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

Bruckner panned

On this day in the year 1886, critic Gustav Dompke wrote these lines in the "German Times" of Vienna, after attending a performance of one of Anton Bruckner's symphonies: "We recoil in horror before this rotting odor which rushes into our nostrils from the disharmonies of this putrefactive counterpoint... Bruckner composes like a drunkard!" Today, with Bruckner's symphonies performed and recorded so often, I don't think many "recoil in horror" from his rich Romantic harmonies... but he's always been controversial. Bruckner's European contemporaries and his early American audiences found his approach to symphonic composition puzzling, bizarre, or, more often than not, simply boring. The vogue for Bruckner symphonies in America had to wait until the latter part of the 20th century, a full century after many of them received their premiere performances in Europe. In 1941, for example, when Bruno Walter conducted Bruckner's giant Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, music critic Olin Downes lamented that Walter hadn't chosen a "more interesting" program, and noted that the Bruckner symphony: "sent a number from the hall before it had finished."

Ron Nelson's Bach Tribute

One of the most serious—and daunting—of musical forms is the passacaglia, in which an unchanging melodic pattern repeats itself while other lines of melody offer elaboration and counterpoint to the unwavering tread of the repeated motive. The result tends to be deliberate, somber, and imposing. The most famous passacaglia in all of Western classical music is the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose birthday we observe on today's date. After Bach's high water mark, it takes more than a little courage for modern composers to tackle this form! One of those brave souls who tried—and succeeded—is the American composer Ron Nelson. Nelson's "Passacaglia, "subtitled "Homage on B-A-C-H," utilizes the melodic motive represented in German musical nomenclature by B-flat, A, C, and B natural—in German B natural is represented by the letter H. Nelson's wind band Passacaglia was commissioned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music in 1992. It didn't prove an easy task, recalls Nelson: "It evolved very slowly... The trick was... to make it seamless and inexorable. Of all my compositions, this is the tightest. I cannot imagine changing one note." Apparently others agree, since the resulting work won a number of awards and has become a wind band classic.

Stephen Paulus and Choral Quest

In 2010, the American Composers Forum launched ChoralQuest, a specially-commissioned series of new works written especially for middle school and junior high choirs. The idea was to expand the available repertoire for young choirs, introduce choirs to some of today's best composers, and present composers with the chance and challenge of writing for young and changing voices. On today's date in 2011, one of these new works received its premiere performance by the Oak Grove Singers from Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington, Minnesota. Bryan Blessing conducted his young singers in a setting of lines from "Tintern Abbey" by the 19th century British poet William Wordsworth. The new piece, entitled "Through All Things," was written by Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus. "I chose a poem that conveys some deep thoughts," said Paulus. "People often underestimate the sophistication of young people... The Wordsworth poem speaks about 'a motion and a spirit that rolls through all things.'" "But a composer really need know the range of young singers and what they can do," admited Paulus, who spent time with the Oak Grove Singers. He confessed it's not just the kids who benefited: "You never get too old or too experienced to not learn something from writing a new piece, whether it's for kids or professional musicians."

Gounod's "Faust"

The opening of Edith Wharton's novel "The Age of Innocence" takes place at New York's old Academy of Music in the early 1870s, during a performance of Charles Gounod's "Faust," a French grand opera based on the classic German play by Goethe. At the time specified in Wharton's novel, Gounod's opera was still "new" music, having premiered about a dozen years earlier in Paris on today's date in 1859. Gounod's "Faust" became a worldwide success, and was quickly translated into many languages. In Wharton's fictional New York performance, for example, the real-life Swedish diva Christine Nilsson sang the role of Marguerite, the pure German maiden seduced and abandoned by Faust. As Wharton puts it: "She sang, of course, 'm'ama!" and not "he loves me,' since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences." Nilsson, again singing in Italian, sang Marguerite at the 1883 gala opening night performance of "Faust" at New York's newly built Metropolitan Opera House. "Faust" was performed so often there that the building was soon dubbed the "Faust-spielhaus," a pun on Wagner's German "Festpielhaus" or "Festival Theater" in Bayreuth. Despite its good tunes, Gounod's sentimental opera fell out of favor around the time of the First World War, but soon bounced back into the core repertory of opera houses worldwide—only these days, more often than not, it's sung in French.

Mobberley's Piano Concerto

All artists, including composers, are frequently urged to "write what they know." Well, if that's the case, then any new and sleep-deprived parent can probably relate to music which supposedly depicts a late-night session with a new-born baby. It's the middle movement of a Piano Concerto that was given its premiere on today's date in 1994 by the Kansas City Symphony, with Bill McGlaughlin conducting and Richard Cass the piano soloist. This new Concerto was by the Kansas City composer James Mobberley, who writes: "The piece is in three movements, each of which reflects a different emotional side of parenthood. The first movement represents the excitement and hysteria of forthcoming childbirth. The middle movement begins with amazingly soft moments following childbirth but leads into the period of sleeplessness and total chaos that inevitably follows. The final movement represents the wonderful fun and unpredictable interactions that start to happen, beginning with the child's first smile." Composer James Mobberley was born in Iowa in 1954, raised in Pennsylvania, and earned music degrees from the University of North Carolina and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since 1983 he's taught at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, balancing his teaching duties there with his composition work, which includes a wide range of concert and theatrical pieces, some combining electronic and live performing elements.

