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Composers Datebook

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

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

Berlioz gets snuffed?

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“Snuff” is a finely pulverized tobacco that can be, well, “snuffed” through the nose. In the 19th century, taking snuff was a common practice, and on today’s date in 1837, the most notorious example of snuff-taking in music history occurred –or didn’t, depending on who you believe – during the premiere in Paris of the massive “Requiem Mass” of the French composer Hector Berlioz.

As Berlioz tells it in his Memoirs, the conductor of the performance, Francois-Antoine Habeneck, decided to take a pinch of snuff during an especially tricky passage, at the very moment he should have been giving an important cue to the orchestra. To avert disaster, Berlioz jumped up, gave the cue, and afterwards accused Habeneck of sabotage.  Some eye-witnesses are on record saying, “Yes, that’s just how it happened,” while others, equally emphatic, state, “Preposterous! Nothing of the sort occurred.”

Whom to believe? 

Well, it IS known that once the basic tempo was set, M. Habeneck was in the habit of putting down his baton to let the orchestra play on by themselves. He would then calmly take a pinch of snuff. Sometimes, it’s said, he even offered snuff to his neighbors, so perhaps those performances were indeed sabotaged – by an especially loud sneeze!

Music Played in Today's Program

Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) — Requiem, Op. 5 (French Radio Chorus and Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein, cond.) Sony 47526

Dec 05 2021

2mins

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Bruckner's New York debut

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On today’s date in 1885, at a public rehearsal at the Old Metropolitan Opera House, the New York Symphony, led by a fresh-faced 23-year-old conductor named Walter Damrosch, performed for the first time in America a work by a 61-year-old Austrian composer named Anton Bruckner – his Symphony No. 3 in D minor.

The New York Times critic, in fairness to this unfamiliar composer, attended both the rehearsal and concert before venturing an opinion:

“As to form and workmanship,” he wrote, “it is a highly commendable achievement. The composer’s motives are distinct and fluent, the instrumentation is rich, though not cloying… Unfortunately, there is not in the whole composition a measure in which a spark of inspiration, or a grain of inventiveness is discernible.”  Other New York papers were more blunt: “A dreary waste of sound… formless, weird, flimsy, uncongenial and empty” according to The Sun, while The Post observed: “The first movement is marked ‘misterioso’, but the only mystery about it is how it ever came to be written, printed and performed.”

In fairness to those critics of 1885, it would take many decades before American audiences started to acquire a taste for Bruckner’s particular blend of music and mystery.

Music Played in Today's Program

Anton Bruckner (1824–1896) — Symphony No. 3 in d (BBC Scottish Symphony; Osmo Vänskä, cond.) Hyperion 67200

Dec 04 2021

2mins

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Bach Begins the Church Year

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In many denominations, the Christian calendar or liturgical year begins with the season of Advent, the four Sundays preceding Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin “adventus,” which means “arrival” or “coming,” because Advent celebrates both the joyful anticipation of the arrival of the baby Jesus and the need for believers to prepare for the second coming of their Savior at the Last Judgement.

In 1724, a very devout German Lutheran church musician named Johann Sebastian Bach crafted a cantata, a work for a small instrumental ensemble with solo voices and chorus, to be performed on the First Sunday of Advent, which fell on today’s date that year.

At Bach’s church, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, there would have been readings from Luther’s translation of the Bible appropriate for the day, so Bach asked a poet friend for a text meditating on them, and took for his musical inspiration Luther’s Advent hymn, "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,", which in English means “Now come, Savior of the heathens."

That hymn appeared as the first in the Thomaskirche’s hymnal, which meant the church year was off and running once again. Now, it was Bach’s responsibility to provide a cantata for performance each Sunday, and during his time in Leipzig he would write over 200 of them -- which no doubt made him a favorite customer with anyone in Leipzig selling music manuscript paper!

Music Played in Today's Program

J.S. Bach (1685 - 1750) — Cantata No. 62 (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland) (Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, cond.) Archiv 463 588

Dec 03 2021

2mins

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Messiaen in Boston

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On today’s date in 1949, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Boston Symphony in the first complete performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ten-movement, 75-minute long “Turangalila” Symphony.

“Turangalila” is the Sanskrit word for love, and Messiaen’s score is meant to be a voluptuous evocation of the emotion at its most exalted state.

