Tag Archives: Composers

George Frederic Handel

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George_Frideric_Handel_by_Balthasar_Denner

Georg Friederich Händel (1685-1759) was born in Halle, in what is now Sachsen (Saxony), Germany. Though he showed interest in music as a child, his father wanted him to study law. His mother, however, encouraged his musical inclinations. While still young, Georg had an opportunity to play the organ at the court of the duke of Weissenfels. There he met composer and organist Frideric Wilhelm Zachow, who invited him to study music with him. By age 11, he was composing church cantatas and chamber music.

When it was time to go to university, Georg started out in the law program to please his father, but he soon dropped out to devote himself to his music full time. He accepted a position as a violinist and harpsichordist at Hamburg’s Oper am Gänsemarkt. He supplemented his income by teaching private music lessons.

He began writing operas, and as he experienced success in that form, decided to travel to Italy. Composing and performing there for three years, he socialized with many prominent musicians, some of whom talked about the London music scene. Fascinated, he traveled to London in 1710, and received a commission to compose an opera for the King’s Theatre. Two weeks later, he delivered Rinaldo, which earned him widespread recognition.

In 1717, King George I of England requested a concert on the Thames. Handel complied with the Water Music, a collection of three orchestral suites, which was performed three times that year and remains a concert favorite to this day.

In 1719, he became Master of the Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music, which specialized in Italian operas.

He eventually decided he would never leave England, and became a citizen in 1726, at which point he anglicized his name.

In 1727, Handel broke away from the Royal Academy and founded the New Royal Academy of Music, where he wrote two new operas per season for the next decade. All told, he wrote almost 50 operas. But when Italian operas fell out of fashion with audiences, Handel looked for something new.

His next focus was oratorios. Since they didn’t require costumes and sets, they were much more economical to produce, and they became the new craze in London. Handel even revised Italian operas into the new format, translating them into English. He wrote 30 oratorios in all.

In 1747, King George II (son of King George I) requested music for a celebration in honor of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession. Handel delivered Music for the Royal Fireworks, a suite in D Major for wind instruments.

The piece of music which Handel is most famous for is his oratorio The Messiah. The story of this inspiring composition can be found here.

Information for this article came from Biography and Wikipedia.

Lisztomania

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Not the movie (which I’ve never seen, but heard was awful), but the phenomenon.

But first, who was Franz Liszt, and what was so special about him?

Allysia van Betuw tells the story of the Hungarian composer and pianist who lived from 1811-1886 so well:

And here’s the rest of the story:

Here is Lang Lang playing Liszt’s La Companella. Lang Lang is a showman himself, just as Liszt was. In this performance, his hands are sometimes a blur:

Another of my favorite pianists, Valentina Lisitsa, plays the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Liszt’s work often forces pianists to stretch their fingers wide. His chords are often awkward to play, difficult to position the fingers. They require the musician to take extraordinary care to avoid tension in the hands and fingers, which can cause nerve injuries.

The Rondo Fantastique “El Contrabandista” has the reputation of being unplayable, but Lisitsa does an impressive job:

Kathia Buniatishvili plays Liebestraum (Dream of Love). It is dreamlike, isn’t it?

Buniatishvili playing Mephisto Waltz:

Franz Liszt was a rock star before there was rock. Very handsome, he had a remarkable stage presence, whipping his long hair around as he played. His skilled musicianship and highly emotional renditions stirred his audiences with intense admiration. Lisztomania is a term coined by the German poet Heinrich Heine in 1844 for the frenzy that broke out whenever Liszt performed. During the 1840s, when he was at the height of his popularity, his audiences would go as far as tearing off pieces of his clothing, and fought to pick up his cigar butts (which women would promptly hide in their cleavage) and his used coffee grounds. His image was reproduced on cameos and brooches. (Liszt merch!)

Claude Debussy

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Claude Debussy was born August 22, 1862, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. He was a highly influential composer of the 20th century. His melodies and harmonies did for music what the the Impressionist painters of his time did for art. He is sometimes called the father of Impressionist music, a title he distained. His major works include Clair de lune (“Moonlight,” in Suite bergamasque, 1890–1905), Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894; Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and La Mer (1905; “The Sea”).

Listen to this piano roll recording of Debussy playing Clair de Lune:

Debussy showed his musical gift on the piano by the age of nine. In 1873 he entered the Paris Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition for eleven years.

