Composers DatebookAuthor: American Public Media
14 Nov 2018

Composers Datebook

Download, listen or watch all podcasts

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.

  • Listen

    Disney's "Fantasia"

    On today’s date in 1940, Disney's animated film Fantasia opened at New York's Broadway Theater. It proved to be a landmark film on a number of fronts: first, it was a milestone in cultural “cross-over”, in which classical music (in the person of conductor Leopold Stokowski) shook hands (literally and figuratively) with pop culture (in the person of Mickey Mouse). In “Fantasia,” Disney set selections of classical music from Bach to Stravinsky to animated stories created by his studio artists. “Fantasia” was also a milestone in recorded sound. For its initial East and West Coast release, the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded nine special optical tracks, one for each section of the orchestra. These were mixed by Stokowski into a multi-track stereo soundtrack to be played in synchronization with the film on special equipment made by RCA for a multiple-loudspeaker theater installation called "Fantasound.” (Today that would have meant a soft drink sponsor!) Three large speakers were positioned behind the projection screen, and no fewer than 65 smaller speakers were placed around the walls of the theater. The resulting “surround-sound” was stunning by 1940 standards, but cost $85,000 to set up. After the second full installation at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, “Fantasound” was not employed anywhere else. Instead, eight "Fantasia Road Show" versions were assembled, each with 15,000 pounds of equipment but without the full surround-sound setup. These toured American movie theaters until 1941, when, following the outbreak of World War II, Disney diverted his funds, technology, and even Mickey toward the war effort.

  • Posted on 13 Nov 2018

    download
  • Listen

    Crumb goes Macro

    For the ideal performance of “Makrokosmos II: Twelve fantasy pieces after the Zodiac,” by the American composer George Crumb, one should perhaps be outdoors in a remote clearing under a crystalline canopy of stars. For the record, the premiere performance of Crumb’s suite for amplified piano took place indoors at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on today’s date in 1974, as part of a recital of new American works given by pianist Robert Miller. In his program notes, Miller offered these words about Crumb’s Makrokosmos II: “Each of the 12 pieces is associated with a different sign of the Zodiac, and is written out in a very precise notation, but the music will at times sound quite free and flexible, almost improvisatory. The piano has become an orchestra unto itself. There is an enormously wide range of sound, timbre, touch, dynamics, etc. Amplification, various vocal effects, the imaginative exploitation of the three pedals, effects produced by the fingers in contact with the strings, and the use of external devices -- contribute to this. "One use of quotation by Crumb is beautifully subtle. In the eleventh piece, entitled 'Litany of the Galactic Bells,' the opening music -- a shimmering bell effect which recalls the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov' -- gradually subsides and moves almost imperceptibly into a short excerpt from Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata. The effect is somewhat like the changing colors of a prism.”

  • Posted on 12 Nov 2018

    download
  • Listen

    Bloch's Quintet

    On today’s date in 1923, the League of Composers presented its first chamber concert in New York City. Their stated mission was to present music by living composers whose works represented new trends in music. Actually, the League was founded as a splinter group, seceding from a more radical International Composers Guild founded two years earlier by Edgard Varese. The Guild’s concerts were restricted to previously unheard works, and favored what was then called the ‘ultra-modern’ school, shutting out some less aggressively radical composers in the process. The newly formed League set out to be more inclusive. Their opening concert included a world premiere: a piano quintet by the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch, who was then living in America. While not a radical work, Bloch’s quintet was strong stuff for 1923, and even included some quartertone elements. The New York Times was impressed, but not won over: “To the inevitable question, ‘Do you like it?’ it seems almost impossible to answer, but if pressed I should say, no, not for any fault in the work but simply because of its too apparent determination to be emotionally stirring.” The British critic Ernest Newmann, on the other hand, singled out Bloch’s First Quintet for special praise: “No other piece of chamber music produced in any country during that period can be placed in the same class with it.” For his part, Bloch said simply: “I write without any regard to please either the so-called ‘ultra-moderns’ or the so-called ‘old-fashioned.’”

  • Posted on 11 Nov 2018

    download
  • Listen

    The "historically informed" Mahler

    On today’s date in 1910, Gustav Mahler conducted the “First Historical Concert” of the New York Philharmonic, an event billed as “the first of a series arranged in chronological sequence, comprising the most famous composers from the period of Bach to the present day.” Mahler’s program included works of Handel, Rameau, Gretry and Haydn, and opened with his own arrangement of music from Bach’s Orchestral Suites. Now, Bach’s music had been appearing on Philharmonic programs for decades, but some in the audience were shocked to see how Mahler presented it. Rather than conduct in the usual fashion, standing in front of the orchestra with his baton, Mahler led the orchestra from the keyboard of a “Bach-Klavier” (a Steinway piano whose action had been tinkered with to make it sound a little like a harpsichord). That bit of “historically informed performance” style was something brand new and even a little shocking to some back in 1910, although these days it’s common to see someone conduct from the keyboard at concerts of Baroque music. In a letter to a friend back in Europe, Mahler wrote: “I had great fun recently with a Bach concert, for which I worked out the basso continuo conducting and improvising quite in the style of the old masters, playing on a rich-toned spinet specially adopted by Steinway for the purpose. This produced a number of surprises for me – and also for the audience. It was as though a floodlight had been turned on to this long-buried literature.”

  • Posted on 10 Nov 2018

    download
  • Listen

    Corigliano tunes up

    If you’ve ever attended a live symphony orchestra concert, you’re probably familiar with the routine: before anyone starts playing, before the conductor even steps on stage, the principal oboist sounds an “A” – and the other musicians tune their instruments to that pitch. On today’s date in 1975, a few people in the audience at Carnegie Hall might have been surprised to hear this familiar ritual segue directly into the opening of John Corigliano’s new Oboe Concerto, which was receiving its premiere performance by oboist Burt Lucarelli and the American Symphony orchestra. The first movement of Corigliano’s Concerto is entitled “Tuning Game,” followed by a “Song-Scherzo,” “Aria” and a final “Dance.” This form, says Corigliano, arose “from the different aspects of the oboe, each movement based on a different quality of the instrument. The drama and coloratura qualities of the oboe are emphasized in the ‘Aria’ movement, for example, but the whole Concerto is highly theatrical, virtuoso music for both soloist and orchestra.” Theatrical is right! The final dance movement was inspired by the sound of the “rheita” or Morrocan oboe. According to Corigliano: “I was fascinated by the rheita’s sound, heady and forceful, lacking both pitch and color controls of the Western oboe, but having an infectiously exciting quality. I first heard the instrument in Marrakech in 1966, serenading a cobra.” Hmmm. Given the way some orchestral players feel about conductors, maybe that’s not such a stretch of the imagination for the featured oboist!

  • Posted on 09 Nov 2018

    download

Follow Playlisto