Music History Mondays

Each Monday, our Music Historian-In-Residence, Robert Greenberg, Ph.D. will be posting a brief essay on an interesting aspect of music history.

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November 14, 2016

TMB (Too Many Birthdays!)

I began this “Music History Mondays” project by scouring the Web for musical events from which I assembled a master list of what happened in the world of Western concert music on each of the year’s 366 days. (Indeed: 366; we cannot forget February 29. And yes, February 29 is a significant date in the history of Western concert music. Since February 29 will not again fall on a Monday until 2044, I don’t mind spilling those leap year beans right now. On February 29, 1792, the extraordinary Italian opera composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy. In his 76 years, the poor dude managed to celebrate only 19 birthdays!)

My master list catalogs over a thousand noteworthy musical events. On most Mondays I have two or three events to choose between, although—every now and then—there are Mondays during which nothing noteworthy happened: nada, niente, zilch, zed, zero. For example, Monday, September 19, 2016 was such a day. Yes, many other noteworthy things occurred on September 19, among them: on September 19, 1870 the Prussian Army laid siege to Paris; on September 19, 1893, New Zealand became the first country to grant all women the right to vote; on September 19 1982, Scott Fahlman—a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University—became the first person to use :-) in an online message. September 19 is also a rich day in the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll. For example, on September 19, 2008, the English singer, songwriter, and record producer George Michael was arrested in a public toilet in the Hampstead Heath district of London for possession of “Class A and Class C drugs.” (Tylenol? Alka Seltzer?). He was taken to a local police station where he was cautioned about his use of controlled substances and released.

So: in the absence of a notable concert music event on Monday, September 16, I wrote a post that had nothing to do with the date.

Sometimes the opposite is true as well: there are some days during which so many important musical events took place that choosing one is difficult. Ordinarily I am a fairly good decider (thank you Bush 43 for putting THAT word in the lexicon), but today’s date—November 14—is a humdinger, a date that features four—count ‘em, four—significant musical birthdays: those of Leopold Mozart, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, and Aaron Copland.

A few words about each of these luminaries.

Leopold Mozart was born on November 14, 1719 in Augsburg (today in Germany) and died on May 28, 1787 in Salzburg (today in Austria). Leopold was a noted violinist, composer, pedant and conductor, but he made his greatest contribution to music with his testicles, when he impregnated his wife Anna Maria and by doing so fathered the crazy-magnificent Wolfgang Gottlieb (aka Amade; Amadeus) Mozart in 1756. The good news: Leopold recognized his son’s genius and gave him what was arguably the best music education of all time. The bad news: Leopold was the ultimate tennis father and tiger mama; he shamelessly exploited, harried, and harangued his son and in the process created the most troubling parent-child relationship this side of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in Pressburg (today Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia) on November 14, 1778 and died on October 17, 1837 in Weimar (Germany). Hummel—no relation to those saccharine figurines—was a virtuoso pianist and an excellent composer. A good friend of Beethoven’s and considered by many his equal as a pianist and composer, Hummel played at Beethoven’s memorial concert as per Beethoven’s dying request. History has been unkind to Hummel and it’s time for a revival, darn it. As I write this I am listening to his superb Piano Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 89 (1819) as performed by Stephen Hough and the English Chamber Orchestra (Chandos). It is a killer performance of a killer piece. Revival. Revival!

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was born on November 14, 1805 in Hamburg and died May 14, 1847 in Berlin. Fanny Mendelssohn’s greatest fame rests on being the elder sister of the spectacular Felix Mendelssohn, which is a crying shame. Not because they had a bad relationship; the opposite is true: Fanny was Felix’s soul mate, his best friend, his confident, and his muse. It’s a shame because she deserves to be famous in her own right. An outstanding pianist and more than capable composer (she wrote over 460 pieces of music in her short lifetime), her potential was off the charts. But she lived at the wrong time and place, and had to contend not with a glass ceiling but one made of tungsten steel. Fulfilling the role that was expected of her, she married, had a child, kept house, and was forced by the societal code of her time to treat her music as a hobby rather than as a vocation.

Aaron Copland was born on November 14, 1900 in Brooklyn, N.Y. and died on December 2, 1990 in Tarrytown, N.Y. Copland, of course, deserves an entire post all by his lonesome. He is, arguably, the single most important and representative American composer of the twentieth century. I will find some excuse to write more extensively about him rather sooner than later.

In the meantime, hats off to the birthday boys and girl!


November 7, 2016

Good Advice

159 years ago today, on November 7, 1857, Franz Liszt’s Dante Symphony for large orchestra and female choir received its premiere at the Royal Theater in the Saxon capital of Dresden. The 46 year-old Liszt was, at the time, the most famous and beloved performing musician in all of Europe, and nowhere more so than in Dresden, where he was considered something of a second son by the locals. Alas, Liszt’s popularity in Dresden did him no good; the performance was a fiasco and Liszt was all but hissed off the stage. The disaster was attributable to one thing: Liszt’s failure to take his own advice.

