of the courtyard, I could almost hear the praying and chanting of the monks, as well as the violence committed to the temple and the monks by the Red Guards. To this day, the memories of the visit remain vivid, and I use them almost randomly as the basic images of my String Quartet.”

Beethoven in Vienna

Mar 28, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in the year 1801, the world, or at least that portion of it seated in the Imperial Court Theater in Vienna, heard for the very first time the music for a new ballet. The real draw that evening was the prima ballerina of the company, a certain Fraulein Cassentini, because the performance was being staged as a benefit in her honor. The music was by a young composer not yet very famous, having written only one symphony and a couple of piano concertos, and nothing at all for the stage, let alone a ballet. His name was Ludwig van Beethoven, and his ballet was called “The Creatures of Prometheus.” The “creatures” referred to in the title are two stone statues that are brought to life by Prometheus, the legendary Greek figure who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. Beethoven’s commission came from an Italian dancer named Salvatore Vigano, who had been working in Vienna since 1793, and was —like Beethoven—seeking the attention and possible patronage of the culture-loving Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. Although Beethoven’s ballet was given 14 times the first season, and nine more the next, it was never published in his lifetime, and even today remains one of his least-known orchestral works. Nevertheless, Haydn himself is said to have praised it, and Beethoven was evidently please with at least ONE of its themes, a tune he recycled twice: first in the finale of his mammoth “Eroica” and again in a set of 15 Variations for Solo Piano.

Haydn in Vienna

Mar 27, 2019 00:01:59


In the winter of 1807, a group of music-loving Viennese, frustrated that their chances to hear orchestral and symphonic music seemed rather sporadic, decided to sponsor a series of symphonic concerts themselves. Their organization was called, simply “The Concert of Music Lovers,” with performing forces made up (according to a Viennese newspaper) of “the best local amateurs, with a few wind instruments only—French horns, trumpets, etc…, drafted from Viennese theaters.” The audience, according to the same source, comprised “exclusively the nobility of the town, foreigners of note and selected cognoscenti.” Twenty concerts were staged in all, most of them in a large hall of the Vienna University. The final concert in the series occurred on today’s date in 1808. This was a performance of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” in honor of the composer, whose 76th birthday would fall on March 31st. The work was sung in Italian, and the conductor on that occasion was the famous Italian composer Antonio Salieri. Haydn was living in a suburb of Vienna at the time, and arrived in Prince Esterhazy’s coach. Haydn was carried into the hall on an armchair lifted high so that all could see him. The orchestra played a fanfare, and shouts of “Long live Haydn!” rang from the audience, which included Ludwig van Beethoven. This would prove to be Haydn’s last appearance in public. His health gradually failed him and he died quietly at his home the following year.

Glass in Rome

Mar 26, 2019 00:01:59


For the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, an international arts festival was planned, and, as its centerpiece, a gigantic day-long music-theater work designed and coordinated by the avant-garde American director Robert Wilson. Wilson titled the projected work “Civil Wars.” The story line was loosely inspired by Matthew Brady’s famous photographs of America’s own Civil War, but also incorporated myths, images, and historical icons from around the world. The idea was that the various sections of the work would be contributed by a team of composers, each connected by what Wilson called “knee plays”—short “joints” if you will, linking the parts to the whole. The “knee play” music was contributed by the American pop musician David Byrne, a member of the “Talking Heads.” The Fifth and final act of “Civil Wars” was written by the minimalist composer Philip Glass. It was dubbed “The Rome Section,” since it was commissioned and performed as a separate work by the Rome Opera on today’s date in 1984. Glass acknowledged that he wanted to address the nearly 400-year old tradition of Italian opera, and so included an impassioned tenor aria… a modern version of the sword-waving, act-ending cabalettas in the operas of Verdi. In the end, Wilson’s day-long epic never was staged in Los Angeles as planned. The reason given at the time was “funding problems.”

Beeson's "Lizzie Borden"

Mar 25, 2019 00:01:59


Today in 1965, “Lizzie Borden” premiered at the New York City Opera. The new opera depicted a fictionalized version of a real-life event: a gruesome double axe-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden that occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. Andrew Borden’s daughter, Lizzie, was accused of the murder of her father and stepmother. Many at the time thought her guilty. As a famous children’s rhyme of the period put it: Lizzie Borden took an axe And gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one. Lizzie Borden was acquitted for the murders, which remained unsolved. For the American composer Jack Beeson, Lizzie’s story resembled the ancient Greek legend of Elektra, already the subject of a famous opera by Richard Strauss. And like Strauss’s Elektra, Beeson’s Lizzie is the central character in an angst-ridden, Freudian tale of an evil stepmother and a dangerously dysfunctional family. | Beeson says: “A lot of Lizzie Borden is very dissonant. It was even thought to be a twelve-tone piece back in 1965. There’s not a 12-tone row in it, but the agonized situation in much of Lizzie seemed to me to require that kind of music. Looking at reviews of a couple years ago compared to the ones in 1965, what’s astonishing is how the dissonance no longer seems upsetting.”

Lee's "ART" music

Mar 24, 2019 00:01:59


“Commedia dell'arte” is the name given to a kind of theater popular throughout Italy during the 18th century. In this improvised, rough and tumble genre, a group of stock figures with names like “Harlequin,” “Pierrot,” and “Punchinello” would reappear time and time again in various farcical situations—situations which modern audiences would probably recognize from the TV sitcoms of today, only the earthy 18th century version was not exactly “G-rated.” These characters were attractive to many of the 20th century’s greatest composers: Schoenberg’s “Pierrot lunaire” is a song-cycle setting dreamy, surreal texts sung by a love-sick commedia dell’arte clown; Richard Strauss’s opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” interpolates an earthy comedia dell’arte team as unlikely commentators on the action of an otherwise oh-so serious Greek legend; and Stravinsky’s ballet “Pulcinella” recasts elegant 18th century musical forms into a robust modern score whose title character, according to Stravinsky, was “a drunken lout whose every gesture was obscene.” On today’s date in 1996, a more refined chamber work inspired by commedia dell’arte characters received its premiere at Boston College. It was commissioned and premiered by the Artaria Quartet, and was given the punning title, “ART: arias & interludes.” The music is by the Chinese-born American composer Thomas Oboe Lee, who lives and works in Boston. Each of the movements of Lee’s work related to a different commedia dell’arte figure. This section is entitled “Pantaloon’s Bolero.”

Daugherty's bassoon gang

Mar 23, 2019 00:01:59


When your instrument is nicknamed “the burping bedpost,” it’s hard to get respect in refined circles. So it’s understandable then, that the bassoon section of, say, a major London orchestra might indulge in a bit of day-dreaming in which a gang of hot-rodding motorcycling bassoonists blow into town and take over a concert hall. And guess what? That is EXACTLY the scenario of a piece written for Britain’s Philharmonia Orchestra by the American composer Michael Daughtery. “Hell’s Angels” is the title of his concerto for bassoon quartet and orchestra that received its premiere in London on today’s date in 1999. Daughtery says: “I find the bassoon to be an instrument with great expressive and timbral possibilities, ranging from low and raucous rumbling to plaintive high intensity. Hell’s Angels juxtaposes hellish and angelic music.” Daugherty takes a lot of his inspiration from icons of American pop culture, so it’s not surprising that he should choose “Hell’s Angels” as a theme for a bassoon concerto. After all, he writes, “the bassoon is similar in size and shape to the drag pipes found on Harley Davidson motorcycles, the preferred mode of transportation of Hell’s Angels in America. When the noise-curbing mufflers are illegally removed from the drag pipes, they create a deafening roar. I have removed the traditional mufflers on the bassoon repertoire in order to compose the first concerto for bassoon quartet and orchestra in the 20th century.

Bruckner panned

Mar 22, 2019 00:01:59


On this day in the year 1886, critic Gustav Dompke wrote these lines in the “German Times” of Vienna, after attending a performance of one of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies: “We recoil in horror before this rotting odor which rushes into our nostrils from the disharmonies of this putrefactive counterpoint... Bruckner composes like a drunkard!” Today, with Bruckner’s symphonies performed and recorded so often, I don’t think many “recoil in horror” from his rich Romantic harmonies… but he’s always been controversial. Bruckner’s European contemporaries and his early American audiences found his approach to symphonic composition puzzling, bizarre, or, more often than not, simply boring. The vogue for Bruckner symphonies in America had to wait until the latter part of the 20th century, a full century after many of them received their premiere performances in Europe. In 1941, for example, when Bruno Walter conducted Bruckner’s giant Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, music critic Olin Downes lamented that Walter hadn’t chosen a “more interesting” program, and noted that the Bruckner symphony: “sent a number from the hall before it had finished.”

Ron Nelson's Bach Tribute

Mar 21, 2019 00:01:59


One of the most serious—and daunting—of musical forms is the passacaglia, in which an unchanging melodic pattern repeats itself while other lines of melody offer elaboration and counterpoint to the unwavering tread of the repeated motive. The result tends to be deliberate, somber, and imposing. The most famous passacaglia in all of Western classical music is the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose birthday we observe on today’s date. After Bach’s high water mark, it takes more than a little courage for modern composers to tackle this form! One of those brave souls who tried—and succeeded—is the American composer Ron Nelson. Nelson’s “Passacaglia, “subtitled “Homage on B-A-C-H,” utilizes the melodic motive represented in German musical nomenclature by B-flat, A, C, and B natural—in German B natural is represented by the letter H. Nelson’s wind band Passacaglia was commissioned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music in 1992. It didn’t prove an easy task, recalls Nelson: “It evolved very slowly… The trick was… to make it seamless and inexorable. Of all my compositions, this is the tightest. I cannot imagine changing one note.” Apparently others agree, since the resulting work won a number of awards and has become a wind band classic.

Stephen Paulus and Choral Quest

Mar 20, 2019 00:01:59


In 2010, the American Composers Forum launched ChoralQuest, a specially-commissioned series of new works written especially for middle school and junior high choirs. The idea was to expand the available repertoire for young choirs, introduce choirs to some of today’s best composers, and present composers with the chance and challenge of writing for young and changing voices. On today’s date in 2011, one of these new works received its premiere performance by the Oak Grove Singers from Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington, Minnesota. Bryan Blessing conducted his young singers in a setting of lines from “Tintern Abbey” by the 19th century British poet William Wordsworth. The new piece, entitled “Through All Things,” was written by Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus. “I chose a poem that conveys some deep thoughts,” said Paulus. “People often underestimate the sophistication of young people… The Wordsworth poem speaks about ‘a motion and a spirit that rolls through all things.’” “But a composer really need know the range of young singers and what they can do,” admited Paulus, who spent time with the Oak Grove Singers. He confessed it’s not just the kids who benefited: “You never get too old or too experienced to not learn something from writing a new piece, whether it’s for kids or professional musicians.”

Gounod's "Faust"

Mar 19, 2019 00:01:59


The opening of Edith Wharton’s novel “The Age of Innocence” takes place at New York’s old Academy of Music in the early 1870s, during a performance of Charles Gounod’s “Faust,” a French grand opera based on the classic German play by Goethe. At the time specified in Wharton’s novel, Gounod’s opera was still “new” music, having premiered about a dozen years earlier in Paris on today’s date in 1859. Gounod’s “Faust” became a worldwide success, and was quickly translated into many languages. In Wharton’s fictional New York performance, for example, the real-life Swedish diva Christine Nilsson sang the role of Marguerite, the pure German maiden seduced and abandoned by Faust. As Wharton puts it: “She sang, of course, ‘m’ama!” and not “he loves me,’ since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.” Nilsson, again singing in Italian, sang Marguerite at the 1883 gala opening night performance of “Faust” at New York’s newly built Metropolitan Opera House. “Faust” was performed so often there that the building was soon dubbed the “Faust-spielhaus,” a pun on Wagner’s German “Festpielhaus” or “Festival Theater” in Bayreuth. Despite its good tunes, Gounod’s sentimental opera fell out of favor around the time of the First World War, but soon bounced back into the core repertory of opera houses worldwide—only these days, more often than not, it’s sung in French.

Mobberley's Piano Concerto

Mar 18, 2019 00:01:59


All artists, including composers, are frequently urged to “write what they know.” Well, if that’s the case, then any new and sleep-deprived parent can probably relate to music which supposedly depicts a late-night session with a new-born baby. It’s the middle movement of a Piano Concerto that was given its premiere on today’s date in 1994 by the Kansas City Symphony, with Bill McGlaughlin conducting and Richard Cass the piano soloist. This new Concerto was by the Kansas City composer James Mobberley, who writes: “The piece is in three movements, each of which reflects a different emotional side of parenthood. The first movement represents the excitement and hysteria of forthcoming childbirth. The middle movement begins with amazingly soft moments following childbirth but leads into the period of sleeplessness and total chaos that inevitably follows. The final movement represents the wonderful fun and unpredictable interactions that start to happen, beginning with the child’s first smile.” Composer James Mobberley was born in Iowa in 1954, raised in Pennsylvania, and earned music degrees from the University of North Carolina and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since 1983 he’s taught at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, balancing his teaching duties there with his composition work, which includes a wide range of concert and theatrical pieces, some combining electronic and live performing elements.

Loeffler and Anderson in Boston

Mar 17, 2019 00:01:59


Today we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Boston (where else?), noting two musical premieres in that Celtic city. The first was in March of 1922, when Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony in the premiere of three of the “Five Irish Fantasies” by the German-born American composer Charles Martin Loeffler. These were settings for solo voice and orchestra of poetry by William Butler Yeats, and, for their Boston premiere, the vocalist was none other than THE great Irish tenor, John McCormack. In 1947, the Eire Society of Boston commissioned another American composer, Leroy Anderson, to write an “Irish Suite” for its annual Irish night at the Boston Pops. Anderson used six popular Irish tunes, ranging from the sentimental to the exuberant, for his suite… skillfully arranging them into an immediate hit and lasting success. Arthur Fiedler conducted the premiere during the Pops’ summer season that year.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Mar 16, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1968, a 72-year old Italian-born American composer named Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco died in Beverly Hills, California. As a young man, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was already known as a rising composer, concert pianist, music critic and essayist. In 1939 he left Mussolini’s Italy and came to America, and like a lot of European musicians of the time, he found work writing film scores for major Hollywood studios. Castelnuovo-Tedesco became an American citizen, and eventually taught at the Los Angeles Conservatory, where his pupils included many famous names from the next generation of film composers, including Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini, Andre Previn, Nelson Riddle and John Williams. In addition to film scores, Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed a significant body of concert music, including concertos for the likes of Heifetz and Sergovia. One high point in the composer’s post-war career occurred in the 1960s, when his Shakespearean opera “The Merchant of Venice” was staged in both Italy and Los Angeles. A number of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s works are directly related to his Jewish faith, including a choral work from 1947, entitled “Naomi and Ruth.” The composer’s mother was named Naomi, and he claimed the faithful Ruth in the Biblical story reminded him of his own wife, Clara. “In a certain sense,” he wrote, “it was really my symbolic autobiography, existing before I decided to write—to open my heart—in these pages.”

Rorem's "After Reading Shakespeare"

Mar 15, 2019 00:01:59


For their February 2013 cover story, the editors of BBC Music magazine came up with a list of the 50 most influential people in the history of music. Bach was on it, as you might expect, but so was Shakespeare. Any music lover can see the logic in that, and reel off pieces like Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy entitled “Romeo and Juliet,” or all the great operas based on Shakespeare’s plays, ranging from Verdi’s “Falstaff” to a recent setting of “The Tempest” by Thomas Adès. And speaking of “The Tempest,” in New York on today’s date in 1981, Sharon Robinson premiered a new solo cello suite she commissioned from the American composer Ned Rorem, a work entitled “After Reading Shakespeare.” One section of the new suite was titled “Caliban,” after a memorable figure in “The Tempest”—others after Shakespearean characters like Lear, Portia, or Titania and Oberon. “Yes,” says Rorem, “I was re-reading Shakespeare the month the piece was accomplished… Yet the experience did not so much inspire the music itself as provide a cohesive program upon which the music be might formalized, and thus intellectually grasped by the listener. Indeed, some of the titles were added AFTER the fact, as when parents christen their children.” After all, as Shakespeare’s Juliet might put it, “What’s in a name?”

Previn's Violin Concerto

Mar 14, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2002, a new Violin Concerto received its premiere by the Boston Symphony. The soloist was the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, with the new work’s composer, Andre Previn, conducting. Despite his French-sounding first name and his British honorary knighthood, Previn was born in Berlin, he came to the United States in 1939, and became an American citizen in 1943. Previn’s Violin Concerto has a kind of homecoming in its third movement, subtitled “From a Train in Germany.” Late in 1999, Previn had telephoned a birthday greeting to his manager back in New York while riding on a German train. That call prompted a suggestion that a musical work planned for Boston might reflect that train ride through the country of his birth. The 3rd movement also incorporates a German children’s song suggested by Anne-Sophie Mutter, one that Previn had known as a child in Germany. Autobiographical inferences throughout the Violin Concerto are also suggested by an inscription from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” which reads: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” And, as if to underscore the autobiographical interplay of life and art, Mutter and Previn were married on August 1, 2002, five months after the premiere of “their” Concerto. That marriage (Previn’s fifth) ended four years later when the pair divorced in 2006, citing the 34 year difference in their ages as the cause.

Rochberg in Chicago

Mar 13, 2019 00:01:59


In 1986, the city of Chicago celebrated its 150th anniversary, and one music patron was willing to back the commission of a big new orchestral work for the pride of that city, namely the Chicago Symphony and its superstar conductor Sir George Solti. The manager of the orchestra approached the American composer George Rochberg about writing something, suggesting that the patron in question specifically wanted a concerto for brass and orchestra. This wasn’t all that surprising, since the Chicago Symphony then and now has special reason to be proud of its brass section. Rochberg’s counter-suggestion was that he would write a symphony, reassuring the orchestra’s manager: “When I write my new Symphony, I will not neglect the brass.” Some months later, the composer met with the conductor to outline his plans for the Chicago Symphony commission. When he requested extra brass and percussion. Rochberg recounted the story of the anonymous patron’s commission of a “Concerto for Brass,” to which Solti, smiling broadly, replied: “Oh, that was me!”—and readily agreed to a Rochberg Symphony instead. Rochberg’s brassy Symphony No. 5, was premiered by Solti and the Chicago Symphony on today’s date in 1986.

Magnus Lindberg

Mar 12, 2019 00:01:59


At the end of one of his parables, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” That’s also the spirit of a group called Ears Open, formed by Esa Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg back when they were students at the Helsinki Academy, to raise the profile of new music in Finland. Years later, after Salonen became the music director of the LA Philharmonic, he gave Lindberg his first major American commission, a work called “Fresco,” which had its world premiere in Los Angeles on today’s date in 1998. In contrast to the chilly Northern landscapes of Finland, the title Fresco invokes much warmer places, and Lindberg has described it as reflecting both the ‘loud’ and ‘soft’ style of Indonesian gamelan ensembles, exotic percussion music designed for outdoor ceremonial purposes or for intimate indoor use. Both East and West Coast critics were impressed. The LA Times wrote: "Lindberg uses the orchestra as if it were one massive instrument full of ever-changing textures... the interplay of light and dark, of colors and textures, commands attention.” And, according to the New York Times: "Lindberg raises orchestral color to the level of line, rhythm, and counterpoint. ... Layers of timbre fall away and new ones are added, easing one episode smoothly into the next."

Haydn encored

Mar 11, 2019 00:01:59


These days if someone goes to all the trouble to write a symphony, they’re lucky to hear it performed at all—and it might be years before a second hearing. But back in 1791, when Haydn paid his first visit to England, Londoners were so enthusiastic about his new symphonies they asked for repeat performances as soon as possible. On today’s date in 1791, the work we know as Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 had its London premiere, and, “by particular desire,” as they phrased it back then, was repeated a week later and again the following month. And when Haydn paid a visit to Oxford University that summer to receive an honorary doctorate, he led a performance of this same symphony at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. Ever since, this particular English favorite has been nick-named Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony. Haydn, being a politically astute sort of chap, didn’t publicize to his British fans that one of their favorite symphonies was actually commissioned by a French Count who had sponsored a series of Haydn concerts in Paris some five years earlier. One wonders how the music-loving Count fared during the French Revolution, which was well underway in 1791. In any case, by 1794, when Haydn next paid a visit to London, England and France were at war, and Napoleon Buonaparte, the purported inspiration for one of Beethoven’s famous symphonies, was on the rise.

Paine in Boston

Mar 10, 2019 00:01:59


Following the successful premiere of his First Symphony in 1876, the New England composer John Knowles Paine finished a Second, to which he gave a German subtitle: “Im Fruehling” or “In Springtime.” In 19th century America, “serious” music meant German music, and “serious” musicians like Paine all studied in Germany. Returning home, Paine became the first native-born American to win broad acceptance as a symphonic composer, and, accepting a teaching post at Harvard, that school’s first professor of music. On today’s date in 1880, Paine’s “Spring” Symphony was premiered at Sanders Theater by the Boston Philharmonic, and warmly received by its first audience. You might even go so far as to say that the normally staid Bostonians went nuts. One critic who was present recalled that “ladies waved their handkerchiefs, men shouted in approbation, and the highly respected John S. Dwight, arbiter in Boston of music criticism, stood in his seat frantically opening and shutting his umbrella as an expression of uncontrollable enthusiasm.” Paine’s music remained tremendously popular in his own day. In 1883, George Henschel, then the conductor of the Boston Symphony, was sent the following poetic suggestion about his programming: Let no more Wagner themes thy bill enhance And give the native workers just one chance. Don’t give that Dvorák symphony a-gain; If you would give us joy, oh give us Paine!

Pachelbel and his Canon

Mar 9, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1706, the German composer and organist Johann Pachelbel was buried in Nuremberg, the town where he was born some 53 years earlier. In his day, Pachelbel was regarded as something of a progressive—an innovative composer of Protestant church music and works for harpsichord and organ. Pachelbel was acquainted with the Bach family, and was, in fact, the teacher of the teacher of J.S. Bach, and served as godfather to one of J.S. Bach’s older relations. As famous as he was in his day, Pachelbel would be pretty much forgotten by most music lovers until late in the 20th century, when an orchestral arrangement of a little chamber piece that he had written would suddenly become one of the best-known, best-loved, and one of the most unavoidable classical themes of our time. In 1979, the American composer George Rochberg even included variations on Pachelbel’s famous Canon as the 3rd movement of his own String Quartet No. 6. Like Bach, some of Johann Pachelbel’s children also became composers, and one of them, Karl Teodorus Pachelbel, emigrated from Germany to the British colonies of North America. As “Charles Theodore Pachelbel,” he became an important figure in the musical life of early 18th century Boston and Charleston, and died there in 1750, the same year as J.S. Bach.

Enescu's Greatest Hit

Mar 8, 2019 00:01:58


In Bucharest on today’s date in the year 1903, a 21 year-old Romanian composer named Georges Enescu conducted the premiere of two “Romanian Rhapsodies” he had written. These flashy orchestra showpieces quickly became his most popular works—a little to the composer’s later chagrin. He came to feel—and quite rightly—that the HUGE success of these toe-tappers had come to overshadow all his other compositions and accomplishments. Enescu had good reason to be proud: In addition to being a fine composer and conductor, he was one of the great virtuoso violinists of his day. As both a conductor and violinist, he appeared with most of the great orchestras of Europe and America. For his 1923 American debut he appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the triple role of conductor, violinist, and composer. Enescu wrote impressive symphonies, chamber music, and even an opera based on the Greek legend of Oedipus. As a teacher and general musical mentor, Enescu could count the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin as one of his star pupils and most devoted admirers. Enescu died in Paris in 1955. Even though he had severed relations with his now Communist homeland, the Romanian government revered him as their great national composer: His native village, a street in Bucharest, and the State Philharmonic were all renamed in his honor. Despite all that, for most music lovers, sad to say, the name “Enescu” equals “Romanian Rhapsodies” and little else.

Brahms in Vienna

Mar 7, 2019 00:01:59


Of all music lovers in the world, the Viennese are notorious for the passion with which they can despise celebrities one moment, and lionize them the next. Here, for example, is one music critic’s reaction to the 1886 Viennese premiere of the Symphony No. 4 by Johannes Brahms: “Conspicuous is the crab-like progress in the output of Brahms. It has, to be sure, never reached beyond the level of mediocrity, but such nothingness, emptiness, and hypocrisy as prevails throughout this E-minor symphony has not appeared in any previous work of Brahms in so alarming a manner. The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found in Brahms its worthiest representative. Just like the good Lord, Herr Brahms is a master at making something from nothing.” And yet, 11 years later, on today’s date in 1897, when this same symphony was performed again in Vienna—by the very same orchestra and conductor—each movement was greeted by prolonged cheers from the audience. Not only had the Viennese come to admire the music, but also the man—and they knew their beloved Herr Brahms was dying. And so, on March 7, 1897, when the gaunt and sickly composer attended a matinee performance of his 4th symphony at the Vienna Philharmonic’s Golden Hall, the audience took the opportunity to acknowledge him and his music for the very last time.

"The Handmaid's Tale" opera by Ruders

Mar 6, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2000, the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen gave the premiere of a new opera, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on a novel of the same name by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. The book and opera tell of a nightmarish future: following a nuclear disaster in the United States, infertility rates have soared, and a religious sect has staged a military coup, enslaving the few fertile women who remain as breeders, or “handmaids,” for the military and religious commanders of their sect. Says Atwood, "There is nothing new about the society I depicted in The Handmaid's Tale except the time and place. All of the things I have written about have been done before—more than once, in fact." Despite its grim subject matter, Danish composer Poul Ruders says he saw "huge operatic potential" when he first read the book back in 1992. The heroine of his opera, a handmaid named “Offred,” can still remember life before the disaster, and, through a series of flashbacks and monologues, recounts a tale of hope and suffering—emotions not foreign to many other classic operas of the past. The original production in Copenhagen was sung in Danish, but Ruders says he conceived the work in English. The opera was staged in that language first in London at the English National Opera, and subsequently, at the opera’s American premiere, in St. Paul by the Minnesota Opera, to great critical acclaim.

Shostakovich and his "Leningrad" Symphony

Mar 5, 2019 00:01:59


The Russian city of Kuibyshev on the Volga river east of Moscow might seem an unlikely site for an important symphonic premiere. But from 1941 to 1943, Kuibyshev was the temporary capital of the Soviet Union. As German and Finnish troops advanced from the west, the Russian government and its cultural institutions moved east. Among the refugees relocated to Kuibyshev were the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra from Moscow and the composer Dimitri Shostakovich from Leningrad. And so, on today’s date in 1942, that unlikely city was the venue for the world premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, subtitled “Leningrad.” In 1942, the Soviet Union was America’s ally in the war against Hitler, and Shostakovich’s new symphony was enlisted as a major propaganda tool. A microfilm copy of the new score was flown from Kuibyshev to Tehran, then transported by car through Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine to Cairo, then flown to Brazil for transfer by the U.S. Navy to New York. The American premiere was given on July 19, 1942, by the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. Less than a month later, on August 9, 1942, the “Leningrad” symphony was even performed in the besieged and starving city of Leningrad. The few musicians still capable of performing were given extra rations to keep up their strength, and, to ensure a measure of quiet during their performance, a Russian artillery commander ordered an intensive artillery bombardment on the enemy troops surrounding the city.

Strong's "Sintram" Symphony

Mar 4, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1893, a New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall featured the premiere of a big new symphony by a 37-year old American composer and New York native named George Templeton Strong, Jr. This was a pretty big deal at a time when the Philharmonic regularly played new works from Europe, but paid little attention to what Americans were composing. As the Philharmonic’s program book put it, somewhat defensively: “The acceptance of a work for performance is to a certain extent a declaration that it belongs to the very best class of contemporaneous literature according to the unbiased judgment of those who are entrusted with these concerts.” Strong’s Symphony No. 2, subtitled “Sintram,” was inspired by a literary work of that name depicting the victory of good over evil. The New York Times review gave it high marks, praising the composer’s imagination and mastery of instrumentation, but ventured to suggest that a few cuts might be welcomed by future audiences, as the new symphony WAS a tad long and unremittingly serious in tone. Still, the Times gave the opinion that Strong belonged to “the front rank of living composers.” Strong himself was not present. He was in Switzerland, a country he was soon to adopt as his permanent home. His absence on the American scene caused his music to be largely forgotten, but recently there has been a revival of interest in this late Romantic expatriate composer.

"Parsifal" in New York

Mar 3, 2019 00:01:59


The German composer Richard Wagner tried to limit performances of his final opera, “Parsifal,” to his own theater in Bayreuth, hoping it would provide a source of income for his family after his death. “Parsifal” premiered at Bayreuth in 1882, and after Wagner died the following year, his widow forbade rental of the music for performances elsewhere. Naturally, Wagner enthusiasts all over the world were eager to hear the new work. One of them was a German-born American named Walter Damrosch, who, at the tender age of 23, was the head of both the New York Symphony and Oratorio Society, and a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, to boot. While visiting London in 1885, Damrosch had bought a miniature score of “Parsifal.” The purchase gave him no right to perform the work, but he discovered the fine for doing so was only 50 pounds, and so he hired copyists to prepare orchestral parts for a performance in America. On today’s date in 1886, Damrosch gave a concert performance of “Parsifal” at the old Metropolitan Opera House. Among his vocal soloists, Damrosch even managed to book soprano Marianne Brandt, one of the original Bayreuth cast members. Unfortunately for Damrosch, Anton Seidl, a close friend of the Wagner family had just been hired as the new music director of the Met. Seidl apparently took offense at Damrosch’s audacity, and as long as Seidl was in charge at the Met, he limited Damrosch to the NON-Wagnerian repertory!

Goffredo Petrassi

Mar 2, 2019 00:01:59


Ask an intelligent music lover to name some of the major figures in modern music and it’s likely the names Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartók will crop up. But in addition to those Austrian, Russian and Hungarian composers, a lively group of Italian modernists were also active throughout the 20th century—only their names and music are not so well known. One of them was Goffredo Petrassi, born in 1904. Petrassi became one of the leading figures in a group of Italian composers that included Dallapiccola, Casella and Malipiero. This group tried to compensate for Italy’s almost total preoccupation with opera by concentrating more on instrumental pieces. Petrassi’s own musical influences range from the Italian Renaissance music he sang as a young choirboy in Rome to the works of abstract painters like Jackson Pollock that he viewed when visiting America. Petrassi’s largest body of work was his eight Concertos for Orchestra composed between 1933 and 1972, but in his final years he turned to chamber works, such as this “Autumn Sestina” completed in 1982. A “Sestina” is a poetic stanza of six dissimilar verses, and Petrassi scored his work for six instruments. When asked where the “Autumn” in the title came from, Petrassi responded: “Perhaps it’s got something to do with my age.” Shortly after finishing this work, Petrassi’s eyesight failed, and he stopped composing entirely. He died in Rome on today’s date in 2003 at the age of 98.

Debussy in Boston

Mar 1, 2019 00:01:59


In Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s characters brags: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” None of those happened to Claude Debussy, however, when his symphonic suite “La Mer”–“The Sea”–had its American premiere on today’s date in Boston in 1907. It was, as they say, a tough crowd… composed of “easily discomfited dowagers, quiet, academically-minded New England music lovers, and irascible music critics.” That’s the description of musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky, who collected notably bad reviews in his notably excellent “Lexicon of Musical Invective.” Other reviews of “The Sea” included lines like: “Frenchmen are notoriously bad sailors, and we clung like a drowning man to a few fragments of the tonal wreck.” Another said: “Debussy’s music is the dreariest kind of rubbish. Does anybody for a moment doubt that Debussy would not write such chaotic, meaningless, cacophonous, ungrammatical stuff if he could invent a melody?” An even more graphic critic said: “It is possible that Debussy did not intend to call it 'La Mer,' but 'Le Mal de Mer,' which would at once make the tone-picture as clear as day. It is a series of symphonic pictures of seasickness. The first movement is Headache. The second is Doubt, picturing moments of dread suspense... The third movement, with its explosions and rumblings, has now a self-evident purpose: The hero is endeavoring to throw up his boot heels!”

"Tombeaux" by Ravel and Daugherty

Feb 28, 2019 00:01:59


Maurice Ravel’s orchestral suite "Le Tombeau de Couperin" was premiered in Paris this day in 1920. It had started out as a suite of solo piano pieces, intended as a tribute to the great French Baroque composer François Couperin—or, as Ravel wrote, “not so much to Couperin himself, as to 18th-century French music in general.” Although the French word “tombeau” translates literally as “tomb,” it also signifies a musical piece paying tribute to a past master, in the English sense of “in memoriam.” As it turned out, Ravel’s piece would become a memorial not only to Couperin, but to seven of his friends killed during World War I. His original work on the piece began in 1914, but was interrupted by his service as an ambulance driver during the war. He returned to it after being discharged in 1917. Each movement was dedicated to a friend or two killed in battle. Although the “tombeau” as a musical form has been associated almost exclusively with French composers, a contemporary American composer has used the idea as well, albeit with a more lighthearted spirit. His “Tombeau de Liberace” makes reference to the late pianist and showman, a kitschy icon of 20th century American pop culture. Michael Daugherty says, “Starting from the vernacular idiom, I have composed ‘Le Tombeau de Liberace’ as a meditation on the American sublime: a lexicon of forbidden music. It is a piano concertino in four movements, each creating a distinct Liberace atmosphere.”

Carter's Cello Sonata

Feb 27, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1950, the Sonata for Cello and Piano by the American composer Elliot Carter had its premiere at New York’s Town Hall, as part of a recital by cellist Bernard Greenhouse and pianist Anthony Markas. According to the Times review, the Carter Sonata was (quote): “grave in character, almost unrelieved by any touch of lightness and gaiety. While it is neatly scored for cello and piano, it is NOT an easy work.” The new Cello Sonata marked a shift in the 41-year old composer’s style away from the more populist mode of Aaron Copland and toward a more deliberate attempt to find his own unique voice as a composer. Decades later, recalling this period in his life, Carter recalled: “About the time of the Second World War, I began to feel that the neo-classical or populist music that I was writing wasn't strong enough. It didn't express the feelings that I felt. We had all overwhelming feelings about the war and its result, and Hitler and all that, and this made me feel that I had to write something more serious and much more meaningful ̶—to me at least, if not to the audience. It was like a blind man trying to find things. It was a probing period. Gradually, I began to find out what it is that meant a lot to me, and I began to narrow my attention to the point where I really knew the kind of thing I wanted to write."

Strauss, De Lancie and the Oboe Concerto

Feb 26, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1946, the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, conducted by Volkmar Andreae, gave the premiere performance of a new oboe concerto by the German composer Richard Strauss, who was then in his 80s. The soloist was a Swiss oboist named Marcel Saillet, to whom the work is dedicated. The concerto owes its existence, however, to a 20-something American oboist and GI named John de Lancie, who visited Strauss at his Bavarian home shortly after the end of World War II. “During one of my visits with Strauss,” recalled De Lancie, “I asked him, in view of the numerous beautiful, lyric solos for oboe in almost all his works, if he had ever considered writing a concerto for oboe. He answered ‘No,’ and there was no more conversation on the subject.” But De Lancie’s question did plant a seed, and after returning to civilian life in the states in 1946, De Lancie got a letter from Strauss’s publisher offering him the work’s American premiere. As it turned out, the American premiere of the Strauss Concerto was given by another oboist named Mitchell Miller— a musician who some of us “of a certain age” remember as an energetic choral conductor of a sing-along TV show entitled “Sing Along with Mitch.” For his part, John De Lancie went on to become the principal oboist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and a famous oboe teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music. In 1988, De Lancie made this recording of the Strauss Oboe Concerto.

