Tag Archives: Composers

Charpentier and social history

 

Gustave Charpentier was one of the most original of the fin de siècle composers, and his works—particularly Le couronnement de la muse (1897) and Louise (1900)—have to be understood in the appropriate political and social context.

Until now, the success of Louise has eclipsed the output of a composer who wished to be in touch with the working class without remaining isolated in a purely artistic dimension. Charpentier was in fact among the first artists to adapt his works to the new communication media of radio and cinema, experimenting with a method of composing closely connected to them. His works reveal a world in which music and social history are inextricably associated, illuminating the contradictions that enlivened fin de siècle France.

This according to La dramaturgie de Gustave Charpentier by Michela Niccolai (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011; RILM Abstracts 2011-13384).

Today is Charpentier’s 160th birthday! Below, Renée Fleming sings his Depuis le jour.

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Filed under Romantic era

Mozart’s carriage and the Haydn cartwright tradition

 

In 1762 Leopold Mozart purchased a horse-drawn coach in Pressburg: a well-sprung, covered travel carriage for four at the price of “nur 23 duccatten”. Leopold described it as a “guten Reisewagen”. It brought the family safely back to Vienna (a trip of 12 hours) and from there home to Salzburg, leaving Vienna on 31 December 1762. Half a year later the Mozart family used the same carriage for their grand tour of Western Europe (1763–66), which took them as far as London.

It is likely that the carriage Leopold purchased in Pressburg came from the workshop of the Haydn family, which was for several generations involved with carriage production and shared the market with just a few others. The family profession of carriage building began with Thomas Haydn, Joseph’s grandfather, who was allowed to open a workshop in 1686.

Joseph Haydn stayed interested in the work of cartwrights, blacksmiths, and other manual professions. His letters and notebooks from London in particular show his interest in the working conditions of craftsmen there, and his preference for technical and practical matters, numbers, and measurements. Even at the peak of his international success, Haydn stayed connected to the family’s cartwright tradition.

The carriage trade was still on his mind during his second stay in London, when he made several visits to a Mr. March, an 84-year-old dentist, wine merchant, and carriage maker. The aged gentleman impressed Haydn not only because of his very young mistress and a daughter of nine, but also because each coach sold by Mr. March earned him at least £500.

This according to “Did Mozart drive a ‘Haydn’? Cartwrights, carriages and the postal system in the Austrian-Hungarian border area up to the eighteenth century” by Käthe Springer-Dissmann, an essay included in Ottoman empire and European theatre. II: The time of Joseph Haydn–From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r.1730–1839) (Wien: Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014, 257–80; RILM Abstracts 2014-88916).

Above, an Austrian carriage from around 1790; below, a carriage ride through Mozart’s Vienna.

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Filed under Classic era, Curiosities

Uncracking the Nutcracker

 

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on Ŝelkunčik (The nutcracker), and complained bitterly about the project to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from working on it, or why he ultimately persevered, remain unknown.

The problems probably involved the libretto, which the fastidious composer may well have found vexing. Parts of it lack any rationale, the balance of mime and dance is lopsided, and the overall arc of the story is incoherent, with several essential plot elements entirely missing.

These issues can be resolved by rendering most of the ballet as Drosselmayer’s thoughts rather than Clara’s dream. One can easily imagine the composer taking delight in this solution.

This according to “On meaning in Nutcracker” by Roland John Wiley (Dance research III/1 (fall 1984) 3–28; RILM Abstracts 1984-12142).

Today is Čajkovskij’s 180th birthday! Above, the composer in 1893, a year after Ŝelkunčik’s premiere. Below, Part I of Mark Morris’s alternative version of the work, which he called The hard nut.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era

George Crumb and “Black angels”

In the 1960s and early 1970s George Crumb explored new sonorities on conventional instruments and embedded quotations from historical Western classical music into new compositions. These techniques, along with his use of the concert stage as theater, come together in one of his best-known works—the string quartet Black angels, initially titled A quartet in time of war.

In the spring prior to its premiere, the nation had witnessed several devastating events surrounding the Vietnam War, which led to his inscription “finished on Friday the thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli).” Crumb’s liner notes for the work’s first recording provided further context:

Black angels was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world. The numerous quasi-programmatic allusions in the work are therefore symbolic, although the essential polarity—God versus Devil—implies more than a purely metaphysical reality. The image of the ‘black angel’ was a conventional device used by early painters to symbolize the fallen angel.”

“The work portrays a voyage of the soul. The three stages of this voyage are Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation), and Return (redemption).”

This according to “George Crumb and Black angels: A quartet in time of war”, an entry in Music in the USA: A documentary companion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008 pp. 658–60).

Today is Crumb’s 90th birthday! Above, an excerpt from Crumb’s score; below, a performance by Ensemble InterContemporain.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Georgij Mušel’ and Uzbek traditional music

 

The Soviet composer Georgij Aleksandrovič Mušel’ was deeply influenced by Uzbek traditional music and Central Asian musical culture.

While his arrangements of Uzbek traditional songs display the most characteristic aspects of his style, this influence is also evident in his three symphonies, seven concertos, and nine other orchestral pieces, as well as in his chamber music and stage works, securing him a unique place among Russian composers.

This according to Творчество Г.А. Мушеля в аспекте проблемы взаимосвязей музыкальныx культур братских народов (The music of G.A. Mušel’ in connection with the interchange of musical cultures among the Soviet republics) by Galina Vasil’evna Kuznecova, a dissertation accepted by the Taškentskaja Gosudarstvennaja Konservatorija in 1974.

