Composers Datebook

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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"Basics" by Koussevitzky and Meyer

The double bass is the largest and certainly the most-unwieldy of all stringed instruments, designed to provide the lowest notes of any ensemble. Even so, occasionally the double bass gets a chance to shine as a solo instrument. On today's date in 1905, a double-bass Concerto received its premiere performance in Moscow, with its composer Serge Kousevitzky as the soloist. Truth be told, Kousevitzky is much more famous as a conductor and musical patron than as a composer, and Kousevitzky's compatriot, the Russian composer Reinhold Gliere, helped arrange and score Kouzevitzky's Concerto, which many suggest sounds suspiciously like concertos for other instruments by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák. Be that as it may, Koussevitzky's concerto remains the most famous of all double-bass concertos, but that situation may change... The American composer and double-bassist Edgar Meyer has already composed several concertos and chamber works for his instrument. In 1993, Meyer premiered his Bass Concerto in 1993 with Edo de Waart and the Minnesota Orchestra, and in 1995 he gave the first performance of this music, his Quintet for Bass and String Quartet, with the Emerson String Quartet. The work of composer AND performer Edgar Meyer can also be sampled on the best-selling Sony Classical disc titled "Appalachian Waltz," a collaboration with fiddler Mark O'Connor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"The Wound Dresser" by John Adams

It's quite possible that you or someone you know is the caregiver for an ill or aging relative or friend. If so, you know the emotional rewards—and heavy emotional toll—that caretaking involves. On today's date in 1989, the American composer John Adams led the Saint Paul Chamber orchestra and baritone Sanford Sylvan in the premiere performance of a powerful new chamber work he had composed inspired by—and in honor of—caretakers everywhere. In 1988, John Adams's father had died after years of struggling with Alzheimer's, and Adams was haunted by images of his mother caring for her husband as the illness progressed. Living in San Francisco, Adams was also moved by Bay Area friends who nursed loved ones during those helpless early years of the AIDS epidemic. Adams found that these 20th century experiences resonated in certain poems by the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, who had served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, initially to care for his own wounded brother, but subsequently to tend other wounded soldiers in those traumatic years. Adams chose one Whitman poem, entitled "The Wound Dresser," as text and title for his new work. "The Wound-Dresser," said Adams, is about the power of "human compassion that is acted out on a daily basis." This work has become one of the most-performed and most-admired of all the compositions of John Adams.

Deems Taylor and David Del Tredici in Wonderland

In February of 1919, members of the New York Chamber Music Society gave the premiere performance of this music—an instrumental suite by the American composer Deems Taylor, titled "Through the Looking Glass." A few years later, Deems Taylor landed a job as music critic for the New York World, and following that, became known coast-to-coast as the radio commentator for New York Philharmonic broadcasts, and as the host of a popular quiz-show titled "Information, Please." His voice was also heard as the commentator for the 1940 Disney film, "Fantasia." On today's date in 1980, another American composer premiered a musical work inspired by "Alice in Wonderland." This was David Del Tredici's "In Memory of a Summer's Day," first presented by the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin. By 1980, Del Tredici had already composed several successful works inspired by the Lewis Carroll books, but "In Memory of Summer's Day" capped the lot, and won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Music. Del Tredici was a protégé of Aaron Copland, and recalled how Copland would react to Del Tredici's compositions. "He'd say something noncommittal at first, such as 'It's very nice.' Then maybe an hour or so later, at dinner, he would turn to me, apropos of nothing, and say, 'I think the bass line is too regular, and the percussion should not always underline the main beat and would you please pass the butter.'"

