By American Public Media
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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.
||CleanThe Harris Ninth||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!||1/17/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMozart's "Esulate, jubilate"||On today's date in 1773, Wolfgang Mozart was a few days shy of his seventeenth birthday and found himself in Italy, in the company of his father, Leopold. This was their third trip to Italy, in fact, and this time around young Wolfgang was under contract to produce a new opera, "Lucio Silla," for the city of Milan. The lead singer scheduled for Mozart's new opera was the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, a male soprano, who, Leopold Mozart said 'sang like an angel." For Rauzzini, the teenage Mozart also composed a sacred work, tailor-made to show off his remarkable voice and vocal dexterity: this was a solo motet entitled "Exsultate, jubilate," which had its premiere performance in Milan's Church of San Antonio on today's date in 1773. The church is still standing, but these days the authentic performance practice movement hasn't gone quite so far as to surgically create new male sopranos, so more often than not, Mozart's "Esultate jubilate" is sung by sopranos or mezzos, who adjust portions of the vocal line up or down to make the best effect in the work's more brilliant passages. And so, although originally written for a divo, "Esultate, jubiliate" is one of the earliest of Mozart's major works to find a lasting place in the repertory of many grateful divas.||1/16/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanThe birth of "Les Six"||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.||1/15/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanA Messiaen premiere in a German prisoner of war camp||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.||1/14/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanHarp concertos by Villa-Lobos and Rautavaara||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.||1/13/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanProkofiev takes the Fifth in Moscow||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.||1/12/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanDahl's "Sinfonietta"||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.||1/11/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanBrahms bides his time||The German composer Johannes Brahms would probably have nodded in approval if he could have heard Orson Welles intone "We will sell no wine before its time" in those old TV ads for Paul Masson. Brahms was a notorious perfectionist, an obsessive polisher, and a cautious taste-tester of any of his own musical fermentations. So, if one notes that Brahms appeared at the piano on today's date in 1895, accompanying clarinetist Richard Mulhlfeld at a big Viennese performance of his Clarinet Sonata No. 1, one can safely assume there had been a number of trial performances beforehand. In the summer of 1894, during his annual holiday in the Austrian countryside, Brahms composed this sonata, which he dedicated to the famous 19th century clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, an artist Brahms described as "the master of his beautiful instrument." Mühlfeld was the clarinetist at the Meininger Hofkapelle, one of Germany's oldest court orchestras, and the very first performances of the new Clarinet Sonata followed in the fall of 1894 for the Duke of Meiningen and his sister, with an additional test run in Frankfurt for Clara Schumann. After the Meiningen royalty and fellow composer Clara Schumann gave the new work a thumbs up, Brahms apparently felt it was fit for public consumption: first on January 7, 1895 for members of Vienna's Tonkünstler Society, and four days later for an even more "toney" audience attending the Rosé String Quartet Quartet's chamber music series. After all, as Brahms and Muhlfeld might have put it: "We play no sonata before its time!"||1/10/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanA Kernis premiere wins the Pulitzer||On today’s date in 1998, the Lark Quartet gave the first performance of the String Quartet No. 2 by the American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Like much of Kernis’s music, the new Quartet drew upon an eclectic variety of influences. As Kernis himself put it: “My Second String Quartet uses elements of Renaissance and Baroque dance music and dance forms as its basis and inspiration. For years I’ve played various Bach suites and pieces from the Fitzwillian Virginal Book at the piano for my own pleasure, and I suspected for some time that their influence would eventually show up in my own work.” The Lark Quartet had commissioned Kernis’ First String Quartet, and, like the composer, were over the moon when they learned the Second Quartet had won the Pulitzer Prize for music. Just three months after its premiere, Kernis got the news by phone as he was headed to the airport to catch a flight to Spain. “I haven’t had a martini in years,” recalled Kernis, “but that’s sort of what it felt like.” Kernis’ Second Quartet was a triple commission from Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and The Schubert Club of St. Paul, Minnesota, and was dedicated to Linda Hoeschler, the former Executive Director of the American Composers Forum.