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, he had forgotten whether he intended them as a single two-movement piece or not.
The full titles reveal both similarities of intention and profound differences in character:A Contemplation of Nothing Serious; Or, Central Park in the Dark in the Good Old Summer Time andA Contemplation of a Serious Matter; Or, The Unanswered Perennial Question.
Apparently, all of his weekend meditations on the meaning of existence had not given him any satisfactory answers. He decided to express the question in what he called a “cosmic landscape.” Continue reading →
Puccini was born into Lucca’s most prominent musical family, a dynasty that began with his great-great-grandfather. Only the Bach dynasty (seven generations) lasted longer than the Puccini dynasty. Although Puccini was only five when his father died, everyone assumed that he would eventually take over the now hereditary position of organist and music director at San Martino Cathedral. Instead, he turned away from church music and devoted his life to opera.
He always had trouble finding suitable librettos and even more trouble once he had them. He started and abandoned as many operas as he completed. In 1913, he decided to compose a set of three one-act operas, to be called Il trittico.
Of all of his original ideas, he completed only Il tabarro. His eventual choices for companion pieces, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, are his only works written (by librettist Giovacchino Forzano) as operas and not adapted from an earlier stage play. Additionally, Gianni Schicchi is his only comic opera. Continue reading →
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 like-minded 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 earliest works to attract international intention, including hisThrenody to the Victims of Hiroshima and St. Luke Passion, were written under the influence of these older composers.
They display, however, emotional qualities that have continued to earn them performances where most post-war avant-garde music has never been welcome. Composing the Passion further allowed Penderecki to express his devout Roman Catholic faith and thereby find yet another way to snub communist orthodoxy. Continue reading →
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra occupies a special place in the orchestral repertoire. It’s a wonder he ever composed it.
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. Continue reading →
Franz Schubert. Detail from a watercolor portrait (1825) by Wilhelm August Rieder. Public domain.
In an earlier post, I looked at the numbering of Dvořák’s symphonies. He wrote nine, but chose to publish only five of them. A thematic catalog of 1955 included all nine and renumbered them. That numbering is now universally used, but it caused some confusion when it first appeared. Older publications and recordings with the old numbering system catch people off guard now.
Franz Schubert’s symphonies present similar problems. What is the correct numbering of his last two symphonies? It is important to remember that none of his symphonies appeared in print in his lifetime. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →