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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Gershwin's last film score

In the summer of 1936, the songwriting team of George and Ira Geshwin settled their affairs in New York, put their furniture in storage, and flew off to Hollywood to fulfill a contract with the RKO Studios. The Gershwins were to supply music for a series of new movies, some starring an old friend of theirs, dancer Fred Astaire. In those days the big movie studios moved quickly, and so did the Gershwins. The first film in the contracted series, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as the romantic leads, was entitled "Shall We Dance" and was completed, scored and released in less than a year. On today's date in 1937, RKO Studios released their second Gershwin collaboration, "Damsel in Distress." This starred Astaire and Joan Fontaine, and included two songs that would become Gershwin classics: "A Foggy Day in London Town" and "Nice Work if You Can Get It." The release of "Damsel in Distress," however, must have been a bittersweet event for the friends and family of George Gershwin. The composer had died suddenly on July 11 that year following surgery to remove a brain tumor. The musical world was shocked, and there were funeral services and memorial concerts arranged on both the East and West Coast. "Damsel in Distress" proved to be the last major project Gershwin had completed before his death.

The Wagners attend a Brahms premiere

Falling in love with someone else's spouse can result in divorce, emotional turmoil, or (in the case of composers) some very Romantic music. Take the case of Brahms, who for most of his adult life carried a torch for Mrs. Clara Schumann, the wife of his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 3 was a work he began around 1854-5, an especially turbulent period in his relationship with the Schumanns. Twenty years later, when it was finally finished, Brahms wrote to his publisher: "On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. I'll send you my photograph for the purpose, and since you seem to like color printing, you can use blue coat, yellow breeches, and top-boots." That garb was favored by Young Werther, the Romantic hero in a novel by Goethe, who commits suicide after falling in love with a married woman. Coincidentally, in the audience for the Viennese premiere of Brahms's Quartet on today's date in 1875, were Richard and Cosima Wagner. Cosima had run off with Wagner when she was still married to the famous conductor Hans von Bulow, but her diary entry for November 18th suggests she didn't find anything Romantic in Brahms or his music. She writes: "In the evening a soiree with the Hellmesberger Quartet, I make the acquaintance of Herr Brahms, who plays a piano quartet of his own making. A red-faced, crude-looking man, his music dry and stilted."

Hoover for flute and guitar

The intimate combination of flute and guitar has proven to be an attractive one for a number of composers — and if the composer herself plays the flute, so much the better. This music is from a four-movement suite for flute and guitar, entitled "Canyon Echoes," written by the American composer and flutist Katherine Hoover. This music was premiered on today's date in 1991 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by flutist Susan Morris De Jong and guitarist Jeffrey Van. Katherine Hoover gave her "Canyon Echoes" a subtitle: "An Apache Folktale." "This piece," explained Hoover, "was inspired by a book called The Flute Player, a simple and beautifully illustrated retelling of an Apache folktale by Michael Lacapa. It is the story of two young Apaches from different areas of a large canyon. They meet at a Hoop Dance, and dance only with each other. The next day, as the girl works up on the side of the canyon in her father's fields, the boy sits below by a stream and plays his flute for her (flute-playing was a common manner of courtship). She puts a leaf in the stream which flows down to him, so he knows she hears." Like most legendary love stories, this Apache legend ends sadly, with the young lovers first separated, then rejoined, by death. A melancholy tale, perhaps, but one admirably suited to the introverted, dreamy tones of flute and guitar.

