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2017-09-15 09:33 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Ma Sicong, Symphony No. 2

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Ma Sicong (1912-1987) was China's earliest significant composer of music for Western instruments. He was best known as a violin virtuoso during his lifetime, often referred to in China as the "King of Violinists" from the 1930s through the 1950s. Although Ma did not grow up in a particularly musical family (his father was the finance minister of the province of Guangdong in the early years of the Republic of China), he and most of his siblings eventually became professional string players; his younger sister Ma Siju was probably China's leading cellist in the 1940s and 1950s. Ma Sicong himself was introduced to the violin when his older brother, who had gone to France to study music, brought him a violin on a visit home in the summer of 1923. He fell in love with the instrument, and before the end of the year, aged just eleven, he joined his brother in France. Except for a brief return to China in 1929, he remained in France until 1932 and studied violin and composition at the Paris Conservatoire.

After returning to Asia, Ma was active as a concert violinist and composer and held a series of faculty appointments, culminating in his appointment in 1949 as the first president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He frequently represented China in musical events throughout the Communist bloc; in 1958 he served on the jury for the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, which Van Cliburn famously won. But when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, he and other leading music teachers in China were persecuted for teaching Western music. Upon his arrival at the Central Conservatory for the beginning of the 1966-67 academic year, he was arrested by the Red Guards and confined to a classroom for 103 days, and then brutally beaten before being released. In January 1967, he defected to the United States via Hong Kong, in a dramatic escape that involved him and his family being smuggled to Hong Kong aboard a fishing boat. He was briefly a celebrity in the West -- before the Cultural Revolution he had been China's single most prominent musician, and a friend of both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, so his defection was seen as a major coup for the US -- and his music received a number of performances in the United States and Taiwan in 1967 and 1968. Meanwhile, after Life magazine published a first-person account by Ma titled "Cruelty and Insanity Made Me a Fugitive," he was tried and convicted of treason in absentia back in China, and all his music was banned. Ma Sicong spent the rest of his life in Philadelphia, composing only sporadically but continuing to perform as a violinist in the United States and Taiwan.

Eventually Ma Sicong was rehabilitated in China: his conviction for treason was rescinded in 1984, with Wu Zuqiang (then president of the Central Conservatory of Music) and Henry Kissinger traveling to Philadelphia to deliver him the news in person. On the Chinese New Year, 1985, more than a hundred Chinese newspapers ran front-page stories declaring that Ma Sicong was again welcome in China. In 1997, the tenth anniversary of his death was commemorated in Beijing with a concert of some of his best-known pieces, and in 2002 the Guangzhou Museum of Art opened a Ma Sicong Memorial Hall. In the United States, there was some renewed interest in his music beginning in 2012, as a number of musical organizations in the Philadelphia area commemorated the centennial of a Philadelphia resident famous in China yet largely unknown in his adopted hometown.

This week's forgotten masterpiece is Ma's second symphony, one of his few major works to be recorded. Composed in 1958-59, at the height of Ma's career in China, it was ostensibly based on Mao Zedong's poem "Loushan Pass" which commemorated the Red Army's first victory during the Long March, though the music is not explicitly programmatic in the sense of having any form of descriptive subtitles, and some of it draws more from 20th century trends in Western music such as use of medieval church modes. Although there are pauses between movements, the end of each movement and the beginning of the next are ingeniously written to form somewhat of a transition from one movement to the next. The first movement is short and in traditional sonata form, featuring a vigorous opening theme in Phrygian mode and a second theme based loosely on a Shaanxi folk song. The second movement is an anguished dirge that might represent the hardships of the long retreat, or mourning for fallen comrades. The third movement brings back the opening theme of the piece before transitioning into what might be a victory celebration featuring a number of folk dances.

I. Allegro agitato
II. Adagio maestoso (5:27)
III. Allegro (16:58)

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2017-09-08 10:36 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Giovanni Sgambati, Symphony No. 1

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

In the 19th century, Italy was a difficult place to get an audience for symphonic music. Italians were obsessed with opera, to the exclusion of virtually all other art music. It was not until 1867, more than six decades after it was composed, that Beethoven's celebrated 3rd Symphony was first heard in Italy. And it wasn't an exception among symphonies. Beethoven's 7th (completed in 1812) only received its Italian premiere in 1870, and Brahms's 2nd (completed in 1877) was not performed in Italy until 1898. Not surprisingly, few Italian composers wrote any symphonies at all in that era.

The lone exception was Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914), who in fact also conducted the Italian premieres of Beethoven's 3rd and 7th Symphonies. Born in Rome but educated in Germany, Sgambati made it his life's work to reintroduce symphonies to Italy, and produced three symphonies of his own.

Sgambati's First Symphony was composed in 1880-81 and was one of the few symphonies to become popular in Italy before the 20th century. It was part of the standard repertoire of Italian orchestras for decades; elsewhere in Europe, it was a favorite of Grieg and Saint-Saëns. Unusually for the time, Sgambati combined a sense of melody taken from Italian opera with a distinctly symphonic style of orchestration, especially in the slow second movement as well as the "Serenata" that he inserted between the scherzo and the finale. A different sort of operatic influence can be found in the scherzo movement, which seems to take some cues from Wagner. The first and last movements, meanwhile, show some of the influence of Sgambati's own mentor Franz Liszt: although they are a sonata allegro movement and a rondo as was traditional, they rely less on developing main themes than on transforming and recombining smaller motives in kaleidoscopic fashion.


