Friday, April 3, 2020, 11:30am
The famed soprano Jenny Lind had plenty of talent and determination. And when she came to America in 1850 she had more than enough publicity. Her promoter was the biggest showman of them all—PT Barnum.
Eager to rise above his reputation as a promoter of sideshows and freaks, Barnum had risked his entire fortune on the singer that he dubbed the Swedish Nightingale—a singer whom he had never heard or seen. He saw to it that the risk paid off. When she arrived in New York, her admirers mobbed Jenny Lind. By midnight, when she arrived at her hotel, a...
Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:30am
Love, politics, and music. In April 1831 Hector Berlioz was in Florence, Italy, and he was disgusted with all three. He wrote to a friend:
“You speak to me of music and of love! What do you have in mind? I don't get it. Is there something on earth called music and love? I thought I'd heard those doomed words in a dream. You're condemned to misery if you believe in them. As for me, I no longer believe in anything.
“I intended to travel to Calabria or Sicily and join some gang of bandits. That way at least I...
Wednesday, April 1, 2020, 11:30am
Niccoló Paganini was the most famous violinist in Europe. He was also more versatile than anyone would have guessed--at work and play. And he loved a practical joke.
Tuesday, March 31, 2020, 11:30am
Franz Schubert writing from Vienna to a friend in Rome, March 31st, 1824.
Monday, March 30, 2020, 11:30am
He was a strange man, a macabre man, the composer of the "Funeral March for a Papagallo." Everything about Charles-Valentin Alkan seemed eccentric—even his death on March 29th, 1888.
Friday, March 27, 2020, 11:30am
On March 27th, 1830 a twenty-year-old Polish pianist, Frederic Chopin, was concertizing in Warsaw and he wrote to a friend in a nearby town:
“About the first concert: The hall was full, and all the boxes and stage seats were sold out three days in advance, but most of the audience didn't get the impression I expected. Only a few of them appreciated the first Allegro from my concerto. There were some bravos but I think only because they were puzzled and had to pose as connoisseurs. The Adagio and Rondo had some effect, elicited some spontaneous shouts. But the...
Thursday, March 26, 2020, 11:30am
It was a time when a president of the United States was in sore need of soothing music, and Woodrow Wilson brought some of the best performers into the White House. He had the added advantage of being a pretty fair musician himself.
As a young man Wilson had played the violin. He sang tenor in the Princeton University Glee Club and later at the Johns Hopkins University Glee Club. He seems to have set the violin aside, but even as president, Wilson had a reputation as a fine tenor. While singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," he liked to hold the...
Wednesday, March 25, 2020, 11:30am
An invitation to perform for a king. Most musicians would see it as a grand opportunity. Louis Spohr found it a royal pain.
Tuesday, March 24, 2020, 11:30am
Waldstein. The name is best remembered because Beethoven wrote one of his best piano sonatas for his friend and patron.
Monday, March 23, 2020, 11:30am
John Ireland became one of England’s great twentieth-century composers. As a young man he received advice from another major composer--Edward Elgar. Fortunately for English music, Ireland ignored some of it.
Friday, March 20, 2020, 11:30am
At the age of 30 Robert Schumann was one of many pianist composers who was dazzled by the virtuosity and personality of the 29-year-old Franz Liszt. He reported to his fiancée Clara Wieck, from Leipzig in March 1840:
“I wish you could have been with me this morning to see Liszt. He is quite extraordinary. He played some of my Novellettes and passages from the Fantasy and the Sonata in a way that kept me completely enchanted. A lot of it wasn't what I had in mind, but his genius showed through in all of it, plus a tenderness and...
Thursday, March 19, 2020, 11:30am
. The group of sixteen Italian musicians didn’t know what to think. Their leader, Gaetano Carusi, had brought them to America, the land of promise. But when they arrived in Washington their first thought must have been to go back home.
The year was 1805 and Carusi himself described the capital city of the new republic as “a desert. A place containing two or three taverns and a few scattered cottages and log cabins.” The Italians were supposed to form a band to represent the United States Marines and President Thomas Jefferson. Apparently the band came with few perks. Upon...
Wednesday, March 18, 2020, 11:30am
How direct should an established composer be when appraising the work of an up-and-comer? Vincent d'Indy would've had two answers to the question -- one before and one after getting advice from Cesar Franck. D'Indy recalled:
"Once I had played a movement of my string quartet for him -- which I naively thought would win his approval -- he was silent for a moment. Then, turning toward me with a mournful look, he said something that I've never been able to forget because it's had a decisive influence upon my life.
