what i did on my summer vacation

Everyone remembers those “What I did on my summer vacation” assignments teachers would dole out at the beginning of September. Back in the analog days, we might have passed around some pictures or postcards, and perhaps we even had a souvenir or two for show and tell. These days we can post an album of pictures on Facebook instantly, Instagram every vacation meal, and tweet about the wonders of nature. And while the craftiest among us still scrapbook on actual paper, the opportunity to reflect on our travels and adventures seems to be something of a lost art. We take our trip, write and comment on it in real time, and when we return, it’s immediately back to business-as-usual. When I was a child, it was always so fun to relive the vacation a few weeks later when our rolls of film finally got developed. But that feeling of reminiscence, of looking back at those travels, those adventures, is leaving us. Back before cable and Netflix and the Internet, I remember making popcorn and sitting down with the family to look at slides of vacations past. I suppose I can still look back at my own recent travels, but that means me heading back to Facebook or Twitter and scrolling through pictures on my phone. Doesn’t quite have the same romanticism, does it?

read more →Camille Saint-Saëns became a great fan of travel on his first visit to Italy when he was in his early twenties. Because he didn’t have our modern conveniences, he commemorated some of his more fascinating journeys by writing music inspired by the places he visited along the way. We have one such piece on LACO’s opening concert this season. The Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed “Egyptian” because Saint-Saëns composed the work while in Luxor. (He often spent winters in Egypt.) Not only was he inspired by the landscapes and the grand monuments, he wove music that he heard into the new composition. In the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, we hear a song that Saint-Saëns heard while sailing on the Nile. What a wonderful way to reflect on that experience. Much better than flipping through a photo album!

In 1875, more than twenty years before he composed that Fifth Piano Concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns, then almost forty, married nineteen-year-old Marie Truffot. His mother, Clemence, did not approve of the union. The marriage produced two sons, however, both died—one from a childhood illness, one from an accident—within six weeks of each other. Six years after the wedding, Saint-Saëns simply left his wife while they were on holiday, and never saw her again. He did not remarry, but instead found a surrogate family with fellow composer Gabriel Fauré, to whom he was something of a father figure or “benevolent uncle,” as some have described him. Saint-Saëns was deeply devoted to his mother Clemence, who became a widow just three months after the birth of Camille. Clemence and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, raised the young boy by themselves. In fact, it was Masson who gave young Camille his first piano lessons at the age of two and a half. Masson died in 1872, and Clemence in 1888. Once they were gone, Camille perhaps felt that he had no reason to stay in one place anymore. His travel increased, and his writing slowed down a bit. Saint-Saëns became a mostly solitary traveler. Only his manservant Gabriel and his beloved dogs accompanied him on his trips.

In addition to spending time in Egypt, Saint-Saëns was quite fond of Algeria. It was a French colony at the time, and a popular travel spot for Europeans. When Saint-Saëns was devastated over the death of his mother, it was to Algeria that he fled, to help him find the strength to return to his life. He was comfortable there, and indeed, this place filled him with life and ideas. The Suite algerienne (1880) was written on the occasion of Algeria becoming a Department of Metropolitan France. He also composed a fantasy for piano and orchestra called Africa in 1891.

In addition to lengthy stays in North Africa, Saint-Saëns traveled through Europe and South America. He composed a patriotic hymn called Partido Colorado for Uruguay’s national holiday. He undertook many concert tours, playing series of concerts everywhere from the Canary Islands to Scandinavia to Russia. He became friends with Tchaikovsky. He came to the United States after the turn of the century. His popularity in his native France was waning, but the Americans revered him as France’s greatest living composer. He performed in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In 1915, he composed an orchestral piece called “Hail! California.” He was also a favorite in Great Britain, where he studied the works of Handel and played for Queen Victoria. The Philharmonic Society commissioned his Third Symphony, and he was made a Commander of the Victorian Order.

Saint-Saëns’ travels gave him a unique perspective on composition, and allowed him to see the value in music that was familiar and that which was exotic. This does not mean that he liked everything. Far from it. His thorny attitudes towards some of the composers around the turn of the century made him some enemies. He spoke out against Debussy’s Impressionism and, during the First World War, he called for a ban on German music (especially Wagner). His controversial views aside, it is interesting to hear the music of a person so well traveled, and so curious about other cultures. His experience of the world certainly enriched his own art, and helped make him the important historical figure we know today. It almost makes me want to write music to commemorate my summer vacation…or I could just go back and read my tweets. ↑ less ↑

beethoven 5

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s new season gets off to an energetic start with a program of drama and pathos, but one that ends with triumph. Tonight LACO features a brand new commis¬sion from violinist and film composer Cameron Patrick, a piano concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns, and one of classical music’s most well known and powerful compositions.

read more →Cameron Patrick, a native of Brisbane, Australia, began his musical journey as a violinist. After graduating from the University of Queensland, he played professionally in Brisbane before moving to the US to further his studies at USC. Active as a violinist and violist in Los Angeles, Patrick has also carved out a career as a composer. After hearing Impressions of Erin, a recent concert work commis¬sioned by the Camerata of St. John’s Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane invited Patrick to compose a work for strings and percus¬sion. In this new work for LACO, Patrick has developed themes that explore the spirituality of the Australian landscape and draw upon a musical tradition called the songline, which is an oral map that describes geographical features. The work is an emotional journey through three specific regions travelled by the composer, express¬ing the mystery, wonder, joy and even pain that Australia holds. It is also a celebration of the inseparable connection between the continent’s Indigenous peoples and the land itself. Tonight is the world premiere of Lines of the Southern Cross.

Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy, penning his first compositions at the tender age of three. At age 11, in 1846, he made his debut as a pianist at the Salle Pleyel. He impressed the crowd there by playing whatever sonata by Beethoven the audience sug¬gested, and he continued his career for many decades after that, writing music and performing. With the exception of a few pieces, much of his enormous output has been unjustly neglected.

Saint-Saëns composed five piano concertos in his career, but there was a gap of two decades between the Fourth (1874) and Fifth (1896) concertos. Saint-Saëns found a good reason to revisit the genre in 1896: he composed Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, “Egyptian” to play at the 50th anniversary of his debut. This con¬certo was given the nickname “Egyptian,” because Saint-Saëns composed the work while in Luxor, as he often wintered in Egypt. As a conductor, Saint-Saëns’ work took him to many places, but out¬side of that, he also had a deep passion for travel and vacationed as much as he could. He was able to indulge this passion because of a large bequest from the director of the French Post Office. The years of travel injected musical ideas into his compositions that can be classified as “exoticism,” musical depictions of cultures that are not native to the composer. In a way, exoticism is the flip side of nationalism, in which a composer pays tribute to his or her own culture in music. Exoticism, on the other hand, represents a com¬poser’s idea of another culture, an appropriation. For Saint-Saëns, the Fifth Piano Concerto painted the picture of a cruise to various places, including of course Egypt, but also Spain and Java.

