The classical music world knows Alfred Brendel as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Far fewer people know him as a poet, with two books of poetry in German and one—One finger too many—in English translation (New York: Random House, 1999).
The collection’s title poem concerns a pianist who developed a third index finger “not to play the piano with/though it sometimes did intervene/discreetly/in tricky passages/but to point things out/when both hands were busy.”
While some of Brendel’s poems are serious, many are light-hearted. He explains, “At one stage in my life I didn’t laugh enough…some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue.” The title of another poem, “Not Brahms again”, points to a humorous but therapeutic reflection that he describes as “a little revenge for the perversity of the B♭ concerto…the passages which, as they stand, are literally unplayable.”
This according to “The poet speaks” by Michael Church (BBC music magazine, VII/3 [November 1998], pp. 32–33; RILM 1998-4729).
Today is Maestro Brendel’s 90th birthday! Below, Brendel plays Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 899 (op. 90).
BONUS: Cover half of Brendel’s face in the above photograph, then the other half, to see two completely different expressions.
Having once considered himself “one of the staunchest opponents of classical music”, Charles Schultz (1922–2000) discovered the symphonies of Beethoven in 1946 and became an avid fan of classical music with a prodigious record collection. He also created the piano-playing Schroeder, a Beethoven fanatic, for his comic strip Peanuts.
A well-worn 1951 LP in Schultz’s collection by the pianist Friedrich Gulda of the Hammerklavier sonata, op. 106, may have inspired a series of strips from the early 1950s in which Schroeder is seen playing this work. The one reproduced above is the only one in which the piece is named, though it still relies on the reader to read music—and German!—for a full identification. Note Schultz’s imitation of German Fraktur script for both the work title and his signature.
This according to “Michaelis’ Schulz, Schulz’s Beethoven, and the construction of biography” by William Meredith (The Beethoven journal XXV/2 [winter 2008], pp. 79–91; RILM Abstracts 2008-8914).
Today is Beethoven’s 250th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter celebrates with the Hammerklavier sonata.
Related articles: Beethoven in Bibliolore
The feature film Kalpana (Imagination) is the only kinetic record of Uday Shankar’s choreographic work. Directed by and starring Shankar himself, it is semi-autobiographical and also stars his wife, Amala Shankar.
The film involved a fair amount of social commentary, and Shankar’s opening statement in it still feels strikingly appropriate:
“I request you all to be very alert while you watch this unusual picture—a Fantasy. Some of the events depicted here will reel off at great speed and if you miss any piece you will really be missing a vital aspect of our country’s life in its Religion, Politics, Education, Society, Art and Culture, Agriculture and Industry.”
“I do not deliberately aim my criticism at any particular group of people or institutions, but if it appears so, it just happens to be so, that is all. It is my duty as an Artist to be fully alive to all conditions of life and thought relating to our country and present it truthfully with all the faults and merits, through the medium of my Art.”
“And I hope that you will be with me in our final purpose to rectify our own shortcomings and become worthy of our cultural heritage and make our motherland once again the greatest in the world.”
This according to “Uday Shankar’s Kalpana” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 195 [December 2000] 53–57).
Today is Uday Shankar’s 120th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from the film.
Dave Brubeck helped to rekindle jazz’s mainstream popularity in the 1950s and 1960s with recordings like Time out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and Take five, the still instantly recognizable hit single that was that album’s centerpiece.
In a long and successful career, Brubeck brought a distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility that won over listeners who had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. He experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, Baroque compositional devices, and non-Western modes.
Brubeck did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic, and—a word he particularly disliked—stolid. But his very stubbornness and strangeness—the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone—make the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.
This according to “Dave Brubeck 1920–2012: His music gave jazz new pop” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 6 December A1; RILM Abstracts 2012-10080).
Today is Brubeck’s 100th birthday! Above and below, the composer and pianist in 1964. (Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
The 12 keyboard polonaises of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach were immensely popular during the composer’s lifetime, and they are among his best-known pieces today.
W.F. Bach did not treat the polonaise as a light, unpretentious dance form for dilettantes; rather, he approached the genre with the same compositional refinement and sophistication found in his large forms.
Written during the period when the popular galant style dominated, these pieces display aspects of the older contrapuntal art and a level of complexity that rarely appears in light popular dance genres of the time.
This according to “‘…welche dem größten Concerte gleichen’: The polonaises of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach” by Peter Wollny, an essay included in The keyboard in Baroque Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 169–83; RILM Abstracts 2003-4580).
Today is W.F. Bach’s 310th birthday! Below, the 12 polonaises played on the fortepiano by Slobodan Jovanović.
While Aaron Copland’s works are widely celebrated for their elegant formal coherence, his compositional method was strikingly nonlinear; in fact, he spoke of himself as an artist who primarily assembled materials.
