Claudio Monteverdi’s seconda pratica was a return to basic verbal expression (listening, recognition, and revelation from emotional vocal accentuation).
Monteverdi’s art agrees with poetic expression as defined in Plato’s three forms expounded in the third book of Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics. For Monteverdi, musical language is music and the synthesis of text, harmony, and rhythm; the phonetic exposition of continuous thought becomes poetry.
This according to Preparazione alla interpretazione della poiesis Monteverdiana by Nella Anfuso and Annibale Gianuario (Firenze: Centro Studi e Rinascimento Musicale, 1971).
Today is the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s baptism! Above, a portrait from ca. 1630 by Bernardo Strozzi; below, the madrigal Cruda Amarilli, an especially clear example of Monteverdi’s seconda pratica.
Central among Lou Harrison’s pioneering East-West fusions, his works for gamelan and Western instruments are frequently cited either as exemplars of the composer’s Californian, postmodern musical sensibility, or as noteworthy instances of cultural hybridity. However, close examination of Main bersama-sama (1978) and Bubaran Robert (1976/1981) shows that these pieces can and should be understood for what they tell us about Harrison’s deep engagement with melody.
Harrison has mistakenly been regarded as a West Coast musical dabbler, writing tuneful pieces that lack the complexity that characterizes the work of his East Coast contemporaries. Yet analysis of the pitch structure of these pieces reveals intricate compositional games similar to the pre-compositional strategies of composers more typically associated with algorithmic compositional methods. Because these intricacies lie beneath the melodic surface of the music they have largely been unheard and unappreciated in Harrison’s work.
The melodic nature of these games challenges the widely accepted depiction of Harrison as a mere tunesmith, showing how he explored the ability of melody—as opposed to large-scale tonal or harmonic schemes—to create form and serve a central generative function in his music.
This according to “Unheard complexities in Lou Harrison’s Main bersama-sama and Bubaran Robert” by Rachel Chacko (Journal of the Society for American Music VII/3 [August 2013] pp. 265–94).
Today is Harrison’s 100th birthday! Below, the two pieces in question.
In 1879 Richard Wagner joined the growing movement in Germany opposing the cruel medical practices of animal experimentation with an open letter published in the Bayreuther Blätter.
His arguments for the pointlessness of these experiments were original; they followed from his experiences with traditional medicine and his well-developed critique of civilization. His contemporary allies, however, ignored these arguments and simply used the Wagner name.
The open letter led directly to Wagner’s much-discussed essay Religion und Kunst, in which, among other things, he paints a horrific scenario of the unimpeded development of science and technology.
This according to “Richard Wagner als Gegner von Tierversuchen: Ein visionärer Zivilisationskritiker” by Ulrich Tröhler and Joachim Thiery (WagnerSpectrum XI/1  pp. 73–104). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, the composer with his dog Pohl; below, no horses were annoyed during this performance.
Heitor Villa-Lobos’s choro no. 10 (Rasga o coração) is a choral-symphonic tour de force that expresses the composer’s ardent nationalism through some of the most progressive compositional techniques of the mid-1920s.
The work’s opening imparts impressions of Brazil’s sonorous natural riches with indigenous melodies and birdsongs, providing an extended prelude to the choral section. The mixed chorus functions at the same level of value and distinction as that of the orchestral architecture, singing vocables meant to evoke aboriginal languages. With the appearance of the Rasga o coração melody, according to the composer, “the Brazilian heart becomes one with the Brazilian land.”
This according to Heitor Villa-Lobos: The search for Brazil’s musical soul by Gerard Béhague (Austin: University of Texas, 1994, pp. 87–96).
Today is Villa-Lobos’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer ca. 1922; below, a performance by Orquestra Sinfônica Municipal de Campinas.
The operetta Das Dreimäderlhaus (1916) was based on Schwammerl (Mushroom, one of Schubert’s nicknames), a novel about Franz Schubert by Rudolf Hans Bartsch; the music incorporated numerous melodies by the composer. U.S. and U.K. adaptations followed: Blossom time (1921) and Lilac time (1922), respectively.
Unsurprisingly, the work was excoriated by critics, scholars, and performers for its defilement of Schubert’s melodies, spurious plot lines, and superficial, misleading, and sentimentalized portrayal of the composer’s character. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau derided it as “Schubert steeped in kitsch”, while Maurice J.E. Brown declared that “the popularity of this pastiche has done Schubert more harm than good.”
Audiences, however, adored it; the operetta passed its 1000th Berlin performance in 1918, and its 1100th Viennese one in 1927.
This according to “Of mushrooms and lilac blossom” by Richard Morris (The Schubertian 27 [December 1999] pp. 6–14; 28 [March 2000] pp. 15–18).