Messiaen had spent the summer of 1949 as composer-in-residence at Tanglewood at the invitation of the great Russian conductor and new music impresario, Serge Koussevitzky, who was also Bernstein’s mentor. Before arriving in Tanglewood, Messiaen had written to Bernstein as follows: “I have put into my symphony all of my strengths of love, of hope and of musical research. But I know you are a man of genius and that you will conduct it the way I feel it.” 

The exotic French score was a modest success in Massachusetts. At least it provoked no riot, but then, as The Christian Science Monitor noted: “If Bostonians suffer, they suffer in silence.” When Bernstein and the Boston Symphony took the new score to New York’s Carnegie Hall, however, critical reaction ranged from “a really rousing experience” to the view that (quote) “the trashiest Hollywood composers have met their match.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) — Turangalila Symphony (Concertgebouw Orchestra; Riccardo Chailly, cond.) London 436 626

Dec 02 2021

2mins

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Stravinsky and Balanchine count to 12

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On today’s date in 1957, the New York City Ballet staged a new collaboration between the great Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky and the great Russian-born choreographer Georges Balanchine. 

The ballet company had been asking Stravinsky for nearly a decade to write a third ballet on a classical subject to make up a trilogy that would include his two earlier dance works on Greek mythology, “Apollo” from 1928 and “Orpheus” from 1948. Just as they were about to despair that Stravinsky would ever do it, he unexpectedly obliged — if not with a Greek myth, at least with a Greek WORD: his new ballet was titled “Agon,” the Greek word for contest or struggle.

On a more modern note, by the 1950s, as Stravinsky’s assistant Robert Craft recalled, “Something called twelve-tone music was in the air, and ‘Agon’ is about 12 dancers and 12 tones.”

“Agon” is also set in 12 scenes, and some of its movements were consciously laid out in multiples of 12 bars. Balanchine himself said in working on the ballet, “Stravinsky and I constructed every possibility of dividing 12” – which in dance terms, meant abstract solos, duets, trios and quartets to match the abstract, if eminently danceable, nature of Stravinsky’s score.

Music Played in Today's Program

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) — Agon Ballet (Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra; Michael Stern, cond.) Denon 78972

Dec 01 2021

2mins

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Picker picks a plot

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Ever wonder how composers choose the stories for their operas? Here’s one answer, courtesy of the American composer Tobias Picker: “My sister was dusting her bookshelf in 1998, and a copy of Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin fell off. She picked it up, read it and then recommended it to me for my next opera.”

And so three years later, on today’s date in 2001, the Dallas Opera premiered Thérèse Raquin, a new opera by Tobias Picker. Zola’s novel is a clinical examination of adultery, murder, and a double suicide. “The novel,” said Picker, “exudes ‘opera’ from every page.”

In Picker’s setting, traditional harmonies spiral off into atonality, just as the ordered world of the opera’s characters gradually falls apart. Picker has written successfully in both styles, so combining the two seemed only natural. “That tension has always been there in my music,” says Picker.

“I think the opera made some people uncomfortable,” said Picker. “It affected people strongly and in different ways. One woman came up to me at the third and final Dallas performance and said: ‘I just love this. It’s the third time I’ve seen it.’ Perhaps she had experienced the same catharsis that I had when I composed it!”

Music Played in Today's Program

Tobias Picker (b. 1954) — Therese Raquin (Dallas Opera Orchestra; Graeme Jenkins, cond.) Chandos 9659

Nov 30 2021

2mins

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Scarlatti Arrives

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On today’s date in 1719, the Papal ambassador in Lisbon noted the arrival of a fellow Italian, a composer named Domenico Scarlatti. Domenico was in his early 30s, and the son of Alessandro Scarlatti, a very famous and influential composer of Baroque operas in Naples.

At the time, Domenico was nowhere near as famous as his father, and had come to Lisbon to serve as the music teacher for an 8-year old Portuguese princess named Maria Magdalena Barbara. This teaching gig turned out to be the most important event in the life of Domenico Scarlatti – and for two reasons.

First, the little princess was mad about music, and became a very talented performer on the harpsichord. Second, in 1733, when the princess was 22, she married into the Spanish royal house, becoming the Queen of Spain. Scarlatti remained in her service for the next 25 years, composing for her amusement over 500 harpsichord sonatas, infused with the rhythms and colors of Spanish and Portuguese folk music and with the plucked sound of the harpsichord often mimicking a Spanish guitar.

Only a small number of Scarlatti’s sonatas were published during his lifetime, but long after his death all surviving manuscripts were tracked down and published.