The opening movement is an Allegro animato, which begins with two contrasting themes. The first provides the subject for a set of energetic variations, each one more technically brilliant than the last. The counterbalance to this energy is a slower theme of bittersweet quality. Saint-Saëns gives the soloist many moments of brilliant passagework, with the orchestra providing lush sup¬port, full of rich and colorful harmony. The dynamics are especially unpredictable and the mood shifts from pleasant to stormy and back again. The coda settles everything down and provides a calm and sweet ending.

The second movement of a concerto usually provides a peace¬ful contrast to the energetic first movement, so the lively opening of this section might surprise the listener. After the initial burst, Saint-Saëns arrives at his main musical idea, a lush setting of a song he heard while sailing on the Nile. In addition to giving us full, complex Romantic harmonies, Saint-Saëns brings out individual orchestral colors, especially in the woodwinds. The movement has some wonderful orchestral effects, some of which evoke wonder and some, the exotic.

The finale, Molto allegro, begins with the low rumbles of what might be a motor, urging us on to the next travel destination. The piano part is quick and effervescent, with the orchestra keeping up at every turn. One can imagine the 61-year-old Saint-Saëns dis¬playing skills at the piano that had only sharpened with age. The ending of the Concerto is breathtaking. Saint-Saëns shows that his travels left him feeling both energized and inspired.

The opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor is one of music’s most recognizable four-note motifs, and the ensuing movement is one of the world’s best-known pieces of music. But it took a while for Beethoven’s Fifth to achieve its status in music history. The problem was not with the Symphony itself; the prob¬lem was one of programming. In December of 1808, Beethoven planned a massive concert for the Theater an der Wien featuring over four hours of his music. Critics and contemporary reviewers might understandably have lost the Fifth Symphony in the midst of these other works.

It wasn’t until more than a year later that famed German Romantic writer ETA Hoffman anonymously sang the work’s prais¬es. It is in his account that the “narrative” idea of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony appears: tragedy becomes triumph; tumult becomes exultation. At the time the piece was being written, Europe was in the throes of political upheaval, as a result of the Napoleonic wars, while in his private life, Beethoven was dealing with a personal crisis of his own. In the first years of the century, Beethoven had come to full realization that his increasing deafness was inevitable, and that his time as a performer was coming to an end. In the face of this challenge, Beethoven ultimately resolved to write music for as long as it was possible. He certainly did not suffer from a lack of ideas.

Beethoven ruminated over the musical material for his Fifth Symphony for quite some time. He started sketching out ideas in 1804, soon after finishing the Third Symphony, but he wrote a lot of other pieces while those sketches were simmering. He finally completed the work in 1808, and dedicated it to his patrons, Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz and Count Razumovsky.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is remarkable for many reasons, and not just because of its attention-grabbing opening. Beethoven employs the traditional first movement structure of the sympho¬ny—called sonata form—that Mozart and Haydn perfected in the Classical period. He was not content to play by all the rules, however, and the first movement shows flashes of inventiveness: the sequential development of the theme (chains of the short-short-short-long idea), a short and unexpected oboe solo in the recapitulation of the main theme and a brilliant coda. The section ends with a sense of finality, but without a sense of rest.

The second movement offers a theme and variations with two themes, one sweet and melodic, and the other grand and noble. Beethoven’s skill in building on these themes proves that he can command the listener’s attention with lyricism and hope just as he can with turmoil and bluster.

The third movement brings back the short-short-short-long rhythm in the scherzo, and it seems to be everywhere. The con-trasting trio theme shows Beethoven’s ability to write dynamic counterpoint. When the scherzo theme returns, it is played quietly, with pizzicato strings creating mystery and setting up a grand tran¬sition to the fourth movement. Instead of pausing between the movements, as was common, the fourth movement emerges— without a break—from the ending of the third. If we can glean anything from Beethoven’s sketches for this Symphony, it is that he spent a lot of time deciding how best to proceed. In another surprising twist, Beethoven brings back part of the scherzo in the final movement.

The final movement affirms the key of C major rather than C minor, and in the intervening years many listeners have read into this simple gesture the triumph of hope over despair. In the end, the music in the final movement suggests victory, pageantry, even nobility. There is a long coda in which the bright sonority of C major seems to obliterate the memory of the C minor of the first move¬ment, providing a feeling of finality and of satisfaction. Perhaps Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony should have been the finale on the fateful concert in 1808. Had that been the case, it seems likely that the critics and the public would have immediately embraced this work as a classic.  ↑ less ↑

beethoven the pianist

LACO’s upcoming concert features “double concertos” by Mozart and Bach and a selection of Etudes for Piano by György Ligeti. The finale of the evening will be Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played by the incomparable Jeremy Denk and the talented musicians of LACO. Beethoven’s piano music is fascinating to me because I know he wrote most of it to show off his own talent as a pianist. To closely study these concertos, sonatas, and piano trios is to understand Beethoven the performer. And one cannot help but feel a little melancholy in looking at these pieces because we know that Beethoven had to give up his performing career sooner than he wanted to because of his hearing loss.

read more →Beethoven (1770-1827) lived almost to the age of 57. His made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of seven, although his father—wanting to tout his very own musical prodigy—advertised him as a six-year-old. Music was his career from these early days, and he grew in fits and starts as a performer and a composer through a difficult childhood and early adulthood. He studied with local teachers and some relatives as well. Around the time Beethoven was about ten years old, he became the assistant to the new court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe. In a write-up in the Magazin der Musik in 1783 Beethoven is described as:

“a boy of eleven years and a most promising talent. He plays the piano very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well….[Neefe] is now training him in composition and for his encouragement has nine variations for the piano, written by him on a march, engraved at Mannheim. This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.”

When Beethoven was 18, he took it upon himself to become the head of the family when his mother’s death and his father’s subsequent alcoholism caused a shift in family dynamics. Beethoven petitioned for half of his father’s salary (his father was let go from his singing job) to support his younger brothers. In return, Beethoven sometimes played viola in the court and theater orchestras. This experience would be invaluable to him as a composer. His orchestral works show sensitivity to the roles of the instruments in the orchestra, something he witnessed firsthand from the string section.

