Monday, September 23, 2019, 11:30am
The celebrated conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was known for the practical jokes he played on performers. How well would he take it when a performer put one over on him? In the fall of 1935 Beecham was holding auditions for a season at London’s Covent Garden and a long tour through the country, which...
That's All I Ask
Friday, September 20, 2019, 11:30am
On September 20, 1850, Richard Wagner shared his aspirations with critic Theodor Uhlig, writing from Zurich about the key to achieving his latest artistic goal: What’s needed to accomplish the best, most decisive and important project that I can take on in the current circumstances, and to bring to...
Thursday, September 19, 2019, 11:30am
Charles Jennens assembled the texts for five of Handel’s oratorios, including Messiah , but a letter that turned up more than two hundred years after he wrote it shows that he did not hesitate to make fun of the great composer. In 1738 Jennens and Handel were working on the oratorio Saul . Jennens...
Master or Student?
Wednesday, September 18, 2019, 11:30am
In the fall of 1824 pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles was in Berlin, where he became acquainted with the family of fifteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn’s parents were concerned about the boy’s future, fearful that he would suddenly pass into obscurity, as many other talented children...
Prime Minister of Opera
Tuesday, September 17, 2019, 11:30am
“The only Italians here that merit attention are two musicians.” So wrote the French Ambassador to Spain in 1746. He went on to say that one of the two was harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti and the other was a singer named Farinelli. Farinelli had been born Carlo Broschi in Naples in 1705. When he...
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...
A Good Catch
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...
When It Mattered Most
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...
A Polite Reply
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.
A Tough Act To Follow
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.