Archive of blurbs

February 19, 2018.  From Blow to Kurtág.  We have a wonderful group of musicians to celebrate this week.   Luigi Boccherini was born on this day in 1743 in Lucca.  He studied in Rome, at the age of 14 he moved to Vienna where he played the cello at the Burgtheater, and four years later, in 1770 he moved to Madrid.  There he was employed by the younger brother of the King of Spain, Infante Luigi BoccheriniLuis Antonio.  His official title was compositore e virtuoso di camera.  He lived in Spain for the rest of his life, even while holding an appointment with the Crown Prince of Prussia.  Boccherini died in Madrid on May 28th of 1805.  He wrote more than 100 quartets – Minuet from String Quintet in E Major, Op.11 No. 5 is probably his most famous piece of music.  Here’s another of his string quartets, “La Tiranna,” in G major, Op. 44, no. 4.  It’s performed by the Ensemble 415.

 Also born today but almost two centuries later, in 1926, was one of the most influential composers of the second part of the 20th century, György Kurtág.  A Hungarian, he was born in the town of Lugoj, part of the Austria-Hungary that reverted to Romania after the Great War.  He studied music in Timișoara (also formerly a Hungarian city) and in 1946 moved to Budapest.  He became friends with another young composer, György Ligeti.  In 1957 Kurtág went to Paris where he studied with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud.  After the limitations of the socialist Hungary, Paris offered Kurtág access to all the modern music he wanted to hear.  He listened to the Viennese, especially Webern; other influences were Stravinsky and Bartók.  Had he stayed in Paris, his life would’ve been very different, but he chose to return to Hungary.  There he earned money as an accompanist and voice coach.  He didn’t receive international recognition as a composer till the 1980s.  He could afford to retire from teaching only in 1986, and left Hungary in 1993.  Since then, he has worked in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and other cities.  He now lives in Bordeaux.  Kurtág’s music is difficult, but as we’ve said many times when talking about contemporary composers, it’s usually worth the effort.  Here’s a piece dedicated to his friend, Pierre Boulez, Petite musique solennelle en hommage à Pierre Boulez.  The Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra is conducted by Matthias Pintscher.

The English Baroque composer John Blow, the oldest in our group, was born on February 23rd of 1649.  At the age of 19 he was appointed the organist at the Westminster Abbey and later assumed the same position at the Chapel Royal.  In 1664 he was made Master of the Children of the Chapel.  In this position he taught a generation of future composers, Jeremiah Clarke among them.  Daniel Purcell, the younger brother of Henry Purcell, was also his student.  Blow was very fond of Henry and even resigned as theorganist at the Westminster Abbey to allow Purcell to take his place.  The two composers were good friends, and when Henry Purcell died at the age of 36 in 1965, Blow wrote an Ode on his death.  Blow’s favorite musical genre was the Anthem, a form similar to a catholic motet, and usually written to a specific text.  Here’s the coronation anthem for King James II, God Spake Sometimes in Visions, which Blow composed in 1695.  The Choir of King's College, Cambridge and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields are conducted by David Willcocks.

The greatest in the group, George Frideric Handel, was also born this week, on February 23rd of 1685.  A German, he visited London in 1710, staged his new opera, Rinaldo, to great success and moved to England permanently in 1712 to become England’s national composer.  We’ve celebrated him many a time and will do so again in the future.  And speaking of opera, Enrico Caruso, probably the greatest tenor of all time, was also born this week, on February 25th of 1873.


February 12, 2018.  Four solid talents.  Three early-music composers were born this week: Francesco Cavalli, one of the pioneers of opera, on February 14th of 1602; Michael Praetorius, an immensely prolific German composer of the Protestant church music, most likely on February 15th of 1571; and Arcangelo Corelli,  on February 17th of 1653.  It so happens that we wrote about all three of them last year.  Four lesser composer were also born this week -- Fernando Sor, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Georges Auric and Henri  Vieuxtemps.  Fernando Sor, a Catalan guitarist and composer, was born on February 13th of 1778 in Barcelona.  He moved around Europe quite a bit, first living in Paris, then in London, and then moving to Moscow, where he stayed for four years.  He returned to Paris and lived there for the rest of his life (he died in 1839).  Sor was considered the foremost guitar virtuoso of his time; even though he wrote music in many genres, he is known today for his guitar compositions.  Here’s one of his most popular pieces, Variations on a Theme by Mozart.  It’s performed by the Spanish guitarist Rafael Serrallet.

Alexander Dargomyzhsky, born on February 14th of 1813, was an interesting Russian composer who lived in the period between Mikhail Glinka and the generation of the Mighty Five.  Dargomyzhsky met Glinka at the age of 22; they became Alexander Dargomyzhskyfriends, played piano four hands and studied scores together.  Encouraged by Glinka, he wrote an opera, Esmeralda, which had to wait its premier for eight years and then disappeared from the stage.  Disappointed, Dargomyzhsky went to Europe – Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Vienna – where he met many major composers and musicians.  After two years of travels he returned to Russia to start working on the opera Rusalka.  That one also had to wait – it was premiered only in 1856.  His best-known opera, The Stone Guest, was left unfinished; it was completed by César Cui and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  Dargomyzhsky wrote a number of lovely songs; here’s one of them, Molitva (The prayer) and here’s another, V tverdi nebesnoy (In heavenly firmament).  Both are sung by the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, accompanied on the piano by her famous husband, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.  The recording was made in 1991 when Vishnevskaya was 65 and beyond her prime.  Even if her voice isn’t as solid as it was at her prime, the phrasing is beautiful. 

Two Francophone composers were also born this week, Henri Vieuxtemps and Georges Auric:  Vieuxtemp, a Belgian, on February 17th of 1820 and Auric, a Frenchman, on February 15th of 1899.  Vieuxtemp was one of the best violinists of his time; Robert Schumann, who met him when 13-year-old Vieuxtemp toured Germany, compared him to Paganini (Paganini himself was impressed with the young virtuoso).  Vieuxtemp spent five years in Russia at the court of Nicolas I and practically laid the foundation of the Russian school of violin playing.  He composed seven violin concertos; here is the first movement, Allegro non troppo. of his concerto no. 5.  In this 1961 recording, Jascha Heifetz is playing with the New Symphony Orchestra of London, Malcom Sargent conducting.

Georges Auricwas one of the Les Six.  He was born in Lodève, in the south of France.  He collaborated with Jean Cocteau for many years, writing music to Cocteau’s ballet librettos and films.   Here’s his fun Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, performed by the Arundo-Donax Ensemble.


February 5, 2018.  Berg and two pianists.  Alban Berg, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, was born on February 9th of 1885.  A year ago, we posted a detailed entry about him, so this time we’ll just play some of his music.  Berg wrote the Lyric Suite in 1925/26 using the 12-tone Alban Bergtechnique following his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg’s theories, and dedicated it to Alexander von Zemlinsky.  Here is the first movement of the Suite, Allegretto gioviale, and here – the second, Andante amoroso, lyrical indeed, despite its 12-tone origin.  They are performed by the Alban Berg Quartett.

As no other significant composers were born this week (unless you’re fond of the music of Gretry), we’ll turn to the instrumentalists.   A week ago was the birthday of Arthur Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.  Rubinstein life is legendary, both musically and socially; he dominated the music scene for more than 80 years.  A small blurb would never do it justice, so we’ll have to start today and continue at a later date.  Rubinstein was born on January 28th of 1887 in Łódź, in the part of Poland that back then belonged to the Russian Empire.  His Jewish parents owned a small textile factory.  Rubinstein was a child prodigy if ever there was one: at the age of three he was taken to Berlin to play for Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and Brahms’s collaborator, who listen to him and declared that the boy may become a great musician.  He played his first concert in Łódź at the age of seven, and made his Berlin debut in 1900, playing Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 23, Saint-Saëns’s Piano concerto no. 2 and pieces by Schumann and Chopin (Joahim conducted the orchestra).  He started playing regular concerts in Poland and Germany, and in 1904 moved to Paris.  There, he became friends with many musicians: the violinist Jacques Thibaud, composers Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas and another Pole, Karol Szymanowski.   Two years later, in 1906, he made his American debut at the Carnegie Hall, playing with the Philadelphia orchestra.  (He would play his last Carnegie Hall concert 70 years later, at the age of 89).   At that time, Rubinstein was leading a very active social life, he was spending much time chasing women (although some would say that they were chasing him) and not studying enough.  He didn’t have a regular piano teacher; many of his concerts were carried by his natural talent and enthusiasm but were under-prepared.  The New York critics noticed it and his Carnegie Hall debut received rather mixed reviews.  By 1908 he was back in Berlin having big financial problems and desperate.  He even attempted suicide, half-heartedly it seems.  That was a cathartic event, as he was, in his own words, “reborn.”  In 1912 Rubinstein made his London debut and settled in Chelsey.  He became friends with two American expats, Muriel and Paul Draper, whose Chelsea salon was a center of London music life.  There he met Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Monteux, Pablo Casals and many other musicians.  He stayed in London during the Great War; very much anti-German by then, he played his last concert in Germany in 1914.

Rubinstein had a very large repertoire and is known as probably the best interpreter ever of the music of Chopin.  It’s a revelation to listen to his interpretations of the same piece recorded during the different phases of his career.  Here’s Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2 in it’s perfect simplicity.  The recording was made in 1965, when Rubinstein was 78.

Another pianist was born this week and we’d like to at least mention him (we’ll write about him at another date).  Claudio Arrau, also one of the greatest, was born in Chillán, Chile, on February 6th of 1903.


January 29, 2018.  From Palestrina to Nono.  This week covers an incredible 450 year span of European classical music, from Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose first compositions were published in 1554 to Luigi Nono, who died in 1990 and composed till his very last years.  Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn were also born this week, Schubert on January 31st of 1797, and Mendelssohn – on February 3rd of 1809.  We’ve written about both many times and of course will come back to them in the future.

We celebrate Palestrina this week even though we don’t know for sure what year he was born: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrinaletters and records from Palestrina’s life suggest that he was born sometime between February 3, 1525 and February 2, 1526 but these February dates provide us with a good excuse to commemorate the great Italian composer this week.  Palestrina’s life is rather well documented; we know that he started his training at the great basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, that he was later appointed to the Capella Giulia at Saint Peter and sometime later to the more prestigious Cappella Sistina.  In 1561 he succeeded Orlando di Lasso as maestro di cappella at San Giovanni in Laterano.  Funds were lacking, and the capella never reached the level sought by Palestrina; in 1566 he quit.  After serving for several years at his alma mater, Santa Maria Maggiore, and then, for a brief period, at the employ of Cardinal Ipolitto d’Este, at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, he eventually returned to the Vatican’s Capella Giulia and stayed there till the end of his life.  His fame grew across Italy and Europe; he was considered “the very first musician in the world” by a person close to Alfonso II d'Este - the Duke of Ferrara, who would know, since theDuke’s court was a major center of cultural life of Italy.  Palestrina died in 1594 in Rome.  He was widely published during his lifetime and admired by the popes for whom he worked, and other patrons of art:  Philipp II of Spain, the Gonzagas and d’Este.   Palestrina left a huge legacy: 104 masses, more than 300 motets, 140 secular madrigals and more.   We have several of his works in our library but here’s other example, a motet Dies sanctificatus. 

Almost half a millennium later, another Italian became famous as one of the most forward-looking composers of his generation.  Luigi Nono’s music may sound as difficult as some of Palestrina’s masses, our ear being so used to the melodic tonality of the intervening centuries, but most music lovers would agree that it’s very interesting.  Nono was born in Venice on January 29th of 1924.  At the Venice Conservatory he studied with the noted composer Gian Francesco Malipiero.  After graduation, Nono became friends with Bruno Maderna, a leading modernist composer of his generation.  In 1950, Nono’s work, a 12-tone piece, was presented in Darmstadt, the mecca of the avant-garde.  Soon after, Nono became a leading figure at Darmstadt, together with Maderna, Stockhausen and Boulez.  It’s interesting to note that composers of both the 16th and the 20th century struggled with almost identical problems.  In the 16th, the Catholic church was on the verge of banning polyphony masses because Cardinals deemed they made sacred texts incomprehensible.  It’s thought that Palestrina "saved" the polyphony with his Missa Papae Marcelli, which demonstrated that a mass can be both, polyphonic and understandable.  In the 20th century, Luigi Nono was accused by Stockhausen of the same - that words in Nono’s piece (Stockhausen was talking about Il canto sospeso) were impossible to understand, which, in Stockhausen’s opinion, made the whole idea of using texts absurd.  That was a serious accusation, as Nono selected the texts from a poignant collection of arewell letters that captured Resistance fighters wrote before being executed by the Nazis.  Nono strenuously objected but it seems Stockhausen was correct.  You can judge for yourself.  Il canto sospeso is a difficult piece but worth the effort.  It’s here, SWR Symphonieorchester is conducted by Peter Rundel.


January 22, 2018.  Mozart in Vienna, early years s birthday is this week – he was born on January 27th in 1756.  Last year we wrote about his life and music during the period around Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1780-811781, when the 25-year-old Mozart finally left Salzburg and settled in Vienna.  He first stayed at Singerstrasse 7, not far from Stephansplatz.  Later in 1781 he moved in with the family of  the Webers.  Mozart met the Webers in 1777, while they still lived in Mannheim.  The Webers had four daughters, Aloysia, Josepha, Constanze and Sofie.  Both Aloysia and Josepha were fine singers; some years later Josepha would premier the role of the Queen of Night in The Magic Flute.  Mozart promptly fell in love with Aloysia, but had to leave Mannheim after a short stay as his father Leopold wanted him to go to Paris.  Several months later Mozart met Aloysia again, this time in Munich, where she was singing at the Court Theater.  Unfortunately, by then Aloysia’s feeling had changed, she even pretended not to recognize Mozart.  According to Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, Mozart’s biographer and the husband of Mozart’s widow, Constanze, Mozart’s reaction was swift: he sat at the piano and sung, “The one who doesn’t want me could kiss my ass” (Mozart wasn’t shy of using scatological terms).