Zwilich's Third

Feb 25, 2019 00:01:59


As part of its 150th Anniversary celebration, the New York Philharmonic commissioned a number of new orchestral works. One of them premiered at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall on today’s date in 1993. The work is dedicated to the Philharmonic and Kurt Masur, its music director in those days. This was the Third Symphony of the American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Zwilich knows the symphony orchestra from inside out: for seven years she was a violinist in the American Symphony Orchestra, a New York-based ensemble conducted by Leopold Stokowski when Zwilich was a player. For her Third Symphony, Zwilich confessed she had an often-neglected section of the orchestra in mind: “I had noticed over the years the rising quality of viola playing,” she said in an interview, “and I thought that the Philharmonic’s section was absolutely amazing. So when I had this commission, I thought almost immediately of focusing on the violas. When you think of it, many symphonies of the past are like first violin concertos with second violin and viola accompaniment, and I really wanted to put the spotlight on the viola section and give them a great deal to do, not only in terms of virtuosity, but of importance and centrality to the piece. So this symphony really grew out of my love for this section of the orchestra.”

Handel meets Streisand

Feb 24, 2019 00:01:59


It’s quite likely that if we could ask him, the great 18th century composer George Frideric Handel would have described himself first and foremost as a composer of Italian operas. For most of the 19th century, however, it was chiefly Handel’s English-language sacred oratorios that kept his fame alive. It wasn’t until the 20th century that curiosity about Handel’s Italian operas led to revivals, recordings, and their eventual return to the repertory of opera companies worldwide. On today’s date in 1711, Handel’s opera “Rinaldo” had its premiere performance in London at the Queen’s Theater in the Haymarket. This was the first Handel opera produced in London, and the first Italian opera written specifically for that city. It was designed to be a spectacle, full of heroic chivalry and stage magic including live birds and flying machines, a kind of 18th century “Star Wars,” if you will. It was a tremendous success, and, like “Star Wars,” was so popular that it became fit material for parody. Handel’s Act III march of Christian Crusaders resurfaced as a chorus of highway robbers in John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” of 1728, a spoof poking fun at both contemporary politics and the conventions and pretensions of Italian-style opera.

Henry Martin's Preludes and Fugues

Feb 23, 2019 00:01:59


Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of 48 preludes and fugues for solo keyboard in two sets, each covering all 24 major and minor keys. This music, which music lovers affectionately refer to as “the 48,” has become something of a bible for pianists as well as a challenge for subsequent composers to try to imitate. In the early 1990s, American composer and pianist Henry Martin tossed his hat into the ring with the completion of his own first set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano, and soon after published a second set of 24. On today’s date in 1992, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., pianist Sara Davis Buechner performed three of Martin’s Preludes and Fugues for a program recorded by National Public Radio for broadcast the following month as part of their Bach birthday celebrations. Buechner has also made compact disc recordings of all of Martin’s “48.” One enthusiastic reviewer of those recordings, Michael Barone, host of the nationally-distributed PIPEDREAMS organ program, wrote of Martin’s music, “We get shades of Debussy's impressionism, the vibrant jazzy riffs of Art Tatum, the spacey harmonies of John Coltrane, and the sophisticated improvisations of Bill Evans … but Martin's own individual genius shines brightly.” Barone’s enthusiasm resulted in his commissioning Henry Martin to compose another set of 24 preludes and fugues – this time for organ! We think Bach would have approved.

Melinda Wagner's Trombone Concerto

Feb 22, 2019 00:01:59


Mountains can have unforeseen consequences on the imagination, it seems. For Philadelphia-native Melinda Wagner, serving as a composer-in-residence at a musical festival in Vail, Colorado, this resulted in the composition of a new Trombone Concerto, a piece tailor-made for Joseph Alessi, the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic. “During my free moments in Vail,” said Wagner, “I found myself gazing—in disbelief really—at the jagged, youthful beauty of the Rockies. By comparison, ‘my’ mountains—the old Endless, Allegheny, and Pocono ranges of Pennsylvania—seemed to be no more than a set of soft wrinkles in the skin of the earth!” “Nobility and power, hallmarks of the trombone sound, are words that come to mind in the presence of mountains, old and new. And a truly great musician, as I learned while hearing Joseph Alessi play, can coax so much more out of the trombone: aching tenderness, sadness, lyricism, mirth.” Alessi gave the premiere performance of Wagner’s new Concerto at Avery Fisher Hall, on February 22, 2007, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1999, Melinda Wagner has been called to write works large and small, including a 2002 Piano Concerto entitled “Extremity of Sky” for Emanuel Ax and the Chicago Symphony, and a 2004 choral piece entitled “From a Book of Early Prayers” for the Chamber Choirs of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

Respighi in New York

Feb 21, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1929, the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi completed his trilogy of symphonic tone poems based on Roman scenery and history with the premiere performance of his “Roman Festivals.” Unlike the first two installments in this series, “The Fountains of Rome” from 1917 and “The Pines of Rome” from 1924, which were both premiered in Rome by Italian orchestras, the premiere of “Roman Festivals” occurred in America at Carnegie Hall, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Arturo Toscanini. “All three of the compositions which form that cycle are conspicuous brilliant instrumental effects,” wrote music critic Olin Downes in his New York Times review the following day. “Roman Festivals however, fairly caps the climax for sheer orchestral sonority and brilliance of effect. It may be said, in fact, that no Richard Strauss or Stravinsky either has beaten Mr. Respighi in securing amazing and deafening noise from an orchestra." "But it is also true,” continues Downes, “that the first part has something more than mere racket. It is really wild and brutal music, the dramatic idea being the howls and cries of the crowd at the Circus Maximus, the salutations for Nero, the opening of the iron gates and the roaring of beasts, the hymn of the Christians about to be slaughtered... The passage is short, but of a stunning power." "All this program material furnishes Mr. Respighi opportunity for descriptive writing,” concludes the review, “but the music is of no merit.”

Ruth Gipps

Feb 20, 2019 00:01:59


Today marks the birthday of the British composer Ruth Gipps, who lived from 1921 to 1999, and rates among the more prolific of UK composers, having written five symphonies, and dozens of concerto, chamber works, and vocal scores. Gipps always said she found it “difficult to understand young people who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.” She published her first music at age 8, and by her twenties had also become a professional oboist and pianist. Her triple career peaked in 1945, when in Birmingham, Gipps performed the Glazunov Piano Concerto on the first half of a concert, then, on the second half, played the English horn part in the premiere performance of her own First Symphony. Vaughan Williams was one of her composition teachers, and her music was, like his, firmly based in melody and traditional harmony. Ironically, this counted against her in the years following World War II when music that wasn’t atonal and avant-garde was deemed old-fashioned and passé. Even so, in 1981, Gipps was included in the Queen’s Honors List, but Dame Ruth probably derived as much pleasure from her MG as her MBE: an avid sports car enthusiast, her obituary noted that, heavily swathed, Gipps enjoyed driving her roadster though whatever the British climate threw at her. These days, the artistic forecast seems more favorable, and the music of Ruth Gipps is receiving renewed attention.

Haydn and Asia Symphonies

Feb 19, 2019 00:01:59


In February of 1794, the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn arrived in England for his second visit, and the premiere performances of some of his newest symphonies, beginning with one in E-flat Major that we know as his Symphony No. 99. Haydn would write 104 symphonies in all—an astonishing accomplishment, considering both their quantity and quality. In typically modest fashion, Haydn once commented: “I compose music so that the weary and worn, or the man burdened with affairs, may enjoy a few moments of solace and refreshment. I know that God has bestowed a talent upon me, and I thank Him for it. I think I have done my duty and been of use in my generation by my works. Let others do the same.” Well, these days, as in Haydn’s, to write a symphony one needs talent and an orchestra willing to perform it. The American composer Daniel Asia has a way to go before matching Haydn’s output, but has composed at least five symphonies to date. The first was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony, and received its premiere performance in Seattle, Asia’s hometown, on today’s date in 1990. This music is from the finale of Asia’s Fourth Symphony, a commission from the Phoenix Symphony. And, perhaps thinking of Haydn’s creations of some two centuries earlier, Asia writes: “This Fourth Symphony is my most 'classical’ in structure and sound... in this piece I was rediscovering old formal ideas.”

Hanson's Fifth

Feb 18, 2019 00:01:59


In a creative life that spanned over 60 years, the American composer Howard Hanson never wavered in his belief that music should be tonal in nature and fundamentally Romantic in style, with strong and clear melodic lines. By the mid-1950s, many other European and American composers were espousing a far different approach to music, favoring an abstract and often densely complex style, more in harmony with the non-representational canvases of the painter Jackson Pollack than the meticulous realism of, say, Norman Rockwell. On today’s date in 1955, this music, Hanson’s Symphony No. 5, had its premiere performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. It’s the most compact of Hanson’s seven symphonies, a single-movement work in three sections lasting just 15 minutes. Hanson titled the work “Sinfonia Sacra” or “A Sacred Symphony,” and suggested it was inspired by the account of Christ’s resurrection in the Gospel of St. John. “The Sinfonia Sacra does not attempt programmatically to tell the story of the first Easter,” wrote Hanson, “but does attempt to invoke some of the atmosphere of tragedy and triumph, mysticism and affirmation of this story, which is the essential symbol of the Christian faith.” For many decades Hanson, along with other “unfashionably traditional” symphonists like Walter Piston and David Diamond, were neglected by most American orchestras, but more recently are making something of a comeback in concert halls and on compact discs.

Carter times Three

Feb 17, 2019 00:01:59


The American composer Elliott Carter has a reputation for writing some of the thorniest, most abstract and most technically difficult orchestral scores of the 20th century. But for a few moments at least, during the opening of Carter’s “Symphony of Three Orchestras,” which had its premiere performance on today’s date in 1977 at a New York Philharmonic concert conducted by Pierre Boulez, audiences must have been surprised by an impressionistic, almost Romantic tone. In notes for the new piece, Carter admitted the opening of the new work was inspired by the poetry of Hart Crane, specifically Crane’s description of the New York harbor and the Brooklyn Bridge. Both those New York landmarks were a short walk away from Carter’s lower Manhattan apartment in 1977. Carter’s 15-minute “Symphony of Three Orchestras” quickly shifts into his more recognizably dense style, however, and, as the title indicates, employs three orchestras on one stage, playing with and against each other at various points. As the New York Times reviewer wrote: “Mr. Carter has never made concessions to his listeners. The dissonances are Ivesian, with everything coming together in the end in smashing volleys of shrieking sound. It will take many hearings for the relationships of the score to assert themselves, though one can be confident that Mr. Carter, one of the most accomplished constructionists of the age, has assembled everything with pin-point logic.”

Corigliano at the Circus Maximus

Feb 16, 2019 00:01:59


Today’s date marks the birthday in 1938 of the American composer John Corigliano, and also, in 2005, of the premiere performance of his Symphony No. 3, a work scored for large wind ensemble. The premiere performance was given in Austin, Texas, by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble led by Jerry F. Junkin. Coriglian titled his new symphony “Circus Maximus,” and offered this explanation: “The Circus Maximus of ancient Rome was a real place. The largest arena in the world, it entertained over 300,000 spectators daily for nearly a thousand years. Chariot races, hunts and battles satisfied the Roman public’s need for grander and wilder amusements as the Empire declined. The parallels between the high decadence of Rome and our present time are obvious. Entertainment dominates our culture, and ever-more-extreme ‘reality’ shows dominate our entertainment. Many of us have become as bemused by the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as those mobs of imperial Rome who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show.” In performance, Corigliano asks that a huge array of brass, wind, and percussion surround the audience on all sides. As brass instruments roar and cheer all around them, the audience is meant to feel more like the watched than the watchers, and Corigliano ends the work with a bang—literally—as a shotgun blast provides the symphony’s final exclamation point!

Miaskovsky and Brooks for band

Feb 15, 2019 00:01:59


Between 1908 and 1950, the Russian composer Nikolai Miaskovsky composed 27 symphonies. One of them his Symphony No. 19 for military wind band, premiered on today’s date in 1939 at the Cominterm Radio Station in Moscow, and was dedicated to the Red Army. The Red Army’s bandmaster had asked Miaskovsky to write something, and at first the composer was rather reluctant. “The difficulties of this unusual task oppressed and discouraged me,” he wrote, “but I was anxious to keep my promise and soon mustered a fair spurt of energy, with the result that instead of a simple piece in one movement, I was able to send him a complete symphony in four movements.” The resulting work was, in fact, one of the normally melancholic Miaskovky’s most upbeat works. These days, American audiences are most likely to encounter concert works for symphonic winds at colleges and universities. This piece from 1997, entitled “Dreadnought,” is by the American composer Jeffrey Brooks, who wrote it for the University of Minnesota Symphonic Wind Ensemble, who recorded the piece. The title “Dreadnought,” says Brooks, means a total absence of fear, and was also a name given to a class of heavily armed battleships of the early 20th century. Brooks notes he wrote the piece while contemplating his two small childrens’ contrasting natures: “Ronan had no fears,” writes Brooks, “and would happily get in a cage with a tiger. Adelle was inventing new fears daily, trying them on, discarding some while keeping others.”

"Winds of Nagual" by Michael Colgrass

Feb 14, 2019 00:01:59


Carlos Castaneda was a South America-born author who settled in the United States and wrote 12 books chronicling his experiences with a pre-Columbian shaman who helped Castaneda access “non-ordinary reality” and develop his personal creativity, something the shaman called his “nagual.” Casteneda’s books have sold millions of copies, and one of his readers was the Toronto-based composer Michael Colgrass, whose “Winds of Nagual” was commissioned by the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble and its conductor Frank Battisti, and premiered by them in Boston on today’s date in 1985. Since then, this musical suite inspired by colorful characters and scenes from Castaneda’s writings has become a classic of the concert band repertoire. “Sometimes when I am composing,” says Colgrass, “I see music as if it is a film, but the listener need not have read Castaneda’s books to enjoy this work, and I do not expect anyone to follow any exact scenario. “ And, speaking of cinematic scenarios, Colgrass says that band directors in the Southwest told him that, in the last years of his life, Castaneda would show up at concerts when “Winds of Nagual” was being performed. “He would wait until just before the downbeat,” says Colgrass, “and then enter the auditorium wearing a white suit and sit in the middle of the audience. Apparently he considered this music to be his ‘Hail to the Chief.’”

"Music for Prague" in Prague

Feb 13, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1990, the Czech-born composer Karel Husa returned to his home town of Prague to conduct a concert of his own music after more than forty years in exile. Husa had left Prague in 1948 after the post-War communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, and in 1954 accepted a teaching post at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He was granted U.S. citizenship in 1959. On the night of August 20, 1968, Husa learned to his dismay that troops from the Soviet Union had invaded his homeland to suppress a growing Czech democratic movement. In a matter of months, Husa completed a work for wind ensemble entitled “Music for Prague, 1968.” It was a powerful work, inspired by powerful emotions, and it soon became a classic of wind band repertory. At the festive concert in Prague's Smetana Hall on February 13, 1990, broadcast nationwide by Czech radio and television networks, Husa conducted the Czechoslovak premiere of “Music for Prague 1968,” a composition that had received thousands of performances all over the world, but none, until that night, in the city that inspired it. One of Husa’s American students, the composer Thomas Duffy, travelled to Prague to attend the concert. “Husa conducted the piece vigorously,” Duffy recalled, and after the performance noted that, “Twice, when I felt that the volume of applause was already overwhelming, Husa presented the V for victory sign to the house—and the volume doubled.”

Harris No. 3

Feb 12, 2019 00:01:59


Today’s date marks the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. It is also celebrated as the birthday of the famous American symphonist Roy Harris, who stated he was born in Lincoln County near Chandler, Oklahoma, on February 12th in 1898. Some have challenged the accuracy of the date, as a land deed associated with his family suggests his birth year might have been 1901, and Harris himself was the main source of information regarding the actual day of his birth. There’s also some confusion about exactly how many symphonies Harris wrote, since he didn’t assign numbers to some of the works he labeled “symphonies” or “symphonic”—and in 1976 deliberately misnumbered his Symphony No. 13 as being his Symphony No. 14, being reluctant to assign the ominously unlucky number 13 to his new work. As it turned out, it was, in fact, the last symphony he completed before his death in 1979. Despite all this, Harris’s Third Symphony from 1938 is regularly cited as one of the best American symphonies of the 20th century, if not “The Great American Symphony,” and gradually many of his less familiar 15 or so symphonies are also showing up on compact disc and on concert programs. As the most recent Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians puts it, “the musicality, breadth of vision, and generosity of impulse that form his best music assure him long-term recognition.” So, whether or not it was in 1898 or 1901, or even on February 12—Happy Birthday, Mr. Harris!

Puccini speaks!

Feb 11, 2019 00:01:59


During the 1906-1907 season of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, America’s premiere opera company staged a mini-festival of operas by a living composer—the Italian Giacomo Puccini. The Met’s star tenor, Enrico Caruso, could be heard in revival productions of Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Tosca”—operas that still qualified as “contemporary music,” being just 10 and 7 years old respectively. And, with Caruso again in the leading male roles, the Met scheduled the company premiere of Puccini’s first big operatic success, “Manon Lescaut” and, on today’s date in 1907, the American premiere of Puccini’s newest opera, “Madame Butterfly.” The Met arranged for Puccini himself to come to New York to supervise the rehearsals for “Manon Lescaut” and “Madame Butterfly,” but his ship was delayed by bad weather. Puccini arrived in New York on the day of the scheduled premiere of “Manon Lescaut,” and rushed to his box at the opera house just in time for the start of Act II—but not before acknowledging a big ovation from the audience. If America was enthusiastic about Puccini, the feeling apparently was reciprocated. In 1912, Puccini visited the New York studios of Columbia Records to record a greeting to his American fans. His greeting was in Italian, but concluded with two words of English—a quote from the libretto for his “Madama Butterfly”—“America forever!”

Krenek spielt auf?

Feb 10, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1927, at the Neues Theater in Leipzig, a new opera had its premiere performance. It was entitled “Jonny spielt auf” or “Johnny Strikes Up the Band,” and was the work of a Viennese composer named Ernst Krenek. Ostensibly, it tells the story of a Negro jazz band leader named Jonny, who steals a valuable European violin, but in symbolic terms it deals with both the role of music in society and the conflict between the artistic traditions of the old and new worlds. Krenek’s jazzy score was a tremendous success. In its first season it was produced at 42 opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York. By 1929 the libretto had been translated into 14 languages. Its overwhelming success made the opera’s “Jonny” a pop icon and household name and provided Krenek a comfortable cushion of financial security. When the Nazis came to power in Germany and Austria, however, Krenek’s security evaporated. For the Nazis, his opera was a prime example of what they termed “degenerate art,” and its composer wisely chose to emigrate to America, where he became a citizen in 1945. Krenek taught at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and Hamline University in St. Paul before eventually settling in California, where he died in 1991 at the age of 91. The music Krenek wrote during his long life covers a wide range of styles, but even though he composed twenty operas, five symphonies and four piano concertos, he remains best known as the creator of “Jonny” and his “jazz” opera from 1927.

Ron Nelson's "Rocky Point Holiday"

Feb 9, 2019 00:01:59


Rhode Island natives of a certain age wax nostalgia about Rocky Point, a popular family vacation spot on the Narragansett Bay side of Warwick, which operated from the late 1840s until its close in 1995. There was an amusement park with rides like “The Russian Toboggan,” “The Wildcat” and “Cyclone,” for the kids, while mom and pop might opt for a table at the Rocky Point Chowder House. In 1966, the American composer Ron Nelson spent a summer holiday there. “It's such a small state, there aren’t that many places to go,” he later recalled. Still, his “Rocky Point Holiday” provided the inspiration—and the title—for a work commissioned by Dr. Frank Bencriscutto for his University of Minnesota Concert Band. “Rocky Point Holiday” was first performed under Bencriscutto’s direction on today’s date in 1967, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the annual convention of the College Band Director’s National Association. But the piece really took off—a little like “The Russian Toboggan” perhaps?—when Bencriscutto’s band toured the Soviet Union in 1969. Frank wanted an ‘American’ piece to open the program,” Nelson recalled, and “Rocky Point Holiday” fit the bill perfectly. Closer to home, Nelson’s jaunty score became a classic in the wind band repertory, and was chosen by the Garfield Cadets for their Drum Corps International championship program in 1983.

The sensational Mademoiselle Holmès

Feb 8, 2019 00:01:59


These days, it’s still considered “news” when the Metropolitan Opera stages an opera by a female composer, so one might assume that in the 19th century, the performance of any opera written by a woman would have been even more sensational. Well, that wasn’t the case on today’s date in 1895, when the Paris Opera staged “La Montagne noire,” or “The Black Mountain,” by Augusta Holmes, or “Augusta Holmès” as she was known in France. Her opera was performed 13 times, but never revived. The jaded French audiences were already quite familiar with the sensational Mademoiselle Holmès, it seems. Born in Paris in 1847 of Irish parents, Augusta was a musical prodigy as a child, a stunning beauty as a young woman, and a composition student of César Franck. And, rare for her time, she was a financially independent artist due to a fortune inherited from her father. Rarer still: despite 19th century prejudice against female composers, Augusta’s orchestra scores were championed and premiered by Parisian orchestras, and she received major commissions for elaborate national celebrations. By the time of her death in 1903, however, Augusta Holmès was regarded as a curious but minor figure in the history of French music. In our time, some of her orchestral works, like her symphonic tone-poem “Ireland,” have been revived, and, along with other creations of past women composers, are being reappraised by performers of the present.

Zwilich times Three

Feb 7, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1996, a trio of soloists joined forces with the Minnesota Orchestra for the premiere performance of a new concerto by the American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. This was her “Triple Concerto,” a work commissioned by the soloists, namely pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson, and no less than five orchestras in addition to Minnesota’s. Now, the most famous Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra is by Beethoven, as Zwilich well knows. “My Triple Concerto is scored for exactly the same instrumentation as Beethoven’s,” she writes, “although Beethoven would certainly be startled by some of the American jazz techniques and the extraordinary facility the modern timpanist can be expected to have at his fingertips... My piece has other vague and hidden references to Beethoven, as a kind of homage to a composer who has deeply affected my life." “As contemporary artists always have,” continues Zwilich, “today’s composers exist at a juncture between past and present. And all of us, whether we write, perform, or listen to music, face a similar challenge: how to relate meaningfully to the past without becoming imbedded in it; how to press toward the future without abandoning the richness of our heritage. It is often remarked that some audiences seem to fear the new. To this, I might add that some composers seem to fear the past. The rhetoric of ‘progress’ as well as the worship of a canon of ‘masterpieces’ can undermine the adventure of it all.”

Higdon's Violin Concerto

Feb 6, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2009, Hilary Hahn premiered a new violin concerto by the American composer Jennifer Higdon, a work tailor-made for the violinist, according to Higdon: “She’s got gorgeous tone in the top register, but also down really low, so I tried to utilize her entire range, her lyrical gift, her ability to play super fast and negotiate through complex meter changes… I sent off each movement as I finished it, and I kept thinking she was going to say, 'Oh, this is too hard,' but she said, 'It's my job, I'm going to learn it,' and boy she did.“ When asked if it wasn’t intimidating writing a violin concerto in the 21st century, considering the incredible legacy of great violin concertos already written, Higdon said a little intimidation is a good thing: “There's nothing like fear to get the imagination running. Starting a piece is the worst,” says Higdon, “and that can stretch from one day to three weeks of agony. The cats run and hide.” Higdon’s Violin Concerto for Hilary Hahn won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and the composer said she found out in a very 21st century fashion, when she noticed her cell phone was suddenly flooded with dozens and dozens of messages. “I jumped up and down a little,” confesses Higdon—and that probably scared her cats, too. The cats’ names, for the record, are Beau and Squeak.

Schoenberg hissed

Feb 5, 2019 00:01:59


It was in Vienna, on today’s date in 1907, that the String Quartet No. 1 in d minor of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg had its first performance by the Rosé Quartet, an ensemble headed by Arnold Rosé, the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and Gustav Mahler’s brother-in-law. One eye-witness reported as follows: “Many found the work impossible, and left the hall during the performance, one rather humorously through the emergency exit. As the hissing continued afterward, Gustav Mahler, who was present, approached one of the unsatisfied and said: ‘You should not hiss!’—to which the unhappy audience member responded: ‘Don’t worry—I hiss your symphonies, too!’" In 1936, the Hollywood composer Alfred Newman was taking composition lessons from Schoenberg, who was then living in Los Angeles. Newman arranged to have all four of Schoenberg’s Quartets recorded by the visiting Kolisch Quartet at the United Artists Studios in Hollywood. To do this, Newman had to first obtain permission from none other than film mogul Samuel Goldwyn himself. “And so,” recalled Newman years later, “a hack movie-musician, a movie producer, and a movie studio made possible the recording of four important modern compositions. We had a chance to do something for music that the art for art’s sake boys couldn’t or wouldn’t do, and we took it. Once in a while, you see, we can be unfaithful to the great god Profit.”

A Hovhaness premiere

Feb 4, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1945, the Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness served as both the soloist and conductor in the first performance of his piano concerto entitled “Lousadzak.” The exotic title, Hovhaness explained, was a “made-up” Armenian word meaning “dawn of light.” “I wrote it to play and conduct myself with an amateur orchestra," recalled Hovhaness. "When we played it in Boston my hands were so busy all the way that I couldn’t give many cues.” When Hovhaness repeated his new concerto at Town Hall in New York, one newspaper sent the composer Lou Harrison as its music critic to cover the event. “The intermission that followed was the closest I’ve ever been to one of those renowned artistic riots,” recalled Harrison. “In the lobby, the Chromaticists and the Americanists were carrying on at high decibels. What had touched it off was the fact that here was a man from Boston whose obviously beautiful music had nothing to do with either camp and was its own very wonderful thing. My guest John Cage and I were very excited, and I dashed off to the lamented Herald Tribune and wrote a rave review while John went back to the Green Room to meet Alan.” For his part, Hovhaness said: “I believe in melody, and to create a melody one needs to go within oneself. I was very touched when John Cage said my music was like inward singing. I must admit there is always music in my head.”

Chen Yi's "Spring Festival"

Feb 3, 2019 00:01:59


Chinese New Year, or “Spring Festival,” is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays and its observance traditionally begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar. “Spring Festival” is also the title Chinese composer Chen Yi gave to a work for wind band that she wrote in 1999 on commission from American Composers Forum and published as part of their “BandQuest” new music series for young performers. The principle melody in Chen’s “Spring Festival” draws on a southern Chinese folk tune called “Lion Playing Ball,” but its formal structure is mathematical in nature and based on the ancient Greek idea of the “Golden Ratio” or “Golden Section,” a concept often symbolized by the Greek letter phi and traditionally thought to represent an aesthetically pleasing proportion. Speaking of schooling, composer Chen Yi received her Master’s degree in music composition from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Columbia University in New York City. She now teaches at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri in Kansas City. It was in Kansas City that Chen developed her “Spring Festival” piece during workshops with the young musicians of the Smith-Hale Junior High School Band, and the finished score received its premiere performance on today’s date in the year 2000 by that band under the direction of Jan Davis.

Kreisler in the style of Kreisler

Feb 2, 2019 00:01:59


Today marks the birthday anniversary of the Austrian-born American violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler, who was born in Vienna on February 2, 1875. When he was only 4, Kreisler’s musical talent was already apparently, and at 7 he entered the Vienna Conservatory where his theory teacher was Anton Bruckner. As a violinist, young master Kreisler (as he was known at the time), made his Viennese debut at age 9, and his American debut when he was 13. Elgar composed his Violin Concerto for Kreisler, who premiered the work in London in 1910. By that time, Kreisler was famous worldwide. Fritz Kreisler made hundreds of recordings, mainly of shorter works and most famously of his own compositions for his instrument. These included original works and pieces written in the style of earlier composers. Kreisler’s interest in earlier music was deep and genuine, as was his passion for old books and ancient languages. The rise of Nazism in Germany and Austria forced Kreisler to America, where he became a naturalized citizen. In 1941, while crossing a New York street, he was hit by a truck and nearly killed. When he awoke from a month-long coma, the multi-linguist Kreisler could at first only communicate to his doctors and family in Latin and ancient Greek. The 66-year-old eventually recovered, however, and continued to perform in public until 1950. He died in New York City, a few days short of his 87th birthday, on January 29, 1962.

Torke abroad

Feb 1, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2002, a new work by the American composer Michael Torke had its premiere performance at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, at a concert by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Torke was the orchestra’s composer-in-residence at the time, and wrote a 20-minute tone poem entitled “An American Abroad” to fulfill his second commission for the Scots. Here’s how Torke himself describes the piece: “Unfolding melodies and themes express the natural naïveté an American might feel traveling abroad. Wonderment and curiosity kindles the traveler’s energy, yet there remains an unintended lack of sophistication. Being an outsider, how can a traveler truly understand the depths and subtleties of a new culture?” Or, as a Scottish newspaper critic put it, “the gee-whiz factor Scots know only too well when we spot a guddle of Americans gawping at Edinburgh Castle.” Actually, the piece could just as well be titled “A European in America,” as Torke explained: “I currently live in New York City, and when visitors from the ‘outside’ are in town, I am inspired by their simple energy and appreciation of what my hometown has to offer, which often opens my eyes to new ways of seeing New York.” But, to let the Scottish critic we quoted earlier have the last word: “The music is immediately appealing; Copland, Bernstein and Gershwin are apparent influences in a piece of music that is almost dangerously attractive. Contemporary music is not supposed to be so easy.”

"Old Churches" by Michael Colgrass

Jan 31, 2019 00:01:59


In the rarified world of contemporary music, composers are expected to “challenge” performers—to push the envelope of instrumental technique and difficulty. But in the fall of 1999, it was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Michael Colgrass himself who was challenged: He was commissioned by the American Composers Forum to write a piece for their BandQuest series, intended to provide high-quality new music for young performers. Specifically, Colgrass was asked to write for the Winona Drive Senior School Band of Toronto. Far from professional musicians, some of these were kids just learning to play their instruments. Their conductor—no jet-setting superstar—was the hard-working Louis Papachristos, who, in addition to leading 3 bands, also coached boy’s and girls’ basketball. Colgrass rose to the challenge, and the resulting work, “Old Churches,” was premiered on this date in 2000. Colgrass employed elements of Gregorian chant to evoke an ancient monastery, and easy graphic notation to introduce students to improvisation and involve them in the compositional process itself. “Keeping the music simple was a challenge,” says Colgrass, “but it struck me that Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for amateurs without ‘dumbing down’… am I a good enough composer to write a simple theme that can be genuinely exciting or moving, the way they did?” As a result of the experience, Colgrass suggests that writing for middle school bands should be a required project in university composition programs—as training for composers. “Writing for eighth grade band is like walking in four-pound shoes, says Colgrass, “if you can move gracefully with that weight on your feet, you'll fly when you put on the four-ounce runners.”

Herbert L. Clarke

Jan 30, 2019 00:01:59


Today a salute to a remarkable American composer and performer—the cornet virtuoso Herbert Lincoln Clarke. Clarke was born in Wolburn, Massachusetts, on September 12, 1867, into a peripatetic musical family. He began to play his brother’s cornet and was soon earning fifty cents a night playing in a restaurant band. At age 19, Clarke won first prize at a cornet competition in Indiana, and, in 1893, after many years on the road, Clarke got the call from John Philip Sousa to join his illustrious organization as its star soloist, a position he held for over 20 years. From 1900 on, Clarke began to compose and make recordings of his own music. In 1904, while on a return voyage from England with the Sousa Band, Clarke completed one of his best-known pieces, a work originally titled “Valse Brilliante”—but while waiting to dock in New York, at Sousa’s suggestion Clarke changed the title to “Sounds from the Hudson.” In 1923, Clarke accepted an offer to direct the Municipal Band of Long Beach, California, performing a new work at his debut concert there, entitled—appropriately enough—“Long Beach is Calling!” Herbert L. Clarke died in California on today’s date in 1945. But the much-traveled composer and performer was buried on the opposite coast—in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.—near the grave of his lifelong friend, John Philip Sousa.

A String Quartet by John Adams

Jan 29, 2019 00:01:59


In New York City on today’s date in 2008, The Juilliard School’s annual FOCUS! Festival showcased music from the opposite coast, including the world premiere performance of a new string quartet by Californian composer John Adams. Some 14 years earlier, Adams had written a work for string quartet and pre-recorded tape that was premiered by the Kronos Quartet at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. That earlier string quartet Adams titled “John’s Book of Alleged Dances,” because, as he said at the time, “the steps for the dances had yet to be invented.” His new work for 2008 had a more serious title: simply, “String Quartet,” and was premiered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Adams had heard the Saint Lawrence Quartet perform his “Book of Alleged Dances,” and was so impressed he wanted to write a new work for the ensemble. Considering the great string quartets written by composers of the past ranging from Haydn to Ravel, throwing your hat in the string quartet ring can be intimidating, however. “String quartet writing is one of the most difficult challenges a composer can take on,” confessed Adams. “Unless one is an accomplished string player and writes in that medium all the time—and I don’t know many these days who do—the demands of handling this extremely volatile and transparent instrumental medium can easily be humbling, if not downright humiliating.

Bolcom's "Ghost" Rags

Jan 28, 2019 00:01:59


Many good things come in threes—at least William Bolcom seems to think so. On today’s date in 1971, in a converted garage next to a graveyard in Newburgh, New York, American composer and pianist William Bolcom put the finishes touches to this music, the second of three piano pieces he collectively titled “Ghost Rags.” “Ghost Rag” No. 2 was titled “Poltergeist” and was dedicated to Tracey Sterne, who at that time was a dynamic record producer at Nonesuch Records. In her youth Sterne pursued a career as a concert pianist, but in the 1960s and 70s was responsible for assembling the Nonesuch label’s astonishingly diverse catalog of old, new and world music. “Ghost Rag” No. 3, titled “Dream Shadows,” was described by Bolcom as a “white rag” which evoked “the era of white telephones and white pianos” and “was in the white key of C Major.” Bolcom dedicated this rag to his fellow composer William Albright. And Bolcom’s “Ghost Rag” No. 1, which has proved to be the most popular of the three, was titled “Graceful Ghost.” Bolcom dedicated this music to the memory of his father, whose benign spirit Bolcom said he often felt hovering around his piano while he played at night.

Rorem's concerto for the "English" Horn

Jan 27, 2019 00:01:59


“English Horn” is an odd name for an instrument—for starters, it’s not English, and, it’s not a brass instrument, like the French horn. The English horn is, in fact, a double reed instrument, a lower-voiced cousin of the oboe. The “English” part of its name is probably a corruption of “angle,” since it has a bend to its shape. Until late in the 20th century, its primary role was to add a darker tone color to the reed section of the orchestra, and performers who played the English horn had precious few solo concertos written to showcase their dusky-voiced instrument. One performer, Thomas Stacy, decided to do something about that. He’s commissioned and premiered dozens of new works for his instrument. This is one of them —a concerto by the American composer Ned Rorem that Stacy premiered on today’s date in 1994 with the New York Philharmonic. Ned Rorem is perhaps best-known as a composer of art songs, but has also composed successful orchestral and chamber works. “Why do I write music?” asks Rorem—“because I want to hear it. It’s as simple as that. My sole aim in writing the Concerto for English Horn was to exploit that instrument’s special luster and pliability… to make the sound gleam through a wash of brass and silver, catgut and steel.”

