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 This technique of recording sound on wax or hard-rubber cylinders was soon superseded by Emile Berliner’s improvements; Grieg himself was one of the first to record classical music for Berliner’s system.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.
Brahms’s correspondence reveals that he was very fond of railroad travel; nowadays he might be called a railfan.
In an 1881 letter to George Henschel, Brahms noted that he was spending the summer in the Viennese suburb of Pressbaum, observing that “I shall be only a short distance by rail, which, however, I always travel with great pleasure.”
Advising his father on taking a train to visit him in 1867, the composer wrote:
Now you get a ticket direct to Vienna by way of Berlin, Dresden, Prague. The ticket must be valid for 5–8 days. Be sure of both things! Costs about 30 thaler second class all the way.
There are only two trains. You can of course travel through in one go—in about 32 hours. That works only if you have rainy, cool weather! Otherwise you couldn’t stand it. But since the ticket is good for a week, you can also stop over for a day or half a day in each city, and look around it. But if so, go first of all to a good hotel and make use of porters and [public] servants for hire as guides. If you continue on right away in Berlin you must take a hackney to the other station. A policeman hands out the voucher at the exit.
Before you travel the night through, as is practical in the heat, drink a glass of grog so you sleep well. But take along very little, for example no scruffy things for the trip! No cigars, nothing new, nothing that is taxable. You’ll find every conceivable thing here with me. Don’t let that make your journey uncomfortable.
With the advent of railroad travel, musicians like Brahms enjoyed travel opportunities that previously were possible only through complex logistical arrangements, sometimes involving significant physical hardship. As a symbol of the industrial age, the railway did not threaten him; he was comfortable with steam propelling him, not least when he traversed the distance between Vienna and his beloved Hamburg.
Tall enough to pass as a teenager, he found a temporary job as a substitute cellist in an amusement-park orchestra, and when the former cellist returned he was offered a job playing violin. Piatigorsky accepted gamely, and found that he could play the unfamiliar instrument easily in undemanding passages; but for more difficult ones he had to revert to playing it between his knees, like a cello. For distracting attention from the conductor and eliciting unwelcome applause, the boy was fired.
Still lacking the funds to return to Moscow, he found a job in a café orchestra. To keep the underaged cellist from seeing the nude dancers onstage, the owner had him turn to face the wall of the pit and provided a mirror so he could see the conductor. When he quit in sympathy for a fired dancer he had developed a crush on, he was given a week’s pay.
Piatigorsky used the money to buy a train ticket as far north toward Moscow as he could; he finally arrived home after about 12 days of hitching rides on freight trains by night, sleeping during the day, and selling everything but his cello for food.
This according to Gregor Piatigorsky: The life and career of the virtuoso cellist by Terry King (Jefferson: McFarland, 2010, pp. 8–10; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-6179).
Today is Piatigorsky’s 120th birthday! Above, the cellist in his school uniform before he moved to Moscow. Below, excerpts from the film Heifitz & Piatigorsky (Kultur, 1953).
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  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.
Joseph Holbrooke’s The bells, op. 50(a), a “dramatic poem” scored for large orchestra and chorus and inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s poem by the same name, is highly onomatopoeic and describes the sound, function, and effect of four types of bells: sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarm bells, and funeral bells. A concertina is heard in two sections of the piece: the prelude (section 1) and Iron bells (section 5).
The composer, who had a “lifelong affection for concertinas”, recalled how the instrument was almost cut from the work’s 1906 premiere:
“While I was having my Poem for Orchestra and Chorus, The bells, performed in London under Hans Richter, the eminent conductor noticed that there was a part written for a concertina. ‘Concertina! Concertina!’ said Richter, ‘What is that?’ I explained to him that it was a peculiar instrument like a bellows, played by hand. ‘We cannot have that’ said Richter. ‘There is no instrument like that here.’ I found one, however, and Conductor Richter placed it away back where it could not possibly be heard. But at the concert I saw to it that the concertina player sat directly in front of the conductor.”
This according to “The concertina and The bells” by Eric Matusewitch (Concertina world 488 [December 2021] 17–24). Below, the work’s first movement.
Aligned with the Symbolists, Camille Mauclair considered the orchestra a transposed symbol of the emotions in nature and cited Wagner’s music as an outstanding realization of this concept.
