Monday, August 5, 2019, 11:30am
When Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter came to America, his government took no chances on losing him. In 1960, when he arrived in New York for the first time, Richter was accompanied by a bodyguard named Anatoly, a young veteran of the NKVD, the Soviet security service. Anatoly was pleasant enough, but he was supervised by another bodyguard named Byelotserkovsky, who was always bossing him around. “Follow him; keep an eye on him,” Byelotserkovsky would say repeatedly to his young charge, “Listen to what he says. See who he meets,” One day when Richter was leaving the Art Institute of Chicago, he found Anatoly hiding behind the door. “It’s him,” said the flustered young bodyguard. “He’s the one who sent me. It was him!” And Byelotserkovsky didn’t stop at pestering Anatoly. He made a habit of saying to Richter, “Your job is to perform,” the implication being that to take in any of the American scenery or culture would be unacceptable. One day, at the end of a rehearsal of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with the Boston Orchestra, Richter was so moved by the orchestra’s playing that he kissed the hand of conductor Charles Munch. Afterward, Byelotserkovsky vented his disapproval. “How can a Soviet artist sink so low as to kiss the hand of a foreign conductor?” he complained. And when they were invited to the home of Russian émigré Efrem Zimbalist, Byelotserkovsky tried to persuade the aging violinist to return to Russia, where he’d be offered a fine apartment–and a lavish funeral. On a later trip to America, Richter’s escort was a former director of the Leningrad Philharmonic, who persuaded concert organizers to give expensive gifts to Richter which he would intercept and keep for himself. Richter put his foot down and, from then on, his “guardian angels” gave him no more trouble.
Friday, August 2, 2019, 11:30am
The two composers would be major forces in late nineteenth-century music and great friends, but not before some preliminary missteps. In 1857 Camille Saint-Saëns began seeing small notices announcing Paris performances by an unknown Russian named Anton Rubinstein. Rubinstein was unknown in Paris for a very good reason–he avoided press coverage. His Paris debut took place in an elegant hall–without a single paying listener in attendance. With power and artistry, Rubinstein wowed his first audience, and for his next performance the hall was, as Saint-Saëns put it, “crammed to suffocation.” In his memoirs, Saint-Saëns gushed, “I was bowled over, chained to the chariot of the conqueror!” Despite his admiration, Saint-Saëns avoided meeting the great pianist. The twenty-two-year-old was terrified at the prospect, despite Rubinstein’s reputation for kindness and gentility. For a year, mutual friends continued to invite Saint-Saëns to meet Rubinstein, but Saint-Saëns turned them down. The following year, though, during Rubinstein’s next visit to Paris, Saint-Saëns finally got up his courage for an introduction and the two hit if off at once. They got together often to play flamboyant piano duets. Saint-Saëns was taken not only with Rubinstein’s artistry, but also with his lack of jealousy when it came to his fellow musicians. Rubinstein invited Saint-Saëns to conduct some of his orchestral works with Rubinstein as the pianist. Again reluctant, Saint-Saëns eventually agreed, and found the experience to be his primary education as a conductor. It was a baptism by fire because Rubinstein paid no attention to the orchestra and sometimes drowned them out, forcing Saint-Saëns to follow him by watching his hands. And Rubinstein provided scores that were marked up beyond comprehension because he found it amusing to see Saint-Saëns conduct his way into and out of trouble. During later Paris visits, the bold, broad-shouldered Anton Rubinstein and the shy, delicate Camille Saint-Saëns became almost inseparable friends.
