Archive of blurbs

May 22, 2017.  Wagner and Francaix.  Richard Wagner was born on this day in 1813.  For some years we’ve been following Wagner’s life by the milestones of his operas; last year we arrived at the end of the “Romantic operas” period, with Lohengrin, written in 1848 and its Richard Wagnerpremier in 1850, being the last one.  Wagner’s genius had matured, and during the next several years he would produce not simply “operas” but “music dramas,” the term Wagner himself used to describe what he considered to be a “total work of art,” art that combines music and theater into one unified whole.  He started working on Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in 1848 and continued for almost 26 years, completing the composition of the last (fourth) opera of the cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) in 1874.  During that period, he also wrote two other masterpieces, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  Wagner intended the Ring to be performed as a cycle, as it was at the premier, in the course of several days in August of 1876 in Bayreuth.  The premier took place in a specially built theater, the old opera house being too small for Wagner’s orchestra.  Wagner’s old patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, even though his relationship with Wagner had soured throughout the years, was instrumental in financing the theater.  The premier was attended by royalty (Kaiser Wilhelm was there, as well as Ludwig, and Don Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil).  The leading musicians of the day were also present: Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and of course Franz Liszt, Wagner’s father in law.  And so was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the major influences and, for a while, a good friend.

We’ll tackle individual operas of the RingDas Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – in due course: each one represents a challenging, exasperating, but in the end enormously satisfying, subject.  For now, we’ll just play the overture, or the Prelude, as Wagner called it, to Das Rheingoldthat’s how the monumental tetralogy starts, the beginning of all beginnings (Sir Georg Solti conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in a 1967 recording).

A very different artist was also born this week, the French composer Jean Françaix.  Born 99 years and a day after Wagner, Françaix may be considered Wagner’s opposite.  Françaix once said that his goal is to "give pleasure": you would’ve never heard anything similar from Wagner.  Françaix was born into a musical family which encouraged his studies.  He was still a child when Ravel noticed him and wrote a glowing letter to his father, Alfred, the director of the Le Mans Conservatoire.  Françaix studied with Nadia Boulanger who later became his champion, playing and conducting many of his premiers.  His work was met enthusiastically.  Not very complicated, it had a natural charm and brilliance.  In addition to orchestral and ensemble music, Françaix wrote music for ballets (in collaboration with the great choreographer Roland Petit) and a number of film scores.  He wrote several operas; La princesse de Clèves (1964) was very well received.  Here’s his Concertino for piano and orchestra, from 1932.  The pianist is Claude Françaix, Jean’s daughter.

Read more...

May 15, 2017.  Monteverdi at 450Claudio Monteverdi, a pioneering figure and one of the most important composers in the history of European music, was baptized on this day in 1567, making it Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary.  For the past two years, we’ve celebrated Claudio Monteverdithe genius of Monteverdi with detailed entries (here and here).  While Monteverdi is rightly famous as one of the very first composers of opera and the most significant one among the early adopters of this new genre, the bulk of his musical output was in madrigals.  He published his first book of madrigals in 1587, when he was twenty years old and still living in Cremona, his place of birth.  The last four, Books 6 through 9, were published when Monteverdi was in Venice, having left Mantua in 1612.  (The last, ninth book, appeared in print posthumously).  As an example, here’s a madrigal from his first book, Baci soavi e cari (it’s performed by The Consort of Musicke with the soprano Emma Kirkby, Anthony Rooley conducting).  It’s nice but rather conventional.  Considering that both Palestrina (d. 1594) and Orlando di Lasso, who died the same year, were still alive and writing great music, and that Gesualdo was at the peak of his creative power, this is not a very memorable achievement.  Compare it, for example, with Orlando’s amazing Carmina crhomatico from Prophetiae Sibyllarum, composed years earlier (here; Ensemble De Labyrintho is conducted by Walter Testolin).  Monteverdi’s later motets are very different.  Consider, for example, the second motet, Hor che 'l ciel e la terra (Now that the sky, earth and wind are silent, after a sonnet by Petrarch) from Book 8 (here, with Concerto Italiano directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini).  It’s operatic in style, with dramatic scenes following serene episodes.  Monteverdi himself called it Stile concitato (agitated style) and it certainly is. 

Book 8 was published in 1638 but some of the works in it were composed earlier.  The set consists of two parts: Madrigals of War (Hor che 'l ciel is one of them) and Madrigals of Love.  The war may refer to the terrible events of 1530 during and following the War of Mantuan Succession.  Even though Monteverdi was living in Venice, he was considered a citizen of Mantua and was receiving a pension from the Duchy, so these events affected him more than most.  Monteverdi left Mantua after the death of the Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga, in 1612.  The sons of Vincenzo, Francesco, who fired Monteverdi, and Ferdinando, died without leaving a male heir.  That led to a conflict between the claimants to the duchy, mainly the Holy Roman Empire and France.  In July of 1630 the imperial troupes sacked Mantua.  That was only part of the tragedy: the invading army also brought the plague.  Some of the escaping Mantuans went to Venice and infected that city as well.  In the following year, out of Venice’s population of 150,000 almost 50,000 people died.  Asking for protection from the Virgin, the city erected the church of Santa Maria della Salute, now part of the Venetian cityscape; music of Monteverdi was played at the foundation ceremony.  Whether thru divine intervention or natural causes, by November of 1631 the plague was over.  Monteverdi’s mass with the famous Gloria was performed during the celebrations.  Rather than playing the excerpts from the Mass, here is one of the Madrigals of Love from Book 8: a lovely Lamento della Ninfa (The Consort of Musicke is conducted by Anthony Rooley). 

In April of 1632 Monteverdi entered the priesthood; even so, he continued to write secular music, operas among them.  The last one, L’incoronazione di Poppea, was premiered during the Carnival season in 1643.  Monteverdi died several months later, on November 29th of that year.

Read more...

May 8, 2017.    A fascinating life of a little-known composer.  A Russian-French-American composer, an early Futurist, Arthur Lourié was born on May 14th of 1891 in a small town of Arthur Lourié by Theodore StravinskyPropoisk, now in Belarus.  Half of the population of the town was Jewish, as was Arthur’s family, though they were reasonably well off as his father was an engineer.  In 1899 they moved to Odessa.  In 1909 Arthur moved to St-Petersburg and entered the Conservatory where he studied composition with Alexander Glazunov (he never completed his studies and was mostly self-taught).  In 1914 Arthur converted to Catholicism and took the name of Arthur-Vincent Lourié, after his favorite painter, Vincent Van Gogh.  As part of the artistic elite, he became friends with the poet Anna Akhmatova and was the first to set her verse to music.  He also was an acquaintance of the poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Blok, and the writer Fyodor Sologub.  In 1914, following Marinetti’s example, Lourié, the painter Georgy Yakulov and the poet Benedikt Livshitz published the Russian version of the Futurist Manifesto, “We and the West.”  A year later he composed a “futurist” piece called Forms in the Air, which he dedicated to Picasso (you can listen to it here in the performance by the Italian pianist and composer Daniele Lombardi).  Extremely innovating, he also wrote several atonal and quarter-tone pieces, in some ways presaging Schoenberg.

After the October Revolution of 1917, Lourié served in the Department of Education under Anatoly Lunacharsky.  For all practical purposes, Lunacharsky, who in the early years after the Revolution supported all kinds of radical artistic innovations, was functioning as Minister of Culture.  Lourié was his deputy in charge of music.  In Moscow Lourié shared an apartment with Sergei Sudeikin and his wife, Vera de Bosset.  Sudeikin was an exceptional painter who became well-known in Paris for his decorations to Diagilev’s ballets.  Vera de Bosset, a dancer, would play a very important role in Lourié’s life: in 1920 she and Sudeikin moved to Paris where she met and soon become a lover of (and much later the wife of) Igor Stravinsky.  Vera would eventually introduce Lourié to Stravinsky which started a long, if contentious, friendship.  Lourié’s work at the Soviet ministry didn’t last long, and in 1921 he moved to Berlin where he befriended Ferruccio Busoni and Edgar Varèse.  A year later, in 1922, he moved to Paris, and through Vera met up with Stravinsky.   He became one of Stravinsky’s most important supporters, writing articles and speaking on his behalf.   There is no doubt that of the two it was Stravinsky who possessed an enormous creative talent but many musicologists point out that Lourié’s compositions may have influenced Stravinsky’s work: for example, Lourié’s A Little Chamber Music (here) was written in 1924, and it sounds stylistically very similar to Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète, which was written three years later, in 1927.

Vera de Bosset, by Sergei Sudeikin brought Lourié and Stravinsky together; she, apparently, was also the reason they fell apart.  While in Paris, Lourié continued composing, writing two symphonies and many songs on poetry from Sappho and Dante to Pushkin, Verlaine and Mayakovsky.   In 1941 the Germans occupied France and with the help of Serge Koussevitzky Lourié fled to the US.  He tried to write music for film, but was not very successfull.  His major undertaking was the opera The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, after Pushkin’s novel, which has not been staged to this day.  Lourié died in Princeton in 1966.

The portrait of Lourié, above, is by Theodore Stravinsky, Igor’s son from his first marriage.  The portrait of Vera de Bosset is by Sergei Sudeikin.

Read more...

May 1, 2017.  Alessandro Scarlatti, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.  Scarlatti père was born on May 2nd of 1660 in Palermo, Sicily.  These days we know his son, Domenico, the composer of wonderful clavier sonatas, much better, but this has more to do with changes in tastes in musical genres than their relative talents.  During his time, Scarlatti, famous for his operas, wAlessandro Scarlattias one of the most popular composers in Italy.  It’s much more difficult to stage an opera, especially a baroque opera, than perform a piano sonata, thus our familiarity with Alessandro is limited while many of Domenico’s sonatas became popular fare.   This is a pity: Alessandro Scarlatti wrote close to 70 operas and some of them are remarkable.  One of the finest is Il Mitridate Eupatore, which Scarlatti wrote in 1706; it was premiered in Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice in January of 1707.   Scarlatti moved to Venice from Rome, where performances of operas were forbidden (fortunately, temporarily) by the Pope – Venice, on the other hand, had the most active opera scene in the world.  The above mentioned Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, for example, one of the finest and largest in Venice, was built in 1678.  It had five levels of boxes, with 30 boxes in each row, plus stalls for the hoi polloi.  In 1709, the theater saw the premier of Handel’s Agrippina.  The theater exists to this day, now knowns as Teatro Malibran, after Maria Malibran, the great Spanish mezzo famous for her roles in operas by Rossini and Donizetti (Malibran died in 1836 at the age of 28, the age when most singers would not have yet properly developed their voice).   But back to Scarlatti: he soon realized that in Venice, with its dozens of opera theaters, he would have a stiff competition and even the support of Prince Antiono Ottoboni, the father of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, wouldn’t guarantee success.  Scarlatti’s premonition came true: both of his Venetian operas, Il trionfo della libertà and Il Mitridate Eupator, were met with mixed success at best.  Bitterly disappointed, Scarlatti left Venice and, after a stay in Urbino, returned to Rome.  Much of  the score of Il trionfo is lost but fortunately for us, Mitridate survived and is staged, if not often, to this day.  Its music is marvelous, as you can judge for yourself.  Here is Cara tomba, sung by the soprano Simone Kermes; here – a Dolce stimola with the incomparable Joan Sutherland.

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7th of 1833, and exactly seven years later so was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  Every year we try to compare the two: both wrote wonderful symphonies, their violin concertos are among the best ever written, and the same could be said about Tchaikovsky’s First piano concerto and Brahms’s First and, maybe even more so, his Second.  Still, the basic truth is that while they worked during the same period, it’s hard to imagine two composers more different than the conservative follower of Beethoven and the Russian nationalist Romantic.   One thing they do have in common is their songs: both wrote absolutely wonderful songs which were overshadowed by their larger compositions.   Brahms wrote songs throughout  his whole life, from his Six songs op. 3 to the Five songs, op 107.  Altogether he wrote about 200 songs.  Here’s his Sapphische Ode, op.94, no. 4, sung by the soprano Bernarda Fink with Anthony Spiri on the piano.  The same performer can be heard here in Brahms’s song Feldeinsamkeit, op.86, no. 2.   Tchaikovsky’s song output is smaller but contains many gems.  Here are two songs from his Op. 54, Song for Children.  First, Lullaby in a Storm, from op. 54 and then, Child’s song (“My Lizochek”).  The soprano Ljuba Kazarnovskaya is accompanied by Ljuba Orfenova.

Read more...

April 24, 2017.  Prokofiev.  Confusion surrounds the birth date of Sergei Prokofiev.  One problem is calendar-related: when he was born, Russia was using the old Julian calendar.  Prokofiev Sergei Prokofievhimself always thought that he was born on April 11th of 1891.  When Russia moved to the Gregorian calendar after the October Revolution, April 11th became April 23rd while, quite confusingly, the anniversary of the revolution itself fell on November 7th.  Prokofiev celebrated his birthday on the 23rd, but that’s not what is written in the existing copy of his birth certificate, which says that he was born on April 15th (old style), or April 27th.  Last year we celebrated Prokofiev’s 125th anniversary and we wrote about him in some detail.  Prokofiev’s life, like the lives of so many Russian artists of that time, can be divided in geographic periods: Russia, America, Europe, the USSR.  He was born in the village of Sontsovka, not far from the present-day Donetsk, where his father managed an estate.  His mother gave him his first piano lessons.  At the age of 11, while in Moscow, he was introduced to Sergei Taneyev , who was quite impressed and asked his friend, composer Reinhold Glière, to give Prokofiev lessons in composition.  A year later Prokofiev entered the St-Petersburg conservatory, where his studied with Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.  A brilliant pianist and promising composer, he became famous early, even though the more conservative public was scandalized by works like The Scythian Suite.  After the Revolution Prokofiev emigrated to the United States, thus starting the second and rather short period of his life.  His time in the US was not very happy: as a pianist, he had to compete with the very successful Rachmaninov, and as a composer – with the more famous Stravinsky.  He did compose a very successful opera The Love for Three Oranges, but as his career was not progressing, he moved to Europe, thus entering the third phase of his life.  Prokofiev lived in Europe from 1922 to 1936, first in Germany and then in Paris.  He married a Spanish singer, Lina Lubera, continued composing for Diagilev and mended his ways with Stravinsky, who considered Prokofiev the greatest Russian composer – after himself.  Unlike Stravinsky, Prokofiev continued to maintain relationships with Soviet musicians and even wrote music for a Soviet film, Lieutenant Kijé (he reused the music in a very popular suite).  He even received a commission from the Mariinsky theater, then recently renamed the Kirov, to create a ballet, Romeo and Juliet.  As his links with the Soviet musical establishment grew, he was offered to return to Russia; he accepted in 1936.  Why he made this fateful decision, considering the purges and recent condemnation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, we’ll never know.

The Soviets promised him a good life and artistic freedom, and initially that’s how it worked.  Prokofiev adapted his work according to the political climate, writing songs on patriotic texts and a cantata in 10 movements for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, whose orchestration included a military band and several accordions.  (Despite all this the Cantata had to wait its premier till 1966).  Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and Prokofiev, like all important artists, was evacuated to the eastern parts of the country.  Despite the hardship he continued to compose, which to some extent was easier as the musical censorship was relaxed.  The three War piano sonatas and most of the opera War and Peace come from that period.  And then, as the war ended, “Zhdanovshchina” erupted.  While Stalin’s underlings Yezhov and Beria were terrorizing people physically, Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s chief ideolog, terrorized the Soviet cultural elite.  He started with the writers and the poets in 1946, then moved on to condemnations of theater and film.  Then, in 1948 the Politburo of the Communist Party issued a resolution criticizing “formalism” in classical music.  We’ll consider the tragic consequences of this resolution another time.  Here, from a much happier period, is Prokofiev’s answer to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – his Scythian Suite.  Claudio Abbado conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Read more...

April 17, 2017.  Happy Easter!  The Eastern Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar; the Western Churches – the Gregorian that we all are accustomed to.  Both use arcane methods (phases of the moon come into play) to derive the dates of Easter Sundays.  Once in a while these obscure calculations end up with the same date, as it happened this year (we won’t have another oneAndrea Mantegna Crucifixion till 2025).  In addition, Passover this year started on Monday, April 10th and runs through April 18th, making for an unusually rich holiday period.

The Western tradition of writing music for Easter goes back to the Middle Ages and became especially strong during the Renaissance.  In 1585, the great Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria published a set of 18 motets called Tenebrae responsories sung during the Latin services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the Holy week.  Here’s one of these motets, O vos omnes (All you who walk by on the road), sung on Saturday.  It’s performed by the ensemble Tallis Scholars.  About 25 years later, Carlo Gesualdo wrote his own setting of Tenebrae responsories.  It’s an amazing vocal piece whose tonal modulations sound startling even today.  Here’s Omnes amici mei dereliquerunt me (All my friends have deserted me) for Good Friday.  The Taverner Consort is conducted by Andrew Parrott.  Both settings above were created for a Catholic service.  When Thomas Tallis composed his Lamentations of Jeremiah sometime in the 1570s, England’s Anglican Church had already separated from Rome, although it’s not clear whether Lamentations were composed for the Catholic or Anglican service.  In England of the late 16th century the settings of the Lamentations were traditionally performed at the Tenebrae service of the Holy week.  Many settings were written – William Byrd for example, created one.  Tallis’s is probably the most profound.  Here’s the first part, performed by the ensemble Magnificat, Philip Cave conducting.

 Johann Sebastian Bach composed some of the greatest music for Easter: two sets of Passions, one, set to the chapters of the Gospel according to St. John, another – St. Matthew.  Bach’s obituary mentions five Passions but these two the only ones extant.  Bach also wrote Easter Oratorio, the first version of which was completed the same year as the St. Matthew Passion, 1725.  Here’s the first part of St. John Passion.  Concentus Musicus Wien and Arnold Schoenberg Choir are conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

The Eastern orthodox church historically lacked the tradition of “composed” music.  Different chants, the so-called Znamenny chant being the major one, were used for centuries.  These chants go back to the Byzantine service and are written not in notes but special signs . Only at the end of the 19th century did Russian composers turn to the liturgical music, Alexander Gretchaninov and especially Sergei Rachmaninov among them.  There are many recordings of the traditional services, but the one created by the choir of the Chevetogne Abbey is especially interesting.  They Abbey is dedicated to Christian unity and though it is a Benedictine abbey, it has both Western rite and Eastern rite churches and made recordings of both Eastern and Latin services.  Here’s the first part of the Service for Holy Saturday, performed by the Choir of the Abbey of Chevetogne.

Read more...

April 10, 2017.  Robert Schumann, Eichendorff Liederkreis, Part I.  Today we present the first part of an article about one of the most captivating song cycles in the history of European music, Schumann’s Liederkreis (song cycle) op. 39.  Based on the poetry of Joseph Eichendorff, the cycle Robert Schumannis usually called Eichendorff Liederkreis to distinguish it from another song cycle, op. 24, written on the poems by Heinrich Heine earlier that same year (1840), Schumann’s Year of Song.  There are many great recordings of Eichendorff Liederkreis, made both by male (tenors and baritones) and female (soprano and mezzo) singers: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made a famous recording, and so did Hermann Prey, also a baritone.   The English tenor Ian Bostridge made a wonderful recording, and Peter Schreier, a German tenor.  Jessye Norman, a dramatic soprano, was excellent in this cycle, but so was the Dutch lyric soprano Elly Ameling.  We decided to illustrate Eichendorff Liederkreis with the recording made by a lesser known but superb Leider singer, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher.  Gerold Huber is on the piano.  ♫

In his early years as a composer, Robert Schumann composed virtually exclusively for the piano. However, the year of 1840 saw at least the creation of 138 songs. Since then, this abundant creative outpouring has become known as Schumann’s Liederjahr, or “Year of Song.” The sudden shift from piano to vocal music, though, was not purely coincidental. It marked the culmination of his courtship of Clara Wieck, and his long-awaited and hard-won marriage to her.

Schumann and Clara first met in March 1828 at a musical evening in the home of Dr. Ernst Carus. So impressed was Schumann with her skill at the piano, he soon after began taking piano lessons from her teacher and father, Friedrich, during which time he took up residence in the Wieck’s household. In such close proximity, Schumann and Clara soon formed a close bond that would, in time, blossom into a romantic relationship. Friedrich, however, did not think highly of Schumann. Thus, they kept their relationship a secret, and in 1837, on Clara’s 18th birthday, Schumann proposed to her. Clara accepted, yet her father refused to give his consent. However, this did not deter the two young lovers, though it did place a strain on their relationship. Schumann and Clara continued to exchange love letters, and met in secret whenever they could. In a display of tender devotion, Schumann would even wait for hours in a café just to catch a glimpse of Clara as she left one of her concerts. Refusing to be apart, the couple sued Clara’s father. After a lengthy court battle, Clara was finally allowed to marry Schuman without her father’s consent. The wedding took place in 1840.

Liederkreis, op. 39 was one of the song cycles, along with Frauenliebe und -leben and Dichterliebe, composed during the intensive creative episode surrounding Schumann’s marriage to Clara. Based on poetry of Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Schumann himself described the songs as his “most Romantic music ever.” The cycle was begun in May, and thus displays Schumann’s rapid advancement and growing sophistication as a composer of song. Interestingly, for a composer with such an affinity for motivic and thematic unity, opus 39 is one of Schumann’s least unified cycles. No narrative links the songs to together as in Frauenliebe und -leben, nor are there connecting or recurring themes as in the case of that cycle or of Dichterliebe. However, a common thread still weaves its way throughout the songs. All, except for Intermezzo, are explicitly set in nature. Furthermore, a theme of longing and separation permeate many of the songs, with a few evenly grimly touching upon death. Yet, ultimately, the cycle culminates in the blissful “Frühlingsnacht,” in which the poet, quite beyond his own belief, has won the object of his affection, and reveals that the songs of opus 39 were perhaps Schumann’s emotional outlet during the time leading up to Schumann’s marriage to Clara.

Opening the cycle is the lonesome “In der Fremde” (here). In a foreign land, the poet looks longingly towards his homeland. Yet, even there, he knows he would remain a foreigner—his father and mother dead, no one would know him (“Es kennt mich dort keiner mehr”). He longs for the peaceful rest his parents now enjoy (“Wie bald kommt die stille Zeit”), when no one in the strange land shall know him either. An unsettled accompaniment of broken chords forms the foundation of Schumann’s setting. The vocal melody is simple. During the first stanza, it hovers closely above the tonic, reaching only up to the subdominant and each time falling back down, effectively capturing the gloomy thoughts that weigh down upon the poet. The melody, as well as the piano accompaniment, changes, however, during the second stanza. Briefly, the music turns away from F-sharp minor to A major as the poet wistfully turns his thoughts towards his parents. Yet, a grim A-sharp foils the melody’s diatonic descent on the words “da ruhe ich auch” (“I, too, shall rest”), and quite startlingly ushers back in the morbid state of the poet. The final line of the poem (“und Keiner kennt mich mehr hier”), twice stated, is most poignantly rendered in F-sharp major. Yet, the warm and comforting resolution of the major key is entirely thwarted by Schumann’s persistent inclusion of G natural, most affectingly in the closing strains of the voice. The piano then echoes the vocal melody’s last strain during its brief postlude.  (Continue reading here).

Read more...

April 2, 2017.  Rachmaninov.  Anybody who pays attention to the musical calendar could accuse us of being prejudiced against Sergei Rachmaninov.  Last week we wrote about Antonio de Cabezón, a somewhat obscure Spanish composer of the 17th century with a questionable birth Sergei Rachmaninovdate instead of writing about Rachmaninov, one of the most popular composers of the 20th century who was definitely born on April 1st.  And a year ago, we wrote about Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, but again, not about Rachmaninov.  Fortunately, it seems that among our listeners there are not too many sticklers for historical detail.  We’re not trying to avoid Rachmaninov: he was a great composer, even if perception of his music has been changing over the years (but of course that also could be said about any composer of note).   He was not a pathbreaker; his musical idiom came straight from the 19th century Russian tradition.  Still, the totality of his work is original, he was a wonderful melodist and had a great sense of form.  And, in additional to all that, he was one of the greatest pianist of the first half of the 20th century! 

His life, as lives of so many Russian artists who lived through the Revolution, was broken in two: the Russian part and the exile.  Rachmaninov was born on April 1st (or March 20th, old style) of 1873 on a family estate in the Novgorod province of northern Russia.  His family was quite rich in the previous generations, but his father had squandered much of the wealth, leaving them just one estate at Oneg, and even that would be lost soon after.  Rachmaninov, who received early piano lessons from his mother, was sent to the St.-Petersburg conservatory.  Things did not go well there, and he transferred to Moscow to study with Nikolay Zverev.  Lacking fund for his own place, he lived in his teacher’s apartment.  That was providential, as that’s where he met many musicians who were influential in his development: Anton Rubinstein, Taneyev, Arensky, and, most importantly, Tchaikovsky.  Taneyev and Arensky became his teachers at the Conservatory; he also took piano classes with a cousin 10 years his elder, Alexander Siloti (Siloti, a pupil of Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky and Liszt, a virtuoso pianist and conductor, would also emigrate to the US after the Revolution).  For a while Rachmaninov continued living with Zverev, but in 1888 moved in with his relatives, the Satins.  Satins had an estate, Ivanovka, near Tambov, deep in the Russian provinces.  Rachmaninov fell in love with the place; that’s where he would do most of his composing (Mahler at Steinbach or Maiernigg comes to mind).   That’s were, in 1891, at just 18 years old, he wrote the First Piano concerto, his first major work.  Rachmaninov fell in love not just with the place, he also fell in love with one of the Satins, the young Natalia.  They were first cousins (Natalia’s mother was the sister of Sergei’s father) and therefore needed special permission to marry: in the end, a petition had to be sent to the Czar and was granted.  They married in 1902 and stayed together till Rachmaninov’s death in 1945. 

In 1892, as a graduation work at the Conservatory, he wrote Aleko, a one-act opera based on Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies.  It was premiered in the Bolshoi a year later, with Tchaikovsky attending.  Some year later Chaliapin sang in it and it’s still being staged today, if not very frequently.  At the conservatory, the opera was awarded the highest mark, with Rachmaninov receiving the great Gold Medal.

Here’s Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1, op. 1 in a brilliant performance by Krystian Zimerman.  Seiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  You cannot compare it to the Second and Third concertos but Rachmaninov’s melodic gifts are obvious, as is the wonderful mix of lyricism and energy.

Read more...

March 27 2017.  Cabezón and Haydn.  Antonio de Cabezón, one of the most important keyboard composers of the Spanish Renaissance, was born on March 30th of 1510 (or at least that is traditionally assumed to be his birth date).  The year 1510 makes him the exact contemporary of Flemish composers Tielman Susato and Jacob Clemens non Papa; on the Spanish music timeline, Antonio de CabezónCristóbal de Morales was five years older and Tomás Luis de Victoria - a generation younger.   Little is known about Cabezón: he was born in a small town in northern Spain not far from Burgos, and was blind from childhood.  In 1526 he entered the service of Queen Isabella of Portugal, wife of Charles I, king of Spain, who as Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, became the most powerful ruler in Europe.  At the court, Cabezón was employed as an organist and clavichord player.  In 1538 he was appointed the chamber musician to Charles himself.  Later, Cabezón became the music teacher to Prince Felipe, the future king of Spain, and accompanied him on his travels to Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and London.   Cabezón’s music influenced many composers, especially English ones, such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.  Here’s is a short piece by Cabezón called Pavana con su glosa, it’s performed by the ensemble Capella Virelai.  And here is one of his Quatro favordones, variations that so affected his English audiences.   Hamonices Mundi is conducted by Claudio Astronio.

Franz Joseph Haydn, born on March 31st of 1732, was one of the greatest, if sometimes underappreciated, composers ever.  We’ve written about him many times, and will write more.  Haydn was extremely prolific, writing in every musical genre known in his time.  He composed 104 symphonies, more than 60 quartets, 62 piano sonatas, trios, concertos, wonderful cantatas and even operas, written for Esterházy’s enjoyment.   In 1790, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy died; his successor, Prince Anton wanted to save money and wasn’t interested in music as much as his father.  He formally retained Haydn at a smaller salary but allowed him to travel, something Haydn was longing to do for quite some time.  Johann Peter Salomon, an impresario and a fine violinist, arranged a trip to London, where Haydn’s music was very popular.   Haydn, travelling with Salomon, left Vienna on December 15th of 1790.  They crossed through Germany and arrived in Calais, France.  On New Year’s Day of 1791 they sailed to Dover.  “I stayed on deck during the entire crossing so as to gaze my fill of that great monster, the ocean,” he wrote in a letter.  Haydn had never seen the ocean before.   They arriving in London on January 2nd.  Haydn was welcomed with great enthusiasm.  The papers printed news about him, he was invited to many noble houses, the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) became a patron.  Haydn found many pupils for his piano lessons, again mostly from amoung the nobility.  His music was widely performed, and of the three latest symphonies, nos. 90 through 92, the last one became a favorite.  London, the largest city in Europe, was full of musicians from different countries, from the French escaping the Revolution to the ever-migrating Italians and Germans.  The orchestras were large, larger than in Vienna or in Eszterháza.  At the beginning of Haydn’s employ, the orchestra at Eszterháza consisted of just 14 players, which was quite enough for the smaller halls of the palace.  Later the number grew to about 25.  In London, orchestras were at least 40 players strong, and sometimes consisted of 60 musicians.  Even though Haydn didn’t have much time to compose, during the following year he wrote six symphonies, nos. 93-98, all of amazing quality.  We know them now as his “London symphonies.”  Here’s Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a live 1982 recording of Symphony no. 94, “Surprise.”

Read more...

March 20, 2017.  Bach, Hasse and more.  Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st of 1685.  We hope to be forgiven for not going any further this year (but do see below).

A very different German composer was also born this week.  Johann Adolph Hasse, who wrote Italian operas admired both in Italy and in Germany, was born in Bergedorf, near Hamburg.  He was baptized on March 25th of 1699.  Hasse started his musical Johann Adoph Hassecareer as a singer, but by the age of 22 wrote his first opera, Antioco.  The following year he left for Italy.  He traveled through Venice, Bologna, Florence and Rome but eventually settled in Naples.  There, he met Alessandro Scarlatti, who befriended Hasse and became his teacher.  He also met with Nicola Porpora and maybe took some music lessons from him too.  Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, Porpora’s pupil, was a brilliant castrato singer; Hasse and Farinelli became good friends and eventually Farinelli would premier several of Hasse’s operas.  Hasse lived in Naples for seven year, enjoying a highly successful career.  In 1730 he went to Venice where his opera Artaserse was performed during the Carnival.  Farinelli sung the title role.   When Farinelli was in Spain (he became the Chamber musician to King Philip V in 1737 and stayed in Spain for the next 10 years) he sung, on the King’s request, two arias from Act 2, Per questo dolce amplesso and Pallido il sole, every evening.  Here’s Per questo, sung by the soprano Vivica Genaux with the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin under direction of René Jacobs, and herePallido, in an interpretation closer to Farinelli’s, as it’s sung by the countertenor Andreas Scholl.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is conducted by Roger Norrington.

In 1730 Hasse married Faustina Bordoni, a famous mezzo-soprano, who made her name in London singing in operas of Handel and Bononcini (there, her rivalry with another diva, the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, was legendary).  That same year Hasse and Faustina moved to Dresden, to the lavish court of Augustus II “the Strong,” the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, where Hasse was given the position of Kapellmeister.  Faustina made her debut at the court the day after the couple arrived in Dresden.  A year later Hasse wrote Cleofide, an opera based on Metastasio’s original libretto.  It was premiered at the Opernhaus am Zwinger, the royal opera house, one of the largest in Europe.  Faustina sung the title role.  Johann Sebastian Bach, who was then the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach attended the performance.  The next day Bach Sr. gave an organ performance in the Sophienkirche, a historic Gothic church that was damaged in 1945 and destroyed later by the GDR rulers (we wrote about the church in one of our entries on Wilhelm Friedemann Bach).  C.P.E said later that Johann Sebastian and Hasse were “well acquainted.”  Here is Cleofide’s aria Digli ch'io son Fedele, sung by the wonderful English soprano Emma Kirkby.  William Christie conducts Cappella Coloniensis.

Hasse’s career was at its zenith, he was immensely popular both in Germany and in Italy, where he was going practically every year.  Hasse was still to meet Frederick the Great and make friends with Metastasio.  About this and more, some other time.

Béla Bartók, one of the most influential composers of the first half of the 20th century, was also born this week, on March 25, 1881.  And Pierre Boulez, extremely influential in the second half of the 20th century, was born on March 26th of 1925.

Read more...

March 13, 2017. Hugo Wolf, a wonderful composer of the German Lied, was born today in 1860.  He lived a short life, dying of syphilis in 1903; he mentally deteriorated much earlier: his last song was written in 1898.  What a scourge it was, Hugo Wolfsyphilis, before the invention of penicillin!  Schubert died of it at the age of 31, and so did Schumann, just 46.  It is thought that Beethoven’s deafness was brought on by syphilis.  Gaetano Donizetti died suffering terribly, Frederick Delius went blind and became paralyzed, and Niccolò Paganini lost his voice, probably of the mercury treatment, which back then was considered a treatment for the terrible disease.  The notion of a great composer suffering from syphilis was so common that Thomas Mann made it central in his great novel, Doktor Faustus, but with a literary twist: he had the protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, strike a bargain with the Devil, the disease as payment for being a genius.  Mann studied Wolf’s biography and used some episodes to describe Leverkühn descending into madness.

Wolf was born in Duchy of Styria, then part of the Austrian Empire, now in Slovenia.  A child prodigy, he started studying two instruments, the piano and the violin, at the age of four.  When he was 11 he was sent to a boarding school at the Benedictine abbey of St. Paul in Lavanttal, Carinthia.  There he played the organ, performed in a piano trio and studied operas by the Italian bel canto masters and Gounod.  In 1875 he moved to Vienna to study at the conservatory.  There he composed his first songs and made many friends, one of whom was Gustav Mahler (they were born just three months apart).  While in Vienna, Wolf became an avid opera-goer; in 1875 he heard Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, declaring himself a Wagnerian in the aftermath.  He met Wagner in December of that year and showed him several compositions; Wagner was supportive but suggested that Wolf write more substantive pieces.  His early compositions were noticed in Viennese musical circles and he found several benefactors, which allowed him to compose without having to seek additional income.  That was fortunate as Wolf’s temperament made him ill-suited for teaching.  As fate would have it, it was one of his patrons, a wealthy but minor composer Adalbert von Goldschmidt, who took Wolf to a brothel for a “sexual initiation”; it’s there that Wolf most likely contracted syphilis.   Financial support being tenuous, Wolf tried to earn money as a professional musician, playing violin in an orchestra.  That didn’t work out, so eventually he turned to musical criticism.  He became known as a passionate writer who could be very hard on some composers (Anton Rubinstein, the author of the opera Demon, was one of his victims).

In 1888 Wolf dropped musical criticism and moved to Perchtoldsdorf, a suburb of Vienna, to a vacation home of a friend.  There he immersed himself in composing.  Thus commenced the most productive period of Wolf’s life: in 1888 alone he composed more than 90 songs.  The two songs that we’ll hear are from that period.  Both are performed by the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the finest interpreters of Wolf’s songs.  Here’s Kennst du das Land (Do you know the land), based on Manon’s song from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and hereNachtzauber, after a poem by the German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff.  Gerald Moore is on the piano in both recordings.  Wolf continued composing feverishly till 1891, when his habitual depression set in, probably aggravated by the early onset of syphilis.  While he stopped composing, his fame grew, especially in Germany.  Even Brahms, whom Wolf severely criticized in some of his articles, and therefore was not a big supporter, acknowledged Wolf’s talent.  In the following years, Wolf composed an opera, Der Corregidor, based on The three-cornered Hat by Alarcón.  It was staged in 1896 with some initial success but soon was dropped, not to be revived to this day.  He started another opera, also after Alarcón. called Manuel Venegas but abandoned it after writing just several scenes.  By 1898 his madness was obvious.  He insisted that he was the music director of the Vienna Opera (Mahler actually was), attempted suicide, after which he was placed into an asylum for the insane.  He died there on February 22nd of 1903.

Read more...

March 6 2017.  Ravel and more.  The ever popular Maurice Ravel was born on March 7th of 1875.  He’s a favorite both with performers (in our library we have about 150 recordings) and with listeners (for the different interpretations of La Valse more so than for any other of Maurice RavelRavel’s compositions).  He started as a younger contemporary of Debussy, 13 years his senior, and lived into the era dominated by Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  One of Ravel’s first serious pieces was Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess), a piano composition written in 1899 while he was still studying at the Paris Conservatory (his composition teacher was Gabriel Fauré).  Here it is, played by the American pianist Bill-John Newbrough.  In 1910 Ravel created an orchestral version, which can be heard as often as the original piano work.  One of the Ravel’s last compositions was a song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, from 1932-33.  It was written on the texts by the writer Paul Morand.  Morand, born in 1888, was a good friend of Marcel Proust.  Proust was half-Jewish, some of his friend were Jewish but some – anti-Dreyfusards and anti-Semites; unfortunately, Morand belonged to the latter group.  In the late 1930s Morand became close to the anti-Semitic Action française, and later, during the War, to the Vichy government.  Speaking of Proust, it’s interesting that he admired Debussy (he heard Pelléas et Mélisande several times on his Théâtrophone, an ingenious device that allowed the owner to listen to live opera or theatrical performances over the phone) but practically never mentioned Ravel.  One explanation may be that Reynaldo Hahn, a noted composer and one of Proust’s closest friends, was rather critical of Ravel’s work.  Here’s Chanson Romanesque from Don Quichotte with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.   Karl Engel is on the piano.

When Mozart said that "Bach is the father, we are the children,” he didn’t mean Johann Sebastian Bach, he meant his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.  It may be surprising to us, but during Mozart’s time, C.P.E. Bach’s reputation was held in higher esteem than his father’s.  Carl Philipp Emanuel, whose second name came from his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, was born on March 8th of 1714 in Weimar, where his father served as the organist and Konzertmeister at the court of dukes of Saxe-Weimar.  From 1738 and for the following 30 years, Emanuel, as he was known to his contemporaries, served in Berlin at the court of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, who in 1740 was crowned as King Frederick II (the Great).  Emanuel was allowed to leave in 1768 to succeed his godfather Telemann as music director in Hamburg.  In 1769 Emanuel wrote The Israelites in the Desert, an oratorio considered to be his masterpiece.  Five years later he wrote another oratorio, Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus).  The libretto was by one Karl Wilhelm Ramler written in 1760, and that same year the prolific Telemann used it for an oratorio of his own.  C.P.E. Bach’s oratorio is not well known, at least not as well as his Israelites, which is a pity, as it is a marvelous piece.  Here are the first seven episodes of Part I, from the Introduction to the wonderful soprano aria “Wie bang hat dich mein Lied beweint!” (How anxiously my song mourned for you).  The ensemble Rheinische Kantorei is directed by Hermann Max, Martina Lins is the soprano.

Don Carlo Gesualdo, the Czech composer Josef Mysliveček, who lived at approximately the same time as C.P.E. Bach, Samuel Barber and Arthur Honegger were also born this week.  We’ll have to write about them another time.

Read more...

February 27, 2017.  Chopin, Rossini and more.  This is one of those overabundant weeks: several composers of great talent, each deserving a separate entry.  Frédéric Chopin was Frédéric Chopinborn on March 1st of 1810 in a small village of Żelazowa Wola, about 30 miles west of Warsaw, the Polish capital.  We celebrate him, probably the greatest piano composer of all time, every year.  This time, we’ll play one of his pieces in different interpretations.  We’ve done something similar but with just one pianist, when we dedicated an entry to three different interpretations of Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44 made by Arthur Rubinstein at different stages of his career.  Today we’ll play one of the Ballades, No.3 in A-flat Major, which was written in 1841.  By then Chopin had been living in Paris for 10 years: he left Poland in 1831 in the aftermath of the November Uprising, a Polish revolt against Russia, which was brutally suppressed by the czarist army.  In 1841 Chopin was at the peak of his creative power and still healthy: just one year later the symptoms of the disease that killed him at the age of 39 would start showing up.  Ballade no. 3 is in the repertory of every concertizing pianist, so the selection of interpreters is almost infinite.  We’ll narrow it down to just three: first, a historical recording made by Sergei Rachmaninov, most likely in the 1930s (here).  You’ll notice the freedom of tempos, which would probably be deemed inappropriate today.  Even though the recording quality is not very good, the nuanced performance is lovely.  The one made by Maurizio Pollini is very different, much tighter and precise, but still warm; the overall lines are wonderful.  The performance by Ivan Moravec, made in 1966 (here), is probably the most idiosyncratic and the most lyrical.  It’s slower by a minute than Pollini’s.  If you go to our library, you’ll also find several recordings made by “our” pianists: Sophia Agranovich, Gianluca Di Donato and Mario Carreño among them.

Gioachino Rossini, who stood at the origins of the bel canto opera, was born on February 29th of 1792.  A melodic genius, he was known to work incredibly fast.  He composed 62 operas, but, even though he lived for 76 years, all of them were written within a period of just 20 years: his last opera, Guillaume Tell (William Tell) was composed in 1829, when Rossini was 37.  It’s said that he was late composing the overture for La gazza larda (The thieving magpie), so, to ensure that it was done in time, the producer locked Rossini in a room.  As he wrote the pages of the score, he was throwing them out of a window; on the other side copyists were picking them up and creating the orchestral parts for musicians to rehearse at the very last moment.  Here is the result, as interpreted by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Claudio Abbado.

Bedřich Smetana was also born this week, on March 2nd of 1824.  A talented composer, he created the Czech national school, very much like the Great Five did in Russia around the same time.  He’s probably best known for a set of symphonic poems Má vlast and the opera The Bartered BrideIn 1854 he wrote Piano Trio in G minor, following the death of his older daughter at the age of four of scarlet fever (his second daughter died earlier that same tragic year of tuberculosis).  Here it is in the performance by the Lincoln Trio.  This year, the violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, the cellist David Cunliffe, and Marta Aznavoorian, piano, were nominated for a Grammy in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category.  Our congratulations to the wonderful ensemble.

Antonio Vivaldi was also born this week (on March 3rd of 1678), we’ll get back to him another time.

Read more...

February 20, 2017.  Handel.  George Frideric Handel, one of the greatest composers of the Baroque, was born in Halle on February 23rd of 1685.  We’ve  written about him many times (hereGeorge Frideric Handeland here, for example), so on this occasion we’ll look into a period of his life following his departure from Italy.  Handel lived there for about seven years, from 1703 to 1710.  His operas, (especially Agrippina, which was staged during the Carnival in Venice at the end of 1709) and his oratorios and cantatas were so successful that by the end of his stay, while just 25 years old, he was already world famous.  Among his admirers were Prince Ernst Georg of Hanover, and the Duke of Manchester, the English ambassador, both of whom invited Handel to their countries.  Handel chose Germany and traveled to Hanover, where he was appointed Kapellmeister.  We should remind ourselves of an unusual twist in the British royal lineage: by 1710 the Elector of Hanover, Georg Ludwig, was the acknowledged successor to the English throne and, upon Queen Anne’s death would become King George I of England.  His son, Prince elector Georg II August, would become King George II.  So, Handel was living at the court with intimate ties to Britain.  Handel was given a big salary and a special travel allowance, which he used to travel to London in the autumn of 1710.  London was always a musical city; one recent development at the time was the popularity of Italian operas, especially when sung by Italian castratos.  Giovanni Bononcini was the acknowledged master of opera – that is till Handel’s arrival.  As soon as he got to London, Handel set to work on a new opera; to speed up the process he reused some of the material he had written earlier in Italy.  The opera was called Rinaldo, and the title role was sung by Nicolo Grimaldo, a castrato known as Nicolini.  Nicolini, who became famous for performing major parts in operas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Porpora, Vinci and Bononcini, became one of Handel’s favorite singers.  These days the role of Rinaldo is usually sung by mezzo-sopranos or countertenors; Cecilia Bartoli is one of the best interpreters (here she is in the famous aria Lascia ch'io pianga). 

Rinaldo was a tremendous success but Handle had to return to Hanover, where he stayed for another year and a half.  He obtained a leave from the court and moved to London by the end of 1712.  There, he wrote two more operas, and even though they were not as successful as Rinaldo, which had continued to be staged practically every season; his popularity didn’t suffer.  In the summer of 1714 the Elector of Hanover moved to London; on August 1st Queen Anne suffered a stroke and died, and George was proclaimed the King.  Even though his relationship with Handel during the previous two years had gotten frostier (George resented that Handel preferred London to his court in Hanover) it became more cordial after the coronation.  Te Deum and Jubilate, which Handel composed in 1714, were performed for the King, after which George doubled Handel’s salary.  During the next five years, Handel didn’t write a single opera, concentrating instead on orchestral compositions and chamber pieces.  His most successful composition of the period was Water Music, an orchestral suite written for George I to accompany him on his boat trip up the Thames.   Water Music consists of three separate suites; here’s the first one, performed by the Academy Of St. Martin in the Fields under the direction of the late Neville Marriner.

Read more...

February 13, 2017.  Through the ages and countries.  This week affords us an unusually broad view of the development of European music, from the late 16th century to today.  Michael Michael PraetoriusPraetorius was born in February 5th of 1571 in Creuzburg, Thuringia (other sources state his birthday as February 15th of that year).   At the time, Germany’s musical culture was rather underdeveloped.  There was a not a single significant German composer, whereas in Italy the late 16th century was considered late Renaissance: Palestrina and Lasso were born half a century before Praetorius, while Giovanni Gabrieli and Carlo Gesualdo were a generation older.  Praetorius had a local musical education, and the only early encounter with a significant foreign composer that we are aware of was with John Dowland, who was invited by Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbütte to meet with his court composer.  In this sense Praetorius was a singularly German composer.  Extremely prolific (he composed twelve hundred chorales) Praetorius exerted much influence over many composers, starting with the young Heinrich Schütz and through him on a generation of  German musicians, including Johann Sebastian Bach.  Later in life, when he was living and working in the cosmopolitan Dresden, he became more familiar with and influenced by the contemporary Italians; some of Praetorius’s compositions of the time clearly anticipate the arrival of the Baroque.  In 1619, two years before his untimely death, Praetorius published a set of choral works called Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica.  Here’s a wonderful chorale from that set, Puer natus in Bethlehem.  It’s performed by the Gabrieli Consort.

Francesco Cavalli was born February 14th of 1602, just some 30 years after Praetorius, but he belonged to a completely different musical world.  Renaissance music, with its polyphony was a thing of the past; Claudio Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo, thus establishing the new musical form - opera.  Cavalli, who was born in Lombardy, as a teenager moved to Venice where he was a singer at the St. Mark’s Basilica.  Monteverdi was the music director there and became Cavalli’s teacher.  Cavalli wrote his first opera in 1639 when he was already a mature composer (most of his early compositions were church music).  He went on to write 41 operas, many of which survive to this day.  Cavalli was instrumental in developing opera as a musical genre: when his started, opera was in its infancy, and by the time he wrote his last opera in 1673, it was a mature (and extremely popular) art.  Here’s the aria Piante ombrose from his early opera, L'Amore Innamorato.  Nuria Rial is the soprano.  Christina Pluhar leads the ensemble L'Arpeggiata.

Another Italian, Arcangelo Corelli was born fifty years later, on February 17th of 1653.  He grew up in the musical environment of flourishing Baroque.  At the age of 13 Arcangelo moved to Bologna, one of the music centers of Italy, famous for a major school of violin playing.  At the age of seventeen, already a fine violinist, Corelli became a member of the Accademia Filarmonica.  He moved to Rome around 1675, where he found patrons in Queen Christina and, later, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.   He performed, composed and taught: many of his pupils, such as Francesco Geminiani and Pietro Locatelli became famous as composers and violinist.  Here’s Corelli’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 no.4 performed by I Musici.

We’ll skip Luigi Boccherini, a wonderful Italian composer of the classical era and jump straight into the 20th century.  György Kurtág was born on February 19th of 1926.  Together with his good friend György Ligeti, Kurtág is one of the most interesting contemporary composers.  Here’s his Stele, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Claudio Abbado.

Read more...

February 6, 2017.  Alban Berg.  The great Austrian modernist composer Alban Berg was born on February 9th of 1885.  When we celebrated him the last time two years ago, we wrote about his first opera, Wozzeck, which was completed in 1922.  Wozzeck was a huge Alban Bergsuccess, which speaks volumes of the Viennese musical sensibilities – almost 100 years later, it is still considered a “difficult” opera.  Vienna was full of contradictions: on the one hand, it was the city where Schoenberg, Webern and Berg were acknowledged as masters and accepted by the artistic community; at the same time, it was more conservative than probably any other European capital, anti-Semitic, clinging to the vestiges of the lost empire.   Greatly diminished in the aftermath of the Great war, Vienna was the capital of a small country, not an Empire.  Austria even wanted to join Germany as a province, but the Allies wouldn’t have it.  At the beginning of the 20th century Vienna was one of the world centers of music, if not the center, but by mid-1920s many musicians started moving from Vienna to Berlin; back then, as now, Berlin was seen as a more open, exciting cosmopolitan city.  Composers Franz Schreker, whose operas were almost as famous as Richard Strauss’s, and Ernst Krenek left Vienna.  Alexander von Zemlinsky, the famous composer and an important figure in the Viennese musical cultural life, also moved to Berlin.  Even Schoenberg himself was spending more time in Berlin than in Vienna.  As Michael Haas, a music producer and writer points out, conductors Fritz Stiedry, who assisted Mahler in his youth, Georg Szell, and Erich Kleiber, all at some point active in Vienna, also left the city.  Still, even with these losses, the musical life of Vienna was vibrant.  The Vienna Philharmonic was still considered one of the best orchestras in the world and practically all prominent musicians performed there. 

Berg is best known as the creator of two seminal operas, the already-mentioned Wozzeck and Lulu, on which he started working in 1928 and continued for the rest of his life, leaving it incomplete on his death in 1935.  The period between these two major compositions was also very productive.  One of the more interesting pieces written during this time was Kammerkonzert (Chamber Concerto), a composition for Piano and Violin with 13 Wind Instruments.  Even though it was composed in the 12-tone technique, Berg’s innate lyricism shines through, softening its very rigorous structure.  Concerto was written in honor of Schoenberg’s 50th birthday, and Berg decided to create the main theme (or, rather, the main tone sequence) out of the names of Schoenberg and his two favorite pupils’, Anton Webern’s, and his own.   In German musical notation, B is what in English is called B flat, while the English B is called H; the flat sign is “-es.”  Therefore, “ArnolD SCHoenBErG” turned into the sequence of A–D–E-flat–C–B–B-flat–E–G.  From “Anton wEBErn” he derived A–E–B flat–E, and from his own name, “AlBAn BErG,” A–B-flat–A–B-flat–E–G.  Berg then went on to invert the theme, mirroring all intervals in the opposite direction, so that, for example, a third up became a third down.  He then “retrogrades” it, running the sequence from the end to the beginning.  Despite this scientific, almost mathematical approach, the music retains its undeniable warmth.  Of course it’s not an easy listening, and we have to apologize for presenting two difficult pieces two weeks in a row (last week it was Luigi Nono’s Como una ola de fuerza y luz).  Here’s Kammerkonzert, performed by Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting.  The pianist is Andrea Lucchesini, the violinist – Reiko Watanabe.

Read more...

January 30, 2017.  Schubert, Mendelssohn and Nono.  Two great German composers – and two prodigies – were born this week, Franz Schubert, on January 31st of 1797, and Felix Mendelssohn, on February 3rd of 1809.  We’ve written about Schubert, a supreme melodist and one of Franz Schubertthe most creative composers of the 19th century, practically every year.  And last year, we wrote rather extensively about Mendelssohn.  So this year we’ll present some of their music and then turn to a lesser known talent.   Schubert is rightly famous for his songs.  He wrote several cycles, two of which, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, are considered the pinnacle of the German “lied.”  He also wrote numerous individual songs, and Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams) is one of them.  Very difficult because of its exceedingly long melodic lines, it’s beautifully sung here by Nicolai Gedda.  Gerald Moore is at the piano.  Mendelssohn also wrote songs, eight books of them, but his were "Songs without words."  Each book contains six short piano pieces, some very simple, some a bit more difficult, but all charming.  Here’s Op. 19 no. 4, played by almost everybody who ever studied the piano, but probably not as exquisitely as Daniel Barenboim does in this recording.  And slightly more challenging is Op.30 no. 2, here, also by Barenboim.