Nov 29 2021

2mins

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Griffes for pleasure

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On today’s date in 1919, the eminent French conductor Pierre Monteux, led the Boston Symphony in the premiere performance of “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan,” a new orchestral score written by the American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes.

This music was inspired by the famous Romantic poem of that name by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but owes its exotic orchestral coloring to Griffes’ interest in the music of Asia and the Pacific Rim. Although Griffes himself never traveled there, he knew someone who had: the influential Canadian soprano Eva Gauthier, famous for her avant-garde song recitals that included music by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and her later association with Gershwin and Ravel. It was the well-traveled Gauthier who introduced Griffes to the musical traditions of Japan and Java.

The 1919 Boston premiere of “Kubla Khan” was the highpoint of Griffes’ career, and all the critics agreed a major new talent had arrived on the American music scene.

Unfortunately, one month later, Griffes took ill and in a few months died from a severe lung infection. He was just 35 years old. How his music would have developed had Griffes lived remains one of the most intriguing “what might have beens” of American music.

Music Played in Today's Program

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884 - 1920) — The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (Boston Symphony; Seiji Ozawa, cond.) New World 273

On This Day

Births

  • 1784 - Baptismal date of German composer and pianist Ferdinand Ries, in Bonn;

  • 1829 - Russian composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein, in Vikhvatinets, Podolia (see Julian date: Nov. 16);

Deaths

  • 1972 - British composer Havergal Brian, age 96, in Shoreham-by-Sea; He composed 32 symphonies between 1919-1968 (most remained unperformed during his lifetime);

Premieres

  • 1723 - Bach: Sacred Cantata No. 61 ("Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" I) performed on the 1st Sunday in Advent as part of Bach's first annual Sacred Cantata cycle in Leipzig (1723/24);

  • 1811 - Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Johann Philip Christian Schultz conducting, and Friedrich Schneider as the soloist;

  • 1895 - Rimsky-Korsakov: opera “Christmas Eve,” in St. Petersburg (Gregorian date: Dec. 10);

  • 1896 - Mussorgsky: opera “Boris Godunov” (Rimsky-Korsakov version), in St. Petersburg (Gregorian date: Dec. 10);

  • 1909 - Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3, in Carnegie Hall, composer at piano, Walter Damrosch conducting New York Symphony Society Orchestra;

  • 1919 - Charles Tomlinson Griffes: "The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan," Pierre Monteux conducting Boston Symphony Orchestra;

  • 1930 - Hanson: Symphony No. 2 ("Romantic"), by the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky conducting;

  • 1930 - Kodály: "Marosszék Dances," in Dresden;

  • 1940 - Miaskovsky: Symphony No. 20, in Moscow;

  • 1990 - Christopher Rouse: “Concerto per Corde” (Concerto for Strings), at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, by the American Symphony Orchestra, Catherine Comet conducting;

Links and Resources

Nov 28 2021

2mins

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Korngold writes a symphony

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On today’s date in 1972, almost two decades after its premiere, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp received its first successful concert performance by the Munich Philharmonic led by Rudolf Kempe. A recording was made with the same performers, supervised and produced by the composer’s son, George Korngold.

Korngold had died in 1959, so was not able to enjoy the eventual success of this major work. He completed his Symphony in 1950, and its Austrian Radio premiere in 1954 had been a disaster. As the composer himself put it: “The performance, which was an execution in every sense of the term, took place under the most unfavorable conditions imaginable, with inadequate rehearsals and an exhausted and overworked orchestra.”

Korngold had become an American citizen during the 1940s, and dedicated his Symphony to the memory of America’s wartime President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The postwar European premiere of his Symphony came at a time when shifting tastes in music made his late-Romantic style seem hopelessly old-fashioned to many of critics of that day. “More corn than gold” was one dismissive appraisal of his style.

These days, Korngold’s music – including his Symphony –make more frequent, better-played, and eagerly welcomed appearances on concert programs.

Music Played in Today's Program

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957) — Symphony, Op. 40 (Philadelphia Orchestra; Franz Welser-Most, cond.) EMI 56169

Nov 27 2021

2mins

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A belated Schumann premiere

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On today’s date in 1937, a gala concert in Berlin presented the premiere performance of Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D-minor, a work composed in the fall of 1853, shortly before Schumann’s tragic mental collapse.

The Concerto was never given a public performance during Schumann’s lifetime, although the great 19th century violinist Joseph Joachim read through the score during an orchestral rehearsal early in 1854, and played the work privately in 1855, with piano accompaniment provided by Schumann’s wife, Clara. Clara, Joachim and their mutual friend Johannes Brahms all judged the concerto sub-par and perhaps embarrassing evidence of Schumann’s declining mental state.

