Composers DatebookComposers 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™ 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.
On today's date in 1980, a week-long festival entitled "New Music America" came to a close in Minneapolis with a concert at that city's Guthrie Theater. The program included the premiere of "High Life for Strings," composed by David Byrne, a musician best known for his work with a rock band called The Talking Heads. Byrne later recalled, "When I participated in the New Music America festival in Minneapolis, minimalism and New-Age noodling were making big in-roads into a scene that had been more insular and academic. My piece, for a dozen strings was on a program with Philip Glass." Byrne says he was influenced by the intricate rhythms of West African pop music. Brian Eno was another rock musician represented during the Festival in Minneapolis. Some years earlier, Eno had been so irritated by the inane, chirpy muzak he heard while traveling that he composed a soothing ambient synthesizer score he called "Music for Airports." Appropriately enough, during the 8 days of the Festival, Eno's score was broadcast 24 hours a day throughout the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Decades after its composition, composer Michael Gordon arranged Brian Eno's synthesizer score for acoustic instruments, and recorded this arrangement of "Music for Airports" with the "Bang on a Can All-Stars."
It's summertime, the livin' is easy, and all across the country music festivals large and small are getting underway. In addition to the big symphonic festivals at Ravinia and Tanglewood, there are smaller ones devoted exclusively to the intimate art of chamber music. These festival often offer young, emerging composers the chance have their brand-new scores heard in workshop settings. Sometimes composers themselves are in charge of these summer festivals, partnering with established or specially-organized performing ensembles. In 1995, for example, two American composers, Daniel S. Godfrey and Andrew Waggoner, started up the Seal Bay Festival, a two-week series of performances and workshops of recently composed chamber music in the Penobscot Bay area of Maine. On June 14th, 2001, this newly-revised string quartet by Daniel Godfrey received its premiere by the Cassatt Quartet at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport. The quartet is inscribed to the memory of Godfrey's mother, who died in 1997. "Her passing," says Godfrey, "came to represent for me the losses, and the necessity of letting go, that have accompanied my arrival at late middle age. To oversimplify, perhaps, the first movement grieves, the second looks back wistfully, and the third looks ahead with determination and, ultimately, with hope."
In 1944, the French composer Darius Milhaud was in California, teaching at Mills College in California, and received a commission to write a piece suitable for school bands. With a world at war, the Jewish composer had found safe refuge in the U.S., and so eagerly accepted the commission for a number of reasons. Milhaud, confined to a wheelchair for most of his adult life, sent his wife Madaleine to the College library to obtain a collection of French folk tunes. His idea was arrange of some these into a suite. As the composer himself explained after his "Suite Française" was finished: "The five parts of [my] Suite are named after French Provinces, the very ones in which the American and Allied armies fought together with the French underground for the liberation of my country. I used some folk tunes of these Provinces, as I wanted the young American to hear the popular melodies of those parts of France where their fathers and brothers fought on behalf of the peaceful and democratic people of France." Milhaud's "Suite Française" was premiered by the Goldman Band in New York City on today's date in 1945, and rapidly became one the best-known and most often performed of Milhaud's works, and one of the established classics of the wind-band repertory.
On today's date in 2002, a high-profile musical event occurred at Philadelphia's new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The city was hosting the 57th National Conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was celebrating its 100th anniversary with eight new commissions, all to be premiered in the Orchestra's new Verizon Hall. On June 12th, the new piece was a Concerto for Orchestra by a 39-year-old composer named Jennifer Higdon. Higdon's "Concerto" opened the Philadelphia Orchestra's program, followed by Richard Strauss's tone-poem "Ein Heldenleben." Both pieces were performed before an audience of orchestral professionals from around the country—not to mention Higdon's proud mother. Higdon, understandably a little nervous, quipped to a newspaper reporter, "You'll know my mother because she'll be the one crying BEFORE the piece starts." Higdon needn't have worried. Her "Concerto for Orchestra" was greeted with cheers from both its audience and performers—the latter in typically irreverent fashion, dubbed the new piece "Ein Higdonleben." Higdon, the only woman among the eight composers commissioned for the orchestra's centennial project, calls herself a "late bloomer" as a composer. She taught herself the flute at age 15 and didn't pursue formal music training until college. She was almost finished with her bachelor's degree requirements at Bowling Green State University when she started composing her own music.
On today's date in 1931, the Russian-born American composer Nicolas Slonimsky was in Paris, conducting the second of two concerts of modern music from the Americas bankrolled by a retired insurance executive named Charles Ives. This second concert showcased Latin American composers like Pedro Sanjuan, Carlos Chavez, and Alejandro Caturla, as well as works by the Franco-American composers Carlos Salzedo and Edgard Varese. North America was represented by Wallingford Riegger's "Three Canons" for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Normally, chamber music for just four players doesn't require the services of a conductor, but in this case Slonimsky did beat time for the Parisian wind players hired for the gig. As Slonimsky put it, "Some instrumental parts were written in 5/8 and others in 2/8. I started beating time in 5/8, whereupon the binary musicians began to gesticulate at me to show their discomfort. What was I to do? OK, I said, I will conduct 5/8 with my right hand and 2/8 with my left. I was so delighted with my newly found ambidextrous technique that I applied it in other pieces as well, notably in the second movement of Ives' Three Place in New England, played on the first of the two Parisian concerts. Someone quipped that my conducting was evangelical, for my right hand knew not what my left hand was doing."