The Philadelphia Sound

In the year 1900, a German-born conductor named Fritz Scheel conducted two orchestral programs in Philadelphia billed as the "Philippines Concerts." These were benefits, as contemporary ads put it: "for the relief of families of the nation's heroes killed in the Philippines." The previous year U.S. troops had fought a guerrilla army in the Philippines and had suffered heavy casualties. These concerts were so successful that residents of Philadelphia decided the impressive ad-hoc symphony formed for the occasion should not disband, but become instead a permanent resident ensemble, similar to the orchestras of New York and Boston. And so, on today's date in 1900, the first official concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra took place at the Academy of Music, offering a program of Goldmark, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Weber, and Wagner. During the century that followed, the fame of the Philadelphia Orchestra spread worldwide via classic recordings made by two of the orchestra's famous maestros: Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. Between them, these two gentlemen would give the U.S. and world premier performances of works by the then-modern European composers Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and Bartok, as well as Americans like Varese, Barber, Copland, and Persichetti. In 1940, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, on the occasion of the premiere of his "Symphonic Dances" by the Philadelphians, paid the orchestra this compliment: "Today, when I think of composing, my thoughts turn to you, the greatest orchestra in the world."

Herschel Looks Up

Today is the birthday of a quite remarkable 18th century British composer, Sir William Herschel, who was born in Hannover, Germany, on this date in 1738. Herschel's father was a regimental oboist, and young William himself eventually joined papa's regimental band... also as an oboist. In his early 20s he settled in England, originally entrusted with improving performing standards of the Durham Militia Band, he soon was teaching music to some of the wealthy British families in that area. As a performing musician, Herschel was active in Newcastle, Leeds, Halifax and Bath, and in time became a prominent figure on the music scene, attracting the attention of the Royal Family. He composed 24 symphonies and a number of concertos, including this one in C Major for oboe and orchestra. In addition to music, however, Herschel had a passion for astronomy, and, beginning in the 1770s, concentrated more and more of his attention on scientific matters. In 1781, he discovered the planet Uranus, a feat that made him famous throughout Europe. Herschel was named "Astronomer Royal" to the British crown and given a pension that enabled him to give up music and devote himself entirely to astronomy. Haydn, during his stay in England, paid Herschel a visit to take a peek through his impressive 40-foot telescope. Herschel was knighted in 1817, and became the first president of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1821. He died the following year, in 1822, at the age of 83.

Waggoner's Second

In the fall of 1995, the American composer Andrew Waggoner received a commission from the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic of the Czech Republic for a new orchestral work to be premiered the following year. "I had a symphony in my mind for some time," writes Waggoner, "and decided that this was the chance I needed to see it through." The resulting work, Waggoner's Symphony No. 2, opens with a solo for the cello, an elegy, perhaps, for cellist Anna Cholakian, the founding member of the Cassatt Quartet, who had died from cancer while Waggoner was working on the piece. "Quite unexpectedly, and for the first time in my life as a composer, the piece began to draw from everything around it," writes Waggoner, including some recycled elements from his First Symphony, a String Quartet written for the Cassatt Quartet, and his setting of one of the Holy Sonnets of the 17th century British poet John Donne. Waggoner was born in New Orleans in 1960, and studied music at the Eastman School and Cornell University. In addition to his composition work, he's worked as an announcer and producer for public radio stations WXXI in Rochester and WNYC in New York. He teaches music in Syracuse, and serves as co-director of a chamber music festival in Maine. His own chamber and orchestral music has been performed by a number of American ensembles, and his Second Symphony was recorded by the Czech orchestra that premiered it on today's date in 1996.

Disney's "Fantasia"

On today's date in 1940, Disney's animated film Fantasia opened at New York's Broadway Theater. It proved to be a landmark film on a number of fronts: first, it was a milestone in cultural "cross-over", in which classical music (in the person of conductor Leopold Stokowski) shook hands (literally and figuratively) with pop culture (in the person of Mickey Mouse). In "Fantasia," Disney set selections of classical music from Bach to Stravinsky to animated stories created by his studio artists. "Fantasia" was also a milestone in recorded sound. For its initial East and West Coast release, the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded nine special optical tracks, one for each section of the orchestra. These were mixed by Stokowski into a multi-track stereo soundtrack to be played in synchronization with the film on special equipment made by RCA for a multiple-loudspeaker theater installation called "Fantasound." (Today that would have meant a soft drink sponsor!) Three large speakers were positioned behind the projection screen, and no fewer than 65 smaller speakers were placed around the walls of the theater. The resulting "surround-sound" was stunning by 1940 standards, but cost $85,000 to set up. After the second full installation at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, "Fantasound" was not employed anywhere else. Instead, eight "Fantasia Road Show" versions were assembled, each with 15,000 pounds of equipment but without the full surround-sound setup. These toured American movie theaters until 1941, when, following the outbreak of World War II, Disney diverted his funds, technology, and even Mickey toward the war effort.

