In all, the American composer Henry Cowell composed 20 symphonies, and left sketches for a 21st.
On today’s date in 1954, the Louisville Orchestra gave this premiere performance of Cowell’s 11th Symphony, subtitled “The Seven Rituals of Music.”
“There are seven rituals of music in the life of man from birth to death,” Cowell explained in program notes for the Louisville Orchestra’s recording of the new work, made shortly after their premiere performance. According to Cowell, these musical rituals included work, play, dance, love, and war, bracketed by the mysteries of birth and death.
The mood and mysticism of Cowell’s programmatic Symphony are similar to those found in Gustav Holst’s much more familiar orchestral suite, “The Planets.”
Although interest in Cowell’s music has risen steadily since his death in 1965, performances of Cowell symphonies are still rare events. Part of the problem lies in the eclectic range of styles to be found in Cowell’s music, and his fascination in what we now call “world music.” There is, for example, a Cowell “Gaelic” Symphony, another entitled the “Icelandic” Symphony, and yet another, influenced by Indian ragas and talas, entitled the “Madras” Symphony.
This didn’t bother Cowell at all. As he once explained it: “I have never deliberately concerned myself with developing a distinctive personal style, but only with the excitement and pleasure of writing music as beautiful, as warmly, and as interestingly as I can.”
If you set out to make up a name for a patriotic conductor, bandmaster, impresario, and music publisher from the era of the American Revolution, you probably couldn’t top the name “Josiah Flagg.”
Believe it or not, a real-life Colonial-Era musician named Josiah Flagg was born on today’s date in 1737, in Woburn, Massachusetts.
He was even a business associate of the legendary Paul Revere, who engraved the plates for Flagg’s first big collections of hymn-tunes. That collection from 1764 was the largest published in America up to that time, and, although the music was all by a British composer, it was – symbolically – the first to be printed on AMERICAN-made paper.
Flagg was active in both sacred and secular music, and organized at least six public concerts in Boston. He was an important figure in the musical life of that city for about a decade, and as an impresario, arranged for some of the first Boston performances of music by the great Georg Frideric Handel.
In the fall of 1773, Flagg presented a gala concert at Boston’s Faneuil (pronounced like “spaniel”) Hall, which proved to be his last. He included excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah,” but closed with his band’s rendition of the “Song of Liberty,” the marching hymn of Boston’s patriots.
Soon after, Flagg moved to Providence, where he served as a colonel in the Rhode Island regiment during the American Revolution, and disappeared from our early music history.
The poetry of the 20th century writer T.S. Eliot has inspired some memorable 20th century music, ranging from the silly (like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats”) to the solemn (like Igor Stravinsky’s anthem “The Dove Descending Breaks the Air,” a setting of some lines from Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding.”)
Some lines from that same Eliot poem haunted the American composer Libby Larsen for years, and eventually resulted in an orchestral tone poem entitled “Ring of Fire.”
The lines from Eliot’s poem read as follows: “We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire.”
“What does it mean, to be consumed by either fire or fire?” wrote Larsen in the preface to her score. “What does it mean to live consumed by passion or passion?” asked Larsen, and came up with a musical answer. As she explained, “The image is ignited musically by a melodic fragment in the tremolo strings echoed here and there by solo horn. To suggest flame, I added woodwind arpeggios and a two-chord motive which are heard in bursts of activity, extended string lines, and brief articulations from the woodwinds, brass and cymbals.”
Larsen’s tone-poem “Ring of Fire” received its premiere performance on today’s date in 1995, at a concert by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble that had commissioned the work. In addition to her tone-poem, Larsen has written a number of other works for the modern symphony orchestra, including several symphonies.
In one of his poems entitled The Ballad of East and West, the British poet Rudyard Kipling penned a line of verse which was destined to enter the English language as an often-quote cliché: ‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’
On today’s date in 1963, East DID meet West at the premiere performance of a musical work by the American composer Lou Harrison, entitled “Pacifika Rondo,” written for an orchestra of Western and Oriental instruments at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii.
For Lou Harrison, it was just one more stop on a journey he had begun decades earlier.
In the spring of 1935, when he was still a teenager, Lou Harrison had enrolled in a course entitled “Music of the Peoples of the World” at the University of California extension in San Francisco. The course was taught by the American composer Henry Cowell, who became Harrison’s composition teacher. Cowell urged his pupils to explore non-Western musical traditions and forms. Javanese gamelan music became a big influence in Harrison’s music, and, in 1961-62, a Rockerfeller Foundation grant made it possible for him to study Asian music in Korea.
The movements of Harrison’s “Pacifika Rondo” refer to various sections of the Pacific Basin. This music is from the section titled “In Sequoia’s Shade,” and Harrison’s home state of California.
“In composing Pacifika Rondo,” wrote Harrison, “I have thought, with love, around the circle of the Pacific.”
In 1967, the Beatles released a song about “a girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” but on today’s date in 1870, it was “a girl with ENAMEL eyes” that was the subject of a ballet that debuted in today’s date at the Paris Opéra.
The ballet’s full title was “Coppelia, or the Girl with Enamel Eyes,” and its story-line was based on a fantastic tale by the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, and dealt with the mad toymaker Dr. Coppelius, his uncannily lifelike doll Coppélia, and the complications the beautiful doll causes in the love-life of a small Polish village.
The music was provided by a 30-something French composer named Leo Delibes. “Coppelia” was a great success, much to Delibes’ relief. He had been juggling several jobs in Paris, but the new ballet’s financial success allowed him to concentrate on composing as his main career from then on.
