Composers

Bach's Birthday

2 hours ago

If I told you about a letter from a famous composer to his employers, a letter in which the composer complained that he needed a higher salary because he’d been making less money freelancing playing the organ at funerals, because there hadn’t been nearly enough disease going around – could you guess who the composer was? 


Letters from Mahler

Mar 10, 2017

In the letters of great composers, certain themes come up again and again, especially the composers’ struggles to get their works performed, and the desire—often frustrated—to have those works understood and appreciated. Here’s Gustav Mahler writing in 1906: “For the time being I must rest content with knowing that in a few places there are small circles of art-lovers for whom my work has some meaning, even perhaps some value. The first obstacle to its performance, no matter where, consists in the resources that would have to be employed...


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Mar 9, 2017

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an example of one of the great “types” in the history of classical music: the virtuoso performer who was also an important composer. And indeed he was one of the greatest examples of this type, because both his performing and his composing activities were on the highest level. During his time, in fact, Rachmaninoff was considered by many to be nothing less than the greatest pianist in the world—and if you go online and check out some of the many Rachmaninoff recordings, I think you’ll see why.


Jean Sibelius

Mar 8, 2017

Jean Sibelius was a fascinating man. He was born the year the American Civil War ended and he died in the year of Sputnik. He was a prolific composer—in addition to seven symphonies, many other orchestral works, choral music, music for the stage, and chamber music, he wrote more than a hundred songs—but over the last thirty years of his life he wrote virtually nothing. He was the greatest of Finnish composers, but he was a Swedish Finn: his first language was Swedish, and in fact he didn’t even learn to speak Finnish well until he was a young man.


Debussy on Bach

Mar 2, 2017

Here are a few words that one great composer wrote about another—and I wonder if you can guess who was writing about whom. Ready? “Once again one finds almost the entire piece is pure musical arabesque…In reworking the arabesque he made it more flexible, more fluid, and despite the fact that [he] always imposed a rigorous discipline on beauty, he imbued it with a wealth of free fantasy so limitless that it still astonishes us…” “We can be sure that [he] scorned harmonic formulas. He preferred the free play of sonorities whose curves…would result in an undreamed of flowering, so that the least of his manuscripts bears an indelible stamp of beauty.”


Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were roughly contemporaries, and as two of the greatest figures in late 19th and early 20th century French music, they tend to be linked in people’s minds. But although they had similar training and came under many of the same influences, their musical styles and techniques were really quite different. And each admired the other’s talents, but that didn’t stop either one of them from criticizing what he saw as the other’s weaknesses.


Maurice Ravel

Feb 24, 2017

A famous music critic once referred to the French composer Maurice Ravel as “this most conscious, most naturally artificial of composers.” And in fact Ravel specifically said that he wasn’t seeking “profundity” in the music he wrote. He was merely seeking…perfection—some sort of technical perfection in composition, as he defined it, with “absolute beauty” as the guidepost and goal. But here’s the problem: I’m not sure we should completely believe him. Ravel once said, “In my opinion the joie de vivre expressed in dance goes much deeper than the puritanism of César Franck.”


Today is the birthday of George Washington, so I thought I’d talk about… Alexander Reinagle. And in case this doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice to you, I’ll explain. Reinagle was a keyboard player and composer who was born in England in 1756 but who came to America in 1786, landing first in New York and then moving to Philadelphia.


Debussy the Writer

Feb 17, 2017

Claude Debussy was a great composer, but like many other famous composers, he was also a wonderful writer. He wrote countless articles of music criticism, and his writing was clever, funny, insightful, highly opinionated, and often wickedly caustic. He wrote some of his articles under the pseudonym Monsieur Croche, which in French means “Mr. Eighth Note,” but whether writing as Monsieur Croche or himself, he was never shy about saying what he thought. 


Today is the birthday of the French composer Georges Auric, who was born on February 15, 1899. Auric was one of a group of avant-garde composers in Paris known as “Les Six,” or “The Six,” a group that also included Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc. The image of the romantic artist, tragic and solitary, had absolutely no appeal for Auric, and he wrote a number of works in collaboration with the other members of Les Six.  


We’re always fascinated by abilities that are far beyond the realm of our experiences, or even of our imaginations. Some people can hold their breath for 10 minutes, some can jump four feet off the ground, some can memorize the digits of pi out to thousands of places. And some musicians—actually many musicians, although I’m not one of them—can hear any note and tell you what that note is. It’s called having “perfect pitch.” 


Bellini and Melody

Feb 9, 2017

Vincenzo Bellini—the composer of Norma, La Sonnambula, and I Puritani, to name a few of his best-known operas—is famous for the beauty of his melodies, but also for his ability to use melody to define character, express passion, and advance dramatic action. And he had nothing but disdain for what he called the “ridiculous rules” that some people thought composers should be obliged to follow when setting poetry to music.


Mozart, they say, could compose music while he was playing billiards. Rossini wrote that he had once composed an overture while standing in the water fishing and listening to his fishing partner discuss Spanish finance. Prokofiev and other composers were known to carry notebooks with them so that they could jot down musical ideas that came to them on long walks, while Aaron Copland, when asked once how he found the inspiration for his music, said that the secret to inspiration was to sit down and work. 


Rossini on Singers

Feb 6, 2017

In The Barber of Seville and his many other operas, Gioacchino Rossini gave singers plenty of opportunities to show off their talents.  But in a letter he wrote in 1851, Rossini made it clear that he didn’t have much patience for the cult of the great singer, or for singers whose pretensions got the better of them.


