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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata in F Major, K 533/494
Piano Sonata No. 15 in F Major, K. 533/494 In June 1786, Mo...
Johann Sebastian Bach
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring Johann SebastianBach, arr. Myra H...
Franz Liszt
Après une Lecture de Dante (Fantas
Between 1837 and 1839 Franz Liszt toured Italy extensively and put d...
Arthur Foote
Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 65
I. Allegro giocosoII. Tranquillo III. Allegro moltoThis wor...
Leonard Bernstein
Piano Trio no. 2
I. Adagio non troppo – Allegro vivace – LargamenteII. Tempo...
Dmitry Shostakovich
String Quartet No. 3 in F major, op
Allegretto Moderato con moto Allegro non troppo Adagio ...
Robert Schumann
Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26 (
Robert Schumann's genius extends not only to piano music but to musi...


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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.

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