We just missed the birthday of Luigi Nono by one day – he was born January 29th of 1924 in Venice.  He studied composition in his hometown with Gian Francesco Malipiero from 1941 to 1945.  In 1946 he met Bruno Maderna, a modernist composer four years his senior, and they became friends for life.  Maderna got in touch with the Darmstadt courses in 1949; in 1950 both he and Nono went there for the summer, with Nono attending classes by Edgar Varèse.  Nono continued going to Darmstadt for many years and from 1957 on he taught there every year.  Through their work at Darmstadt, Nono, Boulez and Stockhausen, all three under 30, became known as leaders of the European avant-garde music.  Politically active, Nono was involved in leftist causes.  He wrote many pieces for human voice (often accompanied by tape recordings) for which he used text by Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other revolutionaries.  Obviously, that’s not what have made them interesting, his music did.  In 1971, on suggestion by Maurizio Pollini, Nono started working on a piece for piano and orchestra called Como una ola de fuerza y luz (Like a wave of strength and light).  While still working on it, he had learned of the death of his friend Luciano Cruz, the leader of The Revolutionary Left Movement in Chile.  (It’s not clear who killed Cruz but CIA reports suggest that it was a result of the rivalry on the Left during the Allende presidency).  Nono changed his plans and created a piece for orchestra, solo soprano, piano, a chorus recorded on tape and other pre-recorded sounds.  A complex composition, it demonstrates an amazing evolution of how we perceive the organized sound that we call music.  Written 140 years after Schubert and Mendelssohn’s songs, it completely abandons tonality and uses sound sources that were never considered before.  Even 46 years later, it’s not easy listening.  Still, it’s worth a try, even if in small dozes (the complete piece runs for about 30 minutes).  The sounds (and silences) of it, the juxtapositions of fury and serenity, are at times profound.  Here it is, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Bavarian Radio Orchestra.  Maurizio Pollini is on the piano, Slavka Taskova is the soprano.

Read more...

January 23, 2017.  Mozart – and Clementi.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27th of 1756.  Every year we consider different episodes from Mozart’s life, and last year we Wolfgang Amadeus Mozartwrote about his final years in Salzburg in the Archbishop Colloredo’s employ, a bitter resignation and his move to Vienna.   It was 1781, Mozart was 25 years old, and the success of his new opera Idomeneo was still fresh in his memory.  That was very important, as opera was then the most prestigious form of art, recognized as such in courts and palaces; a composer could write many wonderful symphonies and sonatas (and Mozart had already written 34 symphonies and many sonatas), but an opera could make his name.  But Mozart was then a freelancer, without a permanent position or salary.  In Vienna, he found several students, some among the nobility and that helped to pay the bills.  He also continued to compose; several of his piano and violin sonatas were written during that period, many dedicated to his pupil, Josepha von Auernhammer, who was madly in love with him.  He was also performing in many public and private halls, and was considered the best keyboard player in town.  An unusual competition took place on the 24th of December, 1781, as Mozart confronted an unexpected rival.  Muzio Clementi, a composer and keyboard player, had recently arrived in Vienna.  He acquired his fame in London, and the Emperor Joseph II, an enlightened ruler and patron of arts, decided to have a competition between him and the local virtuoso.

Clementi, whose birthday we also mark this week, was born on January 23rd of 1752 in Rome.  He studied music as a child and by the age of 14 became the organist of the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso in Rome.  That very year, Peter Beckford, a wealthy Englishman, heard him play and was impressed.  He negotiated with Muzio’s father an arrangement under which he’d take Clementi to his estate, pay for his continued musical education and be entertained in return.  Muzio lived in Beckford’s estate for the following seven years, and it’s said that every day he spent eight hours playing the harpsichord.  He then moved to London, where he established himself as a performer and composer of keyboard sonatas.  In 1789 Clementi embarked on a European tour, which took him first to Paris, where he played for Marie Antoinette and then to Vienna.  The competition organized by Joseph II was a grand affair: Mozart and Clementi played in the presence of the court and the Emperor’s guests, Grand Duke Paul of Russia, the son of Empress Catherine the Great, who later became the Emperor of Russia, and his wife.  This episode reminds one of a competition between another German and Italian – Handel and Scarlatti –  organized by Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome in 1709.  Both Mozart and Clementi were asked to improvise, then sight-read sonatas of Paisiello and finish with selections from their own compositions.  No official verdict was delivered but the Emperor was very impressed, and continued speaking of it for a long time.  Apparently, the self-assured Mozart was taken aback by the quality of Clementi’s playing.   While Clementi was effusive in his praise of Mozart’s performance, Mozart was critical of Clementi, as he described the competition in aletter to his father.  It’s especially interesting considering that one of the pieces played by Clementi was his Sonata op. 24 no. 2, which Mozart later used as one of the themes for the overture to his opera The Magic Flute!  Here’s Clementi’s sonata in the performance by the pianist  Young-Ah Tak, and here – the overture to the Magic Flute.  Bernard Haitink conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Read more...

January 16, 2017.  Tieleman Susato.  Last week we wrote about Metastasio, a poet and librettist who left an indelible mark on the history of opera; this week we turn to a publisher who was equally important in the development of Renaissance music.  Tielman Susato was born sometime Tielman Susatobetween 1510 and 1515, but where - we are also not sure, probably not far from Cologne, as he referred to himself as “Susato Agrippinus”: Agrippina, the wife of the emperor Claudius, was born in a Roman settlement on the Rhine that later became Cologne, and the Romans renamed it in her honor.  We do know that by 1529 Susato was living in Antwerp and working as a calligrapher.  A musician, he also joined the town band.  He played different wind instruments: the sackbut (an early trombone), the trumpet, flute and recorder.  In 1541 he joined two prominent Antwerp printers and eventually acquired the firm.  Somewhere around 1542 the firm published its’ first book of music: it was the first not just for Antwerp but for all of Northern Europe – as before that, the Italians dominated the trade. 

The history of music printing starts with the invention of the metal movable print by Johannes Gutenberg; his famous Bible was printed in 1450.  Gutenberg didn’t print music, though.  It was Ottaviano Petrucci who, about half a century after Gutenberg’s great invention, printed the first book of music sheets.  Petrucci used what is called the triple-impression method: on every sheet he would first print the staff lines, then the words and then the notes.  This process created a high-quality page but was very time-consuming.   In 1520 the single-impression method was developed: all components were printed together, and even though the results were messier, the single-impression method won over as it was much simpler and faster in production.  It was this single-impression technique that Susato used to print his first music book, Quatuor vocum musicae modulations, a collection of four-part motets by a dozen different composers, one of whom was Susato himself.

Sometime around 1544 Susato met the composer Jacob Clemens non Papa who had recently moved to Antwerp.  They became good friends and several years later Susato published Clemens’s most famous work: his setting of 150 psalms called Souterliedekens (Little Psalter Songs in Flemish).  Susato also published important books of music by Josquin des Prez andOrlando di Lasso.  For example, his 1545 Quatuor vocum musicae modulations, printed 24 years after Josquin’s death, is the first book, whether in manuscript form or in print, containing many of Josquin’s chansons.  

Susato was also quite a prolific composer, although not on the same level as some of the greats whose music he published.  His instrumental dances are pleasing.  Here, for example, is a Ronde from his collection of dance music usually called Dansereye (it’s performed by the ensemble New London Consort).  By the end of his life Susato moved to Sweden; there’s no record of him past 1570.  Susato, who was important in improving the printing technology (he developed new music fonts) should be especially remembered for making music more accessible to the people; he concentrated on publishing the music of his fellow Flemish composers, and that was exactly when Flemish music had reached its heights.  The composers he published were among the most important ones, whether they worked in Flanders, in Rome, or anywhere else in Europe.

Read more...

January 9, 2017.  Pietro Metastasio.  This week is a bit short on talent (one exception is Morton Feldman, who was born on January 12th of 1926;  we wrote about him two years ago).  On the other hand, the previous week was brimming with it.  Although we usually write about composers, a person who left a mark as significant as any of the greatest composers was a Pietro Metastasiopoet and librettist, Pietro Metastasio.  Metastasio wrote 27 librettos for opera seria, some of which were set many times by different composers (his La clemenza di Tito was used by 40 composers, from Antonio Caldara to Christoph Gluck, Josef Mysliveček and, finally, Mozart).  Altogether almost 400 composers had used Metastasio’s poetry to create musical pieces from operas and oratorios to cantatas and songs, among them, in addition to the ones mentioned above, Nicola Porpora, Baldassare Galuppi, George Frideric Handel, Johann Adolph Hasse (who set nearly all of Metastasio’s opera librettos), Paisiello and Meyerbeer.  Metastasio was born Pietro Trapassi in Rome on January 3rd of 1698.  His godfather was the famous patron of music and arts, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. As a child, Pietro developed an amazing ability to improvise in verse on any given subject.  During one of his public performances he was noticed by Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, one of the founders of the Accademia degli Arcadi (the Academy of Arcadians), a famous literary and music society (Cardinal Ottoboni was also an Arcadian).  Gravin took young Pietro under his wing and later adopted him, changing his name to Metastasio, which was more or less a translation of his Italian name into Greek: as musicologist Richard Taruskin writes, “trapasso” means transit from one place to another, while “metastasis” means spread or transference.  Gravina sent Pietro to study Latin and law in Scalea,Calabria.  At the age of 12 Pietro translated the Illiad into Italian and at 14 he composed a tragedy.  He was 16 when Garvina died and left Metastasio 15,000 scudi, a considerable sum (translating values of 17th century currency is a very inexact science, but 15,000 scudi could be worth as much as $400,000 in current dollars.  That didn’t stop Metastasio from spending it all in just  two years!).  He moved to Naples to practice law but he was much more interested in poetry.  Several of his poems were set to music by Nicola Porpora.  Around that time, he met Porpora’s pupil, the castrato Farinelli, who eventually became the most famous singer in all of Europe.  Metastasio and Farinelli remained friends for the rest of their lives.  Metastasio moved to Rome, got involved with the Accademia and found a patron in a famous soprano Marianna Bulgarelli.  Bulgarelli had a salon that was visited by all Roman luminaries of the time.  It’s there that he met Alessandro Scarlatti, Hasse, Pergolesi, Leonardo Vinci and Benedetto Marcello.  It was a very productive time for Metastasio: in about a year he wrote six libretti, including the famous Didone abbandonata, which was eventually used more than 50 times. 

In 1730 Metastasio was invited to Vienna to the court of Emperor Charles VI in the official position of the “Italian court poet.” It paid handsomely – 3, 000 florins, higher than the salary of the Kapellmeister.  The Emperor paid another 1,000 florins out of his personal purse.  Metastasio settled in Vienna in the summer of 1730.  He was 32 and had another 50 years in front of him (we’ll write about the second phase of his life another time).  Now we’ll present an aria from an opera written to one of his most popular librettos, Il re pastore (The Shepherd King).  It was written by Metastasio in 1751 and then used by Hasse, Gluck, Piccini, Galippi – and Mozart, who created a masterpiece.  Here’s Kiri Te Kanawa in L'amerò, sarò costante from Il re. The London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Read more...

January 2, 2017.  Happy New Year to all!  As we look forward to another year of great music, we’d like to remember some of the musicians who left us in 2016.  Pierre Boulez, a towering figure in classical music of the last 60 years, died on January 5th at the age of 90.  Boulez was a Pierre Boulezcomposer, conductor, writer, speaker, music organizer – he did it all.  A student of Olivier Messiaen, he started composing in the late 1940s.  He soon became one of the better-known proponents of serialism.  Together with his friends Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, he was a central figure in the Darmstadt School, a hugely influential group of young modernist composers who attended summer courses in the German city.  He started conducting in the late 1950, initially specializing in modern music but eventually expanding his repertoire to cover large parts of orchestral literature; he became especially known for his interpretation of French music and, somewhat surprisingly, Gustav Mahler, esthetically his opposite.  In the late 70s, on a suggestion of President Pompidou, he organized an institute for musical research, the famous IRCAM.  IRCAM became a laboratory for new music, especially electronic.  Within it, Boulez organized his own ensemble, called Ensemble Intercontemporain, with which he toured around the world.  While at IRCAM, Boulez staged several important opera productions, from Wagner to Berg’s Lulu.  In the 1990s he returned to conducting, working with major orchestras: the Chicago Symphony, the London Symphony, the Cleveland, the Vienna Philharmonic and many others, maintaining an amazing schedule.  Health problems forced Boulez to slow down in the last 10 years of his life, but he continued making music almost till the end of his life.  His last composition was completed in 2006.  Boulez died in Baden-Baden and was buried there.

Two very important conductors of chamber orchestras died last year: Sir Neville Marriner on October 2nd (he was 92), and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – on March 5th; Harnoncourt was 86.   Neville Marriner, who started his music career as a violinist, was the founder of the world-famous Academy of St Martin in the Fields.  Working with that orchestra he became one of the most recorded conductors in modern history.  The Academy of St Martin in the Fields started in 1958 as a small ensemble without a conductor, but expanded to a chamber orchestra shortly after.  The violinist Iona Brown, who became the conductor of the Academy following Marriner, and Christopher Hogwood, who later organized his own Academy of Ancient Music, were early members of the group.  The Academy and other chamber orchestras that Marriner organized later, used modern instruments and modern interpretive approaches.  The orchestra’s recordings were technically brilliant, never ponderous and always a pleasure to listen to.  Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s approach was very different: he was one of the leaders of the “period,” or “historically informed” performances and his ensembles were one of the first to use period instruments.  Harnoncourt, a cellist, organized Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953.  He was then playing in the Vienna Symphony (Vienna’s “second orchestra”) and most musicians came from that orchestra.  Harnoncourt and his colleagues researched the repertoire and performance technique for four years before giving their first official concert in 1957.  During that time the musicians leaned to play different viols rather than modern violins, violas and cellos; Harnoncourt himself switched from the cello to viola da gamba.  The ensembled played rarely heard pieces, like operas of Monteverdi and Rameau and made first “authentic” recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  In an unusual feat, Concentus recorded all of Bach’s cantatas.  In his later years, Harnoncourt turned to amore standard repertoire and for several years worked with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.  He also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and successfully staged several operas.

We’d also like to note the wonderful Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis, who died on November 6th at the age of 64.  A great virtuoso with a repertoire stretching from Bach to Kurtág, he was especially well known for his interpretation of the works of his compatriot, Béla Bartók: Kocsis recorded all of his solo piano works and piano concertos.  In 1983, together with Iván Fischer, Koscis founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and since 1997 lead the Hungarian National Philharmonic.  Koscis performed with all major orchestras and in 2013 received the Gramophone award for his recordings of Debussy.  

Read more...

December 26, 2016.  Christmas 2016.  Merry Christmas to all our listeners!  It's become a tradition to play excerpts from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio around this time.  The Oratorio was written for the Christmas Adoration of the Child, by Pinturicchioseason of 1734, when Bach was the Cantor of the Thomasschule and the most important musician in Leipzig.  The oratorio wasn’t completely original: it incorporated music from several previously written cantatas.  The text was supplied by Picander, a poet, librettist and a frequent Bach collaborator.  We've already played the complete Part I, which describes the birth of Jesus, the first movement (Sinfornia) of Part II (here) and the wonderful alto aria Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh (Sleep, my beloved, enjoy Your rest), here.   The Second part was written for the second day of Christmas, or December 26th and describes the Annunciation to the Shepherds.  On the day of the premier, it was actually performed twice: first, in the early morning of the 26th, in Thomaskirche, and in the afternoon – in the Nikolaikirche.  The second part incorporates music from two cantatas, BWV 213 Laßt uns sorgen and BWV 214, Tönet, ihr Pauken!  You can listen to the complete Part II of Christmas Oratorio here.  It runs for about 27 minutes.  John Eliot Gardiner conducts the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.  Bernarda Fink is the alto, Christoph Genz is the tenor.

The fresco above, Adoration of the child with St. Jerome, is by Pinturicchio.  It’s located in the Della Rovere Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  It was created in or around 1484, 150 years before the Oratorio.

Read more...

December 19, 2016.  Dunstaple, Des Prez and Victoria.  As the end of the year approaches, we’d like to commemorate some of the composers, most of them of the Renaissance era, that fall off our regular calendar, as their birthdates Madonna and Child by Benozzo Gozzoliremain unknown to us.  It’s especially appropriate as Christmas is approaching and most works of that time were liturgical in nature.  John Dunstaple was born around 1390.  He served in the court of John of Lancaster, a son of King Henry IV and a brother of Henry V.  John led the British forces in many battles of the Hundred Year War with France (he was the one to capture Joan of Arc) and for several years was the Governor of Normandy.  It’s likely that Dunstaple stayed with John in Normandy.  From there his music spread around the continent, which is quite remarkable considering that a major war was raging in France.  Dunstaple’s influence was significant, especially affecting musicians of the Burgundian school; the reason was both musical and political, as Burgundy was allied with England in its war against France.  Dunstaple’s La Contenance Angloise, (“English manner”) influenced not only the two greatest composers of Burgundy, Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois but even musicians of the generation that followed, like Ockeghem and Busnoys.  Here’s Dunstaple’s motet Quam Pulchra Es, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble. 

Josquin des Prez, one of the greatest Franco-Flemish composers, was born around 1450, probably in the County of Hainaut, which occupied the land on the border between modern-day Belgium and France but back then was part of the Duchy of Burgundy (it was inherited by the dukes at the end of the 14th century).  The Duchy was one of the most developed European realms, both economically and artistically.  Philip the Good, the duke who ruled from 1419 to 1467, was famous as a patron of painters, Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden among them.  Guillaume Dufay, the most renowned composer of his time, worked in duke’s employ.  Very little is known about Josquin’s youth.  It’s assumed that around 1477 he traveled to Aix-en-Provence and was a singer in the chapel of René, Duke of Anjou.  Around 1480 he worked in Milan, probably in the service of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza.  And it was probably Sforza who introduced Josquin to the Papal court in Rome.  From 1489 to 1495 Josquin sang in the papal choir; a wall of the Sistine Chapel bears a graffito with his name.  All the while he was also composing: we know that some of his motets are dated to those years.  He probably moved to Milan around 1498 to work for the Sforzas again, and after Milan fell to the French he moved to France.  In 1503 he was hired by Ercole, the Duke of Ferrara.  It was here that he composed the popular Miserere, a motet for five voices in plainchant, which was probably inspired by the life and execution of Girolamo Savonarola (you can listen to it here, performed by the ensemble De Labyrintho, Walter Testolin conducting).  In 1504 Josquin left Ferrara and returned to Condé-sur-l'Escaut, not far from where he was born.  He lived there till his death in 1521.

We started at the very beginning of the music of the Renaissance and here is a piece that was written toward the end of it, the exquisite Taedet Animam Meam (My soul is weary of my life) by one of the greatest composers of the High Renessaince, Tomás Luis de Victoria.  Victoria was born in 1548 in Spain, near the city of Ávila, spent 20 years in Rome but then returned to Spain.  Taedet is one of his last compositions, written in 1605.

Read more...

December 12, 2016.  Beethoven.  This week we celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s 236th birthday.  He was baptized on December 17th of 1770, so it’s often assumed that he was born the Ludwig van Beethovenday before, on December 16th.  We alternate the celebration by either focusing on the piano sonatas written during a certain period, or on his symphonies.  Last year it was symphonies nos. 3 and 4, and today we’ll present the next one, probably his most celebrated, symphony no. 5.  It was written between 1804 and 1808 and premiered in Vienna on December 22nd of 1808 with Beethoven conducting (it’s worth reading about the amazing concert at which the Symphony was presented: events like that do not happen often, if ever).  The Fifth is one of the most recorded compositions in history so to select one is impossible.  We wanted to go for a Furtwangler recording, but their audio quality isn’t great.  Everybody knows the Karajans (there are several and practically all are wonderful), so we decided on a superb recording made in 1975 by the late Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.  Enjoy it here.  ♫

Symphony no. 5As familiar and beloved as the Eroica, Seventh, or Choral Symphonies may be, none approach the immortal status of Beethoven’s own Symphony No. 5. Not only is it the one work most associated with its composer’s name, it is the work most synonymous with the word “symphony” itself. The hammer blows of its opening notes, so well-known even outside of classical music, are instantly recognizable. Even to merely distinguish the symphony by its key – “the C minor” – conjures the same association as saying “Beethoven’s Fifth.”

Beethoven began work on what would become the Fifth Symphony in 1805, shortly after completing the Eroica. As was mentioned in the discussion of the Symphony No. 4, a possible combination of artistic judgment – that so stern a composition as the projected C minor Symphony should not follow one as equally grand and seriousand his engagement to the Countess Theresa Brunswick prompted Beethoven to temporarily set aside the C minor and compose instead the ebullient Symphony in B-flat major. The C minor Symphony was then taken back up in 1807 and completed in 1808. Thus, the composition of the work spans much of Beethoven’s doomed engagement to the Countess – its first sketches predating the engagement, and its completion occurring during the troublesome period in which the lovers were separated, which led eventually to Beethoven himself breaking off the engagement in 1810. The completion of the C minor Symphony also coincided with the composition of its successor, the Pastoral. Both works were jointly dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky, premiered together in 1808, and published the following year.

The premiere took place on December 22, 1808 in Vienna during a colossal program directed by the composer himself that included the Pastoral Symphony, selections from the Mass in C, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy. Curiously, on that program, the Pastoral Symphony was performed first and given as No. 5, while the C minor was performed during the concert’s latter half and designated as No. 6. The numbers were not reversed until the publication of the score and parts the following year. Despite a program filled with such remarkable compositions, the premiere of the Fifth Symphony was rather lackluster. The sheer length of the concert exhausted the audience, and the orchestra was ill-prepared for the Herculean task. However, it was not long before the Symphony met with success. E. T. A. Hoffman penned an enthusiastic and lavish review of the work in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. It premiered in England in 1816, in Paris in 1828, and was performed in the inaugural concert of the New York Philharmonic in 1842. By then, it was a staple of the orchestra repertoire, even outpacing Beethoven’s other symphonies in number of performances. (Continue reading here).

Read more...

December 5, 2016.  Berlioz, Les Troyens.  Several wonderful composers were born this week: Francesco Geminiani, on this day in 1687 in Lucca, a somewhat minor but still interesting Baroque composer and violinist; Henryk Górecki, on December 6th of 1933 – a leading Polish Hector Berliozmodernist (and, surprisingly, commercially successful) composer; Bernardo Pasquini, December 7th of 1637 in Tuscany, an important opera and keyboard composer of the Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Corelli generation.  And then, also on December 7th but of 1863, another Italian – Pietro Mascagni of the Cavalleria Rusticana fame.  The following day, December 8th, is the birthday of the Finnish national composer, Jean Sibelius; he was born in 1865.  Also on the same day but in 1890, a leading Czech composer of the early 20th century was born – Bohuslav Martinu, who used a neoclassical idiom and, sometimes, jazz, as in his whimsical La Revue de Cuisine.  Also on the same day was born a wonderful Soviet composer Mieczysław (Moisey) Weinberg.  Weinberg was born in Warsaw, fled to the Soviet Union at the outbreak of WWII (his family stayed behind and perished during the Holocaust), and eventually became “the third great Soviet composer,” after Shostakovich and Prokofiev, except that he remained practically unknown to the public: his work was banned during the Stalin time, in 1953 he was arrested during the anti-Jewish campaign and survived only because Stalin died several months later. Even though Weinberg was “rehabilitated” by the Soviets, performances of his music were rare.  During the last 10 years, his opera The Passenger gained prominence after being staged in several major theaters, including the Lyric Opera.  Also this week (and what a week!), two more birthdays on the 10th of December: César Franck, born in 1822, and one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen, in 1908.

But the composer we really wanted to talk about, notwithstanding the immense talent we just listed above, is Hector Berlioz, born on December 11th of 1803.  And the reason is not that he’s one of the greatest composers of all time (which of course he is) but that the Lyric Opera of Chicago is currently staging his monumental opera, Les Troyens.  It is long, about 3 hours and 40 minutes of music (plus intermissions that push the performance closer to 5 hours altogether), it is intense – no recitatives, no frilly entr'actes, just continuous orchestral and vocal music.  And despite it consisting of two separate parts and five acts, the libretto is surprisingly coherent, unlike some of Wagner’s undertakings.  Berlioz wrote the libretto himself, after Virgil’s poem Aeneid.  The first part, called The Taking of Troy, which starts in Troy after the apparent departure of the Greeks, describes Cassandra’s futile attempts to warn the Trojans of the looming dangers.  The Trojans, relieved that the war is over, do not believe her till it’s too late: the infamous giant horse, which the Greeks left as a “gift,” is full of soldiers.  They pillage and murder; Trojan women commit suicide rather than falling into slavery, while the ghost of Hector convinces Aeneas, who’s ready to fight to the end, to leave the fallen city and build a new Troy, which of course is Rome.  The second part takes place in Carthage, ruled by Queen Dido.  Aeneas and his cohorts, after being lost at sea, find refuge there.  The chaste queen, who still mourns her husband, eventually falls in love with Aeneas, and though they lead an idyllic life, it’s clear that Aeneas must leave, as he has a mission – to build the new Troy.  The ghost of Hector, this time accompanied by the dead Cassandra and King Priam, remind him of that mission, and, reluctantly, Aeneas gathers his men and sets sail for Italy.  Dido is furious that Aeneas abandoned her.  She burns all the gifts she received from Aeneas, prophesizes that a general from Carthage will take revenge on Rome (as Hannibal did, to an extent), and then stabs herself to death.

In the Chicago production Susanne Graham was superb as Dido.  Here she is in the Morte de Didonne scene.  This 2003 Paris recording features Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner conducting.  And here is the famous Chasse royale et orage (The Royal hunt and the storm) purely orchestral ballet scene, performed by the Royal Opera House orchestra, Sir Colin Davis conducting.

Read more...

November 28, 2016.  Lully, Part IJean-Baptiste Lully was born on this day in 1632 in Florence, Tuscany.  His family was of modest means and not musical.  Giovanni Battista, as he was called in those days, probably studied Jean-Baptiste Lullymusic with local friars.  Then his life changed overnight.  How it happened that Roger de Lorraine, the chevalier de Guise, picked a 14-year old boy to become a tutor in Italian for his niece, we don’t know.  What we do know is that the niece was none other than Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, known as the “Grande Mademoiselle,” the eldest daughter of Gaston, the Duke of Orléans, a brother of Louis XIII and, therefore, the niece of King Louis XIV.  The Grande Mademoiselle, then 19, was living in the Palais des Tuileries, and it was in the palace that Jean-Baptiste completed his musical education.  One wonders whether Lully had any knowledge of Italian music before he was brought to France; it seems likely that he became familiar with it later on, when he was already employed by the court.  In addition to music, Jean-Baptiste was taught to dance, and, apparently was very good at that – at least that was the capacity in which he started at the Royal court.  The Second Fronde (the Fronde of the Nobles) compromised the position of the Grande Mademoiselle, and in 1653 she was forced to leave Paris.  Soon after, Jean-Baptiste returned to the city and was brought to the court as a dancer in a Ballet royal de la nuit, a sumptuous production which called for a large number of performers.  (The 14-year old King, who loved to dance, performed as Apollo – it was his debut).  The performance went well and Lully was accepted to the corp. As Lully was already dabbling in composition, he was appointed a “composer of instrumental music,” but his duties were to combine dancing and composing, with an emphasis on dancing.  Jean-Baptiste was so good at it that he got noticed by the King.  Soon he became the King’s favorite – first as a dancer and, later, as a composer.  Back then, the traditions of French court music were rather unusual, at least by our standards.  For example, several composers were supposed to create a single ballet.  The ballets were complex affairs, not just with dances but also with different vocal parts and instrumental interludes.  Some composers were considered to be especially good in writing vocal music, while others were famous as instrumentalists (the young Lully was known for his dance music).  For example, Ballet de la Nuit, mentioned above, was written by at least three people.  It wasn’t till 1656 that Lully would have a chance to create a complete ballet of his own, L'Amour malade; that happened partly because of the influence of the Italian musicians in the entourage of the King’s chief advisor, Cardinal Mazarin, himself an Italian.  L'Amour malade, a vast production with mimes, dancers (Lully being one of them) and singers, was a huge success.  From that point on, he was considered the greatest ballet composer in France.  That would become his main preoccupation for the next several years: he would write ballets for the court and even add ballet scenes to operas of other composers.  A rather scandalous story happened when the famous Italian opera composer, Francesco Cavalli, came to town with his fine opera, Ercole amante.  Lully decided to add several ballet pieces to it.  The entire production became a six-hour affair; the king, the queen and the court danced to the ballet music, which received all the praise, while the rest of the opera was panned.  Cavalli left Paris soon after.

Here are several excerpts from an early ballet by Lully called Ballet des Plaisirs.  It was composed in 1655; Lully danced several roles in the production.  Aradia Baroque Ensemble, a Canadian group, is conducted by Kevin Mallon.

Read more...

November 21, 2016.  Eight composers in seven days.  This is one of the weeks when practically every day allows us to celebrate a talented, if not necessarily great, composer.  Monday is Francisco Tarrega’s birthday: he was born on November 21st of 1852 in Villareal, Spain.  A virtuoso guitarist and an imaginative, if rather conservative, composer, he was part of the romantic revival of Spanish music at the second half of the 19th century.  A friend of Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados, he lived most of his life in Barcelona.  Here’s one of his most famous compositions, Capricho Árabe, performed by Eric Henderson.  And speaking of  guitar compositions, some of the most famous were written by another Spanish composer whose birthday falls on Tuesday: Joaquin Rodrigo, the author of Concierto de Aranjuez and Concierto Andaluz was born on November 22nd of 1901.  Rodrigo went blind at the age of three after contracting diphtheria.  This didn’t stop him from composing (he wrote in Braille music code which was then transcribed into regular music notation), studying and travelling.  He went to Paris to study with Paul Dukas and it was in Paris that he composed his most famous piece, Concierto de Aranjuez for the guitar and orchestra.  It’s interesting that while Tarrega was a virtuoso guitar player, Rodrigo never learned to play the instrument.  Here’s another well-known piece by Rodrigo written for the guitar and orchestra: his Fantasía para un gentilhombre (Fantasia for a Gentleman).  Fantasia was written at the request of Andrés Segovia who premiered it in 1958.  Segovia is the soloist in this recording, and the conductor, Enrique Jordá, was conducting the premier.  The orchestra, though, is different: in the recording it’s “Symphony Of The Air”, while the premier was played by the San Francisco Symphony.

Also on Tuesday we mark the birthday of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johan Sebastian’s oldest son.  Wilhelm Friedemann BachFriedmann was born on November 22nd of 1710 in Weimar, where his father worked in the employ of Wilhelm Ernst, duke of Saxe-Weimar.  A talented composer, he never found satisfying employment throughout his entire life.  As a young man, he worked as the organist at Sophienkirche in Dresden, then moved to Halle, taking the appointment at Liebfrauenkirch.  While his early years in Halle seemed to be agreeable, eventually Friedemann grew unsatisfied with his position, and so were his superiors.  He left Halle without securing employment anywhere else and spent the rest of his life in difficult circumstances.  Eventually he was forced to sell his music library, which also contained the sheet music he inherited from his father.  Friedemann died on July 1st of 1784 in Berlin, still remembered as a supreme organist and a major composer but leaving his family in poverty.  Here’s a lovely Duet for two violas, performed by Ryo Terakado and François Fernandez of the Ricercar Consort.

Also born on the same day, November 22nd, was one of the most important composers of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten.  And speaking of important 20th century composers: three more were born this week.  Krzysztof Penderecki on November 23rd of 1933, Alfred Schnittke on November 24th of 1934, and Virgil Thomson on November 25th of 1897.  And to round things out, we should mention Sergei Taneyev, a prolific composer, a wonderful pianist and a good friend of Tchaikovsky’s (he successfully premiered Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in Moscow after it flopped in St-Petersburg where Gustav Kross was the soloist).  Taneyev was born on November 25th of 1856.

Read more...

November 14, 2016.  Paul Hindemith.  One of the most important composers of the 20th century, Paul Hindemith was born on November 16th of 1895 in Hanau, near Frankfurt.  Paul’s father, a painter, was Paul Hindemitha music lover and insisted that his children study music: Paul played violin, his sister studied the piano and their younger brother – the cello.  Some year later they would play in public as the “Frankfurt Children’s Trio,” with their father sometimes accompanying them on the zither.  Paul attended the Frankfurt Conservatory, concentrating in violin and later, in 1912, adding classes in composition (his first composition teacher was Arnold Mendelssohn, a great-nephew of Felix Mendelssohn).  While at the conservatory, Hindemith wrote his first compositions, which were technically strong, very romantic (just the opposite of what would become his later style) but not terribly inventive.  In 1914 he joined the orchestra of the Frankfurt Opera and soon became the concertmaster.  Three years into the war he was conscripted; he served mostly in a military band but at the end of the war spent some time in the trenches.  He remembered how in March of 1918 he and his fellow musicians were playing Debussy’s String Quartet when it was announced on the radio (sic!) that Debussy had died.   When after the war he returned to Frankfurt, he switched from the violin to the viola; he continued playing in the opera orchestra and with the Rebner Quartet.

The period starting around 1920 was very productive one; that was also the time when Hindemith found his voice, dropping romanticism in favor of expressionism.  An interesting example is his sexually charged one-act opera, Sancta Susanna (the protagonist, a nun, gives in to her erotic fantasies; Satan seems to be very active).  The performance created a scandal; it is said that in Hamburg, attendees were required to pledge, in writing, to not cause a disturbance.  Here it is, in its entirety – Susanna is just 25 minutes long.  The American soprano Helen Donath, who had worked mostly in Germany, is Susanna; The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Gerd Albrecht.

We are used to thinking of Hindemith as a cerebral composer of complex, contrapuntal music.  Many compositions from the early 1920s are very different: very expressive, even wild.  Grove Music Dictionary gives us a wonderful quote from Hindemith.  Regarding the performance of the last movement of his piano Suite 1922, he says: “Disregard what you learnt in your piano lessons. Don’t spend too much time considering whether to strike D# with the fourth or the sixth finger. Play this piece in a very wild manner, but always keep it very strict rhythmically, like a machine. Look on the piano here as an interesting kind of percussion instrument and treat accordingly.”  Here’s Suite 1922 in the excellent performance by a Swiss pianist Esther Walker.  Ms. Walker is a big proponent of Hindemith’s music and is currently in a process of recording complete piano works of the composer.

Starting around 1923, Hindemith’s style underwent a significant change as he entered his Neo-classical phase, sometimes called the New Objectivity.  He also married Gertrud Rottenburg, the daughter of the Jewish conductor of the Frankfurt opera, Ludwig Rottenberg.  How this affected Hindemith’s artistic and person life we’ll consider another time.

Read more...

November 7, 2016.   Couperin le GrandFrançois Couperin, one of the most important French composers of the end of the 17th – early 18th century, was born on November 10th of 1668.  He’s one of the three François Couperingreat composers who defined the French Baroque, born 32 years after Jean-Baptiste Lully and 15 years ahead of Jean-Philippe Rameau.  Couperin came from a famous musical family: his uncle, Louis Couperin, was a noted composer and the organist at the church of St-Gervais in central Paris.  After Louis’s death, François’s father Charles assumed the post.  François’s father died in in 1679; the young François was so promising and obviously talented that the church agreed to hire him as the organist on his 18th birthday.  In the interim, François played there often and was practically a full-time organist at St-Gervais even before his official appointment.  At the age of 20 François married a girl from a wealthy bourgeois family; her connections helped him to acquire the royal privilege to print and sell his music.  A year later Couperin published a collection of organ works, but it was his fame as an organist that brought him to the attention of the court.  In 1693, at the age of 25, he received a fabulous appointment as the organist to the court of Louis XIV.  Around that time, he wrote a set of trio sonatas, which were later incorporated into a larger selection published under the title of Les nations.  The sonatas were clearly modelled after asimilar set of trio sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli, who was Couperin’s favorite composer.  As Couperin himself related later on in a preface to the publication, he indulged in a bit of subterfuge in order to promote his work.  Knowing that the French were still enamored with all things Italian while looking down at local composers, he concocted a story about an Italian origin of the first sonata.  He even made up an Italianate name of the “composer” by rearranging letters of his own name.  The sonata was received very favorably, which encouraged Couperin to continue composing.

In addition to the position of the Royal organist, Couperin was appointed the harpsichordist to the court.  He also continued to work at the church of St-Gervais.  He had many students, most from noble families.  And still he found time to compose.  In 1713 he published the first book of harpsichord pieces; eventually he would publish three more.  In 1715 Louis XIV died and was succeed by the regency, as Louis XV, the future king, was too young to rule.  Couperin retained his position at the court and continued with all his commitments and composing.  By his contemporaries he was considered probably the greatest composer of his generation, and clearly the best composer for the harpsichord.  Couperin became less productive in the last years of his life as his health was failing him.  He died on September 11th of 1733.  Couperin wrote in many genres: instrumental chamber music, music for the organ, some vocal music, but he excelled above all at composing for the harpsichord.

<Couperin inspired many composers, none more than Richard Strauss, who wrote not one but two symphonic pieces after Couperin’s harpsichord pieces.  Let’s listen to several of the originals and then the Divertimento by Richard Strauss.  First, the three pieces by Couperin: La Visionnaire, performed by Blandine Rannou, Musétes de Choisi et de Taverni, performed by Lionel Party, and Le tic-toc-choc, ou Les maillotins, played by Jory Vinocur.  And here’s how Strauss adapted them for the orchestra.  The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Hirogi Wakasugi.

Read more...

October 31, 2016.  Bellini and Sweelinck.  Vincenzo Bellini was born on October 3rd of 1801 in Catania, Sicily.  We don’t write about opera composers very often, opera being a stepchild at Classical Connect;Vincenco Bellini the reasons are purely technical, we do love a good opera.  Even though Bellini lived for just 33 years he managed to create several masterpieces that belong to the pantheon of operatic art and have been continuously performed throughout the past 200 years.  It’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the 19th century, before Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti produced their major works, Italian opera and composing in general, were not doing well.  Opera was born in Italy, and for a century (the 17th, to be exact) Italians were by far the major innovators, even if we consider the talents of Lully, an Italian working in France, and Rameau, the first truly French opera composer.  Things changed with George Frideric Handel, a German who absorbed the Italian tradition of Opera Seria and became (in England, of all the places) the major opera composer of his generation.  Things shifted to Germany completely by the mid-18th century, with Gluck and especially, Mozart, producing masterpieces above anything else written in the genre.  So, when in 1813, Rossini came up with his first major success, L'italiana in Algeri, and then, three years later, created Il barbiere di Siviglia, that ended a drought that lasted for almost 100 years.   And in the following 20 years, between the three of them, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini changed opera completely, producing works that sustain it even today.  Bellini was the youngest of the three and his life was the shortest but his contributions were great: Il pirate in 1827, I Capuleti e i Montecchi in1830, La sonnambula a year later, then, in the same 1831, the great Norma and finally I puritani, written in 1835 and premiered in Paris just months before Bellini’s death.  In our library we have several Bellini samples but none from Il Pirata.  It was written while Bellini was living Milan; the La Scala premier was a great success.  Here’s the final scene.  Maria Callas is Imogene; the recoding was made in 1958 when Callas was past her absolute prime.  Still this is better than anything we can hear being performed these days.  The Philharmonia orchestra is led by Nicola Rescigno.

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck is a Renaissance Dutch composer we’ve never written about, the only excuse being that we don’t know his birthday.   Sweelinck was born in Deventer in 1562.  Soon after, his family moved to Amsterdam where his father, Pieter, became an organist at Aude Kerk (Old Church), Amsterdam’s oldest building located in what is now Amsterdam’s red-light district.  The church has the largest wooden vault in Europe, which creates wonderful acoustics.  Pieter died in 1577 and the 15-year old Jan Pieterszoon took his place.  He served as the organist at Aude Kerk for the rest of his uneventful life.  Sweelinck had many pupils, who eventually became influential organists in the Netherlands and northern Germany.  Even though he never travelled to Italy (one of the few major composers not to have done so) or anywhere else, he was clearly familiar with the contemporary Italian and English music.  Sweelinck was famous for his improvisations: foreigners were brought to his church to hear him play.  Sweelinck wrote many keyboard compositions, none of which, were printed during his lifetime.  What was published in large numbers were his choral works.  Curiously, none of the text are in Dutch – all are set in French.  Here, for example, are his setting of Psalm 150 (Or soit loué l'Eternel) and Psalm 53 (Le fol malin).  Both are performed by the Netherlands Chamber Choir under the direction of Peter Phillips.

Read more...

October 24, 2016.  From Scarlatti to Berio.  Four wonderful composers were born this week, three Italians and one Frenchman.  Domenico Scarlatti, one of our all-time favorites, was born on October 26th Domenico Scarlattiof 1685 in Naples.  He probably studied music with his father, Alessandro Scarlatti, a famous opera composer.  These days we know Domenico as the author of 555 clavier sonatas, most written while Scarlatti was serving at the courts of Spain and Portugal, but very few of them were published during his lifetime.  His first publication, 30 Essercizi didn’t happen till 1738.  The “exercises” are actually sonatas, which were later catalogued under different numbers, first by Alessandro Longo at the beginning of the 20th century, then later, by Ralph Kirkpatrick and others.  Here’s the very first sonata in this cycle, Sonata in d Minor, K 1/L 366.  It’s performed by Vladimir Bakk, a talented pianist, forgotten in his homeland, whose career never took off in his adopted country.  Bakk was born in Moscow in 1944.  He studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Yakov Zak, a famous pianist and pedagogue.  In 1972 he won the Montevideo piano competition, and made several recordings with Melodia.  It’s not clear what happened but at some point he fell into disfavor with Philharmonia, the main concert organization: he was banned from playing abroad and even in the larger cities of the Soviet Union (the retelling of his concert in a small town of Uralsk is hilarious and sad at the same time).  The circumstances are not clear, but he was imprisoned twice.  Bakk emigrated to Israel in 1990 and moved to the United States two years later.  Even though his playing was lauded by the likes of Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich and Vladimir Feltsman, his career never took off.  He died in 2007.  You can judge the quality of Bakk’s playing for yourself with this little jewel of Scarlatti.

Niccolò Paganini, the great Italian violinist, was born on October 27th of 1782 in Genoa.  His best known composition is a cycle of 24 Caprices, which were written between 1802 and 1817.  Each Caprice is a devilishly difficult etude, emphasizing certain technical aspect of violin playing.  Here is Salvatore Accardo, one of the greatest interpreters of Paganini’s music, playing Caprice no. 3 in e minor, “Octaves.”

Georges Bizet never gets enough attention from us.  An opera composer, he’s mostly famous for Carmen, which was premiered three months before Bizet’s untimely death (he was only 37).  The premier was panned by the critics, and the next performance, after Bizet’s death, was lauded by the same.  Bizet was married to Geneviève, daughter of the composer and Bizet’s teacher Fromental Halévy.  Geneviève, who outlived George by half a century and later opened a salon popular with nobility, politicians and literary figures, was one of the models for Marcel Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes (the main inspiration for the character, Comtesse Greffulhe, frequented Geneviève’s salon).  George and Geneviève had a son, Jacques, a close friend of Proust’s.  In addition to operas, Bizet wrote some piano music; here’s his Jeux d'enfants (Children's Games) for piano four hands.  It’s performed by Amy and Sara Hamann.

Luciano Berio, one of the most interesting composers of the second half of the 20th century, was born on October 24th of 1925.  We wrote about him here and, without a doubt, will do so again.

Read more...

October 17, 2016.  Liszt and Marenzio.  Several composers were born this week.  The most famous of them is Franz Liszt, born on October 22nd of 1811.  We love him, despite his somewhat Franz Lisztdiminished reputation (these days he’s performed less frequently than, for example, in the mid-20th century).  We’ve written about him many times, even publishing several short articles on his piano cycle, Années de Pèlerinage.  So this time we’ll just play some of his music – Piano concerto no. 1, for example.  It’s said that Liszt composed the theme of the first movement in 1830, when he was 19, but completed the concerto almost 20 years later, in 1849.  He premiered it six years later, in 1855, in Weimar, with an orchestra conducted by his good friend, Hector Berlioz.  (Liszt, the greatest piano virtuoso of his – and probably of any – time, stopped concertizing around 1847, settling in Weimar, but still gave occasional performances).   Here it is, in a brilliant, exhilarating performance by Sviatoslav Richter, with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the London Symphony orchestra.  The recording was made in 1961.

Liszt is not the only composer born this week.  We’ve never written about Luca Marenzio, an Italian Renaissance composer famous for his madrigals.  Marenzio was born on October 18th of 1553, or at least that’s what the musicologists surmise.  To place him within the timeline of Italian music, Marenzio was one year older than Giovanni Gabrieli and about eight years younger than Luzzasco Luzzaschi about whom we wrote just last week.  Marenzio was born near Brescia in Northern Italy.  When he was 25 years old, he was hired by Cardinal Luigi d’Este.  The Cardinal was a son of Ercole II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara and Modena who in turn was the eldest son of Duke Alfonso I d'Este and the famous (or, rather, infamous) Lucrezia Borgia.  Marenzio worked for the Cardinal as maestro di capella for eight years, till the Cardinal’s death.  Luigi d’Este had two palaces in Rome and also maintained the enormous Villa d'Este, outside of Rome, which was built by his uncle, Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este (Ippolito, also a patron of arts, brought Palestrina to the Villa to take care of the music there).  While in d’Este’s employ, Marenzio composed a large number of madrigals which were published not just in Italy but also in Antwerp, Nuremberg and London.  Luigi d’Este died in 1586 but Marenzio stayed in Rome as a freelance composer.  About a year later he entered the service of Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici, who soon after became the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Marenzio moved to Florence, where he stayed till 1589.  Upon leaving Florence, he returned to Rome, where he had a number of patrons, including the Pope himself.  The pope sent him on an unusual trip, to the court of the King of Poland, Sigismund III Vasa.  Marenzio stayed in Warsaw for almost two years.  He returned to Rome in 1598 and died soon after, age 45, on August 22nd of 1599.  It’s somewhat of a mystery why Marenzio isn’t known better these days.  The best of Marenzio’s madrigals are beautiful, full of wonderful, sometimes unusually chromatic sonorities.  Here are three examples, Liquide perle amor from 1580, Bascami mille volte from 1585 and Et ella ancide, e non val c'huom si chiuda from 1599, the last year of his life; all three madrigals are for five voices, Marenzio’s preferred type.  They are performed by Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini.

Read more...

October 10, 2016.  An Italian composer with an unusually sounding name, Luzzasco Luzzaschi, was born in Ferrara around 1545; he lived there practically all his life.  Luzzaschi is probably more famous as a teacher and a keyboard player, but he was also a fine composer.  He studied Luzzasco Luzzaschimusic and the organ, playing at an early age and became an organist at the court of the Duke Alfonso II d’Este at 16; he was promoted to the first organist at 19.  During the second half of the 16th century, the court was a glorious place, Duke Alfonso being a major patron of arts.  Luzzaschi remained the first organist for the rest of his career, but his duties were broadened: he composed, took charge of the court orchestra and trained young musicians (Ippolito Fiorini was formally the maestro di cappella at the court, but his duties seem to have been more administrative).  Sometime around 1570 Luzzaschi took over the Duke’s chamber music concerts.  The concerts were organized as “musica secreta” (secret music) for a small and very exclusive audience; the repertory of these concerts was kept secret, but it’s assumed that some of it was written by Luzzaschi himself.  During these concerts, Luzzaschi usually played on a keyboard (by that time he was considered one of the finest keyboard players around); some instrumental music was performed as well, but the main attraction was a group of highly skilled women singers, called Concerto delle Donne.  An ensemble of female voices was highly unusual for that time.  The initial Concerto consisted of several very talented but amateur singers, but eventually professional ones were hired as well.  By the 1580s Concerto started performing in public and their fame spread all over Italy.  Apparently, every singer in the ensemble was a virtuoso, and there was no group of equal quality in all of the country; Luzzaschi has to be given credit as their music director.  Much of the music performed by the Concerto was written by Luzzaschi, but they also performed madrigals written for them by Carlo Gesualdo, Lodovico Agostini and many other noted composers.

Luzzaschi was also famed as a teacher and mentor.  Frescobaldi studied with him; it’s said that Gesualdo, who went to Ferrara to marry the Duke's niece, Leonora d'Este, was mostly interested in meeting Luzzaschi (on that occasion, Gesualdo wrote several canzoni for the Concerto delle Donne).  Many composers of the Roman School also studied with Luzzaschi.  Things changed considerably after Duke Alfonso’s death in 1597.  The Duke didn’t leave any heirs, whether legitimate or not.  Alfonso’s cousin, Cesare d'Este, took over, but this succession wasn’t recognized by the Pope. A year later Ferrara was incorporated into the Papal States, so Cesare and the court moved to Modena.  To run the government, the Pope appointed a legate, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini.  Luzzaschi stayed in Ferrara and joined the Cardinal’s retinue; in 1601 he accompanied the Cardinal on a trip to Rome.  On that occasion, he arranged for the printing of a book of his madrigals. 

Luzzaschi died in Ferrara on September 10th of 1607.  Here are two madrigals by Luzzaschi, T'amo mia vita and Cor mio, deh non languire.  They are performed by Consort of Musicke under the direction of Anthony Rooley.

Read more...

October 3, 2016.  Schütz et. al.  Three famous composers were born this week: Heinrich Schütz, probably the most important German composer of the “pre-Bach” era, on October 8th of 1585; Heinrich SchützGiuseppe Verdi, the greatest Italian opera composer of the 19th century, on October 9th of 1813, and Camille Saint-Saëns, a very popular Frenchman, also born on October 9th, but of 1835.  We've  written about all three many times, for example here, here and here, so today we’ll illustrate their lives through several compositions.  Schütz worked during a transitional period: he was born when the greatest Renaissance composers such a s Palestrina or Orlando di Lasso were still active; when he died in 1672, Baroque was all the rage.  Schütz was a traditionalist.  He was deeply influenced by Giovanni Gabrieli, with whom he studied in Venice from 1608 through 1612.  It so happened that the young Schütz became a choir-boy at the court of Landgrave Moritz of Hessen-Kassel, a generous patron of the arts.  At the time, Italy was the musical center of the world, and the Landgrave used to send some of his more gifted musicians to study there, providing them with a generous stipend.  Early in the 17th century, Gabrieli was one of the most famous living composers in Europe, so Landgrave sent his talented young charge to study in Venice.  The plan was for Schütz to stay there for two years, but Gabrieli was so impressed with his pupil’s progress that he asked Moritz to allow Schütz to stay in Venice another year, “since he is doing so well not only in composition but also in organ playing,” as Gabrieli put it.  Even though Gabrieli was almost 30 years older than Schütz, it’s clear that the teacher and the pupil developed very close ties: in his will Gabrieli bequeathed his rings to Schütz.  Gabrieli died in 1612, and Schütz left Venice soon after.  Gabrieli was famous for his polichoral works, and here is Schütz’s glorious Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich?, from Symphoniae sacrae (Book 3), written in a similar style.  Book 3 of his “Sacred symphonies” was published in Dresden in 1650.   English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir are led by John Eliot Gardiner.

Guiseppe Verdi wrote 25 operas, practically all of them of the highest order.  The first two, Oberto and Un giorno di regno, are rarely performed, but his third one, Nabucco, became popular and remained so ever since.  Still, considering the incredible wealth of musical material and its quality, Rigoletto, written in 1851 and considered a masterpiece of Verdi’s mid-career, stands out.  Just to mention some of the popular arias: the Duke’s aria Questa o quella, Rigoletto’s and Gilda’s duet "Figlia!" "Mio padre!", the Duke’s È il sol dell'anima, followed by the duet Addio, addio.   And then Gilda’s amazing aria Gualtier Maldè!... Caro nome – and we’re still in the middle of the first act!  There are several dozen great recordings of Rigoletto.  Between 1954 and 1964 alone there were probably ten of them, featuring opera giants, like Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, Cesare Siepi, Giulietta Simionato, Robert Merrill, Jussi Björling, Ettore Bastianini, Alfredo Kraus, Renata Scotto, Fiorenza Cossotto, Gianni Raimondi, Anna Moffo, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Carlo Bergonzi.  What an absolutely astounding decade!  Here’s Maria Callas in Gualtier malde! Caro nom, and here – the famous quartet Bella figlia dell’amore from Act III, with Pavarotti, Sutherland, Leo Nucci and Isola Jones.