While living with the Webers in Vienna, Mozart fell in love with Constanze, the third daughter.  They married on August 4th of 1782 (papa Leopold consented to the marriage only grudgingly).  In the following years, till his death in 1791, he and Constanza moved a dozen times but all of their addresses were within the city’s central First District.  The first pieces composed in Vienna were several sonatas for keyboard and violin, K 376 through K 380.  The set was dedicated to Josepha Auernhammer, then 23, a pianist and Mozart’s pupil.  Josepha fell in love with her teacher; at that time Mozart was still courting Constanza but there was a period in 1782 when they separated; it’s possible that Mozart’s affair with Josepha took place during that period.  Here is the Violin sonata K 380, performed by Henryk Szeryng, violin, and Ingrid Haebler, piano.  Mozart also wrote a lovely sonata for two pianos to be played by him and Josepha.  It’s performed here by two young American pianists, Nimrod David Pfeffer and Rafael Skorka.  But the main composition of Mozart’s first year in Vienna was the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio).  It premiered on July 16th, 1782 in the Vienna Burgtheater to huge success.  In addition to the Burgtheater, the opera was staged by Emanuel Schikaneder, a librettist (he wrote the libretto to the Magic Flute), composer and impresario, who founded the Theater an der Wien.  Even during Mozart’s time, productions of the opera were staged throughout German-speaking cities.  Here’s Belmonte’s aria Konstanze, dich wiederzusehen! ... O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig!, a favorite not just with the public but with Mozart himself.  In this 1965 recording the superb Fritz Wunderlich is Belmonte.


January 15, 2018.  Nicolas Gombert.  We have never written about Nicolas Gombert, which is quite an omission, considering that Gombert is considered  to be one of the greatest Flemish composers Nicolas Gombert sheet of musicof the generation following Josquin des Prez.  Gombert was born around 1495 in southern Flanders.  Some musicologists speculate that he studied with Josquin, who at that time was living in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, not far from Gombert’s presumed birthplace.  Even if he wasn’t Josquin’s student, Gombert was clearly an admirer, as he wrote music to commemorate Josquin’s death.  Sometime around 1526 Gombert found employment with the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  Charles’s lands stretched from the Netherlands and Flanders to Spain, Austria, some German states and Italy, and he traveled extensively.  Gombert accompanied the emperor on his trips, being “Master of the boys” of the court chapel.  As he visited different countries, his fame grew, with his music being published in many countries.  Even though he was never formally appointed maître de chapelle (music director) of the court, he served as court composer.  Gombert’s life changed dramatically in 1540.  According to Gerolamo Cardano, a court physician, he committed a “gross indecency” against a boy in the emperor’s employ.  Gombert was sentenced to the galleys and spent several years in the high seas.  We don’t know how long his punishment lasted and what his conditions were like, but during that time he managed to compose several pieces.  Those found their way back to the court and eventually earned Gombert the emperor’s pardon.  It seems that Gombert spent the last years of his in Tournai: in 1547 he sent a letter from there to Ferrante Gonzaga, Charles’s captain (Ferrante was known as a patron of composers – some years later he would bring two great composers to his court, Orlando di Lasso and Giaches de Wert).  Gombert probably died in Tournai sometime around 1560.

Gombert is considered one of the last Franco-Flemish composers who still worked outside of Italy.  Gombert’s contemporary, Adrian Willaert, would move to Italy, and so would Orlando and practically all other significant Flemish composers.  Gombert was considered a master of polyphony, and you can hear it in our samples.  Here’s his motet In te Domine speravi.  Paul Van Nevel conducts the Huelgas ensemble.  And here – the Magnificat secundi toni, performed by the same artists.


January 8, 2017.  Three pianists.  Three great pianists of the last century were born last week, and by remarkable coincidence all three were born on the same day, January 5th: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in 1920, Alfred Brendel in 1931, and Maurizio Pollini – in 1942.  So very different as performers (even their repertoires have little in common), all three were cerebral musicians who did not wear their hearts on the sleeve.  Their playing is faithful to the score and emotions come from the composer, not the artifice. 

Arturo Benedetti MichelangeliArturo Benedetti Michelangeli was born in Brescia, northern Italy.  Though he started studying the violin (at the age of three), he switched to the piano soon after.  He was accepted at the Milan Conservatory at ten and graduated at the age of 14.  He was not very successful at the Ysaÿe International Festival in 1938, where he took 7th place (Emil Gilels was the winner) but a year later he won the Geneva Piano competition.  There, the perfection of his playing already apparent, and he was called “the new Liszt.”  In 1940 he played a sensational debut concert in Rome.  During WWII he served in the Italian air force but resumed his career soon after the war’s end.  He debuted in London in 1946 and in the US – in 1948.  In the 1950s he stopped concertizing for a while, concentrating on teaching, and formed his own International Pianists’ Academy.  Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich were his students.  Michelangeli resumed playing concerts in 1960, even though he was known to cancel almost as many concerts as he played.  Michelangeli’s repertoire was very small for a pianist of his standing, especially compared to pianists like Sviatoslav Richter, but the crystalline perfection of his playing was incomparable.  Michelangeli died in Lugano on June 12th of 1995.  Here’s Chopin’s Ballade no. 1 in his 1972 recording.

The great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel was born in Wiesenberg in what is now the Czech Republic.  His family moved to Zagreb when Alfred was six, and then to Graz, Austria, where he studied at the local conservatory.  What is quite unusual for a future virtuoso is that Brendel didn’t have formal piano classes past the age of 14 and was mostly self-taught.  Neither did he have a brilliant competition career: he only participated in one, the Buzoni, and took the fourth prize.  His career was built slowly, as he played concerts across Europe.  His made several recordings, again starting with just a few (later he would record all of Beethoven sonatas three times, and also three times all of Beethoven concertos – with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony, with Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic, and with Bernard Haitink and London Philharmonic.  He also recorded all Mozart piano pieces and most of Schubert).  The breakthrough came after his London concert in the late 1960s: it was taped, and the recording companies came calling.  In 1972, after living in Vienna for 20 years, Brendel moved to London; he still lives there.  Brendel is a supreme interpreter of the music of Schubert, Beethoven, and late Liszt.  Here’s Brendel playing Schubert Impromptu Op.90 No.1

Compared to Brendel’s, Maurizio Pollini’s path to fame was more conventional.  Born in Milan (he still lives there), he went to the local conservatory, and at the age of 18 won the International Chopin Piano competition.  After a shaky couple of years Pollini embarked on a performance career.  His technique, interpretive precision and depth brought him great acclaim.  Pollini’s repertoire is broad and unusual.  On the one hand, he’s one of the greatest Chopin players of the century.  At the same time, his Beethoven is superb (not many pianists can play both at the same level).  Pollini is also a great champion of contemporary music: in addition to Schoenberg and Webern he plays works of Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Bruno Maderna.  Here’s Pollini’s interpretation of Chopin’s Nocturne No.1 Op.9 in B Flat minor.


January 1, 2018.  Happy New Year!  Best wishes to all our listeners in 2018 and lots of good Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Januarymusic!  While we cannot think of any classical composition written specifically to celebrate theNew Year, its arrival is clearly associated with fireworks, and what could be better fireworks music than George Frideric Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks?  The occasion for which Handel composed his famous suite was quite different (the end of the War of the Austrian Succession) but we don’t mind.  Herer is it, gloriously performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Field under the direction of Neville Marriner.

The picture to the left is January, from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an illuminated manuscript created by the Limbourgh Brothers at the beginning of the 15th century.  The members of the Duke’s household are exchanging New Years’ gifts.


December 25, 2017.  Merry Christmas!  As we’ve done in the past several years, we celebrate this wonderful holiday by playing sections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s masterpiece, the Christmas Oratorio.  Last year we played the complete Part II, so now we’ll Guido Reni, Adoration of the Shepherdsturn to Part III.  The Oratorio was written in 1734; in it Bach reused some of the music from Cantatas BWV 213, 214 and 215, which he wrote during the previous year.  Thus, the Christmas Oratorio opens with the chorus Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen (Ruler of Heaven, hear the sound of laughter), which is taken directly from the chorus Blühet, ihr Linden in Sachsen, wie Zedern! (Bloom, you linden trees in Saxony, like cedars!) in the Cantata BWV 214.  Nonetheless, there’s so much new music that the Oratorio clearly could be considered an independent piece of music.  The theme of the third part of the Oratorio is Adoration of the Shepherds.  As usual, it’s the Evangelist who tells the story: the angels visit the shepherds to reveal to them that a heavenly event has taken place in Bethlehem; the shepherds then embark on a journey; in Bethlehem, they find Mary, Joseph and the Child lying in the manger; they recognize the Child as the one they were told about; they spread the word about the Child: people wonder, only Mary understands the real meaning of it all; the shepherds depart, glorifying and praising the Lord.  The Third part of the Oratorio was premiered on December 27th of 1734 at the Leipzig’s St. Nicholas church.  We’ll hear it in the performance by the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner.


December 18, 2017.  Christmas is coming soon, and this gives us a chance to celebrate several Renaissance composers.  We usually look for special events to mention them throughout the year, since there are no dates associated with their birthday.  What could be a better occasion than Christmas, as all of them wrote church music, and much of it music for Christmas services.  

The Adoration of the Kings, Jan GossaertThe great Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso (or Orlande di Lassus, as his name is sometimes spelled) was born around 1532 in Mons, county of Hainaut in what is now Belgium.  At the age of twelve he followed Ferrante Gonzaga to Mantua, then spent some time in Milan and Naples before settling in Rome.  In 1556, already famous as a composer, he was invited to Munich by Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, who, eager to compete with Italian courts, was hiring musicians from different countries.  Orlando stayed in the employ of Dukes for the rest of his life.  Soon after his arrival in Bavaria, Orlando presented the Duke Albrecht with a set of 12 motets, which he titled Prophetiae Sibyllarum ("Sibylline Prophecies").  The author of the texts is unknown, but all of the “prophecies” foretell the coming of Christ.  Here are two of the motets, Sibylla Europæa and Sibylla Erythræa, both beautifully performed by the ensemble De Labyrintho, Walter Testolin conducting.

One of the key texts and corresponding chants of the Catholic Christmas liturgy is O Magnum Mysterium (O great mystery), which is sung on Christmas Matins.  Many Renaissance composers wrote motets on this text, one of them Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the quintessential polyphonist of the Hight Renaissance.  Palestrina was one of the few Italians working in Rome: most of the famous composers of that time were either Flemish or Spanish (that would change in just one generation and Italians would reign supreme for years to come).  Palestrina was born around 1525 in the town of the same name.  In 1551 Pope Julius III appointed him maestro di cappella at Cappella Giulia, one of the two key choirs at the Vatican, another being the Sistine Chapel choir).  From that point on Palestrina moved from one important position to another.  O Magnum Mysterium, Palestrina’s six-voice motet, was published in 1569.  It’s sung here by the King's College Choir, Cambridge, Sir Philip Ledge conducting.

Tomás Luis de Victoria also wrote an O Magnum Mysterium motet.  Victoria, a Spaniard, is often considered one of the three great High Renaissance composers, together with Palestrina and Lasso.  He was born in a small town of Sanchidrián in the province of Ávila in 1548.  He went to Rome in 1565 and may have studied with Palestrina.  His sublime Mysterium can be heard here, in the performance by the Oxford Camerata under the direction of Jeremy Summerly.

We want to mention another rendition of O Magnum Mysterium, this one by a Venetian, Giovanni Gabrieli.  Gabrieli, born around 1554 in Venice, and in his twenties, went to Munich to study with Lasso and stayed there for some years.  Here’s his version of O Magnum Mysterium, performed by The Choir of King's College and The Philip Jones Brass Ensemble.

The Adoration of the Kings (1510-1515), above, was painted by Jan Gossaert, who, like Orlando di Lasso, was Flemish and also born in the French-speaking county of Hinaut.


December 11, 2017.  Beethoven.  Whatever deity was distributing musical birthdays throughout the year did a very poor job.  There are meager weeks, and then there are periods like this one, in the middle of December: we’ve already missed the anniversaries of Jean Sibelius, Cesar Franck and Olivier Messiaen, all born during the last several days (and these are the foremost composers, there are Ludwig van Beethoven, 1801more), while this week three more big ones are coming: that of Hector Berlioz, who was born on December 11th of 1803, Elliott Carter, the American modernist, born on the same day in 1908, and the talented Hungarian composer ZóltanKodaly, whose birthday is December 16th of 1882.  We’ll skip all of them until a later date.  All of it because December 16th is the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven and that we cannot miss.  Some years ago, we started a survey of Beethoven’s life through his music, pretty much arbitrarily picking his piano sonatas and symphonies, even though we may have as well followed the development of his genius though his quartets or piano trios – and we still might.  For the time being, though, we’ll return to his piano sonatas.  The last one we disucssed was the Sonata no. 7, op. 10, no. 3, written in 1798, when Beethoven was 27 years old.  The next sonata, the famous no. 8, op. 13, known as Pathétique, was written the same year (the title Pathétique was given by the publisher, not the composer himself, but Beethoven liked it and that’s what the sonata was called ever since).  Up to then, Beethoven was better known as a pianist rather than a composer (Václav Tomášek, a Czech composer and music teacher, who also heard Mozart, the supreme virtuoso of his time, play, considered Beethoven the greatest performer of all time).  Beethoven’s predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, each wrote many wonderful piano sonatas, but Beethoven’s no. 8 was clearly different.  Even though written in a traditional classical sonata form and clearly inspired by Mozart’s great piano sonata K. 457, Beethoven’s use of the themes and dynamics, the juxtaposition of different sections, his sense of the dramatic were all absolutely original, and recognizably Beethovenian.  The sonata was dedicated to Beethoven’s friend and benefactor Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, who some years earlier played the same role for Mozart.  It became immediately popular, establishing Beethoven as a leading composer.  Here it is, in a 1959 recording made by the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

The next sonata, no. 9 op. 14, no. 1, was written in the same 1798.  The description often attached to this sonata is “modest.”  And indeed, it doesn’t have the dramatic developments of its predecessor, it’s themes are not as expansive.  Still, it’s recognizably Beethoven, couldn’t be mistaken for anything else.  In 1801 Beethoven arranged the sonata for a quartet.  It doesn’t have a number, 34, from the Hess catalogue.  We’ll hear the original piano version here: the pianist Richard Goode is performing Beethoven’s Sonata no. 9 in E Major. 

The second composition in op. 14, also written in 1798, is Sonata no. 10.  Like the previous sonata, it’s dedicated to Baroness Josefa von Braun, at the time one of Beethoven’s patrons (her husband, Baron Peter von Braun, an industrialist, managed the Viennese court theaters).  This sonata, like the no. 9, is not very ambitious, it could rather be called lyrical and exquisite – descriptions not often applied to Beethoven’s sonatas.  Also, one can hear Haydn, still an influence.  Here it is performed by the American pianist Stephen Kovacevich.