Beethoven left Bonn behind for Vienna in 1792. He studied with Haydn for a time, but more importantly he was intent on establishing himself as a pianist and composer in the new city. His connections from Bonn helped him greatly in these endeavors. Also, the members of the Viennese aristocracy who recognized Beethoven’s talent were more than happy to provide him with accommodations and commissions. Beethoven excelled at displays of virtuosity in the salons and private performances held in the houses of these aristocrats. By 1795, he was showing off his talents in public concerts, playing his own piano trios, piano sonatas, and his first piano concertos.

Beethoven was about 26 when he began have troubles with his hearing. He continued to play throughout these struggles, and to compose as well. By 1801 he was finally ready to share the news of his infirmity, which he had kept secret for some time, with his close friends and his brothers. The enormity of this problem caused a crisis for Beethoven, who wondered what effect his encroaching deafness would have on both his professional life and his personal relationships. To his old friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, he wrote the following in a letter:

“For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. As for my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, what would they say?”

Beethoven’s skills would have to shift, and he would eventually concern himself entirely with composing because he could not continue as a performer. By 1814, when Beethoven was in his forties, he was almost totally deaf. It was in April of this year that Beethoven last appeared in public as a soloist. The concert was a benefit for the military, and it was organized by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, violinist and friend of Beethoven. Beethoven’s last public performance was of the Archduke Trio, op. 97. Louis Spohr, the composer and violinist, gave an ungenerous account of the rehearsals, saying, “on account of [Beethoven’s] deafness there was scarcely anything of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.” In truth, Spohr hadn’t heard Beethoven play in his prime and had no firsthand experience of this virtuosity. Friend and fellow pianist Ignaz Moscheles was far kinder, explaining that the piece was wonderful and new, and that the playing, although not as clear and precise as it could have been, still contained “traces of the grand style of playing which I had long recognized in his compositions.”

In addition to writing the large-scale works of his middle and late periods, Beethoven attempted to compose one final Piano Concerto, a sixth. We think he began sketches for it in 1814 or 1815. About seventy pages of music exist for the first movement, but the scoring peters out, and Beethoven left this work unfinished. Perhaps it was put on the back-burner as Beethoven knew he could not himself perform it. In 1987, Nicholas Cook reconstructed the work and provided a completion for this movement.

We can look at Beethoven’s deafness and consequent retirement from performance as a tragedy. It is possible, however, that we can think of this circumstance as nudging Beethoven into his maturity as a composer. One wonders what his output would have been like had he been able to play into his fifties. On the occasion of hearing Piano Concerto No. 1, it is an opportunity to look back at Beethoven at the beginning of his career in Vienna: full of hope, full of talent, and showing unlimited potential. No doubt his career didn’t end up as he planned, but his legacy as one of the greatest composers that ever lived was already in place before his death in 1827. That’s no small feat, considering that some of the most important composers in music history died in obscurity. Catch a glimpse of the young Beethoven in Piano Concerto No. 1, and see that limitless potential for yourself.

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chopin and haydn share the stage

LACO’s upcoming concert features a Piano Concerto written at the beginning of Chopin’s career and a symphony composed near the end of Haydn’s career. In some ways, their professional lives were the inverse of each other. Chopin started out writing symphonic works to introduce himself to the musical public, and eventually all but gave up public performance in his later years. On the other hand, Haydn spent 30 years working for a single family and didn’t really have the opportunity to work in the public sphere until he was in his late forties.

read more →Haydn was born in 1732, Chopin in 1810. Haydn’s piece on the program—Symphony No. 102—dates from 1794. Haydn was sixty-two years old when the piece premiered in early 1795. Chopin was just nineteen years old when he composed the Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1829. (This piece was actually his first work in the genre, but the two works were published in reverse order.) Haydn’s symphony is the work of a mature composer writing for a modern, sophisticated audience. Chopin’s Piano Concerto was premiered at a concert at Warsaw’s National Theater in 1830, and the hometown crowd was immediately smitten with the composer’s use of national dance rhythms and folksongs. Let’s take a closer look at the contexts of these two works.

It was at the beginning of January 1779 that Haydn was finally permitted to write music for people other than his patron. After this date, Haydn undertook two journeys to London and composed a dozen symphonies for this audience. These are among his most famous pieces, and many of them have nicknames you might recognize: “Surprise,” “Clock,” and “Military.” Haydn was fortunate enough to live three decades after being freed from his contract, and he made excellent use of that time, composing piano trios, string quartets, and other instrumental works. It is in this wonderful, fruitful time in Haydn’s life that Symphony No. 102 was written. The London audience was enthusiastic about Haydn’s work, and he had a creative resurgence at a time when other composers might have thought about winding down.

In his final years, which were spent in Vienna, Haydn concentrated on vocal music, including six masses and the oratorio, The Creation. One of his late masses is a favorite of mine, the Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of war), which is also known as the “Paukenmesse” or the Kettledrum mass. I sang it with the College Choir when I was an undergraduate at Hunter College, and I think the Agnus Dei from that mass is still one of the prettiest pieces I’ve ever heard. The Creation is a stunning work as well, and must be heard to be believed. Who would have thought Haydn’s career would end so spectacularly? I’m sure he himself was pleasantly surprised by his successful second act.

Chopin was not so lucky to enjoy a long life. He struggled with health issues for years and finally succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis in October of 1849, a few months shy of his fortieth birthday. Both Piano Concertos, however, date from two decades earlier, at a time when Chopin’s professional career was just at its beginning. At nineteen years old, Chopin was finishing up his education at the Warsaw Conservatory, and looking for ways to travel abroad and play his music for new audiences. He was able to take short trips to Berlin and Vienna, and on those journeys, he found that audiences were especially charmed by works with Polish characteristics. When he got back to Warsaw after these trips, he set out to write a piano concerto, likely knowing it was the best way to show off both his compositional skill and his talent as a performer. In both of his piano concertos, Chopin chose to base the final movements on Polish dance forms.

One might be forgiven if one thought that Chopin’s career would consist of more of these types of pieces and their subsequent performances, but that’s not how things went. His unpredictable health and the physical strain of public performance encouraged Chopin to focus on teaching and composing. In fact, his orchestral works after the two piano concertos were few and far between. And you know what? That’s all right by me, because he spent the lion’s share of his career writing the most beautiful, most sublime music for his beloved instrument, the piano. In fact, there isn’t a work in his entire output that doesn’t feature the piano. It was truly and in so many ways, his voice.

