For many years, the BBC celebrated April Fools' Day by trying to pull radio listeners' legs with outrageously fabricated news stories. One year, for example, BBC TV aired footage of an Italian spaghetti farm where happy peasants harvested that year's crop from bushes that the BBC production crew had draped with limp noodles for the filming. On another April 1st, the BBC's classical service featured a profile of an eccentrically reclusive 19th century French composer who concocted unplayable works in his apartment on a bizarre instrument that combined an organ pedal board with a grand piano. He was, the story claimed, as fantastic a performer as Liszt or Chopin, and supposedly was crushed to death by his own bookcase when he attempted to remove a heavy volume from its top shelf. Only in this case, the story was more or less true, and the composer, Charles-Valetin Alkan, was a very real person. Alkan was born in Paris in 1813 and was buried there on today's date in 1888. Only the bit about Alkan's "death by bookcase" in the BBC profile is disputed by some historians. That story originated with Isidore Philipp, one of only four mourners who attended Alkan's April 1st internment, and who claimed to have been present when the composer's body was found in his apartment. Philipp was a highly respected and long-lived French composer and piano teacher who came to America in 1940 and died here in 1958. He seems a credible witness -- so who to believe?
We tend to think of the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák as a 19th century composer – but he lived a few years into the 20th and one of his major works, his opera "Rusalka," had its premiere in Prague on today's date in 1901.
We mostly think of Dvořák as primarily a composer of symphonies and chamber works, but in his final years, Dvořák devoted himself chiefly to opera. In a 1904 interview, given just two months before his death, Dvořák said:
"Over the past five years I have written nothing but operas. I wanted to devote all my powers, as long as the dear Lord gives me health, to the creation of opera. Not out of any vain desire for theatrical glory, but because I consider opera to be the most suitable medium for the Czech nation, and listened to by the widest audience, whereas if I compose a symphony I might have to wait years before it is performed."
Dvořák was undoubtedly gratified that his opera "Rusalka" was a big success at its 1901 premiere, and would subsequently become one of his most popular works with Czech audiences. More recently, thanks to soprano Renee Fleming, "Rusalka" has won over a new generation of American audiences as well.
By the time of his death in 1949, the German composer Richard Strauss was famous worldwide as the composer of operas like "Der Rosenkavalier" and tone-poems like Don Juan and "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." These operas and tone-poems are so famous, we tend to forget that Strauss also composed symphonies – two of them, both written when the young composer was just starting out.
Strauss's Symphony No. 1 in d-minor, for example, was premiered in his home town of Munich on today's date in 1881, when the composer was just 16. That performance was given by an amateur orchestra, but was conducted by one of the leading German conductors of that day, Hermann Levi, who would lead the premiere of Wagner's "Parsifal" the following year. Another eminent Wagnerian conductor, Hans von Bulow, subsequently took up the teenager's symphony, and also commissioned him to write a Suite for Winds. In short order, the young composer also dashed off a violin concerto, a cello sonata, and a horn concerto for his father, Franz Strauss, a famous virtuoso on that instrument.
The American conductor Theodore Thomas was an old friend of Franz Strauss, and while in Europe during the summer of 1884, Thomas looked over the score for the younger Strauss's Second Symphony, and immediately arranged for its premiere in New York City the following winter.
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."