Composers Datebook®

Harrison's 'Elegiac' Symphony

Composers Datebook - 20231207


On today’s date in 1975, the Oakland, California, Youth Orchestra gave the first performance of a symphony by a Bay area resident, American composer Lou Harrison. He began sketches for this symphonic score back in 1942 and tinkered with it off and off until the day of its premiere performance, even stapling in 15 additional measures to the young players’ parts at their final dress rehearsal.

The commission for Harrison’s Fourth Symphony, subtitled The Elegiac, came from the Koussevitzky Foundation, and in part was written as a tribute to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, two of the 20th century’s greatest new music patrons. But the intensely personal tone of this elegiac symphony was prompted by the death of Harrison’s mother, which was followed by the death of his close friend, iconoclastic American composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch.

The symphony’s first movement is titled “Tears of the Angel Israfel” — the angel of music in Islamic lore — and the score also bears two inscriptions. The first reads “Epicurus said of death: where death is, we are not; where we are, death is not; therefore, death is nothing to us.” The second inscription is a quote from Horace: “Bitter sorrows will grow milder with music.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) Symphony No. 2 (Elegiac); American Composers Orchestra; Dennis Russell Davies, cond. MusicMasters 60204

On This Day


  • 1637 - Italian composer Bernardo Pasquini, in Massa da Valdinievole, Lucca;

  • 1840 - German composer Hermann Goetz, in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad);

  • 1863 - Italian composer Pietro Mascagni, in Livorno;

  • 1887 - Austrian-born American composer Ernst Toch, in Vienna;

  • 1910 - American composer and bandmaster Richard Franko Goldman, in New York City;

  • 1912 - Welsh composer Daniel Jones, in Pembroke;


  • 1861 - Brahms: "Handel Variations," Op. 24, in Hamburg, by pianist Clara Schumann;

  • 1873 - Tchaikovsky: symphonic fantasia "The Tempest", in Moscow (Gregorian date: Dec. 19);

  • 1879 - Berlioz: opera "La Prise de Troie" (The Capture of Troy), Acts 1 & 2 of "Les Troyens" (The Trojans), posthumously, in a concert performance in Paris at the Théatre du Châtelet;

  • 1889 - Gilbert & Sullivan: operetta, "The Gondoliers." at the Savoy Theatre in London;

  • 1890 - Tchaikovsky: opera, "Pique Dame," in St. Petersburg (Gregorian date: Dec. 19);

  • 1898 - Rimsky-Korsakov: opera "Mozart and Salieri," in Moscow, Truffi conducting (Julian date: Nov. 25);

  • 1924 - Carl Ruggles: "Men and Mountains," in New York City;

  • 1939 - Walton: Violin Concerto, by the Cleveland Orchestra, Artur Rodzinski conducting, with Jascha Heifetz (who commissioned the work) as the soloist;

  • 1975 - Lou Harrison Symphony No. 2 ("Elegiac"), by the Oakland Youth Symphony, Denis de Coteau conducting;

  • 1999 - Gunther Schuller: Saxophone Sonata, in New York, by members of the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society;


  • 1732 - John Rich opens his "Theatre Royal, Covent Garden" in London (Gregorian date: Dec. 18); Five years earlier, in 1728, Rich had launched English-language “ballad opera” as a genre when he staged John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London (as contemporary wags put it, the wildly successful Beggar’s Opera ”made Gay Rich and Rich Gay”); Even though The Beggar’s Opera parodied the prentions of Italian opera seria, it was Rich who gave Handel’s beleaguered opera company a home at Covent Garden in 1734-1737; Handel’s Ariodante, Alcina, Atalanta, Arminio, Giustino and Berenice were first staged at Rich’s theater;

  • 1842 - First concert by The Philharmonic Society of New York (now the New York Philharmonic Orchestra), in the Apollo Rooms at 410 Broadway, program including Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Weber's "Oberon" Overture.

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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®