Thursday, August 1, 2019, 11:30am
Richard Strauss admired the music of Richard Wagner, and so he felt honored in 1893 when he received an invitation from Wagner’s widow Cosima to conduct during the consummate Wagnerian event, the Bayreuth Festival. But the honor would come with strings attached. Part of Cosima’s motive for the invitation came from the formation of a rival festival in nearby Munich. The director of the Munich festival put it into direct competition with Bayreuth by announcing a new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, the same opera Bayreuth had presented on its season’s opening night. The Munich director also invited Strauss to conduct two of their operas. His willingness to work with the competition put Strauss at odds with Cosima’s increasingly resentful son Siegfried, a composer who also did some conducting. Strauss was not reluctant to voice his criticisms of Cosima and her family. He and Siegfried had a quarrel about artistic control that prompted Strauss to break off his association with the Wagners. Cosima asked that Strauss not return to Bayreuth as a conductor. In August 1896 he did return--as an audience member--to hear Siegfried conduct Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the first time, and he found the Wagners amiable, although he thought that Siegfried’s conducting was awful. Siegfried rekindled the animosity by publishing a letter in which he stated that the ultimate authority in the theater at Bayreuth was the stage director, who got to give orders to the director. Strauss took the letter as a personal insult. But despite his break with the Wagners and his condemnation of Bayreuth as “the ultimate pigsty,” Strauss remained steadfast in his admiration of Wagner’s music and saw the festival as its greatest safeguard, in fact, the consummate safeguard of all German art. And in 1933, after the deaths of Siegfried and Cosima, when the invitation came to conduct again at Bayreuth, neither the needs of his own music nor the grim Nazi politics of the times kept him from accepting it.
Wednesday, July 31, 2019, 11:30am
Many audience members at classical music concerts are not sure when to applaud. Even in the most sophisticated and controlled circumstances, premature applause can create an awkward break in a performance. One person who knew first-hand was President John F. Kennedy. According to Kennedy social secretary Letitia Baldrige, on more than one occasion during East Room concerts at the White House, Kennedy was uncertain as to whether a concert was over and found himself clapping at the wrong time. Even when he was following a printed program he had trouble keeping up with the procession of movements within a single work. The resourceful social secretary hit on a plan. The distinguished violinist Isaac Stern was scheduled to perform, and Baldrige worked out a code by which she could subtly inform the President that each piece was about to end. As the last piece of the Stern concert was about to end, she would open the central door to the East Room from the outside, about two inches, just enough for the president to glimpse Baldrige’s rather prominent nose. The code worked brilliantly during the Stern performance and the two used it for every other concert. As soon as Kennedy saw that the door was ajar, he knew that the last piece had begun. He would wait for the applause, join in enthusiastically, take Mrs. Kennedy by the arm, and escort the honored audience members to the stage to congratulate the musicians. Both John and Jackie Kennedy were very impressed with Baldrige’s musical knowledge and sophistication, but she had a secret. She knew even less about classical music than they did. During each concert she had one of the White House Social Aides stay with her at the door, an aide who was a capable musician and could cue her when it was time to cue the President.
Tuesday, July 30, 2019, 11:30am
On July 30, 1830, Robert Schumann wrote from Heidelberg to his mother in Zwickau about the crossroads he had reached: My entire life has been a twenty-year struggle between poetry and prose or, if you prefer, between music and law. In things practical my ideals were just as high as they were in art. My ideal was, in fact, to have a practical influence, and I hoped to wrestle in a broad arena. But what’s the likelihood of that, particularly in Saxony, for a commoner with no powerful patron or fortune and no real fondness for the begging and scraping that are part of a legal career! At Leipzig I was oblivious to plans for the future. I went m y merry way, dreaming and hanging around and really doing nothing of value. Since I got here I’ve done more work, but in both places my attachment to art just keeps getting deeper and deeper. Now I’ve come to the crossroads and I think with terror: Which way do I go now? If I follow my instinct it will lead me to art, and I believe that’s the right path. But, in fact–and don’t take this wrong, I say lovingly and in a whisper–it always seemed to me that you were blocking my way in that direction for worthy maternal reasons that are as clear to me as they are to you: the “uncertain future” and “unreliable livelihood” as we used to call it. But what’s going to happen now? The most tormenting thought a man can have is the prospect of an unhappy, lifeless, and superficial future of his own making. On the other hand, though, it’s not easy to choose a way of life that’s at odds with one’s early upbringing and disposition. It requires patience, confidence, and fast training. I’m still in the youth of my imagination, capable of being cultivated and ennobled by art, and I believe that with hard work, patience, and a good teacher, I’ll be the match of any pianist
Monday, July 29, 2019, 11:30am
Peter Tchaikovsky never met his patron Nadezhda von Meck, but in the summer of 1880 he stayed at her estate in Ukraine, and he wrote her a letter expressing his pleasure at two aspects of life there: At sunset I had tea and then wandered alone by the steep bank of the stream behind the deer park, and drank in all the deep delight of the forest at sundown and freshness of the evening air. Such moments, though, helped us to bear with patience the many minor grievances of existence. They make us in love with life. We are promised eternal happiness, immortal existence, but we do not realize it, nor shall we perhaps attain it. But if we are worthy of it, and if it is really eternal, we shall soon learn to enjoy it. Meanwhile, one wishes to live, in order to experience again such moments.... Today I intended to leave for Simaki, but as I write to you a terrific storm is raging, and it is evidently going to be a wet day, so perhaps I shall remain here.... Dear friend, today I have committed a kind of burglary in your house, and I will confess my crime. There was no key to the bookcase in the drawing room next to your bedroom, but I saw that it contained some new books which interested me greatly. Even Marcel could not find the key, so it occurred to me to try the one belonging to the cupboard near my room, and it opened the bookcase at once. I took out Byron, and Martinov’s Moscow. Don’t worry, all of your books and music remain untouched. To quiet Marcel’s conscience...I gave him a memorandum of what I have taken, and before I leave I will return to him the books and music to put back in their proper order.