Paine's Symphony No. 1

Jan 26, 2019 00:01:59


Today’s date marks an important anniversary in the history of the American symphony. On January 26, 1876, the Symphony No. 1 in c minor of John Knowles Paine was premiered in Boston. This was the first American symphony to be generally acknowledged by the musical community here and abroad as being on a par with the symphonies of the great European composers. American musical life in the 19th century was heavily influenced by German models—and Paine’s Symphony No. 1 takes its key and much of its musical style from Beethoven’s Fifth. The contemporary American composer and conductor Gunther Schuller once quipped that Paine’s First was “the best Beethoven symphony that Beethoven didn’t write himself.” Even so, Paine’s 1876 Symphony is a landmark in American musical history, as was one of Paine’s earlier works—a grandiose Mass in D Major for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, which was premiered in Berlin in 1867, and successfully revived by Gunther Schuller in Boston in 1972. Paine is remembered for other reasons as well: He founded the music department at Harvard and became the mentor for a new generation of native composers. He was also one of the founders of the American Guild of Organists, and wrote an influential textbook titled, “The History of Music to the Death of Schubert,” which was published one year after Paine’s death in 1906.

Paul Schoenfield's "Cafe Music"

Jan 25, 2019 00:01:59


Many a political work of art has had its origin in a smoke-filled room, but not all that many piano trios can claim such a venue for their inspiration. On today’s date in 1987, composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield joined a violinist and cellist from Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for the premiere performance of a new piano trio the orchestra had commissioned, a work Schoenfield eventually titled “Café Music.” Here’s how Schoenfield explains it: “The idea came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the pianist at Murray’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in Minneapolis. Murray’s employed a house trio which played entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music—music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on the types of music played at Murray’s: early 20th century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway style are all represented.” Much to Schoenfield’s surprise, “Cafe Music” became a concert hall hit, performed and recorded by many classical chamber groups. For his part, Schoenfield confesses two lasting memories of that night he filled in at Murray’s: first, a realization of what hard work it was to play dinner music for hours on end, and, second—in the days before smoke-free restaurants—how his clothes smelled of cigars and cigarettes for days afterwards!

HRH is amused

Jan 24, 2019 00:01:59


“We are NOT amused,” is the dour statement often attributed to the matronly Queen Victoria in her later years, although some historians dispute she ever really said it. But as a young woman, in her diary Queen Victoria’s did write, “I was VERY MUCH amused indeed!” after seeing the Italian opera singer Giulia Grisi on stage. The young Queen was something of a fan, and even made a drawing of the then-famous singer in a role she created: that of Elvira in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “I Puritani,” or “The Puritans,” which debuted in Paris on today’s date in 1835. When Bellini’s brand-new opera came to London later that same year, with Grisi in the cast, the young Queen Victoria attended several performances, and the opera she called “Dear Puritani” became a life-long favorite, perhaps because it was the first she attended with her husband-to-be, the young Prince Albert. The opera is set in 17th century England during the Civil War between Royalist supporters of the deposed King Charles I and Puritan rebels led by Oliver Cromwell, and its plot involves a Romeo and Juliet-like love story between a delicate Puritan soprano and a dashing Royalist tenor. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, however, Bellini’s opera provides a happy ending for the politics-crossed young lovers.

Notable Dvořák and Ellington concerts in New York

Jan 23, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1894, during the New York Herald’s clothing fund drive, readers of that newspaper would have seen this announcement of a concert that evening at Madison Square Garden: “Hear Stephen Foster’s ‘Old Folks at Home’—rendered tonight for charity as it has never been before—In Dvorak’s own arrangement—sung entirely by Negroes—in aid of the Clothing Fund.” Dvorak was in New York, teaching at Mrs. Jeannette Thurber’s National Conservatory of Music. The Herald’s review of the January 23rd concert credited Mrs. Thurber with the idea of showcasing the talented black students of her Conservatory, writing, “She threw open the doors of her establishment to pupils of ability, no matter what their race, color, or creed. Her efforts were ably seconded by Dr. Dvorak. The famous Bohemian has studied the Negro race, their songs, their folk lore, and saw that in their intellectual make-up there lay, ignored or unknown, the germs of an original musical organization, the foundation of a truly national school of music.” 49 years later to the day—on January 23, 1943—many would have agreed with Dvorak’s prediction as Duke Ellington and his orchestra presented their first concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, offering the premiere performance of Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige” Suite—with all proceeds again going to benefit a charity: the Russian war relief fund.

Richard Strauss and Terry Riley put their spin on Salome's dance

Jan 22, 2019 00:01:59


One of the 20th century’s most important—and most lurid—operas had its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on today’s date in 1907. Richard Strauss’s “Salome” is a faithful setting of Oscar Wilde’s play about the decadent Biblical princess who, after her famous “dance of the seven veils,” demands the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as a reward. She then confesses her love to the severed head and kisses it. This scene, accompanied by Strauss’s graphic music, proved too much for early audiences to take. “A reviewer,” wrote the New York Tribune,” should be an embodied conscience stung into righteous fury by the moral stench with which Salome fills the nostrils of humanity.” The New York Sun went even further: “The presentation of such a story is ethically a crime.” The Met cancelled the rest of the scheduled performances, and “Salome” was not staged there again until 1934. Closer to our time, the American composer Terry Riley put a more positive spin on the legend of Salome. In the 1980s, Riley wrote some string quartets collectively titled “Salome Dances for Peace.” “I conceived my quartets as a kind of ballet scenario,” said Riley, “in which contemporary world leaders like Reagan and Gorbachev are seduced by a reincarnated Salome into realizing world peace.” The fifth quartet in the Salome series, which we’re hearing now, is even subtitled “Good Medicine.”

The final days of John Dowland

Jan 21, 2019 00:01:59


One of the most famous British composers from the Age of Shakespeare was the lutenist and songwriter John Dowland. His life is better documented than many of his contemporaries, but much about him remains puzzling. Dowland wrote that he was born in 1563, but doesn’t tell us where—some speculate Dublin, others Westminister. Early biographies said he died in London on today’s date in 1626, but more recent research suggests mid-February as more likely. Even so, Dowland was around 63 when he died—a ripe, old age in that time of the Plague. One early biography described Dowland as: “A cheerful person, passing his days in lawful merriment.” Others suggest he suffered from depression, and many of his most famous works are deeply introspective in tone, in keeping with the then-fashionable cult of melancholy and its preoccupation with tears, darkness, and death. Dowland lived in a dangerous age of bitter religious conflict. He once wrote a frantic letter from Germany warning the British authorities of a Catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. But in that same letter Dowland confessed his own Catholic sympathies, and, rather surprisingly, both at home and abroad worked for eminent Protestant families and royalty. The last record we have of him as a performer dates from May of 1625, when he played at the funeral of King James the First—a fitting finale to the quintessential composer of that remarkable age.

Ives and Adamo meet The Alcotts

Jan 20, 2019 00:01:59


Now, it might seem unlikely that Katherine Hepburn, Winona Ryder and Charles Ives might have anything in common, but bear with us a moment... Hepburn appeared in a 1933 film based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic 19th century novel “Little Women,” as did Ryder in a successful 1994 cinematic remake. The second movement of Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata—the music we’re hearing now—is titled “The Alcotts,” and evokes Louisa May, her novel and her real-life family and friends, who included the New England “Transcendentalists” Emerson and Thoreau. Ives wrote his “Concord” Sonata in 1913, but it wasn’t until today’s date in 1939 that pianist John Kirkpatrick gave the first public performance of the sonata in New York City. As generations of readers and film fans know, “Little Women” chronicles the coming of age of four young women during the American Civil War. The story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy so captivated a young contemporary American composer named Mark Adamo that he composed an opera based on Alcott’s “Little Women.” After its premiere in 1998 at the Opera Studio of Houston Grand Opera, that company’s general director predicted that Adamo’s opera was “destined to become an American classic.” He put his money where his mouth was, and rescheduled “Little Women” for main stage performances in Houston, and other opera companies around the country have done so as well.

A Fanfare for JFK

Jan 19, 2019 00:01:59


When boomers wax nostalgic about the Kennedy Administration, it’s Lerner & Loewe’s musical “Camelot” they start to hum. After all, “Camelot” opened in 1960 just a month after John F. Kennedy was elected, and, a week after his assassination in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy told historian Theodore H. White that they owned the original cast album and liked to play it before retiring at night. She quoted a phrase—"one brief shining moment"—from “Camelot’s title song as how she wished his presidency to be remembered. But early in 1961, everyone was looking forward, not backwards. The President-elect had asked Frank Sinatra to help arrange a musical gala to be held on January 19, 1961, the eve of his Inauguration, and Leonard Bernstein was tapped to represent classical music. Bernstein had known Kennedy since the mid-1950s, and, after all, they both were Harvard men. As luck would have it, a rare blizzard hit Washington D.C. that night, snarling traffic, and a police escort had to rush Bernstein to the Gala. There was no time for him to change into formal attire, so Bernstein appeared onstage in a hastily-borrowed and much-too-large dress shirt to conduct the world premiere of his “Fanfare for JFK.” After the premiere of his “Fanfare,” Bernstein conducted a more familiar wind band standard—Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

The Harris Ninth

Jan 18, 2019 00:01:59


Composers—like anybody else—can be quite superstitious about numbers. Gustav Mahler, for example, was reluctant to assign the number “9” to his song cycle symphony, “Das Lied von der Erde,” fearing that work would turn out to be his last: after all, Beethoven and Bruckner had only completed nine symphonies. Ironically, Mahler did go on to complete a Ninth Symphony, but died before he could finish work on a Symphony No. 10. For the most part, American composers have avoided this problem by rarely if ever producing more than one or two symphonies of their own. Naturally there have been exceptions. On today’s date in 1963, the Ninth Symphony of the American composer Roy Harris had its premiere performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, who had commissioned the work. Like many of his other symphonies composed during and after the Second World War, Harris’s Ninth has a patriotic program, and each of its sections bears a subtitle from either the American Constitution or Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” This music, from the symphony’s opening movement, is titled “We the People.” Harris went on to write 13 Symphonies in all—although, perhaps submitting to a bit of numerological superstition himself—when his symphony No. 13, a Bicentennial Commission, was first performed in Washington, D.C. in 1976, it was billed as his Symphony Number Fourteen!

Einstein and Glass on stage

Jan 17, 2019 00:01:59


When TIME magazine chose Albert Einstein as its “Person of the Century” for their Millennium issue, their profile catalogued his achievements in physics and philosophy, but made no mention of Einstein’s interest in music—or music’s interest in him. That’s where we come in. In addition to being a brilliant thinker, Einstein was a talented amateur violinist. On this day in 1934, he even performed the second violin part of Bach’s Double Concerto at a private recital in New York to raise money for scientists who had suffered at the hands of Hitler. So, was Einstein any good? After his 1934 concert, the Musical America critic wrote, “Representatives of the press had been asked not to criticize Professor Einstein’s playing or to describe his manner on the platform. Unofficially, however, they confessed to being impressed. He played, according to their non-critical report, as all great artists play, with ‘technique,’ ‘expression’ and a complete absorption in his music.” Einstein was not only inspired by classical music—he’s inspired more than a few musical works himself. The 1976 opera “Einstein on the Beach,” by American composer Philip Glass features a solo violinist dressed as Einstein who wanders in and out of scenes. Music from Glass’s opera was quoted as an in-joke during a TV commercial showing Einstein trying to choose between Coke and Pepsi.

The birth of "Les Six"

Jan 16, 2019 00:01:59


Today marks the anniversary of the creation of a famous classical music nickname, “Les Six”—French for “The Six.” That’s what Parisian music critic Henri Collet dubbed six composers on this day in 1920, in a magazine article. Three of the composers Collet named included three still often heard today—Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Francis Poulenc—but the three other are not: performances of works by George Auric, Louis Durey, and the only woman in the group, Germaine Tailleferre, are still rare. Though Tailleferre is counted among the neglected half of Les Six, her music has been having something of a revival lately. Perhaps this is part of a general renewal of interest in concert works written by women composers, and perhaps a belated recognition that much of her work remains fresh and appealing. This music is from her Violin Sonata No. 1, composed in 1921 and dedicated to the great French violinist Jacques Thibaud. Born near Paris in 1892, Tailleferre was a prodigy with an astounding memory. Erik Satie proclaimed her his “musical daughter,” and she was also close friends with Maurice Ravel. Two unhappy marriages and resulting financial insecurity inhibited Tailleferre’s talent in later years, and dimmed her fame, but she continued to compose and teach until her death at age 91, in 1983.

A Messiaen premiere in a German prisoner of war camp

Jan 15, 2019 00:01:59


The modern French composer Olivier Messiaen played the piano part in one of the strangest premiere performances of the 20th century on today’s date in 1941. As the composer put it: “My Quartet for the End of Time was conceived and written during my captivity as a prisoner of war and received its world premiere at Stalag 8a in Görlitz, Silesia.” One of the four performers was cellist Etienne Pasquier, who offered this recollection: “We were captured at Verdun. Our entire company was initially held in a large field near Nancy. Among our comrades was a clarinetist who had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen started to write a piece for him while we were still in this field as he was the only person there with an instrument. And so Messiaen wrote a solo piece that was later to become the third movement of the Quartet. The clarinetist practiced in the open field and I acted as his music stand. The piece seemed to him to be too difficult from a technical point of view and he complained about it to Messiaen. “You’ll manage,’ was Messiaen’s only reply.” Pasquier reports that the performance was a great success, and led to the release of Messiaen and his three colleagues, as the Germans assumed—wrongly, it turns out—that the four musicians must have all been non-combatants.

Harp concertos by Villa-Lobos and Rautavaara

Jan 14, 2019 00:01:59


Some instruments seem to have all the luck—or at least all the concertos! If you play piano or violin, you have hundreds of concertos to choose from. But if your instrument is the harp—and you will forgive the pun—the pickings are rather slim. This hardly seems fair to one of mankind’s oldest instruments, depicted on murals from ancient Egypt and traditionally associated with King David in the Bible. In the 18th and early 19th century, there are a handful of great classical harp concertos by Handel, Mozart, and others. In the 20th century, things start to improve a little, with modern concertos by Gliere, Pierne, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Rodrigo. On today’s date in 1955, we’re happy to report, one of the finest modern works for harp and orchestra had its premiere performance when harpist Nicanor Zabeleta played this concerto—by the prolific Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos—with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by the composer. And slowly, but surely, the repertory is expanding. One of the newest additions comes from the pen of the Finnish composer, Einojuhanni Rautavaara. His harp concerto was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, and was premiered in Minneapolis in October of the year 2000, by the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, with Kathy Kienzle as the soloist.

Prokofiev takes the Fifth in Moscow

Jan 13, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1945, Sergei Prokofiev conducted the Moscow State Philharmonic in the premiere performance of his Fifth Symphony. Written when the tide of the Second World War was turning in the favor of the Allies, the premiere in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory came one day after news reached Moscow that Soviet troops had begun a successful counteroffensive against the Germans. The symphony proved to be one of Prokofiev’s strongest works, and in the context of 1945 must have had an incredible emotional impact. It was a tremendous success in Moscow, and also in Boston, where Serge Koussevitzky conducted the American premiere later that same year. Prokofiev even made the cover of Time magazine. As musicologist Michael Steinberg puts it: “No question, the Fifth was a repertory piece from Day One.” How sad, then, to realize how soon things would change for the man who wrote it. In three years Prokofiev—along with Shostakovich and others—would be denounced by Soviet authorities for supposedly straying from the party line; In five years, when the Red Scare in America turned our one-time Ally into Public Enemy No. 1, conductor Maurice Abravanel received a death threat when the Utah Symphony announced the Salt Lake City premiere of Prokofiev’s Fifth. Ah, the vicissitudes of politics in 20th century! Fortunately for us, Prokofiev’s symphony has endured—and seems to lose none of its original impact.

Dahl's "Sinfonietta"

Jan 12, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1961, a new work by the German-born composer Ingolf Dahl received its premiere performance in Los Angeles. The new work was entitled “Sinfonietta for Concert Band,” and was commissioned by the College Band Directors National Association, who were eager to expand their repertory with major new works of the highest quality. Dahl had emigrated to the United States in 1938 and settled in Los Angeles, where he met and befriended Igor Stravinsky, who gave him some practical advice about composing for wind band: “You must approach this task as if it had always been your greatest wish to write for these instruments,” suggested Stravinsky, “as if all your life you had wanted to write a work for just such a group." “This was good advice,” recalled Dahl. “Only in my case it was not only before but after the work was done that it turned out to be indeed the piece that I had wanted to write all my life. I wanted it to be a substantial piece—a piece that, without apologies for its medium, would take its place alongside symphonic works of any other kind.” Both Dahl and the musicians who commissioned the work must have been pleased to see their “Sinfonietta” rapidly become an established classic of the wind band repertory.

A John Adams Christmas oratorio

Jan 11, 2019 00:01:59


It was a matter of some debate as the year 1999 drew to a close whether—chronologically speaking—the new Millennium really began in 2000 or 2001. As far as the musical world was concerned, why wait? The shift from 1999 to 2000 proved to be the occasion for hundreds of celebratory concerts and special commissions worldwide. While not originally intended as part of the Millennium celebrations, a major new work of the American composer John Adams had its European premiere in December of 1999 and its American debut in January of 2000. Years before, the San Francisco Symphony had asked Adams to write a big work for their chorus and orchestra. Then came a request from the Châtelet Theater in Paris for a new opera. Adams combined both requests, folding in a dream of his own. As he put it: “I wanted to write a Messiah.” The result was a Nativity oratorio titled “El Nino” —a work for soloists, chorus and orchestra that could be performed as both a concert hall piece and/or a fully staged theatrical work. Kent Nagano conducted El Nino’s world premiere in Paris on December 15, 1999, and the same cast and conductor gave its American premiere in San Francisco on today’s date in 2000.

The singular Mr. Berwald

Jan 10, 2019 00:01:59


Franz Berwald was a Swede who lived in the early 19th century and who made his living first as an orthopedic surgeon and later as the manager of a saw mill and glass factory. But these days, nobody cares very much about all that. Berwald was born in Stockholm into a family that had been musicians for several generations, and even though Franz earned his living by other means, his true passion was music, and in addition to operas and concertos, he wrote four symphonies, only one of which was performed during his lifetime, and that to mixed reviews. Berwald spent some years in Vienna, where a few of his works were performed. One year after Berwald’s death in 1868, the crusty, conservative Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick appraised him as (quote) "a man stimulating, witty, prone to bizarrerie, [but who] as a composer lacked creative power and fantasy". Oddly enough, it’s exactly Berwald’s “bizarrerie,” or amusing strangeness, that appealed to later generations, and likewise his creative power and fantasy. In fact, for many music lovers today, Berwald is Sweden’s first great Romantic composer and symphonist. This didn’t happen overnight, of course. Berwald’s Third Symphony, nicknamed “The Singular One,” was written in 1845, but had to wait 37 years after the death of its composer for its first public performance, which took place in Stockholm on today’s date in 1905.

Opposite-coast bouquets and brickbats for Weill and Sessions

Jan 9, 2019 00:01:59


On this day in 1947, Pierre Monteux led the San Francisco Symphony in the premiere performance of the Second Symphony by American composer Roger Sessions, who was then 50 years old. Prior to this symphony, Sessions had written in a more broadly accessible style, but his Symphony No. 2 proved fairly dissonant and challenging for its time. At the time, Sessions cautiously stated: “Tonality is complex and even problematical nowadays.” For their part, the San Francisco audiences found Session’s new style too complex and problematical. There was hardly any applause. Musical America’s critic wrote that Sessions’ Second “seemed to express the epitome of all that is worst in the life and thinking of today.” Ouch! Today, Sessions’ Second doesn’t sound all that challenging, but performances of this or any of his symphonies remain rare events. While Sessions’ symphony was being panned in San Francisco, a new stage work by the expatriate German composer Kurt Weill opened to rave reviews in New York. Kurt Weill’s musical setting of Elmer Rice’s popular play “Street Scene” opened on Broadway on January 9th in 1947. “[It’s] the best contemporary musical production to grace any American stage,” enthused the Musical America critics. “We cannot imagine that an audience from any walk of life would not enjoy it. It has everything.”

Fateful anniversaries for Lully and Shostakovich

Jan 8, 2019 00:01:59


Today’s date marks two rather macabre anniversaries in the history of music. The first was a fatal moment for Jean-Baptiste Lully, the 17th-century Superintendent of Music for King Louis XIV of France. In late 1686, King Louis became gravely ill, but surprised everybody by recovering completely. To celebrate, Lully wrote a choral “Te Deum,” praising God for the miracle. Ironically, it would lead to his own demise. At the performance, on today’s date in 1687, Lully got carried away while beating time with his cane and accidentally smashed his toe. He continued conducting, but an abscess soon developed, followed by gangrene which spread through his lower leg. Lully died a few weeks later. On today’s date in 1972 another somewhat morbid musical event took place—the world premiere of the 15th and last symphony by the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. At that time, he was already ill with the heart disease and lung cancer that would eventually kill him. Although his symphony has no stated programmatic content, Shostakovich fueled speculation by including cryptic musical quotations from familiar classics like the “William Tell” Overture and “Siegfried’s Funeral March” in his dark and brooding new work. Many listeners come away with the unmistakable impression that Shostakovich’s last symphony is meant as an ironic commentary on his own life and work, written under the shadow of death.

Pop music by Rimsky-Korsakov and Michael Daugherty

Jan 7, 2019 00:01:59


The fairy-tale opera “Sadko” by the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov had its first performance in Moscow on today’s date in 1898. This opera is still staged in Russia, but rarely anywhere else—even though some of its wonderful melodies have proven extremely popular. One of the opera’s arias had a tune so catchy that it was set to English words as “Play That Song of India Again” and became a best-selling Paul Whiteman recording in the 1920s. In the big-band era, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of India” even made the American “Hit Parade.” The line between popular culture and classical music has often been blurred—and seldom so wickedly as in the works of the American composer Michael Daugherty. This music is from his “Le Tombeau de Liberace.” Now, in classical music terminology, a “tombeau” is a memorial tribute to an eminent musician or composer—in this case, it’s Wladziu Valentino Liberace, the flamboyant, rhinestone-encrusted pop pianist and showman who died in 1993. “Starting from the vernacular idiom,” writes Daughtery, “I have composed ‘Le Tombeau de Liberace’ as a meditation on the American sublime: a lexicon of forbidden music. It is a piano concertino in four movements, each creating a distinct Liberace atmosphere.” Many of Michael Daugherty’s other concert pieces have also been inspired by pop icons, real and imaginary, ranging from Desi Arnez to Superman.

Bach at Starbucks?

Jan 6, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1733, music-loving readers of a Leipzig newspaper called the “Nachtricht auch Frag und Anzeiger” would have seen this welcome announcement: “Tonight at 8 o’clock there will be a Bach concert at Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse on Catharine Street.” So, in addition to a Grandé Latté or Double-shot Depth-Charge, Zimmermann’s patrons could treat themselves to a Grand Sonata or Double-Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach. As if Bach wasn’t busy enough providing all those sacred cantatas and organ chorales for two Leipzig’s churches every Sunday, he was also in charge of that city’s Collegium Musicum, an organization that presented more secular musical fare. It’s likely that on occasional weekday nights at Catharine Street, most of Bach’s concertos and chamber works were performed by Bach himself, alongside many of the same musicians he employed each Sunday for his church music. And, much like symphony orchestras do today, visiting composers or virtuoso performers who passed through town could be showcased as soloists at Collegium Musicum performances. Given his staggering workload, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that caffeine helped Bach stay focused and alert: One of his secular cantatas might even be considered as an early form of an advertising jingle: the humorous text of Bach’s ‘Coffee Cantata’ recounts how a young woman’s addiction to coffee triumphs over her stuffy father’s moral objections to the tasty brew.

Milhaud at West Point

Jan 5, 2019 00:01:59


In the opinion of General George Washington, a commanding plateau on the west bank of the Hudson River, about 40 miles north of New York City, was a key strategic position during America’s War for Independence. Washington selected Thaddeus Kosciuszko,* one of the heroes of the Battle of Saratoga, to design fortifications there in 1778, and transferred his headquarters to this “West Point” in 1779. In 1802, after America’s independence had been won, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation establishing a United States Military Academy at West Point. 150 years later, in 1952, the West Point Military Band decided to observe the Academy’s Sesquicentennial by asking prominent composers to write celebratory works to mark the occasion. A number of composers responded, including the French composer Darius Milhaud. Milhaud’s “West Point Suite” was premiered by the West Point Band at Carnegie Hall on today’s date in 1952, with Captain Francis Resta conducting, and proved to be one of the most successful and oft-performed of these Sesquicentennial pieces. The previous year, Milhaud had paid a visit to West Point to hear the band, as he wanted to assess both their size and ability. He was impressed by what he heard—and surprised as well when the band struck up “Happy Birthday” in his honor. It seems that both Milhaud and his wife had completely forgotten that their September 4th visit coincided with the composer’s 60th birthday!

Danielpour's home-town tribute

Jan 4, 2019 00:01:59


Now, it may be a hotly contested statement that New York is the cultural capital of the United States, but few would contest that city’s important role in so much of our country’s musical history. In 1992, to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the New York Philharmonic commissioned many new works by leading composers and spread out their celebratory premieres over several years. On today’s date in 1996, Leonard Slatkin conducted one of these: an orchestral tribute to New York written by a native son—a work by Richard Danielpour titled “Toward the Splendid City.” While intended as sonic portrait of his hometown, Danielpour’s piece was written entirely outside of the city. As Danielpour explains it: “‘Toward the Splendid City’ is one of the very few works I’ve written completely away from New York. Work on the piece began in Seattle and was completed in Taos, New Mexico—and, to an extent, expresses the nostalgia I felt for the city. It became my sonic postcard of the town. One passage, a sound-painting with string harmonics, celesta, harp, vibes and bells, was inspired by my memory of floating about New York at night on a plane and seeing the lights of the city in the mist…”

The productive Mr. Donizetti and Mr. Williams

Jan 3, 2019 00:01:59


The comic opera “Don Pasquale” by the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti had its first performance in Paris on this date in the year 1843. To this day it remains one of his best-loved and most often-performed works. In all, Donizetti wrote about 70 operas, sometimes turning out four per year. Amazing as this seems today, it wasn’t at all uncommon in the 19th century, especially in Italy, where audience demand for new works was insatiable. Back then, when composers vied with each other for speed, Donizetti was asked if he believed that Rossini had written “The Barber of Seville” in only 13 days. “Why not?” quipped Donizetti, “He’s so lazy!” In our time, the corollary of a busy opera composer like Donizetti might be a hard-pressed Hollywood composer like John Williams. To date, Williams has written approximately the same number of film scores as Donizetti wrote operas! John Williams started out in the 1960s writing scores for TV shows like “Wagon Train” and “Gilligan’s Island,” then wrote for movies like “How to Steal a Million” and “Valley of the Dolls.” Eventually he wrote some of the most memorable film scores of our time, including those for “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” and “Schindler’s List.”

Wagner's "shaggy dog" story

Jan 2, 2019 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1843, Richard Wagner’s opera “The Flying Dutchman” had its premiere performance in Dresden. The story is often told how the opera’s sea-swept overture was inspired by a stormy voyage Wagner and his wife Minna took from Riga to Paris, their journey interrupted by an emergency stop in a Norwegian fjord due to rough weather and a longer layover in London. As usual, Wagner was fleeing creditors, and, as usual, this was due to his own outrageous extravagance. Imagine making a cramped sea voyage in the company of a huge Newfoundland dog named Robber. Wagner may have been fleeing creditors, but he wasn’t about to leave his dog behind, even though a three-week voyage in the company of a wet, sea-sick Newfoundlander must have made the trip seem as interminable as the Flying Dutchman’s eternal wanderings! Negotiating London also proved a challenge, as Wagner recounted in his memoirs: “The dog whisked round every corner and dragged us every which way. So the three of us sought refuge in a cab which took us to the Horseshoe Tavern, a sailor’s pub recommended to us by our captain… The narrow London cabs were meant to carry two people facing each other, so we had to lay Robber across our laps, his head through one window and his tail through the other…”

On the Mall with Goldman

Jan 1, 2019 00:01:59


We’d like to start the new year with some upbeat music to honor the American composer and bandleader Edwin Franko Goldman, who was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on today’s date in 1878. At the tender age of 14, Goldman attended the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, where he studied composition with Antonin Dvorak. At 15, Goldman became a professional trumpet player, performing with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. In 1911, he founded the New York Military Band, later known simply as the Goldman Band. They performed hundreds of public concerts around the city, including on the Mall in Central Park. In the 1930s, radio broadcasts made the Goldman Band famous nationwide. Their catchy signature tune, entitled “On the Mall,” was composed by Goldman himself, and invited the audiences to sing—or whistle—along. Goldman composed about 150 band works of his own, and prompted the commission of many more, including wind band classics by American composers such as Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, and Howard Hanson. The Goldman Band, led by Goldman, or his son Richard, also premiered new works by leading European composers as well. Goldman founded the American Bandmasters Association in 1929 and served as its Second Honorary Life President after John Philip Sousa. Edwin Franko Goldman died in New York in 1956. For his contribution to the radio industry, he has a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, and The Goldman Bandshell in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is named in his honor.

Martinu and Hanson premieres

Dec 31, 2018 00:01:59


In the 1940s, the Boston Symphony gave the premiere of more than 60 new orchestral works—most conducted by the very charismatic and very wealthy Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony. And why not? It was the Koussevitzky Foundation that commissioned most of those pieces in the first place, and certainly Maestro Koussevitzky had the knack for picking winners and advancing the careers of composers he admired. In the 1940s, for example, Koussevitzky premiered no less than four major works by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. On today’s date in 1943, one of these pieces, Martinu’s Second Violin Concerto, received its first performance under Koussevitzky with Mischa Elman as the soloist. But not all the Boston premieres were conducted by Koussevitzky. Earlier that same December of 1943, the American composer and conductor Howard Hanson led the orchestra in the first performance of his Symphony No. 4, and on today’s date in 1948, the premiere of his own Piano Concerto, with the Boston Symphony and the Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny as soloist. Like the Martinu Concerto, this, too, was a Koussevitzky Foundation commission. And while we’re on the subject of music patrons, we should note that George Eastman, the great Kodak film magnate, was so impressed with Hanson back in the 1920s that he put him in charge of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. This recording of the jazzy finale from Hanson’s concerto is from a 1965 recording, featuring the Eastman-Rochester orchestra conducted by Hanson.

Prokofiev in peace and (cold) war

Dec 30, 2018 00:01:59


For fans of old-time radio shows, a certain piece of music will always be known as the theme for “The FBI in Peace and War.” But among classical music buffs the more common title is the “March” from Prokofiev’s opera “The Love of Three Oranges.” This satirical, fairy-tale opera had its premiere performance in Chicago on today’s date in 1921, and Prokofiev himself was on hand to supervise the rehearsals. His opera received a lavish production which cost Chicago $250,000—a staggering amount back in 1921. The premiere was a modest success, even though the Chicago Tribune pronounced Prokofiev’s music (quote) “too much for this generation.” The production then traveled to New York for one performance, and there it was savaged by the press as “Russian jazz with Bolshevist flourishes.” “There are a few, but only a few, passages that bear recognizable kinship with what has hitherto been recognized as music,” was the ultimate verdict of the New York Times. Summing up his American experience, Prokofiev himself wrote: “In my pocket was a thousand dollars; in my head, noise from all the running around and a desire to go away somewhere quiet to work.” In the 1930s, Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union, where his music had to toe the Stalinist Party Line. It’s one of life’s little ironies that a theme by a Soviet composer would be chosen for a radio show about the FBI that aired during the height of America’s post-War “Red Scare.”

The Seattle Symphony

Dec 29, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1903, violinist and conductor Harry West led the very first performance by the Seattle Symphony. At that time, the orchestra comprised just 24 players. For their first program in Seattle, the aptly named Maestro “West” conducted the musicians in works by Schubert and Rossini, two long-dead classical masters, and also programmed works by three living composers: Max Bruch, Jules Massenet, and Pablo Sarasate. Today, the Seattle Symphony has grown into a 90-member professional orchestra, and under director Gerard Schwarz has earned worldwide attention with its CD’s of both classical and contemporary works. The orchestra has released critically acclaimed recordings of symphonic works by modern American masters like Howard Hanson, David Diamond, and Alan Hovhaness, as well as newer pieces by a younger generation of American composers including Richard Danielpour and Stephen Albert. With conductor Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony has made over 80 recordings, many of them nominated for Grammy Awards. For its 2003-2004 centennial season, the Seattle Symphony commissioned six new orchestral pieces from composers Daniel Brewbaker, Chen Yi, John Harbison, Samuel Jones, Bright Sheng, and David Stock.

Huss in Boston

Dec 28, 2018 00:01:59


If the name Henry Holden Huss [pronounced “Hoos”] doesn’t ring a bell, we’re not surprised—but in his heyday, around 1900, he was famous as a leading American concert pianist and composer. On today’s date in 1894, Huss was the soloist with the Boston Symphony for the premiere of his own Piano Concerto in B Major. Now, piano concertos written in the key of B Major are not exactly thick on the ground, and Huss’s unusual choice was probably influenced by the “Liebestod” or “Love-Death” music from Wagner’s ultra-Romantic opera “Tristan and Isolde.” Certainly, Huss’s Piano Concerto is in a similarly ultra-Romantic vein. After many decades of neglect, it was revived and recorded by the British compact disc label Hyperion for inclusion in their “Romantic Piano Concerto Series,” devoted to both famous and downright obscure examples of the genre. In addition to his musical fame, Huss was justly proud of his ancestors: He was related on his father’s side to the early 15th century Protestant martyr John Huss and on his mother’s side to a member of George Washington’s staff. Like his contemporary, pianist-composer Edward MacDowell, Huss studied in Germany. Unlike the more famous but tragic short career of MacDowell, Huss enjoyed a long, healthy and productive creative life. In addition to his Piano Concerto, Huss wrote symphonic poems, chamber works, music for chorus, and, not surprisingly, a number of solo piano works. He died at the age of 91 in 1953.

Bruckner in Boston

Dec 27, 2018 00:01:59


Three of the symphonies of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner were introduced to American audiences in the 1880s, when Bruckner was still alive and still composing new works. Walter Damrosch introduced Bruckner’s Third to New York audiences in 1885, Theodore Thomas conducted the American premiere of the Seventh in Chicago in 1886, and Anton Seidl led the first New York performance of the Fourth in 1888. Bruckner, then in his 60s, was thrilled that Americans were performing his music. He would have been less thrilled had he seen the devastating reviews they received. “Formless, weird, fragmentary, flimsy, uncongenial, and empty,” were just a few of the adjectives that greeted this new music at the time. After Bruckner’s death in 1896, it was the Boston Symphony’s turn to take up his cause: On today’s date in 1901, Wilhelm Gericke led the American premiere of Bruckner’s Fifth. The Boston critics’ estimation was mixed: “Interesting, scholarly and very skillfully orchestrated,” were among the more positive comments—“not very coherent or systematic,” among the negative. Bruckner’s mammoth Eighth Symphony had its American debut at a matinee concert of the Boston Symphony conducted by Max Fiedler in March of 1909. One reviewer wrote: “The work is, of course, massive, but it is massive like a business building, not like a mountain; it impresses one, but it does not move the emotions. The Bruckner work is by no means easy to listen to... Altogether it made a trying afternoon.”