Advice. Along with talking politics, religion, and dangling your feet in piranha-infested rivers, few things are more fraught with danger than giving (or receiving) advice.

Yes: on occasion, we will solicit advice, and sometimes we’ll even follow that advice (provided that it corresponds with what we were going to do in the first place). But as often as not we receive (or give) advice that was neither asked for (unsolicited advice) nor desired (well-intended advice), advice that can cause no end of bad feelings between advisor and advisee. And then there’s “parental advice”, a particularly irritating type that must be rejected instantly lest its giver feel empowered to offer up more of same.

To my mind, the most potentially useful advice is the advise we give to ourselves. Such advice is usually a product of personal experience: we mess up and say to ourselves something on the lines of: “I strongly advise you not to do that/go out with her (him)/behave that way/drink that much again.” Such advice goes under the heading of good advice.

In 1856, Franz Liszt published a collection of Symphonic Poems, a Symphonic Poem being a one movement orchestra work that “tells” a literary story. Liszt came to composing orchestral music rather late in his life, having spent the first half of his career fashioning himself into not just the greatest pianist of his time but very possibly the greatest pianist who has ever lived. When Liszt did begin composing orchestral music—when he was in his late thirties—he transferred his astonishing virtuosity as a pianist and as a composer for the piano to the orchestra. The result was a body of complex, idiosyncratic orchestral music that was very difficult to play.

So back to the collection of symphonic poems Liszt published in 1856. The collection included a preface, in which Liszt insisted that the works therein not be performed without adequate preparation, meaning lots and lots of rehearsal time. Good advice, useful advice, yes? Yes. It’s advice that Liszt should have followed himself just a year later, in 1857.

After two years of work, Liszt finished his Dante Symphony—which is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy—in the early autumn of 1857. The Symphony is cast in two movements. The first movement, entitled “Inferno”, traces Dante and Virgil's passage through the nine Circles of Hell. (A modern version would take place at the DMV. Trust me on this; I just had to renew my driver’s license.) The second movement, entitled “Purgatorio”, depicts Dante and Virgil’s ascent up the Mount of Purgatory. Following the tripartite structure of Dante’s Inferno, Liszt had originally planned a third movement entitled “Paradiso”: Paradise. However, the dedicatee of the Symphony and his future son-in-law, the extraordinary and extraordinarily irksome Richard Wagner, talked him out of composing that third movement, telling Liszt that “no earthly composer could faithfully express the joys of Paradise.” Convinced by Wagner’s argument (did anyone ever disagree with Wagner in his presence?), Liszt concluded “Purgatorio” with a Magnificat, a text also-known-as the “Canticle of Mary”, a text that promises the coming of Paradise for the faithful. In order to sing the Magnificat at the conclusion of the Symphony Liszt added a female “choir of angels” which, as per his instructions, would perform from a gallery above or near the stage.

Liszt’s Dante Symphony is a particularly challenging work, replete with some really outlandish harmonic experiments, unusual time signatures and key areas, constantly changing tempi (speeds) and chamber music-like interludes. Anxious (over-anxious!) to hear it performed, Liszt jumped at the chance to conduct the premiere of Symphony at the über-prestigious Hoftheater (the Royal Theater) in Dresden. The good news? They loved Liszt in Dresden and the orchestra of the Royal Theater was among the very best in Europe. The bad news? The Dante Symphony was to be allotted just ONE REHEARSAL.

What was Liszt thinking? What was Liszt smoking/drinking/snorting? Everyone advised Liszt against it, including Liszt’s (present) son-in-law, the brilliant pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. But Liszt took no one’s advise, including his own, and the premiere “performance” (“performance” being something of a euphemism here) was a total disaster, the single most humiliating experience of Liszt’s long and storied musical career. Ouchie.

To lean on that great moralist Yogi Berra, when you come to a fork in the road—or get good advice—you take it.


October 31, 2016

Steinway Hall

On October 31, 1866—150 years ago today—Steinway Hall opened on East 14th Street, between Fifth Avenue and University Place in New York. (As a native of New York City, I would tell you that when a New Yorker says “New York”, she is referring specifically to the island of Manhattan. You got a problem with that?)

Steinway Hall, which cost $90,786 to build there in 1866, served two mutually reinforcing purposes. Purpose one: to provide the city of New York with a state-of-the-art concert hall. To that end, Steinway Hall contained a concert hall with 2500 seats and a stage that could accommodate a 100-piece symphony orchestra. It was—at the time it opened—among the largest and certainly the most opulent and prestigious concert venue in New York City. It was the home of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for 25 years: from the day it opened its doors in 1866 until 1891, when the orchestra moved to the newly built Carnegie Hall.

Purpose two: to sell pianos! Steinway Hall’s grand showroom was big enough to display over 100 pianos. According to the president of Steinway & Sons, William Steinway (born Wilhelm Steinweg, the son of Steinway founder “Henry” Heinrich Steinway), “One concert on Saturday night sells pianos on Monday morning.”