Today would have been Mušel’s 110th birthday! Below, a performance of one of his piano works.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Villancicos from Mexico City

 

In 2019 A-R Editions issued Manuel de Sumaya: Villancicos from Mexico City, a critical edition of all 34 villancicos with music by Sumaya conserved at the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María in Mexico City.

Recognized as the most significant composer from New Spain in the early eighteenth century, Manuel de Sumaya oversaw musical activity at the Cathedral during a time of stylistic change. Locally born and ordained as a priest, Sumaya wrote music that mixes the counterpoint and rhythmic vigor of seventeenth-century Hispanic music with more modern Italianate gestures prescient of international taste in the eighteenth century.

Scored for one to 12 voices with basso continuo and sometimes violins, these pieces communicate theological, doctrinal, and historical ideas about St. Peter, St. Rose of Lima, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Christmas, Corpus Christi, and other celebrations of the Catholic Church. Complete translations of the Baroque texts into English and commentary on historical performance practices included in the edition aim to facilitate revival of this key repertoire of colonial music.

Above, the composer; below, Hoy sube arrebatada, one of the works included in the edition.

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Filed under Baroque era, New editions

Friedrich Christian Mohrheim, pupil of Bach

 

A member of Bach’s circle, long known only as Anonymous Vg, was identified early in the 21st century as Friedrich Christian Mohrheim.

From 1733 to 1736 Mohrheim was a documented boarder at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where he studied with Bach. He later influenced musical life in Gdańsk through his extensive concert activity and his work as Kapellmeister at the Bazylika Mariacka.

This according to “Der Bachschüler Friedrich Christian Samuel Mohrheim (1719–1780) als Danziger Kapellmeister und Konzertveranstalter” by Karla Neschke, an essay included in Vom rechten Thon der Orgeln und anderer Instrumenten: Festschrift Christian Ahrens zum 60. Geburtstag (Bad Köstritz: Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Heinrich-Schütz-Haus, 2003, pp. 210–21).

Today is Mohrheim’s 300th birthday! Above, the Bazylika Mariacka; below, Mohrheim’s cantata Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn from 1762.

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Filed under Classic era

André Previn, musical polymath

 

André Previn may well have been the last of the great 20th-century American musical eclectics. He had it all, making a mark on Broadway and in Hollywood, on classical concert stages and in jazz clubs, in pop songs and violin concertos.

He was not a mere dabbler: In every context, he was always plausible, and often inspired. He was also a great popularizer, a figure who, like his idol Leonard Bernstein, suggested that it was possible to know about, and even love, all kinds of music.

When a young Mr. Previn conducted symphony orchestras, he typified the verve and boyish enthusiasm of a pop star; performing lighter fare on television, he carried himself with a rarefied swagger. Even Dizzy Gillespie was a fan. “He has the flow, you know, which a lot of guys don’t have and won’t ever get,” Gillespie said.

This according to “André Previn: Hear the many facets of a musical polymath” by Zachary Woolfe, et al. (The New York times [online only] 1 March 2019).

Today would have been Previn’s 90th birthday! Above, conducting from the piano in 1965; below, performing Jule Styne’s Just in time in 1961.

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

Silvestre Revueltas and pregones

 

Silvestre Revueltas has been held up as a post-revolutionary nationalist composer, even though he often used icons of Mexicanness as objects of satire or points of departure for a rejection of nationalist art. Some of his works rely on cultural representations to communicate a political message rather than one of Mexican identity.

For instance, the figure of the street vendor had been a picturesque and positive symbol of identity as the Other within Mexican society before the Mexican Revolution, and it retained that idealized image afterwards. Revueltas did not adopt this ideal image of the downtrodden, but provided a narrative of social change in which the poor have agency.

Pregones, the street vendors’ cries, found their way into music and scholarship before the twentieth century; however, Revueltas used them in a number of his compositions, including Esquinas (1931), where they are purposefully not used along with folk songs or other topics evoking Mexicanness. Rather, the pregones contribute to a socialist political message about poverty, hunger, and anger.

This according to “‘The rending call of the poor and forsaken street crier’: The political and expressive dimension of a topic in Silvestre Revueltas’s early works” by Roberto Kolb Neuhaus, an essay included in Studies on a global history of music: A Balzan musicology project (Abingdon: Routledge 2018, pp. 395–423).

Today is Revueltas’s 120th birthday! Above, the composer in 1930; below, his 1933 revision of Esquinas.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî, Ottoman woman composer

 

Dil-Hayât Kalfa Tanbûrî (generally known as Dilhayat Kalfa, d.1737) was raised in the Ottoman royal palace, as indicated by the adjectival Kalfa, which also denotes important administrative tasks. She played the tanbur, and historical sources contain information on nearly 100 of her compositions.

Her surviving works are counted among the most important examples of the technique and aesthetic of the Ottoman classical school. The flow of her makams and her prosody are exemplary. Two works in the evcârâ makam, a peşrev and a saz semaî, exhibit a very individualistic style. She was exemplary in her setting of texts, showing great care in arranging the relationship between meaning and melody.

This according to “Dilhayat Kalfa” by Meral Akkent (İstanbul Kadın Müzesi, 2012). Above, a Romantic-era depiction of the composer (no contemporaneous portrait exists); below, the saz semaî discussed in the article.

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Filed under Asia, Women's studies