Camille Saint-Saëns, a rather conservative composer, wrote quite a bit of music that was not of the very first rate, but who hasn’t?  Some of his pieces are brilliant, and that’s what counts.  Here’s an example, The Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux), Andrea Licata conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Read more...

September 26, 2016.  Brahms’s Klavierstücke, op. 76.  In the past we published a series of articles about Brahms’s late piano works: 7 Fantasien, op. 116 (here), 3 Intermezzi op. 117 (here), 6 Klavierstucke op. 118 (here), and 4 Klavierstucke op. 119 (here).  Today we’ll publish an article on a piano set he created earlier, sometime between 1871 and 1878, titled 8 Klavierstücke, op. 76.  Johannes BrahmsWe have two sets of recordings, one made by the English pianist Sam Armstrong, another – by the American, Maya Hartman.   ♫

The Eight Klavierstücke, op. 76 was a marked departure for Brahms in the realm of piano music—not since the composition of the Ballades in the mid-1850s had he composed a set of miniatures. The sonata had long since disappeared; the only three Brahms left to us were products of his youth. The piano music of his middle period was dominated by large-scale variation sets. The last of these sets, the Paganini Variations, was also his last work for solo piano before the composition of the 8 Klavierstücke in the late 1870s, a space of fifteen years. Viewed as a part of Brahms’s entire output for the piano, the Klavierstücke and the contemporaneous 2 Rhapsodies, op. 79 form the transition from those Classically-oriented pieces of his youth and middle period, to the deeply introspective Romanticism of his last works for piano, namely, opp. 116-19. With the Klavierstücke, lengthy discourses are abandoned in favor of a greater economy of means, a trend that pervaded most of Brahms’s late music, even in large-scale works, in which fewer and fewer notes were forced to bear an ever increasing portion of a piece’s emotional weight. Concomitantly, there is also a greater emphasis on motivic development, a feature really of all of Brahms’s music, but now driven to even more exacting and imaginative lengths.

The set begins with the fantasia-like F-sharp minor Capriccio. Ominous arpeggios reach up out of the bass register in the opening measures, intermixed with a distinctive stepwise descent through the interval of a third that becomes an important accompanimental figure to the principal melody which later emerges. The melody itself, which appears after a fortissimo close on the dominant, emphasizes two semitone movements within its initial measures—the first, moving upwards, and the latter, downwards. This motif becomes the focus of the Capriccio’s discourse. Initially, beginning on the dominant, its position within the scale and its key is later changed, yet its melodic pattern remains unchanged, as it is woven into the endless accompaniment of broken chords. A strict inversion of the melody even appears immediately before the reprise of the opening fantasia. This reprise, though structurally similar to the opening statement, is greatly changed. The left hand takes the burden of presenting the motivic material while the right now provides brilliant filigree in the upper register. The lengthy coda returns to working out the melody of the middle section, presenting it in octaves against repeated statements in augmentation of descending thirds. However, its final statements take place betwixt a firm tonic pedal in the bass and the return of the fanciful passagework in the treble, as the piece dies away into a conclusion in F-sharp major.  (Read more here).

Read more...

September 19, 2016.  From the 18th century to the 20th.  One of the most important French composers of the baroque era and two major composers of the 20th were born this week.  Jean-Philippe Rameau, who followed Lully to become the leading French opera composer, was born on September 25th of 1683 in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy.  Little is known about Rameau’s early years: records are few, and he didn’t like to talk about it either.  His father was an organist, and Jean-Philippe was taught music from an early age.  When he was around 18, he was sent to Milan, to study music, but the visit was short.  In 1706, after working as an organist in several churches in the provinces, Rameau went to Paris, where he found a similar position at the Collège (now Lycée) Louis-le-Grand, a very prestigious institution (one of the pupils there was Voltaire, who would later collaborate with Rameau on several operatic and theatrical productions).  In 1709 he returned to Dijon to succeed his father as the organist at the church of Notre-Dame.  He didn’t stay there long, though: in a couple of years he moved to Lyon, and then to Clermont.  All this was transitory, until, in June of 1722, at the age of 38 but still practically unknown, he arrived in Paris, where he would live for the rest of his life.  What made him famous was not his music but theoretical treaties on harmony, which were published that year.  Four years later he wrote “New System of Music Theory” which established him as a major theorist not just in France, but in all of Europe.  Even though he had already published a book of harpsichord music, he was still unknown as a composer. Rameau’s first composition that Parisians ever heard was an inconspicuous incidental music, written for a play staged at a temporary theater during the annual fair in Saint-Germain.  The second book for the harpsichord appeared in 1725, and the third, Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin, two years later.  Nouvelles suites, which included a piece called Les sauvages (here), became popular.  Even so, his career wasn’t going anywhere: he couldn’t secure a position of organist at any major Parisian church (even though he tried many times) and he was still better known as a theorist rather than a composer.  What Rameau really wanted was to write an opera.  He was 50 when he presented the first one, Hippolyte et Aricie; the premier became an event but also created a huge controversy.   The opera, first staged on October 1 of 1733 in the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, immediately divided the listening public into two camps: those who liked it and those who felt that it flouts all the principals established by Rameau’s predecessor, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and therefore isn’t good.  In any event, Rameau’s reputation as a major opera composer was established, and though 50, he had many productive years ahead of him.  Here’s a short section from Act I, Rendons un éternel homage.

Andrzej Panufnik, one of the most important Polish composers of the last century, was born on September 24th of 1914.  We wrote about this talented composer and great man here.  As a youngster he resisted the Nazi occupation, and as an adult – the Soviet takeover of Poland.  He defected to the West in 1954.  Here’s Panufnik’s Symphony no. 3 (Sinfonia Sacra), from 1963, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti.  It’s about 20 minutes long; even though it’s more traditional than much of his work, it’s very much worth listening to.

Dmitry Shostakovich was born on September 25th of 1906.  Here’s his Quartet no. 2, composed in 1944.  It’s performed by the Borodin Quartet, a preeminent interpreter of Shostakovich’s works.  At the time of the recording, the members were:  Rostislav Dubinsky and Yaroslav Alexandrov, violins; Dmitry Shebalin, viola and Valentin Berlinsky, cello.  The Quartet was dedicated to Dmitry Shebalin’s father, the composer Vissarion Shebalin, Shostakovich’s close friend.

Read more...

September 12, 2016.  Frescobaldi, Cherubini and Schoenberg.  Girolamo Frescobaldi, one of the first great keyboard composers, was born on or around September 13th of 1583.  We posted a rather Girolamo Frescobaldidetailed entry about him two years ago, so this time we’ll present some of his compositions.  As we mentioned, Frescobaldi, even though he wrote in different genres was best known for his works for the keyboard.  At the beginning of the 17th century, the keyboard meant the organ or the harpsichord.  One of the major collections of organ pieces Frescobaldi wrote late in his life is called Fiori musicali ("Musical Flowers").  It was published in 1635 in Rome; at the time Frescobaldi was working as the organist at St Peter’s Basilica, a prestigious position.  Fiori musicali consists of three masses: Missa della Domenica (Sunday Mass), Missa degli Apostoli ("Mass of the Apostles") and Missa della Madonna ("Mass of the Virgin").  At that time, the organ mass was still in development: most masses were choral works.  Frescobaldi’s organ setting became highly influential; Henry Purcell studied it, Johann Sebastian Bach copied the whole set by hand.  None of the masses cover the complete service; all three start with a Toccata, to be played before the mass.  A polyphonic Kyrie section follows, and then a rendition of Credo (written as a Ricercar) and another Toccata.  Here’s the third Mass, Missa della Madonna, performed by the organist Roberto Loreggian.  About 20 years earlier, in 1615, Frescobladi had published a book of keyboard pieces called “Primo libro di toccata” or the first book of toccatas.  The toccatas (there are 12 of them) can be played on the organ or on a harpsichord.  Here’s Toccata Prima, played on the harpsichord by Laura Alvini.

Another Italian, Luigi Cherubini lived and worked two centuries after Frescobaldi.  He was born on September 14th of 1760 (although some sources state September 8th as his birthday) in Florence.  A child prodigy, he studied counterpoint at an early age and also played the harpsichord.  When he was thirteen, he composed sections of a Mass and a cantata.  He received the Grand Duke’s scholarship to study in Milan and Bologna.  During those years he composed several operas (throughout his career he wrote more than 30).  In 1785 he traveled to London and then to Paris, where he was presented to Queen Marie Antoinette.  The following year, he permanently moved to Paris, where he shared an apartment with his friend and great violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti.  Viotti helped him to be appointed the director of Théâtre Feydeau, then called Théâtre de Monsieur, under whose patronage it was created (“Monsieur,” the Count of Provence, the grandson of Louis XV, would become Louis XVIII and reign after the fall of Napoleon, till 1824).  Cherubini composed a number of successful operas, presented either at his theater or at the Opéra-Comique (the two theaters would eventually merge).  The French Revolution affected Cherubini, as he was associated with the royal family, and at some point he even had to flee Paris, but eventually Napoleon extended him his patronage, however reluctantly (he didn’t like Cherubini’s music).  Eventually Cherubini moved away from opera and toward liturgical music.  He wrote several masses and a Requiem in C minor, to commemorate the execution of Louis XVI.  The Requiem was highly praised by Beethoven and later by Schumann and Brahms (Beethoven held Cherubini in especially high regard, considering him his most talented contemporary).  Twenty years later, Cherubini wrote another requiem, in D minor, to be performed at his funeral.  Here’s the overture to one of Cherubini’s most successful operas, Les Deux Journées (Two days).  Christoph Spering conducts the Neues Berliner Kammerorchester.

Arnold Schoenberg, one of the most influential composer of the first half of the 20th century, was also born this week, on September 13th of 1874.  We’ll write about him another time.

Read more...

September 5, 2016.  Rare week.  Practically every day of this week we could celebrate a birthday of an interesting composer, and on some days more than one.  Too much to write in detail, but we’ll mention many.   September 5th is especially bountiful – no less than five composers share their birthdays on that day.  Johann Christian “the London” Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian and a fine composer, was born on Frari Triptich, Giovanni Bellinithis day in 1735.  Anton Diabelli, an Austrian music publisher and composer was born on the same day in 1781.  Diabelli is remembered for a very different reason.  He had an interesting idea: he wrote a theme and then asked important (mostly Austrian) composers to write one variation, which he then collected and published.  For that purpose he composed an unpretentious waltz in C-Major.  51 composers responded, Schubert, Czerny, Hummel, and Moscheles among them.  The 12-year old Liszt also submitted an entry (Diabelli didn’t ask him directly, but Czerny, Liszt’s teacher, was eager to demonstrate his student’s talents).  One composer responded on a different scale: Beethoven came up not with one but with 33 variations, which became known as Diabelli Variations.  Beethoven’s last composition for piano, op. 120 is one of the most profound pieces in piano literature (when played well -- when played poorly, it’s a bore).

Three more composers were born on the same day: Giacomo Meyerbeer, who in the mid-19th century was the most popular opera composer in Europe, and two Americans: Amy Beach, born in 1867, and John Cage, in 1912.

Then on September 6th comes the birthday of Isabella Leonarda, who was born in 1620 in Novara, a town west of Milan.  When she was 16, the entered a convent and remained there for the rest of her life (she died in the convent at the age of 84, in 1704).  Therefore, no interesting events in her life to report.  Even though it’s said that she hadn’t started composing till the age of 50, she wrote more than 200 compositions.  Her music was well known in Novara but not much in the rest of Italy.  Here’s her Sonata Duodecima from 1693 for violin and continuo, performed by the violinist Riccardo Minasi and the ensemble with a whimsical name Bizzarrie Armoniche.

On September 7th we celebrate the birthday of Hernando de Cabezón, born in Madrid around that date in 1541 (we know that he was baptized on the 7th).  Hernando was the son of Antonio de Cabezón, also a composer.  In 1563 Hernando was appointed organist at Sigüenza Cathedral and stayed there till July of 1566, when his father died and he took his place as the organist to the King Philip II.  The King presided over the Golden Age of Spain, when the empire reached its zenith in influence and size.  Here’s a song called O bella, from a collection of music compiled by one Octavius Fugger.  It’s performed by the French ensemble Charivari Agréable.

September 8th marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of Antonin Dvořák.  One of the greatest Czech composers, he excelled as a symphonist; he also wrote chamber music and nine operas, one of which, Rusalka, remains very popular to this day.  Here’s his Piano Quintet, op. 81, performed by Quintessence Piano Quintet.  Two Englishmen follow, Henry Purcell on the 10th – he was born in 1659, and William Boyce on the 11th of September (Boyce was born in 1711).  Purcell, who died tragically young at the age of 36, was one of the greatest English composers of all time.  Here’s his When I am laid in earth, from Dido and Aeneas.  Jessye Norman is the soprano; English Chamber is conducted by Raymond Leppard.  And of course we should remember that Arvo Pärt was also born on the 11th, in 1935.

Read more...

August 29, 2016.  Bruckner’s Third Symphony.  Next Sunday, September 4th, is the birthday of Anton Bruckner, who was born in 1824.  The last two years we've celebrated this date with presentations of his Fourth Anton Brucknerand Fifth symphonies.  This time we’ll jump back several years and talk about what many consider his breakthrough work, Symphony no. 3.  We had mentioned Bruckner’s notorious lack of confidence, his tendency to rewrite compositions over and over again.  In this sense, the Third Symphony is one of the worst examples: there are six different editions of it.  The first version was written in 1873.  At the time Bruckner was living in Vienna, where he had moved to five years earlier from Linz.  He assumed a teaching position at the Vienna Conservatory and became the organist at the Court Chapel, a prestigious but unpaid position.  That year Bruckner, who adored Richard Wagner, visited him in Bayreuth and showed him the manuscripts of two symphonies, the Second and the Third, the latter still not complete.  Bruckner asked Wagner which one he liked better.  Wagner picked the Third, and Bruckner dedicated the symphony to him.  The symphony was premiered four years later, the first performance taking place in Vienna on December 16th of 1877.  By all accounts, it went badly.  The conductor who was supposed to lead the orchestra, one Johann von Herbeck, died unexpectedly on October 28th of that year.  Bruckner himself had to step in.  He was a decent choral director but quite inexperienced with large symphony orchestras.  The Third is about one hour long; the orchestra wasn’t playing well, the public was leaving in droves and by the Finale the hall was almost empty.  To make matters worse, Eduard Hanslick, the influential Viennese music critic, a Brahms supporter and Wagner’s detractor, followed the performance with a scathing review.  Not everybody disliked the Symphony, however: Mahler, for one, thought enough of it to arrange it for two pianos. 

Bruckner started revising the symphony almost as soon as he finished it.   In 1874 he created the first revision, mostly by re-orchestrating parts of it.  Then, in 1876, he rewrote the second movement, Adagio.  Another version followed in 1877 – that’s the version Bruckner gave to Mahler who used it for his two-piano arrangement.  By mid-1880s Bruckner’s music became more acceptable.  The Third Symphony was performed in several German cities and in the Netherlands, and was brought to New York (it was performed at the old Metropolitan Opera house).  That didn’t stop Bruckner from tinkering with it.  In 1889, twelve years after the premier, he returned to the Third and created another edition, and then, just one year later, yet another one.  The version we’ll hear is from 1889.  The Munich Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by one of the most interesting interpreters of the music of Bruckner, the Romanian-born Sergiu Celibidache who at the time was the Principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic.  As are all Bruckner’s symphonies, the Third is in four parts.  The first movement Gemäßigt, mehr bewegt, misterioso (Moderate, more animated, mysterious) runs about 25 minutes (here); the second, Adagio, sixteen and a half (here); the third, Scherzo, is just shy of eight minute (here), and Finale, Allegro (here), is about 15 minutes long.

Read more...

August 22, 2016.  Debussy and StockhausenClaude Debussy, one of the greatest composers of the late 19th – early 20th century, was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris, on this Claude Debussyday in 1862.  We’ve written about Debussy many times (here and here, for example) and usually illustrated his art with pieces written in the more popular genres – symphonic music and, especially, piano music.  That somewhat skews the perspective: Debussy was prolific as a chamber composer, he wrote a large number of wonderful songs, and ever composed several operas, although he finished only one of them, Pelléas et Mélisande.   Pelléas was written in 1902 on the libretto adapted from the namesake play by Maurice Maeterlinck.  Debussy had toyed with the idea of writing an opera on several occasions.    In 1890 he accepted a libretto written by a noted poet Catulle Mendès and started on the opera he called Rodrigue et Chimène.  Debussy worked on it for the following three years, during which time his own compositional style had changed and he got dissatisfied both with his own music and with the libretto.  Debussy abandoned Rodrigue after he saw a performance of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas.  (The Opéra de Lyon asked Edison Denisov, the Russian composer blacklisted during the Soviet time, to complete the orchestration of the opera; Rodrigue was premiered in 1993, exactly 100 years after it was abandoned by Debussy).  A short version of Pelléas was completed in 1895 but Debussy couldn’t find an opera theater that would commit to staging it.  In 1898 André Messager, a composer, conductor and a friend of Debussy’, was made the music director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris.  That lead to the premier on April 30th of 1902.  The reaction was mixed.  The public mostly disapproved, while musicians – friends of Debussy and most of the Conservatory students thought very highly of it.  Camille Saint-Saëns, who disliked Debussy’s music in general said that he stayed in Paris, instead of leaving for a summer vacation, so that he could say “nasty things about Pelléas.”  Here’s Act 3 of the opera (about 27 minutes of music); Claudio Abbado conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, François Le Roux is Pelléas, Maria Ewing is Mélisande.

And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different.  Karlheinz Stockhausen was also born on this day, in 1928.  A seminal figure of the musical avant-garde of the after-WWII generation, he was praised by some and scorned by others (his electronic music Studie II received the lowest possible score of 1 from one of our listeners).  Stockhausen was born in Burg Mödrath, near Cologne.  When he was seven the family moved to Altenburg, nearby.  His mother had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized.  In 1941 the family received an official letter informing them that she died of leukemia.  It was determined later that she was gassed, as were most of the patients of the hospital, as a “useless eater” by the Nazis (Stockhausen will reinterpret this terrible episode in his opera Donnerstag aus LichtHere’s the opening section of the opera.  Karlheinz Stockhausen conducts the brass and percussion players).  In 1947 he enrolled at the Cologne Musikhochschule (Conservatory), where he studied composition with Frank Martin.  Upon graduating in 1951 he was invited to Darmstadt, the famous Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Summer courses for new music).  There he met several students of Olivier Messiaen and decided that he also needed to take his classes.  He went to Paris in 1952, was accepted into Messiaen’s class and studied there for a year.  Around that time a new Electronic Music Studio was established in Cologne and Stockhausen joined it in 1952.  The new aural world was opening up.

Read more...

August 15, 2016.  Nicola PorporaNicola Porpora, a prolific opera composer, was born in Naples on August 17th of 1686.   He was 10 when he enrolled in the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Nicola PorporaGesù Cristo.  In 1708 he received his first opera commission and wrote L’Agrippina but had to wait several years to get another one.  That was probably because Alessandro Scarlatti so thoroughly dominated the Neapolitan opera scene: 1708 was the year the much more famous Scarlatti returned to Naples after six years in Florence and Rome.   Porpora was 13 and still at the Conservatory when he started teaching and it’s his teaching talents that he would become famous for, at least as much as for his operas.  As there were few opera commissions, he earned money working at the Conservatorio di S Onofrio and giving private lessons.  In 1719 Scarlatti returned to Rome and that opened the stage for Porpora.  One of the operas composed during that period was Angelica, on the libretto by the young Pietro Metastasio.  The role of Orlando was sung by Porpora’s star pupil, the 15-year old castrato Farinelli, who would become one of the most celebrated singers in the history of opera.  Among Porpora’s pupils was also Gaetano Majorano, known as Caffarelli, also a castrato, second only to Farinelli; he became one of Handel’s favorite singers.  Here’s an aria from Angelica called Ombre amene.  The countertenor is Robert Expert; the orchestra of Real Compañia Ópera De Cámara is conducted by Juan Bautista Otero. 

In 1723-24 Porpora traveled to Vienna and Munich but received no appointments.  He returned to Italy and settled in Venice.  An intense rivalry developed between him and Leonardo Vinci, who was Porpora’s classmate in Naples.  In 1730 Porpora and Vinci produced operas which ran simultaneously in two leading Roman opera houses, one in Teatro della Dame, another – in Teatro Capranica (Teatro della Dame was the largest in Rome when built in 1718, it burned down in 1863; Teatro Capranica, the second oldest public opera house in Rome after the Teatro delle Quattro Fontane, still exists but is mostly used for various public events).  In 1730 Vinci died, age 40, and for a while Poprora’s competitive impulse focused on another successful opera composer, Johann Adolph Hasse. 

In 1733 Porpora received an invitation from a group of Londoners who were setting up an opera house to rival Handel’s.  Porpora traveled to London and stayed there for almost three years.  During that time he composed five operas, which were staged at the new opera, called Opera of the Nobility.  The first, Arianna in Naxo, turned out to be the most successful one, even though Farinelli made his London debut in the subsequent Polifemo.  Porpora left London in 1736, and less than a year later both the Opera of the Nobility and Handel’s opera collapsed.   Here’s the wonderful French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky singing the area Alto Giove, from Polifemo.  Porpora returned to Italy, splitting his time between Venice and Naples.  The opera commissions were drying up, and Porpora traveled to Dresden, where he received an appointment as Kapellmeister at the court of Saxony.  That lasted for five years; in 1752 he was sent into retirement and moved to Vienna.  There he renewed his friendship with Metastasio; and it was probably Metastasio who introduced the 20-year old Joseph Haydn to Porpora.  Haydn, who was trying to make a living as a freelancing pianist and composer, became Porpora’s valet, keyboard accompanist, and student.  It seems Porpora treated Haydn pretty roughly, but Haydn later claimed that he learned "the true fundamentals of composition from the celebrated Herr Porpora.”   Porpora was living mostly on a pension from Dresden, and when that ended in 1759, he moved back to Naples.  He was made maestro di cappella in the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto.  His final opera was a failure, he had to resign from the conservatory and spent the last years of his life in poverty.  Porpora died in Naples on March 3rd of 1768.  Here’s the aria Tu che d'ardir' m'accendi from his opera Siface.  Again, we’ll hear Philippe Jaroussky, this time with Le Concert d'Astree under the direction of Emmanuelle Haim.

Read more...

August 6, 2013.  Dufay and the early Renaissance, part 2.  Last week we discussed, in broad terms, the period of music that is customarily called “Early Renaissance.”  Today we’ll present three famous composers of that period, Dufay, Dunstaple and Binchois.  What we find fascinating in their stories is how intertwined the European music culture of the time was, on a personal level and with musical ideas spreading from one country to another.  All this in a war-torn Europe, which often seems so static to a contemporary observer.

The most famous Gille BinchoisFranco-Flemish composer of the mid-15th century, Guillaume Dufay was probably born in 1397.  Exactly where is not clear: either around Cambrai, in what is now Northern France, or in Beersel, outside of Brussels.  He was an illegitimate child of a local priest.  His uncle was a canon at the cathedral of Cambrai, and the young Guillaume became a chorister there.  His talents were noticed early on and he was given formal musical training.  In 1420 Dufay moved to Rimini to serve at the palace of Carlo Malatesta, a famous condottiero.  There he wrote church music – masses and motets – and also secular ballades and rondeaux.  Dufay stayed in Malatesta’s service till 1424 and then returned to France, to Cambrai or maybe Laon.  In 1426 Dufay went back to Italy, this time into the service of Louis Aleman, a French Cardinal who at that time was a papal legate in Bologna.  Two years later Dufay moved to Rome and became a member of the papal choir.  He remained in Rome till 1433; by then his fame had spread all around Europe.  He left Rome to join the court of Amédée VIII, the duke of Savoy.  In 1434 the duke’s son Louis married Ann of Cyprus, and many guests were invited to the wedding.  One of them wasPhilip the Good, duke of Burgundy.  In the duke’s retinue was Gilles Binchois.  Apparently Dufay and Binchois met on that occasion, at least according to Martin le Franc, the same le Franc who coined the term La Contenance Angloise to describe the style of John Dunstaple, another famous contemporary.   In 1435 Dufay returned to the papal court, which this time was in Florence, where Pope Eugene IV was driven by an insurrection in Rome.  It was in Florence that Dufay composed one of his most famous motets, Nuper Rosarum Flores ("Recently Flowers of Roses").  It was written for the consecration of the Florence cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flowers) on March 25th, 1436.  The great architect Filippo Brunelleschi had just completed the magnificent cupola, and the Pope himself presided over the festivities.  Dufay returned to Cambrai around 1459 and lived there for the rest of his life, actively composing till the end.  His life was a long one, for the time: he died on November 24th of 1474.

Gilles Binchois was born around 1400 in the city of Mons, which is now in Belgium and back then was the capital of the County of Hainaut.  It later became part of the Duchy of Burgundy.  During the Hundred Years’ War the Burgundians fought on the side of the English, and at some point even captured Paris. It’s known that around 1425 Binchois was in Paris serving William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk and one of the English commanders during the War.  Around 1430 Binchois joined the court chapel of Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy and stayed there for many years.  Philip loved music and hired many musicians and composers; Guillaume Dufay wrote for him.  Philip didn’t have a permanent capital and moved his court between the palaces in Brussels, Bruges, Dijon and other cities of the Duchy; Binchois most likely traveled with the court.  Eventually he retired to Soignies, just outside of Mons.   He died in 1460.  Binchois was considered the finest melodist of the 15th century (although some might argue that this honor belongs to John Dunstaple), and was, with Guillaume Dufay, the most significant composer of the early Burgundian (Franco-Flemish) School.

John Dunstaple was born around 1390 (a conjecture based on the timing of some compositions), probably in the town of Dunstable.  He served in the court of John of Lancaster, a son of King Henry IV and a brother of Henry V.  John led the British forces in many battles of the Hundred Year War with France (he was the one to capture Joan of Arc) and for a number of years was the Governor of Normandy.  It’s likely that Dunstaple stayed with John in Normandy.  From there his music spread around the continent.  Considering that a major war was raging in France, it is quite remarkable.  Dunstaple’s influence was significant, especially affecting musicians of the highly developed Burgundian school; the reason was both musical and political, as Burgundy was allied with England in its war against France.  The poet Martin Le Franc, a contemporary of Dunstaple, came up with the term La Contenance Angloise, which could be loosely translated as “English manner” and said that it influenced the two greatest composers of Burgundy, Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois.  Le Franc wrote his treaties in 1442, by then Dunstaple was back in England, serving in the court of Humphrey of Lancaster, John’s brother.  In addition to writing music, he also studied mathematics, and was an astronomer and astrologer.  While not a cleric, he was associated with St. Albans Abbey.  Dunstaple died in 1453.  During the reign of Henry VIII England became Protestant, many monasteries – the main keepers of musical tradition – were "dissolved" and their libraries were ruined.  Most of the English manuscripts of Dunstaple’s music were lost.  Fortunately, many copies remained in Italy and Germany – evidence of Dunstaple’s international fame.  About 50 compositions are currently attributed to him: two complete masses, a number of sections from masses that are otherwise lost, and many motets.

The portrait above, by Jan van Eyck from 1432of an unattributed sitter, is sometimes said to represent Dufay; other believe it to be Binchois.

Read more...

August 1, 2016.  Dufay and the early Renaissance, part 1.  August 5th is sometimes associated with the name of Guillaume Dufay, one of the greatest composers of the early Renaissance.  History recorded very few birth dates of composers of that period, and for the early Renaissance ones, even the year is usually speculative.  In the case of Dufay, his birth date (August 5th of 1397) was “calculated” retroactively from some later events in his life by musicologists; Dufay and Binchoisno direct record exists and other musicologists think it was sometime in 1400.  So we write about composers of that era infrequently, even though they are very important in the forming of what we know as Western classical music. 

The notion of “Renaissance” was probably first consistently applied by Giorgio Vasari around 1550 in his book The Lives of Artists, even though two centuries earlier, in Decameron, Boccaccio talked about Giotto bringing light back to art that was dark for centuries.  Still it was Vasari who clearly defined the break with the past, which he associated with two great Florentine painters, Giotto and Cimabue, who worked at the end of the 13th – beginning of the 14th centuries.  The term itself wasnot popularized till the mid-19th century, first by the French historian Jules Michelet and then by Jacob Burckhardt, the Swiss historian of art and culture.  For both of them “Renaissance” meant first and foremost visual arts and literature.  For music, the term Renaissance had not been applied till the late 19th century, and even then rather vaguely and historically ill-defined.  But if we look back we’ll see that as early as in the 15th century, the Franco-Flemish composer and music theorist Johannes Tinctoris had a sense that something had changed in the art of music.  In his treaties called Proportionale he wrote around 1440: “At this time, consequently, the possibilities of our music has been so marvelously increased that there appears to be a new art, if I may so call it, whose found and origin is held to be among the English, of whom Dunstable stood forth as chief.  Contemporary with him in France were Dufay and Binchois, to whom directly succeeded the modern Ockeghem, Busnois, Regis and Caron, who are the most excellent of all the composers I’ve ever heard.”  Even though in this passage Tinctoris doesn’t mention Guillaume Dufay, we know that he had enormous respect for him (which should be expected, as Tinctoris was Dufay’s student at the cathedral of Cambrai).  From this paragraph, and also from the writings of the musicologists of the 19th and the 20th centuries, we can see that the Renaissance in music started somewhere between 1400 and 1430, more than 100 later than the Italian Renaissance in arts and literature.  

The music of the early Renaissance is usually associated with Burgundy.  In the early 15th century, the Duchy of Burgundy was probably the most stable and prosperous state in Europe.  Led by the Valois branch of the royal family, closely related to the French kings, it acquired many principalities of what is now Belgium and the Netherlands: Flanders, Brabant, Hainault, also the Duchy of Luxemburg and many others.  While France was ravaged by the Hundred Years' War, which started in 1337 and lasted till 1453, Burgundy prospered.  Before the war, Paris was the cultural center, as was Avignon (wherethe Popes temporarily moved from Rome), but by the early 15th century the center migrated to Burgundy.  The Dukes were not just patrons of music, they actively participated in music-making.  Burgundy was unusual in that the Dukes liked to move from one city to another, and the court, with all the musicians and artists, moved with them.  Dijon wasthe administrative center of the state, but Brussels, Bruges and other larger cities of the Low Countries thus benefitted from its cultural riches.

Another event that tremendously benefitted the development of music was the invention, by Johannes Gutenberg, of the movable print in 1450.  Though first it was used to print books (the Bible first and foremost) very soon it was applied to the music publishing business.  Before Gutenberg, music was copied by hand, usually by monks.  Using the movable press, printed music became cheaper, copies more numerous, and new musical ideas could be disseminated all over Europe.

We’ll continue with several individual composers of the period in the next post.  The miniature above is from a page of a manuscript of Martin le Franc shows Dufay (on the left) and Binchois.

Read more...

July 24, 2016.  Minor notablesErnest Bloch, a Swiss-American composer, was born this day in 1880 in Geneva.  He went to Brussels to study violin with Eugène Ysaÿe.  He began composing at Ernest Blochthe age of nine, and took formal classes in Frankfurt in 1900.  He moved to Paris and then back to Geneva where he married and joined his father’s business as a bookkeeper and salesman.  He continued to compose, sporadically, kept up his musical connection and in 1916 went on a tour of the United States with a dance company as a conductor.  The tour was a failure but Bloch was offered a position at the newly organized David Mannes College of Music in New York.  Around that time he composed what would become his best known composition, Schelomo, Rhapsodie Hébraïque for Cello and Orchestra, the final work of his “Jewish cycle” (Bloch was Jewish).  It was well received and remains popular to this day.  In 1920 he became the founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he served for five years.  In 1925 he moved to San Francisco to lead the local conservatory.  In the 1930s Bloch lived mostly in Switzerland but returned to the US in 1940.  He taught at Berkeley and continued to compose.  Bloch died on July 15th of 1959.  Here’s a recording of Schelomo made by Mstislav Rostropovich in 1977.  Leonard Bernstein is leading the Orchestre National De France.

John Field, Irish composer and pianist, was born on July 26th of 1782.  The “father” of the Nocturne, and in that Chopin’s precursor (on a much smaller scale), Field moved to London to study with Muzio Clementi.  He soon became famous as a young virtuoso; Haydn, during one of his trips in London, heard him play and praised him in his notebook: “Field a young boy, which plays the piano extremely well.”  In 1802 Field followed his teacher Clementi to Russia.  Clementi, a composer and a pedagogue, was also in the piano business, and used Field to demonstrate pianos to potential customers.  Clementi left Russia in 1803 but Field stayed behind.  He played numerous concerts, first in St.-Petersburg and then in the Baltics and Moscow.  In 1806 he moved to Moscow and lived there for five years, eventually returning to St.Petersburg.   Popular not just as a concert pianist but as a private tutor, he became the most expensive piano teacher in Russia.  In 1810 he married one of his pupils, a French actress and pianist named Adelaide Percheron.  The 1810s was a productive period when he wrote most of his nocturnes.  They would later be much admired by Chopin and Liszt.  The feeling was not reciprocal, as Field was critical of both.  Field stayed in Russia till 1831 when he went to London for an operation: he had rectal cancer.  After the operation, he unsuccessfully tried to resurrect his pianistic career.   He ended up in a hospital in Naples, penniless, and had to be rescued by his Russian friends who brought him back to Moscow.  There he died on January 23rd of 1837.  Here’s John O’Connor playing Field’s Nocturne no. 5 in B-flat Major.

If Field was famous for his piano music, Mauro Giuliani who was born one year earlier, on July 27th of 1781, became famous for his music for the guitar.  The early 19th century, the time Giuliani was growing up, was aperiod of deep decline in classical music in Italy.  The only musical form that was flourishing was the opera.  So, as many of his compatriots, the young Giuliani moved up north and settled in Vienna.  Even though his first instrument was the cello, he became famous as the greatest guitar virtuoso, acknowledged by musicians and the court.  He was one of the first to compose and perform a concerto for the guitar and symphony orchestra.  He became acquainted with all of the prominent musician of Vienna, starting with Beethoven.  He performed chamber concerts with the best local musicians, and composed, mostly for the guitar.  In 1819 he returned to Italy, first to Rome and then to Naples.  That’s where he died, on May 8th of 1829, just 47 years old.  Here’s his Prelude op.83 no. 2, performed by Dmitry Teslov.

Read more...

July 18, 2016.  Beethoven Symphony No. 6.  Today we’ll present an article by Joseph DuBose on one of the most popular symphonic pieces in all of music literature: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”).  The problem we encountered was with the selection of the recording to Ludwig van Beethovenillustrate the article: there are just too many good ones.  The “Pastoral” is one of the most often recorded symphonies, and great recordings go back to the early years of the industry.  To list them would be to list the names of all great conductors of the 20th century.  We decided on the live recording made by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under the direction of Bernard Haitink.  We don’t claim that it’s the best but it is indeed excellent.  Here it is.  ♫

Each of Beethoven’s symphonic works up to the C minor Symphony represent individual steps in the determined path the composer set out on. In the first two, he adhered to the models of Mozart and Haydn, but only just so. His creative genius was already pushing out against the established manners and proportions of the symphony. The Eroica left behind all that was known and was the first significant work on the “new path” Beethoven declared in 1802. The B-flat Symphony which soon after followed, in outward appearance at least, may seem like a regression from the Eroica. Yet, even if it is stricter in form than its predecessor, the same passionate emotions pulse beneath its surface. The C minor, then, is the fusion of both works—that taut forms of the Fourth combined with the seriousness and heroism of the Eroica. However, with the Sixth Symphony, or the “Pastoral” as it is so often called, Beethoven presents us with a work entirely different from its any of its predecessors. That it came to birth alongside the fiery C minor is remarkable indeed. It is a startling revelation of the great breadth of the composer’s imagination, that he could conceive so vastly different works at the same time.

The “Pastoral” Symphony is Beethoven’s homage to nature. For him, nature was an absolute necessity—for life and for creative endeavors. He spent the better part of his summers wandering the wooded countrysides of Hetzendorf, Heiligenstadt, and Döbling. It was in these rustic environs that he conceived and drafted many of his greatest compositions, which were then completed and put into score during his winters in Vienna.

From a historical perspective, the Sixth Symphony was the first truly successful example of “program music,” and laid the groundwork for the concert overtures of Mendelssohn and the symphonic poems of Liszt. Yet, contrary to those later masters (Liszt in particular), Beethoven recognizes the limitations of music as an artistic medium. Though he has provided subtitles for each individual movement that succinctly describe the picture being painted by the music, he provides the crucial key to his intent beneath the work’s title: “More an expression of feeling than a painting.” Indeed, it is apparent in the conception of the symphony that Beethoven was quick to avoid any instance of actual imitations of sights or sound. Indeed, even the celebrated imitations of birdcalls towards the conclusion of the second movement Beethoven has admitted were intended as a practical joke, and the section as a whole is more in keeping with the capricious outbursts found in his other symphonies than any attempt at blatant tone-painting. (Continue reading here).

Read more...

July 11, 2016.  BononciniGiovanni Bononcini was born this week, on July 18th of 1670, in Modena.  At the zenith of his career he was one of the most famous composers in Europe and Giovanni BononciniGeorge Frideric Handel’s competitor.  Bononcini was a son of composer and theorist Giovanni Maria Bononcini.  Giovanni Maria died in and Giovanni moved to Bologna, where he continued his musical education and wrote his first compositions.  By the age of 15 he published three collections of music, and three years later composed a mass.  In 1691 Bononcini went to Rome and entered the service of Filippo Colonna (Colonna, a scion of one of the most colorful Italian families, with many ducal and princely titles to the name, was also a great-nephew of Cardinal Mazarin).  A man of letters and a member of the Accademia degli Arcadi, Colonna had in his employ Silvio Stampiglia, a famous librettist.  Together, Bononcini and Stampiglia wrote ten operas.  Their opera Xerse became a huge success.  Here’s the aria Ombra mai fu from Bononcini’s Xerse.  We all know Handel’s magnificent Ombra mai fu (here) from his opera of the same name.  When you listen to Bononcini, you’ll recognize the Handel, and not by chance: Handel used Bononcini’s aria for his own setting.  Clearly, intellectual property was not as sacrosanct in the 17th and 18th centuries as it is now.  It turns out that this particular “borrowing” has an even longer history, because Bononcini wasn’t the first.  He actually used the music of Francesco Cavalli, who wrote his own Xerse in 1654.  The opera contained an aria, Ombra mai fu (“Never was a shade...”), which became very popular.  Here’s the “original” (Cavalli) version.   The libretto for Cavalli’s opera was written by Nicolò Minato; it was reused by both Bononcini and Handel.  Bononcini’s version is performed by the German soprano Simone Kermes (she’s wonderful in the Baroque repertory – listen to her in Alessandro Scarlatti’s Cara tomba, from Il Mitridate Eupatore).  The Cavalli is sung by the Belgian counter-tenor Rene Jacobs, who also conducts the performance.  The Handel is performed by the great mezzo, Cecilia Bartoli.

While in Rome, Bononcini became a member of the important musical Accademia di Santa Cecilia, and was also invited to join the Arcadian Academy.  Following the death of Filippo’s wife in 1697, Bononcini left Rome for Vienna, where he was invited to the court of the Emperor Leopold I.  He stayed in Vienna for five years and then moved to Berlin on the invitation of Queen Sophia Charlotte, the wife of Frederick I of Prussia.  Around 1715 Bononcini returned to Rome.  His opera Camilla was highly successful and was staged not just in Italy but also in London.  That’s where he went in 1720.  Handel was the king of opera, but the first several seasons were highly successful for Bononcini. Three quarters of all performances given by the Royal Academy of Music were of Bononcini’s music.  That, unfortunately, changed as the Jacobite risings made Bononcini, a Catholic, politically unacceptable.  He considered leaving London but the Duchess of Marlborough offered him a stipend of £500 a year for life, so he stayed.  An unfortunate affair followed in 1731.  A friend of Bononcini’s, composer Maurice Greene introduced a manuscript of a madrigal, which he claimed to be written by Bononcini.  The madrigal turned out to be by Antonio Lotti.  This was too much even in the era of free borrowing. Greene was forced to quit the Academy of Ancient Music, and Bononcini had to leave London.  He went to France.  He continued moving from one European capital to another until settling in Vienna in 1737, where the Empress Maria Theresa provided him with a small pension.  There he stayed till his death in 1747. 

Compared to Handel, it is obvious that Bononcini’s talent was on a smaller scale and more conservative.  Still, his melodic gifts were amazing.  Just listen to the aria Per la gloria d’adorarvi from his opera Griselda (it doesn’t hurt that it’s performed by Luciano Pavarotti).

Read more...

July 4, 2016.  Mahler, Symphony no. 4.  Gustav Mahler was born on July 7th of 1860, and to celebrate his birthday we will again turn to one of his symphonies, this time the Fourth.  Mahler started working on the Fourth Symphony in 1899.  Gustav MahlerBy then he had moved from Hamburg to Vienna, having received the appointment to the Vienna Hofoper (the Court opera theater) in 1897.  To be even considered for the position, he had to convert to Catholicism: as liberal as the Emperor Franz Joseph was, to have a Jewish conductor of the main opera was unthinkable.  Mahler, an agnostic, had no qualms: the ceremony took place on February 23, 1997.  In April he started as the Kapellmeister and in September of the same year Mahler was promoted to director.  He understood that his position would not be easy: much of the Viennese public and a good number of music critics were anti-Semitic, and didn’t care about Mahler’s conversion.  One of the leaders of the anti-Semitic camp was the very popular mayor, Karl Lueger, who also founded the Austrian Christian Socialist party, a precursor of the German National-Socialists (Lueger was a very efficient administrator, and is credited with transforming Vienna into a modern city; still, the fact that a monument to him still stands in the center of Vienna in a square called Doktor-Karl-Lueger-Paltz is inconceivable).  In financial terms, Mahler’s life became quite comfortable.  He rented a large apartment on Auengruggergasse, number 2, a building next to the Belvedere Gardens (it was designed by Otto Wagner, the leading Art Nouveau architect). 

For the first two years in Vienna Mahler was so involved with the Opera that there was no time for him to compose.  A perfectionist, he rehearsed every production for many weeks at a time and was very demanding, overseeing all aspects of every production.  That didn’t endear him to the singers and the orchestra.  On the other hand, the repertory and the quality of the opera house improved dramatically.  The first opera to be staged under Mahler’s direction was Wagner’s Lohengrin; Mozart‘s Die Zauberflöte followed.  Both were a huge success.  Mahler also took over the subscription concerts of the Philharmonic, which were previously lead by the famous conductor Hans Richter.  There were days when he conducted a symphony concert during the day and an opera in the evening.  The workload was enormous and stressful.  He was also affected by the plight of his close friend Hugo Wolf, who, suffering from the late stages of syphilis, fell into dementia and was sent to an asylum.  With a long concert and opera season fully consumed by directing and conducting, the summer months became very important to Mahler as the time to unwind and, more importantly, to compose.   In the summer of 1899 Mahler rented a summer-house in Steinbach on lake Altaussee, not far from Salzburg.  A fashionable resort, it was frequented by writers and journalists, such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Theodor Herzl.  It wasn’t his first visit to Steinbach: there he composed parts of the Second and Third Symphonies.  He even built a “composing hut” there, to seclude himself from the summer crowd.  It was in Steinbach that Mahler started working on his Fourth Symphony.  The pattern – conducting and directing during Vienna’s musical season and composing during the summer months – was firmly established the next year, when Mahler decided to go to the village of Maiernigg on lake Wörthersee in Carinthia.  Eventually he would build a small hut there as well so that he could compose without being interrupted.  The Fourth Symphony was completed that summer.  It’s the last of the so-called Wunderhorn symphonies: every one of the first four incorporates some music from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection, Mahler’s setting of German folk poems.  In the case of the Fourth symphony, it’s the song, "Das himmlische Leben" (“The Heavenly Life”), originally written in 1892, that Mahler re-orchestrated into the fourth movement of the symphony.   Here it is, with Claudio Abbado conducting “Mahler’s own” Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Frederica von Stade is the mezzo soprano.

Read more...

June 27, 2016.  Four Klavierstücke, op. 119 by Brahms.  Below is an article by Joseph DuBose about the last set Johannes Brahms ever wrote for piano solo.  We illustrate it with performances by Alon Goldstein and Matthew Graybil.  ♫ 

The 4 Klavierstücke, op. 119 is the last of Brahms’s compositions for his own instrument.  While it is true that the 51 Übungen were published laterJohannes Brahms, these exercises were nevertheless compiled over several years from works already written. In the wake of the E-flat minor Intermezzo that closed the op. 118, the current collection opens with two similarly introspective minor key intermezzi. The first, in B minor, passes by with resigned melancholy and a cool detachment that aptly follows such a heart-wrenching expression of emotion. The following E minor Intermezzo, on the other hand, builds out of a nervous energy, and by its conclusion begins to turn towards a brighter mood. The C major Intermezzo that follows abounds with rhythmic energy, and quite fittingly sets the stage from the robust and dynamic E-flat major Rhapsodie. An appropriate end for Brahms’s solo piano music, the Rhapsodie abounds with the virile energy of the early Rhapsodies while also looking back at times to the op. 10 Ballades.

The B minor Intermezzo (here) makes the most direct use of the descending thirds motif since the Caprice in D minor that opened op. 116. Whereas in the Caprice the thirds were used to great effect both melodically and contrapuntally, the effect here is entirely harmonic. As the thirds descend, the tones overlap resulting in beautiful, impressionistic chords of the ninth and eleventh that place the music in a twilit area between the keys of B minor and D major. Atop these luscious harmonies, a melancholy tune more suggestive of D major until its final cadence, floats across the hazy harmonic landscape. While this principal melody comes to a close on a definitive half cadence in B minor, a firm assertion of the tonic is avoided by the immediate appearance of a secondary theme unmistakably in the key of D major. This new theme struggles to give voice to the inner turmoil of the piece, as it builds fervently over chromatically rising harmonies into a forte that inevitably melts away over dominant seventh chords obscured by two chromatic lines moving in contrary motion. The melody starts again, though now altered, and builds more quickly into a more fulfilling climax on the dominant, reinforced by rippling triplets in the bass. A moment of resignation is then reached as the music begins to die away with poignant sighs that fall from the upper register into the bass. Like a fog rolling in, obscuring everything within its reach, the descending thirds return in a four measure transition that brings about a slightly embellished reprise of the opening. A brief coda, built on the plaintive sighs heard earlier, begins to reaffirm the D major tonality. However, just prior to the expected cadence it gives way to a final chain of thirds that spans across all the tones of a thirteenth chord before resolving into a final B minor chord (continue reading here).

Read more...

June 20, 2016.  The brothers Marcello.  Benedetto Marcello was born on June 24th of 1686 in Venice.  Of a noble family, he was a younger brother of Alessandro, also a composer.  Benedetto followed in Alessandro’s steps, becoming a member of the Grand Council of Venice at the Benedetto Marcelloage of 20.  Their father wanted Marcello to study law and Benedetto obliged.  In 1711 he became a member of the Council of Forty, the government of Venice.  In 1730 he was sent as a governor to Pula, Istria, then a territory of the Venetian Republic, now part of Croatia.  Eight years later he returned to Italy, in rather poor health, and was hired by the city of Brescia as chief financial officer.  He died a year later, in 1739, of tuberculosis.

Benedetto studied music from an early age; among his teachers was Francesco Gasparini, a well-known composer and teacher (Johann Sebastian Bach was familiar with Gasparini’s compositions).  Though a prolific composer, he never held a musical appointment, which put him in a different category compared to professional musicians: in Italy there was a clear social separation between “maestri” and “dilettanti.”  That didn’t stop him from being one of the most influential composers of his time.  One of Benedetto’s major works was the setting of psalms he called “Estro-poetico armonico.”  It was published in eight volumes between 1724 and 1726.  Here’s one of the psalms, Mentre io tutta ripongo in Dio, a setting for four voices.  It’s performed by the ensemble Cantus Cölln, Konrad Junghänel conducting and playing the lute.  In 1731, when he was in Pula, he wrote an oratorio Il piano e il riso delle quattro stagioni dell'anno (Lamentation and Joy of the Four Seasons of the Year).  Here’s a Symphony from the oratorio. It’s performed by I Virtuosi delle Muse under the direction of Stefano Molardi.

Some sources say that Alessandro Marcello was born on February 1st, 1673, others have his birthday almost four years earlier, on August 24th, 1669.  The latter is more likely, coAlessandro Marcellonsidering that he was admitted to the Grand Council of Venice in 1690: it’s much more probable that he became a member at the age of 21 rather than 17.  Highly educated and a man of varied interests, he served as ambassador, was a prolific writer, for a short time indulged in painting and was a talented composer.  Alessandro was a member of the prestigious Accademia degli Animosi, the Venetian branch of the Roman Accademia degli Arcadi.  He also collected musical instruments, which are now exhibited in Rome, in the National museum of musical instruments.  Alessandro wrote a number of cantatas, and also an Oboe concerto, which is often attributed to his brother Benedetto.  Johann Sebastian Bach liked it so much that he transcribed it for the harpsichord; in the catalogue of Bach’s works it has  number BWV 974.  Here’s the original, from Alessandro Marcello.  The soloist is Paolo Grazzi, Andrea Marcon is leading the Venice Baroque Orchestra.

Read more...

June 13, 2016.  Gounod, Stravinsky and a StamitzCharles Gounod  and Igor Stravinsky were born this week, and also Johann Stamitz (père), a Czech-German composer, and the popular Norwegian, Edvard Grieg.  Johann Stamitz had two sons, Carl and Anton, Carl being probably the better known of the three, but Johann’s talent shouldn’t be underrated.  He was born Johann StamitzJan Václav Stamic (he Germanized the name later in his life) on June 18th or 19th of 1717 in a small town in Bohemia.  After studying at the University of Prague he embarked on a career of violin virtuoso.  Sometime around 1741 Stamitz was hired by the Mannheim court, which at the time had one of the best orchestras in Germany.  Stamitz started as a violinist, then was promoted to the position of Concertmaster and eventually the music director.  Stamitz’s responsibilities were to compose orchestral music and conduct; under him the orchestra developed into the most famous ensemble in the world.  Some years later the 18-year old Mozart would marvel at their precision and technique.  In 1754 Stamitz traveled to Paris and stayed there for a year.  In Paris he performed at the Concert Spirituel, the first public concert series in history (the performances took place at the Tuileries Palace, which was burned down during the days of the Paris Commune in 1871).  Stamitz returned to Mannheim in the fall of 1755.  He died less than two years later at the age of 39.  Stamitz composed 58 symphonies and is considered the founding father of the “Mannheim School” of composition, which influenced many composers, including Haydn and Mozart.  Here’s one of his symphonies, in A major "Frühling" (“Spring”).  Virtuosi di Praga are conducted by Oldřich Vlček.

Charles Gounod was born on June 17th of 1818.  He’s rightfully famous for his opera Faust, but he also composed 11 other operas, though none of them at the level of Faust.  One of the first operas, Sapho from 1851, was written for his friend, soprano Pauline Viardo, who had recently triumphed in Meyerbeer’s Le prophète.  The opera wasn’t successful commercially, but established Gounod as one of the leading young composers.  Sapho isn’t staged often these days but some arias are lovely.  Here’s the aria Ô ma lyre immortelle in the performance by the wonderful French singer, a soprano-turned-mezzo, Régine Crespin.  And of course Je veux vivre from Roméo et Juliette remains popular to this day.  Here it is sung by another French singer, the soprano Natalie Dessay.