Bernstein conducts Ives

On today's date in 1951, Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 2 by Charles Ives. Ives was then 76 and living in Connecticut. Heart disease and diabetes left him far too weak to attend the Carnegie Hall premiere. Nicholas Slonimsky recalls once asking the thin and pale Ives how he was feeling, to which Ives replied he felt so weak that (quote): "I can't even spit into the fireplace." Ives didn't own a radio, so he visited his neighbors, the Ryders, to hear Bernstein conduct the Sunday afternoon broadcast performance of music he had composed some 50 years earlier. "There's not much to say about the Symphony," Ives said at the time. "I express the musical feelings of the Connecticut country in the 1890's. It's full of the tunes they sang and played then, and I thought it would be a sort of a joke to have some of these tunes in counterpoint with some Bach-like tunes." Ives' neighbor, Mrs. Ryder, recalled how he reacted to the radio broadcast: "Mr. Ives sat in the front room and listened as quietly as could be, and I sat way back behind him, because I didn't want him to think I was looking at him. After it was over, I'm sure he was very much moved. He stood up, walked over the fireplace, and spat! And then he walked out into the kitchen and said not a word."

Milhaud and Frisell write for silent screen comedians

On today's date in 1920, an evening of modern ballet in Paris included the premiere performance of a jazzy romp called "Le Boeuf sur le Toit," a title that literally translated means "The Bull of the Roof." The music was by a 27-year old French composer, Darius Milhaud, who had spent the last year of World War I as an attaché at the French embassy in Rio de Janeiro. "Still haunted by my memories of Brazil," wrote Milhaud, "I assembled a few popular melodies, tangos, sambas and even a Portuguese fado and called this fantasia 'Le Boeuf sur le toit,' the title of a Brazilian popular song. I thought this music might be suitable for an accompaniment to one of Charlie Chaplin's films." But Milhaud's friend, the poet Jean Cocteau, convinced him this music would make a great ballet score, and concocted a surreal scenario worthy of a manic Chaplin two-reeler for its 1920 premiere. Closer to our own day, in 1995, the American jazz guitarist Bill Frisell prepared a brand-new score for the classic 1925 Buster Keaton silent-screen comedy titled "Go West." Frisell's country blues sensibility resulted in a score as droll and deadpan as Buster Keaton's unique brand of cinematic comedy. Frisell and his band provided live accompaniment to Keaton's film at movie theaters in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere around the country, and recorded the score for Nonesuch records.

Harbison's "Olympic Dances"

In 1996, the American composer John Harbison received an unusual commission—a ballet for dancers and symphonic winds. The commission came from a consortium of 14 wind ensembles, all members of the College Band Directors National Association. Maybe the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta had something to do with it, but Harbison's imagination turned in that direction: he titled the resulting work "Olympic Dances," and Atlanta also happened to be the venue for the work's premiere performance on today's date in 1997, with the Pilobus Dance Theatre and the University of North Texas Wind Symphony performing. "When asked to do a piece for dancers and winds," said Harbsion, "it immediately suggested something 'classical,' not our musical 18th century, but an imaginative vision of ancient worlds... I thought of an imagined harmony between dance, sport and sound that we can imagine from serene oranges and blacks on Greek vases, the celebration of bodies in motion that we see in the matchless sculpture of ancient times, and perhaps most important to this piece, the celebration of the ideal tableau, the moment frozen in time, that is present still in the friezes that adorn the temples and in the architecture of the temples themselves." Harbison's ballet is an austere, rather than flashy score, reminiscent of Stravinsky's austere, neo-classical scores like "Agon" and "Apollo," which—like our modern Olympics—were also inspired by ancient Greek ideals.

Morton Gould's "Spirituals"

In February of 1941, New York City radio station WNYC organized a Festival of American music, which included a series of orchestral concerts and several premiere performances of brand-new works. One of these was by a 27-year old composer named Morton Gould. On today's date in 1941, Gould himself conducted the first performance of what would become one his best-known pieces, a work entitled "Spirituals for Strings." Years later, Gould recalled that the premiere was "the most disastrous performance you ever heard." In 1941, New York was embroiled in a bitter union dispute, and so it happened that Gould rehearsed his new work with one orchestra, but when he arrived for the concert, was faced with a completely different set of musicians—who had to sight-read his new piece! Despite this shaky beginning, Gould's music was taken up by major conductors of his day, including Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini. Over the next five decades, Gould himself was much in demand as a conductor, composer, and arranger for radio, television, and the concert hall. In 1994 he received the Kennedy Center Award, and, in 1995, the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Gould died in February of 1996, while serving as artist-in-residence at the newly established Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida. In May of that year, 55 years after its premiere, Kurt Masur chose Morton Gould's "Spirituals" as a memorial tribute at New York Philharmonic concerts.

