Monday, September 16, 2019, 11:30am
The thirty-three-year-old pianist was as brilliant as ever. He treated his audience in Besançon to unequaled performances of Bach’s B-flat major Partita, Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, Schubert’s G- flat major and E-flat major Impromptus, and thirteen of Chopin’s fourteen Waltzes. He left out the...
Friday, September 13, 2019, 11:30am
In 1764 Leopold Mozart was in London with his family, including his nine-year-old son, Wolfgang Amadeus. Money worries were never far from his mind. On September 13 he wrote to his landlord and banker back in Salzburg: You’ve probably deduced that I’ll spend the entire winter here at least, and...
Thursday, September 12, 2019, 11:30am
The string quartet is a curiosity, a series of short dances for three violins and cello to be played on open strings. It’s attributed to Benjamin Franklin, and since he was so versatile, it’s tempting to assume that Franklin would also turn his attention to composing music. Franklin played the harp...
Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 11:30am
Rick Rescorla was a soldier, not a musician. But he knew the power of music and he put it to work when it mattered most. He was born in Cornwall in 1939. Some of his earliest memories were of Cornish songs, but American culture was also in the air as American troops stationed in England prepared...
Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 11:30am
Although Hector Berlioz was capable of stinging irony, when he received a pointed letter from Richard Wagner, his reply was the essence of graciousness. On September 10, 1855, he wrote from Paris to Wagner in Switzerland: Your letter gave me great pleasure. You’re quite right to deplore my...
Monday, September 9, 2019, 11:30am
In 1904 nineteen-year-old Alban Berg entered the Austrian civil service as an accountant, keeping tabs on the sale of pigs and the productivity of distilleries, but he was most devoted to classes in music theory taught by the innovative Arnold Schoenberg. Like Berg, Schoenberg had been forced by...
Friday, September 6, 2019, 11:30am
On September 4, 1915, a New York Times headline broke the story: Godowsky Missing. And so began one of the strangest disappearances in music history. The celebrated Polish pianist Leopold Godowsky had been working at a fever pitch to complete a set of thirty piano adaptations for the Arts...
Thursday, September 5, 2019, 11:30am
Although he wrote a sublime German Requiem , Johannes Brahms knew all about the earthly–and earthy--side of music. Brahms grew up in Hamburg in the 1840s in a family so poor that he had to go to work at the age of thirteen. Because he had remarkable talent, young Brahms had no trouble finding jobs...
Wednesday, September 4, 2019, 11:30am
As a composer he mastered vast thundering symphonies and sublime sacred choral works, but as a man Anton Bruckner was awkward and bumbling, especially with women. When it came to the fair sex, the lifelong bachelor was a man of impulses. Once, while visiting a town to give an organ recital, he saw...
Tuesday, September 3, 2019, 11:30pm
In 1886 American composer Horatio Parker had been hoping for a performance of his string quartet by an important Boston ensemble. When the performance fell through, his colleague George Whitefield Chadwick wrote a cheerful letter explaining what had gone wrong: In the first place, Kneisel gave me...
Monday, September 2, 2019, 11:30am
Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff would eventually become an American citizen, but his first impression of America and America’s first impression of him were not entirely promising. By 1909 Rachmaninoff was enough of an international celebrity to follow in the path of many famous...
Friday, August 30, 2019, 11:30am
His family life was a good deal less harmonious than his music. This is Mozart writing from Vienna to his father Leopold in Salzburg at the end of August 1782: You want to know how I can flatter myself that I'll be the music master for the Princess? Well, Salieri can't teach her to play the clavier! He can only try to hamper me by recommending somebody else, and it's entirely possible that he's doing just that! On the other hand, the Emperor knows me, and the last time the Princess was in Vienna, she would have been happy to take lessons from me. Furthermore, I know that my name is in the book of the names of those who have been selected for her service. I don’t know where you got the idea that my highly honored mother-in-law is living here too. You can be sure that I didn't marry my sweetheart in such a rush just to lead a life of aggravations and arguments, but to enjoy peace and happiness. Since our marriage we have visited her twice, and during the second visit the arguing and needling started up again, so that my poor wife began to cry. I cut off the quibbling right away by telling Constanze that it was time for us to go. We haven't been back since...and have no intention of going back until we have to celebrate the birthday or name-day of the mother or one or two of the sisters. You say that I've never told you the day on which we got married. Pray excuse me, but your memory may be playing tricks on you because if you'll look at my letter from August 7th, it will confirm that we were married on Sunday, August 4th. Or maybe you never got that letter--but that's unlikely because you received the march that was enclosed with it and also replied to several things in the letter.
