Composers Datebook®

Copland's 'Vitebsk'

Composers Datebook - Feb. 16, 2024


On today’s date in 1929, a chamber trio by Aaron Copland, Vitebsk, premiered at Town Hall in New York City. Copland said it was based on a Jewish folk tune from a Russian village called Vitebsk that he had once heard used in a play.

Two string players from the famous Belgian Pro Arte Quartet and the great German pianist Walter Gieseking were booked for the premiere. Despite the distinguished performers, the performance came off as something of a slapstick comedy.

According to one of Copland’s friends present that night, the heavy-set cellist accidentally knocked over the violinist’s music stand when he came on stage, and while bending over to retrieve his music knocked over his own stand, strewing music all over the stage. Then, just as he began Copland’s piece, his cello string snapped with a loud, comically timed twang.

Years after the premiere, when Copland visited the Soviet Union, Russian audiences expressed amazement that any American composer would choose to name a piece after Vitebsk, which, rather than a quaint Russian village like the one evoked in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, was in fact a large industrial complex resembling Pittsburgh or Cleveland.

Music Played in Today's Program

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Vitebsk; Gregory Ellis, violin; Christopher Marwood, cello; Michael Collins, piano ASV 1081

On This Day


  • 1709 - English composer and writer on music Charles Avison, in Newcastle upon Tyne;

  • 1878 - Finnish composer Selim Palmgren, in Björneborg (now Pori);

  • 1907 - American composer Alec Wilder (Alexander Lafayette Chew), in Rochester, N.Y.;

  • 1938 - American composer John Corigliano, in New York;


  • 1829 - Belgian-born French composer François Joseph Gossec, age 95, in Paris;

  • 1868 - Canadian composer Healey Willian, age 87, in Toronto;

  • 1963 - Hungarian composer Laszlo Lajtha, age 70, in Budapest;

  • 1987 - Soviet composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, age 82, in Moscow;


  • 1737 - Handel: opera “Giustino,” in London at the Covent Garden Theater (Gregorian date: Feb. 27);

  • 1884 - Tchaikovsky: Orchestral Suite No. 2, in Moscow (Julian date: Feb. 4);

  • 1892 - Massenet: opera, "Werther," in Vienna at the Court Opera;

  • 1893 - Sibelius: tone-poem "En Saga," in Helsinki;

  • 1929 - Copland: "Vitebsky" Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, at New York's Town Hall at a League of Composers concert featuring two members of the Pro Arte Quartet (violinist Alphonse Onnou and cellist Robert Mass) and the German pianist Walter Gieseking;

  • 1936 - Varèse: "Density 21.5" for solo flute, in New York, by flutist Georges Barrère;

  • 1956 - Leon Kirchner: "Toccata" for strings, winds and percussion, in San Francisco.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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