Composers Datebook

From American Public Media

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 »

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Barney Google meets Igor Stravinsky?

On today's date in 1944, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky completed an orchestral score he titled "Scenes de Ballet" or "Ballet Scenes." Now, considering Stravinsky had achieved international fame for his earlier ballet scores for "The Firebird," "Petroushka" and "The Rite of Spring," perhaps the generic title "Ballet Scenes" was not all that surprising. What was surprising was that the commission for this 1944 score came from an unusual source — Broadway. New York impresario and nightclub owner Billy Rose had achieved fame the previous year for his Broadway production of "Carmen Jones" — an updated American version of Bizet's opera "Carmen" with an all-black cast and a jazzed-up score. Rose decided to capitalize on this popular success with something more "upscale and highbrow." Rose conceived of a stage review titled "The Seven Lively Arts," and for the dance component decided to commission the most famous living composer of ballet scores, Igor Stravinsky, who was then living in Los Angeles. Rose liked the score when he heard it played on the piano, but he thought Stravinsky's orchestration a bit too far-out, and this led to a famous coast-to-coast telegraph exchange. After a preview performance in Philadelphia, Rose sent this telegram message to Stravinsky: "Great success, but could be sensational success if you would authorize Robert Russell Bennett to retouch orchestration." Stravinsky telegraphed this reply to Billy Rose: "Satisfied with great success."

A Silly Symphony Debut

We have a silly anniversary to note today – seriously! On today's date in 1929, Walt Disney released his first "Silly Symphonies" cartoon. Entitled "The Skeleton Dance," it depicted four skeletons dancing and making music in a graveyard, employing bizarre instruments, including an unfortunate cat played like a fiddle and the skeletons' own bones, played like a xylophone. While its release on Halloween might have been more appropriate, perhaps "The Skeleton Dance" provided some pleasurable spinal chills for moviegoers on a hot August evening back in 1929. In any case, this "Silly Symphony" was a huge success for Disney, became an instant classic, and was voted #18 in a 1994 poll of "The 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time" by professional animators. And speaking of classics, a bit of Edvard Grieg's spooky "March of the Trolls" was used to great effect in "The Skeleton Dance." But credit for its success should go first to Carl W. Stalling, a legendary composer and arranger of cartoon music and absolute master of unexpected segues, witty allusions, and surreal orchestration, and second, to pioneering Disney animator Ub Iwerks, likewise a master in his field. | Chuck Jones, an animator famous for his much later Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, had worked for Iwerks' studio in his youth, and put it this way: "Iwerks is Screwy spelled backwards."

Handel on the road

On today's date in 1750, this alarming notice appeared in a London newspaper: "Mr. Handel, who went to Germany to visit his friends some time since, and between the Hague and Harlem had the misfortune to be overturned, by which he was terribly hurt, is now out of danger." To translate into modern journalistic prose: While visiting the continent, London-based composer George Frideric Handel, age 65, was injured in a traffic accident – his coach somehow toppled over with Handel inside. The exact details of the accident are not known, nor are the extent of Handel's injuries, but the composer seems to have recovered from the accident. Upon his return to London, Handel completed a new organ concerto for his 1751 oratorio season. This concerto — which we're sampling — was published as his Op. 7, no. 3, and turned out to be Handel's last major orchestral work. Although he lived for another 9 years, Handel's health took a turn for the worse in 1751. With some difficulty he completed his last great oratorio, "Jeptha", and spent the remaining years of his life reviving earlier works and putting his music and affairs in order. In our own time, we note with sadness that at least three American composers have died as a result of road accidents in the last decade: composers Stephen Albert, at age 51, in 1992, Eric Stokes, at age 69 in 1999, and Vivian Fine, at age 86, in the year 2000.