While living with his parents in a poverty-stricken suburb of Paris, he was hired by a Russian millionairess, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, to play duets with her and her children. He traveled with her to her palatial residences throughout Europe during his long summer breaks from the Conservatory.

In 1884 Debussy won the Grand Prix de Rome with his cantata L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Child). He was awarded a three-year stay at the Villa Medici in Rome to pursue his creative work. He fled from the Villa Medici after two years and returned to Paris. He associated with several women of dubious reputation. His first wife, Rosalie (“Lily”) Texier, a dressmaker, whom he married in 1899, shot herself, though not fatally.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun:

In the course of his career, which covered only 25 years, Debussy was constantly breaking new ground. He said that exploration was the essence of music. His single completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande (first performed in 1902), demonstrates how Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work,” which encouraged artists to draw on different art forms to create a cohesive whole) could be adapted to portray subjects like the dreamy nightmarish figures of this opera who were doomed to self-destruction. Debussy and his librettist, Maurice Maeterlinck, said that they were haunted by the terrifying tale of Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher. In his seascape La Mer (1905) he was inspired by the ideas of the English painter J.M.W. Turner and the French painter Claude Monet.

Debussy’s work cannot be judged on the musical level alone. “One must seek the poetry in his work,” said his friend, the French composer Paul Dukas. There is not only poetry in his music; there is often an inspiration from painting. “I love painting [les images, a generic term that might apply to the whole of Debussy’s work] almost as much as music itself,” he told the Franco-American composer Edgard Varèse.

In 1905 Debussy’s illegitimate daughter, Claude-Emma, was born. (He had divorced Lily Texier in 1904 and subsequently married his daughter’s mother, Emma Bardac.) Debussy’s spontaneity and sensitive nature are particularly noticeable in his piano suite, Children’s Corner, which he wrote for his daughter, nicknamed Chouchou.

Seong-Jin Cho plays “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from Children’s Corner:

Debussy did not adhere to the harmonic practices of the 19th century. He formulated a “21-note scale” designed to “drown” the sense of tonality. Debussy also challenged the traditional way orchestras used instruments. For example, he rejected the idea that string instruments should be predominantly lyrical. The pizzicato scherzo from his String Quartet (1893) and the writing for the violins in La Mer, conveying the rising storm waves, introduce a new concept of string color. In fact, in his music, the conventional utilization of the orchestra, with its rigid woodwind, brass, and string departments, becomes deconstructed sort of in the manner of the Impressionist painters. Each instrument becomes almost a soloist, as in a vast chamber-music ensemble.

Le Mer:

Debussy’s life was cut short by cancer on March 25, 1918.

Information for this article came from the Britannica website.

Robert Schumann, Romantic Composer

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When I was a music education student at Glassboro State College (now known as Rowan University), I took a vocal repertoire class on art songs and discovered German lieder. All the women in our class fell in love with Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben:

Click for links to the lyrics and translations of all the songs in Frauenliebe und Leben. You can follow along as you listen. I’m sure you’ll agree that these songs are incredibly romantic! Several students in the class worked Schumann’s songs into their senior recitals. (I’m sorry to say I no longer have my program and I can’t remember if I did or not. It was 47 years ago.)

Schumann was born on June 8, 1810. He began piano lessons at age seven, and loved literature and writing. In his teens, he continued to study piano and he wrote novels. But his family was not a happy one. When he was 16, his father died and his sister committed suicide. In order for Robert to receive his inheritance, his father stipulated that he had to complete a three-year course of study at the university, so Schumann enrolled as a law student at the University of Leipzig. He boarded with Friedrich Wieck, and also studied piano with him. Wieck had a daughter, Clara, who was ten years younger than Robert. During this time he discovered the music of Franz Schubert, who became a major influence.

In 1830, Schumann dropped out of law to concentrate on his piano studies with Wieck. As Schumann realized that numbness in one of his fingers was preventing him from becoming the performer he desired to be, he became active as a critic, and his articulate analyses of music of the past and of up and coming musicians was as well-appreciated by the public as his own compositions.

During the 1830s he wrote the majority of the pieces that established his reputation as a composer for the piano: Carnaval, the Davidsbündler Tänze, the Symphonic Etudes, the Fantasy in C, Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Kreisleriana, and others.