Brahms up and down

Dec 26, 2018 00:01:59


There’s something in the way the human mind works that likes to see things in contrasting pairs: right and left, up and down, ying and yang, major and minor, happy and sad. That’s certainly the way the mind of the German composer Johannes Brahms worked, and there’s a number of examples in his music of works that emerged from his pen in contrasting pairs. The most famous example is his two contrasting concert overtures: the comic and upbeat “Academic Festival Overture,” and the dark, stoic pessimism of his “Tragic Overture.” While composing the jaunty Academic Festival Overture in 1880, to acknowledge an Honorary Doctorate he had received the previous year from the University of Breslau, Brahms felt compelled to write a more serious companion piece. To his friend the publisher Simrock, he wrote: "I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture for a tragedy," To another friend, Carl Reinecke, he wrote, "One weeps, the other laughs." Hans Richter conducted the premiere of the “Tragic” Overture in Vienna on today’s date in 1880, and the following month Brahms himself led the premiere of his “Academic Festival” Overture in Breslau. And the new works soon came to the New World: On November 12, 1881, the enterprising Theodore Thomas conducted the New York Philharmonic in the American premiere of the “Tragic” Overture, and one week later, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, he conducted the “Academic Festival” Overture as well.

Carols by Burt and Betinis

Dec 25, 2018 00:01:59


It’s Christmas Day, and for many families that means special holiday traditions – and if you’ve ever been out “caroling, caroling” you might have sung this well-known staple by American composer Alfred Burt. Well, Alfred Burt, a jazz trumpeter from Michigan who composed 15 beloved carols, is part of a larger family tradition – begun back in the 1920s by his father, the Reverend Bates G. Burt, who – every year – composed a new Christmas carol to send in a seasonal greeting card to friends and family. Fast forward to the 21st century, when young composer Abbie Betinis would celebrate Christmas with her grandparents in Michigan. She says, “I knew there were certain carols we’d sing – even joyful ones – that could make everyone cry... and I realized later that these were our family carols. They helped us remember the generations before and feel connected to them and to their traditions. So I thought maybe I should write one myself.” And write she did. With composition degrees from St Olaf College and the University of Minnesota, Abbie Burt Betinis, the great-granddaughter of Reverend Burt, has now written an annual carol since 2001 – carols which have been performed the world over, each one premiering on Minnesota Public Radio – before being sent to mailboxes across America as the new Burt Family Christmas card. Abbie’s carol we’ve been sampling here, with lyrics by Holly Windle, is from 2007, called “Run, Toboggan, Run.”

Menotti's TV opera

Dec 24, 2018 00:01:59


On Christmas Eve in 1951, NBC television broadcast the premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” This was back in the days of live television, and for decades the kinescope recording of that original live transmission was thought to be lost. Menotti himself thought so, and said as much on a number of occasions. But, miraculously, a copy of the original 1951 broadcast resurfaced—just in time for Amahl’s 50th anniversary—and was shown at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills in December of 2001 and later that month in New York City. On that tape, the dapper Mr. Menotti says by way of introduction that NBC had commissioned the opera in 1950, but its wasn’t until the Thanksgiving of 1951 that he actually began working on it, inspired by the painting “The Adoration of the Magi,” which he saw at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Apparently Menotti was delivering the music bit by bit to the original cast members right up until air time. That original cast included a 12-year-old boy soprano named Chet Allen as Amahl. Allen sang the title part twice for NBC: first on the Christmas Eve premiere, and then a repeat live telecast the following Easter. By the summer of 1952, Chet Allen’s voice had changed, and a 10-year-old named Bill McIver took over for the Christmas telecasts from 1952 through 1955. NBC continued to broadcast “Amahl” occasionally through the 1970s, but by that time it had become an established seasonal tradition for both professional and amateur performers coast to coast.

Mendelssohn cooks up some music

Dec 23, 2018 00:01:59


The greatest clarinetist of the early 19th century was Heinrich Baermann, whose son Carl was also a fantastic performer on the basset horn, the lower-voiced member of the clarinet family. Felix Mendelssohn met these two when he was just 20, and, in addition to developing a taste for their playing, developed a fondness for another Baermann Family specialty: the “Dampfnudeln” or sweet dumplings they served him in their home in Munich. In December of 1832, when the Baermanns were visiting Mendelssohn in Berlin, he asked if they’d whip up a batch. The Baermanns said “Sure—if you’ll whip something up for us, namely a duet for clarinet and basset horn.” Carl Baermann described what happened next: “Mendelssohn put a chef's hat on my head, drew an apron around my waist and stuck a cooking spoon into the waistband. He did the same himself, except that instead of a spoon, he stuck a pen behind his ear. Then he led me into the kitchen... He returned to his room where, as he said, he was going to stir and knead tones... “As the clock struck five, my heart skipped a beat, as I hoped that my dumplings had risen properly. To my great relief, they had. When I brought them in a covered dish to the table at the time agreed upon, Mendelssohn also had his duet in a covered dish. Father and I were delighted with the charming piece—although Mendelssohn kept saying that my creation was more brilliant than his.”

Deems Taylor

Dec 22, 2018 00:01:59


In the 1930s and 40s, radio’s so-called “Golden Age,” Deems Taylor was the dominant “voice” of classical radio. Taylor was both the broadcast announcer of the New York Philharmonic on the CBS Network, and the opera commentator for NBC. He was also the voice-over narrator in the famous Disney animated film “Fantasia”. In his day, Deems Taylor was also a very successful composer, producing a wide variety of works ranging from this 1922 orchestral suite entitled “Through the Looking Glass,” to grand operas, including two that were commissioned by and staged at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York: “The King’s Henchman,” composed to a libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay premiered there in 1927, and “Peter Ibbetson,” based on a novel by George du Maurier, in 1931. Deems Taylor was also a very fine writer and critic on musical topics, and the author of several books. He was born in New York City on today’s date in 1885, and died there in 1966. The year after his death, ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, established the annual Deems Taylor Awards to acknowledge outstanding print, broadcast, and new media coverage of music topics. And, we’re proud to say, in December of 2000, this program, Composers Datebook was one of the recipients of that award.

William Henry Fry

Dec 21, 2018 00:01:59


Today in 1864, the attention of most newspaper readers in New York was probably focused on the trauma of the American Civil War. So even though the once controversial American composer and music critic William Henry Fry had died in Santa Cruz on December 21st, the news didn’t reach New Yorkers until late in January the following year. Fry was only 50 when he died of consumption, an illness he had tried to fight by moving to the warmer climate of the Virgin Islands. He was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family and was a teenager when he started composing. Fry was the first American composer to tackle grand opera, modeling his works on Bellini and Meyerbeer. He also wrote orchestral pieces, like this one called “The Breaking Heart,” which was performed to great acclaim in New York in December of 1853 by the a virtuoso symphonic orchestra assembled by a flashy conductor/showman Jullien, who, like Prince or Sting or Madonna, felt one name was better than two. As a newspaper critic, Fry railed against the neglect of American composers by American orchestras—a common complaint in this country still today. And long before Dvorak’s similar suggestion, Fry called for the development of a uniquely American school of symphonic music. Like many early prophets of new causes, he was largely ignored for his efforts, and died decades before others fulfilled many of his predictions and dreams.

Harbison's "Great American Opera?"

Dec 20, 2018 00:01:59


For a lad who grew up in Orange, New Jersey, listening to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, American composer John Harbison celebrated his 61st birthday in a big way: On today’s date in 1999, Harbison’s opera “The Great Gatsby” premiered at the Met, with its composer on hand to take a curtain call with its cast. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, a devastating evocation of America’s “Roaring 20s,” is a regular contender for the title of the “Great American Novel,” but Harbison says when he told his mother he was thinking of writing an opera based on “Gatsby,” she wasn’t very enthusiastic, arguing, in effect, that the characters in the opera were a totally unsympathetic bunch. Gatsby, the novel’s anti-hero is a both a fraud and a crook. Daisy, Gatsby’s lost love and the object of his obsessive desire, is selfish, spoiled and shallow. But Harbison saw it differently: “Yearning and despair are very big operatic themes,” he said. “As for the character of Jay Gatsby, I like that he takes a lot of risks and is steadfast and loyal to some vision that is not realistically possible. The opera provides many opportunities to look at both sides of that, to understand to what degree he's an impostor, and to what degree his story is real, which is a big American theme in general.” Time will tell if Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” will prove a strong contender for the title of “The Great American Opera.”

Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms"

Dec 19, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1930, Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” received its American premiere by the Boston Symphony. The Russian-born conductor and new music impresario Serge Koussevitzky had commissioned the work to celebrate the Boston Symphony’s 50th anniversary. Stravinsky later said that for some time he had been carrying around in his head the idea for a choral symphony based on psalm texts. Since Koussevitzky’s commission was for “anything Stravinsky had on his mind” that is exactly what emerged. The dedication on the finished score read: “This symphony, composed to the glory of God, is dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.” The phrasing might seem a little odd, but apparently it was quite sincere. Even though Stravinsky is on record stating that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” in his “Symphony of Psalms,” Stravinsky gave powerful expression to his own very deep religious convictions. Koussevitzky’s performance was supposed to be the world premiere of the new work, but the conductor took ill, forcing the originally scheduled December 12th world premiere in Boston to be postponed until the 19th, by which time a European performance of Stravinsky’s new score conducted by Ernest Ansermet had already occurred. No matter. Koussevitzky had the satisfaction of knowing that he had commissioned a masterpiece. Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” has come to be regarded as one of the great sacred works of the entire 20th century.

Previn and Adams salute Emily

Dec 18, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1999, in Quebec, soprano Renee Fleming and pianist Richard Bado gave the premiere of a new song cycle by Andre Previn, his settings of three poems by the great 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. Shortly after their premiere, Fleming made this recording of the new Dickinson songs with their composer at the piano. The three poems were: “As imperceptibly as grief,” “Will there really be a morning,” and “Good morning, midnight.” By 1999, all these poems had been set to music dozens of times by dozens of composers. In fact, along with her great 19th century colleague, Walt Whitman, Dickinson reigns as an almost irresistible choice for settings by American composers. In 1992, Dickinson scholar Carlton Lowenberg published a book entitled “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere” (after the title of another famous Dickinson poem). This book catalogued no less than 1615 Dickinson song settings: the earliest, by a composer named Etta Parker, were published in 1896, eleven years after Emily’s death. Not all Dickinson settings are small scale, intimate affairs for voice and piano, either. About 100 years after Ms. Parker’s first setting, the American composer John Adams set two Dickinson poems to music as part of his super-sized piece for chorus and orchestra entitled “Harmonium.”

Brahms makes his debut

Dec 17, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1853, expectations both on stage and off must have been pretty high when a 20-year-old German pianist and composer named Johannes Brahms made his public debut in Leipzig. Just two months earlier, the older composer Robert Schumann had published a glowing prediction that young Mr. Brahms was going to turn out to be the bright hope for the future of German music. Brahms played his big Piano Sonata in C, his Opus 1, no. 1, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, on a concert program he shared with members of the David String Quartet. Brahms also met the great French composer Hector Berlioz, who wrote: “Brahms has had a great success here and made a deep impression on me... this diffident, audacious young man who has taken into his head to make a new music.” It was an especially exciting time for Brahms, who looked forward, as a kind of Christmas present, to seeing his music in print for the first time: both his Piano Sonata No. 1 and a set of Songs were due at any moment from Breitkopf & Haertel. When the music appeared, he immediately sent copies off to Schumann, with this note: “I take the liberty of sending you your first foster children (who owe to you their citizenship of the world). In their new garb they seem to me too prim and embarrassed—I still cannot accustom myself to seeing these guileless children of nature in their smart new clothes!”

Prokofiev in Chicago

Dec 16, 2018 00:01:59


In the spring and summer of 1921, the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev was living the good life in a quiet village on the coast of Brittany. He wrote: “I get up at 8:30, put on a collarless shirt, white pants, and sandals. After drinking hot chocolate, I look to see if the garden is still where it’s supposed to be. Then I sit down to work. I’m writing my Third Piano Concerto.” On today’s date in 1921, Prokofiev was the soloist in the premiere of the work, which took place in America, with the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock. In a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitzky just a few days before the premiere, Prokofiev wrote: “My Third Concerto has turned out to be devilishly difficult. I’m nervous and practicing hard three hours a day. But let the maestro be calm. This is not a Stravinsky symphony—there are no complicated meters, no dirty tricks. It can be conducted without special preparation—it is difficult for the orchestra, but not for the conductor.” Chicago audiences and newspaper critics gave the new Concerto a warm, if not overly enthusiastic, reception at its first performance in America, and in time, the Third—despite its difficulty—became one of Prokofiev’s most popular works with performers as well as audiences around the world.

Bloch's "American" Concerto

Dec 15, 2018 00:01:59


Most composers, when they write a Violin Concerto, usually consult with a good violinist during the process—unless, that is, they play violin themselves. That was the case with the Swiss-born American composer and violinist Ernest Bloch, who completed his big violin concerto in 1938. Bloch was born in 1880, and was in his 30s when he came to America, where he achieved remarkable success with both critics and audiences. His most famous work, “Schelomo,” subtitled a “Hebraic Rhapsody” for cello and orchestra, premiered in New York in 1917, when Bloch was 36 years old. Despite his popularity in America, Bloch returned to Europe for most of the 1930s. By the end of that decade, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany and Italy led the composer, then approaching 60, to reconsider making America his permanent home. Bloch’s Violin Concerto was premiered in America on today’s date in 1938, a month after he arrived, with violinist Joseph Szigeti and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. The main theme of Bloch’s Concerto was supposedly based on a Native American theme, but the tone of the whole work echoes the Hebrew themes in his other music. Bloch wrote: “Art for me is an expression, an experience of life, not a game or an icy demonstration of mathematical principles. In not one of my works have I tried to be "original" or "modern." My sole desire and single effort has been to remain faithful to my vision.”

Barber in Rome (part 2)

Dec 14, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1936, just one day after the premiere of his Symphony No. 1, the young American composer Samuel Barber attended the first performance of his String Quartet No. 1. Both premieres took place in Rome, where Barber was enjoying the benefits of the Prix de Rome, which included a two-year residency at the American Academy in the “Eternal City.” Barber found Europe a congenial place to compose, finding inspiration in both the art and the important musical personalities he encountered there. Even so, he found writing a string quartet hard going: “I have started a new quartet,” he writes in one letter, “but how difficult it is. It seems to me that because we have so assiduously forced our personalities on Music—on Music, who never asked for them!—that we have lost elegance, and if we cannot recapture elegance, the quartet form has escaped us forever.” It’s perhaps debatable whether Barber recaptured “elegance” in his new quartet, but “eloquence” is another matter: The new quartet’s slow “adagio” was described as being “deeply felt and written with economy, resourcefulness and distinction” by one critic after a New York performance the following year. Barber later recast this movement for full string orchestra, and, as Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” it’s become one of the best-loved pieces of modern American music. During the Second World War, it was adopted as a kind of unofficial anthem of mourning, and was played for the funeral of America’s great wartime President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Barber in Rome (part 1)

Dec 13, 2018 00:01:59


In 1935, when he was 25 years old, the American composer Samuel Barber was selected as “the most talented and deserving student of music in America” and awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome. This meant that Barber could study at the American Academy in Rome for two years, with free lodgings, a music studio and an annual stipend of $1,400—a considerable sum of money in the 1930s! Barber found his Italian studio, a little yellow house approached through a garden, to be a good place to work. He wasn’t very thrilled by his sleeping quarters at the Academy, however, and reportedly never completely unpacked his bags. While in Europe, Barber finished his Symphony No. 1. The premiere took place in Rome on today’s date in 1936, with the Italian conductor Bernardino Molinari leading Rome’s Augusteo Orchestra. Years later, Barber recalled that the orchestra played well, but also that the Italians in the audience were “not shy about expressing their feelings... 50% applauded and 50% were hissing.” In Barber’s opinion, the Italians found the new work “too dark-toned, too Nordic.” The Cleveland Orchestra gave the Symphony’s American premiere early the next year, followed by a New York performance under the direction of Arthur Rodzinski, who was so impressed he conducted the work with the Vienna Philharmonic at the opening concert of the 1937 Salzburg Music Festival in Austria. That performance was more warmly received, and Barber was called back to the stage three times.

Henry Brant

Dec 12, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2001, the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas gave the first performance of a new work by the American composer Henry Brant. The new piece was entitled “Ice Field,” and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2002, the year Brant turned 89. The Pulitzer Prize was a major acknowledgment of five decades of work as one of America’s great experimental composers. In the 1950s, when he turned 40, Brant became fascinated with the possibilities inherent in spatial music—music that positioned various groups of performers in all the corners of performing space. Moreover, he felt his music should reflect a wide variety of musical styles as well. As Brant put it: “I had come to feel that single-style music… could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.” A 1984 composition entitled “Western Springs” is scored for a spatial ensemble of two orchestras, two choruses, and two jazz combos, comprising a grand total of about 200 musicians. Brant cites as his major model the earlier American composer Charles Ives, but also credits the experience of hearing in Paris a modern performance of the massive Requiem Mass of the extravagant French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, who way back in the 19th century positioned an orchestra, brass choirs, and vocalists around a vast cathedral for a unique “surround sound” experience.

Cowell at the Forum

Dec 11, 2018 00:01:59


The Great Depression put many Americans out of work, and in 1935 the Roosevelt administration created the Works Progress Administration, putting some of the unemployed to work on various public projects. A Federal Music Project was also created for unemployed musicians, and thirty-four new orchestras were created all over the country. American composers weren’t neglected either. A program called the Composers Forum Laboratories showcased new chamber works and invited audiences to offer their feedback and comments directly to the composers involved. On today’s date in 1935, at the seventh Composers Forum Laboratory held in New York, Henry Cowell was the featured composer, and took questions and comments from the audience at the Midtown Community Center on Park Avenue following the premiere of his String Quartet No. 3. Typical of a “laboratory” situation, this chamber piece was highly experimental. Cowell conceived it as a kind of musical kaleidoscope or crazy quilt, in which five predetermined musical patterns can be played in any order. Cowell called this work his “Mosaic” Quartet, and, theoretically, no two performances would ever be the same. America’s entry into World War II eventually brought all the WPA’s musical projects to a close, but not before Federal Music Project orchestras had premiered a number of new symphonic works by American composers, and dozens of new chamber works, like Cowell’s Quartet, had been performed and discussed at Composers Forum Laboratories.

Music for Emily

Dec 10, 2018 00:01:59


The great American poet Emily Dickinson was born on today’s date in 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived until her death in 1886. The seemingly confined and rather mundane chronicle of her life stands in stark contrast to the breathtaking scope of her imagination, as expressed in the 1,147 poems her sister Lavinia discovered in a cherry-wood cabinet after her death. Dickinson’s poetry has provided the inspiration for many American composers, and hundreds of them have been set to music, but her works have also inspired a number of purely instrumental pieces as well. This music, for example, entitled “Three Pieces for String Quartet after Emily Dickinson,” was written in 1941 by the American composer Mary Howe. Each movement is coupled with a line from a Dickinson poem, but Howe was quick to explain her music was not a setting of them. “For some reason unknown to me,” explained Howe, “the last line in each poem called upon in my mind not a musical theme but the sort of music I wanted to write.” Mary Howe was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1882, and studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. She was by nature a conservative composer, but not rigidly so. As she herself put it, "my back foot is in the garden gate of the Romantics, but I feel no hesitation in thumbing the passing modern idiom for a hitch-hike to where I want to go." Mary Howe died in Washington, DC, in 1964.

Politically Correct and Incorrect Glinka

Dec 9, 2018 00:01:59


The 19th century Russian composer Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka ranks as the founder of a distinctive national style of Russian classical music, and as the composer of the first great Russian opera, which premiered in St. Petersburg on today’s date in 1836. That opera tells the story of Ivan Susanin, a folk hero of the early 17th century, who gave his life to protect the newly elected Tsar Mikhail, the first of the Romanov dynasty. Glinka’s original title for his opera was “Ivan Susanin,” but when the then-current Tsar Nicholas I attended a rehearsal of its premiere, the composer changed it to “A Life for the Tsar,” to honor – and frankly flatter the current ruler in the Romanov line. After the Bolshevik Revolution deposed Tsar Nicholas II in 1917 and executed his whole family the following year, any opera praising the Romanovs, no matter how culturally significant, was unperformable in the Soviet Union. But in 1939, when St. Petersburg was known as Leningrad, Glinka’s opera returned to Russian stages under its original title “Ivan Susanin,” thanks to a Soviet poet who removed all references to the Tsar from its libretto and adjusted its storyline to be “politically correct” for Stalinist Russia. These days, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Leningrad is St. Petersburg once again, and when Glinka’s landmark opera is staged there, it’s under its original title and with its original, pro-Tsarist storyline restored.

Jean Sibelius

Dec 8, 2018 00:01:59


The great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born on this date in 1865. In 1990, when the world was observing Sibelius’s 125th birthday, conductor Osmo Vänskä led the Lahti Symphony in the belated world-premiere performance of a previously unknown work by the composer. This was a Suite for Violin and Orchestra that Sibelius had probably completed in 1929, but never published or had performed. Now, Sibelius was a very prolific composer up through his fifties, but during the last 30 years of his life before his death in 1957 wrote very little. He had completed his Seventh Symphony, his last, in 1924, and the world waited in vain for an Eighth. Perhaps it was due to depression, perhaps it was due to drink—or maybe, creatively speaking, Sibelius had just dried up. In any case, what works he did complete as a senior citizen were either revisions of much earlier pieces, or minor incidental works. Which makes this genial little Suite, if composed fresh in 1929, rather interesting. It’s landscape music, evoking the Finnish countryside, but in a less bleak and abstract manner compared to his final large-scale works. It may not be top-drawer Sibelius, but even so, we’re grateful that Sibelius decided to stick his Suite for Violin in a bottom drawer—and not in the fireplace!

Ruggles on the mountaintop

Dec 7, 2018 00:01:59


It’s perhaps not surprising that a solitary, iconoclastic 20th century composer should identify with a solitary, iconoclastic 18th century poet. The ultra-modernist American composer Carl Ruggles took as the title for one of his most famous orchestral pieces a phrase from a motto by the early Romantic British poet William Blake which ran, “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” On today’s date in 1924, Ruggles’ “Men and Mountains” received its premiere performance at a New York concert of the International Composers’ Guild. The music critic of the New York Times was in attendance and wrote: “Mr. Ruggles, in his ‘Men and Mountains,’ leaps upon the listener with a yell. There is a wild shriek of the brass choir, and thereafter no rest for the wicked. It is as if the irate composer had seized a plump, disparaging critic by some soft and flabby part of his anatomy, and pinched him blue, crying the while, ‘You will hear me and you’ll not go to sleep, either!’ No one slept, either during or after the concert, for there is a Ruggles contingent, and a determined one. They applauded in phalanxes, while others kept silent or groaned. This was,” concluded the Times, “one of the most entertaining moments of the evening.” By the time of his death in 1971, at age of 95, Ruggles would come to be revered—if not always performed—as the craggy, last-standing survivor of the craggy ultra-modernist movement of the early 20th century.

Schumann and Prokofiev in private

Dec 6, 2018 00:01:59


Two famous pieces of chamber music had their premieres on today’s date, both at private readings prior to their first public performances. On today’s date in 1842, the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann arranged for a trial reading of his new Piano Quintet in E-flat at the Leipzig home of some of his friends. Schumann’s wife, Clara, was supposed to be the pianist on that occasion, but she took ill, and Schumann’s friend and fellow-composer Felix Mendelssohn stepped in at the last moment for the informal performance, reading the work at sight. After this preliminary reading, Mendelssohn praised the work, but offered some friendly suggestions concerning part of the trio section in the new work’s Scherzo movement, which prompted Schumann to write a livelier replacement movement for the work’s first public performance. About 100 years later, on today’s date in 1949, a cello sonata by the Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev received a similar private performance in Moscow, for an invited audience at the House of the Union of Composers. Two of the leading Soviet performers of the day, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter, gave the work its first performance. The following spring, it was again Rostropovich and Richter who gave the Sonata its public debut at the Moscow Conservatory.

Berlioz gets snuffed?

Dec 5, 2018 00:01:59


“Snuff” is a finely pulverized tobacco that can be, well, “snuffed” through the nose (and Kids—don’t try this at home!) In the 19th century, taking snuff was a common practice, and on today’s date in 1837, the most notorious example of snuff-taking in musical history occurred—or didn’t occur, depending on who you believe—during the premiere in Paris of the massive “Requiem Mass” of the French composer Hector Berlioz. As Berlioz tells it in his Memoirs, the conductor of the performance, Francois-Antoine Habeneck, decided to take a pinch of snuff during an especially tricky passage of the score, just when a cue from the conductor was of particular importance. To avert disaster, Berlioz stepped in front of Habeneck, gave the cue, and afterwards all but accused the conductor of deliberately trying to sabotage his music. Some eye-witnesses are on record saying, “Yes, that’s just how it happened,” while others, equally emphatic, state, “Preposterous! Nothing of the sort occurred.” Who to believe? Well, it IS known that once the basic tempo was set, M. Habeneck was in the habit of putting down his baton to let the orchestra play on by themselves. He would then calmly take a pinch of snuff. Sometimes, it’s said, he even offered snuff to his neighbors, so perhaps those performances, at least, if not the premiere of Berlioz’s Requiem, were indeed sabotaged—by an especially loud sneeze!

Bruckner's New York debut

Dec 4, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1885, at an open public rehearsal at the Old Metropolitan Opera House, the New York Symphony gave the first performance in America of any symphony by the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner. It was a fresh-faced 23-year-old conductor named Walter Damrosch who programmed the 61-year-old Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in d minor, a score dedicated to Richard Wagner and quoting themes from Wagner’s operas. The New York Times critic, in fairness to this “new” music by a totally unfamiliar composer, attended both the December 4th rehearsal and the December 5th concert before venturing an official opinion: “As to form and workmanship,” he wrote, “it is a highly commendable achievement. The composer’s motives are distinct and fluent, the instrumentation is rich, though not cloying, and vivid without being clangorous. Unfortunately, there is not in the whole composition a measure in which a spark of inspiration, or a grain of inventiveness is discernible.” Some of the other New York papers were more blunt: “A dreary waste of sound… formless, weird, flimsy, uncongenial and empty” wrote the Sun, and, according to the Post: “The first movement is marked ‘misterioso,’ but the only mystery about it is how it ever came to be written, printed and performed.” In fairness to the music critics of 1885, it would take another hundred years or so before American audiences started to acquire a taste for Bruckner’s particular blend of music and mystery.

Bach Begins the Church Year

Dec 3, 2018 00:01:59


In many denominations, the Christian calendar or liturgical year begins with the season of Advent, the four Sundays preceding Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin “adventus,” which means “arrival” or “coming,” because Advent celebrates both the joyful anticipation of the arrival of the baby Jesus and the need for believers to prepare for the second coming of their Savior at the Last Judgement. In 1724, a very devout German Lutheran church musician named Johann Sebastian Bach crafted a cantata, a work for a small instrumental ensemble with solo voices and chorus, to be performed on the First Sunday of Advent, which fell on today’s date that year. At Bach’s church, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, there would have been readings from Luther’s translation of the Bible appropriate for the day, so Bach asked a poet friend for a text meditating on them, and took for his musical inspiration Luther’s Advent hymn, "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,", which in English means “Now come, Savior of the heathens." That hymn appeared as the first in the Thomaskirche’s hymnal, which meant the church year was off and running once again. Now, it was Bach’s responsibility to provide a cantata for performance each Sunday, and during his time in Leipzig he would write over 200 of them -- which no doubt made him a favorite customer with anyone in Leipzig selling music manuscript paper!

Messiaen in Boston

Dec 2, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1949, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Boston Symphony in the first complete performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ten-movement, 75-minute long “Turangalila” Symphony. “Turangalila” is the Sanskrit word for love, and Messiaen’s score is meant to be a voluptuous evocation of the emotion at its most exalted state. In addition to a huge percussion battery, Messiaen’s score calls for an electronic keyboard instrument known as the “Ondes Martenot,” whose tones fans describe as “haunting,” but foes liken to the sound of a musical saw. Messiaen had spent the summer of 1949 as composer-in-residence at Tanglewood at the invitation of the great Russian conductor and new music impresario, Serge Koussevitzky, who was also Bernstein’s mentor. Before arriving in Tanglewood, Messiaen had written to Bernstein as follows: “I am 41 years old and I have put into my symphony all of my strengths of love, of hope and of musical research. But I know you are a man of genius and that you will conduct it the way I feel it.” The exotic French score was a modest success in Massachusetts. At least it provoked no riot, but then, as the Christian Science Monitor noted: “If Bostonians suffer, they suffer in silence.” When Bernstein and the Boston Symphony took the new score to New York’s Carnegie Hall, however, critical reaction ranged from “a really rousing experience” to “the trashiest Hollywood composers have met their match.”

Stravinsky and Balanchine count to 12

Dec 1, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1957, the New York City Ballet staged a new collaboration between the great Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky and the great Russian-born choreographer Georges Balanchine. The New York City company had been asking Stravinsky for nearly a decade to write a third ballet on a classical subject to make up a trilogy of works that would include his two earlier dance works on Greek mythology, “Apollo” from 1928 and “Orpheus” from 1948. Just as they were about to despair that Stravinsky would ever write another big ballet, he unexpectedly obliged—if not with a Greek myth, at least with a Greek WORD: He titled his new ballet for Balanchine “Agon,” the Greek word for contest or struggle. A 17th century French dance manual provided Stravinsky with a visual image of two trumpeters accompanying a dance, and that prompted one of the Ballet’s movements, entitled “bransle simple,” which prominently features those instruments. On a more modern note, by the 1950s, as Stravinsky’s assistant Robert Craft recalled, “Something called twelve-tone music was in the air, and ‘Agon’ is about 12 dancers and 12 tones.” “Agon” is also set in 12 scenes, and some of its movements were consciously laid out in multiples of 12 bars. Balanchine himself said in working on the ballet, “Stravinsky and I constructed every possibility of dividing 12”—which in dance terms, meant abstract solos, duets, trios and quartets to match the abstract, if eminently danceable, nature of Stravinsky’s score.

Picker picks a plot

Nov 30, 2018 00:01:59


Ever wonder how composers choose a story for an opera? Here’s one answer, courtesy of the American composer Tobias Picker: “My sister was dusting her bookshelf in 1998, and a copy of Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin fell off. She picked it up, read it and then recommended it to me for my next opera.” And so it came about, some three years later, that on today’s date in 2001, that the Dallas Opera premiered a new opera entitled Thérèse Raquin, with music by Tobias Picker. Zola’s novel is a rather clinical examination of adultery, murder, and a double suicide. “The novel,” said Picker, “exudes ‘opera’ from every page. Everything about it is operatic.” In Picker’s musical setting, traditional harmonies spiral off into atonality, just as the ordered world of the opera’s characters gradually falls apart. Picker has written successfully in both styles, so combining the two in his new opera was a natural process. “That tension has always been there in my music,” says Picker. “I think the opera made some people uncomfortable,” said Picker following the Dallas premiere. “There’s so much negative wish fulfillment and guilt. It affected people strongly and in different ways. One woman came up to me at the third and final Dallas performance and said: ‘I just love this. It’s the third time I’ve seen it.’ Perhaps she had experienced the same catharsis that I had when I composed it!”

Scarlatti Arrives

Nov 29, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1719, the Papal ambassador in Lisbon noted the arrival of a fellow Italian, a composer named Domenico Scarlatti. Domenico was in his early 30s, and the son of Alessandro Scarlatti, a very famous and influential composer of Baroque operas in Naples. At the time, Domenico was nowhere near as famous as his father, and had come to Lisbon to serve as the music teacher for an 8-year old Portuguese princess named Maria Magdalena Barbara. Well, this teaching gig turned out to be the most important event in the life of Domenico Scarlatti for two reasons. First, the little princess was mad about music, and became a very talented performer on the harpsichord. Second, in 1733, when the princess was 22, she married into the Spanish royal house, becoming the Queen of Spain. Scarlatti remained in her service for the next 25 years, composing for her amusement over 500 harpsichord sonatas. These sonatas include the rhythms and colors of Spanish and Portuguese folk music, with the plucked sound of the harpsichord often mimicking a Spanish guitar. Only a small number of Scarlatti’s sonatas were published during his lifetime, but long after his death they attracted the attention and admiration of composers ranging from Chopin to Brahms to Bartok, and eventually all the sonatas that survived in manuscript were published, attracting the attention and admiration of modern performers on both the harpsichord and piano.

Griffes for pleasure

Nov 28, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1919, the eminent French conductor Pierre Monteux, led the Boston Symphony in the premiere performance of “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan,” a new orchestral score written by the American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. This music was inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous Romantic poem of that name, but owes its exotic orchestral coloring to Griffes’ interest in the music of Asia and the Pacific Rim. Although Griffes himself never traveled there, he knew someone who had: the influential Canadian soprano Eva Gauthier, famous for her avant-garde song recitals that included music by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and her later association with Gershwin and Ravel. It was the well-traveled Gauthier who introduced Griffes to the musical traditions of Japan and Java. In describing an earlier ballet score inspired by Asian themes, Griffes wrote: “It is developed Japanese music – I purposely do not use the term idealized. Modern music tends more and more toward the archaic, especially the archaisms of the East.” The 1919 Boston premiere of “Kubla Khan” was the highpoint of Griffes’ career, and all the critics agreed a major new talent had arrived on the American music scene. Unfortunately, one month later, Griffes took ill and in a few months died from a severe lung infection. He was just 35 years old. How his music would have developed had Griffes lived remains one of the most intriguing “what might have beens” of American music.

Korngold writes a symphony

Nov 27, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1972, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp received its first successful concert performance by the Munich Philharmonic led by Rudolf Kempe. A recording was made of the work following their performance, supervised and produced by the composer’s son, George Korngold. The composer himself had died in 1959, so was not able to enjoy the eventual success of this major work. He completed his Symphony in 1950, and its premiere performance in 1954 as part of an Austrian Radio broadcast had been a disaster. As the composer himself put it: “The performance, which was an execution in every sense of the term, took place under the most unfavorable conditions imaginable, with inadequate rehearsals and an exhausted and overworked orchestra.” “Nonetheless,” Korngold added hopefully, “there was genuine enthusiasm on the part of those listeners who like a good tune and others rather more progressively inclined.” Korngold had become an American citizen during the 1940s, and dedicated his Symphony to the memory of America’s wartime President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The postwar European premiere of his Symphony came at a time when shifting tastes in music made such lush late-Romantic music seem hopelessly old-fashioned to many of the “progressively inclined” Korngold mentions. “More corn than gold” was one dismissive appraisal of his style. With the passage of time, however, Korngold’s “good tunes” seem more and more appealing, and belatedly, his big Symphony in F-sharp has found a place in the concert repertory.

A belated Schumann premiere

Nov 26, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1937, a gala concert in Berlin presented the premiere performance of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D-minor, a work composed in the fall of 1853, shortly before Schumann’s tragic mental collapse. The Concerto was never given a public performance during Schumann’s lifetime, although the great 19th century violinist Joseph Joachim read through the score during an orchestral rehearsal early in 1854, and played the work privately in 1855, with piano accompaniment provided by Schumann’s wife, Clara. Schumann died in 1856, and for the next 80 years, the Concerto was forgotten. Clara, Joachim and their mutual friend Johannes Brahms all judged it sub-par and perhaps embarrassing evidence of Schumann’s declining mental state. Oddly enough, the 1937 premiere in Berlin, attended by none other than Adolf Hitler, was presented as part of the Nazi’s “Strength Through Joy” cultural program. German commentators touted Schumann’s ties to the German “folk,” while American critics bemoaned that most of the great German violinists of the day were unavailable for this important premiere, having all left Germany for racial or political reasons. That honor fell to the acceptably Aryan, if hardly world-class violinist Georg Kullenkampf, supported by the Berlin Philharmonic under the Austrian conductor Karl Bőhm. The premiere was broadcast on short-wave, so American audiences could compare Kullenkampf’s reading with that of Yehudi Menuhin, who gave the American premiere of Schumann’s long-neglected Concerto on December 6th, first with piano accompaniment at Carnegie Hall, then later that month with the St. Louis Symphony.

