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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.
Read more... )
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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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2017-06-05 12:29 am

A musical bonus track

Thought I should post an interesting piece I heard on Sacramento's classical station today. It's Joseph Curiale's Gates of Gold, composed in 1994. It's a tribute to Chinese immigrants in California -- think Wild West meets East Asia, Chinese themes handled in a style reminiscent of both Aaron Copland and John Adams.

It appears the third movement ("Call of the Mountain") gets fairly frequent performances (for contemporary music, at least) as a stand-alone piece.

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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)

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2017-05-05 10:55 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Wang Xilin, Symphony No. 1

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

While there are a number of Chinese composers who have gained prominence in recent years, it is perhaps surprising given the quality of his music and the amount of his recent output that Wang Xilin (b. 1936) is not one of them. But perhaps his obscurity is less surprising considering the lengths to which the Chinese government has gone to suppress his music. Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Shostakovich both for his style and for the political persecution he suffered, Wang lost more than a decade of his musical career to imprisonment and forced labor during the Cultural Revolution and composed almost nothing from 1964 through 1978. Afterward, though he was allowed to resume his musical career and even won a major government-sponsored prize in 1981 for his symphonic suite "Yunnan Tone Poem," Chinese authorities continued to limit performances of his music. In more recent years, Wang has composed ever more prolifically with age as if trying to make up for lost time; more than half of his music, including six of his nine symphonies, has been composed since his 60th birthday.

Wang was an iconoclast from the start. He began work on his 1st Symphony in 1962, in the last year of his studies at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The completed first movement of his then-unfinished symphony earned him the position of composer-in-residence for China's Central Radio Symphony Orchestra the same year. Unfortunately for Wang, the Cultural Revolution began the following year just as he completed the symphony. Wang's symphony was a distinctly modernist piece, drawing inspiration from the likes of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and between the allegedly "bourgeois" qualities of his symphony and his outspokenness in favor of artistic freedom, Wang was imprisoned and then sent to a forced labor camp. The premiere of his symphony was canceled, and the piece would not be performed until 1999. This would not be the last time Wang's music had to wait years for performance in China. His music was again banned from Chinese concert halls from 1999 through 2005 after he made comments viewed as critical of the Communist Party. And some was suppressed for its "subversive" content: his violin concerto, composed in 1995, was banned because it was quite expressly protest music, in which the solo violin played a jester-like role in opposition to almost militaristic orchestral themes.

Thus, until very recently, Wang's modernist bent was almost completely unknown even though he was somewhat well known as a composer. His folk-inspired "Yunnan Tone Poem" is one of the most frequently performed pieces by Chinese composers, but as recently as ten years ago, even listeners familiar with the Chinese music scene were often surprised to learn that Romantic nationalism has never been his preferred style.

This week's forgotten masterpiece is Wang Xilin's 1st symphony, displaying all the "bourgeois" modernism that landed its composer in labor camps for the next decade and a half.

As a bonus, I'd like to add Wang's piano concerto, composed in 2011. I can't call it a "forgotten" masterpiece because it's too recent to have been forgotten, and by this point his music was no longer being suppressed -- but it's an excellent example of his protest music, as the composer openly described it as an expression of outrage at the persecution of artists during the Cultural Revolution.

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2017-04-26 02:13 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday Redux: William Grant Still, Lyric Quartette

Might as well post the last of my Forgotten Masterpiece Fridays from Facebook from before I returned to LJ. This was originally posted on January 27, 2017. I was reminded of it by my last post, since the violist in this video is one of the handful of LJ friends I've met in person (though now inactive on LJ).

In anticipation of Black History Month, this week's composer is William Grant Still (1895-1978), the "Dean of African-American Composers" and the leading composer of the Harlem Renaissance. Still held a whole raft of firsts for African-Americans in classical music: he was the first African-American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to conduct a major orchestra. His 1st symphony is among the most-performed American symphonies.

While William Grant Still is best known for his orchestral music, his chamber music is far less often performed. This week's piece, Still's Lyric Quartette, shows a more intimate side to the composer than is typically heard. One of his last works, composed in 1960, this string quartet is subtitled "Musical Portraits of Three Friends" in a similar vein to Elgar's Enigma Variations.

