"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

[ad name=”Google Adsense 728×90″] 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 … Continue reading

Jeux by Claude Debussy

[ad name=”Google Adsense 468×60″] 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. … 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

Rapsodie espagnole by Maurice Ravel

Ironically, in view of Maurice Ravel’s reputation as a brilliant orchestrator, he conceived only Rapsodie espagnole as a purely orchestral display piece from the beginning, and that only in part. He either wrote his other orchestral works for the stage or transcribed them from piano pieces. In fact, the “Habanera” in Rapsodie espagnole was written originally for two pianos. Ravel shared the enthusiasm of many French composers for Spanish music. In his case, he absorbed an understanding of both French and Spanish culture as a child. Son of a Swiss father and Basque mother, he grew up in the Basque … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about Gustav Mahler

When he was a little boy, someone asked Mahler what he wanted to be when he grew up; he said, “a martyr.” One day, a friend noticed that Mahler looked sad; Mahler said he had just learned that his father was ill. The next day, the same friend saw a man running through the street sobbing. It was Mahler. Had something happened to his father? It was much worse than that; he learned that Richard Wagner had died. Conducting his first Ring Cycle, Mahler was furious when the timpanist missed an important cue in the final scene of Das Rheingold; … Continue reading