||1/9/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanOpposite-coast bouquets and brickbats for Weill and Sessions||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.”||1/8/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanWilliam Bolcom and William Blake||If the late 18th century is the "Classical Age," and the 19th "The Romantic," then perhaps we should dub our time "The Eclectic Age" of music. These days, composers can—and do—pick and choose from a wide variety of styles. The American composer William Bolcom was loath to rule anything out when he approached the task of setting William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" to music. Bolcom calls for a large orchestra, multiple choruses, and more than a dozen vocal soloists versed in classical, pop, folk, country, and operatic styles. There are echoes of jazz, reggae, gospel, ragtime, country and rock idioms as well. As Bolcom put it: "At every point Blake used his whole culture, past and present, high-flown and vernacular, as sources for his many poetic styles. All I did was use the same stylistic point of departure Blake did in my musical settings." The massive work received its premiere performance in Stuttgart, Germany, on today's date in 1984. At the age of 17, Bolcom decided he wanted to set Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" to music, but put the project on hold to develop the compositional vocabulary he felt he needed to do the project justice. Most of the work was completed between 1973 and 1982, after Bolcom joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and it was there that the work received its American premiere a few months following its world premiere in Germany.||1/7/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanPop music by Rimsky-Korsakov and Michael Daugherty||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.||1/6/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanBach at Starbucks?||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.||1/5/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMilhaud at West Point||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!||1/4/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanDanielpour's home-town tribute||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…”||1/3/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanThe productive Mr. Donizetti and Mr. Williams||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.”||1/2/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanWagner's "shaggy dog" story||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…”||1/1/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanOn the Mall with Goldman||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.||12/31/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanAntheil's "Joyous" Symphony||On New Year's Eve, 1948, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the first performance of the Symphony No. 5 by the American composer George Antheil. Now, in his youth, Antheil was something of a wild man, composing a "Ballet mechanicque" for a percussion ensemble that included electric bells, sirens, and airplane propellers. It earned him a reputation, and Antheil titled his colorful 1945 autobiography what many called him: "The Bad Boy of Music." But the great Depression and World War II changed Antheil's attitude. Rather than write for small, avant-garde audiences, Antheil found work in Hollywood, with enough time left over for an occasional concert work, such as his Symphony No. 5. In program notes for the premiere, Antheil wrote: "The object of my creative work is to disassociate myself from the passé modern schools and create a music for myself and those around me which has no fear of developed melody, tonality, or understandable forms." Contemporary critics were not impressed. One called Antheil's new Symphony "nothing more than motion-picture music of a very common brand" and another lamented its "triviality and lack of originality," suggesting it sounded like warmed-over Prokofiev. The year 2000 marked the centennial of Antheil's birth, and only now, after years of neglect, both Antheil's radical scores from the 1920s AND his more conservative work from the 1940s is being performed, recorded and re-appraised.||12/30/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanA Lehar premiere in Vienna||On this date in 1905, the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár conducted the first performance of his new operetta, "The Merry Widow." Lehar was sure it would be a success, but others did not share his confidence. The show's librettist, lawyer in tow, urged Lehár to cancel the premiere, and the nervous theater manager banned Viennese reporters from dress rehearsals, fearing bad advance press. After a lukewarm debut at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, "The Merry Widow" moved to a smaller, suburban theater, where it suddenly caught on. Within a year it had become a sensational hit throughout Europe. Lehár's contemporary, Gustav Mahler, was a "Merry Widow" fan, although he sent his wife, Alma, to buy the music rather than risk the embarrassment of having the director of Vienna's Imperial Opera House seen buying such a shamelessly "pop" score. Ironically, another great fan of Lehár's music was Adolf Hitler. Despite the fact that Lehár's wife and many of his professional associates were Jewish, Lehár's music continued to be performed in Nazi Germany. Lehár was 68 when Austria became part of the German Reich, and continued to conduct in Vienna and Berlin. Lehár's family was spared, but many of his former associates were forced into exile. Others were not so lucky: In 1942, Louis Treumann, who first sang "The Merry Widow Waltz" at the 1905 premiere in Vienna, died in the "model" concentration camp at Theresienstadt.