I. Allegro vivace, non troppo
II. Andante mesto (10:20)
III. Scherzo: Presto (21:32)
IV. Serenata: Andante (27:19)
V. Finale: Allegro con fuoco (35:05)

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2017-09-01 11:23 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Augusta Holmès, Andromède

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

This week's composer, Augusta Holmès (1847-1903), was born in Paris to an Irish father and an English mother; her last name at birth was Holmes, but in 1871 she became a French citizen and added the accent to her name. She was rather fortunate in comparison to other female composers of her era: as an only child, she was sole heir to her father's fortune, and thus was able to finance her own education and career. She was a student of Cesar Franck, and by 1891 was prominent enough that she led the group of Franck's students who commissioned the a bust of their late mentor from Rodin. Like many other female composers of her era, Holmès published under a male pseudonym, "Hermann Zenta," only composing under her own name after achieving some success under Zenta's name.

This week may be an especially fitting time to present music by Holmès, because her most notable work was the Ode Triomphale that she was commissioned to write for the 1889 celebration of the centennial of the French Revolution, a work that required a chorus of 900 singers and an orchestra of 300. Holmès accepted no payment for the piece, directing instead that her fee and her share of the proceeds be donated to assist victims of flooding in Antwerp.

The Ode Triomphale was never recorded, and would probably be rather difficult to record properly -- but some of her other works have, including this symphonic poem, Andromède. Composed in 1883, Andromède was one of the earliest pieces that Holmès published under her own name.

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2017-08-25 09:32 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Jehan Alain, Trois Danses

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

After the events in Charlottesville, this is the second consecutive Friday featuring the work of a composer who died fighting against Nazi Germany -- and tonight, the composer is someone who took no fewer than 16 Nazis with him in a ferocious one-man last stand.

Jehan Alain (1911-1940) had an enigmatic, mystical style influenced by Scriabin and Messiaen as well as by jazz and Asian music, and often featuring an unusual set of octatonic scales of his own creation. Almost all of his output was composed for the organ; while he remains obscure, at least a few organists have called him the greatest organ composer of the 20th century.

Alain's career was cut short by the Second World War: when Germany invaded France, he enlisted and served as a motorcycle dispatch rider with an armored division. In June 1940, six days before France surrendered, Alain was sent on a reconnaissance mission to scout the German advance near Saumur, and unexpectedly encountered a large contingent of German troops as he rounded a curve in the road. Unable to turn around and escape, he abandoned his motorcycle and made a heroic last stand with his rifle; his body was found surrounded by sixteen dead Germans. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery.

Evidently the war had not kept him from continuing to compose; also found around him were numerous pages of handwritten music that had fallen out of his dispatch bag. But nothing he wrote during his military service could be reconstructed, and thus we are left with his Trois Danses as his last completed work. The Trois Danses were also his most substantial piece. He initially composed the work for piano in 1937, but, dissatisfied with it as a piano piece, rewrote it for organ, the version that survives today, in 1939-40. He also began arranging the piece for orchestra, but abandoned that effort shortly before enlisting, when his orchestral manuscript was sucked out of the window of a moving train.

None of the Danses follows any traditional dance form. The first, "Joies" (Joys), alternates between a somber slow figure and a fast ostinato in 7/8 time, which gradually merge into an ecstatic middle section that feels both fast and slow at once. Eventually the movement settles into a quiet, meditative coda. The second movement, "Deuils" (Mourning), broods darkly throughout, lightened only by some floating, trance-like melodies in the later part of the movement. Alain may have composed this movement in memory of his sister, who died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1937; he suggested it could be played as a stand-alone piece under the title "Danse funèbre pour honorer une mémoire héroïque" (Funeral dance to honour a heroic memory). The final movement is titled "Luttes" (Struggles), which plays out as a battle between several contrasting melodic motifs, with none emerging into the foreground for any extended time. Suddenly the rug is pulled out from under all the combatants, with a single new idea taking over; and the end of the piece appears just as suddenly, with a series of chordal blasts interrupting, seemingly out of nowhere.

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2017-08-18 11:29 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Veniamin Fleishman, Rothschild's Violin

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Since we all unfortunately have Nazis on our minds right now, both this week's forgotten masterpiece and next week's will be by composers who died fighting Nazis.

This week we have a one-act opera by the Russian Jewish composer Veniamin Fleishman (1913-1941). Fleishman was one of Dmitri Shostakovich's most promising students at the Leningrad Conservatory. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he had been working on a one-act opera based on Anton Chekhov's short story Rothschild's Violin, which he had sketched out in short score, and was beginning to orchestrate it. But with the outbreak of war, Fleishman enlisted and was sent to the front. That September, during the siege of Leningrad, he was killed in battle when the pillbox he was defending was destroyed by German tanks. His body was never recovered.

