Music History Monday https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/blog/ Speaker, Composer, Author, Professor, Historian Tue, 20 Aug 2019 13:00:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.2 Exploring Music History with Professor Robert Greenberg one Monday at a time. Every Monday Robert Greenberg explores some timely, perhaps intriguing and even, if we are lucky, salacious chunk of musical information relevant to that date, 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.<br /> Music History Monday episodic Music History Monday robertgreenbergsocial@gmail.com robertgreenbergsocial@gmail.com (Music History Monday) Exploring Music History with Robert Greenberg Music History Monday https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/28114845/MusicHistoryMondays.jpg https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/blog/ Music History Monday: The Gig of a Lifetime! https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-gig-of-a-lifetime/ Mon, 19 Aug 2019 13:00:01 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5619 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-gig-of-a-lifetime/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-gig-of-a-lifetime/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/18163405/209C1FA5-36CF-4981-83D9-A50D0FEA8681-784x1024.jpeg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />On August 19, 1613 – 406 years ago today - Claudio Monteverdi was appointed Maestro di Capella di San Marco: the director of music at Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica. It was the gig of a lifetime!
Monteverdi in 1630
Monteverdi (1567-1643) in 1630, painted by Bernardo Strozzi

On August 19, 1613 – 406 years ago today – Claudio Monteverdi was appointed Maestro di Capella di San Marco: the director of music at Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica. It was the gig of a lifetime!

There’s no doubt about it: Claudio Monteverdi was one of the very, very greatest composers, up there with that handful (give or take) of dead Austrian and German cats whose marble, plaster, and chalk busts grace our pianos and music rooms.

He was born in the northern Italian city of Cremona on May 15, 1567. Located on the north bank of the Po River in the middle of the Po Valley, Cremona is famous for its vegetable and olive oils, mustard, sweets, and preserved meats. However, Cremona’s most famous product is not its foodstuffs, yum-licious though they may be, but rather, the stringed instruments built there. It was in Cremona that the violin family of instruments was born and where some of the all-time greatest violin builders (or “luthiers”) plied their trade. Cremona was home to the Amati family and its greatest violin-building son, Nicolò Amati (1596-1684); home to the Guarneri family, and its greatest luthier, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744); finally, Cremona was the home of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). 

The oldest surviving violin was built by Nicolò Amati’s grandfather, Andrea Amati (who lived from ca. 1520-ca. 1578). Known today as the “Charles IX” (because it bears the coat of arms of Charles IX of France), the violin was built in Cremona in 1564 (which was the same year William Shakespeare was born).

Monteverdi as a young man
Monteverdi as a young man

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was born in Cremona three years later. He was a musically gifted child, and at an early age, he developed into an excellent violinist. (Most appropriate for a native Cremonese!)

The outline of Monteverdi’s musical life can be stated quickly: he learned his craft in Cremona; he matured in Mantua; he flourished in Venice.

Monteverdi’s early musical education was supervised by Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, an important composer of the Counter-Reformation and the maestro di capella of Cremona. In 1582, at the age of fifteen, young Claudio had his first publication: a collection of three-part motets printed by the prestigious Venetian publishing house of Gardane. Further publications followed, underwritten by the various Cremonese patrons to whom they were dedicated, including his first book of madrigals (of an eventual five), which was published in 1587.

In 1590, at the age of 23, Monteverdi was hired on as a suonatore di vivuola – a string player – in the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Monteverdi also composed for the Mantuan court, and he very quickly became one of Mantua’s leading musicians. 

Monteverdi was an ambitious young man who longed for advancement. In May of 1601, when Benedetto Pallavicino, maestro di capella of Mantua, went into retirement, the 34-year-old Monteverdi was convinced that his time had come, and that the job was his. But six months passed, and no appointment was made. In November of 1601, Monteverdi – simmering, stewing, and finally boiling in his own juices – wrote a letter to the Duke, demanding to be appointed maestro di capella. It is an extraordinary letter, one that Monteverdi biographer Hans Ferdinand Redlich calls “a remarkably malicious document”. (Knowing what we know, today, about Monteverdi’s bad treatment there at Mantua, we would modify Herr Redlich’s evaluation and call the letter “a justifiably malicious letter.”) Over its course, Monteverdi points out that he has waited patiently for his many superiors to die off, and now that they were all dead, the job should be his: 

“not just as a recompense for exceptional proficiency but as a reward for faithful and especial devotion such as I have always displayed in Your Highness’ service.”

The letter did the trick; Monteverdi was rewarded with the job of maestro di capella of Mantua. Unfortunately, it was a promotion he soon came to regret.

