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.
On today’s date in 1956, “Candide,” a 20th century musical based on an 18th century satire by the French writer Voltaire, opened on Broadway in New York City.
The libretto was by the successful playwright Lillian Hellman. The song lyrics were crafted by Richard Wilbur, one of America’s finest poets. The stage direction was by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, a legendary name in British theater. The music was by Leonard Bernstein.
Maybe it was a case of too much of a good thing: “Candide” closed after just two months. Some said the show’s satire went over the heads of the audience, others that the poor box office was due to the lack of a big Broadway star in the original cast.
Early in 1957, shortly before the initial run of “Candide” closed, Bernstein conducted its overture at Carnegie Hall as part of a New York Philharmonic concert—and that bit of the show, at least, became an instant and lasting success.
Bernstein tinkered with the rest of “Candide” right up to his death in 1990, generating several performing versions of his problematic musical. With the benefit of hindsight, many critics now regard “Candide” as Bernstein’s masterpiece.
Corigliano for Strings
On today’s date in the year 2000, the Boston Symphony gave the premiere performance of the Second Symphony of the American composer John Corigliano. For strings alone, the symphony was a reworking a string quartet that Corigliano had composed for the farewell tour of the Cleveland Quartet in 1996.
The symphony was very well received, and the following year was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music. “I am more than shocked... I don't know what to say,” commented Corigliano upon receiving the news. “It's one of the great surprises of my life.”
Perhaps doubly surprising, since, as a young man, Corigliano pretty much ruled out writing even ONE symphony, let alone two. “My thought then,” says Corigliano, “was that there were so many great symphonies [already]. I could satisfy only my ego by writing yet another. Only the death of countless friends from AIDS prompted me to write my Symphony No. 1 ... a world-scale tragedy, I felt, needed a comparably epic form.
“Then the Boston [asked] that I write a second symphony to honor the l00th anniversary of their justly famous Symphony Hall. At first I declined, stating my earlier reservations, but they were quite insistent.”
John Duffy's "Utah" Symphony
Utah came to the stage of Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, musically speaking, on this date in 1989, when the Orchestra of St. Luke’s premiered a “Utah Symphony” by American composer John Duffy. His Symphony No. 1 was commissioned by Gibbs Smith, the president of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club to draw attention to the endangered and pristine wilderness lands of that state.
John Duffy knew this region firsthand. “I began sketching the symphony while hiking through southeastern Utah in the spring of 1988,” wrote Duffy. “The landscape astounded me: Dramatic contrasts of light and shadow... violent changes in weather... expansive vistas. Here in the ancient Indian ruins, canyons, cathedral-like Mesas, and fantastical slabs of rock is a spiritual presence and aesthetic wonder of pure, majestic, humbling wilderness.”
John Duffy is perhaps best known for writing the score to the 9-hour PBS documentary series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. He was born in the Bronx and studied with Aaron Copland and Henry Cowell.
In addition to composing over 300 works, in 1974, Duffy founded Meet the Composer, an organization dedicated to the creation, performance, and recording of music by American composers.
The Chopin of America
On today’s date in 1843, a composer dubbed “The Chopin of America” was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His name was Manuel Gregorio Tavárez, born to a French father and Puerto Rican mother. He began his musical studies in San Juan but at the age of 15 moved to France to study at the Paris Conservatory with two leading French composers of the day, Daniel Auber and Eugen D'Albert.
While in Paris, Tavárez suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left hand and affected his hearing. He returned to Puerto Rico, overcame those problems and after giving several recitals in San Juan, became a piano teacher.
As a composer, Tavárez developed an original dance form called Danza–similar to the waltz, but tinged with Afro-Cuban rhythms from the Caribbean and the wistful melancholy of European Romantic composers.
Tavárez gave his works evocative titles like “La Sensitiva” (The Sensitive one), “La Ausencia” (Absense), “Un Recuerdito” (A little remembrance) and “Pobre Corazón” (Poor heart), but the title of his most famous Danza, written in 1870, was simply a woman’s name: “Margarita.”
Like Chopin, Tavárez lived only 39 years. He died in 1883.
Brahms debuts in New York City
At 2 p.m. on today’s date in 1855, the first in a series of afternoon chamber music concerts was given at Dodworth’s Hall in New York City. As a contemporary newspaper put it, “In consequence of the numerous evening engagements of the city, and to enable ladies to be present without escort, it is proposed to give matinees in preference to soirees.”
The concert was a great success, and many of the fashionably dressed ladies who attended were forced to stand, as all available seats were already occupied.
In addition to classics by Schubert and Mendelssohn, the audience heard some brand- new music, the American premiere of a recently published piano trio by a 21-year old German composer named Johannes Brahms. The New York Times opined the Brahms contained “many good points and much sound musicianship” but possessed also “the defects of a young writer ... The motives seldom fall on the ear freshly.”
It's doubtful that Brahms ever saw that review, or even knew that his new trio had been played in America, but in 1889, 35 years later, Brahms extensively revised his youthful work, transforming his first major chamber work into his very last.
Music—Beethoven’s music in particular—played an important role in the life of Schroeder, a piano-playing character in “Peanuts,” the comic strip created by Charles Schulz, who was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on today’s date in 1922.
But new music snuck in the strip on occasion, too. In a 1990 installment, Peppermint Patty is at a young person’s concert and when informed that the American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich had won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, stands up and yells, ''Way to go, Ellen!''
Turns out Schulz had been impressed by a piece by Zwilich that he heard at a concert, and the cartoonist and composer struck up a friendship. So when Zwilich was asked to write a new work for a young people’s concert at Carnegie Hall, the result was a suite entitled “Peanuts Gallery.”
Its 1997 premiere was acknowledged in a Sunday “Peanuts” strip that had Schroeder telling Lucy about the new work. ``We're all in it,'' he says, and goes on to list the movements: “Schroeder's Beethoven Fantasy,” “Lullaby for Linus,” “Lucy Freaks Out,” etc. Of course, Lucy's only comment is: “MY part should be longer.''