In October 1941, Shostakovich heard that his student had been killed in action, and that the unfinished opera score was likely still in Leningrad; Fleishman's wife had left it at the Leningrad Composers' Union when civilians were evacuated from the city. In May, Shostakovich wrote to some of his former students who were in the army, asking them to try to recover the score if it was still at the Composers' Union. Around the end of 1943, one of those students, an army officer named Boris Klyuzner, was able to reach the abandoned building, retrieve the short score and partial orchestration, and send it to Shostakovich. Shostakovich completed the orchestration on February 5, 1944, and after Stalin's death used his new-found influence in the Soviet musical establishment to get the opera published and premiered in 1960.

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2017-08-11 03:53 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Manuel Manrique de Lara, La Orestiada

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Spain has never been known for its orchestral music; after the death of Juan Arriaga in 1826, there was very lttle Spanish orchestral music of note until the 20th century. So I was pleasantly surprised earlier this year to come across some of the work of Manuel Manrique de Lara (1863-1929), a primarily orchestral composer from Cartagena, Spain.

There is little or no English-language biographical material on Manrique de Lara (not even a Wikipedia entry!); the only substantial biography appears in a newsletter of the Wagner Association of Barcelona. No surprise there: as a music critic, he was instrumental in bringing Wagner to the attention of the Spanish public. He was trained mainly as an ethnomusicologist, and spent much of the early part of his career studying North African music, but as a composer his main influences were Wagner, Richard Strauss, and to a lesser extent Debussy and Dukas. His idiom was arguably more Straussian than Wagnerian: he only produced one opera, and his "Wagnerian" cycle on the subject of El Cid was in fact a cycle of symphonic poems. Most of Manrique de Lara's compositions were programmatic, much like Richard Strauss's orchestral works; he composed only one symphony that was titled as a symphony, but a number of multi-movement orchestral works in quasi-symphonic form.

La Orestiada, composed in 1890, was one of these works. More than half an hour long and in three movements, it is probably best described as an extended symphonic poem. The three movements are titled after the ancient Greek trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, the Oresteia, and follow the narrative arcs of the respective plays. In Wagnerian style, Manrique de Lara makes extensive use of leitmotifs. Especially note the Clytaemnestra motif, an upward leap followed by a step down, clearly heard at 9:26 and appearing throughout (e.g. the later part of the second movement, and finally at 28:14 when the ghost of Clytaemnestra returns and wakes the Furies).

I. Agamenón (Agamemnon)
II. Las Coéforas (The Libation Bearers) - 13:19
III. Las Euménidas (The Eumenides) - 25:14

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2017-08-04 11:47 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Ernő Dohnányi, Piano Quintet No. 1

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Once again, I'm going to chamber music I played at CalCap.

For most composers, even those among the pantheon of all-time greats, Opus 1 is a minor, often rather forgettable piece. It may hint at what is to come, but is rarely a masterpiece in itself -- after all, in most cases, it is the composer's first published work. There are exceptions, of course. Rachmaninoff's first piano concerto comes to mind as having stood the test of the time, as do the Paganini Caprices and Schubert's song "Der Erlkönig."

And arguably, Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) should be a contender for best first-published-piece in music history, with his first piano quintet. Today he is relatively obscure except as the grandfather of longtime Cleveland Orchestra music director Christoph von Dohnányi, but during his lifetime Ernő Dohnányi (who used the German name Ernst von Dohnányi for most of his career) was often compared to Brahms. He may have been forgotten because of own his conservative musical style, in contrast to his fellow countrymen and contemporaries Bartók and Kodály -- which may be somewhat ironic given that in his career as a conductor, he was a key figure in promoting the work of both composers.

An extra side note: Dohnányi was later recognized as a hero of the Hungarian Holocaust resistance, for helping dozens (some sources say hundreds) of Jewish musicians escape from Germany and Austria to Switzerland or the United States; his German-born son Hans, the father of modern-day conductor Christoph, was executed for his role in the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler.

Dohnányi composed his first piano quintet in 1895, as a 17-year-old first-year student at the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music. He did not stay long at conservatory: after less than three years, he was granted permission to take final exams without completing his course of study, and graduated with high honors. His quintet, which had earned high praise from Brahms himself, was perhaps the main reason why. Brahms showed his enthusiasm for the piece by recommending it to his publisher and by arranging for a performance in Vienna shortly after its premiere in Budapest.

And Brahms's reaction was well justified. The quintet is bold, passionate, and technically well executed from beginning to end. The first movement alternately presses urgently and soars majestically, starting with a striking C minor theme that returns in C major to crown the finale. The second movement, a scherzo, takes its inspiration from the fiery Czech furiant, but broods as much as it dances. The coda to the scherzo movement is especially noteworthy, as it weaves together the scherzo theme and the almost Schubertian trio in a surprisingly smooth manner. After an elegiac slow movement, the finale is Dohnányi's nod to his Hungarian roots, with a strutting, foot-stomping rondo theme in 5/4 time alternating with a whole series of flights of fancy: one lyrical, one fugal, one even hinting at a Viennese waltz. The opening theme of the entire piece returns at the end, but in the major key, triumphant rather than urgent and impulsive, followed by a grand final restatement of the rondo theme.

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2017-07-29 10:58 pm

(Delayed) Forgotten Masterpiece Friday, CalCap Edition: Amy Beach, Theme and Variations

OK, now it's time to post the week's lesser-known masterpiece.

