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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The birth of "Les Six"

Today marks the anniversary of the creation of a famous classical music nickname, "Les Six"—French for "The Six." That's what Parisian music critic Henri Collet dubbed six composers on this day in 1920, in a magazine article. Three of the composers Collet named included three still often heard today—Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Francis Poulenc—but the three other are not: performances of works by George Auric, Louis Durey, and the only woman in the group, Germaine Tailleferre, are still rare. Though Tailleferre is counted among the neglected half of Les Six, her music has been having something of a revival lately. Perhaps this is part of a general renewal of interest in concert works written by women composers, and perhaps a belated recognition that much of her work remains fresh and appealing. This music is from her Violin Sonata No. 1, composed in 1921 and dedicated to the great French violinist Jacques Thibaud. Born near Paris in 1892, Tailleferre was a prodigy with an astounding memory. Erik Satie proclaimed her his "musical daughter," and she was also close friends with Maurice Ravel. Two unhappy marriages and resulting financial insecurity inhibited Tailleferre's talent in later years, and dimmed her fame, but she continued to compose and teach until her death at age 91, in 1983.

A Messiaen premiere in a German prisoner of war camp

The modern French composer Olivier Messiaen played the piano part in one of the strangest premiere performances of the 20th century on today's date in 1941. As the composer put it: "My Quartet for the End of Time was conceived and written during my captivity as a prisoner of war and received its world premiere at Stalag 8a in Görlitz, Silesia." One of the four performers was cellist Etienne Pasquier, who offered this recollection: "We were captured at Verdun. Our entire company was initially held in a large field near Nancy. Among our comrades was a clarinetist who had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen started to write a piece for him while we were still in this field as he was the only person there with an instrument. And so Messiaen wrote a solo piece that was later to become the third movement of the Quartet. The clarinetist practiced in the open field and I acted as his music stand. The piece seemed to him to be too difficult from a technical point of view and he complained about it to Messiaen. "You'll manage,' was Messiaen's only reply." Pasquier reports that the performance was a great success, and led to the release of Messiaen and his three colleagues, as the Germans assumed—wrongly, it turns out—that the four musicians must have all been non-combatants.

Harp concertos by Villa-Lobos and Rautavaara

Some instruments seem to have all the luck—or at least all the concertos! If you play piano or violin, you have hundreds of concertos to choose from. But if your instrument is the harp—and you will forgive the pun—the pickings are rather slim. This hardly seems fair to one of mankind's oldest instruments, depicted on murals from ancient Egypt and traditionally associated with King David in the Bible. In the 18th and early 19th century, there are a handful of great classical harp concertos by Handel, Mozart, and others. In the 20th century, things start to improve a little, with modern concertos by Gliere, Pierne, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Rodrigo. On today's date in 1955, we're happy to report, one of the finest modern works for harp and orchestra had its premiere performance when harpist Nicanor Zabeleta played this concerto—by the prolific Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos—with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by the composer. And slowly, but surely, the repertory is expanding. One of the newest additions comes from the pen of the Finnish composer, Einojuhanni Rautavaara. His harp concerto was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, and was premiered in Minneapolis in October of the year 2000, by the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, with Kathy Kienzle as the soloist.

Prokofiev takes the Fifth in Moscow

On today's date in 1945, Sergei Prokofiev conducted the Moscow State Philharmonic in the premiere performance of his Fifth Symphony. Written when the tide of the Second World War was turning in the favor of the Allies, the premiere in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory came one day after news reached Moscow that Soviet troops had begun a successful counteroffensive against the Germans. The symphony proved to be one of Prokofiev's strongest works, and in the context of 1945 must have had an incredible emotional impact. It was a tremendous success in Moscow, and also in Boston, where Serge Koussevitzky conducted the American premiere later that same year. Prokofiev even made the cover of Time magazine. As musicologist Michael Steinberg puts it: "No question, the Fifth was a repertory piece from Day One." How sad, then, to realize how soon things would change for the man who wrote it. In three years Prokofiev—along with Shostakovich and others—would be denounced by Soviet authorities for supposedly straying from the party line; In five years, when the Red Scare in America turned our one-time Ally into Public Enemy No. 1, conductor Maurice Abravanel received a death threat when the Utah Symphony announced the Salt Lake City premiere of Prokofiev's Fifth. Ah, the vicissitudes of politics in 20th century! Fortunately for us, Prokofiev's symphony has endured—and seems to lose none of its original impact.

Dahl's "Sinfonietta"

On today's date in 1961, a new work by the German-born composer Ingolf Dahl received its premiere performance in Los Angeles. The new work was entitled "Sinfonietta for Concert Band," and was commissioned by the College Band Directors National Association, who were eager to expand their repertory with major new works of the highest quality. Dahl had emigrated to the United States in 1938 and settled in Los Angeles, where he met and befriended Igor Stravinsky, who gave him some practical advice about composing for wind band: "You must approach this task as if it had always been your greatest wish to write for these instruments," suggested Stravinsky, "as if all your life you had wanted to write a work for just such a group." "This was good advice," recalled Dahl. "Only in my case it was not only before but after the work was done that it turned out to be indeed the piece that I had wanted to write all my life. I wanted it to be a substantial piece—a piece that, without apologies for its medium, would take its place alongside symphonic works of any other kind." Both Dahl and the musicians who commissioned the work must have been pleased to see their "Sinfonietta" rapidly become an established classic of the wind band repertory.