“He said, 'there are some good things in...
Tuesday, March 17, 2020, 11:30am
He was traveling with one of the most famous and successful composers of the day, but the young Irish pianist was not having a good time.
His name was John Field and he was touring Europe demonstrating Muzio Clementi's new pianos. Soon he would become known as one of the great teachers and performers of the day and a composer in his own right. But in 1802 the 20-year-old was only the protege of the stingy Clementi.
In Paris Clementi rented two of the cheapest rooms available, quarters overlooking an inner courtyard where they lodged for several dreary months. Then...
Monday, March 16, 2020, 11:30am
Recognition came early to George Gershwin, but first came some humbling moments.
At 21, Gershwin wrote a piano piece called “Swanee.” It debuted in a band arrangement at the Capitol Theater in New York where sixty chorus girls with electric lights on their slippers danced to it. Gershwin hung around the outside of the theater to see how sheet music sales of “Swanee” were going in the lobby. There were very few takers.
Gershwin set his sights on something loftier, a national anthem called “O Land of Mine” with lyrics by Michael E. Rourke. He submitted it anonymously in...
Friday, March 13, 2020, 11:30am
Eighteen-seventy-one. It was the end of an epic in France. Years of opulence and gaiety had been blasted by the grim, disastrous Franco-Prussian War. One of the less obvious casualties was a musician huddled in an oversized coat. He was Jacques Offenbach, composer of buoyant operettas that must've seemed like relics from a bygone day.
Offenbach was attending a rehearsal for the revival of his operetta The Brigands.The chorus sang the drinking song at the end of the first act. They were drab and uninspired. During intermission they spoke not of the operetta but of their war experiences.
Thursday, March 12, 2020, 11:30am
Johannes Brahms disliked insincere flattery. But he sometimes went to great lengths to get an honest opinion of his composing and his playing.
In his autobiography, composer Karl Goldmark mentions receiving an invitation to a house where two new Brahms compositions were to be performed for the first time--a piano trio and a string quintet. After the performances just about everyone came forward to compliment Brahms. Knowing that Brahms tended to brush aside polite flattery, Gold/mark held back.
The next morning Brahms invited him to walk with him to visit some friends. As they walked along a mountain ridge at...
Wednesday, March 11, 2020, 11:30am
Pianist George Antheil got used to his concerts turning into riots. After all, he made a habit of ending each evening with a set of ultra-modern pieces. But he wanted his music to be heard, and he started taking dangerous measures to see that it was.
Like many young American artists in the 1920's, Antheil went to Europe to further his career. His tour included cities in the former Austo-Hungarian Empire and Antheil carefully deleted from his publicity any reference to his World War I status as an aviator. But between the controversy of his music and the instability of...
Tuesday, March 10, 2020, 11:30am
Carl Maria von Weber was 31 years old and beginning to settle down professionally and socially. On March 10th, 1817 he wrote from Dresden to a friend:
“I should have written to you long ago to tell you about my appointment as Kapellmeister to the King of Saxony and Director of the German Opera here, but I have really had too much to do. Anyway, I am at last settled here, and my wonderful travel plans have all evaporated. Sure, I have an annual vacation, but if I get married in the autumn--God willing--it will be harder for me...
Monday, March 9, 2020, 11:30am
"With this opera it is fair to say my artistic career began." So wrote Giuseppi Verdi of Nabucco, a masterpiece that also did much to launch his reputation as a political rabble-rouser.
The opera is based on the story of Nebuchadnezzar--given the more musical name Nabucco--who defeats the Jews at Jerusalem and has them carried off to Babylon as captives. It includes prayers by practically every character, a mad scene, warlike choruses and laments, and a dead march as the Jews are nearly executed.
The story had political punch. In the 1840's Austria controlled much of Italy, and a story...
Friday, March 6, 2020, 11:30am
Jean Sibelius must've had mixed feelings. He had been commissioned to compose a cantata for a solemn state occasion--the Finnish celebration of the coronation of Czar Nicholas the Second. It was a major opportunity for the young composer, but as a Finnish nationalist he had no desire to glorify the ruler of a state that had long oppressed Finland.
The Finnish observance of the event took place in a courtyard at the University of Helsinki. The students assembled and removed their hats. Like Sibelius, the students were no friends of Czar Nicholas. But by tradition the Czar was chancellor of...
Thursday, March 5, 2020, 11:30am
At the sight of the grim-looking procession peasants ran for their lives. In that part of Romania and Hungary robbers were everywhere and these appeared to be some of the worst.
