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

Robert Ward panned and prized

For composers of new operas, all too often, after the heady champagne of opening night comes the strong black coffee of "the morning after"—sipped anxiously while reading the first reviews. Imagine yourself the American composer Robert Ward, whose opera "The Crucible" was premiered by the New York City Opera on today's date in 1961. Here's what he would have read in The New York Times the following morning: "Last night the audience heard an opera that, in philosophy and workmanship, could have been composed at the turn of the century, or before. And, judging from the response at the end of the work, the audience loved it." Hmmm. Not all that bad so far. But down a few more lines, comes this zinger: "Mr. Ward is an experienced composer whose music fails to bear the impress of a really inventive mind. Melodically, his ideas had little distinction... [The opera's] powerful subject cried out for intensity, for brutality and shock... Instead, we had musical platitudes." Ouch! Oh well, despite the nasty review, Robert Ward's opera did well at the box office, and, for the record, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year.

Corigliano's "Poem in October"

On today's date in 1970, a new chamber work by the American composer John Corigliano received its premiere performance at a concert given by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the group that had commissioned it. The new piece, titled "Poem in October," was scored for tenor voice and eight instruments and was a setting of poetry by Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet who died in 1953. "The thing that most appeals to me is the sound of his words," explained Corigliano. "Phrases from 'Poem in October' like 'a springful of larks in a rolling cloud' and 'the blue altered sky streamed again a wonder of summer' are in themselves musical." "The music itself," says Corigliano, "is unabashedly lyrical. I sought to convey a pastoral feeling that would match the directness and simplicity of the text, to deal in understatement and succinctness rather than in complexity and theatrical effect." Corigliano's chamber scoring includes three "pastoral" wind instruments—flute, oboe, and clarinet—plus strings, and, perhaps to give the work a slightly archaic feel, a harpsichord.

Cindy McTee's Symphony No. 1

On today's date in 2002, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Leonard Slatkin conducted the National Symphony in the premiere of a new symphony by the American composer Cindy McTee. McTee subtitled her Symphony No. 1 "Ballet for Orchestra," commenting: "Music is said to have come from dance— [And] the impulse to compose often begins as a rhythmical stirring and leads to a physical response—tensing muscles, gesturing with hands and arms, or quite literally, dancing... There is also much pleasure to be gained from observing the gestures of a conductor, or from seeing the coordinated bowing of the string sections within an orchestra. My 'Ballet for Orchestra' emerged out of a similar kinesthetic/emotional awareness and a renewed interest in dance music." Cindy McTee's Symphony makes passing allusions to earlier works by Stravinsky, Ravel, Barber, and even Penderecki, tossing in some jazz and folk fiddling allusions for good measure. But Allan Kozinn, reviewing the new symphony for The New York Times, wrote: "Ms. McTee's sense of organization kept the work from becoming a pastiche: as diverse as its ideas were, they seemed to unfold naturally within an orchestral fabric that used the ensemble's full coloristic range."

Schneider's "Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories"

On today's date in 2008 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra gave the first performance of a new song-cycle titled "Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories." Its composer, Maria Schneider, conducted the premiere. Drummond was one of Brazil's greatest poets, and Schneider came to know his work though English translations by Mark Strand. "Drummond's poetry struck me as deeply Brazilian, and Brazil is a country for which I've long felt an affinity." The Minneapolis premiere was something of a homecoming for Schneider, who was born in Minnesota and studied composition at its University before heading off to the Eastman School and after graduation being hired by the great jazz orchestrator Gil Evans as his assistant. In 1992 she formed her own jazz orchestra and won a Grammy Award with them in 2004. Soprano Dawn Upshaw is a big fan of Schneider's work, and in 2011 they collaborated on a second song-cycle premiere, titled "Winter Morning Walks," based on poems of Ted Kooser. "I knew that no matter what she was going to write," said Upshaw, "it was going to be a joyful experience."

Adams at the opera

Royalty was often flattered by the composers of the Baroque age. Handel wrote glorious ceremonial music for British monarchs, and Bach was not above working up an obsequiously complimentary cantata or two for some German Prince. At the French Court of Versailles, King Louis XIV himself appeared on stage for cameo appearances during operas and ballets whose stories complemented Louis' wisdom, talent, and impeccable good taste. On today's date in 1987, at the Houston Grand Opera in Texas, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Chairman Mao didn't come on stage in their OWN personas, but did appear as characters in the premiere of a new opera by the American composer, John Adams. "Nixon in China" was a somewhat surreal and not necessarily flattering dramatization of a real event: President Nixon's ground-breaking trip to communist China in 1972. One can only guess at the former President's reaction to being portrayed on stage. Adams did report that Richard Nixon's lawyer, Leonard Garment, attended a performance of "Nixon in China," most likely on the former President's behalf. No lawsuit followed, and, Adams notes with some amusement, that Garment even became something of a fan of his music!

