Composers DatebookComposers 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.
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.More from Composers Datebook »
Tanglewood is one of America's most famous summer-time classical music festivals, and can boast a long and impressive list of premieres and performances by famous American composers and conductors. It takes place each year around this time in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Tanglewood has been the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home for more than 60 years, but it wasn't the symphony's first location in the Berkshires. In August of 1936, the first in a three-concert series was performed at Holmwood, a former Vanderbilt estate. And, in fact, the origins of this annual Festival actually began not with the Boston Symphony, but with the New York Philharmonic, which, on today's date in 1934 inaugurated the Berkshire Symphonic Festival in Stockbridge. That summer-time concert series was led by the American composer and conductor, Henry Hadley. When the New York Philharmonic dropped the series two years later, the Boston Symphony picked up on the idea. In short order, the great Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky, moved the festival to Tanglewood and expanded the concert series into a kind of intensive summer camp for young musicians and composers. Among those who particularly benefited were two young composer-conductors named Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss. In 1940, the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center) opened, and to mark the occasion, American composer Randall Thompson's famous choral work titled Alleluia received its premiere performance.
Dali and Bejart and Alessandro Scarlatti in Venice
Opera-goers today often lament the rise of intrusive stage directors who feel the need to reinterpret a composer's work in startling and often deliberately provocative ways. One recent staging of Wagner's "Lohengrin" at the Bayreuth Festival, for example, featured the chorus dressed up as laboratory rats. But contemporary directors would have to go pretty far to top a ballet staging that took place at the Venice Festival on today's date in 1961. In this case, music by the Italian Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti was specially arranged into a short ballet score for which sets, story, and choreography were provided by two leading avant-garde artists of the day: the surrealist Spanish painter Salvador Dali and the Belgian choreography Maurice Bejart, with an important contribution by La Maison Guerlain, a pricey French perfume manufacturer. The result was described as "total theater" and titled simply "Gala"—which happened to be the name of Dali's wife. The ballet's surreal scenario is perhaps best—and somewhat discretely—described as a Jungian dream vision of one woman being courted by several men. And when we said French perfume played an important role in the staging, we meant it—since big barrels of the stuff were placed on stage to mask the odor of a rotting cattle carcass that was a feature of Bejart's scenario. To paraphrase the late Walter Cronkite, "And that's the way it was—and smelled—August 22, 1961."
Dali and Bejart and Alessandro Scarlatti in Venice
Each summer the BBC organizes the biggest classical music festival in the world, namely the BBC Proms, which stretches from mid-July to early September, offering dozens of orchestral concerts, chamber and solo recitals, choral performances, and both early and brand-new music, including specially-commissioned new works. At the 2004 Proms, on today's date, a new piece by the British composer Judith Bingham was premiered by the BBC Chorus. Entitled "The Secret Garden," it was inspired by several events: a conversation about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, a BBC TV series entitled "The Private World of Plants," some rather racy descriptions of the sex life of plants by the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, and a disturbing news story about the bombing of the so-called "Adam Tree" in Iraq at a site that locals believe was where the Garden of Eden once stood. Bingham wrote her own text, which includes many Latin names of plants, which led to "The Secret Garden's" subtitle: "Botanical Fantasy." "This is meant to be a magical piece," says Bingham. "It has a Christian framework with opening and closing quotations from Genesis and Matthew ... but the piece also seems to wonder whether the world is better off without humans, and that, should humans cease to exist, Paradise would very soon re-establish itself ..."
If pressed to name a famous 20th century Danish composer, most concert-goers would say, "Carl Nielsen" – after all, he wrote five symphonies that get performed every now and then. But if pressed to name a 20th century Danish composer who wrote thirteen symphonies, not many would be able to say, "Vagn Holmboe, of course – and he also wrote 20 string quartets!" To be fair, the works of Vagn Holmboe, a Dane who lived from 1909 to 1996, don't show up on the programs of American orchestras or string quartets very often these days, which is a shame, since his music is quite intriguing. The prolific Mr. Holmboe wrote as many string quartets as Bartok and Shostakovich's combined, and both those composers influenced his style. Holmboe's String Quartet No. 13, for examples, is in 5 movements, like some of Bartok's, and premiered in Copenhagen on today's date in 1976. In addition to being a prolific composer and respected composition teacher, Holmboe was a nature lover: in 1939 he settled in the idyllic Danish countryside of Zealand, where he personally planted 3000 trees on his land by Lake Arreso. When asked about his own music, Holmboe once said, "For a modern composer ... music cannot describe emotion and its manner, or in other words: emotion is not the purpose. One can, however, say that emotion is the driving force, the reason why composers express themselves in the material with which they feel at home: music."
In the 19th century, anybody who had the means would flee the stifling heat of the cities and head for someplace green and shady and cool: a country house, a spa perhaps, or maybe just a cabin in the woods. Of course, these days you just crank up the air-conditioning. THAT wasn't an option until fairly recently, however. In the 19th century, it was Johannes Brahms who set the fashion for composers to spend their summer holiday months in the countryside working on their music. His Violin Concerto and Second Symphony were the products of leisurely weeks spent in the lake district of Austria's Carinthian Alps. The American composer Edward Collins, who lived from 1889-1951, followed Brahms' example. For Collins, the city to be escaped was Chicago, and his country refuge was Cedar Lake, Wisconsin. In the summer of 1913, Collins composed a Concert Piece for Piano and Orchestra. Like much of Collins' music, it was premiered by the Chicago Symphony under conductor Frederick Stock, who encouraged young American talent, especially a talented local boy like Collins, a native of Joliet, Illinois. Collins is just one of dozens of American composers whose works were once popular, but have now all but disappeared from view. In the case of Edward Collins, that may change, as conductor Marin Alsop and the Concordia Orchestra have plans to record all his major orchestral works.