December 4, 2017.  Three opera composers.  The last couple of weeks we’ve dedicated our entries to single composers, first Penderecki and then Hindemith.  In doing so, we missed several notable anniversaries, so we’ll try to catch up with them this week.  Jean-Baptiste Lully, a miller’s son, was born on November 28th of 1632 in Florence.  He was 14 when chevalier de Guise, who was visiting Italy at the time, noticed him there during Mardi Gras and brought him Jean-Baptiste Lullyto France – not for his musical talents, but so that his niece, la Grande Mademoiselle, could talk to somebody in Italian.  From these unusual beginnings, Lully developed into one of the greatest French composers of all time and the founder of the French opera.  We’ve written about him extensively (for example, here or here), so we’ll just play some of his music.  Lully composed Persée on the libretto of his frequent collaborator, Philippe Quinault. in 1682.  Lully called Perséetragédie lyrique” – opera genre he invented about 10 years earlier.  We’ll hear the short Ouverture here (Christophe Rousset conducts the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques) and an excerpt from Act II (here).  Cyril Auvity is Persée. Marie Lenormand – Andromède in an Opera Atelier production.

Lully wasn’t the only opera composer born around this time: two more Italians were, and they were “real” Italians, as Lully took French citizenship in 1661.  Gaetano Donizetti’s birthday is November 29th of 1797.  Donizetti came from the city of Bergamo, its beautiful older section called Upper City, Città Alta, famous for its architecture and musical tradition.  Donizetti, together with Rossini and the younger Bellini, was one of the master composers of bel canto.  Donizetti, who lived just 50 years (he died insane of syphilis), wrote almost 70 operas, but only few of them belong to the standard repertory these days: his masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena,  L'elisir d'amore, Roberto Devereux, Maria Stuarta, and two comic operas, L'elisir d'amore and Don Pasquale.  Here’s the Judgement Scene, the finale of Act I from Anna Bolena.   Maria Callas, the tenor Gianni Raimoni and the bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in an exceptional live recording made exactly 60 years ago, in 1957 in La Scala.  Gianandrea Gavazzeni is conducting the La Scala orchestra.

Another opera composer is Pietro Mascagni, who was born on December 7th of 1863.  Mascagni wrote 15 operas, but is famous for just one, his very first, the marvelous Cavalleria Rusticana.  If Donizetti was one of the creators of the Bel canto style, Mascagni, together with another one-opera marvel, Ruggero Leoncavallo, created the style called verismo, an Italian term that could be translated as realism, or maybe naturalism: the subjects of the verismo operas are down to earth, unheroic, like seamstresses and poets in Puccini’s La Boheme.  Cavalleria Rusticana was premiered in 1890 (it’s interesting that Verdi was still to complete his last opera, Falstaff).   There are more recordings of Cavalleria than practically of any other opera.  There are even recordings conducted by Mascagni himself (hard to imagine, but Mascagni died on August 2nd of 1945; by then, Schoenberg was evolving his 12-tone system; Stravinsky was past his neo-classical period, and Olivier Messiaen had just written Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus).  Cavalleria is full of wonderful music; one of the best-known arias is Mamma, quel vino è generoso.  Here it is in the 1957 recording by Franco Corelli.  Arturo Basile conducts Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI.

We’ve written about three composers, but there are several more we’d like to note.  Among them: Padre Antonio Soler, Jean Sibelius, Bohuslav Martinu, Joaquin Turina, a very interesting Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish descent, Mieczysław (or Moisey, as he was called in the Soviet Union) Weinberg, and Cesar Franck.  We’ll write about them later.


November 27, 2017.  Esther Walker on Paul Hindemith.  A couple of weeks ago we missed Hindemith’s birthday: the German composer was born on November 16th of 1895.  Most music lovers w can acknowledge his talent but many would also admit that Hindemith is not “their” Paul Hindemithcomposer, that he’s too distant, dry, cerebral.  That’s what the Swiss pianist Esther Walker thought of Hindemith earlier in her career.  As she got involved with several of Hindemith’s piano pieces, her attitude changed.  Esther put her thoughts on Hidemith’s piano works into a very personal and thought-provoking essay.  In it she discusses the rarely-performed Ludus tonalis (we may point to the recordings made by the two Soviet pianists and good friends, Sviatoslav Richter and Anatoly Vedernikov), the Suite1922” and other pieces; examines the problem of conservative programming, firmly placing the blame on performers (and organizers), rather than composers or listeners; and gives us an insightful overview of Hindemith’s life.  Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the essay; you can read the complete piece on Esther’s site.  ♫

On Piano Music of Paul Hindemith.

Like many others before me, I too, in my youth and student days, grew into an unconsciously assumed, hardened and prejudiced (pre)conception of Hindemith. But the very few encounters which I had with this composer as a young pianist – whether it was through occasionally playing one of the Kammermusiks (op. 11) or hearing an orchestral work – forced me each time to cast doubt on this picture which I had of Hindemith. But some years ago, when it happened that I had to study four of Hindemith’s works (the Suite “1922”, the Kammermusik No. 1, The Four Temperaments and the Double Bass Sonata) in a relatively short period of time, I was forced to engage with this music in a much more intensive way than before and was really able to jettison my sometimes-unconscious prejudices. My active interest in Hindemith was aroused.

Of course, there are true Hindemith specialists who devote themselves to this composer and who consequently have a deep access to his output and a profound and unprejudiced knowledge of his life and work. 

Since I don’t exactly move in these specialist circles, I believe I can say that, unfortunately even today – especially in Latin countries – Hindemith’s music has the reputation, surely somewhat exaggerated, of being the product of an austere, nonsensical and emotionally-impoverished intellectuality, schoolmasterly and accordingly of little artistic worth.

Even Alfred Brendel, one of the great musical personalities of our time, who is so open, interested and intelligent, and who is able to exert a lasting influence on the next generation, refers to Hindemith in his two books Reflections on Music and Music Taken at his Word in only three passing comments, in which there is no mistaking a rather negative attitude to the composer. In an interview at the end of one of the books Hindemith is quoted in just one sentence, and to quote him so cursorily is usually dangerous, since a little later he would often contradict his pithy, sometimes provocative utterances, or at least qualify them.  [Please continue reading here].


November 20, 2017.  Penderecki. Krzysztof Penderecki, one of the best known Polish composers of the 20th century, was born on November 23rd of 1933 in the small town of Dębica in southeastern Poland.  The town’s name in Yiddish was Dembitz, and before WWII the majority of the population was Jewish – later, Penderecki would use Jewish music in several compositions.  In addition to Polish, Krzysztof PendereckiPenderecki’s family had Armenian and German roots.  The family wasn’t musical, but, as was customary in educated families of the time, Krzysztof took piano lessons.  Somebody presented Krzysztof’s father with a violin, and the boy took a liking to the instrument.  In 1951 Penderecki moved to Krakow, attending Jagiellonian University first, and then transferring to the Academy of Music.  There he studied the violin for one year, but then switched completely to composition.  He graduated in 1958 and one year later received three awards for three compositions he submitted to the young composers’ competition, organized by the Polish Composers’ Union.  His Strofy (‘Strophes’) received the first prize, and Emanacje (‘Emanations’) and Psalmy Dawida (‘Psalms of David’) shared the second.  All compositions were submitted anonymously, and the jury didn’t know that all winning entries were written by the same composer.  Since 1956, when Poland opened up after years of Stalinism, cultural life became less controlled.  While still a Communist state, culturally Poland was the freest country in the Soviet bloc.  New music could be performed, and music of young composers could be heard in the West.  One person who became familiar with Penderecki’s work was Heinrich Strobel, principal of the Music Department of the Südwestrundfunk (SWR) Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden, one of the leading new Music ensembles.  Strobel, a champion of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, became a promoter of the works of Krzysztof Penderecki.  In 1960, Penderecki’s popularity in the West lead to an interesting episode.  He had just completed a piece he initially called 8’37”, for the exact performing duration of the composition, which he later renamed Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.  The piece, scored for 52 string instruments, required unorthodox performing technique, like unusual glissandos, playing on the tailpiece, etc.  This, in turn, required unconventional notation, which Penderecki inventedPenderecki Trenody score excerpt himself.  The notation created many problems, as musicians couldn’t figure out what was required of them; Penderecki had to work with the orchestras to explain his intent (you can see a small excerpt on the right).  When several European ensembles decided to perform Trenody, Penderecki sent the score to his German publisher.  The package never arrived, apparently it got lost in the mail, and Penderecki had to recreate it from memory.  Sometime later the score reappeared and was delivered то the addressee.  When the two versions were compared, it turned out that they were identical.  This provides wonderful proof of the exactness of Penderecki’s intent, the music al necessity of every note, despite the seeming chaos of the twelve-tone composition.  But the story doesn’t end there.   Later, the reason for the score’s long delay was discovered: the custom officials who examined the unusual notation decided that it couldn’t have been music; they suspected that it was a document containing some encoded secret information, probably of military or political significance.  Only after a lengthy examination did they discover that this indeed was a music score and sent it to the publisher.  Here’s Trenody in the performance by the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Antoni Wit conducting.

Around 1975 Penderecki’s style, which up to then had been very much modernist, underwent a considerable change and became more melodic, in a neo-romantic way.  So different is his music written in the second half of his career that we’ll have to address it separately.


November 13, 2017.  Couperin and Cziffra.  During the two weeks that we’ve beenpreoccupied with one photograph, we missed several anniversaries that are clearly worth mentioning.  François Couperin was born on November 10th of 1668 (we’ve written about him a number of times, for example here and here).  One of the greatest French composers of the Baroque era, he was especially famous for his harpsichord music.  Since the advent of the modern piano, his works are as often performed on this instrument as on the “clavecin,” for which these works were originally written.   Here, for example, is Les Barricades Mystérieuses, the title as mysterious as are the barricades in question.  It’s the fifth piece in Couperin’s "Ordre 6ème de clavecin."  It’s performed by György Cziffra, whose birthday was last week.  Cziffra, a piano virtuoso with an unusual biography, was born on November 5th of 1921 into a family of a poor gipsy cabaret performer.  His father, a cimbalom player, lived in Paris in the 1910s but was expelled from France as a citizen of an enemy state.  György started playing piano at a very early age, imitating his older sister.  At the age of five he was already earning money in bars and circuses, playing piano improvisations on melodies suggested by customers.  At the age of nine he entered the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, becoming their youngest student ever.  One of his teachers was the composer Ernst von Dohnányi.  At the age of 12 György was performing across Hungary, and at 16 went on a tour of the Netherlands and Scandinavia.  In 1942 Cziffra was conscripted, as Hungary was fighting on Nazi Germany’s side in WWII.  He was captured by the Soviet partisans and imprisoned till after the war.  He returned to Budapest in 1947 and, penniless, had to earn money playing piano in bars and clubs.  György CziffraIn 1950 he attempted to escape communist Hungary but was captured and imprisoned again.  His guards, knowing that he was a pianist, beat his hands and wrists.  He was released in 1953.  The physical recovery was slow (for the rest of his life he performed with a leather band on his wrist to support ligaments damaged in prison), but two years later he was in good enough form to win the 1955 Franz List competition in Budapest.  In 1956, during the Hungarian Uprising, Cziffra escaped to Vienna, where he gave a well-received recital later that year, and then moved to Paris.  Cziffra played across Europe and in the US.  In 1977 he set up a Cziffra Foundation in Senlis, France, in support of young musicians.  Cziffra, with his tremendous technical skills, was acknowledged as a great interpreter of the works of Liszt.  Here’s another piece by Couperin, L'Anguille (The eel).  And here is Liszt’s Tarantella, from Venezia e Napoli section of Années de pèlerinage.  Cziffra, who by the end of his life was suffering of lung cancer, died of a heart attack in Longpont-sur-Orge, outside of Paris, on January 15th of 1994. 

A note: another wonderful pianist, the French-born German, Walter Gieseking, was also born on November 5th but 26 years earlier, in 1895.


November 6, 2017.  Old picture, part II.  Last week we identified three people in the picture, below, wrote about two of them, Busya Goldshtein and Yakov Flier, and just touched upon Rosa Busya /Goldstein, Yakov Flier, Rosa Tamarkina, Lisa Gilels, Yakov Zak, Emil GilelsTamarkina, who stands next to Flier, slightly behind.  Tamarkina, who had just turned 20 when the picture was made, was already a laureate of several competitions.  She was born in Kiev in 1920, started her studies there but moved to Moscow when she was 11, after being accepted into a special group for talented kids organized by Alexander Goldenweiser.  At the age of 15 she won the first prize at the All-Union Performers’ competition.  One year later she conquered the hearts of both the jury and the public while playing at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  She was awarded the second prize, behind only Yakov Zak, who was seven years her senior.  Heinrich Neuhaus, a jury member, talked about her as a mature, fully developed musician.  After the Chopin, still a student, she was engaged to play concerts across the country; practically all of them were sold out.  Rosa TamarkinaShe was even awarded the order of the Barge of Honor and, at the age of 19, “elected” (“appointed” would be a better description) into the Moscow Soviet.  Rosa married Emil Gilels in 1940 but it was not a happy union and in 1943 they divorced.  In 1946 she fell ill; the diagnosis was terrible: Hodgkin's lymphoma.  She continued performing, often with a high fever; the public didn’t know about her condition.  Rosa Tamarkina died on August 5th of 1950 at the age of 30.

Next to Tamarkina stands Elizabeth Gilels, Emil’s younger sister.  The family already had a pianist, so Elizabeth picked the violin as her instrument.  Like Busya Goldshtein, she was a student of Peter Stolyarky, who also taught David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein and many other talented violinists.  When they were young, Elisabeth and Emil often played together.  In 1935, just 16 years old, she took the Second prize, behind Oistrakh, at the 2nd All-Union Performers’ competition.  In 1937, at the 1st Ysaÿe competition (it was later renamed as the Queen Elisabeth Competition) she took the 3rd prize.  Again, Oistrakh was first and the Soviet violinists took all but one prizes from the first to the sixth.  Four of the six were Stolyarsky’s students and the only non-Soviet violinist, Ricardo Odnoposoff, who took the 2nd prize, was from an Argentinian Russian-Jewish family.  In 1949 Elizabeth married Leonid Kogan.  Superb soloists, they created a duo and together recorded Bach, Vivaldi, and other composers.  Elisabeth Gilels and Leonid Kogan had two children, Pavel and Nina.  Pavel, also a brilliant violinist, eventually turned to conducting.  Nina was a successful pianist and often played with her father.  Pavel’s son Dmitry, also a violinist, died unexpectedly two months ago at the age of 38.