The word “branding” is a fairly recent (and in my opinion, increasingly tiresome) addition to the contemporary lexicon. The relative newness of the word notwithstanding, “branding” had been going on since the first cave-dude sought to identify and differentiate his clubs from those of his competitors and, by doing so, gain an edge in what was—no doubt—a highly competitive market environment.

According to Forbes, the current top five “brands” are, in order from one-to-five, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, and Facebook. Four out of five of these brands are high tech companies; the oldest of them—Microsoft—being just 41 years old. One wonders, given the rate of change in the technology sector, just how long these brands will be around. As opposed to certain brands that thanks of the quality they represent and the staying power they have exhibited have come to be considered almost timeless: Cartier and Tiffany; Rolls Royce and Mercedes Benz; Levi’s and Rolex, and—based on the criteria of quality and longevity—the greatest of all American brands, Steinway & Sons.

In 1850, a German cabinetmaker and piano builder named Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, his wife and four of their sons emigrated from the German city of Braunschweig to New York City. Three years later—in 1853—he and his sons founded a piano company and dubbed it “Steinway & Sons”. In 1855, just two years after building their first piano, a Steinway piano won the gold medal at London’s Crystal Palace exhibition. The European piano manufacturers snorted with disdain, convinced that Steinway’s success was but a fluke.

Well, it was not a fluke. In 1862, Steinway & Sons packed up four new-and-improved pianos and shipped them across the pond to England, there to compete at the great London International Exhibition. The New York Times reported the reaction of the local piano community when the Steinways arrived in London:

“The initiated [the Europeans] laugh into their sleeves at the idea of America’s sending pianofortes to London, to Europe. Some of them speak about exporting coals to New-Castle; some of them are indignant at Yankee audacity; the kindliest shake their heads and pass on. Not one for a moment imagines that these iron bound [shipping] cases may contain something good, and so the good folk hallooed and thought all was safe and jolly.”

As it turned out, it was not safe; it was not jolly; at least not for the Euro-piano builders. Their arrogance was flushed directly into the Thames when the Steinways won first prize, a victory that was repeated in 1867 at the Universal Exposition in Paris.

It was in 1872 that Steinway & Sons bridged the technological gap between proto-modern pianos and what today we consider the fully modern piano when it patented something called “duplex scaling”, which enhanced the power and resonance of the piano by lengthening the strings and allowing the undamped portion of the strings to vibrate sympathetically. With the slightest of changes, these are essentially the pianos we play to this day.

With all due respect to Steingraebe, Fazioli, and Bösendorfer, it is the humble opinion of this designated Steinway Artist that Steinway continues to build the best pianos in the world.

Let us give credit where credit is due. Not only did Steinway & Sons build a great instrument; the company also created a branding and marketing strategy that has allowed it to thrive well into the twenty-first century. And Steinway Hall—which, sadly, was demolished on January 6, 1926 to make way for Klein’s department store—played a huge roll in that strategy.


October 24, 2016

George Crumb: A Birthday Appreciation

A most happy birthday to the iconic American composer George Crumb, who was born in Charleston, West Virginia 87 years ago today.

Youth is indeed wasted on the young. One of the many wonderful things about being a kid (and here I’m talking about anyone under the age of 25) is the revelatory, earth-shaking, full-contact emotional body slam that comes from discovering something new. And since most everything is new for young ‘uns, the pace of such revelations can be daily, creating a level of existential excitement that an old fart like me can only look upon with melancholic envy. (I would note that this “excitement of discovery” doesn’t necessarily provoke a positive response. I remember well when my daughter Lily—the third of my four kids—first tasted ice cream. She was about 18 months old; her eyes rolled back in her head and a beatific smile crossed her face when suddenly she fixed me, her father, whose loins contributed to giving her life, with a death glare that Medusa herself would have envied. I understood immediately what she was thinking: “you rotten b*stard, I’ve been alive for a year-and-a-half and you’ve only now allowed me to taste this bit of heaven? You’ll pay, old man, you’ll pay.”)

I bring this up because I remember well the seemingly daily revelations—the really over-the-top excitement—I experienced between the ages of 18 and 20 as I discovered the music of the twentieth century. I remember lying in bed in Room A112 of the Princeton Inn Annex during my freshman year, listening on my earphones to a record of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring conducted by Ernst Ansermet that I’d bought that day for fifty cents. I was electrified, almost paralyzed by what I heard; it was enough for me to get out of bed and flip the record over, which I must have done five or six times that night. My roommate Rick deSante slept, unaware that I was going just a little crazy just a few feet away. I remember discovering Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and feeling as if my universe had just expanded by an order of magnitude (or two or three orders of magnitude!). I remember the revelatory discoveries of Carl Ruggles’ Sun Treader; Milton Babbitt’s Philomel; Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations; Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 3; Olivier Messiaen’s Turangilila Symphony; Béla Bartók’s String Quartets; and a hundred other works. I was—literally—high on music all the time. And I would tell you that no composer’s music was more important in creating and maintaining that high than the music of George Crumb.