||12/29/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanQuartets by Debussy and Ravel||While hardly twins, the String Quartets of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel are often linked in the minds of music lovers and record companies. Admired today for their grace and sheer beauty, back when these quartets were first performed in Paris, reactions were quite different. Debussy's work premiered on today's date in 1893, played by the Ysaÿe Quartet. One critic wrote the music was "strange and bizarre, with too many echoes of the streets of Cairo and the gamelan." The gamelan reference was a dig at Debussy's enthusiasm for the Indonesian bronze gong ensemble that he—and many Europeans—heard for the first time at the Paris Exposition of 1889, which bought musical performers from around the globe to that city. Ravel completed his Quartet ten years after Debussy's. It's dedicated to his teacher Gabriel Fauré, and was first played by the Heymann Quartet on March 5, 1904. Ravel submitted it to both the Prix de Rome and the Conservatoire de Paris. It was rejected by both institutions, and Fauré described the Quartet's last movement as "stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure." Now if Debussy were a modern-day American, he might have sent Ravel a note saying: "I feel your pain" or "Been there, done that" —but what he actually wrote to Ravel was: "In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet!" And you know what? Debussy was right.||12/28/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanHumperdinck for the Animal Channel?||On today's date in 1910, the Metropolitan Opera premiered a new opera by the German composer Engelbert Humperdinck, already famous for his opera "Hansel and Gretel." This new opera was also a fairy-tale and titled "Königskinder" or "The Royal Children." The female lead role of the Goose Girl was sung by Geraldine Farrar, admired back then for both her vocal and physical beauty. Farrar wasn't scared of geese, either. She convinced both Humperdinck and Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the Met's manager, to add a touch of verismo to the staging. In her autobiography, Farrar writes: "Humperdinck was not a little taken aback when I mentioned that I intended having live geese which were to move naturally and unconfined about the stage… The conductor was much perturbed and objected to the noise and confusion they might create; but Mr. Gatti was resigned to my whim … So with the help o f… the 'boys' behind the stage I had as pretty a flock of birds as one could find on any farm. When the curtain rose upon that idyllic forest scene, with the goose girl in the grass, the geese unconcernedly picking their way about, now and again spreading snowy wings, unafraid, the [audience] was simply delighted and applauded long and vigorously." Unlike "Hansel and Gretel," "Königskinder" had an unhappy fairy-tale ending, and despite some really lovely music, it's seldom staged these days—with or without live geese.||12/27/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanAirs and poems by Kernis and Chausson||In the hands of a great performer, the violin can sing with the personality and intensity of a great opera singer. Pyrotechnics may dazzle, but nothing moves an audience as much as when a great violinist "sings" through his instrument. On today's date in 1896, a French audience in Nancy must has been so moved when the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe gave the first performance of this music: the "Poème" for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson. In addition to famous artists like Manet and Degas, Chausson counted among his friends many of the great musicians of his day, including the great violinist Ysäye. Although they admired his work, Chausson was not always appreciated by the public. But when Ysaÿe premiered Chausson's "Poème" in Paris in 1897, the applause went on and on. Used to just the opposite reaction, Chausson was stunned by his success, and, while thanking Ysaye profusely, kept repeating to himself: "I just can't believe it!" Two modern-day violinists, Joshua Bell and Pamela Frank, were the inspiration for this songful contemporary work by Aaron Jay Kernis. Titled "Air for Violin," it was originally composed for violin and piano, and premiered in 1995 by Joshua Bell. The following year, Pamela Frank and the Minnesota Orchestra premiered a new version of "Air" for violin and orchestra.