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.
Monday, July 8, 2019, 11:30am
Eighteen-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff was hoping that his opera Aleko would make his reputation as a significant composer, but that major effort was quickly overshadowed by a miniature piece of music–his Prelude in C-sharp minor. The year was 1891, and as a recent graduate in music theory from the...
Friday, July 5, 2019, 11:30am
When violinist Leopold Auer was a little-known Düsseldorf concertmaster, he managed to line up a performance in Wiesbaden, a big step toward a solo career. With new confidence, he put up in one of the town’s best hotels and wasted no time going to the casino, where he ran into an acquaintance, the famous violinist Henri Wieniawski. Wieniawski confided to Auer that he had a sure-fire gambling system. He and Moscow Conservatory director Nikolai Rubinstein had come from St. Petersburg and had recently worked the system in Caen, with such certainty that he expected to break the casino at any moment. He and Rubinstein had pooled their money, and since Rubinstein was the cooler-headed of the two, he was doing the actual gambling. The two planned to go on to other cities, where they would make a good deal more money gambling than they could by concretizing. No longer would they have to spend all that time practicing. Wieniawski had also decided that his new vein of wealth would enable him to devote his spare time to composing, and that he could afford to play just for his own pleasure. For the next several days the system worked so well that the two invited Auer into their arrangement, and, looking forward to shedding the drudgery of practicing scales, Auer gladly gave them his money. As the cash rolled in, they lived in light-hearted luxury, and Auer considered quitting his job in Düsseldorf so that he could settle down near the casino, where he could live off the system, while accepting only a few select highly-paid performance engagements. Then he and Wieniawski encountered Rubinstein out for a walk. He was so crestfallen that even his cigarette seemed to droop. “It’s all over,” he said with characteristic calm. “I lost all of our capital in a few turns of the wheel.” After a dinnertime consultation, the gamblers decided to go their separate ways and resume their former occupations.
Thursday, July 4, 2019, 11:30am
Although his disabilities made William Billings of Boston unsuited for service as a soldier during the American Revolution, he made a lasting contribution to the cause in the form of song. By 1770, when he wrote his collection New England Psalm Singer , tensions were already high between American colonists and their English rulers. As a composer, Billings had been affected by the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767 and 1770, which raised the cost of paper. Massachusetts instituted a policy of barring the importation of all goods subject to the duties, and so a combination of patriotism and necessity caused Billings to delay his book’s publication until he could get American paper. The British occupation of the city from 1775 to 1776 inspired him to write “Lamentation for Boston,” an Americanized version of Psalm 137 published in 1778 in the collection The Singing Master’s Assistant . In the same collection he republished his song “Chester” in 1778, making his revolutionary sympathies clear: Let tyrants shake their iron rod, And Slav’ry clank her galling chains, We fear them not, we trust in God, New England ’s God forever reigns. And so on, for five verses, celebrating the defeat of British General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777; the mistakes of General Howe, who let George Washington’s army slip from his grasp after the Battle of Long Island; the blunders of General Henry Clinton, whose Carolina campaign was called off after he led a disastrous attack on Fort Sullivan at Charleston; the embarrassment of General Richard Prescott, who was captured by rebel raiders in 1777; and the errors of Cornwallis, whom George Washington outmaneuvered at Princeton and whose surrender at Yorktown in 1781 would signal the ultimate American victory. The Singing Master’s Assistant was the first tunebook published in America after the outbreak of the Revolution, and as an American book for American voices, it offered comfort to its readers in dangerous times.
Wednesday, July 3, 2019, 11:30am
How did Hector Berlioz cope with the pressures of life as a composer and conductor? With a lively sense of humor. It comes out in a letter he wrote from London to Theodore Ritter on July 3, 1855. A ghastly rehearsal at Exeter Hall yesterday. Glover’s cantata in a piquant style, but difficult, and I...
Tuesday, July 2, 2019, 11:30am
George Gershwin had come to write an opera about the inhabitants of Folly Island, South Carolina, but in June 1934, when he arrived for a five-week stay, he wasn’t ready for what he found. Folly Island was not the kind of vacation spot he was used to. “It looks like a battered old South Sea Island...
