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.
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.

Most Recent Episodes

Higdon welcomes Autumn

As the season begins, we offer you this "Autumn Music" — a woodwind quintet by American composer Jennifer Higdon. Higdon says she wanted to write a companion piece to another famous woodwind quintet titled "Summer Music" by Samuel Barber. Higdon's "Autumn Music" was commissioned by Pi Kappa Lambda, the national music honorary society, and premiered at their 1994 national convention in Pittsburgh. "Autumn Music," says Higdon, "is a sonic picture of the season of brilliant colors. The music of the first part represents the explosion of leaves and the crispness of the air of fall. As the music progresses, it becomes more spare and introspective, moving into a more melancholy and resigned feeling." Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn in 1962, and teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her chamber and orchestral pieces have been performed by ensembles coast to coast. She's also active as a performer and, as she explains, as an enthusiastic member of the audience: "I love exploring new works — my own pieces and the music of others —in a general audience setting, just to feel a communal reaction to new sounds. Music speaks to all age levels and all kinds of experiences in our lives. I think it can express anything and everything."

Of froth and Friml

Today's date marks the premiere in New York City, in 1925, of a classic operetta "The Vagabond King" by Rudolf Friml, the source of many once-popular sentimental tunes, including "Love Me Tonight," and "Only a Rose." Friml was born in Prague in 1879, and he studied composition there with no less a master than Antonin Dvorak. He started his career as a piano accompanist to the famous Czech violinist Jan Kubelik, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1906. In 1907, he appeared as a soloist in his own First Piano Concerto with the New York Symphony, and decided to make America his home. Friml wrote two piano concertos, a symphony, solo piano pieces—and three film scores for Hollywood. But he's remembered today chiefly for 24 stage works, beginning in 1912 with "The Firefire," his first big musical success, and continuing with many others, including the 1924 operetta "Rose Marie" — which in 1936 was made into a successful film starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Their rendition of Friml's "Indian Love Call" has become a campy cult classic. Even Friml was occasionally embarrassed by the success of some of his flufflier pop works, and would publish some of these under the pseudonym of Roderick Freeman. He died in Los Angeles in 1972, aged 92.

Sibelius passes

Today's date commemorates the death, in 1957, of the most famous Finnish composer of modern times, Jean Sibelius. Born in 1865, Sibelius studied at the University of Helsinki, developed a strong sense of nationalism in the 1890s, and achieved world fame in the first years of the 20th century. He wrote little after the First World War, however, and lived his last 30 years in almost complete seclusion. Even so, he was one of the most popular composers of his time. In 1938, a recording of his tone-poem "Finlandia" was selected as one of only three pieces of music to be deposited along with other artifacts of modern civilization in an indestructible time capsule buried on the site of the New York World's Fair. By 1957, the enormous acclaim that Sibelius enjoyed during his lifetime had faded somewhat, but these days his reputation seems on the rise once again, as does the influence of Finnish music in general. A remarkable number of talented composers are thriving in that tiny nation today, and operas, orchestral works, and chamber pieces by contemporary Finnish composers like Aulis Sallinen, Einojuhanni Rautavaara, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho are increasingly finding worldwide audiences. Sibelius would have been very pleased.

On the Transmigration of Souls

On today's date in 2002, just a little over one year after two passenger jetliners had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere performance of a new work by the American composer John Adams. Entitled "On the Transmigration of Souls," this high-profile commission sought to address a nation still in shock and grief at the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. "I realized right up front that the public didn't need any more reiteration of the narrative of that day," Adams said in an interview. "Certainly it didn't need some tasteless dramatization of the events... If I was going to do something meaningful, I was going to have to go in the opposite direction." Adams chose to set some of the words scribbled on posters plastered around Ground Zero by families searching for their loved ones. "They were a mixture of hope and a slowly dimming acceptance of reality," Adams said. "When people are deeply in shock... they don't express themselves in fancy language... they speak in the most simple of terms." Adams said he hoped his new piece would provide "memory space," a musical work that could be at once a platform for either communal or personal reflection.

Prokofiev and Leifs agree: "There's no place like home!"

On this day in 1918, Russian composer Serge Prokofiev arrived in America to give a recital of his piano works in New York. He told interviewers that despite the revolution in his homeland and widespread conditions of famine, Russian musicians continued to work. Prokofiev himself, however, stayed away from his homeland for years. His opera "The Love for Three Oranges" and his Third Piano Concerto received their premieres in Chicago in 1921. From 1922 to 1932, Prokofiev lived mainly in Paris before eventually returning home for good. Another temporary expatriate composer, Jón Leifs of Iceland, also has an anniversary today, when in 1950, his "Saga-Symphony" was performed for the first time in Helsinki. Leifs was born in Iceland in 1899 and died there in 1968. He studied in Leipzig, where, in his words, he (quote) "began searching whether, like other countries, Iceland had some material that could be used as a starting-point for new music... some spark that could light the fire." Leif's years in Germany coincided with the rise of the Nazis, who at first found him a sympathetic Nordic composer. When Leifs married a Jewish woman, however, he soon fell out of favor and eventually fled to Sweden with his family. After the war he returned home and today is honored as Iceland's first great composer.

