On today's date in the year 2000, the Shanghai Quartet premiered a new chamber work at the University of Richmond in Virginia. This was the String Quartet No.4 by the Chinese composer Bright Sheng. Sheng was born in Shanghai in 1955, but since the 80s he's made the United States his home, and now has an enviable reputation as both a composer and teacher. But back in the late 1960s, during the tumultuous years of Madame Mao's "Cultural Revolution," Sheng worked as a pianist and percussionist in a Chinese folk music and dance troupe near the Tibetan border, where he also studied and collected folk music. Sheng's String Quartet No. 4 is subtitled "Silent Temple." He explains that title as follows: "In the early 1970s I visited an abandoned Buddhist temple in north-west China. As all religious activities were completely forbidden at the time, the temple, still renowned among the Buddhist community all over the world, was unattended and on the brink of turning into a ruin. The most striking and powerful memory I had of that visit was that, in spite of the appalling condition of the temple, it was still a grandiose and magnificent structure. Standing in the middle of the courtyard, I could almost hear the praying and chanting of the monks, as well as the violence committed to the temple and the monks by the Red Guards. To this day, the memories of the visit remain vivid, and I use them almost randomly as the basic images of my String Quartet."
On today's date in the year 1801, the world, or at least that portion of it seated in the Imperial Court Theater in Vienna, heard for the very first time the music for a new ballet. The real draw that evening was the prima ballerina of the company, a certain Fraulein Cassentini, because the performance was being staged as a benefit in her honor.
The music was by a young composer not yet very famous, having written only one symphony and a couple of piano concertos, and nothing at all for the stage, let alone a ballet. His name was Ludwig van Beethoven, and his ballet was called "The Creatures of Prometheus." The "creatures" referred to in the title are two stone statues that are brought to life by Prometheus, the legendary Greek figure who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind.
Beethoven's commission came from an Italian dancer named Salvatore Vigano, who had been working in Vienna since 1793, and was —like Beethoven—seeking the attention and possible patronage of the culture-loving Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.
Although Beethoven's ballet was given 14 times the first season, and nine more the next, it was never published in his lifetime, and even today remains one of his least-known orchestral works. Nevertheless, Haydn himself is said to have praised it, and Beethoven was apparently pleased with at least ONE of its themes, a tune he recycled twice: first in the finale of his mammoth "Eroica" and again in a set of 15 Variations for Solo Piano.
In the winter of 1807, a group of music-loving Viennese, frustrated that their chances to hear orchestral and symphonic music seemed rather sporadic, decided to sponsor a series of symphonic concerts themselves. Their organization was called, simply "The Concert of Music Lovers," with performing forces made up (according to a Viennese newspaper) of "the best local amateurs, with a few wind instruments only – French horns, trumpets, etc., drafted from Viennese theaters."
The audience, according to the same source, comprised "exclusively the nobility of the town, foreigners of note and selected cognoscenti."
Twenty concerts were staged in all, most of them in a large hall of the Vienna University.
The final concert in the series occurred on today's date in 1808. This was a performance of Haydn's oratorio "The Creation" in honor of the composer, whose 76th birthday would fall on March 31st. The work was sung in Italian, and the conductor on that occasion was the famous Italian composer Antonio Salieri. Haydn was living in a suburb of Vienna at the time, and arrived in Prince Ezterhazy's coach. Haydn was carried into the hall on an armchair lifted high so that all could see him. The orchestra played a fanfare, and shouts of "Long live Haydn!" rang from the audience, which included Ludwig van Beethoven.
This would prove to be Haydn's last appearance in public. His health gradually failed him and he died quietly at his home the following year.
For the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, an international arts festival was planned, and, as its centerpiece, a gigantic day-long music-theater work designed and coordinated by the avant-garde American director Robert Wilson.
Wilson titled the projected work: "Civil Wars." The story line was loosely inspired by Matthew Brady's famous photographs of America's own Civil War, but also incorporating myths, images, and historical icons from around the world.
The idea was that the various sections of the work would be contributed by a team of composers, each connected by what Wilson called "knee plays" – short "joints" if you will, linking the parts to the whole. The "knee play" music was contributed by the American pop musician David Byrne, a member of the "Talking Heads."
The Fifth and final act of "Civil Wars," was written by the minimalist composer Philip Glass. It was dubbed "The Rome Section," since it was commissioned and performed as a separate work by the Rome Opera on today's date in 1984. Glass acknowledged that he wanted to address the nearly 400-year old tradition of Italian opera, and so included an impassioned tenor aria…a modern version of the sword-waving, act-ending cabalettas in the operas of Verdi. In the end, Wilson's day-long epic never was staged in Los Angeles as planned. The reason given at the time was "Funding problems."