Crumb goes Macro

For the ideal performance of "Makrokosmos II: Twelve fantasy pieces after the Zodiac," by the American composer George Crumb, one should perhaps be outdoors in a remote clearing under a crystalline canopy of stars. For the record, the premiere performance of Crumb's suite for amplified piano took place indoors at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on today's date in 1974, as part of a recital of new American works given by pianist Robert Miller. In his program notes, Miller offered these words about Crumb's Makrokosmos II: "Each of the 12 pieces is associated with a different sign of the Zodiac, and is written out in a very precise notation, but the music will at times sound quite free and flexible, almost improvisatory. The piano has become an orchestra unto itself. There is an enormously wide range of sound, timbre, touch, dynamics, etc. Amplification, various vocal effects, the imaginative exploitation of the three pedals, effects produced by the fingers in contact with the strings, and the use of external devices — contribute to this. "One use of quotation by Crumb is beautifully subtle. In the eleventh piece, entitled 'Litany of the Galactic Bells,' the opening music — a shimmering bell effect which recalls the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov' — gradually subsides and moves almost imperceptibly into a short excerpt from Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata. The effect is somewhat like the changing colors of a prism."

Bloch's Quintet

On today's date in 1923, the League of Composers presented its first chamber concert in New York City. Their stated mission was to present music by living composers whose works represented new trends in music. Actually, the League was founded as a splinter group, seceding from a more radical International Composers Guild founded two years earlier by Edgard Varese. The Guild's concerts were restricted to previously unheard works, and favored what was then called the 'ultra-modern' school, shutting out some less aggressively radical composers in the process. The newly formed League set out to be more inclusive. Their opening concert included a world premiere: a piano quintet by the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, who was then living in America. While not a radical work, Bloch's quintet was strong stuff for 1923, and even included some quartertone elements. The New York Times was impressed, but not won over: "To the inevitable question, 'Do you like it?' it seems almost impossible to answer, but if pressed I should say, no, not for any fault in the work but simply because of its too apparent determination to be emotionally stirring." The British critic Ernest Newmann, on the other hand, singled out Bloch's First Quintet for special praise: "No other piece of chamber music produced in any country during that period can be placed in the same class with it." For his part, Bloch said simply: "I write without any regard to please either the so-called 'ultra-moderns' or the so-called 'old-fashioned.'"

The "historically informed" Mahler

On today's date in 1910, Gustav Mahler conducted the "First Historical Concert" of the New York Philharmonic, an event billed as "the first of a series arranged in chronological sequence, comprising the most famous composers from the period of Bach to the present day." Mahler's program included works of Handel, Rameau, Gretry and Haydn, and opened with his own arrangement of music from Bach's Orchestral Suites. Now, Bach's music had been appearing on Philharmonic programs for decades, but some in the audience were shocked to see how Mahler presented it. Rather than conduct in the usual fashion, standing in front of the orchestra with his baton, Mahler led the orchestra from the keyboard of a "Bach-Klavier" (a Steinway piano whose action had been tinkered with to make it sound a little like a harpsichord). That bit of "historically informed performance" style was something brand new and even a little shocking to some back in 1910, although these days it's common to see someone conduct from the keyboard at concerts of Baroque music. In a letter to a friend back in Europe, Mahler wrote: "I had great fun recently with a Bach concert, for which I worked out the basso continuo conducting and improvising quite in the style of the old masters, playing on a rich-toned spinet specially adopted by Steinway for the purpose. This produced a number of surprises for me – and also for the audience. It was as though a floodlight had been turned on to this long-buried literature."

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