Thursday, August 29, 2019, 11:30am
Carl Maria von Weber had admired the lyrical poetry of Helmina von Chézy, and when the Vienna theater commissioned him to write an opera, he asked her to write the libretto. For her story, Chézy chose “The Tale of the Virtuous Euryanthe,” which was based on the timeworn device of a wager about a woman’s virtue. The rambling, complicated, supernatural plot defied staging. After eleven revisions, Weber diverted himself with performances of his recent success, Der Freischütz, in Prague and Vienna. When he returned home to Dresden, he took walks in the woods, repeating Chézy’s poetry in an effort to set it to music. Within about sixty days, he had the whole score of Euryanthe in his head and had written down all but the overture by August 29, 1823. In the meantime, the hard-up Chézy wanted to be paid for all the revisions. The “hornet,” as Weber called her, wrote to say that if he didn’t send her 600 thalers, she would come to Vienna and forbid the production. He replied that he would pay her as soon as he had fulfilled his current engagements. She responded with an ultimatum: she must have the money or a guarantee by the next morning. Weber took some comfort from hearing that Chézy was generally considered to be a crackpot, but he sent her a fraction of the money as “a gift.” When he went to Vienna to conduct the October 25 debut, she was making the rounds, telling everyone that she was refusing his money and was planning to take him to court. At performance time, she burst into the theater, shouting, “I am the Poetess! Let me through! I am the Poetess!” The audience replied with cheerful jeers and somehow passed her hand to hand over the heads of those who were seated. For the sake of keeping the peace, Weber made an effort to get her token payments from all theaters and publishers who purchased the ill-fated Euryanthe.
Wednesday, August 28, 2019, 11:30am
By the age of twenty-five, Johann Nepomuk Hummel already had a career that would’ve been the envy of a much older musician. As a child he had lived with Mozart and taken free keyboard lessons from him for two years. By the age of thirteen he had given a concert tour of Europe. He had just written a groundbreaking trumpet concerto. It was 1804. Haydn was retiring as Kapellmeister for Prince Esterházy in Eisenstadt, and he recommended the young pianist to be his replacement. The job turned into one of the greatest struggles of Hummel’s life. Replacing Haydn was the hardest part. The old man was loved and admired. Several senior members of the musical staff had been passed over for his job in favor of the strident, cocky young keyboard virtuoso. On top of that, the blunt and tactless Hummel had no administrative experience, so he was unprepared to handle the inevitable back-biting and petty politics of a provincial court. During the seven years to follow, Hummel seemed to butt heads with just about everyone. The indulgent prince kept him on, largely because he liked the masses Hummel wrote. Hummel continued to push the envelope. He spent more and more time moonlighting. He even had an opera produced in Vienna. For seven years the prince put up with his insubordination. Then one day Hummel wrote, “Whether the Prince likes my composition (as he pretends) or not is no proof that my works are valuable or not....Since the Prince is no connoisseur of music, he is not able to judge a work of art.” That did it. The prince fired him. Perhaps the experience helped Hummel to become more tactful and cooperative because after a few years of teaching in Vienna, he became Kapellmeister at Weimar and kept the job for the rest of his life. It gave him the freedom to compose on the side, and to pursue copyright protection and pensions for musicians.