||12/26/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanA $400 finale for Sibelius||On this day in 1926, Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony in the first performance of the last major orchestral work of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius—his symphonic tone poem "Tapiola." The title refers to an ancient Finnish forest god, Tapio, and the music suggests an ancient mystery culminating in a burst of terrifying savagery. After receiving the score, Damrosch wrote this note of appreciation to the composer: "No one but a Norseman could have written this work. We were all enthralled by the dark pine forests and the shadowy gods and wood nymphs who dwell therein. The coda with its icy winds sweeping through the forest made us shiver." Today the commission fee Damrosch paid Sibelius for this orchestral masterpiece makes US shiver: Sibelius was paid only $400. At this point in his career, Sibelius was afflicted by intense self-doubt. He wrote in his diary: "I have suffered because of 'Tapiola,'... was I really cut out for this sort of thing? Going downhill. Can't be alone. Drinking whiskey. Physically not strong enough for all this…" For the next 30 years and more, Sibelius lived in retirement, drinking heavily, and though rumors persisted that he was still writing music, no scores were discovered after his death.||12/25/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanNo holiday for Bach in Leipzig, Bernstein in Berlin||Today is a holiday for most people, but certainly NOT for church musicians. On this day in 1734 in Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach supervised not one but TWO performances of the first part of his new "Christmas Oratorio." Bach was music director of two Leipzig churches, responsible for morning and afternoon performances scheduled on the same day. The "Christmas Oratorio" was conceived as six separate cantatas on the Christmas theme, spread out over Christmas, New Year's Day, and Epiphany—so Bach and his Leipzig musicians kept busy well into the following year. "Jauchzet, frohlocket" sings the chorus in German at the opening of the first of the six cantatas—"Rejoice and be happy!" Closer to our own day, musicians from several countries gathered in Berlin at Christmastime in 1989 to participate in especially joyous performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony led by Leonard Bernstein, which celebrated the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the eventual reunification of the two halves of Germany separated since the end of World War II. A multi-national orchestra included members of the Bavarian Radio Symphony with additional players drawn from the major orchestras of New York, London, Paris, Dresden and Leningrad. They performed first on the west side of the wall on December 23rd, and then on the east side on the 24th. On Christmas Day, a video performance was telecast from Berlin to the world.||12/24/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanLibby Larsen||Today marks birthday of the American composer Libby Larsen. In 1973, while a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, she and fellow composer Stephen Paulus founded The Minnesota Composers Forum– originally as a means to get their own music performed on and off campus. In a 1988 interview, Larsen said: "When I got my Ph.D. in 1978, I looked around and saw that there were certain paths that I could take, as a composer, to be happy. One was to teach at a university, another was to write music for performance. I chose to write music, to try not teaching for a while, and see where that led me." Larsen's path led to the creation of well over 400 vocal and instrumental works, from songs to large-scale symphonic and operatic scores, residencies with several symphony orchestras, and even a prestigious post at the Library of Congress. Ironically, while never taking a teaching post, Larsen has become very much in demand as a popular visiting lecturer at colleges and universities! "The path that led me to become a composer was a series of lucky self-discoveries," says Larsen, "No one ever encouraged me to be a composer, but I've always had the desire to tell everybody what I see and what I feel. To do that through music seemed to me the most elegant and most deeply communicative way." Oh, and that organization Larsen and Paulus founded back in 1973 is still around, renamed The AMERICAN Composers Forum.||12/23/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanHumperdinck's "Into the Woods?"||On today's date in 1893, the opera "Hansel and Gretel" written by a 39-year old German composer named Engelbert Humperdinck received its premiere performance at the Court Theater of Weimar. It was conducted by a promising 29-year old composer by the name of Richard Strauss. It quickly became an international hit, playing to packed houses in Berlin, Vienna and London. Gustav Mahler, head of the Hamburg Opera at the time, declared it a masterpiece, and parents on several continents breathed a sigh of relief: here was an opera without the sex and violence so fashionable in the media—even back in 1893! "Hansel and Gretel" quickly became a Christmastime tradition—even though there's nothing in it particular "Christmas-y" apart from children, sugary things to eat, and the appearance of an angel or two. Initially, Humperdinck didn't even want to write anything as silly as an opera on "Hansel and Gretel." He was a serious young protégé of Richard Wagner who had helped copy the orchestral parts for Wagner's final opera, "Parsifal." It was his sister who talked him in to writing some music for a children's play she had prepared on the familiar fairytale by the Brothers Grimm. At some point, Humperdinck must have realized he not only could—but should—work his sister's play into a full-blown opera, which would blend Wagner's complex orchestral technique with a simple but universally appealing story that would charm old and young alike.