Vladimir Horowitz playing Scenes from Childhood:

During this time, he befriended Frédéric Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn. He also fell in love with Wieck’s daughter, Clara, provoking her father’s opposition.

By 1840, Clara Wieck, now 20 years old, was a distinguished pianist and had been in the public eye for more than a decade. Because Clara’s father would not permit her to marry Schumann, Robert and Clara filed a lawsuit against him. Schumann focused his pent-up emotion on vocal music, composing nearly 140 songs in 1840, most of them in the anxious months before August, when the marriage permission suit was decided in their favor. In 1841 he wrote two symphonies — No. 1 in B-flat and No. 4 in D minor — as well as Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and a Fantasie in A minor for piano and orchestra. In 1842 Schumann focused on chamber music, composing three string quartets, the Piano Quintet in E-flat, and the Piano Quartet in E-flat.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein play Schumann’s Symphony No. 4:

Such incredible productivity in a single genre at a time was symptomatic of the manic cycles of what was probably bipolar disorder. The depressive cycle turned up as the 1840s wore on, leaving the composer incapacitated. At the end of 1844 Schumann and Clara moved to Dresden. During his next few years, he completed the Piano Concerto in A minor, his Symphony No. 2 in C, his one opera, Genoveva, and a dramatic poem based on Byron’s Manfred.

In 1850, Schumann accepted a position as municipal music director in Düsseldorf. During the three seasons he held the job, Schumann ticked off city administrators and, due to his increasingly erratic behavior on the podium, lost the respect of the orchestra and chorus. He was fired in the fall of 1853. But during that time the Schumanns cultivated friendships with the renowned violinist Joseph Joaquim and the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, who Schumann immediately recognized was extremely talented.

During the winter of 1854, Schumann’s insanity escalated, due to syphilis. On a February morning he walked to a bridge over the Rhine and threw himself in; he was rescued by fishermen. Insisting that for Clara’s protection he be institutionalized, he was placed in a sanatorium. His doctors prevented Clara from seeing him for more than two years, until days before his death. Meanwhile and after, Brahms stepped up and made sure that Clara and her and Robert’s seven children were cared for.

Schumann is best remembered for his vocal and piano music. His literary sensitivity and introspective nature shows in his work. Nearly all of his piano music refers to literature or poetry.

Schumann’s lyrical, intense musicality produced some of the most beautiful and moving lieder in the repertoire. His Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love), a setting of 16 poems by Heinrich Heine, is his best-known song cycle and a supreme achievement in German lied. Other cycles include the previously mentioned  Frauenliebe und Leben (Women’s Love and Life) and two sets titled Liederkreis (one to poems of Heine, one to poems of Joseph von Eichendorf).

He also composed four symphonies and a substantial amount of chamber music. His Piano Concerto is Schumann at his best. 

Biographical information for this post was taken from an article by Ted Libbey, author of The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music, who said about Schumann, “He never became a great pianist, was a failure as a conductor, and at times was not even a very good composer. But his entire being was music, informed by dream and fantasy. He was music’s quintessential Romantic, always ardent, always striving for the ideal.”

Chopin

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Delacroix: Portrait of Chopin
Delacroix: Portrait of Chopin

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist who profoundly influenced music in the romantic era. He is one of the most beloved composers of piano music ever. His works are favorites of audiences and critics, and pianists beginner through professional level.

Vladimir Horowitz: Introduction and Rondo by Chopin:

He was born in Warsaw, and in 1831 moved to Paris, where he lived the rest of his life, except for travels. He never married, but had a long-term, often troubled relationship with the writer George Sand.

Lang Lang: Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31 by Chopin:

He was a renowned performer and a sought-after teacher. He maintained friendships with some of the top musicians of his day, including Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann.

Yundi Li: “Fantasie” Impromptu Op. 66 by Chopin:

Sickly for most of his life, he passed away at age 39.

Valentina Lisitsa: Etude Op. 10 No. 12 (Revolutionary) by Chopin:

His output, mostly for solo piano, was prodigious: 4 ballades, 27 études, 4 impromptus, 59 mazurkas, 22 nocturnes, 16 polonaises, 28 preludes, 4 rondos, 4 scherzos, 3 sonatas, 9 variations, 19 waltzes, 2 concertos, 19 songs, and many miscellaneous pieces.

