Tag Archives: Composers

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer and conductor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the son of a doctor from Sierra Leone and an English woman, was born in Croydon, England on 15 August 1875. At the age of 15, he was accepted into a violin class at the Royal College of Music in London and studied composition before being awarded a composition scholarship in March 1893. As a composer he progressed far more quickly than his fellow students. At a young age, Coleridge-Taylor became familiar with the works of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had a strong influence on Coleridge-Taylor, especially on his compositions Seven African romances op. 17 (1897), A corn song (1897), African suite op. 35 (1897) and the opera Dream lovers op. 25 (1898). He was also familiar with the writings of Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose collection of essays, The souls of Black folk, he called “the finest book I have ever read by a colored man, and one of the best by any author, White or Black”.

At the age of 23, Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned to write his Ballade in A minor for Britain’s Three Choirs Festival; although he is best known for Hiawatha’s wedding feast, based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The overture Coleridge-Taylor wrote for the piece was inspired by the African American spiritual Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. In 1904, he made the first of three trips to the United States where he toured during the post-Reconstruction era and met notable African American figures such as the poet James Weldon Johnson and the statesman Booker T. Washington. During this period, he also conducted performances of his works at the Washington Festival and Litchfield Festival on the East Coast. Later, Coleridge-Taylor became a professor of composition at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music. In addition to cantatas, chamber music, and orchestral works, he also wrote popular songs and incidental music. Coleridge-Taylor passed away at the age of 37 from pneumonia.

Read the full entry on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in MGG Online.

Listen to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha overture below.

A related Bibliolore post:

A new Coleridge-Taylor edition

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Filed under Black studies, Europe, Musicology, North America, Opera, Performers

Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in blue” premieres

At its premiere 100 years ago, on 12 February 1924, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue was received with a standing ovation after it was performed. At the time, the conductor Paul Whitehead requested that Gershwin write a “jazz concerto” for an event to be held at the Aeolian Hall, a renowned Manhattan concert venue located in the Aeolian Building–coincidentally, this building was also RILM’s original home before the CUNY Graduate Center. Given the centennial of Rhapsody’s premiere in 2024, it is likely to be heard in many different settings and contexts.

Since the piece premiered in early 1924, however, debates have arisen about how much Gershwin knew about writing music. Because his musical language was an unconventional blend of U.S. popular music and European art music, some of his critics assumed that he knew little about writing serious music. This premise has been confirmed somewhat by statements made in early Gershwin biographies, which alleged that he was self-taught.

The inherent complexity of Rhapsody in blue and other subsequent concert works written by Gershwin, however, suggest he knew a great deal about writing music. It is also known that Gershwin received training from the versatile composer and musician Charles Hambitzer as early as 1912, where he discovered the music of Irving Berlin and J.D. Kern, and later received special theory lessons from the composer and conductor Edward Kilenyi. Rhapsody was composed in only five weeks, in spare moments while Gershwin was otherwise occupied with the premiere of a Broadway show. On that time schedule, he had no alternative other than to put what he already knew about writing music into that work.

Celebrate the centennial of the premiere of Rhapsody in blue today by reading the entry on George Gershwin in MGG Online and “Rhapsody in blue: A culmination of George Gershwin’s early musical education”, a dissertation by Susan E. Neimoyer (2003, University of Washington, Seattle); find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below is the classic scene of the Rhapsody in blue premiere in the 1945 Gershwin biopic starring Robert Alda.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, North America, Performers

Gloria Coates, maverick composer

Gloria Coates was born in 1933 in Wausau, Wisconsin and later studied composition with Alexander Tcherepnin and Otto Luening, as well as singing, musicology, acting, and painting, receiving degrees from Columbia University and Louisiana State University. Coates initially worked as a composer, singer, actress, author, and painter. In 1969, she settled in Munich and focused on composing. This period of her life yielded 17 symphonies and ten string quartets, as well as other instrumental chamber music, vocal works, and electroacoustic music. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed referred to Coates as “our last maverick”.

