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

Symphony no. 7 by Sergey Prokofiev

I never gave much thought to Prokofiev symphonies until my orchestra needed to hire a new conductor. We interviewed six semi-finalists and listened to them explain a sample program. Five of the six built their proposed program around Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony! We’re working on performing it now. Prokofiev as symphonist When Sergey Prokofiev first performed some of his piano music in public (in 1908) critics found it unintelligible. In response, he carefully maintained his reputation as an ultramodern radical.  … Continue reading

I like that symphony. Who wrote it?

If you attend a lot of live classical music concerts (especially orchestra concerts), chances are you hear music by the same composers over and over. If you listen to classical music radio, you hear music by unfamiliar composers, but chances are it’s very nice music. Have you ever wondered who these composers are and why they’re not well known? Anton Bruckner Wait, you may say. Bruckner is hardly an unknown composer. He was one of the great symphonists of the late 19th century. Oh, and he also wrote some lovely choral music. But did it occur to you that probably … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Today’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra, but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols. Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it. At about the same … Continue reading

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

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