I bought the Nonesuch recording of Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970) in 1973, when I was 19 years old. I’d heard the piece had just won a Pulitzer Prize and I wanted to hear it for myself. The piece is scored for soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, piano (and toy piano), and three percussion players. Five of Ancient Voices’ seven movements set the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca (1898–1936), a Spanish poet and dramatist who was killed during the Spanish Civil War. Okay. Pardon the cliché, but I did indeed wear out the grooves on that record and had to buy a second copy some six months later.

Crumb’s hauntingly beautiful and intensely poetic music is virtually impossible to categorize. It’s a synthesis of Webernian understatement, a time frame derived in part from Eastern and Indian ritual, an extraordinary sensitivity to timbre (percussion timbres in particular), a use of repetition suggestive of minimalism, and an expressive punch and narrative power of Romantic impact. The textbook example of Crumb’s musical voice is the fifth part of Ancient Voices of Children, a setting of a poem entitled Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se muere un niño (“Each afternoon in Grenada, each afternoon a child dies”). Crumb’s setting is simplicity personified: a drone on a marimba and a chord played by a harmonica accompany a numbed soprano who sings of the death of children. As the soprano completes her quiet and heart-breaking song, a toy piano plays a chorale the words of which deal with the acceptance of death: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Bist du bei mir. Like a windup children’s toy, the piano slows and stops before it can finish the chorale, a perfect metaphor for the death of children described in the text. It’s such a simple idea, and yet, it is so incredibly—so theatrically—effective.

Well, that was it: I became a George Crumb freakazoid and have remained so to this day. He has written a substantial amount of music; I would suggest that the interested listener begin with Night Music (1963/1976), Makrokosmos, Books I-IV (1972–1979); Vox Balaenae (“Voice of the Whale”) (1971); and Black Angels for string quartet. (Black Angels is the featured work in Lecture 24 of my The Great Courses survey, “Music as a Mirror of History”).

We would note that some contemporaries find Crumb’s music precious and “dated”, a product of the idealistic, liberal naiveté of 1960s and 1970s. Then again, some contemporaries don’t like martinis or ice cream; I pay them no mind, either.

The happiest of birthdays to you, Maestro Crumb! May there be many more.


October 17, 2016

Chopin’s Heart

167 years ago today—on October 17, 1849—the brilliant Polish-born composer Frédéric Chopin died in his apartment in Paris’ très chic Place Vendome. He was 39 years, 6 months, and 16 days old when he died and was attended by Dr. Jean Cruveilhier, France’s leading authority on tuberculosis. A few months before his death, Dr. Cruveilhier had diagnosed Chopin with tuberculosis, and Cruveilhier ascribed TB as the cause of Chopin’s death on his death certificate.

There was a certain tragic romance associated with tuberculosis in nineteenth century Europe. Dubbed the “White Plague”, TB was thought to imbue its victims with a heightened artistic sensibility. Reflecting on just this, the prototypical Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron, wrote, “I should like to die from consumption.” (He didn’t; he died of a septic infection at the age of 36. No romance there at all.) In a letter to a friend, George Sand wrote of her beloved Frédéric Chopin, “Chopin coughs with infinite grace.” So idealized was the “spiritual purity” tuberculosis presumably bestowed on its sufferers that it became stylish for mid-nineteenth century women to affect the appearance of a consumptive by making their skin as pale as possible. (As fashion statements go, this one makes about as much sense as the prison inmate-inspired practice of wearing your pants down around your knees.) Tragic consumptives were frequently portrayed in nineteenth century literature and opera; both Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) and Puccini’s La bohème (1896) feature consumptive heroines.

While on his deathbed, Chopin had indicated that after his death he wanted his heart returned to Poland (thus establishing a precedent for Tony Bennett’s coronary leave-behind in San Francisco). In fulfilling Chopin’s request, Dr. Cruveilhier removed and set aside Chopin’s heart during his autopsy. And while the good doctor’s autopsy notes have been lost, it was reported that something he observed during the autopsy made him doubt his original diagnosis of tuberculosis. Over time, then, other theories as to the possible cause of Chopin’s death have emerged. One of them suggests that cystic fibrosis—which was unknown in 1849—was the cause of Chopin’s death; another that Chopin had inherited a form of emphysema: Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

In an attempt to solve the mystery of Chopin’s cause-of-death once and for all, a team of genetic and forensic experts examined Chopin’s heart in April of 2014. The heart sits in a crystal jar filled with alcohol (probably cognac), which is encased in a column in Warsaw’s Church of the Holy Cross. In September of 2014 the scientists issued their report: Chopin’s well-preserved heart bore “TB nodules” and was “much enlarged, suggesting respiratory problems, linked to a lung disease.”

Conclusive, yes? Unfortunately, no. The examination was strictly visual; Chopin’s heart never left the church. As for opening up the jar and actually taking a tissue sample, fuhgeddaboudit: there was no way on the planet that this holy relic—the heart of Poland’s greatest cultural hero—was going to be touched, to say nothing for sliced and diced; no way Jose; not a chance, Vance.