||12/22/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanA Beethoven marathon in Vienna||On this day in 1808 at Vienna's Theater-an-der-Wien one of the most famous concerts in the history of classical music took place. It was an all-Beethoven concert, with the composer himself featured as both conductor and piano soloist. The program included the premieres of both Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Beethoven's Fourth Piano was also on the program—along with additional piano and vocal selections, including portions of Beethoven's Mass in C. At the last moment, Beethoven felt this still might not be quite enough music, so, considering the forces he had booked, he hastily composed his Choral Fantasy, a work that begins with a solo piano, then adds full orchestra and chorus to the mix. The concert began at 6:30 p.m. and lasted over four hours. Contemporary reviews were mixed—but apparently Beethoven's Fifth proved popular with its first night audience, and rapidly established itself worldwide as one of classical music's greatest hits. A less successful symphonic work had its premiere on this day in 1960, when Charles Munch conducted the Boston Symphony in the first performance of "Die Natali" by American composer Samuel Barber. This orchestral piece used familiar Christmas carols as themes, which are treated to a series of variations. Barber later expressed his own dissatisfaction with this score and withdrew it, but recycled his variations on "Silent Night" as a separate piece for solo organ.||12/21/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanSchoenberg in Vienna and New York||On today's date in 1908, a chamber concert in Vienna provoked a near riot as the Rosé Quartet premiered the Second String Quartet of Austrian composer, Arnold Schoenberg. A reporter from the Viennese Daily wrote: "It was like a bunch of singing cats"—and a reporter from Prague newspaper wrote: "Some discords made elegantly dressed ladies cringe under the painful impact on their delicate ears, and elderly gentlemen were at the point of tears from fury. In the middle of all this tumult stood the figure of the composer, who gestured towards the performers in an expression of gratitude and encouragement." Even today, no major figure of 20th century music remains quite so controversial and seemingly contradictory as Arnold Schoenberg, who developed a new, atonal system of composition which gave equal importance to all 12 tones of the Western musical scale—yet was also heard to say that "there was still so much good music to be written in C Major." And Schoenberg, the implacable musical revolutionary, insisted his students first study the German classics, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—and he himself prepared opulent modern orchestral versions of three organ pieces by Bach. Two of these Schoenberg arrangements of organ preludes by Bach, "Adorn thyself, O my Soul" and "Come God, Creator, Holy Ghost" were premiered in New York in December of 1922, by Joseph Stransky and the New York Philharmonic.||12/20/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMozart in Salzburg, Bloch in America||In the spring of 1775, shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, and the sparks of the American Revolution burst into flames at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Far away in Salzburg, Austria, a 19-year-old composer named Wolfgang Mozart was spending most of that year composing five violin concertos. The fifth, in A major, was completed on this day in 1775. At the time, Mozart was concertmaster of the orchestra in the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Archbishops don't have their own orchestras now, but they did then—at least in Europe, if not in the American colonies. A century and a half later, America was celebrating its sesquicentennial, and the magazine Musical America offered a prize of $3,000 for the best symphonic work on an American theme. The prize was awarded unanimously to Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born composer who had arrived in this country only a decade before. But already, sailing into the harbor of New York, he had conceived of a large patriotic composition. Several years later, it took shape in three movements as "America—An Epic Rhapsody for Orchestra." It premiered in New York on today's date in 1928, with simultaneous performances the next day in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Fifteen other orchestras programmed it within a year. Curiously, although Bloch remains a highly respected composer, his "America Rhapsody" from 1928 is seldom performed today.||12/19/2016||Free||View in iTunes|
As a music student in college and a young composer, I find this podcast to be very informative. If you enjoy this podcast, you should check out Naxos' Classical Music Spotlight Podcast as it goes more in depth (average length of 20 minutes).
At last, from my email to my iPod
I have enjoyed this as an email for a long time. It's good to see it as a podcast. As always, I wish the music portion would be longer.
This is a wonderful snippit. I always enjoy it. I also wish the music portion was longer. Maybe it's just long (short?) enough for many people. I have followed through on many of the works mentioned.