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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"Truth Tones" for MLK

Each January, Martin Luther King Day is observed on the third Monday of the month, and in 2009, MLK day fell on January 19th. To celebrate MLK Day 2009, the director of the Boston Children's Chorus commissioned and premiered a new work from the American composer Trevor Weston. Rather than set words spoken by King, Weston took a different course: "[Dr. King's] speeches speak to ... the beauty of living in a society where the truth of equality is actually realized and often demonstrate a broad historical perspective," says Weston, "so I celebrated King by using texts from the African Saint Augustine and the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar." From Saint Augustine's "Confessions," Weston includes the line, "O Truth, you give hearing to all who consult you ... you answer clearly, but all men do not hear you," and from a Dunbar work entitled "The Poet," this line: "He sang of life, serenely sweet/With now and then a deeper note." Musically, Weston echoes and references music both medieval and modern, specifically the 12th century composer Hildegard von Bingen and the 20th century composer Morton Feldman, with a variation on the spiritual "Wade in the Water" tossed in for good measure. The result is a haunting, inward-looking choral work that Weston entitled "Truth Tones."

The Harris Ninth

Composers—like anybody else—can be quite superstitious about numbers. Gustav Mahler, for example, was reluctant to assign the number "9" to his song cycle symphony, "Das Lied von der Erde," fearing that work would turn out to be his last: after all, Beethoven and Bruckner had only completed nine symphonies. Ironically, Mahler did go on to complete a Ninth Symphony, but died before he could finish work on a Symphony No. 10. For the most part, American composers have avoided this problem by rarely if ever producing more than one or two symphonies of their own. Naturally there have been exceptions. On today's date in 1963, the Ninth Symphony of the American composer Roy Harris had its premiere performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, who had commissioned the work. Like many of his other symphonies composed during and after the Second World War, Harris's Ninth has a patriotic program, and each of its sections bears a subtitle from either the American Constitution or Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." This music, from the symphony's opening movement, is titled "We the People." Harris went on to write 13 Symphonies in all—although, perhaps submitting to a bit of numerological superstition himself—when his symphony No. 13, a Bicentennial Commission, was first performed in Washington, D.C. in 1976, it was billed as his Symphony Number Fourteen!

Mozart's "Esulate, jubilate"

On today's date in 1773, Wolfgang Mozart was a few days shy of his seventeenth birthday and found himself in Italy, in the company of his father, Leopold. This was their third trip to Italy, in fact, and this time around young Wolfgang was under contract to produce a new opera, "Lucio Silla," for the city of Milan. The lead singer scheduled for Mozart's new opera was the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, a male soprano, who, Leopold Mozart said 'sang like an angel." For Rauzzini, the teenage Mozart also composed a sacred work, tailor-made to show off his remarkable voice and vocal dexterity: this was a solo motet entitled "Exsultate, jubilate," which had its premiere performance in Milan's Church of San Antonio on today's date in 1773. The church is still standing, but these days the authentic performance practice movement hasn't gone quite so far as to surgically create new male sopranos, so more often than not, Mozart's "Esultate jubilate" is sung by sopranos or mezzos, who adjust portions of the vocal line up or down to make the best effect in the work's more brilliant passages. And so, although originally written for a divo, "Esultate, jubiliate" is one of the earliest of Mozart's major works to find a lasting place in the repertory of many grateful divas.

The birth of "Les Six"

Today marks the anniversary of the creation of a famous classical music nickname, "Les Six"—French for "The Six." That's what Parisian music critic Henri Collet dubbed six composers on this day in 1920, in a magazine article. Three of the composers Collet named included three still often heard today—Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Francis Poulenc—but the three other are not: performances of works by George Auric, Louis Durey, and the only woman in the group, Germaine Tailleferre, are still rare. Though Tailleferre is counted among the neglected half of Les Six, her music has been having something of a revival lately. Perhaps this is part of a general renewal of interest in concert works written by women composers, and perhaps a belated recognition that much of her work remains fresh and appealing. This music is from her Violin Sonata No. 1, composed in 1921 and dedicated to the great French violinist Jacques Thibaud. Born near Paris in 1892, Tailleferre was a prodigy with an astounding memory. Erik Satie proclaimed her his "musical daughter," and she was also close friends with Maurice Ravel. Two unhappy marriages and resulting financial insecurity inhibited Tailleferre's talent in later years, and dimmed her fame, but she continued to compose and teach until her death at age 91, in 1983.

A Messiaen premiere in a German prisoner of war camp

The modern French composer Olivier Messiaen played the piano part in one of the strangest premiere performances of the 20th century on today's date in 1941. As the composer put it: "My Quartet for the End of Time was conceived and written during my captivity as a prisoner of war and received its world premiere at Stalag 8a in Görlitz, Silesia." One of the four performers was cellist Etienne Pasquier, who offered this recollection: "We were captured at Verdun. Our entire company was initially held in a large field near Nancy. Among our comrades was a clarinetist who had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen started to write a piece for him while we were still in this field as he was the only person there with an instrument. And so Messiaen wrote a solo piece that was later to become the third movement of the Quartet. The clarinetist practiced in the open field and I acted as his music stand. The piece seemed to him to be too difficult from a technical point of view and he complained about it to Messiaen. "You'll manage,' was Messiaen's only reply." Pasquier reports that the performance was a great success, and led to the release of Messiaen and his three colleagues, as the Germans assumed—wrongly, it turns out—that the four musicians must have all been non-combatants.