Umi Garrett: Grande Valse Brilliante Op. 18 No. 1 by Chopin:

Richard Wagner: Genius and Jerk

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When I was in high school and college, I disliked Richard Wagner. To me, his music felt very brass-heavy, thick.

Funny, isn’t it, how life changes you. A few years ago I discovered that Wagner’s music is exceptionally lush. Hearing it live in person gives me chills. This is my favorite:

Talk about strong, beautiful women!

Wagner (1813 –1883) was a German composer, theater director, and conductor best known for his operas (or “music dramas”). He wrote not only the music for each of his stage works, but also the libretto (story line and words). He was also notoriously opinionated, an outspoken socialist German nationalist and anti-Semite. His personal life included political exile, torid love affairs, poverty, and debt.

From childhood he loved opera and knew he wanted to write for musical theater. He pursued music lessons as a means to that end. He was particularly influenced by Beethoven’s music, which he studied and analyzed. He even transcribed Beethoven’s ninth symphony for piano.

Wagner married his first wife, actress Minna Planer, in 1836. In May 1837, Minna left Wagner for another man, but she came back the following year. Their marriage continued in this on-again-off-again manner, due to infidelity and financial problems.

Wagner finished his fourth opera (and first very successful one), Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), in 1843, and Tannhäuser in 1845.

Der fliegende Holländer is about a ghost ship whose ghost captain is cursed to roam the sea forever. The only way to end his everlasting voyage: Every seven years the waves will cast him upon the shore; if he can find a wife who will be true to him, he will be released from his curse. Listen to the overture, hear the waves:

Here is the Grand March from Tannhäuser, arranged for brass and percussion:

Wagner played a minor supporting role in a political uprising in Dresden in 1849, and when a warrant was issued for his arrest, he fled to Switzerland, where he remained until 1858. He had just finished Lohengrin, and he corresponded with his good friend Franz Liszt, begging him to have it staged in his absence. Liszt conducted the premiere in Weimar in 1850.

You may recognize this famous theme from Lohengrin:

While in Switzerland, Wagner conducted a sexual affair with the wife of a friend of a friend. He even planned to run off with her. Meanwhile, his first (and current) wife Minna lapsed into a deep depression. Later, after she discovered he was having an affair with yet another woman, Wagner and Minna separated.

In Switzerland, Wagner worked on Tristan and Isolde and three of the four great dramas that would become the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Sigfried.

This is archival footage of Jessye Norman singing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde in 1987, Herbert von Karajan conducting:

Wagner spent the next part of his exile in Venice and Paris, while Minna returned to Germany. She visited him in Paris, and they tried to reconcile, but were unsuccessful.

In 1862, Germany lifted the ban against Wagner, and he returned to Germany, settling in Biebrich. Minna visited him there one more time, but they parted for good. Wagner supported her until her death in 1866.

Wagner began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürmberg. He also tried to have Tristan und Isolde produced in Vienna, but in rehearsals it was deemed “impossible” to sing, and the opera never opened, which added to Wagner’s financial problems.

Wagner’s luck changed in 1864, when King Ludwig II succeeded to the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. An ardent admirer of Wagner’s operas, he invited the composer to Munich. Ludwig, who was homosexual, expressed his love for the composer, and Wagner feigned reciprocal feelings so he could milk the relationship for opportunities and benefits. Ludwig settled Wagner’s debts and proposed staging Tristan und IsoldeDie Meistersinger, and the Ring dramas. Wagner began work on his autobiography, Mein Leben, at the King’s request.

Tristan und Isolde premiered at National Opera Munich in June of 1865. The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde (whose father was Wagner).

Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was the daughter of the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who had left her husband for Franz Liszt. Liszt initially disapproved of his daughter’s involvement with his friend Wagner. The affair scandalized Munich, and leading members of the court were suspicious of Wagner’s influence on the King. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich.

Ludwig installed Wagner at the Villa Tribschen, located beside Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich in June the following year. At Ludwig’s insistence, “special previews” of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were performed in Munich in 1869 and 1870, but Wagner dreamed of presenting his first complete cycle at a special festival at a new, dedicated, opera house designed to his specifications.