Yakov Zak, the second from the right, was 26 when this picture was made.  He was born in Odessa, as was Goldshtein and the Gilelses.  He graduated from the Odessa in 1932 and went to Moscow for post-graduate studies with Heinrich Neuhaus.  In 1935 he took the third prize at the Second All-Union Performers’ Competition.  Then, in 1937, he triumphed in Warsaw, winning the first prize at the Chopin Piano competition.  Zak had a distinguished performing career; he was considered to be an intellectual pianist compared to, for example, the more “romantic” Flier.  After the war he successfully performed in many countries across  Europe and in the US.  He was also one of the most respected professors at the Moscow Conservatory; among his students were Nikolai Petrov, Eliso Virsaladze, and Evgeny Mogilevsky.  Zak died in Moscow in 1976. 

And the serious young man on the right is, of course, Emil Gilels.  We wrote about him not long ago.


October 30, 2017.  An old picture.  Last week, as we were looking for a good photograph of Emil Gilels, we came across this picture.  It was taken during the May 1 celebrations in 1940; in it are six young musicians, all of great talent, aged 17 to 27.  Young, happy, Jewish (those were the last pre-Antisemitic days of the Soviet Union), they are, Flier, Tamarkina, Lisa Gilels, Zak, Emil Gilelsstanding in a crowd on the Manezh Square, just outside of the Kremlin (behind them is Moscow University), smiling.  1940 was the year between two catastrophes, that of the Great Terror of 1937-38 and the war with Germany, which would invade the Soviet Union in a year.  But in the meantime, they were living a rather privileged life: they made the young Soviet state proud, and the state responded with honors and good apartments.   Who are they?  Let’s start on the left and moveright.  On the left is the youngest of them all, Busya (Boris) Goldshtein at 17.  A violinist and a child prodigy, he was in in Odessa, and studied with Pyotr Stolyarsky.  When Jascha Heifetz visited the Soviet Union in 1934, he met with many young violinists and singled Busya out.  In 1935, at age 12 and a half, he won the fourth prize at the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Warsaw (Ginette Neveu was first, David Oystrakh came in second).  Two years later, still not even 15, he received the fourth prize at the first Ysaye Competition in Brussels.  During the war, being a student of the Moscow Conservatory, he, as many other musicians performed at the front line.  This prevented him from timely passing the exam on a very important subject, “Brief History of the Communist Party.”  So, despite his fame and honors, he was expelled from the Conservatory, which for all purposes was the end of his career.  Goldstein emigrated to Germany in 1972 but never regained the status he held while a teenager.

Next to him stands the pianist Yakov Flier, at 27 the eldest.  Flier was born on October 21st, 1912, in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, a town outside of Moscow famous for its textile production but not its culture.  Not at all a wunderkind, his talent developed slowly.  After attending the Central music school, he was accepted at the Conservatory and studied there with one of the best professors, Konstantin Igumnov.  He reached his full potential only by the end of his studies, but once at the top, he remained at the top as long as he could play.  Starting 1935, he embarked on a series of concerts across the Soviet Union.  In 1936 he won a piano competition in Vienna, ahead of his friend Emil Gilels, who took the second prize.  Gilels would have his revenge two years later in Brussles, where he won the Ysaye while Flier was “only” the third.  As early as in 1945 Flier noticed problems with his right hand; it was getting worse and by 1949 Flier could no longer play.  He was absent from the concert scene for 10 years but returned in 1959 after a successful surgery and rehabilitation.  While his earlier playing was romantic, sometimes too much so, it became deeper and more introspective.  In 1960s and the 70s he toured in Europe and the US and became one of the most sought-after professors of the Moscow Conservatory.

Next to Flier, a step behind, stands the 18-year-old Rosa Tamarkina, fresh from a triumph at the Chopin competition.  Why is she standing next to Flier, and not to Emil Gilels, whose wife she would become later that year?  Is she still infatuated with Flier, as was rumored in Moscow?   Why didn’t she marry him, one wonders – her marriage to Gilels was not very happy and brief, as, tragically, was her life.  We’ll have to wait till next week to conclude our story about this remarkable group.


October 23, 2017.  Emil Gilels.   Last week we intended to write about the great Russian pianist, Emil Gilels but ran out of space.  This week, even though we have several very interesting anniversaries, we’ll start with him.  Emil Gilels was born in Odessa on October 19th of 1916.  At that time, the musical Odessa was an amazing place.  The whole school of violin Emil Gilelsplaying came out of Odessa: Pyotr Stolyarsky established it, and among his students were David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein, Boris Goldstein, and Emil’s sister, Elizabeth Gilels.  The pianists Benno Moiseiwitsch, Vladimir de Pachmann, Shura Cherkassky, Yakov Zak were all from Odessa.  Sviatoslav Richter, though not born in Odessa, studied there.  As most of the Odessa musicians, Emil Gilels was born into a Jewish family.  His first teacher, at the age of five and a half, was Yakov Tkach (who, as Gilels acknowledged later, built the foundation of the pianist’s prodigious technique).  Emil gave his first public concert at the age of 12.  In 1930, not quite 14, he was accepted into the Odessa Conservatory, class of Berta Reingbald, whose other star pupil was Tatiana Goldfarb.  In 1932 he met Arthur Rubinstein, who was visiting Odessa, and they became friends, even though Rubinstein was almost 30 years older.  In 1933 Gilels won the first All-Union Performers’ Competition in Moscow and became famous overnight.  He graduated from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935 and for the following three years studied with Heinrich Neuhaus in Moscow.  He won several piano competitions, including the Concours Eugène Ysaÿe, Brussels, in 1938, and established himself as one of the most brilliant young pianists in the Soviet Union.  Sergei Rachmaninov, then in the States, had heard about Gilels since his win in Moscow in 1933.  After Brussels, many of Gilels’s performances were recorded, and Rachmaninov could listen to them on the radio.  He decided that Gilels was his worthy successor, and sent him the Anton Rubinstein medal, which he received upon graduating from the Conservatory, and his Conservatory diploma.  Gilels cherished these gifts for the rest of his life.

During WWII Gilels performed for the troops and, in 1944, premiered Prokofiev’s 8th piano sonata.  In 1945, he formed a highly successful trio with Leonid Kogan (his brother in law – Kogan married his sister, the violinist Elizabeth) and the 23-year old Mstislav Rostropovich.  After the war he became one of the first Soviet musicians to be allowed to travel and perform abroad (David Oistrach was another pioneer).  Gilels played his American debut at the Carnegie Hall in October of 1955.  Eugene Ormandy conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra.  The performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano concerto was a triumph (both Rachmaninov and Horowitz also chose this concerto for their debuts).  The rest of his US tour was equally successful.  He returned to the States several times, and was always received equally well.  Gilels was permitted to travel to other Western countries, a privilege not afforded to many Soviet musicians.  He toured all over Europe and Japan playing with the greatest orchestras and conductors.  Still, in the centralized Soviet Union, where everything had to be ranked, he was considered to be second to Sviatoslav Richter, as Kogan was considered second to Oistrakh, or Danill Shafran – to Rostropovich.  These comparisons of course are nonsense, Gilels was second to no one, he was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.  In 1981, after a concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam Gilels suffered a heart attack.  He never fully recovered and died on October 14th of 1985 in Moscow.

Gilels’s repertoire was phenomenally broad.  He played “everything.”  He was considered one of the greatest interpreters of Prokofiev’s piano sonatas.  He recorded all of Beethoven’s piano concertos seven times.  His Mozart was incomparable.  Out of this treasure trove we’ll play just two sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti – and that’s because Scarlatti was also born this week, on October 26th of 1685.  Here’s his sonata Sonata K.141, and here – Sonata K.533. Both were recorded live in London in 1957.


October 16, 2017.  Galuppi.  Franz Liszt was born this week and so was Charles Ives, but we’ve written about both extensively in the past.  Luca Marenzio, a wonderful Italian madrigalist of the late Renaissance was also born this week, we celebrated him a year ago (here is his Là dove sono i pargoletti Amori, performed by Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini conducting).  We’ve never Baldassare Galuppiwritten about Baldassare Galuppi, though, and while he’s not one of the greats, he composed some very interesting music.  Galuppi was born on October 18th of 1706 in Burano, an island in the Venetian lagoon almost as famous for its lace-making as Murano, an island nearby, is for its glass.  Galuppi took music lessons with Antonio Lotti, the organist at San Marco.   As a teenager he wrote an unsuccessful opera and at the age of 20 left Venice for Florence to work as a cembalist at the Teatro della Pergola.  He returned to Venice in 1728 and continued composing and performing, although still without much success.  In Venice of the time, Antonio Vivaldi ruled over the musical scene, and as for operas, Neapolitan productions were in vogue.  In 1740 Galuppi was appointed the music director at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, run by the Mendicanti friars.  Mendicanti was an important institution, not just a hospital but also a school (especially for abandoned girls) and a shelter for lepers.  Antonio Vivaldi’s father taught music there some years earlier.  Galuppi’s responsibilities included teaching and composing.  Less than a year into the contract with Mendicanti, Galuppi asked for permission to go to London.  He stayed there for a year and a half and produced 11 operas, three of them his own.  Apparently, Handel visited some of Galuppi’s productions.  He returned to Venice in 1743; he continued composing operas, but his style was changing: in addition to opera seria (serious opera), in which he often cooperated with the famous librettist Metastasio, he tried himself in the new Dramma giocoso, (“drama with jokes”), the “new and improved” comic opera buffa.  His new operas were more successful; Galuppi was also advancing professionally – in 1748 he was made the vice-maestro at San Marco.  An even more consequential event took place a year later, when Galuppi started his collaboration with Carlo Goldoni, the famous playwright and librettist.  In May of 1749, Galuppi wrote Arcadia in Brenta on Goldoni’ libretto.  It was a big success, and by the end of the same year, they produced four more operas.  Altogether, Galuppi and Goldoni created 18 more.  Galuppi was so busy that he had to resign from Mendicanti.  By the middle of the 1750s he was the most popular opera composer in all of Europe (Rameau and Gluck were probably very envious).  In 1762, Galuppi was made maestro di capella of San Marco, the most important musical position in Venice.

In 1764 Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, requested that Galuppi come to St.-Petersburg to be her court composer and conductor. Many Italians were working for Catherine, but Galuppi was reluctant; he agreed to go to Russia only on the condition that he retain his position at San Marco, of which he was assured by the Venetian authorities.  After visiting C.P.E. Bach in Berlin, Galuppi arrived in St.-Petersburg in September of 1765.  He stayed there for three years, composing two operas and two cantatas.  He also gave weekly harpsichord concerts and conducted the court orchestra, which needed much work.  As agreed, he stayed in St-Petersburg for three years and in 1768 returned to Venice.  In his last years he wrote more secular music, but continued with the operas (in all, he wrote almost 100).  Charles Burney, the British music historian of the time, who was acquainted with Galuppi, thought that “like Titian’s,” Galuppi’s work got better as he got older.  He wrote his last opera, La serva per amore, in 1773.  He died on January 3rd of 1785.

Opera was not the only genre in which Galuppi worked.  He composed many masses and other sacred music.  He also wrote a large number of keyboard pieces.  Here’s his Sonata in C Major, performed by another great Italian, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.  (A note: Emil Gilels was born on October 19th of 1916, we’ll write about him next week.)


October 9, 2017.  Verdi, Saint-Saens and more.  The great Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi was born on this day – or maybe on the following day, October 10th, as we only know that Giuseppe Verdihe was baptized on the 11th – in 1813, in Roncole, a small village in the province of Parma.  The “national composer” of Italy, Verdi created 25 operas.  Not all of them are staged today, but the majority represent the absolute best in the opera repertory.  Verdi’s musical genius came into full force when he was approaching 40: just in three years he created three operas which haven’t left the stages of major theaters since their premiers: Rigoletto, first staged in La Fenice in Venice in March of 1851, Il Trovatore, premiered in Rome in 1853, and La Traviata, also in La Fenice in March of 1853.  There is so much music in Rigoletto that it could fill several operas: every one of its three acts has something memorable, from Addio, addio and Caro nome in Act I, to Cortigiani, vil razza dannata, Tutte le feste al tempioi and Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta! in Act II, to the ever popular La donna è mobile and the famous quartet Bella figlia dell’amore in Act III and so much more.  A fitting tribute to Verdi would be to play the complete Rigoletto, but of course it’s not practical.  Instead, we’ll play two excerpts, first, the duet Tutte le feste al tempio (Each holy day, in church) from Act II, with Maria Callas as Gilda and the great baritone Titto Gobbi as Rigoletto; Tullio Serafin conducting the La Scala orchestra in this 1955 recording (here).  Then comes Bella figlia dell’amore, with Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Leo Nucci and Isola Jones.  Riccardo Chailly conducts the Metropolitan Opera (here).

Camille Saint-Saëns was also born on this day, in 1835.  A prolific composer, Saint-Saëns lived a long life: he died in 1921, three years after Debussy.  While he had major melodic talent, he was a composer of conservative tastes; his music was rather conventional from the beginning; by the end of his life it sounded quite dated.  Saint-Saëns wrote in many genres: orchestral music (his Third “Organ” Symphony is still popular), five piano concertos (the Second is regularly performed), three violin concertos, one concerto for the cello, and several operas, one of which, Samson and Dalilah is still staged quite often.  We can “compare and contrast” it with Rigoletto: here’s Dalilah’s aria, performed by Maria Callas in 1961, the same Callas as we heard in Tutte le feste.  By then her voice was not the same; still, it’s a lovely performance, and so is the music.  Georges Prêtre conducts The French National Radio Orchestra.

One of the greatest pianists of his generation, Evgeny Kissin was born on October 10th of 1971 in Moscow.  He entered the Gnessin Music School at the age of 6.  His first, and, amazingly, only teacher was Anna Kantor.  He was 10 when he publicly played his first piano concerto (Mozart’s Twentieth); at the age of 12 he played Chopin’s First and Second concertos at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory.  In 1988 he famously played Tchaikovsky’s First with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.  He made his American debut in 1990, a year later he moved to New York.  In the subsequent years he also lived in London and Paris, and, since marrying his childhood friend Karina Arzumanova, he moved to Prague.  Here he plays Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G Minor Op.16.  Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.