So the TB diagnosis, while still valid, can not be considered conclusive, as other diseases could also have produced the nodes on the heart.

There was an even bigger problem: without a DNA analysis it could not be proven that the heart was even Chopin’s. You see, Warsaw’s Church of the Holy Cross was reduced to splinters and dust during the inconceivably brutal Nazi destruction of Warsaw that followed the Warsaw Uprising (August 1 to October 2, 1944). Yes: according to legend, a nameless German soldier removed the heart from its pillar before the church was blown to smithereens. Yes: according to legend the heart then passed through a variety of hands—including those of the SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski (the butcher who crushed the Uprising)—before being turned over to a Polish cardinal. It’s impossible to know how much of this is true, and therefore, it’s impossible to know—with absolute certainty—whether the heart that we re-installed in the rebuilt Church of the Holy Cross in October of 1945 is really Chopin’s.

Having said all of that, forensic scientist Tadeusz Dobosz, one of the leaders of the team that inspected the heart in 2014, is convinced that the heart is indeed that of Chopin. According to Professor Dobosz:

“The condition, the appearance of the preservative, the type of thread used for stitching the heart following dissection in Paris, the type of jar—all, in our opinion, are of the era.”

It will be up to a future generation to determine conclusively whether the heart is Chopin’s and if it is, the exact cause of his death. The heart was sealed back up in its pillar, with instructions that it be left undisturbed until 2064.


October 10, 2016

Porgy and Bess

81 years ago today—on October 10, 1935—George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess opened at the Alvin Theater in New York City. With a libretto by Dubose Heywood (whose play Porgy was the basis of the libretto) and Gershwin’s older brother Ira, Porgy and Bess ran a frankly unimpressive (by contemporary Broadway standards) 124 performances before it closed.

Porgy and Bess was applauded for the beauty of its numbers but roundly criticized for being neither fish nor fowl. The critic Samuel Chotzinoff—ordinarily friendly to Gershwin—wrote:

“As entertainment it is a hybrid, fluctuating constantly between music drama, musical comedy, and operetta.”

Given the version of Porgy and Bess that he heard, Chotzinoff’s criticism is entirely justified. And therein lies a tale.

George Gershwin’s amazing success as a composer of Broadway musicals and jazz-influenced concert works lit a fuse deep inside him: a desire to compose a full-length, no-holds-barred, knock-‘em-out-of-their seats American opera. His life-long affinity with the music of the African-American community—drumming, ragtime, jazz, and the spiritual—drew him like a bear to honey to a play called Porgy by Dubose Heywood. Heywood’s Porgy was produced on Broadway in 1927 and depicts life and death in the black community of “Catfish Row” (modeled on a real neighborhood called “Cabbage Row”) in Charleston, South Carolina.

Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess over a period of 20 months between 1933 and 1935. The finished opera was in all ways “grand”: the 700 page score would require roughly 4½ hours to perform.

A grand opera demands the resources of a grand opera house. And yes: the Metropolitan Opera was more than interested in Porgy and Bess. The President of the Met’s Board Otto H. Kahn even offered Gershwin a $5000 bonus if he’d allow the Met to produce the opera. (Gershwin was sorely tempted: in his short lifetime he’d come a long way from the tenements of Brooklyn, where he grew up.) But there were two deal breakers in the Met contract. The first one was the number of projected performances. As a theater composer, Gershwin was used to seeing his musicals run for hundreds of performances, whereas the Met could only guarantee 4 or 5 performances. But even worse from Gershwin’s point of view was the make up of the cast. Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess to be performed by predominately black singers. This was out of the question for the Met, which insisted on white singers performing in black face.

So Gershwin walked and instead signed a contract with the Theater Guild to have Porgy and Bess performed on Broadway. But a Broadway house and Broadway audiences were not compatible with a 4½ hour-long operatic production and performance, so cuts had to be made to the score: DEEP cuts, amputations really; over half of the score was cut. Presumably, Porgy and Bess was turned into a musical, but in fact it was neither this nor that. As Samuel Chotzinoff correctly opined, the surgically altered version of Porgy and Bess fluctuated constantly between music drama, musical comedy, and operetta.

And that’s where things stood until 1976 when, 41 years after its Broadway premiere, the Houston Grand Opera under David Gockley produced, performed, and recorded Porgy and Bess as it was originally composed. Sadly, the revival came much too late for George Gershwin, who died at the terribly young age of 38 in 1937 (a brain tumor) and thus never heard Porgy and Bess as he composed it.

But it wasn’t too late for us, and Porgy and Bess—when performed as it was originally conceived—turned out to be a first-rate opera, without any doubt one of the handful of “best operas” ever composed by a native born American composer. So why did it take so long to produce it in its original form? I would suggest three reasons.

One. Sympathetic though the portrayals of black Americans may be in Porgy and Bess, they were still created by white artists and were, for better or worse, subject to the accusation of stereotyping (at best) and outright racism (at worst).