On today's date in 1939, the King and Queen of England were in New York City. Despite the perilous situation back home in Europe, their royal majesties George and Elizabeth Windsor crossed the Atlantic to attend the 1939 World's Fair, and sample exotic native delights such as a hot dog picnic with President Franklin Roosevelt. That same evening at Carnegie Hall, another visiting Brit, conductor Adrian Boult, led the New York Philharmonic in premiere performances of three brand-new works by leading British composers of the day, including the world premiere of the Seventh Symphony of Arnold Bax, a work commissioned by the British Council and dedicated to the American people. Also premiered that night was a virtuoso Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams' set of variations for strings and harp on the old English carol, "Dives and Lazarus." The music critic for The New Yorker, covering the premieres, wrote: "The symphony wandered, as Bax symphonies seem to do, yet wandered into many characteristic eloquences. The variations were soundly charming, and the piano concerto was a roaring triumph." There seems to be no documentation on the quality of the hot dogs served to their royal majesties, but we're willing to bet they, too, were top-notch.
Contemporary composers may bemoan that their newly-composed opera or concerto might languish unperformed for years. "Haydn was lucky," they whine, "His stuff got played right away!" Well, it's true that Haydn DID have his own orchestra at Prince Esterhazy's estate and got his music played while the ink was still wet. But even Haydn had to wait for a premiere on occasion—in two instances, for a very, VERY long time. Consider the last opera Haydn wrote, entitled L'anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice—or, in plain English, The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Euridice. This was supposed to premiere in 1791 in London. But a spat between the Prince of Wales and his pop, King George III, meant the performance was off. The opera was eventually premiered 160 years later—on today's date in 1951, at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, with a cast including Maria Callas and Boris Christoff, led by the German conductor Erich Kleiber. And the public premiere of a Cello Concerto in C, a work some think Haydn wrote at Esterhazy in the 1760s, took place in the 1960s. Haydn's score was presumed lost until 1961, when it was discovered at the Prague National Museum and finally played by cellist Milos Sádlo and the Czech Radio Symphony, led by Sir Charles Mackerras, on May 19, 1962.
Elliott Carter's "Two Controversies and a Conversation"
The American composer Elliott Carter lived to be 103 and remained amazingly productive, publishing more than 40 works between ages 90 and 100, and over 20 more AFTER he turned 100 in the year 2008. On today's date in 2012, a new chamber work by Carter with an odd title received its first performance at a concert in the New York Philharmonic's CONTACT! Series. The work was titled "Two Controversies and a Conversation" and showcased the percussive aspects of the piano, highlighting that instrument alongside a solo percussionist. The premiere was an international triple-commission from the New York Philharmonic, the Aldeburgh Festival in England, and Radio France. An earlier version of part of the new work, titled just "Conversations," had been premiered in the UK the previous year. The composer explained the title as follows: "How does one converse?" asked Carter. "One person says something and tries to get the other person to respond, or carry on, or contradict a statement. Those conversing are also all the time playing a kind of game with each other. I tried to put all that into my music ... After the premiere of 'Conversations' at the Aldeburgh Festival in June of 2011, [the British composer] Oliver Knussen suggested I expand this piece. I decided to add two more movements, which became the two 'Controversies.'"
Elliott Carter's "Two Controversies and a Conversation"
Boston-born American composer Alice Parker is a respected figure in the world of choral music. She studied with the legendary choral conductor Robert Shaw and collaborated with him in a series of folk-song arrangements that are performed by choruses all over the world. Parker was approached by the American Composers Forum to write a new work for their "Choral Quest" series specially designed for middle school children. Parker was intrigued by the challenge, realizing that many scores written for elementary schools would be too easy for middle schoolers, but works written for high school choirs might be too difficult. Also, parts written for middle school boys would have to accommodate voices in the process of changing from treble to tenor, baritone, and bass. Parker collaborated with students from the Amherst Regional Middle School Choir in her home state, and found some Native American texts that intrigued her, including one that began "What I am, I must become." That text seemed perfect, since, as Parker put it, "Children that age have so much 'becoming' to do... what they don't realize—yet—is that is true for all of us, all of our lives!" That text became the first of a three-part suite entitled "Dancing Songs," premiered by the Amherst Regional Middle School Choir and their director David Ranen on today's date in 2011.
On today's date in 1931, the Russian-born American conductor, and composer Nicolas Slonimsky was in Paris conducting the first of two concerts of ultra-modern music from the New World. These were presented under the auspices of the Pan American Association of Composers, and funded by an anonymous philanthropist Slonimsky later identified as retired insurance executive and fellow composer Charles Ives. Slonimsky had approached Ives early in 1931 with the idea of presenting a series of new music concerts in New York. When that proved too costly, they suggested mounting the same concerts in Paris. "In 1931, the dollar was still almighty among world currencies," recalled Slonimsky. "Ives gave me a letter of credit to the Paris branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank in the amount of $1500, an enormous sum of money in French francs at the time. The prestigious Orchestra Straram was engaged for my first Paris concert. I had a brilliant audience: composers, journalists, painters, Italian futurists. There was applause, but also puzzled responses." One French music critic even entitled his review "The Discovery of America," writing, "We have, (without joking), just discovered America, thanks to a Christopher Columbus called Slonimsky." As for Ives, he was very pleased with the success of the concerts, and for a time jokingly addressed Slonimsky as either "Columbus et Vespuccius,"