October 2, 2017.  Beethoven Symphony No. 8.  This week we’re publishing Joseph DuBose’s article on Symphony no. 8 in F major by Ludwig van Beethoven.  And again, as with all other symphonies, the problem is in selecting a performance to illustrate the article: there are too many great ones.  We decided on the 1978 recording made by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  You can listen to it here.  The 1st movement is Allegro vivace e con brio (0:01), the 2nd, Allegretto scherzando starts at 9:21, the 3rd, Tempo di menuetto -- at 13:18, and the 4th, Allegro vivace -- at 19:16.  ♫ 

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1814The Eighth Symphony was begun immediately after the completion of the Seventh. Its manuscript, which escaped the fate of that of its predecessor, is dated October 1812, meaning it was completed in a roughly four-month span. This makes it an exception to Beethoven’s usual method of composing, since his symphonies were usually sketched during the summer months, then worked out and put into full score during the winter in Vienna. 

What is truly remarkable of the work is its humorous disposition considering the events that were then taking place in Beethoven’s life. In this manner, it is like the ebullient Second that so completely and effortlessly masked the inner torment that found its outlet in the famous Heiligenstadt Testament. Besides his increasing deafness, Beethoven’s health was already becoming problematic by this point in his life. Yet, of further grief to the composer was a quarrel with his brother Johann. Johann had been living with a woman named Therese Obermeyer, whom Beethoven absolutely loathed and disparagingly nicknamed “Queen of the Night.” Beethoven set out with the singular purpose of putting an end to the relationship. For what reason other than his disdain for Obermeyer is not known, but his actions certainly give credit to Goethe’s description of Beethoven as “an entirely uncontrolled person.” The confrontation between the two brothers was in all probability a mighty din. To Beethoven’s chagrin, Johann emerged the victor when he married Therese Obermeyer on November 8th. Yet, despite this family feud, Beethoven enjoyed pleasant accommodations at his brother’s house, and the surrounding landscape provided him with ample scenery for his many romps through nature. Progress on the Eighth Symphony was unhindered, though some of its passages, no doubt, did not escape Beethoven’s furious temper at this time. (Continue reading here).


September 25, 2017.  Rameau and Shostakovich.   It is rather unfortunate that Jean-Philippe Rameau, the great French composer, and Dmitry Shostakovich, one of the most important Soviet Jean-Philippe Rameau, by Carmontellecomposers, were born on the same day, September 25th, one in 1683, another almost two and a half centuries later, in 1906.  So different were the societies into which they were born, the cultures, the prevailing musical styles that it’s almost impossible to write about them in one post.  The only thing that their lives had in common is that both lived in absolutist countries: Rameau, under the benign regimes of Louis XIV and his great-grandson, Lois XV, Shostakovich – under the murderous one of Stalin.

We know surprisingly little about Rameau’s first 40 years.  He was born in Dijon.  His father was an organist and gave Jean-Philippe music lessons, starting at an early age.  Jean-Philippe studied at the Jesuit Collège des Godrans in Dijon.  After finishing school, he went on a short trip to Italy, and stayed in Milan.  In 1702, he was appointed a music master at the Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms in Avignon and stayed there for four years.  After that, he worked in several provincial towns, before returning to Dijon in 1709 to take his father’s position as the organist at Notre Dame.  He eventually moved to Clermont to work as an organist there.  We know that during those years he was already composing, most likely motets, but nothing significant has survived.

In 1722 Rameau moved to Paris, the only place in centralized France where a musician could build a significant career.  As a composer, he was practically unknown.  His first step was to publish Traité de l'harmonie, a work on music theory, which was soon followed by the Nouveau système de musique théorique, another theoretical work that made him famous not only in France, but in England as well.   He continued to compose but mostly for the harpsichord, although he was already interested in writing operas (circumstances wouldn’t allow for that to happen till 1733).  In the meantime, he was earning his living by teaching.  In 1732, he convinced the playwright Simon-Joseph Pellegrin to create a libretto for him.  Based on Racine’s Phèdre, it was called Hippolyte et Aricie.  The opera premiered on October 1st of 1733 in the theatre of Palais-Royal.  André Campra, a major opera composer of the time, said, upon listening to Hippolyte: “There is enough music in this opera to make ten of them; this man will eclipse us all.”  At the time, Rameau was 50 and at the beginning of his real career, as a tremendously productive opera composer.  Working almost exclusively in that genre, he wrote 32 operas.  One of the most successful was Dardanus, but not till Rameau rewrote almost half of it: the first edition was premiered in 1739 and was criticized for a weak libretto; the second, the one that is being staged these days, was created five years later, in 1744.  Here’s a suite based on Dardanus.  Tafelmusic orchestra is conducted by Jeanne Lamon.  And here, to give the impression of the vocal part, is the aria Lieux funestes from the 4th act of the opera.  The Scottish tenor Paul Agnew is Dardanus; Antony Walker conducts the Orchestra of the Antipodes.

Even though we have little space left, we can’t not mention Dmitry Shostakovich.  In his symphonies, Shostakovich felt obligated to toe the line of Socialist Realism; with his phenomenal ear, he picked up the style and the melodies that, he hoped, would embody Soviet realities and please the Party cultural inquisitors.  In most cases it worked, in some he was severely criticized.  The smaller form, quartets, for example, were not so visible, and here Shostakovich could allow himself to be less political.  Here’s one, Quartet no. 3 in F Major, op. 73.  It’s performed by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet.


September 18, 2017.  Čiurlionis.  Here’s a composer whom we’ve managed to overlook all these years: Mikalojus Čiurlionis.  He’s celebrated in Lithuania the way Smetana and Dvořák are celebrated in the Czech Republic – as a national composer.  But he was more than that, he was also a very interesting painter.  Čiurlionis was born onSeptember 22nd of 1875 in the south of Lithuania, in a village of Senoji Varėna which was then part of the Russian Empire.  Though Lithuanian by nationality, the family’s language was Polish, as was customary Mikalojus Čiurlionis and Sofija Kymantaitėwith the educated Lithuanians of that time (the upper-class Russians used to speak better French than Russian).  The triad of cultures, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian was to influence Čiurlionis’s life and creative development.   When Mikalojus was two, the family moved to Druskininkai, a pretty spa town on the river Neman.  There his father worked as a church organist.   Musically talented, Mikalojus started playing piano by ear at the age of four and could fluently read music at seven.  In 1889, he was sent to a music school in the town of Plungė.  The school was established by Prince Michał Ogiński, a Polish nobleman and diplomat, who served as a Senator to Czar Alexander I of Russia.  Ogiński was also an amateur composer, the author of the so-called Oginski Polonaise, very popular in Russian and Poland.  On a scholarship Mikalojus was sent to the Warsaw Conservatory, where he studied for five years, from 1894 to 1899.  Čiurlionis started seriously composing around 1900.  He briefly studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, but by 1902 was back in Warsaw.  It was there that he started painting and two years later entered the newly-established Warsaw School of Fine Arts. 

In 1905, he traveled to the Caucuses and was enthralled by the landscape and the local.  1905 was the year of the Revolution in Russia.  Even though in the end it didn’t amount to much, it stirred up national movements in countries on the periphery of the Russian Empire.  Čiurlionis returned to Lithuania in 1907, settled in Vilnius and became very active in the arts movement, both visual and musical.  He organized the first Lithuanian Arts exhibition, and also became very interested in Lithuanian songs and folk music, like Bartók and Kodály in Hungary.  Till that time his knowledge of the Lithuanian language was limited, Polish being his native tongue, but he met a young woman, Sofija Kymantaitė, who agreed to teach him Ciurlionis, Creation of the world, XLithuanian.  Soon she became his wife.  This was a time of great creative activity, as he was painting and composing music at a great pace.  In 1908 Čiurlionis went to St. Petersburg, where he became involved with the painters of the Mir Iskusstva.  His music was performed in the leading salons of the Russian capital, while his art was displayed by the Union of Russian Artists.  Unfortunately, by the end of 1909, even as his career was on an upswing and he was feted by the major artists and musicians, he descended into a severe depression.  He returned to Druskininkai and then was moved to a sanatorium outside of Warsaw.  In April of 1911, while there, he caught a cold, developed pneumonia and died on April 10th.  He was 35.

Here’s Čiurlionis’s early big symphonic work, In the Forest, written in 1900.  Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra.  The paining above is the tenth in his series, Creation of the World.


September 11, 2017. Hanslick.  Last week when we wrote about Bruckner, we mentioned the name of Eduard Hanslick, a Viennese music critic and Bruckner’s detractor.  It so happens that today is Hanslick’s birthday: he was born on September 11th of 1825.  We usually write about Eduard Hanslickmajor composers, but Hanslick was so influential as a music critic that his impact on the development and public perception of music can be compared to that of a major composer’s.  Hanslick was born in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a German-speaking family.  His father was a small and rather poor landowner; his mother was Jewish, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant; she converted to Catholicism upon marrying Hanslick senior.  Richard Wagner, who would become Hanslick’s nemesis, never forgot that by blood Hanslick was half-Jewish.  In Prague, Hanslick studied music with Václav Tomášek, a noted composer and teacher.  He didn’t pursue his music studies but went to the University of Vienna, graduating with a degree in law.  Still, music was his love; even while at the university he continued studying it and writing an occasional review.  While working in different ministries, Hanslick continued writing musical criticism, first for Wiener Zeiting, the oldest newspaper in the world that is still published today, and then for another major newspaper, Die Presse, which is also still in publication.  When in 1864 two former editors of Die Presse started a new newspaper, Neue freie Presse, Hanslick joined them as a music critic and remained there for the rest of his career.  In 1854, Hanslick wrote a book, On the Beautiful in Music, one of the arguments of which was that “Music means itself,” that it has no “subject” and is not an expression of feelings.  Unfortunately, this rather conventional notion contradicted Wagner’s ideas.  Just three years earlier, Wagner had published an essay, Opera and Drama, in which he, while describing “music drama” as the synthesis of music, poetry and spectacle, also maintained that his music expresses the feelings intrinsic to poetry and drama.  This made “esthetic of feelings” quite popular in the German-speaking world, and Hanslick’s refutation created a torrent of responses, both positive and negative.  The book earned Hanslick a position of professor of “History and esthetics of music” at the University of Vienna, the first such position at any European university.  On the other hand, Wagner took umbrage and, in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, created a character of Beckmesser, a town clerk and singer, who maliciously judges Walther’s performance, as a caricature on Hanslick.  And in his essay, “Judaism in Music,” Wagner declared that Hanslick’s “Jewish style” of criticism is anti-German.

While writing for Neue freie Presse, Hanslick became the leading music critic of Vienna, which itself was the foremost music center of Europe.  He had rather conservative taste and wasn’t interested in music before Mozart.  He felt that Beethoven had reached the pinnacle and that Schumann and Brahms were the main talents to follow him.  Brahms became a close friend and Hanslick his major supporter and promoter.  Hanslick tried to be objective toward Wagner’s music.  He openly admired his virtuoso orchestration; he liked Tannhäuser and, surprisingly, Meistersinger, despite the “Beckmesser affair.”  At the same time, he felt that the whole concept of “music drama” is detrimental to music development.  Hanslick could be very cutting: “The Prelude to Tristan and Isolde reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel.”  Hanslick was also very negative toward Liszt and Bruckner, one composer who needed a lot of encouragement.  These days Hanslick is remembered as a conservative who completely misunderstood the “new music” of Wagner and his followers.  This is true, but we also should remember that he disliked some nativist, irrational aspects of Wagner’s (and Bruckner’s) music which the Nazis some decades later found so attractive.


September 4, 2017.  Bruckner, Milhaud and more.  Today is Labor Day, so we’ll be very brief.  Anton Bruckner was born on this day in 1824.  Nine years older than Brahms, Anton Bruckneranother great symphonist, today his music sounds more daring.  Bruckner had many supporters and several powerful detractors, the most influential being Eduard Hanslick, the Viennese music critic who wrote devastating reviews.  Here’s one quote from his article about Bruckner’s Third Symphony: "Neither were his [Bruckner's] poetic intentions clear to us – perhaps a vision of how Beethoven's Ninth made friends with Wagner's Valkyries and ended up under horse’s hooves – nor could we grasp the purely musical coherence."  These reviews were especially painful to Bruickner as he was an unusually insecure composer.  All of Bruckner’s symphonies are large in scale, and so are the three masses (Bruckner was a deeply religious person and church music played a very important part in his compositional output).  His motets, though, are much smaller and are a better fit for this post.  Here’s one, Os Justi Meditabitur (The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom).  The Monteverdi Choir is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. 

Darius Milhaud, a member of Les Six, was also born on this day, in 1892 in Aix-en-Provence into a Jewish family.  He traveled extensively, absorbing influences from other cultures.  In 1917, he went to Brazil and found inspiration in the local folk music and traditions of the Carnaval.   In 1922, he traveled to the United States where for the first time he encountered authentic jazz, which made a huge impression on him.  In 1940, after the Germans occupied part of France, Milhaud fled to the US.  There he found a position at Mills College in Oakland, CA.  One of his favorite students was Dave Brubeck. Here is Milhaud’s whimsical Ballade for Piano and Orchestra, op.61.  Vlastimil Lejsek is on the Piano.  Brno Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Jiří Waldhans.

Johann Christian Bach, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Amy Beach and John Cage were all born this week.  We’ll be less perfunctory the next time.


August 28, 2017.  Pachelbel and Locatelli.  Before we turn to our birthday boys, two composers born in the 17th century, we’d like to mention a much younger musician.  Yoo Jin Jang was born in 1990 in South Korea.  After studying in her native country, she moved to the US.  At the New England Conservatory, she studied with Miriam Fried and is currently pursuing her Doctorate at that Yoo Jin Jangschool.  Ms. Jang has won a number of competitions, among them the 2013 Munetsugu Violin Competition in Japan, for which she was loaned the 1697 “Rainville” Stradivari violin.  In 2012 Ms. Jang founded the Kallaci String Quartet.  She recently played a Dame Myra Hess concert in Chicago, and here’s her performance of a rarely-played Violin Sonata by Felix Mendelssohn.  The sonata was never published during Mendelssohn’s time, then got lost and was discovered by Yehudi Menuhin only in 1953!  Renana Gutman is on the piano.  And as a little encore of sorts, here’s a Tango-Étude No. 3 for Solo Violin, again performed by Yoo Jin Jang.

