Monday, June 17, 2019, 11:30am
Eric Satie is known for the eccentricity of his music. That eccentricity was only a reflection of the odd way in which the composer conducted his life--including his love life.
Satie is known to have had an affair with only one woman--and it's possible that he could not have survived--or had time for--more than one such affair. Satie was in his twenties when he was introduced to Suzanne Valadon. She was one year older than Satie, was a painter educated in the street of Montmartre. She had been the mistress of Renoir, and of Degas, who had helped to arrange...
Friday, June 14, 2019, 11:30am
Eighteen-fifty nine. America was on the brink of Civil War and the weary president of the United States needed music to divert him from the big troubles. The music in the White House of James Buchanan varied considerably.
One of the year’s biggest hits was Ullman’s Opera Troupe and its prima donna, Marietta Picccolomini. The twenty-year-old singer had just performed in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in Washington. She attended a White House reception at which she shared the spotlight with a delegation of Potawatomie Indians. Through an interpreter, the 67-year-old bachelor president engaged in small talk with the singer. One guest...
Thursday, June 13, 2019, 11:30am
June 13th, 1865. New Orleans-born pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk was making a concert tour of the American West. Traveling through Nevada he wrote in his journal:
“The first rays of day light up our faces--dirty, dust-covered, our eyes swollen from lack of sleep, etc. We arrive at Dutch Flat, a pretty little town hidden at the bottom of a wooded gorge like a nest in a bush. The neat white houses are covered with splendid rosebushes whose flowers cover the trellises all the way up to the roofs. They are small frame houses, very neat, very small, etc.
Friday, May 31, 2019, 11:30am
When World War I swept across France, Maurice Ravel set aside composing and became an ambulance driver. He was an ambitious volunteer. But at the age of 41 he discovered a problem that threatened to take him out of the service entirely. He wrote to a friend at the end of May 1916:
“You know—because you tried to talk me out of it—that ever since the war began, I had intended to join the Air Force. As soon as I joined this unit three months ago, I wrote to inform Captain L. that I was at the front and to...
Thursday, May 30, 2019, 11:30am
After a pleasant vacation it can be hard to return to the home routine, at least it was for Joseph Haydn. On more than one occasion he wrote longingly from Esterhas, his princely employer's country home, to a friend in Vienna. On May 30", 1790 he wrote to Maria Anna von Genzinger:
“I beg your Grace not to be frightened away from consoling me occasionally with your enjoyable letters, for they comfort me in my wilderness, and are crucial for my heart, which is so often deeply hurt. Oh! If only I could be with your Grace for a quarter...
Wednesday, May 29, 2019, 11:30am
The Champs-Elysees Theater. May 29th, 1913. One of the most notorious premieres in classical music is about to occur. Pierre Monteux is about to conduct the first performance of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring.
The wife of dancer and choreographer Vaslev Nijinksy has heard bits of the music during rehearsals, and she suspects that the audience will get restless, but at the opening notes of the overture her worse fears are surpassed.
Part of the audience decides that Stravinksy's ballet is as attempt to destroy music as art. They make catcalls and snide suggestions as to how the...
Tuesday, May 28, 2019, 11:30am
He was an extremely motivated student who would soon emerge as a world-class composer, but Igor Stravinsky had his own ideas about how his education should proceed. Respect for authority never got in his way, and in at least one instance he passed an exam--by cheating.
Stravinsky was never nostalgic about his early days. He once described his childhood as "a period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell." He summarized one of his first teachers as "an excellent pianist and a blockhead." By which he meant that her "bad...
Monday, May 27, 2019, 11:30am
Louis Spohr was one of the first conductors to use a small stick--a baton--instead of a staff. The baton enabled Spohr to direct the orchestra in subtle ways, the staff was good for little more than beating time. But the conductor whom Spohr found dramatic and expressive--to a fault--was Beethoven.
Spohr had heard plenty about Beethoven's conducting before actually witnessing it, and still was shocked. Beethoven used all sorts of body motion to communicate with the orchestra. For emphasis he would throw his arms wide apart, for a quiet passage he would bend down. The quieter the passage, the farther down...
Friday, May 24, 2019, 11:30am
In 1872, 22-year-old Vincent d’Indy went to Germany hoping to meet three of his musical idols—Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, and Johannes Brahms.
As a way to break the ice, he took with him a manuscript of a work called Redemption by his mentor Cesar Franck.
He found Liszt at work in a secluded cottage near Weimar but as he entered the study, d’Indy startled Liszt, who quickly disappeared and then returned a few minutes later and greeted the young Frenchman warmly. It turned out that Liszt had just been inducted into a minor order of the Roman Catholic Church and...
Thursday, May 23, 2019, 11:30am
The Italian, at age 56, was a little old to be starting a second career as a grocer, but Lorenzo Da Ponte had a compelling reason for abandoning poetry and music and coming to the New World. He wanted to stay out of prison.
Even the brightest moments of his first career had been marred by scandal. At twenty he had taken holy orders largely for financial security. Still in his twenties, Da Ponte became a professor of literature. He wrote Latin and Italian poems, including one in praise of wine. In 1773, shortly after he had been ordained a...