You Can Take This Job and Shove It

Even by the standards of the time, the Master of Music for the Court of Mantua had to work like a dog. For Monteverdi, who was a slow worker and a perfectionist, the pressure was debilitating. In a letter written to the Duke in 1604, the 37-year-old Monteverdi complained:

“I lack the energy to write as assiduously as I have in the past. For I still feel tired and weak from recent overwork. I beseech Your Highness now that, for the love of God, you never again give me so much to do at one time nor allow me so short a time to do it; otherwise, I shall have an unexpectedly short life instead of being able to serve Your Highness longer.”

Monteverdi’s attitude toward composing was surprisingly modern, perceiving it as more an art than a craft. At another time he wrote:

“If I have to write a lot in a short time, I shall be reduced to mere note-spinning instead of composing music appropriate to the text.”

In 1608, after having been required to set some 1500 verses to music on a short deadline, he wrote:

“I know one can compose fast, but ‘fast’ and ‘good’ do not go well together.”

The fact that Monteverdi’s salary at Mantua was disproportionately low for someone of his standing and with his responsibilities caused him great anxiety and made him as bitter as a wormwood sour with a toxic waste chaser. Monteverdi had a title, yes, but he became convinced that he was underpaid, under-appreciated, and wasting his best years in a place too small for his talents. He was correct on all three counts. 

Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga in his coronation robes in 1587
Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga (1562-1612) in his coronation robes in 1587

Things came to a head in 1608 as a result of both overwork and personal tragedy. On September 10, 1607, less than six months after the premiere of his first opera (and the first operatic masterwork) Orfeo, Monteverdi’s wife of 12 years, Claudia Cattaneo died, leaving him with two young sons, age two and seven. Monteverdi was disconsolate, and though he was to live for another 36 years, he never remarried.

In early 1608, Monteverdi – grieving, exhausted, and completely disgusted with the freakin’ Duke, with Mantua, and with his position – walked off the job, picked up his boys, and went home to Cremona. The Duke was not pleased with such insubordination from a hired flunky, and he ordered Monteverdi to return to Mantua. Monteverdi’s written response, addressed to the Duke’s councilor and treasurer Annibale Chieppo and dated December 2, 1608 is one of the most famous letters in the music literature. It reveals Monteverdi’s spirit, pride, and bitterness, and demonstrates that despite the fact that a composer was considered little more than a servant in the early seventeenth century, he knew his worth and demanded that he be treated with respect. It is a long letter, and we quote it only in part.

“Today I have received a letter from Your Honor from which I gather that His Highness commands me to hold myself in readiness to return to Mantua as soon as possible in order to tire myself out once again; at least, so he commands. I reply, that if I do not take a complete rest, my span of life will be shortened; for in consequence of my tremendous over-exertions in the past I have developed headaches and a severe, maddening rash on my body which neither the cauterizing I have undergone, nor the purgatives I have taken, nor even the bloodletting and other measures to which I have submitted have succeeded in curing more than partially. 

I tell you, Your Honor, that the fortune I have enjoyed in Mantua throughout nineteen years has given me cause to feel ill-disposed rather than friendly.”

From here, Monteverdi goes on a lengthy screed protesting his financial treatment at the hands of the Duke. He closes the letter by writing: 

“Now Your Honor will understand perfectly well how miserable I am in Mantua.”

At his father’s insistence, Monteverdi returned to Mantua, there to give it one last try. But when Duke Vincenzo died in February of 1612 and was succeeded by his son Francesco, Francesco fired Monteverdi almost immediately, on July 31, 1612. 

(It was a stunning act of stupidity and ingratitude on the part of Francesco Gonzaga, on par with the Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees on January 20, 1920. Just like the subsequent “Curse of the Bambino” that saw the BoSox go from 1918 until 2004 without a World Series win, so there was a “Curse of the Monteverdi” to deal with there in Mantua: after ruling for just ten miserable months amid economic and political crises, both Francesco Gonzaga and his young son and heir died of smallpox.)

As it out, Francesco Gonzaga had done Monteverdi a huge favor. Monteverdi’s star was rising, and at the age of 45 he had an opportunity to test the market. 

Basilica San Marco, Venice
Basilica San Marco, Venice

The timing could not have been better. On July 19, 1613, Don Giulio Cesare Martinengo, maestro di capella of the Basilica San Marco in Venice, died after a long illness. The clever officials at San Marco wasted not a moment. One month later, on August 19, 1613 – 406 years ago today – Monteverdi was brought to Venice and hired on the spot. Maestro di capella of the Basilica San Marco was not just the most prestigious musical position in all of Italy, but in all of Europe as well. Monteverdi was offered a generous salary of 300 ducats (which was soon raised to 400), a furnished apartment in the “Villa San Marco” free of charge, and a degree of artistic freedom he had never before experienced. Money, respect, comfort, and freedom; in a flash, Monteverdi had it all. And he got to live and work in Venice, for crying out loud: with all due respect, comparing Venice to Mantua is like comparing Paris, France to Trenton, N.J. (Having grown up near Trenton I know what I’m talking about here.) 

