Tag Archives: Composers

Liszt’s monster instrument

In September 1854 Liszt wrote to the cellist Bernhard Cossmann “My monster instrument with three keyboards arrived about a fortnight ago and seems to be a great success.”

The 3000-pound instrument, a seven-octave grand piano plus two five-octave harmonium keyboards, was built by Alexandre Père et Fils and Pierre Érard to Liszt’s specifications. Although the critic Richard Pohl reported having heard the composer play this piano-harmonium, apparently it was never heard in concert until Joris Verdin (left) presented a recital on the instrument, newly restored by Patrick Collon and the Manufacture d’orgues de Bruxelles 150 years after it was built, at the Wiener Musikverein.

In addition to the piano and pumping pedals seen above, the original version included a 20-note pedalboard and an attachment allowing an assistant to pump the bellows while the player used the organ or piano pedals; these are lost and have not been reconstructed.

This according to “Liszt’s monster instrument revisited” by Wayne T. Moore (The diapason XCVI/5 [May 2005] p. 15). Today is Liszt’s 210th birthday!

Below, Professor Verdin demonstrates Liszt’s monster instrument.

More posts about Franz Liszt are here.

6 Comments

Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Romantic era

Antonín Dvořák, railfan

Dvořák had tremendous admiration for technical inventions, particularly locomotives—in the U.S. he might be called a railfan.

“It consists of many parts, of so many different parts, and each has its own importance, each has its own place,” he wrote. “Even the smallest screw is in place and holding something! Everything has its purpose and role and the result is amazing.”

“Such a locomotive is put on the tracks, they put in the coal and water, one person moves a small lever, the big levers start to move, and even though the cars weigh a few thousand metric cents, the locomotive runs with them like a rabbit. All of my symphonies I would give if I had invented the locomotive!”

This according to Antonín Dvořák: Komplexní zdroj informací o skladateli / A comprehensive information source on the composer, an Internet resource created by Ondřej Šupka. Many thanks to Jadranka Važanová for her discovery and translation of this wonderful quotation.

Today is Dvořák’s 180th birthday! Below, the EuroCity 77 “Antonin Dvorak” leaving Prague for Vienna.

Related article: Johannes Brahms, railfan

2 Comments

Filed under Curiosities, Resources, Romantic era, Science

Enescu and makam

Georges Enescu’s use of elements of Romanian traditional music is well known; his most popular works today, the Rhapsodies roumaines, attest to his enthusiasm for his homeland’s music. Less known is his interest in the Turkish melodic type makam (pl. makamlar) and its influence on his masterpiece, the opera Œdipe.

In this work, Enescu used three makamlar: Müsteâr, for music associated with the characters Creon and Jocasta; Hisâr, for the motif of fate, and Nişâbûr, for the motif of justification.

This according to “Modale Strukturen in Annäherung zur orientalischen Kirchenmusik im Oedip von George Enescu” by Adriana Şirli, an essay included in Enesciana II-III: Georges Enesco, musicien complexe (Bucureşti: Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, 1981).

Today is Enescu’s 140th birthday! Below, an excerpt from the 1970 production of Œdipe by the Opera Naţională Bucureşti; above, the Enescu statue in front of the opera house. For more Enescu iconography, see Music on money.

2 Comments

Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Opera

Wagner in Vienna

Although Gustav Gaul is not mentioned in Wagner’s correspondence or autobiography, he was clearly a part of the social circle that Wagner engaged with when he visited Vienna in the early 1860s and in 1875.

Gaul made a number of sketches of the composer, including three recently found in the Nachlaβ of his papers at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (A-Wn Autogr. 194/3-1, 3-2, and 3-4); two are from a meeting of October 1861 at the Hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth (above and inset), one of them depicting Peter Cornelius, Karl Tausig, and Gaul himself (far right), as well as Wagner wearing a pince-nez.

This according to “Richard Wagner and the artist Gustav Gaul: Newly discovered drawings in the Austrian National Library” by Chris Walton (The Wagner journal XV/1 [2021] 43–49; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2021-1807).

Below, Joseph Moog performs Tausig’s arrangement of Wagner’s Walkürenritt.

More posts about Wagner are here.

Comments Off on Wagner in Vienna

Filed under Iconography, Romantic era

Tagore and Rabindra saṇgīt

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; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-8174).

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.

Comments Off on Tagore and Rabindra saṇgīt

Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Halim El-Dabh, electronic music pioneer

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.

This according to “Halim El-Dabh, composer of Martha Graham ballets, dies at 96” by Margalit Fox (The New York times 8 September 2017; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2017-58630).

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.

Comments Off on Halim El-Dabh, electronic music pioneer

Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Concio et cantio

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 of Music Literature 1971-15384).

Today is Praetorius’s 450th birthday! Below, the Monteverdichor Würzburg and the Monteverdi Ensemble, conducted by Matthias Beckert, perform his Puer natus in Bethlehem from the same collection.

Comments Off on Concio et cantio

Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities

Frank Zappa and classical music

Although he was best known as the guitarist and leader of The Mothers of Invention and other rock bands, Frank Zappa grew up with a keen interest in 20th-century concert music and aspired to be an orchestral composer as well; his scores have been recorded by Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and others.

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 [2000] pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 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.

Related article: Frank Zappa and Uncle Meat

1 Comment

Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Dance, Humor

Beethoven and Peanuts

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 of Music Literature 2008-8914).

Today is Beethoven’s 250th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter celebrates with the Hammerklavier sonata.

Related articles: Beethoven in Bibliolore

5 Comments

Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Humor, Visual art

Dave Brubeck’s legacy

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 of Music Literature 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.)

Comments Off on Dave Brubeck’s legacy

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers