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Composers Datebook

American Public Media
253 episodes   Last Updated: Aug 17, 23
Composers Datebook™ is a daily two-minute program designed to inform, engage, and entertain listeners with timely information about composers of the past and present. Each program notes significant or intriguing musical events involving composers of the past and present, with appropriate and accessible music related to each.


SynopsisIn 1980, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt emigrated from his Soviet-controlled homeland and settled in Austria. Since the 1960’s, Pärt’s increasingly spiritual and overtly religious music, imbued with mystical and contemplative rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church, did not sit well with the communist authorities, and Pärt found it increasing hard to live and work in Estonia.On today’s date in 1980, at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, another Baltic artist, the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, gave the premiere performance of a new violin-piano arrangement of Part’s Fratres, or Brothers—an instrumental work from 1977 that Pärt subsequently rescored for a variety of ensembles. In the version commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, the original harmonic material resides in the serene piano part, while the violin plays virtuosic variations above it. That serenity is the result of Pärt’s effort to—as he put it— “learn to walk again as a composer.” He came up with a term, tintinnabulation, for the simplicity and directness of expression he sought.“Tintinnabulation is like this,” writes Pärt. “I am alone with silence. I work with very few elements… The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation.”Music Played in Today's ProgramArvo Pärt (b. 1935) Fratres Gidon Kremer, vn;Keith Jarrett, p. ECM 1275
SynopsisIn the 1950s, if you said the words “Cuban music,” perhaps Desi Arnez, a.k.a. Ricky Ricardo, singing Babaloo might come to mind. These days, it’s more likely the Buena Vista Social Club.On today’s date back in 1932, George Gershwin had Cuban music on his mind when the New York Philharmonic premiered his Cuban Overture under its original title Rumba. Cuban dance music has always proved appealing to North American composers and long before Gershwin, the 19th century piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk toured Cuba and imitated some of the sounds and rhythms he heard there in his original works.In the early 1940s, a young hay fever sufferer named Leonard Bernstein escaped the New England pollen of Tanglewood for a time in Key West. There he was inspired by the Latin dance bands he heard on radio Havana to write a jaunty, little Cuban-style dance of his own that would resurface some 15 years later as the song America in Bernstein’s hit musical, West Side Story.And in 1990, American composer Michael Daughterty composed his orchestral conga line entitled Desi—a symphonic tribute to Cuban bandleader Desi Arnez, in his pop icon role of, who else, Ricky Ricardo.Music Played in Today's ProgramGeorge Gershwin (1898 – 1937) Cuban Overture New York Philharmonic; Zubin Mehta, conductor. Teldec 46318Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) Desi! Baltimore Symphony; David Zinman, conductor. Argo 444 454
SynopsisWhen a flying saucer circled over Washington, DC, in the classic 1951 sci-fi film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” it did so to music played on an electronic instrument known as the Theremin.Its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, was born in St. Petersburg on today’s date in 1896. In 1927 Theremin traveled to America, where he obtained a patent for an electronic instrument he called the Thereminovox. In the 1930s, Theremin arranged concerts for his creation at New York’s Carnegie Hall.Then, in 1938, without explanation, Theremin disappeared. Some said it was because he was in debt, others because he was married to two women at the same time. The truth was even stranger: Theremin was a spy.He had been passing on American technical information to the Soviets. Ironically, when he returned home, Theremin was immediately thrown into a Soviet prison for seven years. While incarcerated, he developed miniature electronic eavesdropping devices for the Soviet government.Decades later, in 1989, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the 92-year old Theremin again showed up in New York to be honored at a festival of electronic music, amazed that his name and instrument were even remembered.Music Played in Today's ProgramBernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975) The Day the Earth Stood Still National Philharmonic; Bernard Herrmann, conductor. London 443 899Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) Berceuse, fr The Firebird Clara Rockmore, theremin; Nadia Reisenberg, piano Delos 1014
SynopsisThere was a time when German opera houses would have fought over the chance to premiere a brand-new opera by Richard Strauss. But by 1940, when Strauss finished a mythological opera entitled The Love of Danae, there was a war on and Strauss had fallen out of favor with Germany’s Nazi rulers.A scheduled premiere in Dresden had to be cancelled. In Leipzig, the orchestral parts for the new opera were lost in a fire, and in Munich an Allied air raid damaged the opera’s sets and scenery. By the summer of 1944, when conductor Clemens Krauss was rehearsing handpicked vocal soloists and the Vienna Philharmonic for the opera’s belated premiere at the Salzburg Festival, the collapse of the Third Reich was imminent. On August 1st, an order was issued from Berlin canceling all music festivals and closing all theaters. Somehow Salzburg managed to get a dispensation, and rehearsals for Strauss’s opera were allowed to continue. A private dress rehearsal of The Love of Danae took place in Salzburg on August 16, 1944. The 80-year old composer attended, and, with tears in his eyes, thanked the performers with these words: “Perhaps we shall meet again in a better world.”Music Played in Today's ProgramRichard Strauss (1864 – 1949) Die Liebe der Danae (Symphonic Fragment), Op. 83 Toronto Symphony; Andrew Davis, conductor. CBS 45804
SynopsisIt's said that Nature abhors a vacuum – and so, apparently, did Richard Wagner, who devised a brass instrument to bridge a gap he perceived between the horns and the trombones in the orchestra of his day. And so the "Wagner tuba" was born, a brass instrument Wagner designed for the 1876 premiere of his cycle of four Ring operas in Bayreuth, Germany, which began on today’s date that year with Das Rheingold – the first opera in the Ring cycle.Other composers have also scored for Wagner tubas, including Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss, both ardent Wagner fans, and also Igor Stravinsky, who, though certainly not a Wagnerite, did include Wagner tubas in the early versions of some of his famous ballet scores.Some contemporary composers include parts for the Wagner tuba in their works as well, and a quartet of these instruments appears in a 1994 score the Hungarian composer, György Kurtág wrote for the Berlin Philharmonic and its then music director, Claudio Abbado. Kurtág is noted for his short, epigrammatic and very introspective chamber works, and "Stele" is his first major work for a large, conventional, arranged symphony orchestra.Music Played in Today's ProgramGyőrgy Kurtág (b. 1926) Stele, op. 33 SWR Symphony; Michael Gielen, conductor. Hänssler 93001
SynopsisSome have claimed that it was on today’s date in 1877 that the American inventor Thomas Edison recorded his own voice reciting, “Mary had a little lamb” on a tin-foil cylinder of his own design. Other historians date the precise birth of the phonograph earlier, others later. In any case, the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company wasn’t established until January of 1878.Initially, music wasn’t Edison’s top priority: He thought his phonograph might be profitable as an aid to stenographers, or for families who wanted to record the last words of beloved relatives.Eventually, however, classical music and the phonograph began to interact.In London in 1888, a bit of a Crystal Palace performance of Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt” was captured on an Edison cylinder. In Vienna, Johannes Brahms, seated at the piano, recorded a snippet of his famous Hungarian Dance No. 3, with a spoken intro many wrongly assumed was by the composer himself.The voice of British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan WAS captured, however, commenting: “I am astonished—and terrified—at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever!” Well, Sir Arthur, I’m afraid there’s no going back now…Music Played in Today's ProgramAntonin Dvořák (1841 - 1904) arr. Kreisler Songs My Mother Taught Me Fritz Kreisler, violin Pearl 9324George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1757) excerpt, fr Judas Maccabeus Edward Lloyd, tenor Koch Historic 7703Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) plays on an Edison cylinder (r. 1889) Johannes Brahms, p. Pearl 99049Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Hungarian Dance No. 1 Idil Biret, piano Naxos 8.550355