Friday, July 26, 2019, 11:30am
After a heavy bombardment, Vienna had fallen to Napoleon’s army on May 10,1809, and life became difficult for the city’s residents. In a letter to Leipzig publisher Breitkopf and Hertel, Beethoven wrote on July 26: You are quite wrong to assume that things have been going well for me. The truth is, we’ve passed through a heavy concentration of misery. Since the fourth of May I’ve produced very little coherent work, no more than a fragment here and there. The entire course of events has affected me body and soul. Nor can I give myself over to the enjoyment of country life, which is so crucial for me. My position, only recently attained, rests on a shaky foundation. Even in the short time I’ve had it, not all of the promises made to me have been kept. From one of my patrons, Prince Kinsky , I have yet to receive a single farthing, just at a time when the money is most necessary. Heaven only knows what’s going to happen. I’ll probably have to change my residence. The confiscations are to begin today. What a disturbing, chaotic life I see all around me–nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery of all kinds. My present situation again forces me to bargain with you. So I am inclined to think that you could surely send me 250 gulden at the current rate for the three major works. Be assured that by no means do I consider this an excessive sum, and right now I really need it because I can’t count on what was promised me in my certificate of appointment. So write to me and let me know if you will accept this offer. For the Mass alone I could get a fee of 100 gulden at the current rate. You know that in matters of this kind I’m always forthright with you.
Thursday, July 25, 2019, 11:30am
Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger grew up hearing the piano pieces of Edvard Grieg, and by the time he was in his twenties he had put the Norwegian “in the firmament of my compositional stars.” He had no idea that the admiration was mutual. A friend of Grieg’s had shown him Grainger’s settings of Irish and Welsh folksongs. Grieg liked them so much that he sent a signed photograph of himself inscribed “To Percy Grainger with thanks for your splendid choruses.” Two years later, in May 1906, Grieg was in London, where his wife Nina was to give two concerts of his music at Queen’s Hall. The Griegs were the guests of a financier, but the “Miniature Viking” as he was known, was not one to mingle lightly. He spent much of the time sitting in the hall wearing his hat and coat, not saying much of anything to anyone. When his host asked him if there was any musician in London he’d like to meet, Grieg said, “No, thank you, I feel so weak and sick that I just want to get the concerts over with and go home.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “There is one person I’d like to meet–this young Australian composer Percy Grainger.” Grainger was invited over for dinner. The twenty-four-year-old and the sixty-three-year-old hit it off right away, partly because Grainger spoke Norwegian. He gave a sparkling performance of Grieg’s Peasant Dances, recent pieces unappreciated in Norway. Grieg invited the young Australian to visit him at his summer villa, Troldhaugen. On the evening of July 25,1907, Grainger arrived. Grieg had been laid low by asthma, sleeplessness, and hallucinations. Grainger’s presence brought him around. He proposed a grand concert tour for the next year. Grainger was the last guest at Troldhaugen. Three weeks after his departure, Grieg was on his way to England for the Leeds Festival when he became ill and died.