Also on June 17th but of 1882 Igor Stravinsky was born.  We celebrate him every year, and mention him more often than any other composer of the 20th century.  Last year we explored Le Baiser de la Fée, his ballet from 1927, commissioned by Ida Rubinstein.  At the same time Stravinsky was working on another ballet, Apollo (or Apollon musagète).  The commission came from an unusual source, the US Library of Congress.  In 1928, Apollo was choreographed first by Adolph Bolm (Ruth Page was one of the muses); that production was quickly forgotten.  The same year, the 24-year-old George Balanchine, working for Diagilev’s Ballets Russe, staged Apollo in Paris; the costumes were designed by Coco Chanel, Stravinsky conducted.  Apollo became one of his most popular neoclassical pieces.  Here it is, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Craft.  Robert Craft, a writer and conductor who died a half a year ago, on November 10th of 2015, was one of the people closest to Stravinsky.  He recorded practically all of Stravinsky’s orchestral music and wrote several books about the composer, including Conversations with Igor Stravinsky.

Read more...

June 6, 2016.  Queen Christina, Part II.  Christina left Sweden in the summer of 1654; she was 27 years old.  She converted to the Catholic faith while in Brussels, and the event was celebrated several weeks later in Innsbruck, under the auspice of Archduke Ferdinand.  The festivities, Chrisitina Riding into Rome (Marinari) which lasted a whole week, included a performance of L’Argia, an opera by a then very popular composer, Antonio Cesti.  Christina’s journey to Rome, with a large entourage and accompanied by cardinals, felt like a triumphal procession.  She arrived in Rome just before Christmas of 1655; the Pope Alexander VII received her as if she were a reigning Queen: a royal convert from Protestantism to Catholicism was a big catch for the Papacy.  Festivities followed Christina’s arrival, and operas, still new as a genre and very popular in Rome, were at the center: Marco Marazzoli’s Vita humana, dedicated to Christina, an opera by Antonio Tenaglia, and Historia di Abraham et Isaac by Giacomo Carissimi.  The staging venues were private palazzos: Palazzo Barberini and Palazzo Pamphilj – as there were no public opera theaters in Rome at the time, those were for Christina to establish. 

Christina herself was initially installed inside the Vatican but a few weeks later moved into one of the most magnificent palazzos of Rome, Palazzo Farnese.  Immediately she became the center of the intellectual life of Rome.  She established Wednesdays as a day when the palazzo was opened to the nobility and artists to enjoy conversation and good music; a circle of friends that was formed early in 1656 eventually became the Accademia degli Arcadi, a literary academy which survives (as Accademia Letteraria Italiana) to this day.  Over the following three and a half centuries, Popes, heads of state, musicians and poets were members.  Christina stayed in Rome till September of that year, when she departed for France: France and Spain were contesting the control of Naples, and Christina, whose income was cut by the Swedes since her conversion, needed money.  Her goal was to become the Queen of Naples, become financially independent and acquire a role in European politics.  She stayed in France for almost two years, first greeted warmly by both Mazarin, the Chief Minister to King Lois XIV and the King himself but eventually wearing out her welcome.  Without achieving anything politically, she returned to Rome in 1568 to a much cooler welcome.

She eventually settled in Palazzo Riario (now Corsini) in the Trastevere section of Rome, next to Palazzo Farnesina.  She remained there for the rest of her life, save for short trips to Sweden again and Hamburg.  She continued collecting art and her collection of Venetian masters was considered unsurpassed.  She created a theater in her palace, and in 1667 helped to rebuild Teatro Tor di Nona, which became the first public opera theater in Rome.  Her friends included the best painters (Gian Lorenzo Bernini among them) and poets of Rome, and above all, musicians.  Major composers dedicated operas to her (Bernardo Pasquini, for example, and Alessandro Stradella), Giacomo Carissimi led her orchestra for a while, Arcangelo Corelli became one of her musicians (and also dedicated several of his compositions to her), and the 18 year-old Alessandro Scarlatti attracted her attention and became her Maestro di Capella.  Christina wrote an autobiography (unfinished) and many essays on history and arts.  She continued to be active in politics, proclaiming, for example, that Roman Jews were under her protection.  In February of 1689 she fell ill and died on April 19th of 1689 at the age of 62.  The Pope (Innocent XI, the fourth Pope during Christina’s time in Rome), ordered an official burial.  Her body laid in state for four days and then was buried in the Saint Peter Basilica.  Her books became part of the Vatican library; her collection of paintings became part of the famous Orleans Collection, which was eventually dispersed around Europe.

The engraving above (by Orazio Marinari) depicts her first, triumphal, entrance into Rome in 1655.  She’s flanked by cardinals Orsini and Costaguti.

Read more...

May 30, 2016.  Queen Christina – Part I.  The 17th century was a time of great art and its glorious patrons, and Rome was the center of it all – art, music, riches, and patronage.  We’ve written about one of the major figures of the time - Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, but Queen Christina of Sweden, the benefactress of Giacomo Carissimi, Alessandro Stradella, Bernardo Pasquini, Arcangelo Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti and so many others, was the one who set the example for all the Christina, Queen of Swedenpowerful men that followed in her steps as major patrons of arts.  Christina was an extraordinary person, unconventional in every possible way: socially, religiously, sexually, and artistically.  She was born on December 18th of 1626 in Stockholm to Gustav II Adolf, King of Sweden.   Her father, a great military leader who ably commanded the Swedish army during the Thirty Year War, made sure that she would inherit the throne in case of his death and that she was given extensive tutoring, ordinarily provided only to princes.  In 1632 Gustav II was killed in battle and at the age of six Christina became Queen regnant.  She eagerly continued her studies, learning Latin and Greek (eventually she learned eight more languages, including French and Italian, both of which she knew perfectly, German, Arabic and even Hebrew).  She studied for10 hours a day and seemed to enjoy it.  Philosophy and religion were her favorite subjects, and also history and mathematics.  “She was not like a female,” was the judgment of one of her courtiers.  Intellectually curious, the young Christina invited scholars and philosophers to the court; one of the visitors was a Portuguese rabbi and kabbalist, Menasseh ben Israel.  With her guests, she discussed astronomy, theology and natural sciences.  She even invited the celebrated French philosopher René Descartes, who came to Stockholm in 1649.  They would meet every day, at 5 o’clock in the morning and talk for hours.  The tasking schedule and drafty rooms affected Decartes’ health, four months later he caught a cold and died.  Christina, who loved the theater (Pierre Corneille’s plays especially) was an amateur actress, and ordered to set one of the palace halls as a theater.  In 1648 she invited the famous Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens to create 35 paintings for one of her castles.  Around that time, she became one of the biggest collectors of art in Europe.  Even though she was yet to get involved with music, these rather costly activities presaged her life as a major patron of arts later on, in Rome.

At the age of nine Christina, after reading the biography of the English Queen Elisabeth, decided that she will not marry.  She wrote about “distaste for marriage” in her unfinished autobiography.   At the age of 23 she made an official announcement, and asked that her cousin Charles be appointed heir to the throne.  For a Queen, she lived a very unusual life: studied all the time, slept just three - four hours a day, and often wore men’s clothes and shoes “for convenience (later in her life in Rome, though, she would wear dresses with such décolleté that even the Pope rebuked her).  At the time, her closest friend was her lady-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre, with whom she was probably intimate.  In 1651, totally exhausted, she suffered what probably was a nervous breakdown.  Her French doctor banned all studies and ordered entertainment instead.  Surprisingly, Christina took his advice to heart and abandoning her ascetic lifestyle.

While Sweden was Protestant, since an early age Christina had been interested in Catholicism.  One of her confidants was Antonio Macedo, a Portuguese Jesuit.  She developed plans to convert.  Her unwillingness to marry and Catholicism were clearly conflicting with her position as Queen.  In June of 1654 she abdicated in favor of her cousin, Charles Gustav.  Few days later she left the country, first to Hamburg, then Antwerp and eventually Rome.

Read more...

May 20, 2016.  Franz Liszt, Venezia e Napoli.  Today we’ll publish an article on Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli, a revision of the earlier set by the same name, which was published as a supplement to the Deuxième année: Italie.  We’ll illustrate Gondoliera with a performance by the young Korean-American pianist Woobin Park, Canzone – by a 1985 recording made by the great Jorge Bolet, when he was 71, and Tarantella – with a performance by another young pianist, the American Heidi Hau. 

The cities of Venice and Naples must have made a particular impression upon Franz Liszt Franz Lisztduring his travels with Marie d’Agoult, for, beside the several pieces that would ultimately become the travelogue of his journeys through Italy in the second volume of Années de pèlerinage, he also composed in 1840 a further four pieces named after them—Venezia e Napoli. Like Années de perinage, Venezia e Napoli likewise underwent a significant process of revision once Liszt was in Weimar. Of the original four pieces, only the last two were kept: the Andante placido, which became Gondoliera; and the Tarantelles Napolitaines, which was simply renamed Tarantella. Liszt then inserted a doleful Canzone between these two pieces, creating the triptych now known today. It was published as a supplement to Deuxième Année in 1861.

Liszt based Gondoliera (here), or “Gondolier’s song,” on a well-known melody (“La biondina in gondoletta”) composed by Giovanni Battista Peruchini, an Italian composer born in 1784. Unlike the original version, the 1859 revision opens with an extended introduction in the key of F-sharp minor. Undulating eighth notes in compound meter begin quietly in the bass and slowly rise towards the tonic. In the treble, glistening arpeggios instantly conjure the imagery of a peaceful Venetian canal. Eventually gaining an F-sharp major chord, the music pauses before the commencement of the melody. Marked sempre dolcissimo, the melody, in its first statement, sings out in the rich middle register of the piano above a tonic pedal suggested by the eighth notes still present in the bass. Two more statements follow, each separated by a brief fantasia in Liszt’s usual florid style. Only the latter half of the melody is present in the second statement, but is otherwise only slightly changed. The eighth notes of the bass, however, have now become sixteenths, imbuing the music with an increasing energy. The final statement, on the other hand, is greatly embellished. The melody, still essentially unaltered, now appears against a glimmering accompaniment of trills and broken chords, as if the gondola has suddenly emerged from between two buildings and brilliant sunlight now reflects off the surrounding waters. The melody is repeated again, now below the accompanimental arpeggios, and with its penultimate measure trailing off into a final passage of filigree. From there, the lengthy coda turns the melody somewhat wistful, as its strains are broken up and the minor key creeps back into the tonal fabric. On a stunningly beautiful passage in which full-voice chords move about a fixed F-sharp and A-sharp, the music fades away, like the empty gondola slowly receding from its former passenger.  (Read more here).

Read more...

May 16, 2016.  Wagner and more.  Richard Wagner was born on May 22nd of 1813.  Last year we wrote about his life around the time he created Tannhäuser.  The premier of Lohengrin, the third of his so-called Richard WagnerRomantic operas, followed five years later in 1850, although Wagner had started working on it several years earlier, in the mid-1840s.  Wagner was still living and working in Dresden, where he was the Kapellmeister at the court of the King of Saxony.  Before writing the libretto of Lohengrin, Wagner immersed himself in the old German epics, Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach and Lohengrin; both written in the 13th century (the study of Parzival resulted, some 30 years later, in Wagner writing an idiosyncratic libretto for his last opera, Parsifal).  The protagonist, Lohengrin, is the son of Parzival/Parsifal, one of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table.  Lohengrin is sent to rescue a certain maiden, and he undertakes the journey in a boat pulled by swans.  The legend, used by Eschenbach to write his epics, originated around the time of the Crusades, so the great Minnesingers, born around 1160, worked with what may be considered “fresh material.”  Wagner was still working on the opera when the 1848 insurrections in Paris and Vienna were followed by disturbances in all major cities of Europe.  A year later, the left-leaning Wagner became politically active during the troubles in Dresden.  As Prussian troops took over the city in May of 1849, Wagner fled to Weimar where he was sheltered for a while by Franz Liszt and then left for Zurich.  He stayed out of Germany till 1860.  It was Liszt, his future father-in-law, who directed the premier of Lohengrin in Weimar in August of 1850.  The opera was a huge success, and not just in Germany – Riga, Vienna, Paris, St.-Petersburg premiers followed during the next several years.  Unfortunately, 1850 was also the year when Wagner wrote his infamous article, Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music, often translated as Judaism in Music).  Antisemitic and unfair (the article denigrates both Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn) it’s an utter embarrassment, especially considering the influence it had on the murderous anti-Semites of the following years.  But going back to the music – Lohengrin, despite its usual Wagnerian length (at about 3 ½ hours, it’s actually among his shortest), is a wonderful opera.  Here is the prelude to Act 1, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan conducting.

And now to a somewhat disappointing discovery.  Maria Theresia von Paradis was born on May 15th of 1759.  We always thought that she was famous for three things: being blind but creative in the age when that was so difficult; for Mozart writing a concerto for her, and the Sicilienne, a wonderful little piece, especially as played by Jacqueline du Pré (here).  Unfortunately, the Groves Dictionary suggests that it was not Paradis who was the author of the piece but the purported “discoverer,” the violinist Samuel Dushkin, who arranged the music based on the violin sonata by Carl Maria von Weber and called it Sicilienne.   And indeed, if you listen to the second movement of Weber’s Sonata op. 10 no. 1 (here, as played by Leonid Kogan and Grigory Ginsburg), there cannot be any doubt as to the source of the music.  Dushkin, a wonderful violinist who worked extensively with Stravinsky and created a number of arrangement, is known to be an author of at least one other “musical hoax”: the so-called Grave for violin and orchestra by Johann Georg Benda, which had nothing to do with the 18th century Bohemian violinist and composer.

Read more...

May 9, 2016.  Monteverdi. Claudio Monteverdi, one of the most important composers in the history of European music, who bridged the Renaissance with the nascent Baroque and almost singlehandedly created a new musical form, the opera, was born on this day in 1567 in Cremona, Italy.  We’ve written about Monteverdi in the past (here and here), so we’ll focus on just Claudio Monteverdione, but critical, period in his life – his almost 20 year stay in Mantua at the court of Gonzagas.  The Gonzagas, who ruled Mantua from the early 14th century till the beginning of the 18th, were one of the most illustrious and old houses of Italy.  They lived in the famous Palazzo Ducale, which, with its 500 rooms, was one of the largest palaces in the country.  The rule of Duke Vincenzo, from 1587 to 1612, was a high point.  Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga was an extravagant patron of the arts and his court was brilliant.  The Duke surrounded himself with poets (including Torquato Tasso), painters (Peter Paul Rubens was one of his favorites) and musicians – the court orchestra was one of the best, and led by the famous composer Giaches De Wert.  The Duke spent so lavishly that by the end of his rule the Gonzagas ran out of money; historians believe that Vincenzo’s profligacy led to the decline of the Duchy.  Monteverdi moved to Mantua around 1590 when he was 23.  Though he had already established himself as a composer in his native Cremona, at the court he started at the bottom, as one of the court musicians.  The influence of De Vert on his compositions of the period is unmistakable.  Monteverdi’s talents didn’t go unnoticed for long as the Duke drew him into his inner circle.  Monteverdi was one of the few musicians to accompany the Duke on his frequent trips.  On one of such trip in 1600, they went to Florence to join the celebration of the wedding of Maria de’ Medici, daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, to the French King Henri IV.  Monteverdi, with the rest of Vincenzo’s retinue, attended the performance of Euridice, an opera by Jacopo Peri, one of the first operas ever written. 

The Gonzagas were very close to the house of Este of the nearby Ferrara (the third wife of Alfonso II d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara at the time, was a Gonzaga).  Alfonso shared Vincenzo’s love of arts and music; his court orchestra was led by Luzzasco Luzzaschi, a noted composer; he also maintained Concerto delle donne, a female vocal ensemble famous for their virtuosity.  Monteverdi’s music was performed in Ferrara almost as often as in Mantua; in 1597 he was about to dedicate a book of madrigals to Duke Alfonso when the Duke died, childless, thus ending the Este’s dynasty in Ferrara.

While in Modena, Monteverdi wrote several books of madrigals (books Three through Five, the first two books were composed while Monteverdi lived in Cremona).  Book Five is considered very significant, as it marks the shift from the polyphonic Renaissance style to a more monodic Baroque. In 1607 he composed his first opera, Orfeo, which firmly established opera as new art form; it’s also the earliest opera that is still being regularly performed.  We’ll hear two madrigals from Book V: T'amo mia vita, performed by the ensemble Artek, under the direction of Gwendolyn Toth (here), and Che dar più vi poss'io, with Il Nuove Musiche conducted by Krijn Koetsveld (here).

Read more...

May 2, 2016.  Scarlatti, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.  Three famous composers were born this week.  May 2nd is the birthday of Alessandro Scarlatti, a very important early opera composer and the father of Domenico.  Scarlatti was born in 1660.  Then, on May 7th comes the unfortunate coupling of Alessandro ScarlattiJohannes Brahms, born in 1833, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, born in 1840, so very different but both representing the best in their national schools.  Over the years we’ve written extensively about all three of them: here and here about Scarlatti, and of course numerous times about both Brahms and Tchaikovsky.  So on this occasion we’ll celebrate their anniversaries with performances of just one piece each.  We have to admit that we’re absolutely in love with the aria Mentre io godo in dolce oblio (here) from Oratorio La Santissima Vergine del Rosario and consider it on par with the best by Handel.  It helps, of course, that it’s performed by the phenomenal Cecilia Bartoli (with Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski).  To carry the comparison between Scarlatti and Handel a bit further (hopefully not too far!), here’s a historical tidbit.  Scarlatti’s La Santissima Vergine del Rosario was premiered in Rome in 1707.  One of Scarlatti’s patrons during that time was Prince Francesco Maria Ruspoli, and Santissima was premiered on Easter Sunday at the Ruspoli palazzo.  Around that time, the 22-year-old Handel arrived in Rome and almost immediately was hired by Prince Ruspoli as his Kapellmeister.  One year later Handel composed his own oratorio, La Resurrezione.  This one too was staged, lavishly, in the main hall on the ground floor of Ruspoli’s palazzo, and also on Easter Sunday.  It’s safe to assume that Handel was familiar with Scarlatti’s work, although there are no discernable borrowings, except for the general format of the work.

It is impossible to pick one representative piece by either Brahms or Tchaikovsky, so, with guided randomness, here are two compositions.  A 1886 piano piece Dumka by Tchaikovsky, not to be confused with several “Dumka” compositions by Antonin Dvořák, isn’t played often on the concert scene, but it is very familiar to the Moscow audience: over the years, it has been performed repeatedly in the second round of the Tchaikovsky piano competitions.  Here it is performed by a young Ukrainian pianist Stanislav Khristenko.  The Piano sonata no. 3 written by the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853 isn’t too popular either: it’s long (35 minutes), in unusual five movements, and in parts uneven.  The third piano sonata is also the last one for Brahms, who wrote all three in a span of less than two years.  For all the problems, it’s very much worth listening to, especially when performed well, as it is here, by the young Japanese pianist Misato Yokoyama.

Read more...

April 25, 2016.  Augusta Read Thomas and Ear Taxi Festival.  Augusta Read Thomas is one of the most interesting contemporary American composers.  Prolific and active, she’s currently serving as the University Professor of Composition at the University of Chicago. To quote the music critic Edward Reichel, "Augusta Read Thomas has secured for herself a permanent place in the pantheon of American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. She is without question one of the best and most important composers that this country has today. Her music has substance and depth and a sense of purpose. She has a lot to say and she knows how to say it — and say it in a way that is intelligent yet appealing and sophisticated.”  Here are her Angel Musings, performed by the Orion Ensemble.

Ear Taxi FestivalMs. Thomas and Stephen Burns, a Chicago-based conductor, trumpeter, composer, and the Artistic Director of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project, are organizing a unique event, the Ear Taxi Festival 2016, a celebration of contemporary music in Chicago.  The festival will feature 300 musicians, 53 world premieres and 4 installations in its six days of concerts, lectures, webcasts and artist receptions.  Explaining the name of the festival, Ms. Thomas says: “We want to take your ears on a wide variety of ‘taxi rides’ through the world of contemporary music.  At Augusta Read Thomasevery concert, you’ll hear a mix of ensembles and musical styles that reflects the incredible depth and breadth of new music both here in Chicago and beyond.”  The Festival will feature the music of more than 70 composers, from well-established, like Shulamit Ran, Ms. Thomas, Bernard Rands and George Flynn, to young but very promising.  Here’s the list of all composers (with biographies).  The performers are among the best in Chicago: ensembles, like the Avalon Quartet, the Chicago Composers Orchestra, Ensemble Dal Niente, the Fifth House ensemble and many more, as well as a number of individual performers.  The Festival will start on October 5th and will run till October 10th of 2016.  The concerts will take place at several venues: the Harris Theater, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Pritzker Pavilion of the Millennium Park, the University of Chicago and several other smaller ones.  Here’s how you can buy tickets to the Festival events.

Please go to the Festival’s web page for more information.   The Festival promises to be a wonderful affair and we hope that you’ll will have a chance to enjoy it.

Read more...

Aril 18, 2016.  Prokofiev.  Sergei Prokofiev’s 125th anniversary is on April 23rd.  One of the greatest composers of the first half of the 20th century, his life was as tempestuous as the century itself.  He was born in what is now Ukraine, spent his youth in Moscow and St.Petersburg and by Sergei Prokofiev (Konchalovsky)the age of 25 was famous as a composer and pianist.  By that time he had already written a ballet for Sergei Diaghilev which made him a name in Paris.  Following the First World War and the October Revolution, he left Russia for the United States but two years later moved to France.  By then he was the composer of several operas, a symphony, two ballets, concertos for piano and the violin, and four piano sonatas.  In the late 1920s he returned to Russia for a series of concerts and after that, while still living in France, became more involved with the Soviet musical establishment.  Then, in 1936, he returned to the Soviet Union – permanently.  He wrote Peter and the Wolf for Natalia Sats’s Children’s theater and collaborated with Sergei Eisenstein on the film Alexander Nevsky, but also was compelled to write “Soviet” music, like the infamous Zdravitsa, written for Stalin’s 60th birthday and Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution (even though written on texts by Marx and Lenin, it sounded too unconventional for the Soviet musical apparatchiks and wasn’t performed during Prokofiev lifetime). 

He continued composing during the great Patriotic War, as WWII was called in the Soviet Union, part of which he spent in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Estranged from his first wife, Lina, since 1941, he married Mira Mendelssohn, 24 years his junior, after the Soviet government officially “annulled” his marriage to Lina.  Lina in the meantime was arrested and sent to the Gulag.  In 1948 Prokofiev himself almost ended up there: he was severely criticized for the 6th Symphony and the opera The Story of a Real Man, which was staged at the Kirov Theater but then immediately cancelled.  Prokofiev’s health was failing and he moved to his dacha outside of Moscow.  His doctors prohibited any exertion and allowed him to compose for just one hour a day.  He died on March 5th of 1953, the same day as Stalin.  The Soviet Union descended into an official, utterly hysterical mourning.  Hundreds of people were trampled to death during Stalin’s funeral procession.  Prokofiev’s death wasn’t reported for days, as all periodicals were filled with articles eulogizing Stalin.

We’ll hear his Piano sonata no. 6, op. 82.  Prokofiev stated working on it in 1939 (that year he also started piano sonata nos. 7 and 8 – together they’re known, somewhat inappropriately, as “War Sonatas”). No. 6 was completed in 1940 and premiered by Prokofiev himself in April of that year Prokofiev met the pianist Sviatoslav Richter during that time and Richter became a great champion of this works.  Richter and Emil Gilels, who premiered Sonata no. 8, created a number of classic recording of the “War Sonatas,” and to this day they count among the very best.  Still, there are some very interesting performances made by younger musicians.  Listen to this live recording made by Yuja Wang – the verve and the energy are quite extraordinary, as is the technique.  The portrait of Prokofiev, above, was made by the Russian artist Pyotr Konchalovsky in 1934.

Read more...

April 11, 2016.  Four Ballades op. 10 by Brahms.  Today we’re publishing Joseph DuBose’s article on one of Johannes Brahms’s youthful compositions, Four Ballades op. 10.  We’ll illustrate them with performances by Sevgi Giles.   

Johannes BrahmsThe four Ballades of Brahms’s opus 10 were the first foreshadowing of the eventual direction his output for piano would take. Composed in 1854, they followed the completion of his third and last piano sonata by roughly a year, and were his first foray into the newfound realm of miniatures. Perhaps it was mere curiosity that led the young composer—Brahms was only in his early twenties at the time—from his Classically inspired sonatas to the miniatures born of the Romantic period, yet it would be the latter pieces that would largely come to define his output as composer for the piano. Although nearly a quarter of a century would pass, in which time Brahms championed the large-scale variation form with such works as the Paganini and Haydn Variations, and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of G.F. Handel, he returned to the miniature in his 8 Klavierstücke, op. 76. This work would, in turn, prove to be only the foundation for the ethereal and introspective pieces to come during the 1890s.

As a musical form, the ballade takes its name from the literary tradition of ballad poetry, which often employed grand themes of heroism or mythology. The ballade became established primarily at the hands of Chopin, who composed four examples between 1831 and 1842. Though it is suggested Chopin’s compositions were inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz, there is no direct evidence of this from the composer himself. Instead, the term ballade for Chopin seemed to have a similar connotation as the fantasia, a rather free development of ideas with little or no expectation as to formal arrangement, yet also unified with a greater sense of coherence—the development of a musical “narrative,” so to speak. It is natural, then, that Chopin’s ballades borrowed from the established conventions of sonata form, and thereby furthered the weighty discourses found within them.

Perhaps the most significant set of the ballades to follow Chopin’s was that of Brahms, though other notable composers, such as Franz Liszt, would compose their own ballades. Brahms approached the ballade in the same manner as he would many of the piano pieces of his last years—i.e., the three-fold division of the ternary form. Brahms’s ballades in this regard are less expansive as Chopin’s. All four embody some variation of a tripartite form. The first, perhaps, has the closest connection to Chopin. While in ternary form, its middle section, instead of presenting new material, develops upon that of the principal theme. Yet, its monothematicism and abbreviated reprise hardly qualify it as a bona-fide sonata form. The second employs a modified ternary, or, perhaps more appropriately, arch form, while the fourth nearly presents a complete rondo. Only the third is composed in a blatant ternary design. (Continue reading here).

Read more...

April 4, 2016.  Johann Kuhnau.  We’ve recently mentioned Kuhnau’s name several times, in connection with Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach.  Kuhnau’s music is not very popular these days, but in his time, as the Leipzig Thomaskantor, Johann Kuhnauhe was one of the most famous musician in the German-speaking lands.  Kuhnau was not just a composer: he was also a lawyer, write, philosopher, linguist, theologian and mathematician.  No wonder the Leipzig city fathers were dissatisfied with Johann Sebastian Bach, who succeeded Kuhnau as Thomaskantor: upon Bach’s death, while looking for a replacement, they said that they need a real Kantor, not just a Kapellmeister, meaning a person who would be a teacher (as Kuhnau was), not just a musician.

Kuhnau was born Johann Kuhn on April 6th of 1660 in Geising, Saxony, a small town on the border with Bohemia, where the family came from.  From an early age Johann showed great scholastic aptitude; he also had a fine voice.  At the age of ten he was sent to Dresden.  There he studied the organ playing with the court musicians and for a while sung at Kreuzkhirche, famous to this day for its boys choir.  He also found time to learn two languages, French and Italian.  The plague epidemic forced him to return to Geising, but soon after he went to Zittau, famous for its Gimnasium, to further his education.  In addition to his studies, he played the organ at Johanniskirche and even served as an acting Kantor.  In 1682, upon graduating from the Gimnasium, he moved to Leipzig to study law at the university.  He applied for the position of the organist at Thomaskirche, which he didn’t get at first; two years later, in 1684, he received the appointment.  In 1688 Kuhnau published his dissertation and started practicing law (all the while continuing as the organist at Thomaskirche).  Around that time, he also published several collections of his keyboard compositions.  Even that was not all: he somehow found time to study mathematics and two more languages, Greek and Hebrew.  He wrote a satirical novel and also translated several French and Italian books into German.  In 1701 the previous Kantor of Thomaskirche, Johann Schelle, died and Kuhnau was appointed the new Kantor.  At Thomasschule Kuhnau taught several classes (including Latin – something neither Bach nor Telemann, whom the city council wanted to hire as the Kantor instead of Bach, were ready to do).  As the Kantor he directed music at several major Leipzig churches and the University.

Telemann, who arrived in Leipzig at the time when Kuhnau became the Kantor, was young and ambitious.  He established a rival musical organization, Collegium Musicum, and revived the opera, attracting many good singers from the Thomaschor.  He even acquired permission to write music for Thomaskirche, thus encroaching on Kuhnau authority.  Kuhnau by that time was in ill health and his protestations were often ignored.  Nonetheless, Kuhnau continued to serve as the Kantor for the rest of his life.  He died in Leipzig on June 5th 1722.

Much of Kuhnau’s music output consists of keyboard compositions and sacred works, most of which were lost.  Among his keyboard pieces, the set of six sonatas, the so-called “Biblical Sonatas,” is the most important.  Kuhnau gave each sonata an elaborate title and separately described each movement.  We’ll hear the first of these sonatas, which is called “The Combat Between David and Goliath." It consists of eight movements, their wonderfully poetic (and learned) subtitles are: The Boasting of Goliath; The Trembling of the Israelites at the Appearance of the Giant, and Their Prayer to God; The Courage of David, and His Keen Desire to Repel the Pride of His Terrifying Enemy, With the Confidence That He Puts in the Help of God; The Combat Between the Two and Their Struggle; The Stone Is Thrown From the Slingshot Into the Brow of the Giant; Goliath Falls; The Flight of the Philistines, Who Are Pursued and Slain by the Israelites; The Joy of the Israelites Over Their Victory; Musical Concert of the Women in Honor of David and The General Rejoicing, and the Dances of Joy of the People.  The organist is John Butt.

Read more...

March 28, 2016.  Haydn’s “The Severn Last Words of Christ.”  March 31st is the birthday of Franz Joseph Haydn and yesterday was Easter, so we thought it would be appropriate to bring the two together.  Haydn was born in 1732 on Rohrau in eastern Austria.   He had a difficult childhood, Joseph Haydnpart of which he spent with a relative, in poverty and hunger.  A good voice brought him to Vienna, where at the age of seven he became a chorister at the St. Stephen Cathedral.  That lasted till the age of 17 when he lost his soprano voice (it’s said that the empress Maria Theresa herself started complaining about his singing).  During the next several years he earned his living as a freelancing music teacher, accompanist, organ player, and a composer.  In 1757 he found a permanent job, the first one in his life, as Kapellmeister with Count Morzin in Vienna.  He was let go in 1760 (the Count was having financial problems) but was immediately hired by the Esterházy, one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the empire.  He worked for the Esterházys for the next 30 years.

Even though Haydn was spending most of his time in the different estates of the Esterházy (and longing to return to Vienna), his musical fame was spreading around Europe, especially after 1779, when Prince Nikolaus allowed Haydn to sell his compositions to publishers.  Commissions followed, mostly from Paris and London.  An unusual commission arrived in 1783 from Spain.  Oratorio de la Santa Cueva, a church in Cadiz, asked for a series of orchestral pieces set to the last words of Christ.  They were to be performed on Good Friday.  Haydn called the sections “Sonatas” and described them as “lasting seven or eight minutes, together with an opening introduction and concluding with a Terremoto or Earthquake.”  The bishop was supposed to deliver “discourses” on each of the words, with music in between them.  Haydn commented on the difficulties he encountered in confining himself to the allotted time and writing so much music without “fatiguing the listeners.”   The end result was clearly to Haydn’s liking: he called “Seven Last Words” his most successful composition.  The score was published and performed in Paris in 1787; and then in Berlin and Vienna.  Also in 1787, Haydn adapted “Seven Last Words” for a string quartet; this is the version that is performed more often these days.  The Vermeer Quartet made it its own.  It played it all over the world and made a recording with Dr. Martin Luther King reading the introduction and Billy Graham and several other religious leader commenting on each section.  In 1796, the Austrian composer Joseph Friebert, who at the time was the Kapellmeister in Passau, created a choral version of the “Seven Last Words.”  Haydn heard it, was impressed but decided to improve it, preparing his own version.  It became an oratorio, the first of the three Haydn ever wrote (The Creation and The Seasons were composed in the next two years).

We’ll hear the Introduction, Sonata II ("Today shalt thou be with me in paradise"), Sonata VIː ("It is finished") and the final Earthquake.  Le Concert des Nations is conducted by Jordi Savall.

Read more...

March 21, 2016.  Bach.  Today is the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.  He was born in 1685 in Eisenach, the city we mentioned last week while celebrating Bach’s friend, Georg Philipp Telemann.  Last year we wrote about Bach’s life around 1723-1724, as he arrived in Leipzig, after spending 6 years in Köthen.  Bach was going to assume the duties of the Kantor at Thomaskirche, the post that was left open with the death of Johann Kuhnau, the previous Kantor and Telemann’s nemesis, a year earlier.  This was a prestigious position: the Kantor was Johann Sebastian Bachpractically the director of church music for the whole city.  During the previous years Bach had changed employers several times, moving from one place to another, but he would remain in Leipzig for the rest of his life.  Last year we mentioned (and played) the St. John Passion, one of his early Leipzig masterpieces.  Bach wrote it in 1723-1724; it was first performed during the Good Friday service on April 7th, 1724, at Nikolaikirche, one of the most important churches in Leipzig, second only to Thomaskirche.  Bach’s workload was enormous.  First of all, he was supposed to teach music to the students at Thomasschule, one of the oldest schools in Europe: it was founded in 1212, together with Thomaskirche.  The school was located in the courtyard of the church and was extended during Bach’s tenure (the old building was demolished in 1903, a pity).  There were 50 to 60 students, split into four choirs.  Each choir performed in a different church, and each had its own musical curriculum.  Bach was also supposed to teach Latin but was allowed to employ substitutes. 

In addition to teaching, Bach was required to compose music for the services at the main churches of Leipzig: a cantata for each Sunday service and for every holiday.  In Leipzig, Bach composed five annual cycles, about 60 cantatas each (altogether Bach wrote almost 300 cantatas; of these, 200 are extant and about 100 were lost).  Most of the Leipzig cantatas were written during his first years as Thomaskantor, the last one – around 1745.  Cantatas were written for vocal soloists (usually four of them- soprano, alto, tenor and bass, but sometimes just for one vocal solo), who were supported by the Thomanerchor (the choir of the St. Thomas School), and the orchestra.  The choral part was usually written for four voices, and there were four singers per group – 16 choristers altogether.  Bach himself lead the performances and played the organ.  The soprano solo very often was Anna Magdalena, his young second wife.

With such an extraordinary workload, it’s not surprising that Bach reused some of the material from his previous work, as he would later use some of the cantata material in his Oratorios (Easter and Christmas).  Out of the 300 cantatas it is impossible to find the “better” ones or even a favorite, so “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” BWV 170, as great as it is, is neither.  “Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul,” as it is translated from German, was composed in 1726 for the sixth Sunday after the Trinity.  It was first performed on July 28th of that year.  This is a rather unusual cantata as it’s composed for a solo voice, an alto.  Sometimes it’s performed by a countertenor, sometimes by a mezzo-soprano.  In this recording it’s the former, Andreas Scholl.  Collegium Vocale is conducted by Philippe Herreweghe.  And here’s a more mature (and more famous) cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 for four voices.  The first line is usually translated as “Awake, calls the voice to us.” Bach later transcribed the fourth movement, chorale: "Zion hört die Wächter singen" for the organ (BWV 645).  This chorale was further transcribed for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni and several other composers.  The original cantata is performed by the soloists and Concentus musicus Wien and conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  Harnoncour, one of the pioneers of “historically informed” performances, died earlier this month, on March 5th.  He was 86.

Read more...

March 14, 2016. Telemann.  Georg Philipp Telemann was born on this day in 1681, four years and a week before Johann Sebastian Bach.   Telemann was born in Magdeburg; his family was upper-middle class, his father, who died when Telemann was four, was a deacon and university educated.  Telemann started musical lessons rather late, at the age of 10, and even those were brief. His Georg Philipp Telemannfamily was not supportive and young Telemann studied in secret, learning to play the recorder, violin, and zither.  Upon learning that he continued studying music, his mother confiscated all his instruments.  That didn’t stop Telemann from composing.  He’d even sneak out of his house at night and play on borrowed instruments.  When he was 13, he was sent to school in Zellerfeld, but his main teacher there was interested in music himself and in addition to general subjects introduced Telemann to the relationship between music and mathematics.  In 1697 Telemann joined the old and prestigious Gymnasium Andreanum in Hildesheim.  (The school was established in 1225, and the town, especially its Market square, was considered one of the most beautiful in all of Germany.  It was bombed out during WWII but restored in the 1990s).  His musical talents became obvious and acknowledged; the school commissioned him songs,  and he also performed in local churches.  He even traveled to the courts in nearby Hanover and Brunswick, where he became familiar with Italian music, Corelli and Caldara in particular.  All these extracurricular activities didn’t prevent Telemann from graduating third in a class of 150.

In 1701 Telemann entered Leipzig University.  Even though his intention was to study law, very soon he found himself composing and performing full time.  The Mayor commissioned him to write music for two of the most prestigious churches in the city, the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche (twenty years later these churches would be filled with the of music of Bach).  Telemann founded a student orchestra and one year later, in 1702, became the director of the opera house, for which he composed four operas.  Johann Kuhnau, a prominent composer, was then the Cantor at the Thomaskirche, traditionally the position of the city’s music director, the one that Bach would assume in 1723.  With all of Telemann’s music activities encroaching on Kuhnau’s authority, it was not long before their relationship turned acrimonious.  Kuhnau was especially incensed by Telemann using students in opera productions and petitioned city fathers to stop the practice (apparently with little success).  It’s interesting that Telemann wasn’t shy to acknowledge that he learned much from studying Kuhnau’s music.  Also around that time, Telemann met Handel in Halle and heard an opera by Bononcini, Handel’s future rival, during a trip to Berlin.

In 1705 Telemann left Leipzig for Sorau (now in Poland), where Count Erdmann II, a great lover of music, had just returned from his travels to Italy and France.  Telemann assumed the position of Kapellmeister and, to satisfy the Count’s newly acquired French taste, engaged in studying the music of Lully.   His stay in Sorau was productive but not long: with the army of Swedish King Carl XII approaching, he left Sorau for Eisenach (Bach’s birthplace) and entered into the service of Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach as Kapelmeister.  This is where, apparently, he met Johann Sebastian for the first time.  Telemann’s output during his four years in Eisenach was prodigious: four or five cycles of church sonatas, masses, 50 cantatas, and many concertos for orchestra.  This presents one of the problems with Telemann’s legacy: some of his music is of extremely high quality but it has to be searched for within his vast, ofter mediocre output.  Here’s a cantata that’s definitely not: Seele, lerne dich erkennen, it was written around 1725.  It’s performed by Ensemble Caprice with the soprano Monika Mauch, Matthias Maute conducting.

Read more...

March 7, 2016.  Gesualdo.   Today is the birthday of Maurice Ravel, a perennial favorite of our listeners and performers (we have more than 130 recordings of Ravel in our library).  Ravel was born in 1875.  Here’s his Sonatine, which he wrote for a competition sponsored by the magazine Weekly Critical Review.   The rules of the competition called for just the first movement of a piano Sonatine and stipulated that the movement should be no more than 75 bars long.  Ravel’s was several bars longer, and even though he was the only entrant, he was disqualified.  Soon after the magazine went bankrupt but, fortunately for us, two years later Ravel completed the piece.  Sonatine is performed live by the young Russian pianist Denis Evstuhin.

 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the fifth son of Johann Sebastian Bach and the second oldest to survive into adulthood, was born on March 8th of 1714.  He’s mostly famous for his symphonies and keyboard sonatas (Mozart said Bach is the father, we are the children, and he was referring to C.P.E., not J.S.).  Bach also wrote several oratorios.  Probably the most interesting one is Die Israeliten in der Wüste (The Israelites in the Desert), written in 1768-69.  Even though it’s styled after Handel’s Messiah, it’s full of original and interesting music.  Here’s the introductory chorus, it’s performed by the Stuttgart chamber chorus and orchestra, Frieder Bernius conducting.

The composer to whom we’d like to pay special attention today is Carlo Gesualdo.  Gesualdo, Perdono di Carlo GesualdoPrince of Venosa, Count of Conza, was born on March 8th of 1566.  Even though the family castle was in Gesualdo, he was born in Venosa, then part of the kingdom of Naples and it was in that great city that he spent much of his time.  In 1586 he married his cousin Maria d’Avalos, daughter of the Marquis of Pescara.  Two years later Maria started an affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria.  In 1590, Gesualdo found Maria and her lover in flagrante, and killed them both on the spot.  Such honor killings were customary, and the court found Gesualdo innocent.  Still he decided to leave Naples and retired to Venosa.  In 1594 he visited Ferrara, then one of the music centers of Italy.  The Duke Alfonso II d'Este was a famous patron of the arts (Torquato Tasso spent several years at his court).  During his visit Gesualdo arranged a marriage to Alfonso’s niece, Leonora d’Este.  It seems Gesualdo was more interested in meeting the court composer Luzzasco Luzzaschi, one of the leading composers of the time, then his wife (the marriage was an unhappy one).  After marrying Leonora, he sent her to his castle in Gesualdo while staying behind in Ferrara; he spent most of the next two years in the city.  It was in Ferrara that Gesualdo published his first book of madrigals.  On many occasions his contemporaries commented on Gesualdo’s obsessive passion for music.   While first considered an amateur, Gesualdo soon acquired the reputation of a highly inventive composer, especially after publishing the third and fourth books of madrigals in 1594 and 1595.  In his later years Gesaldo grew “melancholic” (today he would have probably been diagnosed with depression).  He took a mistress who practiced witchcraft, stayed aloof and only kept the company of a few of his courtiers.  But he continued to compose, creating some of the most extraordinary music.  The last two books of madrigals, Books Five and Six appeared in 1611.  We’ll hear two examples of Gesualdo’s chromatic inventiveness, both from Book Six: the first one, Se la mia morte brami (here) and Ancide sol la morte, no. 15 (here).  They’re performed by Ensemble Métamorphoses under the direction of Maurice Bourbon.

The picture by Giovanni Balducci, above, was commissioned by Gesualdo in 1609.  It depicts, in the low row, him standing next to the Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, his uncle, who was to be canonized the following year, and Leonora on the far right.

Read more...

February 29, 2016.  Chopin, Rossini, Vivaldi.  These are the composers born this week: Gioachino Rossini, the epitome of the bel canto – on February 29th of 1792, Frédéric Chopin, one of the greatest, if not the greatest Romantic composers – on March 1st of 1810, and Antonio Antonio VivaldiVivaldi, who occupied a similar position within the Baroque tradition – on March 4th of 1678.  We don’t have enough space to celebrate them all but omitting any one of them would be a fault, so we’ll be brief.  Vivaldi, the oldest of the three, was born in Venice, one of the centers of European music.  Vivaldi’s father, a barber-cum-violinist, was his first music teacher.  At the age of 15 Antonio started his training for priesthood at local churches; he was ordained 10 years later.  Vivaldi had health issues – probably asthma – and stopped celebrating Mass (and thus lost part of his income) several years into his priesthood.  In 1703 Vivaldi became maestro di violino at Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian orphanage which specialized in the musical training of children in its care.  It maintained a well-regarded orchestra and a choir.  Musical services at the Pietà were popular among the Venetian nobility, and required continuous supply of new music, providing which was one of Vivaldi’s responsibilities.  In 1711, Estienne Roger of Amsterdam published Vivadli’s set of 12 concerti, for one, two and four violins.  It was called L'Estro Armonico, op. 3 and was dedicated to Grand Prince Ferdinand of Tuscany (the Prince, the son of Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, was a famous patron of music; among the musicians who benefited from his largess were Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Benedetto Marcello, and George Frideric Handel).  L'Estro Armonico was a huge success, especially in Germany, so much so that Bach transcribed six of the concertos: three for the keyboard, two for the organ and one, Concerto no 10, for four harpsichords and strings.  Here’s the “original” Concerto no. 3, op. 3 for solo violin.  The Academy of Ancient Music is led by Christopher Hogwood.

Gioachino Rossini composed 39 operas, among them some of the most beloved in all of the Italian repertoire, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and William Tell.  This achievement looks extraordinary if we consider that Rossini retired from active composing at the age of 37.  Rossini didn’t “invent” bel canto, but he was the first, ahead of Bellini and Donizetti, to create great bel canto roles.  The major exponents of the 18-century bel canto style were castrati; Farinelli was probably the most famous singer of the 18th century.  It’s said that in 1720s and 1730s almost 4,000 pre-pubescent boys were castrated annually.  By the early 19th century few of them remained on stage, but Rossini was greatly influenced by their singing.  He said, “I have never forgotten them. The purity, the miraculous flexibility of those voices and, above all, their profoundly penetrating accent — all that moved and fascinated me more than I can tell.”  He created a role for Giovanni Veluti, the "last of the great castrati," in his opera Aureliano in Palmira.  Rossini’s wife, the famous soprano Isabella Colbran, shared the stage with Veluti in several productions.  Colbran herself premiered many of Rossini’s operas, Semiramide, written in 1823 was one of them.  Here’s is one of the greatest bel canto sopranos of the 20th century, Joan Sutherland, in the aria Bel raggio lusinghier in the 1960 production of Semiramide.  The orchestra of the Covent Garden Opera is conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

We’ll celebrate Chopin’s birthday by just one piece, and keeping with the theme of this post, it’s Italian in style.  Barcarolle, op. 60 was written in 1846.  His health was already deteriorating (Chopin died of tuberculosis on October 17th of 1849) and this was his last relatively large composition.  He also played barcarolle in his last public concert in February of 1848 (it’s said that he was so weak that practically the whole concert was played in pianissimo).  Here it is performed, with magnificent restraint, by Arthur Rubinstein.

Read more...

February 22, 2016. Auiric and Kurtág.  By any count this should’ve been the week of George Frideric Handel, who was born on 23rd of February in 1685, but we’ve written about him many times (here and here, for example), so today we’ll mark his anniversary by playing the aria Ombra mai fu from his opera Xerxes.  The magnificent Cecilia Bartoli is accompanied by Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini conducting.

Georges AuricThere are several other composers of note who have their birthdays around this date.  One of them is the French composer and member of Les Six, Georges Auric.  Auric was born in Lodève, a small town in the southwestern part of France, on February 15th of 1899.  His family moved to the nearby Montpellier, where Auric attended the conservatory.  He studied piano and was introduced to the music of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky.  He also discovered the music of Satie, which later would become such an influence both on him and his friends.  In 1913 his family moved Paris and Georges enter the Conservatory, where he studied with Florant Schmitt and Albert Roussel.  When Georges was just 15, he got acquainted with many of the Parisian luminaries: Stravinsky, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Braque and Picasso.  At the Conservatory, he met Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Germaine Tailleferre, all of whom eventually became associated with Les Six.  (The group was the brain-child of Eric Satie, who wanted to organize musicians opposed to the music of Wagner and rebelled against the Impressionists.  Satie came up with the idea after a concert in a private studio in Montparnasse in 1917.  For that amazing concert, the walls were covered with pictures by Picasso, Matisse, Léger and Modigliani.  The music that was performed was by Erik Satie himself, Honegger, Auric and Louis Durey).  In the 1924, Serge Diagilev asked Auric to remake his incidental music to Molière’s comedy Les Fâcheux into a ballet.  The ballet was successful and several other commissions followed, some from Diagilev, others from Ida Rubinstein.  He also wrote music for several movies, including 1952 “Moulin Rouge,” with the song “Where is my heart,” which made it to no. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1953.   But Auric remained a serious, probing composer throughout his career; in the 1960s and 1970s he even tried out serialism.  Auric died on July 23rd of 1983.  Here’s his Sonatine from 1922.  It’s performed by the pianist Daniel Blumenthal.

We’d also like to mention another 20th century composer, the Hungarian György Kurtág, who was born on February 19th of 1926 in Lugoj, Banat.  These days most of the historical Banat lies in Romania, but prior to 1918 Banat was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire; many inhabitants were Hungarian-speakers.  It also had a large Jewish population; Kurtág is half-Jewish.  He spoke Hungarian at home and Romanian at school.  As a child, he studied the piano on and off, first with his mother, then with professional teachers.  After WWII, in 1946, the 20-year old Kurtág moved to Budapest and continued taking piano lessons, eventually entering the Franz Liszt Music Academy.  There he met György Ligeti and they became friends for life.  After the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Kurtág moved to Paris.  There he studied with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud.  He returned to Hungary in 1959 and stayed there for the duration of the Communist regime – the only Hungarian composer of international renown to do so (Ligeti, for example, fled to Vienna right after the failed revolution and stayed in the West for the rest of his life).  Kurtág resumed traveling only after the fall of communism in 1989, moving first to Berlin (he was the composer in residence for the Berlin Philharmonic in the mid-90s), then Vienna, the Netherlands and Paris, where he worked with Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain.  These days Kurtág and his wife live in Bordeaux.  Here are Kurtág’s Eight duos for violin and cimbalom.  Patricia Kopatchinskaja is the violinist, Viktor Kopatchinsky plays the cimbalom.

Read more...

February 15, 2016.  Michael Praetorius.  Considering the major role Germany has played in the history of European music from the 18th century to our time, it comes as a surprise that its’ role was not as prominent during the Renaissance.  Martin Luther, the great theologian and reformer, composed a number of hymns (he also said that “Next to the Word of God, the noble Michael Praetoriusart of music is the greatest treasure in the world”), and there were many musicians working at the courts of German princes and margraves, but none of them were on the same level as the great composers of Flanders or Italy.  That is, till Michael Praetorius who was born Michael Schultze (Praetorius is the Latinized version of his family name, which means “judge”) in Creuzburg, on February 15th of 1571.  Creuzburg, a small town in Thuringia, lies less than six miles away from Eisenach, where Luther translated the Bible into German and where Bach was born in 1675.  In 1573 the family moved to Torgau, Saxony, where Michael took musical classes from a local cantor.  He went to the University of Frankfurt an der Oder and later attended a Latin School in Zerbst.  Even though we know nothing about his musical education, clearly he was studying music, as sometime around 1587, when Praetorius was 16, he was appointed organist at Marienkirche, the oldest in Frankfurt.  An interesting story is related to the church: it had famous gothic stained glass windows with 117 different images, created around 1360.  In the middle of WWII the windows were removed and stored for protection in the Sanssouci palace in Potsdam.  After the war, together with so much other loot, the windows were sent to Russia and disappeared there without a trace.  They resurfaced 1997 in the storage of the Hermitage.  Surprisingly, the Russian government agreed to return them to Germany, one of the very few pieces of art that ever were.

Sometime around 1595 Praetorius entered the service of Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbütte.  The Duke was interested in arts (although he also enjoyed persecuting Jews and witches); he even invited John Dowland, the famous English composer, to Wolfenbütte to meet with Praetorius.  It seems that the Duke was very fond of Praetorius as he took him along on many of his journeys, to Prague, for example, to the court at Hesse and many other places.  These travels helped to spread Praetorius’s fame: in 1613, when the Duke died, Praetorius was immediately invited by the Elector Johann Georg of Saxony to Dresden, to become a deputy to the Kapellmeister.  The court of the Elector was one of the finest in all of Germany; there Praetorius met the younger Heinrich Schütz and also many Italian musicians, who strongly affected his musical style.  His duties in Dresden were over by 1616, but by then Praetorius was the most famous composer in Germany and was receiving invitations from all over the land\.  We know that he worked as the Kapellmeister in Magdeburg, then was invited by the Landgrave Moritz of Hesse, a great lover of music, to Kassel.  He also worked in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Bayreuth.  The last years of his life he suffered of ill health; Praetorius returned to Wolfenbüttel in 1620 and died there on February 15th of 1621.

Praetorius was phenomenally productive.  He compiled twelve hundred chorales into nine volumes he titled Musae Sioniae and more than 300 dances into a collection called Terpsichore.  Praetorius, who spoke several languages and was one of the most learned musicians of his generation, also wrote a number of theoretical treaties on music.  Here’s one of his earlier hymns, Puer natus in Bethlehem.  Huelgas Enselmble is conducted by Paul van Nevel.  And here’s an excerpt from one of his last compositions, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us), the first section of his collection Polyhymnia Caduceatrix & Panegyrica.  You can clearly hear Italian influences.  Musica Fiata and La Capella Ducale are conducted by Robert Wilson.

Read more...