Meanwhile, Cosima begged Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce, but Bülow refused. He consented only after she had two more children with Wagner; another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of Die Meistersinger, and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring. The divorce was finally granted in July 1870. Richard and Cosima’s wedding took place a month later. The marriage lasted to the end of Wagner’s life.

864px-RichardWagner
Richard Wagner

In 1872, the Wagners moved to Bayreuth, where his new opera house would be located. The town council donated a large plot of land—the “Green Hill”—and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (“Festival Theatre”) was laid. Wagner initially announced the first Bayreuth Festival, at which for the first time the Ring cycle would be presented complete, for 1873, but since Ludwig had declined to finance the project, the start of building was delayed and the proposed date for the festival was postponed. To raise funds for the construction, “Wagner societies” were formed in several cities, and Wagner began touring Germany conducting concerts. By the spring of 1873, only a third of the required funds had been raised; further pleas to Ludwig were initially ignored, but early in 1874, with the project on the verge of collapse, the King relented and provided a loan. The full building program included the family home, “Wahnfried,” into which the Wagners moved in April 1874. The theatre was completed in 1875, and the festival scheduled for the following year. Commenting on the struggle to finish the building, Wagner remarked to Cosima: “Each stone is red with my blood and yours.”

Wagner created several theatrical innovations at Bayreuth; these include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience.

The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with Das Rheingold, at last taking its place as the first evening of the complete Ring cycle; the 1876 Bayreuth Festival  saw the premiere of the complete cycle, performed as a sequence as the composer had intended. The 1876 Festival consisted of three full Ring cycles (under the baton of Hans Richter). At the end, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg thought the work “divinely composed,” but the French newspaper Le Figaro called the music “the dream of a lunatic.” Friedrich Nietzsche was bitterly disappointed by what he saw as Wagner’s pandering to increasingly exclusivist German nationalism. However, the festival firmly established Wagner as an artist of international prestige.

Wagner was far from satisfied with the Festival; Cosima recorded that months later, his attitude towards the productions was “Never again, never again!” Moreover, the festival finished with a huge deficit. The expenses of Bayreuth and of Wahnfried meant that Wagner still sought further sources of income by conducting or taking on commissions.

Wagner’s most important stage works continue to be performed at the annual Bayreuth Festival, run by his descendants.

Richard Wagner is the earliest composer most specifically associated with the concept of leitmotif. His Der Ring des Nibelungen uses hundreds of leitmotifs, short melodic or harmonic themes often related to specific characters, things, ideas, or situations. While some of these leitmotifs occur in only one of the operas, many recur throughout the entire cycle. This practice is used today extensively in movie soundtracks. John Williams is a master of leitmotif.

I have never sat through one of Wagner’s operas, though I’ve heard excerpts at the Phoenix symphony and seen scenes on TV and online. I’ve discovered that Opera North in England has filmed the entire Ring cycle and posted it on its website. I want to watch it. All of it.

I am seriously considering issuing a challenge to ARHtistic License readers to watch the entire Ring cycle. We’re all busy, so maybe we could do it in segments, one opera per month, and post our reactions. Would you be interested? If so, let me know in the comments below, and give me your suggestions about how we could do this. If by the end of June we have at least ten people who want to participate, we’re on!

How Have I Never Written a Post About Beethoven?

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How Have I Never Written a Post About Beethoven?

He’s only my favorite composer, but my ARHtistic License search engine is not turning up any articles about him. How is that possible?

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) displayed his gift for music at a young age. His musician father thought Ludwig could be another Mozart, a child prodigy who could earn the family a living. He began teaching his son, but because of his alcoholism, was a rather dysfunctional instructor, often waking the boy out of a sound sleep and demanding that he practice clavier.

Nevertheless, Ludwig did become a sought-after pianist, organist, and violinist. At age 21 he moved from the family home in Bonn, Germany to Vienna, Austria, the cultural center of Europe, to study counterpoint with Josef Haydn. His early works were influenced by the great master.

Beethoven loved nature and began his days with a walk through the countryside. He carried a notebook with him and would jot down the melodies and harmonies that came to him while he walked.

He began to lose his hearing in 1798. By 1818 it had deteriorated to that point that he could only communicate through writing. His conversation notebooks still exist, and they are a treasure trove of information for those who want to know what his daily life was like, as they include discussions about music, business, and personal matters.

