The raucous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring




By the time Stravinsky mounted  Rite of Spring in 1913, history had already seen many premieres of operas and other theatrical works where audiences loudly disliked what they saw. In some cases, such as the premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the noise came from a paid claque. In Rossini’s case, he dared to use the same story as an already successful opera by Giovanni Paisiello, who sent his friends to shout it down. But what happened to Rite of Spring (original title Sacre du Printemps) topped anything that had happened before. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets for the same company, Firebird … Continue reading

Schoenberg vs Stravinsky




Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky emerged between the two World Wars as leaders of two radically different approaches to writing modern music. Not only rivals, they personally despised each other. Interviewed by a Barcelona newspaper in 1936, Stravinsky called Schoenberg more of a musical chemist than artist. He acknowledged the importance of Schoenberg’s research. After all, they did expand possibilities of what people might enjoy hearing. But on the whole, he considered the twelve-tone method very much like Alois Haba’s experiments with quarter-tones. They exist only scientifically. Can anyone make genuine art with either method? Stravinsky thought not. Schoenberg vented … Continue reading

Slonimsky scorecard: Aaron Copland




Little by little, I plan to look at composers who were still living at the time Nicolas Slonimsky published bad reviews of their music in his Lexicon of Musical Invective. He compiled this most unusual and entertaining book because he believed in the idea of musical progress. The bad reviews, he said, from “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar,” and the subsequent popularity of these same composers proved that the critics were bad prophets. It should, of course, be child’s play to find bad reviews of bad and now-forgotten composers. Slonimsky picked good composers. If he was a better prophet than the … Continue reading

Carl Stalling: cartoon music pioneer




Soon after his first cartoon with music (Steamboat Willie, 1928), Walt Disney hired Carl Stalling as his music director.  Stalling provided music for many more cartoons over the next few years, including the earliest Silly Symphonies. Beginning in 1936, he worked for Warner Bros. and wrote all of the cartoon music there (including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, Porky Pig, and Sylvester) for 22 years until his retirement in 1958. Stalling saw his first movie at age 12 in1903 and vowed to be involved in movies in some way. Seven years later, he got his first job, playing in … Continue reading

Miserere, by Henryk Górecki




In 1994, when I was living and teaching in the Chicago area, one of my graduate students, a member of the Lira Chamber Chorus, invited me to one of the group’s concerts at St. Mary of the Angels Church on the northwest side of Chicago. The entire concert would be devoted to new choral works by Henryk Górecki. I had never heard of him and found it intriguing that an entire concert would consist of the works of one living foreign composer. For most of the program, the Lira Chamber Chorus made up only part of a massed choir, collaborating … Continue reading

Jeu de cartes by Igor Stravinsky




After beginning his career as a very Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky became an international composer in at least two very different ways. First, he decided never to return to Russia after the Revolution of 1917. Although he lived in France, he traveled a lot. By the time he moved to the United States in 1939, he had already made numerous contacts. Second, he opened himself to influences from all over the world. Despite the French title, Stravinsky wrote Jeu de cartes (Card Game) on commission from American choreographer George Balanchine and the newly formed American Ballet in 1936. By that … Continue reading

The Unanswered Question, by Charles Ives




One thing Charles Ives learned at Yale: he had no chance of earning a living as a professional musician if he wanted to be true to his own ideals. Not only did his musical idiom confuse his teachers, it also confused his fellow students. He went into the insurance business and composed music as a hobby. After a long day at the office, he composed during the evening in his Manhattan apartment. He spent quiet weekends at a cabin in Connecticut, meditating, writing, and planning new compositions. Ives began two new works in 1906, both called Contemplation. In later years, … Continue reading

"Easter Parade," by Irving Berlin




Perhaps the most popular Easter song in the English language, “Easter Parade” started out with completely different words. In 1917, Berlin wrote “Smile and Show Your Dimple” to cheer up women whose men had just been deployed to fight in the First World War. No one remembered it very long except Berlin himself. In 1933, Berlin and playwright Moss Hart decided to collaborate on a satiric review with sketches taken from the daily newspaper. They called it As Thousands Cheer. It had sketches not only from the news sections, but also the society column, advice column, weather report, and comics. … Continue reading

St. Luke Passion, by Krzysztof Penderecki




Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki grew up under the heavy hand of communism and its socialist realism aesthetic. Like many Eastern Europeans of his generation, he looked to the West for inspiration and a sense of liberation from official dictates. What he and many other likeminded composers found was the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, and other representatives of a generation of composers who grew up chafing under similarly oppressive Nazism and fascism. As he commented later, this music gave the illusion of universalism, but strayed too far from the expressive qualities of Western music. Of course, his … Continue reading

Menuhin on Toscanini




As a teenager, violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under the baton of the volatile Arturo Toscanini. While they rehearsed in Toscanini’s apartment, the young soloist was treated to perhaps the calmest, quietest temper tantrum of Toscanini’s life. As he described it later: It was during the preparation for this performance that Toscanini showed me what it meant to be sure of oneself. In his apartment at the Hotel Astor on Times Square–which had an Italian proprietor and no doubt reliable pasta–we had reached the middle of the slow movement where, after the second tutti, the sound marked … Continue reading