5 great stories about great composers




It is quite possible to enjoy or appreciate music, or any other artform, without knowing anything about the person who created it. But in whatever form, art is a human creation. Real people composed classical music. Real people have personalities, and knowing something about those personalities can put a human face on the music and rescue it from being a mere object. Enjoy these glimpses into moments in the lives of the people whose music brings so much pleasure. Franz Schubert Between March 1811 and October 1828, Schubert wrote more than 600 songs, not to mention symphonies, church music, operas, … Continue reading

Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Gustav Mahler




Gustav Mahler wrote very long symphonies. Only the First and the Fourth can be played in less than an hour. The symphonies also call for far larger orchestras than those of other composers. Some even require vocal soloists and/or chorus. By Mahler’s time, the symphony had already come a long way from the first symphonic masterpieces. Haydn and Mozart wrote symphonies that established the expectation of a four-movement work Sonata form, fast with or without a slow introduction Slow movement Minuet Fast movement They made sure that the structure of each movement could be clearly heard. Their sonata forms had … Continue reading

A Birthday Tribute to Benjamin Britten: The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra




Ordinarily when I write program notes, I focus on a single piece. Since this year marks Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday, it seems appropriate to widen the focus and look at The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra within the context of Britten’s life at the time he composed it. His opera Peter Grimes becomes a very important part of the story. Benjamin Britten started composing at the age of 5. When he was 11 he met Frank Bridge at the Norwich Music Festival and became his pupil. Beside excellent technical skill, he learned about musical developments in Europe. When he … Continue reading

Firebird, by Igor Stravinsky




In 1909, Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russe, had a ballet based on two Russian legends in mind. Neither his resident composer Nikolai Tcherepnin nor Anatoly Lyadov accepted his request to compose the music. Therefore he turned to the virtually unknown Igor Stravinsky. The resulting ballet, Firebird, turned out to be a turning point in the careers of both men and one of the most successful pieces of twentieth-century music. Diaghilev had encountered Stravinsky’s music before, having asked him to orchestrate some Chopin pieces for an earlier ballet. But Stravinsky’s teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had only recently … Continue reading

Waisenhauskirche Mass: Tradition vs innovation in Mozart’s trombone parts




Mozart’s Requiem, the last piece he ever worked on, has a trombone solo in the Tuba mirum movement. So far as I know, there is nothing like it anywhere in the standard sacred music repertoire. The important word in that sentence is “standard.” People who wrote about musical performances in the nineteenth century were all too aware of the uniqueness of that solo. Throughout the century in every country from which I have seen magazine or newspaper articles, critics rarely mentioned the trombones in classical music except to complain that they were too loud. Along with more than one author … Continue reading

Home, Sweet Home, by Henry Rowley Bishop




Home, Sweet Home” was the single most popular song of the entire 19th century, both in the United States and in England. Its success may owe more to the American poet who wrote the words than to the English composer of the tune. Henry Rowley Bishop was the most respected English musician of his generation. Contemporaries even called him the “English Mozart.” Almost single-handed, he kept the tradition of English opera alive. English opera and Bishop’s reputation. “Opera” seems highbrow nowadays. In the early nineteenth century it was the popular music of the upper class–that is, if it was in … Continue reading

Brahms, Bruckner and critics




At the end of the nineteenth century, everyone in the world who cared about modern German music (who were a lot more than just Germans) got into a free for all about the relative merits of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Anton Bruckner, a rather timid symphonist, got caught in the middle. After all, Brahms wrote no operas and Wagner wrote no symphonies. Bruckner, who wrote symphonies and liked Wagner’s operas found himself an easy target for people who disliked Wagner. It took a generation after the chief antagonists died before anyone could publicly admit to liking both Brahms and … Continue reading

Rodeo, by Aaron Copland




Rodeo: The Courting at Burnt Ranch launched the ballet career of Agnes de Mille in 1942. It remains one of only three of de Mille’s ballets that remain in the repertoire. The greatness and popularity of Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet deserves at least some of the credit, but it almost didn’t get written at all. When de Mille spoke to Copland about the basic theme of the ballet, he responded that he had already written a western ballet (Billy the Kid, 1938). Why should he write another one? Why couldn’t she provide him with something about Ellis Island? … Continue reading

Unlikely greatness: Joseph Haydn as a child




In the middle of the eighteenth century, peasant boys born in villages tended to remain peasant villagers for the rest of their lives. Musicians of any social class usually came from musical families. Joseph Haydn, born to a wheelwright and a cook in the Austrian village of Rohrau, seems an unlikely candidate to become a musician at all, let alone become wealthy and internationally famous. His father, Mathias, could not read music, but learned to play the harp by ear. Singing songs while playing the harp, or playing harp while the family sang, was a favorite pastime. Visitors might also … Continue reading

From the New World: 9th symphony by Antonin Dvořák




Antonin Dvořák came to America because of a woman who was used to getting her own way. In 1884, a wealthy arts patroness in New York, Jeanette Thurber, established the National Conservatory of Music and hired a Belgian singer as its first director. The Conservatory was unusual for a number of reasons: She conceived and ran it as a philanthropic, not commercial venture. Therefore, it admitted students who otherwise could not have gotten a musical education. Women as well as men comprised the student body. The student body was not limited to white students. Some Native American and African American … Continue reading