Oddly enough, the 1937 premiere in Berlin, attended by none other than Adolf Hitler, was presented as part of the Nazi’s “Strength Through Joy” cultural program. German commentators touted Schumann’s ties to the German “folk,” while American critics bemoaned that most of the great German violinists of the day were unavailable for this important premiere, having all left Germany for racial or political reasons.

On this side of the Atlantic, it was violinist Yehudi Menuhin who gave the American premiere of Schumann’s long-neglected Concerto a month later, first with piano accompaniment at Carnegie Hall, then later with the St. Louis Symphony.

Music Played in Today's Program

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) — Violin Concerto in D Minor (Gidon Kremer, violin; Philharmonia Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, cond.) EMI 69334

Nov 26 2021

2mins

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Bach's "wake up" call?

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As a busy church musician Johann Sebastian Bach wrote around 300 sacred cantatas. That seems a high number to us – but consider that his contemporaries Telemann and Graupner composed well over a thousand cantatas each!

In what surviving documents we have, Bach himself rarely uses the Italian term “cantata” to describe these pieces, preferring “concertos” or simply “the music” to describe these works intended for Lutheran church services. It was only in the 19th century, as Bach’s music was being collected and catalogued, that the term “cantata” would become the official label for this sizeable chunk of Bach’s output.

On today’s date in 1731, the 27th Sunday after Trinity that year, Bach presented what would become one of his most popular cantatas: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”, or “Awake, the Voice calls to us.” In that 19th century catalog of Bach’s works, this is his Cantata No. 140.

The text is based on a Gospel parable recounting the story of the wise and foolish virgins, who are called, ready or not, to participate in a wedding feast. The opening choral melody may have been already familiar to Bach’s performers and congregation, but his dramatic setting of it is downright ingenious.

Music Played in Today's Program

J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750) — Cantata No. 140 (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme) (Bach Ensemble; Helmuth Rilling, cond.) Laudate 98.857

Nov 25 2021

2mins

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Diamond's "Rounds"

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In 1944, while the Second World War ground on in Europe and Asia, David Diamond’s “Rounds for String Orchestra” received its premiere performance by the Minneapolis Symphony and its then conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos. 

“Write me a happy work,” Mitropoulos had asked Diamond. “These are distressing times, most of the difficult music I play is distressing. Make me happy.”

To some in 1944, “Rounds” sounded as if Diamond had turned to traditional American folk music, but, as the composer put it, “the tunes are original. They sound like folk tunes, but they are really the essence of a style that must have been absorbed by osmosis.”

Even the stodgy conservative music critic of the St. Paul Pioneer Press expressed her grudging admiration: “it reveals a good deal of talent and resourcefulness” was her verdict. Reviewing a subsequent Boston Symphony performance under Koussevitzky, New York Times critic Olin Downes was much more enthusiastic. He wrote: “It is admirably fashioned, joyous and vernal. There is laughter in the music.”

“Rounds” has gone on to become one of Diamond’s most frequently performed works. Perhaps joy and laughter in music remains as rare and precious a commodity now as it was back in those distressed days of 1944.

Music Played in Today's Program

David Diamond (1915-2005) — Rounds (Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz, cond.) Nonesuch 79002

Nov 24 2021

2mins

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Short (but tough) Copland

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On today’s date in 1934, after 10 intense rehearsals, the Orquestra Sinfonica de Mexico, conducted by the Carlos Chávez, gave the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 2 of the American composer Aaron Copland.

Copland’s Second was titled ‘The Short Symphony,” but there was a lot packed into its 15-minute duration. Said Copland, “The Short Symphony’s preoccupation is with complex rhythms, combined with clear textures. Sonority-wise, the most rhythmically complex moments have a certain lightness and clarity.”

“Shortly after its Mexican introduction,” recalled Copland, “the piece was announced for an American premiere by Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra but was never given. A similarly announced performance by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzsky was also cancelled. Both told me subsequently that they had announced performances because they had admired the work, but that the composition was so intricate from a rhythmic standpoint that they dared not attempt a performance within the allotted period.”

In 1937, Copland recast his “Short Symphony” as a chamber sextet, leaving the music fundamentally unchanged, but re-barring the score to make it less challenging for performers. It wasn’t until the 1980s, decades after its Mexican premiere, that Copland’s Symphony was performed by American orchestras in its original form.