Monteverdi circa 1740
Monteverdi circa 1740

Monteverdi and Venice were a terrific match. He remained Maestro de Capella of San Marco for 30 years, until his death in 1643. During that time, he composed a superb and varied body of music, both sacred and secular: masses, requiems, motets, polychoral compositions, and Vespers; operas and ballets for various northern Italian court theaters, madrigals for the aristocrats, and all sorts of occasional music for his wealthy Venetian friends and patrons. 

(The only sour note in all of this bounty – and a sour note it is – is how much of Monteverdi’s music has been lost: a huge Requiem Mass about which only a description survives and which reportedly moved the entire audience to tears; at least half a dozen operas; Christmas masses; works lost to fires, rot, or simple negligence. Who knows: perhaps one of these pieces will turn up behind a bookshelf in a Venetian palazzo, or in an attic in Cremona or Mantua.)

For lots more on Monteverdi and his operas Orfeo and The Coronation of Poppaea, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses Survey, How to Listen to and Understand Great Opera, which can be examined and downloaded here at RobertGreenbergMusic.com.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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On August 19, 1613 – 406 years ago today - Claudio Monteverdi was appointed Maestro di Capella di San Marco: the director of music at Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica. It was the gig of a lifetime! Monteverdi (1567-1643) in 1630, painted by Bernardo Strozzi



On August 19, 1613 – 406 years ago today – Claudio Monteverdi was appointed Maestro di Capella di San Marco: the director of music at Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica. It was the gig of a lifetime!



There’s no doubt about it: Claudio Monteverdi was one of the very, very greatest composers, up there with that handful (give or take) of dead Austrian and German cats whose marble, plaster, and chalk busts grace our pianos and music rooms.



He was born in the northern Italian city of Cremona on May 15, 1567. Located on the north bank of the Po River in the middle of the Po Valley, Cremona is famous for its vegetable and olive oils, mustard, sweets, and preserved meats. However, Cremona’s most famous product is not its foodstuffs, yum-licious though they may be, but rather, the stringed instruments built there. It was in Cremona that the violin family of instruments was born and where some of the all-time greatest violin builders (or “luthiers”) plied their trade. Cremona was home to the Amati family and its greatest violin-building son, Nicolò Amati (1596-1684); home to the Guarneri family, and its greatest luthier, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744); finally, Cremona was the home of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). 



The oldest surviving violin was built by Nicolò Amati’s grandfather, Andrea Amati (who lived from ca. 1520-ca. 1578). Known today as the “Charles IX” (because it bears the coat of arms of Charles IX of France), the violin was built in Cremona in 1564 (which was the same year William Shakespeare was born).



Monteverdi as a young man



Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was born in Cremona three years later. He was a musically gifted child, and at an early age, he developed into an excellent violinist. (Most appropriate for a native Cremonese!)



The outline of Monteverdi’s musical life can be stated quickly: he learned his craft in Cremona; he matured in Mantua; he flourished in Venice.



Monteverdi’s early musical education was supervised by Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, an important composer of the Counter-Reformation and the maestro di capella of Cremona. In 1582, at the age of fifteen, young Claudio had his first publication: a collection of three-part motets printed by the prestigious Venetian publishing house of Gardane. Further publications followed, underwritten by the various Cremonese patrons to whom they were dedicated, including his first book of madrigals (of an eventual five), which was published in 1587.



In 1590, at the age of 23, Monteverdi was hired on as a suonatore di vivuola – a string player – in the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Monteverdi also composed for the Mantuan court, and he very quickly became one of Mantua’s leading musicians. 



Monteverdi was an ambitious young man who longed for advancement. In May of 1601, when Benedetto Pallavicino, maestro di capella of Mantua, went into retirement, the 34-year-old Monteverdi was convinced that his time had come, and that the job was his. But six months passed, and no appointment was made. In November of 1601, Monteverdi – simmering, stewing, and finally boiling in his own juices – wrote a letter to the Duke, demanding to be appointed maestro di capella. It is an extraordinary letter, one that Monteverdi biographer Hans Ferdinand Redlich calls “a remarkably malicious document”. (Knowing what we know, today, about Monteverdi’s bad treatment there at Mantua, we would modify Herr Redlich’s evaluation and call the letter “a justifiably malicious letter.”) Over its course, Monteverdi points out that he has waited patiently for his many superiors to die off, and now that they were all dead,]]>
Music History Monday 15:24
Music History Monday: John Cage, we miss you https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-john-cage-we-miss-you/ Mon, 12 Aug 2019 19:56:51 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5588 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-john-cage-we-miss-you/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-john-cage-we-miss-you/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/12124317/John-Cage.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />On August 12, 1992 – 27 years ago today – the American composer, inventor, philosopher, facilitator, agent provocateur, shaman, clown, and guru, John Cage died in New York City at the age of 79.
John Milton Cage
John Milton Cage (September 5, 1912 to August 12, 1992)

On August 12, 1992 – 27 years ago today – the American composer, inventor, philosopher, facilitator, agent provocateur, shaman, clown, and guru, John Cage died in New York City at the age of 79.

