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.More from Composers Datebook »

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Salieri leaves, Seidl arrives

On today's date in 1825, the Italian composer Antonio Salieri breathed his last in Vienna. Gossip circulated that in his final dementia, Salieri babbled something about poisoning Mozart. Whether he meant it figuratively or literally, or even said anything of the sort, didn't seem to matter. This Viennese gossip became a Romantic legend that culminated in a 19th century poem and opera, and a very popular 20th century play and movie. More recently, some food detectives have suggested that if Mozart was poisoned, it was more likely an undercooked pork chop that was to blame. In one of his last letters to his wife, Mozart mentions his anticipation of feasting on a fat chop his cook had secured for his dinner. Twenty-five years after Salieri's death, on today's date in 1850, the Austro-Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl was born in Budapest. Seidl became a famous conductor of both the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. It was Seidl, for example, who conducted the premiere of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 1893. In 1898, at the age of just 47, Seidl died suddenly, apparently from ptomaine poisoning. Perhaps it was the shad roe he ate at home, or that sausage he ate at Fleischmann's restaurant? An autopsy revealed serious gallstone and liver ailments, so maybe Seidl's last meal, whatever it might have been, was as innocent of blame as poor old Salieri.

George Perle

Today's date marks the birthday of the American composer and musicologist George Perle, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1986. In a 1985 interview, Perle vividly recalled his first musical experience, an encounter with Chopin's Étude in F minor, played by an aunt: "It literally paralyzed me," he said, "I was extraordinarily moved and acutely embarrassed at the same time, because there were other people in the room, and I could tell that nobody else was having the same sort of reaction I was." Not surprisingly, Perle became a composer himself, writing for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo instruments and voice. He was also fascinated by the 20th century Austrian composers Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, and published many articles and books on their 12-tone method of composition. In his own lyrical and well-crafted music, Perle employed what he called "12-tone tonality," a middle path between rigorous atonality and traditional, tonal-based music. Whether tonal or not, music is both a logical and an emotional language. Perle once made this telling distinction between speech and music: "Reading a novel is altogether different from reading a newspaper, but it's all language. If you go to a concert, you have some kind of reaction to it. If the newspaper is Chinese, you can't understand it. But if you hear something by a Chinese composer, if it's playful, for instance, you understand." George Perle died at his home in Manhattan, aged 93, early in 2009.

Tchaikovsky at Carnegie Hall

If I ask, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" you say, "Practice!" (Of course!) But back in 1891, Peter Tchaikovsky would have probably answered, "by ship" – since he had, in fact, sailed from Europe to conduct several of his pieces at the hall's gala opening concerts. The first concert in Carnegie Hall, or as they called it then, "The Music Hall," occurred on today's date in 1891, and included a performance of Tchaikovsky's "Marche solennelle" or "Coronation March," conducted by the composer. The review in the New York Herald offered these comments: "Tchaikovsky's Marche solennelle is simple, strong and sober, but not surprisingly original. The leading theme recalls the Hallelujah chorus, and the treatment of the first part is Handelian... Of the deep passion, the complexity and poetry which mark some other works of the composer's, there is no sign in this march." Oh well, in the days that followed, Tchaikovsky would conduct other works of "complexity and poetry," including his Third Orchestral Suite and First Piano Concerto. During his American visit, Tchaikovsky kept a travel diary, and recorded these impressions of New York: "It is a huge city, not beautiful, but very original. In Chicago, I'm told, they have gone even further – one of the houses there has 21 floors!"

Vaughan Williams' "London Symphony"

At Queen's Hall in London, on today's date in 1920, the British conductor Albert Coates led the premiere of the revised version of the Second Symphony, the "London" Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. A longer version of this Symphony had premiered, also at Queen's Hall, six years earlier, and Vaughan Williams would continue to tinker with this work, on and off, for decades. "The London Symphony is past mending," wrote Vaughan Williams in 1951, "though with all its faults I love it still; indeed, it is my favorite." Mention the name Vaughan Williams to most music lovers, and you'll bring to mind English folk tunes or hymns woven into lush works for strings, or musical pictures of English countryside... But it was a city view that inspired his "London Symphony," described by Vaughan Williams himself as "a good view of the river and a bridge and three great electric-light chimneys and a sunset." In fact, you could call the Vaughan Williams Second a "sunset" symphony. Its final pages were inspired by part of an H. G. Wells novel describing a night passage on the Thames to the open sea: "To run down the Thames so is to run one's hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end... The river passes... London passes... England passes..."