They were actually a band 0f 34 young musicians who had fallen on hard times, had nearly had their instruments confiscated in the middle of a performance because of unpaid debts, and had sold a couple of violins to buy a few rusty pistols, though ammunition had been beyond their means.
They had come east from Vienna full of high hopes that fell quickly in empty concert halls that...
Wednesday, March 4, 2020, 11:30am
Some musical works are written from inspiration, some for money. Ignaz Jan Paderweski wrote his famous Minuet as a practical joke.
An elderly doctor named Chalubinski had befriended the 26-year-old Paderewski. and often invited the young pianist to his house in Warsaw. The doctor and a writer friend invariably asked Paderewski to play something by Mozart. [Paderewski knew only three or four pieces by Mozart and he wound up playing them over and over while the doctor and a writer friend raved on and on about the Mozartean genius. It got to the point that the two old men would...
Tuesday, March 3, 2020, 11:30am
He was a composer and one of the finest violinists of the 18th century, but the times he lived in forced Joseph Boulogne to set aside music and embrace revolution.
He was the son of a French government official and an African woman from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. For a time the family lived in Haiti then, when Joseph was about 10, his life took a sudden turn when they moved to Paris.
Young Joseph became skilled in all the pursuits of a gentleman--riding, dancing, swimming, and skating. He developed into one of the most adroit swordsmen in Europe. ...
Monday, March 2, 2020, 11:30am
Truth or legend? Either way, one story about Archangelo Corelli has come down from generation to generation, from Corelli’s time to our own. The story takes place about 1709, when Corelli was at the height of his reputation as a composer and a violinist. It goes like this.
The King of Naples invited Corelli to come and perform for him. Supposedly Corelli was fearful and reluctant but finally was convinced to come from Rome to Naples to perform for the king. Although he was nervous because there wasn’t time to rehearse the members of the king’s orchestra, Corelli agreed...
Friday, February 28, 2020, 11:30am
Ludwig van Beethoven spent a good deal of his time concerned with music and money. A letter that he wrote to composer Ferdinand Ries on February 28, 1816, dismisses both matters quickly in order to take up a new preoccupation:
Quite some time ago I wrote to let you know that the trio and the sonata had been sent out. In my last letter, I asked you, since I still had so many expenses to cover, to make sure that Herr Birchall reimburses me for the cost, which comes to at least ten gold ducats. In any event, he got...
Thursday, February 27, 2020, 11:30am
Composer Mily Balakirev had scraped up enough money for his Free Music School to put on a series of four concerts in St. Petersburg during the winter of 1879. Colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was to direct them, and before they were over, he was a nervous wreck.
One of the concerts was to include the Polovtsian Dances and other selections from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, the catch being that Borodin hadn’t finished the opera yet, and Rimsky-Korsakov spent no end of time pleading with him to orchestrate the excerpts to be performed in the concert. Borodin taught chemistry and medical...
Wednesday, February 26, 2020, 11:30am
Paul Hindemith was a distinguished composer and music theorist whose works were banned in Germany by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1936. Like many of his colleagues, Hindemith went to the United States looking for a way to earn a living. By the end of February 1939 he was in Hollywood, where he visited the Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount studios hoping to find a lucrative film contract.
He pinned his highest hopes on a third visit, to Walt Disney Studios.
Disenchantment came quickly. He watched animators work on a Mickey Mouse production. “Naturally a director oversees all this to make...
Tuesday, February 25, 2020, 11:30am
The new decade called for a new technology. So in 1920 Adrian Boult agreed for the first time to conduct a performance for a gramophone record. Boult had been signed by the American manager of His Master’s Voice, who had liked Boult’s performance at the Russian Ballet and asked him to repeat some of the program “for the record.”
Boult was to conduct the British Symphony Orchestra in recordings of A Shropshire Lad by George Butterworth and two ballet suites–The Good Humoured Ladies, based on music by Domenico Scarlatti, and Ottorino Respighi’s reworking of Rossini pieces called La Boutique Fantasque.
When Boult and...
Monday, February 24, 2020, 11:30am
February 24, 1876, brought the debut of a collaboration between Norway’s greatest playwright and Norway’s greatest composer. Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, with more than an hour of music by Edvard Grieg, became a classic, but in a letter he wrote almost thirty years after the premiere in Christiania, Grieg reflected on the limitations of the first performance and the obstacles to the play’s subsequent success.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to decide at what points the music would come in and how long each piece would be. That was in the hands of the Swedish theatrical director Josephson, who was...