February 8, 2016.  Mendelssohn.  Last week we missed Felix Mendelssohn’s birthday: he was born on February 3rd of 1809.  Mendelssohn is of course famous as one of the foremost romantic composers of the 19th century, but he also brought back to life one of greatest masterpieces of Felix MendelssohnJohann Sebastian Bach, The St. Matthew Passion.  This episode is interesting as it also sheds light on the life of the emancipated German Jewry in the early 19th century.  The St. Matthew Passion was first performed in April of 1727 in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where Bach served as a Kapellmeister.  It was then performed there several times during Bach’s life time.  After Bach’s death in 1750, the Passion was played occasionally in the Thomaskirche but never outside of Leipzig.  Then around 1800 all performances stopped.  It doesn’t mean that the work was completely forgotten: the scores of the Passion were in circulation and musicians could study them.  One of such enthusiasts was the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, Felix’s music teacher.  Zelter was the head of Sing-Akademie, Berlin’s choral society; he was very fond of Bach but thought the Passion to be way too complex (and long) to be performed in public.  Nonetheless, parts of the Passion were being rehearsed by members of Sing-Akademie, some of these rehearsals taking place in Zelter’s home; that’s where Felix heard them for the first time.  Members of Sing-Akademie came mostly from Berlin’s haut bourgeoisie but prominent Jewish families were also part of it almost from the beginning.  Several members of the Mendelssohn family belonged to Sing-Akademie and so did the Itzigs, descendants of Daniel Itzig, the banker to Frederick the Great of Prussia.  Bella Solomon, Daniel Itzig’s daughter, and Felix’s grandmother, sung in the Akademie.  When Felix was 14, Bella Solomon presented him with a copy of the Passion’s score.  It’s interesting to note that Bella, who sung all those Lutheran hymns at the Sing-Akademie, was herself a religious Jew.  The young Felix was not: his father renounced the religion and Felix and his siblings didn’t have a religious education.  At the age of seven he was baptized.  Bella didn’t know about it till much later and clearly not when she presented Felix with Bach’s score. 

By 1829, the 20 year-old Felix was already an established composer.  He had already written his first symphony, a highly successful Midsummer Night's Dream Overture Op.21, which was completed when Felix was 17 and a half years old; several piano and string quartets, a violin sonata and a large number of songs.  He was also preoccupied with the idea of performing The St. Matthew Passion.  He had started private rehearsals of the Passion sometime earlier, enlisting a small group of singers whom he accompanied on the piano.  The difficulty of the piece seemed insurmountable but Eduard Devrient, his good friend, a singer and theater director, was enthusiastic and very encouraging.  It was Devrient who suggested that they perform the Passion at the Sing-Akademie with Mendelssohn himself conducting (Mendelssohn had never before conducted anything even close to the complexity of Bach’s work).  The performance took place in March of 1829 and was a tremendous success.  The second performance was scheduled right away, to take place on March 21st, Bach’s birthday.  Even that was not enough, the public was craving more and a follow-up performance was set for the Good Friday which fell on April 17th of that year.  As but that time Mendelssohn was on his way to London for a series of concerts, Zelter took over the conducting.  These performances established the Passion as central to all European classical music repertoire, a position occupied by this masterpiece to this day.  Later in his life Mendelssohn started composing an oratorio Christus, clearly influenced by Bach.  He never finished it having died at the age of 38 after suffering several strokes.  Here’s the first part of Christus; Anne Ackley is the soprano, with the Westminster Choir (Rider University) and New Jersey Symphony conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt.

Read more...

February 1, 2015.  Missed birthdays.  Last week we celebrated Mozart’s 260th birthday and missed several important dates.  Franz Schubert was born on January 31st of 1797.  Composer of immense talent and a tragically short life, he left an Franz Schubertextraordinarily rich body of work: piano sonatas, last three of which have very few peers in all of the piano repertoire; nine symphonies; wonderful chamber music (one has to mention his “Death and the Maiden” quartet (no. 14), his “Trout” Quintet or the great String Quintet in C Major), sacred works, stage work (“Rosamunde,” for example) and much more.  But one area where his genius shone the brightest was the Lied.  Schubert’s songs pack a great amount of musical material and the broadest range of emotions into little gems that sometimes last less than two minutes.  His song cycles Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise, and Schwanengesang are, of course, incomparable, and so are some individual songs.  Here are two, An Die Musik, D. 547, sung by the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with the great, but in this recording technically imprecise Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer (here), and Gretchen Am Spinnrade, with the flawless Kiri Te Kanawa and Richard Amner (here).  Schubert was 17 when he composed Gretchen Am Spinnrade.

 

The Italian composer Luigi Nono was born on January 29th of 1924 in Venice.  Nono studied at the Liceo Musicale with the noted composer Gian Francesco Malipiero and then with one of the first avant-garde Italians, Bruno Maderna.  Several early works by Nono were presented in Darmstadt.  Soon after he became an active participant and, together with Boulez and Stockhausen, one of the leaders of the movement.  In 1955 he married Nuria Schoenberg, daughter of Arnold Schoenberg.   Nono was a leftist, as were many of his fellow composers.  A principled anti-fascist, he went much further left than that.  For example, his opera Al gran sole carico d'amore, (the libretto for which he co-wrote with Yuri Lyubimov, the director of the original production and also the director of the famous Moscow Taganka theater), while based on the plays by Bertolt Brecht, also contained excerpts of speeches by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Lenin.  Some of the music composed during the 60s was extremely political and dogmatic.  For example, his Non Consumiamo Marx consists of sounds recorded during the 1968 student uprising in Paris and a voice reading the messages left on the walls during that period.  A much more interesting piece is his Prometeo, composed during several years in the early 1980s.  It’s called “opera,” although the word should be taken in its original Italians sense, “work” – Prometeo is a composition for five singers, two speakers, a chorus and small orchestra.  The sounds are supposed to be electronically manipulated.  Here’s a suite from Prometeo, performed live in Lucerne on August 20th of 2005. Claudio Abbado is conducting.

 

One great composer was born this week: Felix Mendelssohn, on February 3rd of 1809.  Even though we’ve written about him many times, we’ll dedicate an entry to him at a later date.

Read more...

January 25, 2016.  Mozart.  January 27th marks the 260th anniversary of birth.  Every year we focus on a different episode of Mozart’s life and present compositions from that period.  Last year was about his rather unhappy trip to Paris in 1777-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann della Croce, 1780-811778.  The 22 year-old Mozart had left Paris in September of 1778.  He was offered a position in Salzburg at the court of the Prince Archbishop as an organist and concertmaster, and even though it paid three times his previous salary (450 florins instead of 150 – the New York Times has an interesting article on how much that would be in current dollars), Mozart was hesitant: he remembered the stifling atmosphere of Salzburg and was looking for an appointment in other places.  He stayed in Mannheim and then in went to Munich but found no offers in either place.  To make things worse, his Mannheim lover, the singer Aloysia Weber, seemed to have lost interest in him.  (A quick note on these two cities.  It was not by chance that Mozart was looking for employment there: Mannheim was famous for its orchestra, considered at that time the best in Germany.  Munich had a strong musical connection: in 1778 the Elector Karl Theodor moved his court from Mannheim to Munich, bringing with him 33 musicians who became the core of his court’s orchestra; they also performed in the royal opera.)  On January 15th of 1779 Mozart returned to Salzburg.  For a while his relationship with Hieronymus Colloredo, the Prince-Archbishop, was quite good, but soon the same tensions that dominated their relationship before the Paris trip, became apparent again.  Colloredo wanted Mozart to compose more church music while Mozart was getting more and more interested in opera and other non-liturgical genres.  These difficulties were spelled out in a 1782 document appointing Michael Haydn, the younger brother of Franz Joseph Haydn, to the same position as Mozart had previously held: “we accordingly appoint [Michael Haydn] as our court and cathedral organist, in the same fashion as young Mozart was obligated, with the additional stipulation that he show more diligence … and compose more often for our cathedral and chamber music.”  What Mozart did compose during that time were three symphonies (a short one, no. 32, no. 33 and no. 34, with a wonderfully energetic Finale, which you can hear in the performance by The Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood conducting).  Also, a concerto for two pianos, the famous Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola and several other pieces, none of which could’ve been performed either in the Cathedral or at the Court. (Here’s the 1956 recording of the Concertante made by Jascha Heifetz, violin and Willian Primrose, viola)

 

In 1780 Mozart received a commission from Munich, from the Elector Karl Theodor himself, to compose a “serious” opera (opera seria).  It was to become Mozart’s first mature opera, Idomeneo.  (Here’s a Quartet Andrò ramingo e solo from Idomeneo with a great cast: Edita Gruberová and Lucia Popp, sopranos, Baltsa, mezzo-soprano and Luciano Pavarotti, tenor).  The premier in Munich in January of 1781, with Mozart conducting, was highly successful.  Papa Leopold traveled from Salzburg to attend.  The whole family stayed in Munich for another two months.  Then came a summons from Vienna where Archbishop Colloredo went to attend the celebrations of the accession of Joseph II as the Holy Roman Emperor.  Spoiled by his triumph in Munich, Mozart was especially offended by the Archbishop treating him as a servant.  In May of 1781 Mozart asked to be dismissed and a month later he was let go “with a kick on my arse,” as he wrote in a letter.  Thus commenced the Viennese period of his life.  The portrait of Mozart by Johann della Croce, above, is part of a picture of the family; it was made around the time of the described events, in 1780 or 1781.

Read more...

January 18, 2016.  William Byrd.  With numerous but minor stars who were born this week – two Russians, Cui (b.  January 18th of 1835) and Tcherepnin (b.  January 20th, 1899), three Frenchmen, Chabrier (1/18/1841, Chausson (1/20/1855) and Dutilleux (1/22/1916), and Muzio William ByrdClementi (b. January 23rd of 1753), an Italian who made his name in England – we’ll turn our attention to one of the greatest English composers of the Renaissance, William Byrd.  We’ve mentioned him numerous times but have never written about him in detail.  Byrd was born in London, probably in 1542 or 1543. If that’s the case, he would have been about 12 years younger than Orlando di Lasso and five years older than Tomás Luis de Victoria.  Very little is known about Byrd’s early years.  He was probably a chorister at the Chapel Royal and a pupil of the much older (and famous) Thomas Tallis.  Some years later, in 1575, Queen Elisabeth granted Tallis and Byrd a “patent” to print and publish music, and historians surmise that the relationship between the two composers was that of a teacher and pupil.  In 1563, Byrd was appointed the organist and master of choristers at the historic Lincoln Cathedral.  Composing was one of his main responsibilities, and a number of compositions from that period have survived.  Since the reign of Henry VIII, the Church of England had been separated from Rome, but Catholicism was still quite strong and tolerated.  Byrd, who was probably raised Protestant, eventually converted to Catholicism, and it’s likely that the years at Lincoln were those of transition.  Catholic music of the period was much more complex than the music of the Protestant churches, where a simple melody and clarity of diction were valued more than elaborate polyphony.  At some point Byrd was even reprimanded by the Cathedral’s Dean for writing “papist” kind of music.  But he also complied with the requirements of the Anglican service, as this wonderful example demonstrates: Magnificat, from his Short Service, is simple and clear (Truro Cathedral Choir is conducted by Andrew Nethsingha).  Lincoln was also the place where Byrd composed his first pieces for the virginal (a small harpsichord), thus becoming one of the first composers of what would be known as the English “Virginalist” school (Orlando Gibbons, John Bull and Thomas Morley are among it’s more illustrious representatives).

 

In 1572 Byrd was made a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, a prestigious position through which he gained many powerful patrons among the courtiers of Queen Elisabeth, such as the Earl of Oxford and Lord Paget, the Earl of Worcester.  The Queen herself was Byrd’s major benefactor.  When she granted Byrd and Tallis a patent to publish music, their first issue, Cantiones, consisting of 34 multi-voice motets, was dedicated to the Queen.  Here’s Byrd’s Motet for 6 voices, O lux beata Trinitas.  It’s performed by the British Ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick, Andrew Carwood conducting.  The years after 1575 were rather difficult for Byrd, as England became much less intolerant toward Catholics.  Byrd was never directly prosecuted but at some point was suspended from the Chapel Royal.  Byrd could no longer compose openly Catholic music; the most he could allow himself were motets, a form much more accepted in the Catholic service than the Anglican one.  Byrd also continued to publish; his partner Tallis died in 1585, leaving Byrd the sole proprietor of the publishing company.  Their earlier efforts weren’t commercially successful, but in the 1580s, Byrd, the monopolist, created a flourishing company.  He also continued to compose, and here’s a Pavane from that period; Colin Tilney is at the harpsichord.

 

Byrd was to live another 40 productive years (he died on July 4th of 1623), and we’ll write about them later.  Here is a short Agnus Dei from his Mass for Four Voices written in the later period of Byrd’s life.  Simon Preston leads the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

Read more...

January 11, 2016.  Pierre Boulez.   This week we’d like to celebrate the life of Pierre Boulez, composer, conductor, educator, organizer, writer, and an all around remarkable person, who died on January 5th at the age of 90.  Boulez was born on March 26th, 1925 in Montbrison, in central Pierre BoulezFrance.  In his youth his interests were split between the piano and mathematics.  Upon leaving Catholic school in 1941 he spent a year in Lyon studying higher math.  In 1942 he moved to Paris.  Pierre’s father wanted him to attend the Ecole Polytechnique, but instead he went to theParis Conservatory where he studied harmony with Olivier Messiaen.  The Paris Conservatory was a very conservative place in those days.   Even Messiaen, himself a modern composer of huge talent, didn’t teach Mahler and Bruckner.  Later on, Boulez would mention in an interview that at that time in his mind “there were two twins: Mahler, Bruckner.”  In the same interview he said that “German music stopped at Wagner,” so the Second Viennese School wasn’t taught at all.  Boulez learned about atonal music from René Leibowitz, a student of Arnold Schoenberg.  He had already felt the need to expand his music language and immediately adopted the new techniques.  A year later, in 1945, the young Boulez wrote his first atonal piece of music, a set of twelve Notations for piano.  He also wrote two piano sonatas, the second one, large in scale, published in 1950.  His music was performed by the pianists Yvette Grimaud and Yvonne Loriod (at that time, Messiaen’s wife), but it was the circulation of the scores among musicians that brought Boulez fame among avant-garde musicians.  In 1952 Loriod performed the sonata in Darmstadt to great acclaim.  Thus started Boulez’s association with a group of tremendously talented and adventuresome composers and theoreticians that became known as the Darmstadt School.   Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music were held from the early 1950s to 1970.  Every other year young musicians gathered in the city to present and discuss their music.  Formal courses were taught both in composition and interpretation.  Even the abridged list of the attendees looks very impressive: in addition to Boulez, there was Bruno Maderna, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, John Cage – composers who shaped the music of the second half of the 20th century.  Philosophers and critics such as Theodor Adorno, presented their ideas.   It was around that time that Boulez came up with his famous aphorism: “Any musician who has not felt … the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is OF NO USE.”  In 1952 he wrote a seminal piece, “Le Marteau sans maître” (The hammer without a master) for voice and six instruments.  Still difficult, even after half a century of music development, it could be heard here.  Pierre Boulez conducts a small ensemble consisting of the flute, the guitar and several percussion instruments.  Jeanne Deroubaix is the contralto.  The period between 1950s and 1970s was the most productive for Boulez as a composer.  In the following years he continued to write but dedicated much time to reworking some of the compositions of the earlier period.

 

In 1970 President Georges Pompidou, bound to create a cultural legacy, asked Boulez, who was spending most of his time outside of France, to create an institute dedicated to research in music.  The result was the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic/Music).  It was set in a building next to the Center Pompidou.  With the addition two years later of the Ensemble InterContemporain, IRCAM became a major research and performing center for avant-garde music. 

 

Boulez started conducting in 1957.  First it was mostly his own music and that of his young colleagues, but eventually he expanded his repertoire to Stravinsky, Debussy, Webern and Messiaen.  In the late 50’s he became the guest conductor of the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra and took residence in Baden-Baden, to a large extent in protest to the conservativism of the French musical culture (that was before the IRCAM).  A big break came in1971 when he was, rather unexpectedly, hired by the New York Philharmonic.  During the following years he conducted every major orchestra, expanding his repertoire to include most of the classics (though he never conducted either Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich).  Boulez became one of the greatest interpreters of Mahler.  Here’s his tremendous interpretation of the 4th movement (Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend) of Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 with the Chicago Symphony at its best.

Read more...

January 6, 2016.  Pierre Boulez, the great French composer and conductor, died last night in Baden-Baden, Germany.  He was 90.  Boulez burst on the European music scene in the aftermath of WWII as one of the leading composers of the Darmstadt School.  In 1970 he founded IRCAM and in 1976, Ensemble InterContemporain.  He started conducting in the 1960s and in 1971 was made the music director of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London.  Later he lead the Chicago Symphony and worked with the Concertgebouw and the Berlin Philharmonic.  Even though his own musical sensibilities were very different, he became one of the greatest interpreters of the music of Mahler.  Boulez wrote and talked about music more intelligently than most of the professional critics.  We mourn the passing of this extraordinary figure.

Read more...

January 4, 2016.  Giuseppe Sammartini.  Giuseppe Sammartini, not to be confused with his younger brother Giovanni Battista Sammartini, was born on January 6th of 1695 in Milan.  Their father, Alexis Saint-Martin, a Frenchman, was an oboist, and he taught the instrument to his children.  Both brothers became Giuseppe Sammartiniprofessional oboists playing in different professional orchestras, including that of the newly-opened Teatro Regio Ducal (this grand opera house burned down in 1776 and was replaced, in 1778, with the Nuovo Regio Ducal Teatro alla Scala, which we now know simply as Teatro alla Scala).  Johann Joachim Quantz, a famous flutist and composer, considered Giuseppe the best oboe player in Italy.  Sammartini probably also played the flute and the recorder: most oboists of the time played those instruments and Sammartini composed a large number of pieces for these instruments.  One of his first compositions, an Oboe Concerto, was published in Amsterdam in 1717.  In 1727 Sammartini moved to Brussels and then to London, where he was recognized as a supreme master of the oboe.  He remained in England for the rest of his life.  He became friendly with the composer Maurice Greene and played solos in the operas of Handel and Bononcini.  In 1736 Sammartini accepted a lucrative position as a music teacher to the wife and the children of the Prince of Wales.  He remained in this position till his death in 1750.

 

Sammartini, praised as “the greatest oboist that the world has ever known,” was said to have had a remarkable tone, which had the qualities of the human voice.  He was also an influential teacher and helped to create the English oboe school.  These days, though, he’s mostly remembered as a fine composer.  During his lifetime he was known as a composer of chamber music, especially of flute sonatas and trios.  Most of his concertos were published posthumously, but they are the ones that are most popular these days.  Here’s his Concerto for the Recorder in F Major.  It’s performed by Pamela Thorby, recorder, and the ensemble Sonnerie, Monica Huggett conducting.  Sammartini wrote four keyboard concertos; here’s one of them, in A Major.  Donatella Bianchi is on the harpsichord, ensemble I Musici Ambrosiani is conducted by Paolo Suppa, conductor.  Finally, an Oboe Concerto, in this case, no. 12 in C Major, here.  Franscesco Quaranta is playing oboe, also with I Musici Ambrosiani and Paolo Suppa.

 

Among many other birthdays this week are that of Francis Poulenc, who was born on January 7th of 1899 and Alexander Scriabin, born on January 6th of 1872.  Here’s Scriabin’s Piano Sonata no. 10, his last piano sonata.  It was composed in 1913, two years before the composer’s death.  It’s performed by the American pianist Kathy Kim.

Read more...

December 28, 2015.  Still in the Christmas mood.  So much great music has been written for Christmas that we decided to continue our celebration for a little longer.  Last week, when we wrote about Giovanni Gabrieli, we mentioned one of his students, Heinrich Schütz.  Schütz was 24 when he went to Venice.  Half a century later, in 1660, at the advanced age of 75 he composed Weihnachtshistorie, The Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the MagiChristmas Story. By then he was an eminent composer, the “chief Kapellmeister” at the court of the Elector of Saxony.  The Christmas Story is set to the text from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew as translated by Martin Luther.  You can hear it in the performance by the Westfalische Kantorei under the direction of Wilhelm Ehmann.

 

About 30 years later, around 1690, Arcangelo Corelli composed Twelve Concerti Grossi, his opus 6 (it wasn’t published till 1714).  The set was commissioned by Corelli’s then new patron, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.  Concerto number 8 had an inscription, Fatto per la notte di Natale (Made for the night of Christmas) and became known as the “Christmas Concerto.”  It’s performed here, in a somewhat old-fashioned manner, by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan conducting.  Corelli had many pupils, one of them – Pietro Locatelli, composer and violinist.  In 1721 Locatelli, then 26, also composed a set of 12 Concerti Grossi, and called the eighth “Christmas Concerto.”  The last section of Corelli’s concert is marked as Largo. Pastorale ad libitum (that is, “at one’s pleasure”); the last section of Locatelli’s – Pastorale (Largo Andante).  Not terribly original but lovely, it’s performed here by I Musici.

 

Let’s return to Germany. Here’s a wonderful hymn, Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen, which Michael Praetorius included in his first published work, Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion) in 1609.  The traditional translation of the hymn is “Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming.”  Even though Luther was strongly against the Catholic Marian cult, many of the older Catholic songs made it into the Lutheran liturgy, and Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen is one of them: the text makes clear that the rosebud is “Mary, the pure.”  The crystalline Monteverdi Choir is the performer.  125 years later, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote (and, to some extent, compiled) the great Christmas Oratorio.  Consisting of six parts, the music was to be performed on Christmas and two following days, and also on  New Year’s Day (the day of the circumcision of Jesus) and on the first Sunday of the new year.  Here’s Sinfonia, the introductory part to the Second day service.  John Elliot Gardiner conducts the English Baroque Soloists.  The Adoration of the Magi, above, is by Domenico Ghirlandaio.  It was painted around 1485.

Read more...

December 21, 2015.  Giovanni Gabrieli.  Several times a year we celebrate composers whose birth dates (and sometimes birth years) remain unknown to us.   Giovanni Gabrieli is one of them and it seems quite appropriate to celebrate him this time of the year, as we approach  Christmas: Gabrieli was mostly a composer of sacred music.  Giovanni was a born in Venice, sometime between 1554 and 1557.  His family came from the Alpine area of Carnia, north of Venice.  Giovanni was probably brought up by his uncle,  Andrea Gabrieli, who was probably his first music teacher.  And as his uncle did some years earlier, the young Giovanni GabrieliGiovanni traveled to Munich, to the court of the Duke Albert V of Bavaria, to study with the great Orlando di Lasso.  He returned to Venice in 1584, and a year later became the organist at the Basilica of San Marco; for several months he shared these responsibilities with Andrea, until Andrea’s death on August 30th of that year.   That same year he received another prestigious post, as organist to the Scuola Grande di S Rocco, one of the most important confraternities in Venice.  Tintoretto was still working on his famous canvases, decorating the building when Gabrieli assumed his post.

 

Upon Andrea’s death, Giovanni edited and published a volume of his work; to this volume he also added some of his own compositions.  Giovanni’s first major collection of original music, called Sacrae symphoniae, was only published in 1597.  Some, if not most, of the pieces in the collection represent music composed for the Scuola.  The publication was clearly very successful, as just one year later, in 1598, it was reprinted in Nuremberg.  Here’s Sonata Pian'e Forte from the collection, performed by the brass section of the Bavarian State Opera, Zubin Mehta conducting.  As Giovanni’s music became famous, pupils started coming from Italy and Europe, many of them sent from Germany.  Among them was Heinrich Schütz, who came in 1609 and stayed till Gabrieli’s death.  Through Schütz, and other Germans, we can connect Gabrieli with the German baroque tradition and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Gabrieli, like his uncle Andrea and Adrian Willaert before him, wrote much music in the Venetian “polychoral” style.  This style has an unusual history: unlike practically anything else in music, its existence was a direct result of the architectural peculiarities of the main cathedral of Venice, the San Marco.  San Marco’s shape differs from all other large Italian churches.  Instead of having a long, wide nave, it’s built as an equal-armed cross, having the length and the width of about the same size.  Additional smaller chapels in both the nave and the transept further complicate the structure.  As there is not enough space for one large choir, there are two, on the opposite sides of the church.  As a result, the sound echoes throughout the building with the delays forming very unusual effects.  Gabrieli wrote a large number of choral and brass pieces that took advantage of these effects.  Here’s a great example, Canzon à 12 in Echo.  It’s performed by the brass sections of three great orchestras, the Philadelphia, the Cleveland, and the Chicago.

Read more...

December 14, 2015.  Beethoven!  This week we celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s 245th birthday.  Beethoven was baptized on December 17th of 1770, so it’s often assumed that he was born the previous day, on December 16th.  We usually celebrate his birthday by focusing on different periods of his life during which he wrote some of his piano sonatas: last year, for example, we finished with the Piano sonata no. 4, which was published in 1797.  This time we’ll change tracks a bit and present a longer article on his two symphonies, no 3, the famous Eroica, and no. 4.  We’ll continue the traversal of Beethoven’s piano sonatas later on.   You can hear Ludwig van BeethovenEroica in the performance by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan in the 1984 recording here, and Symphony no. 4, in the live recording made by Carlos Kleiber with the Bavarian State Orchestra in 1982, here. 

 

Symphony No. 3.  With the closing measures of the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Beethoven embarked down the “new road” he announced in a letter to Krumpholz in 1802: “I am not satisfied with my works up to the present time. From today I mean to take a new road. While this turning point—this new artistic direction—can be seen in the Violin Sonatas, op. 30 or the Piano Sonatas, op. 31, it is most striking apparent in the comparison of the Second Symphony to its successor, the Eroica. Premonitions of Beethoven’s mature style surfaced at times in the first two symphonies—most noticeably in the Minuet of the First and the Finale of the Second. However, the Third Symphony is pure Beethoven as he is so beloved today.

 

Beethoven began working on the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat shortly after the Second and was occupied with it until early 1804, with much of the actual composition beginning during the summer of 1803. By the spring of 1804, a fair copy of the score had been made, which was openly displayed on Beethoven’s desk. On the outside page written at the very top was the name “Buonaparte,” and at the bottom, “Luigi van Beethoven.” The first suggestion of a symphony in honor of Napoleon Buonaparte had likely been made to Beethoven as early as 1798. At this time, Napoleon was known as a great statesman and a champion of freedom, and had not yet transformed, in his fall from glory, into the tyrant that waged war across Europe. The French Revolution had certainly influenced Beethoven, quite possibly through Bonn’s proximity to France. Indeed, his very character embodied its ideals. Once in Vienna, he was a contradiction to all the expectations of musicians of that day. Besides refusing to enter the service of any of the nobility, he asserted his independence with manners that were off-putting even to his friends and a lack of etiquette or respect towards his professed superiors. He took what was his by right and refused to see them as favors. This freedom of spirit is certainly evident in the earlier symphonies but the Third is its undeniable embodiment. Napoleon had become the quintessence of the French Revolution’s ideals, and it is quite nature that Beethoven should admire him.

 

However, Beethoven had no knowledge of the changes taking place in Napoleon. On May 2, 1804, the Senate passed a motion asking Napoleon to take the title of Emperor. Later that month, on the 18th, he assumed the title. When the news finally reached Vienna, Ferdinand Ries delivered it to Beethoven. “After all, then, he is nothing but an ordinary mortal! He will trample all the rights of men under foot, to indulge his ambition, and become a greater tyrant than any one,” was the reply that erupted from the composer. In his fury, Beethoven grabbed the score of his new symphony, tore the title page, and threw it on the ground. For seventeen years, Beethoven never mentioned the connection between the work and Napoleon until, on hearing news of Emperor’s death, he replied, “I have already composed the proper music for that catastrophe”—an obvious reference to the Funeral March which forms the symphony’s second movement. On the copy of Beethoven’s score preserved today, one can visibly see the hatred with which Beethoven scratched out Napoleon’s name from the title page. (Continue reading here).

Read more...

December 7, 2015.  This is another unusually bountiful week.  Monday the 7th is the birthday of Pietro Mascagni, the composer of Cavalleria Rusticana, one of the two greatest verismo operas.  Mascagni was born in 1863 and wrote Cavalleria in 1890.  It was premiered earlier than Verdi’s Falstaff, which was staged in 1893.  Hard to imagine that Mascagni died in August of 1945: as wonderful as it is, his music belonged to a bygone era.  Another Italian, Bernardo Pasquini, one of the most important keyboard composers of the late 17th – early 18th century, was also born on this day, in 1637.  Here’s his delightful “Toccata del cucco“ (the Cuckoo toccata), which Ottorino Respighi used practically verbatim in his orchestral suite Gli Uccelli (The Birds).  Here, though, it’s played the way Pasquini intended, on a harpsichord.  It’s performed by Lorenzo Ghielmi.  The following day (the 8th) we have four anniversaries with all four composers coming from the different countries: Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer who was born in 1865. Manuel Ponce, probably the best known Mexican composer (Ponce was born in 1882), a very interesting Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, who was born in 1890, and finally, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish descent (he was known in the Soviet Union as Moisey Weinberg). 

 

Mieczyslaw WeinbergWeinberg was born in 1919 in Warsaw and fled to the Soviet Union at the outbreak of t WWII when the Germans attacked Poland (his parents and sister perished during the Holocaust).   Weinberg wrote twenty-two symphonies and more than 20 quartets, but his music was practically ignored in the Soviet Union, even though many considered him the third most important composer in the country after Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  That changed somewhat with the revival of his opera “The Passenger.”  The opera tells a story of a German couple on a cruise.  The woman seems to recognize a fellow passenger and in a moment of shock, reveals to her husband that she worked as a guard in a concentration camp where the other passenger was an inmate.  The harrowing story of the life in the camp is recounted on a lower deck of the ship.  A Polish play by Zofia Posmysz, herself a concentration camp survivor, which served as the basis for the opera libretto, was also used by the talented Polish director Andrzej Munk for the screenplay of his 1963 film, “Passenger.”  Weinberg’s opera was scheduled for a premiere in 1968 in the Bolshoi Theater but was canceled by the Soviet authorities at the last moment.  The first concert performance took place in 2006 in Moscow; the opera was then properly staged in Europe in 2010 and in the US in 2014 (it had its very successful Chicago premier at the Lyric Opera earlier this year).  Here’s Weinberg’s instrumental piece, his piano sonata no. 3, op. 31.  It’s performed by Murray McLachlan.

 

What we had so far is plenty already, but there are more anniversaries this week: the Spanish composer Joaquin Turina was born on the 9th, in 1882; César Franck – on the 10th of December, in 1822.  The same day is the birthday of one of our favorite composers, Olivier Messiaen.  Another Frenchman of immense talent, Hector Berlioz was born on December 11th of 1803.  And finally, on the same day in 1908 Elliott Carter was born in Manhattan.  Carter died in 2012, one month short of his 104th birthday.  He wrote his last composition three months earlier.  Carter is a seminal American composer and we’ll dedicate an entry to him alone sometime later.  Right now, though, here’s his String Quartet No.5.  It’s a difficult piece but very much worth the effort.  It’s performed live by the Pacifica Quartet.

Read more...

November 30, 2015.  Dieterich Buxtehude.  Throughout the Renaissance, what we know as “vital records” were kept mostly by churches, but those were not always well organized: the baptismal date of a child born into nobility would be recorded, but not necessarily that of a poor one.   As very few of the composers of the period came from the nobility (Carlo Dietrich BuxtehudeGesualdo being a notable exception), we don’t know when such giants of early music as Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina or Orlando di Lasso were born.  Lapses occurred even much later: Jeremiah Clarke, a famous English baroque composer, was born in 1674, but exactly when we don’t know.  The story is even murkier with Dietrich Buxtehude: not only don’t we know when was he born, we’re not even sure in which country.  The name Buxtehude seems to suggest that the family came from the town of Buxtehude, not far from Hamburg, but at some point the Buxtehudes moved to Denmark.  Most historians believe that Dietrich was born around 1637, maybe in Helsingborg, formerly Danish and now a Swedish town, or in Elsinore on the Danish side of the sound -the town famous for its castle where Shakespeare set his Hamlet.  Dietrich’s father was an organist, and most likely his first music teacher. We do know that in 1668 Dietrich Buxtehude settled in Lübeck: the position of organist of Marienkirche, one of the most important in Northern Germany, became vacant, and Buxtehude applied, as did several other organists.  Marienkirche, built in 1250, an imposing Gothic structure, had two organs: the great organ originally built in 1516, probably the largest gothic organ in the world, and a smaller “Dance Macabre” organ, located in the transept – it was called “Dance macabre” for a famous painting of the same name that hung in the transept.  Unfortunately, both organs, as well as the painting, were destroyed in 1942 during the bombing of the city by the British air force.  The bombing created a huge firestorm, which devastated a large part of the historical center; even the famous bells of Marienkirche partially melted down and fell to the floor, breaking into pieces. 

 

Buxtehude was selected as the organist on April 11th of 1668 and two months later became a citizen of Lübeck.  Buxtehude’s official duties at Marienkirche required him to compose and play music during Sunday services and major holidays.  In addition to his religious duties, he directed concerts known as Abendmusic, which took place in the same church.  These concerts featured mainly organ music and, after Buxtehude took over, orchestral and choral music.  The concerts became very popular among Lübeck’s bourgeois and known even outside the city.  Buxtehude composed several oratorios for Abendmusic, most of which were, unfortunately, lost.  He lived in Lübeck for the rest of his life, an eminent citizen and “music director” for the city.  In 1699, Pachelbel dedicated his Hexachordum Apollinis to Buxtehude.   In 1703 the young Handel visited him, and three years later, in 1706, Bach came “in order to learn one thing and another about his art,” according to theArnstadt records.  It’s very likely that Bach was present at at least two Abendmusic concerts.  Buxtehude died on May 9th of 1707 and was buried in Marienkirche.

 

Buxtehude composed more than 100 cantatas, but his most important work was written for the organ.  Here, for example, is Prelude in G minor.  The influence he had on Johann Sebastian Bach seems rather obvious.   The organist is Ton Coopman, who, after recording all works of Bach, embarked on the Buxtehude Project, recording the complete works of Bach’s predecessor.  The project was successfully finished in 2014.  The portrait of Buxtehude, above, is from a painting by the Dutchman Johannes Voorhout.  It was made in 1674.

Read more...

November 23, 2015.  Nine composers of note were born this week, starting with Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was born in Florence on November 28th of 1632, to Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish composer who, at the ripe age of 81 (he was born on November Melozzo da Forli, Angel with Lute23rd of 1933) is still actively writing music and conducting.   Between these two, in chronological order, we have: Anton Stamitz, a son of Johann Stamitz, the founder of the Mannheim School and the brother of Carl, another  prominent composer.  Anton was born on November 27th of 1750.  He spent the second half of his life in France.  Sometime after the French revolution he went mad and lived in an asylum for the rest of his life.  It’s not known when he died.  From the happier years of his life, here’s the Concerto for two flutes; Shigenori Kudo and Jean-Pierre Rampal are the flutists, Josef Schneider conducts the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra. Gaetano Donizetti, one of the greatest composers of the bel canto opera, was born on November 29th of 1797.  Another Anton, the Russian composer Anton Rubinstein was born on November 28th of 1829.  Rubinstein, one of the supreme piano virtuosos of the 19th century, was the founder of the St-Petersburg Conservatory, the first in Russia.  There he taught composition, and among his students was none other than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.   Another interesting Russian composer, Sergei Taneyev , was born on November 25th of 1856.  A generation younger than Anton Rubinstein, Taneyev was a friend of Anton’s brother, Nikolai; he was even closer with Tchaikovsky.  Taneyev had impeccable taste and was the only one whom Tchaikovsky openly trusted and allowed to discuss his music.  Here’s the Gigue from Taneyev’s Quartet no 6, written in 1905.  It’s performed by one of the foremost Russian chamber ensembles, the string quartet named after the composer: The Taneyev Quartet.

 

The path-breaking Spanish composer Manuel de Falla was born on November 23rd, 1876 in Cádiz, Spain.  He wrote a lot of music for the stage: zarzuelas (traditional Spanish musical comedies), a ballet that became famous, The Three-Cornered Hat, and even a puppet opera.  He also wrote some orchestral and piano music.  One of his best known piano compositions is Fantasia Betica.  It’s performed here by Tanya Gabrielian.  The American composer Virgil Thomson was born 20 years later, on November 25th, 1896.  A pupil of Nadia Boulanger and a friend of Gertrude Stein, he lived in Paris from 1925 to 1940.  These days he’s better known as one of the most influential American music critics but he was a whimsical and interesting composer.  His opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” on the libretto by Stein is a revolutionary piece of music.

 

Alfred Schnittke, who was born on November 24th of 1934 and Krzysztof Penderecki are among the most significant composers of the second half of the 20th century.  We’ve written about Schnittke a number of times but haven’t had a chance to discuss Penderecki.  A complex and prolific composer who during his long creative life went through a number of phases, from atonal to melodic, Penderecki requires a separate entry.  In the meantime, here’s his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.  National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Antoni Wit. 

Read more...

November 16, 2015.  Beethoven's Symphonies nos. 1 and 2.  Today we're publishing an essay on Ludwig van Beethoven's two early symphonies.  To illustrate, we use the recordings made by the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, Frans Brüggen conducting (Symphony no. 1) and London Beethoven in 1803Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Josef Krips (Symphony no. 2). 

 

Beethoven and the symphony are nearly synonymous. It is impossible to speak of one without discussing the other. In short, the symphony was one of the genres of instrumental composition that was radically transformed at the mighty hands of Beethoven. Everything before him seems but a prelude; everything after, as Richard Wagner commented, an “epilogue.”

 

The symphony, as a musical composition, traces its roots to the waning years of the Renaissance. The term itself is far older—originating from the Greek “symphonia,” meaning “agreement or concord of sound.” The earliest pieces that bore the title of “symphony” were works by composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli, Andriano Banchieri, and Heinrich Schütz. These works were all sacred vocal compositions with or without instrumental accompaniment. As the Baroque period reached its maturity, the “symphony” or “sinfonia” was applied to a wide range of instrumental compositions from operatic overtures to keyboard pieces (Bach’s three-part inventions were called “Sinfonias”). By the 18th century, the Italian overture had developed into a well-defined form of three contrasting movements—fast, slow, fast—and is generally considered to be the immediate progenitor of the modern symphony.

 

As the Baroque period faded, the symphony became one of the hallmarks of the burgeoning Classical period. Pioneered by composers such as Sammartini, Wagenseil, von Dittersdorf, and Stamitz, it reached the brink of maturity in the works of Haydn and Mozart. Slowly, the four-movement form common since the 19th century replaced the inherited three-part design of the Baroque. Symphonies became an increasingly prominent fixture of public life and were thus written at a profuse rate (Haydn composed 107, and Mozart at least 47), fueled in large part by the musical establishments maintained by the aristocracy and the competition that resulted amongst them.

 

With Beethoven the fullest potential of the symphony was realized. Not writing for any court, Beethoven was free to develop the symphony into a vehicle for his artistic will. With the exception of Haydn and Mozart, the symphony had generally been the product of artisans throughout the Classical period. Beethoven made it the domain of artists—a blank canvas for the composer to envision the highest potential of his art. He adopted the symphonic design of his predecessors but vastly expanded the breadth and scope of each individual movement. His most well-known contribution is, of course, the transformation of the old Classical Minuet into the Scherzo, which became the dance movement of choice in virtually every multi-movement design throughout the Romantic period. The outer movements became more profound, not to mention larger, with every aspect developing out of their basic motives. In accordance with this change, coda sections also were greatly expanded, and became in essence added "developments" in which musical ideas were further explored. Lastly, within his slow movements, Beethoven plunged the depths of the human soul and soared into the heights of heaven.

 

Beethoven's radical transformations touched virtually every symphonist for the next century. Schubert quickly followed in his idol's footsteps, culminating his symphonic output with the severe pathos of his Unfinished Symphony and the colossal grandeur of his "Great" C major Symphony. Berlioz developed further on the programmatic elements of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, creating dramatic and ground-breaking works such as the Symphonie fantastique and the Roméo et Juliette Symphony. Following Schubert's death, the banner of German symphonism was carried by Mendelssohn and Schumann, and ultimately passed to Johannes Brahms. Brahms introduced his own innovations, supplanting the Scherzo with his characteristic Intermezzi in three of his four symphonies, while introducing the archaic passacaglia as an effective Finale in his Fourth. Yet, one can certainly find within them the hand Beethoven, particularly in his First Symphony. Anton Bruckner, forced to work in Brahms's shadow, created gargantuan symphonies that are certainly influenced by both Beethoven and Wagner. Mahler was a natural successor. His enormous symphonies stretch the form even further and one cannot miss his imitations of Beethoven's immortal Choral Symphony (continue here).

Read more...

November 9, 2015.  Couperin and more.  François Couperin, Alexander Borodin, Paul Hindemith and Aaron Copland were all born this week: Couperin on November 10th of 1668; Borodin  on November 12th of 1833; Hindemith  on November  16th of 1995; and five years later, on November  14th of 1900 – Copland.  It’s a profoundly diverse group and very little links them together, except that all of them are part of the classical music canon.  Even Hindemith and Copland, who belonged to the same generation, couldn’t be farther apart.  We’ve written about all of them before (you may search our unwieldy archive to find the older entries), so this time we’ll simply celebrate the diversity and juxtapose several characteristic pieces.

 

François CouperinFrançois Couperin wrote mostly music for the harpsichord.  During his life he composed four “books,” each consisting of several “orders.”   The orders contain several individual pieces, some as few as three, others – more than 20.  We’ll hear the complete Order XIII from Book 3: Les lis naissans; Les rozeaux; L'engageante; Les folies françoises, ou Les dominos; L'âme-en peine.   The pianist is Grigory Sokolov.  This is a live recording: lately, Sokolov has refused to record in a studio (we of course remember that Glenn Gould did just the opposite: he refused to play live concerts).  Sokolov, who won a Tchaikovsky competition at the age of 16, prefers not to travel, so even though he has a cult following in Europe, he’s practically unknown in the US.

 

The earliest genuinely original work by Paul Hindemith was a series of pieces he called Kammermusik.  The first one was written in 1922, the last (eighth) – in 1928.  Here’s Kammermusik No. 1, for 12 instruments, Op. 24 no. 1.  Bold, very energetic, it’s scored for an unusual combination of flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, harmonium, piano, string quintet and percussion.  Members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra are conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

 

Alexander Borodin, a chemist and an occasional composer of unusual talent, is famous for his opera Prince Igor.  Borodin also wrote a small number of chamber pieces and some piano music.  Here’s his Petite Suite.  It was published in 1885 but written in a course of several previous years.  The Suite is performed by Tatyana Nikolayeva.  Nikolayeva was a good friend of Dmitry Shostakovich and made a famous recording of his 24 Preludes and Fugues.  Renowned in the Soviet Union, she was not very well known in the West.  She started traveling abroad after the Perestroika, but on November 13th of 1993 suffered a stroke during a concert in San Francisco; she was playing Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.  Nikolayeva couldn’t finish the performance and died nine days later.

 

Aaron Copland, one of the most important and influential American composers of the 20th century, may be closer to Borodin than any other composer in our group.  Borodin, even though a strong proponent of “absolute music,” was a Russian national composer through and through.  His melodies, though they rarely quote folk tunes, are recognizably “Russian.”  And so is Copland: his music is quintessentially American, often “populist” and deceptively simple.  A Brooklyn Jew of Lithuanian origin, he used folk tunes and old Shaker songs (he also borrowed from jazz and Mexican music).  We have a large selection of Copland’s music in our library, so please search or browse and you’ll find some wonderful pieces.

Read more...

November 2, 2015. Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.  We’re publishing an essay by Joseph DuBose about what is probably the most popular orchestral music in all of George Frideric HandelGeorge Frideric Handel’s output.  We illustrate it with the 1972 recordings made by Neville Marriner with his Academy of St Martin in the Fields.  

 

On July 17, 1717, King George I conducted a lavish affair upon the Thames River. As one rumor goes, it was an effort to outdo his own son, Prince George II, who was enjoying the limelight of British social circles. At eight o’clock that night, the King and his entourage boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Place and sailed up the Thames to Chelsea. An accompanying barge, provided by the City of London, held some fifty instrumentalists who performed music by Handel for the King’s entertainment. A great number of Londoners came out to witness the incredible spectacle—so many, in fact, that the Daily Courant newspaper reported there was “so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover'd.”

 

Another rumor surrounding the event suggests that Handel’s music for the event was composed as a means to regain the King’s good graces. Before inheriting the British throne, George, as the Elector of Hanover, had employed Handel as Kapellmeister beginning in 1710. Yet, two years later, Handel decided to relocate to England where he received a yearly salary from Queen Anne. Handel’s abrupt departure from Germany purportedly caused some animosity between him and his employer. Once George ascended the British throne, Handel found himself suddenly in the position of needing to regain the King's favor. Supposedly, Handel was apprehensive in approaching King George, but saw the King's party as the perfect opportunity. On the other hand, an equally plausible explanation is both men knew that George would soon be King of Great Britain, and that he gave Handel his permission to venture on ahead of him to London. Regardless, the king was so impressed with the music that he ordered it repeated three times by the time he returned to Whitehall from Chelsea, suggesting that the musicians played continuously from 8 p.m. until well after midnight (with the exception of a break while King George I went ashore at Chelsea).

 

Though Handel’s music for the event was such a great success, there exists no reliable documentation that the music known today as Water Music was, in fact, the exact music performed on that occasion. While it is known that several of the numbers were quite popular in London, none of the music was initially published. Three movements—two minuets and the overture—appeared in 1720 and 1725, respectively. John Walsh published an eleven movement edition in 1733, and later followed up with an expanded nineteen movement arrangement for harpsichord. The first complete edition did not appear until 1788 and was published after extensive research by Samuel Arnold. This edition has become the authoritative Water Music, and was the basis for Friedrich Chrysander’s Gesellschaft edition published in 1886. Yet, despite an authoritative edition, some doubt remains even today around the exact ordering of the movements. Generally, however, Handel’s Water Music is arranged into three separate suites, HWV 348-50, based on the character and instrumentation of the movements. The first suite, by the far longest, contains nine movements in the keys of F major and D minor, and features horns with an orchestra of oboes, bassoon, and strings. The middle suite, in D major, adds trumpets; while the third, in G major, is more delicately scored with flutes. (Continue reading here)

Read more...

October 26, 2015.  Scarlatti and Paganini.  Domenico Scarlatti, a son of the famous opera composer Alessandro Scarlatti, was born on this day in 1685, the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.  Domenico, the sixth of ten children of Alessandro, was born in Naples: a year earlier his father became Maestro di Cappella to the Spanish viceroy of Domenico ScarlattiNaples.  He probably studied music with his father; later – with Bernardo Pasquini, a noted opera composer and harpsichordist.  Alessandro knew Pasquini well: together with Arcangelo Corelli they were members of the famous Accademia degli Arcadi in Rome, a literary academy and, at that time, a leading cultural institution.  In 1705 Alessandro wrote a long letter to Ferdinando de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Florence, touting Domenico’s talents.  They were acknowledged but no position was offered.  Instead Alessandro sent his son to Venice were he stayed for several years.  In 1708 Domenico traveled to Rome on the invitation of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.  There he was persuaded to enter into a keyboard competition with Handel.  They were judged to be equal at the clavichord but Handel was acknowledged a superior organist.  The competition didn’t prevent them from becoming good friends.  Scarlatti admired Handel’s talents; it’s also said that he crossed himself any time Handel’s name was mentioned: Scarlatti, like many of his contemporaries, thought that Handel was so exceptionally good not without the involvement of black magic.  This was also a widespread opinion about Paganini, our other birthday composer, who, according to legend, sold his soul to the devil.

 

In Rome Domenico found a patron – Maria Casimira, the exiled former Queen of Poland; she made Domenico her maestro di cappella.  Domenico was following in his father’s steps: Alessandro occupied a similar position at the court of the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden.  Domenico lived in Rome till around 1720.  After that he took a trip to Lisbon, and soon after settled in Spain, where he spent the rest of his life.  Most of Scarlatti’s Italian musical output was concentrated on operas (Domenico created 13 of them), oratorios and cantatas.  He wrote most of his keyboard sonatas – compositions that he’s famous for today – while in Spain.  So here’s an example of his operatic work, a rarity: a duet "Se l'alma non t'adora" from, as far as we know, Domenico Scarlatti’s first opera L'Ottavia ristituita al trono.  It was premiered in 1703 when Domenico was 18.  The singers, both Italian, are Patrizia Ciofi, a coloratura soprano, and Anna Bonitatibus, a mezzo with a flourishing international career.  The ensemble Il Complesso Barocco is conducted by Alan Curtis.  Curtis, a harpsichordist, musicologist and conductor, died on July 15th of this year.

 

Another Italian, Niccolò Paganini, was born on October 27th of 1782.  In the history of music Paganini is more famous as a performer rather than a composer.  His best known work was also his first, a set of 24 “caprices” for violin solo.   Here’s Salvatore Accardo playing Caprice no. 2 in B minor, a 1978 recording.  And here’s the same caprice, recorded in 1972 by Itzhak Perlman.  We don’t know if Paganini really had a deal with the devil but this piece is certainly devilishly difficult.

Read more...

October 19, 2015.  Liszt, Ives and Berio.  Three very different composers were born this week: two “modernists,” Charles Ives and Luciano Berio, and one great Romantic, Franz Liszt.  Liszt, born on October 22nd, 1811, was a tremendous virtuoso.  While he was still concertizing (he quit at the age of 35 at Franz Lisztthe height of his career) he was much more famous as a pianist than a composer.  Liszt wrote a number of extremely difficult piano pieces.  In his time, he was one of the very few, if not the only one, capable of pulling them off.  During the last 20 years or so we’ve been witnessing a revolution in pianism.  These days the technique of many young musicians is on a level that was only achieved by very few just a generation ago.  Of course technique alone is not enough – one needs to have keen musicianship to become a complete artist, but extraordinary technique can create excitement that’s lacking in more subdued performances.  Liszt’s piano pieces are perfectly suited for such feats.  Khatia Buniatishvili is one of the young pianists who can dazzle – or infuriate, as the case may be.  Some compare her with the young Martha Argerich, and, though they are quite different musically, the drive, energy and the superb technique lend credence to the comparison.  Here’s Khatia playing, live, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz no 1.  The recording was made in 2011 at the Verbier Festival.  One can find faults in this performance, both technical and musical, but the visceral pleasure is all there.

 

Charles Ives was born on October 20th of 1874.  He’s now considered to be very important to the development of American music, the first truly international composer of major talent.  During his lifetime, though, he was almost completely ignored.  Practically all his adult life Ives worked in the insurance business and was very successful at that; he’s considered the pioneer of estate planning, on which he wrote a treatise.  Composing was done in his spare time.  His most productive period was from the early 1900s to about 1920 (he didn’t compose much in the second half of his life.  He died in 1954).  Ives started composing the Concord piano sonata around 1911 and worked on it till 1915.  It’s a remarkable piece of music, especially considering the time of the composition.  The sonata consists of four movement, each titled after American writers: "Emerson," "Hawthorne,” "The Alcotts" (after Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott), and "Thoreau.”  As many of Ives’s piece, it’s long, running about 45 minutes; even 100 years later it’s challenging but very much worth listening to.  Here’s the second movement, "Hawthorne,” in the performance by Alexei Lyubimov, a wonderful Russian pianist and a student of Heinrich Neuhaus.

 

Luciano Berio, one of the most interesting composers of the second half of the 20th century, was born on October 24th of 1925.  We wrote about him in some detail last year.   To celebrate Berio’s 90th birthday, here’s Sequenza IXa for clarinet, one of the pieces in a set of 14 for solo instruments.  It’s performed by Joaquin Valdepeñas.

Read more...

October 12, 2015. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, part II.  Today we’ll complete the article on Bach’s great Brandenburg Concertos, covering numbers 3 through 6.  You may read the introduction here.  As before, we illustrate the concertos with live performances by the Orchestra Mozart of Bologna, Claudio Abbado conducting.

Concerto No. 3 in G major

Believed to be one of the earliest of the Brandenburg Concertos to be written, the Third in G major (here) is scored solely for stings--three each of violins, violas, and cellos--and continuo. Yet, BachJohann Sebastian Bach masterfully overcomes the homogenous sound of his chosen ensemble by constantly varying the juxtaposition of the parts. Throughout the entirety of the work no instrument is rarely singled out as a soloist, and it thus sometimes described as "symphonic." Instead, the instruments engage in delightful conversation amongst themselves, whether in sections (as in much of the finale), or more individually, resulting in masterful contrapuntal imitations. Indeed, within the first movement, the ensemble even provides its own ritornello with a unison passage that marks key structural divisions.