I’m very interested to hear Haydn’s 102nd Symphony and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 side by side. It will be an interesting juxtaposition: one work from a composer just starting out, and the other from an established and successful composer in the prime of his creative life. Also, let’s not forget that Haydn’s work comes from 1794, just after the wave of Classicism had crested, and was beginning to move towards the first glimpses of Romanticism. Chopin’s work comes from early in this Romantic period, hinting at the chromatic style, rhythmic freedom, and improvisatory flavor that would color his mature work. It should be an interesting evening with these two men, one who died in 1809 and the other who was born just ten months later, destined never to meet, except on the concert stage.

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the comeback kid

So it’s JS Bach’s birthday again. LACO will be celebrating with the composer’s music, of course. This time it’s the exquisite Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. In addition to being a fine example of the Baroque concerto, the work will also showcase the talents of Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh.

read more →It might seem a little funny to continue celebrating a birthday so long after someone has died (Bach’s final year was 1750), but I think it’s truly worth noting the day when a particular talent entered the world (March 31st). Bach would be 329 years old this year, and it’s an amazing wonder that we celebrate him at all. He died mostly unknown, a dinosaur whose ornate musical style was quickly falling out of favor and giving way to the clarity and symmetry of the Classical period. It is largely through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn—whose overture “The Fair Melusina” also appears on LACO’s next program—and a few others, that Bach’s music became known to a wider public.

In 1829 Mendelssohn gave a concert in which Bach’s masterpiece the St. Matthew Passion was performed. Mendelssohn was just 20 years old at the time, and this concert not only bolstered his own reputation, but brought Bach’s music to a new audience. It’s a wonderful story of a lost masterpiece coming to life, and of a forgotten artist making a posthumous comeback. For most people in the audience, Bach must have seemed like a miraculous talent who came from nowhere. But that isn’t the whole story.

Manuscripts of some of Bach’s works were entrusted to his children after his death. Bach had fathered twenty children in total, ten of whom reached adulthood. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was a successful composer in the first generation of the Classical period. Mozart even called him “The Father of Classicism.” With CPE Bach traveling around, memories and manuscripts of “Old Bach” (as he was known by some) must have traveled with him. Composers in the know circulated JS Bach’s manuscripts among them, valuing those works as pedagogical tools. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a patron and musician, came into possession of some of Bach’s manuscripts, which he brought to Vienna in the 1780s. He would invite musicians to his home and they’d play through Old Bach’s works. Mozart was known to have attended some of these gatherings. In England, composer and publisher Muzio Clementi dedicated himself to practicing Bach’s harpsichord pieces. So Bach was never entirely gone, he was just that amazing composer that only the chosen few had ever heard of. These connoisseurs knew Bach “before he was cool,” as they say.

And although it would be wonderful to give all the credit for the Bach revival to Mendelssohn, he couldn’t have done it alone. Right at the turn of the nineteenth century, German musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote a biography about the then mostly-unknown JS Bach. Forkel dedicated the book to van Swieten. Meanwhile, German composer and conductor Carl Friedrich Zelter was quietly amassing a sizeable collection of Bach’s works. More than a dozen years earlier than Mendelssohn’s triumphant concert, Zelter was thinking about putting Bach’s massive B Minor Mass on a public concert. He decided against it for some reason. Zelter was one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, and it was at his behest that the young composer and prodigy learn the music of Old Bach.

When Mendelssohn undertook the task of reviving the St. Matthew Passion, it was Zelter’s copy he used as reference. Mendelssohn arranged the piece and rehearsed it with quite large forces over two years. The Berlin Singakademie premiere took place on March 11, 1829. Following its grand success, more works of Bach were performed. Publishers began to put out Bach’s works, and his reputation as a genius—and the quintessential composer of late Baroque instrumental works—was set. In 1850, 100 years after Bach’s death, musicologists began collecting works for the Bachgesellschaft, a monumental, multi-volume edition of all of Bach’s surviving works.

The idea of using Bach’s works as pedagogical tools is one that survives until today. Every school year, every semester or quarter, students in music theory classes analyze Bach’s keyboard works to discover their harmonic language. Teachers assign counterpoint lessons based on the rules that are evident in Bach’s compositional style. Now, these lessons are often quite difficult, and prove to be a challenge for even the most enthusiastic students. I often field questions from my own students who ask, “Why do we have to learn this antiquated style?” Or “How does knowing Bach’s music help me write my own music?”

To these students I explain that Bach’s music achieves a very particular kind of perfection. Sure, our modern ears don’t hear music the same way Bach did, and there’s no reason that a young songwriter has to write fugues into his or her tunes. But that isn’t the point of studying Bach, or studying counterpoint, for that matter. The point is to give students a model to work within, to impose strict limits on composition, because, let’s face it, composers are faced with a wealth of choices whose stunning variety might seem paralyzing. Bach not only worked within these limits, but created art in a set of rules that today seem arcane and even mathematical. I think educators are still thinking about how beneficial it was for Mozart and Mendelssohn to learn from Bach. Why should our students get anything less? To be honest, I don’t think we’ve come up with anything better.

I was once one of those students laboring to figure out how to write a fugue that sounded like actual music rather than some school assignment. I didn’t want to be a composer, but I learned from Bach, just as Mendelssohn and Mozart did, just as students have been doing for the last century and a half. Although I’m sure there’s a theory student right now lamenting the rediscovery of Bach, I for one feel grateful for Mendelssohn, Zelter, van Swieten, and of course Bach’s children, for keeping the legacy alive and giving us something amazing to celebrate every March. Happy birthday to the master.

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prometheus unbound

Prometheus is a fascinating mythological figure. His story has been told in numerous versions, with some variations among them, of course. The first known mention of the Titan Prometheus was in an eighth-century B.C. epic poem by Hesiod called, Theogony. The section of the poem dealing with Prometheus lasts only about a hundred lines, but it hits upon a couple of the myth’s main points, namely: 1) Prometheus gives fire to the mortal creatures on earth in defiance of Zeus and the gods; 2) for this transgression, Prometheus is chained to a rock and must daily endure having his liver eaten by an eagle. (This is a daily occurrence because Prometheus is immortal and his liver apparently regenerates every night.) In later versions of the story, it is Prometheus who creates the humans out of clay, with Athena literally breathing life into them. This third aspect of the myth is one that brings new meaning to Prometheus’ theft of fire; if Prometheus brings fire to the humans because he wants to anger Zeus, that’s one thing, but if he gives fire to protect and empower his creations, that’s something else. The gift of fire becomes more poignant in light of Prometheus’ sense of responsibility towards his creations and in terms of his punishment: the hero sacrifices his life and endures torture for the good of his creations.

read more →(In case you’re wondering if that eagle thing happened for eternity, note that in some versions of the story, Heracles—Hercules, as we know him—kills the eagle and rescues Prometheus.)