Coates used microtonality, scordatura, and glissandi on string instruments, and experimented with multiphonic vocal techniques, yet without ever entirely abandoning tonality. In a 2010 interview, she described her distinct approach to composition and use of glissandi. As Coates described, “I would say that my initial work with glissandi had to do with the fact that I’m also a visual artist. I’ve never really analyzed it, but, in a way, I was building structures visually that could also exist in sound. I think that’s how it all began.”

The premiere of her first symphony Music on Open Strings at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1978 brought her international fame. The symphony was included in the Bayerischer Rundfunk’s 1980 Musica Viva concert series, becoming the first orchestral composition by a woman in the 35-year history of the series. Coates became involved in Munich’s musical life by directing a series on U.S. contemporary music there from 1971 to 1984. Invitations to concerts and lectures in the early 1980s took her to Moscow (1981), India (1982), and Harvard University (1984).

Coates, who shared her time between the United States and Germany, died in Munich on 19 August 2023. Read the full obituary on MGG Online.

Listen to Gloria Coates’ composition Time advances to no destiny (performed by Lavinia Mallegni) below.

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

Cyndi Lauper’s (re)covers

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Cyndi Lauper’s signature anthem Girls just want to have fun (1983) was a cover of Robert Hazard’s misogynistic original (1979); her own 1994 re-remake (Hey now) girls just want to have fun exploits and subverts mainstream categories of gender and sexuality.

For her 1994 version Lauper provocatively incorporated a gloss on another song, Redbone’s Come and get your love, and in the updated music video the original “girls” are replaced by men in drag while the singer arguably performs a drag version of herself (or rather, her 1980s persona of a girl who just wants to have fun).

Bringing nuance to the truism of Lauper as a creator of female address on MTV and in popular culture, her versions of the song demonstrate that agency and authority in popular music derive just as much (perhaps more) from interpretation and performance as they do from authorship and songwriting.

This according to “What fun? Whose fun? Cyndi Lauper (re)covers Girls just want to have fun” by Wayne Heisler , Jr. (ECHO: A music-centered journal VI/1 [2004]); RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2004-6926).

Today is Lauper’s 70th birthday! Above, a still from the music video for her 1983 cover; below, the 1994 version.

BONUS: Live in 1987.

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Filed under Popular music, Women's studies

Grieg and recording

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Edvard Grieg was intensely interested in sound recording, which was in its infancy in his day.

His works were first recorded on Edison rolls in 1899 by Alfred Grünfeld. This technique of recording sound on wax or hard-rubber cylinders was soon superseded by Emile Berliner’s improvements; Grieg himself was one of the first to record classical music for Berliner’s system.

Gramophone records, which became two-sided in 1905, had a playing time of five minutes, more than twice as long as the phonograph, but they left much to be desired in terms of sound quality.

Meanwhile, the player piano, which had existed since 1880, continued to evolve; by the early 20th century a piano roll could record up to 15 minutes of music. Major companies such as Welte and Hupfeld sought from the start to engage famous performers for their systems, and in 1906 Grieg recorded his works for both firms.

This according to “Die Tonaufzeichnung und Edvard Grieg” by Eszter Fontana, an essay included in Edvard Grieg: Weltbild und Werk (Altenmedingen: Junker, 2005, 138–146; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-23299).

Today is Grieg’s 180th birthday! Below, one of his piano rolls brings his piano playing into the 21st century.

Related article: Stravinsky and recording

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If it’s Mozart, it’s a masterpiece!

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Since the mid–19th-century discovery of the sinfonia concertante for four winds sometimes labeled K.297b, the work has been considered authentic by some and dubious by others, and its reception has paralleled these critical vicissitudes.

In 1778 Mozart wrote to his father that he had just written a “sinfonie concertante” for four winds and orchestra that was scheduled for performance in Paris; but it was not performed after all, and the score was presumed lost until a work scored for similar forces—unattributed and not in Mozart’s own hand, but labeled concertante—surfaced in the collection of Mozart’s biographer Otto Jahn after Jahn’s death in 1869.

Despite some discrepancies between the Jahn MS and the composition Mozart had described, it was generally accepted as the missing work and published as such in 1886. For about the first 50 years of its public career it remained a peripheral work in the Mozart canon, seldom performed and little-known.