Two. Gershwin was perceived by many in the concert music community—particularly during the modernistic madness of the period from 1945–1970—as a naive interloper, a compositional parvenu, a cross-over artist who had nothing substantial to offer the “serious”, post-war musical community.

Three. The reticence in the operatic community—until the last third of the twentieth century—to believe that an American made opera could stand on equal footing with the traditional European operatic repertoire.

Thank goodness, thanks largely to David Gockley and the Houston Grand Opera, we’ve worked ourselves through these issues and can enjoy Porgy and Bess for what it is: a alpha-class opera by a great American composer.


October 3, 2016

A Marriage Not Made in Heaven

On this date in 1833 the 29 year-old French composer Hector Berlioz married the 33 year-old Anglo-Irish actress Harriet Smithson. They tied the knot at the British embassy in Paris; the wedding was officially witnessed by Berlioz’ good bud, the pianist and composer Franz Liszt.

Berlioz had moved to Paris from his hometown in the French Alps in 1822, presumably to study medicine. His passport described the 18 year-old Berlioz as being:

“About five foot three or five foot four in height, red hair, red eyebrows, beginning to grow a beard, forehead ordinary, eyes gray, complexion high.”

What that passport description does not mention is that Berlioz burned with passion for pretty much everything except medicine, in particular music, theater, and literature. Predictably, he washed out of medical school within a matter of months. Unwilling to return home, he bounced around Paris living in poverty, and—when he had a little money in his pocket—he attended the opera standing room and took a few music lessons.

After a rather difficult application process (it was rumored that Berlioz’ father had to bribe the admissions officer), the now 23 year-old Hector Berlioz entered the Paris Conservatory, a full five years older that most of the other incoming students. He covered his insecurity about his marginal musical skills by posturing and opinionating constantly. His classmate, Ferdinand Hiller, was properly scandalized by Berlioz: “He believes in neither God nor Bach!” hissed Hiller.

In fact: Hector Berlioz was a hypersensitive, self-indulgent, loud-mouthed nut, living in an era that celebrated hypersensitive, self-indulgent, loud-mouthed nuts. He fit flawlessly the stereotype of the Romantic “artiste”, and he played it to the hilt.

On September 11, 1827, Berlioz attended a Parisian performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play was performed in English, a language Berlioz did not speak at the time. Nevertheless, he was bowled over by the experience, and not just by the play but by a particular actress in the cast. This is how Berlioz told the story:

“I come now to the supreme drama of my life. An English company had come over to Paris to give a season of Shakespeare at the Odeon. I was at the first night of Hamlet. In the role of Ophelia I saw Henriette [actually, her name was Harriet] Smithson. The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay, her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted. That is all I can say.”

Berlioz proceeded to carry a torch for Ms. Smithson for four years. He wrote to her. He sent her flowers. He mooned over her performances. He rented an apartment near hers so he could watch her come and go. By his own confession he pined for her, lusted for her, suffered, hankered, thirsted and ached for her; he dreamt of no one but her. He even composed his first masterwork about her: Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique of 1830 is “about” an artist who is madly in love with a woman who does not know he exists.

When it came to Harriet Smithson, Hector Berlioz was a psycho stage-door Johnny, a class “A” stalker, and she avoided him like head lice. Until 1832 that is, when a mutual friend invited her to a performance of Berlioz’ Lélio, or the Return to Life. Lélio—scored for orchestra, chorus, and narrator—is the sequel to Symphony Fantastique (they each employ the same principal theme). By attending that performance of Lélio, Smithson had an epiphany: she realized that the Symphony Fantastique was about her! She contacted Berlioz; he came to visit; they became lovers; and despite her misgivings and opposition from both of their families (and their friends), they were married on October 3, 1833.

OMG, how romantic! But not really. Because even as Berlioz’ career was taking off, Smithson’s was winding down; she had aged past the ingénue roles on which she had built her career. She retired for good in 1836; became pathologically jealous and possessive of her husband; took to the bottle; and became verbally (and some say physically) abusive of her husband even as her own body began to break down. Berlioz, who loved Harriet and conducted himself with dignity throughout, nevertheless took a mistress in 1841: an opera singer named Marie Recio (who eventually become the second Mrs. Berlioz). Two years later—in 1843—Harriet Smithson walked out, never to return. She died, broken and paralyzed by strokes, in 1853. But Berlioz never forgot her, and when he died in 1869 and was buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, he left instructions that Harriet’s body be exhumed and buried next to his. And that’s where they rest, together, to this day.

Admittedly grim though it is, that is very romantic.


September 26, 2016

Béla Bartók: An Appreciation

Seventy-one years ago today—on September 26, 1945—the composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist and Hungarian patriot Béla Viktor Janos Bartók died at the age of 64 in self-imposed exile in New York City. Sixteen years later, in 1961, the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, the enfant terrible of post-World War Two musical modernism, wrote this about Bartók’s music:

“The pieces most applauded are the least good; his best products are loved in their weaker aspects. His work triumphs now through its ambiguity. Ambiguity that will surely bring him insults during future evaluation. His language lacks interior coherence. His name will live on in the limited ensemble of his chamber music.”