Background. My May 14, 2019 Dr. Bob Prescribes post (which can be found on Patreon; if you’ve not yet subscribed, please do so!) featured the American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965). Cowell, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, was a musical polymath, a Universalist, a walking encyclopedia: someone who was as deeply knowledgeable of so-called “world music” (particularly central and east Asian music) as he was of Western art music and folk music.

Henry Cowell
Henry Cowell (1897-1965)

Cowell was a charismatic human dynamo, and a composer and teacher of genius, someone whose pioneering impact on the American musical community in the 1920s and 1930s was singular. Among the many young American musicians on whom Cowell had a decisive impact was a native Los Angelino and graduate of Los Angeles High School named John Milton Cage, Jr. According to Cage, Cowell was nothing less than “the open sesame for new music in America.”

Cage took Cowell’s teachings and beliefs about the universal, pan-cultural nature of music and sound to an entirely new level, and in doing so changed forever the way twentieth-century composers thought about music. 

(Pardon me a brief personal comment. To my adored East Coast academic colleagues who, upon reading the paragraph above, will only roll their eyes and shake their heads: I would remind you that Ivy League music departments and their offshoots across the U.S. constitute but a tiny part of the international musical and artistic community, which was in fact deeply – even profoundly – influenced by Cage during the mid and late-twentieth century. To my beloved readers who only know Cage from such works as 4’33” and assume that he was a charlatan, well, he was most certainly not, as even a cursory examination of his music for prepared piano will bear out. He was in fact a brilliant, personable, extremely funny man, someone who refused to live by any rules other than his own. Knowing Cage as I do, I’ve no doubt that if someone called him a “charlatan”, he’d put an index finger in the air, smile his big toothy grin, and say something on the lines of “Yes, but a charlatan of genius!”)

John Cage as a young man
Cage as a young man

Despite some early piano lessons, Cage came to music relatively late in life, after having worked for a time as an architectural apprentice. Along with Henry Cowell, Cage’s most important composition teacher was – of all people – Arnold Schoenberg, who was teaching at U.C.L.A. when Cage studied with him and who Cage worshipped. In a lecture entitled “Indeterminacy”, Cage told this story:

“When Schoenberg asked me whether I would devote my life to music, I said, ‘Of course.’ After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle; that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, ‘In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.’”

Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

Schoenberg didn’t consider Cage much of a composer, but he did consider him to be “an inventor of genius.” And that Cage was. Drawn increasingly to dance and Indonesian/Balinese gamelan-inspired percussion music, Cage created a percussion orchestra in Seattle in 1938 before moving to San Francisco in 1939, where for two years he and Lou Harrison (another Cowell groupie) gave concerts of percussion music. In 1941, Cage went to Chicago where he taught, organized percussion concerts, and accompanied dancers. Finally, in 1942, he arrived in New York, which became “home base” for the rest of his life. 

John Cage and Merce Cunningham circa 1955
Cage and Merce Cunningham circa 1955

In April of 1944, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) – at the time a dancer in Martha Graham’s dance company – presented his first solo concert in association with Cage. The professional relationship between Cage and Cunningham continued for decades, and Cage eventually became the music director for Merce Cunningham’s dance company. Even more importantly, they became life partners following Cage’s divorce from his wife, the surrealist sculptor Xenia Kashevaroff Cage in 1946 (or 1945; no one seems to know for sure!).  

Almost all the music Cage composed from the late 1930s through the 1940s was for various percussion ensembles and for prepared piano. Inspired equally by Henry Cowell’s audacious use of the piano and by gamelan, Cage began vandalizing pianos in a very special way, by placing paper clips, screws and bolts (of different sizes), rubber erasers on and between certain strings, thumb-tack in hammers, weaving paper and other objects through strings, and so forth. Cage called such an instrument a “prepared piano”, although some clever critic came up with the alternative designation of “Well-Tampered Clavier”. 

John Cage preparing a piano circa 1950
Cage preparing a piano circa 1950

Cage carefully charted how a piano should be prepared, as different works demanded different preparations. A prepared piano is, in fact, a one-person percussion orchestra. Cage’s first composition for prepared piano was his Bacchanale (of 1938). By the late 1940s he had mastered the medium, and his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, composed between 1946 and 1948, is a masterwork of complex rhythmic patterns, amazing timbres, wry humor, and pure, joyful imagination. 

