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 poverty to leave school at sixteen to become a bank clerk. Schoenberg had forfeited that job by signing a customer into the account books under the name L. van Beethoven.
When an aunt died and left Berg’s mother a modest inheritance, Berg ended his stint as a government accountant by absolving all...
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 Publication Society Progressive Series of Piano Lessons. A series of interruptions at home had made the work slow going. On September 1 Godowsky had left home in Avon, New Jersey, telling his wife that he was taking the train into New York to deposit $1000 in the bank. Godowsky was wearing...
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 playing the piano in local taverns and restaurants, and he soon became so popular that proprietors would call him away from home at all hours to play at dances for free drinks and a little money.
His mother, who also had gone to work at the...
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 a beautiful girl in church. The next morning he asked for permission to marry her.
During a vacation in the Alps he was working on his Sixth Symphony, which shows no particular influence of the lofty mountains, but the diary he kept sports a long list of...
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 an excuse for not playing your Quartet that so many people wanted to hear the Brahms Sextet that he was obliged to put it on the program to the exclusion of the great American work! And in the second, Brother Gericke told the astute critic of the Transcript that he was so exhausted...
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 performers who had done well in America, a prosperous nation hungry for European culture and willing to pay top dollar for it, and yet Rachmaninoff had his misgivings about his three-month concert tour of the New World.
Many of them would be justified.
The critics were not particularly impressed by Rachmaninoff and his music. Richard...
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.
Monday, August 19, 2019, 11:30am
As a critic, Michel Calvocoressi appreciated an analytical mind, so he particularly admired composer Vincent d’Indy, the author of Treatise of Composition.
One of the things he liked most about d’Indy was the apparent contradictions in his thinking.
Calvocoressi found it intriguing that within the space of just four years, d’Indy could have written both the sensuous, unabashed Symphony on a French Mountain Air and the cerebral, constrained First String Quartet. Similarly, he said, at times d’Indy endorsed the headlong, emotionally charged music of Liszt, and at others he seemed to disapprove of it.
Calvocoressi concluded that d’Indy was having trouble making up his mind between feeling and reason. Hearing d’Indy talking about Claude Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande, Calvocoressi determined that what he was saying didn’t tally with what he had written about the work.
He pressed d’Indy about the apparent inconsistency and was surprised by the answer.
“Oh! You see, two very different points of view are possible,” d’Indy said. “The first time I heard Pelléas and Mélisande, I listened to it as to ‘music’ in the ordinary sense of the word, to ‘music’ as I conceive it. As such, it meant very little to me.”
He went on to say that, after thinking about it some more, he concluded that he had been wrong, and should have listened to Debussy’s work as something completely different and new.
“So I went to hear it again,” he continued, “and in that new light I was able to admire it.”
In his article, d’Indy had written that Pelléas and Mélisande was neither an opera nor a lyric drama because music played a subordinate role in it, much the way illuminations in medieval manuscripts enhance the all-important text.
Calvocoressi deduced that d’Indy’s reason had led him to approve of Pelléas and Mélisande, and that his feelings were the source of his appreciation for the music of Liszt.
Friday, August 16, 2019, 11:30am
In 1841 Anglo-Irish composer Michael Balfe was down on his luck. He was in Paris, about to finish an opera tailor-made for soprano Giulia Grisi, when arrangements fell through, leaving him with little but his music and his optimism to sustain him.
Pierre Erard of the piano manufacturing firm offered to lend his salon for a benefit concert devoted entirely to Balfe’s music. He went on to say that he would invite various influential personages from the Paris musical establishment.
The “Grande Concert Balfe” attracted a full house of those expecting to be entertained by the failure of an Englishman rash enough to put together an entire program of his own works.
As Balfe played the piano and sang in his light baritone with an ensemble of volunteer musicians, one piece after another provoked encores. “His music was sparkling,” wrote one audience member, “and flashed like a splendid brilliant that gives out radiant colors from a thousand facets, and astonishes and captivates by its beauty.”
At breakfast the next morning Balfe was interrupted by a mysterious visitor cloaked and wrapped as if for winter. He refused to give his name, but refused to leave until Balfe had seen him.
“You are Balfe,” he said. “I am Scribe, and I’ve come to ask you to write an opera with me.”
Eugène Scribe, the librettist for operas by Rossini, Auber, Meyerbeer, Cherubini, and other major composers, had attended Balfe’s concert the previous night.