Today is Schubert’s 220th birthday! Above, a poster for the 1958 film version starring Karlheinz Böhm; below, excerpts from a 2016 production by Bühne Baden.
BONUS: Selections from Sigmund Romberg’s score for Blossom time; the show’s publicity breathlessly promised, among other attractions, “32 Schubert themes in eight bars.”
Émile Waldteufel (1837–1915) served as pianist to Empress Eugénie and was renowned as a composer of elegant polkas, waltzes, and other occasional pieces. His Pluie d’or valse (Golden shower waltz, op. 160) is one of several of his works that won acclaim beyond the court of Napoleon III.
Further information on Waldteufel and his family can be found in Skaters’ waltz: The story of the Waldteufels by Andrew Lamb (Croydon: Fullers Wood Press, 1995).
Below, a vintage recording.
Ulysses Kay’s larger works have received world-wide acclaim, but his instrumental works, particularly the compositions for flute, have received far less attention.
Kay conceived of his Prelude for unaccompanied flute (1943) as an etude for developing proper breathing techniques, and its metronome marking 50 beats per minute creates long dramatic phrases that challenge the stamina of young flute players (indeed, most recordings of it are a bit faster).
The work is based in the key of D minor, with modal mixtures disguised by smooth voice leading; it seems to evade a true cadence until the last note. The tonality shifts at organized points in the structure of the music: Each section is marked by a new statement of the theme presented in a different register and a new key.
This according to Music for Flute by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995): A descriptive analysis with performance notes for three selected works by La-Tika Shanee’ Douthit, a dissertation accepted by the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in 2013.
Today would have been Kay’s 100th birthday! Below, a performance by Kedgrick Pullums, Jr.
Today Oscar Levant is widely remembered for his mordant wit, his virtuoso interpretations of George Gershwin’s piano music, and his cameo appearances in numerous films. Fewer people realize that he was also a highly regarded composer who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg.
Levant’s hero worship of Gershwin stunted his confidence as a songwriter and a classical composer, though one of his pop songs, Blame it on my youth, has become a standard. Colleagues including Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson all considered him an immensely gifted composer.
This according to A talent for genius: The life and times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (New York: Villard, 1994; reprint Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1998).
Today would have been Levant’s 110th birthday! Below, Nat Cole’s classic recording of Blame it on my youth.
BONUS: The 1942 premiere of Levant’s piano concerto.
In 1821 the German operatic scene was dominated by foreign composers. Carl Maria von Weber was known as a gifted composer of songs and instrumental music, but his earlier operas had not been undisputed successes, and for the last ten years he had done nothing at all in that line; the premiere of his new opera, Der Freischütz, was anticipated with widespread suspense and excitement.
The composer could not but feel that much was at stake, both for himself and for the cause of German art. His friends feared that this new work would not have a chance; but Weber alone, as if with a presentiment of the event, was always in good spirits. The performance was fixed for 18 June, a day hailed by the composer as a good omen, being the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.
Weber’s presentiment did not fail him; the occasion was as great a triumph as ever fell to the lot of a musician. The applause of a house filled to the very last seat was such as had never been heard before in Germany. That this magnificent homage was no outcome of mere nationalism was shown by the fact that it was the same wherever Der Freischütz was heard. After conducting a performance in Vienna in March 1822 the composer wrote that “Greater enthusiasm there cannot be, and I tremble to think of the future, for it is scarcely possible to rise higher than this. To God alone the praise!”
This according to “Weber, Carl Maria Friedrich Ernest, Freiherr von” in A dictionary of music and musicians, A.D. 1450–1889 (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser, 1895, IV/387–429); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Weber’s 230th birthday! Above, the composer ca. 1825; below, an excerpt from the 2010 film by Jens Neubert.
While they may not know the title or the composer, millions recognize Jay Ungar’s Ashokan farewell as the melodic centerpiece of the soundtrack for Ken Burns’s celebrated television series The Civil War.
Still fewer of those who love the tune realize that the title refers to a site that is now known as The Ashokan Center, an outdoor education, conference, and retreat located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that Ungar—together with his wife and musical partner, Molly Mason—was using for summer traditional music and dance camps.
Decades after Ungar composed Ashokan farwell, and following his performance of it at the White House and in various U.S. ceremonial settings, Ungar managed to leverage its emotional connections in a successful effort to preserve the location and create a $7.25 million campus there dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts.
This according to “Catskill cultural center saved, and renewed, thanks to a fiddler’s tune” by Dennis Gaffney (The New York times 12 May 2013, p. A15).
Today is Ungar’s 70th birthday! Below, a performance with Mason and some friends.