Pietro Locatelli was also a violinist, and a pretty good one: he toured across Europe and his compositions, which we assume he could play well, present technical challenges even to modern violinists.  Locatelli was born on September 3rd of 1695 in Bergamo.  At the age of 14 he became Pietro Locatellia member of the cappella musicale at the local church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  In 1711, he went to Rome where he studied with students of Arcangelo Corelli and maybe even with the master himself.  He came under the patronage of Camillo Cybo, a major-domo of the Pope Clement XI (Cybo, a great grandnephew of Pope Innocent X, was later elevated to Cardinal).  Locatelli dedicated his Opus one, Twelve Concerti Grossi, to Cybo.  He also became one of the favorite musicians of that famous patron of arts, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.  Locatelli left Rome in 1723 and during the following five years traveled across Italy and Germany.  He performed at major courts – in Berlin for the Prussian court, in Dresden for Augustus II of Saxony.  Most of Locatelli’s compositions also come from this period.  In 1727 Locatelli moved to Amsterdam, where he was to live for the rest of his life (he died on March 30th of 1764).  There he played mostly for the rich music lovers and traded in violin strings.  He composed very little.  Here’s one violinist who wouldn't be stymied by Locatelli’s technical challenges: Leonid Kogan.  He’s playing the Violin Sonata in F minor, op. 6 No. 7 "At the tomb."  Andrej Mytnik is at the piano.

As we wrote in 2014, while celebrating Johann Pachelbel’s birthday, had he been alive, he would probably have been very upset with the enormous popularity of his Cannon in D.  During his lifetime, Pachelbel, who was born on September 1st of 1653 in Nuremberg, Bavaria, was famous as composer and organist.  He worked in Vienna as an organist at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral, in Eisenach as a court organist to the Duke of Saxe-Eisenach, and then in Erfurt, where he became close with many of the family of Bachs.  Eventually he settled in Nuremberg, where in 1699 he composed one of his most important pieces,Hexachordum Apollinis.  Here’s Aria Tertia from this collection.  John Butt is on the organ.


August 21, 2017.  Debussy, Krenek and Stockhausen.  We have a bit of a challenge: on the one hand, Debussy, one of the most popular composers ever, was born this week.  On the other, this same week brings the anniversaries of two very significant composers, who strongly affected the development of 20th century Western music.  The problem is that their music is challenging and with few exceptions not easy on the ear.  These composers are Ernst Krenek and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  As for Debussy: here’s something that’s performed not as often as the Préludes or Suite Bergamasque: the first act from his opera Pelléas & Mélisande.  Pierre Boulez conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra.  With Donald McIntyre and Elisabeth Söderström.  And now to things more adventuresome.  

Ernst Krenek was born in Vienna on August 23rd of 1900.   His father was Czech (“r” in Krenek was originally an ř, as in Dvořak and pronounced as “rzh”).  He studied with Franz Schreker, who these days is almost forgotten but back in the early 20th century was the second most popular opera composer (after Richard Strauss).  In 1920 Krenek moved to Berlin, met many musicians andErnst Krenek became part of a very active musical scene.  In 1922, he met Alma Mahler and her daughter Anna.  Alma introduced Krenek to Alban Berg, and Anna asked him to complete her father’s Tenth Symphony.  Anna Mahler and Kreken got married in 1924 but the marriage lasted less than a year.  In 1923 the premier of Krenek’s Second Symphony, which doesn’t sound too daring today, created an uproar.  In the aftermath, Krenek moved to Switzerland, where he met Stravinsky (they had a contentious relationship).  In 1925 Krenek went to Paris, where he became involved with the composers of Les Six; under their influence he decided that his music should be simpler.  From the neo-Romantic period that followed come several operas, including Der Diktator based on the life of Mussolini.  In 1927 Krenek wrote the opera Jonny spielt auf, about a black jazz violinist.  Here’s an excerpt (A Hotel Room in Paris) from the recording made in 1964 with Lucia Popp, other soloists and the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser.  Jonny spielt auf was a tremendous success (even though it sounds somewhat dated now) and afforded Krenek financial freedom.  Several years later the opera would be banned by the Nazis.  Krenek moved to Vienna where he resumed his friendship with Berg and Webern.  In Vienna, he wrote a 12-tone opera Karl V, but the German premier was cancelled by the Nazis.  In March of 1938 Germany annexed Austria and shortly after Krenek emigrated to America.  In the US, Krenek taught in several music schools; his longest tenure was at Hamline University, from 1942 to 1947.  That year he moved to Los Angeles and later spent several summers teaching at Darmstadt.  There, as it happened, he was eclipsed by the rising stars, Boulez and Stockhausen.  Nevertheless, his interest in the 12-tone and serial music led to a large number of composition created in the mid-1950s and 1960s.  He continued writing music till well into his 80s.  In 1982, he was made an honorary citizen of Vienna.  Krenek died in Palm Springs onDecember 22nd of 1991.  Here is his Third Piano Sonata, from 1943.  It’s performed by Glenn Gould.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the most important German composers of the second half of the 20th century, was born on August 22nd of 1928.  He deserves a full entry and we’ll do it another time.  Here’s just a taste: Klavierstück IX, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard.


August 14 2017.  Ibert, Porpora, Enescu.  The French composer Jacques Ibert was born in Paris on August 15th of 1890.  His father was a successful trader and his mother an amateur pianist who studied with the Conservatory professors.  Jacques started studying the violin at the age of four and later took piano lessons.  In his youth, he supported himself as an accompanist and a cinema pianist.  He took several courses at the Jacques IbertParis Conservatory and attended private classes with André Gedalge, a teacher and composer.  There he met Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud, two young composers who would later, together with Poulenc, Auric, Durey and Tailleferre form a group called Les Six.  Ibert never joined in as during those years he stayed mostly away from Paris: during the Great War, he was a naval officer and then, returning to Paris, he won the Prix de Rome on his first attempt and went to Italy.  This was a remarkable achievement considering that Ibert was absent from practically any music studies for almost four war years.  The first concert of Ibert’s works, in 1922, was conducted by Gabriel Pierné (his birthday is also this week, on August 16th; he was born in 1863).  In 1937, he was made the director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici, a position he held till 1960.  Ibert died in Paris on February 5th of 1962.  Here’s Ibert’s Flute Concerto, with Emmanuel Pahud as the soloist.  

Nicola Porpora was born on August 17th of 1686.  Last year, on Porpora’s 330th anniversary, we posted a detailed entry about this wonderful composer and music teacher (here), so today we’ll just play the aria Sì pietoso il tuo labbro ragiona from his opera Semiramide riconosciuta.  In the opera, this aria is sung by Merteo, an Egyptian prince, brother of Semiramide.  At the premier this role was performed by the great soprano castrato (and Porpora’s student) Carlo Maria Broschi, better known as Farinelli.  Here it is sung by the Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg; Christophe Rousset conducts the ensemble Les Talens Lyriques.  The music is wonderful and makes one wonder why Porpora’s operas aren’t staged more often.

George Enescu’s birthday is also this week, on August 19th.   Enescu was born in a small village (later renamed in his honor into “George Enescu”) in Moldavia, a historical province of Romania.  A child prodigy, he started composing at the age of five.  At the age of seven, he was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory, the youngest person ever.  There he studied the violin, the piano and composition.  At the age of 10 he was presented to the court and played to the Emperor Franz Joseph.  At the age of 13 he moved to Paris and went to the Paris Conservatory where he studied with André Gedalge, whom we mentioned above as a teacher of Jacques Ibert (Gedalge also taught Ravel, Honegger and many other soon to be famous composers).  Like Bartók who was influenced by the folk music of Hungary and Romania, Enescu liberally borrow from the tunes of his native country.  In 1901, at just twenty years old, he wrote two Romanian Rhapsodies, Op. 11, which remained his most popular compositions (quite to his chagrin, as he thought they overshadowed his more mature compositions).  Enescu traveled to the US for the first time in 1923 and many times thereafter, performing as a conductor and a violinist.  He lived mostly in Paris and Bucharest.  During World War II he stayed in Romania, and made several recordings with the great pianist Dinu Lipatti.  When the Soviets took over, he moved back to Paris.  He got more involved in teaching the violin.  Among his students were such future greats as Yehudi Menuhin, Ivry Gitlis, Arthur Grumiaux, and Ida Haendel.  Menuhin said that Enescu was "the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence" he had ever experiencedHere’s is his Romanian Rhapsody No. 2, Op. 11.  Iosif Conta conducts the National Radio Orchestra of Romania.


August 7, 2017.  Jolivet and Biber.  A very interesting French composer, André Jolivet was born on August 8th of 1905 in Paris.  In his childhood, he studied the cello but never went to the conservatory (his parents encouraged him to become a teacher).  For a while he studied André Jolivetcomposition 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 Pierrot lunaire and several other Schoenberg pieces were performed.  That concert changed his life.  Soon after he became a pupil of Edgard Varèse, an influential French-American avant-garde composer, whose Amériques was another strong influence.  He also befriended Olivier Messiaen, who was very helpful in promoting Jolivet’s music.  During the war Jolivet moved away from the atonality, saying that he strives for “evasion and relaxation,” understandable goals during the difficult time but ones that were not shared by his friend Messaien.  Jolivet wrote a comic opera, Dolorès, and the ballet Guignol et Pandore.  After the war Jolivet became the musical director of the Comédie Française but continued to compose till his last days.  He died in Paris on December 20th of 1974.

In 1933 Jolivet’s teacher Varèse returned to the USA leaving him six objects: a puppet made of wood and copper, a statue of a Balinese princess, a straw goat, and three figurines created by the sculptor Alexander Calder: a magic bird, a winged horse and a cow.  As Jolivet said himself, they became his companions and familiar fetishes.  In 1935, he composed Mana for piano, naming a movement after each object.  Here they are, performed by the pianist Christiane Mathé: Beaujolais, L'oiseau, La Princesse de Bali, La Chèvre, La Vache and Pégase.

Heinrich Ignaz Biber, an Austrian-Bohemian composer, was born on August 12th, 1644 in Wartenberg, a small town in Bohemia which is now called Stráž pod Ralskem.  Just to place Biber historically within the Germanic music tradition: he was seven years younger than Dieterich Buxtehude, nine years older thanJohann Pachelbel, and about 40 years older than J.S. Bach.  Little is known about his childhood, but around 1668 he was working at the court of Prince Eggenberg in Graz, Austria, and two years later he was already in Kremsier, Moravia, being employed by the Bishop of Olomouc.  By then the 26-year-old Biber was already quite famous as a violin player.  In 1670 Biber, without asking the Bishop’s permission, left Olomouc and joined the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg.  He stayed there for the rest of his life.  Biber’s career flourished: he became the Kapellmeister in charge of all music-making at the court of the Archbishop (100 years later the same court would employ the young Mozart), he was titled by the Emperor Leopold, and the Archbishop appointed him lord high steward.  While in Salzburg, Biber wrote quite a lot of church music, including several masses and two Requiems, a number of ensemble pieces and several operas.  His most famous works in all of his output is a collection of 16 pieces, 15 sonatas plus a Passacaglia for solo violin, known as either The Rosary Sonatas or the Mystery Sonatas; they were written around 1676.  This is not his only music that sounds interesting today.  Here, for example, is his Sonata no. 3 in F Major from a collection of Violin sonatas published in 1681.   The last section (it starts at 7:53) develops in a very unusual way and the ending is quite startling.  John Holloway is the solo violinist.  Aloysia Assenbaum plays the organ and Lars Ulrik Mortensen is on the harpsichord.


July 31, 2017.  Granados and Schuman.  We got so involved with the masters of Renaissance music, especially the great Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria, that we missed a very special anniversary: July 27th marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of another Spanish composer, Enrique Granados.  More than three centuries separate Victoria and Granados, and during that period the music in Spain Enrique Granadosdidn’t develop in a straight line.  To be fair, arts never develop in a constant progression, even Italy and Germany at some point or other experienced periods of decline.  (Flemish music dissolved completely, but that was more a matter of political rearrangements than cultural trends).  In the 15th and especially16th century Spain was one of the musical centers of Europe, close to the Franco-Flemish school since Charles I was not just the King of Spain but the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  His possessions included Burgundy, the Netherlands and parts of Italy, and Spanish musicians traveled across the realm, learning from the locals while the Flemish and the Italians gravitated toward the courts of Spain.  The following Baroque period was still quite productive (Domenico Scarlatti spent much of his life in Spain) but by the end of the 17th century musical culture was in a decline.  This decline continued longer than in any other country of major cultural significance.  And it stopped only with the arrival of a brilliant group of composers in the second half of the 19th century, Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, Joaquin Turina, and of course Enrique Granados.  We’ve written about Granados many times (for example, here), so we’ll address some of his works (his output was not very large as he tragically died at the age of 50).  While his piano pieces, such as Twelve danzas españolas, Goyescas Eight Valses Poéticos are among his most popular pieces, Granados also wrote many wonderful songs.  One cycle is called Tonadillas al estilo antiguo (Little tunes in ancient style).  We’ll hear three of them, El tra la la y el punteado, El majo tímido and La maja dolorosa.  They are performed by one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of the 20th century, Teresa Berganza, with Félix Lavilla at the piano (at the time of the recording, 1961, Berganza and Lavilla were married).

American composer William Schuman was born on August 4th of 1910 in Manhattan.  Schumann is one of the most significant tonal composers of the mid-20th century.  He started seriously composing late, after hearing in 1930 a concert conducted by Toscanini (eventually he removed from publication all works written before 1938).  Schuman studied with the composer Roy Harris; Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, became a friend and a major supporter.  In addition to composing, which he did for the rest of his life, Schuman also had a big administrative career: he was the president of the Juilliard School, where he was instrumental in creating the Juilliard String Quartet.  For several years he was also the president of the Lincoln Center.  Hear is the second section of Schuman’s New England Triptych, “When Jesus Wept.”  The Eastman-Rochester Orchestra is conducted by Howard Hanson.


