Composers DatebookAuthor: American Public Media
18 Aug 2018

Composers Datebook

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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.

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    Monteverdi (and Henze) in Salzburg

    The 1985 Salzburg Festival boasted a quite unusual premiere: a 17th century Venetian opera by the Italian Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi entitled “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria,” or “The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland,” as arranged and orchestrated by the contemporary German composer Hans Werner Henze. The surviving music for Monteverdi’s opera does not exist in what we now call “full score.” Monteverdi wrote down a bare 5-part accompaniment to the vocal lines of his opera, without indicating what specific instruments he meant to play those notes—and when. This means for any modern performance, someone needs to make those decisions. For their 1985 summer season, the Salzburg Festival commissioned Henze to prepare a new orchestration of Monteverdi’s “Return of Ulysses” 245 years after its first performance in Venice back in 1640. As luck would have it, Henze’s version appeared around the same time as another modern attempt to reconstruct Monteverdi’s score by the noted Baroque specialist Nicholas Harnoncourt. Even so, the music critics, in the main, were complimentary after the Henze’s version premiered in Sazlburg, noting that his scoring somehow managed to sound both ancient and modern at the same time. Even though we’ll never know EXACTLY how the opera sounded when Monteverdi heard it back in 1640, thanks to modern technology, the audio and video of that 1985 Salzburg performance can be sampled in both CD and DVD versions.

  • Posted on 18 Aug 2018

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    Honegger's Symphonies

    When asked to name some important musical works associated with World War II, music lovers are apt to think of the sonatas and symphonies Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote during those years. But three symphonies by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger form another very compelling war triptych. Honegger spent the war years in occupied France, and his Symphony No. 2, which premiered in 1942, might be considered a symphony of the grim wartime resistance. It is scored for strings alone, but at the very end includes an optional trumpet solo, a dramatic gesture that seems an emotional call to action. Honegger’s Symphony No. 3, which premiered on August 17, 1946, is entitled “A Liturgical Symphony,” with the titles of each of its movements taken from the Latin Mass for the Dead. Considering the great loss of life on all sides of the conflict just ended, this work, too, packs an emotional wallop. And to round out the triptych, Honegger’s Symphony No. 4, from 1947, is subtitled “The Delights of Basel.” This music captures the elusive and bittersweet mood of a Europe tentatively groping its way back to normal life, closing with a decidedly wistful evocation of carnival time in the Swiss city of Basel.

  • Posted on 17 Aug 2018

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    Kodaly's Symphony

    It might seem odd that during his long career, Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodály wrote only nine works for orchestra. When someone asked him about this, he replied: “I was busy with more important work: I had to educate a public.” Kodály and his countryman Béla Bartók were pioneers in the collection and study of Hungarian folk music, and, on top of that, Kodály’s lifelong concern was to instill this rich heritage into the Hungarian people through an extensive and innovative program of musical education. So successful was Kodály that even outside Hungary the so-called “Kodály method” has been adapted for music education worldwide. Given Kodály’s tireless educational efforts, it’s surprising he had any time or energy left for composing at all. For example, Kodaly started writing a symphony in the 1930s at the request of the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. The Symphony finally received its premiere decades later at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland on today’s date in 1961, and by that time Toscanini had been dead for several years. Even so, Kodály did not forget the original request for the work, and dedicated his only Symphony to the memory of the great conductor. In fact, Toscanini was also responsible for the creation of one of Kodály’s most popular orchestral works: it was at Toscanini’s prompting that Kodály orchestrated his Marosszék Dances, a set of folk tunes he had originally arranged for solo piano.

  • Posted on 16 Aug 2018

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    Grofe in Hollywood

    In the 1930s, the American composer Ferde Grofe was on a roll. During the previous decade, as staff arranger for the Paul Whiteman orchestra, Grofe had orchestrated all the music that popular ensemble had premiered, including George Gershwin’s 1924 jazz classic “Rhapsody in Blue”. By the late 1920s, Grofe was composing his own original scores, and in 1931 finished his famous “Grand Canyon” Suite. Around that time, Ferde Grofe left the Whiteman band, and signed on as staff conductor of the NBC Radio Network, and soon became a familiar figure on the American music scene from coast to coast. On today’s date in 1935, for example, a new ballet score by Grofe premiered at the Hollywood Bowl. It took as its story line a familiar Hollywood theme: the exploited “double” who stands in for a starlet during the making of a film. The double is the anonymous actor who does all the hard work, but gets none of the recognition—or close-ups—when the film is released. Grofe later arranged his ballet score into a “Hollywood Suite,” adding another musical picture postcard to works with titles like: “Kentucky Derby Suite” or “Niagara Falls Suite.” In the 1960s, looking back on his long career in music, Grofe said: "Many of my compositions, I believe, were born of sight, sound, and sensations common to all of us. I think I have spoken of America in this music simply because America spoke to me.”

  • Posted on 15 Aug 2018

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    Bolcom's "Five Fold Five"

    Most young American composers who came of age in the 1960s found themselves faced with a question: should they adopt the intellectually fashionable post-serial, atonal style of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg and his followers, or return to a more accessible and tonal musical language, whether Romantic, neo-Classical, or Minimalist in nature? For the young American composer William Bolcom, who turned 20 in 1958, the school of Schoenberg was not all that appealing… He said: “I had the credentials and the chops to write like that if I wanted to, but I said to hell with it.” According to his teacher and mentor, the French composer Darius Milhaud, Bolcom was as “gifted as a monkey.” Bolcom was a fabulous pianist with a passion for American ragtime and popular song, and distinctly American elements and accents crop up in many of his own compositions, including his magnum opus, a three-hour oratorio based on William Blake’s poems entitled “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Bolcom says he prefers to live, as he puts it, “in the cracks” between opera and musical theater, tonality and atonality, highbrow and lowbrow. Take this Bolcom piece for woodwind quintet and piano, for example. It’s entitled “Five Fold Five,” and was premiered on today’s date in 1987 at Saratoga Springs, New York, by pianist Dennis Russell Davies and the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. “Five Fold Five” starts off flirting with atonal elements, but ends with something that sounds a lot like boogie-woogie.

  • Posted on 14 Aug 2018

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