I hope you’ll join me today in celebrating the birthday of Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809. By the time he was fourteen he had composed four operas, twelve sparkling string symphonies, and various other pieces, and by the time he was seventeen he had composed masterpieces of chamber music and orchestral music that will be played for as long as music is played anywhere. 


Much of what we know about the great composers we’ve learned from their letters. It’s true that occasionally—and with some composers more than others—the music they’ve written seems somehow to reflect what was going on in their lives at the time. But more often than not the music gives no clue. It’s in their letters, much more than in their music, that we get a window into the composers’ private thoughts, and into the joys and struggles of their personal lives. 


I’m always fascinated by the stories of musicians who were famous and terribly important in their own time but whose reputations at some point dip or dim or even disappear—sometimes for no obvious reason.  Today is the birthday of the Charles Martin Loeffler. Are you familiar with his music? He was born on January 30, 1861, and he had a distinguished career as both a violinist and composer. 


Today is January 27, and it’s Mozart’s birthday. I know I don’t have to tell you how wonderful Mozart’s music is to listen to… but if you’re not a musician yourself you may find it interesting to know that Mozart’s music is also wonderful to play. And it’s not that it’s easy—in fact it’s usually pretty hard, and sometimes very hard. 


Mozart Flute Quartets

Jan 23, 2017

In a famous letter to his father, Mozart once wrote, “you know I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument I cannot bear.” He was talking about the flute, and the occasion of the letter was a commission Mozart had received to write several flute concertos and quartets for flute and strings. In fairness to Mozart, neither the flutes nor the flutists of his day were terribly reliable, but it’s also possible that Mozart had just been procrastinating, and inventing an excuse to give his father. 


When musicians and music scholars prepare performances of works by dead composers, they often get stuck in arguments over determining what the composers’ “original intent” was. And while I certainly recognize the importance of scholarly accuracy and authenticity, and of staying true to the composers’ wishes, I think that sometimes musicians forget that dead composers were once alive. 


Composers during the Baroque period wrote plenty of chamber music, especially trio sonatas, and sonatas for such high-voiced instruments as the violin and the flute. But the chamber music repertoire that today’s audiences are most familiar with probably begins with the piano trios and string quartets of Joseph Haydn. After Haydn, the floodgates opened. 


You could write a book about the life of the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann– and as it turns out,  Telemann himself wrote three – three separate autobiographies. One of the things he wrote about is the time he spent in Poland in his early twenties. He became familiar with Polish and Moravian folk music during this period—he wrote that he experienced it in “all its barbaric beauty”—and he also heard the music of Eastern European gypsies. 


Today is the birthday of the composer Paul Hindemith, who was born near Frankfurt, Germany, in 1895. Hindemith originally trained as a violinist and violist, and as a young man he enjoyed a very successful performing career. But it was as a composer that he achieved lasting fame, eventually writing hundreds of pieces, from operas to string quartets to songs to sonatas for every conceivable instrument.


David Popper

Nov 14, 2016

Have you ever heard of a composer named David Popper? If you’re not a cellist, your answer is very likely…“Nope.” But if you are a cellist, your answer is, “Well of course.” There are some composers whose reputations rest almost entirely on their works for one instrument, and who, although they may not have been composers of the first rank, wrote brilliantly for that one instrument. Popper, who was born in Prague, in 1843, is a perfect example. 


Original Piano Piece by 10-Year-Old Composer

Oct 28, 2016
David Kiser

Henry Sun is a 10-year-old piano student and composer from the upstate. Listen to his original composition based on music by Handel. Standing on the shoulder's of giants on this edition of Your Compositions a movement of On the Keys. 

I’d like to read you part of an interesting job application letter. It was originally in French:

“My Lord, As I had the honor of playing before Your Royal Highness… and as I observed that You took some pleasure in the small talent that heaven has given me for music, and [as] You honoured me with a command to send You some pieces of my composition, I now…take the liberty of presenting [you] with the present concertos… humbly praying You not to judge their imperfections by the severity of the fine and delicate taste that every one knows You to have for music …”


Walter Pater was an influential 19th-century English author and critic, and in 1870 he wrote a fascinating essay about the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. In one passage that particularly caught my eye, Pater wrote, “If [Botticelli] painted religious incidents, [he] painted them with an undercurrent of original sentiment, which touches you as the real matter of the picture through the veil of its ostensible subject.” 


Gabriel Faure

Aug 17, 2016

Gabriel Fauré is often referred to as one of the greatest  French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I wonder if that description goes far enough. It’s certainly true that his contributions to French music, especially in the areas of chamber music, piano music, and music for the voice -- are remarkable. But they’re remarkable because they’re wonderful music, not because they’re French. 


J.S. Bach composed his St. Matthew Passion in 1727. But for the better part of a century after that, the piece essentially disappeared, unknown to all but a few specialists. One of those specialists was the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was the music teacher of a boy named Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was only about fourteen when his grandmother gave him a copy of the full score of the St. Matthew Passion – a score she had borrowed from Zelter…. 


I find it fascinating that many of the greatest composers of the 19th century—composers such as Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms, Dvorák, and Tchaikovsky—knew one another, and in many cases had very friendly personal and musical relationships. Schumann, for example, wrote his piano quintet for his wife, Clara, a great piano virtuoso…and Clara played the first public performance of the piece. 


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