July 24, 2017.  Tomás Luis de Victoria.  A week ago, when we presented three great composers of the High Renaissance, we gave Tomás Luis de Victoria short shift.  We’ll try to correct it in this post.  A younger contemporary of Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso, Victoria was born in 1548 in a small town of Sanchidrián near Ávila‎.  We know some unusual facts about him, for example, that his mother was from a converso family, that is a family of Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Tomás Luis de VictoriaCatholicism.  Victoria went to school in Ávila, sang as a choirboy in the local cathedral and probably learned there to play the organ.  The cathedral of Ávila was one of Spain’s musical centers, and Victoria’s teachers were prominent composers and musicians. Some speculate that while in Ávila, he met Antonio de Cabezón, the famous blind composer, second in fame only to Cristóbal de Morales.  Somewhere around 1563, once his voice had broken, Victoria was sent to Rome, to the Collegio Germanico, a preeminent Catholic school known for its excellent music education.  As we mentioned last week, while at the Collegio, Victoria almost certainly met Palestrina, who at the time was maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, and very likely was his pupil.  In 1569 Victoria became a singer and the organist at Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli, the Spanish national church in Rome.  Such was his reputation, that a couple years later he was invited to teach music at the Collegio Germanico and eventually was appointed maestro di cappella.  In 1574, he was ordained a priest.  A year later he was appointed maestro di capella at Sant'Apollinare alle Terme, the church of the Collegium.  By then Victoria was already a widely known and well-published composer. 

In 1583 Victoria dedicated the second volume of masses (Missarum libri duo) to King Philip II and expressed the desire to return to Spain and lead the life of a priest.  His wish was granted: Victoria was named the chaplain to the Dowager Empress María.   Empress Maria lived in the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.  Masses at the convent were served daily, with Victoria acting as the choir master and organist.  After dowager’s death in 1603 he remained at the convent in a position endowed by Maria.  Victoria was held in very high esteem, was paid very well, and was free to travel.  In 1594, he happened to be in Rome when Palestrina died; the funeral mass was celebrated at Saint Peter’s Basilica, with Victoria in attendance.  By the end of his own life, Victoria’s music was played all over Europe and even in the New World: his masses were very popular in Mexico and Bogotá.  He died on August 20th of 1611 and was buried at the Monasterio de las Descalzas.

Last time we mentioned that Victoria wrote some of the most profound music of the time; it’s not an exaggeration, and here’s an example.  When Dowager Empress María died in 1603, Victoria wrote Officium Defunctorum – music for a prayer cycle for the deceased, practically a funeral mass.  Listen to the selected movement and judge for yourself: here is the introductory movement, Taedet Animam Meam (My soul is weary of my life); and hereKyrie.  They’re performed, with extraordinary clarity and style, by Musica Ficta, a Spanish ensemble.   You can hear all 10 movement of Officium Defunctorum by searching our library.


July 17, 2017.  Music of High Renaissance.  With the dearth of prominent composers born this week, we’ll celebrated three great masters of the Renaissance whose birthdays remain unknown to music historians.  Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born around 1525, Orlando di Lasso (or Orlande de Lassus, as his name is sometimes spelled) – in 1530 or 1532, and Tomás Luis de Melozzo da Forli, Music-making AngelVictoria – in 1548.  Even though Palestrina was the only Italian among the three (Lasso was Flemish, born in Mons, County of Hainaut, while Victoria was Spanish), Rome was the place were all three had lived and thrived artistically.  Also, all three were influenced by the music of their Franco-Flemish predecessors, Josquin des Prez in particular.  Palestrina, the great master of polyphony, was born in the town of the same name (“da Palestrina” means “from Palestrina”).  In 1537, he was a chorister at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome but then had to return to Palestrina.  His career didn’t take off till 1551, when Pope Julius III, the former Cardinal-Bishop of Palestrina, heard his music and appointed him maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia, one of the papal choirs at Saint Peter’s Basilica.  In January of 1555 Palestrina was promoted to the Sistine Chapel, the pope’s official musical chapel.  Unfortunately, just three months later Julius III died.  Marcellus II became the pope (you can read about Palestrina’s famous Missa Papae Marcelli here) but he died three weeks later.  The next pope, Paul IV, dismissed Palestrina from the Basilica as the composer was married (previous popes were happy to overlook this predicament).  In October of the same year Palestrina was appointed maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, a position previously held by Lasso.  In 1560, he moved to another great basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore.  He returned to Saint Peter’s Capella Giulia in 1571 and remained there for the rest of his life.  Palestrina died on February 2nd of 1594.  He wrote more than 100 masses, 300 motets and 140 madrigals.  Here’s one of his motets, Sicut Cervus, performed by the Cambridge Singers, John Rutter conducting.

While Palestrina had lived in just two cities and traveled little, Orlando led a peripatetic life, at least the first half of it.  He was twelve when he left Mons, accompanying Ferrante Gonzaga, an Italian condottiero, to Mantua and then Sicily.  He then moved to Milan, where he probably met other musicians in the service of Ferrante.  In 1550 he was in Naples, but then moved to Rome, where he found employment at the Roman residence of Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  In 1553, at the age of just 21, he became the maestro di cappella at San Giovanni in Laterano, a very prestigious position for such a young man.  He stayed there for one year, and upon leaving embarked on a trip to France, England and Antwerp, where Tielman Susato  published a collection of Orlando’s motets and madrigals, now knows as his Op. 1.  In 1556 Orlando accepted an invitation to join the court of Duke of Bavaria Albrecht V in Munich.  Orlando was hired as a singer (tenor) and composer, and it took him some years to acquire the position of maestro di cappella, but eventually he settled down in Munich, marrying a daughter of the Duchess’s maid of honor.  As part of his duties, he wrote Masses for the morning and Magnificats for the evening services and many motets.  He also supervised the musical education of the choirboys.  As his fame as a composer grew, he was visited by many musicians.  Andrea Gabrieli came in 1562 and stayed for two years, and Andrea’s nephew Giovanni joined him in the 1570s.  Though he traveled quite a bit, he stayed employed with the dukes for the rest of his life.  Here’s an excerpt from Orlando’s amazing Prophetiae Sibyllarum (Prophesies of the Sibyls), with the Hilliard Ensemble, Paul Hillier conducting.

We left almost no time for Tomás Luis de Victoria, the greatest Spanish composer of the 16th century who wrote the most profound music of the time.  Victoria was born in a small town not far from Ávila‎, in which cathedral he was a choirboy.  In 1565 he went to Rome.  He almost certainly knew Palestrina and very likely was his pupil.   Here’s his motet Vere languores. Ensemble The Sixteen is conducted by Harry Christophers.


July 10, 2017.  Recent anniversaries: Gluck and more.  We missed several significant anniversaries and will make up for at least some of them.  The great reformer of the opera,  Christoph Willibald Gluck was born in a small town of Erasbach in Bavaria on July 2nd of 1714.  He was four when his family moved to Bohemia (Antonio Christoph Willibald GluckSalieri, his pupil, wrote in his memoir that Czech was Gluck’s native language and that he expressed himself in German with difficulty).  Gluck studied mathematics at the university of Prague but probably never graduated.  In 1737 he went to Milan to study music with Giuseppe Sammartini.  Gluck’s first opera was Artaserse, on the libretto of the famous Metastasio, composed for the Carnival of 1742 and performed in the Teatro Regio Ducal (the theater, one of the largest in Milan, burned down in 1776 and as his replacement Nuovo Regio Ducal Teatro alla Scala was built; we now know it as La Scala).  In 1745 Gluck traveled to London.  There he composed an opera, but more importantly, became familiar with the operas of George Frideric Handel.  Handel was not terribly impressed with Gluck’s compositions: the music historian Charles Burney wrote in his “Life of Handel” that the great master said of Gluck “he knows no more of contrapunto, as mein cook, Waltz” (an interesting mixture of three languages that is).  Gluck didn’t stay in London for too long; in 1747 he was back in Vienna, writing an opera to celebrate the Empress Maria Theresa's birthday.   The opera was La Semiramide riconosciuta, again on Metastasio's libretto, and the assignment was very prestigious: Gluck got it ahead of the much more established Johann Adolph Hasse.  The opera was a popular success but Metastasio called it “archvandalian music, which is insupportable’” and Gluck left Vienna shortly after.  For the next few years Gluck earned money as an “itinerant maestro di cappella,” moving around Europe, first with the troupe of the impresario Pietro Mingotti and later with the troupe of Giovanni Battista Locatelli.  He directed different orchestras, composed, and staged productions of his own operas.  One of them was La clemenza di Tito, written on Metastasio’s old libretto.  The opera, composed to celebrate the name day of King Charles VII of Naples, was performed in Teatro di San Carlo, Naples’s most important theater, and featured the famous soprano castrato Cafarelli.  One aria, the exceptionally difficult Se mai senti spirarti sul volto, became especially popular.  Castratos disappeared from opera stages by the end of the 19th century; fortunately, we have the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli, who brought to life so many arias from the castrato repertoire.  Here she is in Se mai senti recorded live in 2001; the ensemble Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is conducted by Bernhard Forck.  As for La Clemenza, it proved to be a very popular libretto. Gluck’s 1752 rendition wasn’t the first one: Antonio Caldara wrote an opera in 1734, and before Gluck there were 17 more operas written on the same text, Hasse using it not once but three times, creating different version in 1735, 1738 and then in 1759.  Of the famous composers, Baldassare Galuppi and Josef Myslivecek used the libretto.  Altogether, 45 operas were written to Metastasio’s piece.  But the most famous one was, without a doubt, the one written by Mozart in 1791, his last one.

By 1751 Gluck settled in Vienna.  The most productive, but also the most disappointing period of his life was still ahead of him.  We’ll write about it another time.

Two more names we’d like to mention: another Czech-speaker, the composer Leoš Janáček was born on July 3rd of 1854.  And the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was born on this day, July 9th of 1879.


July 3, 2017.  Mahler, Symphony no. 5.  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 Fifth.  The time of its composition, the years of 1901 and 1902, is closely linked to Mahler’s marriage to Alma Schindler.  In 1897 Mahler Gustav Mahlerwas appointed the music director of the Vienna Hofoper, one of the most important opera theaters in Europe, whose orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, was (and still is) one of the best.  Mahler’s early years as the director were rather turbulent.  As he was mounting new opera productions (the first two were Wagner’s Lohengrin and Mozart’s Zauberflöte), Mahler required utter discipline and precision.  Very demanding, he was not too sensitive toward the singers and orchestra players, whose feelings he often hurt.  The atmosphere within the opera house was difficult but results were of a very high quality.  Problems of a different sort accompanied Mahler as the conductor of subscription concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic.  To many conservative music critic, he appeared not sufficiently felicitous to the classical scores.  And indeed, Mahler often altered the orchestration and was known to amplify musical dynamics beyond the generally accepted practices of the day.  Things were exacerbated by the partisan, and often very hostile, critics.  A large section of the society was deeply anti-Semitic (the Mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, was the leader of the anti-Semitic Austrian Christian Social Party), and even though Mahler converted to Christianity to take a position with the Hofoper, they never forgot his Jewish roots.

Nonetheless, by 1901 things were settling down.  Mahler resigned as the conductor of the Philharmonic series (his re-orchestration of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony cause a real scandal), concentrating on opera.  His own compositions were getting wider acceptance.  He was financially secure, and could even afford a villa, in Maiernigg on the Wörthersee.  The summer of 1901 was the first one of many that he spent there, composing.  In November of 1901, at a dinner party given by Sofie Clemenceau (sister-in-law of George Clemenceau, the future Prime-minister of France) he met Alma Schindler.  Alma, the daughter of an established landscape painter Emil Schindler, was then 22 (and 19 years younger than Mahler).  She was known as a fine-looking society girl.  At the time, Alma was having an affair with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, her music teacher.  That didn’t prevent a brief but intense romance between her and Gustav, and on March 9th of 1902 they were married.  One of the conditions of the marriage, imposed by Gustav, was that Alma would drop her own composition efforts (Mahler changed his attitude some years later, helping Alma to edit and publish several of her compositions).  Both Mahler’s friends and his enemies were surprised: the friends, because they considered Alma to be too young for Gustav and too flirtatious, his enemies – because they considered her too pretty and too much a part of the society to marry a Jew.  But by the time of the marriage Alma was already pregnant with their first daughter and happy to assume her conjugal responsibilities.

By then Mahler had already started working on his Fifth symphony.  He and Alma spent the summer months of 1902 at their Maiernigg villa.  Mahler built a separate small studio, where he spent the morning hours composing.  By the end of the summer of 1902 the Fifth symphony was finished, although it would wait for the premier for another two years.  Here it is, in the 1996 performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez conducting.


June 26, 2017.  Beethoven, Symphony No. 7.  Below is the article by Joseph DuBose on Beethoven’s Symphony no.7.  As always with Beethoven’s symphonies, our problem was in selecting a recording to illustrate it: there are myriads in existence, many of superb quality.  We Beethoven, 1814chose a remastered live recording made by Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra in 1976.  You can listen to it here.  ♫

Symphony No. 7 in A major

Beethoven completed the Symphony No. 7 in 1812. Four years separated it from the “Pastoral”—the longest span between any of the symphonies thus far. Yet, that interval does not mark a period of lesser creativity in Beethoven’s career. Many important works appeared during that time, including two string quartets (opp. 74 and 95), the music for “Egmont,” “King Stephen,” and the “Ruins of Athens,” the Choral Fantasia, and the F-sharp minor and “Les Adieux” piano sonatas.

Beethoven’s style continued to advance during this period. With each decisive step he brought music closer to embodying the deepest expressions of the human soul. Thus far, his music had embodied the grand, the lofty, the profound, and, quite remarkably, was largely uninfluenced by the day-to-day events of the composer's life. What Beethoven had not yet explored, at least in his symphonies, was humor. Beethoven had always indulged in coarse jokes, puns, and nicknames, but in his later years, his humor became even more pronounced. He even had a special word for his unique, off-putting behavior: aufgeknöptf, or “unbuttoned.” In one such instance of this behavior, Beethoven, when visiting his friend Breuning, would, if having just come in from the rain, take off his hat and dash water off it in all possible directions, without the slightest regard for what furniture or people may have been nearby. Another example involved his brother. When Johann left a card for Beethoven that read, “Johann van Beethoven, Landed proprietor,” Beethoven quickly responded with his own: “Ludwig van Beethoven, Brain proprietor.” Though brief glimpses of this rough humor can be found as early as the Second Symphony, Beethoven had not yet allowed it an outlet in his music until the composition of the A major Symphony.

