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

Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók




Bartók and his wife fled their native Hungary and moved to New York in 1940, shortly after he composed his last work in Europe, the Sixth String Quartet. He never felt comfortable in the United States and composed nothing at all for three years. The money he received from royalties, occasional performances, and a research fellowship at Columbia University hardly provided enough to live on. To make matters worse, he contracted leukemia. The first symptoms appeared in 1940, but he did not receive a definitive diagnosis until 1944. As he got sicker and less able to work, his friends became … Continue reading

Klemperer on Mahler




Otto Klemperer met Gustav Mahler when he had the opportunity to conduct the off-stage brass at a performance of the latter’s Second Symphony in 1905. The two became friends, and Mahler helped Klemperer become the conductor of the German opera company in Prague two years later. Klemperer, in turn, became one of the foremost interpreters and champions of Mahler’s music. Later, Klemperer recalled an incident that occurred when Mahler was conducting in Vienna: There were few soloists in the Phiharmonic’s concerts at this period, and only the very best got a chance to appear. Mahler engaged [Ferruccio] Busoni, for instance, … Continue reading

The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi




Ottorino Respighi became what seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago: an Italian composer of orchestral music. He composed no successful operas at all. Instead, he wrote the first significant Italian contributions to orchestral music since the Baroque era. He studied composition with the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under his influence, and that of the French Impressionists and Richard Strauss, Respighi wrote some very successful symphonic tone poems, foreign in form, but  very Italian in subject matter. The Pines of Rome (1924), the best known of them, is one of three tone poems that celebrate Rome–along with The Fountains of Rome (1918) … Continue reading

Jeux by Claude Debussy




Debussy wrote his last ballet and last orchestral work, Jeux, (or Games for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, with Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer and lead dancer. The first performance puzzled its audience, and as it took place only two weeks before the tumultuous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, it was nearly forgotten in the uproar. On closer inspection, Jeux was every bit as revolutionary and forward-looking as Sacre and even more daring harmonically. Debussy’s most nearly atonal work, Jeux‘s formal structure depends to an unprecedented degree on orchestral color and texture rather than pitch relationships. In this way, it … Continue reading

The Fantasticks: book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt




Musicals, or at least so it seemed according to the example set by Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein, ought to be big, bold, impressive, with elaborate production numbers, fancy costumes, and lighting effects. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt thought so when they became friends at the University of Texas and dreamed of conquering New York. Even while serving is different army units, they managed to collaborate on songs by mail. Once in New York, they tried to make an elaborate musical out of a one-act spoof on Romeo and Juliette by Edmund Rostand, Les Romanesques. In hindsight, they attempted … Continue reading