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

Piston's "New England Sketches"

Synopsis On today's date in 1959, the Detroit Symphony under the eminent French conductor Paul Paray gave the first performance of some brand-new music by the eminent American composer Walter Piston. Piston had studied in Paris with the famous French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger and the great French composer Paul Dukas, so perhaps this was a very astute paring of composer and conductor. In any case, to help celebrate the 100th Worcester Festival, Paray and the Detroit orchestra were on hand in Massachusetts for the premiere of Piston's "Three New England Sketches," an orchestral suite whose movements were entitled: "Seaside," "Summer Evening," and "Mountains." Piston didn't intend these titles to be taken literally: "[They] serve in a broad sense to tell the source of the inspirations, reminiscences, even dreams that pervaded the otherwise musical thoughts of one New England composer," he noted. Piston certainly qualified as a bonafide "New England" composer. He was born in Rockland, Maine, in 1894, taught at Harvard, had a vacation home in Vermont, and died in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1976. Even so, the most striking hallmark of Piston's music remains its quite cosmopolitan style and neo-classical form – the lasting influence, perhaps, of his two famous French teachers. Music Played in Today's Program Walter Piston (1894 – 1976) — Three New England Sketches (Seattle Symphony; Gerard Schwarz, cond.) Delos 3106

Handel and Colgrass at the organ

Synopsis Handel is the composer credited with "inventing" the organ concerto back in the 18th century. Handel was a virtuoso performer on the organ, and, as a special added attraction during the London performances of some of his oratorios, one of Handel's concertos would be featured as a kind of intermission feature. This served to showcase Handel's skill as an organist – and perhaps to give his singers a chance to catch their breath between sections of the full-length oratorio. Since then, a number of composers have added to the organ concerto repertory started by Handel. On today's date in 1990, on a CBC radio broadcast from the Calgary Organ Festival Competition, a brand-new organ concerto by the American composer Michael Colgrass had its premiere performance. Colgrass' concerto was entitled "Snow Walker," and is cast as an impressionistic musical picture of the Far North and the fortitude, humor, and spirituality of Canada's native Inuit peoples. The work is dedicated to Farley Mowat, the author of a true-life story of life in the Far North, "Never Cry Wolf," familiar from a popular Disney movie. The Colgrass concerto provides musical evocations of a polar landscape, Inuit throat singing, and a rambunctious dance-finale. Music Played in Today's Program George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1757) — Organ Concerto, Op.4, no. 4 (Simon Preston, organ; Festival Orchestra; Yehudi Menuhin, cond.) EMI 72626 Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) — Snow Walker (David Schrader, organ; Grant Park Orchestra; Carlos Kalmar, cond.) Cedille 90000 063

A quirky piece by Marga Richter

Synopsis Let's face it. Brevity and wit are not always qualities one associates with new music. But today we offer a sample: this comic overture is less than 5 minutes long, and opens, as you just heard, with a Fellini-esque duet for piccolo and contrabassoon. The overture is entitled "Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark," and is a rather burlesque celebration of modern theoretical physics. Its alliterative title evokes those subatomic particles known as "quarks" that, we're told, make up our universe. And, since this music changes time signature so often, perhaps Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle" is thrown in for good measure. The music is by Marga Richter, who was born on this date in 1926 in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. Richter received her early music training in Minneapolis, and then moved to New York's Juilliard School. By the time of her death in 2020, she had composed over 75 works including an opera and two ballets, as well as two piano concertos and a variety of solo, chamber and symphonic works. "Composing," said Richter," is my response to a constant desire to transform my perceptions and emotions into music ... Music is the way I speak to the silence of the universe." Music Played in Today's Program Marga Richter (b. 1926) — Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark (Czech Radio Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz) MMC 2006 On This Day Births 1879 - French composer, pianist, and writer Joseph Canteloube, in Annonay (near Tournon); 1885 - Austrian composer and musicologist Egon Wellesz, in Vienna; 1921 - English composer (Sir) Malcolm Arnold, in Northampton; 1926 - American composer Marga Richter, in Reedsburg, Wisconsin; 1949 - Israeli composer Shulamit Ran, in Tel Aviv; Deaths 1662 - English composer Henry Lawes, age 66, in London; Premieres 1784 - Gretry: opera, "Richard Coeur de Lion" (Richard the Lionhearted), in Paris; 1858 - Offenbach: comic opera, "Orphée aux enfers" (Orpheus in the Underworld), in Paris; 1900 - Rimsky-Korsakov: opera "The Tale of Tsar Saltan," at the Solodovnikov Theatre in Moscow, with Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov conducting (Gregorian date: Nov. 3); 1921 - Third (and final) version of Sibelius: Symphony No. 5, in Helsinki under the composer's direction; Sibelius conducted the first performances of two earlier versions of this symphony in Helsinki on Dec. 8, 1915 and Dec. 14, 1916; 1926 - Nielsen: Flute Concerto (first version), in Paris, conducted by Emil Telmányi (the composer's son-in-law), with Holger Gilbert-Jespersen the soloist; Nielsen revised this score and premiered the final version in Oslo on November 9, 1926, again with Gilbert-Jespersen as the soloist; 1933 - Gershwin: musical "Let 'Em Eat Cake," at the Imperial Theater in New York City; 1941 - Copland: Piano Sonata, in Buenos Aires, by the composer; 1956 - Menotti: madrigal-fable "The Unicorn, the Gordon and the Manticore," at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; 1984 - Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Double Quartet for strings, at a concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, by the Emerson Quartet and friends. 2004 - Danielpour: "Songs of Solitude" (to texts of W.B. Yeats), at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, by baritone Thomas Hampson and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Daniel Robertson conducting; Others 1739 - Handel completes in London his Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, no. 5 and possibly his Concerto Grosso in F, Op. 6, no. 9 as well (see Julian date: Oct. 10). Links and Resources On Marga Richter An interview with Richter