Music Played in Today's Program

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) — Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.) BMG 68541

Nov 23 2021

1min

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Music for St. Cecilia's Day

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Today is the Feast Day of St. Cecilia, an early Christian martyr. Her story dates back to Roman times, when the new religion was still punishable by death.

It wasn’t until the 15th century, however, that St. Cecilia became the patron saint of music and musicians. Over time her Feast Day came to be celebrated with special works composed in her honor, all extolling the power of music. Of these, pieces by three British composers are the most famous.

In the 17th century, Henry Purcell wrote four cantatas, or “Odes” for St. Cecilia’s Day. The most famous of these, entitled “Hail! Bright Cecilia!” was written in 1692.

The British poet John Dryden, a contemporary of Purcell’s, wrote two poems in praise of St. Cecilia. These attracted the attention of the great British composer of the following century, George Frederick Handel. The first of these, “Alexander’s Feast” premiered in 1736, oddly enough not on St. Cecilia’s Day, but proved so popular that Handel set Dryden’s other Ode to St. Cecilia, entitled “From Harmony, Heavenly Harmony,” and performed both pieces on today’s date in 1739.

The great 20th century British composer, Benjamin Britten was actually born on St. Cecilia’s Day in 1913. In the early 1940s, the British poet W.H. Auden wrote a piece entitled "Anthem for St. Cecilia's Day" especially for Britten, who set it to music in 1942.

Music Played in Today's Program

Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) — Hail Bright Cecilia! (Gabrieli Consort; Paul McCreesh) Archiv 445 882

George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1759) — Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (English Concert; Trevor Pinnock, cond.) Archiv 419 220

Benjamin Britten (1913 –1976) — Hymn to St. Cecilia (London Sinfonietta Voices) Virgin 90728

Nov 22 2021

2mins

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Harbison's "Flight into Egypt"

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On today’s date in 1986, at the New England Conservatory of Music, a new choral work by the American composer John Harbison received its premiere performance. Scored for soprano, baritone, chorus, and chamber orchestra, it was entitled “The Flight into Egypt,” and would win the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year.

The text for Harbison’s cantata is taken from the Gospel of Matthew describing the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt after the birth of Jesus and King Herod’s subsequent slaughter of all newborn male children in an attempt to kill this prophesied threat to his throne.

“The Flight,” recalled Harbison, “began in a conversation with colleagues about Christmas texts. We talked about counseling experiences during Christmas season at Emmanuel Church, Boston, where we were all involved as musicians – a time when need, isolation, and anxiety increase. We agreed that the darker side of Christmas needs representation, especially now, as the distance widens between the privileged and the less fortunate.

“At the beginning of The Flight into Egypt,” Harbison continues, “is an oboe melody, exotic and forlorn, imitated by the other reed players … the piece constantly hides and reveals its loyalty to the first oboe melody that guides the whole journey.”

Music Played in Today's Program

John Harbison (b. 1938) — Flight into Egypt (Cantata Singers and Ensemble; David Hoose, cond.) New World 80395

Nov 21 2021

2mins

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Meredith Monk

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The American composer, singer, dancer, and choreographer Meredith Monk was born in New York City on today’s date in 1942.

Monk attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied theatre, dance, and music. On graduation in 1964, she began performing pieces that combined gesture and movement with vocal and visual elements. Around that time, a number of contemporary composers had begun stretching the boundaries of instrumental music, but, as Monk recalls, there really wasn’t much happening regarding extended vocal techniques.

Monk began testing how she could stretch the range, timbre and character of her own singing, inventing a vocabulary based on her particular voice – as she explains it, just as a dancer would develop a vocabulary of movement particular to their body.

Considering her long-standing interest in integrating music with movement and visuals, opera seemed a natural outlet for Monk’s talents, and in 1993 she premiered a full-length opera entitled “Atlas.”

“Atlas” was inspired by the life of Alexandra David-Neel, a scientist who was the first Western woman to travel in Tibet. It seemed a natural choice for Monk, for whom exploration and curiosity are so important. “If I knew what I was looking for,” says Monk “it wouldn’t be that interesting.

Music Played in Today's Program

Meredith Monk (b. 1942) — Atlas (Meredith Monk Ensemble; Wayne Hankin, cond.) ECM 1491

Nov 20 2021

2mins

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Gershwin's last film score

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In the summer of 1936, the songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin settled their affairs in New York, put their furniture in storage, and flew off to Hollywood to fulfill a contract with the RKO Studios. The Gershwins were to supply music for a series of new movies, some starring an old friend of theirs, dancer Fred Astaire.