Music by and about telephones

On today's date in 1947, Gian Carlo Menotti's opera, "The Telephone" premiered at the Heckscher Theater in New York. The story involves a young man who keeps trying to propose to his girlfriend, but, well, she's always on the phone. So the young man, deciding "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," goes to the corner and from a pay-phone calls in his marriage proposal! Now, these days, he would probably have just used his cell phone. A welcome convenience in most circumstances, cell-phones have become the bane of concert halls, interrupting musical performances with unwelcome beeps and those annoying little melodies. One young American composer, Golan Levin, has even composed a 30-minute work titled "Dialtones: A Telesymphony," scored for 200 cell-phones. Levin spend nearly a year working out the technology that would download customized sounds to cell-phones placed in the audience and allow them be played on cue. 200 members of the audience for the premiere were asked to bring their phones and register their numbers before the performance of the 3-movement work. Some audience members reportedly felt guilty when their phones rang, even though they were supposed to, and one of the "performers" confessed that he was jealous that the woman seated next to him was called more frequently than he was! Hmmm... that might make a good storyline for a sequel to Menotti's opera!

"Variations on a Nursery Tune"

On today's date in 1914, a new work by the Hungarian composer, piano, and conductor Ernst von Dohnányi received its premiere performance in Berlin. It was for piano and orchestra, and entitled "Variations on a Nursery Tune." For its premiere, Dohnányi himself was the piano soloist, with the foremost conductor of his day, Artur Nikisch, leading the Berlin Philharmonic. Now, Dohnányi provided a subtitle to his new work, or a kind of dedication if you like. He wrote: "For the enjoyment of people with a sense of humor—and for the annoyance of others." You see, the tune Dohnányi had chosen as the theme for his variations was the French nursery song "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman," known on this side of the Atlantic as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." In Dohnányi's hands, the childish theme sparkles in witty piano solos set against lush, late-Romantic orchestral textures. Dohnányi was born in 1877 in what is now known as Bratislava, the modern-day capital of Slovakia, but back then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He died in 1960 in New York City, but was buried in Tallahassee, Florida, since he had been living and teaching there for the last decade of his life. Dohnányi wrote a respectable body of operas, orchestral works, chamber music, and solo piano works, but his "Variations on a Nursery Tune remains his best-known and best-loved work.

A Romance for Bassoon

Famous composers have been, on occasion, famous performers as well. Think of Bach on the organ, or Rachmaninoff on the piano. And if Mozart's father is to be believed, young Wolfgang could have Europe's finest violinist – if he had only practiced more. But how many famous composers can you name who played the bassoon? Well, the British composer Edward Elgar, for one. As a young musician in Worcester, played the bassoon in a wind quintet. While never becoming famous as a bassoonist, Elgar's love for and understanding of the instrument is evident in all his major orchestral works, and he counted one skilled player among his friends: this was Edwin F. James, the principal bassoonist of the London Symphony in Elgar's day. In 1910, while working on his big, extroverted, almost 50-minute violin concerto, Elgar tossed off a smaller, much shorter, and far more introverted work for bassoon and orchestra as a gift for James. Since Elgar was working on both pieces at the same time, if you're familiar with Elgar's Violin Concerto, Op. 61, you can't help but notice a familial resemblance to his 6-minute Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Op. 62. The Romance was first performed by Edwin F. James at a Herefordshire Orchestral Society concert conducted by the Elgar on today's date in 1911.

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