However, despite its rich and warm sonorities and inviting melodies, the work has long vexed scholars and performers alike. Standing betwixt its two radiant G major movements is a curious, solitary measure in Adagio tempo and consisting of nothing more than a Phrygian half cadence in E minor. Such a cadence frequently concluded a penultimate movement in Baroque times, preparing the way for an ensuing major key finale. And, one might even suspect that a slow movement is perhaps missing from the Concerto if the measure in question did not occur in the middle of a page. Furthermore, scholars have noted that some of Bach's contemporaries, including Corelli, inserted bare cadences in their scores as well. Since this lone measure is hardly an adequate respite, it is quite possible the cadence was meant to frame or conclude a cadenza improvised by one of the performers. Indeed, it is likely the cadence was a form of shorthand that performers of the period would have easily understood, though the certainty of such is perhaps lost, like much of Baroque performance practices were as the 18th century came to close.

With the lack of any certainty in what Bach's expectations were, actual performance practice of the enigmatic Adagio varies. Some, adhering to a strict interpretation, perform the measure as is with no further ornamentation. Others provide varying degrees of embellishment, from simple ornamentations of the two chords by the harpsichord or violin, to lengthy extemporized fantasias that recall themes from the first movement in a manner akin to cadenzas of Classical and Romantic concerti. On the other hand, some go even further and attempt to restore the balance of the standard three-movement concerto form by inserting a slow movement from one of Bach's (usually lesser known) other works. Given the importance of improvisation during the Baroque era, from ornamentation to figured bass realization and even extemporized full-fledged fugues, it is likely that embellishment of the cadence or an improvised cadenza are perhaps the closest solution to Bach's original intentions (continue).

Read more...

October 5, 2015.  Heinrich Schütz.  Giuseppe Verdi and Camille Saint-Saëns were born this week: Verdi on October 9th of 1813, and Saint-Saëns on the same day but in 1835.  We’ve written about both of them a number of times.  There’s another composer whose anniversary is also celebrated this week, and though he’s very Heinrich Schützimportant in the history of music, we’ve never had a chance to write about him.  The composer’s name is Heinrich Schutz, and he’s one of the most important German Renaissance predecessors of Johann Sebastian Bach.   Schütz was born 100 years before Bach, on October 8th of 1585 in Bad Köstritz, Thuringia.  When Heinrich was five, his family moved to Weißenfels, where his father inherited an inn and became a burgomaster.   Heinrich demonstrated musical talent from a very early age.  In 1598, Maurice, the landgrave of Hesse-Kasse, a tiny principality then part of the Holy Roman Empire, stayed overnight in the family inn and heard Heinrich sing.   Maurice, who was himself a musician and composer, was so impressed that he invited Heinrich to his court to study music and further his education (while at the court, Heinrich learned several languages, including Latin, Greek and French).   Heinrich sung as a choir boy till his voice broke and then went to study law at Marburg.  In 1609 he went to Venice to study music with Giovanni Gabrieli.  Even though Gabrieli was 28 years older than Schütz, they became close (Gabrieli left him one of his rings when he died).  The master died in 1612 and Schütz returned to Kassel.  In 1614 the Elector of Saxony asked Schütz to come to Dresden.  The famous Michael Praetorius was nominally in charge of music-making at the court but he had other responsibilities, so the elector was interested in Schütz’s service.  Schütz moved to Dresden permanently in 1615.  In 1619 he received the title of Hofkapellmeister.  Soon after he published his first major work, Psalmen Davids (Psalms of David), a collection of 26 settings of psalms influenced, as one can hear, by Gabrieli.   Here’s Psalm 128, “Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchte.  Cantus Cölln and Concerto Palatino are conducted by Konrad Junghänel.

 

Schütz lived in Dresden for the rest of his life, making periodic extended trips: in 1628 he went to Venice where he met Claudio Monteverdi who became a big influence.  He also made several trips to Copenhagen, composing for the royal court.  Schütz lived a long life: he died on November 6th of 1672 at the age of 87.  Schütz composed mostly sacred choral music, although in 1627 he wrote what is considered the first German opera, Dafne.  Unfortunately, even though the libretto survived, the score was lost many years ago.  In 1636 Schütz wrote music for the funeral service of Count Henry II of Reuss-Gera called Musikalische Exequien.  Here’s the last section, Canticum.  English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir are conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

Read more...

September 28, 2015. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, part I.  (Note: we illustrate the concertos with live performances by the Orchestra Mozart of Bologna, Claudio Abbado conducting.)

 

Johann Sebastian BachThough today there are perennial favorites with audiences and performers alike and ranked among the finest examples of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, the six Brandenburg Concertos were perhaps the most elaborate failed job application in the history of music. In late March 1721, Bach sent a carefully prepared manuscript of the Concertos to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, with the following dedication recounting their origin:

Since I had a few years ago, the good luck of being heard by Your Royal Highness, by virtue of his command, & that I observed then, that He took some pleasure in the small talents that Heaven gave me for Music, & that in taking leave of Your Royal Highness, He wished to make me the honor of ordering to send Him some pieces of my Composition: I therefore according to his very gracious orders, took the liberty of giving my very-humble respects to Your Royal Highness, by the present Concertos, which I have arranged for several Instruments; praying Him very-humbly to not want to judge their imperfection, according to the severity of fine and delicate taste, that everyone knows that He has for musical pieces …

 

The trip Bach refers to is mostly like his visit in 1719 to Berlin, where he tested and accompanied home a newly constructed harpsichord for his employer, Prince Christian Leopold of Cöthen. Regardless, Bach presumably played for the Margrave. Apparently pleased with the performance, the Margrave then requested of Bach a score to add to his library.

 

Bach seemingly enjoyed his job in Cöthen. Prince Leopold was himself and an avid musician and maintained his own private ensemble. He was also a Calvinist, which freed Bach from the necessity of composing sacred music. Yet, for whatever reason, Bach began to look elsewhere for employment, and saw the music requested by the Margrave as an opportunity. The dedication further read:

I very humbly beg Your Royal Highness, to have the goodness to maintain his kind favour toward me, and to be persuaded that I have nothing more at heart, than to be able to be employed in some opportunities more worthy of Him and of his service …

 

Thus, Bach presented the Concertos as not only the scores the Margrave desired to add to his library, but as an impressive musical resume.

 

The immediate fate, however, of the Brandenburg Concertos is unknown. The Margrave certainly did not hire Bach, as Bach later went on to serve as Cantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. It is generally thought that the Margrave did not even bother to acknowledge their receipt, much less to bestow on Bach any kind of reward. Nor, is it believed that he even had them performed. Though, both of these assertions rest on little more than speculation and the pervasive lack of documentation during that era. However, the Margrave most likely did lack the instrumental forces to perform the works (the Sixth would have been within the closest reach of his meager in-house ensemble), as King Frederick William of Prussia was not a large patron of the arts. Regardless, after the Margrave’s death, Bach’s manuscript ultimately was lumped together with a large collection of scores from his library, and were assigned the nominal value of four groschen apiece (roughly $4) in order to divide the estate equally among his heirs.

 

Like so much of Bach’s music, the Brandenburg Concertos (with the sole exception of the Fifth) fell into obscurity, and were not rediscovered until generations later. They first appeared in print in 1850 to mark the centenary of Bach’s death, and then later gained wider attention when they reappeared in 1868 as part of the Bach Gesellschaft editions. Yet, even with the growing interest in Bach's music spearheaded by Felix Mendelssohn, and the burgeoning field of musicology and the more general enthusiasm for early music during the mid to late 19th century, the Concertos still did not gain wide popularity until the following century. Today, however, they are praised by audiences and scholars alike. It is difficult to escape their remarkable charm, and their impeccable craftsmanship and immense complexity, combined with just the right amount of ambiguity, will forever provide food for scholarly debate.  (Continue reading here)

Read more...

September 21, 2015.  Shostakovich and Rameau.  Several composes were born this week, among them the English composer Gustav Holst, the Polish Andrzej Panufnik and the ever-popular George Gershwin.  We owe it to the devotees of English music to dedicate an entDmitry Shostakovichry to Holst, as we’ve never done so before, but this time we’ll write about Dmitry Shostakovich instead, who was born on September 25th of 1906, and Jean-Philippe Rameau, born on the same day in 1683.  We acknowledge the tremendous talent of Shostakovich, even if we do have problems with his politics and esthetics.  We’re not going to analyze the reasons why the music of Shostakovich became so much a part of musical Social Realism: whether he did it out of fear, as a way to adapt and survive or whether he had a sincere and natural affinity for the musical tastes of the era.  (Testimony by Solomon Volkov might be one place to go for a comprehensive, if somewhat one-sided, discussion).  Suffice it to say that some of his music is difficult to listen to, so blatantly “communist” it sounds (just try his Festive Overture, the essential music of any Soviet parade).  Many of his symphonies suffer from the same; on the other hand, much of his chamber music is quite “apolitical,” his great quartets being in that category.  Shostakovich wrote quartets most of his creative life.  His String Quartet no. 1 was composed in 1938, when Shostakovich was 32. It was written during a difficult and turbulent time: on the one hand, it followed the triumphal premier of his Symphony no. 5, on the other, Shostakovich felt compelled to withdraw his Fourth symphony after the criticism of the Lady Makbeth of Mtsensk; also, his patron, Marshall Tukhachevsky, had recently been arrested on trumped-up charges and shot.  The Quartet no. 1 (here) has none of the bombast of the 5th Symphony; it’s a contemplative work, which Shostakovich himself said visualizes childhood scenes.  His last quartet, no. 15, was completed in May of 1974, a year before his death.  We’ll hear Quartet no. 8 from 1960.  It starts with Shostakovich’s musical signature, DSCH: D, Es, C, H in German musical notation, or D, E flat, C, B natural in commonly accepted American notation.  The Quartet, which runs for about 30 minutes, consists of five movements.  In each of them Shostakovich quotes from his other compositions, from the Cello concerto no. 1 to Lady Makbeth.  It’s performed, here by the Emerson Quartet.

 

Here’s what we wrote about Rameau a couple years ago: Jean-Philippe Rameau was born on September 25th, 1683, when Louis XIV, the Sun King ruled France, but he didn’t come to age as a composer till the 1720s during the reign of Louis XV.  Rameau was approaching 50 when he wrote his first opera, but once he started, he wouldn’t write anything else.  He wrote more than 30, and in toto they represent a major development in music history of the 18th century.  His very first opera Hippolyte et Aricie, written in 1733, was premiered at the Palais-Royal, his second, Samson, had none other than Voltaire as the librettist.  (Unfortunately, it was never performed, even though it went into rehearsals, and its score has been lost).  The third opera, Les Indes galantes, was a big success.  A curious historical anecdote relates to this opera.  In 1725 the French settlers convinced several Indian chiefs, Agapit Chicagou among them, to go to Paris.  Many Indian chiefs decided to travel to France, but as they were about to board the ship, it sunk; after the accident, most of the chiefs returned home.  Apparently the ones who went had a good time in Paris and eventually were brought to Fontainebleau, were they met with the King.  The chiefs pledged allegiance to the French crown, and later performed ritual dances at the Theatre Italien.  Rameau was inspired by this event; the fourth act (entrées) of Les Indes galantes is called Les Sauvages and tells the story of a daughter of an Indian chief being pursued by a Spaniard and a Frenchmen.

 

Here’s the famous aria Tristes apprêts from Rameau’s 1737 opera Castor & Pollux.  The soprano is Agnès Mellon; William Christie leads the ensemble Les Arts Florissants.

Read more...

September 14, 2015.  Recent birthdays and uploads.  From one of the recent uploads, here’s Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, op. 15 in a sensitive and intelligent performance by Tanya Gabrielian, live from the Dame Myra Hess concert in June of 2015.  Born in the United States in 1983, Ms. Gabrielian began playing the piano at the age of three and studied in the Preparatory Division of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  At the age of sixteen, she was admitted to Harvard University as a National Merit Scholar to study biomedical engineering.  Instead, she chose a career in music, and in 2000 moved to London, where she received a Master’s degrees from the Royal Academy of Music. Upon graduation, she also received “DipRAM,” the highest performing award of the Royal Academy of Music.  In 2009, Ms. Gabrielian moved to New York to enter the Juilliard School’s Artist Diploma program.  Tanya Gabrielian has performed across North America, Europe, and Asia, in venues including Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall in New York, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Wigmore Hall in London. She has played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New London Sinfonia, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and other orchestras.  Ms. Gabrielian is also active in the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in programs featuring composers with mental illnesses.

 

Henry PurcellLast week we mentioned Henry Purcell, probably the greatest English-born composer of all time, who died tragically young at the zenith of his career, aged 36.  Purcell was born on September 10th, 1659.   Just to situate him historically: Corelli was born in 1653 and Alessandro Scarlatti – in 1660.  Purcell’s family was musical: both his father and uncle, an important figure in Henry’s life, were singers, and his younger brother Daniel, a composer (he finished Purcell’s opera Indian Queen after Henry’s untimely death).  The family lived next to Westminster Abbey, a slum during that time.  As a boy, Henry was a chorister in the Royal Chapel.  He’s said to have started composing at the age of nine.  He studied with two important composers, John Blow and Matthew Locke.  Upon Locke’s death in 1677 Purcell became the composer for the King’s violins, the so-called Four and Twenty Violins of Charles II, modeled after the famous 24 Violins of the French court.  Two years later, upon the resignation of John Blow, he became the organist at the Westminster Abbey.  Later he was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal.  During that period he was writing mostly sacred music but in 1688 he composed the opera Dido and Aeneas (before that Purcell had composed music for several plays, but Dido was a real sung opera).  Dido, while not the first one, is clearly the finest English baroque opera.  Here’s the aria “When I am laid in earth” from Dido sung by Jessye Norman.  Purcell continued to write incidental music to stage plays, songs and odes for the court.  In 1694 he wrote Te Deum and Jubilate Deo.  One of his last compositions (and the last court ode) was Who can from joy refrain, a brief "Birthday ode for the Duke of Gloucester" (here).  The soprano Julie Hassler is accompanied by the ensemble La Rêveuse.

Read more...

September 10, 2015.  Announcement from Classical Connect.  Lately you may have noticed that Adobe Flash has fallen out of favor with many browsers.  Messages warning about security concerns or even outright bans prevent Flash-based systems from functioning properly.  To make matters worse, Apple has had issues with Flash for a long time and has not supported it on its devices.  The original Classical Connect Player was written using Flash: with so many built-in functions, we had no viable alternatives at the time.  Now with other options available, we’ve decided to rewrite the Player.  On September 9th, 2015 we switched to the new Player.  If you experience problems accessing the site or using the Player on this day or later, please reload the site or do a “hard reload”: ctrl-F5.

 

The good news is that now Classical Connect will play on practically all available devices, from Windows-based to Android to Apple, whether desktops, laptops, tablets or mobile phones.  So if you had tried the service and were disappointed that it didn’t work, please try again: you should now be able to access any of the approximately 7,000 recordings in our library on any device.

 

If you have any problems or concerns, please let us know.  Just send us an email to cc_contact@classicalconnect.com and we’ll get back to you.

 

In the mean time, please enjoy the great music and the wonderful musicians.

 

The Classical Connect team

Read more...

September 7, 2015.  Chopin’s Nocturnes, part II.  On this holiday weekend we’ll skip several important anniversaries (Antonin Dvořák; one of our all-time favorites Henry Purcell; William Boyce, another wonderful English composer; and Arvo Pärt – we’ll write about them at another time) and turn to the nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin.   This is the second part of an article, which Frederic Chopinwe started on July 13th.  It is a testament to the changing musical tastes that we’ll have to compliment the performances by the young pianists from our library (Krystian Tkaczewski and Gabriel Escudero) with those of the masters (Pollini, Rubinstein, Richter, Barenboim, and Horowitz), borrowed from YouTube.  Not that long ago Chopin’s nocturnes were among the most often played pieces in all of the piano repertory.  Not that anybody today doubts that these are works of genius – they’re just not performed as often.  In some sense it’s even better, as they sound fresher that way. 

 

2 Nocturnes, op. 37

The two nocturnes published as op. 37 form a marvelous pair of contrasting major/minor key pieces. Published in 1840, they were also composed around that time. The latter of the two, that in G major, with its barcarolle rhythms, is believed to have been composed the previous year when Chopin accompanied George Sand to the island of Majorca. At one time, these two works were highly praised. Robert Schumann considered them the finest nocturnes Chopin composed describing them as “of that nobler kind under which poetic ideality gleams more transparently (than the earlier Nocturnes).” However, since the twentieth century, this praise has somewhat waned.

 

The first of the op. 37 nocturnes is in G minor (here). Its lugubrious melody is modestly ornamented and unfolds expressively over a chordal accompaniment in steady quarter notes. It is immediately restated, with some further ornamentation, but greatly intensified as the dynamic is raised from piano to forte, and even reaches fortissimo. Yet, Chopin reigns in the melody’s emotional outpouring with a softer dynamic at the start of its second strain, leaving it to carry on in hushed torment until its conclusion. From a closing cadence in the tonic key, Chopin modulates with ease into the key of E-flat major for the consoling middle portion. This entire episode takes on the character of a simple, pious choral, which some commentators interpret as an expression of Chopin’s faith in religion. With the exception of a few grace notes, the quarter note rhythm is undisturbed, carrying the music along with unshakeable surety. Indeed, there is an effortless serenity here in Chopin’s music. During its last measures, the chorale is broken up by pauses, and subtle changes in harmony lead to reestablishment of the key of G minor. The opening melody is then reprised and is virtually unchanged, albeit shortened, and its final measures are altered to bring about an effective close on the tonic major chord.  (Continue reading here).

Read more...

August 27, 2015.  Bruckner, Cage and many more.  Several great – or at least interesting – composers were born this week: Johann Pachelbel, Pietro Locatelli, Anton Bruckner, Darius Milhaud, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Amy Beach and John Cage.  Anton Bruckner, who was born on September 4th, 1824, clearly belongs to the former category, and even though we’ve  wrotten about him extensively before, we cannot neglect his anniversary.  This time we’ll present his Symphony no. 4 in its entirety (when we wrote about Bruckner three years ago, we played just the third movement, Scherzo).  Bruckner created many versions of this symphony: he wrote the first version in 1874, then in 1878, after completing the Fifth symphony, he returned to the Fourth, revised the first two movements and completely rewrote the finale.  He continued tinkering with it for several more years, and then significantly revised it again in 1887.  One year later he made more changes – altogether there are seven versions, of which three are considered “principal.”  We’ll hear the second of these.  Claudio Abbado leads the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

 

John CageBruckner, while a composer of genius, was sometimes verbose and repetitive.  It’s difficult to imagine somebody more different than our next composer, John Cage, who is famous (or infamous, in the eyes of some) for his 4’33’’, which is “performed” without a note being played.  (It’s often assumed that the point of this piece is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence; Cage was actually interested in the ambient sounds of the concert hall).  John Cage was born on September 5th of 1912 in Los Angeles.  He studied composition with Henry Cowell and later, in 1934, with Arnold Schoenberg.  During the following 15 years he composed mostly in the 12-tone mode, writing music for different percussion ensembles (much of it in collaboration with his friend, the choreographer Merce Cunningham) and, eventually, the prepared piano (the piano is “prepared” by placing different objects between the strings, thus changing its sound).  In 1949 he traveled to Europe and met Olivier Messiaen and the young Pierre Boulez who became a good friend.  Six Melodies for violin and electronic piano (here) written in 1950 are from the end of that period.  In the early 1950s, Cage, together with Morton Feldman, embarked on a completely new path: they introduced chance, or randomness, into the process of composing.  Cage first employed it in the Concerto for Prepared Piano and orchestra: he created a set of sonorities for both the piano and the orchestra, but the sequencing of these sets were completely random and up to the musicians.  To support the chance technique, Cage had to come up with his own notational principles.  Some of them involved transparencies that could be mixed and matched to create the final score.  The majority of the public was not convinced, and even some of the modernist composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen heavily criticized this approach.  Iannis Xenakis called it an abuse of (musical) language and an abrogation of the composer's function.  Nonetheless, Cage’s influence, and even fame, were spreading, both in the US and even more so in Europe.  His work with the popular Cunningham Dance Company helped in this respect.  Cage continued his chance-based composition using more and more unusual instruments: one of them directed performers to mount and play 88 tape loops on several tape recorders.  Cage is probably an acquired taste, but he was very influential as a composer who altered our approach to sound and modern definition of music itself.  Cage continued to compose and experiment almost to the end of his life.  He died in New York on August 12th of 1992.

 

And now as a respite from Cages’ musical experiments, something much more conventional: music by Pietro Locatelli, who was born on September 3rd of 1695 in Bergamo.  An Italian Baroque composer and violinist, he wrote a number of very pleasing, if not necessarily revolutionary, compositions.  Here’s one of them, his Violin Concerto in C minor op. 3.  Luca Fanfoni is the soloist with the Reale Concerto.

Read more...

August 24, 2015.  A concert at the Steans.  The 2015 season at the Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute is over, and we’ve uploaded some of the recordings made at their concerts.  Every year the Steans, which is Ravinia’s summer conservatory, brings to this Chicago suburb a group of talented young musicians.  Atar AradThey study with some of the most renowned teachers, and also perform: the Steans concerts are the highlight of the season.  The students play solo recitals and make music together, in ad hoc trios, quartets, and even octets – some of these temporary ensembles achieve very high level of musicianship (it goes without saying that technically all of them play at a very high level).  And that’s how the first concert of the 2015 season was programmed: Leonardo Hilsdorf, a young Brazilian pianist, played Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in F Minor, K. 466 and five string players performed Mozart’s String quintet no. 4.  But the most interesting and in a way quite unique part of the program was the set of Twelve Caprices for viola solo by Atar Arad.  Mr. Arad, who is 70, is a world-renowned viola player; he taught at the Steans for a number of years.  He was born in Tel-Aviv and started out as a violinist before switching to the viola in 1971.  As a youngster he won several international competitions and made a number of highly praised recordings.  In 1980 he moved to the US and joined the Cleveland Quartet.  He’s also collaborated with the leading musicians of our time, among them the pianists Eugene Istomin and Emanuel Ax, violist Jaime Laredo and the cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich.  He started composing rather late, publishing his first work in 1992 (Solo Sonata for Viola).  His Twelve Caprices for viola solo were composed in 2003.  During the first Steans concert, several violists took turns playing all twelve.  Mr. Arad played one of them.  Here’s the First caprice, performed by the Russian violist Georgy Kovalev.  The Third Caprice is played by Mr. Arad, and Caprice no. 11 – by Dana Kelley (here).

 

For those who would rather listen to something more traditional, here’s the above-mentioned Sonata by Domenico Scaralli, and hear – the Mozart.

Read more...

August 17, 2015.  Claude Debussy.  Several composers were born this week, among them Antonio Salieri and Georges Enesco, but of course all of them are overshadowed by Claude Debussy.  Before we turn to Debussy, though, we want to mention Nicola Porpora.  A Baroque opera composer and teacher of the famous castrato Farinelli and also of Franz Joseph Haydn,   Porpora was born on this day in 1686.  He is almost forgotten these days, not entirely deservedly, as you can judge for yourself by this aria from his opera Polifermo.  Philippe Jaroussky is the countertenor.  Now back to Debussy.

 

Claude Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, on August 22nd, 1862, the Claude Debussyeldest of five children. His father owned a shop selling china and crockery and his mother was a seamstress. In 1867, the family moved to Paris but when the Franco-Prussian war broke out a few years later in 1870, his mother sought refuge with an in-law in Cannes. While there, Debussy began to take piano lessons from a local elderly Italian violinist. He progressed rapidly on the instrument and his talent for music soon became quite evident. Two years later, in 1872, at the age of ten, he was enrolled in the prestigious Paris Conservatoire.

 

Debussy spent eleven years at the Conservatoire and studied with some of the leading musicians of France. Despite his talent, however, Debussy was headstrong and showed a stubborn preference for the unusual and experimental. His early compositions often drew the ire of his professors and were heavily criticized for his apparent disregard of the Conservatoire’s teaching. Nevertheless, in 1884, Debussy won the Prix de Rome with his composition L’enfant prodigue and the following year he left for the Villa Medici in Rome to continue his studies. According to his letters, Debussy found the artistic and cultural atmosphere of Rome stifling. He eventually composed four pieces, however, the most notable among them being the cantata La demoiselle élue. The work drew sharp criticism from the French Academy who called it “bizarre.” It is, however, the first piece to give a glimpse of Debussy’s emerging mature style.

 

During 1888-9, Debussy traveled to Bayreuth and was for the first time exposed to Wagner’s operas. Like many other young musicians of the time, he was inspired by Wagner’s overt emotionalism, striking harmonies and handling of musical form. Around this time, he also found a like spirit in Eric Satie, who shared Debussy’s experimental approach to composition. By the 1890s, the infatuation with Wagner’s music had subsided and Debussy mature style began to take a more definite form. This style was greatly influenced by the Symbolist movement in the visual and literary arts, which developed as a revolt against realism and the heroic imagery of Romanticism. Symbolism influenced him more than the music of other composes, although, in addition to Wagner, he found inspiration in the music of Russia, particularly from “The Five.”

 

In 1894, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a symphonic poem based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, premiered in Paris. Considered controversial at the time, the piece was later responsible for establishing Debussy as one of the leading composers of the burgeoning Modern era. Later, in 1902, after ten years of work, he produced his only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. It premiered at the Opéra-Comique in April of that year and was an immediate success. With his fame growing, Debussy was engaged as a conductor throughout Europe mainly performing his own works, including his multi-movement work La Mer.

 

Debussy died on March 25th, 1918 from cancer amidst German aerial and artillery bombardment of Paris during World War I. Because of the fighting, it was impossible to hold a public funeral for one of France’s leading artistic figures and consequently his funeral procession made its way through abandoned streets as German artillery shells exploded throughout the city. His music went on to inspire some the leading composers of the 20th century, among theme Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen, as well as musicians in jazz, such as George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.

 

We have almost 200 recording of Debussy’s work, so browse our library and you’ll find something you like.  In the mean time, here are Estampes, performed by the pianist Katsura Tanikawa.

Read more...

August 10, 2015.  Five French composers.  We missed some interesting anniversaries last week and several more are coming in the next several days.  Out of these we’ve selected a group of composers that have two things in common: all of them are French and all were born within 50 years in the second half of the 19th century or early in the 20th. They are, in chronological order, Cécile Chaminade, Gabriel Pierné, Reynaldo Hahn, Jacques Ibert and André Jolivet.  While none of them reached the level of Debussy or Ravel, all were very talented.

 

Cécile Chaminade, the only woman in this group, was born on August 8th of 1857 in Paris.  Her Cécile Chaminadefirst music lessons came from her mother, a pianist and a singer.  Later she studied composition with Benjamin Godard. She started composing very young (when she was eight, she played some music for Georges Biset) and gained prominence with the publication of Piano Trio in 1880.  An excellent pianist, she toured England many times, playing mostly her own music and became very popular there.  In 1908 she went to the US, the country of “Caminade fan clubs” and played in 12 cities.  Between 1880 and 1890 Chaminade composed several large orchestral compositions and also music for piano and orchestra.  In the following period she scaled down, limiting herself to piano character pieces, of which she wrote more than 200.  Many of them are charming though they became dated even during her time (Chaminade lived till 1944).  Here’s her Automne, it’s performed by the British-Canadian pianist Valerie Tryon.

 

Gabriel Pierné was born in Metz, Lorraine on August 16th, 1863.  In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Metz was captured by the Germans, and the Piernés fled to Paris.  Gabriel entered the Paris Conservatory, where among his teachers were Jules Massenet (composition) and Cesar Frank (organ).  In 1910 Pierné, who was also a prominent conductor, let the orchestra during the premier of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, which was staged by the Ballet Russes.  His own music was not as adventuresome: it was influenced by Camille Saint-Saëns and, to alesser degree, Debussy and Ravel.  Here’s the first movement (Allegretto) of Pierné’s Sonata op.36 for violin and piano.  The young French violinist Elsa Grether is accompanied by Eliane Reyes on the piano.

 

Reynaldo Hahn wasn’t French by birth but he took on the French nationality later in his life.  He was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on August 9th of 1874.  His father was a German-Jewish engineer, his mother came from a Spanish family.  When Reynaldo, the youngest of 12 children, was four, the family moved to Paris.  In 1885 Hahn entered the Paris Conservatory, where one of his teachers was the same Jules Massenet.  At the Conservatory Hahn befriended Ravel and Cortot, and through them, many writers and musicians.  A closeted homosexual, Hahn met a young writer, Marcel Proust in 1894; they became good friends and lovers.  Hahn is best known for his wonderful songs, but that wasn’t his only creative genre.  Between 1902 and 1902 he wrote 53 “Poèmes pour piano,” which he collected under the title of Le Rossignol Éperdu (The Distraught Nightingale).  Here’s the piece no. 37, L'Ange Verrier (The glass Angel); it’s performed by the pianist Earl Wild.

 

Jacques Ibert, probably the most popular of the five, was born on August 15th of 1890.  We’ve written about him a number of times, so to commemorate we’ll play his Concertino da Camera for Alto Saxophone and Eleven Instruments from 1935, transcribed for saxophone and piano.   Xavier Larsson Paez is on the saxophone, with Yoko Yamada-Selvaggio on the piano.

 

André Jolivet is the youngest and the most adventuresome of the five.  He was born on August 8th of 1905 in Paris.  In his childhood he studied the cello but never went to the conservatory (he did study composition with Paul Le Fem, a composer and critic).  In his youth Jolivet was influenced by Debussy and Ravel, but it all changed when he became familiar with atonal music: in December of 1927 he attended a concert at the Salle Pleyel during which several Schoenberg piece were performed and that changed his life.  Soon after he became a pupil of Edgard Varèse, an influential French-American avant-garde composer.  He also befriended Olivier Messiaen, who, being better known in those years, helped Jolivet by promoting his music.  We’ll Jolivet’s Concerto pour Ondes Martenot.  Ondes Martenot (Waves of Martenot) is an early electronic instrument, invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot.  The soloist in this recording is Jeanne Loriod, the sister of Yvonne Loriod, the second wife of Messiaen.  The composer conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de l`ORTF.

Read more...

August 3, 2015.  John Field.  Last week we missed the anniversaries of Enrique Granados and John Field; several more are coming this week, among them the 105th anniversary of the American composer William Schuman and those of two Frenchmen, Reynaldo Hahn, a songwriter, and a very interesting 20th century composer André Jolivet.  We’ll come back to all of them but today we’ll write – for the first time – about Field.

 

John FieldIreland's greatest contribution to the Romantic era, composer John Field was born in Dublin on July 26th, 1782. His family was musical: his father, Robert Field, earned a living as a violinist in Dublin theaters and his grandfather, also named John Field, was a professional organist. With the latter, Field had his first piano lessons. Later he studied with Tommaso Giordani. When Field was ten, he made his first appearance as a performer in Dublin, a performance that was well received. By the end of the following year, Field's family had moved to London.  In the English capital, young Field began his studies with Muzio Clementi, an apprenticeship likely secured through Giordani.

Under Clementi's tutelage, Field rose to become an in-demand performer in London. In 1795, Clementi published his pupil's first compositions. Field's first significant work, his Piano Concerto No. 1, was premiered in London on February 7th, 1799 with the composer himself as soloist. In 1801, Clementi published (and was also the dedicatee of) three piano sonatas by Field, the only examples of conventional Classical works in Field's output.

 

In the summer of 1802, master and pupil left London traveling to several of Europe's major cities. Arriving first in Paris, they then traveled on to Vienna. While in Vienna, Field briefly took counterpoint lessons from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, a friend of Haydn’s and teacher of Beethoven, among his numerous other pupils. By early winter, Clementi and Field had arrived in St. Petersburg. Field was captivated by the artistic atmosphere of the city and wished to stay (it is also possible that he saw St. Petersburg as his first real chance to escape from the shadow of his master and begin his own independent career). In June 1803, Clementi left St. Petersburg but not without setting up a teaching position for his pupil. Furthermore, Clementi went so far as to "appoint" Field as his deputy so that he could receive high fees from the position.

 

Following Clementi's departure, Field took up an active schedule of performing. Consequently, nearly all the publications of his music during his first years in Russia were reprints of older works. However, around 1808, he began to actively compose again, establishing a unique personal style that came to hold a significant influence over piano music of the Romantic period. Characteristic of this style are his many nocturnes, a genre that Field pioneered.  At the same time he set the table for the various forms of character pieces for piano that evolved over the coming decades and were perfected at the hands Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. Field's nocturnes were immensely influential on Frédéric Chopin, who was largely responsible for expanding and popularizing the nocturne.

 

By the mid-1820s, Field's health began to deteriorate at least somewhat in part to his extravagant lifestyle. Suffering from cancer, he returned to London in September 1831 for medical treatment. He remained in England for an extended time and while there met Felix Mendelssohn and Ignaz Moscheles. Leaving England, he once again undertook a concert tour of European cities but, inevitably, ended up in a hospital in Naples for nine months. Eventually returning to Russia, he gave his last concert in March 1836. Nearly a year later, on January 23rd, 1837, Field died from pneumonia.

 

Here’s Nocturne no. 1 in E-flat Major, performed by the young pianist and conductor Bryan Wagorn, and here – Nocturne no. 5 in B-flat Major, played by John O’Connor.

Read more...

July 27, 2015.  Brahms’s Intermezzi op. 117.  Enrique Granados and Hans Werner Henze were born this week, Granados on July 27th of 1867 and Henze – on August 1st of 1926.  Both are very interesting, each in his own way, and we’ve commemorated them on previous occasions.  Today, Johannes Brahmsthough, we’ll continue the traversal of the late piano works of Johannes Brahms, moving to his Intermezzi op. 117.  We’ll illustrate them with the performances by thee young pianists: the Israeli Yael Kareth and two Americans, Lucille Chung and Evan Mitchell.   ♫

 In contrast to the neighboring opp. 116 and 118, Brahms comprised op. 117 of only three intermezzi. However, these three works are of an unmistakably greater import than the similar works of those two collections (excepting, of course, the grim E-flat minor Intermezzo). Despite their subdued tone, they carry a weight that could be hardly found within either op. 116 or op. 118, yet together form a fulfilling whole. The outer pieces span complete ternary forms, while the middle piece traces a terse, yet rich, sonata design. They also hearken back to the earlier Ballades in the weight and manner of their discourse, with the first taking its cue from an actual Scots lullaby.

The first of the triptych of intermezzi is in E-flat major (here). Heading this gentle Andante is the opening lines of “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” taken from Johann Herder’s German translation: “Schlaf sanft mein Kind, schlaf sanft und schön! Mich dauert’s sehr, dich weinen sehn” (“Sleep sweetly my child, sleep sweetly and beautifully! It grieves me much to see you weep”). The opening melody, presented in a middle voice and cradled between gently rocking octaves, could not be a more apt fit for Herder’s lyric. After an initial statement, Brahms begins to restate the melody. However, as the harmonies begin to change so does the melody. The cadence in the fourth measure is changed, passing briefly into the key of the dominant, before returning to the tonic of E-flat in the next. Instead of proceeding with the rest of the melody, Brahms presents a varied statement of the melody’s first four measures, which is now accompanied by gently syncopated chords in a 3/4 meter against the melody’s 6/8. Though the rhythmic disturbance evaporates in the next cadence, the music modulates without warning into the key of A-flat minor, and the opening phrase of the melody is the presented in austere octaves. This sudden melancholic passage serves as a transition into the doleful central episode. The minor key is maintained, yet the tempo slackens somewhat. Arpeggios in the low register of the piano accompany a melodic motif cleverly extracted from the second measure of the principal melody. During the course of the episode, the melody’s initial stepwise descent also returns against eerie harmonies that suggest a return to E-flat, but maintain the shadowy hues of the minor by the obstinate presence of D-flat. Four times this head motif returns of which the last once again ever so slightly disturbs the rhythmic feel of the music and inevitably brings about the reprise of the opening section. While the form of the opening is followed, the reprise is varied. The melody first appears in octaves and is passed between hands, as the accompanying chords pass from the resonant low register to the ethereal treble, but then later is embellished modestly with sixteenth notes. Interestingly, the rhythmic disturbance of contrasting meters is, in the reprise, nearly eliminated, appearing only in a single measure before a brief coda. In place of the austere minor statement that presaged the episode, the major key is maintained as Brahms makes use of the melody’s memorable cadential figure to bring the lullaby to a close. (Continue reading here).

Read more...

July 20, 2015.  Pietro Ottoboni.  In the late 17th – early 18th centuries Rome there were no Ministries of culture or National Endowments for the Art; nonetheless, the musical scene flourished, together with Venice and Naples, Rome was one of the three Pietro Ottoboniworld music centers. It was partly a natural development, with the Baroque maturing and a new art of opera gaining popularity.  Still, music would probably never have attained such an exceptional level and wide audience were it not for several extraordinary patrons.  Queen Christina of Sweden was one, and after her death in 1689, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni became the most important benefactor in Rome.  Pietro Ottoboni was born in Venice on July 2nd of 1667 into a noble family.  His granduncle, also Pietro Ottoboni, became Pope Alexander VIII in 1689.  The Pope made his 22-year-old nephew cardinal and vice-chancellor of the Church.  The role of the Chancellor was to collect money for the papal army, so one can imagine that the young cardinal came into a very lucrative position.  Cardinal Ottoboni was also a cardinal-bishop of a number of places, and his annual income from different sources was estimated at 50,000 scudi, an enormous sum.  A Roman scudo of the time contained approximately 3.3 grams of gold.  If we convert it into the current price of gold, the cardinal’s income amounts to about six million dollars.  But even that was not enough: Ottoboni was a musical fanatic and spend every penny and them some to satisfy his passion.  He was constantly in debt, and when he died in 1740, his estate, with its great collection of paintings and a large music library, had to be liquidated. 

Ottoboni resided in the Palazzo della Cancelleria; there he maintained the best singers in town and one of the finest orchestras.  In 1689 he reopened the palace theater, which had stayed closed for the previous 15 years.  Around 1710 Ottoboni’s court architect, Filippo Juvarra, rebuilt it into the most technically advanced opera theater in Rome, capable of staging lavish productions.  This theater saw premiers of operas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara and many other popular composers of the day.  Ottoboni spread his patronage far and wide: he was also the major benefactor of Congregazione di S Cecilia (now the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Italy’s premier conservatory), and Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna.  But even that was not all: the Cardinal was also a very prolific librettist.  As a church hierarch he couldn’t publish them under his own name, especially considering that in 1701 Pope Clement XI banned all public opera performances, but many librettos, whether to operas or oratorios and cantatas, are attributed to him.  Ottoboni was full of vigor, and if music was the main love of his life, it was definitely not the only one: he’s said to have fathered 60 or 70 children.

Many Italian composers benefited from Ottoboni’s generosity, among them Arcangelo Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Antonio Caldara and Tomaso Albinoni.  The first three are very popular, so we’ll present the works of Caldara and Albinoni.  Antonio Caldara was born in Venice in 1670.  Here’s an aria from his opera Il Martirio di Santa Caterina , which was premiered in Ottoboni’s theater in 1708.  Cecilia Bartoli is the mezzo, with Les Musiciens du Louvre; Marc Minkowski conducting.  Albinoni, also a Venetian, was one year younger than Caldara.  In his time he was also famous as an opera composer, but most of his operas were lost and are practically never performed today.  “Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor” became a pop phenomenon, except that it is a fake, written by Remo Giazotto!  Here is a real Albinoni: Trio sonata op. 1, no. 1.  The cycle of 12 trio sonatas opus 1 was dedicated to Pietro Ottoboni.  The performers in this recording are Parnassi Musici.

Read more...

July 13, 2015.  Chopin’s Nocturnes, part I.  With a paucity of memorable anniversaries this week, we’ll turn again to one of our incidental longer articles, this time on Chopin’s Frédéric Chopin, 1835 by Maria WodzińskaNocturnes.  Chopin wrote 21 of them; we’ll discuss ten here, and the rest in the follow-up article.  As always, when we can, we illustrate the music with performances by the young artists in our library.  Nocturne op. 9, no. 1 is performed by the young Russian pianist Anastasya Terenkova; no. 2 from the same opus – by the Mexican pianist Mariusz Carreño; and no. 3 – by Jingjing Wang (China).  The Nocturne op. 15, no. 3 is played by the Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilić.  Nocturnes op. 27 are performed by the British pianist of Nigerian descent Sodi Braide (no. 1) and the Chinese pianist Ang Li (no. 2).  Opus 32, no. 2 is played by the South-Korean pianist Angela Youngmi Choi.  We had to “borrow” three performances: Maurizio Pollini plays the nocturne op. 15, no. 1, while Arthur Rubinstein performs the second piece from that opus.  The nocturne op. 32, no. 1 is by Vladimir Ashkenazy.  The 1835 watercolor portrait above is by Maria Wodzińska, who became engaged to Chopin in 1836.  The engagement was dissolved a year later on the insistence of Maria’s father because of Chopin’s poor health. 

The French word “nocturne,” and its Italian equivalent “notturno,” mean “pertaining to the night.” The term itself is quite old. Since the Middle Ages it has pertained to divisions in the canonical hours of Matins. As the name of a type of musical composition, it is also older than popularly thought. It was first applied in the 18th century to compositions of a lighter character and in several movements to be performed at night, much in the same manner as the serenade. Examples of this type of piece include works by Haydn and the Serenata Notturno, K.239 by Mozart. The nocturne as a miniature for piano, however, did not appear until the early part of the following century when the Irish composer, John Field, first used the term in this sense and pioneered an entirely new genre of compositions. Field’s nocturnes featured an expressive, song-like melody over an accompaniment of broken chords. Their construction and expression was simple, and it would take a more profound genius to reveal the full potential of Field’s creation.

As a young man, Chopin greatly admired John Field, and was strongly influenced by the Irishman’s piano and composition techniques. Others perceived Field’s influence on Chopin. Friedrich Kalkbrenner even once inquired if Chopin was a pupil of Field. Indeed, the affinity between the two was enough that Field even began to be described as “Chopin-esque” (much to his chagrin as he once described Chopin as a “sickroom talent”).

Following in Field’s footsteps, Chopin wrote his first pair of nocturnes while still in Poland, though they were not published until well after his death. His first published essays in the genre were composed in the early years of the 1830s, surrounding his departure from his native Poland, brief stay in Vienna and ultimate voyage to Paris. As one might expect, these early essays owned much to Field, though already offered glimpses of Chopin’s burgeoning genius. During his lifetime, Chopin published eighteen nocturnes, the last appearing in 1846. Three more appeared after his death: the early E minor Nocturne, alluded to above, in 1855 as op. posth. 72, and two other works in 1870 that were not assigned opus numbers.

Like his waltzes and mazurkas, Chopin’s treatment of the nocturne progressed far beyond the conventional expectations of the form. With the dances, Chopin transformed them into compelling concert miniatures; with the nocturne, he raised it to a level of artistry far beyond the Fieldian prototype and wrung from it emotions of peaceful serenity and poignant melancholy. Chopin maintained the defining elements of the genre established by Field: a vocal-like melody, often finely ornamented, allotted to the right hand, an accompaniment of broken chords in the left, and frequent use of the pedal. To this model Chopin added the influences of Italian and French operatic arias, a freedom and complexity of rhythm taken from Classical models, and a keen use of counterpoint.  (Continue reading here).

Read more...

July 6, 2015.  Gustav Mahler.  A friend traveling around Central Europe writes from Melk, famous for its castle: “We’re sitting in a café on the main square, surrounded by the locals.   The sun is shining, a wind band is playing, everybody seems to be enjoying themselves.  Gustav Mahler in 1892It could be the early 1900s, or 1939, right after the Anschluss – things don’t change much in Austria.” He then adds, “Mauthausen is right over the hills, but would anybody care?”  He’s going to visit Maiernigg next.  Even though Mahler’s name hasn’t been mentioned, this short description is full of allusion to the composer’s life: his childhood fascination with military bands, his birth in one of the provinces of a great empire, his habit of composing in a remote cabin by a lake, and, also, for good measure, Austrian historical anti-Semitism.  Gustav Mahler was born on July 7th of 1860 in a small town of Kaliště (then Kalischt), near Jihlava (Iglau) in Bohemia, at that time a part of Austria-Hungary, into an assimilated Jewish family.  We followed his life around the time he composed his First (here) and Second (here) symphonies.  By 1893, the year Mahler started working on his Third Symphony, he had assumed the position of the Chief conductor at Hamburg State theater, having left the more prestigious Royal Hungarian Opera.  Mahler would’ve stayed in Budapest longer (he mounted several very successful opera productions, and his Don Giovanni was hailed by Brahms himself) but an ongoing conflict with management made his departure inevitable (anti-Semitism also played a role).  In Hamburg his relationship with the director Bernhard Pohl (or Pollini, as he preferred to be known) was much more amicable.  During his maiden season Mahler conducted several highly acclaimed productions of Wagner operas: Siegfried, Tannhäuser and Tristan (somewhat surprisingly, he also staged Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin).  At that time he established a pattern, which he would follow for the rest of his life: conducting during the season and composing in the summer.  He built himself a small one-room cabin in Steinbach, on lake Attersee in the Salzkammergut.  There he composed the Second and Third symphonies (the cabin was just for composing – Mahler lived in an inn in the village).  In 1894 the young Bruno Walter joined Mahler at the State Theater and soon became a friend and an acolyte.  The Third Symphony was completed in 1896.  By then Mahler was tired of Hamburg and ready to move on.  He started a campaign for a position at the Vienna Hofoper, the main opera theater in all of the empire.  In the Vienna of the day a Jew couldn’t be appointed to a significant post at the imperial theater; Mahler, never a practicing Jew, removed that barrier by converting to Roman Catholicism.  That happened in February of 1897.  Two months later he was appointed a Kapellmeister, and in September of that year – the music director of the opera.

 

The Third Symphony consists of six movements, which, according to Mahler himself, comprise two uneven parts: the first part consists of the long first movement, and the second one – of the remaining five.  The 1st movement (here) runs for more than 30 minutes, practically a symphony in itself.  (Depending on the performance, the complete symphony usually runs between one hour and 30 minutes to an hour and 40 minutes).  Mahler gave it an informal title "Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In."  This is where we can hear the military-band music that so affected the young composer. Some of it is almost unbearably vulgar (Mahler marked certain passages as “Grob!” – “coarse” or “gross” in German) and some is heavenly, in association with Pan.  The 2nd movement,  "What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me," as Mahler called it (here), is a short (about nine minutes) lyrical intermezzo in Tempo di Menuetto.  The 3rd movement, an about 16 minute-long Scherzando (here), Mahler called "What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me."  The 4th movement, Misterioso (or "What Man Tells Me," hear) introduces a contralto singing from Nietzsche's “Midnight Song” from Also sprach Zarathustra.  The Children’s choir joins in the 5th movement Cheerful in tempo, or, as Mahler called it "What the Angels Tell Me", is based on one of the songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (here).  The majestic 6th movement (here) is one of the greatest symphonic pieces ever written.  Langsam – Ruhevoll – Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt), Mahler subtitled it "What Love Tells Me."  The late Claudio Abbado is inspiring as he leads the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.  Anna Larsson is the contralto.

Read more...

June 29, 2015.  The Tchaikovsky competition and several birthdays.   The XV Tchaikovsky competition is in full swing.  This year it was split between two cities, Moscow and St.-Petersburg (the pianists and violinists perform in Moscow, the cellists and Tchaikovsky Competitionsingers – in St-Pete).  Medici.tv does a great job broadcasting live performances; we highly recommend it.  For the pianists, this year is probably more challenging than ever: instead of the regular three rounds, the competition consists of five, if you include the preliminary hearings.  The second round is split in two: the performance of a large composition plus a piece by a Russian composer, followed by a Mozart concerto accompanied by a chamber orchestra.  Asiya Korepanova, who played Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata no. 1 so well at the Hess memorial concert last year, was not as successful during the first round (nerves, one has to assume) and didn’t make it to the 2nd round.  Lucas Debargue, a 24 year-old Frenchman, is the public’s favorite.  His 2nd round Gaspard de la Nuit was extremely good.  Another Lukas (this one with a “k,” though), with the last name of Geniušas, a Lithuanian born in Moscow who also happens to be the grandson of Vera Gornostayeva, is also playing very well.  (Gornostayeva, the famous Russian pianist and pedagogue, died less than half a year ago, on January 19th of this year).  A Russian-German Maria Mazo played Hammerklavier in the 2nd round and did a great job of it, but her Mozart concerto (no. 21) was rather subdued.  Still, we thought that she deserves to make it into the 3rd round, but the jury thought otherwise.  The violinists are also through to the 3rd round.  We have recordings of one of them, Clara-Jumi Kang.  Like the pianists, the violinists also had to play a Mozart concerto in the second part of the second round.  Clara played the concerto no. 5, and wonderfully so.   We’ll write some more about the Tchaikovsky competition soon.

 

Christoph Willibald Gluck, a great German opera composer, was born on July 2nd of 1714 in Erasbach, Bavaria. Last year we celebrated his 300th anniversary and played several arias and overtures from Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphigénie en Aulide. Two more of Gluck’s operas are still very popular: Alceste and Iphigénie en Tauride.Alceste was written in 1776, soon after Orfeo.  Calzabigi, the librettist, wrote a preface to Alceste, a manifest of sorts, which Gluck signed.  In the preface they spelled out some of the principles that Gluck pushed to make opera more natural: no da capo arias, no virtuoso improvisations, fewer recitatives, flowing melodic lines.  You can hear it all in "Divinités du Styx,” an aria from Act 1.  Jessye Norman is Alceste, The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Serge Baudo.

 

The Czech composer Leoš Janáček was born on July 3rd, 1854 in a small village in Moravia, then part of the Austria-Hungary.  As a boy he studied the piano and the organ, but eventually became interested in composing.  In 1879 he enrolled in the Leipzig conservatory and later moved to Vienna to study composition there.  Like the Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály a generation later, Janáček was interested in folk music and used peasant tunes in his symphonic and piano pieces.  His early compositions were mostly for the piano: he started a piano cycle, On an Overgrown Path, in 1901; it became one of his most popular compositions (you can listen to it in the performance by Ieva Jokubaviciute).  Eventually, he turned to operas – that’s what he’s most famous for these days.  His first one, Jenufa, was written in 1904 and acquired the status of the “Moravian national opera.”  Two more operas followed, Katia Kabanova and The Cunning Little Vixen; they rightly are considered among the most interesting operas of the 20th century.  Janáček also wrote a number of significant orchestral pieces and chamber music.  Here is his Quartet no. 2 subtitled “Intimate Letters,” performed by Pacifica Quartet.

 

Two things are interesting about Louis-Claude Daquin, a French composer and virtuoso keyboard player, who was born on July 4th of 1694.  One is that he was of  Jewish descent: there were very few Jewish composers during that time.  And he probably would not have become one had his Italian ancestors not converted to Catholicism.  The event took place in the city of Aquino, thus the original name, D’Aquino, (which was later frenchified to Daquin).  Of his considerable output, one piece is famous, The Cuckoo, from a suite for the harpsichord.  Here it is, performed by the wonderful British harpsichordist George Malcolm.

Read more...

June 22, 2015.  Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Part II.  In the absence of any significant birthdays this week we decided to publish the second part of the article on Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love).  The first part was published here.  As a reminder, Dichterliebe, oRobert Schumannn texts by Heinrich Heine from his Lyrisches Intermezzo, was written in 1840.  That was the year Schumann married Clara Wieck; it also turned into his Liederjahr – the year of songs: he wrote almost 140 of them in a tremendous creative spurt.  Dichterliebe is probably the best known.  To illustrate the cycle, we used recordings made by Fritz Wunderlich.  All but the one were made in Salzburg in 1965.  The recording of Die alten, bösen Lieder was made during a concert in Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on August 4th of 1966.  Wunderlich tragically died just one month later; he was 35 years old.  