In those days the big movie studios moved quickly, and so did the Gershwins. The first film in the contracted series, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as the romantic leads, was entitled “Shall We Dance” and was completed, scored and released in less than a year.

On today’s date in 1937, RKO Studios released their second Gershwin collaboration, “Damsel in Distress.” This starred Astaire and Joan Fontaine, and included two songs that would become Gershwin classics: “A Foggy Day in London Town” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It.”

The release of “Damsel in Distress,” however, must have been a bittersweet event for the friends and family of George Gershwin: it proved to be the last major project Gershwin had completed before his untimely death on July 11 that same year following surgery to remove a brain tumor.

Music Played in Today's Program

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) — Damsel in Distress Suite (An American in London) (Hollywood Bowl Orchestra; John Mauceri, cond.) Philips 434 274

Nov 19 2021

2mins

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The Wagners attend a Brahms premiere

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Falling in love with someone else’s spouse can result in divorce, emotional turmoil, or (in the case of composers) some very Romantic music.

Take the case of Brahms, who for most of his adult life carried a torch for Mrs. Clara Schumann, the wife of his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 was conceived during an especially turbulent period in his relationship with the Schumanns. When finished, Brahms wrote to his publisher: “On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. I’ll send you my photograph, and since you like color printing, you can use blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots.”

That garb was favored by Young Werther, the Romantic hero in a novel by Goethe, who commits suicide after falling in love with a married woman.

Coincidentally, in the audience for the Viennese premiere of Brahms’s Quartet on today’s date in 1875 were Richard and Cosima Wagner. Cosima had run off with Wagner while still married to the famous conductor Hans von Bulow, but her diary entry for November 18th suggests she didn’t find anything Romantic in Brahms or his music. She writes: “[Brahms] a red-faced, crude-looking man, his music dry and stilted.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) — Piano Quartet No. 3 in c (Ames Piano Quartet) Dorian 90217

Nov 18 2021

2mins

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Hoover for flute and guitar

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The intimate combination of flute and guitar has proven to be an attractive one for a number of composers – and if the composer herself plays the flute, so much the better.

“Canyon Echoes,” written by the American composer and flutist Katherine Hoover premiered on today’s date in 1991 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by flutist Susan Morris De Jong and guitarist Jeffrey Van.

Katherine Hoover gave her “Canyon Echoes” a subtitle: “An Apache Folktale.”

“This piece,” explained Hoover, “was inspired by a book called The Flute Player, a simple and beautifully illustrated retelling of an Apache folktale by Michael Lacapa. It is the story of two young Apaches from different areas of a large canyon. They meet at a Hoop Dance, and dance only with each other. The next day, as the girl works up on the side of the canyon in her father's fields, the boy sits below by a stream and plays his flute for her (flute-playing was a common manner of courtship). She puts a leaf in the stream which flows down to him, so he knows she hears.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Katherine Hoover (1937 - 2018) — Canyon Echoes (Duologue) (Susan Morris De Jong, flute; Jeffrey Van, guitar) Gasparo 336

Nov 17 2021

2mins

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The Philadelphia Sound

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In the year 1900, a German-born conductor named Fritz Scheel arranged for two orchestral programs in Philadelphia billed as the “Philippines Concerts.” These were benefits, as contemporary ads put it: “for the relief of families of the nation’s heroes killed in the Philippines.” The previous year U.S. troops had fought a guerrilla army in the Philippines and had suffered heavy casualties.  

The concerts proved so successful that Philadelphians decided that Scheel’s pick-up orchestra should become instead a permanent ensemble, similar to the orchestras of New York and Boston. And so, on today’s date in 1900, the first official concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra took place at the Academy of Music, offering a program of Goldmark, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Weber, and Wagner.

During the century that followed, the fame of the Philadelphia Orchestra spread worldwide via recordings made by the orchestra’s famous maestros Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy,  who gave many U.S. and world premiere performances of new works by both European and American composers.

In 1940, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, on the occasion of the premiere of his “Symphonic Dances” by the Philadelphians, paid the orchestra this compliment: “Today, when I think of composing, my thoughts turn to you, the greatest orchestra in the world.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) — Act I Prelude, from Die Meistersinger (Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond.) CBS 38914

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) — Symphonic Dances (Philadelphia Orchestra; Charles Dutoit, cond.) London 433 181

Nov 16 2021

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