Rabindra saṇgīt is a genre comprising the vocal works of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote poetry and other literary works in his mother tongue, Bengali.
The music he composed for his verses drew on many sources. Well-versed in the classical Hindustani tradition of North India, Tagore was also familiar with the Karnatak tradition of South India; his compositions mix melodic and rhythmic ideas from Indian art and folk traditions, along with elements of genres from various other parts of the world.
Much of Tagore’s music is rāga-based, though not categorically bound by rāga grammar. Despite the catholicity of his approach to composition, his works bear the unmistakable and inimitable imprint of his own musical vision.
This according to Hindustani music: A tradition in transition by Deepak S. Raja (New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2005).
Today is Tagore’s 160th birthday!
Below, Amiya Tagore, one of the few recorded exponents of Rabindra saṇgīt who studied directly with the composer, sings his E parabase rabe ke, which she recorded for Satyajit Ray’s film Kanchenjungha in 1962.
After earning a degree in agricultural engineering in Cairo, Halim El-Dabh traveled to outlying Egyptian villages to assist with agricultural development projects. During these visits he became increasingly drawn to traditional music and dance.
Fascinated by the possibilities of manipulating sound, he borrowed a wire recorder from a Cairo radio station and began recording folk songs, religious rites, and vendors’ cries in the city’s streets. The experience gave rise to an early electronic composition using his recording of the zaar, a traditional exorcism ritual, which he manipulated in the studio.
“I was carving sound,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1974. “I used noise like I would a piece of stone”.
That work, later released as Wire recorder piece, was well-received, and became one of the catalysts for El-Dabh’s decision to pursue a career as a composer. In the late 1950s he became associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a hotbed of sonic ferment.
Today would have been El-Dabh’s 100th birthday! Above, a photo by Robert Christy (Kent State University; used with permission); below, Leiyla and the poet, which brought him international recognition in the early 1960s.
BONUS: An excerpt from Wire recorder piece, often cited as the earliest example of musique concrete.
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In the preface to his collection Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica (1619) Michael Praetorius engaged in a play on words, juxtaposing the similar-sounding Latin terms concio and cantio. But the passage is not a mere display of cleverness—it is a theological assertion that musicologists have described as a manifesto on liturgical music.
Praetorius wrote (translated here): “it is essential to the highest ideals of church government, as well as to a corporate worship service, that there be not only concio, a good sermon, but also cantio, good music and singing.” By stating that worship would be incomplete without “good music and singing” he was expressing the underlying premise of his entire career as a Lutheran church composer and cantor.
This according to Michael Praetorius Creuzbergensis: The man, the musician, the theologian by David Susan, a Master of Divinity thesis accepted by Concordia Seminary in 1971 (RILM Abstracts 1971-15384).
Appropriate listening strategies for Zappa’s pieces for acoustic concert ensembles should be based primarily on models developed from his more abundant commercially successful output, and less so on the music of early–20th-century composers, such as Stravinsky and Varèse, whose music he admired.
This according to “Listening to Zappa” by Jonathan W. Bernard (Contemporary music review XVIII/4  pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts 1999-44563).
Today would have been Zappa’s 80th birthday! Below, conducting his G-spot tornado in 1992 with Ensemble Modern and dancers Louise Lecavalier and Donald Weikert.
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.
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).
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).
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.
Unlike the troubled fictional character of stage and screen, the real Antonio Salieri was described by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the master librettist of Mozart’s operas, as “a most cultivated and intelligent man…whom I loved and esteemed both out of gratitude and by inclination…more than a friend, a brother to me.” He also had a nimble wit and enjoyed jokes at his own expense.
Salieri wrote a memoir that is now lost, but some quotations from it have survived. In one particularly winning anecdote, Salieri is recounting the première, in 1770, of his second opera, Le donne letterate. The applause is vigorous, and the young composer follows the audience out into the street, hoping to soak up more praise. He overhears a group of operagoers:
“The opera is not bad” said one. “It pleased me right well” said a second (that man I could have kissed). “For a pair of beginners, it is no small thing” said the third. “For my part” said the fourth, “I found it very tedious.” At these words, I struck off into another street for fear of hearing something still worse.
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In 1947 Ella Fitzgerald, already an acclaimed singer of jazz standards, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, immersing herself in the new style known as bebop. Like Dizzy, Ella responded to bebop’s complex harmonies with an infallible ear, and easily translated its … Continue reading →
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s Prove it on me blues affirms her independence from orthodox norms by boldly celebrating her lesbianism. Rainey’s sexual involvement with women was no secret with both colleagues and audiences. The advertisement for the song (above, click to … Continue reading →
The American traditional song Go tell Aunt Rhody originated as a gavotte composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his opera Le devin du village (1752). An English version of the opera was produced in London in 1766; subsequently the melody attracted … Continue reading →