Delibes followed up on the success of “Coppelia” with another ballet, “Sylvia,” in 1876, and, in 1883, his opera “Lakmé” premiered at the Opéra-Comique.
Along with the famous ballet of Tchaikovsky, Delibes’ “Coppelia” is now regarded as the culmination of the 19th century Romantic ballet. Tchaikovsky, for his part, was a great admirer of Delibes’ work, so much so that the Russian would argue that “Coppelia” was musically superior to his own “Swan Lake” ballet.
On today’s date in 1911, Edward Elgar conducted the first performance of his Second Symphony with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.
Now, Elgar’s First Symphony had generated a lot of excitement when it debuted late in 1908, and Elgar’s big Violin Concerto, which Fritz Kreisler premiered in 1910, was greeted with equal enthusiasm
But the hall was not filled for the premiere of Elgar’s Second, and, after the performance, the audience seemed unmoved. Elgar turned to his concertmaster, W.H. Reed, and asked: “What’s the matter with them, Billy? They sit there like a lot of stuffed pigs!”
In his book The Symphony, musicologist Michael Steinberg speculates that a competing concert that same day featuring Kreisler and Pablo Casals performing the Brahms Double Concerto might have siphoned off some of the audience for the premiere, and perhaps the ambiguous and melancholy tone of the new work made the Queen’s Hall audience more reflective and thoughtful than enthusiastic.
Elgar dedicated his Second Symphony to the memory of King Edward VII, who had died the previous May. A year of official mourning was just ending, and perhaps that, too, contributed a sobering effect on those hearing the music for the first time.
In the decades that followed, British and international audiences have warmed considerably to Elgar’s Second, ultimate agreeing with Elgar’s own comment on its composition: “I have worked at fever heat and the thing is tremendous in energy.”
In 1805, a 56-year-old Italian man of letters immigrated to America.
Now, there wasn’t much call for Italian men of letters in America in those days, so over the next twenty years, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, he was, by turns, a grocer, distiller, seller of patent medicines, and owner of a dry goods shop. Eventually he was offered an honorary – that is to say unsalaried – position as Professor of Italian at Columbia University.
In 1825, a troupe of Italian opera singers visited New York, and our Italian friend attended their performances. He introduced himself to the head of the troupe, the famous singer, Manuel Garcia, who was astonished to learn the elderly Italian gentleman was none other than Lorenzo da Ponte, the librettist of Mozart’s operas, “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Cosi fan tutte,” and “Don Giovanni.”
And so it came about, that on today’s date in 1826, that the American premiere of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” was given in New York City, with Garcia in the title role, in the presence of the man who had penned the opera’s libretto almost forty years earlier, a 77-year old American citizen named Lorenzo da Ponte.
Fanciful as it seems, it’s a true story. But to indulge in fantasy for a moment, let’s pretend that Mozart did not die in Vienna in 1791, and had instead immigrated to America. Mozart would have been 70 in 1826, and could easily have been sitting beside his old friend da Ponte at the American premiere of THEIR “Don Giovanni!”
Today we offer more proof (if you still need it) that the world of MUSIC, like the world in general, is getting smaller all the time.
On today’s date in 1999, the Houston Symphony, led by its German conductor Christoph Eschenbach, gave the first performance of this music, a work by the Chinese composer Bright Sheng.
“Flute Moon” is scored for solo piccolo and flute, with harp, piano, percussion and string orchestra. Its first section portrays a couple of giant unicorns in Chinese mythology; its second is based on a classic Chinese art song of the 13th century.
Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai in 1955. During Madame Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s, he worked with a folk music and dance troupe near the Tibetan border. In 1978, after the Cultural Revolution had ended, he was able to study at the Shanghai Conservatory. In 1982 he came to New York for additional study, where his teachers included the American composer Leonard Bernstein.
In short order, Bright Sheng established himself as one of the most sought-after Chinese composers of our time. In addition to winning major composition awards and prizes, he’s held a number of major teaching posts across America.
“Why do I compose?” he asks. “Music is a way for me to express feelings as well as a way to express concrete thoughts. These are the two opposites of the spectrum. One is more spontaneous, while the other requires more logic and organization skills. One helps the other to achieve the maximum result.”
Popular as the imaginary purple dinosaur named “Barney” might be with American kids, in the 1990s he got some competition from another T-Rex named “Sue.” Sue was the nearly complete fossilized skeleton of a female T-Rex discovered in South Dakota, named after the woman who found her, a paleontologist, named Susan Hendrickson.
“Sue” – the dinosaur, that is – ended up as a major display at the Field Museum in Chicago. As part of the festivities surrounding the opening of the exhibit, on today’s date in the year 2000, the Chicago Chamber Musicians premiered a musical work that told Sue’s story in words and music. It was designed for children, very much in the style of “Peter and the Wolf,” or, in this case, “Sue EATS Peter, the wolf, and anything else she can catch.”
The music was composed by the American composer Bruce Adolphe, who titled his work, “Tyrannosaurus Sue: A Cretaceous Concerto.”
Bruce Adolphe was a good choice for the project for, in addition to being a composer, author, educator and performer, Adolphe admits to being a big kid at heart, eager to share his enthusiasm for music with audiences of all ages. Bruce Adolphe has served as Music and Education Advisor for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and as the founding creative director of Polly Rhythm Productions, a music education company.
Adolphe’s “Cretaceous Concerto” has been performed by other chamber groups around the country, accompanying a life-size cast of the real “Tyrannosarus Sue” that has toured the country.