This week, it's a piece from CalCap: a Theme and Variations for flute and string quartet by Amy Beach (1867-1944). Beach is mainly known for being the first American woman to compose a symphony, and for being one of the "Boston Six" who created the first successful American body of art music. Her best known works, enjoying somewhat of a revival today, are her Gaelic Symphony and her Piano Concerto, along with a number of pieces for violin and piano.

Beach's Theme and Variations, though, is arguably her most accomplished work. It was composed in 1915-16, on a commission by the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco. The theme, played by the string quartet alone, is taken from one of Beach's art songs, An Indian Lullaby. A flute cadenza introduces the first variation, a quasi-fantasia in the same tempo as the theme that maintains a sense of uncertainty by avoiding cadences for most of its length. The second variation is a lively fugue on an inversion of the opening line of the theme. The third is slow, marked "quasi-Valzer" in the score and parts, and mostly expands a single chromatic line in the theme into an entire variation. The fourth variation, the shortest of the set, resembles a flute concerto movement: the strings play dense, rapid counterpoint, while the flute plays a lyrical, contrasting solo line. The fifth variation, the most expansive, seems to sum up the piece by referring back to earlier movements, with bits of the fourth, then first variations coming back. The sixth and final variation is again fugue-like, on a subject resembling a fragment of the theme. The original theme returns in a coda to the sixth variation, but where it was played by the strings alone when first heard, the piece ends with the last melodic phrase being played by solo flute.

Theme (0:00)
Variation I (2:37)
Variation II (5:35)
Variation III (7:12)
Variation IV (9:01)
Variation V (9:57)
Variation VI (16:52)

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2017-07-21 07:48 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Kurt Atterberg, Symphony No. 2

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974) was a part-time musician for his entire life, and yet was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century with nine symphonies and five operas to his name among other works. He got his start in music later than most: he did not study music or play an instrument at all until he started cello lessons at 15. But he was a prodigy in some sense, in that he won a seat in the cello section of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic just six years after he first picked up the instrument, while he was an engineering student. By that time, he had already begun to teach himself to compose. Immediately upon completing his degree in electrical engineering in 1911 he was awarded a fellowship to study composition at the Royal College of Music, Stockholm, on the basis of his Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra and an incomplete draft of his first symphony. In 1912, the same year that he had the first public performance of his music -- his first symphony, with Atterberg himself conducting -- he accepted a position at the Swedish Patent Office. He continued to work as a patent examiner until he was 81, while continuing to compose and occasionally conduct in his spare time. He wasn't only a prolific composer; he also co-founded the Society of Swedish Composers and served as its president for more than 20 years, and was a music critic for a Stockholm newspaper for most of his life.

Atterberg's big break as a composer came in 1928, when the Columbia Gramophone Company sponsored an international symphony competition commemorating the centenary of Franz Schubert's death, and calling for symphonic works inspired by Schubert. Atterberg entered his Sixth Symphony, and surprisingly the Swedish patent examiner took the first prize over a number of much more prominent composers, suddenly making him an internationally-known composer. This also meant new-found attention for his prior music, much of which received its first performances outside Sweden in the years that followed.

His success as a composer was short-lived, however. During the Second World War, living in officially neutral Sweden, he maintained ties with Nazi-controlled musical organizations in order to secure continued performances of his music in Germany. After the war, rivals accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer. Although these accusations were never substantiated, Atterberg also did not have the same kind of fame as Richard Strauss, who had faced similar accusations. He lost the presidency of the Society of Swedish Composers, and his music was rarely performed until his reputation began to recover in the 1960s.
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2017-07-14 06:18 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Hans Rott, Symphony No. 1

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Hans Rott (1858-1884) is one of the great what-ifs in music history. Gustav Mahler wrote of his Vienna Conservatory roommate: "It is completely impossible to estimate what music has lost in him. His genius soars to such heights even in his first symphony, written at the age of twenty, and which makes him - without exaggeration - the founder of the new symphony as I understand it."

Rott was, in a sense, a victim of Brahms's rivalries with Wagner and Bruckner. He studied under Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory from 1874 through 1877, and he was influenced by Wagner's work, having attended the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. He composed the first movement of his 1st Symphony as a graduation piece in 1878 -- hence Mahler's reference to him writing it "at the age of twenty" -- and it received high praise from his teacher Bruckner. But in 1880, when Rott completed the entire symphony, he was no longer a student, he presented the piece to two of Vienna's leading conductors, Johannes Brahms and Hans Richter, in an effort to get the symphony played. It was rejected almost out of hand. Brahms, knowing Rott was his rival's student, even told the young composer he had no talent whatsoever and should give up music.

Only a few months later, Rott had a psychotic break during a train journey: he reportedly threatened another passenger with a gun, shouting that Brahms had filled the train with dynamite and ordering his fellow passenger at gunpoint to extinguish his cigar. Rott was arrested and committed to a mental hospital. After a brief recovery in 1882 and 1883 in which he was able to begin work on a second symphony, he relapsed into psychosis in 1883 and was committed a second time. A year later, he died of tuberculosis, aged just 25. Where Rott's symphony greatly influenced his friend and one-time roommate Mahler, his untimely demise contributed to the theme of human mortality that pervades Mahler's work.