Balfe agreed at once. As he worked, his wife made sure that he saw none of the sarcastic journal speculations about the Englishman who was writing an opera for Parisian audiences.
Although it has since been forgotten, the opera, called The Wellsprings of Love, suited the tastes of the time. It was so successful that some of the doubters were quick to point out the French elements of Balfe’s musical training, and King Louis Philippe had a special gold medal struck in his honor.
Thursday, August 15, 2019, 11:30am
During his sojourn in Paris in the 1920s, composer George Antheil decided to investigate a claim made by his teacher back in Philadelphia. It alleged that Debussy, Ravel, and Satie had stolen their impressionistic technique from a largely forgotten Italian composer named Ernest Fanelli.
Antheil tracked down the composer’s widow and grown son and daughter. Posing as a critic eager to write an article about the composer’s “true worth,” he received the family’s cordial invitation to have a good look at Fanelli’s music.
He discovered that the claim was true—Fanelli had anticipated the technique of Debussy, Ravel, and Satie by many years.
On the other hand, Fanelli’s work wasn’t as polished as those of his three more famous contemporaries.
Antheil asked Fanelli’s widow if the three composers had ever visited Fanelli and borrowed his scores.
“Oh, yes,” was the answer. Young Debussy had been very enthusiastic about her husband’s work.
Antheil faced a dilemma. He felt obligated to write the promised article, but who in Paris would want to read that the city’s most beloved composers had borrowed from a foreigner? And was touting the less-inspired music of Fanelli worth incurring the wrath of Parisians?
He wrote a wishy-washy article about Fanelli without mentioning the borrowed scores.
A few days after it came out, he found at his hotel room door a calling card wrapped in a handbill advertising a cure for sexual impotency. The card was from Fanelli’s son and, in French terms, the insult implied by the handbill was a challenge to a duel.
Antheil felt his temper boil, and, being an expert marksman, he decided to go out and fight.
As he passed the concierge, she asked if he had gotten the card, and went on to explain that to keep it clean, she had wrapped it in the first thing at hand.
As he thought about the “true worth” of Ernest Fanelli, a relieved George Antheil concluded that “art is not a matter of precedence, but of excellence.”
Wednesday, August 14, 2019, 11:30am
In the early twentieth century, many Spanish composers traveled to France for training, and a fair number of French composers went to Spain for inspiration. The friendship of Manuel de Falla and Claude Debussy is a prime example.
When Falla arrived in Paris from Madrid in 1907, he soon met a host of celebrated musicians from various countries.
The most renowned of them all was Claude Debussy, whom Falla failed to recognize at first because he was dressed more like a sailor than a famous composer, but it didn’t take long for the Frenchman’s well-known sardonic sense of humor to manifest itself.
“It is I,” Debussy assured the Spaniard. “It is I myself.”
In an effort to get a conversation going, Falla said that he had always liked French music.
“Well, I haven’t,” said Debussy.
Having been notified by composer Paul Dukas that “a little Spaniard dressed all in black” was coming to see him, Debussy asked Falla to play his opera La vide breve on the piano. Debussy listened attentively to the whole thing and had good things to say about it.
The two became good friends. After seven years in Paris, Falla returned to Spain and entered the most productive stage of his composing career. In 1920, not long after Debussy’s death, Falla wrote an article for the Revue Musicale in Paris in which he alluded to a reciprocal relationship between the music of Spain and France, saying that Debussy
Unquestionably, I venture to say, unconsciously, created Spanish music the likes of which aroused the envy of many who knew her all too well. He crossed the border only once, and stayed for a few hours in San Sebastian to attend a bullfight—little enough experience indeed. But he retained a vivid memory of the unique light in the bullring, the amazing contrast between the side flooded by sunlight and the one in shadow…
“He has paid us back so generously,” Falla concluded, “that it is Spain who is today the debtor.”
Tuesday, August 13, 2019, 11:30am
Even during his career as a civil servant in the French Ministry of the Interior, Emmanuel Chabrier was never far from thoughts of music. He wrote piano pieces and entertained his friends with playing so wild that he reminded one witness of an enraged bull.