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2017-04-21 12:40 am

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: George Bristow, Symphony No. 3

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

While the United States produced notable choral composers even before independence, American orchestral music got a late start. Until the middle of the 19th century, the vast majority of orchestral concerts were one-off events, played by ad-hoc ensembles put together for the occasion. It was not until 1805 that the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston began to present the nation's first regular orchestral concert series (which lasted until 1820). Until Beethoven's 1st Symphony was played in Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1813, no American orchestra had performed a symphony in its entirety. The earliest known piece for orchestra by an American composer, Anthony Heinrich's concert overture Pushmataha, only appeared in 1831.

The modern tradition of American orchestral music began in 1842 with the founding of the nation's second-ever professional orchestra and its oldest continuously-running orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. This was where George Bristow (1825-1898) got his start; he played in the New York Philharmonic for its first three-and-a-half decades before resigning to focus on composing, and became its second-ever concertmaster in 1850. Bristow was a composer himself, and was one of the early pioneers of American orchestral composition. His first symphony, believed to have been completed between 1846 and 1848, was probably the first symphony composed by an American, though it would not be performed until mcuh later.

Ironically, Bristow's big break as a composer came because the New York Philharmonic's music directors largely refused to play music by American composers. In 1853, after a newspaper critic savaged the first symphony of a fellow American composer, William Henry Fry, Fry shot back, "How are Americans to win their way in composition unless their compositions are played?" Fry then named Bristow as a talented American who was being unfairly treated by his own orchestra. Bristow, suddenly caught in the midst of controversy, resigned from the Philharmonic and joined a French orchestra that was then touring the United States. Its director, impressed by Bristow's second symphony which had been completed that year, brought it back to Europe -- and so George Bristow, an American symphonist ignored in his own country, received his first orchestral performances in France and received standing ovations. The New York Philharmonic evidently had second thoughts, Bristow returned to New York a year later and resumed his position as concertmaster, and the orchestra played his music on a number of occasions thereafter.

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2017-04-15 12:31 pm

(Belated) Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Ethel Smyth, Double Concerto

OK, it's quite definitely Saturday now, but let's do this anyway!

Even in an era in which women composers all struggled to achieve recognition, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) had more difficulty than most, for a variety of reasons. Her political activism tended to overshadow her music: she was highly visible as one of the more militant leaders in the British women's suffrage movement, and spent time in prison for her role in organizing the simultaneous smashing of windows at dozens of suffrage opponents' homes in 1912. She was openly lesbian in the socially conservative Victorian era, which made many British musicians of the time wary of associating with her. And in an ironic but not entirely unsurprising twist, while other women composers tended to be stereotyped as incapable of writing "serious" music, Smyth was instead panned by critics for writing music that was often too powerful and "masculine" for a woman composer. Often it was only sheer persistence that got her music performed: she traveled all across the Western world lobbying conductors and opera directors to perform her works, with stops everywhere from the United States to India; most of her music was premiered outside the UK. In 1903, her opera Der Wald became the first by a woman composer to be staged at New York's Metropolitan Opera -- and it remained the only one until December 2016. Recognition eventually came, but perhaps too late. In 1934, when she was honored with a two-week festival commemorating her work and featuring several of her operas, Smyth had already ceased composing due to deafness.

Smyth's double concerto, completed in 1927 at the height of her fame as a composer, was her last major work, composed when she was almost completely deaf. The piece was dedicated to horn virtuoso Aubrey Brain, and as such, remains one of the most difficult pieces in the horn repertoire. It was one of the first to require the horn soloist to play multiphonics, heard in a cadenza-like passage in the third movement. The horn finds an unusual partner in the violin -- that combination of soloists was found nowhere else in the concerto repertoire at the time, and was anticipated only by the Brahms horn trio (for violin, horn, and piano). Despite the difficulty of balancing the two vastly different solo instruments, the combination is remarkably effective.