SynopsisAs the proverbial saying goes: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” It was, frankly, a matter of economic necessity that led a 36-year-old Austrian conductor named Clemens Krauss to program an all-Johann Strauss concert by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Music Festival on today’s date in 1929.The Festival was established in 1920 with high ideals but insecure funding. To succeed, the Festival needed both strong local support and wealthy visitors from abroad. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but in 1929, as the Festival approached its 10th anniversary, its finances and future seemed uncertain. Now, Krauss knew that Strauss waltzes were popular with both the natives and the Festival’s international visitors, so why not offer a whole concert program consisting of nothing but the dance music of Johann Strauss? The August 11, 1929, concert proved to be a resounding success, and the idea was repeated at the Festival several times over the next decade.Back home in Vienna, Krauss revived the idea of an all-Strauss concert on December 31, 1939. That year-end tradition continues to this day, as the Philharmonic presents its annual New Year’s Concert, broadcast worldwide from Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna.Music Played in Today's ProgramJohann Strauss, Jr. (1825 - 1899) Annen Polka and Perpetuum mobile Vienna Philharmonic; Clemens Krauss, conductor. Preiser 90139 (recorded 1929)
Aug 10, 2023
William Henry Fry
SynopsisOn today’s date in 1813, William Henry Fry was born in Philadelphia. As a journalist, he was one of the most vociferous champions of American concert music, and put his money where his mouth was by becoming a composer himself, creating a number of programmatic works, including a Niagara symphony and another titled Santa Claus. Above all else, Fry was passionate about opera, and wrote several of his own.Fry was a colorful – if understandably biased – music critic. Here’s an excerpt from his 1862 review of a New York performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore – an opera only 9 years old at that time:“Trovatore … has a wonderful plot, beyond human comprehension; though finally we learn in the last scene that [the tenor] is made into soup by the order of his brother [the baritone], who then expresses his emotion and surprise on learning of the transaction as the curtain falls. As to the music – there are some charming, popular, ingenious, artistic … points; [but] there are others egregiously vulgar and rowdy. The Anvil Chorus, for example, is about the equal to a scene of mending a sewer set to music; or repairing a pair of cast-off leather breeches.”Music Played in Today's ProgramWilliam Henry Fry (1813 – 1864) Macbeth Overture Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Tony Rowe, conductor. Naxos 8.559057
SynopsisOk, if your dad wrote music for silent movies and you want to write music yourself, does that increase the odds you’ll end up a film composer, too? That was the case with David Raksin, who was born in Philadelphia in 1912, and who died in Los Angeles on today’s date in 2004.When he was 23, Raksin moved to Hollywood to help Charlie Chaplin arrange Chaplin’s own music for the film, Modern Times, and stayed on in Hollywood, working without credit on dozens of B-rated films.A big break came in 1944 with the tremendous success of Raksin’s haunting score for the 1944 film noir classic, Laura. By the time of his death, Raksin had written scores for hundreds of films and TV shows.In 1960, for the Horn Club of Los Angeles, Raksin wrote Morning Revisited. Raksin explained the odd title as follows: “They needed a piece [for] their entire ensemble … two antiphonal groups of six French horns, four Wagner tubas, a baritone horn, two contrabass tubas, and seven timpani. I was busy working on a picture, so I'd start work at four or five a.m., and that's how I wrote ’Morning Revisited.’”Music Played in Today's ProgramDavid Raksin (1912 -2004) Morning Revisited The Horn Club of Los Angeles; David Raksin, conductor. EMI 63764
SynopsisJust about any time is a good time to be in Paris, but chances are, given your druthers, you wouldn’t have chosen to be there in 1942. The city was occupied by German troops, and World War II had several more dismal years to grind on.But if you were in Paris on today’s date in 1942, you could have visited the Paris Opera for the premiere of a new ballet by the French composer Francis Poulenc called “Les Animaux modeles” or “The Model Animals,” with a scenario based on animal fables by the French writer La Fontaine.Some 20 years earlier, in happier times, Poulenc had made his name with another one-act ballet. That 1924 work was titled “Les biches” or “The Does” and was written for the Ballets Russes of Monte Carlo. That work’s scenario described the flirtations and seductions of some bright young things at a house party in the country. “Everything was simple and carefree, sunshine and good humor,” as Poulenc himself put it.Not surprisingly, Poulenc’s 1942 ballet was a darker, often grimmer affair, expressing perhaps the quiet desperation of the German occupation, mingled with a fervent hope for better days to come.Music Played in Today's ProgramFrancis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) Les animaux modeles French National Orchestra; Charles Dutoit, conductor. London 452 937