And yet there was a deeply serious side to Chabrier that became apparent in 1880 when he attended a Wagner opera at Bayreuth. Composer Henri Duparc recalled:
You can scarcely imagine how much it meant to him to be hearing Tristan, which he didn’t know then, and was almost afraid to get to know, as if some inner voice was warning that it was going to transform his entire life. There had been some excellent performances in Munich, and I had gone to hear the first; it was on a Sunday, and I was so excited that I went back to Paris to persuade a few friends to come for the second performance the next Sunday.
One of those friends was Chabrier, whom I went to see at the Ministry. He hesitated for quite a while, and raised a lot of objections; but apparently I was able to convince him, and at last he promised to come along with us.
Everyone was delighted, because that meant that the journey would be entertaining...He was so overcome by the opera that, although he was usually so gay and chipper, he left us after the performance and shut himself up in his room. You know, until then he didn’t intend to devote himself entirely to music; Tristan made him realize his true vocation, and by the time he returned from Munich he had made his decision.
Although Wagner inspired Chabrier to quit his civil service job and devote himself to music, Chabrier soon joined a growing line of French composers determined to break away from Wagner’s influence and write music that was inherently Gallic.
Monday, August 12, 2019, 11:30am
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was in Paris in June 1940 when German armies entered the city. He left the city in a hurry, leaving behind his manuscripts and most of his personal possessions. He and his wife fled south to keep one step ahead of the Germans, and the experience made him feel that “a great vacuum had opened into which all humanity was being drawn.”
In Aix-en-Province he tried to make up for lost time, composing a fantasia and a toccata for piano. When he applied for an American visa at the United States consulate, the consul asked him for proof that he was an artist, and Martinů was at a loss for words but blurted out, without any knowledge that it was true, that he was on a list of artists blacklisted by the Nazis. Calling his bluff, the consul pulled out a book and began searching for the composer’s name. As Martinů stood breathless, waiting for the worst, the consul nodded and said, “Yes, you are down here” and sent him straight to an office to receive his American visa.
Arranging for transportation to America required almost daily travel to and from Marseilles. Martinů bought the last sheets of music paper available in the city and during the long train rides, sketched a sinfonia that he completed in November while bundled in his coat and gloves in an unheated room.
While the French Vichy government dithered about granting crucial exit visas and the paperwork for a Spanish transit visa dragged, the Martinůs’ boat sailed from Lisbon. Martinů diverted himself by writing a cheerful sonata da camera and planned other works, and eventually his patience and perseverance paid off. Three months later, Bohuslav Martinů and his wife arrived at last in the New World--a place where he could compose in safety.
Friday, August 9, 2019, 11:30am
Having left Germany with his family in 1933, Otto Klemperer had landed a job as musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, only to have his eccentricities wreck his reputation in the city and force his resignation.
An invitation to conduct a series of Bach concerts at the New School for Social Research offered him a chance to pull his career back together, but Klemperer made life difficult for everyone, including himself.
Arriving only a few days before the first performance, he took out what appeared to be a revolver, actually a squirt gun, and put it on his desk. Then he ordered that all of the rehearsal conductor’s score markings be erased. Excepting only the cellists, he demanded that everyone stand to play. He chased an unsatisfactory musician all the way out to the street.
The first performance went well, but at one point Klemperer walked among the orchestra members. He grabbed a forgetful cellist by the arm and yelled, “E-flat major!”
The following three concerts came across hurried and heavy-handed. The New School did not invite him back.
But the Federal Music Project, a Depression-era program for employing musicians, invited Klemperer to conduct the New York City Symphony Orchestra, which he whipped into shape for a favorable rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, although their performance of Klemperer’s turgid choral work Trinity came across as a bewildering hodgepodge.
Klemperer showed up for a second concert in stale dress clothes smeared with chocolate and read a long rambling defense against an accusation that he was programming works by anti-Semitic composers.
Despite the incidents, the concert and the one to follow were successes, and Klemperer was engaged to conduct four more performances in Carnegie Hall.
But his resistance to employing a full orchestra for a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll led Klemperer to boycott one of the concerts, and from then on, the discredited musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was also unemployable in New York.
Thursday, August 8, 2019, 11:30am
In August 1889, as the great Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer was on his way from St. Petersburg to Bayreuth to hear two Wagner operas for the first time, he came down with what was diagnosed as malaria. Not one to let illness get in his way, he continued on to Bayreuth.
He and a friend began with Die Walküre, after which Auer’s illness flared up so much that he sent for a doctor, who prescribed several days of bed rest.