As for Rott's music, Mahler kept and catalogued it to ensure that it would not be lost to posterity. But despite Mahler's lengthy career as a conductor of major orchestras, he never performed Rott's symphony. The symphony would remain unheard until Gerhard Samuel conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in its first-ever performance in 1989, more than a century after it was composed. Since then, it has been sometimes described by conductors and musicologists as "Mahler's Symphony No. 0" for the influence it had on Mahler. To be sure, it isn't a mature work; had it been rehearsed by an orchestra during his lifetime, Rott likely would have made revisions. Its orchestration is at times awkward, especially in the brass parts: modern performances generally divide its four horn parts among six players, for example. And to modern listeners, the resemblance to Mahler may be rather jarring -- but remember that Rott completed this symphony seven years before Mahler began to work on his first. Nonetheless, this is a brilliantly moving piece, full of imagination and emotional depth, and arguably one of the most important symphonies of the late Romantic era.

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2017-07-07 10:41 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Nina Makarova, Symphony

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Nina Makarova (1908-1976) is unfortunately remembered mainly as Aram Khachaturian's wife; the fact that she was a composer herself is typically only a footnote in Khachaturian biographies. The two were certainly similar in many ways. They were classmates at the Moscow Conservatory, both studying composition under Nikolai Myaskovsky. Like her better-known husband, Makarova was partially of Armenian descent and incorporated elements of Armenian folk music into her work; she also took great interest in the music of other ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, particularly the Mari people of the upper Volga basin. But whereas Khachaturian was often accused of being overly bombastic, Makarova, as evidenced by this symphony, appears to have been the more polished composer with more of an eye to constructing a full dramatic arc.

Makarova's single symphony was originally composed in 1938, only a few years after her graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. It had to wait some time for its first performance, which did not occur until 1947, and even longer for a recording. Makarova produced a revised version of the symphony in 1962, which was recorded by the USSR Symphony Orchestra in 1967 -- but even the recorded version languished in obscurity for decades, before a small label called Russian Disc rediscovered it and re-released it on CD in 1994. To date, only this one recording has been made. This is a colorful, dramatic yet nuanced symphony that exemplifies the best of Russian late Romanticism and should appeal to anyone who enjoys Prokofiev or Khachaturian.

I. Allegro moderato
II. Andante sostenuto (11:33)
III. Allegro energico (25:03)

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2017-06-30 11:37 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Violin Concerto No. 8 (Op. 5, No. 2)

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday! (Or it was a few minutes ago. Oh well.)

This week, we're stepping back from our recent diet of 20th century and late Romantic music and going all the way to the Classical period, to the composer known as the "Black Mozart" -- a name that is rather inappropriate because he was one of France's leading musicians long before Mozart reached artistic maturity. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, the son of a planter and an African slave. He was evidently treated as his father's legitimate heir; he was sent to Paris and received the finest possible education. He enrolled at the royal military academy, and upon graduation became an officer of the king's bodyguard and was knighted with the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Early in his career, Saint-Georges was known mainly as an expert fencer and a fixture in Paris society; virtually nothing is known of his musical training prior to his meteoric rise as a violinist and conductor. In 1769, Parisians were surprised to see the famous fencer among the violinists in the Concert des Amateurs, then the most prominent orchestra giving public concerts in Paris. Two years later, he was the orchestra's concertmaster. A year after that, he made his debut as a soloist, performing his own first two violin concerti. By 1773, he had become music director. But his upward mobility in the music world stopped soon after that, as he struck the glass ceiling imposed by his race. In 1776, Saint-Georges was offered the position of director of the Paris Opera, the most prestigious musical institution in France -- but the offer was withdrawn after the singers objected to working under the direction of a mulatto. Nonetheless, Saint-Georges remained one of Europe's leading conductors for the rest of his life. He was the conductor who commissioned and premiered Haydn's six "Paris" symphonies in 1785. He even continued his busy concert schedule after resuming his military career in the service of the French Revolution, conducting weekly concerts without interruption while he led a cavalry regiment in the French Republic's war against Austria.

Perhaps a little ironically, Saint-Georges and Mozart were bitter enemies. When Mozart visited Paris in 1778, Saint-Georges declined to have the Concert des Amateurs perform Mozart's own "Paris" Symphony, leaving the premiere to the inferior Concert Spirituel. Mozart, in his opera The Magic Flute, expressly indicated that the villainous Monostatos was black, largely a jab at his rival Saint-Georges.

The other major legacy that Saint-Georges left to the music world was the modern violin bow that is used by all violinists and violists (except period performers) today. Saint-Georges did not invent it -- the modern bow is also referred to as the Tourte pattern after its inventor -- but he was arguably the violinist who did more than any other to popularize it. This week's piece, the eighth of Saint-Georges' fourteen violin concerti, was composed in 1775, when the composer was reaching the peak of his fame. Saint-Georges was both conductor and soloist at its first performance that year. More soloistic than the concerti of Haydn or Mozart, the concerto took full advantage of the extra agility and precision that the Tourte bow allowed.

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2017-06-23 04:27 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Akira Ifukube double feature

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

I couldn't decide which of two pieces by Ifukube to post today, so I'm posting two that are somewhat connected. Both have interesting stories behind them.

Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) is best known today as the composer who scored most of the Godzilla films along with many other Japanese films over five decades. But Ifukube himself was distinctly ambivalent about his film music legacy, as much as he owed his financial success to it. Perhaps he held a certain snobbery about film music; like Brahms, who disdained programmatic music, Ifukube saw himself as a concert composer first and foremost, and regarded film music merely as a lucrative side business. He felt similarly about his Japanese contemporaries -- when he attended the funeral of his colleague Fumio Hayasaka, he expressed bitter disappointment that music from Hayasaka's score for Seven Samurai was played rather than any of the deceased composer's concert music. But perhaps there was also some truth behind his attitude toward film music: Japanese film studios were notorious at the time for demanding that composers work quickly, sometimes only giving composers a few days to score a feature-length film. So perhaps it was natural that Ifukube did not consider his (or anyone else's) film music to represent his best work.

Sinfonia Tapkaara )

Symphony Concertante for Piano and Orchestra )
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2017-06-16 01:40 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Nikolai Medtner, Piano Quintet

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Sergei Rachmaninoff called his Russian contemporary Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) the greatest composer of his generation, and yet Medtner's music is rarely performed today. Perhaps this is because Medtner was singularly devoted to his own instrument, the piano -- but the same focus on the piano did not keep Chopin from being consistently in the standard repertoire. In any case, while never especially popular, Medtner did develop somewhat of a cult following, especially in England where he settled in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, Medtner's patron Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the last Maharaja of Mysore and the first president of the Philharmonia Orchestra, paid to have all of Medtner's extant works recorded. As a result, despite his relative obscurity, we have high-quality recordings of his entire output.

Medtner's influence on others, too, went far beyond his own music. Rachmaninoff's 4th piano concerto was composed for Medtner, who was also a virtuoso pianist. One of his students, Alexander Alexandrov, composed the iconic Soviet (now Russian) national anthem.

Medtner's Piano Quintet was his last composition to be completed, but one of the first that he began. By the time he completed it in 1949, he had been working on it, on and off, for 46 years. The entire piece is deeply spiritual from beginning to end. Some of the musical material comes from Russian Orthodox chants. Other melodies, though purely instrumental, are written as if setting words to music; for these, Medtner selected Bible verses with particular autobiographical meaning. Still other passages include brief allusions to Medtner's other compositions. Unusually, the third and last movement of this quintet is the longest and most substantial, tying together elements from the first two movements along with new themes in a polyphonic whirlwind. Finally, the third movement code ends the piece with a joyous fantasia on a hymn-like theme introduced earlier in the movement.

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2017-06-14 12:20 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday Redux: Astor Piazzolla, Suite Punta del Este

So it looks like I accidentally skipped one of my Forgotten Masterpiece Friday reposts from Facebook, and I realized this after a comment thread about posting more Latin American composers. This one is from January 13.

You've probably heard of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), the king of Argentine tango. And there's a good chance you've heard the first movement of this piece before -- it was used in the movie 12 Monkeys, and a little snippet from the middle of the movement was also once used in The Simpsons. (And if you attend Camellia Symphony concerts regularly, we played the piece a few years ago.) But the full piece is rarely played, and well worth hearing. It's essentially a concerto for bandoneón and orchestra; its title refers to the Uruguayan resort town of Punta del Este where Piazzolla spent many summers. I especially enjoy the third movement, a fugue on a tango-like theme.

Here's a 1982 recording with Piazzolla himself performing as the bandoneón soloist.

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2017-06-09 11:11 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: José Pablo Moncayo, Symphony

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Today we're hearing from José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958), one of the Mexican nationalist composers who emerged in the first half of the 20th century after the Mexican Revolution. One of the great tragedies of Mexican music is that Moncayo is known for one of his least accomplished works: his Huapango, composed as a student, is perhaps the single most frequently performed piece by any Mexican composer, yet his more substantial works are almost never heard.

Far from being a pure nationalist as his reputation might suggest, Moncayo drew from a diverse background of musical influences. To pay for his education at the National Conservatory of Mexico, he worked as a pianist in bars and cinemas, where he became familiar with the jazz and blues idioms. As a composer, he would always feel some spiritual connection to the similarly jazz-influenced French composers Ravel and Milhaud. But at the same time he had an intense interest in the folk music of his own country. His first breakthrough as a composer came in 1935 with Amatzinac, a quintet for flute and strings that melds French impressionism with folk melodies. Several years later, he won a position as percussionist in the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, which led to performance opportunities for his orchestral works. These included the 1941 premiere of Huapango, which incorporated several folk songs that Moncayo had heard on a trip to Veracruz and whose title refers to a dance popular in Veracruz and surrounding areas.

Moncayo's sole symphony was composed in 1942, after the success of Huapango. He began the piece early in the year, while still in the percussion section of the National Symphony Orchestra; that summer, an invitation to the Berkshire Music Institute (now known as Tanglewood) allowed him time to fully devote himself to composing and he completed the symphony there. The symphony received its premiere in 1944, under the baton of Moncayo's mentor Carlos Chávez, with Moncayo still playing percussion.

