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

Summertime, by George Gershwin




Is it even conceivable that any series of outdoor orchestra or concert band concerts (at least in the US) has never presented someone singing “Summertime”? If a series has lasted more than five or ten years, its audiences have probably heard it sung multiple times—not to mention instrumental arrangements on those or a wide variety of other concerts. It’s one of George Gershwin’s best-loved works, and certainly his most recorded. Some people regard Gershwin as America’s greatest composer. Too many professional critics dismiss him, looking askance at the fact that he devoted most of his energy to (shudder) popular music. … Continue reading

Four tangos by classical composers




The tango, in a sense, is to 20th-century music what the waltz was in the 19th century. It originated from the lower social classes of Argentina. Polite society found it scandalous (as respectable people had scorned the waltz in Bohemia, Austria, and Bavaria a century earlier). But like the waltz it became insanely popular in Paris and eventually embraced at home. Paris has long served as the launching pad for dances that, whatever their origin, become internationally popular. Just as classical composers of the 19th century embraced the waltz, so those of the 20th century (and at least one who … 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

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

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

Olympic fanfare(s): John Williams and Leo Arnaud




With the Olympics in progress, and snippets of John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme heard constantly, it seems good to take a closer look at this piece–especially since Williams’ 80th birthday is this month. One of Williams’ challenges in composing Olympic Fanfare and Theme was writing music that could bear comparison with a 20-year-old theme that was already synonymous with the Olympics. Another favorite Olympic theme Ever since the modern Olympics began in 1896, music has been composed especially for various Olympiads. Most of it seems to have been forgotten soon afterward. Ironically, the best known music associated with the … Continue reading

Carousel: June Is Bustin’ Out All Over, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II




As a kid who hated snow from the first time he held a snow shovel in his hands, I immediately loved “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” when I first heard it. It’s an exuberant welcome to the beginning of summer, a fulfillment of the promise that May only started to keep. The song was first introduced as a rousing production number in Carousel, the second stage collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Their first, Oklahoma, had been so successful that they could simply assume that their next project could not measure up. So how did they go … Continue reading

Warsaw Concerto, by Richard Addinsell




Music has been associated with theater for centuries. So it’s no wonder that movies needed music even before it became possible to add sound to them. Composers who wrote mostly concert music also began to compose film music–Aaron Copland, for example But every studio of any pretension has its own staff of composers and arrangers. With notable exceptions, these musicians labor in anonymity. If their names have ever become familiar to the public, their music has been seldom heard on the concert stage until fairly recently. How did Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto become such a well-known exception to the rule? … Continue reading

Les Préludes, by Franz Liszt




Les Préludes, d’après Lamartine is the third symphonic poem that Franz Liszt composed, the first to be performed, and the only one to find a permanent place in the orchestral repertoire. Liszt invented the symphonic poem, but audiences and orchestras alike found them difficult and forbidding. Symphonic poems have two basic characteristics. Musically, they contain all of the structural characteristics of a traditional four-movement symphony within a single movement. They also attempt to unite music and literature by means of a preface, or program, that Liszt provided. The program For Les Préludes, Liszt prepared a prose interpretation of a poem … Continue reading