30 episodes

Composers Datebook is a daily two-minute program designed to inform, engage, and entertain listeners with timely information about composers of the past and present. Each program notes significant or intriguing musical events involving composers of the past and present—with appropriate and accessible music related to each.

Composers Datebook American Public Media

    • Music History

Composers Datebook is a daily two-minute program designed to inform, engage, and entertain listeners with timely information about composers of the past and present. Each program notes significant or intriguing musical events involving composers of the past and present—with appropriate and accessible music related to each.

    The Night the Lights Went Out on Elliott Carter

    The Night the Lights Went Out on Elliott Carter

    On today’s date in 1994, at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, the Chicago Symphony and conductor Daniel Barenboim gave the world premiere performance of “Partita” by the American composer Elliott Carter, specially commissioned in honor of the composer’s 85th birthday.

    It was a major work, and a major occasion – but, as the Chicago Tribune’s music critic John von Rheim put it, that date “will forever be known as the Night the Lights Went Out on Elliott Carter.”

    Just as the orchestra was playing the final pages of Carter’s complex score, the house lights went out. The audience gasped. The orchestra stopped playing. Not sure what to do, the audience started applauding. Then, after a moment or two the lights came back on. After breathing a sigh of relief, Barenboim and the orchestra prepared to pick up where they had left off – and then the lights went out again!

    Turning to the audience, Barenboim quipped, "It’s a good thing we and Mr. Carter are not superstitious."

    Well, eventually the lights came back on – and stayed on, enabling the Orchestra to finish the premiere of Carter’s “Partita.”

    But, perhaps as a kind of insurance policy – later on Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony also made a live recording of the new work.

    • 2 min
    A Romance for Bassoon

    A Romance for Bassoon

    Famous composers have been, on occasion, famous performers as well. Think of Bach on the organ, or Rachmaninoff on the piano. And if Mozart’s father is to be believed, young Wolfgang could have Europe’s finest violinist – if he had only practiced more.

    But how many famous composers can you name who played the bassoon? Well, the British composer Edward Elgar, for one. As a young musician in Worcester, played the bassoon in a wind quintet. While never becoming famous as a bassoonist, Elgar’s love for and understanding of the instrument is evident in all his major orchestral works, and he counted one skilled player among his friends: this was Edwin F. James, the principal bassoonist of the London Symphony in Elgar’s day.

    In 1910, while working on his big, extroverted, almost 50-minute violin concerto, Elgar tossed off a smaller, much shorter, and far more introverted work for bassoon and orchestra as a gift for James. Since Elgar was working on both pieces at the same time, if you’re familiar with Elgar’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61, you can’t help but notice a familial resemblance to his 6-minute Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Op. 62.

    The Romance was first performed by Edwin F. James at a Herefordshire Orchestral Society concert conducted by the Elgar on today’s date in 1911.

    • 2 min
    A belated Elgar premiere

    A belated Elgar premiere

    We probably have the irrepressible playwright, music critic, and ardent socialist George Bernard Shaw to thank for this music—the Third Symphony of Sir Edward Elgar.

    Shaw had been trying to persuade Elgar to write a Third Symphony, and, early in 1932, had written to Elgar: "Why don't you make the BBC order a new symphony. It can afford it!" A few months later, Shaw dashed off a postcard with a detailed, albeit tongue-in-cheek program for the new work: "Why not a Financial Symphony? Allegro: Impending Disaster; Lento mesto: Stone Broke; Scherzo: Light Heart and Empty Pocket; Allegro con brio: Clouds Clearing."

    Well, there was a worldwide depression in 1932, but the depression that had prevented Elgar from tacking a new symphony was more personal: the death of his beloved wife in 1920. Despite describing himself as "a broken man," unable to tackle any major projects, when Elgar died in 1934, he left behind substantial sketches for a Third Symphony, commissioned, in fact, by the BBC.

    Fast forward 64 years, to February 15th, 1998, when the BBC Symphony gave the premiere performance of Elgar's Third at Royal Festival Hall in London, in a performing version, or "elaboration" of Elgar's surviving sketches, prepared by the contemporary British composer Anthony Payne. It was a tremendous success, and, we would like to think, somewhere in the hall the crusty spirit of George Bernard Shaw was heard to mutter: "Well—about time!"