Here you go: in the spirit of Dr. Bob Prescribes, I will recommend a recording: pianist Gerard Fremy, on the Etcetera label. 

Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano – with their long, static rhythmic patterns and vaguely pentatonic pitch material – reflect his developing interest in and commitment to East Asian and Indian musical ideals, particularly in regard to time. In Indian music, for example, time is not so much linear (as in Euro-American music) as it is existential; music is not so much narrative – meaning goal-oriented – as it is “in the moment”. “Paradise/Nirvana” (as in Euro-American meaning resolution and conclusion) is not something to aspire to but something that exists in every moment

Cage’s music for prepared piano made even the great-insufferable-one, Pierre Boulez, sit up and take notice. Writing in 1952, Boulez had this to say about Cage:

“I do not want to pursue this study of present-day perspectives in music without mentioning the names of Olivier Messiaen and John Cage. They alone are the exceptions that I pointed out in the language’s acquisitions after Webern, Stravinsky, Berg, and Schoenberg, [Cage] by his prospecting among complex sounds, complexes of sounds, and also in the rhythmic domain.  

Pierre Boulez circa 1955
Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) circa 1955

“John Cage has given us the proof that it is possible to create non-tempered sound-spaces using existing instruments. Thus, his use of the prepared piano is not merely an unexpected aspect of a piano-percussion in which the harmonic table is invaded by unexampled, metalizing vegetation. [TIME OUT! We must all love that phrase, “unexampled, metalizing vegetation” even if it is the product of a bad translation from Boulez’ native French, because to look inside a prepared piano is to see a jumble of unexampled metallic vegetation]. It is much more a questioning of the acoustic notions stabilized little by little in the course of the evolution of Occidental [Western] music. The direction of John Cage’s experiments is too near that of my own for me not to take note of it.”

As was typical with Boulez, his enthusiasm for Cage would be short lived. Because even as Boulez was writing these words, Cage was in the process of purposely abandoning the traditional role of the composer as “creator” in favor of becoming a “facilitator of the unexpected”. His discovery and study of Hindu aesthetics, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism led him to the conclusion that Western art had taken a wrong turn during the fourteenth century when the intrusion of personal “ego” led artists, writers, and composers to begin “signing” their work. Cage came to believe that this self-expressive attitude was “heretical” to the true nature of art, declaring that “My purpose is to eliminate purpose.” For Cage, the sounds (and silences) of nature, people, and machines became his ever-changing orchestra. Starting in 1951 with his Music of Changes for solo piano (arguably Cage’s last “musical composition”), he abandoned any pretense towards self-expressive art:

“One may give up the desire to control sound, clear his mind of music, and set about discovering the means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments. . . . I try to arrange my composing so that I won’t have any knowledge of what might happen. . . . I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases.” 

In order to completely divorce himself from the music he “created”, Cage turned to all sorts of chance processes for making compositional “decisions”: throwing dice, flipping coins, and tossing sticks marked with numbers, among them. Music in which certain aspects were left to chance came to be referred to as aleatoric music or musical aleatory, a term created from the Latin word alea, meaning “dice”. But even more, Cage wanted his music to be indeterminate: completely unpredictable, divorced entirely from any willful act on his part. This is pure Zen Buddhism, which was very chi-chi among American and European intellectuals during the 1940s and 1950s, a reaction, so it has been said, to the combined traumas of the cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. “Zen” – Japanese for “meditation” – is a discipline that seeks spiritual illumination through suppression of the individual ego and the rejection of rational thought. Only thus divested of the “illusions” that are the “self” and “logic” can the individual become one with the troposphere (or some such) and gain enlightenment.

That definition of Zen goes long way towards explaining Cage’s artistic intent (or “studied-lack-of-intent”, as the case may be). Cage spent the better part of his career creating strategies that would produce “music” that was entirely free from his control.

John Cage in performance
Cage in performance: playing amplified cacti and various other plant material with a feather

It’s not necessary to catalog Cage’s wild and wacky “musical” happenings/séances/circuses/multi-media extravaganzas (or whatever we choose to call them). The important point is that for John Cage, as both a man and musician, anything was possible at any time. The depth and power of his convictions (to say nothing for his imagination, humor and geniality) gave them extraordinary moral weight. As a result, Cage managed to get away with doing things that no one else could possibly have gotten away with. In doing so, he made the compositional community think about things musical – the nature of time, sound, silence, creativity, the whole musical-experiential shebang – in ways we might otherwise never have considered. Until 1951, John Cage was a composer. After 1951, it would be better to consider him a combination inventor, philosopher, facilitator, agent provocateur, shaman, clown, and guru: a person unique in twentieth-century Western music history.