His hearing loss made it difficult to perform; yet he was able to continue to compose music, due to his well-developed inner hearing. He famously beat time at the premier of his Ninth Symphony (though the musicians had been instructed to follow a different conductor), and was not aware that the piece was over until someone turned him around and showed him the applauding audience.

Beethoven’s work bridged the Classical and Romantic eras. You could say that he was the last great Classical composer and the one who laid the groundwork for Romanticism. His music changed with the times, and greatly influenced the nineteenth century composers who followed him.

Beethoven wrote 772 pieces, including nine symphonies, eleven concertos, sixteen string quartets, seven piano trios, thirty-two piano sonatas, many pieces for piano and solo instruments, much vocal music, choral music, and chamber music, and one opera (Fidelio). He is considered one of the greatest composers of all time, and one of the most widely performed.

A Black History Month Treat: The Other Mozart

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Joseph Bologne, le Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Bologne was born December 25, 1745, on the island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. His father was a minor French noble; his mother was the African slave of his father’s wife.

His father adored the baby boy, and couldn’t help noticing his quick intellect. He wanted nothing more than for Joseph to grow up and take his place among the nobility. He even gave him a special title: le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. His early education included learning to read and write in French, riding, shooting, and playing the violin.

When Joseph was eight, his father moved him and his mother to Paris. Joseph was enrolled in an exclusive academy. He became an accomplished swordsman, virtually unbeatable at fencing. He was also an elegant dancer and very popular with the ladies.

But his greatest talent was his musicianship. He was a virtuoso violinist. The young queen, Marie Antoinette, herself a fine musician, invited him to come to Versailles and play with her. Joseph was also an acclaimed composer and a sought-after conductor. He aspired to be the director of the Paris Opera. But the three divas of the opera company complained to King Louis XVI that it was beneath them to take orders from a mulatto. The king left the position unfilled.

Eventually, Joseph became aware of the longing of the French people for a more egalitarian form of government. He sympathized with the cause of the Revolution, and became the commander of a regiment of a thousand black soldiers. After the overthrow of the monarchy and the beheading of Louis XVI, the Reign of Terror began, and the nobles’ lives were at risk—including the Chevalier’s. Joseph was imprisoned. Ultimately, he kept his head and was released.

Today Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is known for the beautiful music he composed. Sadly, after his lifetime, his music fell out of favor and was not performed for almost 200 years; but in recent decades, it has been rediscovered and new audiences appreciate his genius. He is thought to be the first Black classical composer. His style is often compared to Mozart’s.

Philip Glass, Composer

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Intricate photographic thread tapestry portrait of Philip Glass by his friend, Chuck Close; Phoenix Art Museum

In the 1970s when I was a young woman hearing Philip Glass’ music for the first time, I didn’t like it. The repetitiveness of it bored me, then bothered me.

That all changed on June 4, 2016, when a friend and I went to a Phoenix Symphony concert where Glass’ The Secret Agent was performed. I didn’t expect to like it. Instead, it was my favorite piece on the program, one that I frequently now seek out.

In researching today’s post, I read a fascinating and detailed article on Wikipedia. Rather than try to paraphrase it, I have pulled out a few interesting segments; if you want more information on Philip Glass, I direct you to that link above.

Philip Glass was born January 31, 1937. He is an accomplished pianist and one of the most influential American composers of the late 20th century through today. Glass’s work has been described as minimalism, being built up from repetitive phrases and shifting layers.

Glass founded the Philip Glass Ensemble, with which he still performs on keyboards.

You may just want this music playing in the background as you work today:

He was the son of Lithuanian-Jewish emigrants. His father owned a record store and his mother was a librarian. At the end of World War II his mother aided Jewish Holocaust survivors, inviting recent arrivals to America to stay at their home until they could find a job and a place to live.  She developed a plan to help them learn English and acquire skills they would need for work.

Glass inherited his appreciation of music from his father, who often received promotional copies of new recordings at his music store. He spent many hours listening to them, developing his knowledge and taste in music. This openness to modern sounds affected Glass at an early age. He wrote in his memoir, “My father was self-taught, but he ended up having a very refined and rich knowledge of classical, chamber, and contemporary music. Typically he would come home and have dinner, and then sit in his armchair and listen to music until almost midnight. I caught on to this very early, and I would go and listen with him.”