Loeffler and Anderson in Boston

Today we celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Boston (where else?), noting two musical premieres in that Celtic city. The first was in March of 1922, when Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston Symphony in the premiere of three of the "Five Irish Fantasies" by the German-born American composer Charles Martin Loeffler. These were settings for solo voice and orchestra of poetry by William Butler Yeats, and, for their Boston premiere, the vocalist was none other than THE great Irish tenor, John McCormack. In 1947, the Eire Society of Boston commissioned another American composer, Leroy Anderson, to write an "Irish Suite" for its annual Irish night at the Boston Pops. Anderson used six popular Irish tunes, ranging from the sentimental to the exuberant, for his suite... skillfully arranging them into an immediate hit and lasting success. Arthur Fiedler conducted the premiere during the Pops' summer season that year.

Rorem's "After Reading Shakespeare"

For their February 2013 cover story, the editors of BBC Music magazine came up with a list of the 50 most influential people in the history of music. Bach was on it, as you might expect, but so was Shakespeare. Any music lover can see the logic in that, and reel off pieces like Mendelssohn's music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasy entitled "Romeo and Juliet," or all the great operas based on Shakespeare's plays, ranging from Verdi's "Falstaff" to a recent setting of "The Tempest" by Thomas Adès. And speaking of "The Tempest," in New York on today's date in 1981, Sharon Robinson premiered a new solo cello suite she commissioned from the American composer Ned Rorem, a work entitled "After Reading Shakespeare." One section of the new suite was titled "Caliban," after a memorable figure in "The Tempest"—others after Shakespearean characters like Lear, Portia, or Titania and Oberon. "Yes," says Rorem, "I was re-reading Shakespeare the month the piece was accomplished... Yet the experience did not so much inspire the music itself as provide a cohesive program upon which the music be might formalized, and thus intellectually grasped by the listener. Indeed, some of the titles were added AFTER the fact, as when parents christen their children." After all, as Shakespeare's Juliet might put it, "What's in a name?"

Previn's Violin Concerto

On today's date in 2002, a new Violin Concerto received its premiere by the Boston Symphony. The soloist was the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, with the new work's composer, Andre Previn, conducting. Despite his French-sounding first name and his British honorary knighthood, Previn was born in Berlin, he came to the United States in 1939, and became an American citizen in 1943. Previn's Violin Concerto has a kind of homecoming in its third movement, subtitled "From a Train in Germany." Late in 1999, Previn had telephoned a birthday greeting to his manager back in New York while riding on a German train. That call prompted a suggestion that a musical work planned for Boston might reflect that train ride through the country of his birth. The 3rd movement also incorporates a German children's song suggested by Anne-Sophie Mutter, one that Previn had known as a child in Germany. Autobiographical inferences throughout the Violin Concerto are also suggested by an inscription from T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets," which reads: "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time." And, as if to underscore the autobiographical interplay of life and art, Mutter and Previn were married on August 1, 2002, five months after the premiere of "their" Concerto. That marriage (Previn's fifth) ended four years later when the pair divorced in 2006, citing the 34 year difference in their ages as the cause.

Rochberg in Chicago

In 1986, the city of Chicago celebrated its 150th anniversary, and one music patron was willing to back the commission of a big new orchestral work for the pride of that city, namely the Chicago Symphony and its superstar conductor Sir George Solti. The manager of the orchestra approached the American composer George Rochberg about writing something, suggesting that the patron in question specifically wanted a concerto for brass and orchestra. This wasn't all that surprising, since the Chicago Symphony then and now has special reason to be proud of its brass section. Rochberg's counter-suggestion was that he would write a symphony, reassuring the orchestra's manager: "When I write my new Symphony, I will not neglect the brass." Some months later, the composer met with the conductor to outline his plans for the Chicago Symphony commission. When he requested extra brass and percussion. Rochberg recounted the story of the anonymous patron's commission of a "Concerto for Brass," to which Solti, smiling broadly, replied: "Oh, that was me!"—and readily agreed to a Rochberg Symphony instead. Rochberg's brassy Symphony No. 5, was premiered by Solti and the Chicago Symphony on today's date in 1986.

Magnus Lindberg

At the end of one of his parables, Jesus says, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" That's also the spirit of a group called Ears Open, formed by Esa Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg back when they were students at the Helsinki Academy, to raise the profile of new music in Finland. Years later, after Salonen became the music director of the LA Philharmonic, he gave Lindberg his first major American commission, a work called "Fresco," which had its world premiere in Los Angeles on today's date in 1998. In contrast to the chilly Northern landscapes of Finland, the title Fresco invokes much warmer places, and Lindberg has described it as reflecting both the 'loud' and 'soft' style of Indonesian gamelan ensembles, exotic percussion music designed for outdoor ceremonial purposes or for intimate indoor use. Both East and West Coast critics were impressed. The LA Times wrote: "Lindberg uses the orchestra as if it were one massive instrument full of ever-changing textures... the interplay of light and dark, of colors and textures, commands attention." And, according to the New York Times: "Lindberg raises orchestral color to the level of line, rhythm, and counterpoint. ... Layers of timbre fall away and new ones are added, easing one episode smoothly into the next."

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