Rather than writing pieces from start to finish, Copland wrote down fragments of musical ideas when they came to him. When it was time to produce a complete work he would turn to these ideas—he called them his “gold nuggets”—and if one or more of them seemed promising he would write a piano sketch and proceed to work on them further at the keyboard.
This piano phase was so integral to Copland’s creative process that it permeated his compositional style in subtle and complex ways. His habit of turning to the keyboard tended to embarrass him until he learned that Stravinsky did the same.
This according to Copland. I: 1900 through 1942 by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984, 255; RILM Abstracts 1984-3448).
Today is Copland’s 120th birthday! Above, the composer in 1962; below, a selection of his “miniature” piano works suggests how he worked with his gold nuggets.
Luigi Cherubini’s Médée was the first new major operatic work based on classical subject matter to appear on a Paris stage after years of lip service to—but little artistic concern with—the heritage of Gluck. The work’s 1797 premier met a lukewarm reception because it attempted to reinterpret the classical tradition in revolutionary terms at a time when the conservative backlash of the Directoire had already begun.
Dramatically, the character of Médée symbolizes the fury of the Jacobin, while musically the colorful mass effects and harmonic boldness of revolutionary opera are matched with stylistic conventions of prerevolutionary composers. The result is an intermixture of musical realism and expressionism that anticipated not only the last works of Verdi and his veristic successors but also the psychological dramas of Strauss and Berg.
This according to “Cherubini’s Médée and the spirit of French Revolutionary opera” by Alexander L. Ringer, an essay included in Essays in musicology in honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th birthday (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969 281–99; RILM Abstracts 1969-1154).
Today is Cherubini’s 260th birthday! Above, the composer as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, ca. 1820; below, Maria Callas sings an aria from Médée in a widely used Italian translation.
In an interview, Rosie Flores discussed the title cut of her 2012 album Working girl’s guitar:
There’s a friend of mine who does, well, everything. He does bodywork, he’s written books on rolfing, how to play the banjo, and how to play the upright bass. His name is Ritchie Mintz.
I went to him a couple years ago and said, “You know, I’ve got too many guitars, and I need to come up with some money. Are you interested in maybe getting one of my Taylors?” I brought it over, he looked at it, turned it over and said, “Man, this is a working girl’s guitar! Look at all the scars on it. This has been on some airplanes and trucks and cars, hasn’t it?” “Yep, it’s been around!” I said.
And so that night he bought the guitar. He called me up the next day and said, “Rosie, you’re not going to believe this, but your guitar wrote a song for you.” I said, “For me? My guitar wrote a song for me?” And he went, “Yep!” So I came over and listened to it, and was just blown away. I said, “That is such a cool song, Ritchie!” So I just turned up the distortion and the overdrive pedal and went to town on that riff and just had a great time with that.
Quoted in “Guitar girl’d: Interview with Rosie Flores on the release of Working girl’s guitar” by Laura B. Whitmore (Guitar world 25 October 2012; RILM Abstracts 2012-45948).
Today is Flores’s 70th birthday! Above, Flores at the 67th Annual Peabody Awards in 2008; below, a live performance of the song.
Sonny Rollins’s extensive use of improvised thematic development in his 1956 recording of Blue 7 marked a new level of musical evolution for jazz.
Jazz improvisatory procedures may be divided into two broad and sometimes overlapping categories: paraphrase and chorus improvisation. The former consists mostly of an embellishment or ornamentation technique, while the latter suggests that the soloist has departed completely from a given theme or melody and is improvising freely on nothing but a chord structure.
Most improvisation in the modern jazz era belongs to the second category, and Rollins’s recording is a landmark for maintaining thematic and structural unity in this type of playing.
This according to “Sonny Rollins and the challenge of thematic improvisation” by Gunther Schuller; this foundational work of jazz analysis from 1958 is reprinted in Keeping time: Readings in jazz history (New York: Oxford University Press 2015 193–202; RILM Abstracts 2015-155).
Today is Rollins’s 90th birthday! Above, the artist around the time of the recording; below, the recording itself.
Charlie Parker’s three improvisatory choruses in Parker’s mood (1948) can be viewed as one statement; the first is introductory, the second climactic, and the third provides a summary by repeating previous material.
Analyzed as a Schenkerian series of layers, the piece progresses in complexity from the background to the foreground. Parker’s palette of resources includes the blues scale, stock blues melodic figures, bebop-style scale runs, arpeggiated figures derived from substitute progressions, idiosyncratic articulation, and a historic tradition of improvisation.
This according to “Parker’s mood revisited” by Kwatei Jones-Quartey (Annual review of jazz studies X  221–35; RILM Abstracts 1999-13483.
Today is Charlier Parker’s 100th birthday! Below, the recording in question.