For more on John Cage and the music of the twentieth century, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, The Great Music of the Twentieth Century, which can be sampled and downloaded here at RobertGreenbergMusic.com.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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On August 12, 1992 – 27 years ago today – the American composer, inventor, philosopher, facilitator, agent provocateur, shaman, clown, and guru, John Cage died in New York City at the age of 79. John Milton Cage (September 5, 1912 to August 12, 1992)



On August 12, 1992 – 27 years ago today – the American composer, inventor, philosopher, facilitator, agent provocateur, shaman, clown, and guru, John Cage died in New York City at the age of 79.



Background. My May 14, 2019 Dr. Bob Prescribes post (which can be found on Patreon; if you’ve not yet subscribed, please do so!) featured the American composer Henry Cowell (1897-1965). Cowell, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, was a musical polymath, a Universalist, a walking encyclopedia: someone who was as deeply knowledgeable of so-called “world music” (particularly central and east Asian music) as he was of Western art music and folk music.



Henry Cowell (1897-1965)



Cowell was a charismatic human dynamo, and a composer and teacher of genius, someone whose pioneering impact on the American musical community in the 1920s and 1930s was singular. Among the many young American musicians on whom Cowell had a decisive impact was a native Los Angelino and graduate of Los Angeles High School named John Milton Cage, Jr. According to Cage, Cowell was nothing less than “the open sesame for new music in America.”



Cage took Cowell’s teachings and beliefs about the universal, pan-cultural nature of music and sound to an entirely new level, and in doing so changed forever the way twentieth-century composers thought about music. 



(Pardon me a brief personal comment. To my adored East Coast academic colleagues who, upon reading the paragraph above, will only roll their eyes and shake their heads: I would remind you that Ivy League music departments and their offshoots across the U.S. constitute but a tiny part of the international musical and artistic community, which was in fact deeply – even profoundly – influenced by Cage during the mid and late-twentieth century. To my beloved readers who only know Cage from such works as 4’33” and assume that he was a charlatan, well, he was most certainly not, as even a cursory examination of his music for prepared piano will bear out. He was in fact a brilliant, personable, extremely funny man, someone who refused to live by any rules other than his own. Knowing Cage as I do, I’ve no doubt that if someone called him a “charlatan”, he’d put an index finger in the air, smile his big toothy grin, and say something on the lines of “Yes, but a charlatan of genius!”)



Cage as a young man



Despite some early piano lessons, Cage came to music relatively late in life, after having worked for a time as an architectural apprentice. Along with Henry Cowell, Cage’s most important composition teacher was – of all people – Arnold Schoenberg, who was teaching at U.C.L.A. when Cage studied with him and who Cage worshipped. In a lecture entitled “Indeterminacy”, Cage told this story:



“When Schoenberg asked me whether I would devote my life to music, I said, ‘Of course.’ After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle; that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, ‘In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.’”



Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)


]]>
Music History Monday 16:01
Music History Monday: One of the Great Ones! https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-one-of-the-great-ones/ Mon, 05 Aug 2019 15:58:55 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5567 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-one-of-the-great-ones/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-one-of-the-great-ones/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/05084729/guillaume-dufay.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We celebrate the birth on August 5, 1397 – 622 years ago today – of the composer Guillaume Du Fay. He was, by every standard, one of the greatest composers to have ever lived and was admired as such in his own lifetime.

We celebrate the birth on August 5, 1397 – 622 years ago today – of the composer Guillaume Du Fay. He was, by every standard, one of the greatest composers to have ever lived and was admired as such in his own lifetime.

A lovely performance of Guillaume Du Fay’s Nuper rosarum flores by the Quire Cleveland, conducted by Ross W. Duffin, and recorded at the Mary Queen of Peace Church in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 27, 2014
Guillaume Du Fay
Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474)

He was born in the Flemish (today Belgian) town of Bersele (today Beersel), just south of Brussels. He died 77 years later, on November 27, 1474, just across the border in northern France, in the town of Cambrai. 

Du Fay is a principal member of the fraternity of Franco-Flemish (that is, French-Belgian) composers who dominated European music in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. That fraternity boasted some pretty heavy compositional hitters, including Jacob Obrecht, Heinrich Isaac, Orlando de Lassus, Johannes Ockeghem, and the über-great Josquin Des Prez. With the exception of Ockeghem, all these guys spent a significant portion of their careers in Italy, where the climate was swell and the pay was sweet. The Italians called them the “oltremontani”, literally “the dudes from the other side of the alps.”

We don’t know much about Du Fay’s early life. We know that he was the illegitimate child of an unmarried woman named Marie Du Fayt (F-A-Y-T) and an unknown priest. (We shall resist comment on that tidbit.)

We know that early on, Marie Du Fayt moved to Cambrai – in France – where she had family, and that her son Guillaume (or “William”) was educated at the cathedral in Cambrai, where he was chorister as well. 