Today in 1965, "Lizzie Borden" premiered at the New York City Opera. The new opera depicted a fictionalized version of a real-life event: a gruesome double axe-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden that occurred in Fall River, Mass., in 1892. Andrew Borden's daughter, Lizzie, was accused of the murder of her father and stepmother. Many at the time thought her guilty. As a famous children's rhyme of the period put it: Lizzie Borden took an axe And gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one. Lizzie Borden was acquitted for the murders, which remained unsolved. For the American composer Jack Beeson, Lizzie's story resembled the ancient Greek legend of Elektra, already the subject of a famous opera by Richard Strauss. And like Strauss's Elekra, Beeson's Lizzie is the central character in an angst-ridden, Freudian tale of an evil stepmother and a dangerously dysfunctional family. | Beeson says: "A lot of Lizzie Borden is very dissonant. It was even thought to be a twelve-tone piece back in 1965. There's not a 12-tone row in it, but the agonized situation in much of Lizzie seemed to me to require that kind of music. Looking at reviews of a couple years ago compared to the ones in 1965, what's astonishing is how the dissonance no longer seems upsetting."
"Commedia dell' arte" is the name given to a kind of theater popular throughout Italy during the 18th century. In this improvised, rough and tumble genre, a group of stock figures with names like "Harlequin," "Pierrot," and "Punchinello" would reappear time and time again in various farcical situations – situations which modern audiences would probably recognize from the TV sitcoms of today, only the earthy 18th century version was not exactly "G-rated."
These characters were attractive to many of the 20th century's greatest composers: Schoenberg's "Pierrot lunaire" is a song-cycle setting dreamy, surreal texts sung by a love-sick commedia dell'arte clown; Richard Strauss's opera "Ariadne auf Naxos" interpolates an earthy comedia dell'arte team as unlikely commentators on the action of an otherwise oh-so serious Greek legend; and Stravinsky's ballet "Pulcinella" recasts elegant 18th century musical forms into a robust modern score whose title character, according to Stravinsky was "a drunken lout whose every gesture was obscene."
On today's date in 1996, a more refined chamber work inspired by commedia dell'arte characters received its premiere at Boston College. It was commissioned and premiered by the Artaria Quartet, and was given the punning title, "ART: arias and interludes." The music is by the Chinese-born American composer Thomas Oboe Lee, who lives and works in Boston. Each of the movements of Lee's work related to a different commedia dell'arte figure. This section is entitled "Pantaloon's Bolero."
When your instrument is nicknamed "the burping bedpost," it's hard to get respect in refined circles. So it's understandable then, that the bassoon section of, say, a major London orchestra might indulge in a bit of day-dreaming in which a gang of hot-rodding motorcycling bassoonists blow into town and take over a concert hall. And guess what? That is EXACTLY the scenario of a piece written for Britain's Philharmonia Orchestra by the American composer Michael Daughtery. "Hell's Angels" is the title of his concerto for bassoon quartet and orchestra that received its premiere in London on today's date in 1999. Daughtery says: "I find the bassoon to be an instrument with great expressive and timbral possibilities, ranging from low and raucous rumbling to plaintive high intensity. Hell's Angels juxtaposes hellish and angelic music." Daugherty takes a lot of his inspiration from icons of American pop culture, so it's not surprising that he should choose "Hell's Angels" as a theme for a bassoon concerto. After all, he writes: "the bassoon is similar in size and shape to the drag pipes found on Harley Davidson motorcycles, the preferred mode of transportation of Hell's Angels in America. When the noise-curbing mufflers are illegally removed from the drag pipes, they create a deafening roar. I have removed the traditional mufflers on the bassoon repertoire in order to compose the first concerto for bassoon quartet and orchestra in the 20th century.
On this day in the year 1886, critic Gustav Dompke wrote these lines in the "German Times" of Vienna, after attending a performance of one of Anton Bruckner's symphonies:
"We recoil in horror before this rotting odor which rushes into our nostrils from the disharmonies of this putrefactive counterpoint... Bruckner composes like a drunkard!"
Today, with Bruckner's symphonies performed and recorded so often, I don't think many "recoil in horror" from his rich Romantic harmonies…but he's always been controversial. Bruckner's European contemporaries and his early American audiences found his approach to symphonic composition puzzling, bizarre, or, more often than not, simply boring.
The vogue for Bruckner symphonies in America had to wait until the latter part of the 20th century, a full century after many of them received their premiere performances in Europe. In 1941, for example, when Bruno Walter conducted Bruckner's giant Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, music critic Olin Downes lamented that Walter hadn't chosen a "more interesting" program, and noted that the Bruckner symphony: "sent a number from the hall before it had finished."
One of the most serious – and daunting – of musical forms is the passacaglia, in which an unchanging melodic pattern repeats itself while other lines of melody offer elaboration and counterpoint to the unwavering tread of the repeated motive. The result tends to be deliberate, somber, and imposing.
The most famous passacaglia in all of Western classical music is the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose birthday we observe on today's date.
After Bach's high water mark, it takes more than a little courage for modern composers to tackle this form! One of those brave souls who tried – and succeeded – is the American composer Ron Nelson.
Nelson's "Passacaglia, "subtitled "Homage on B-A-C-H" utilizes the melodic motive represented in German musical nomenclature by B-flat, A, C, and B natural – in German B natural being represented by the letter H).
Nelson's wind band Passacaglia was was commissioned to celebrate the 125h anniversary of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music in 1992. It didn't prove an easy task, recalls Nelson: "It evolved very slowly … The trick was … to make it seamless and inexorable. Of all my compositions, this is the tightest. I cannot imagine changing one note."
Apparently others agree, since the resulting work won a number of awards and has become a wind band classic.