Glass built a sizable record collection from the unsold records in his father’s store, including modern classical music such as Hindemith, Bartók, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Western classical music including Beethoven’s string quartets and Schubert’s B♭ Piano Trio. Glass cites Schubert as a “big influence” growing up, his favorite composer, and by coincidence, shares his birthday with him.

At the age of 15, he entered an accelerated college program at the University of Chicago where he studied mathematics and philosophy. In Chicago he discovered the serialism of Anton Webern and composed a twelve-tone string trio. In 1954 Glass traveled to Paris, where he encountered the films of Jean Cocteau, which made a lasting impression on him. He visited artists’ studios and saw their work; he said, “the bohemian life you see in [Cocteau’s] Orphée was the life I … was attracted to, and those were the people I hung out with.”

Glass studied at the Juilliard School of Music where the keyboard was his main instrument. One of his fellow students was another favorite composer of mine, musical satirist Peter Schickele (aka PDQ Bach).

In 1964, Glass received a Fulbright Scholarship; his studies in Paris with the eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, from autumn of 1964 to summer of 1966, influenced his work throughout his life, as the composer admitted in 1979: “The composers I studied with Boulanger are the people I still think about most—Bach and Mozart.”

His distinctive style arose in part from Ravi Shankar’s perception of rhythm in Indian music as being entirely additive. Glass renounced all his compositions in a moderately modern style resembling Milhaud’s, Aaron Copland’s, and Samuel Barber’s, and began writing pieces based on repetitive structures of Indian music and a sense of time influenced by Samuel Beckett.

Despite being an accomplished musician and composer, in the early years he did not completely support himself from his art. In addition to his music career, Glass had a moving company with his cousin, the sculptor Jene Highstein, and also worked as a plumber and cab driver (during 1973 to 1978). He remembers installing a dishwasher and looking up from his work to see an astonished Robert Hughes, Time magazine’s art critic, staring at him.

Though he finds the term minimalist inaccurate to describe his later work, Glass does accept this term for pieces up to and including Music in 12 Parts, excepting this last part which “was the end of minimalism” for Glass. As he pointed out: “I had worked for eight or nine years inventing a system, and now I’d written through it and come out the other end.” He now prefers to describe himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures”.

Here is more music to run in the background as you work:

Glass composed his first violin concerto with his father in mind: “His favorite form was the violin concerto, and so I grew up listening to the Mendelssohn, the Paganini, the Brahms concertos. … So when I decided to write a violin concerto, I wanted to write one that my father would have liked.”

Philip Glass’ body of work includes numerous operas and musical theatre works, twelve symphonies, eleven concertos, eight string quartets and various other chamber music, and film scores. Three of his film scores, Kundun (1997), The Hours (2002), and Notes on a Scandal (2006), were nominated for Academy Awards; in 1998 he won the Golden Globe for best original score for The Truman Show.

Fun fact: Glass is the first cousin once removed of Ira Glass, host of the radio show This American Life.

Tchaikovsky

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TchaikovskyPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840—November 6, 1893) was the first Russian composer to achieve international recognition.

Though musical from a young age, his parents encouraged him to study law so that he could enter the more lucrative profession of civil service. To please them, he spent nine years at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, and worked in the Ministry of Justice for four years while studying music on the side. In 1863, he resigned from civil service and became a professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory.

Tchaikovsky was greatly influenced by Russian folk music, but also by the Western music he studied while at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

In 1876, Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a wealthy railroad magnate and an admirer of Tchaikovsky’s music, offered to become his patron. She provided him with a monthly stipend which allowed him to resign from his professorship in 1878 and pursue composition full time. Her only requirement was that they never meet in person. They did, however, maintain an extensive intellectual correspondence that documents their views on topics from religion to politics to creativity.

Tchaikovsky’s body of work includes 169 pieces, including 7 symphonies, 11 operas, 3 ballets, 5 suites, 3 piano concertos, a violin concerto, 11 overtures and single-movement orchestral works, 4 cantatas, 20 choral works, 3 string quartets, a string sextet, and more than 100 songs and piano pieces. Among his most beloved works are his three ballets (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty), his Piano Concerto No. 1, the opera Eugene Onegin, and the 1812 Overture.

 

This sweet little hymn for piano is one of my favorites:

You can learn more about Tchaikovsky at Encyclopaedia Britannica and Biography.