Du Fay’s musical star burned bright, and in 1428 – now a singer and composer of considerable renown – he joined the papal choir in Rome. Said to have been founded by Pope Gregory the Great his very self (who reigned from 590 to 604 and for whom “Gregorian Chant” is named), the papal choir was the greatest choir in the world at the time, the choral equivalent of the 1927 Yankees, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 2017 Golden State Warriors.

While in Rome, Du Fay became a friend of Cardinal Gabriele Condulmer. Du Fay chose his friend wisely, because in 1431 Cardinal Condulmer became Pope Eugene IV.

Gabriele Condulmer/Pope Eugene IV
Gabriele Condulmer (1383-1447); Pope Eugene IV (1431-1447

Eugene IV was the second post-schism pope to rule over a reunited church. (The “Western Schism” – 1378-1417 – was a period that saw two, and even three men simultaneously claim to be the one, “true” pope, each one excommunicating the others.) Unfortunately, the end of the schism did not mean that peace reigned in Rome, and just three years into his reign – in 1434 – a rebellion once again forced the pope to flee Rome (which is what had caused the schism in the first place). The papal court, including the papal choir, went north and set up shop in Florence.

Along with being thin and rich, location and timing are everything. For Du Fay, the timing of the papacy’s move to Florence could not have been more fortuitous. Florence was at the height of her wealth and power, and in 1436 Florence’s great cathedral – under reconstruction since the 1290s – was ready to be rededicated. On March 25, 1436 (the Feast of the Annunciation and the Florentine New Year’s Day), Florence’s distinguished guest, Pope Eugene IV, conducted the consecration ceremony himself. The cathedral, to that time known as Santa Reperata, was renamed Santa Maria del Fiore (“St. Mary of the Flowers”) in honor of the Virgin Mary. To commemorate the occasion, the pope commissioned Guillaume Du Fay to compose a motet.

Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

For our information: the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is crowned by a cupola (a dome) that is one of the great wonders of human ingenuity. Designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) between 1419 and 1436, the dome had to be self-supporting because there was nowhere to put external buttresses that might have held it up from the outside. Brunelleschi’s solution was to build an elongated, double dome, with the outer dome resting on an inner shell. The structural integrity of both domes was guaranteed by laying successive rings of bricks in a herringbone pattern (over four million bricks in all!). 

The outer dome is divided into eight segments by vertical ribs which themselves are held in place on top by a huge white marble lantern topped with a copper orb. 

Inspired to his cockles by this constructive wizardry, Du Fay composed a dedicatory motet (which is a polyphonic vocal work that may or may not be accompanied by instruments), a motet that is, in its musical construction and religious symbolism, as ingenious (and as complicated) as Brunelleschi’s own, nearly-completed dome. 

Du Fay’s motet, entitled Nuper rosarum flores, or “Recent Rose Blossoms”, despite being a relatively early composition, remains his single most famous work. The motet’s title – “Recent Rose Blossoms” – refers directly to the name of the newly consecrated cathedral, “Saint Mary of the Flowers”. The motet freely mixes the compositional “old” with the “new”: combining an old technique drawn from the fourteenth century with the new, fifteenth century concepts of harmonic consonance and dissonance and the triad as the basic unit of harmony.

Now bear with me for a moment. The old technique – the fourteenth century technique -that Du Fay employs in “Recent Rose Blossoms” is called isorhythm. An isorhythmic work is one in which one or more of its melodic parts features a sequence of rhythms that is repeated over and over again. In such a melodic part, the pitches will change, but the rhythmic sequence – the underlying rhythmic pattern – remains the same. Such an isorhythmic melody line is called a talea; the plural is taleae. As listeners, we are not expected to be able to follow an isorhythmic part (“talea”); rather, isorhythm was considered a metaphor for the grace and order of God that lays invisibly behind all things.

“Recent Rose Blossoms” is scored for four parts: two tenor voices, both of which are isorhythmic, and two upper voices that are freely composed. The talea – the repeated sequence of rhythms heard in the tenor parts – is heard four times. However, Du Fay does not repeat the taleae exactly each time but, rather, alters the duration of the rhythmic values of each repetition relative to the others, creating a ratio of 6:4:2:3. (For example, the first note in the first version of the talea is sustained for 12 beats; the first note in the second version of the talea is sustained for 8 beats; the first note of talea three for 4 beats; and the first note of talea four for 6 beats: creating between the taleae a 6:4:2:3 ratio.)