Hanson's "futile efforts"

Synopsis On today's date in 1950, the famous oboist Marcel Tabuteau gave the premiere performance of this "Pastorale" for solo oboe, harp, and strings, with his colleagues from the Philadelphia Orchestra. The music was by Howard Hanson, who dedicated the piece to his wife Peggy. Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska in 1896. As a talented teenager, Hanson recalls a German-born musician in New York asking him: "Well, now, Hanson, why do you waste your time at futile efforts in composition when you could became a great concert pianist?" This, said Hanson, from someone who had never heard one note he had written. "In the true German tradition," Hanson recalled, "he figured that nobody from Nebraska could possibly write good music. It took 40 years to get rid of that kind of thinking in the U.S. – and we're not over it yet." Hanson was a successful composer, conductor, and educator in his early 80s when he made those comments, but retained his sense of humor, as evidence by this comment from the octogenarian: "Peggy will say to me, 'What are you going to do now?' and I'll say, 'I'm going upstairs to waste my time in futile efforts at composition.'" Music Played in Today's Program Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981) — Pastorale (Randall Ellis, oboe; Susan Jolles, harp; Seattle Symphony; Gerard Schwarz, cond.) Delos 3105

Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel

Synopsis According to Wikipedia, an art song is "a vocal music composition, usually written for one voice with piano accompaniment ... often a musical setting of an independent poem or text intended for the concert repertory as part of a recital." The 600-plus art songs of the Viennese composer Franz Schubert are the most familiar examples of the genre and rank among the greatest achievements of the Romantic Era in music. On today's date in 1814, Schubert was just 17 years old when he finished one of the most famous of them, "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel," a remarkably empathetic setting of a scene from Goethe's "Faust" in which the naïve young Gretchen confesses being both terrified and thrilled by falling passionately in love. The British pianist Graham Johnson has recorded all 600 plus Schubert songs with some of the greatest singers of our day, and says, "The most amazing thing is that a 17-year-old boy can somehow enter into the female psyche with such an incredible amount of understanding as if he himself had experienced such feelings ... There is a real distinct feeling of Schubert blown away by the drama and the story he has read." Music Played in Today's Program Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) — Gretchen am Spinnrade, D118 (Elly Ameling, soprano; Dalton Baldwin, piano) Phillips 420870

Saeverud's "Minnesota Symphony"

Synopsis In 1958, the state of Minnesota was celebrating its centennial, and decided to commission a symphony in honor of the occasion. Just about everyone these days knows there are a lot of Norwegians in Minnesota, but even back in 1958, that was still fairly obvious, and so it seemed a good idea to ask a Norwegian composer to write a "Minnesota Symphony." And who better than Harald Saeverud, one of the most distinguished composers of that day, and a composer who had just been granted Norwegian knighthood in the order of Saint Olaf, no less. Nor was Saeverud new to the symphony-writing game. His "Minnesota Symphony" was his Symphony No. 8. Its premiere performance occurred at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis on today's date in 1958, with the Minneapolis Symphony led by Antal Dorati. The capacity audience of 4000 gave Saeverud and his symphony a warm welcome. For his part, Saeverud was equally gracious, writing: "With the map of Minnesota above my desk and with my thoughts and feelings concentrated on Minnesota's history, I dove into the work, which proved increasingly fascinating as I became aware that it was simultaneously growing into a history of mankind." Music Played in Today's Program Harald Saeverud (1897 – 1992) — Symphony No. 8 (Minnesota) (Stavanger Symphony; Ole Kristian Ruud, cond.) BIS 972