 

The poet’s state becomes even more pitiful in “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” (“There is fluting and fiddling,” here) as he witnesses the joyous festivities of the marriage of his beloved to another man. He gazes upon the merriment, watching her dance (“Da tanzt wohl den Hochzeitreigen / Die Herzallerliebste mein”) to the sound of flutes, fiddles, shawms, and drums. Betwixt the sounds of the instruments, the angels weep for the lonely poet (“Dazwischen schluchzen und stöhnen / Die guten Engelein”). Schumann’s setting portrays the dance of the beloved and her wedding guests. However, its D minor tonality and chromatic harmonies undoubtedly identify that the listener is viewing the scene through the prism of the poet’s broken heart.

 

Utter despair sets in the following song, “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen” (“I hear the dear song sounding,” here). Pained by watching his beloved married to another, the poet now hears the sweet song she once sang, a symbol that her love is forever no longer his. In his desolation, he seeks the solace of nature, wandering deep into the forest to weep. Schumann’s setting is through-composed in the key of G minor. The doleful vocal melody closes first in the key of the subdominant at the conclusion of the first stanza, poignantly affected by a Neapolitan sixth. The second stanza then slowly descends back to the tonic of G minor. Against the vocal melody is an accompaniment of descending arpeggios, which with the song’s slow tempo depict the falling tears of the poet. As with many of Schumann’s song, the climax comes as the vocalist exits. Shadowing the final notes of the melody, the piano begins a heartrending coda which culminates as chromatically ascending harmonies beneath a tonic pedal suddenly break into a descending passage of sixteenth notes through almost three octaves. Here, the listener beholds the poet’s heart bursting with pain (“So will mir die Brust zerspringen / Vor wildem Schmerzendrang”). (Continue reading here)

Read more...

June 15, 2015.  Stravinsky and more.  Several composers were born this week: Edvard Grieg, Norway’s national composer (he was born on June 15th of 1843), the Frenchman Charles Gounod (born on June 17th of 1818), Jacques Offenbach, who was born just a year later, on June 20th of 1819 in Cologne to a Jewish cantor but lived most of his life in Paris and received a Légion d’Honneur from the hands of the Emperor Napoleon III; and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, the ninth of Johann Sebastian Bach’s children (he was born on June 21st of 1732).   To mark these birthdays, we’ll play: Solveig’s song, from Grieg’s original incidental music to Peer Gynt with the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (here); Gounod’s lovely Serenade, exquisitely performed by Joan Sutherland (with her husband, Richard Bonynge, on the piano, here); a comic aria Les oiseaux dans la charmille from Offenbach’s only opera, The Tales of Hoffmann with another Australian soprano, Emma Matthews (here); and the only non-vocal entry, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach’s Piano Concerto E Major, with Cyprien Katsaris and Orchestre de Chambre du Festival d`Echternach (here).

Igor StravinskyBut the most significant composer of them all was, without a doubt, the great Igor Stravinsky.  Stravinksy was born on June 17, 1882 in Oranienbaum, outside of Saint Petersburg.  During his long life Stravinsky moved from one country to another (after leaving Russia he lived in France, Switzerland and the US); he also didn’t stay still compositionally, often discarding one style, however successful it was for him, and adopting a new musical paradigm.  It is hard to imagine that the same composer who wrote The Rite of Spring, with its wild colors and brutal rhythms, would just 15 years later create a ballet as abstract and serene as Apollon musagète, or, for that matter, some years later, another ballet, Agnon, written in the twelve-tone system.  Probably the only other person who could reinvent himself as often and with the same immense success was Pablo Picasso.  Stravinsky naturally possessed a tremendous technique, which allowed him to imitate or directly quote other composers while maintaining the artistic integrity and originality of the composition.  He used this skill with uncanny virtuosity when he wrote the ballet Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy's Kiss), an homage to his favorite composer, Tchaikovsky.  The ballet was commissioned in 1927 by the famous Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein; Stravinsky completed the ballet in 1928, on the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death (it was premiered in November of that year).  The libretto was based on Hans Christian Andersen's story The Ice Maiden.  Bronislava Nijinska (Vaclav’s sister) was the choreographer.  Stravinsky used several of Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces and songs, and recognizably Tchaikovskian sonorities throughout the ballet.  A tremendously inventive piece, it marked another step in the development of Stravinsky’s compositional style.  In 1934 he wrote a suite based on the music of the ballet; this suite, which Stravinsky called Divertimento, is usually performed in concerts.  We’ll hear it in the performance by the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mark Kadin conducting.

Read more...

June 8, 2015.  Schumann’s Dichterliebe.  The great German composer Robert Schumann was born on this day in 1810.  We write about him every year (for example, here and here in the past couple of Robert Schumannyears), so this time we’ll do something different: publish an article on the first eight songs of Dichterliebe.  Schumann wrote more than 300 songs, but A Poet’s Love cycle contains some of his greatest.  There are so many wonderful recordings of Dichterliebe that it was difficult to decide which one to use to illustrate the cycle.  Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau alone made four different recordings, two of them with remarkable pianists: Alfred Brendel in 1985 and, live, with Vladimir Horowitz, in 1976.  Gérard Souzay, a wonderful French baritone, also recorded it several times, once with Afred Cortot (and there’s another recording with Cortot, in which he accompanies Charles Panzéra).  Hermann Prey made a tremendous recording, and so did the great German soprano Lotte Lehmann.  Out of all of these and many more, we decided on Fritz Wunderlich – the beauty of his crystalline voice, his perfect diction, the natural, unpretentious manner devoid of any affectations make his interpretation, in our opinion, extraordinary.  The recording was made live on August 19th of 1965 during the Salzburg Festival.  Hubert Giesen was at the piano. 

 

       Schumann’s composed almost exclusively for his own instrument, the piano, during his early years as a composer. The 1830s saw the creation of some of his most well-known compositions, including Papillons, Kinderszenen, and the Fantasie in C. However, in 1840, with virtually no warning, Schumann composed no less than 138 songs. This remarkable creative outpouring has since become known as his “Liederjahr,” or “Year of Song.” Yet, this sudden change, nor the abundance of music written, was purely coincidental. Instead, it makes the culmination of his courtship of Clara Wieck, and their long-awaited and hard-won marriage.

 

Schumann and Clara first met in March 1828 at a musical evening in the home of Dr. Ernst Carus. Schumann was so impressed with Clara’s skill at the piano that he soon after began piano lessons with her father, Friedrich. During this time he lived in the Wieck’s household, and he and Clara quickly formed a close friendship. With time, their friendship blossomed into a romantic, although clandestine, relationship. On Clara’s 18th birthday, Schumann proposed to her, and she accepted. Friedrich, on the other hand, had less than a favorable opinion of Schumann, and refused to grant permission for Schumann to marry his daughter. This placed a great strain on their relationship, yet they remained devoted to each other by exchanging love letters and meeting in secret. For a moment’s glance of Clara as she left one of her concerts, Schumann would wait for hours in a café. The couple eventually sued Friedrich, and after a lengthy court battle, Clara was finally allowed to marry Schumann without her father’s consent. The wedding took place in 1840.  (Continue reading here).

Read more...

June 1, 2015.  Années de Pèlerinage: Troisième Année.  In the last several months we published short articles about the first two volumes of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage: Year One, Switzerland (Première année: Suisse), here, and Year Two, Italy (Deuxième Franz Liszt, 1967 photoannée: Italie) here.  Today we’ll continue with the third year, (Troisième année).  Probably not as popular, or at least not as often performed as the first two sections, it demonstrates the depth and unparalleled sonorities of Liszt’s late works.  We will illustrate each of the seven pieces with performances by Aldo Ciccolini, recorded in 1961.  Ciccolini died exactly four months ago, on February 1st, 2015; he was 89.  Ciccolini, who was born in Naples into a titled family, became a French citizen in 1969.  His was a famous interpreter of the music of his adopted country – Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and especially Satie, but he also recorded all piano sonatas of Beethoven, music of Albeniz, Chopin, Bach, Scarlatti, – more than 50 LPs and CDs altogether.  A brilliant virtuoso, he was a powerful but sensitive interpreter of Liszt’s music.  For many years Ciccolini taught at the Paris Conservatory (Jean-Yves Thibaudet was a pupil).  His last recording, featuring piano sonatas by Mozart and Muzio Clementi, was made when Ciccolini was 85.  (The photo portrait of Liszt, above, was made in 1867). 

Années de Pèlerinage: Troisième Année

In 1883, three years before Liszt’s death, the third and final volume of Années de Pèlerinage was published. Unlike it companions, which were musical travelogues of Liszt’s journeys throughout Switzerland and Italy, the third volume bore no subtitle to reveal the source of its inspiration (though four of its pieces still drew their inspiration from landmarks in Italy). Instead, Troisième Année is strikingly different from the previous two volumes. While still remaining technically challenging, many of the pieces are far removed from the virtuosic showpieces Liszt produced in his youth. These pieces were intensely personal creations. Liszt was certainly aware of this fact, and even warned his publisher not to expect this third volume to be as commercially successful as its predecessors. On the whole, Liszt was correct and Troisième Année failed to impress audiences. Today, along with the rest of Années de pèlerinage, it is considered one of Liszt’s masterpieces. (Continue reading here)

Read more...

May 25, 2015.  Chopin’s Waltzes.  With apologies to the devotees of the music of Isaac Albéniz, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Marin Marais, all of whom were born this week, we’re publishing a longer piece by Joseph DuBose on waltzes by Frédéric Chopin.   We’ll illustrate each of these concise gems with performances, some by the young artists Frederic Chopinfor whom Classical Connect serves as a virtual concert stage: Bill-John Newbrough, Anastasya Terenkova, Konstantyn Travinsky, Yury Shadrin; others – by the acknowledged masters.  You’ll hear  the 77 year-old Artur Rubinstein live in Moscow (you can hear him announcing the encore), Evgeny Kissin live in Carnegie Hall, Zoltan Kocsis, Philippe Entremont, the French pianist and conductor, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Dinu Lipatti in a recording made in 1950, just months before his death at the age of 33; Vladimir Ashkenazy and Samson François in a 1963 recording. 

      The waltz is inextricably connected to that great musical city of Vienna. Thus, when, as a budding composer and pianist, Frederic Chopin made his debut in the city in 1829 soon after his graduation from the Warsaw Conservatory, and again visited in 1830, it is no surprise that he tried to assimilate himself into its musical culture by performing and even composing waltzes. Yet, Chopin’s Polish roots ran too deep, and he was never able to fully master the distinctive waltz style. On his return from the Austrian capital, he admitted to a friend, “I have acquired nothing of that which is specially Viennese by nature, and accordingly I am still unable to play valses.”

Chopin’s earliest waltzes roughly date from the time of his first visit to Vienna. Yet, these early attempts remained unpublished during the composer’s lifetime. Indeed, his first waltz only appeared in print after he had left Vienna for Paris, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Currently, there are eighteen known waltzes that Chopin composed, though it is believed he wrote others. However, only the first fourteen are generally numbered. Of these fourteen, only eight were published during Chopin’s lifetime—opp. 18 and 42, and the two sets of three of opp. 34 and 64. Five more were issued in the decade following Chopin’s death and make up opp. 69 and 70. Finally, two others appeared during the remainder of the 19th century—the well-known E minor waltz in 1868 and another in E major in the early 1870s. (Continue reading here).

Read more...

May 18, 2015.  Wagner’s Tannhäuser.  Richard Wagner was born on May 22nd of 1813.  Somehow, this date seems incongruous: was he really just three years younger than Chopin and Schumann?  Those are geniuses firmly established in the Pantheon of classical music, while people still argue about Wagner.  His music and his writings still can create controversies, as we’ll see in a minute.  Wagner was living in Paris Richard Wagnerwhen he completed his third and fourth operas, Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman.  He approached Giacomo Meyerbeer, a German-Jewish composer who was living in Paris and asked for advice on the staging of Rienzi.  Wagner’s letters to Meyerbeer sound almost obsequious, which is worth noticing, considering the events that followed.  In the previous decade Meyerbeer had conquered Paris with his own operas, Robert le Diable in particular.  Even though he had lived in Paris for many years, Meyerbeer still maintained connections in Germany, which he used to help Wagner, in Dresden with Rienzi and in Berlin with The Flying Dutchman.  In 1842 Rienzi was accepted at the Dresden Court Theater and Wagner moved there right away.  The opera was premiered in October of that year and proved to be a success, Wagner’s first.  A couple years later he was appointed the conductor at the Court Theater.  Wagner, whom Meyerbeer not only helped at a critical moment of Wagner’s life, but who also deeply influenced him by his operas, eventually became Meyerbeer’s biggest enemy.  He wrote several pamphlets against Meyerbeer, all of them deeply anti-Semitic in nature.  But that was to come later.  While still in Dresden, Wagner wrote Tannhäuser, an opera on his own libretto, derived from German legends about a 13th-century German minnesinger Henrich Tannhäuser and a certain song contest.  Long, convoluted, and at times incoherent, it tells a story of the poet and singer Tannhäuser who lives in the realm of Venus, the goddess of love, surrounded by young beautiful women.  After some sexual shenanigans he decides that he’s had enough and returns to real life in Wartburg.  There, the local count holds a song contest.  Tannhäuser’s love song is considered too profane and he’s banished from Wartburg and ordered to visit the Pope.  More fantastic events take place, involving Tannhäuser, his love interest Elisabeth, and his friend Wolfram, with Venus making an appearance and the Pope’s staff flowering at the very end of the opera.  None of it makes much sense, but the juxtaposition of Venus and the church, of lust, love and faith gives directors ample opportunity to excersize their fantazy.  Modern productions set Tannhäuser in different eras and some use a good doze of nudity and profanity.  One such production, rather mild by European standards, was recently created in the Russian city of Novosibirsk.  What followed was a rather typical Russian story.  The hierarchs of the local Orthodox church rose in protest, and so did the more conservative members of the local society.  Demonstrations were staged, accusations were hurled in the media, the courts got involved.  And even though some members of the Russian artistic community tried (rather meekly, it has to be said) to defend the production, the minister of culture moved in and sacked the director.  Truly, modern Russia is more bizarre than any of Wagner’s librettos.

All of this doesn’t really matter: the music of Tannhäuser is great, and gets better as the opera evolves.  The third act is magnificent.  Here’s an excerpt, with the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the orchestra of Staatsoper Berlin, Franz Konwitschny conducting.

Read more...

May 11, 2015.  Monteverdi.  The great Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi was born this week, on May 15th of 1567.  And so were three French composers, Jules Massenet, Gabriel Fauré and Erik Satie: Massenet on May 12th of 1842, Fauré on the same day three years later in 1845 and Satie on May 17th, 1866.  We wrote about Massenet and Fauré last year, and the wonderfully whimsical Satie will have to wait for another occasion, as this entry will go to the “father of the Italian opera.”

Claudio MonteverdiThe art of Monteverdi spans two epochs, from the late Renaissance and the early years of the Baroque.  He was born in Cremona; a child prodigy, he published his first composition, a collection of sacred songs, at the age of 15.  He studied music with the maestro di capella of the Cremona Cathedral.  Around 1590 he found a position of the viola player at the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua.  Mantua was a very important center of arts and music: practically all the major composers of the previous 100 years had spent at least some time at the court of the Gonzagas.  When Monteverdi joined the court orchestra, it was being directed by Giaches de Wert, a famous composer about whom we wrote just three weeks ago.  Even though Monteverdi started low in the ranks, his talent was soon noticed, so when the Duke went to fight the Turks, Monteverdi became part of the retinue.  In 1600, he again accompanied Duke Vincenzo, this time on a trip to Florence to celebrate the wedding of Maria de’ Medici, a daughter of the Grand Duke of Florence and Henri IV of France.  It was during these festivities that he heard Jacopo Peri’s opera Euridice, one of the very first operas ever written.  One year later Monteverdi was appointed Duke Vincenzo’s maestro della musica.  By then he had written and published a large number of madrigals, and was well known even outside of Italy.  Monteverdi started working on his operas around 1607.  L'Orfeo, ordered by the Duke as music for the Carnival, was written and first performed, according to different sources, either in 1607 or 1608; Arianna followed in 1609.  L’Orfeo is being performed to this day, while just one aria, Lamento d’Arianna, survived from the other one.  Duke Vincenzo died in 1612 and was succeeded, for a short time, by his son Francesco.  Running out of money (Vincenzo was profligate), Francesco reduced the size of the court, firing Monteverdi in the process.  Monteverdi returned to Cremona.  With the death of one Giulio Cesare Martinengo, the position of maestro di cappella at the San Marco opened up in Venice.  Monteverdi auditioned and was appointed maestro in August of 1613.  He lived in Venice for the rest of his life, becoming a priest in 1632.  He continued to compose into his old age, writing a large number of madrigals, which were published in different “books.”  In 1639 he wrote a very successful opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland) and, in 1642, another masterpiece, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea).  Monteverdi died a year later, in 1643 at the age of 76.

Here are two episodes from L’Orfeo: first, Rosa del ciel, (Orfeo and Euridice nuptial ceremony) from Act I, with Montserrat Figueras and Furio Zanasi, with Jordi Savall directing Le Concert des Nations; then, aria Tu se' morta from Act II.  Georg Nigl is Orfeo.  And here’s from the 2010 production of L'incoronazione di Poppea, with the wonderful Danielle de Niese as Poppea and Philippe Jaroussky as Nerone.  William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants.

Read more...

May 4, 2015.  Brahms and Tchaikovsky. This is the week when we celebrate two birthdays, that of Johannes Brahms and of Peter Tchaikovsky.  Both were born on May 7th: Brahms in 1833, Tchaikovsky – in 1840.  Last year we wrote rather extensively about the latter, and heard two Peter Tchaikovskyfirst symphonies, the magisterial one by Brahms, which he spent almost 15 years composing (he started working on it in 1862, it was premiered in 1876), and also Tchaikovsky’s First, which is much smaller both in scale and as a musical achievement; it was written in 1866.  Тhe comparison wasn’t quite fair, and we did it only because of Tchaikovsky’s incomprehensible disdain for Brahms’s music.  Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies and only the last three represent his talent at its highest level, while all four of Brahms’s symphonies are great.   So if we were to continue the parallel, we’d probably have to compare Tchaikovsky’s Fourth with Brahms’s Second, especially considering that they were written practically at the same time: Tchaikovsky’s in 1877-78, while Brahms, after procrastinating over his first, wrote the second in just one summer of 1877.

     Tchaikovsky composed the Fourth around the time he was recovering from the disastrous marriage to his former student, Antonina Milyukova.  Tchaikovsky married Milyukova in July of 1877 (at that time he was working on his opera “Eugene Onegin”).  The marriage was hastily arranged.  It seems that Tchaikovsky mostly wanted to stop the rumors of his homosexuality; at least that’s what we find in his letter to his brother Modest.  But homosexuality was also the reason the marriage turned a devastating failure.  In just several weeks Tchaikovsky fled.  The whole experience upset him to no end.  Despondent, he quit his position at the Moscow Conservatory and set off for Italy.  But even in this terrible mental state, he continued to compose, and the Forth symphony was the main work he produced during that period.  Most of its themes are either tragic or full of melancholy.  Following Beethoven’s Fifth, the first movement is built around the theme of Fate; Tchaikovsky himself spelled out the “program” of the first movement in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, writing that fate prevents one from attaining happiness).  The reference in the fourth movement Evgeny Mravisnky by Lev Russovto a simple Russian folk song about the birch tree in a field also has melancholy overtones.  Even the rousing finale refers to the Fate motive of the first movement.  Tchaikovsky was in Florence when the Symphony premiered in Moscow, in February of 1878 with his friend Nikolai Rubinstein conducting.  The initial reception was rather negative, not just in Russia but also in the US, Germany and Britain.  Soon after, though, opinions changed with the Fourth being acknowledged as Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece and one of the most important Romantic symphonies.  We’ll hear it in a taut, unsentimental 1957 performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic under the baton of the great Russian conductor Evgeny Mravinsky.  The portrait of Mravinsky, above, was painted by Lev Russov the same year the recording was made, in 1957.

     Brahms’s life during this period was very different.  His career was at the summit.  Even though some years earlier his First Piano concerto was poorly received, the German Requiem established him as one of the most important European composer.  He had recently completed the First symphony, and was invited all around Europe to perform it as the pianist and conductor (he mostly played his own work).  He had many friends (Clara Schumann being one of them) and even more admirers.   In 1878, for the first time in his life, he went on vacation to Italy, which he described as paradise.  Brahms was in Italy practically at the same time as Tchaikovky – but in a very different mood.  Somehow this mood affected his Second symphony, so "pastoral" in nature that it was often compared to Beethoven’s Sixth.  Here’s Brahm’s Symphony no. 2 in D major, Op. 73, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti conducting.

Read more...

April 27, 2015.  Alessandro Scarlatti and Leoncavallo.  Two wonderful Italian opera composer were born around this time, two centuries apart -  Alessandro Scarlatti and Ruggero Leoncavallo. Scarlatti was close to the beginning of the Italian opera, Leoncavallo – at the end of it, or at least that’s how it feels from our vantage point (let’s hope the Italian Alessandro Scarlattigenius rejuvenates itself in the near future).   Alessandro Scarlatti was born on May 2nd of 1660 in Palermo, Sicily (we’ve written about him a number of times, for example here and here).  When he was 12, he went to Rome and studied there with Giacomo Carissimi, another seminal figure in the history of Italian opera (Carissimi’s birthday was just several days ago: he was born on April 18th of 1605).  Scarlatti wrote his first opera at the age of 19.  As so many Roman composers of his time, Scarlatti worked under the patronage of Queen Christina.  He then went to Naples to serve at the courts of the Viceroys, who ruled Naples on behalf of the King of Spain.  He moved between Naples and Rome for the rest of his life.  Scarlatti wrote 115 opera, of which 64 survive.  In the process, he came up with a number of innovations, di capo aria being one of them; di capo, a tripartite aria in which the third part repeats the first (di capo meaning “from the head” or from the beginning in Italian), but with improvisations, became a mainstay of the baroque opera.  Scarlatti’s last opera, La Griselda, was written in 1721.  Here’s the aria In voler cio che tu brami... Che arrechi, Ottone.  It’s sung by the wonderful Italian soprano Mirella Freni; Nino Sanzogno conducts the Alessandro Scarlatti Orchestra.  Scarlatti wrote several oratorios, and here’s an aria from one of them, Oratorio La Santissima Vergine del Rosario.  The music is absolutely exquisite and so is the performance by the incomparable mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.  Les Musiciens du Louvre are conducted by Marc Minkowski.

Ruggero Leoncavallo

Ruggero Leoncavallo is famous for just one piece of music, but what a great piece it is!  Pagliacci became immensely popular immediately after its first performance in May of 1892 and it remained one of the most often performed operas ever since.  Leoncavallo was born on April 23rd of 1857 in Naples into a well-to-do family (his father was a magistrate).  Leoncavallo went to the Naples conservatory where he studied composition with an opera composer Lauro Rossi.  Upon graduating in 1876, he wrote an opera, Chatterton, but couldn’t get it staged (it was premiered 20 years later but vanished from the repertory soon after).  He traveled to Egypt and France and settled in Paris, living a bohemian life and earning some money giving music lessons.  In Paris he heard Wagner’s The Ring and decided to create a trilogy as an Italian response to the German epic.  He worked on it on and off; the results never amounted to much.  In Paris Leoncavallo married Berthe Rambaud, a French singer.  Soon after they returned to Milan, where Leoncavallo proceeded to work as librettist and composer; one of his most successful works was the libretto for Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.  1890 witnessed the enormously successful premier of Pietro Mascagni’s  Cavalleria rusticana.  It strongly affected Leoncavallo, who decided to write an opera in a similar realistic (verismo) style and almost immediately started working on Pagliacci (The Clowns).  Leoncavallo claimed that he wrote the libretto based on an episode from his childhood, when his father presided over a murder trial involving a love triangle.  Some critics maintain that in reality the basis was a French play.  The opera was premiered in Milan to mixed critical reviews and great popular acclaim.  It became the first complete opera ever to be recorded and the aria Vesti la giubba (Put on the costume) became a signature piece of the great Caruso (his recording of the aria was the first to sell one million copies).  Here’s Luciano Pavarotti, in a 1994 recording with the Met orchestra and James Levine.

Read more...

April 20, 2015.  Sergey Prokofiev.  Here at Classical Connect we love all music, from the Renaissance to the contemporary.  Of course we cannot get enough of the core, from Bach to the Viennese masters, to the Sergei ProkofievRomantics of the 19th century, and then, through Mahler into the 20th and on.  But life would be boring without the great experiments of the early composers, who were trying to find their way from craft to art.  Or the more obscure baroque musicians who developed the unheard-of-before styles, such as, for example, opera.  And of course we value the music of the late 20th century, as challenging as it sometimes is.  And within this enormous aural universe, we have our favorites.  Some of them stay with us for a very long time, other retire to the background.  The same of course happens with musical tastes in general: just take a look at the Klavierabend (piano recital) programs of the first half of the 20th century: they are drastically different from what you would hear today.  One composer that remains our perennial favorite is Sergei Prokofiev.  As is the case with so many talented Russian artists whose life spanned two different eras, one before, another after the October Revolution, his life was full of tragedies and triumphs, exiles and returns.  We’ve written about Prokofiev, who was born on April 23rd of 1891, many times, for example, here last year, and here the year before.  That’s why this time we’ll just play one piano sonata, no. 8.  This is the third of the so-called War sonatas; this is a traditional misnomer as the first of the three, Piano Sonata no. 6, was completed in February and premiered in April of 1940, before the Soviet Union was invaded by the Germans.  Sviatoslav Richter was the pianist to first play sonatas no. 6 and 7.  Sonata no. 8, on the other hand, was premiered by Emil Gilels; the event took place on December 30th of 1944 in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory. 

Prokofiev started writing the sonata much earlier, in 1939.  That was the year when he met and fell in love with Mira Mendelson, a young writer half his age.  At the time Prokofiev was still married to Lina Llubera (they married in 1923), a Spanish singer whom he met in New York and brought to Moscow in 1936 when he decided to return to the Soviet Union.  By 1941 Prokofiev and Lina were separated, and he was living openly with Mira.  Mira became Prokofiev’s wife in 1948 and a very troubling story ensued (we’ll write about it another time).   Mira is the dedicatee of the Eighth sonata, probably the most complex and deep of the three.  Gilels’s 1944 performance was a triumph and soon became an essential part of his vast repertoire.  He recoded it a number of times and played it, very successfully, around the world (Richter also made a great recording of the sonata).   Here’s a studio recording, made by Gilels in Vienna in 1974.  It’s four minutes longer than, for example, his live concert recording of 1967.

Read more...

April 13, 2015.  Rebel and de Wert.  This week, just like the previous one, looks rather bare: only one composer of note was born during this period, and even he was much more popular during his lifetime than he is today.  His name is Jean-Féry Rebel, and he was born in Paris on April 18th, 1666 (that makes him two years older than François Couperin).  His father was a singer at Jean-Féry Rebelthe King’s chapel (the King being Louis XIV), and apparently Jean-Féry began studying music at an early age.  He was noticed by Jean-Baptiste Lully, then the most famous composer in France, and became his pupil.  In 1705 Rebel was made one of the 24 musicians in Violons du Roi orchestra, and some years later – the Chamber composer, a very prestigious position.   His only opera, Télémaque, was not successful; on the other hand, his dance music was extremely popular with the court.  This is not surprising, considering how much Louis XIV liked to dance himself and later in his life, to watch ballet.  But Rebel was a serious and innovative composer; in 1737 he wrote a ballet called Les elemens, which he preceded by a short section called Le Cahos (Chaos).  You can listen to it and imagine how startled the listeners would’ve been (in this recording Musica Antiqua Köln is conducted by Reinhard Goebel).  And here is Rebel’s earlier piece, Le tombeau de M. Lully, written as a tribute to his teacher.  It’s performed by the violinist Amandine Beyer and the ensemble L'Assemblée des Honnestes Curieux.

 

Giaches de Wert is one of many Renaissance composers whose date of birth was either unrecorded or lost.  We’ve never written about him before, and this week is as good as any to rectify this omission.  Giaches, whose first name was spelled in many ways, including the frenchified Jacques, was born around 1535 somewhere in Flanders (his name suggests that he Giaches de Wertmay have been born in Weert, not far from Antwerp).  One of the many Flemish composers who spent most of their productive years in Italy, he belonged to the same generation as Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso and Andrea Gabrieli.  Most of his life de Wert was associated with two very powerful (and related) Italian families: d’Este and Gonzagas.  As a youngster he sung at the chapel of Maria di Cardona, wife of Francesco d’Este (Francesco was a son of Lucrezia Borgia from her third marriage to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara).  In 1550 Wert moved to the town of Novellara, when he washired as a musician for a branch of the Gonzaga family; he would live there for the following 15 years.  Mantua was the main seat of the Gonzagas, while d’Este ruled in Ferrara; Wert traveled to both cities.  (Just six years earlier, Ferrante Gonzaga had brought a 12 years old Orlando di Lasso to Mantua; some year later, Frescobaldi and Monteverdi would work there for the Gonzagas.  Ferrara, at least as much a musical center as Mantua, hosted Orlando, Frescobaldi and Gesualdo, among many others).  In 1565 Wert was appointed the Maestro di Capella of the newly built ducal chapel of Santa Barbara in Mantua and moved there from Novellara.  He got married (according to some sources, to one Lucrezia of a minor branch of Gonzaga,) but his wife cuckolded him with Bonvicino, a composer and Wert’s rival; when the affair became public, Lucrezia was expelled from Mantua.  Wert stayed behind, his reputation compromised.   Wert had his own share of scandals: he started an affair in Ferrara with one Tarquinia Molza, an accomplished musician of noble descent and a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Ferrara.  That was considered inappropriate and when the Duke Alfonso d’Este learned about the affair, Tarquinia was banished from the court.

All along Wert was composing, mostly secular music.  He wrote about 230 madrigals, many of them on the verses by famous poets, Bembo, Petrarca, Ludovico Ariosto, and especially his contemporary, Torquato Tasso.  We’ll hear two of his madrigals, Ah dolente partite (here) and Io non son però morto (here).  The first one is performed by the ensemble La Venexiana, the second, by the Quink Vocal Quintet.  Also, one piece of sacred music by Giaches de Wert: his sublime motet Vox in Rama.  Ensemble Currende is directed by Erik van Nevel.

Read more...

April 6, 2015.  Schumann’s Frauenliebe.  As far as composers’ birthdays go, several previous weeks were brimming with major talent but this one is pretty meager: Giuseppe Tartini of  Devil’s Trill fame being the most interesting of the bunch.  So we’ll use it to publish a little essay Joe DuBose wrote about Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und –leben.  To illustrate it, we’ll use the recording made by the great British contralto Kathleen Ferrier in 1950.  Ferrier, the favorite singer of Bruno Walter and Benjamin Britten, died of breast cancer in 1953, just 41 year old.  Fortunately, she left a number of recordings treasured by music lovers ever since.  John Newmark is at the piano. ♫

The year 1840 saw at least 138 songs flow from the pen of Robert Schumann, which has Robert Schumannsince become known as his Liederjahr, or “Year of Song.” Until that year, Schumann had composed virtually exclusively for the piano. Yet, neither the sudden shift to vocal music, nor the abundance of this creative outpouring, was purely coincidental. It marked the culmination of his courtship of Clara Wieck, and their long-awaited and hard-won marriage.

Schumann first met Clara in March 1828, when both were invited to a musical evening in the home of Dr. Ernst Carus. Impressed with Clara’s skill at the piano, Schumann soon after began taking piano lessons from Clara’s father, Friedrich, during which time he lived in the Wieck’s household. Schumann and Clara quickly formed a close bond that would eventually blossom into a romantic, though clandestine, relationship. In 1837, on her 18th birthday, Schumann proposed, and Clara accepted. Friedrich, however, who had a rather unfavorable opinion of Schumann, refused to give the composer his permission to marry his daughter. The long courtship and Friedrich’s refusal was a great strain on the relationship. Clara and Schumann exchanged love letters, and were forced to meet in secret. Schumann would even wait for hours in a café just to catch a brief glimpse of Clara as she left one of her concerts. The couple sued Friedrich, and after a lengthy court battle, Clara was finally allowed to marry Schumann without her father’s consent. The wedding took place in 1840.

Frauenliebe und -leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) was one of the song cycles, along with the Liederkreis of Eichendorff and Heine’s Dichterliebe, composed during the intense creative episode surrounding Schumann’s marriage to Clara. The cycle of poems, written by the German poet and botanist Adelbert von Chamisso in 1830, describes events in the life of a woman—from her first meeting with her future husband, to their marriage, the birth of their child, and his seemingly untimely death. Adelbert’s cycle consists of nine poems. However, Schumann set only eight, omitting the poem, Traum der eignen Tage. His setting displays a departure from the Schubertian Lied, with the piano taking on an increasingly independent and important role in portraying the essence and mood of the text. Schumann’s sense of unity is also evident in the reprise of music from the first song as a postlude that concludes the last. While Schumann’s is the best known, two other notable settings of Adelbert’s cycle were composed by Carl Lowe and Franz Paul Lachner. (Continue)

Read more...

March 30 2015.  Cabezón, Haydn, Rachmaninov and Stradella.  This is another week that brings together, even if fleetingly and tenuously, several major composers from very different eras.  The oldest in this group is Antonio de Cabezon, one of the most important keyboard composers of the Spanish Renaissance.  Cabezón was born on March 30th of 1510, which makes Antonio de Cabezonhim five years younger than Cristóbal de Morales and one generation older than Tomás Luis de Victoria, two greatest composers of the Spanish Renaissance.   Little is known about Cabezón: he was born in a small town in northern Spain not far from Burgos, and was blind from childhood.  In 1526 he entered the service of Queen Isabella, wife of Charles I, king of Spain, as an organist and clavichord player.  In 1538 he was appointed the chamber musician to Charles himself, who, as Charles V was the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and the most powerful monarch in all of Europe.  Later on Cabezón was appointed the music teacher to Prince Felipe, the future king of Spain, and accompanied him on his travels to Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and London.   Cabezón’s music influenced many composers, especially the English ones, such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.  Here’s is a short piece by Cabezón called La dama le demanda, from his Works of keyboard music, harp and vihuela.  Fahmi Alqhai plays viola da gamba, Alberto Martínez Molina is on the organ.

Alessandro Stradella belonged to the next period, the Baroque.  He had quite an amazing life, full of mayhem and intrigue; of the composers of the time, only Carlo Gesualdo might have had a more adventurous life.  Stradella was born on April 3rd of 1639 into an aristocratic Tuscan family.  During his short life (he was stabbed to death at the age of 42 in a plaza right in the middle of Genoa) he managed to create more than 300 works.  Here’s his Cantata per il santissimo natale, Schola Cantorum Basiliensis is conducted by August Wenzinger.

Franz Joseph Haydn, born on March 31st of 1732, was one of the greatest, if sometimes underappreciated, composers ever.  We’ve written about him many times, and will write more.  Haydn was extremely prolific, writing in every musical genre known in his time.  He composed 104 symphonies, more than 60 quartets, trio, concertos, wonderful cantatas and even operas.   He also wrote 62 piano sonatas.  On the surface most of them are deceptively simple, but in reality they are highly sophisticated and carry a tremendous amount of material.  Some of them are as good as Mozart’s, if not better, and would not be surpassed till Beethoven’s mature years.  Murray Perahia, the American pianist of a great range and talent, has recently embarked on a tour playing a program that includes Haydn’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 46.  Perahia’s interpretation is immensely satisfying on all levels: technically flawless, it is musically probing, the sound is beautiful but without any exaggerations, the tempos are nimble and move the sonata along its way.  It’s probably one of the best interpretations we’ve heard in ages.  Unfortunately, there are no publicly available Perahia recordings of this sonata, so in its stead, we have one made by the Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich early in his uneven career, here.  Different and highly idiosyncratic, it’s still very interesting in its own right. 

The great Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov was born on April 1st of 1873.  We’ve written about him before, so today we’ll combine his commemoration with the recent 100th anniversary of Sviatoslav Richter.   We’ll hear several preludes, recorded live during the concert he gave in Manchester in 1969:  op. 32 no. 10, op.23 no.4 and op.23 no.5.

Read more...

March 23, 2015.  Pierre Boulez.  On March 26th we’ll celebrate the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, one of the most distinguished musical figures of the 20th century, a composer, conductor, writer, music entrepreneur and organizer, lecturer, professor – in short, a veritable one-man cultural phenomenon.  It’s difficult to overestimate his influence on the development of Pierre Boulezclassical music during the last 70 years.  Boulez was born in 1925 in a small town of Montbrison in central France.  As a boy he was equally interested in music and mathematics.  He took courses in higher math in Lyon (his father, an industrialist, wanted Pierre to become an engineer) but a year later moved to the German-occupied Paris and, instead of going to Ecole Polytechnique, entered the Conservatory.  His teacher in the harmony class was Olivier Messiaen, who helped Boulez to discover the new world of 12-tone music.  Boulez’s first compositions, like Douze notations, which he wrote at the age of 20, were very much in the style of Anton Webern, though in the following years he developed a distinct, personal style.  Boulez’s large Second piano sonata (1948) made him known internationally; one of the champions of Boulez’s music was the pianist Yvonne Loriod, the second wife of Messiaen; she premiered the Second Sonata in Darmstadt, Germany.  After the war, the New Music Summer School in Darmstadt was a major center for innovative music.  Boulez taught there, and that’s where he met his peers: Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, György Ligeti and many other leading modernists.  With all this talent, Darmstadt served as an incubator for a new music style.  Some of the ideas that influenced this style were not esthetic but rather ideological; in the aftermath of the war, young composers abhorred all “romantic,” nationalist aspects of music that could be co-opted by the state, as the Nazis did with Wagner and Beethoven.  Instead, they developed a non-ideological, detached but not un-emotional, method called serialism, which expanded on the twelve-tone system created by Schoenberg and his pupils in Vienna some decades earlier.  A major serialist work by Boulez was Structures, Book I, written in 1952.  In 1961 he rewrote some of the material of the composition, creating Book II.  Another idea that could be traced to Darmstadt of the early 1950s was aleatoric, or chance music.  Boulez wrote several aleatoric pieces in the 60s and the 70s, one of them – Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna composed in memory of his friend, the Italian composer Bruno Maderna, also a regular visitor to Darmstadt, who died there at the age of 53 while rehearsing his opera, Satyricon.

In 1970, uponsuggestion by George Pompidou, the President of France, Boulez created IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), a major institution dedicated to research in electro-acoustical and modern music. Later, Boulez founded Ensemble InterContemporain, which is associated with IRCAM.  The ensemble is a foremost advocate of modernist music.

Boulez started conducting in the late 1950s.  Even though he never had formal training, he developed into one of the major conductors of the late-20th century.  He served as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony, the Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony; he conducted all major orchestras of Europe and the US.  He’s especially well known for his interpretation of modernist composers; at the same time, he’s one of the foremost Mahlerians of our days.  He also conducted practically all of Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth, both of Berg’s operas – Wozzeck was one of his early triumphs, and Lulu, and many other operas.

Boulez’s music is often difficult, so we’ll confine ourselves to just two pieces, one for the piano, another – orchestral.  Here’s Multiple (1965) from Boulez’s “project” Eclat/Multiple (he revised the original pieces several times).  The composer conducts Ensemble InterContemporain.  And here’s Chapter I of Book II of Structures.  Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Florent Boffard are playing two pianos.

Read more...

March 20, 2015.  Today is 100th anniversary of Sviatoslav Richter, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.

Read more...

March 16, 2015.  Bach and Mussorgsky.  Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st of 1685 in Eisenach.  We’ve writtenabout him so many times (last year, for example) that this time we’ll just go ahead with his music and write a bit about some other composers that were also born this week but are often overshadowed by the German master.  So here’s Part II of The St. John Passion.  Bach wrote it during his first years in Leipzig, where, in 1723, he was appointed the Thomaskantor.  It was first performed on April 7th of the following year, during the Good Friday Vespers, at the St. Nicholas Church.  In this recording theperformers are: Concentus Musicus Wien, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting.

Modest Mussorgsky, a composer of tremendous but only partly fulfilled talent, was born on March 21st of 1839.  Mussorgsky was born in the village of Karevo in the Northwestern Pskov region of Russia.  He belonged to an old, noble and quite wealthy family.  He started piano lessons with his mother at the age of six.  When he was ten, he and his brother were sent to St.-Petersburg to study at a German-language Modest Mussorgsky (Ilya Repin, 1881)school where he was able to continue his piano lessons.  At the age of 12 he published (with his father’s help) his first composition.  A year later he entered the Cadet School in order to continue the family’s military tradition.  The discipline at the school was lax, carousing encouraged, and that’s, apparently, where his drinking problems began.  Upon graduating, he joined the elite Preobrazhensky regiment.  He soon met Alexander Borodin, then a young military doctor and a budding composer, and Alexander Dargomyzhsky, who is practically forgotten outside of Russia but back then was considered the most important composer since Mikhail Glinka.  Dargomyzhsky introduced Mussorgsky to Balakirev and Cui, the future members of the “Mighty Five.”   Soon after Mussorgsky quit the military and devoted himself to music fulltime.  The several following years were not very productive: he wrote some piano music, an incidental music to a play; he started working on Salammbô, an opera after Flaubert’s novel, but never finished it.  In 1865, at the age of 26, he had his first real bout with alcoholism, but got out of it intact.  One year later he finished the tone poem Night on Bald Mountain (Balakirev didn’t like it and it was never performed during Mussorgsky’s lifetime).  He started working on an opera based on a story by Gogol, The Marriage, but soon abandoned that as well.  Then, in 1868, an acquaintance, one Professor Nikolsky, an authority on Pushkin, suggested that Mussorgsky writes an opera based on Boris Godunov, Pushkin’s blank-verse play.  Mussorgsky responded with great enthusiasm: he wrote a libretto based on Pushkin’s play and available historical documents and completed the first version of what turned out to be a large opera in less than a year.  The opera, though, was rejected by major theaters, mostly because it lacked a leading female role.  Undeterred, Mussorgsky went on to create a revised and expanded version.  This version was accepted, and in 1872 parts of it were staged at the famed Mariinsky Theater in 1873.  A year later the complete opera was staged at the same theater.  Even though the public seemed to have liked it, it was poorly received by the critics and closed after just several performances.  Some years later it was taken out of the repertory completely.  In the meantime, Mussorgsy started working on Khovanshchina, a second large-scale opera project.   The opera, which, as so many of his projects, was never completed, was also based on an episode from Russian history, a rebellion of the Old Believers and the Streltsy guard against Peter the Great.  Around that time Mussorgsky’s descent into alcoholism started for real.  For a while he continued to compose: his famous piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, was written in 1874, but eventually his productive output practically came to a halt.  There were periods of sobriety, during which he could write – his tremendous Songs and Dances of Death were written during one such period, and he sporadically continued to work on the Khovanshchina and another opera, The Fair at Sorochintsy.  Neither of them were ever completed, Mussorgsky’s descend being inexorable.  He lost his job and lived off his friends’ charity.  Several days before his death, when Mussorgsky was already in a hospital, Ilya Repin painted the famous portrait, above.  Mussorgsky died one week after his 42nd birthday, on March 27th of 1881.  Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a close friend, was one of the composers who worked on the scores left after Mussorgsky’s death.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s birthday is also this week: he was born on March 18th of 1844.  We’ll write about him another time.

Here, in a scene from Boris Godunov worthy of the best of Verdi, we’ll hear the great Russian tenor Ivan Kozlovsky singing the role of yurodivy (the holy fool) who is accusing the Tsar of murdering a child, Tzarevich Dmitry.  Alexander Pirogov is Tzar Boris.  Nikolay Golovanov leads the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theater.  The recording was made in 1948.

Read more...

March 9, 2015.  Mysliveček and Telemann.  We’ve never written about Josef Mysliveček, even though this friend of Mozart’s was one of the most famous composers of his time.  Mysliveček was born in Prague on March 9th, 1737, and the Czechs consider him their Josef Myslivečeknational composer, even though he wrote in the Italianate style and spent most of his adult life in Italy.  Mysliveček was born into a wealthy miller’s family.  As a youngster he took music lessons in Prague but left for Venice in 1763 to study opera composition technique.  Two years later he wrote his first opera, Semiramide, which was staged in Bergamo.  In 1767 he wrote another opera, Il Bellerofonte, his most successful composition.  It was staged in Naples in Teatro San Carlo, at that time a preeminent opera theater in Italy, to great acclaim.  He moved from one Italian city to another, staging operas in major theaters.  In 1768 Mysliveček made a brief but triumphant visit to Prague.  In 1771 he was admitted to the prestigious Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna.  One year later he traveled to Vienna, hoping to establish himself there, but it didn’t work out.  He returned to Italy, the country where he was quite famous.  Unfortunately, that didn’t last: in 1780 he staged two of his operas, Armida at La Scala in Milan, and Medonte in Rome, and both failed miserably.  His reputation never recovered, and he died in poverty in Rome a year later, on February 4th of 1781.  He was just 43 years old. 

Mysliveček met Leopold Mozart and his fourteen year-old son Wolfgang in Bologna in 1770.  He became good friends with both (Mysliveček’s name is often mentioned in the correspondence between the father and the son).  It all came to an end when Mysliveček failed to deliver on his promise to arrange a commission for Wolfgang at the Teatro San Carlo for the Carnival season of 1779.   Mysliveček, who wrote not just operas but also symphonies and concertos, had a significant influence on Mozart, who admired Mysliveček’s overtures (symphonies), and apparently used some of Mysliveček’s ideas in his own compositions.  Mozart’s concert aria Ridente la calma is based on a substitute aria from Mysliveček’s opera Armida.  Here’s his Violin concerto in A Major, performed by Shizuka Ishikawa, with the Dvořák Chamber Orchestra.

Georg Philipp TelemannIf Mysliveček was a friend of Mozarts, Georg Philipp Telemann, who also has his anniversary this week, was a good friend of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Telemann was born on March 14th of 1681 in Magdeburg.  Even though very gifted, he never formally studied music.  He learned to play several instruments but did it on his own.  In 1701 he went to Leipzig to study law but soon dropped out to pursue music professionally.  He eventually established himself in the city’s musical circles; his compositions were regularly performed in the main churches, Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche.  In 1707 he went to Eisenach and entered the service of the Duke.  It’s there that he probably met Johann Sebastian Bach for the first time.  Seven years later he became the godfather to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel.

In the 18th century Telemann was considered a very important composer.  His fame waned a century later, and it was not till the second half of the 20th that it was somewhat revived.  Telemann did write too much, and many of his pieces were not of the highest quality, but some compositions are extremely good.   Here’s Telemann’s Christmas Cantata 1761 (he composed several, this one was written for the Hamburg Christmas season of 1761).  It’s performed by the Telemann-Kammerorchester Michaelstein, the chorus and soloists; Ludger Rémy conducting.

Read more...

March 2, 2015.  Plentiful week.  This is one of those weeks when we feel somewhat overwhelmed: Bedřich Smetana, Antonio Vivaldi, Maurice Ravel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Carlo Gesualdo were all born this week.  Plus, Frédéric Chopin’s birthday was yesterday, March 1st.  We have about 400 recordings of Chopin’s works, so it’s almost impossible to pick just one.  Here’s the recording of Chopin’s Ballade no. 4 in f minor, Op. 52 that our listeners seem like.  It’s performed live, by the still young Russian-American pianist Elena Baksht.

Carlo GesualdoThe lives of these composers span four centuries; we’ve written about all five of them in the past, so we’ll just play some of their music.  Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa, a late Renaissance composer, lutenist and murderer (he famously stabbed his wife and her lover after discovering them in bed), was born on March 8th of 1560.  He wrote a large number of madrigals, many of which display amazing chromatic modulations that are centuries ahead of their time.  Here’s an example, Omnes amici mei dereliquerunt me (All my friends abandoned me), a section from his Tenebrae Responsoria on the text from the Passion.

Antonio Vivaldi was born on March 4th of 1678, more than 100 years later.  If Gesualdo belonged to the late Renaissance period, Vivaldi is the epitome of the late Baroque.  Vivaldi is so popular these days that it’s hard to imagine that up till the 1930s he was practically unknown.  It took the diligent work of Olga Rudge, the violinist more known as the lover of Ezra Pound, and Pound himself, working under the auspices of the Mussolini regime, to uncover hundreds of Vivaldi’s manuscripts.  Vivaldi wrote hundreds of violin concertos.  Here’s his Concerto for Four Violinsin B minor RV 580.  It’s performed by the ensemble I Solisti Italiani.  Johann Sebastian Bach liked it so much that he arranged it for four clavichords.  We know it as Bach’s Concerto BWV1065.

One year ago we celebrated the tricentennial of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who was born on March 8th of 1714 in Weimar, the fifth child of Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara Bach, Johann Sebastian’s first wife.  Three of his older siblings died in infancy, so he became the second-oldest surviving son.  A major figure of the transitional period between the Baroque and what became known as the “Classical” period, he was influenced by the music of his father, his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel.  He wrote a number of symphonies, and many works for the keyboard, both concertos and sonatas.  Here’s CPE Bach’s Symphony in E minor, Wq. 178, written in Berlin in 1756, the year Mozart was born.  It’s performed by the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin.

Bedřich Smetana was born on March 2nd of 1824.  Considered the father of Czech music, he was one of the first “nationalist” composers with aspirations and sensibilities shared by the Russian “Mighty Five” and his younger countryman Antonin DvořákHere’s one of Smetana’s  most popular works, Vltava, from his set of symphonic poems Má vlast.

And lastly, chronologically but certainly not in terms of either talent or popularity, Maurice Ravel, who was born on March 7th of 1875.  Here’s his Alborada del Cracioso, from Mirroirs. It’s performed by the Italian pianist Igor Cognolato.

Read more...

February 23, 2015.  Handel.  George Frideric Handel was born on this day in 1685, in Halle.  Having spent most of his life in London, he’s considered a British composer, and is famous in our time for his oratorio Messiah, Water Music and other pieces that he wrote for the royalty, as well as his organ concertos.  During his lifetime, though, he was at George Frideric Handelleast as famous for his Italian operas.  Handel wrote 42 operas altogether.  Not just a composer, but also a great manager, he established three opera companies to perform them.  One of these companies found a space at the Covent Garden Theater, which till then was a playhouse.  Now, of course, it’s Britain’s Royal Opera house.  Handel learned the art and craft of the Italian opera mostly while he stayed in the country.  He was 21 when he moved from Germany to Italy, first to Florence and shortly after to Rome.  By then he had already written at least two operas, Almira and Nero.  Very quickly Handel found several patrons, among them the same cardinals Colonna, Pamphili, and Ottoboni who also played important roles in the lives of many other composers, such as Francesco Cavalli, Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli.  Handel wrote music for the cardinals’ private orchestras and performed with their musicians.  Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili was a noted librettist, and Handel used one of the cardinal’s works to write an oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Truth).  In the city of Rome the performance of operas was banned by a papal decree; to circumvent the prohibition, composers wrote oratorios, many of which are operas in all but the name.  Il trionfo was one of them.  The aria Lascia la spina (Leave the thorn) became famous.  Four years later Handel rewrote it into an even more famous aria Lascia ch'io pianga (Leave me to weep) for his opera Rinaldo.  Here it is, wonderfully sung by Cecilia Bartoli; Christopher Hogwood conducts the Academy of Ancient Music.  In 1707 Handel wrote his first fully Italian opera, Rodrigo. By the early 18th century, opera was a highly developed art, even though it was “invented” just 100 years earlier.  Claudio Monteverdi can be considered the father of Italian opera, but many highly talented composers followed, Francesco Cavalli and Alessandro Scarlatti being among more significant practitioners of the genre.  Opera became very popular all over the country: by the end of the 17th century, Venice, with the population of about 140,000, had 7 opera houses.  Of course most of them were small and they employed tiny orchestras but the number is still very impressive. 

In 1709 Handel wrote his second Italian opera, Agrippina; it was premiered in Venice, in Teatro San Giovanni, and was a great success.  The opera was revived late in the 20th century, and it has since been staged in major opera houses.  The success of Agrippina made Handel famous all over Europe.  That eventually brought him to London, with Queen Anne providing him with a stipend.  Rinaldo was written in 1711, his first opera for the English stage.  Another 34 followed, all premiered in London.  Even though most of them were soon forgotten, several remained popular, and many more we resurrected with the revival of the Baroque opera and the ascent of the period instruments in the second half of the 20th century.  Giulio Cesare is one of the operas that was staged regularly, and so is Orlando.  Here’s the aria Se Pieta, from Giulio Cesare, sung by the French soprano Sandrine Piau with the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques under the baton of Christophe Rousset.  And here’s the aria Vaghe pupille from Orlando. Written for a castrato, it’s sung by the Serbian contralto Marijana Mijanovic.