Wednesday, May 22, 2019, 11:30am
He wrote vast dramatic symphonies but Anton Bruckner led a life that tended to be prosaic and more than a little cluttered. He didn’t look like other musicians of the 1880's. He kept his hair cut so short that many people remembered him as being bald.
He wore a short jacket and voluminous trousers that made some people think he was a peasant. A colored handkerchief hung from his pocket. Holding his hat in his hand, he walked so fast through the streets of Vienna that even his young pupils had trouble keeping up with him.
Bruckner’s two-room apartment was...
Tuesday, May 21, 2019, 3:05pm
He ‘s generally thought of as a singularly English composer, but early in his career, Ralph Vaughan Williams had trouble developing his style in England. He needed the right teacher and he found him in an unexpected place. One of Vaughan Williams' first teachers was Charles Villiers Stanford, who favored a neo-classical style with a clear outline. That kind of structure did not square with Vaughan Williams' more imaginative approach.
"Stanford was a great teacher," Vaughan Williams later recalled. "But I believe I was unteachable. I made the great mistake of trying to fight my teacher. The way to get...
Monday, May 20, 2019, 11:30am
The Great Depression was a difficult time for most Americans, including musicians. In 1936 Virgil Thomson was a forty-year-old composer struggling for recognition and cash. His friend John Houseman recommended Thomson to a documentary filmmaker named Pare Lorenz. Lorenz had already interviewed other composers, including Aaron Copland, by the time he talked to Thomson. Thomson's first concern was not aesthetics.
Lorenz explained that the film was a documentary about cattle raising, wheat growing, and dust storms on the Western plains. Its sponsor was the United States Resettlement Administration, which wanted to justify its program of assisting refugees from devastated...
Friday, May 17, 2019, 11:30am
Many fine works of art have resulted from the connection between music and painting. In his memoirs, British baritone George Henschel tells of an occasion when the two arts benefited from a third.
In 1877 Henschel was attending a dinner part at the town house of Lord and Lady Airlie. The guests were awaiting the entrance of the most talked-about artist of the day -- the American painter James McNeill Whistler. The American kept everyone in suspense as they sat there past the appointed time -- and past the time for a fashionably late arrival.
Finally, after everyone had sat...
Thursday, May 16, 2019, 11:30am
Composers of concert music have enough distractions to cope with. Composers of movie music have even more. Consider the case of Bernard Hermann, one of America's leading writers of film music, when he was visiting Hollywood in 1943.
Hermann and his wife were having a working lunch at the home of film star Joseph Cotton. Also attending were Alfred Hitchcock and his wife. At the time, Cotton was starring in Hitchcock's film Shadow of a Doubt. The moviemakers were dining on the terrace overlooking the Cottons' swimming pool. The business discussion was overshadowed by the sudden, unexpected arrival of two acquaintances...
Wednesday, May 15, 2019, 11:30am
Vienna in 1787. It could be a risky place and time for a composer to make a living. And Antonio Salieri took a big risk. He disobeyed the Emperor.
Salieri had recently returned from Paris where his opera Tarare had been produced. Emperor Joseph the Second ordered Salieri and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte to translate the French opera into Italian. But the work went badly and, despite the Emperor's order, Salieri suggested that they start from scratch. Occasionally Salieri would borrow a musical idea from the original French opera, but usually he found it necessary to alter it considerably....
Tuesday, May 14, 2019, 11:30am
You might think that conducting an orchestra would be a safe profession, but at times a conductor can fall into a life-threatening situation. So it was with Arturo Toscanini in Bologna,Italy on May 14th, 1931.
Toscanini had accepted an invitation to conduct two concerts in Bologna. The purpose was to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the birth of composer Giuseppe Martucci, and Toscanini insisted on conducting for free. But a celebration of a different sort was also scheduled -- a Fascist Party festival. The Deputy Mayor told Toscanini that two government officials would be attending the first concert and that...
Monday, May 13, 2019, 11:30am
New Orleans-born pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk toured the northern states during the Civil War. As he traveled through New York State he was occasionally able to forget about the war and concentrate on the two great loves of his life--music and women. In May 1864 he wrote in his journal:
“At Rochester I have seen some of the most charming types of women that have ever crossed the dreams of an old bachelor! Outside of my exceptional position of pianist and old bachelor, this is the element I dread the most in my concerts--it makes me absent-minded--the...
Friday, May 10, 2019, 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, May 9, 2019, 11:30am
Paris Opera director Andre Messager conducted the debut of Claude Debussy's opera Pelleas and Melisande. Then he had to leave the country to fulfill other commitments. That left the direction of the opera to the second conductor, Henri-Paul Busser. A despondent Debussy wrote to Messager on May 9, 1902:
“Last Thursday we had a quick pass at the opera, which Busser needed. Just between you and me, the management should’ve given time for a full rehearsal. Busser was nervous and seemed not to know how to come to terms with the entire score. Pelleas sang in a voice that...