Copland's "Letter from Home"

Synopsis By the mid-1940s, the famous American bandleader Paul Whiteman was not as popular as he once was during the 20s and 30s. Even so, his name and orchestra were still a draw, and Whiteman was ever hopeful of introducing new pieces that might prove as popular as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Grofé's "Grand Canyon Suite" – both commissioned by Whiteman in those earlier decades. In 1944, Whiteman commissioned a number of short chamber orchestra works, or "symphonettes" as he dubbed them, for his new radio show called "Music out of the Blue." The show aired at midnight. "So if the pieces are too bad," explained Whiteman to his radio bosses, "few people will know it." And so it was on today's date in 1944 that one of these new pieces, commissioned from Aaron Copland, had its radio premiere. Its title was "A Letter from Home." In the context of an America still at war in Europe, this title had a special resonance for those with loved ones serving abroad. Copland himself had a brother in the army, and wrote the work while living in Mexico, where he, too, received letters from his sister back home. Music Played in Today's Program Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) — Letter from Home (St. Louis Symphony; Leonard Slatkin, cond.) EMI 49766

Kodaly's obscure and popular opera

Synopsis There are some operas which are rarely – if ever – staged, but whose music becomes famous – even wildly popular—in the concert hall. Everyone has heard the overture to Rossini's "William Tell," for example, but only a few fortunate (or very determined) opera fans ever get to see the whole opera staged. Zoltán Kodály's opera "Háry János" falls into this strange class of works both popular AND obscure. This comic opera debuted at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest on today's date in 1926 and recounts the adventures of an old veteran of the Napoleonic Wars named "Háry János." In the village tavern, Háry boasts of his heroic exploits: how he singlehandedly won a battle against Napoleon, for example, and how the Emperor's Wife fell in love with him, and she would have run off with him if he'd wanted, but he chose to remain true to his Hungarian sweetheart back home. You get the idea... Kodály's opera was a hit in Budapest but was not taken up elsewhere. But a concert suite of excerpts from its brilliant score depicting Háry János's imaginary adventures became a popular showpiece for orchestras, an unbeatable combination of great tunes, colorful orchestration, and smile-inducing wit. Music Played in Today's Program Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) — Háry János Suite (Budapest Festival Orchestra; Ivan Fischer, cond.) Philips 462 824

Nancarrow's Quartet No. 3

Synopsis The expatriate American composer Conlon Nancarrow came to the conclusion that the rhythmically complex, intricate contrapuntal music he wanted to write would be too difficult for mere mortals to tackle, so he composed for a mechanical instrument: the player piano. Despite its complexity, Nancarrow's music drew some of its inspiration from the human, all-too-human jazz stylings of Art Tatum and Earl Hines, and the complex rhythmic patterns of music from India. Nancarrow was born in 1912 in Texarkana, Arkansas. At the age of 18, he heard Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which sparked his life-long interest in rhythmic complexity. Soon after, Nancarrow began private studies with American composers Roger Sessions and Walter Piston. He moved to Mexico City in 1940, where he lived and worked until his death. Nancarrow composed in almost total isolation until the late 1970s, when some of his piano roll compositions appeared on record. These created quite an impact, and the MacArthur Foundation awarded him its 'genius' award. Late fame even brought a series of commissions from performers willing to take on the challenge of performing his difficult music. One of these pieces, Nancarrow's String Quartet No. 3, was premiered on today's date in 1987 by the Arditti Quartet. Music Played in Today's Program Conlon Nancarrow (1912 – 1997) — String Quartet No. 3 (Arditti Quartet) Grammavision 79440

An all-star Gershwin premiere

Synopsis Imagine the cocktail party bragging rights you'd have if you had attended the first night of "Girl Crazy," a musical that opened in New York on today's date in 1930. That show marked the Broadway debut of Ethel Merman, and co-starred Ginger Rogers. But that's just for starters... The pit orchestra that night included Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, and Jack Teagarden – gentlemen who would all go on to become famous band leaders in their own right. Speaking of band leaders, for the opening night of "Girl Crazy," the show's composer, George Gershwin himself, was there conducting that all-star ensemble. For his part, Gershwin recalled: "With the exception of some dead head friends of mine, especially the critics, I think the notices, especially of the music, were the best I have ever received." Gershwin was right: "Girl Crazy" included two songs that quickly became classics: "I Got Rhythm" and "Embraceable You." The show ran for 272 performances – an impressive statistic in the first year of the Great Depression, and Hollywood produced not one but TWO cinematic versions of the show in 1932 and 1943. Music Played in Today's Program George Gershwin (1898 - 1937) — Girl Crazy (Studio Cast Recording) Sony 60704