Read more...

February 16, 2015.  Corelli and Kurtág.  Last week we celebrated an unusual pair, an Italian Baroque composer from the 17th century, and a modernist Austrian one, born in the 20th.  This week we have a similar and equally disparate pairing: another Italian, also working in the Baroques style and born in the 17th century, and a Hungarian composer of the 20th century, born in what till 1918 was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Arcangelo Corelli, a fine violinist and important composer, came from a small town of Fusignano, not far from Ravenna.  His birthday is February 17th, 1653.  He studied in the nearby Faenza, and then in Bologna, at that time one of the centers of violin playing.  Arcangelo CorelliAt the age of 17 he was admitted to the local Accademia Filarmonica, Bologna’s conservatory.  By 1675 Corelli was in Rome, playing in an orchestra, but very soon became well known as a virtuoso violinist.  He entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, the patron of many composers, from Giacomo Carissimi to Alessandro Stradella and Alessandro Scarlatti (Corelli dedicated his Op. 1, Twelve trio sonatas, to Queen Christina).  He continued to perform around Rome, playing solo and leading small string ensembles.  He played in churches and courts of  the Roman nobility and church hierarchs, such as Cardinal Pamphili, whose Palazzo Doria-Pamphili on Corso was one of the musical centers of Rome. Eventually Cardinal Pamphili hired Corelli, and for the following three years Corelli lived in the palace.  When Pamphili moved to Bologna, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, also a major patron of music and arts, became Corelli’s main benefactor.  Corelli moved to the cardinal’s palace, the enormous Cancelleria.  Corelli ran the cardinal’s private orchestra, and every Monday presented a concert in which he’d play, along with the most famous musicians in Rome.  He also continued to compose, if sparingly.  Famous not just in Rome but also in most of Europe, he was admitted to the prestigious literary and music society, Accademia degli Arcadi.  Being in the center of musical life of Rome, he met many composers, including the young Handel.  That didn’t go very well, as we wrote on an occasion.  Corelli retired in 1708 but continued to work, mostly editing his earlier compositions.  He died on January 8th, 1713, quite rich and in possession of a fine collection of violins, which he left to his friend, the violinist Matteo Fornari.  Here’s Corelli’s Concerto Grosso op. 6, no 4 in D Major in the performance by I Musici.

The Hungarian composer György Kurtág was born February 19th of 1926 in a small town of Lugoj, Banat.  As we mentioned above, prior to 1918 Banat was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire; many inhabitants were Hungarian-speakers.  It also had a large Jewish population; Kurtág was half-Jewish.  He spoke Hungarian at home and Romanian at school.  As a child, he studied the piano on and off, first with his mother, then with professional teachers.  After WWII, in 1946, the 20-year old Kurtág moved to Budapest and continued taking piano lessons, eventually entering the Franz Liszt Music Academy.  There he met György Ligeti and they became friends for life.  After the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Kurtág moved to Paris (in some ways Hungary was the most liberal of all Soviet-block countries and allowed people to travel).  There he studied with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud.  He returned to Hungary in 1959 and stayed there for the duration of the Communist regime – the only Hungarian composer of international renown to do so (Ligeti, for example, fled to Vienna right after the failed revolution).  Kurtág resumed traveling after the fall of communism in 1989, staying in Berlin (he was the composer in residence for the Berlin Philharmonic in the mid-90s), Vienna, the Netherlands and Paris, where he worked with Boulez’s Ensemble intercontemporain.  These days Kurtág and his wife live in Bordeaux. 

In our library we have a number of piano pieces from his Kurtág’s Játékok (“Games” in Hungarian), an eight-volume collection of works for solo pianos or piano four hands; we hope you’ll listen to them.  Here, though, we’d like to present a symphonic work from 1994, Stele.  It was commission by Claudio Abbado for the Berlin Philharmonic and is performed by them, live.

Read more...

February 9, 2015.  Berg, Cavalli.  Alban Berg was born on this day in 1885 in Vienna.  His father was a well-to-do merchant; in addition to a house in the very center of Vienna, next to the St. Stephen cathedral, the family owned an estate in Carinthia and other property.  Alban was taught piano by one of the governesses, started composing songs at the age of 16, but was just a music-loving amateur when in 1904 he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg.  Berg studied with Schoenberg for seven years.  He admired his teacher, while Schoenberg considered Berg “an extraordinarily gifted composer.”  Berg developed into one of the most influential composers of the 20th century: he, his fellow pupil Anton Webern, and of course their teacher Schoenberg formed what is known as “the Second Viennese School.”   Together, they were enormously important in developing the atonal and later 12-note music.  Berg’s most significant compositions are two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu.  Wozzeck, the first atonal opera of the 20th century, is based on a drama of the playwright Georg Büchner.  Berg composed it between 1914 and 1922.  The music is admittedly difficult but utterly fascinating (and short – it runs for about an hour and 20 minutes); one can still hear Mahlerian influences in much of it.  Here’s part of Act 3 of Wozzeck, in the 1987 live performance from Vienna.  Part of it takes place in a tavern, you can hear a clanking piano.  Franz Grundheber is Wozzeck, a soldier, Hildegard Behrens is Marie, the mother of his child, and Anna Gonda is Margret, their neighbor.  Claudio Abbado conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.

Francesco Cavalli was also an opera composer.  We suspect that neither he nor Berg would recognize each other as such.  Cavalli was born Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni in Crema, Lombardy, on February 14, 1602.  He adopted the name of his patron, Frederico Cavalli, later in his life.  Francesco CavalliThe young Pietro had a wonderful voice, and Frederico, who was the Venetian Governor of Crema, noticed the boy.  In 1616 Cavalli brought him to Venice, where Pietro joined the choir of the San Marco. At that time, the great Claudio Monteverdi was the music director of the cathedral.  Documents show that Cavalli helped Monteverdi to edit some of the master’s work.  He left San Marco to become an organist at the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo and worked there till about 1630.  Around that time he adopted the name of his patron and started signing his work as Francesco Cavalli.  Monteverdi is acknowledged as the father of Italian opera but for a quarter of the century following Monteverdi’s death Cavalli was the leading, and most popular practitioner of the art.  Cavalli’s first opera, Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo, was premiered in 1639 in Teatro San Cassiano, the first public opera house in Venice, and by extension in the world (the theater was demolished in 1812).  His last operas were composed in the 1670s.  La Calisto was written in the middle of Cavalli’s career, in 1651.  Here’s the first scene of the second act, with Sara Mingardo, contralto, the Concerto Italiano under the direction of Rinaldo Alessandrini.  In the early 1660s Cavalli spent two years in Paris.  In 1661 Cardinal Mazarin commissioned him an opera to celebrate the marriage of King Luis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain.  This commission led to Ercole amante (Hercules in love), which had its premier in February of 1662.  Jean-Baptiste Lully was then the superintendent of royal music.  Either he was jealous of the competition or genuinely wanted to improve the opera, but he decided to add several ballet pieces to the opera.  The entire production became a six hours affair; the king, the queen and the court danced to the ballet music, and it received all the praise.  Cavalli left Paris soon after.  Ercole is a fine opera, as you can judge by this aria.  Anna Bonitatibus, an Italian mezzo-soprano, sings Giunone (Juno).  The production is by the Dutch National Opera with Concerto Köln, Ivor Bolton conducting.

Read more...

February 2, 2015.  Mendelssohn and Palestrina.  Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3rd, 1809 in Hamburg into an eminent Jewish family.  We had explored his family history and childhood years in our previous posts.  Mendelssohn continues to be widely performed, especially his ever-popular Felix MendelssohnViolin concerto, the symphonies and the music for A Midsummer Night's Dream.  His Songs Without Words for the piano also used to be performed often, but lately they pretty much disappeared from the concert repertoire.  It’s a pity, as some of them are absolute gems.  Mendelssohn wrote eight volumes (or books) of Songs, each consisting of just six songs.  The first book was written in 1829-1830, and the first songs were written for the album of Felix’s beloved sister Fanny; the last one – in1842-1845, shortly before Mendelssohn’s premature death at the age of 38.  Here are two Songs, both bearing subtitles (only few pieces have them): from Book 2, op. 30, no. 6, Allegretto tranquillo in F-sharp minor ("Venezianisches Gondellied" or Song of the Venetian gondolier), here, and the Spring song, from Book 5, Op. 62, also no. 6 (here).  Both are performed by Daniel Barenboim; the recording was made in 1973.

The music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina represents a pinnacle of the Renaissance.  After about 150 years of development, starting with Guillaume Dufay, the music, the first truly “classical” one in our modern understanding, had reach unprecedented levels of individuality and sophistication.  Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, and their younger contemporaries Tomás Luis de Victoria and William Byrd – the Italian, the Fleming, the Spaniard and the English – perfected polyphony and thus influenced generations of composers, from Bach to composers of the 20th century.  Palestrina, the oldest of the four, was born around this date in 1525 (as is so often the case with Renaissance composers, the real date is in dispute).  He spent most of his life in Rome.  The Pope Julius III recognized his talent and appointed Palestrina maestro di cappella of the Capella Giulia, the official choir of Saint Peter’s Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrinabasilica.  Later, Palestrina held similar positions in several other churches, including San Giovanni di Laterano, where Orlando served some years earlier, and Santa Maria Maggiore.

Palestrina, who composed most of his life, left a treasure trove of music: more than 100 masses, hundreds of madrigals and motets.   He wrote Missa Brevis, a shorter mass, around 1570; at that time his was employed at the Santa Maria Maggiore, and his fame was spreading around Europe.  By then he had received an offer from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilan II (they ended up being unable to work out the terms) and was in an epistolary exchange with Guglielmo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua – they were discussing musical matters.  Here’s the first part of the mass, Kyrie; it’s performed by The Tallis Scholars.  Two years later he wrote a motet Tu Es Petrus.  By then he had returned to the Saint Peter’s basilica and again was put in charge of the Capella Giulia. You can hear it in the performance by the choir of Westminster Abbey.  Almost twenty years later, in 1591, Palestrina wrote several settings of Magnificat (the song of the Blessed Virgin Mary).  Here’s one of them, Magnificat primi toni, performed by the English ensemble Voces8.

Read more...

January 26, 2015.  Mozart and Schubert.  Two giants of classical music were born this week: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on January 27th of 1756 and Franz Schubert on January 31st of 1797.  We’ve written about both of them numerous times, so to celebrate Mozart, we’ll just play his wonderful Linz symphony (no. 36).  Vienna Philharmonic orchestra is conducted by Carlos Kleiber in a live 1988 performance.

Franz SchubertOn the other hand, to celebrate Schubert, we’ll publish an article by Joseph DuBose on the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin.  We had a delicious problem trying to select a singer to illustrate the cycle.  There are many great recordings; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore made a classic one half a century ago; another great German, the tenor Peter Schreier, made a wonderful recording in 1982.  A much younger tenor, the current star Jonas Kaufmann, also recorded the cycle.  Hermann Prey, Ian Bostrich, Peter Pears, Thomas Quasthoff – the list is long and distinguished.  Each of these singers recorded the Müllerin with great musicality and probing interpretation, and all of them have magnificent voices.  We do have a favorite recording though, one made by Fritz Wunderlich in May of 1959.  Wunderlich was only 29 (just three years older than Schubert was when he wrote Die schöne Müllerin) and already in a great voice.  It’s impossible not to admire his singing.  Here’s the article. ♫

Not only among Franz Schubert’s most beloved compositions, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise firmly established the song cycle as a genre rich in possibilities, and it would be taken up by some of the greatest song composers of the following century—Schumann, Brahms and Mahler. They were not the first of their kind, however. Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte predated the composition of both of Schubert’s cycle and laid the groundwork for the importance of musical continuity across the individual songs of the cycle. Yet, it was Schubert’s cycles that were the first to be widely performed and successful.

The earlier of the two cycles, Die schöne Müllerin was largely composed between May and September 1823, while Schubert was also at work on his opera Fierrabras, and was published the following year. Schubert selected twenty poems from Wilhelm Müller’s collection, excluding among others a prologue and epilogue, to use for his cycle, yet the narrative of the cycle is unharmed. The story follows the plight of a young miller that falls hopelessly in love with a miller maid. Blissful and full of life, he takes great joy in his wanderings. His companion in his journeys is a brook, that, whether for good or evil is yet not known, leads him to a mill. While working at the mill, he becomes infatuated with the master’s daughter, and attempts to win her heart. Though he believes he has gained her affections, his hopes of happiness are ruined by the arrival of a hunter, dressed in green. Jealously rises in the young miller and he develops a fatal obsession with the color green. Finally, he loses all hope and finds only rest in the cold embrace of his faithful companion, the brook.

The narrative of Die schöne Müllerin begins with the young man’s blissful wanderings in Das Wandern ("Wanderings," play). As he walks alongside the brook, watching its continuous journey and the ceaseless turning of the wheels of the mill, he muses that all things must move—must wander. Schubert sets Müller’s five-stanza poem in a simple strophic setting in B-flat major. The young man’s blithe approach to life is expressed in the almost folk-like characteristics of the song: a simple, unadorned melody and harmonies that hardly depart from the tonic and dominant of the key. Important, however, is the rippling accompaniment of sixteenth notes that depicts the scenic brook, one of the cycle’s three main characters.  Continue

Read more...

January 21, 2015.  Lutoslawski and Dutilleux.  Two wonderful composers, both born in the 1910s, have their birthdays this week.  The Polish Witold Lutoslawski was born on January 25th of 1913.  As we wrote two years Witold Lutoslawskiago, Lutoslawksi’s life was exceptionally difficult, even by tough east-European standards of the 20th century.  An aspiring composer in the pre-War years, a student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, he returned to Poland on the eve of WWII.  As the Germans invaded the country, he was conscripted and shortly after captured by the Germans.  He escaped eight days later and made it to Warsaw (his younger brother was captured by the Red Army and died in the Gulag a year later).  During the occupation, he earned his living by playing piano in bars together with his best friend, Andrzej Panufnik.  Just before the heroic and ill fated Warsaw Uprising was to begin, his mother took him to a small town of Komorów, just outside of the city.  Things didn’t get much better after the Soviet Union installed a communist regime in Poland.  After several relatively liberal years, in 1949 Lutoslawki became the first composer to be officially banned by the Composer’s Union.  The ban lasted for almost 10 years, even after Stalin’s death.  During those difficult years Lutoslawki survived by writing children songs, and music for theater and radio plays.  As he couldn’t use his own name, he wrote under the pseudonym of "Derwid."  It’s worth noting that he didn’t write a single piece in the Socialist Realism style, as was expected from him and as so many of his contemporaries in Easter Europe were forced to do (or chose to).  Another difficult period came in the 1980s: Lutoslawki actively supported the Solidarity movement, and suffered when its leadership was suppressed by the Communist regime.  In defiance, Lutoslawki started what he termed “the boycott of the State,” refusing to conduct, to meet with officials and rebuffing all entreaties from the State.

As most composers, Lutoslawki went through many creative stages. His composing style was changing and evolving his whole life.  During some periods it was more modernistic, atonal and even aleatoric, with chance playing a role in note selection, in others? – more tonality-based, almost romantic.  Here, from his twelve-tone period, is String Quartet, written in 1954, it’s performed by the New Budapest Quartet.  A much "warmer" but still atonal is Lutoslawski’ orchestral piece called Mi-Parti from 1976.  It was recorded the same year by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra with the composer conducting.  You can listen to it here. 

Lutoslawski died in Warsaw on February 9th of 1994.  Henri Dutilleux, three year younger than Lutoslawski (he was born on January 22nd of 1916), had a longer life: he died in 2013 at the ripe age of 97.  And even though he, like Lutoslawski, lived through the war (and also earned money playing piano in his respective occupied capital), overall his career was a happier one.  Throughout his life his achievements were acknowledged by his peers and his country, from the Grand Prix du Rome which he won in 1938 to the highest honor a Frenchmen can receive – the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, which he received in 2004.  He received commissions from many orchestras and musicians, and taught in several important conservatories.  Dutilleux’s place in French music is quite unique: on the one hand, he was influenced, even if indirectly, by Debussy and Ravel, and also by Stravinsky and Bartok; on the other, he never belonged to any musical school, even frowned at them and maintained independence all his life.  You can hear some of these influences – the beauty of the orchestral writing combined with a contemporary, almost jazzy edge – in the orchestral piece called Metaboles, as a simple musical structure moves though the different sections of the orchestra, gaining complexity in the process.   Metaboles was commissioned in 1965 by George Szell for the Cleveland Orchestra; here it’s performed by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Alan Gilbert.

Read more...

January 12, 2015.  Morton Feldman.  Last week, as we celebrated Alexander Scriabin’s anniversary, we had to pass over several birthdays, like Nikolai Medtner’s  and  Francis Poulenc’s.  This week is not as rich: many names but few first-rate talents.  Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, born on January 12th of 1876 was considered the best composer of comic Morton Feldmanoperas of his time; now he’s practically forgotten.  Another Italian, Niccolò Piccinni (born on January 16th of 1728), was also a very popular opera composer: he wrote for the Paris Opera and was considered Gluck’s equal.  The only problem is that none of his works are staged these days; they’re just not very good.  A Russian composer with a very French name, Cesar Cui, was also born this week, on January 18th of 1835.  He’s the least interesting of the Mighty Five.  Some of his songs are very nice but not much more is performed outside of Russia.  The most significant composer of those born this week is the American Morton Feldman.  The problem with him is different: in his mature years he wrote enormously long and sometimes difficult compositions and for that reason they are rarely performed.

Feldman was born on January 12th of 1926 in New York into a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants.  As a child he studies piano and then composition; both of his teachers were followers of the New Viennese school of Schoenberg and Webern.  When he was 24 Feldman met John Cage and they became fast friends; Feldman even moved into the same building where Cage lived.  By then Cage, 14 years older than Feldman, was already well known in the avant-garde circles of New York.  Cage introduced Feldman to a number of musicians and painters, such as Cage’s teacher the composer Henry Cowell, Virgil Thompson, George Antheil and Robert Rauschenberg.  The 1950s were the golden age of Abstract Expressionism and Feldman became highly influenced by the art of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and, especially, Philip Guston, who was then going through his abstract phase.  Years later, in 1984, Feldman would write a four hour-long piece in memory of their Clock, by Philip Gustonfriendship.  Called For Philip Guston it’s scored for flute, percussion and piano.  The painting “Clock,” on the right, was made by Guston around 1956-57.  Of course there’s no clock in sight.

Feldman created a unique graphic system of music notation, within which many things were undetermined and left for performers to interpret.  Sometimes it was the pitch, at other times the duration.  Somehow, when you listen to his music, the results are always pure Feldman: sparse, whispering, exquisite, atonal but often lyrical, with a tremendous weight given to every sound (or silence), and often insanely long.  In 1971 he wrote a piece called Rothko Chapel in memory of his friend Mark Rothko, who committed suicide a year earlier.  The chapel, located in Houston, contains 14 large paintings by Rothko.  You can listen to Feldman’s tribute to his friend here, it’s performed by members of the Seattle Modern Orchestra.  The melody for the viola at the end of the piece was written by Feldman when he was 15.  Rothko Chapel is a relatively short piece, it runs for about 24 minutes.  Palais de Mari for the piano, written in 1986, was Feldman’s last piano work: he died of cancer on September 3rd, 1987.  It’s performed here by Aki Takahashi, a Japanese pianist who premiered several of Feldman’s works.   In her interpretation Palais de Mari runs for about 29 minutes.

Read more...

January 5, 2015.  Scriabin.  Alexander Scriabin was born in Moscow on January 6th of 1872.  In 1872 Russia was still using the Julian calendar, and January 6th for those living according to the Gregorian calendar was Christmas Day, December 25th..  Scriabin’s father belonged to a minor Moscow nobility and later in his life would become a prominent Alexander ScriabinRussian diplomat, his mother was a concert pianist. She died of consumption when Alexander was one year old; she was only 23.  Anton Rubinstein, who was for a while his mother’s teacher, took interest in Alexander.  By the age of five Scriabin was already playing piano; from an early age he showed interest in composing.  He took private lessons with Taneyev and other prominent musicians and later entered the Moscow Conservatory, studying piano with the famous Vasily Safonov, graduating with a gold medal (Sergei Rachmaninov graduated from the Conservatory the same year, also with a gold medal, but of an even higher rank).  In 1898 Scriabin was invited to his alma mater as a professor of composition but quit soon after because teaching interfered with his own work.  Around this time he became well known as a composer.  Scriabin’s early compositions, mostly for the piano, are very pleasant but quite derivative, written in imitation of Chopin’s sonorities: listen, for example, to his Etude in c-sharp minor, op. 2, no. 1 in the performance by Daniil Trifonov (herer).  In 1903 Scriabin and his wife Vera, the mother of their four children, left Russia for Switzerland.  By then Scriabin was already involved with the 20-year old Tatiana Schloezer.  Shortly after the Scriabins legally separated,  Schloezer joined Scriabin as his second, common-law wife (they had three more children together; one of them, Julian, who drowned at the age of 11, was a composer who wrote several preludes in the late style of his father).  Schloezer, despite her age, was a strong-willed woman who worshiped Scriabin.  Some of Scriabin’s friends accepted Schloezer, some refused to do so (Safonov, a former teacher and good friend, stopped talking to Scriabin).  The Swiss period marked a significant development in Scriabin’s music.  It became highly individual, idiosyncratic.  The Fourth and the Fifth Piano sonata and the famous Poem of Ecstasy, which he started in 1905, are great examples of his art of the period (here’s Sonata no. 4 in the F-sharp Major, op. 30, performed by Vassily Primakov).  In 1907 Scriabin moved to Paris where for a brief period he got involved with the famous impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and then to Brussels.  Short on money (his major Russian patrons cut their funding), he made a trip to New York.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t successful.  In 1910 Scriabin returned to Russia and stayed there for the few remaining years of his life.

During this time his music evolved even further.  Its harmonies grew so complex that the basic tonality became practically irrelevant.  Scriabin started talking about his music more in painter’s terms, putting emphasis on such qualities as radiance, sharpness, or brilliancy.  Around the same time Scriabin became obsessed with the relationship between color and musical tone.  In 1910 he wrote a symphonic poem Prometheus and added a special line to score for the color accompaniment using a special machine called clavier à lumières.  He specified that C should be projected in red color, D – yellow, and so on, for all 12 notes of the octave.  Only one version of this instrument was ever used, in the performance of Prometheus in New York in 1915.

Scriabin died on April 27th of 1914 of septic shock after a boil on his upper lip got infected as he tried to get rid of it.  He was 43.  One of the greatest interpreters of his music was the Russian pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky (1901-1961), who married Scriabin’s eldest daughter, Elena.  Sofronitsky is not very well known in the West, which is quite unfortunate: some of his recordings were at the highest possible level.  Here is the recording made by Sofronitsky of Scriabin’s late Sonata no. 9, op. 68, subtitled “Black Mass.”  The recording was made in 1960.  We’ll dedicate an entry to the art of Sofronitsky at a later date.

Read more...

December 29, 2014.  Happy New Year!  2015 is fast approaching, and following yet another serendipitous tradition that was established at Classical Connect over the last several years, we Benozzo Gozzoli, Madonna and Childdedicate the last annual entry to a composer with an unknown birthdate.  For obvious reason, these composers usually come from the age when record-keeping was not very accurate.  During Medieval times not only the birthdate, but often the name and  the music itself were usually lost, so our composers come from the period that followed, the Renaissance.  Orlando di Lasso (or Orlande de Lassus, as his name is sometimes written) was one such composer.  He was born either in 1530 or 1532 in the town of Mons, in the County of Hinaut in what is now Belgium (Gilles Binchois, another famous composer of the Renaissance, was born in Mons 130 years earlier).  It is said that as a boy, Orlando had a very beautiful voice – according to a legend he was even kidnapped for it, not once, but three times.  When Orlando was 12, Ferrante Gonzaga, of the Mantuan Gozagas, a condottiero close to the Emperor Charles V, heard him sing and made Orlando part of his entourage.   Gonzaga’s travels brought Orlando to Italy, Mantua first, then Sicily and Milan.  He then moved to Rome, to the household of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany (despite the title, Cosimo was from a minor branch of the great family that ruled over Florence in the 15th century).  He then received a very prestigious position as the maestro di capella at the basilica of Saint John Lateran, the second most important church in Rome (Palestrina would succeed him several years later).  He started publishing his music around that time, and in several years became famous not just in Italy, but in all of civilized Europe.

 

In 1556 Orlando was hired by the court of the Duke of Bavaria.  He moved to Munich and remained there for the rest of his life.  His fame continued to grow; composers would visit him in Munich, the Pope knighted him, he was invited to many courts.  Only Palestrina could compete with Orlando in popularity. He made several visits to Italy, but despite all offers always returned to Bavaria.  In his last years his health declined; he died on June 14th of 1594 and was buried in Munich.

 

Orlando was immensely prolific.  Apparently he wrote over 2000 pieces of music, sacred (masses and motets), as well as secular (madrigals and chansons).  The cycle of motets called Cantiones sacrae sex vocum (Sacred songs for six voices) was published the year of his death, in 1594.  Here are three of these songs: Ad Dominum cum tribularer, Beatus homo, and Cantabant canticum Moysi.  They are performed by Collegium Vocale Gent under direction of Philippe Herreweghe.  The Madonna and Child (above) are by the Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli.  It was completed in 1450.

Read more...

December 22, 2014.  Christmas of 2014.  We wish all our listeners a Merry Christmas, a holiday joyous to all music lovers, whether religious or not.  We traditionally celebrate it with Johann The Nativity, Domenico GhirlandaioSebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  A six-part work lasting about three hours, it was written for the Christmas season of 1734, but incorporates several cantatas and other music written earlier.  The first part of the cantata describes the birth of Jesus.  Here are movements 5 through 9, the final movements of part one.  It starts with a Chorale, the tenor recitative of the Evangelist follows, then another Chorale, then a Bass aria and the finale Chorale to the words of Martin Luther.  This portion of Christmas Oratorio is performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the baton of Sir John Eliot Gardiner.  The picture on the left is by the great Italian master Domenico Ghirlandaio.  It was painted in 1492 and these days it hangs in the Pinacoteca museum in Vatican.  Note that the angels seem to need the sheet music to properly sing Gloria in excelsis Deo -- or maybe they invite us to sing along.

Read more...

December 15, 2014.  Beethoven and Kodali.  Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 16th, 1770 – at least that’s the accepted date: no direct record of his birth exists, but we know that he was baptized on the 17th.  We celebrate his birthday by going through his piano sonatas.  This Beethoven in 1801by Carl Riedelway, even if seemingly arbitrary, is as good as any: Beethoven’s piano sonatas are the not just an essential part of piano literature, they represent a pinnacle of European music.  Last year it was Sonatas nos. 2 and 3, op. 2.  This year we move on to Sonata no. 4, op. 7, in E-flat Major and the opus 10.  Sonata no. 4 was written in 1796.  By then Beethoven was living in Vienna (he had moved there from Bonn four years earlier).  One of his benefactors, Prince Lichnowsky, provided him with living quarters.  Young and cocky, Beethoven was widely acknowledged as a great piano virtuoso.  He played in all major salons of the city, often improvising during the concerts.  These improvisations brought him great acclaim.  He composed, but not as extensively as he would just a couple year later.  He also traveled: to Prague, with Lichnovsky, then to Pressburg (now Bratislava).  Sonata no. 4 was published in 1797 and was dedicated to Babette Keglevich, Beethoven’s pupil.  We know very little about Babette, except that she came from an old noble family, originally from Croatia, and that clearly she was a very good pianist – the sonata is technically quite difficult.  It’s also pretty long, running about 28 minutes.  Only Hammerklavier, no. 29 Op. 106 is longer.  We’ll hear it in the 1975 performance by Sviatoslav Richter.

     The next sonatas, op. 10, were written two years later, in 1798.  1798 was the year that General Bernadotte, the ambassador of the French Directory and the future King of Sweden (as Charles XIV), arrived in Vienna.  It’s believed that it was Bernadotte who suggested to Beethoven that he write a symphony dedicated to the young, successful general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Beethoven did write a symphony, his third (we know it as Eroica) and initially dedicated it to Napoleon, but once Napoleon proclaimed himself the emperor of France, Beethoven withdrew the dedication.  Opus 10 consists of three sonatas, no. 5 in c minor, in three movements, no. 6 in F Major, also in three movements, and no. 7, in D Major, the largest of the three, in four movements.  All three were dedicated to the Countess Anne Margarete von Browne, the wife of count Johann Georg von Browne, an important patron (Beethoven dedicated three string trios op. 9, written at the same time as the sonatas, to the count himself).  The sonatas op. 10 are not performed very often, which is a pity: they are beautiful and sound fresh, while the modern concert repertory is often repetitive, with the same pieces being played over and over again.  We can listen to sonata no. 5 and no. 6 in the performance by Alfred Brendel; sonata no. 7 is played by Annie Fischer.

     Annie Fischer was a Hungarian pianist.  She was born in Budapest in 1914.  Despite the country’s tragic history, the 20th century saw a flowering of classical music in Hungary.  Composers like Béla Bartók, Ernst von Dohnányi (Fischer’s teacher at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music), and later, György Ligeti and György Kurtág were all of the utmost importance.  And then there were the conductors: Sir Georg Solti, Antal Doráti, the already-mentioned Dohnányi, Fritz Reiner, George Szell. (It’s interesting to note that most of the musicians we just mentioned were Jewish; most of the Hungarian Jews perished during the Holocaust).  One of the most important composers of the first half of the 20th century was Zoltan Kodály, a friend of Béla Bartók.  Kodály’s birthday is also this week: he was born on December 16th of 1882.  Here’s one of his most popular symphonic pieces: the Háry János Suite from 1926.  It’s based on Kodály’s opera, Háry János.   The Cleveland Orchestra is conducted by George Szell.

Read more...

January 8, 2014.  Messiaen, Berlioz.   Two great French composers, Olivier Messiaen and Hector Berlioz (and several others, see below) were born this week.  Messiaen was born on December 10th, Olivier Messiaen1908 in Avignon.  His mother was a poet and his father – an English teacher and translator of Shakespeare into French.  Olivier entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of 11 and while there he was awarded several prizes, in harmony and in fugue writing among them.   He studied the organ, first with the composer and organist Marcel Dupré and later with Charles-Marie Widor, also a composer and one of the most famous organists of his time.   In 1931 Messiaen became the organist of the church de la Sainte-Trinité in the 9th arrondissement, and remained in that position for the following 61 years.  Messiaen accepted the Catholic faith at an early age, and many of his compositions were overtly religious.  Early in his life (in 1932) he wrote an orchestral piece L'ascension ("The Ascension") and three years later, an organ work titled La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord).  Later in his career, in the 1960s, he wrote La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ ("The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ"), a huge work of about one and a half hour’s duration which is scored for the piano, cello and other instrumental solos, a large choir and the orchestra.  Later in his life he wrote his only opera, Saint François d'Assise, based on the life of the saint (Messiaen wrote the libretto himself, studying historical sources in the process).  One of most interesting pieces in this genre is his piano work Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (usually translated as “Twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus”).  It consists of 20 movements, and we have several in our library.  Here is the first movement, Regard du Père ("Contemplation of the Father"), a beautiful, deeply meditative piece, and hereRegard de l'étoile ("Contemplation of the star"), the second movement with its brief celestial motif.  Both are performed by the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who studied with Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife.  (Aimard is one of the most interesting, highly regarded interpreters of modern music; he recently embarked on a tour playing Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  That, in our opinion, was less successful).

Hector Berlioz was born on December 11th, 1803 in a small town of La Côte-Saint-André in thesoutheast of France.  One hundred years apart and completely different in styles, Berlioz and Messiaen have one thing in common: both were absolutely unique, outside of the mainstream music of their time.  If you look at the timeline of Berlioz as a composer, it starts in 1830 with the publication of Symphonie fantastique and lasts for the following 30 years, the first half dedicated mostly to symphonic pieces, and the second half – to opera.  It coincides with the most creative years of Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn in the first half, Wagner and Verdi in the second.  Berlioz is unlike any of them.  Franz Liszt, who was strongly influenced by Berlioz, is probably the closest to him in all of music literature.  In France, Berlioz struggled to be recognized as a composer (Giacomo Meyerbeer was much more popular), even while being praised as a conductor (half a century later, in Vienna, that would also be Mahler’s fate).  Symphonie fantastique was premier in December of 1830, and remained in the orchestral repertory ever since.  is the second movement, Un Bal, in the performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis conducting.

We need to mention two more birthdays, that of Jean Sibelius (December 8th, 1865) and César Franck’s, on December 10th of 1822.

Read more...

December 1, 2014.  More of Brahms’s late piano music.  In recent months we’ve written about Johannes Brahms’s two sets of piano music, Seven fantasies, op. 116 and Six Piano Pieces, op.  118.  Today we continue with the middle opus, Three Intermezzos op.117, which Brahms, in a letter to a Johannes Brahmsfriend, called “lullabies of my sorrow.”  Intermezzos were written in 1892, during the period of great personal loss.  As always, we illustrate the pieces with  music from our library.  The pianist in these recordings is Yael Kareth.  Yael was born in Jerusalem in 1986.  She studied at the Tel Aviv Music Academy and then continued in London with Murray Perahia.  She participated in the Itzhak Perlman Project in Israel and the US, the Aspen and Ravinia Festivals, and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.  She also performed as a soloist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta.  Currently Yael lives in Berlin where she studies with Dmitri Bashkirov and Daniel Barenboim.  The article follows.

In contrast to the neighboring opp. 116 and 118, Brahms comprised op. 117 of only three intermezzi.  However, these three works are of an unmistakably greater import than the similar works of those two collections (except, of course, the grim E-flat minor Intermezzo).  Despite their subdued tone, they carry a weight that could hardly be found within either op. 116 or op. 118, yet together form a fulfilling whole.  Continue here.

Read more...

November 24, 2014.  Alfred Schnittke.  We have to admit to having a problem with the term “Soviet,” as in “Soviet composer.”  There is just so much negativity associated with the term, with all the totalitarian connotations and the evil that was perpetrated under its name during a large part of Alfred Schnittkethe 20th century.  But what would you call a composer born on November 24th of 1934 in a city on river Volga, who then moved to Moscow, studied and later taught at the Moscow Conservatory, and was for a while a member of the Soviet Composer’s Union?  On the other hand, what would you call a composer whose music was so non-conformist and “anti-Soviet” that it was banned by the same Composer’s Union?  The life of Alfred Schnittke, one of the most interesting composers of the last half of the 20th century, was very unusual.  He was born into a German-Jewish family.  His Jewish father Harry was born in Frankfurt but brought to the Soviet Union in 1927 by his parents who, like so many Western intellectuals at that time, went to Russia to build a new, just society.  Most of them perished in the Gulag, but not the Schnittkes.  Harry became a well-known German translator and a journalist.  During the Great Patriotic War, as WWII was called in the Soviet Union, Harry worked as a wartime correspondent.  Once the war was over, he was stationed in Soviet-occupied Vienna to work in a newspaper established by the Soviet authorities.  Harry brought his family with him, including the 12-year-old Alfred.  It was in Vienna, the city of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler, that Alfred started his musical education.  Even though the family stayed in Vienna for just two years, the exposure to the Austrian-German tradition deeply influenced young Schnittke.  They returned to the Soviet Union in 1948 and settled in the suburbs of Moscow.  Alfred attended a music school and in 1953 entered the Moscow Conservatory, studying composition with Evgeny Golubev, a pupil of Myaskovsky, and eventually doing graduate work.  In 1962 he assumed an assistant teaching position at the Conservatory but earned his living writing film scores.   His relationship with the Soviet musical establishment was difficult from the beginning.  Some of his work was banned and most of it rarely performed.  He became officially accepted only in the late 1980s, during Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

Schnittke was a very prolific composer, writing several operas, 10 symphonies, four violin concertos, several piano concertos, and many chamber and instrumental pieces.  His early music was deeply influenced by Shostakovich, but eventually Schnittke evolved into a highly original composer.  In 1971 he wrote an essay titled “Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music.”  In it Schnittke pointed to composers he called “polystylistic,” who mixed and matched various styles into a coherent composition; those, in Schnittke’s opinion, included Luciano Berio, Edison Denisov, Krzysztof Penderecki and other.  But it was Schnittke himself who became a major proponent of this style.

In 1985 Schnittke suffered a terrible stroke (doctors believed they had lost him several times) but recovered and continued composing, though his style became more introverted.  In 1990 Schnittke left Russia and settled in Hamburg.  He had another stroke in 1995, which paralyzed him; after that he stopped composing.  Schnittke died in Hamburg on August 5th, 1998.  His body was returned to Moscow and buried with state honors.

We have a number of Schnittke’s works in our library.  Here’s his "polystylistic" and very representative piece from 1977 called Concerto Grosso No. 1.  It’s performed by the dedicatees of the piece, the violinists Gidon Kremer and his then wife Tatiana Grindenko and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Heinrich Schiff conducting.

Jean-Baptiste Lully, the father of French Baroque, was born on 28th of November 1632.  We’ll commemorate his birthday at a later date.

Read more...

November 17, 2014.  This week across centuries.  Wilhelm Friedemann, a talented but rather unhappy eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, was born on November 22nd of 1710.  Friedemann had a difficult character, later Wilhelm Friedemann Bachin his life he drank heavily, but it seems that his main problem was his rivalry – probably unconscious – with his father.  As Grove Music Dictionary puts it, “… [W.F.] Bach clearly concentrated more on virtuoso performance than on his career as a composer, perhaps in the depressing realization that he could never attain his father’s perfection in all musical genres. His creative energies were therefore expressed more readily in free improvisation, and particularly in his late years the improvisation of fantasies on the organ and harpsichord was very important to him.”  Still, in that rather barren period of the 18th century between the deaths of J.S. Bach and Handel and the time when Haydn and Mozart brought the new classical style to its pinnacle, Wilhelm Friedemann was clearly one of the very best.  To prove it, here’s his Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, written around1767.  Claudio Astronio conducts the Italian ensemble Harmonices Mundi from the harpsichord.

Firdemann died in 1784.  Two years later, on November 18th of 1786 Carl Maria von Weber was born in Eutin, the Duchy of Holstein.  Weber is mostly known for his operas, especially Der Freischütz, considered the first German “Romantic” opera.  The operas are indeed the most important part of his body of work, but being a wonderful pianist Weber also wrote a number of pieces for Carl Maria von Weberthe instrument.  He composed two piano concertos, four sonatas, and the Konzertstück (concert piece) in F minor for piano and orchestra.  He completed the piece the morning of June 18th of 1821, the day Der Freischütz had its premier in Berlin.  While the Konzertstück has just one movement (that’s why Weber decided not to call it a concerto), it has four sections and Weber provided a detailed – and highly romantic – program for each.  The first one, according to the composer, describes a knight’s wife on a balcony, gazing into the distance, thinking about her husband who went on a Crusade to the Holy Land.  In the second section, the excited wife, thinking of her possibly wounded husband, falls unconscious, but do we hear the trumpets in the distance?  Yes we do, and in the third section, written in the gay C Major, the knights are returning from the Crusade to the delight of the crowds, and the couple is reunited.  The forth, final episode depicts happiness without end.  Felix Mendelssohn attended the premier, loved it and later played it many times.  We don’t know whether Weber’s extravagant program helps the listener to appreciate the music but it’s a superb piece and is brilliantly played here by Alfred Brendel with the London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado conducting.

Weber suffered from tuberculosis and was just 39 when he died in 1826.  Manuel de Falla, one of the most important Spanish composers of the early 20th century, was born fifty years later, on December 23rd of 1876 in the port city of Cádiz in Andalusia.  Falla was the youngest of the three composers who revolutionized Spanish music at the end of the 19th century: Isaac Albéniz was born in 1860 and Enrique Granados – in 1867.  While promoting the national roots of Spanish music, the three of them opened up a rather close-minded and xenophobic musical culture of the country to broader musical ideas, many of them emanating from France.  Falla studied in Madrid as a young man, and then, in 1907, moved to Paris, where he met and befriended many composers, including Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky.  Falla returned to Spain in 1914; by then he was recognized as one of the leading composers of the time.  His opera La vida breve was successfully staged in France and Spain; he had a written a number of zarzuelas, songs, and chamber pieces.  An even more productive period followed.  One of the pieces Falla wrote shortly after returning from France was Nights in the Gardens of Spain for piano and orchestra, which he completed in 1915.  Here it is, in the performance by the great champion of Spanish music, the late pianist Alicia de Larrocha; L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is conducted by Sergiu Comissiona.

Alfred Schnittke, one of the most important Russian composers of the second half of the 20th century, was also born this week, on November 24th of 1934.  We commemorate his birthday every year and hope to do it in 2014 as well, albeit at a later date.

Read more...

November 10, 2014.  Couperin, Borodin, Hindemith.  François Couperin, one of the greatest French Baroque composers, was born on this day in 1668.  He came from a large family of musicians, some of them very talented (you can read more about the Couperins François Couperinin our earlier post).  He was incomparable as a composer for the harpsichord (clavecin, as it is called in French).  Couperin wrote four Books for the harpsichord, each containing several “orders,” 27 orders altogether.   One of the pieces in Order 6 (Book 2) is called Les Barricades Mistérieuses (The mysterious barricades); it was written in 1717.  Nobody knows for sure why Couperin used this unusual title, although many suggestions have been made, from rather risqué to outlandish.  In any event, here it is, performed by Scott Ross.  (A talented American harpsichordist who spent most of his life in Canada and France, Ross had a tragically short life: he died in 1989 at the age of 38.  Ross recorded all keyboard compositions by Couperin, all 555 sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, and many other works by the Baroque composers).

The chemist, doctor and accidental composer of great talent, Alexander Borodin was born on November 12th of 1833.  All his life Borodin was mostly interested in sciences, studying in St.-Petersburg and universities abroad and eventually obtaining a teaching position at the prestigious Medical-Surgical Academy.  Music was a love, and composing – a pleasant hobby.  In 1862, at the home of his colleague, the famous doctor Sergey Botkin, Borodin met Mily Balakirev and then through Balakirev, he made friends with Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and the young Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  Five years later the music critic Vladimir Stasov would call them the Mighty Five.  The 1862 meeting strongly affected Borodin, and almost immediately he started working on his 1st Symphony.  Even though he wrote three of them, some chamber music, and most of Prince Igor, a truly great opera (it fell upon Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov to finish it after Borodin’s death), he never made composing his main profession.  In 1880 Borodin wrote a symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia (the original Russian title was just “Central Asia”).  In 1908, a Frenchman by the name of Joseph-Louis Mundwiller shot a documentary called Moscow Clad in Snow (and it really was that year).  It’s a fascinating film that shows Moscow at the beginning of the 20th century, much of which doesn’t exist any longer.  When the movie was restored, the editors decided that Borodin’s In the Steppes would go well as an accompaniment.  Even though there are thousands of miles between Moscow and Central Asia, somehow it worked.  Here is In the Steppes of Central Asia as performed by Kurt Sanderling and Dresden Staatskapelle.  And here is the movie on YouTube.  It’s worth watching even if you’ve have never been to Moscow.

One of the most important German composers of the 20th century, Paul Hindemith was born on Mathias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, CrucifictionNovember 16th, 1895.  We need to dedicate an entry to him alone, but right now we’ll present one of his most famous compositions, the symphony Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter).  “Mathis” in the title is Matthias Grünewald, a German Renaissance painter who lived from 1470 to 1528.  His greatest work was the so-called Isenheim Altarpiece, which consists of a large central panel depicting the Crucifixion and several side panels with the Annunciation, several saints, the visit of Saint Anthony to Saint Paul the Hermit and other biblical and apocryphal stories.  The side panels can be opened and closed, creating different views of the altar.  The altarpiece is an absolute pinnacle of German art; the power of it is as overwhelming today as it was 500 years ago.  Located in a museum in the Alsatian city of Colmar it is very much worth the trip, as the Michelin guide would put it, even though Colmar itself is not a very interesting place (but of course if you’re there, you’ve already made it to Strasbourg).  If the trip to Alsace isn’t in your plans, then  you can go to the Web Gallery of Art and view it there.  Mathis der Maler consists of three movements, each corresponding to a separate panel: Angelic Concert, Entombment, and The Temptation of Saint Anthony.  Here it is, in the performance by the London Symphony Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein conducting.

Read more...

November 3, 2014.  Années de Pèlerinage, Deuxième Année: Italie.  Even though today is the birthday of Vincenzo Bellini (he was born in 1801 in Catania, Sicily, and we’ve written about him extensively in the past, here and here), we’ll continue the traversal of Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage.  This time it’s the second year of the pilgrimage, and we’re in Italy.  As always, we’ll illustrate every piece with performances by pianists young and renowned: the Canadian Jason Cutmore plays Sposalizio and Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa, the great Alfred Brendel plays Penseroso, Lazar Berman plays the first two of the three Sonetto del Petrarca, Sonetto.47 and Sonetto 104, and the legendary Russian pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky – Sonetto 123, in a 1952 recording.  Finally, the young Swiss pianist Beatrice Berrut plays what Liszt called “Fantasia Quasi Sonata” Après une Lecture de Dante.  Here’s the article by Joseph DuBose.

Rafael The Marriage of the Virgin (Lo Sposalizio)The second volume of Années de Pèlerinage is a catalogue of Liszt’s travels through Italy. Unlike its predecessor, however, it does convey depictions of Italy’s landscapes and cities, but instead impressions of its rich artistic heritage. As Liszt traveled the Italian Peninsula, he traversed its centuries of artistic excellence, from the immortal writings of Dante and Petrarch, to the paintings of Raphael, the sculptures of Michelangelo, and even the music of Bononcini, whose death preceded Liszt’s travels by roughly only a century. Like the preceding volume, the pieces of Deuxième Année are revisions of those Liszt originally composed during the time of his pilgrimage, some quite extensively and amounting, in essence, to full-fledged rewritings, such as with the three Petrarch sonnets. The volume was published 1858, three years after the first.

Deuxième Année opens with Liszt’s musical portrayal of Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin in “Sposalizio” (here). The innocence and reverence of the subject matter is displayed in the simple pentatonic melody of the opening measures, stated without any further adornment, and answered by an expectant motif tucked within the inner tones of contrasting chords. Repeated incessantly, the pentatonic theme drives the first section of the piece, through wide-ranging harmonies, to a fortissimo conclusion in E major. A brief passage, combining the fragments of the theme with the answering motif, then leads the listener into the piece’s second main theme. A pious wedding march in G major, this new theme, given in a rich, chordal texture, is accompanied by the pentatonic theme. At first, its appearance is only occasional. However, following a modulation back into the tonic key of E major and the recommencement of the wedding march, the pentatonic theme becomes a permanent fixture of the accompaniment. Against the wedding march, it creates a glistening accompaniment of almost Impressionistic colors, and an continuous flow of energy that climaxes in the expectant motif of the beginning. From thence, the music recedes, with the pentatonic theme still heard above echoes of the wedding march, into the final, quiet tonic chords. (Continue).

Read more...

October 27, 2014.  Paganini and Berio.  Today is the birthday of Niccolò Paganini, who was born in Genoa in 1782.  As a composer he’s best known for his 24 caprices for violin solo and several violin concertos.  So here, to celebrate, are two caprices, played by two of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, David Oistrach (caprice no. 17, recorded in 1946) and Jascha Heifetz  (Caprice no. 13, in a somewhat unnecessary arrangement for the violin and piano, with Brooks Smith, recorded in 1956).

Lucian Berio

     Last week we wrote about Liszt’s first book of Années de pèlerinage and didn’t have time to mark the 89th birthday of the Italian composer Luciano Berio, who was born on October 24th of 1925.  Berio was one of the most interesting composers of the second half of the 20th century.  Born into a musical family (both his father and grandfather were organists and composers) he started studying music at an early age.  During the war he was conscripted by Mussolini’s Republic of Salò, but injured himself in training and spent most of the time in a hospital.  When the war was over, he went to Milan to study piano and composition but his injured hand cut short his piano aspirations.  His early compositions were written in the neo-classical style of the Stravinsky type, but he soon became interested in the avant-garde music and especially in serialism.  In 1952 he went to the US to study with Luigi Dallapiccola in Tangelwood.  Dallapiccola, also an Italian, was the major proponent of serialism, being influenced by Webern and Berg. 

     Berio then attended several of the International summer courses in Darmstadt, at that time the epicenter for new music in Europe.  Darmstadt was the place for young composers and music theoreticians to listen to music, lecture, argue, and share ideas.  Among the participants were Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti, Milton Babbit, Hanz Werner Henze and many others.  Theodor Adorno, the leading philosopher and musicologist, was one of the active participants.  In the 1960s Berio spent a lot of time in the US, teaching at Tanglewood and Juilliard.  Interested in electronic music, he went to Paris and became a co-director of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), a place associated with the name of Pierre Boulez and one of the leading centers of research in new music in general and electro-acoustical music in particular.  After returning to Italy in the 1980s, Berio created a similar center in Florence, called Tempo Reale.  Though he was a sought-after teacher and traveled constantly, he bought some land and buildings in the village of Radicondoli, not far from Siena.  That became his base, especially after his third marriage to Talia Pecker, an Israeli musicologist.  Berio continued to actively travel, conduct and compose till the end.  He died in Rome on May 27, 2003.

     Berio possessed a wonderful intellectually curiosity which went well beyond music.  In the 1950s he collaborated with Umberto Eco, a philosopher, novelist and literary critic.  Together they produce several radio programs on language and sound - for example, words that are formed by sounds that describe their meaning (like “cuckoo,” for example, or “roar”; the fancy name for it is “onomatopoeia”).  Eco also got Berio interested in semiotics, the study of symbols and signs.  Later in his life Berio collaborated with the writer Italo Calvino and the architect Renzo Piano.

     Berio worked in many different styles, from pieces for solo instruments to orchestral works for operas.  He wrote a series of works for different instruments calls Sequenza.  The first Sequenza, for flute, was written in 1956, the last Sequenza XIV, for cello, in 2002.  From 1950 to 1964 Berio was married to Cathy Berberian, an American mezzo-soprano (they met in Milan, while studying at the conservatory).  Sequenza III, for voice, written in 1965, and dedicated to her.  And here she is, singing this piece.  Berio’s Sinfonia was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered in 1968.  Here’s the first movement, performed by the Orchestre National de France under direction of Pierre Boulez, with and the Swingle Singers, 1969.

Read more...

October 20, 2014.  Franz Liszt.  We’re marking the 113th birthday anniversary of the great Hungarian composer.  Liszt was born on October 22nd of 1811 in a small village of Doborján (after the First World War that part of western Hungary was given to Austria; the town is now called Franz LisztRaiding).  He grew up to become the greatest pianist of his time (and some believe of all time) and one of the most important composers of the 19th century.  To celebrate, we‘re publishing an article by Joseph DuBose on the first of the three Années de pèlerinage piano suites, Première année: Suisse.  We illustrate each piece (there are nine altogether in Première année) with performances by two young English pianists, Ashley Wass and Sodi Braide, both recorded in concerts, and two great Lisztians, the Cuban-American Jorge Bolet (1914 – 1990) and the Russian pianist Lazar Berman (1930 – 2005).  The article follows. ♫

 

In early June 1835, Franz Liszt traveled from Paris to Switzerland. There, in Geneva, he met his mistress, Marie d’Agoult, who had recently left her husband and family for him. Over the next four years, they lived and journeyed throughout Switzerland and Italy. Inspired by the wondrous scenery of Switzerland and the rich cultural heritage of Italy, Liszt composed during these years a suite of piano pieces entitled Album d’un voyageur, a title which he likely adapted from that of a letter from George Sand: Lettre d’un voyageur. The suite was later published in 1842, after his relationship with d’Agoult had ended and he had returned to the life a touring virtuoso. However, Album would prove to be only the genesis of a much more significant collection of pieces. Between 1848 and 1854, Liszt revised several of its constituent pieces to form the first volume (Première année: Suisse) of his Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage)—indeed, only two emerged relatively unaltered. Besides being personal reflections of Liszt’s travels, the pieces that ultimately became part of