Wednesday, July 24, 2019, 11:30am
In July 1825 Franz Schubert was traveling through Upper Austria, enjoying mountain scenery and the company of friends. From the picturesque city of Steyr he wrote to his parents: In Steyreck we stayed with Countess Wiessenwolf, who is a great admirer of my humble self, owns everything I have written, and sings many of the things very beautifully too. The Walter Scott songs impressed her so favorably that she made it patently clear that she would not object at all if I were to dedicate them to her. But as far as they are concerned, I intend to break with the customary publishing procedure, which brings in so little profit. I feel that these songs, since they bear the celebrated name of Scott, are likely to pique more interest, and—if I add the English text—should make my name better known in England too. If any honest dealing were possible with these infernal publishers. But the wise an beneficent regulations of our Government have seen to it that the artist shall remain the eternal slave of these wretched money-grubbers…. I have come across my compositions all over Upper Austria, but especially in the monasteries at St. Florian and at Kremsmünster, where, with the assistance of an excellent pianist, I gave a very successful recital of my Variations and Marches fro four hands. The Variations from my new Sonata for two hands met with special enthusiasm. I played them alone and not without success, for several people assured me that under my fingers the keys were transformed into singing voices, which, if true, pleases me a good deal because I can’t stand the blasted hacking of the instrument to which even first-rate pianists are addicted. It pleases neither the ear nor the heart.
Tuesday, July 23, 2019, 11:30am
Sir Henry Wood was one of England’s most distinguished conductors of the early twentieth century. In 1888, though, he was a nineteen-year-old student whose departure from the Royal Academy of Music was anything but dignified. He told the story in his 1938 autobiography. During the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in London, Wood heard his ideal of the great organist–W.T. Best – play a newly-edited concerto in B-flat with an elaborate and complicated cadenza upon which Wood had been working for some weeks with the intention of playing it at one of the Royal Academy concerts. Wood’s performance of the concerto was scheduled for a Friday rehearsal . After the first few bars, the principal of the Academy turned to an organ student and said, “ You can conduct this. You are an organist and should know Handel’s concertos.” It turned out that the student had never conducted before . As a result the orchestra bogged down several times in the first movement–much to Wood’s disgust , because he had expected the principal to conduct, and thought that the merits or deficiencies of his playing would be judged by his performance under the direction of an expert . Getting angrier by the moment, he went through the first and second movements and began the third. In his wry way, Wood described what happened next: When we came to the finale, although the principal was doing his best in dumb-show to keep conductor and orchestra together, I completely lost my temper, jumped off the seat, and fled from the hall. It was not until I had gone some distance that I realized I had left my hat and coat behind. For all I knew, they are there now. Perhaps they kept them as a memento of my bad temper? Sir Henry remarked that he undoubtedly had completed his musical education by then anyway, and added that despite his desperate departure, he and the principal of the Academy remained lifelong friends.
Monday, July 22, 2019, 11:30am
At the end of World War II in Europe solid facts were almost as hard to come by as solid food. In Allied-occupied Vienna the distinguished Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi suddenly found his career threatened by a rumor. During the war Dohnányi had done what little he could to help the victims of the German regime, signing his name to petitions to free concentration camp prisoners and refusing to obey laws limiting the number of Jews who could be employed at the Hungarian Academy of Music. He had disbanded the Budapest Philharmonic rather than following orders to fire the Jewish members of the orchestra. So in the summer of 1945, on the day before he was to conduct a performance at the Salzburg Festival, Dohnányi was shocked to receive a letter from Salzburg stating that the performance had been canceled because of allegations that Dohnányi was a war criminal. The accusation appeared to be the work of musicians in Russian-occupied Hungary, who viewed his return as a threat to their own professional ambitions. Among them was a man freed from a concentration camp through Dohnányi’s anonymous influence. “I will fight them,” Dohnányi told his wife. “You know I like to fight. The greater the injustice, the more I shall defend myself against it.” Armed with a supportive letter from a sympathetic American colonel, he went to Salzburg to see the American officer in authority, who promised to give Dohnányi a chance to clear himself, but first put on a radio announcement repeating the war crimes charge against him. When Dohnányi finally confronted his accuser, the officer refused to discuss the accusation. Most of a year would pass before the composer’s efforts and those of persistent friends would be able to go over the officer’s head and secure a certificate by which all four Occupation powers in Austria gave Ernst von Dohnányi permission once again to appear on stage. Dohnányi’s wife Ilona tells the story in the 2002 biography Dohnányi, a Song of Life.