    • 2 min
    Orff's "Trionfo di Aphrodite"

    Orff's "Trionfo di Aphrodite"

    Happy Saint Valentine's Day!

    On today's date in 1953, a new choral work by the German composer Carl Orff received its premiere performance at the La Scala opera house in Milan, Germany. "Trionfo di Afrodite" was the title of the new work, intended to be the final panel in a triptych of choral works celebrating life and love, a tryptich that included Orff's famous "Carmina Burana," based on medieval texts, and "Catulli Carmina," based on love lyrics by the Roman poet Catullus.

    All three pieces were given lavish, semi-staged performances at La Scala, led by the Austrian maestro Herbert von Karajan, and with German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda as the star soloists. For the world premiere performance of "Trionfo di Afrodite," Schwarzkopf and Gedda portrayed a bride and groom on their wedding night: the texts they sang were pretty hot stuff—if you understand Latin, that is!

    "Triofi di Afrodite" shows Orff's indebtedness to Stravinsky, and his repetitive rhythmic patterns seem to anticipate the "mimimalist" movement by several decades. At the 1953 premiere, Schwarzkopf's husband, record producer Walter Legge, gently suggested to Orff that he might consider a few cuts to the new work. Orff's response? "Oh, I know very well the effect of my rubber-stamp music!"

    In any case, Legge decided not make a recording of the new work—which seems a shame, considering the all-star cast assembled at La Scala for its premiere!

    • 2 min
    Johann Strauss and Philip Glass in 3/4 time

    Johann Strauss and Philip Glass in 3/4 time

    Webster's defines a waltz as "a gliding dance in 3/4 time." But for most people, THIS music defines "waltz." It's the "Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss, Jr, first performed on today's date in 1867 at a Carnival concert of the Men's Choral Society of Vienna.

    The society's "house poet," one Joseph Weyl, a police officer by profession, provided the words for the original choral version of the "Blue Danube" Waltz. It was a flop, and even the choral society urged officer Weyl not to quit his day job. Strauss sold the rights to his waltz to a Viennese publisher—and six months later regretted it. At the 1867 World's Fair in Paris, the "Blue Danube Waltz" became an international hit and soon became the unofficial National Anthem of Vienna.

    In 1963, the American pianist and composer Robert Moran found himself in Vienna, where he heard the strains of an unfamiliar waltz melody coming though the open door of the Bösendorfer Piano Company. Moran's Viennese friends assured him that, yes, there were still composers writing brand-new waltzes.

    Intrigued, Moran tried his hand at it himself, and soon was asking his composers friends to give it a try. The result was "The Waltz Project," a collection of 25 short waltzes by famous and not-so-famous contemporary composers published in 1978.

    Philip Glass's contribution, for example, was entitled "Modern Love Waltz".

    • 2 min
    The Brothers Johnson write an anthem

    The Brothers Johnson write an anthem

    On today's date in the year 1900, the principal of Stanton Elementary in Jacksonville, Florida was asked to give a Lincoln's Day speech to his students. Stanton was a segregated school for African-American children, and was the school that its principal, James Weldon Johnson, had himself attended. Johnson decided he would rather have the students do something themselves, perhaps sing an inspirational song. He decided to write the words himself, and enlisted the aid of his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who was a composer.

    "We planned to have it sung by schoolchildren, a chorus of 500 voices," Johnson recalled. "I got my first line, 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"—not a startling first line, but I worked along, grinding out the rest." Johnson gave the words to his brother as they came to him, not even writing them down as his brother worked at the piano. By the time they finished, Johnson confessed he was moved by what they had created: "I could not keep back the tears and made no effort to do so."

    The song was a great success on February 12th, 1900, and then was pretty much forgotten by Johnson—but not by the children who sang it. They memorized it. Some of them became teachers, and taught it to their students. The song spread across the country, and soon became the unofficial National Anthem of Black America.

    "We wrote better than we knew," said Johnson.

    • 2 min

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