Bach's "wake up" call?

Nov 25, 2018 00:01:59


In the course of his life as a church musician, Johann Sebastian Bach probably wrote 300 sacred cantatas. That seems like a high number to us, but consider that his contemporaries Telemann and Graupner composed well over a thousand cantatas each! In what surviving documents we have, Bach himself rarely uses the Italian term “cantata” to describe these pieces, preferring “concertos,” “pieces” or simply “the music” to describe these works for Lutheran church services. It was only in the 19th century, as Bach’s music was being collected and catalogued, that the term “cantata” would become the official label for this sizeable chunk of Bach’s output. Most of Bach’s cantatas were written for performance in Leipzig, where Bach was expected to provide sacred music for not one, but TWO churches, each Sunday. On today’s date in 1731, the 27th Sunday after Trinity that year, Bach presented what would become one of his most popular cantatas: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”, or “Awake, the Voice calls to us.” In the catalog of Bach’s work compiled long after his death, this is his Cantata No. 140. The text is based on a parable from the Gospel of St. Matthew recounting the story of the wise and foolish virgins, who are called, ready or not, to participate in a wedding feast. The opening choral melody may have been already familiar to Bach’s performers and congregation, but his dramatic setting of it is downright ingenious.

Diamond's "Rounds"

Nov 24, 2018 00:01:59


In 1944, while the Second World War ground on in Europe and Asia, the American composer David Diamond received a commission from Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was then the conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony. “Write me a happy work,” asked Mitropolous. “These are distressing times, most of the difficult music I play is distressing. Make me happy.” The resulting work was entitled “Rounds for String Orchestra.” To some, it sounded as if Diamond had turned to traditional American folk music, but, as Diamond put it, “the tunes are original. They sound like folk tunes, but they are really the essence of a style that must have been absorbed by osmosis.” Diamond’s “Rounds” received its premiere performance by Mitropolous and the Minneapolis Symphony on today’s date in 1944. Even the stodgy conservative music critic of the St. Paul Pioneer Press expressed her grudging admiration: “it reveals a good deal of talent and resourcefulness” was her verdict. Reviewing a subsequent Boston Symphony performance under Koussevitzky, New York Times critic Olin Downes was much more enthusiastic. He wrote: “It is admirably fashioned, joyous and vernal. There is laughter in the music.” “Rounds” has gone on to become one of Diamond’s most frequently performed works. Perhaps joy and laughter in music remains as rare and precious a commodity now as it was back in those distressed days of 1944.

Short (but tough) Copland

Nov 23, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1934, after 10 intense rehearsals, the Orquestra Sinfonica de Mexico, conducted by the Mexican Carlos Chávez, gave the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 2 of the American composer Aaron Copland. Copland’s Second was titled ‘The Short Symphony,” but there was a lot packed into its 15-minute duration. “The Short Symphony’s preoccupation is with complex rhythms, combined with clear textures,” said Copland. “Sonority-wise, the most rhythmically complex moments have a certain lightness and clarity.” “I had briefly considered naming the piece (at Chavez’s suggestion) ‘The Bounding Line,’” said Copland, “until another friend wisely advised me against it, pointing out that ‘bounding’ seemed more like ‘boundary’ than the ‘bounce’ I had in mind.” “Shortly after its Mexican introduction,” recalled Copland, “the piece was announced for an American premiere by Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but was never given. A similarly announced performance by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzsky was also cancelled. Both told me subsequently that they had announced performances because they had admired the work, but that the composition was so intricate from a rhythmic standpoint that they dared not attempt a performance within the allotted period.” In 1937, Copland recast his “Short Symphony” as a chamber sextet, leaving the music fundamentally unchanged, but re-barring the score to make it less challenging for performers. It wasn’t until the 1980s, some four decades after its Mexican premiere, that Copland’s 15-minute Symphony became increasingly performed by American orchestras in its original form.

Music for St. Cecilia's Day

Nov 22, 2018 00:01:59


Today is the Feast Day of St. Cecilia, an early Christian martyr. Her story dates back to Roman times, when the new religion was still punishable by death. It wasn’t until the 15th century, however, that St. Cecilia became the patron saint of music and musicians. Over time her Feast Day came to be celebrated with special works composed in her honor, all extolling the power of music. Of these, pieces by three British composers are the most famous. In the 17th century, Henry Purcell wrote four cantatas, or “Odes” for St. Cecilia’s Day. The most famous of these, entitled “Hail! Bright Cecilia!” was written in 1692. The British poet John Dryden, a contemporary of Purcell’s, wrote two poems in praise of St. Cecilia. These attracted the attention of the great British composer of the following century, George Frederick Handel. The first of these, “Alexander’s Feast” premiered in 1736, oddly enough not on St. Cecilia’s Day, but proved so popular that Handel set Dryden’s other Ode to St. Cecilia, entitled “From Harmony, Heavenly Harmony,” and performed both pieces on today’s date in 1739. The great 20th century British composer, Benjamin Britten was actually born on St. Cecilia’s Day in 1913. In the early 1940s, the British poet W.H. Auden wrote a piece entitled "Anthem for St. Cecilia's Day" especially for Britten, who set it to music in 1942.

Harbison's "Flight into Egypt"

Nov 21, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1986, at the New England Conservatory of Music’s Jordan Hall, a new choral work by the American composer John Harbison received its premiere performance. This work, for soprano, baritone, chorus, and chamber orchestra, was entitled “The Flight into Egypt,” and would win the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year. The text for Harbison’s cantata is taken from the Gospel of Matthew -- Chapter 2, verses 13-23 in the King James Version -- and describes the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt after the birth of Jesus and King Herod’s subsequent slaughter of all new-born male children in an attempt to kill this newly-arrived threat to his throne. “'The Flight,'" recalled Harbison, “began in a conversation with colleagues about Christmas texts. We talked about counseling experiences during Christmas season at Emmanuel Church, Boston, where we were all involved as musicians -- a time when need, isolation, and anxiety increase. We agreed that the darker side of Christmas needs representation, especially now, as the distance widens between the privileged and the less fortunate. “At the beginning of 'The Flight into Egypt,'" Harbison continues, “is an oboe melody, long and florid, even rather exotic and forlorn, which is imitated by the other reed players. I subtitled this work a ‘sacred ricercar’ (ricercar meaning something in the texture to be searched out), the piece constantly hides and reveals its loyalty to the first elaborate oboe melody that guides the whole journey.”

Meredith Monk

Nov 20, 2018 00:01:59


Today is the birthday of the American composer, singer, dancer and choreographer Meredith Monk, who was born in New York City on today’s date in 1942. Monk attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied theatre, dance and music. On graduation in 1964, she began performing pieces that combined gesture and movement with vocal and visual elements, in the company of like-minded artists based in New York. Around that time, a number of contemporary composers had begun stretching the boundaries of INSTRUMENTAL music, but, as Monk recalls, there really wasn’t much happening regarding “extended VOCAL techniques.” Monk began testing how she could stretch the range, timbre and character of her own singing, inventing a vocabulary based on her particular voice -- as she explains it, just as a dancer would develop a vocabulary of movement particular to their body. Considering her long-standing interest in integrating music with movement and visuals, opera seemed a natural outlet for Monk’s talents, and in 1993 she premiered a full-length opera entitled “Atlas.” “Atlas” was inspired by the life of Alexandra David-Neel, a scientist who was the first Western woman to travel in Tibet. It seemed a natural choice for Monk, for whom exploration and curiosity are so important. “If I knew what I was looking for,” says Monk “it wouldn’t be that interesting.” Her opera “Atlas” tells its story via a wordless libretto set to music that employs a number of the extended vocal techniques Monk had developed over the years.

Gershwin's last film score

Nov 19, 2018 00:01:59


In the summer of 1936, the songwriting team of George and Ira Geshwin settled their affairs in New York, put their furniture in storage, and flew off to Hollywood to fulfill a contract with the RKO Studios. The Gershwins were to supply music for a series of new movies, some starring an old friend of theirs, dancer Fred Astaire. In those days the big movie studios moved quickly, and so did the Gershwins. The first film in the contracted series, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as the romantic leads, was entitled “Shall We Dance” and was completed, scored and released in less than a year. On today’s date in 1937, RKO Studios released their second Gershwin collaboration, “Damsel in Distress.” This starred Astaire and Joan Fontaine, and included two songs that would become Gershwin classics: “A Foggy Day in London Town” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” The release of “Damsel in Distress,” however, must have been a bittersweet event for the friends and family of George Gershwin. The composer had died suddenly on July 11 that year following surgery to remove a brain tumor. The musical world was shocked, and there were funeral services and memorial concerts arranged on both the East and West Coast. “Damsel in Distress” proved to be the last major project Gershwin had completed before his death.

The Wagners attend a Brahms premiere

Nov 18, 2018 00:01:59


Falling in love with someone else’s spouse can result in divorce, emotional turmoil, or (in the case of composers) some very Romantic music. Take the case of Brahms, who for most of his adult life carried a torch for Mrs. Clara Schumann, the wife of his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 was a work he began around 1854-5, an especially turbulent period in his relationship with the Schumanns. Twenty years later, when it was finally finished, Brahms wrote to his publisher: “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose, and since you seem to like color printing, you can use blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots.” That garb was favored by Young Werther, the Romantic hero in a novel by Goethe, who commits suicide after falling in love with a married woman. Coincidentally, in the audience for the Viennese premiere of Brahms’s Quartet on today’s date in 1875, were Richard and Cosima Wagner. Cosima had run off with Wagner when she was still married to the famous conductor Hans von Bulow, but her diary entry for November 18th suggests she didn’t find anything Romantic in Brahms or his music. She writes: “In the evening a soiree with the Hellmesberger Quartet, I make the acquaintance of Herr Brahms, who plays a piano quartet of his own making. A red-faced, crude-looking man, his music dry and stilted.”

Hoover for flute and guitar

Nov 17, 2018 00:01:59


The intimate combination of flute and guitar has proven to be an attractive one for a number of composers -- and if the composer herself plays the flute, so much the better. This music is from a four-movement suite for flute and guitar, entitled “Canyon Echoes,” written by the American composer and flutist Katherine Hoover. This music was premiered on today’s date in 1991 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by flutist Susan Morris De Jong and guitarist Jeffrey Van. Katherine Hoover gave her “Canyon Echoes” a subtitle: “An Apache Folktale.” “This piece,” explained Hoover, “was inspired by a book called The Flute Player, a simple and beautifully illustrated retelling of an Apache folktale by Michael Lacapa. It is the story of two young Apaches from different areas of a large canyon. They meet at a Hoop Dance, and dance only with each other. The next day, as the girl works up on the side of the canyon in her father's fields, the boy sits below by a stream and plays his flute for her (flute-playing was a common manner of courtship). She puts a leaf in the stream which flows down to him, so he knows she hears.” Like most legendary love stories, this Apache legend ends sadly, with the young lovers first separated, then rejoined, by death. A melancholy tale, perhaps, but one admirably suited to the introverted, dreamy tones of flute and guitar.

The Philadelphia Sound

Nov 16, 2018 00:01:59


In the year 1900, a German-born conductor named Fritz Scheel conducted two orchestral programs in Philadelphia billed as the “Philippines Concerts.” These were benefits, as contemporary ads put it: “for the relief of families of the nation’s heroes killed in the Philippines.” The previous year U.S. troops had fought a guerrilla army in the Philippines and had suffered heavy casualties. These concerts were so successful that residents of Philadelphia decided the impressive ad-hoc symphony formed for the occasion should not disband, but become instead a permanent resident ensemble, similar to the orchestras of New York and Boston. And so, on today’s date in 1900, the first official concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra took place at the Academy of Music, offering a program of Goldmark, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Weber, and Wagner. During the century that followed, the fame of the Philadelphia Orchestra spread worldwide via classic recordings made by two of the orchestra’s famous maestros: Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. Between them, these two gentlemen would give the U.S. and world premier performances of works by the then-modern European composers Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and Bartok, as well as Americans like Varese, Barber, Copland, and Persichetti. In 1940, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, on the occasion of the premiere of his “Symphonic Dances” by the Philadelphians, paid the orchestra this compliment: “Today, when I think of composing, my thoughts turn to you, the greatest orchestra in the world.”

Herschel Looks Up

Nov 15, 2018 00:01:59


Today is the birthday of a quite remarkable 18th century British composer, Sir William Herschel, who was born in Hannover, Germany, on this date in 1738. Herschel’s father was a regimental oboist, and young William himself eventually joined papa’s regimental band… also as an oboist. In his early 20s he settled in England, originally entrusted with improving performing standards of the Durham Militia Band, he soon was teaching music to some of the wealthy British families in that area. As a performing musician, Herschel was active in Newcastle, Leeds, Halifax and Bath, and in time became a prominent figure on the music scene, attracting the attention of the Royal Family. He composed 24 symphonies and a number of concertos, including this one in C Major for oboe and orchestra. In addition to music, however, Herschel had a passion for astronomy, and, beginning in the 1770s, concentrated more and more of his attention on scientific matters. In 1781, he discovered the planet Uranus, a feat that made him famous throughout Europe. Herschel was named “Astronomer Royal” to the British crown and given a pension that enabled him to give up music and devote himself entirely to astronomy. Haydn, during his stay in England, paid Herschel a visit to take a peek through his impressive 40-foot telescope. Herschel was knighted in 1817, and became the first president of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1821. He died the following year, in 1822, at the age of 83.

Waggoner's Second

Nov 14, 2018 00:01:59


In the fall of 1995, the American composer Andrew Waggoner received a commission from the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic of the Czech Republic for a new orchestral work to be premiered the following year. “I had a symphony in my mind for some time,” writes Waggoner, “and decided that this was the chance I needed to see it through.” The resulting work, Waggoner’s Symphony No. 2, opens with a solo for the cello, an elegy, perhaps, for cellist Anna Cholakian, the founding member of the Cassatt Quartet, who had died from cancer while Waggoner was working on the piece. “Quite unexpectedly, and for the first time in my life as a composer, the piece began to draw from everything around it,” writes Waggoner, including some recycled elements from his First Symphony, a String Quartet written for the Cassatt Quartet, and his setting of one of the Holy Sonnets of the 17th century British poet John Donne. Waggoner was born in New Orleans in 1960, and studied music at the Eastman School and Cornell University. In addition to his composition work, he’s worked as an announcer and producer for public radio stations WXXI in Rochester and WNYC in New York. He teaches music in Syracuse, and serves as co-director of a chamber music festival in Maine. His own chamber and orchestral music has been performed by a number of American ensembles, and his Second Symphony was recorded by the Czech orchestra that premiered it on today’s date in 1996.

Disney's "Fantasia"

Nov 13, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1940, Disney's animated film Fantasia opened at New York's Broadway Theater. It proved to be a landmark film on a number of fronts: first, it was a milestone in cultural “cross-over”, in which classical music (in the person of conductor Leopold Stokowski) shook hands (literally and figuratively) with pop culture (in the person of Mickey Mouse). In “Fantasia,” Disney set selections of classical music from Bach to Stravinsky to animated stories created by his studio artists. “Fantasia” was also a milestone in recorded sound. For its initial East and West Coast release, the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded nine special optical tracks, one for each section of the orchestra. These were mixed by Stokowski into a multi-track stereo soundtrack to be played in synchronization with the film on special equipment made by RCA for a multiple-loudspeaker theater installation called "Fantasound.” (Today that would have meant a soft drink sponsor!) Three large speakers were positioned behind the projection screen, and no fewer than 65 smaller speakers were placed around the walls of the theater. The resulting “surround-sound” was stunning by 1940 standards, but cost $85,000 to set up. After the second full installation at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, “Fantasound” was not employed anywhere else. Instead, eight "Fantasia Road Show" versions were assembled, each with 15,000 pounds of equipment but without the full surround-sound setup. These toured American movie theaters until 1941, when, following the outbreak of World War II, Disney diverted his funds, technology, and even Mickey toward the war effort.

Crumb goes Macro

Nov 12, 2018 00:01:59


For the ideal performance of “Makrokosmos II: Twelve fantasy pieces after the Zodiac,” by the American composer George Crumb, one should perhaps be outdoors in a remote clearing under a crystalline canopy of stars. For the record, the premiere performance of Crumb’s suite for amplified piano took place indoors at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on today’s date in 1974, as part of a recital of new American works given by pianist Robert Miller. In his program notes, Miller offered these words about Crumb’s Makrokosmos II: “Each of the 12 pieces is associated with a different sign of the Zodiac, and is written out in a very precise notation, but the music will at times sound quite free and flexible, almost improvisatory. The piano has become an orchestra unto itself. There is an enormously wide range of sound, timbre, touch, dynamics, etc. Amplification, various vocal effects, the imaginative exploitation of the three pedals, effects produced by the fingers in contact with the strings, and the use of external devices -- contribute to this. "One use of quotation by Crumb is beautifully subtle. In the eleventh piece, entitled 'Litany of the Galactic Bells,' the opening music -- a shimmering bell effect which recalls the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov' -- gradually subsides and moves almost imperceptibly into a short excerpt from Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata. The effect is somewhat like the changing colors of a prism.”

Bloch's Quintet

Nov 11, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1923, the League of Composers presented its first chamber concert in New York City. Their stated mission was to present music by living composers whose works represented new trends in music. Actually, the League was founded as a splinter group, seceding from a more radical International Composers Guild founded two years earlier by Edgard Varese. The Guild’s concerts were restricted to previously unheard works, and favored what was then called the ‘ultra-modern’ school, shutting out some less aggressively radical composers in the process. The newly formed League set out to be more inclusive. Their opening concert included a world premiere: a piano quintet by the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, who was then living in America. While not a radical work, Bloch’s quintet was strong stuff for 1923, and even included some quartertone elements. The New York Times was impressed, but not won over: “To the inevitable question, ‘Do you like it?’ it seems almost impossible to answer, but if pressed I should say, no, not for any fault in the work but simply because of its too apparent determination to be emotionally stirring.” The British critic Ernest Newmann, on the other hand, singled out Bloch’s First Quintet for special praise: “No other piece of chamber music produced in any country during that period can be placed in the same class with it.” For his part, Bloch said simply: “I write without any regard to please either the so-called ‘ultra-moderns’ or the so-called ‘old-fashioned.’”

The "historically informed" Mahler

Nov 10, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1910, Gustav Mahler conducted the “First Historical Concert” of the New York Philharmonic, an event billed as “the first of a series arranged in chronological sequence, comprising the most famous composers from the period of Bach to the present day.” Mahler’s program included works of Handel, Rameau, Gretry and Haydn, and opened with his own arrangement of music from Bach’s Orchestral Suites. Now, Bach’s music had been appearing on Philharmonic programs for decades, but some in the audience were shocked to see how Mahler presented it. Rather than conduct in the usual fashion, standing in front of the orchestra with his baton, Mahler led the orchestra from the keyboard of a “Bach-Klavier” (a Steinway piano whose action had been tinkered with to make it sound a little like a harpsichord). That bit of “historically informed performance” style was something brand new and even a little shocking to some back in 1910, although these days it’s common to see someone conduct from the keyboard at concerts of Baroque music. In a letter to a friend back in Europe, Mahler wrote: “I had great fun recently with a Bach concert, for which I worked out the basso continuo conducting and improvising quite in the style of the old masters, playing on a rich-toned spinet specially adopted by Steinway for the purpose. This produced a number of surprises for me – and also for the audience. It was as though a floodlight had been turned on to this long-buried literature.”

Corigliano tunes up

Nov 9, 2018 00:01:59


If you’ve ever attended a live symphony orchestra concert, you’re probably familiar with the routine: before anyone starts playing, before the conductor even steps on stage, the principal oboist sounds an “A” – and the other musicians tune their instruments to that pitch. On today’s date in 1975, a few people in the audience at Carnegie Hall might have been surprised to hear this familiar ritual segue directly into the opening of John Corigliano’s new Oboe Concerto, which was receiving its premiere performance by oboist Burt Lucarelli and the American Symphony orchestra. The first movement of Corigliano’s Concerto is entitled “Tuning Game,” followed by a “Song-Scherzo,” “Aria” and a final “Dance.” This form, says Corigliano, arose “from the different aspects of the oboe, each movement based on a different quality of the instrument. The drama and coloratura qualities of the oboe are emphasized in the ‘Aria’ movement, for example, but the whole Concerto is highly theatrical, virtuoso music for both soloist and orchestra.” Theatrical is right! The final dance movement was inspired by the sound of the “rheita” or Morrocan oboe. According to Corigliano: “I was fascinated by the rheita’s sound, heady and forceful, lacking both pitch and color controls of the Western oboe, but having an infectiously exciting quality. I first heard the instrument in Marrakech in 1966, serenading a cobra.” Hmmm. Given the way some orchestral players feel about conductors, maybe that’s not such a stretch of the imagination for the featured oboist!

Stomping with David Schiff

Nov 8, 2018 00:01:58


OK, here’s a cocktail party question for music mavens: “What do James Brown, the master of funk, and the Soviet symphonic composer Dimitri Shostakovich have in common?” One answer is this piece of music, which premiered on today’s date in 1990 at Alice Tully Hall in New York City at a concert by Marin Alsop’s Concordia orchestra. The piece is entitled “Stomp,” written by the Seattle-based composer David Schiff. For starters, on the score of “Stomp,” Schiff includes a reference to James Brown’s music, instructing the players, “Every instrument is treated like a drum.” Also, during its opening, there’s a staccato rhythm based on Brown’s iconic tune, “I Feel Good.” And the Shostakovich connection? Well, Schiff confesses to modeling “Stomp” on the opening movement of that composer’s Ninth Symphony, right down to a strict imitation of Shostakovich’s repeat of the exposition, in sonata-form style. On the origin and subsequent use of “Stomp,” Schiff says: “Marin Alsop conducted one of my pieces at Tanglewood in 1988 and later asked me for a new orchestral piece for her Concordia orchestra; since then, ‘Stomp’ has since been played by many orchestras including the LA Philharmonic, who took it to high schools to demonstrate that classical music could be really loud.” A reminder that ear plugs are not required to hear ‘Composers Datebook’ online, but ear buds might be nice if you’re at work when you do. Just visit Your Classical.Org to find us.

Stravinsky in C Major

Nov 7, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1940, the Chicago Symphony helped to celebrate their 50th anniversary with the premiere performance of a specially commissioned symphony from the famous Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky himself was on hand to conduct his “Symphony in C” – a work that attracted a great deal of attention at the time. For starters, writing a symphony in the key of C Major seemed a definitely anti-modern gesture at a time when Arnold Schoenberg’s “twelve tone” method of composition was gaining ground with prominent American musicians and critics. “How traditional can you get?” some of these must have thought when they saw the title of Stravinsky’s work. Stravinsky’s new symphony was quickly labeled “neo-classical,” meaning it consciously harked back in form of Haydn or Mozart’s symphonies, albeit clothed, musically speaking, in a much more modern fashion. Now, traditionally the key of C Major was deemed a “happy” or “bright” key, but Stravinsky composed his Symphony during one of the unhappiest periods of his life, when his wife, his mother and one of his daughters had all died in rapid succession. “It is no exaggeration to say that in the following weeks I was able to continue my own life only by my work on the Symphony in C,” wrote Stravinsky. “But I did not seek to overcome my grief by portraying or giving expression to it in music, and you will listen in vain, I think, for traces of this sort of personal emotion.”

Beethoven and Brusa take it slow

Nov 6, 2018 00:01:59


For later Romantic composers like Richard Wagner, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was “the apotheosis of the dance,” and certainly sitting still during the Symphony’s dizzying finale is not always easy… …But for those in the audience at its premiere in 1813, as part of a benefit concert for wounded Bavarian and Austrian soldiers, it was the somber slow movement that proved most attractive. Maybe audiences read more into it that Beethoven intended, given the occasion, but over time, the slow movements of many Romantic symphonies not only got longer, but also became the emotional “heart” of the composition. By the time of Bruckner and Mahler, some of these slow movements alone lasted as long as an entire symphony by earlier composers like Haydn and Mozart. And many composers since then have written slow symphonic movements, which stand alone as complete works in themselves. On today’s date in 1999, this “Adagio” by the Italian composer Elisabetta Brusa received its premiere performance by the Virtuosi of Toronto. Brusa was born in Milan in 1954, and studied music at the Milan Conservatory. “My Adagio,” she writes, “is a freely structured composition in a single movement inspired by well-known masterpieces, such as those by Albinoni, Mahler, and Barber. Independent of a pre-established form, sonata, or suite, it originated as an autonomous composition in the expressive style which have distinguished the numerous Adagios of the past.”

The Minneapolis Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra

Nov 5, 2018 00:01:59


At the dawn of the 20th century Teddy Roosevelt was president and America was in an upbeat, prosperous mood. Cultural affairs were not forgotten, either. To the already established American symphony orchestras in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati and San Francisco, new ensembles would spring up in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Seattle. On today’s date in 1903, it was Minneapolis’ turn. On November 5th that year, a German-born musician named Emil Oberhoffer led the first concert of the newly formed Minneapolis Symphony. In those days it was a 50-piece ensemble, but in the course of the next 100 years, would double in size and change its name to the “Minnesota” Orchestra. As this is the COMPOSERS Datebook, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the Minnesota Orchestra has enjoyed a special relationship with a number of leading American composers. Aaron Copland conducted the orchestra on a memorable and televised Bicentennial Concert in 1976, and the orchestra has given the premiere performances of works by Charles Ives, John Adams, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, among others. Two young American composers, Stephen Paulus and Libby Larsen, served as composers-in-residence with the orchestra in the 1980s, and more recently, Aaron Jay Kernis served as the orchestra’s new music advisor. Another long-time Minnesota resident, Dominick Argento, was appointed the orchestra’s composer emeritus. Argento’s “A Ring of Time” was premiered by the orchestra in 1972 as part of their 70th anniversary celebration.

Schoenberg and Sheng

Nov 4, 2018 00:01:59


Today’s date marks the anniversary of the premiere performance of two musical works written by émigré composers: one Austrian, the other Chinese. On Nov 4, 1948, the Albuquerque Civic Symphony gave the first performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s powerful piece for narrator, chorus and orchestra entitled “A Survivor from Warsaw.” Because of his Jewish heritage, Schoenberg resettled in America in 1933 when the Nazis took over Germany. After the end of World War II, Schoenberg met some survivors of the Nazi pogroms in the Warsaw ghetto. Profoundly moved as they recounted their harrowing experiences, Schoenberg set their recollections to music, utilizing a twelve-tone theme which is revealed only at the end of the work, where it supplies the traditional melody of a Jewish prayer of comfort and hope. On today’s date in 1993, Boulder, Colorado, was the venue for the premiere of this music, the String Quartet No. 3 by the Chinese composer Bright Sheng. “It was inspired by the memory of a Tibetan folk dance which I came across about 25 years ago when I was living in a province on the border between China and Tibet,” recalled Sheng. At that time, Madame Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was in full force, and that explains why a teenage pianist from Shanghai ended up on a remote Chinese frontier. Eventually, Sheng was able to enroll in the Shangai Conservatory, and in 1982 came to New York. “All of my compositions somehow deal with Chinese culture,” explains Sheng, “yet they synthesize Chinese and Western musical forms.”

Rimsky-Korsakov's bee takes flight

Nov 3, 2018 00:01:59


The Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov might be described as an operatic dynamo: not only did he compose fifteen of them himself, but he also had a hand in editing, orchestrating and promoting four important Russian operas written by others: Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and “Khovantschina,” Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” and Dargomïzhsky’s “The Stone Guest.” Of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fifteen operas, however, only his last, “The Golden Cockerel,” is staged with any regularity outside Russia, although instrumental suites and excerpts from several of them have proven immensely popular as concert pieces. The familiar “Flight of the Bumble-Bee” is from a Rimsky-Korsakov opera that premiered in Moscow on today’s date in 1900, and, like most of his operas, is based on Russian fairytales. The opera’s full title is: “The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatïr Prince Guidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Swan-Princess.” If you think the title is a bit long, consider the required cast of performers, which in addition to thirteen main characters calls for Boyars and their wives, courtiers, nursemaids, sentries, troops, boatmen, astrologers, footmen, singers, scribes, servants and maids, dancers of both sexes, 33 knights of the sea with their leader Chernomor, a squirrel, and – oh yes – a bumblebee. You begin to see that staging a Rimsky-Korsakov opera is: a) not something one can do on the cheap, and b) potentially confusing to those not familiar from infancy with the intricacies of Russian fairy tales.

Verdi and Bach on wine

Nov 2, 2018 00:01:59


Today we dip into the “Composers’ Mailbag” for two letters, neither of them dealing with any significant musical matters, but both (coincidentally) with wine. In a note dated November 2, 1894, Giuseppe Verdi writes (in his typically blunt style), “Dear Sig. Melani, I received yesterday the cases of wine. Now what is left is to pay for them. Please send me the bill for what I owe you minus the empty cases and returned bottles. Do it as soon as possible as I am going to the country and want to send you a check before I leave. As always, G. Verdi." The second (and more personable) letter is dated November 2, 1748, and was penned by Johann Sebastian Bach to his cousin, Johann Elias Bach. It reads: “Most Esteemed Cousin, That you and your dear wife are still well I am assured by the agreeable note I received from you yesterday accompanying the excellent little cask of wine you sent, for which much thanks. It is, however, greatly to be regretted that the cask was damaged, either by being shaken in the wagon or in some other way, for when it was opened for the usual customs inspection here, it was almost 2/3 empty, and it is a pity that even the least drop of this noble gift of God should have been spilled. I remain your wholly devoted cousin and most willing servant, J.S. Bach.”

Handel and the Bible

Nov 1, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1738, George Frederick Handel completed one of his first great Biblical oratorios. It was entitled “Israel in Egypt,” and was based on the Book of Exodus. At this point in time, British taste for Handel’s Italian-style operas had waned, and, like the filmmaker Cecile B. DeMille some 200 years later, Handel set out to entice his jaded audience back into the theaters with Biblical epics like “Saul” and “Israel in Egypt,” featuring big casts and lots of special effects. “I hear,” gossiped one young British Lord to his father, “that Mr. Handel has borrowed a pair of the largest kettle-drums from the Tower of London, so to be sure it will be most excessively noisy!” Even so, many in the audience at premiere of “Israel in Egypt” didn’t know quite what make of it. Some thought religious subjects unsuitable outside of a church setting; others found the music, in the words of one contemporary, “too solemn for common ears.” A few, however, were quite enthusiastic. One gentleman wrote a long letter to the London Daily Post, informing readers that the Prince of Wales and his consort attended, and appeared “enchanted” by the new work. Even so, for later performances of “Israel in Egypt,” Handel felt the need to reduce the solemnity by interpolating some totally incongruous snappy English songs and up-tempo Italian arias to keep the audience from drifting off – literally and figuratively speaking.

Schoenberg arrives for Trick or Treat?

Oct 31, 2018 00:01:59


Happy Halloween! Friends—and enemies—of “new music” will perhaps find it amusing that it was on today’s date that Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg arrived in America, when the liner “Ile de France” docked in New York in 1933. Schoenberg arrived in the company of his wife, their 17-month-old daughter Nuria, and a little terrier named “Witz”—which in German, means “Joke.” For the benefit of the American press, Schoenberg explained this was because the dog was “so very comic.” For the benefit of its readers, a 1933 issue of Musical America magazine described Schoenberg as: “the despair of conservatives, the hope of radicals” and “the arch-priest of atonality.” The Nazis had fired Schoenberg from his teaching post at the Prussian Academy of Arts, and he’d come to American to teach at a school in Boston. In 1934, Schoenberg moved to Los Angeles, where he taught Californian junior college students, played tennis with George Gershwin, and continued to compose music which Time magazine described as “so complicated that only he and a couple of other fellows understand what it’s about.” Despite his reputation as a radical, Schoenberg saw himself as a conservative, whose harmonic innovations would help maintain the traditional dominance of German music; and, despite his fame as the inventor of a strict 12-tone “method,” Schoenberg wrote: “As a composer, I must believe in inspiration rather than mechanics.” Even so, 50-plus years after his death in 1951, just seeing the name “Schoenberg” on a concert program is still enough to give some concertgoers a good scare!

Rorem's "Nantucket Songs"

Oct 30, 2018 00:01:59


“From whence cometh song?” asks the opening lines of a poem by the American writer Theodore Roethke… That’s a question American composer Ned Rorem must have asked himself hundreds of times, while providing just as many answers in the form of hundreds of his own original song settings. In addition to all those, Rorem has sizeable body of orchestral, chamber, and choral music to his credit, and a number of very successful literary collections of perceptive reviews and lively personal diaries. About his own music, Rorem tends to be a little reluctant to speak. “Nothing a composer can say about his music is more pointed than the music itself,” he writes. On today’s date in 1979, Rorem himself was at the piano, accompanying soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson in the premiere performance of a song-cycle he called “Nantucket Songs,” a cycle that began with Rorem’s setting of Roethke’s poem. “These songs,” wrote Rorem, “merry or complex or strange though their texts may seem, aim away from the head and toward the diaphragm. They are emotional rather than intellectual, and need not be understood to be enjoyed.” Speaking of personal enjoyment, Rorem adds this footnote about the premiere performance of his “Nantucket Songs,” which was recorded live at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.: “Phyllis Bryn-Julson and I, unbeknownst to each other, BOTH had fevers of 102 degrees.”

James P. Johnson's "signature tune" for 1920s

Oct 29, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1923, the comedy team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles were the star attraction in a new musical they had written called “Runnin’ Wild,” which opened at the Colonial Theater at Broadway and 62nd Street. In their day, Miller and Lyles were the African-American equivalent of Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. The plot of “Runnin’ Wild,” like many Broadway musicals of that day, was flimsy: two Southern con-men on the run head north to St. Paul, Minnesota, but find the natives too strange and the climate too cold, so they return home disguised as famous spiritualists. This “plot” provided an excuse for comic sketches to be sandwiched in between snappy song and dance numbers, the latter invariably involving leggy showgirls. Prior to its opening night, everyone predicted that one of the songs from “Runnin’ Wild” entitled “Old Fashioned Love” would be the show’s big musical hit. As luck would have it, it was a totally different dance number that struck gold for the show’s composer, James P. Johnson.* Johnson called this tune “Charleston,” after the dockside hometown of many recent African-American immigrants to New York City’s west side. Scholars have traced this dance step back to the west side of Africa, however—an Ashanti Ancestor dance, to be exact. But whatever its source, this catchy rhythm made Johnson famous, and rapidly became the signature tune for the “Roaring Twenties,” a decade of flappers, bathtub gin, and all that jazz!

Ince's "Flight Box"

Oct 28, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 2001, this music helped open a new art museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The building was designed by Santiago Calatrava, and its roof looks a little like the wings of a large, graceful bird in flight—at least that’s the impression that composer Kamran Ince got viewing the new structure on several visits to Milwaukee. Kamran Ince was born in Montana in 1960 to American and Turkish parents, and lived in Turkey between 1966 and 1980. Not surprisingly, elements of traditional Turkish music crop up in his original works, including the piece he entitled “Flight Box,” which was premiered by the Present Music at the new museum in Milwaukee. Ince notes that he himself flew between America and Europe some seven times while working on the new piece. “Flight Box” is scored for three saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, percussion, electric bass guitar, keyboards, violin, and cello. The performers are also asked to sing and speak occasionally, intoning words based on the sounds of the Turkish language. Ince says he completed “Flight Box” early in 2001, months before the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Its October premiere, coming just one month after those traumatic events, added some sinister overtones to the work’s title, but Ince insists it was based on his own, far happier memories of flying, or, as he put it, “it’s the diary of a flight that SAFELY reaches its destination.”