The work began to attract more attention in the 1920s, as eminent Mozart scholars described it as “magnificent” and praised its “brilliance, breadth, and expansiveness”. Experts agreed that it was an important work, a significant step in Mozart’s development as a composer, and a beautiful and worthwhile piece of music. Certified and buoyed by such enthusiasm, it was increasingly programmed and recorded from the 1940s through the 1960s.

The sinfonia concertante’s fall from grace began when it was dropped from the main body of the Köchel catalogue in 1964 with a terse remark that its arrangement could not have come from Mozart. Expert statements refuting the overall authenticity of the work on stylistic grounds soon followed, and efforts to reclaim it for Mozart failed to stem its fall from scholarly favor. Audience interest diminished accordingly, and the work appears to have been programmed less often since the mid-1970s.

An examination of 168 texts discussing this composition reveals—perhaps not surprisingly— that the authors’ reactions to the work are closely bound to their opinions on who wrote it.

For example, writers who believed that the work was by Mozart described it as strong, sturdy, and solid, while those that did not called it flimsy, arbitrary, illogical, and incomprehensible; those crediting Mozart rated the work highest level and a masterpiece, while those who considered it spurious rated it not first class; and the Mozart designators considered it delightful, celestial, and enchanting, while the non-Mozart camp described it as tasteless, inept, and cheap.

This according to “Musical attribution and critical judgment: The rise and fall of the sinfonia concertante for winds, K.297b” by John Spitzer (The journal of musicology V/3 [summer 1987] pp. 319–56; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1988-3046).

Below, we invite you to form your own opinion.

More articles about Mozart are here.

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Filed under Classic era, Reception

Ligeti and Africa

György Ligeti freely acknowledged the influence of African music on his work—an influence that is seldom readily obvious, though it can be teased out by analysis.

After he listened to recordings of African drumming, Ligeti began exploring the use of various rhythms through multiplication of the basic pulse, a concept that resonated with the additive rhythms of the traditional music that he grew up with in Hungary.

In one of his few passages involving the use of an African-sounding instrument, the third movement of his piano concerto includes an Africanesque pattern played on bongos. He marked the part to be played very quietly, so rather than being foregrounded it serves almost subliminally to reinforce patterns being played simultaneously on other instruments. Unlike most African drumming, this bongo pattern evolves over time, so that its end is quite different from its beginning.

Ligeti’s works from the 1960s onward were distinguished by a palette of musical motives and ideas that he half-ironically referred to as Ligeti signals. Starting in the 1980s, he expanded this palette to include African devices along with others that share an extraordinary openness to external ideas and influences. He avoided copying these influences wholesale, instead working on a higher conceptual level. This abstraction implied an objective respect for the powerful ideas he was working with, as well as indicating a strong personality able to hold its own with them.

This according to “Ligeti, Africa, and polyrhythm” by Stephen Andrew Taylor (The world of music XLV/2 [2003] pp. 83–94; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2003-4435).

Today is Ligeti’s 100th birthday! Below, Mihkel Poll performs the concerto movement discussed above.

BONUS: RILM is a sponsor of the Ligeti Festival Transylvania celebrating György Ligeti’s 100th birthday! More information is here.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Africa, Curiosities

Wagner and Buddhism

Scholars have long known that Wagner had a deep and lasting interest in Buddhism; less known are the specific insights garnered from Buddhism that are manifested in Parsifal. The key to understanding this connection is the enigmatic figure of Kundry.

Contrary to the common interpretation of Kundry as the incarnation of the will, and in light of Wagner’s admiration for Schopenhauer, she may be seen as the personification of desire. Desiring, which is different from wanting, is a fundamental aspect of Buddhism. As Buddha explained in his very first sermon, desire is the cause of suffering (dukkha). Buddhist teaching holds that suffering can only be overcome when desire is vanquished.

Kundry appears in three forms in Parsifal; these correspond to the three forms of desire in Buddhism. This interpretation aligns the work’s Christian, pagan, and Buddhist symbolism as an expression of the inner way that is shared by all who tread the path of religious mysticism. Through extensive study of Buddhism, Wagner came to understand the deeper side of all religions, a universal truth that all mediators of religious traditions come to understand.