The first movement covers a broad range of moods, with three contrasting themes woven tightly together: one majestic, one wistful and meditative, one jocular. The second movement (10:07) is subtitled Elegy (In Memoriam). Smyth never definitively said for whom or what the elegy was intended, but a few candidates come to mind. One is her mentor Johannes Brahms: the second theme in the movement (12:13) closely resembles a the horn solo that opens Brahms's second piano concerto, and the Smyth double concerto was first performed shortly before the 30th anniversary of Brahms's death. Another is what she saw as the loss of the German musical tradition following the First World War, as her writings in the 1920s lamented that Germany could no longer afford to maintain its musical establishments and "tradition of perfection"; a third possibility is that she was mourning friends who perished in the war, several of whom she wrote about extensively in memoirs around the same time. The final movement (17:34) returns to a more playful mood. The violin and horn begin to go their own ways in this movement. As in the finales of many horn concerti, the horn plays triplet figures that resemble hunting calls -- but these are 20th-century hunting calls that feature tritones and whole-tone scales rather than adhering to the harmonic overtone series. Meanwhile, the violin dances, and at times seems to interject with gentle mockery.

drplacebo: (Neuro notes)
2017-04-07 11:49 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Joseph Rheinberger, Nonet

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

This week's composer is Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901), likely the best-known person from the European microstate of Liechtenstein. Born in Vaduz, Rheinberger showed immense musical talent at an early age and went to study at the Munich Conservatory at the age of 12. He remained in Munich for the rest of his life, becoming a professor of piano and composition at the Conservatory shortly after he graduated and holding the position for nearly 40 years. He was best known in his time as a pedagogue, with students including the composers Englebert Humperdinck and George Chadwick, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, and interestingly, the physicist Max Planck. Rheinberger's music was popular in his time; the prominent conductor Hans von Bülow listed Rheinberger among the five living composers he believed would be remembered forever. (Bülow's other four: Joachim Raff, Johannes Brahms, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.) His piano concerto, notably, was the most performed piano concerto in Europe between 1880 and 1890. Today, though, Rheinberger is one of those composers who have remained well-known only in certain musical circles: most organists know his name, as his organ sonatas and concerti are still among the most performed in the repertoire, and he has somewhat of a reputation as a choral composer, but most of his other music has fallen by the wayside.

I've always loved large chamber ensembles of mixed winds and strings, so I've wanted to feature one for a while. Rheinberger's nonet, composed in 1884-85, is one of my favorites. Like most other wind and string nonets in the repertoire, this piece combines a standard wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn) with a non-standard string quartet of violin, viola, cello, and double bass. Buoyant and serenade-like through its first three movements and displaying a fiery virtuosity in its finale, it certainly makes one wonder why so few composers have attempted to write for this combination of instruments.

Full piece:

I prefer this more up-tempo performance of the final movement:
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2017-03-31 01:56 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Walter Rabl, Clarinet Quartet

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

This week's composer is Walter Rabl (1873-1940), whose career as a composer was brief but memorable.

In the 1890s, Johannes Brahms, in conjunction with the Vienna Musicians' Society, established an annual chamber music composition contest that rapidly became quite prestigious because of its connection to the famous composer. Until the end of his life, Brahms himself sat on the jury that evaluated entries. Entries were submitted anonymously, but Brahms was so familiar with other composers active in Vienna at the time that he was said to be able to guess the identities of the composers or at least their teachers with impressive accuracy. So it seemed remarkable that, in the 1896 edition of this contest, Brahms was completely at a loss, unable to make any guess as to the winner's identity. After the results were tabulated, he waited as impatiently as anyone else for the unsealing of the composer's name; and when the envelope was opened, the composer turned out to be a total unknown named Walter Rabl. Brahms was so impressed by Rabl's piece, a quartet for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano, that he recommended it to his own publisher Simrock.