Daniel Asia's Fourth

Oct 27, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1993, the American composer Daniel Asia conducted the Phoenix Symphony in the premiere performance of his Symphony No. 4. The work included a slow movement, written as an orchestral elegy for Asia’s friend and composer colleague, Stephen Albert, who had died in a car crash the previous year. But Asia cast his symphony in the traditional four-movements familiar from the symphonies of Haydn and Beethoven. And, as in the symphonies of Haydn and Beethoven, Asia left room for a wide range of emotions—including humor. So, in addition to a slow, elegiac movement, Asia’s Symphony has a second movement Scherzo, with a traditional, but jaunty and very American-sounding trio section. “In this piece,” writes Asia, “I was rediscovering old formal ideas, and perhaps laying bare the primary motivic ideas and their development. The second movement is a true scherzo. There are refractions of Beethoven scherzos, but sometimes a beat is chopped off, creating a skipping effect. Also everything is in threes in the trio-section; the harmony is three-voiced, and the instrumentation is also in threesomes.” For three years, during 1991-1994, the American composer Daniel Asia served as composer-in-residence with the Phoenix Symphony, a residency funded by Meet the Composer. As both composer and conductor, Daniel Asia has been meeting with a number of major American orchestras for coast-to-coast performances of his orchestral works, ranging from his hometown Seattle Symphony to the American Composers Orchestra in New York.

Shostakovich goes for the "Gold"

Oct 26, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1930, “The Age of Gold,” a new ballet by the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich opened at the State Academic Theater in Leningrad. At that time, it was trendy for Soviet Art to extol sporting events, and contrast the wholesome values of the new Soviet society with those of the decadent, bourgeois West. And so, the plot of this new Soviet ballet ran as follows: a Russian soccer team arrives in a Western city to play a match during an industrial exposition, only to find their heroic endeavors thwarted by a hostile hotel staff, a seductive Western opera diva, and, of course, corrupt police and city officials. Dutifully following the Party line, Shostakovich wrote: “Throwing into contrast the two cultures was my main aim. The dances for the Europeans breathe the decadent spirit of depraved eroticism which is characteristic of contemporary bourgeois culture, but I tried to imbue the Soviet dances with the wholesome elements of sport and physical culture.” One of the lasting hits of his ballet score was this sardonic little Polka, which Shostakovich subtitled “Once upon a time in Geneva, or, The Angel of Peace,” a mocking political reference to the Geneva disarmament conference of the 1920s. Despite all this political subtext, Shostakovich seemed to be having a whale of a time, as if he rather enjoyed spending a little time—if only musically—in the decadent West.”

A Strauss tale too good to be true

Oct 25, 2018 00:01:58


The real story behind Richard Strauss’ decision to use a chamber orchestra for his opera “Ariadne on Naxos” is rather complicated and frankly mundane. We prefer a much more “colorful” version, even though it may be as imaginary as the Greek myth of poor Ariadne herself. In any case, here’s how some fanciful Germans claim it all came about when Strauss’s opera was premiered in Stuttgart on today’s date in 1912: Back when a new opera house was being planned for that city, Strauss was asked how large the orchestral pit should be. “Oh, it should hold about 100 players,” he suggested. So, to determine the size required for the new theater’s pit, the architects rather naively asked the local military band to assemble 100 players, have them stand at attention, and measured the amount of space they occupied. Now, as you might expect, soldiers standing at attention take up a lot less space than an equal number of seated string players, not to mention trombonists and timpanists. And so, the resulting space in the new theater could only accommodate a chamber orchestra. And as luck would have it, the Stuttgart Opera was also eager to launch the brand-new opera by Strauss. When he learned what had happened, Strauss had a good laugh, but, being the eminently practical sort he was, simply wrote his new opera for chamber ensemble of about 40 players. Fact or fantasy, that’s how they like to tell it in Stuttgart.

Reich's "Trains" of thought

Oct 24, 2018 00:01:59


On a number of occasions, the American composer Steve Reich has suggested that his intensely personal brand of music-making works best in small-ensemble situations. But on today’s date in 2001, at the urging of conductor David Robertson, the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered a “big-band” string orchestra version of Reich’s “Different Trains.” In its original form, “Different Trains” was scored for a string quartet and tape. As in many of his pieces, Reich based its musical themes on the rhythms and cadences of taped recorded speech patterns and pitches. “The basic idea is that speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments,” says Reich. “The concept of this piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently from 1930 to 1942, accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.” Reich’s musical meditation combined purely instrumental sounds with interviews—clips from his governess, a Pullman porter, and Holocaust survivors—mixed with ambience sounds of American and European trains. In 1988, Reich wrote: “The piece presents both a documentary and a musical reality, and a new musical direction for me.”

Piston's "New England Sketches"

Oct 23, 2018 00:01:59


On today's date in 1959, the Detroit Symphony under the eminent French conductor Paul Paray gave the first performance of some music by the eminent American composer Walter Piston. Piston had studied in Paris with the famous French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger and the great French composer Paul Dukas, so perhaps this was a very astute and stylish paring of composer and conductor. In any case, to help celebrate the 100th Worcester Festival, Paray and the Detroit orchestra were on hand in Massachusetts for the premiere of Piston's "Three New England Sketches," an orchestral suite whose movements were entitled: "Seaside," "Summer Evening," and "Mountains." Piston didn't intend for listeners to take these titles too literally: "The programmatic titles serve in a broad sense to tell the source of the inspirations, reminiscences, even dreams that pervaded the otherwise musical thoughts of one New England composer," he noted. Piston was born in Rockland, Maine, in 1894, taught for many years at Harvard, had a summer vacation home in Vermont, and died in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1976, so he certainly qualified as a bone-fide "New England" composer. "Is the Dust Bowl more American than, say, a corner in the Boston Athenaeum?" he once asked, arguing: "Would not a Vermont village furnish as American a background for a composition as the Great Plains?" Even so, the most striking hallmark of Piston's music remains its quite cosmopolitan style and neo-classical form—the lasting influence, perhaps, of his two famous French teachers.

Handel and Colgrass at the organ

Oct 22, 2018 00:01:59


George Frideric Handel is the composer credited with “inventing” the organ concerto back in the 18th century. Handel was a virtuoso performer on the organ, and, as a special added attraction during the London performances of some of his Biblical oratorios, one of Handel’s concertos would be featured as a kind of intermission feature. This served to showcase the Handel’s skill as an organist—and perhaps to give his singers a chance to catch their breath between sections of the full-length oratorio. Since then, a number of composers have added to the organ concerto repertory started by Handel. On today’s date in 1990, on a CBC radio broadcast from the Calgary Organ Festival Competition, a brand-new organ concerto by the American composer Michael Colgrass had its premiere performance. Colgrass’ concerto was entitled “Snow Walker,” and is cast as an impressionistic musical picture of the Far North and the fortitude, humor, and spirituality of Canada’s native Inuit peoples. The work is dedicated to Farley Mowat, the author of a true-life story of life in the Far North, “Never Cry Wolf,” familiar from a popular Disney movie. Howling wolf cries from a trombone do appear in Colgrass’ score, along with surging winds of a polar landscape and evocations of Inuit throat singing, culminated in a rambunctious dance-finale. It’s all a very far cry from 18th century London, but recognizably in the tradition of Handel’s virtuoso showpieces for a master organist.

A quirky piece by Marga Richter

Oct 21, 2018 00:01:59


Let’s face it. Brevity and wit are not always qualities one associates with new music. But today we offer a sample: this comic overture is less than 5 minutes long, and opens, as you just heard, with a Fellini-esque duet for piccolo and contrabassoon. The overture is entitled “Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark,” and is purportedly a rather burlesque celebration of modern theoretical physics. Its alliterative title evokes those subatomic particles known as “quarks” that, we’re told, make up our universe. And, since this music changes its changes time signature so often, perhaps Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” is thrown in for good measure. Its composer is an American, Marga Richter, who was born on this date in 1926 in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. Richter received her early music training in Minneapolis, and then moved to New York’s Juilliard School for further composition study with two distinguished American composers, Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma. Marga Richter has written over 75 works including an opera and two ballets, as well as two piano concertos and a variety of solo, chamber and symphonic works, including the 1991 overture “Quantum Quirks of a Quick, Quaint Quark.” "Composing,” says Richter,” is my response to a constant desire to transform my perceptions and emotions into music. Everything that touches me, everything beautiful, or mysterious, or painful, or joyful, or unknowable becomes an immediate or eventual source of inspiration. Music is the way I speak to the silence of the universe."

Hanson's "futile efforts"

Oct 20, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1950, the famous oboist Marcel Tabuteau gave the premiere performance of this “Pastorale” for solo oboe, harp, and strings, with his colleagues from the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy conducting. The music was by Howard Hanson, who dedicated the piece to his wife Peggy. Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska in 1896. As a talented teenager, Hanson recalls a German-born musician in New York asking him: “Well, now, Hanson, why do you waste your time at futile efforts in composition when you could became a great concert pianist?” This, said Hanson, from someone who had never heard one note he had written. “In the true German tradition,” Hanson recalled, “he figured that nobody from Nebraska could possibly write good music. It took 40 years to get rid of that kind of thinking in the U.S.,—and we’re not over it yet.” Hanson was in his early 80s when he made those comments, with a 40 year career as a successful composer, conductor and educator behind him. Hanson had just completed his seventh and final symphony, and was commonly referred to as “The Dean of American Music.” Despite all that, Hanson retained his sense of humor, as evidence by this comment from the octogenarian: “Peggy will say to me, ‘What are you going to do now? ’ and I’ll say, ‘I’m going upstairs to waste my time in futile efforts at composition.’”

Chadwick wins a prize

Oct 19, 2018 00:01:59


Every composer who enters a competition hopes to get a letter like this one, which showed up in the Boston mailbox of George Whitefield Chadwick in 1894: “I take pleasure in announcing that your symphony offered for the second annual competition of the National Conservatory of Music has obtained the prize. In view of your desire to produce it without delay, we have decided to waive our right [to the symphony’s first performance].” Signed: Antonin Dvorak, Director. And so it was the Boston Symphony, not the Conservatory’s orchestra or the New York Philharmonic, who gave the premiere performance of Chadwick’s prize-winning Symphony No. 3 on today’s date in 1894. Chadwick dedicated his symphony to Theodore Thomas, the preeminent American conductor and new music advocate of his day. In a letter to Thomas, Chadwick commented: “My symphony was very well received here, and condemned by some of the newspaper men as a ‘dry and uninspired work’—by which you may guess that it had some features which were not altogether trivial!” In the decades that followed his death in 1931, Chadwick’s unashamedly Romantic scores fell out of favor and were rarely heard. Some dismissed these as pale imitations of Brahms and Wagner, forgetting that same criticism could have been applied as well to many prominent European composers in the 1890s. In the context of an American musical scene dominated by German music and musicians, Chadwick himself would probably have taken such comparisons as a compliment.

Saeverud's "Minnesota Symphony"

Oct 18, 2018 00:01:59


In 1958, the state of Minnesota was celebrating its centennial, and decided to commission a symphony in honor of the occasion. Now, thanks to Garrison Keillor, just about everyone these days knows there are a lot of Norwegians in Minnesota, but even back in 1958, that was still fairly obvious, and so it seemed a good idea to ask a Norwegian composer to write a “Minnesota Symphony.” And who better than Harald Saeverud, one of the most distinguished composers of that day, and a composer who had just been granted Norwegian knighthood in the order of Saint Olaf, first-class. Nor was Saeverud new to the symphony-writing game. His “Minnesota Symphony” was his Symphony No. 8. Its premiere performance occurred at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis on today’s date in 1958, with the Minneapolis Symphony led by Antal Dorati. The capacity audience of 4000 gave Saeverud and his symphony a warm welcome. For his part, Saeverud was equally gracious, and suggested his “Minnesota Symphony” was meant to be not only an occasional piece, celebrating the settlement and growth of a Midwestern American state, but music intended to have more universal significance: “My whole life has been a preparation for writing this work,” he stated. “With the map of Minnesota above my desk and with all my thoughts and feelings concentrated on Minnesota’s history, I dived into the work, which proved increasingly fascinating as I became aware that it was simultaneously growing into a history of mankind.”

Copland's "Letter from Home"

Oct 17, 2018 00:01:59


By the mid-1940s, the famous American bandleader Paul Whiteman was not as popular as he once was during the 20s and 30s. Even so, his name and orchestra were still a draw, and Whiteman was ever hopeful of introducing new pieces that might prove as popular as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” both commissioned by Whiteman in those earlier decades. In 1944, Whiteman commissioned a number of short chamber orchestra works, or “symphonettes” as he dubbed them, for his new radio show called “Music out of the Blue.” The show aired at midnight. “So if the pieces are too bad,” explained Whiteman to his radio bosses, “few people will know it.” And so it was on today’s date in 1944 that one of these new pieces, commissioned from Aaron Copland, had its radio premiere. Its title was “A Letter from Home.” In the context of an America still at war in Europe, this title had a special resonance for those with loved ones serving abroad. Copland himself had a brother in the army, and wrote the work while living in Mexico, where he, too, received letters from home from his sister, Laurine. It was from her letters that Copland learned his mother had died and that his father’s senility was getting worse. As a recent Copland biographer puts it, “One cannot help but suppose that some of his feelings about her death and other family matters made their way into this score.”

Kodaly's obscure and popular opera

Oct 16, 2018 00:01:59


There are some operas which are rarely—if ever—staged, but whose music becomes famous—even wildly popular—in the concert hall. Everyone has heard the overture to Rossini’s “William Tell,” for example, but only a few fortunate (or very determined) opera fans ever get to see the whole opera staged. Zoltán Kodály’s opera “Háry János” falls into this strange class of works both popular and obscure. This comic opera debuted at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest on today’s date in 1926, and recounts the adventures of an old veteran named “Háry János.” In the village tavern, Háry boasts of his heroic military exploits: how he singlehandedly won a battle against the Emperor Napoleon, for example. Why, the Emperor’s Wife even fell in love with him, and he could have ran off with her if he’d wanted, but he chose to remained true to his Hungarian sweetheart back home. You get the idea… Kodály’s opera was a tremendous hit in Budapest, but was not taken up elsewhere. Perhaps some of the humor was lost in translation, and even today, performances outside of Hungary are quite rare. But a concert suite of excerpts from Kodály’s brilliant score depicting Háry János’s imaginary adventures was taken up eagerly by orchestras worldwide. Kodály’s “Háry János” Suite quickly became a popular showpieces for virtuoso orchestras, with performances and audiences alike enthusiastic over its unbeatable combination of great tunes, colorful orchestration, and smile-inducing wit.

Nancarrow's Quartet No. 3

Oct 15, 2018 00:01:59


The expatriate American composer Conlon Nancarrow is famous for writing pieces for player pianos. Nancarrow apparently came to the conclusion that the rhythmically complex, intricate contrapuntal music he wanted to write would prove just too difficult for mere mortals to tackle. Despite its complexity, Nancarrow’s music drew some of its deep and lasting influences from the human, all-too-human jazz stylings of Art Tatum and Earl Hines, and the complex rhythmic patterns of music from India.Nancarrow was born in 1912 in Texarkana, Arkansas. At the age of 18, he heard Igro Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which sparked his life-long interest in rhythmic complexity. Soon after, Nancarrow began private music studies with American composers Roger Sessions and Walter Piston. Like many idealistic Americans in the 1930s, Nancarrow joined the Communist Party, volunteered for the Lincoln Brigade, and fought in the Spanish Civil War. He moved to Mexico City in 1940, where he lived and worked until his death. Nancarrow composed in almost total isolation until the late 1970s, when some of his piano roll compositions started appearing on record. These created quite an impact, and the MacArthur Foundation awarded him its prestigious ‘genius’ award of $300,000. Late fame even brought a series of commissions for live performance and performers willing to take on the challenge of performing his difficult music. One of these pieces, Nancarrow’s String Quartet No. 3, was premiered on today’s date in 1987 by the Arditti Quartet. Nancarrow died in Mexico in 1997.

An all-star Gershwin premiere

Oct 14, 2018 00:01:59


Imagine the cocktail party bragging rights you’d have if you had attended the first night of “Girl Crazy,” a new musical that opened in New York on today’s date in 1930. That show marked the Broadway debut of Ethel Merman, and co-stared Ginger Rogers. But that’s just for starters… “Why,” you could say, “in the pit orchestra that night was the Red Nichols ensemble, which included among its players Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, and Jack Teagarden—gentlemen who would all go on to become famous band leaders in their own right.” “And,” you might continue, “Speaking of band leaders, for the opening night of ‘Girl Crazy,’ the show’s composer, George Gershwin himself, was there in the pit conducting that all-star ensemble.” For his part, Gershwin recalled: “The theater was so warm that I must have lost three pounds perspiring. But the opening was so well received that FIVE pounds would not have been too much. With the exception of the some dead head friends of mine, especially the critics, I think the notices, especially of the music, were the best I have ever received.” Gershwin was right: “Girl Crazy” included two songs that quickly became classics: “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You.” The show ran for 272 performances—an impressive statistic in the first year of the Great Depression, and Hollywood produced not one but TWO cinematic versions of the show in 1932 and 1943.

Diamond's Second

Oct 13, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1944, a 29-year-old American composer named David Diamond had his Second Symphony premiered by the Boston Symphony under the famous Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Diamond says he had actually written this music for the charismatic Greek maestro Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was then music director of the Minneapolis Symphony. “Mitropoulos had given a fine performance of my First Symphony,” said Diamond. “When I showed him the score of the Second he said, ‘you must have the parts extracted at once!’ As these were readied, I asked him whether he was planning to perform the work. He then told me he thought he would not stay on in Minneapolis, but he said, ‘Why don’t you send it to Koussevitzky?’ I did so, and Koussevitzky sent me a telegram that there would be a trial reading of my work at Symphony Hall. When it was over, the orchestra applauded like crazy. Koussevitzky turned to me and said, ‘I vill play!’” Successful as the Diamond premiere was back in 1944, for many decades thereafter his neo-Romantic symphonies were rather neglected. In 1989, conductor Gerard Schwartz sparked a revival of interest with this Seattle Symphony recording of the Diamond Second. By then, Diamond was in his 70s, and commented: “It is my strong feeling that a romantically inspired contemporary music, tempered by reinvigorated classical technical formulas, is the way out of the present period of creative chaos in music... the romantic spirit in music is important because it is timeless.”

Martinu's Third

Oct 12, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1945, the Third Symphony of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu had its premiere performance at Symphony Hall in Boston. The new symphony’s dedication read: “To Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony,” and the new score was presented on the occasion of Koussevitzky’s 20th anniversary as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Martinu had finished the first two movements of his symphony that summer, as the Second World War was rushing to a close. Martinu later claimed he had Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” very much on his mind in those days. He said he was convinced that there was somehow an ethical force at work in the creation of a symphonic work, and, as in Beethoven’s “Eroica,” it was possible to express in music a sense of moral forces at work. As an exile from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and France, Martinu had come to the United States in 1941, and his mood is understandable in the anxious yet hopeful spring and summer of 1945. After liberation of Czechoslovakia, Martinu returned to his homeland and was offered a teaching post in Prague. Martinu, unhappy with Czechoslovakia’s new Communist rulers, declined the offer, and returned to the America, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1952. Even so, Martinu returned to Europe in 1953 and settled in Switzerland. He died there in 1957, but eventually his remains were returned to his family mausoleum in Czechoslovakia, and in 1990, the Centenary of his Birth was celebrated in that country as a major cultural event.

Vivaldi and Messiaen for the birds

Oct 11, 2018 00:01:59


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then composers must really have a thing about birds. For centuries, composers have imitated bird song in their music: Vivaldi’s “Goldfinch” concerto for flute is one of the best-known examples from the18th century, and there are hundreds of other examples throughout music history. On today’s date in 1953, at the Donaueschingen Music Festival in Germany, one of the most famous 20th century examples of “music for the birds” had its premiere performance. This was a piece by the French composer Olivier Messiaen for piano and orchestra, entitled “Le Réveil des Oiseaux,” or “The Awakening of the Birds.” The musical themes for this work were all based on Messiaen’s precise notation of the songs of 38 different French birds. The piece’s structure progresses from midnight to midday, with the birds’ actual “awakening” occurring precisely at 4 a.m. at the first light of a spring day. Messiaen’s interest in bird songs and nature was rooted in his deep religious faith. As he put it: "My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none."

Mr. Dukelsky and Mr. Duke

Oct 10, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1903, a baby boy was born in the Russian railroad station of Parfianovka. The proud parents of little Vladimir Dukelsky were both musical, and so lulled the little boy to sleep with Italian opera arias—presumably the slow ones! Not surprisingly, little Vladimir eventually studied music at the Conservatory in Kiev. After Russian Revolution, the budding composer ended up playing the piano at movie theaters and cabarets in Constantinople. It was there that he first heard the music of George Gershwin. In 1921, Dukelsky came to the United States and thereafter pursued a remarkable dual career: as Vladimir Dukelsky, he composed concert music for the likes of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Boston Symphony; as “Vernon Duke,” following Gershwin’s example, he composed popular songs for Broadway and Hollywood. Some of his songs, like “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York,” have become classics in their own right. “There isn’t a note of jazz in my serious music, and there are no symphonic overtones in my musical-comedy output,” said Duke. “My versatility, far from being a boon, has in reality been infuriating to most musical people. The critical boys seem to think there is something monstrous about a composer writing two different kinds of music under two different names.” When Duke died in Santa Monica in 1969, he was far better known for his popular compositions, but decades after his death, there seems to be a revived interest in the concerts works of Dukelsky as well.

Bolcom's "View" on choral matters

Oct 9, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1999, the Lyric Opera of Chicago premiered a new opera by the American composer William Bolcom, based on “A View from the Bridge,” a powerful and very famous play by Arthur Miller. Now, not all stage plays “translate” well into opera, as Bolcom was well aware: “In theater, you have the text and then below it you have the subtext,” said Bolcom. “In opera it is pretty much the opposite, the subtext is what you are really dealing with first and foremost: big, raw emotions, which are supported by the text. Not all of Arthur Miller's plays would make strong opera; but A View From the Bridge has a strong story that you can tell on one page." In fact, Miller’s play, although set in Brooklyn in the 1950s, has often been likened to a Greek tragedy, a theatrical form in which the chorus plays an important role. Bolcom saw that as a real opportunity: "If you are going to do an opera from a play, it better have a dimension that the play doesn't. In a play, you can't have your chorus speak at all because—practically speaking—it is financially prohibitive: as soon as the chorus opens up its mouth the price goes up because of actors’ equity. So, naturally one of the great resources of opera houses is an opera chorus, a resource you CAN use much more easily."

Stravinsky's "Ode"

Oct 8, 2018 00:01:59


The Russian Revolution of 1917 wiped out many family fortunes, and many penniless, Russian émigrés who fled the Bolsheviks had to start from scratch in exile. Natalie Koussevitzky, however, was not one of them. Her family fortune was fairly diversified, which meant that even the loss of her large Russian holdings left her with considerable wealth elsewhere in Europe. And since Natalie was married to the Russian émigré music publisher, conductor, and new music impresario Serge Koussevitzky, that meant a number of famous 20th century composers benefited as well. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, culturally speaking, without Natalie’s fortune, the history of 20th century music would have been noticeably poorer. When Natalie died, Serge Koussevitzky established a Music Foundation in her honor. One of the Foundation’s memorial commissions was premiered on today’s date in 1943 by the Boston Symphony, led by Serge Koussevitzky. This was a three-part symphonic “Ode” written by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and dedicated to Natalie’s memory. The second movement of Stravinsky’s “Ode”, sandwiched in between its two somber outer movements, was actually a bit of recycled film music. Stravinsky originally intended it for a hunting scene in the Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles cinematic version of the English novel “Jane Eyre.” As plans for that film progressed, however, the more experienced film composer Bernard Herrmann, who had worked by Orson Welles on a number or previous films and radio plays, replaced Stravinsky.

The buzz about Part

Oct 7, 2018 00:01:59


From 1976 to 1984, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt kept revising and adjusting a chamber piece he had composed, a piece he had titled: “If Bach had kept bees…” On today’s date in 1983 one version of this piece—for harpsichord, electric bass guitar, tape and small chamber ensemble—received its premiere performance at a new music festival in Graz, Austria. Pärt’s chamber work opens like a minimalist piece, with repeated notes perhaps imitating the buzzing of the bees mentioned in the title. What Part meant by “If Bach had kept bees…” is open to various interpretations, but technically speaking, the piece is a slow transformation of an instrumental humming in the key of B-flat into a Bach-like cadence in the key of B-minor. Was Pärt thinking of Bach’s famous B-minor Mass? Was the mystic and deeply religious-minded Estonian composer suggesting that bees somehow symbolized a harmonious community of God’s creatures? Or was the title, in English at least, a pun on the shifting key of “BEE-flat” to “BEE-minor?” In any case, this piece was one of several Pärt wrote around that time, all influenced in one way or another by the music of J.S. Bach. These Bach-collages, as Pärt called them, were “an attempt to replant a flower in alien surroundings, the problem of the suitability of tissue. If they grow together into one, then the transplantation was the right move.”

Hovhaness reaches No. 65

Oct 6, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1991, the American Composers Orchestra gave a concert at Carnegie Hall, intended as an 80th birthday celebration of the Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness. Hovhaness himself was on hand, and conducted the world premiere performance of his Symphony No. 65. By the time of this death in the year 2000, Hovhaness had composed 67 symphonies, and certainly ranks as one of the most prolific composers of orchestral music in the 20th century. “I write too much, far too much,” he once wrote to a friend. “This is my insanity.” Even so, performers and audiences seemed to respond to the emotional forthrightness of his music. "I become more and more simple,” Hovhaness explained. “I hate every dishonest note I may have written." Hovhaness rejected the mid-20th century trends towards complexity and atonality, and instead turned to archaic and Eastern musical models. Many of his works were inspired by Armenian themes, real or imagined. In reviewing the premiere of his Symphony No. 65, the New York Times critic wrote: “Mr. Hovhaness seems to have used liturgical roots to create his own imaginary Armenia, a music that may exist only in one American’s imagination. Ernest Bloch, a Swiss who spent years in the United States, invented an Israeli style in much the same way.” This music is from the most famous of all Hovhaness symphonies, his Symphony No. 2, subtitled “Mysterious Mountain,” music premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Houston Symphony in October of 1955.

The New York Philharmonic on the air

Oct 5, 2018 00:01:59


If, on today’s date in the year 1930, you happened to be flipping through the pages of the New York Times, you would have seen several ads for radios, including one that argued that purchasing a radio was a good investment. Just one year after the infamous 1929 stock market crash, New Yorkers might have been a little leery of investing in anything, and disposable income for most Americans was severely limited during the Great Depression that followed. Still, that same October 5th edition of the Times announced that the New York Philharmonic would commence live nation-wide broadcasts of its Sunday afternoon concerts that very day. Music by Weber, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky would be featured, with the visiting German conducting Erich Kleiber leading the orchestra. And that wasn’t all: the rest of the Philharmonic’s 1930-31 season, led by the orchestra’s new music director, Arturo Toscanini, would also be broadcast live on subsequent Sunday afternoons. For music lovers, that radio purchase started to look like a pretty good investment after all. And so, thanks to the Philharmonic broadcasts, in addition to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, radio audiences coast-to-coast were introduced as well to some of the new works of young American composers like Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. In recent years, archive recordings of many of those famous New York Philharmonic broadcasts have even been released as compact disc sets sold to benefit the Philharmonic’s current activities and programs.

Korngold makes a Snowman

Oct 4, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1910, a young Austrian composer had his first major work staged as a ballet-pantomime at the Vienna Court Opera. It was quite a prestigious affair, all in all, with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit and none other than Franz Josef, the Austrian Emperor, in the audience. All that was enough to go to any young composer’s head—and the composer in question, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was very young indeed. He was just 13 when his ballet-pantomime entitled “The Snowman” premiered in Vienna. Actually, he had written the piano version of “The Snowman” back in 1908, when he was all of 11. Korngold’s teacher, the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, orchestrated the piece for the Vienna Court Opera performance, but it wasn’t very long before little Erich was preparing his own orchestrations, thank you very much. By his 20s, Korngold was a celebrated through Europe as composer of operas and concert hall works. Korngold settled in Hollywood in the 1930s, as his Jewish heritage made a career in Nazi Europe impossible. His film scores for classic Errol Flynn adventure movies—“SVASH-booo-klers” as Korngold called them in his thick Viennese accent—made him famous in America. During the final decade of his life, Korngold again devoted his attention to concert works, such as this Violin Concerto from 1947, composed for Jascha Heifetz, which recycled some his movie themes into a popular showpiece for a virtuoso performer. Korngold died in Hollywood in 1957.

Copland's "Duo"

Oct 3, 2018 00:01:59


One of the last chamber works of the American composer Aaron Copland received its first performance on today’s date in 1971. This took place in Philadelphia as a benefit for that city’s Settlement Music School, with Copland himself present for the premiere of his “Duo” for flute and piano. The work was commissioned by friends and students of the late William Kincaid, for many years the principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. By 1971, thorny, complex, and atonal music was the fashion in both Europe and America. Copland, for his part, had composed some challenging orchestral works along these lines as well. His “Duo,” however was unashamedly lyrical. As Copland put it: “What can you do with a flute in an extended form that would not emphasize its songful nature? Lyricism seems to be built into the flute. Some expressed surprise at the tonal nature of my Duo, considering that my recent works had been in a more severe idiom; however, the style was naturally influenced by the fact that I was composing for Kincaid’s students, not for future generations (although I hoped younger flutists would play my Duo eventually).” Copland needn’t have worried. As music critic Michael Steinberg put it, reviewing its first performance in Boston: “Copland’s Duo is a lightweight work of a masterful craftsman. It is going to give pleasure to flutists and their audiences for a long time.”

Laurel and Hardy and Shield

Oct 2, 2018 00:01:59


Today we celebrate the birthday of an American composer whose name might not ring a bell, but whose music you might instantly recognize—and with a smile. Leroy Shield’s name rarely appeared on the credits for the classic “Our Gang” and “Laurel & Hardy” comedies from the 1930s, but his music was used in most of them. Leroy Shield was born in Waseca, Minnesota, on today’s date in 1893. At five he was already an accomplished pianist and organist, and by 15 a professional arranger, composer, and concert pianist. After completing musical studies in Chicago, he accompanied opera singer Eva Gauthier on American concert tours and pioneered works by then-modernist composers like Ravel, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In 1923, he joined the staff of the Victor Talking Machine Company, supervising their East Coast recording sessions. Then in 1930, he was appointed as Victor’s "Musical Director in charge of Hollywood, California, Activities," and it was in this capacity that he wrote and oversaw the recording of music for the famous comedies produced by the Hal Roach Studios. In 1945, he moved back to New York and became the orchestral contractor for the NBC radio network. He worked closely with conductor Arturo Toscanini, and even traveled with the famous Italian conductor when Toscanini’s NBC Symphony made its cross-country tour in 1950. Leroy Shield retired in 1955, moved to Florida, and died in Fort Lauderdale in 1962.

Curtis celebrates with a Higdon commission

Oct 1, 2018 00:01:59


One of the finest music schools in the world opened its doors in Philadelphia on today’s date in 1924. The Curtis Institute of Music was founded with a $12 million dollar grant from Mary Louise Curtis Bok. For many decades that initial grant provided full scholarships for all Curtis students. According to Mrs. Bok, “The aim is for quality of work rather than quick, showy results." From the start, Mrs. Bok assembled a stellar faculty for the new school, including the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who predicted that Curtis "will become the most important musical institution of our country, perhaps of the world." Distinguished Curtis alumni have included performers like Peter Serkin, Richard Goode, and Hilary Hahn. And here’s an impressive statistic: today Curtis alumni occupy nearly 25% of the principal desk positions in the top five American symphony orchestras. Curtis also graduated many famous composers as well, including Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Ned Rorem. To help celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1999, the Curtis Institute commissioned a new orchestral work from the American composer Jennifer Higdon, who had joined the school’s faculty. Her “Blue Cathedral” was premiered by the Curtis Symphony in the spring of 2000. Higdon says her music is like “a story that commemorates living and passing through places of knowledge and of sharing—and of that song called life.” That description seems to fit the Curtis Institute as well.

Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers"

Sep 30, 2018 00:01:59


In operatic history, one of the great examples of the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” is the career of the French composer Georges Bizet. Bizet died at the age of 36 in 1875, the same year his opera “Carmen” premiered. Now, “Carmen” eventually proved a lasting success and now ranks as one of the great masterworks of French opera—but poor Monsieur Bizet wasn’t around to experience any of that. Moreover, “Carmen” was preceded by Bizet’s no less than 30 attempts writing a hit opera. Most of these never made it to the stage, and the few that did achieved only a modest success. The most famous of the “pre-Carmen” operas Bizet penned premiered on today’s date in 1863. It was a Romantic tale set in exotic Ceylon, entitled “Les pêcheurs de perles,” or “The Pearl Fishers.” This was a commission from the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, and a prestigious opportunity for the 20-something composer to showcase his talents. “The Pearl Fishers” ran for 18 performances in 1863, and, although applauded by its initial audiences, was roundly panned by the press. Only one music critic saw any merit in Bizet’s music, and that critic just happened to be the great French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz. Even so, Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” wasn’t revived until long after Bizet’s death, and some 30 years after its premiere. Today, after “Carmen” of course, it’s Bizet’s SECOND most popular opera.

Torke's "Overnight Mail"

Sep 29, 2018 00:01:59


Yes, Juliet, a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a catchy title alone can’t help a piece of music that’s uninspired or just plain boring. An intriguing title, however can sometimes help put audiences into a more receptive frame of mind—or at least pique their curiosity. From the very beginning of his career in the 1980s, the young American composer Michael Torke had the knack of coming up with quite evocative titles. His early works had titles like “Ecstatic Orange” and “Bright Blue Music.” A piece composed for the 1994 Olympic Games in Atlanta was titled “Javelin,” and this music, an orchestral suite that premiered in Amsterdam on today’s date in 1997, was titled “Overnight Mail.” And each of the three movements of his orchestral suite had an additional title, as Torke explains: “The titles of the suite’s three movements, ‘Priority,’ ‘Standard,’ and ‘Saturday Delivery,’ present the options for expediency when sending things, but musically, they represent different reactions to an abstract compositional problem I set up for myself: resolve dissonant notes (non chord tones) by leaps rather than steps. For me this was important, because I want to write music that follows all the old rules of voice leading and counterpoint, but sounds fresh.”

Vivian Fine

Sep 28, 2018 00:01:59


Today we celebrate the birthday of American composer Vivian Fine, who was born in Chicago on this date in 1913. Already, at the age of five, she was a scholarship piano student at the Chicago Musical College. As she grew up she became enthralled with the great composers and performers she heard at her regular visits to the Chicago Symphony. Vivian Fine initially intended to be a concert pianist, but theory studies with American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger inclined her more and more towards composition. She also became an avid follower of the emerging “Ultra-Modern” school of composers, including Henry Cowell, who later proved to be one of her early mentors. Fine’s debut as a composer came in Chicago when she was 16, and at 17 she went to New York City, where she studied composition with Roger Sessions, and orchestration with George Szell. Fine wrote this “Concertante for Piano and Orchestra” in 1944, initially without any specific commission or likelihood of performance. When her teacher Roger Sessions saw her sketches for this music, he commented: “Now we are colleagues.” For his part, George Szell, a musician notoriously hard to please, complimented her on its orchestration. Teaching also became an important part of Fine's professional life, first at New York University and Juilliard, and ultimately at Bennington College. Vivian Fine died in March of 2000, at the age of 86, following a traffic accident in Vermont.