Monday, July 1, 2019, 11:30am
When Peter Tchaikovsky described his 1812 Overture as “noisy,” he had no idea how loud–and dangerous--it could get. In 1998, more than a hundred years after Tchaikovsky wrote and disdained his overture, the Seattle Times carried the remarkable story of Paolo Esperanza. Esperanza was the bass trombonist with the Simphonica Mayor de Uruguay. He was performing in an outdoor children’s concert and hoped to add a little excitement to the sixteen cannon shots that punctuate the finale of the 1812. His good intentions were unaccompanied by good physics. Esperanza decided to add to Tchaikovsky’s pyrotechnics by inserting a large firecracker, equivalent to a quarter-stick of dynamite, into his aluminum straight mute, which he then stuffed into the bell of his new Yamaha in-line double-valve bass trombone. From his hospital bed, through bandages on his mouth, Esperanza explained to reporters that he had expected the bell of the trombone to funnel the blast away from him while firing the mute in an arc high above the orchestra. The laws of propulsion physics were not on his side. A superheated shaft of air shot backwards from the blast, burning his lips and face. The explosion split the bell of his trombone, turning it inside out and launching the trombonist backwards from his perch on the orchestra riser. The hot gases shooting through the trombone forced the slide from his hand, hurling it into the back of the head of the third clarinetist, knocking him out. Because Esperanza didn’t have time to raise his trombone before the concussion, the mute went low, shooting between the rows of woodwinds and violists, and caught the conductor in the stomach, propelling him into the audience, where he knocked down the first row of folding chairs in a kind of domino effect. It was probably the first performance of the 1812 Overture in which the cannons were upstaged.
Friday, June 28, 2019, 11:30am
"Who could not win the mistress wooed the maid." So said Alexander Pope, suggesting that critics are failed, envious artists.
Thursday, June 27, 2019, 11:30am
In June 1907 Franz Lehár had a good reason to be nervous about the London debut of his operetta The Merry Widow . Too late, he had found out that the male lead couldn't sing. The casting for the performance had been a gamble by London producer George Edwards, who had chosen a popular comic actor...
Wednesday, June 26, 2019, 11:30pm
The playing was some of the finest in the world. But on this particular occasion in 1986, Vladimir Horowitz was to be upstaged by the President and first lady of the United States. The East Room of the White House was packed with musicians and political figures. Horowitz was being honored for his...
Tuesday, June 25, 2019, 11:30am
The 38-year-old composer was gambling that his new opera would succeed where others were failing. Gaetano Donizetti was pinning his hopes on a hastily written opera based not on an Italian subject but on a Scottish novel.
Monday, June 24, 2019, 11:30am
An inspired composer and performer does not necessarily make an inspired teacher even at a great teaching facility. Percy Grainger was a square peg in a round hole during his years at the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. Grainger had traveled far from his native Australia, gathering...
Friday, June 21, 2019, 11:30am
At the age of 33 Felix Mendelssohn was a major celebrity in England. His fame was sometimes more than he could handle. On June 21st, 1842, he wrote from London to his mother in Berlin: “Every day we see all kinds of beautiful and spectacular things. But I am a little worn out by the whirlwind of...
Thursday, June 20, 2019, 11:30am
In June 1866 the Russian composer Mily Balakirev was in Prague, attempting to arrange a performance of Mikhail Glinka's opera A Life for the Czar. Things had gone badly. His efforts had been interrupted by a war between Austria and Prussia. Six months later the war was over and Balakirev was in...
Wednesday, June 19, 2019, 11:30pm
In 1866 Mily Balakirev was asked to go to Prague to arrange a production of Mikhail Glinka's opera A Life for the Czar. He was to have the greatest adventure of his life--getting home. Balakirev set out in June and had just arrived in Prague when war broke out between Austria and Prussia. Balakirev...
Tuesday, June 18, 2019, 11:30pm
Vincenzo Bellini had strong ideas about what an opera should do. And he could be very forceful in trying to get his ideas across to others. For example, he wrote to a librettist in June 1834:
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...