At the time, Rabl had been torn between two career paths for some time. He was in a doctoral program in musicology at the German University in Prague, but had wavered between that and law throughout his undergraduate years and was still contemplating jumping ship to become a lawyer. As a result of his unexpected success, he chose neither musical academia nor law. He finished his Ph.D in 1898 but by that point had already become a full-time composer and conductor. Other compositions followed; between 1896 and 1899 Simrock published Rabl's quartet as well as a piano trio, a violin sonata, four song cycles, and a symphony.

But Rabl did not have the long and distinguished career that Brahms and others predicted. After his only symphony was published in 1899, his output slowed considerably; he produced a few art songs, and one final major work, his opera Liane in 1903. Although Liane had a favorable reception, it was the end of his composing career. For the rest of his life, he continued to be well known in German and Austrian musical circles as an opera conductor, and as a vocal coach who taught a number of prominent singers, but he would never compose another piece of music in the remaining four decades of his life. Decades later, his son Kurt suggested that Walter Rabl was such a committed disciple of Brahms that he was dismayed by critics' comparisons of his opera to Wagner's, and quit composing upon the realization that his work was beginning to show the influences of Brahms's great rival. This theory seems somewhat questionable, as Rabl conducted Wagner's operas throughout his career, but it remains the only explanation anyone has given for his sudden retirement from composing.

This week's piece is the one that started it all, the Clarinet Quartet. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Rabl's quartet is its maturity; it sounds like the work of an experienced composer rather than the composer's first substantial work. The first movement's opening theme is reminiscent of late Brahms, but a distinctly un-Brahmsian, nocturne-like second theme follows, and the two slow themes rapidly build into an up-tempo, dramatic climax. The second movement is a set of variations on a slow, funereal march. The third movement, a brief intermezzo, begins in a languid Brahmsian fashion but quickly passes through a whole series of different moods. Finally, the fourth movement may be the most brilliant, beginning buoyantly and playing freely with tempo, meter, and rhythm to build intensity as the movement goes on.
Video under the cut! )
drplacebo: (Neuro notes)
2017-03-24 03:53 pm

Forgotten Masterpiece Friday: Sheng Lihong, Ocean Symphony

It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Although I post recordings from YouTube, most of the pieces I post are in my CD collection, and I just look for the same piece online. This is not one of them. This is a piece I discovered less than a week ago while looking for a different piece, and probably the most obscure recorded composer I know of.

The Chinese composer Sheng Lihong (b. 1926) has virtually no biographical information available online, but perhaps this is not so surprising considering the era in which most of his music was composed. From 1949 to 1978, composers in Communist China were rarely credited on their own; most of the music composed in China in that era was composed by groups of composers, reflecting the Communist government's ideals. The two best-known Chinese concert works composed before 1990, the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto and the Yellow River Piano Concerto, were both collaborative efforts of multiple composers. Sheng Lihong is best known as one of the four composers who produced the Yellow River Piano Concerto in 1969.

Sheng's Ocean Symphony, composed in 1980, is literally the only piece with which he is credited as sole composer. Like much other Chinese music, it is programmatic in character, but this symphony reflects a new-found freedom to explore themes other than the nationalist and "revolutionary" ones that had been approved before. This symphony is largely inspired by the Chinese coast in the Yangtze Delta, but in contrast to the Yellow River Piano Concerto (which quotes "The East Is Red" and the Internationale in its final movement), Maoist "revolutionary" themes are nowhere to be found in the Ocean Symphony. Instead, it draws its inspiration from the sea and shore, similarly to more familiar nautically-themed pieces such as Debussy's La Mer.

The first movement is titled "Son of the Sea," the literal meaning of the Yangtze River's name. The second movement, "View of the Fishing Village" (beginning at 15:16), is a festive-sounding scherzo with a lyrical middle section whose melody is woven back in at several points after the scherzo theme returns. The movement seems to end with a final cadence at 21:39, but a solo viola introduces a brief, melancholy interlude based loosely on the theme from the movement's middle section. This is followed by a hauntingly beautiful third movement, "Meditation After the Storm" (beginning at 22:41), and then a frenetic, folk music inspired final movement titled "Festival" (beginning at 33:19).

EDIT: times may no longer be accurate; the YouTube video I originally linked to was taken down, so I've switched it to another.