Tuesday, August 27, 2019, 11:30am
One summer day, circa 1760, young Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf rushed in late to perform in a concert for his employer, a prince who took a dim view of tardiness. On top of that, he had to fill in for the ailing leader, but he impressed the prince and his guest, the Venetian ambassador, with his performance, which he followed by improvising an accompaniment to the singing of the ambassador’s wife. The ambassador told the prince that, as a professor of violin himself, he’d like to hear Dittersdorf play a solo. With a sinking feeling, Dittersdorf realized that in his haste he had forgotten to bring any music, a fault that the prince disdained even more than tardiness. Dittersdorf hit on a plan. He asked his younger brother to make up some kind of accompaniment in G, and when he got the “dreaded order to play,” he casually walked to a table full of scores and pretended that one of them was his Sonata in G. It turned out to be a Symphony in E. Supposedly reading the score, Dittersdorf played his sonata from memory as his brother dutifully faked an accompaniment. Then the ambassador and another Italian got up and started reading over his shoulder. Dittersdorf was about to confess and ask the ambassador not to tell the prince about the trick, but as the ambassador commented on the music, Dittersdorf determined that the supposed violin professor was a phony. Emboldened, he began to throw in all kinds of flourishes, much to everyone’s admiration. The next day, having found out about the ruse, the prince demanded to see him. He gave Dittersdorf a plate with several biscuits on it and told him to eat. Under the third biscuit Dittersdorf found a tidy sum, ten ducats. “It is because you got out of the scrape so cleverly yesterday!” declared the prince. Dittersdorf deduced that presence of mind was the quality the prince most valued.
Monday, August 26, 2019, 11:30am
One of the last letters by Rossini shows that the seventy-six-old composer was keenly aware of the latest trends in music–and had strong opinions about them. Referring to composers touting “music of the future,” he wrote to a friend on August 26, 1868: There is no such thing as progress or decadence in the latest novelties. They are sterile inventions, the product of perseverance rather than inspiration. Once and for all, let them find the courage to throw off convention and embrace with light hearts and complete confidence those aspects of Italian music that are divine and genuinely charming–simple melody and variety of rhythm. If our young colleagues follow these principles they will achieve the fame they desire and their compositions will have the long life enjoyed by those of our predecessors–Marcello, Palestrina, and Pergolesi, which is certainly fated for today’s celebrities–Mercadante, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. You’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve intentionally left out the word imitation for the benefit of young composers in that I’ve referred only to melody and rhythm. I will remain forever steadfast in my belief that Italian music–vocal music in particular–is entirely ideal and expressive, never imitative, as certain materialist philosophers suggest. Permit me to assert that the feelings of the heart may be expressed but not imitated. If imitation is accompanied by elevated artistic feeling and a touch of genius–with which nature is not generous–then even though genius rebels against the rules, it will be as it has always been, in a single gesture, the creator of beauty!
Friday, August 23, 2019, 11:30am
Because young Charles Burney admired the music of Thomas Arne, he was excited to meet him when Arne returned to London in August 1744 after two years in Dublin. He was all the more delighted when Arne offered to accept him as a student, tuition free. A legal contract bound the eighteen-year-old Burney to Arne for seven years. In exchange for room and board and learning his trade, Burney was expected to transcribe the music that Arne wrote for the Drury Lane theater, to teach it to the minor performers, to give lessons to Arne’s students, and to play in various orchestras. During Lent of 1745, Arne also farmed Burney out to perform in oratorios for Handel. Whatever money Burney and his fellow students made went to Arne, but in the excitement of getting to know some of England’s great composers, performers, and actors, Burney didn’t mind. But as he became more and more driven to develop his abilities as a composer and to make a name for himself, Burney found that his initial “inexpressible delight” began to wear thin. He wrote later that Arne’s pettiness made life all the more frustrating. He recalled: He was so selfish and unprincipled, that finding me qualified to transcribe music, teach, and play in public, all which I could do before I was connected with him, he never wished I should advance further in the art. And besides not teaching or allowing me time to study and practice, he locked up all the books in his possession, by the perusal of which I could improve myself. Burney also discovered that Arne was so consumed by lust that he couldn’t pass a woman on the street without trying to seduce her. In 1746, with five years of subservience still ahead of him, Burney met the high-living Fulke Greville, who bought his apprenticeship from Arne. Free from the grip of an oppressive master, Charles Burney developed into one of the great music historians of all time.