Friday, July 19, 2019, 11:30am
American bandleader Patrick Gilmore came to England to recruit performers for a giant concert to be part of a World Peace Jubilee. Gilmore had in mind an ensemble of 20,000 that would “whip creation” in size and sound. Not everyone was thrilled by the so-called “monster concerts” that swept through nineteenth-century America. One participant, singer Erminia Rudersdorff, wrote to critic Joseph Bennett from Springfield, Massachusetts, on July 19, 1872: Altogether the festival has been a terrible humbug and failure. It was a hideous nightmare, and all are awaking, and trying to believe it never took place. A.B. will tell you of my own glorious successes, and of that never-to-be-forgotten scene when I sang “God Save the Queen.” It is my almost only pleasant recollection, for what do I care for all my other encores and recalls in such a place? But that frantic recall, that rising of the mass to wave their handkerchiefs and hats, their insistence upon an encore, and that shout for England when I brought on Dan Godfrey to play for my encore, I shall never forget. It was the best thing at the Jubilee, although Gilmore spoiled the beginning by making the organ play the first part twice over. The chorus came in, and it was awful till I came to the rescue. Godfrey can tell you of that scene. The real Bostonians were immensely disgusted with this big show. All the gentlemen’s houses were shut up, and all real musicians left the city. The Music Committee were never once called, and Gilmore and his private secretary made the programs. Such programs! See what John Dwight says. Upon my word, had I not my £1500 in my pocket (my only excuse) I should never hold up my head again for having been concerned in such a “thing.” Dear Mr. Bennett, such gigantic outbursts are really and truly distressing!...There was great discontent among the chorus, and he will never get them together again. Thank God.
Friday, July 19, 2019, 11:30am
Although he was one of the world’s great composers, Giacomo Puccini sometimes despaired as he searched for the subject of his next opera. Two years after the success of his 1910 masterpiece La Fanciulla del West, he considered basing an opera on another American subject, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. He tinkered with the idea of using the fragmentary novel A Florentine Tragedy by Oscar Wilde. He thought about working with George du Maurier’s wildly successful 1894 Gothic novel Trilby, which in 1896 had become the first book to be adapted for film. In a letter to Luigi Illica, who had written the librettos of three of his greatest operas, Puccini confided his difficulties and aspirations: I still want to make people weep: That’s what it’s all about. But do you think it’s easy? It’s extremely difficult, dear Illica. First of all, where is a person to look for a subject? And will our imagination find one that’s universal and enduring? We don’t have to take off in completely new directions nor do we bend over backwards to come up with something original. Love and grief were born with the world, and we who have passed the half-century mark are familiar with both of them. So we have to find a story that grips us with its poetry and its love and grief, and inspires us enough to make an opera of it. But I repeat to you (not that I doubt you in the least–not ever!) I feel a little shaken in my faith and it begins to abandon me! Do you think that during all this time (since the final note of Fanciulla) I have sat with my hands folded in my lap? I have tried everything and anything....I feel tired and in despair. Five years later, Puccini would produce his next opera, La Rondine, which would lead to a burst of creativity that would carry him through his final years.
Thursday, July 18, 2019, 11:30am
English violist William Primrose made a policy of never making excuses for his performances, no matter how difficult the circumstances surrounding them. While he was a member of the prestigious London String Quartet, the ensemble was scheduled to perform at New York’s Town Hall. The program included works that had particularly hard viola parts–the B-flat Quartet by Brahms and the Debussy quartet. Before the concert, Primrose stepped outside to relax. While taking in the fresh spring air, he decided that a cigarette would be just the thing, so he lit a match. But he neglected to close the cover, and the whole book of matches went up like a torch, giving his left hand a severe burn. He hurried to a drugstore to kill the pain and got some medication that made the hand feel somewhat better, but the stuff was so sticky that when he played, the ball of his left thumb kept getting stuck to the viola. The process of getting his thumb stuck and unstuck was so noisy that Primrose could imagine everyone in the audience, back row critics included, squirming at the sound of it. The friction against a burn between his first and second fingers caused him considerable suffering every time he played a half step. Nonetheless, at the post-concert reception, he received nothing but praise and congratulations for his execution of the difficult viola parts. But cellist Warwick Evans took him to task for being rude, especially while talking to the ladies at the reception. “You’ve had your left hand stuck in your pocket all evening,” he said. Primrose reminded him about the burn and explained that he wasn’t trying to hide it for appearance’s sake, but because he didn’t want people to think of it as an excuse and deduce that the performance wasn’t as good as it might have been under better circumstances. Primrose tells the story in his 1978 memoir Walk on the North Side.