Pleyel and Poulenc

Pleyel and Company was a French piano firm founded in 1807 by the composer Ignace Pleyel. The firm provided pianos for Chopin, and also ran an intimate Parisian 300-seat concert hall called the Salle Pleyel – the "Pleyel room" in English, where Chopin performed. In the 20th century, a roomier Salle Pleyel comprising some 3,000-seats was built, and it was there on today's date in 1929 that a new concerto for an old instrument had its premiere performance. This was the "Concert champetre" or "Pastoral Concerto" for harpsichord and orchestra by the French composer Francis Poulenc, with the Paris Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux, and with Wanda Landowska as the soloist. "A harpsichord concerto in a hall that seats thousands?" you may ask. "How could anyone hear the harpsichord?" Well, the answer is that Madame Landowska performed on a beefier, metal-framed harpsichord built in the 20th century rather than the quieter wood-framed instruments used in the 18th. Landowska's modern harpsichord was specially-constructed for her by – who else? – Pleyel and Company. Landowska needed those extra decibels, not only to fill a big hall, but also because Poulenc's concerto was scored for harpsichord and – or perhaps against – a large modern orchestra, with full strings, winds, percussion, and a large brass section that even included a tuba! These days, of course, discrete electronic amplification can be employed, so the harpsichord soloist needn't constantly ask, "Can you hear me now?" You can listen to a complete performance of Poulenc's "Concert champêtre" played on a 1930 Pleyel harpsichord via the links on this webpage — and compare the sound of a 20th century Pleyel harpsichord to a historic 18th century instrument.

Purcell's "really big show"

On today's date in 1692, London audiences at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden, were treated to a lavish theatrical entertainment entitled "The Fairy Queen." This show was loosely based on Shakespeare's comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a play already 100 years old in 1692. To make it more in line with contemporary taste, characters were added or cut, and scenes were shifted around to such an extent that Shakespeare, if he were alive to see it, would be hard put to recognize much of his original concept. In Shakespeare's day, music played a role in all stage presentations, but "The Fairy Queen" featured greatly expanded musical sequences, and the leading British composer of the day was called in to write them. His name was Henry Purcell, and "The Fairy Queen" would turn out to be the biggest success of his career. In addition to writing the show's songs and dances, Purcell provided music to entertain the audience as they entered and exited the theater, or stretched their legs during the intermission. The theater orchestra consisted mostly of strings, but bassoons, oboes, flutes and trumpets also varied the instrumental color at the appropriate dramatic moments. The good news is that no expense was spared in the show's production. The bad news was the show's producers barely recovered their expenses. Subsequent productions, they decided, would be less flashy, but, recognizing the quality of Purcell's music, they signed him on once again for their next extravaganza.

Leo Sowerby

Today's date marks two important anniversaries in the life of American composer, teacher, and organist Leo Sowerby, who lived from 1895 to 1968. Sowerby was born on May 1st in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and, on his 32nd birthday in 1927, was hired as the permanent organist and choirmaster at St. James' Church in Chicago, where he remained on the job for the next 35 years. A prolific composer, Sowerby wrote hundreds of pieces of church music for organ and chorus, plus an impressive body of chamber and symphonic works, which are only recently receiving proper attention. It's not that Sowerby was exactly neglected during his lifetime – he won a number of musical awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 – but the critics of his day seemed "put off" by both his unabashedly Romantic style and his unprepossessing physical appearance. The younger American composer Ned Rorem, who took theory lessons from Sowerby, puts it this way: "Leo Sowerby was, with John Alden Carpenter, the most distinguished composer of the Middle West ... Of my parents' generation, a bachelor, reddish-complexioned and milky skinned, chain smoker of Fatima cigarettes, unglamorous and non-mysterious, likeable with a perpetual worried frown, overweight and wearing rimless glasses, earthy, practical, interested in others even when they were talentless; a stickler for basic training, Sowerby was the first composer I knew and the last thing a composer was supposed to resemble. He was a friendly pedagogue."