The story of Prometheus has been explored in art for hundreds of years. The different aspects of his story have appeared in painting, sculpture, music, and literature. Depictions of Prometheus showed up on painted vases after the eighth century B.C. There’s a beautiful eighteenth-century sculpture in the Louvre by Nicolas-Sébastien depicting the eagle attacking the bound Prometheus. Mary Shelley’s story, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, mentions the myth in its title. In this case, Frankenstein refers to the scientist (not the monster) who made a creature and gave it life. Prometheus even makes an appearance in science. There’s an element on the Periodic Table called Promethium, a radioactive lanthanide. Although in the process of its discovery many names were suggested, Promethium was chosen because, as the discoverers explained, it crystallized “both the daring and possible misuse of the human intellect.” Prometheus has made appearances in music as well. Franz Liszt composed an eponymous symphonic poem about the titan in 1850, and more than half a century later, Scriabin composed the orchestral piece Prometheus: Poem of Fire. Stage versions include Fauré’s opera Promethée from 1910. But predating all of these works is an 1801 ballet called Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (_The Creatures of Prometheus_) by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus is one of the little-celebrated works of Beethoven’s early career, although it was popular at the time of its premiere. There’s a practical reason why Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus didn’t enter the repertoire: after the first run of the ballet—about twenty performances—the choreography was lost. The piece was also overshadowed by Beethoven’s next great triumph, theEroica Symphony, which is musically linked to the ballet: the main theme from the final section of the ballet also appears in the final movement of Beethoven’s EroicaSymphony. LACO will be presenting the “Eroica” on February 22nd as part of the “Discover” series.

The aspect of the Prometheus story that Beethoven (and collaborator Salvatore Viganò) seemed most interested in was, according to Beethoven scholar William Kinderman, “the defiant champion of humanity in a manner compatible with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Prometheus ennobled humankind through his gifts of knowledge and art fashioned from fire that he stole from the gods.” Beethoven and Viganò took some liberties with the story, making the creatures a man and a woman instead of just man as the original myth described. Beethoven also omitted the hero’s punishment of being bound to the rock, instead opting for Prometheus to be put to death and then reborn.

That the music of The Creatures of Prometheus forms such an important part of the “Eroica” Symphony is interesting, and it suggests that we might be able to read a bit more into the latter work. Beethoven had originally intended to name the “Eroica” Symphony, Bonaparte, but changed his mind when he learned that Napoleon crowned himself emperor. The narrative progression of the four movements of the symphony may suggest a heroic portrait of Napoleon, charting the hero’s journey from struggle (movement 1), through death (the second movement’s funeral march), and finally rebirth and ascension to the status of legend (represented in the scherzo and finale). As you can see, the theme of death and rebirth—taken up in _The Creatures of Prometheus_—appears in the EroicaSymphony. (And it would be an idea he would revisit in theEgmont Overture in 1809.) The characterization of Beethoven’s version of Prometheus, whom Beethoven represented as a benevolent creator, brings up the ideals of the Enlightenment, and humanity’s gifts of knowledge, creativity, and free will. Perhaps Beethoven once thought Napoleon was an enlightened ruler, worthy of honor, but he certainly changed his mind.

And if we dig a little deeper, and think about Beethoven’s increasing struggle with deafness at the time of the Eroica’s composition, we can see Beethoven as the triumphant hero. We can envision the tumult of the first movement as the composer’s inner turmoil at the loss of his hearing, and the lingering doubts he must have had about his future. If seen in this interpretation, the funeral march might be the descent into despair. Beethoven captured these thoughts in a letter known as the Heiligenstadt Testament that he wrote to his brothers around this time. On the one hand Beethoven talks about his creative ideals, but on the other hand he wonders if he can even continue living with his deafness. But that’s not the end of the story. If I may stretch this interpretation just a little further, the funeral march can be seen as the end of one Beethoven, while the scherzo and finale represent the birth of a new one. This is the beginning of the composer’s “heroic” period, wherein his music gets more complex, and his ideas are more creatively explored and developed. When we remember Beethoven, we think of his incredible struggles and, like Prometheus, his ultimate heroic apotheosis. This symphony stands in for this moment of truth when Beethoven had to decide to continue composing no matter what happened.

Although Beethoven did not literally steal fire from the gods, he demonstrated Promethean ingenuity and innovation, and like the hero of his ballet, gave us mere mortals the gifts of his art, his creativity, and his will.

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papa’s got a brand new bag

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), perhaps more than almost anyone else, embodied the zeitgeist of the entire Classical period. He came of age just as Classical forms and ensembles were becoming standardized and lived to see those same forms reach their peak. He was part of the patronage system for most of his career, composing in the prominent styles and genres of the time and working creatively within them. His unique position in history allowed him to know both Mozart and Beethoven and to observe (and participate in) the nascent Romantic period in music. It just so happens that the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn will be played on LACO’s next concert, and Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante, which dates from 1792, comes from a time when Haydn was just beginning a new phase in his life and career.

read more →Haydn was born more than 20 years before Mozart and outlived him by almost two decades. The two of them had occasion to play in string quartets together for fun. Mozart, who could be a pretty cheeky fellow, was—by all accounts—deferential to the older man. Haydn’s contemporaries describe him as an honest and decent man with a very good sense of humor. In his youthful days, he sometimes displayed a temper, but he learned to deal with people in a way that made them comfortable. Haydn was modest and kind, and he nurtured the musicians he supervised. His unhappy marriage to Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller produced no children, so Haydn was able to bring a sense of fatherly responsibility and wisdom to the musicians with whom he worked. They called him “Papa.”

Haydn worked for nearly 30 years as the court musician for the same family. In 1761, Haydn was hired as Vice-Kappelmeister by Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy. In truth, he was the acting Kapellmeister in everything but church music, but the nominal Kappelmeister, Gregor Werner, was old and nearing retirement. When Werner passed away, Haydn received his title. In 1762, Paul Anton died and Prince Nikolaus I took over, Haydn worked for him for decades, writing symphonies, operas, and chamber music, some of which was specifically for Prince Nikolaus. Nikolaus played the baryton, a now obscure string instrument, and he gave Haydn specific instructions to write music for it. Haydn of course complied, writing at least 125 baryton trios (baryton, viola, and cello) and other pieces for this particular instrument and likely playing most of them with his patron. Nikolaus repaid Haydn’s creativity with gifts and extra favors.