A famous — and a non-quite-as-famous — overture

Two concert overtures —one very famous and one not so famous — had their premiere performances on today's date. In 1956, this music by British composer Sir Arthur Bliss provided a festive opening to that year's Edinburgh Festival of Music and Drama. The Edinburgh Festival Overture is a salute to Scotland's premiere arts festival, presented annually in late summer and early fall since 1947. Also premiered on today's date was Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," commissioned for an international Exhibition of Industry and the Arts in Moscow, and first played at an all-Tchaikovsky concert on today's date in 1882. As pleased as Tchaikovsky was that his music was to be presented at the Exhibition, he was definitely not enthusiastic about the commission. "There is nothing less to my liking," he wrote, "than composing for the sake of some festival. What, for instance, can you write on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition except banalities and generally noisy passages?" On top of all that, the commission called for something (quote) "with a hint of church music, which must certainly be Orthodox." Glumly, Tchaikovsky to work, writing to another friend: "I don't think it has any serious merits, and I shouldn't be at all surprised and offended if you find that it is in a style unsuitable for symphony concerts." Ah, Peter Ilyitch — you certainly got that one wrong!

Bernstein's air-conditioned urban jungle

If you were in Washington, D.C. on today's date in 1957, and wanted to escape the summer heat, tickets for a new musical at the air-conditioned National Theater would run you between $1.10 and $5.50 — and you could boast for years afterwards that you attended the world premiere performance of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." Actually, the three-week trial run of "West Side Story" at DC's National Theater was a hot ticket. The premiere attracted a fashionable crowd of Washington elite as well as those who trained or planed their way to the national's capitol to catch the latest work of America's musical "boy wonder" — the 38-year old Leonard Bernstein. Even so, The Washington Post reported Bernstein was able to wander the lobby at intermission largely unrecognized — to eavesdrop on audience reaction. One woman who did recognize him identified herself as a former social worker in a rough neighborhood like the one depicted in his musical. "It's all so real, so true," she told Bernstein. "It chills my blood to remember." Bernstein was a little taken aback. "It isn't meant to be realistic," he said. "Poetry — Poetry set to music — that's what we were trying to do." But gang violence as the subject for a musical was shocking to 1957 audiences. When the show opened on Broadway, the New York "Times" expressed its impact as follows: "Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable... 'West Side Story' is a profoundly moving show."

Salieri Slandered?

Today is the birthday of Antonio Salieri, one of the most unjustly maligned composers in history. The successful stage play and movie "Amadeus" have helped to repeat the notorious charge that the jealous 18th-century Italian composer Antonio Salieri was directly or indirectly responsible for Mozart's early death. Historians have acquitted Salieri of this crime, but more people are familiar with the fiction than the facts. The truth is that Salieri was often quite friendly to Mozart during his lifetime, and after Mozart's death served as a music teacher to Mozart's talented son, Franz Xaver Mozart. The long-lived Salieri also gave lessons in the Italian style to Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt —surely signs of a nature more generous than jealous. Salieri was born in Legnano, Italy in 1750. He came in Vienna in 1766, when he was 16 years old, and Vienna remained his home until the end of his life. A protégé of the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II, Salieri even accompanied that very musical monarch, who played the cello, at royal chamber music sessions. As a composer, Salieri enjoyed imperial patronage from his arrival in Vienna until 1800, a period of some 35 years. Some of the operas Salieri wrote for Vienna have been revived and recorded in our time. He wrote over 40 of them, including a comic opera entitled "The Talisman" —an opera composed to a text by Mozart's favorite librettist, Lorenzo da Ponti.

Atterberg's "$10,000" Symphony

On today's date in 1928, the Columbia Phonograph Company of New York announced that the Symphony No. 6 by the Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg was the winner of its $10,000 Schubert Memorial Prize. The Competition was intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Schubert's death, and originally, Columbia wanted the prize to go to the composer who most successfully "finished" Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony." After protests that this was an insult to Schubert's memory, Columbia expanded the competition to include the best original score conceived in the spirit of Schubert's music. Attenberg's Symphony was chosen as the winner by an international jury, which included several composers. Now, in 1928, $10,000 was a small fortune—and about 10 times the normal commission fee for a big symphonic work. Not surprisingly, Atterberg's score was soon nicknamed "The Dollar Symphony." Some even accused him of cynically tailoring his music to appeal to the conservative taste of the competition's jury, and even quoting from works by the composers on the panel to curry their favor. Atterberg defended himself by pointing out the Symphony's opening movements were very much in his normal style, but admitted the final movement was, in fact, intended as a parody of the competition's requirement to write in Schubert's style. "It brought me special pleasure," Atterberg said, "to observe that all the critics who found reminiscences of other composer's works were not able to identify a very obvious quotation of a Schubert theme in my Rondo-Finale."