Besides allowing his “unbuttoned” humor a musical outlet, Beethoven composed the Seventh Symphony during a particularly happy time for the composer. As was his habit, the composer left Vienna during the summer months for the countryside, where he sketched out his compositions that would later be put into their final form once he returned to Vienna for the winter. In the summer of 1811, he ventured farther from the Austrian capital than usual, to Teplitz, roughly fifty miles from Prague. There, he enjoyed a vibrant confluence of intellectuals and musicians, among them the Sebald family; the actor Ludwig Lowe; Johann Fichte, a founding figure of German idealism; and the poet Christoph Tiedge. Afternoons and evenings were spent with great fellowship, and Beethoven, against his usual manner, even obliged to extemporize at the piano.

Once completed, the Seventh Symphony was premiered on December 8, 1813 at a concert in Vienna given to benefit the soldiers wounded at the battle of Hanau, where Austrian and Bavarian troops attempted to cut off Napoleon’s retreat from Leipzig. The program also included Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony” in honor of the British victory over Napeleon at Vittoria. Among the orchestra were some of the most prominent musicians of the day—Schuppanzigh, Romberg, Spohr, Dagonetti, Meyerbeer, Hummel, and Salieri. Beethoven himself conducted the concert, though probably more to the performance’s detriment than advantage due to the advanced stage of his deafness by this time. Yet, the Symphony No. 7 was received with great praise; the Allegretto even was encored. A repeat performance on the 12th of the same month met with equal success. The work, however, did not fare as well in North Germany. When it was premiered in Leipzig, Friedrich Wieck, father of Clara Wieck, criticized the symphony, remarking that it could have only been composed in a “drunken state.” Regardless, the Seventh now is staple of the symphonic repertoire, and, along with the Eroica and the Fifth, one of the most oft-performed of Beethoven’s symphonies. Beethoven himself was particularly fond of the work, and twice referred to it as one of his best works.  (To continue reading, please click here)


June 19, 2017.  A Stamitz and a Bach.  Johann Stamitz was born on this day in 1717 in a small town of Německý Brod (German Ford in the Czech) in Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire.   He studied in the Jesuit Gymnasium in Jihlava known across Europe for its high Johann Stamitzquality of musical education.  He then studied at Prague University and then, it’s assumed, embarked on a career of a violin virtuoso.  Sometime around 1741 Stamitz was hired by the Mannheim court of the Elector of Palatinate.  At the time, the court had an excellent orchestra.  In June of 1742 he played at a concert and, according to the advertisement, was to perform on the violin, viola d’amore, cello and double bass.  His rise was very quick: a year later he became the first violinist of the court orchestra, in 1745 – the Konzertmeister and in 1750 – director of instrumental music.  As such he was responsible for both composing and performing music for the court.  Under the leadership of Stamitz the orchestra improved even further, both technically and musically, becoming the most renowned orchestra in Europe.  In 1754, Stamiz went to Paris and stayed there for a year.  He performed, to great acclaim, in private residences of the nobility and also at the Concert Spirituel at the Tuileries Palace, the first ever public concert series.  Stamiz returned to Mannheim in the fall of 1755.  Two years later, on March 27th of 1757, he died at the age of 39.  Johann Stamitz, had two composer sons who became as well known as their father, and is mostly famous for his symphonies (he wrote 58 of them) and his orchestral trios.  Here is his Pastorale Symphony.  Virtuosi di Praga are conducted by Oldřich Vlček.

Johann Stamitz was three years younger than Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and 15 years older than another son of J.S. Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach.  Johann Christoph was born this week, on June 21st of 1732 in Leipzig, where his famous father was the Thomaskantor.  Johann Sebastian was his son’s first music teacher, and, as many of Johann Sebastian’s sons, Johann Christoph attended the Thomasschule (St. Thomas School).  Not as famous as his brothers Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, or Johann Christian, he was a fine composer and a virtuoso keyboard player.  Johann Christoph is sometimes called the "Bückeburg Bach" as he spent many years in Bückeburg, the capital of the County of Schaumburg-Lippe.  Here is Johann Christoph’s virtuosic Piano Concerto E Major.  It’s performed by the wonderful Cyprien Katsaris.  Orchestre de Chambre du Festival d`Echternach is conducted by Yoon Lee.


June 12, 2017.  Stravinsky, Pleyel.  Igor Stravinsky, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, was born on June 17th of 1882 in Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov) outside of Saint Petersburg.  For years, as we celebrated Stravinsky, we were traversing his life in its Igor Stravinskyamazing transmutations.   We’ve mentioned it before, but one can think of only one other artist who could change his creative styles so drastically and succeeded so enormously in every one of them – and that’s Picasso.  Last year we wrote about one of Stravinsky’s most successful neoclassical pieces, his ballet Apollo.  Apollo was composed early in 1928.  Stravinsky was living in France and leading, at least on a personal level, a double life: while still married to Catherine (Katya) Nosenko, mother of his four children, he had since 1921 been carrying on an affair with Vera de Bosset, then the wife of the painter Sergei Sudeikin (Vera would leave Sudeikin a year later).  Stravinsky bought a house in Anglet just outside of Biarritz and moved his family there.  When not visiting Anglet, he lived in Paris with Vera.   Katya knew about the affair but didn’t do anything about it.  Stravinsky stayed married to Katya for the remainder of her life; the last years were very unhappy.  Some years earlier Katya had contracted tuberculosis, which had developed slowly, but in 1938 she infected both Igor and their daughter Lyudmila.  Lyudmila died in 1930 at the age of 30, Catherine – three months later, in March of 1939.  Igor spent several months in a hospital but recovered.

But that was still to come.  In the meantime, in 1928, following the success of Apollo, Ida Rubinstein, a famous danseuse, commissioned Stravinsky for another ballet for her company.  Rubinstein wanted a romantic tale, and Alexander Benois, a wonderful Russian painter who had collaborated with Stravinsky (and Diagilev) on a number of projects, came up with the idea to base the ballet on the music of Tchaikovsky.  Stravinsky liked it; what came out of it was Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss), a wonderfully inventive one-act ballet.  Bronislava Nijinska was the choreographer; the ballet premiered in November of 1938, marking the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death.  It’s interesting to compare two masterpieces, Apollo and The Fairy's Kiss, written just months apart – the apollonian stillness of the former and the inventive brilliancy of the latter.  In 1934 Stravinsky wrote a “Divertimento” – a suite based on the music of the ballet.  You can listen to it here.  The Bulgarian National Radio Symphony is conducted by Mark Kadin.

While in Paris, Stravinsky found an interesting source of income: writing arrangements for the piano manufacturer Pleyel.  The company had recently designed a piano player they called Pleyela and Stravinsky used its ability to play notes beyond the capacity of a human pianist.  By the late 1920, Playel was one of the major piano manufacturers in Europe, on par with Bechstein, Bösendorfer and the Hamburg Steinway.  The company was started by Ignaz Pleyel, a composer and piano maker, whose birthday we also mark this week.  Pleyel was born on June 18th of 1757 in Ruppersthal, Austria.  He moved to Strasbourg, Alsace, and eventually to Paris.  A prolific composer of many symphonies, quartets, etc., he didn’t leave a lasting mark, although he was well-received in England, which he toured the same time as his friend Haydn.  The field he really excelled in was business.  First, he established a successful music printing business, and then, in 1807, Pleyel et Cie, a piano manufacturer.  They were the first to introduce a metal frame and make an upright piano (or “pianino,” as they called it).  Chopin played Pleyels, and so did many other French pianists and composers.  Working with Wanda Landowska, they introduced the modern harpsichord.  And we shouldn’t forget their contribution to the performing scene: the company commissioned the original small Salle Pleyel and its replacement, the modern concert hall which serves as the home base to the Orchestre de Paris Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.  Igor Stravinsky was one of the conductors of the inauguration concert.


June 6, 2017.  The Cliburn update.  The semifinal results were announced last night and both  Daniel Hsu and Georgy Tchaidze made it into the final round.  Congratulations to both!  In the final round they will perform a piano quintet (Daniel will play Franck’s Piano Quintet and Georgy – Dvořák’s Quintet op. 81) and then a concerto.  Daniel will play Tchaykovsky’s no. 1, while Georgy will perform Prokofiev’s Piano concerto no. 3.  Good luck and break a leg!


June 5, 2017.  The Cliburn and the IMF.  The 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is entering its final round: the six finalists will be announced later today.  Every lover of classical music in this country is aware of the Cliburn, the premier piano competition organized International Music Foundationby the late Van Cliburn in 1962, four years after he won the first Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow.  Many of the Cliburn winner and even participants who didn’t get top prizes went on to develop great careers: Nikolai Petrov, Radu Lupu, Rudolf Buchbinder, Cristina Oriz, Vladimir Viardo, Barry Douglas, Olga Kern, Aleksey Sultanov, to name just a few.  While the Cliburn is known worldwide, the International Music Foundation, a Chicago organization that presents high-quality music performances by emerging artists and supports music education in the area, isn’t well known even in its home city.  And yet, Chicagoans can listen live to some of the best young pianists who are today performing in Fort Worth: the flagship program of the IMF is the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts, and many of its “alumni” went on to participate in and win major music competitions.  This year, three such musicians, Daniel Hsu, Georgy Tchaidze and Rachel Kudo played at the Cliburn.  All three made it to the quarterfinals, while Hsu and Tchaidze went a step further, to the semifinals.  Today we’ll find out if they make it into the final round.  The 19-year-old Daniel Hsu is a native of San-Francisco.  At the age of 10 he was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music where he studied with Garry Graffman and Eleanor Sokoloff.  He was named a Gilmore Young Artist in 2016 and a year later played a concert at Carnegie Hall.  In the preliminary round of the Cliburn, Daniel The Cliburn Competitionplayed Beethoven’s 31st piano sonata.  Earlier this year, he played the same sonata at the Dame Myra Hess concert; you can listen to it here.  In the quarterfinals, he played Bach’s Chaconne from the violin Partita in d minor, BWV 1004, arranged for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni.  You can listen to it in a live recording, here.

Georgy Tchaidze was born in Saint Petersburg and studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Sergey Dorensky.  He then moved to Berlin where he continued his studies with Klaus Hellwig at the Berlin University of the Arts.  Georgy is a winner of several international competitions and performed across Europe, North America and China.  Here he’s collaborating with the German-Korean violinist Clara-Jumi Kang in Johannes Brahms’s Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, Op. 78 in G Major.

Rachel Kudo was born in Washington DC.  She attended the Juilliard and currently works with Leon Fleisher.  She also studied with Joseph Kalichstein, Richard Goode, and Gilbert Kalish.  Like Daniel Hsu, Ms. Kudo is a winner of the Gilmore Young Artist Award and a two-time winner of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition.  It so happens that we have her recording of Johannes Brahms’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano in A Major, Op. 100, which she performed with the violinist Siwoo Kim.  It’s a fine compliment to Brahms’s first violin sonata.  You can listen to Violin Sonata no. 2 here.

Robert Schumann was born this week, on June 8th of 1810.  We’ll celebrate him another time.


May 29, 2017.  A different Les Six.  No less than six noted composers were born this week.  None of them arrived at the pinnacle of their profession, but all six are very interesting in one way or another.  Chronologically, the composers are: Georg Muffat, Marin Marais, Mikhail Glinka, Marin MaraisEdward Elgar, Isaac Albéniz and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  Muffat and Marais were born just three years apart: Muffat on June 1st of 1653 and Marais – on May 31st of 1656.  They even had the same teacher, Jean-Baptiste Lully.  In all other respects, their lives and their music were very different.  Muffat, of Scottish and French descent, led a peripatetic life.  Born in the Duchy of Savoy, he studied in Paris, then worked in Alsace before settling in Vienna.  From there he traveled to Prague and, eventually, Salzburg.  There he worked for the archbishop, as Mozart would 100 years later.  After a ten year stay in Salzburg he went to Rome where he met Arcangelo Corelli and many other famous musicians of the day.  He returned to Salzburg two years later but didn’t stay long.  He moved to Augsburg, Bavaria, and later – to Passau, where he lived the remaining years of his life.  He died in Passau, 50 years of age, on February 23rd of 1704.  Marais, on the other hand, was born in Paris and died in Paris.  He went to the choir school of St Germain-l'Auxerrois, one of the best music schools in Paris.  He studied the viol with several teachers, one of whom was the famous player Sainte-Colombe (it’s said that Marais surpassed him after six months of study).  He was invited to play at the orchestra of the Opera, where Lully was the music director.  As composer, he wrote mostly for his instrument, the viol, eventually writing five books of Pièces de viole.  Some of his pieces were performed in Versailles and were well received.  He became a conductor of the opera around 1706 (the official title of the conductor was “batteur de mesure” – the one who beats the measure; that was the extent of conducting in the early 18th century, and that’s also what lead to Lully’s demise, when he hit his foot with the conducting staff and died of the gangrene several days later).  Here is Marais, Le Labyrinthe, from Suitte d'un gout etranger, which in turn is from Book IV of PiècesDe Viole.  Jordi Savall and friends are performing.  As for Muffat, we’ll hear a piece from the second set of suites which Muffat gave the Latin name of Florilegium (“Selection”).  He wrote two sets, Florilegium Primum and Florilegium Secundum, each set consisting of several suites of dances.  Here is the second suite from Florilegium Secundum subtitled Laeta Poesis.  You may hear some Lully in it, but it also anticipates Handel.  The Academy of Ancient Music is conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Mikhail Glinka, born a century and a half later, on June 1st of 1804, occupies a special place in the history of Russian music.  It’s not very often that we can identify the “first composer,” but that’s really what he was - the first authentically Russian composer.  Of course, there were Russians composing secular music well before Glinka, Bortniansky and Berezovsky among them, but those, while quite gifted, mostly repeated the patterns of their Italian teachers.  Glinka’s music, on the other hand, was original, he went to the Russian sources and created a melodic world that affected generations of composers to come, from the Mighty Five who followed him to Tchaikovsky and the more conservative Soviet composers of the 20th century. Here’s one of his better-known pieces, the Overture to the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila.  Evgeny Mravinsky conducts the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.

Edward Elgar and Isaac Albeniz were also born three years apart, Elgar on June 2nd of 1857, Albeniz – on May 29th of 1860.  Both became “national composers,” Elgar almost officially, with his Pomp and Circumstance Marches being played at state events, Albeniz – purely by virtue of his music.   Both deserve proper treatment, hopefully soon.  And so does Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a child prodigy whose career never reached promised heights.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.  


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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).


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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. 


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).


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.


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)


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.


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.


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).


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.


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)


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.


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.


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 and we’ll get back to you.


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


The Classical Connect team


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).


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.


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)