Composers Datebook®

Saariaho at the Proms

Composer's Datebook - Aug. 29, 2023


Say the phrase “BBC Proms” to most music lovers, and they’ll conjure up a mental image of the rowdy “Last Night of the Proms” at which normally staid and reserved Britons don funny hats and make rude noises during Sir Henry Wood’s arrangement of British sailor songs. But the raucous “Last Night of the Proms” is only the festive finale of several weeks of fairly serious music making: dozens of concerts covering a wide range of old and new music

From the very beginning of the Proms in 1895, Sir Henry, who started the whole thing, had this specific agenda: “I am going to run nightly concerts to train the public in easy stages,” he explained. “Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.”

On today’s date in 1996, for example, violinist Gidon Kremer premiered a brand-new violin concerto by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho at a Proms concert. The work had an unusual title—Grail Theater. “I like the unusual combination of these two words,” explained Saariaho, “because it represents two such different things. One is the search for the Grail, and the other the theatrical aspect.”

Music Played in Today's Program

J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750) arr. Henry Wood Toccata and Fugue in D minor BBC Symphony; Andrew Davis, conductor. Teldec 97868

Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) Graal Theatre Gidon Kremer, violin; BBC Symphony; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. Sony Classical 60817

On This Day


  • 1920 - Virtuoso jazz saxophonist and "Be-bop" innovator, Charlie Parker, in Kansas City;

  • 1936 - French composer and conductor Gilbert Amy, in Paris;


  • 1661 - French composer Louis Couperin, in Paris; His brother, Charles Couperin (1638-1679) was also a composer, as was his nephew - the famous François Couperin (1668-1733), nicknamed "Le Grand."

  • 1972 - French composer and conductor, René Leibowitz, age 59, in Paris;


  • 1720 - Handel: oratorio, "Esther," at Canons, county seat of the Duke of Chandos (Gregorian date: Sept. 9);

  • 1853 - Josef Strauss: "The First and the Last" Waltz (his first composition), at Unger's Casino in Hernals (Austria) by the Johann Strauss Orchestra, conducted by the composer (who had taken over the family orchestra for a time due to the sickness of his older brother, Johann Strauss, Jr.);

  • 1882 - Brahms: Piano Trio in C, Op. 97, at a private home in Bad Ischl; Brahms played a practical joke on the audience by introducing the trio as having been composed by his friend, the composer and pianist Ignaz Brull, who was also in Bad Ischl at the time; The official premiere of the Trio occurred in Frankfurt on December 29 that year, with a violinist named Heermann and a cellist name Müller, with Brahms at the pianist;

  • 1952 - John Cage "4:33," for any instrument, in Woodstock, N.Y.;

  • 1981 - Stephen Paulus: "Courtship Songs" for flute, oboe, cello and piano, in St. Paul, Minn.;

  • 1995 - Kaija Saariaho: "Graal Théàtre" for violin and orchestra, in London by the BBC Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with Gidon Kremer the soloist;

  • 2000 - Wolfgang Rihm: "Deus Passus (after St. Luke)," at the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, by the Gächinger Kantorei and Stuttgart Bach Collegium, conducted by Helmut Rilling; This work was one of four passion settings commissioned by the International Bach Academy to honor the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in the year 2000 (see also: Sept 1, 5 & 8).

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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.

About Composers Datebook®