Harp concertos by Villa-Lobos and Rautavaara

Some instruments seem to have all the luck—or at least all the concertos! If you play piano or violin, you have hundreds of concertos to choose from. But if your instrument is the harp—and you will forgive the pun—the pickings are rather slim. This hardly seems fair to one of mankind's oldest instruments, depicted on murals from ancient Egypt and traditionally associated with King David in the Bible. In the 18th and early 19th century, there are a handful of great classical harp concertos by Handel, Mozart, and others. In the 20th century, things start to improve a little, with modern concertos by Gliere, Pierne, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Rodrigo. On today's date in 1955, we're happy to report, one of the finest modern works for harp and orchestra had its premiere performance when harpist Nicanor Zabeleta played this concerto—by the prolific Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos—with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by the composer. And slowly, but surely, the repertory is expanding. One of the newest additions comes from the pen of the Finnish composer, Einojuhanni Rautavaara. His harp concerto was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, and was premiered in Minneapolis in October of the year 2000, by the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, with Kathy Kienzle as the soloist.

Prokofiev takes the Fifth in Moscow

On today's date in 1945, Sergei Prokofiev conducted the Moscow State Philharmonic in the premiere performance of his Fifth Symphony. Written when the tide of the Second World War was turning in the favor of the Allies, the premiere in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory came one day after news reached Moscow that Soviet troops had begun a successful counteroffensive against the Germans. The symphony proved to be one of Prokofiev's strongest works, and in the context of 1945 must have had an incredible emotional impact. It was a tremendous success in Moscow, and also in Boston, where Serge Koussevitzky conducted the American premiere later that same year. Prokofiev even made the cover of Time magazine. As musicologist Michael Steinberg puts it: "No question, the Fifth was a repertory piece from Day One." How sad, then, to realize how soon things would change for the man who wrote it. In three years Prokofiev—along with Shostakovich and others—would be denounced by Soviet authorities for supposedly straying from the party line; In five years, when the Red Scare in America turned our one-time Ally into Public Enemy No. 1, conductor Maurice Abravanel received a death threat when the Utah Symphony announced the Salt Lake City premiere of Prokofiev's Fifth. Ah, the vicissitudes of politics in 20th century! Fortunately for us, Prokofiev's symphony has endured—and seems to lose none of its original impact.

Dahl's "Sinfonietta"

On today's date in 1961, a new work by the German-born composer Ingolf Dahl received its premiere performance in Los Angeles. The new work was entitled "Sinfonietta for Concert Band," and was commissioned by the College Band Directors National Association, who were eager to expand their repertory with major new works of the highest quality. Dahl had emigrated to the United States in 1938 and settled in Los Angeles, where he met and befriended Igor Stravinsky, who gave him some practical advice about composing for wind band: "You must approach this task as if it had always been your greatest wish to write for these instruments," suggested Stravinsky, "as if all your life you had wanted to write a work for just such a group." "This was good advice," recalled Dahl. "Only in my case it was not only before but after the work was done that it turned out to be indeed the piece that I had wanted to write all my life. I wanted it to be a substantial piece—a piece that, without apologies for its medium, would take its place alongside symphonic works of any other kind." Both Dahl and the musicians who commissioned the work must have been pleased to see their "Sinfonietta" rapidly become an established classic of the wind band repertory.

Brahms bides his time

The German composer Johannes Brahms would probably have nodded in approval if he could have heard Orson Welles intone "We will sell no wine before its time" in those old TV ads for Paul Masson. Brahms was a notorious perfectionist, an obsessive polisher, and a cautious taste-tester of any of his own musical fermentations. So, if one notes that Brahms appeared at the piano on today's date in 1895, accompanying clarinetist Richard Mulhlfeld at a big Viennese performance of his Clarinet Sonata No. 1, one can safely assume there had been a number of trial performances beforehand. In the summer of 1894, during his annual holiday in the Austrian countryside, Brahms composed this sonata, which he dedicated to the famous 19th century clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, an artist Brahms described as "the master of his beautiful instrument." Mühlfeld was the clarinetist at the Meininger Hofkapelle, one of Germany's oldest court orchestras, and the very first performances of the new Clarinet Sonata followed in the fall of 1894 for the Duke of Meiningen and his sister, with an additional test run in Frankfurt for Clara Schumann. After the Meiningen royalty and fellow composer Clara Schumann gave the new work a thumbs up, Brahms apparently felt it was fit for public consumption: first on January 7, 1895 for members of Vienna's Tonkünstler Society, and four days later for an even more "toney" audience attending the Rosé String Quartet Quartet's chamber music series. After all, as Brahms and Muhlfeld might have put it: "We play no sonata before its time!"

A Kernis premiere wins the Pulitzer

On today's date in 1998, the Lark Quartet gave the first performance of the String Quartet No. 2 by the American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Like much of Kernis's music, the new Quartet drew upon an eclectic variety of influences. As Kernis himself put it: "My Second String Quartet uses elements of Renaissance and Baroque dance music and dance forms as its basis and inspiration. For years I've played various Bach suites and pieces from the Fitzwillian Virginal Book at the piano for my own pleasure, and I suspected for some time that their influence would eventually show up in my own work." The Lark Quartet had commissioned Kernis' First String Quartet, and, like the composer, were over the moon when they learned the Second Quartet had won the Pulitzer Prize for music. Just three months after its premiere, Kernis got the news by phone as he was headed to the airport to catch a flight to Spain. "I haven't had a martini in years," recalled Kernis, "but that's sort of what it felt like." Kernis' Second Quartet was a triple commission from Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and The Schubert Club of St. Paul, Minnesota, and was dedicated to Linda Hoeschler, the former Executive Director of the American Composers Forum.

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