Gerald Finzi

Sep 27, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1956, the English composer Gerald Finzi died in Oxford. He was just 55 years old. Finzi suffered from Hodgkin’s disease, and three weeks before his death had caught chickenpox from some children he had visited, and the infection proved fatal. Finzi was born into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family. His mother was musical, and an amateur composer. Even with talent, wealth, support from the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Bernard Herrmann, and several golden opportunities for career advancement, Finzi proved to be a rather diffident soul who seemed to prefer to work in seclusion and relative obscurity. He collected rare books and scores by 18th century English composers, but is most famous for his settings of poems by Thomas Hardy, a contemporary of his parent’s generation. Himself an agnostic, Finzi produced a small body of sacred choral works, and two instrumental pieces that have endeared him to clarinetists: a set of clarinet “Bagatelles” from 1943 and his Clarinet Concerto from 1949. Although never completely forgotten, a serious revival of interest in Finzi’s music had to wait for several decades after his death. The British critic Norman Lebrecht offers this assessment of Finzi’s appeal: “a confluence of Elgar without bluffness and Vaughan Williams at his most delicate. His concerto for clarinet and strings is a light and lovely lament for lost times.”

Wuorinen's "Genesis"

Sep 26, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1991, Herbert Blomstedt led the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in the premiere of a cantata entitled “Genesis,” by the American composer Charles Wuorinen. This cantata was the culminating work of Wuorinen’s four-year association with the San Francisco Symphony as its composer-in-residence. The most famous setting of the Biblical Genesis story is Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation” from 1798. But early on, Wuorinen decided his cantata would be a non-narrative, non-programmatic treatment of the subject, incorporating both a Latin version of the Genesis text and musical themes from Gregorian chant masses on the subject of the creation. As the critic Michael Steinberg has noted, Wuorinen’s music fuses the physicality and punch of Stravinsky with Schoenberg’s struc¬tural principles. The resulting style, which some have dubbed “maximalist” is complex and demanding—just as its composer intended. Wuorinen writes, “In any medium, entertainment is that which we can receive and enjoy passively, without effort, without our putting anything into the experience. Art is that which requires some initial effort from the receiver, after which the experience received may indeed be entertaining, but also transcending as well. Art is like nuclear fusion: you have to put something into it to get it started, but you get more out of it in the end than what you put in. Entertainment is its own reward, and generally doesn’t last.”

Hindemith's "Kammermusik" No. 4

Sep 25, 2018 00:01:59


In the 1920s, the German composer Paul Hindemith wrote a set of seven concertos, which he collectively titled: “Kammermusik” or “Chamber Music.” This generic title was part of Hindemith’s goal to foster a more “objective” musical style, modeled on 18th century composers like J.S. Bach. Some have even called Hindemith’s “Kammermusik” the 20th century equivalent of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos.” Hindemith’s “Kammermusik” No. 4, a work for solo violin and chamber orchestra, had its first performance in Dessau on today’s date in 1925. The soloist was Licco Amar, the first violinist of the Amar String Quartet, an ensemble in which Hindemith played viola. Hindemith’s father had been killed in the First World War, and Hindemith himself had been called up, but avoided being sent to the front by forming a string quartet that played nightly to ease the nerves of his commanding officer. Despite being one of the leading “Aryan” composers of his day, Hindemith fell out of favor with the Nazi regime and eventually immigrated to America, where he became a very influential teacher. To address the role of music in society, Hindemith suggested composers should revive the idea of domestic music-making by writing “Gebrauchsmusik,” or “utility music” that amateur musicians could play at home with family and friends. “People who make music together cannot be enemies,” he observed, “at least while the music lasts.”

Eisler before the House

Sep 24, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1947, the German composer Hans Eisler, who had been living in the United States since 1938, was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This was some years before Joseph McCarthy headed such investigations, but one member of the committee was a first-term Californian congressman by the name of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon and other committee members were eager to expose Communist agents, who they believed were undermining American values by infiltrating and influencing the film industry. Hans Eisler, who had been working in Hollywood since 1942, was a prime suspect. After all, his brother Gerhard was an ardent Communist, and Hanns himself a close artistic collaborator of the Marxist poet, Bertolt Brecht. As one newspaper reported, Hans Eisler was “the commissar of the West Coast Party activities on the movie front.” While Hans Eilser did have leftist sympathies, there was absolutely no evidence of his being a Soviet agent, and as a film music composer, Eisler had no ideological influence on the scripts or even the topics of the films on which he worked. Celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Mann, Igor Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland all rallied to his defense, but to no avail. The mood of the country in the early days of the Red Scare was such that Eisler was banned from working his Hollywood, and eventually forced out of the country. Like his old friend Bertold Brecht, Eisler eventually settled in Communist East Germany, where he died in 1962.

Vincenzo Bellini

Sep 23, 2018 00:01:59


It was on today’s date in 1835, that the great Romantic opera composer Vincenzo Bellini died at a country home near Paris. He was only 34 years old, but had achieved great fame in his brief lifetime. The long, elegant melodic lines Bellini spun out in his greatest operas were imitated by many composers, and proved to be a major influence on the solo piano works of his contemporary, Frederic Chopin. Bellini’s first successful opera was “Il Pirata” or “The Pirate” from 1827, and just three years later, he could truthfully report, “My style is now heard in the most important theatres in the world… and with the greatest enthusiasm.” He settled in Paris, where he was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. It was there that his final opera, “I Puritani di Scozia” or “The Puritans of Scotland,” premiered early in 1835. If Bellini’s real life had followed the Romantic story-lines of his operas, he would have been a dispossessed outcast who dies for love. In fact, Bellini was financially successful and moved in the highest social circles. Rather than die for love, it seems he was planning to marry for money at the time he fell ill, a victim of chronic gastro-enteritis. At his requiem mass, four of the leading composers of his day, Paer, Cherubini, Carafa and Rossini, each held a corner of the coffin shroud. He was buried in Paris, but in 1876 his remains were moved to the cathedral of Catania, the Italian town where he was born.

Leonardo Balada

Sep 22, 2018 00:01:59


Today we celebrate the birthday of Leonardo Balada, an American composer born in Barcelona, Spain, on Sept. 22nd, 1933. After studying at the Barcelona conservatory, the 20-something composer came to New York on a musical scholarship. Balada recalls his arrival as both a cultural and climatic shock: “When I landed in New York—on a freezing day in 1956—little did I know of the mental turmoil I would experience in the next few years. That city had become the focal point for the latest music and arts. New York shook my musically conservative upbringing to its roots.” Like many composers of his generation, Balada felt he had to decide whether to follow the path of the abstract serialists who dominated music at that time, or find his own way and voice. “I felt a strong necessity to become up to date aesthetically,” recalls Balada, “to look to the future and not be criticized as a reactionary. How could it be otherwise for a liberal young fellow brought up in Spain, opposed to Franco’s conservatism? On the other hand the music I was listening to in New York was not for me.” Encouraged by the great Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes, Balada began to draw on his own imagination and cultural heritage, eventually blending contemporary techniques with the elements of a more traditional language, often infused with Spanish themes.

Harpsichord under Glass?

Sep 21, 2018 00:01:59


“Are people still writing concertos for harpsichord?” you ask. Well, even if it’s not the most pressing question that has sprung into your mind today, we do have an answer, which is “Yes!” On today’s date in 2002, for example, this new Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra by Philip Glass had its premiere performance at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Glass was asked to write a new Harpsichord Concerto for the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, and found the commission intriguing. “For one,” wrote Glass, “I have always been an admirer of the literature for harpsichord and studied some of the music from the Baroque period quite thoroughly, and have played a bit of that music myself. Secondly, I knew that the modern day harpsichord was capable of a fuller, more robust sound than was available in ‘period’ instruments and might make a handsome partner to a modern chamber orchestra.” Glass’s modern day concerto is in the traditional three movements of a Baroque era concerto, with a slower, more lyrical middle movement flanked by speedier, flashier outer movements. And perhaps surprisingly for a “minimalist” composer famous—or infamous—for his loping, seemingly endless repeated patterns, this Harpsichord Concerto, despite being recognizably a work by Philip Glass, is more varied and mercurial than usual, with a final movement in which the harpsichord soloist really needs to “go for Baroque!”

Tchaikovsky in Paris

Sep 20, 2018 00:01:59


When we think of Russian music in Paris, the name Sergei Diaghilev comes first to mind. In the early years of the 20th century, that famous Russian impresario saw to it that not only the new music of Stravinsky was performed in the French capital, but also a historical panorama of earlier Russian works, including Mussorgsky’s opera, “Boris Godounov.” But Russian music and musicians had been coming to Paris for decades, and for their part, notable French composers like Adolphe Adam, Hector Berlioz, and even the young Claude Debussy had all visited Russia. Russian music also figured prominently at famous Universal Expositions held in Paris in the latter 19th century. On today’s date in 1878, for example, Tchaikovsky’s “Valse-Scherzo” for violin and orchestra received its premiere in Paris, at a Russian concert conducted by the composer’s colleague and compatriot Nicolai Rubinstein. In addition to this brand-new work, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and symphonic fantasia “The Tempest” were also performed during Russian concerts at the 1878 Exposition. Tchaikovsky was back home in Russia, curious to know how his works fared in Paris. He wrote to a friend: “Have you been to any of the Russian concerts in Paris? According to some newspapers my compositions were a great success, to others a failure. I cannot get at the truth.” Fortunately, when Rubinstein returned to Russia, he was able to report first-hand that Tchaikovsky’s music had, indeed, been very well received.

Brahms and the clarinet

Sep 19, 2018 00:01:59


During his later years, the German composer Johannes Brahms was a frequent visitor to the town of Meiningen, where the Grand Duke had a fine orchestra that gave stellar performances of Brahms’ music. Early in 1891, Brahms heard one member of that orchestra, the clarinetist Richard Mülhfeld, perform chamber works by Mozart and Weber. Brahms was so impressed that they became fast friends. Listening to Mülhfeld play, Brahms became so enthusiastic about the clarinet’s possibilities that began writing chamber works for his new friend. Brahms was always particularly fond of the female alto voice, whose timbre is similar to the clarinet’s, and so Brahms promptly nicknamed Mülhfeld “Fraeulein Clarinet” or the “new primadonna.” For Mülhfeld, Brahms first wrote a clarinet trio, which was followed by a clarinet quintet, and finally, a pair of clarinet sonatas, both composed in the summer of 1894. These two sonatas were first played by Mülhfeld with Brahms at a private performance in the home of the sister of the Duke of Meiningen on today’s date that year. In November, the pair also gave private performances in Frankfurt for Clara Schumann and at Castle Altenstein for the Duke of Meiningen. The first public performances occurred in Vienna in January of 1895.

Thomson's "portrait" Concerto

Sep 18, 2018 00:01:59


The American composer Virgil Thomson was fond of writing what he called “portraits”—musical sketches of people he knew. When asked how he did this, Thomson replied: “I just look at you and I write down what I hear.” This music by Thomson was a portrait in disguise. It premiered on today’s date in 1954 at the Venice Festival in Italy, identified simply as his Concerto for Flute, Strings, Harp, and Percussion. Thomson later confessed it was in fact a musical portrait of Roger Baker, a handsome young painter he had recently befriended. Born in Kansas City in 1896, Thomson studied music at Harvard, and lived in Paris through much of the 1920s and 30s. In 1940, he became the music critic of The New York Herald-Tribune, and held that post until 1954. Thomson once defined the role of music critic as one who “seldom kisses, but always tells.” But in 1954, Thomson decided fourteen years as a music critic was enough, and it was time to concentrate on his own music for a change. Perhaps not by coincidence, one of the friends who encouraged him to do so was Roger Baker, the artist “portrayed” by Thomson in his 1954 concerto. Ironically, Thomson’s successor at the Herald-Tribune, music critic Paul Henry Lang, dismissed the New York premiere of Thomson’s new concerto as (quote): “mortally fatigued music” and “not one of Mr. Thomson’s good pieces.”

Wagner gets a Ride in New York

Sep 17, 2018 00:01:59


In 1871, one year after the premiere in Munich of Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre,” a German-born American conductor named Theodore Thomas wrote to Wagner asking if he might perform some excerpts of this new work in the United States. Wagner turned him down, probably worried that loose American copyright laws might not be able to protect his new music. Undeterred, Thomas turned for advice to the famous German conductor Hans von Bulow, who suggested Thomas try to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Wagner to plead his case. After all, Bulow told Thomas, Wagner was actually quite interested in America. That meeting never took place, but somehow Thomas secured a manuscript of what would become the most popular orchestral excerpt from “Die Walküre,” its famous “Ride of the Valkyries.” To this day, no one knows for sure how Thomas managed this. Some speculate von Bulow himself provided the music, others suggest the American conductor got his copy from Franz Liszt. In any case, on today’s date in 1872, this music was performed for the first time in America at one of Theodore Thomas’s concerts in Central Park, an all-Wagner evening, in fact. The “Ride of the Valkyries” proved to be a smash hit with Manhattanites. As Thomas recounted in his memoirs, “the people jumped on the chairs and shouted.”

Barber at the Met

Sep 16, 2018 00:01:59


There’s a fun little book entitled “Great Operatic Disasters,” which chronicles some of the humorous—and some of the harrowing—mishaps that have befallen opera singers and productions over the last few centuries… and September 16th seems to have been a particularly unlucky day in the history of opera: Consider that on today’s date in 1782, one of the most celebrated opera stars of the 18th century, the Italian castrato Farinelli, died in Bologna after his dismissal from the Spanish court; on September 16th in 1920, the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso made his last records in Camden, New Jersey; and in 1977, opera diva Maria Callas dropped dead of a heart attack in Paris. And it was on today’s date in 1966 that the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center opened with a gala production of a brand-new opera specially commissioned from the American composer Samuel Barber. Despite an all-star cast headed by Leontyne Price and a lavish stage production designed by Franco Zefferelli—you guessed it—the opera was a flop. Maybe everyone expected too much, or perhaps the lavish sets were too distracting. Whatever the reason, despite its gorgeous music, even today Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” has never found a lasting place in the repertory of popular American works. Maybe it was just the operatic jinx of September 16th?

Ives at Yaddo

Sep 15, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1946, at the Yaddo Music Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York, the Walden Quartet gave the first professional performance of the String Quartet No. 2 by the American composer Charles Ives. Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 was his first major work—its manuscript is dated 1896, back when Ives was a 21-year-old student at Yale. While Ives’ First Quartet was written under the watchful eye and conservatively tonal ear of the Yale music professor Horatio Parker, Ives Second, composed between 1907 and 1913, is more often than not a wildly atonal work that would have given poor Professor Parker a heart attack. On the first page of its score, Ives provided a kind of program. It reads: “String Quartet for four men who converse, discuss, argue politics, fight, shake hands, shut up, and then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.” From some musical quotations in the first movement of Ives Quartet, it seems the American Civil War was one of the political topics fought over by the four men mentioned by Ives, and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is quoted, along with Ives’ perennial favorite, “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” By 1946, a serious revival of interest in Ives music was underway, and, just one year later, Ives would win the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3. Ives gave the prize money away to other composers, and grumbled: “Prizes are for boys—I’m all grown up.”

New "Variations on a Theme by Purcell"

Sep 14, 2018 00:01:59


The year 2002 marked the 10th anniversary of BBC Music Magazine, and to commemorate the occasion, the magazine’s editor asked the British composer Colin Matthews to coordinate a bold commissioning idea: a set of seven orchestral variations on a theme by Henry Purcell, a tune entitled “Hail, Bright Cecilia.” The resulting suite, called “Bright Cecilia Variations,” had its premiere on today’s date in 2002 at a “Last Night of the Proms” concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, with the BBC Symphony led by its American conductor, Leonard Slatkin. This is Colin Matthew’s orchestration of the Purcell theme, which was followed by Matthew’s original variation, and in turn by six other variations. These were written by three additional British composers, namely Judith Weir, David Sawer and Anthony Payne, plus one each by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, and the American Michael Torke. Of his variation, Torke had this to say: “I wanted to create almost a jungle frenzy, by having four drummers from the percussion section playing tom-toms, and shadowing those rhythmic beatings with melodic woodwind and brass fragments all drawn from the original theme… The result is vigorous, which I hope will help express one of the notions I believe is vitally important in classical music.”

Bernstein takes a chance

Sep 13, 2018 00:01:59


The Grove Dictionary of Music defines the word “aleatory” as follows: “A term applied to music whose composition and/or performance is, to a greater or lesser extent, undetermined by the composer.” But isn’t music supposed to be organized, planned, determined sound? Isn’t “aleatoric music” a contradiction in terms? Well, not necessarily. Musicians throughout the ages have delighted in spontaneous, improvised sound, or musical games in which the results will be different with each performance. In the 20th century, American composers like Charles Ives and Henry Cowell often gave performers a great deal of freedom in the realization of their scores, and John Cage developed what he called “chance operations” into an art form all its own. On September 13, 1986, at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Israel Philharmonic in the premiere of his new Concerto for Orchestra subtitled “Jubilee Games” which incorporates some aleatoric or chance elements. Bernstein’s Concerto is dedicated to the Israel Philharmonic on the occasion of its 50th anniversary jubilee. Bernstein explained, “Its first movement is musical athletics, with cheers and all. It is also charades, anagrams, and children’s counting games. But mainly it is celebratory, therefore spontaneous, therefore aleatoric, ranging from structured improvisation to totally free orchestral invention. It is thus inevitable that the movement will vary considerably from one performance to another, and even one rehearsal to another.”

The Schumanns in love

Sep 12, 2018 00:01:59


Today, a love story. In the year 1840, the immensely talented German pianist Clara Wieck was eagerly awaiting the eve of her 21st birthday, when she would be free to legally marry the 30-year-old composer and music critic Robert Schumann. The couple had hoped to wed years earlier, but the match was bitterly opposed by Clara’s father. The situation turned ugly, and the whole matter ended up in the German courts. Clara and Robert kept in touch by letters, which were sometimes intercepted by Papa Wieck. Schumann, for his part, buried himself in his music, composing furiously until Clara would come of age. Early in 1840 Clara wrote, “Dear Robert, I love you so much it hurts my heart. Tell me what you’re writing. I would so love to know. Oh please, please… a quartet, an overture—even perhaps a symphony? Might it by any chance be—a wedding present?” The marriage finally took place on today’s date in 1840. As she had guessed, Robert presented Clara with a musical wedding present: not a quartet, overture, or symphony, but a song cycle, a “Myrten”, consisting of 26 songs, which were published as his Opus 25. The opening song, entitled “Dedication,” is a setting of a Rückert poem which contains this refrain: “You are my heart and soul, my bliss and pain, you are the world I live in and the heaven I aspire to, my good angel, my better self.”

Couperin the Great

Sep 11, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1733, the French composer François Couperin, known as “François Couperin the Great,” died in Paris. The building where Couperin lived for the last decade of his life still stands in Paris at the corner of the rue Radziwill and the rue des Petits Champs, and like the building, the high esteem afforded this Baroque composer has stood the test of time. François Couperin is known as “The Great” for two reasons: first, to distinguish him from other talented Couperins, who like the Bach Family, were also well-known musicians, and second, because, well, he WAS great—a strikingly original composer, admired for his harmonic invention and programmatic wit. Although Couperin wrote organ and chamber works, he is most famous for his 226 pieces for solo harpsichord, many with descriptive titles indicating they were portraits or caricatures of real people or recognizable types of people. Others have poetically ambiguous or rather baffling titles like “The Mysterious Barricades.” Was Couperin writing miniature tone poems as private “insider” jokes for himself and his friends? Who knows—and maybe not knowing the secret “program” is even part of the music’s appeal. Couperin was admired by fellow composers ranging from Bach to Brahms and Ravel, and some of his harmonically-adventurous keyboard pieces have been orchestrated by Richard Strauss in the 20th century and Thomas Ades in the 21st.

Marco Uccellini

Sep 10, 2018 00:01:59


The average music lover, if asked to name some notable Baroque composers, will probably answer Bach, Handel, Telemann or Vivaldi. But decades before most of those composers flourished, a number of bold pioneers of the early Baroque period were busily developing new musical forms and techniques. Like most composers born before 1700, details about their lives and careers tend to be skimpy at best. Take the case of the Italian composer Marco Uccellini, who was born somewhere in Italy around 1603, and died on today’s date in 1680. We know (from a little bird) that Uccellini studied in Assisi, and was active in the service of Italian noble families in Modena and Parma. We know he composed operas and ballets for them, but none of that music survives. Uccellini’s lasting claim to fame rests of a series of instrumental works, mainly sonatas for violin, which were published during his lifetime. The British violinist Andrew Manze, one of the great virtuosos of our day, has recorded some of Uccelini’s Sonatas, and offers this assessment: “Uccellini’s pioneering spirit led him to seek new colors, explore strange keys, and to boldly go higher than any violinist had gone before. His (high) G’’’ was a world record that stood until the Austrian composer Heinrich von Biber squeaked a tone higher in a Violin Sonata published the year after Uccellini’s death in 1680.”

Finzi's Clarinet Concerto

Sep 9, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1949, the British composer Gerald Finzi conducted the premiere performance of his Clarinet Concerto at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford. During his lifetime Finzi never achieved the fame of some other 20th-century British composers, but he did—and still does—have admirers. British tenor Mark Padmore wrote a recent appreciation entitled “The quiet man of British music,” which included these lines: “I want to make a case for taking the time to get to know a composer… whose plumage is discreet and whose song is quiet and subtle. Finzi might be termed one of classical music's wrens. Despite his exotic-sounding surname and mixed Italian, Sephardic and Ashkenazi heritage, Finzi was in many ways an archetypal English gentleman... One of his passions was the saving of old English varieties of apples… [his] music was written slowly and often it would take many years for a piece to reach its final form.” Finzi died in 1956, aged 55, from Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was concerned his music would be forgotten after his death and added this note to his catalogue of works: "I like to think that in each generation may be found a few responsive minds… To shake hands with a good friend over the centuries is a pleasant thing, and the affection which an individual may retain after his departure is perhaps the only thing which guarantees an ultimate life to his work."

Tan Dun's "Water Passion"

Sep 8, 2018 00:01:59


By coincidence, the year 2000 marked both the arrival of a new millennium and the 250th anniversary of the death of the great German Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The International Bach Academy in Stuttgart decided to mark the occasion with a grand gesture: they commissioned four very different composers to write four new passion settings, one each after the Gospel accounts of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A German composer, Wolfgang Rihm, was chosen for the St. Luke Passion; a Russian, Sophia Gubaidulina, for St. John’s; an Argentine, Osvaldo Golijov, for St. Mark’s; and a Chinese composer, Tan Dun, for the Passion according to St. Matthew. On today’s date in the year 2000, Helmuth Rilling conducted the premiere of Tan Dun’s “Water Passion after St. Matthew.” Tan said he was struck by the references to water in St. Matthew’s gospel, so his setting includes seventeen large illuminated bowls of water, positioned on stage in the form of a cross. These divide the chorus, with three percussionists and a group of additional soloists stationed at the four points of this cross. In Tan’s “Water Passion,” natural sounds of water mix with a wide range of vocal techniques, including Tuvan throat singing and the stylized virtuosity of Peking Opera. Critical reaction covered an equally wide range: some called Tan Dun’s “Water Passion” an important new work, others panned it as pretentious flim-flam.

David Stock's Quartet No. 3

Sep 7, 2018 00:01:59


In Pittsburgh on today’s date in 1996, the Latin-American Quartet of Mexico gave the premiere of the Third String Quartet of American composer David Stock. Stock is probably best known for his orchestral music: He was composer-in-residence with both the Pittsburgh and Seattle Symphonies, writing large-scale works for those ensembles, and also for the New York Philharmonic. But Stock wrote several string quartets as well. His first was a student work that premiered in Paris. The second is subtitled “Speaking Extravagantly” after a quote by Charles Ives that, “Perhaps music is the art of speaking extravagantly.” Stock’s Third Quartet is a more personal work: its Scherzo movement, concludes with a set of variations on “Happy Birthday”—a tribute to the composer’s wife on the occasion of her 50th. In addition to composing and teaching, Stock was an advocate for other composers’ works. For 23 years, Stock served as director of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and as host of a weekly radio series on WQED in that city. And speaking of radio, in 2001 Stock conducted the Charlottesville Symphony in the first performance of an orchestral piece entitled “Drive Time,” music Stock described as “an updated version of the music usually programmed on Public Radio during the morning and evening drive time slots, hence the title."

Wayne Barlow

Sep 6, 2018 00:01:59


Today we note the birthday anniversary of the American composer and teacher Wayne Barlow, who was born in Elyria, Ohio, on today’s date in 1912, and died in Rochester, New York, on December 17, 1996. As a composer, Barlow is mostly remembered for a single work: a rhapsody for oboe and strings entitled “The Winter’s Past.” It was premiered at the Eastman School of Music in 1938 by the Rochester Civic Orchestra under the direction of another noted American composer, Howard Hanson, with Eastman faculty oboist Robert Sprenkle as the soloist. Barlow received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Eastman and taught there himself for over 40 years, eventually becoming chairman of the composition department, director of the school’s electronic music studio, and dean of graduate studies. Barlow also served as organist and choirmaster at two churches in Rochester, and composed a set of hymn voluntaries for organ, covering the church year. An exceptionally well-rounded musician himself, Wayne Barlow hoped his students would be similarly well-versed in more than just one musical specialty. Barlow once said, “To me music is rather indivisible—which is to say, while it is impossible to know all about everything involved in the art of music, it is just as impossible to be a totally successful teacher, or composer, or musicologist, or theorist, or performer, or conductor without knowing something about how ALL these pieces of the art fit together.”

Glass's "Satyagraha"

Sep 5, 2018 00:01:59


Today in 1980, “Satyagraha,” a new opera by the American composer Philip Glass, had its premiere in Rotterdam by the Netherlands Opera. Four years earlier, in 1976, Glass’s first big opera, “Einstein on the Beach,” had scored a big hit not only in Avignon, France, where it had premiered, but also at a special, non-subscription performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But “Einstein” had been written for Glass’s own electronic keyboard ensemble, while the new opera “Satyagraha” was written for the more traditional opera pit orchestra of strings, winds and brass… with an electric organ and synthesizer thrown in for good measure. THAT was, in some ways, a new language for Glass to learn. And speaking of new languages, for opera singers used to singing in Italian, French or German, the libretto for “Satyagraha,” crafted by Glass and Constance DeJong, was to be sung in ancient Sanskrit, based on texts from Bhagavad-Gita. "Satyagraha" is a Sanskrit word meaning "truth force." While the text is ancient, the story of the opera is set in modern times, and deals with Mahatma Gandhi's early years in South Africa and his development of non-violent protest as a political tool. “Satyagraha” is the second of three operas that form a kind of trilogy about men who changed the world: Einstein, Gandhi, and the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten.

Mackey's "Lost and Found"

Sep 4, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1996, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in the first performance of this music, a five-minute toccata for orchestra entitled “Lost and Found.” Its composer was Steve Mackey, an American whose music Tilson Thomas has championed and recorded. Mackey writes: “On more than one occasion Michael has used the word ‘wacky’ to describe my music. Composers usually blanch at such attributions—nobody wants to be captured in a single word—but I can live with ‘wacky.’ It is not a common adjective, does not end with ‘ism,’ and clearly the rhyme with my last name personalizes it. My music tends to explore fringe modes of consciousness rather than brand-name emotion or logical thought.” Mackey also avoids conventional titles for his works. His Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra is entitled “Tuck and Roll,” and among his other orchestral works can be found “Banana/Dump Truck” and “Eating Greens.” Mackey says: “Greater thinkers than I have stumbled at the task of explaining humor, but my best guess, as it pertains to my music, is that it lies in the relationship of the music to the physical world. I think a lot about momentum, inertia, and even gravity. Allowing the music to get stuck and tip over, lurch headlong, tumble with limbs akimbo as well as to move fluidly gives it a ‘road runner’ cartoon kind of physicality, a fantasy, but not completely unhinged from the physical world.”

Beethoven's new quartets

Sep 3, 2018 00:01:59


Today in 1806, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote to his publishers Breitkopf and Härtel: “You may have at once 3 new string quartets.” Beethoven had written this music on commission from the wealthy Russian ambassador to Vienna, Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky. Beethoven was stretching the truth a bit when he told his publisher they could have the quartets “at once,” since as per the Count’s commission, Razumovsky had exclusive rights to the music for a full year, and the ink was still wet. But then, Beethoven had also promised the Count that he’d weave authentic Russian melodies in all three quartets, but ended up doing so in just two of them. Today, these “Razumovsky” Quartets rank among Beethoven’s most popular chamber works, but initially they were not well received. When shown the music prior to publication, a professional Viennese quartet assumed Beethoven was playing a practical joke on them. “Crazy music” and a “patchwork by a madman” were some of the comments of others who purchased the music. “Pity to waste the money,” was a common reaction. The second movement of the first Quartet, with its cello solo on just one note, provoked particular disdain from performers and audiences alike. Muzio Clementi, who had seen these quartets in manuscript, remarked to Beethoven, “Surely you don’t consider these works to be music!” to which Beethoven replied, “Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age.”

Friml's "calling"

Sep 2, 2018 00:01:59


Imagine a crisp, blue Northern sky, a Canadian Mountie in a bright red tunic, and, what else—an elaborately coiffed operatic soprano singing in the middle of the woods. Yes, it was on today’s date in 1924, at the Imperial Theater in New York, that “The Indian Love Call” made its debut as part of a musical entitled “Rose-Marie,” with tunes provided by an American composer of Bohemian birth named Rudolf Friml. This one-time Dvorak pupil was born in Prague in 1879. He scored such a hit when he debuted his own Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall in 1904 that he decided to make America his home. His early years as an American composer were pretty rough, but by 1912, “The Firefly,” his first musical on Broadway, was a great success. Friml followed this with a string of increasingly popular New York shows. “Rose-Marie” from 1924 and “The Vagabond King” from 1925 proved to be the most lucrative, but by the mid-1930s Friml’s old-world musical style was judged too old-fashioned for the Broadway of George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Ironically, it was during the 30s that Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald films based on Friml musicals broke box office records. These campy films are now treasured precisely for their sweet, if rather affected, “period” flavor. Before retirement, Friml worked for the film industry and died in Hollywood in 1972, at the age of 92.

Reza Vali

Sep 1, 2018 00:01:59


At a time when immigrants of many lands were moving into the American melting pot, composers in Europe were celebrating their own diversity, tapping into their native folk music for inspiration and musical themes as their own nation-states struggled for independence. This trend has continued in our own time with composers in the Pacific Rim and Middle East. Take this music, written for the modern flute and cello, two traditional European instruments, and influenced by the folk-music of Persia. The performers are asked at times to play AND sing simultaneously into their instruments. For the flute, this results in overtones and a timbre similar to the Persian bamboo flute… and the cellist, by sharply plucking some strings, or striking them with the wooden part of his bow, also imitates Persian percussion instruments. The composer of this Folk Song Suite, based on real and imagines Persian themes, is Reza Vali. He was born in Ghazvin, Iran, on today’s date in 1952, and began his musical studies at the Conservatory of Music in Teheran. In 1972, Reza Vali travelled to Austria to study at the Vienna Academy of Music. From Austria, he came to the United States, earning his doctorate in music theory and composition from the University of Pittsburgh in 1985, and subsequently joined the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University in that city.

Josef Strauss gives in to destiny

Aug 31, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1853, the Viennese Theatrical News printed this notice: “At the big ball at Unger’s Casino Josef Strauss performed his new waltz, entitled ‘The First and the Last.’ The waltz had to be repeated no less than six times.” That occasion marked the debut of Josef Strauss the composer, and occurred just a few weeks after the debut of Josef Strauss the conductor. Josef was the younger brother of the popular waltz king, Johann Strauss, Jr., and initially embarked on a career as a talented architect, mathematician and civil engineer. In fact, Josef was determined to stay well away from the family’s musical empire. Josef had designed the waterworks for an Austrian town, devised a new table of logarithms for secondary school use, and even invented a new street cleaning machine, which was tested and approved by the Vienna City Council. And then, one night, his brother Johann collapsed from overwork and dutifully Josef took over directing the family orchestra. Since it was assumed that all the Strauss family would come up with original music, Josef even tried his hand at composing. As the title suggests, he honestly intended it to be a “one off”, hence its title “The first AND the last.” Well, it proved so popular that Josef Strauss followed it with another waltz, entitled “The First AFTER the Last.” Josef Strauss must have heaved a sigh and bowed to destiny. He bid his engineering and scientific career adieu, and joined the family music concern.

David Schiff

Aug 30, 2018 00:01:59


Today we celebrate the birthday of the American composer David Schiff, who was born in New York City on August 30, 1945, but who now lives and works on the opposite coast in Portland, Oregon. Schiff’s best-known work, a 1979 opera entitled “Gimpel the Fool,” is based on a story by the beloved Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer that tells the tale of Gimpel, a Jewish baker in Eastern Europe who takes everything at face value and so is lied to and cheated by everyone he meets. Rather than take revenge on everyone who has treated him so badly, Gimpel becomes a wandering holy man, convinced that when he dies, God will not lie or cheat him. Schiff’s opera premiered in New York City at the 92nd Street Y in 1979, and shortly thereafter he arranged themes from it into an instrumental Divertimento, the first of many works written for clarinetist David Shifrin and Chamber Music Northwest in Portland. Writing for those musicians, says Schiff, his given him what he calls, “a wonderful sense of how Haydn must have felt as court composer at Ezsterhazy.” The Divertimento from “Gimpel the Fool” draws on Jewish liturgical modes and Klezmer music, and its fourth movement references “Who Knows One?”—a traditional cumulative song sung on Passover. Like the story of Gimpel, the song is meant to be humorous, while still imparting an important lesson.

Paulus's "Courtship Songs"

Aug 29, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1981, at a house concert in St. Paul, Minnesota, a chamber work by the American composer Stephen Paulus received its premiere. The piece was entitled “Courtship Songs,” and was commissioned to celebrate the 15th wedding anniversary of a St. Paul couple, Jack and Linda Hoeschler. The piece was scored for the four instruments the Hoeschler family played: flute, oboe, cello and piano. The commissioning bug apparently caught on, and anniversary commissions became a family tradition. Eventually the Hoeschlers and some of their friends in the Twin Cities started up a Commissioning Club, modeled along the lines of an investment club. The idea was to pool their resources, and commission new works by American composers whose works they admired, including Paulus, Paul Schoenfield, Steve Heitzeg, and Augusta Read Thomas. Performing groups who have premiered Commissioning Club projects have included New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Washington D.C.’s 20th Century Consort, as well as the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras. In 1996, 15 years after “Courtship Songs” premiered, one Commissioning Club project reached a worldwide audience of millions… Stephen Paulus’s setting of “Pilgrim Jesus,” by the English poet Kevin Crossley-Holland, was one of the carols performed at King’s College, Cambridge, as part of the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols,” broadcast live on both the BBC’s World Service and public radio stations across America. All in all, not a bad return on the Commissioning Club’s investment.