Del Tredici's In Wartime

On today's date in 2003, the Wind Ensemble of the University of Texas at Austin, led by Jerry Junkin, premiered a new work for wind band by the American composer David Del Tredici. Its title was "In Wartime," as its composition and premiere coincided with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by the United States alongside the United Kingdom and smaller contingents from Australia, Denmark, and Poland. "'In Wartime,' my first piece for wind symphony, was begun on November 16, 2002, and completed on March 16 (my birthday), in 2003—as momentous a four-month period in U.S. history as I have experienced," recalled Del Tredici. "With my TV blaring, I composed throughout this period, feeling both irresistibly drawn to the developing news and more than a little guilty to be unable to turn the tube off. Composing music at such a time may have seemed an irrelevant pursuit, but it nevertheless served to keep me sane, stable and sanguine, despite the world's spiraling maelstrom." Del Tredici's "In Wartime" has two sections: "Hymn" and "Battlemarch." The first has the character of a choral prelude, with fragments of "Abide with Me" sounding through a welter of contrasting material. An ominous drum roll introduces the "Battlemarch" section, with the confrontation of East vs. West symbolized by musical quotes from "Salamti, Shah!" (the national song of Persia) and the opening of Wagner's opera, "Tristan und Isolde."

Herbert's Earthquake Benefit

April 29th fell on Sunday in the year 1906, and readers of The New York Times photogravure supplement were able to view scenes of the terrible destruction in San Francisco that followed the great earthquake that struck that city just 11 days before. The paper was filled with accounts of the suffering caused by the quake, and undoubtedly, many New Yorkers asked themselves what they could do to help. The New York musical community provided one answer by quickly arranging a number of benefit concerts. The largest of these occurred on today's date that year at New York's Hippodrome, and was organized by the popular composer Victor Herbert, who conducted his orchestra with Metropolitan Opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink as a featured soloist. The vast Hippodrome was completely sold out, with standing-room-only tickets filling the aisles. Seven thousand dollars were raised, which by today's standards seems a rather modest sum, but by 1906 standards was impressive enough to make newspaper headlines. Perhaps New York musicians and their audiences felt a personal affinity with the quake victims, as their own Metropolitan Opera Company, including its star tenor Enrico Caruso, was on tour in San Francisco when the quake struck on April 18th, and, as the Times reported, the Met's touring orchestral musicians, almost without exception, lost their instruments. That bit of news must have struck a special chord with Victor Herbert. In 1886, both he and his wife had come to America from Europe to join the Metropolitan Opera—he as an orchestral cellist, and she as a soprano soloist.

Diamond's Elegy

Despite its relation to both the physics of sound and pure mathematics, music, for most people—including composers—is essentially an emotional language. Despite its abstract sound, that's the case of this orchestral piece, which premiered in Rochester, New York, on today's date in 1938. The music was by a then 22-year-old American composer named David Diamond, and bears the title: "Elegy in Memory of Ravel." Nine years earlier, as a precocious adolescent, Diamond had met Ravel during the French composer's American tour of 1928. Ravel was impressed with the lad's talent, and encouraged Diamond to pursue a career in music, as did George Gershwin who served on a jury that awarded one of Diamond's works first prize. Diamond lost both these important mentors in 1937, with the sudden deaths of first Gershwin, then Ravel. The day after learning of Ravel's death, Diamond began work on his "Elegy." "It is an expression of terrible loss," recalled Diamond in an interview many decades later. "As the piece began to take shape, almost unconsciously, I heard it as a ritual—an elegy, but a ritualistic one. I asked that there be no applause at the end." The work's 1938 premiere performance was conducted by Howard Hanson, then the head of the Eastman School of Music and the conductor of its famous orchestra. Diamond's modern, frankly dissonant idiom didn't sit well with Hanson's more conservative tastes. Diamond recalled Hanson asking "David, why do you have to write such modern music?" Even so, Hanson respected both Diamond and his music enough to conduct the new piece.

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