Boulez was not just wrong: he was snotty wrong. And in this he was not alone.

Most of the post-War compositional modernists—which includes most of my own teachers—rejected Bartók because they believed he had squandered his potential as a compositional radical by employing elements of folk-music, neo-tonality, dance rhythms, and Classical era forms to create a body of music that was on occasion—God forbid—viscerally exciting and, even worse, accessible; music that employed such antediluvian elements as tunes and melodic sequences and was “expressive” in an unabashedly Romantic sense.

These post-War modernists considered Bartók to be an evolutionary dead end who composed music during the first half of the twentieth century that was irredeemably irrelevant to the second half of the twentieth century.

Here in the twenty-first century we know better. And it’s not just the fact that it is once again okay for “concert” music to be viscerally exciting. No, what makes Bartók a composer for the twenty-first century is the degree to which his music represents a synthesis of nearly global scope. His compositional language is one of purposeful diversity integrated into a singularly personal musical voice. Bartok’s music offers a model for one of the most important questions facing composers today: in an increasingly global culture, in which “diversity” and “variety” are not just buzzwords but real cultural descriptors, how might a composer go about incorporating and reconciling some aspects of that diversity into an integrated and personalized musical language?

Here’s what Bartók did.

He started with impeccable technical credentials, having finished his training as a pianist and composer at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest (where he went on to teach as a professor of piano from 1907–1934). Youthful infatuations with the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy strengthened his ear for late Romantic German compositional practice and French timbral nuance. His embrace of Hungarian nationalism in his early twenties led to a lifelong fascination with the indigenous music of not just his native Hungary, but of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Turkey, and North Africa as well. His immersion in these rich, non-Western musical environments changed forever the way he perceived melody, harmony, and rhythm. Bartók’s enduring affection for Classical era discipline manifested itself in music of great clarity and precision. Add to this his rock ‘n’ roll soul and his deep and moral humanity and you’ve got the recipe for a personal musical language of extraordinary breadth, power, and relevance.

In a twenty-first century musical environment in which so many composers are attempting to reconcile and synthesize something of the diversity around us, Bartók’s music has become the ideal role model!

Touché, Monsieur Boulez! How do you like them apples?


September 19, 2016

A Blast of Energy

For nine wonderful years—from 1992–2001—I was on the faculty of something called the “Andersen Executive Program”, or “AEP”. Three or four times a summer, various partners from the accounting, auditing, and consulting firm of Arthur Andersen gathered in some extraordinary place for a week to talk about the current issues facing their clients. The teaching faculty—as you’ve surmised, since I was on it—was incredibly diverse.

For three years in the late 1990s the AEP held sessions at a resort hotel called the Huis ter Duin (“House of the Dunes”) on the North Sea in the Dutch town of Noordwijk, 27 miles southwest of Amsterdam. It was at one of those sessions that I had lunch with a fellow faculty member: an Englishman about my age who was a professional “futurist”. He struck me as equal parts high-tech dude, palm reader, and huckster, all of which seemed necessary tool-box skills for someone who made a living predicting future trends and technologies.

When the futurist discovered I was a musician he wanted to talk about one of his pet ideas: how consumers will listen to music in the future. He had it all figured out. Listeners would be immersed in some sort sensory-depriving, sound-enhancing gel. Thus cocooned and cut off from everyone and everything, a listener would (presumably) experience music not just through her ears, but virtually “through the pores of her skin” (or whatnot).

I’m sure I smiled and nodded. There was no reason to be rude or argumentative; he was on my turf and I waited for him to finish before I asked him THE QUESTION: I enquired as to his most memorable musical experience.

He told me about seeing Carlos Santana at London’s Royal Albert Hall when he was sixteen or seventeen years old. I asked him what was so great about it and he told me: the music, the dope, the girls, the crowd, the energy, the energy and the energy. I’m sure I would have said something to the effect that that’s what a live concert is all about: the energy feedback loop between the performers and the audience, each driving the other onward to places they could never go by themselves.

I don’t know if our conversation made a lasting impression, but I know I gave the futurist pause. Because listening in total isolation is not the only or even best way to consume music. The best way is to do it live, in a group.

We are a tribal species. For a thousand good reasons, from safety to finding a mate, we are wired to be part of a herd. And since the beginning of human time, making and listening to music has been an essential part of our tribal rituals, religions, and cultural identities.

While recordings and videos and YouTube and ear buds have their place, we can never forget that the greatest musical truths, the greatest revelations, the greatest experiences can only be had in a live performance. “Live” as in “living”, because in a live/living performance the audience is an intrinsic part of the performance. Our fellow audience members (annoying though they can sometimes be with their stupid cell phones and throat-lozenge wrappers) magnify the intensity of our own experience rather than diminish it, an intensity that the performers feed off like a lamprey does a trout (gnarly metaphor; apologies).