Wagner's "Lohengrin"

Aug 28, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1850, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt conducted in Weimar the first performance of “Lohengrin,” a new opera by the German composer Richard Wagner. Liszt was determined to make Weimar famous, musically-speaking, despite the rather provincial nature of the forces he had at his disposal. For the “Lohengrin” premiere Liszt had to go out and buy a bass-clarinet, since the Court orchestra didn’t own one, and he beefed up the number of violins from the usual 11 players to a grand total of 18. As for the singers, they were hardly world-famous superstars. The title role of Lohengrin was sung by a local tenor named Karl Beck, who had also been a pastry cook in Weimar, and would later return to that profession as a master baker in Vienna. Even so, Liszt’s unprecedented 46 rehearsals apparently paid off: the premiere of “Lohengrin” was a big success, and helped put both Weimar and Wagner on the map. Ironically, Wagner himself was unable to attend the premiere of his new opera. He was a wanted man on German soil, having participated in the unsuccessful Dresden uprising of 1849, and there was a warrant out for his arrest on the charge of high treason. Liszt had helped him escape to Switzerland, and while his opera was being staged in Weimar, Wagner himself was at hotel in Lucerne, listening in his imagination, he later told Liszt, as each scene unfolded.

Rebecca Clarke

Aug 27, 2018 00:01:59


Today we note the birthday anniversary of a remarkable British composer who spent a good deal of her life in the United States. Her name was Rebecca Clarke and she was born in Harrow, England, on today’s date in 1886 to an American father and German mother. Rebecca studied at the Royal Conservatory in London, where she became the first female composition student of the Victorian composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. As a professional violist, she was one of the first women to be admitted as a member of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, an ensemble led by Sir Henry Wood. Many of the chamber works Clarke composed were written for and premiered by professional colleagues. The American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, herself an amateur composer, admired Clarke’s music, and two of Clarke’s finest chamber works, a Viola Sonata from 1919 and a Piano Trio from 1921, were both written for competitions sponsored by Coolidge. Based in London from 1924 to 1939, Clarke toured extensively, performed with a number of ensembles, and broadcast over the BBC. She found herself stranded in the U.S. by the outbreak of World War II. In 1944 she married pianist James Friskin, who had been a fellow student at the Royal College, and settled in New York. She lived long enough to experience what she called “a little renaissance” of interest in her music around the time of her 90th birthday. She died at the age of 93 in 1979.

Previn and Mutter tango

Aug 26, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in the year 2001, during the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter premiered a new chamber work for violin and piano entitled “Tango, Song and Dance.” She had commissioned the work from Andre Previn several years earlier, but its premiere was delayed as Mutter embarked on a project to perform and record all Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas. “After doing all those stern recitals,” said Mutter, “I wanted to play pieces which reflected the basis of musical history, the folksongs and dances which has inspired composers through so many centuries. Tango, Song and Dance is both modern and old-fashioned, and it touches the heart, especially the slow movement, which is really a ‘Song Without Words.’” And that wasn’t the only thing to touch her heart… it was around this time that Previn and Mutter became husband and wife. For his part, Andre offered these comments on composing a piece for Anne-Sophie: “I had written a violin sonata before I did Tango, Song and Dance, and I gave it to Anne-Sophie, who came back with the request that I make it much more difficult—otherwise she didn’t want to touch it. I have one piece of advice to composers for the violin—make sure Anne-Sophie premieres your piece. Then you’re home and dry, and everything works!” Other composers seem to agree, and Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutoslawski, Henri Dutilleux, and Wolfgang Rihm have all dedicated violin works to her.

Auber starts a riot

Aug 25, 2018 00:01:59


Many operatic works have been described as “revolutionary,” but on today’s date in 1830, a performance of an opera helped to spark a real, take-to-the-streets kind of revolution. The opera in question was by the French composer Daniel Auber, and entitled La Muette di Portici, or “The Mute Girl of Portici.” The opera’s story concerns a 17th century uprising by some patriots in Naples against their Spanish rulers, and is regarded today as one of the first examples of a genre known as “GRAND opera,” which means it included some stage spectacles worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. For example Auber’s opera ends with the title heroine casting herself into an erupting volcano. The opera had premiered in Paris in 1828, but on today’s date in 1830 it was being staged at the Theatre La Monnaie in Brussels, a country then under the control of the Dutch. The opera’s story of evil occupiers and patriotic rebels must have touched a raw nerve in many in the Belgian audience. Upon hearing the line in the opera: "a slave knows no danger, as death is better than living in chains," some in the audiences began a demonstration against the hated Dutch authorities. The demonstration grew more and more heated, and then, just like the volcano in Auber’s opera, erupted out of the theater and into the streets. Symbols of Dutch authority were attacked, a new provisional government was formed, and by November that same year Belgium had declared its independence.

Bernstein's "hateful" luck

Aug 24, 2018 00:01:59


Looking back on a famous person’s life and career, one often notes quirky patterns of coincidences. Take the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, for instance. On today’s date in 1943, Leonard Bernstein was exactly one day short of his 25th birthday, and, at the Public Library in Lenox, Massachusetts, accompanied the singer Jennie Tourel in the premiere of a new song cycle for which he had just composed both the words and the music. The song cycle was entitled “I Hate Music!” and offered, from a child’s perspective, some devastatingly direct observations on art and life. The following day, on his 25th birthday, the New York Philharmonic’s music director, Artur Rodzinski, invited Bernstein to be Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic… Now, fast forward to November that same year. On November 13, 1943, Jennie Tourel and Bernstein were at Town Hall, giving the New York premiere of “I Hate Music!” The very next day, Leonard Bernstein stepped in at short notice for the indisposed Bruno Walter, and made his debut conducting the orchestra during the Philharmonic’s live Sunday afternoon national radio broadcast from Carnegie Hall. The 25-year old Bernstein’s surprise—and successful—conducting debut made the front page of the New York Times, and his career was launched with a splash. Just a coincidence, of course, but we suspect Bernstein had a special soft spot for his little song cycle with the “tongue-in-cheeky” title.

Prokofiev in Pavlovsk

Aug 23, 2018 00:01:59


The first railway line in Russia opened in 1837 and ran from St. Petersburg to Pavlovsk. In the summers, tourists from St. Petersburg would travel to Pavlovsk to visit the site of an 18th century royal palace, to dine at the elegant Vauxhall restaurant, or take in an orchestral concert. The Russian railroad had enticed Johann Strauss’s orchestra to perform there in the 1850s, and Pavlovsk remained a popular summertime concert venue for several decades. In 1913, the young Sergei Prokofiev traveled to Pavlovsk to appear as the soloist in the first performance of his Piano Concerto No. 2. The premiere occurred on today’s date that year, and the music of young firebrand composer-performer proved to be far from the standard light classical fare normally offered in Pavlovsk. One reviewer wrote: “Prokofiev’s music left listeners frozen with fright, their hair standing on end.” Another critic wrote: “One couple stood up and ran for the exit, commenting, ‘Such music is enough to drive you crazy! What is he doing, making fun of us? We came here to enjoy ourselves. The cats at home can make music like this!’” Even so, one calmer review concluded: “This means nothing. Ten years from now the public will atone for the catcalls by applauding unanimously a new composer with a European reputation.”

A Tippett Triple

Aug 22, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1980, at a Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall in London, the British conductor Colin Davis led the London Symphony in the premiere of a new work by the British composer Michael Tippett. This was a Triple Concerto for violin, viola and cello with orchestra, showcasing the talents of three virtuoso string players: violinist Gyorgy Pauk, violist Nobuko Imai, and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum. The central slow movement of the new Triple Concerto, marked “very slow—calmer still,” proved to be one of Tippett's most lyrical and colorful moments, and with it, Tippett joined a long line of Western composers, including Claude Debussy, Benjamin Britten, and Lou Harrison, who have been inspired by Asian music: specifically the traditional bronze gong orchestras of the islands of Indonesia, known as “gamelan.” Shortly before he composed his Triple Concerto, Tippet had visited Java and Bali, and had experienced first-hand performances of gamelan music in the palaces, temples and gardens of Indonesia. In describing the role of the artist as he saw it, Tippett suggested that it was, “the creation of images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent, images of reconciliation for a world torn by divisions, and in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty.”

Lili Boulanger

Aug 21, 2018 00:01:59


Today’s date marks the birthday anniversary of the French composer Lili Boulanger. She was born in Paris on August 21, 1893. In 1913, Lili Boulanger became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome for her cantata “Faust and Helen,” an achievement which was headline news in those days. Lili’s father, Ernst, had he lived to see it, would have been especially proud, since he, too, was a composer and had won the Prix de Rome himself back in 1835. The Boulangers were a remarkably talented family, it seems, and it’s one of music history’s saddest “what-might-have-beens” to consider what Lili might have accomplished if she had lived as long as her gifted older sister, Nadia Boulanger, who died at 92 after a long career as the world’s most famous composition teacher. Nadia could count among her pupils several generations of famous American composers, ranging from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass. Lili Boulanger suffered from Crohn’s disease, and died at just 24 years of age, in 1918. Despite her frail health and tragically short life, Lili Boulanger left behind a small body of vocal and instrumental works that are still performed. Her Psalm settings in particular are admired for their solemnity and deep spirit.

Jacopo Peri

Aug 20, 2018 00:01:59


Details on the lives and careers of composers born before 1700 tend to be a bit skimpy, at best. For example, we know that the Italian Baroque composer Jacopo Peri was born on today’s date in 1561, but we’re not sure if that was in Rome or Florence. As a point of reference, remember that William Shakespeare was born in 1564, just three years after Peri. And by the 1580s, around the same time Shakespeare was learning to be a playwright, Peri and some of his Italian colleagues were experimenting with a new art form that we call “opera.” There was much discussion at the time about what the music of the ancient Greeks must have been like, and how a complete dramatic story might be told from beginning to end in music, utilizing some of the same techniques that composers employed to accompany the much shorter songs and madrigals popular at the time. Peri was active as a musician and singer at the Medici court in Florence, where early attempts to come up with some answers took place. He was instrumental in the production of two of the earliest operas for which the complete music survives: Dafne, which premiered around 1597 and Euridice from 1600. Peri outlived his English contemporary Shakespeare by some 17 years. Shakespeare died in 1616 at the age of 52, while Peri died sometime in August of 1633, at 72, a ripe old age for the 17th century.

John Howell Morrison

Aug 19, 2018 00:01:59


Most of us—if we’re lucky—chug along more or less contentedly in an uneventful day-by-day routine... a little like the opening of this chamber work by the American composer John Howell Morrison. But sometimes, in some lives, something happens that suddenly disrupts the uneventful, comfortable routine, something that knocks all routine and normality straight out of the ballpark: perhaps it’s the loss of a job, or the loss of a loved one, and suddenly routine physical or mental health is so shaken that the soundtrack of life shifts to something uncomfortably similar to that of a bad horror film... But most of us—if we’re lucky—somehow survive, and are perhaps even grow a bit stronger from the experience. As the old saying goes: “Hard Weather Makes Good Wood”—and that’s the title Morrison gave this piece, scored for string quartet and electronic tape, recorded on today’s date in 2002 as the title track on a CD collection of his chamber works. And, yes, Morrison confesses that “Hard Weather Makes Good Wood,” was, in fact, composed during a period of intense personal struggle in his own life. We’re not sure if he feels stronger for surviving that experience, but at least it resulted in striking new piece of chamber music.

Monteverdi (and Henze) in Salzburg

Aug 18, 2018 00:01:59


The 1985 Salzburg Festival boasted a quite unusual premiere: a 17th century Venetian opera by the Italian Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi entitled “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria,” or “The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland,” as arranged and orchestrated by the contemporary German composer Hans Werner Henze. The surviving music for Monteverdi’s opera does not exist in what we now call “full score.” Monteverdi wrote down a bare 5-part accompaniment to the vocal lines of his opera, without indicating what specific instruments he meant to play those notes—and when. This means for any modern performance, someone needs to make those decisions. For their 1985 summer season, the Salzburg Festival commissioned Henze to prepare a new orchestration of Monteverdi’s “Return of Ulysses” 245 years after its first performance in Venice back in 1640. As luck would have it, Henze’s version appeared around the same time as another modern attempt to reconstruct Monteverdi’s score by the noted Baroque specialist Nicholas Harnoncourt. Even so, the music critics, in the main, were complimentary after the Henze’s version premiered in Sazlburg, noting that his scoring somehow managed to sound both ancient and modern at the same time. Even though we’ll never know EXACTLY how the opera sounded when Monteverdi heard it back in 1640, thanks to modern technology, the audio and video of that 1985 Salzburg performance can be sampled in both CD and DVD versions.

Honegger's Symphonies

Aug 17, 2018 00:01:59


When asked to name some important musical works associated with World War II, music lovers are apt to think of the sonatas and symphonies Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote during those years. But three symphonies by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger form another very compelling war triptych. Honegger spent the war years in occupied France, and his Symphony No. 2, which premiered in 1942, might be considered a symphony of the grim wartime resistance. It is scored for strings alone, but at the very end includes an optional trumpet solo, a dramatic gesture that seems an emotional call to action. Honegger’s Symphony No. 3, which premiered on August 17, 1946, is entitled “A Liturgical Symphony,” with the titles of each of its movements taken from the Latin Mass for the Dead. Considering the great loss of life on all sides of the conflict just ended, this work, too, packs an emotional wallop. And to round out the triptych, Honegger’s Symphony No. 4, from 1947, is subtitled “The Delights of Basel.” This music captures the elusive and bittersweet mood of a Europe tentatively groping its way back to normal life, closing with a decidedly wistful evocation of carnival time in the Swiss city of Basel.

Kodaly's Symphony

Aug 16, 2018 00:01:59


It might seem odd that during his long career, Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodály wrote only nine works for orchestra. When someone asked him about this, he replied: “I was busy with more important work: I had to educate a public.” Kodály and his countryman Béla Bartók were pioneers in the collection and study of Hungarian folk music, and, on top of that, Kodály’s lifelong concern was to instill this rich heritage into the Hungarian people through an extensive and innovative program of musical education. So successful was Kodály that even outside Hungary the so-called “Kodály method” has been adapted for music education worldwide. Given Kodály’s tireless educational efforts, it’s surprising he had any time or energy left for composing at all. For example, Kodaly started writing a symphony in the 1930s at the request of the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. The Symphony finally received its premiere decades later at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland on today’s date in 1961, and by that time Toscanini had been dead for several years. Even so, Kodály did not forget the original request for the work, and dedicated his only Symphony to the memory of the great conductor. In fact, Toscanini was also responsible for the creation of one of Kodály’s most popular orchestral works: it was at Toscanini’s prompting that Kodály orchestrated his Marosszék Dances, a set of folk tunes he had originally arranged for solo piano.

Grofe in Hollywood

Aug 15, 2018 00:01:59


In the 1930s, the American composer Ferde Grofe was on a roll. During the previous decade, as staff arranger for the Paul Whiteman orchestra, Grofe had orchestrated all the music that popular ensemble had premiered, including George Gershwin’s 1924 jazz classic “Rhapsody in Blue”. By the late 1920s, Grofe was composing his own original scores, and in 1931 finished his famous “Grand Canyon” Suite. Around that time, Ferde Grofe left the Whiteman band, and signed on as staff conductor of the NBC Radio Network, and soon became a familiar figure on the American music scene from coast to coast. On today’s date in 1935, for example, a new ballet score by Grofe premiered at the Hollywood Bowl. It took as its story line a familiar Hollywood theme: the exploited “double” who stands in for a starlet during the making of a film. The double is the anonymous actor who does all the hard work, but gets none of the recognition—or close-ups—when the film is released. Grofe later arranged his ballet score into a “Hollywood Suite,” adding another musical picture postcard to works with titles like: “Kentucky Derby Suite” or “Niagara Falls Suite.” In the 1960s, looking back on his long career in music, Grofe said: "Many of my compositions, I believe, were born of sight, sound, and sensations common to all of us. I think I have spoken of America in this music simply because America spoke to me.”

Bolcom's "Five Fold Five"

Aug 14, 2018 00:01:59


Most young American composers who came of age in the 1960s found themselves faced with a question: should they adopt the intellectually fashionable post-serial, atonal style of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg and his followers, or return to a more accessible and tonal musical language, whether Romantic, neo-Classical, or Minimalist in nature? For the young American composer William Bolcom, who turned 20 in 1958, the school of Schoenberg was not all that appealing… He said: “I had the credentials and the chops to write like that if I wanted to, but I said to hell with it.” According to his teacher and mentor, the French composer Darius Milhaud, Bolcom was as “gifted as a monkey.” Bolcom was a fabulous pianist with a passion for American ragtime and popular song, and distinctly American elements and accents crop up in many of his own compositions, including his magnum opus, a three-hour oratorio based on William Blake’s poems entitled “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Bolcom says he prefers to live, as he puts it, “in the cracks” between opera and musical theater, tonality and atonality, highbrow and lowbrow. Take this Bolcom piece for woodwind quintet and piano, for example. It’s entitled “Five Fold Five,” and was premiered on today’s date in 1987 at Saratoga Springs, New York, by pianist Dennis Russell Davies and the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. “Five Fold Five” starts off flirting with atonal elements, but ends with something that sounds a lot like boogie-woogie.

Mahler's tangled Tenth

Aug 13, 2018 00:01:59


In 1960, the musical world was observing the centenary of the birth of composer Gustav Mahler. A British musicologist named Deryck Cooke hit upon the idea of preparing a performing edition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, a work left unfinished at the time of Mahler’s death in 1911. This was a daunting task for two reasons. First, Mahler’s widow, Alma, had resisted efforts for too close an examination of Mahler’s sketches for his 10th Symphony, as these were peppered with emotionally charged comments to her in Mahler’s hand, painful reminders that her husband was working on this symphony at a time when he had just discovered she was having an affair with another man. The second hurdle was purely musical in nature: even though Mahler had sketched out the symphony in full, he had left most of it unorchestrated. Now, Mahler was a master orchestration, and it was argued that only a similarly gifted composer could flesh out Mahler’s sketches. Schoenberg and Shostakovich were both asked to do so, and both declined. Deryck Cooke, however, persisted, and completed his version of Mahler’s Tenth in time for some excerpts to be broadcast over BBC radio. Understandably, that broadcast spurred interest in hearing all of Cooke’s realization. Eventually even Alma relented, dropping her opposition to the project shortly before her death. And so, on today’s date in 1964, Bertold Goldschmidt conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the first complete concert performance of Deryck Cooke’s arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10.

Beethoven unveiled

Aug 12, 2018 00:01:59


On today's date in 1845, the sleepy little German town of Bonn played host to some 5000 visitors. These ranged from curious natives and opportunistic pickpockets to famous composers, performers, and music lovers from many countries, including their royal highnesses, the British monarch Queen Victoria and her royal consort, Prince Albert. The occasion was the gala unveiling of a bronze stature of the great German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, who had been born in Bonn 75 years earlier. A Beethoven Festival was in progress, and before the unveiling of the Beethoven statue, the German composer Ludwig Spohr had conducted a performance of Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” at the Bonn Cathedral. For almost a decade, the Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt had been tireless in fundraising for this event and almost single-handedly saw to it that it even occurred at all. Liszt was the largest contributor the Beethoven statue fund, and for years had been performing benefit recitals to enlist others in supporting the project. On August 12th the big day had finally arrived. Alas, the Festival planning committee was totally unprepared for the huge crowd that descended on Bonn, and woefully incompetent in managing just about every aspect of the Festival. How incompetent? Well, consider this: as their majesties Queen Victoria and King Wilhelm the IV of Prussia looked on, with great fanfare the shroud fell from Beethoven’s statue—only to reveal the statue’s BACK facing the vast assembled crowd… Oops.

Rachmaninoff's "Monna Vanna"

Aug 11, 2018 00:01:59


The Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck was tremendously popular in the early years of the 20th century. The French composer Claude Debussy wrote a successful opera based on Maeterlinck’s play “Pelleas and Melisande,” and the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff had his heart set on turning Maeterlinck’s “Monna Vanna” into an opera as well. Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff began work on “Monna Vanna” in 1906 before he had secured the rights to do so. In fact, Rachmaninoff had already finished one act of his opera by 1907 when he learned that Maeterlinck had already granted the rights to another composer. Rachmaninoff was crushed. Although he stopped work on his opera, years later when he sat down at the piano to play for friends, he would sometimes include melodies from his abandoned opera. One of those who heard Rachmaninoff play in this fashion was the much younger Russian conductor Igor Buketoff, who said he was too embarrassed at the time to ask the great Rachmaninoff to identify this unfamiliar music. Decades later Buketoff was startled to recognize those same tunes as he looked over Rachmaninoff’s unfinished piano score for “Monna Vanna,” which had ended up at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Buketoff orchestrated the surviving portions of Rachmaninoff’s opera for its premiere, which occurred on today’s date in 1984, at annual summertime music festival in Saratoga Springs, New York—some 75 years after the music was composed.

MacMillan at the Proms

Aug 10, 2018 00:01:59


August may seem an unlikely time for Advent music, liturgically speaking, but it was on today’s date in 1992 that a remarkable work entitled “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” received its premiere at Royal Albert Hall in London. This was during the 1992 Proms at a concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra showcasing the talents of the virtuoso Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. The music with the Advent title was a concerto for percussion and orchestra by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, who explained that the work was started on the first Sunday of Advent in 1991, and completed on Easter Sunday the following year, and based on the ancient Advent Latin plainsong “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” or, in its more familiar English translation: “O come, o come Emmanuel.” Many of the orchestral works of James Macmillan are based on religious or liturgical themes, a reflection of the Scottish composer’s own deep Catholic faith, and his percussion concerto “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” was no exception. “There's very strong and powerful analogies between religion and music,” says MacMillan. “And between music and spirituality… it's because of those connections that I'm determined to explore what the connections might be and for that reason I'm entirely at ease with giving space in my music for these considerations.” Apparently percussions, orchestras, and audiences are willing to spend some time with MacMillan’s musical considerations. “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” has been performed well over 300 times since its 1992 premiere.

Let's say "Jean Francaix"

Aug 9, 2018 00:01:59


Today’s we tackle a vexing P.C. issue—not “political correctness,” mind you, but “pronunciation correctness,” a passionate matter for classical radio announcers, of course. Now there was a French composer who lived from 1912 to 1997 whose first name was Jean and whose last name was spelled “F-R-A-N- C cedilla-A-I-X.” Most people today pronounce his name “Jean Frahn-SAY,” which has come to be the generally accepted and recognized pronunciation. The problem is that the composer’s family and close friends pronounced it “Frahn-SEX.” Years ago, an announcer at a station in New York wrote the composer himself requesting the definitive P.C. answer, and was told, yes, technically it was “Frahn-SEX,” but that he was used to being called "Frahn-SAY" and had given up correcting people, joking that perhaps “Frahn-SAY” sounded more French, or maybe people just didn’t want to say “SEX” out loud. This witty French composer grew up in musical family in Les Mans and claimed that by the age of twelve, he knew all the piano music from Scarlatti to Ravel. At eighteen, he won the First Prize in Piano from the Paris Conservatory and studied composition with Nadia Boulanger, the legendary teacher of many American composers ranging from Copland to Philip Glass. Both Jean Frahn-SEX and Jean Frahn-SAY were very prolific composers of works large and small, including this delightful Symphony in G Major, which premiered on today’s date in 1953 at the summer music festival in La Jolla, California.

Del Tredici through the looking glass

Aug 8, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1976, the American composer David Del Tredici conducted the San Francisco Symphony in the first performance of a work he called “Illustrated Alice.” The music was subtitled “Two Scenes from Wonderland.” These two scenes would eventually form bookend movements of a much longer “Alice Symphony,” a work which received its first complete performance 15 years later in August of 1991 at the Tangle wood Festival in Massachusetts. Back in 1968, Del Tredici had become fascinated with the works of Lewis Carroll, whose “Alice in Wonderland” books have captivated both children and adults for generations. To say that Del Tredici was captivated would be something of an understatement: he devoted 30 years of his career to setting Carroll’s creation to music in a series of increasingly tonal works—something that must have come as a surprise to those familiar with his earlier atonal music. “I couldn’t imagine setting a Carroll text to dissonant music,” explained Del Tredici. “Dissonant music can’t possibly project the mood that surrounds Carroll’s writings. In order to create that mood I had to rethink everything I had done up to that time. I had to think about tonality again, not because I was trying to bring back the music of an older period, but because my musical imagination had seized upon that language.”

Julian Orbon

Aug 7, 2018 00:01:59


Today’s date marks the birthday anniversary of a 20th century composer who was born in Spain, came of age in Cuba, and, in his later years, was a resident of the United States. His name was Julián Orbón, who was born in Avilés, Spain, on today’s date in 1925 and died in Miami Beach on May 20, 1991. Orbón began composing at an early age, came to Cuba with his family when he was 10, and by his twenties was already quite active as a music critic, essayist and pianist at concerts of contemporary Cuban music. He was a member of Grupo de Renovación Musical, or “The Group for Musical Renewal.” In 1946 he studied with Copland at Tanglewood, and returned home to serve as director of the Orbón Conservatory in Havana, a music school founded by his father. After the Cuban revolution, Orbón taught first at the National Conservatory in Mexico City, and then, after settling in the United States in 1964, at a number of American schools, including Washington University, Barnard College and the Hispanic Institute at Columbia. Revered as a teacher, Orbón was also a successful and award-winning composer. Many of his works are infused with the rhythms and colors of Cuban music and traditions.

A dream situation for Mendelssohn

Aug 6, 2018 00:01:59


Not many 19th century composers chose their parents as wisely as Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. Papa Mendelssohn was a wealthy banker in Berlin, and his musically gifted children grew up in a mansion where Sunday afternoon chamber music concerts were regular events. Felix and Fanny would perform their own pieces at the piano, and if young Felix had composed a little symphony for strings, why, it was a simple matter for Papa to hire the necessary musicians and have it performed. It was an idyllic situation for any young composer, and certainly young Felix put his good fortune to good use. In July of 1826, when he was 17, Felix wrote to a friend: “I have grown accustomed to composing in our garden. Today or tomorrow I am going to dream there ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’” Mendelssohn had been reading a German translation of Shakespeare’s comedy, and on today’s date in 1826, completed a concert overture to that play. Felix and Fanny gave the first performance in a two-piano version at one of the family soirees, and a private orchestral reading at the mansion followed a few months later. Mendelssohn intended his piece to represent the whole of the drama in miniature: “At the end,” he wrote, “after everything has been satisfactorily settled and the principal players have joyously left the stage, the elves and fairies bless the house, and disappear with the dawn. So the play ends, and my overture, too.”

Bach gives notice

Aug 5, 2018 00:01:59


Today’s date marks a “good news, bad news” anniversary in the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. On today’s date in 1717, Bach was appointed as the new Capellmeister at the Princely Court of Leopold of Coethen. Since the young prince was an avid music-lover, and offering Bach a much higher salary than his present one, that counts as “good news.” The “bad news” related to Bach’s previous employer in 1717, namely the Duke of Weimar, who was not exactly pleased that Bach had accepted a new job offer. The Duke, in fact, flatly refused to let him go. Real or imagined court intrigue in Weimar complicated the matter, and the Prince’s “poaching” of Bach might have been perceived as just another indirect slap at the Duke maneuvered by a long-standing family feud. The upshot was that Bach was put on the Prince’s payroll effective in August of 1717, but the Duke didn’t accept Bach’s resignation until five months later, and then only after throwing Bach in jail for almost a month to teach him a lesson, or, as the court secretary put it, “for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal.” In an age when Dukes and Princes could do as they pleased, it appears giving two weeks’ notice was a tad more complicated than it is today!

Mozart gets married

Aug 4, 2018 00:01:59


As a public service, here’s a reminder for those of you who tend to forget your wedding anniversary. If you’re not sure when it is, maybe now would be a good time to check… before it’s too late! Chances are that Wolfgang Mozart didn’t forget his wedding anniversary, since it was over his father’s strenuous and repeated objections that he finally married Constanza Weber at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna on today’s date in 1782. Having decided on a date, Mozart had written to his obstinate father back in Salzburg asking for his blessing. As luck would have it, the letter from Papa didn’t arrive until two days after the wedding. The elder Mozart remained unimpressed with his son’s choice, but, bowing to the inevitable, gave his grudging consent. “I knew I could count on you,” wrote Mozart in reply. “Now my dear Constanza is looking forward to traveling to Salzburg, and I wager you’ll rejoice in my happiness once you get to know her!” Well, that might have been a bit of exaggeration… In any case, Mozart’s unfinished Mass in c minor was written as a thanks offering to both Almighty God in heaven and as a peace offering to Papa Leopold back in Salzburg. Portions of it were performed in Salzburg during the young couple’s first visit the following year, with soprano Constanza singing the florid soprano part and Mozart himself conducting.

Bennett and Sousa at Bat

Aug 3, 2018 00:01:59


In the summer of 1941, the winds of war hadn’t yet blown to Pearl Harbor, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, and all was pretty much right with the world as we knew it. The Dodgers were doing very well—so well that they would eventually win the pennant, only to lose the World Series to the hated Yankees that October. But in August of ‘41, the ignominious defeat was still a few months off, and Brooklyn fans were understandably optimistic. One of them was the American composer Robert Russell Bennett, whose “Symphony in D” premiered on August 4th of that year. The composer let it be known that the “D” stood for “Dodgers.” Bennett’s “Dodgers’ Symphony” was performed but never published. We’re not sure if the Dodger’s eventual defeat had anything to do with that, but let the record state the Dodgers eventually did beat the Yankees in the 1955 World Series. Unfortunately, two years after that victory, the Dodgers' owner, Walter O’Malley, moved the team to Los Angeles. At the time, many in Brooklyn agreed with two sports columnists when they named the three most evil men of the 20th century as "Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O'Malley." Another composer and avid baseball fan was John Philip Sousa. Sousa’s march “The National Game” was composed in 1925 at the request of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, major league baseball’s first high commissioner. In his march, Sousa includes some interesting percussive effects involving, what else, a baseball bat!

Music for the Queen Mum

Aug 2, 2018 00:01:59


When grandma turns 90, you can bet by her age she’s gotten just about everything imaginable as a birthday gift. That was the quandary facing the Prince of Wales in 1990, when his granny, Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England—or “The Queen Mum” as just about everybody called her—was about to celebrate her 90th. Prince Charles writes: “The idea for a concert came to me when I was trying to think of an original birthday present for my grandmother. It suddenly struck me that here was a wonderful reason for commissioning some new music to celebrate a very special occasion.” Prince Charles liked the music that the Scottish composer Patrick Doyle had written for Kenneth Branagh’s film of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” so Doyle was asked to write a song cycle. The Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich heard about the planned birthday concert, and for his part commissioned and offered to play a “Romanza” for cello and small orchestra by the British composer David Matthews. The Swiss conductor and new music impresario Paul Sacher commissioned a third new work, a suite for solo violin and orchestra from the British composer Patrick Gowers. All three pieces were played at a gala concert by the English Chamber Orchestra in the Ballroom of Buckingham Palace on today’s date in 1990, two days before the Queen Mum’s 90th birthday.

Zwilich's Horn Concerto

Aug 1, 2018 00:01:59


For many professional musicians, summertime is spent away from home at one or more summer music camps and festivals. And if the camp or festival just happens to in a gorgeous mountain or lakeside setting, well, so much the better. Since 1987, world-class musicians and ensembles have made the climb to scenic Vail, Colorado, at this time of year for the Bravo! Music Festival. And on today’s date in 1993, it was at the Bravo! Festival that this new Concerto for Horn and Strings by the American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich received its premiere. The concerto was a triple commission from the Rochester Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the New York-based French horn virtuoso David Jolley, who was the soloist for the Vail premiere. Zwilich writes: “While I think of the solo horn as a heroic figure, I enjoyed the interplay and dialogue between horn and strings and allowed the character and nature of the horn to influence the strings and visa-versa… For me, the combination of solo horn and string orchestra is rich and evocative, as is the unique nature of the horn: its warmth and color, its dramatic legato as well as it pungent staccato, the sheer breadth of its sound.”

Morton Gould's "Pavanne"

Jul 31, 2018 00:01:59


On today’s date in 1938, at the New York Philharmonic’s summertime concert home at Lewissohn Stadium, a 24-year-old American composer named Morton Gould conducted the first performance of his new piece entitled “American Symphonette No. 2.” As Gould put it, his “American Symphonette” was “entertainment music attempting to utilize the elements of American swing in the classical form of the sinfonietta.” The new piece was in three movements, and the second, which proved especially popular, was entitled “Pavanne” and fused elements of jazz in swing time with the form of the old-fashioned courtly dance made famous by Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane for Dead Princess.” In the published score, Gould spelled “Pavanne” with two “n’s.” He explained much later—“I know the spelling is incorrect, but at the time I wrote the piece, Pavane was not a well-known word. Those who knew their Ravel could spell and say it right, but the people who knew only mine had difficulty in pronouncing the title. Among the misspellings were Pavayne, Puvunie, and even Parvenue! So I decided to use two n’s to give at least some idea of what the phonetic sounds were.” For many decades, Morton Gould was much in demand as a conductor and arranger, but writing original music was what he loved best. “Composing is my life blood,” he claimed. “That is basically me, and although I have done many things in my life—conducting, arranging, playing piano, and so on—what is fundamental is my being a composer.”

Mendelssohn in Scotland

Jul 30, 2018 00:01:59


In the summer of 1829, the German composer Felix Mendelssohn was touring Scotland. In the company of a friend from Berlin who held a post in London, Mendelssohn saw all the sights: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Inverness, Loch Lomond, and some of the Hebrides Islands. The two German tourists were not impressed by the food or friendliness of the somewhat surly natives, but they loved the Scottish scenery. It’s very telling that they made a point of paying a courtesy call on the famous novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose Romantic historical tales of love and tragedy were wildly popular throughout Europe in Mendelssohn’s day. And very likely, it was through the Romantic filter of Scott’s novels that Mendelssohn and his friend viewed the Scottish landscape. On today’s date they visited the ruined castle of Mary Queen of Scots, and Mendelssohn wrote this letter to his family back in Germany: “In darkening twilight today, we went to the Palace of Holyrood where Queen Mary lived and loved. The chapel has lost is roof and is overgrown with grass and ivy, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything there is ruined, decayed and open to the clear sky. I believe that I have found there today the beginning of my Scotch Symphony.” Mendelssohn may have begun his “Scotch” Symphony on today’s date in 1829, but he didn’t finish it until about a dozen years later. And although the work is dedicated to “Her Majesty Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland,” the new symphony was premiered in Leipzig, under Mendelssohn’s baton, in March of 1842.

Dvořák and friends

Jul 29, 2018 00:01:59


As a young man in his 20s, just starting out on his musical career, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak had a rough time making ends meet. He played viola in a theater orchestra, worked as a church organist, and took on music students. But by the time he hit his 30s, things started to click. His own music, composed in his rare, free moments, was starting to attact attention. The German composer Johannes Brahms took him under his wing and helped Dvorak find a publisher. The year 1878 was a particularly auspicious one for Dvorak. He was in his late 30s, and the publication of his first set of Slavonic Dances for piano four-hands had proven to be something of a smash hit with amateur musicians across Europe. Some of Dvorak’s orchestral and chamber works published that year were also doing very well. Dvorak was approached by the leader of the Florentine String Quartet and asked to write a chamber piece in his popular “Slavonic” style. The result was Dvorak’s “String Quartet No. 10, Op. 51.” Dvorak showed it to Brahms, who liked the new work and in turn showed it to some of HIS friends, including Josef Hellmesberger, whose String Quartet was the best in Vienna. But as it turned out, Dvorak’s new Quartet was premiered in Berlin, on today’s date in 1879, by the Quartet headed by another of Brahms’ old friends, the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim.

Ligeti in Salzburg

Jul 28, 2018 00:01:59


In the decades since its founding in 1920, the annual Salzburg Music Festival in Austria has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the best—and priciest—summertime music venues in the world. The core repertory of the Festival has always been the music of Salzburg’s most famous native son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and other classical and romantic masters from the Austro-Germanic tradition. Standards—