"Chamber music” is typically defined as “music written for and performed by a small ensemble, with one performer on a part, usually without a conductor.” To that description the Website of a Portland, Oregon, organization called Chamber Music Northwest, adds this description: “Music that is inspiring, stimulating and intensely personal.”
And they should know: Chamber Music Northwest performs both the classical chamber works of the past and commissions new ones. For example, it was on this date in 1990, at one of their concerts, that clarinetist David Shifrin premiered a Quintet for Clarinet and Strings by the American composer Ellen Taafe Zwillich.
Zwillich says, “In writing chamber music, I am particularly inspired by the electricity of a dialogue among equals. When a performer can be asked to be a brilliant soloist one moment and a responsive partner the next, the possibilities for musical discourse are seemingly endless.”
Today’s date also marks the debut of another chamber work born in the Great Northwest: “Partita Appasionata,” by Stephen Paulus, premiered by violinist William Preucil and pianist Arthur Rowe at the 1996 Seattle Chamber Music Festival.
“One of the joys of writing chamber music,” said Paulus, “is that quite often the composer also knows the performers. So, not only are you writing a work for an intimate gathering of musicians, but for your friends—and that relationship often encourages a deeper and more meaningful musical dimension as well.”
Once, when someone asked JFK what his favorite song might be, the waggish former president responded: “Well, ‘Hail to the Chief’ has a nice ring to it.” As most people know, “Hail to the Chief” is the tune traditionally played to announce presidential arrivals at public events.
What most people don't know is that the composer of the tune was British: one James Sanderson, to be exact. Sanderson was an early 19th century violinist and the conductor of the Surrey Theatre in London. Sanderson wrote incidental music for a stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s romantic poem The Lady of the Lake, which was published in 1810. The tune we know as “Hail to the Chief” must have been the hit from that London show, as it even made it way to America in short order.
Sanderson’s original tune "Wreaths for the Chieftain," with a new text and a new title, “Hail to the Chief,” was first sung in Boston in 1815, at a memorial service on Washington’s Birthday.
It was on today’s date in 1828, however, that the U.S. Marine Band first performed the song for a LIVING President. The occasion was the ground-breaking ceremony for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal attended by President John Quincy Adams. Subsequent First Ladies Julia Tyler and Sara Polk continued the tradition, asking the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to announce the arrival of their Presidential spouses.
By 1954, the Department of Defense established the tune as the official musical salute to their “Commander in Chief.”
Remember “Y2K”—the Millennial Year 2000? It was a time of extravagant hopes and dire predictions, as pundits weighed in with their spin as the 20th century hastened to its end.
Composers weighed in, too. The American Composers Forum and the National Endowment for the Arts collaborated on a project entitled “Continental Harmony,” which commissioned new musical works for public celebrations in communities large and small in all 50 states. The ambitious commissioning project was even endorsed by the “Millennium Council” of the Clinton White House.
Premieres of many “Continental Harmony” commissions occurred on or near the Fourth of July in the year 2000. On today’s date, for example, on the eve of the Fourth, the Richmond Symphony in Virginia premiered an orchestra work entitled “From Time to
Time: Fantasias on Two Appalachian Folksongs.”
Its composer was Anthony Iannaccone, who explained the title of his new piece as follows: “In the first fantasia, the extraordinary beauty of Virginia and the resilient spirit of its people provided the inspiration for an extended tone poem based on the folksong ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’... The second movement, entitled ‘Moving Time: A Millennial Ride,’ is a fast, brief launch into the new millennium, with the folk tune ‘Shenandoah’ presented in fragments... the orchestra extracts the folk melody and recasts it as a kind of Fourth of July fireworks display.”
There’s nothing better than being outdoors on a glorious summer’s day, listening to live music. At least that’s what American composer Libby Larsen believes.
“I grew up on outdoor concerts,” she recalls. “There was a bandstand by my house in Minneapolis and all summer long orchestras and bands would play there. There's really something special about being outside and hearing music fill the air with sound...”
On today’s date in 1983, one of Larsen’s own musical works entitled “Deep Summer Music” received its premiere outdoors when the Minnesota Orchestra visited the tiny rural community of Terrace, Minnesota.
Larsen says, “’Deep Summer Music’ was written for an outdoor occasion. That's why there are long trumpet solos that can ring out over the hills. Terrace is a small town of 70 people, but for the concert 8000 people came from western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. They brought lawn chairs and picnic baskets. The concert was paid for by those same communities and so they had a real stake in the whole experience.”
At first, says Larsen, she thought the large, festive crowd wouldn’t pay much attention to her new piece. Instead, she recalls, as the music began, “There was the most beautiful blanket of quiet you can imagine. And as the second trumpet solo happened a "V" formation of geese flew over and honked during the solo, seeming to echo the music. It was such a lovely and peaceful experience—and you couldn’t have
cued the geese any better!”
If you were thumbing through The New York Times for today’s date in 1867, under the banner “Amusements” you would have seen this notice: “Mr. Theodore Thomas, having returned home from his trip to Paris and Berlin, will resume personal control of the concerts given by his orchestra at Terrace Garden this evening.”
Born in Germany in 1835, Theodore Thomas came to America when he was ten. By his 20s, as a young violinist, Thomas was a major player on the New York music scene, and by his 30s he had his own orchestra. During the summer months of 1867, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra gave six concerts a week at New York’s Terrace Garden on 3rd Avenue between 58th & 59th Streets.