After Prince Nikolas’ death in 1790, his son Anton dramatically reduced the Esterhazy’s music budget, and Haydn—although still paid a salary by the family—was granted leave to travel. Haydn made two London journeys and composed a dozen concerts for them, six for the first trip and six for the second. For the last fifteen years of his life, Haydn was arguably the most famous composer in Europe. He was respected, even revered by some, sought out for compositions, and treated like the elder statesman of music.

It seemed to make a lot of sense to hook up Haydn with “up and comer,” Ludwig van Beethoven. One of Beethoven’s acquaintances from his early years in Bonn was wealthy nobleman Count Waldstein who was just eight years older than Beethoven, but acted in an almost fatherly fashion towards young Ludwig. It was Waldstein who famously sent Beethoven to learn from Haydn with a letter that said:

“Dear Beethoven!
You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-frustrated wishes. The genius of Mozart is mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. She found a refuge but no occupation with the inexhaustible Haydn; through him she wishes to form a union with another. With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.
—Your true friend, Waldstein”

Haydn did teach Beethoven for a short time in the early 1790s, but Beethoven’s ego and Haydn’s busy schedule of traveling and composing seem to have gotten in the way. There was no open conflict between them, however, and they demonstrated mutual respect until Haydn’s death in 1809. In fact the younger composer was there to publicly celebrate with Haydn on the occasion of his seventy-sixth birthday, as were Prince Lobkowitz (a sometimes patron of both Beethoven and Haydn) and opera composer Antonio Salieri.

When Haydn was essentially free of his duties with the Esterhazy family, concert manager and violinist Johann Peter Solomon took Haydn to London and into the next phase of his career. In addition to Salomon’s concerts, Haydn heard Handel’s music while in London, and this might have inspired him to write one of the most forward-looking and innovative compositions of his career: an oratorio called The Creation. It took him two years to write, longer than any other of his compositions, and it left him exhausted and depleted of energy when it was finished. His reputation as an important composer—one of the greats—seemed already set in stone, but Haydn wasn’t going to let that stop him from trying something new, pushing the boundaries of the contemporary style, and nudging his own boundaries to encompass new ideas.

I think one of the most inspiring things about Haydn is this aspect of his career: the second life he had when some folks would have retired. After 1790, when the Esterhazy family encouraged Haydn to move on, he could have decided to rest. He had just spent almost 30 years working at the same job, and one could see him just living out the rest of his years quietly. But, ever the creative composer, and the good businessman, Haydn saw opportunity. And he grabbed it. At an age and a time when other people might have said “No, thank you” to new things, Haydn said, “I’m game.” Haydn’s legacy is all the richer for his willingness to seek out new adventures; some of his most memorable compositions come from the period after 1790. Through his sixties and into his seventies, it seems that “Papa” still had a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

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music with a message

Music isn’t a curio that sits on a shelf, untouched by the world. Music’s sole purpose isn’t just to be pretty and entertaining. Music is part of the world, sometimes a reflection of the world as it is, in all of its imperfection. At times, music reflects an ideal vision of the world, as it should be. Sometimes it is a call to arms, a message for the dictators, a beacon of hope for the oppressed.

read more →It is the nature of music as part of life, politics and human emotion that I have been thinking about since I heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. When I was about ten years old, I first heard the name Nelson Mandela in a song. It was a very upbeat, catchy song, with a simple chorus that was also the song’s name: “Free Nelson Mandela.” It was penned by Jerry Dammers and recorded by his band, The Specials, in 1984. The song charted in the UK and the US, and as a result, some people—like me—were suddenly made aware that Nelson Mandela existed. When the song was released, Mandela had already been in prison for two decades, and he wasn’t the household name he is today. The song became a rallying cry, however, and helped set positive actions in motion, including a concert for Nelson Mandela’s seventieth birthday in 1988, at Britain’s enormous Wembley Stadium.

In the 1980s, the general public became more aware of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, and music not only mentioned Mandela, but the South African policy of Apartheid as well. In 1985, Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, formed an organization called Artists United Against Apartheid. Van Zandt wrote a protest song called “Sun City,” which referred to a casino resort in South Africa a couple of hours outside of Johannesburg. The luxurious resort formed a stark contrast to the poverty of the surrounding area, and Van Zandt’s song—which ended up being sung by some of the music world’s greatest luminaries—promised that no one was going to perform at Sun City as long as Apartheid was policy in South Africa. Again, the catchiness of the tune brought the issue to a wide audience, and the involvement of artists like Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Ringo Starr, and Keith Richards, made the public sit up and take notice.

There are many musical tributes to Mandela and other musical protests against Apartheid, including the Broadway musical (and later film), Sarafina!. I saw this musical with my high school’s theater club in 1989, and at the time, I knew little about the Soweto riots that inspired Mbongeni Ngema’s play. Sarafina! helped to educate me, and it did so with dance and beautiful, lively music.

Music responding to politics is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to the twentieth century. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was originally titled Bonaparte. The composer was writing a tribute to a man he thought would be the champion of the poor and oppressed. When Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France, however, Beethoven changed the title and dedication of the piece, simply calling it “Eroica,” and describing it as a piece to the “memory” of a great man. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, of course, is more overt in its message. Beethoven set Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude (Ode to Joy), a poem that speaks of universal brotherhood. There is some speculation that Schiller might have been a Freemason, which would not be surprising, considering it is a fraternal organization.

Mozart belonged to the Freemasons, and there are many of his works that surreptitiously incorporated masonic themes and ideas. His opera, The Magic Flute is probably the most often discussed example of this. With the knocking motif in the overture—perhaps suggesting the candidate for initiation into the Freemasons knocking on the door—to the use of keys and harmonies that refer to the number three (symbolic in the freemasons), there are many gestures that could suggest Freemasonry. In addition to these hidden messages, Mozart composed half a dozen works that were specifically and overtly connected to the Freemasons, like his song “Gesellenreisen,” which was to be sung when new journeymen Freemasons were initiated. Haydn was also a Freemason, and we might imagine that some of their ideas were in his mind when he was composing.