Thursday, August 22, 2019, 11:30am
Karl Goldmark had poured his best efforts into his opera The Queen of Sheba and had high hopes for it. He was in for some shocks. He submitted it to the Vienna Court Opera for the 1873 season. The Queen of Sheba went to the directors of the Court Opera, who took a dim view of it. They were already critics and rivals of Goldmark. Next the opera went to the institution’s three conductors. One of them complained about its discords. The second, a frail old man, said that he was too sick to look at such a novel and difficult composition. He promptly proved his point by dying. “I had this consolation,” Goldmark quipped. “My score was not responsible for his death.” The third conductor liked the opera but wasn’t influential enough to push it. Along the way, the Vienna newspapers caught wind of the opera and began to clamor for its production. Facing dwindling receipts, the Director-General of the opera, Prince Hohenlohe, decided that The Queen of Sheba might be just what the doctor ordered. Told that the director was balking at the idea of putting it on, he declared, “I will break his neck if he doesn’t produce the opera.” It proceeded on a limited budget. By the time of the dress rehearsal the singers were worn out. The thing dragged on for four hours in a half-empty house. “In a word,” Goldmark recalled. “The performance was as heavy as lead. Nothing seemed to go; everything we tried failed.” The Prince asked Goldmark to come into his box. “For God’s sake,” he said, “you’ve got to chop the opera down to size. It’s impossible to produce the way it is.” The next night Goldmark and some of the directors went to a restaurant to gather strength for the cutting. There at the table the frazzled Karl Goldmark fainted dead away.
Wednesday, August 21, 2019, 11:30am
As if the money problems weren’t bad enough, now Heinrich Schütz had to put up with disrespect. For thirty-five years he had been music director for Johann Georg, Elector of Saxony, and now, in 1652, the sixty-seven-year-old Schütz wanted to retire, but the signs were not good. The elector had fallen on hard times, and salary payments to his court musicians had fallen behind. More than once, Schütz had written eloquently on their behalf, asking for some kind of financial relief. He wrote of a highly-respected bass singer, long in the service of the court, who had been forced to pawn his clothes and now “paces about his house like a beast in the forest.” But now Schütz was finding his reputation under attack. On August 21, 1653, he wrote to several court patrons, voicing his dismay at having been commanded to pick up the mundane responsibility of providing music for the regular Sunday services. He was supposed to share the chore with the crown prince’s music director, one Giovanni Andrea Bontempi, whom Schütz described as “a man a third my age and castrated to boot,” and to compete with him for the approval of biased and largely unqualified audiences and judges. Two days later, Schütz wrote to the elector’s son, the crown prince, to defend himself against the accusation that he employed too many Italian musicians. The rapid promotions of the Italians and the fact that they were Catholics serving in a Lutheran court, was stirring up resentment among the German musicians. More than a little resentful himself, Schütz pointed out that most of the Italians had been hired by the crown prince. And so it went for several years, with the defensiveness and the pleas for money becoming increasingly strident, until 1656, when Johann Georg died, and his son, Johann Georg II, allowed arrangements that eased the plight of the court musicians and enabled Heinrich Schütz to retire in comfort.
Tuesday, August 20, 2019, 11:30am
In 1869 Emperor Napoleon III launched three music competitions in Paris, and Jules Massenet was fast to enter all three. The contenders were to write music for the cantata Prometheus, the opéra-comique Le Florentin, and the opera La Coupe de Roi de Thule . Massenet won nothing. Camille Saint-Saëns had won the cantata competition. He knew that Massenet had competed and had been considered for the opera prize but had been passed over late in the judging. He said to Massenet, “There are so many good and beautiful things in your score that I have just written to Weimar to see if your work can’t be performed there.” Composer Ambroise Thomas introduced Massenet to Michel Carré, who had worked on the librettos for his operas Mignon and Hamlet. Carré gave Massenet a libretto called Méduse . From the summer of 1869 to the spring of 1870 Massenet labored on the opera, and soon after it was finished, Carré made an appointment to meet him at the Paris Opéra. His plan was to tell the director that Massenet’s work should be produced and that he would provide the money to make it happen. Massenet saw the future brighten before him. At their meeting, Carré took his leave with the words, “Until we meet again on the stage of the Opéra.” Massenet’s joy lasted until the next morning, when the newspapers announced the declaration of war between France and Germany. Massenet never saw Carré again. His hopes for a production in Weimar were crushed, and in the upheaval to follow, any production at the Paris Opéra was also out of the question. Massenet joined the army. When he wrote his memoirs, he skipped over what he called “that utterly terrible year,” saying, “I do not want to make such cruel hours live again.” During the thirty years to follow, Massenet would reuse much of his thousand pages of languishing orchestration in the composition of subsequent works.