The month of August in 1613 proved to be an especially eventful one in the life and career of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. The previous summer, his old employer, Duke Vincenzo of Mantua, had died, and Monteverdi was laid off by the Duke's successor. The composer cooled his heels in Cremona for a year or so with little to do. Then, in the summer of 1613, the position of Master of Music for the Republic of Venice opened up, and, on today's date that year, Monteverdi was in all probability busily rehearsing musicians for a trial concert of his music at St. Mark's Cathedral scheduled for the 19th. The concert was a success. Monteverdi got the job, a generous salary, and even a cash advance to cover his move from Cremona. So much for the good news—on his trip back to Cremona, Monteverdi was robbed by highwaymen armed with muskets. In a surviving letter, Monteverdi described the incident in some detail, noting that the muskets were very long and of the flint-wheel variety, and that he lost more than a hundred Venetian ducats. Despite the trauma—and the humiliation of being strip-searched for valuables by one of the robbers—Monteverdi recovered his fortunes in Venice. In addition to his duties at St. Mark's, he became famous writing a newfangled sort of commercial entertainment called opera, and lived to the ripe old age of 77.
In 1980, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, his wife, and his two sons emigrated from his Soviet-controlled homeland and settled in Austria. Since the 1960's, Pärt's increasingly spiritual and overtly religious music, imbued with mystical and contemplative rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church, did not sit well with the communist authorities, and Pärt found it increasing hard to live and work in Estonia. On today's date in 1980, at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, another Baltic artist, the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, gave the premiere performance of a new violin-piano arrangement of Part's "Fratres," or "Brothers"—an instrumental work from 1977 that Pärt subsequently rescored for a variety of ensembles. In most of arrangements of "Fratres," the music remains essentially unchanged, but in the version commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, the original harmonic material resides in the piano part, while the violin plays virtuosic variations above it. The challenge for the violinist is to simultaneously convey both virtuosity in his part AND the serenity "in the Pärt!" That serenity is the result of Pärt's effort to—as he put it— "learn to walk again as a composer." He came up with a term, tintinnabulation, for the simplicity and directness of expression he sought. "Tintinnabulation is like this," writes Pärt. "I am alone with silence. I work with very few elements... The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation."
In the 1950s, if you said the words "Cuban music," perhaps Desi Arnez, a.k.a. Ricky Ricardo, singing "Babaloo" might come to mind. These days, it's more likely the Buena Vista Social Club. On today's date back in 1932, George Gershwin had Cuban music on his mind when the New York Philharmonic premiered his "Cuban Overture" under its original title "Rumba." Cuban dances and dance music have always proved appealing to North Americans, and composers are no exception. Long before George Gershwin, the 19th century piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk toured Cuba and imitated some of the sounds and rhythms he heard there in his original works. In the early 1940s, a young hay fever sufferer named Leonard Bernstein escaped the New England pollen of Tanglewood for a time in Key West. There he was inspired by the Latin dance bands he heard on radio Havana to write a jaunty, little Cuban-style dance of his own that would resurface some 15 years later as the song "America" in Bernstein's hit musical, "West Side Story." And in 1990, American composer Michael Daughterty composed his orchestral conga line entitled "Desi"—a symphonic tribute to Cuban bandleader Desi Arnez, in his pop icon role of, who else, Ricky Ricardo.
When spaceman Michael Rennie's flying saucer circled over Washington, DC, in the 1951 sci-fi classic, "The Day the Earth Stood Still," it did so to the accompaniment of an electronic instrument known as the Theremin. Its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, was born in St. Petersburg on today's date in 1896. Theremin studied astronomy, physics, and cello, and in 1927 he traveled to the West, where he quickly obtained a patent for an electronic instrument he called the Thereminovox. In the 1930s, Theremin arranged concerts for his creation at New York's Carnegie Hall. Then, in 1938, without explanation, Theremin disappeared. Some said it was because his American business ventures didn't pan out; others said that Theremin was married to two women at the same time and things had started to get tricky for him stateside. The truth was even stranger. Theremin was a spy, and had been passing on American technical information to the Soviets. Ironically, when he did return home, Theremin was immediately thrown into a Soviet Prison camp for seven years. While incarcerated, he developed miniature electronic eavesdropping devices for the Soviet government, one of which was successfully installed in the American Embassy, another, for good measure, in Stalin's own apartment. After decades of top secret espionage work, in 1989, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the 92-year old Theremin again showed up in New York to be honored at a festival of electronic music, amazed that his name and instrument were even remembered.
There was a time when German opera houses would have fought over the chance to premiere a brand-new opera by Richard Strauss. But by 1940, when Strauss finished a mythological opera entitled "The Love of Danae," there was a war on, and, on top of that, Strauss had fallen out of favor with Germany's Nazi rulers. A scheduled premiere in Dresden had to be cancelled. In Leipzig, the orchestral parts for the new opera were lost in a fire, and in Munich an Allied air raid damaged the opera's sets and scenery. By the summer of 1944, when conductor Clemens Krauss was rehearsing handpicked vocal soloists and the Vienna Philharmonic for the opera's belated premiere at the Salzburg Festival, the collapse of the Third Reich was imminent. On August 1st, an order was issued from Berlin canceling all music festivals and closing all theaters. Somehow Salzburg managed to get a dispensation, and rehearsals for Strauss's opera were allowed to continue. A private dress rehearsal of "The Love of Danae" took place in Salzburg on August 16, 1944. The 80-year old composer attended, and, with tears in his eyes, thanked the performers with these words: "Perhaps we shall meet again in a better world." Strauss died in 1949, and it wasn't until today's date three years later that the first public performance of "The Love of Danae" occurred at the 1952 Salzburg Festival.