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Nabucco, has been cast as covert political commentary on the Italian Risorgimento, although the extent to which this is true has been called into question recently. There is no doubt, however, that “Va Pensiero,” one of the choruses from the opera, has taken on significance out of context. Because of the words that speak of a beautiful, idealized homeland, it has been thought of as a patriotic anthem. In 2009, Umberto Bossi, an Italian Senator suggested that “Va Pensiero” become the official national anthem of Italy. The current anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia (music by Michele Novaro and poetry by Goffredo Mameli) has been the provisional anthem since 1946, although both the poem and the music were written nearly a century before that. It’s a military march of sorts, while “Va Pensiero” is more melodic and tuneful. As a second generation Italian American, I’d support the switch, although in 2012 Italy finally made “Fratelli d’Italia” the official anthem, so Verdi will have to wait.

Although anti-war and protest songs make up a large part of political music, let’s not forget that music is often a tool of propagandists. Much of the popular music in 1940s America reflects the December 1941 entry of the US into World War II. “Remember Pearl Harbor,” recorded by bandleader Sammy Kaye, was one of the first songs to address the new role of the US as an active part of the conflict. It was followed by songs like “Let’s Put the Axe to the Axis” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” It didn’t take the armed forces long to realize that popular songs helped galvanize the war effort, and mass production of recordings continued unabated, despite a rationing of shellac, an important ingredient in the manufacture of recordings.

Politics and music often combine to cause controversy. John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) is an example of such a controversial piece. Adams’ opera (libretto by Alice Goodman) dealt with the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achile Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Although Adams has been very vocal in explaining that the opera was designed to give equal time to the Israelis and the Palestinians, critics—most notably musicologist Richard Taruskin—called out Adams for “romanticizing” the hijackers. The New York Times op-ed piece in which this comment appears is more generally about the immense power of music, and therefore the need for intelligent forbearance. He uses the example of the “social contract” in Israel that—by and large—has kept the music of Wagner from being performed in that country.

There are many examples of music caught up in world politics throughout history. Sometimes this happens accidentally, but sometimes the composer’s intent is to be part of the discussion. This brings up philosophical questions about art’s place in society—a question many composers have considered carefully. Although Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did not always advertise their political beliefs, they allowed themselves to be inspired by them. In the next couple of months, LACO will be featuring music by these three gentlemen. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica Symphony, a massive monument to politics and music, is featured on our February 22 Discover concert.

We rely on music to soothe us, to make the traffic on the way home from work bearable, to inspire us. We unwind to music, exercise to our favorite albums, and play songs at celebrations of all kinds. But music is so much more than mere pleasant sounds. When politics are involved, music sometimes joins in the fray, gets its hands dirty (so to speak) and carries a message. It has the power to inform, educate and warn. I first heard the name Nelson Mandela in a song. Now that he is gone, the world is both mourning his absence and celebrating his incredible life. Music is part of that, as it should be.

Nelson Mandela by the Specials

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beethoven’s disney moment

LACO’s upcoming concert features a landmark of the Romantic symphony: Beethoven’s Sixth — known as the “Pastoral.” For many music lovers, it is a gorgeous five-movement piece that suggests scenes in the countryside and provides evidence of Beethoven’s burgeoning embrace of programmatic music. For some in the audience, however, it will conjure up images of fauns, unicorns and the gods on Mount Olympus. This is the influence of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

read more →When Walt Disney’s Fantasia was released in 1940, it was certainly a landmark for the Disney company, but it was not the studio’s first foray into matching musical ideas with animation; from 1929 to 1939, Disney produced seventy-five short films that did just that called Silly Symphonies. Walt Disney had the idea of producing a Silly Symphony featuring Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice set to the eponymous piece by Paul Dukas.

When the production ran far over-budget, the Disney brothers (Walt and Roy, who handled the finances) decided to make the Sorcerer’s Apprentice part of a feature film alongside other selections of music and animation.

For a while they called it The Concert Feature, and Leopold Stokowski — who had conducted the Sorcerer’s Apprentice— agreed to lead the rest of the musical choices. Deems Taylor, a composer and critic, was chosen to introduce and provide commentary on-screen for the selections, and he came aboard during the development phase. In the fall of 1938, the creative team settled on the following program for The Concert Feature: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement), Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring andCydalise et le Chèvre-pied by Gabriel Pierné, among others.

If you remember the film, you might recall that Debussy’sClair de Lune did not make the final cut, and you might wonder why Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is missing from the list. Pierné’s ballet Cydalise, which opens with a march called, “The Entry of the Little Fauns,” had inspired the mythological frolicking that is now associated with the Pastoral segment. And, in fact, it was a few months into production that Cydalise was replaced with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. It’s hard to imagine the film any other way at this point, but it could have gone much differently. The decision to use Beethoven’s Sixth instead of Pierné’s ballet was not universally accepted. Leopold Stokowski raised the objection that perhaps they were moving too far away from Beethoven’s original intent (although he seemed to have little to no objection to dancing mushrooms in theNutcracker or dinosaurs in the Rite of Spring). Walt Disney, however, pushed hard for the piece’s inclusion in the film famously saying of its appearance in Fantasia, “This will make Beethoven!” Stokowski supposedly replied, “That’s true . . . some who have never heard his name will see this.”

I listened to Fantasia’s double album growing up. It provided my first exposure to Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, and I was a very receptive audience. Music was always endlessly fascinating to me, and the animation was something of an afterthought. Imagine my consternation, then, when I was twenty-three years old, facing down a classroom full of middle school students who did not stay rapt with attention when I played Mozart or Beethoven.

I turned to Fantasia for help.

I needed some multi-media activities for my sixth-graders that allowed them to get past their own musical prejudices and really hear different kinds of classical music. They had been mostly resistant to music with violins and flutes, but I figured that cartoons would help the music go down easier. We watched one segment of Fantasia every couple of classes, and they ate it up. They loved the dinosaurs ofRite of Spring. They adored the autumn fairies of theNutcracker. They laughed with the dancing hippos of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. And they loved the centaurs and unicorns of Beethoven’s Pastoral. It’s amazing how easily they accepted the music when it was accompanied by adorable creatures, beautiful landscapes and comedic slapstick characters (like drunk Bacchus).

Fantasia was a grand undertaking that employed more than a thousand people, and at first it was a loss. There were a few reasons for this, among them the limitations on foreign markets because of World War II, the complex new sound system required for stereo showings of the film — Fantasound – and a running time just a shade over two hours. Since RKO Radio pictures had the distribution deal for the film, they exerted some pressure on Disney to cut the film down to a shorter running time, eliminating Deems Taylor’s commentary and the abstract opener of Bach’sToccata and Fugue. In January 1942, RKO made these changes and released the film in a mono print (without Fantasound). Four years later, RKO brought back the commentary and restored Bach’s piece, but managed to trim about ten minutes off the running time. The film’s complicated history after that is filled with re-releases, re-cuts, re-recordings and transfers to different formats and aspect ratios. Deems Taylor’s commentary was replaced with voice over narration by at least two other people, one in the 1982 version and one in the 1985 version.