This according to “Kundry: The personification of the role of desire in the holy life” by Pandit Bhikkhu (Cittasamvaro) (Wagnerspectrum III/2 [2007] pp. 97–114; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2007-20593).

Today is Wagner’s 210th birthday! Above, Christa Ludwig as Kundry; below, Waltraud Meier in the role.

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James Brown’s Deleuzian idiocy

James Brown had an uncanny ability to synthesize the talents of musicians from disparate musical fields into a cohesive ensemble. Still, many of his peers had little regard for his own musical abilities.

“He has no real musical skills…yet he could hold his own onstage with any jazz virtuoso—because of his guts” one of his former bandleaders explained. Indeed, many of Brown’s own players dreamed of eventually moving from pop to jazz, where their individual abilities would shine more brightly.

There is a certain irony in the fact that someone maligned by his colleagues for his apparent musical ineptitude would end up influencing the very musicians that they looked up to: Miles Davis, for example, changed the bebop world when he took the radical step of incorporating Brown’s rhythmic innovations into his music. Further, Brown’s influence is explicitly acknowledged by rap musicians, spawning developments in popular music that continue to reverberate around the world.

A compelling valorization of Brown’s approach is suggested by Gilles Deleuze’s account, in Différence et répétition, of the Idiot as the pedant’s polar opposite. As a musical Idiot, Brown’s naive immunity to conceptual rules or institutionally dominant forms of thinking—his capacity for thought without presupposition—enabled modes of conceptual originality that evaded the musically trained.

Funk was not a project” he explained. “It happened as part of my ongoing thing…I wasn’t going for some known sound, I was aimin’ for what I could hear.”

Brown’s bravado and innovations were necessary because he lacked the musical and cultural capital of his peers. Deleuze’s Idiot is self-assured because he is not bothered with any image of thought that cannot see him; for Brown, reason yielded to experimentation because his poverty-stricken childhood had demonstrated that abstractions were useless for solving the immanent problems at hand.

Brown had a superlative ability to forge new connections, to make music work regardless of its orthodoxy. This is what Deleuze attributed to the great artist—one who could make new and unforeseen connections.

This according to “James Brown: The illogic of innovation” by John Scannell (New formations: A journal of culture/theory/politics 66 [spring 2009] pp. 118–133; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-17662).

Today would have been Brown’s 90th birthday! Below, the Godfather of Soul defies logic in his heyday.

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Max Reger’s Würstiade

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The Bavarian composer Max Reger was famous for his appetite. According to his biographer Fritz Stein, he was capable of consuming up to 30 little Bavarian weißwürste or up to 12 Regensburger würste at one sitting. Such meals needed to be washed down with up to ten liters of beer, but after giving up alcohol while he was living in Meiningen (as conductor of the Hoforchester of Duke Georg II, from 1911 to 1915), he kept up with the sausage habit.

Thus, from a letter to the Duke of 27 May 1912: “Yesterday afternoon we took another walk to the Helenenhöhe, where I sampled the Thuringian Rostbratwürste for the first time, and immediately devoured ten of them, to my wife’s disgust. But they agreed with me extremely well; I worked until ten o’clock last night, woke up fit as a fiddle, and feel fine, although everybody warned me that the bratwurst was too greasy. They were revolted by my drinking cold milk with the ten sausages. I thus brilliantly disproved the old myth that says one has to have alcohol with greasy foods, in the form of schnapps.”

The Duke replied “In the name of God, don’t repeat that Würstiade very often, if you don’t want to get popped underground or into the crematorium soon. Mass-produced sausages often contain nasty things.”

This according to Über die Lebensgewohnheiten eines Genies by Hans-Joachim Marks (Mitteilungen der Internationalen Max-Reger-Gesellschaft XXI [2012] pp. 23-27).

Today is Reger’s 150th birthday! Below, Hans-Dieter Bauer performs Reger’s Humoresque for the left hand alone—presumably composed so he could continue to eat würste with his right hand.

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Filed under Curiosities, Food, Romantic era