More than any other piece he had composed to that date, Moncayo's symphony synthesizes all his musical influences into a cohesive whole: jazz, French impressionism, and Mexican folk music all figure prominently. The second theme in the first movement loosely suggests a danzón, a dance from the Caribbean coast. The lyrical opening theme and the dance theme hardly have a chance to settle, though -- almost from the start they are punctuated by brass and percussion chords, and the movement even ends with a somewhat nervous dissonance. The second movement (8:27) is a scherzo, with horns playing a shifting huapango-like rhythm under the main scherzo theme, and featuring a contrasting trio section (9:55) inspired by pre-Columbian indigenous music. The slow third movement (12:20) begins with a contemplative horn solo and gives way to a pastorale that unfolds in cinematic style. Again, indigenous folk music makes an entry, beginning with pentatonic melodies and becoming most clear at the end of the movement in the form of a woodwind chorale accompanies by triangle and drums. The last movement (18:31) alternates between meditative and festive, infused with both jazz and traditional dance rhythms.

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2017-06-02 10:24 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Emilie Mayer, Symphony No. 7

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Curiously, though Germany has had a disproportionate influence on Western music over the centures, few well-known composers have hailed from Northern Germany: of those whose works are frequently heard in concert halls, only Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn, and Carl Maria von Weber were born in the Baltic coastal plain. And so, in 2012, after hearing music by a relatively unknown woman from the Mecklenburg region, a critic for the regional newspaper Nordkurier felt the need to write: “The Norwegians have their Grieg, The Finns their Sibelius, the Poles have their Chopin. And we have Emilie Mayer – we just didn’t know it until now!”

Emilie Mayer (1812-1883) became a serious composer relatively late in life. She took piano lessons as a child and even composed a few short pieces, but she did not begin to study composition until her late twenties. The impetus was a sudden tragedy: in 1840, her father fatally shot himself 26 years to the day after burying her mother. Burying her grief in art, she moved to Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) to study music under the prominent conductor Carl Loewe. Loewe, in turn, described Mayer as the most talented composer he had met; upon the premieres of Mayer's first two symphonies in 1847, he told her that he could teach her nothing more and advised her to further her studies in Berlin. There, Mayer was able to establish herself as perhaps the only woman in Europe to make a living as a full-time composer at the time. During her lifetime, she completed eight symphonies, an opera, a piano concerto, and a substantial number of chamber works. But like many other female composers of the time, she was completely forgotten after her death -- much of her music is now missing, including two of her symphonies.

This week's piece is Mayer's 7th Symphony, composed in 1855-56 and premiered in 1862. The disc from which this recording is taken, by Kammersymphonie Berlin under the baton of Jürgen Bruns, mislabels the symphony as her 5th (which is in fact one of her two lost symphonies).

I. Allegro agitato
II. Adagio (10:50)
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace (20:57)
IV. Finale: Allegro vivace (27:42)

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2017-05-26 10:41 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Arthur Sullivan, Cello Concerto

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

I'm sure we've all heard music by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) -- but have you heard anything by Sullivan without Gilbert?

Sullivan was not always known as a composer of light opera; it was only after he met W.S. Gilbert in 1870 that his focus turned to musical theater. Before that, he composed a number of critically acclaimed pieces for the concert hall, including his Irish Symphony, a cello concerto, and his best-known concert work, his Overture di Ballo, in 1870. Interestingly, in the years after Sullivan's death, a number of critics argued that his shift to musical theater was a waste of his talents. One, Fuller Maitland, wrote in 1901 that Sullivan's early work "at once stamped him as a genius" who would never fulfill his promise as he produced fewer and fewer serious concert works. This seems an unkind assessment of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, but certainly Sullivan's early concert works deserve more attention than they have received.

Arthur Sullivan was persuaded to compose a cello concerto in April 1866. At the same concert where his only symphony premiered, Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti played the Schumann cello concerto. Sullivan was impressed by Piatti's playing, and Piatti was evidently impressed by Sullivan's symphony; after that concert Sullivan immediately set to work on a new concerto for Piatti. Sullivan's concerto, first performed by Piatti in November of the same year, filled a large gap in the repertoire at the time. In the 1860s, there were few cello concerti in the standard repertoire: Schumann's has never been frequently played, and none of the Romantic concerti in today's standard repertoire had yet been composed, so cello soloists of the time tended to stick largely to Vivaldi, Haydn, and Boccherini.

Eventually, the likes of Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, and Elgar came to dominate the cello concerto repertoire, and early Romantic cello concerti such as Sullivan's fell into neglect. After Sullivan's death in 1900, his cello concerto would only be performed twice before the 1980s: once a few years after the composer's death, and once in 1953. The score and parts were never published, but remained in storage at the offices of music publisher Chapell & Co, where they were destroyed in a fire in 1964. But two copies of the solo part survived, with indications of orchestral cues written in. In the early 1980s, Charles Mackerras, who had conducted the 1953 performance, used these two copies, along with his own memory, to produce the reconstruction of the concerto that we know today. Appropriately enough, at the premiere of the reconstructed version, the cello soloist was also someone closely connected to musical theater: Julian Lloyd Webber, younger brother of musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber!

The structure of Sullivan's cello concerto is rather unusual. The first movement, the most substantial in most concerti, is instead the shortest here, serving as a brief introduction before a cadenza segues into the second movement. The opening theme from the first movement ends up serving as a second theme in the finale, which is in sonata allegro form rather than a more traditional rondo.

I. Allegro moderato
II. Andante espressivo (3:20)
III. Molto vivace (10:17)

For those interested, there's also a video of Julian Lloyd Webber playing the concerto -- unfortunately not the best audio quality, but maybe worth seeing just for the musical theater connection:

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2017-05-19 06:17 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Louise Farrenc, Piano Quintet No. 1

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

If you listen to much NPR, you've heard a tune by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), at least in some sense. I'm not about to accuse Don Voegeli of plagiarizing the theme music he wrote in 1976 for NPR's All Things Considered from Farrenc's second piano quintet, because that quintet had been out of print since 1895 and was not recorded until the 1990s. But the main melody in the catchiest of all radio themes is identical, note for note, to one of the main themes in Farrenc's quintet.

During her lifetime, Louise Farrenc was known mainly as a pianist; she achieved considerable fame on the concert stage by 1830 and in 1842 won an appointment as professor of piano performance at the Paris Conservatory, becoming only the Conservatory's second-ever female professor. But she was arguably an even better composer than performer, producing a considerable number of great chamber works and three symphonies, and was one of only a handful of women who succeeded in having their compositions performed outside their home countries. Unfortunately, even though Farrenc overcame prejudice against women composers to the extent that she became a favorite of many musicians, her music never gained traction among the wider public. Gender was not the only reason; she had the extra handicap of being a French composer who primarily wrote instrumental music at a time when the French public was totally fixated on opera. As her contemporary Saint-Saëns complained at one point, anyone who wrote instrumental music in Paris had to put on concerts themselves and invite friends and the press! Like many other 19th century French composers of instrumental music, her music fell out of the repertoire by the turn of the 20th century and only began to return to concert halls in the 1990s.

Farrenc composed two piano quintets in 1839-40, both using the "Trout" scoring of violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano. This week's piece is the first of those quintets. Perhaps not surprisingly, the quintet features a virtuosic piano part, but this is no mere piano show piece! In fact, it may be even more striking how completely the piano is integrated into the ensemble -- Romantic chamber music at its finest. Don't miss the absolutely breathtaking scherzo!


I. Allegro
II. Adagio ma non troppo (11:27)
III. Scherzo: Presto (17:46)
IV. Finale: Allegro (21:19)

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2017-05-12 11:13 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 1

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

This week is a bit of a walk down memory lane for me. It's a piece I didn't originally realize was obscure, because it's also the first symphony I ever heard in its entirety. I started listening to a lot of classical music in middle school, shortly after returning to Houston from nine years in Dubai. Dubai in 1995 was a different place from the Dubai we know today. The luxury hotels hadn't been built yet and the waves of tourists hadn't started going there; 1995 was the year the old Chicago Beach Hotel was demolished to make room for the first of those beach resorts. Likewise, while there are now two professional orchestras, a community orchestra, and three youth orchestras based in Dubai, none of those existed until about some time after we left. In 1995, the entire presence of classical music there consisted of occasional touring opera and ballet performances, one community choir, and the American School of Dubai concert band. A few months after moving to Houston, I got my first own CD player and radio for the first time -- CDs had only arrived in Dubai a few years earlier, so I only started buying them in the US -- and discovered the local classical radio station. I heard the last few bars of Beethoven's 3rd, and then the next piece was tonight's piece, Howard Hanson's 1st ("Nordic") Symphony.

It's funny that I ended up going to law school at the University of the Pacific, because Howard Hanson (1986-1981) first made his name as a composer while on the faculty of the University of the Pacific. In 1920, while he was in California, he won the American Prix de Rome for his ballet The California Forest Play and his symphonic poem Before the Dawn. Thanks to that award, Hanson spent three years living in Rome, and free to compose without the distractions of teaching, had the most productive period of his career as a composer. Upon his return from Rome, he was recruited to be director of the newly founded Eastman School of Music, a post he held for 40 years. He was best known for his work as conductor of the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, where he regularly commissioned new music from American composers, but continued to compose his own music as well and became one of America's leading symphonists.

Many of you reading this may already have heard parts of his 2nd ("Romantic") Symphony, his best-known piece. Some excerpts were used, uncredited and without Hanson's permission, in the soundtrack to the film Alien; Hanson was reportedly displeased but ultimately decided not to sue for copyright infringement. Another excerpt, known as the "Interlochen Theme," is still played at the conclusion of every concert at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Hanson's 2nd Symphony itself is performed more frequently than his other six symphonies combined.

Hanson's 1st ("Nordic") Symphony was the most important piece from his years in Rome, and premiered in Italy in 1923 and in the United States in 1924. It was this symphony that drew George Eastman's attention and led him to offer Hanson his position at the Eastman School of Music. Not surprisingly, this symphony is somewhat reminiscent of Sibelius, one of Hanson's greatest influences. Its first movement is one of the few symphonic movements in quintuple meter. Also interestingly, Hanson condenses the usual scherzo and rondo movements into a single final movement, alternating between scherzo-like and march-like passages and a parade of themes from the first two movements. (A personal note here: I modeled the last movement of my own piano quartet loosely on the form of this symphony's finale.)

I. Andante solenne - Allegro con forza
II. Andante teneramente, con semplicità (begins 13:38)
III. Allegro con fuoco (begins 20:08)