An especially notable change: in 1960 a black female centaur from the Pastoral segment — a racially insensitive depiction — was removed from the film. The scenes of “Sunflower,” as she was named, were at first crude cuts that took out both her scenes and the music that accompanied them (I imagine this was quite jarring). Later versions crop her out, allowing the music to remain intact.

Fantasia finally turned a profit after its 1969 theatrical re-release, but unfortunately Walt Disney did not live to see that happen. Part of the film’s popularity at this time was linked to the counter-culture. The 1969 poster advertising the film is almost like a Peter Max-inspired psychedelic painting featuring mushrooms, Pegasus and the demon from Night on Bald Mountain. Think Yellow Submarinemeets Disney.

In 1990, Fantasia celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by releasing the 1946 version processed from the original negatives. It had been painstakingly restored over two years, and Stokowski’s score (which had been re-recorded in the 1980s) was digitally remastered. It’s hard to believe that Beethoven’s music originally was not part of this feature, although it would have been impossible to include every “great” composer. (It would also likely be impossible to get a consensus on how to define “great.”) After all, Mozart’s music did not make it into Fantasia or its sequel. Yes, despite all of the difficulty and time-consuming work of the original, the Disney company decided to put out a sequel in 1999.

The brainchild of Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt and son of Roy, Fantasia 2000 featured Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and — my personal favorite — an Al Hirschfeld-inspired romp through New York City set to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. And, of course, Beethoven starts the show this time with the first movement of the Fifth Symphony (cut down considerably, but still effective).

I took my sixth-graders on a field trip to see Fantasia 2000in New York City. It was a memorable outing for both the students and for me. Some of those students might have children of their own by now, and I wonder if they will watchFantasia or Fantasia 2000 with their kids and remember seeing it in music class at PS 220 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Perhaps they will tell their children whatever bits and pieces they remember about this Beethoven guy. Their music teacher seemed to think he was a pretty big deal, and Walt Disney himself did not disagree.

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happy (almost) birthday, bb!

Those of us who study music history have gotten into the habit of calling 1685 an annus mirabilis because both JS Bach and GF Handel (along with Domenico Scarlatti) joined the world in that year. As it turns out, however, there appear to be a couple of these “years of wonders,” and it seems that we are in the hundredth anniversary of one such year. The year 1913 saw the birth of both Witold Lutosławski (January 25) and Benjamin Britten (November 22). It also saw the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (May 29). Other notable 1913 babies were the bandleader Woody Herman, US presidents Nixon and Ford, athlete and Olympian Jesse Owens and writer Albert Camus. (And, as my mother recently reminded me, my own maternal grandfather would have turned 100 this September.)

read more →In 2013, the musical community has focused on celebrating the hundredth birthday of Benjamin Britten. The “Britten 100” series was launched in September of 2012 by the Britten-Pears Foundation. Events have included productions of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in six different countries, and performances of the War Requiem all over the world. On the website britten100.org, one can see a calendar of all the events still to take place, listen to representative samples of Britten’s music and watch clips of people like composer John Adams, actor Patrick Stuart and singer Ian Bostridge talk about their experiences with the music of Britten. Additionally, LA Opera has created Britten100/LA, in partnership with the Britten-Pears Foundation, that covers Britten events in the LA-region.

One of the talking heads featured on the website is American director Wes Anderson, whose 2012 film,Moonrise Kingdom, featured the music of Britten — particularly The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra — as its “musical backbone.” For many viewers, this soundtrack, which features not just TYPGTTO, but excerpts from Friday AfternoonsNoye’s Fludde, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, provided a primer on Britten’s work. In interviews about the film, Anderson seems to suggest that Britten’s music, which he first encountered as a ten-year-old (he and his older brother appeared in a church/school production of Noye’s Fludde) was extremely influential on his own childhood, and therefore forms a sort of nostalgic heart of his portrayal of childhood in the film. If you haven’t yet seen Moonrise Kingdom, you should consider viewing it. It’s an intimate story of first love told in a unique way. And having the music of Britten (and film composer Alexandre Desplat) on the soundtrack certainly doesn’t hurt matters.

But this year’s events are not limited to concerts featuring Britten’s instrumental music and lavish productions of his extraordinary operas. England’s Royal Mint is honoring the composer on a new 50p coin. The likeness of Queen Elizabeth II will adorn the front of the coin, and on the back, Benjamin Britten’s name is written on two musical staves, separated by the line, “Composer – Born 1913.” A quote from an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem appears; the words “Blow Bugle Blow” sit above the top staff, while the following line “Set the wild echoes flying” sits at the bottom. Britten set the Tennyson poem as part of his 1943 song cycle, Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. The musical setting of the poem forms the third movement — labeled a Nocturne — of the cycle. (Other movements feature the poems of Charles Cotton, William Blake, Ben Jonson and John Keats.) Peter Pears, longtime collaborator and partner of Benjamin Britten, sang the premiere and recorded the work as well.

The quote, and the overall design of the coin, was the brainchild of Tom Phillips, a visual artist, composer and stage designer. The use of this line from the song cycle seemed like a natural choice to Phillips, who said, “What better clarion call for a musical anniversary could there be than, ‘Blow, bugle, blow: set the wild echoes flying?’” The coin will be released into general circulation around Britten’s birthday, November 22, 2013.

LACO, too, is playing a part in Britten’s centenary. The upcoming concert, Haydn: Cello Concerto, opens with Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Frank Bridge was an influential figure in Britten’s early career; the two met when Britten was a teenager. One of the most striking things about this piece is the skill Britten displays in mimicking different styles, from a march to a waltz to an Italian opera aria. It’s a brilliant stylistic collage by Britten, who was still at the beginning of his career when he composed this piece for the 1937 Salzburg Festival.

We are reaching the end of Britten’s centennial year (and Lutosławski’s as well, whose Chain 2 was a dynamic part of LACO’s season opener). Benjamin Britten passed away in 1976 at the age of sixty-three, but over the course of his career he produced more than a dozen operas, an abundance of choral and chamber music and of course the War Requiem. There is no danger of the musical world forgetting Britten’s extraordinary contribution to the canon of Western music, but it is fitting to celebrate the life of such a singular talent with an entire year year filled to the brim with his music.

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