Marga Richter's "Fragments"

The American composer Marga Richter was born on today's date in 1926, in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. She began piano lessons by age 4, composing at age 12, and had her first work performed when she was in high school in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, where her family had moved so she could study at the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis. The family moved again in 1943, this time to New York, so Marga could attend the Juilliard School. She would recall, "I really didn't notice that there weren't any women composers to model myself after until I got to Juilliard, and then I found I was the only one there." She persisted as a composer, and a New York Times reviewer of a concert of her music in 1951 found it "restless, inventive, dissonant, clean ... her intentions seemed ... well realized," adding, "We will hear more from Miss Richter." That said, it took decades for her nearly 200 works, which range from operas and orchestra scores to chamber works for solo instrument, to earn increasing respect and performances both here and abroad. Marga Richter died in 2020, at the age of 93, in New Jersey.

Ancerl and the Czech Philharmonic

On today's date in 1950, Karel Ančerl was named the artistic director of the Czech Philharmonic, a position he would hold for the next 18 years. Ančerl had first conducted the Philharmonic in 1930, when, upon graduation from the Prague Conservatory, he led that orchestra in one of his own compositions. For a time, Ančerl debated whether to be a composer or a conductor. He opted for the later, demonstrated a mastery of both classical and contemporary scores with other orchestras in Czechoslovakia. With all that in mind, it might not seem all that surprising that in 1950 he was eventually tapped to lead the Czech Philharmonic—but that would be ignoring the miracle that Ančerl was even ALIVE in 1950. In 1942, Ančerl and his family were imprisoned in the Nazi's notorious Theresienstadt concentration camp, and in 1944, they were transported to Auschwitz, where his wife and young son were killed; Karel alone survived. In 1968, when Czechoslovakia was invaded by Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops, Karel Ančerl emigrated to Canada in protest, and served as music director of the Toronto Symphony until his death in in 1973.

Honegger plays rough

Rugby is a style of football that originated in England at Rugby School and was played at British public boy's schools during the 19th century. It's also the name of a tone poem written by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger that premiered in Paris at the Théâtre des Champes-Elysées on today's date in 1928 at the very first concert of the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. In describing his tone poem, Honegger wrote: "I'm very fond of soccer, but rugby is closer to my heart ... I'm more keenly attracted by rugby's rhythm, which is savage, abrupt, chaotic, and desperate. It would be wrong to consider my piece as program music. It simply tries to describe in musical language the game's attacks and counterattacks, and the rhythm and color of a match." Now, you would think in such a slam-bang contact sport as rugby that Honegger would employ a big battery of percussion instruments, but—surprise—they are totally absent in his score. Not to worry. There is plenty of rough 'n' tumble action between the strings, winds, and brass, but fortunately no protective headgear is required by either the performers OR the listeners.

Premiere of Brahms' "Schicksalslied"

On today's date in 1871, Hermann Levi conducted the premiere of a new choral work by Johannes Brahms titled "Schicksalslied" or "Song of Destiny." It's a setting of a poem by Friedrich Hoelderlin, contrasting in its first part the blissful Greek Gods on Mt Olympus, and in its second, the miserable suffering of we mortals below. Brahms discovered the poem in the summer of 1868 while visiting his friend Albert Dietrich on the shores of the North Sea. As Dietrich recalled, during one sea-side stroll: "Brahms, usually so lively, was quiet and grave. Earlier that morning (he was always an early riser), he had found Hölderlin's poems in my bookcase and was deeply impressed. Later on, some of us were lounging by the sea, when we saw Brahms a long way off sitting by himself on the shore writing." Brahms originally planned to repeat the blissful opening words of the poem as the ending of his setting, but that didn't ring true to the poem. He was stuck. The conductor Hermann Levi suggested a solution: repeat the serene opening music, yes, but as a wordless, instrumental-only close. Brahms had his solution, and, as a reward, Levi his premiere.

Schuman starts on third

On today's date in 1941, the Boston Symphony gave the first performance of a new symphony by a 31-year old American composer named William Schuman. It is numbered as Schuman's Third Symphony but, in reality, you might as well say it's his First. Now, Schuman was not an early devotee of the New Math. The explanation is a fairly simple one: Schuman had written two earlier symphonies, but these were composed very much under the influence of his teacher, the American composer Roy Harris. Schuman wrote his first symphony in 1935 and a second in 1937. The Second was very well received, and had even been played by the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky. It was Koussevitzky who commissioned Schuman to write a Third Symphony, and conducted its premiere on today's date in 1941. It was with this work that Schuman felt he really found his own distinct voice as a composer. He withdrew his two earlier symphonies, and they were never published. By the time of his death in 1992, William Schuman had completed a Symphony No. 10. So—subtract the first two, and that makes eight "authentic" and "officially authorized" William Schuman symphonies in all.

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