Wednesday, May 8, 2019, 11:35am
May 8th, 1945 -- V.E. Day. Germany surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. Composer Richard Strauss was among the many who were glad that the war was over regardless of who had won. He and his family had been suffering under the Nazi regime while living near the village of Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps.
Strauss was 81-years-old. He and his wife had wanted to go to Switzerland to restore their health at a spa near Zurich but had been forbidden to do so by the highest authority -- Hitler himself. There was an order to...
Tuesday, May 7, 2019, 11:30am
The following letter to Giuseppe Verdi in 1872 shows that to be a composer is to expose oneself to criticism from anyone and everyone:
Much Honored Signor Verdi,
“On the second of this month I went to Padua, lured by the sensation caused by your opera Aida. I was so intrigued that I was in my seat—number 120--half an hour before the performance began. I admired the sets. I enjoyed hearing the excellent singers, and I did everything I could not to let a single thing slip by me.
“When the opera ended I asked myself if I was satisfied...
Monday, May 6, 2019, 11:30am
In 1831 a young pianist and composer named Frederick Chopin left his native land, Poland, in order to establish himself in European musical circles. He was a popular success as a concert performer, but at times was lonely in a crowd. In Vienna in the spring of 1831 Chopin wrote in his journal:
“Today it was beautiful on the thoroughfare. Crowds of people but I had nothing to do with them. I admired the foliage. The spring aromas and that innocence of nature brought back the feelings of my childhood. A storm was looming, so I went in, but...
Friday, May 3, 2019, 11:30am
Sooner or later every composer has to deal with a deadline. Gioacchino Rossini shared some of his trade secrets in a letter that shows his sense of humor:
“Wait until the evening before the performance. Nothing stirs up a person’s enthusiasm so much as pure necessity, a copyist waiting for your work and the pleadings of an impresario at the end of his rope, tearing out his hair by the handful. In my day in Italy all impresarios were bald by the age of thirty.
“I wrote the overture to Otello in a little room in the Palazzo Barbaja...
Thursday, May 2, 2019, 11:30am
As World War II raged in Europe, English composer Arthur Bliss was director of music at the BBC. His family was in America and he was looking for a way to go to America so that he could arrange to bring them back to England.
An offer of assistance came from an unexpected source via a phone call from Lady Cunard, who wanted to meet with him regarding an urgent matter. Bliss had never met Lady Cunard and so he was as curious as he was hopeful. He went to see her that very day.
After some uneasy preliminaries, Lady...
Wednesday, May 1, 2019, 11:35am
The 22-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had arrived in Paris to build an international reputation. He wrote to his father, Leopold, in Salzburg on May 1st, 1778: "Responding to an invitation of eight days prior, I drove to the house of the Duchesse de Chabot. I waited half an hour in a large room without any fire and as cold as ice. At last the Duchess came in. She was very polite, and implored me to excuse her piano since none of her instruments were in good order, but she asked me at least to give it a try."
Tuesday, April 30, 2019, 11:30am
Edvard Grieg was 25 years old when he wrote his masterpiece, the Piano Concerto in A minor. One of the first to see it was Franz Liszt, who not only played it and critiqued it, but afterward offered Grieg advice to last a lifetime.
The occasion came during a gathering of friends one evening in 1865. Grieg had just received the manuscript from the printer and was hoping that Liszt would play
it at a gathering of friends. "Will you play it?" Liszt asked, to which Grieg quickly replied, "No, I can't. I haven't practiced it."
Liszt took the manuscript,...
Monday, April 29, 2019, 11:30am
The same piece of music can draw very different reactions from city to city as Carl Maria von Weber reported from Dresden to a friend in Berlin in April 1824:
“I’ve been going through a rough patch, and maybe it’s just as well that my enormous workload didn’t give me much time to think. But still I couldn’t help feeling a sustained bitterness. At Prague Euranthe was a flop. At Franfurt it caused an uproar. Everyone was dumfounded by the notorious scrawlings of the Viennese gossip columnists.
“So I was very curious to find out what kind of response it...
Sunday, April 28, 2019, 11:30am
Today he is best known for his technical studies such as The School of Velocity--methodical, mechanical approaches to piano mastery. Carl Czerny was actually an extraordinarily prolific composer whose curiously mechanical way of working made his vast output possible.
The English writer John Elia visited Czerny in Vienna in 1845 and asked Czerny how he could possibly find time to publish so much music.
Czerny replied, "I'll surprise you all the more when I tell you that I was twenty-eight years old before I published my first work, but I have written more music in my lifetime than any living...
Friday, April 26, 2019, 11:30am
Peter Tchaikovsky wrote some of his best music during long trips to Italy. But even there, music and friends could put him out of sorts. To his brother Modeste he wrote from Rome in April 1890.
“For two days now I've been in a bad mood to the point of despair. I've lost both my appetite and my desire to work. The Palen family has announced all over Rome that I'm here and the first to show up was Alexei Golitzin. I like him a lot, and even after my dismay at seeing yet another face I was glad...