This is why we still go to the theater, to the opera, and to concerts: because we’re not just watching and listening: we as an audience become an essential and necessary part of the magic. And that’s as true for a concert of the Alexander String Quartet in Herbst Theater as it is for Carlos Santana at the Royal Albert Hall (although, granted, the dope and the girls are in rather shorter supply at Herbst).

The hassle of the schlep and the parking be damned, we must continue to attend concerts. Not incidentally, that’s what San Francisco Performances provides. Buy some tickets! Have a blast, and love the energy.


September 12, 2016

A Very Long Engagement

176 years ago today—on September 12, 1840—one of the most tortuous, profanity-inducing, potentially violent, legally drawn out courtships ended when the composer Robert Schumann and the pianist Clara Wieck were married in Schönefeld, just northeast of Leipzig.

The person to blame for all the tsuris was Friedrich Wieck, Clara’s father. He was a piano teacher who had molded his daughter Clara into one of Europe’s greatest pianists by the time she was a teenager. Clara was Friedrich’s reason-to-be, his creation, a walking advertisement for effectiveness of his “piano method” as well as his Individual Retirement Account. So when that lump Robert Schumann—who had once also been a student of Wieck’s—started sniffing around his Clara when she was just 16 years old (and Schumann was 25), well, it was time to nip things in the bud. There was no way on this good earth that that lame-fingered loser Robert Schumann was going to steal Wieck’s cash cow.

Nip things. In the bud. Yes.

But in this Friedrich Wieck was singularly unsuccessful, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. For five years after Robert and Clara had pledged themselves to each other he did everything in his power to keep them apart. He harassed and spit on Schumann in the streets of Leipzig and threatened to shoot him. He intercepted Clara’s mail and at times kept her like a prisoner in their home. Finally, Robert and Clara had had enough. They sued for the right to be married, and after a seemingly endless series of appeals their suit was granted.

Robert and Clara were married on September 12 of 1840, a date carefully chosen by the lovebirds to give Wieck an acute pain where the sun rarely shines (we’re not referring here to San Francisco’s Richmond or Sunset Districts). You see, the day of the wedding—September 12, 1840—was the day before Clara’s 21st birthday. On September 13 she would have been legally free to marry anyone she chose. September 12 was the last possible day that Wieck could have been beaten, and Robert and Clara wanted to make sure that he knew that he had been beaten.

Their marriage produced seven children and, in the end, tragedy as Robert succumbed to syphilis (which, thank heavens, he never communicated to Clara). But on September 12, 1840, they were a very happy couple of newlyweds.

September 5, 2016
Happy Birthday, Anton Diabelli

Welcome to what will become a weekly feature here on the San Francisco Performances Facebook page, “Music History Monday.” (As titles go that’s about as thrilling as root canal, but it is an accurate description of the feature’s content so run with it we will.) Every Monday I will dredge up some timely, perhaps intriguing and even, if we are lucky, salacious chunk of musical information relevant to that date, or to San Francisco Performances’ concert schedule, or to…whatever. If on (rare) occasion these features appear a tad irreverent, well, that’s okay: we would do well to remember that cultural icons do not create and make music but rather, people do, and people can do and say the darndest things.

September 5 is a particularly rich musical birth date. Among others born on September 5 were Johann Christian Bach (also-known-as the “London Bach”), the youngest son Johann Sebastian, born in Leipzig in 1735; the Berlin-born composer Jacob Liebmann Beer (who renamed himself Giacomo Meyerbeer and made his fortune in Paris composing French-language musical theater extravaganzas, the Andrew Lloyd Weber of his time), in 1791; and the composer, shaman, and arch-provocateur John Cage, who was born in Los Angeles in 1912.

But for us, today, special birthday greetings go out to the composer Anton Diabelli, who was born on September 5, 1781 in Mattsee, just outside of Salzburg. Diabelli started up a music publishing business in Vienna in 1817. Sometime in early 1819 he had a great idea: he sent a waltz of his own composition to 50 composers living in Austria and invited each of them to compose a single variation on the theme. Diabelli’s plan was to publish the set as an anthology entitled Patriotic Artist’s Club and distribute the profits to widows and orphans of the Napoleonic Wars.

The curmudgeonly Louis van Beethoven was among the composers to receive Diabelli’s theme. Beethoven—48 years old at the time—tossed the theme aside and dismissed it as a “Schusterfleck”: a “cobbler’s patch”. But then. But then Beethoven realized that although Diabelli’s thematic melody had all the charm of a cold sore, the harmonic structure beneath the theme was rife, ripe, fat with compositional possibilities. Inspired to his very cockles (don’t ask), Beethoven put aside the Solemn Mass on which he was a work and started composing variations. On-and-off Beethoven worked for four years until, in April of 1823, he finished his set of 33 variations, which are today known as the Diabelli Variations.

Anton Diabelli was a generous and honorable man. Thanks to his funky little waltz and Beethoven’s extraordinary set of variations, he has also attained no small bit of immortality. Happy birthday, Herr Diabelli!