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.
In 1941, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals and the famous Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska were both living close to each other in the South of France: he to get away from the Fascists in Spain, she to avoid the Nazis invading France.
On today’s date that year, Casals paid Landowska a visit, and she played some Bach for him. Casals asked her why she played the trills starting with the upper note, since he was used to the opposite. Landowska explained her reasons, and—for further evidence—showed Casals the entry on trills Leopold Mozart's “A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing” which was published in 1756, just six years after Bach’s death. Casals was still not convinced.
So, with a smile, Wanda said: "Let us not fight anymore. Continue to play Bach your way and I, his way." They both laughed and moved on to other subjects.
Denise Restout, Wanda’s pupil and long-time companion was an eyewitness that day, and decades later, after Landowska’s death, confirmed her memory of what actually occurred by asking Casals himself. She did this because Landowska’s teasing comment was being attributed to or redirected at all sorts of other people, including the famous Bach pianists Rosalyn Tureck and Glenn Gould.
Ms. Restout wanted people to know that Landowska was just making a little joke about trills and not disparaging how other musicians played a composer both Casals and Landowska loved above all others.
In the middle of the 15th century, a German printer by the name of Johann Gutenberg invented a method of printing from moveable type cast in metal. His invention revolutionized the way books were printed, and the widespread dissemination of Gutenberg Bibles made his name famous in Europe.
In the summer of 1840, the city of Leipzig planned to unveil a new statue of Gutenberg, and approached the composer Felix Mendelssohn with commissions for two new works. The first, a work for two choirs, would accompany the unveiling of the statue of Gutenberg and his printing press, and would take place in the city’s open marketplace after the morning church service on June 24th. The following day, June 25th, there would be gala concert in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church featuring the church choir and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performing a new symphony by Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, entitled “Lobgesang,” or “Hymn of Praise,” is modeled on Beethoven’s Ninth, opening with purely instrumental movements, and concluding with a finale for vocal soloists and chorus. Mendelssohn’s text was taken from Martin Luther’s German-language translation of the Bible. Since the premiere was intended for St. Thomas Church, where the master of counterpoint Johann Sebastian Bach had once been Kantor, Mendelssohn chose to end his Symphony with a big fugue.