Auer was reluctant to comply. Tristan and Isolde and Die Meistersinger were to be conducted by the foremost Wagner interpreters of the day–Hans Richter and Felix Mottl, who had personally set aside tickets for him.
He decided to attend Tristan and Isolde, but the music seemed slow to him, and even key moments in the opera seemed to drag. The heat in the hall was stifling, and he felt a headache coming on. By the time the curtain finally came down, his chest and head seemed to be on fire. He hurried outside for fresh air and caught sight of a friend, cellist David Popper, who hailed the house doctor. After a cursory examination, he, too, recommended bed rest.
But Auer felt compelled to go back for the second act, during which he felt even worse. “I was suffering such tortures,” he wrote in his memoirs, “that I felt like shouting to Tristan and Isolde to hurry up and finish their love duet as quickly as possible so that I could go home to bed.”
After a second examination, the doctor said that Auer might have typhoid fever, and only after twelve days did he authorize Auer to get out of bed--to continue his cure at mineral baths in Bohemia.
Before Auer departed, a rumor circulated through the hotel that “a dying Russian” in one of the rooms had made a killing on the sale of his tickets.
Wednesday, August 7, 2019, 11:30am
The burgeoning career of teenaged cellist Janos Starker had come to a rough halt when World War II broke out in Europe. As German and Russian troops vied for control of Budapest and American planes laid down a carpet of bombs, Starker’s music had lost priority to a fight for survival.
In November 1945, a few months after the end of the war, when Starker was in Bucharest to perform, he was invited to visit composer Georges Enesco.
Starker had never met Enesco, but he had heard Romanian musicians praising his violin virtuosity with something akin to reverence. The venerable composer lived in a grand house in the city. Bent and soft-spoken, he welcomed Starker into his studio, and after a few questions about Starker and his life, suggested that they play some Brahms together. The celebrated violinist brought out the score of the E minor cello sonata and sat at the piano, and they played through it.
When they had finished, Enesco said, “I still remember hearing Brahms playing it.” Then, without music, he began the F major sonata and Starker joined in. At the end of the performance, Enesco remarked that he had played it with Pablo Casals twenty years ago. “His playing was stunning,” Enesco said. He invited Starker to come back the next day, when he’d be playing three Beethoven violin sonatas with some friends.
Starker joined about a dozen elegantly-dressed guests for the occasion. After tuning, Enesco and his pianist began to play Beethoven’s Spring Sonata. Starker was shocked. As Enesco scratched and sawed, out of tune, the young cellist gritted his teeth and tried to put his mind somewhere else.
Then, suddenly, as if some kind of inner conflict had ended, Enesco began playing like someone else entirely, a master with a beautiful tone and exquisite phrasing.
In his memoirs, Starker wrote, “It was probably the only time in my life that listening to music has brought tears to my eyes.”
Tuesday, August 6, 2019, 11:30am
“The last thing on my mind was that it would have wide appeal.” So said Andrew Lloyd Webber of the requiem he wrote in 1984. The composer of wildly successful musicals wrote his requiem in response to several deeply-felt experiences.
In 1978 the director of arts programs at the BBC had approached Lloyd Webber with the idea of writing a requiem for the victims of violence in Northern Ireland. His experience with requiems was limited but powerful: At the age of thirteen he had attended the first London performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, and three years before that, the Westminster Abbey memorial service for Ralph Vaughan Williams had left a lasting impression on him.
In 1982, when his father died, Lloyd Webber returned to the idea of writing a requiem. Four months later a young journalist friend was killed by an IRA bomb in Harrods Department Store. The composer was further moved by a New York Times report about a Cambodian boy who had been forced by terrorists to kill his sister.
The resulting requiem was described as “a rough barbaric score with moments of great tenderness.” The “Pie Jesu” from it hit the British Top Ten and became the only single issued by the HMV Classics department, prompting the astonished composer to remark, “When I wrote Starlight Express I really worked hard to produce something that would contain a collection of pop singles, and they all failed. This thing comes out in Latin and in ten days it’s at Number Three.”
At the same time, Andrew Lloyd Webber said that the Requiem was the most personal of his scores, and for its world premiere in New York he insisted on flying in the same singers who had participated in the recording–his wife Sarah Brightman, boy treble Paul Miles-Kingston, Placido Domingo–and the entire Winchester Cathedral Choir.
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 my 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