Tuesday, July 16, 2019, 11:30am
It was to be a combination of youthful innocence and Celtic grief. When the London Sinfonietta commissioned a work from John Tavener, the composer found his atmosphere in the brooding landscape of Ireland, his structure in the traditional requiem, and poignant symbolism in children’s games. Tavener built his work around the story of a girl named Jenny Jones who is forced by her peers to pass from life to death. From a book about singing games, Tavener learned that hopscotch was originally a representation of the soul’s progress through life to death, from Purgatory to Paradise. His composition, to be called Celtic Requiem, would be a theater piece for children that would include a game of hopscotch played on the stage. Also included would be a swing because swinging games were once part of extended rituals intended to gain the release of souls from Purgatory. Children and their games representing death would be in the foreground of the Requiem. In the background would be two contrasting adult responses to death–a forthright Irish balladeer and the ritual of the Catholic Church. From the nearby village of Little Missenden, Tavener recruited sixteen children, ranging in age from seven to eleven. During the debut in London’s Festival Hall on July 16, 1969, the audience in the packed auditorium scarcely noticed the more traditional forces on the stage–the orchestral players and the adult singers. They were looking at the children, who whispered to each other as they passed through the audience on their way to the stage. The Requiem unfolded with a mixture of games, poetry, twisted nursery rhymes, and a dizzying blend of music that included scat singing and electric guitar, all in the structure of a traditional requiem mass. At the end, four giant spinning tops hummed magically as the singing of the retreating children faded into the distance. Then the tops keeled over, leaving the audience in silence that was broken by a long ovation.
Monday, July 15, 2019, 11:30am
Alessandro Stradella was one of the 17th century's finest composers --and one of its most threatened. An incident from the year 1677 is typical of Stradella's dangerous life. The composer was living in Venice, having fled Rome because of a scandal that had arisen over his attempt to embezzle money...
Friday, July 12, 2019, 11:30am
One of the highlights of composer Victor Herbert’s life was a music festival that took place in Zurich in 1882. Herbert, a young cellist with the Royal Orchestra of Stuttgart, was among those chosen to attend. The five-day event was largely a tribute to Franz Liszt, who had fostered the careers of many composers to follow, ranging from the celebrated Richard Wagner to a dazzling new American pianist named Edward MacDowell. The first four days of the festival included formal and informal performances by various composers and performers Liszt had championed, plus a presentation of his oratorio The Legend of Saint Elizabeth , but for Herbert the memory of a lifetime came on the final afternoon, July 12. A gathering in honor of Liszt took place at an estate outside the city, and a steady rain made getting to it an ordeal, but Herbert was hardly aware of the soaking because he was so overwhelmed by seeing Liszt play the piano. At age seventy, Liszt had not been above dozing during the orchestral and choral performances at the festival, but when he sat down to play the piano, he came to life with the power of a young virtuoso. In a duet with composer Camille Saint-Saëns, he played his famous Mephisto Waltz, and, speaking twenty years later, Herbert recalled: We were afraid every moment the piano would go to smash under Liszt’s gigantic hands that came down like very sledge hammers. He played primo and Saint-Saëns secundo, and though Saint-Saëns had the more powerful end of the piano, Liszt soon overpowered his bass notes completely. Not that there weren’t distractions, including one that would become all too familiar to concert-goers today. In addition to great music, the festival also gave Herbert his first look at a telephone. “I will always remember how we marveled at this telephone,” he reflected, “and every few minutes set the bell ringing just for the pleasure of hearing the voice at the other end.”