Although he was a staunch Positivist who attacked the Symbolists, Ange-Marie Auzende described the symbolic qualities of instruments and considered the orchestra a mirror of the soul. Ernestine-André van Hasselt wrote for popular audiences, characterizing instruments as expressing or even embodying various personalities and psychological states.
In the 1894 pamphlet Anatomie et physiologie de l’orchestre, co-authored by the popular occult writer Gérard Encausee (writing under his esoteric pseudonym Papus) and the young Frederick Delius, the four instrumental groups—strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion—were associated respectively with God, the head, and the nervous system; man, the chest, and the arterial system; woman, the chest, and the venous system; and nature, the abdomen, and the lymphatic system.
Further subdivisions and associations were outlined in preparation for a larger prescriptive work for composers that never materialized.
This according to “Sound as symbol: Fin de siècle perceptions of the orchestra” by Eric Frederick Jensen (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] pp. 227–240; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-16688).
Above, Papus in the back room of the Librairie du Merveilleux ca. 1890; below, the opening of Delius’s Appalachia from 1896, perhaps an example of his application of such theories.
Although the place of Ŝelkunčik (Nutcracker) in the hearts of today’s audiences is secure, its genesis hardly seemed auspicious.
Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on the project, and complained bitterly about it to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from 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 of Music Literature 1984-12142).
Today is the 130th anniversary of Nutcracker‘s premiere!
In 2021 Musicom launched Donizetti studies (ISSN 2785-0331; EISSN 2785-4140), a peer-reviewed print and online journal whose scope is not limited to Donizetti, but extends to include Simon Mayr, the rich musical tradition of Bergamo, and, in general, Italian and French opera in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The journal’s format involves multiple sections: the first comprises original essays, the second presents unpublished or partially known documents, and the third takes on varying contents and forms, depending on needs. Also, the journal provides bibliographic materials that cover the most recent studies on Donizetti and his period.
Below, an excerpt from L’ange de Nisida, one of the works discussed in the inaugural issue.
Charles Dickens’s works attest to a keen familiarity with the ballads and traditional songs of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Less obvious from his writings is his deep love of Western classical music—he adored the lieder of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, he championed Arthur Sullivan, and he reported being “overcome” by Gounod’s Faust.
Still, Dickens found a rich vein of humor in the music making of the common folk—not least in the character of Mr. Morfin in Dombey and Son:
“He was a great musical amateur in his way…and had a paternal affection for his violoncello, which was once in every week transported from Islington, his place of abode, to a certain club-room hard by the Bank, where quartettes of the most tormenting and excruciating nature were executed every Wednesday evening by a private party.”
“He was solacing himself with this melodious grumbler one evening, and, having been much dispirited by the proceedings of the day, was scraping consolation out of its deepest notes…[but] his landlady…was fortunately deaf, and had no other consciousness of these performances than a sensation of something rumbling in her bones.”
This according to “Dickens and music” by Charles Cudworth (The musical times CXI/1528 [June 1970] pp. 588–590. Today is Dickens’s 210th birthday!
Today, on Delius’s 160th birthday, let’s eavesdrop on the reminiscences of his friend Percy Grainger.
“Composer never had truer colleague than I had in Frederick Delius, and when he died I felt that my music had lost its best friend.”
“Our outlook on life was very similar, our artistic tastes met at many points. Both of us considered the Icelandic sagas the pinnacle of narrative prose. Both of us knew the Scandinavian languages and admired the culture of Scandinavia as the flower of Europeanism.”
“Both of us worshipped Walt Whitman, Wagner, Grieg, and Jens Peter Jacobsen. Both of us detested music of the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven period. ‘If a man tells me he likes Mozart, I know in advance that he is a bad musician’ Delius was fond of saying.”
“One year he would ask for Bach; the next year he would say ‘You know, Bach always bores me.’ But Chopin and Grieg he never turned against. He preferred Ravel to Debussy. He had no patience with Richard Strauss, Mahler, or Hindemith.”
This from “About Delius”, reprinted in Grainger on music (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999, pp. 361–368). Above, Grainger and Delius in 1923. Below, Delius’s On hearing the first cuckoo in spring.
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