Thomas had a passion for introducing new works to American audiences while they were still fresh: For example: Johann Strauss Jr’s “Blue Danube Waltz” was played for the first time ever in Vienna in February of 1867, and, thanks to Thomas, just five months later received its American premiere in midtown Manhattan on today’s date that same year! Thomas had picked up the new score in Europe, hot off the presses, and played it at his first concert back home.
In addition to light music by Johann Strauss, Thomas premiered daring “modern” works by Richard Strauss. Along with can-cans by Offenbach, Thomas programmed dance suites by J.S. Bach. Challenging scores and amusing bon-bons, music old AND new—the indefatigable Theodore Thomas conducted them all during his long and energetic musical career in New York, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Under the old Julian calendar in use in Czarist Russia, on today’s date in 1861, the Romantic composer Anton Arensky was born in Novgorod. If you prefer, you can also celebrate Arensky’s birthday on July 12—the same date under the modern Gregorian calendar, but Arensky was such a Romantic, that the Old Style date seems, well, more appropriate somehow.
Arensky studied with Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov, and admired the music of Tchaikovsky. Arensky taught at the Moscow Conservatory, and published two books: a “Manual of Harmony” and “A Handbook of Musical Forms.” His own students included a number of famous Russian composers, including Scriabin, Rachmananinoff, and Gliere.
Arensky wrote three operas, two symphonies, concertos, chamber works, and suites for two pianos—but it’s his Piano Trio in D minor that gets performed and recorded more often than any of his other works.
A victim of tuberculosis, Arensky spent the last years of his life in a Finnish sanatorium. He died young—just 44 years old—in 1906.
The reign of the ancient Roman emperor Nero, notorious for its horrific deeds, was chronicled by the historian Tacitus. His account of the rise of the courtesan Poppea from being Nero’s mistress to his empress, provides the plot of one of the three surviving operas written by the 17th century Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi.
Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” was first performed in Venice at the Teatro Sanctae Giovanni e Paolo in the autumn of 1643. Monteverdi was in his 70s when “Poppea” premiered.
The first performance of Monteverdi’s “Poppea” in modern times had to wait until 1913, when the French composer Vincent d’Indy presented his arrangement of “Poppea” in Paris. In America and Britain, “Poppea” was first staged in 1927, at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. and at Oxford University in England. It wasn’t until today’s date in 1962 that a full professional staging of “Poppea” occurred at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, in a version prepared and conducted by Raymond Leppard.
Unlike later opera composers, Monteverdi did not prescribe specific vocal ranges for the characters, and since there was no standardized orchestra in the 17th century, it was customary back then to simply give a list of some suggested instruments up front, and leave it to the performers to decide who played what and when. And so, any modern performance of a Monteverdi opera is always somebody’s “version” of the surviving notes, based on educated guesswork and the available performers.
A decidedly UN-politically correct opera had its premiere at London’s Covent Garden on today’s date in 1905. It was entitled “L’Oracolo” or “The Oracle” by the Italian composer Franco Leoni. Here’s a witty one-sentence precis of the opera prepared by Nicholas Slonimsky for his chronology “Music Since 1900”:
“L’Oracolo, an opera in one long act, dealing with multiplex villainy in San Francisco’s Chinatown, wherein a wily opium-den keeper kidnaps the child of the uncle of a girl he covets, kills her young lover, and is in the end strangled by the latter’s father, with a local astrologer delivering remarkably accurate oracles; an Italianate score tinkling with tiny bells, booming with deep gongs, and bubbling with orientalistic pentatonicisms.”
Another wag described “L’Oracolo” as “Puccini-and-water,” suggesting that if Puccini were whisky, Leoni music was definitely a less potent brew. Nevertheless, the 1905 premiere of “L’Oracolo” starred the great Italian baritone Antonio Scotti, who apparently enjoyed depicting the evil opium-dealer “Chim-Fen.” Scotti sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera in 1915, and even in San Francisco in the 1920s.
But when a touring Italian opera company announced a performance of “L’Oracolo” in San Francisco in 1937, the city’s Asian residents protested, demanding they cut the most racially offensive scenes or, better yet, stage a different opera altogether.
A compromise was reached, whereby the House manager preceded the performance with a speech assuring the capacity audience that the opera’s locale and action were pure fiction, and bore no resemblance to San Francisco’s Chinatown past or present.
According to Emerson, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Well, we’re not sure if the composer Arnold Schoenberg ever read Emerson, but we think the 20th-century Austrian composer must have agreed in principle with the 19th-century American essayist. Just when many people had Schoenberg comfortably pigeon-holed as an “atonal” composer, he went and wrote a big tonal piece, all resolutely set in the key of G minor.
In the 1940’s, Schoenberg’s publisher asked him to write a piece for high school or amateur wind band. The only other specific request from the publisher was that the piece should contain “many different characters and moods.” The work Schoenberg finished during the summer of 1943 was entitled “Theme and Variations,” and was described by its composer—with his customary modesty—as (quote) “one of those compositions which one writes in order to enjoy one’s own virtuosity and… to give a certain group of music lovers something better to play.”
Schoeberg’s music proved a little too difficult for high school bands, however, so its first performance was given on today’s date in 1946 by the Goldman Band, America’s top wind ensemble of that day, at a Central Park concert in New York City conducted by Richard Franko Goldman, an enthusiastic supporter of new works for band.