The King is Dead

On today's date, Elvis left the building — permanently. On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died in Memphis, Tennessee. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935, Elvis first earned his living as a mechanic and furniture repairman who occasionally played cowboy ballads on the guitar at parties. But somehow Elvis reinvented himself and became the archetypal rock 'n' roll superstar, revered more as the modern day reincarnation of the Greek god Dionysius than a mere mortal. His funeral caused such an outpouring of hysteria and that two people died in the chaos and many more were injured. There was even a bizarre plot at the time to kidnap Elvis' corpse and hold it for ransom. And, of course, some people claim he never died at all. American composer Michael Daughtery has taken pop icons like Elvis as the inspiration for a number of his concert works. He has even written a bassoon concerto titled "Dead Elvis" — a set of variations on the Dies Irae theme from the Latin Mass for the Dead. In performance, the composer asks that the soloist enter in the familiar costume of Las Vegas Elvis — sunglasses and a rhinestone-encrusted white jumpsuit with a plunging, open, neckline. Hip gyrations are optional. Michael Daugherty writes: "Elvis is a part of American culture, history, and mythology, for better or for worse. If you want to understand American and all its riddles, sooner or later you have to deal with Elvis."

A Mass for Machaut

In the Catholic Liturgical calendar, today is celebrated as the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. In the Middle Ages, when the veneration of Mary as Notre Dame – French for "Our Lady" – was at its peak, a "Lady Mass" would be sung on a day like this. And it's quite likely that one of the earliest-known settings of the Latin mass, the "Notre Dame Mass" by Guillaume de Machaut, was performed as a Lady Mass at one particular chapel in the Cathedral of Reims for many years in the 14th century. Guillaume and his brother Jean were both canons at that Cathedral and had arranged an endowment for a mass in honor of Mary to be sung there every Saturday. In our day, Guillaume de Machaut's Notre Dame Mass is his most famous work, but in his own time, the age of Chaucer, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, he was far better known as a secular poet of Courtly Love. Machaut had been a widely-travelled and extremely well-connected artist before returning to his native Reims at the end of his life. Before that, employment by various members of the royalty took him from Paris to Prague and on trips to Italy, Poland, and Lithuania. It's ironic that Machaut is nowadays famous for his sacred music – this one Mass in particular – when the vast majority of his music was decidedly secular in tone.

Hot new operas by Saariaho and Wagner

The fact that a new opera might debut at the Salzburg Festival in Austria is not in itself an unusual occurrence. But in August of the year 2000, the new opera in question was "L'Amour de Loin" or "Distant Love" by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho — making it the first opera by a female composer ever to be staged at the prestigious international Festival, and one that opened to rave reviews. Born in Helsinki in 1952, Saariaho now lives with her husband and children in Paris. She has said that though she loves Helsinki, she's more comfortable in a city where she is not a celebrity. "I'm too well recognized in Finland," says Saariaho. "When I say this to colleagues in America, they think it's fantastic that there is a country where contemporary music composers can be esteemed public personalities." Speaking of summer-time opera premieres, Richard Wagner's "Die Walküre" had its first performance as part of his "Ring cycle" on today's date in 1876, at Wagner's own theater in Bayreuth, a small town in Southern Germany. Some early critics thought building a big theater in such an out-of-the-way place was a monumental act of folly, but Wagnerites have been making the midsummer pilgrimage there for over 125 years — despite the lack of air-conditioning in Wagner's theater. Appropriately, it's some of the warmest music from "Die Walküre" — the "Magic Fire" scene that brings the opera to its close.

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