Vltava (The Moldau) by Bedřich Smetana




Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) is remembered chiefly as a Czech nationalistic composer. His nationalism expressed itself above all in his operas, but he also wrote symphonic tone poems after the example of Franz Liszt. One of them, The Moldau, has become a beloved part of the international orchestral repertoire. He would probably not be happy that it’s known by that name. He called it Vltava … Continue reading

Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary: without the opera hype




The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death. By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history. Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form. … Continue reading

Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofé




Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite remains one of the most popular of American orchestral pieces. He first wrote it for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and devoted his entire career to popular music. Classical music critics long scorned popular music. Throughout the 20th century, most standard classical music reference works ignored popular music figures as much as possible. The 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, has no article on Grofé, although it devotes ample space to some of his contemporaries who never composed anything as successful as the Grand Canyon Suite. The few available … Continue reading

Dueling melodies: Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs




Lovers of Irving Berlin’s music know that he wrote double songs. Two characters on stage sing different songs in succession. Then they sing them together in counterpoint. Most may not be aware that Berlin published 15 of them between 1914 and 1966. … Continue reading

Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 by George Enescu




George Enescu (1881-1955) was 3 when he heard some village fiddlers. The next day he tried to imitate the instruments. He made a violin by attaching some thread to a piece of wood and a cimbalom from some wooden sticks. He imitated the reed pipe with his lips. His parents noticed his growing preoccupation with music and gave him a toy violin with three strings when he was 4. Offended at not getting a real violin, he threw it in the fire. Once they bought him a real one, he started picking out tunes by ear, using one finger on … Continue reading

Composers: quotations about other composers




As a lover of classical music, you enjoy the music of many composers, but dislike others. Composers are no different, except that they are required to study other composers’ music carefully whether they like it or not, both their contemporaries and generations of earlier composers. Perhaps you have never heard of Brian Ferneyhough. Living composers are little known to today’s public, but he made the observation more eloquently than I can: “Composers dialogue – and obsessively, bitterly argue – with other composers, often over the span of several centuries.” … Continue reading

Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials




Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865. They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists. For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both. On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths. … Continue reading

Sacred Choral Music from the Former Soviet Bloc




As an undergraduate composition student in the 1970s, I tried to like the music that my teachers thought important, including Webern, Stockhausen, Cage, et al. General audiences have never liked it, and I never did manage to like the music only an academic can love. Inevitably a new generation of composers arose, but it was only after one of my graduate students invited me to a concert of mostly sacred choral music by Henryk Górecki in 1994 that I heard any European post-avant-garde music. A surprising number of devoutly Christian composers lived and worked in countries of the former Soviet … Continue reading

The reputation of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach




This year marks the 300th anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His contemporaries held him in much higher esteem than later generations, who have regarded him as just one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons. Yet in his lifetime, he was known as the “Great Bach.” When Mozart said, “Bach is the father. We are the children,” he had Emanuel in mind, not Sebastian. We may see him only in the shadow of his father, but in his lifetime, his father cast hardly any shadow at all. Why isn’t C.P.E. Bach better known today? … Continue reading

Night on Bald Mountain, by Modest Mussorgsky




Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a brilliant, but undisciplined composer who left many unfinished works at his death. His colleague Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov finished many of them and had them published. Oddly enough, Mussorgsky finished Night on Bald Mountain three times. Rimsky-Korsakov finished it again, and it’s his version we most often hear. Mussorgsky’s original version was never performed until 1968. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain Mussorgsky may have considered writing an opera based on Gogol’s story “St. John’s Eve” as early as 1860. A friend of Mussorgsky’s wrote a play called “The Witch,” which included a witch’s sabbath scene on a bare … Continue reading