For 20 years Edward Elgar worked for The Gramophone Company as both an advocate of his music and an advocate of the gramophone.
During this period, recording technology changed from the cramped conditions of the acoustic studio of 1914 (above) to the specialized recording studio of Abbey Road using the electrical system of 1933, in which year Elgar conducted his last recordings, with the extraordinary appendix of Elgar supervising a recording by telephone connection from his deathbed in 1934.
As an interpreter of his own music—we cannot comment from direct experience on his success with the music of others, for nothing was recorded—he was as fine a conductor as Furtwängler for Wagner and Mengelberg for Brahms. His conducting ability extended to every aspect of the art, from the purely technical quality of the playing he repeatedly drew from orchestras to the inexhaustible fascination of the interpretations themselves.
This according to “Elgar’s recordings” by Simon Trezise (Nineteenth-century music review V/1  pp. 111–31).
Today is Elgar’s 160th birthday! Below, Elgar conducts the prelude to The dream of Gerontius in 1927, a recording singled out for praise in the article.
BONUS: Elgar conducts the trio of Pomp and circumstance march no. 1 at the opening of the Abbey Road Studios on 12 November 1931. After mounting the podium, he says to the orchestra “Good morning, gentlemen. Glad to see you all. Very light programme this morning. Please play this tune as though you’ve never heard it before.”
Issued in 2017 by Greenway Music Press, 19th-century variations for piano features nine theme-and-variation sets composed in the early through mid-nineteenth century by Jan Ladislav Dussek, Otto Dresel, and American composers of the early nineteenth century. The variations are based on a variety of popular songs and dances of the period, as well as on original themes. This is both a new edition and a new series!
Below, Dussek’s variations on “Vive Henri-quatre”, one of the sets included in the collection.
At the time of the 1876 Bayreuth premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Alfred Pringsheim, the future mathematician and father-in-law of Thomas Mann, then a 25-year-old postgraduate student, displayed a sometimes unseemly fervor for Wagner’s masterpiece.
In October of that year he fought a duel with pistols with the Berlin theater critic Isidor Kastan, who Pringsheim believed had insulted Wagner (fortunately no one was hurt), and after the premiere of Siegfried he fell into an argument with the Shakespeare scholar Friedrich August Leo in a tavern, leading him to hit the professor on the nose with a beer mug. The latter incident earned Pringsheim the nickname der Schoppenhauer (the beer-mug thumper).
This according to “Der ‘Schoppenhauer’ und das Pistolenduell: Alfred Pringsheims kämpferischer Einsatz für die Bayreuther Sache” by Dirk Heißerer, an essay included in Alfred Pringsheim, der kritische Wagnerianer: Eine Dokumentation (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2013, pp. 63–80).
Below, Pringsheim’s arrangement of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for strings and piano.
Robert Schumann’s celebrated assessment of Frédéric Chopin—“Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie!” (Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!)—appeared in his 1831 review of Chopin’s variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano, op. 2. This rhapsodic description, cast as a conversation between imaginary characters, somehow reached Chopin’s hands. While relations between the two composers were cordial, a letter from Chopin to a friend hints at his unvarnished reaction:
“I received a few days ago a ten-page review from a German in Kassel who is full of enthusiasm for [the variations]. After a long-winded preface he proceeds to analyze them bar by bar, explaining that they are not ordinary variations but a fantastic tableau. In the second variation he says that Don Giovanni runs around with Leporello; in the third he kisses Zerlina while Massetto’s rage is pictured in the left hand—and in the fifth bar of the Adagio he declares that Don Giovanni kisses Zerlina on the D-flat…I could die of laughing at this German’s imagination.”
This according to “Schumann and Chopin: from Carnaval to Kreisleriana” by Judith Chernaik (The musical times CLVII/1934 [spring 2016] pp. 67–78). This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Below, Alice Burla performs the work in question.
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.
When Wieland Wagner engaged the 24-year-old Grace Bumbry for the role of Venus in the 1961 Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser he received hundreds of letters of protest, and the German press exploded with sensational headlines about the black intruder in the sacred Aryan shrine.
The neo-Nazi Sozialistische Reichspartei Deutschlands called the appointment “a cultural disgrace”, and one correspondent asserted that “If Richard Wagner knew of this he would be turning in his grave.”
But Wieland Wagner stood by the artist who had been dubbed die schwarze Venus (the black Venus), saying that the role “must convey eroticism without resorting to the clichés of a Hollywood sex bomb, yet she cannot personify the classic passive idea…When I heard Grace Bumbry I knew she was the perfect Venus; grandfather would have been delighted!”
Indeed, following the production’s first performance on 24 July a jubilant audience commanded 42 curtain calls during its 30-minute ovation, the most rousing demonstrations occurring during Bumbry’s bows.
This according to “Grace Bumbry: Modern diva” by Rosalyn M. Story, an essay included in And so I sing: African-American divas of opera and concert (New York: Warner, 1990, pp. 141–56).
Today is Bumbry’s 80th birthday! Above and below, the historic production.
Manuel de Falla first visited the U.K. in May 1911, when he participated in a concert of Spanish music given by the pianist Franz Liebich. (The concert received tepid reviews and was little noticed.)
In 1919 the composer spent a month in London to prepare with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the premiere of his ballet El sombrero de tres picos; the performance took place to great acclaim on 22 July 1919. Unfortunately Falla had had to leave Britain the day before due to family matters, but several of the friendships formed during that sojourn were long-lasting, notably with his hostess, the Swedish soprano Louise Alvar, and with the composer and conductor Eugène Goossens.
In 1921 Falla stayed with Alvar and her husband again to play the piano in the British premiere of Noches en los jardines de España. He was back in London for a week in June 1927 for the U.K. premiere of his harpsichord concerto and to conduct the London Chamber Orchestra in El amor brujo and the London premiere of El retablo de maese Pedro. His last visit, in 1931, was for a BBC concert program of his music. The composer saw little of Britain outside London and had no English, but he enjoyed the British enthusiasm for his music.
This according to “Falla in Britain” by Chris Collins (The musical times CXLIV/1883 [summer 2003] pp. 33–48). This issue of The musical times, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Today is Falla’s 140th birthday! Above, Pablo Picasso’s costumes and set for the 1919 premiere of El sombrero; below, a more recent London performance of the work.
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.
The medieval Dance of Death and variation form always belonged together, and Franz Liszt’s Totentanz is a splendid example.
In the European cultural tradition, the Dies irae is closely bound up with the experience of death. Liszt’s use of motive transformation—particularly the practice of modal reshaping—permitted him to unfold this theme in a series of ever new character variations, with their contrasts oriented around a common denominator.
This according to Haláltánc: Variáció, épitkezés, modális transzformáció Liszt Ferenc zenéjében by József Ujfalussy (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990).
Happy Halloween from RILM! Above, a woodcut from Hans Holbein the younger’s Danse macabre series, one of the visual works that inspired Liszt. Below, a performance by Beatrice Berrut.