A John Adams Christmas oratorio

It was a matter of some debate as the year 1999 drew to a close whether—chronologically speaking—the new Millennium really began in 2000 or 2001. As far as the musical world was concerned, why wait? The shift from 1999 to 2000 proved to be the occasion for hundreds of celebratory concerts and special commissions worldwide. While not originally intended as part of the Millennium celebrations, a major new work of the American composer John Adams had its European premiere in December of 1999 and its American debut in January of 2000. Years before, the San Francisco Symphony had asked Adams to write a big work for their chorus and orchestra. Then came a request from the Châtelet Theater in Paris for a new opera. Adams combined both requests, folding in a dream of his own. As he put it: "I wanted to write a Messiah." The result was a Nativity oratorio titled "El Nino" —a work for soloists, chorus and orchestra that could be performed as both a concert hall piece and/or a fully staged theatrical work. Kent Nagano conducted El Nino's world premiere in Paris on December 15, 1999, and the same cast and conductor gave its American premiere in San Francisco on today's date in 2000.

The singular Mr. Berwald

Franz Berwald was a Swede who lived in the early 19th century and who made his living first as an orthopedic surgeon and later as the manager of a saw mill and glass factory. But these days, nobody cares very much about all that. Berwald was born in Stockholm into a family that had been musicians for several generations, and even though Franz earned his living by other means, his true passion was music, and in addition to operas and concertos, he wrote four symphonies, only one of which was performed during his lifetime, and that to mixed reviews. Berwald spent some years in Vienna, where a few of his works were performed. One year after Berwald's death in 1868, the crusty, conservative Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick appraised him as (quote) "a man stimulating, witty, prone to bizarrerie, [but who] as a composer lacked creative power and fantasy". Oddly enough, it's exactly Berwald's "bizarrerie," or amusing strangeness, that appealed to later generations, and likewise his creative power and fantasy. In fact, for many music lovers today, Berwald is Sweden's first great Romantic composer and symphonist. This didn't happen overnight, of course. Berwald's Third Symphony, nicknamed "The Singular One," was written in 1845, but had to wait 37 years after the death of its composer for its first public performance, which took place in Stockholm on today's date in 1905.

Opposite-coast bouquets and brickbats for Weill and Sessions

On this day in 1947, Pierre Monteux led the San Francisco Symphony in the premiere performance of the Second Symphony by American composer Roger Sessions, who was then 50 years old. Prior to this symphony, Sessions had written in a more broadly accessible style, but his Symphony No. 2 proved fairly dissonant and challenging for its time. At the time, Sessions cautiously stated: "Tonality is complex and even problematical nowadays." For their part, the San Francisco audiences found Session's new style too complex and problematical. There was hardly any applause. Musical America's critic wrote that Sessions' Second "seemed to express the epitome of all that is worst in the life and thinking of today." Ouch! Today, Sessions' Second doesn't sound all that challenging, but performances of this or any of his symphonies remain rare events. While Sessions' symphony was being panned in San Francisco, a new stage work by the expatriate German composer Kurt Weill opened to rave reviews in New York. Kurt Weill's musical setting of Elmer Rice's popular play "Street Scene" opened on Broadway on January 9th in 1947. "[It's] the best contemporary musical production to grace any American stage," enthused the Musical America critics. "We cannot imagine that an audience from any walk of life would not enjoy it. It has everything."

Fateful anniversaries for Lully and Shostakovich

Today's date marks two rather macabre anniversaries in the history of music. The first was a fatal moment for Jean-Baptiste Lully, the 17th-century Superintendent of Music for King Louis XIV of France. In late 1686, King Louis became gravely ill, but surprised everybody by recovering completely. To celebrate, Lully wrote a choral "Te Deum," praising God for the miracle. Ironically, it would lead to his own demise. At the performance, on today's date in 1687, Lully got carried away while beating time with his cane and accidentally smashed his toe. He continued conducting, but an abscess soon developed, followed by gangrene which spread through his lower leg. Lully died a few weeks later. On today's date in 1972 another somewhat morbid musical event took place—the world premiere of the 15th and last symphony by the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. At that time, he was already ill with the heart disease and lung cancer that would eventually kill him. Although his symphony has no stated programmatic content, Shostakovich fueled speculation by including cryptic musical quotations from familiar classics like the "William Tell" Overture and "Siegfried's Funeral March" in his dark and brooding new work. Many listeners come away with the unmistakable impression that Shostakovich's last symphony is meant as an ironic commentary on his own life and work, written under the shadow of death.

Pop music by Rimsky-Korsakov and Michael Daugherty

The fairy-tale opera "Sadko" by the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov had its first performance in Moscow on today's date in 1898. This opera is still staged in Russia, but rarely anywhere else—even though some of its wonderful melodies have proven extremely popular. One of the opera's arias had a tune so catchy that it was set to English words as "Play That Song of India Again" and became a best-selling Paul Whiteman recording in the 1920s. In the big-band era, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Song of India" even made the American "Hit Parade." The line between popular culture and classical music has often been blurred—and seldom so wickedly as in the works of the American composer Michael Daugherty. This music is from his "Le Tombeau de Liberace." Now, in classical music terminology, a "tombeau" is a memorial tribute to an eminent musician or composer—in this case, it's Wladziu Valentino Liberace, the flamboyant, rhinestone-encrusted pop pianist and showman who died in 1993. "Starting from the vernacular idiom," writes Daughtery, "I have composed 'Le Tombeau de Liberace' as a meditation on the American sublime: a lexicon of forbidden music. It is a piano concertino in four movements, each creating a distinct Liberace atmosphere." Many of Michael Daugherty's other concert pieces have also been inspired by pop icons, real and imaginary, ranging from Desi Arnez to Superman.

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