Cowell in Tehran

Teheran might seem an unlikely venue for the premiere of an American chamber work, but on today's date in 1957, Henry Cowell's "Persian Set," had its first performance in the Iranian capital. Cowell once said: "I want to live in the whole world of music," and from the 1930s on, Cowell practiced what he preached: He was one of the first to advocate that what we now call "world music" should be integrated into American concert life. In 1956, a major grant allowed Cowell to embark on a world tour to introduce American music abroad to study other musical traditions. Cowell spent the winter of 1956 in Iran, and early the following year completed his "Persian Set." "Of course, I made no attempt to shed my years of Western symphonic experience," Cowell said, "nor did I used actual Iranian melodies or rhythms. Instead, I tried to develop some of the musical behavior that the two cultures had in common." Cowell was born in California in 1897, and died in New York in 1965. He was active as a teacher and music publisher and wrote 900 pieces of very original music — most of it still unfamiliar to American audiences.

Duke Ellington plays Grace Cathedral

On today's date in 1965, this notice appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle: "Opening Today: Sacred Concert — Duke Ellington with a company of 75, including musicians, singers and dancers, at 8 p.m., Grace Cathedral, Nob Hill." Duke Ellington's First "Sacred Concert" raised some eyebrows at the time. The Chronicle's review the following day was titled "Duke Swings at Grace Cathedral," and reported the performance (quote): "appeared to leave many of the audiences discomfited, nervous, or edgy, not completely willing to accept the idea that the wild sound of a sax should pierce the austere heights of the Episcopal cathedral's nave. 'It's all very strange'a high churchman commented during intermission, 'but oh, lordy, it's fascinating!' The point of the performance, according to Grace Cathedral's dean, the very Reverend C. Julian Bartlett, was that any offering to God is sacred, whatever its form." Ellington himself commented as follows: "It has been said once that a man who could not play the organ or any of the instruments of the symphony accompanied his worship by juggling. He was not the world's best juggler, but it was the one he thing he did best, and so it was accepted by God. For my part, I regard this concert as the most important thing I have ever done."

Henry Brant's Northern Lights

If you've ever witnessed a spectacular display of the Northern Lights, you'll know the feeling: jaw-dropping wonder at the powerful forces unleashed in the vast spaces of the night sky. The American composer Henry Brant experienced something like that in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1982 during a visit, and later translated the experience into his "Northern Lights over the Twin Cities," a work commissioned by Macalester College in St. Paul to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1985. Like most of Brant's works, this piece employs several distinct groups of performers separated by space, a technique called "spatial" composition. For his Macalester Centenary commission, Brant utilized all the musical ensembles the College had to offer, including its chorus and orchestra, its wind, marching, and jazz bands, and even its bagpipe ensemble, all positioned at various points around the College's cavernous Field House. Brant said his own "spatial" works were inspired by the antiphonal works of the Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli, the multiple brass ensembles in the "Requiem Mass" by the French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, but above all by "The Unanswered Question," by the modern American composer Charles Ives. Brant was born on today's date in 1913. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2002, and died at the age of 94, in 2008.

A ghost story by Henry James and Benjamin Britten

Do you enjoy a good ghost story? The American novelist Henry James did, but liked to give the ones he wrote an extra twist – another "turn of the screw" you might say. In fact, one of his classic ghost stories from 1898 is titled just that: "The Turn of the Screw." In it, a young British governess is entrusted with the care of two orphaned children, who may – or may not – have been abused by their previous governess and her lover, both now dead, who may – or may not — have returned as ghosts to continue their torment of the children. The manner in which Henry James tells the story leaves open the question whether the ghosts are real or just figments of the young governess's lurid imagination. "The Turn of the Screw" has been adapted for both stage and screen, and, on today's date in 1954, an operatic version by the British composer Benjamin Britten received its premiere performance at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Each of the 16 scenes in Britten's chamber opera is preceded by a variation on a ghostly 12-note theme, a "tone row" in the style of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, and since we see and hear the ghosts on stage, it's pretty clear Britten is suggesting the ghosts and the evil in the tale are disturbingly real.

Bernstein meets Wharton

On today's date in 1993, the first gala preview screening of a new film, "The Age of Innocence," based on the novel by Edith Wharton, took place at the Ziegfield Theater in Manhattan, as a benefit for the New York Historical Society. That was only appropriate, since Wharton's historical novel describes upper-class New York society of the 1870s — an age, if the film is to be believed, so emotionally repressed that the unbuttoning of a woman's glove can be a breathtakingly sensual moment. The new film was directed by Martin Scorsese, famous for decidedly UN-repressed thrillers likes "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," and "Cape Fear" – and initially some thought Scorsese a poor choice to film Wharton's novel. The skeptics were proven wrong. Much of the success of the film can be attributed to its ravishing orchestral score by American composer Elmer Bernstein. "It was my personal tribute to the music of Johannes Brahms," said Bernstein, who also credited Scorsese for appreciating the importance of music in bringing a movie to life: Unlike most directors today, Scorsese brought in Bernstein before "Age of Innocence" was filmed – not after. "We started talking about the character of the music long before Scorsese ever shot a frame of film," recalls Bernstein, with admiration. Bernstein's "Age of Innocence" score was nominated for an Academy Award — the 12th time Bernstein had been so honored in his long and productive cinematic career.

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