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.
Ruggles at Carnegie Hall
On today’s date in 1949, at Carnegie Hall, Leopold Stokowski conducted the New York Philharmonic in the first performance of the last major work of the American composer Carl Ruggles.
In a letter to his friend Charles Ives, or “Charlie” as he called him, Ruggles hinted that in this piece, he was perhaps, "stumbling on something new.” Another composer-friend, Edgard Varèse, agreed, but wrote: “The use [of intervals of] 5ths and 4ths is very remarkable, because that was done hundreds of years ago—let’s call it ‘Organum’.” And so “Organum,” a word referring to an early medieval polyphony, became the title of Ruggles’ final orchestral piece.
After that, Ruggles, then already 73 years old, pretty much gave up on the musical establishment and devoted himself to painting. In 1966, he moved to a nursing home, where he died in 1971 at the age of 95.
Shortly before his death, Ruggles was visited by Michael Tilson Thomas, who recalls the feisty old man saying, “Now don’t go feeling sorry [for me]. I don’t hang around this place, you know. Hell, each day I go out and make the universe anew—all over!”
Berlioz gets paid (eventually)
In 1834, the great violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini acquired a new Stradivarius viola. He approached the 30-year old French composer Hector Berlioz and commissioned him to write a viola concerto.
What Berlioz came up with, however, was a Romantic program symphony with a prominent part for solo viola titled “Harold in Italy,” inspired by Byron’s narrative poem “Childe Harold.” Paganini was disappointed. “That is not what I want,” he said. “I am silent a great deal too long. I must be playing the whole time.”
And so, when “Harold in Italy” was first performed, at the Paris Conservatory on today’s date in 1834, it was an old classmate of Berlioz’s, Chrétien Urhan, who was the soloist, not the superstar Paganini. The audience seemed to like the “Pilgrims’ March” movement of the symphony, which was encored, but otherwise the performance was one train wreck after another.
Four years later, however, Berlioz had the last laugh when Paganini, hearing the music he commissioned at a better performed concert, rose from the audience, mounted the stage and publicly declared Berlioz a genius, and, two days later, presented the stunned Berlioz with a check for 20,000 francs.
Warren Benson's "The Leaves Are Falling"
If you’re a baby boomer, you probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
On that day, American composer Warren Benson was just beginning to work on a commission he had received for a new work for wind band. Maybe the trauma of that day unleashed some creative power in Benson, but whatever the reason, the resulting music is both intense and moving. He titled his piece “The Leaves Are Falling,” a line from Rainer Maria Rilke's "Autumn," a poem that evokes a sense of a passing season and a passing life. “The Leaves Are Falling” became Benson’s best-known work, and a landmark score in the wind band repertory.
Born in 1924, Benson grew up in Detroit, studied at the University of Michigan, and landed a job playing timpani in the Detroit Symphony. He served as a professor of percussion and composition at Ithaca College, and from 1967 until 1993, he taught composition at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York.
Hindemith in E-flat (and in Minneapolis)
On today’s date in 1941, the famous Greek-born conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos led the Minneapolis Symphony in the premiere performance of a new symphony by German composer Paul Hindemith, who came to Minnesota for the performance.
Mitropoulos was an ardent promoter of new music, but few of the contemporary works he programmed were welcomed by audiences or the critics with much enthusiasm. Hindemith’s reputation as an atonal composer had preceded him, but, surprisingly, his new piece for Minneapolis was billed as a “Symphony in Eb Major” and, much to the delight of all concerned, featured recognizable tunes.
By chance, another famous composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, was in Minneapolis that day, and was invited by Mitropoulos to attend the Hindemith premiere backstage, where he wouldn’t be annoyed by autograph seekers. Rachmaninoff had a very pessimistic view of modern music, but Mitropoulos was sure the famously dour Russian would like Hindemith’s resolutely tonal new symphony. Rachmaninoff was positioned just off stage, and after the end of the symphony, which was received with great applause, Mitropoulos passed him as he left the stage. “Well?” asked Mitropoulos. “No goooood,” was Rachmaninoff’s lugubrious response.
Beethoven, Bonaparte, and "Fidelio" in Vienna
On today’s date in 1805, Beethoven’s opera “Leonore” had its premiere at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, after many postponements due to getting the opera’s libretto approved by government censors and the orchestral parts copied in time. There was also the little matter of the Austrian capital being occupied by French troops as Napoleon was sweeping across Europe.
The cream of Viennese society had fled by the time Napoleon arrived, so the skimpy audience for the premiere performance of Beethoven’s opera included a good number of French soldiers. What they made of Beethoven’s opera, which tells the story of a woman rescuing her husband from a political prison, is anybody’s guess.
As usual, the Viennese critics were not impressed. One wrote, “There are no new ideas in the solos, and they are mostly too long. The choruses are ineffectual and one, which indicates the joy of prisoners over the sensation of fresh air, miscarries completely!”
After several revisions and the eventual departure of the French, even the critics came to accept Beethoven’s opera– retitled “Fidelio”–and in particular the Prisoners’ Chorus, as one of Beethoven’s most moving creations.
Lou Harrison's "some assembly required" Concerto
The publisher of Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion, which received its premiere performance on today’s date in 1961 at New York’s Carnegie Recital Hall, states with refreshing honesty that it is (quote) “not one of Harrison's most frequently performed works” and that “The highly rhythmic violin line is pleasantly contrasted by the exceptionally varied percussion ensemble.”
Now, by an “exceptionally varied” percussion ensemble, they mean in addition to conventional instruments, Harrison asks for tin cans, suspended brake drums, flowerpots, plumber’s pipes, wind chimes, and spring coils.
Not surprisingly, it can be difficult to assemble the “heavy metal” called for in the score. For a 1965 performance, Harrison was forced to spend hours, as he put it, "chasing down pipe lengths and flowerpots in hardware stores."
But there was a method to his madness. Harrison was trying to imitate the sounds of the tuned bronze gongs of the traditional Indonesian gamelan orchestra by using distinctly American “found” materials. In performance, the set-up seems downright humorous at first sight, but at first sound, it works. In fact, one suspects Harrison WANTS the audience to chuckle at first, but then be charmed.
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This is a nicely done “on this day in classical music history” type of program. Although episodes are quite short (only a few minutes long) it helps to learn more about your favorite composers and be introduced to new names too. Bravo!
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