Thursday, July 11, 2019, 11:30am
During a tour of Europe, Boston hymnist and music educator Lowell Mason was enchanted by an outdoor concert that took place near Berlin at an Elbe resort called Linchen Erben. In his journal for July 11, 1837, he described a radiant summer evening in which the music and the surroundings blended perfectly. He described a house with several acres of grounds, walks, shade, and groves, and tables and seating for several hundred amid booths, tents, and small houses. Wandering about the lawns were men, women, and children “of all sizes” and many dogs. Many of the men were smoking pipes or cigars or taking snuff. Old men and little children were playing, and most of the women were knitting, reading or writing. Children rode on a railroad built for horses and carriages. Seated among fresh blooming roses or in shady bowers, clusters of picnickers enjoyed cakes and tarts and confections and drank a variety of beverages, the favorite being beer. A man approached Mason with a plate in his hand and said something in German. Not knowing the language, the American was perplexed until a woman came by and dropped a few copper coins on the plate, saying, “de music.” He found a place at a table and ordered a beer and a large piece of cherry pie, which entitled him to his seat for the entire afternoon. At five o’clock, in a gazebo, an orchestra played a program of opera overtures and ballet music by various recent composers. “A better concert of this kind I have not often heard,” Mason concluded, “perhaps never. They played admirably....I was highly delighted–the more so as I would walk about them and hear them at different points–be close to them, look over the music to some of the instruments, etc., and between the pieces could go and sit at my table and sip my beer.”
Wednesday, July 10, 2019, 11:30am
In the summer of 1876, English baritone and composer George Henschel was vacationing on the German island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea. The day after his arrival, Johannes Brahms came up to visit him, and Brahms led Henschel to music in an unexpected place. On July 10 Henschel bought a hammock and hung it between two trees in a beech forest with a view of the sea. “We both managed to climb into it simultaneously, an amusing, though by no means easy task to accomplish,” Henschel recalled. Henschel remembered an idle hour or two as Brahms, in a cheerful mood, “went from one charming, interesting story to another, in which the gentler sex played a not unimportant part.” Then they went looking for one of Brahms’ favorite places, a frog pond, that eluded them for awhile since Brahms’ sense of direction left something to be desired. After walking across long stretches of “waste moorland” and not seeing another person, they finally found a small pool in the middle of a wide field of heather. Listening to the call of the bullfrogs, Brahms asked, “Can you imagine anything more sad and melancholy than this music, the indefinable sounds of which for ever and ever move within the pitiable compass of a minor third?” The enchanted composer went on. “Here we can realize how fairy tales of enchanted princes and princesses have originated. Listen! There he is again, the poor king’s son with his yearning, mournful C-flat!” Brahms and Henschel stretched out in the low grass, lit cigarettes, and lay listening for half an hour. Henschel noted that the songs Brahms wrote about that time made frequent use of the interval he heard in the call of the bullfrogs. George Henschel tells the story in his 1918 memoir Musings and Memories of a Musician.
Tuesday, July 9, 2019, 11:30am
At the age of twelve, Edward Elgar had his debut as a composer–much to his father’s displeasure. Elgar’s father was a piano tuner and a dealer in sheet music. Young Edward grew up surrounded by scores, and at an early age he became fascinated by the process of turning a printed page into music. The child could improvise on the piano and organ, but he became eager to demonstrate his powers as a composer, and the 1869 Three Choirs festival gave him the chance to do just that. The annual event, which rotated from his hometown in Worcester to Hereford to Gloucester, was his first experience with choral and orchestral music on a grand scale. Elgar’s father performed among the second violins, his Uncle Henry among the violas. Elgar attended his first festival in 1866, at the age of nine. It featured Beethoven’s Mass in C , which inspired young Edward to tell a friend, “If I had an orchestra under my own control and given a free hand I could make it play whatever I liked.” Three years later he would do something very much like that. At the 1869 festival Handel’s Messiah was to be performed. The parts were to be supplied by Elgar’s father’s firm. The boy had written a little tune and was very proud of it, so proud that he thought the public should hear it. While his father labored over the printed parts, Elgar also went to work, copying out his tune and inserting it into the score of Handel’s Messiah. “The thing was an astonishing success,” Elgar recalled years later, “and I heard that some people had never enjoyed Handel so much before! When my father learned of it, however, he was furious!” Despite his successful, if unauthorized, debut as a composer, young Elgar was more attracted to playing the violin. After he had mastered a part in Messiah, he proved such a natural fiddler that his father started taking him along for monthly performances by the local Glee Club.