This 6:4:2:3 structural ratio portrays – according to Biblical tradition – the proportions of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. According to the second book of Kings, Solomon’s Temple was 60 cubits in length (a cubit measuring about 18 inches), the inner sanctum (or nave) was 40 cubits from the Temple’s doors, 20 cubits in width, and 30 cubits in height, These are exactly the durational proportions of Du Fay’s taleae – 6:4:2:3 – proportions that became a symbol for every consecrated church in Christendom, including Santa Maria del Fiore

But wait! When it comes to numerical symbolism, there’s more! We also read in Kings that the dedication feasts of the Temple of Solomon lasted for “seven days and seven days, that is fourteen days” (2 Kings 8:65). Each of the four taleae contains 14 pitches, divided between the two tenors as 7 + 7. The number 7 also relates directly to the seven pillars of Solomon’s Temple, the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit (which would have filled the Temple at its dedication), and the seven censings, the blessing of the altar with incense, during the Dedication Service. 

But there’s still more! In Christian symbolism, the number seven represents the Virgin’s sevenfold attributes: seven sorrows, seven joys, seven acts of mercy, seven virginal companions, and so forth. 

As far as Du Fay’s numerical symbolism goes, we’ll stop here, with the understanding that we’ve only scraped the surface of possible symbolic meanings in the motet and that we haven’t even talked about the upper two voices and the celebratory text that they sing. That text was likely written by Du Fay himself and is cast in four stanzas. Here is the first:

Nuper rosarum flores
Ex dono pontificis
Hieme licet horrida
Tibi, virgo cœlica, 
Pie et sancte deditum
Grandis templum machinæ
Condecorarunt perpetim.
Recent rose blossoms,
The Pope’s gift
After the terrible winter,
For you, celestial virgin,
Pious and holy, come to adorn
The church dedicated to thee,
With this great dome, forever.

I’ll ask the question many of you are thinking: why should all the technical stuff regarding the isorhythmic taleae and the numerical symbolism matter? Isn’t the important thing how the music sounds and how it makes us feel?

It matters because Du Fay was a fifteenth century composer, who – like an architect – was expected to design his music. In Du Fay’s day, structural proportions were an essential and intrinsic element of musical expression, especially in sacred music, in that they reflected God’s wisdom and perfection. Gloriously beautiful though it is, one of the reasons why this music is rarely heard today is that it doesn’t seem to resonate with our fetish for emotional expression. But as a sacred work composed in 1436, Nuper rosarum flores is deeply expressive: it is based on the “word” of God (by employing pitch sequences drawn from plainchant) and its structure expresses God’s omnipresent excellence. For educated listeners in 1436, that was as musically expressive as it got!

Happy birthday, Maestro Du Fay. You don’t look a day over 621.

For lots more on the music of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, third edition, which can be examined and purchased for download here at RobertGreenbergMusic.com.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

]]>
We celebrate the birth on August 5, 1397 – 622 years ago today – of the composer Guillaume Du Fay. He was, by every standard, one of the greatest composers to have ever lived and was admired as such in his own lifetime. We celebrate the birth on August 5, 1397 – 622 years ago today – of the composer Guillaume Du Fay. He was, by every standard, one of the greatest composers to have ever lived and was admired as such in his own lifetime.





A lovely performance of Guillaume Du Fay’s Nuper rosarum flores by the Quire Cleveland, conducted by Ross W. Duffin, and recorded at the Mary Queen of Peace Church in Cleveland, Ohio on Sept. 27, 2014



Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474)



He was born in the Flemish (today Belgian) town of Bersele (today Beersel), just south of Brussels. He died 77 years later, on November 27, 1474, just across the border in northern France, in the town of Cambrai. 



Du Fay is a principal member of the fraternity of Franco-Flemish (that is, French-Belgian) composers who dominated European music in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. That fraternity boasted some pretty heavy compositional hitters, including Jacob Obrecht, Heinrich Isaac, Orlando de Lassus, Johannes Ockeghem, and the über-great Josquin Des Prez. With the exception of Ockeghem, all these guys spent a significant portion of their careers in Italy, where the climate was swell and the pay was sweet. The Italians called them the “oltremontani”, literally “the dudes from the other side of the alps.”



We don’t know much about Du Fay’s early life. We know that he was the illegitimate child of an unmarried woman named Marie Du Fayt (F-A-Y-T) and an unknown priest. (We shall resist comment on that tidbit.)



We know that early on, Marie Du Fayt moved to Cambrai – in France – where she had family, and that her son Guillaume (or “William”) was educated at the cathedral in Cambrai, where he was chorister as well. 



Du Fay’s musical star burned bright, and in 1428 – now a singer and composer of considerable renown – he joined the papal choir in Rome. Said to have been founded by Pope Gregory the Great his very self (who reigned from 590 to 604 and for whom “Gregorian Chant” is named), the papal choir was the greatest choir in the world at the time, the choral equivalent of the 1927 Yankees, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 2017 Golden State Warriors.



While in Rome, Du Fay became a friend of Cardinal Gabriele Condulmer. Du Fay chose his friend wisely, because in 1431 Cardinal Condulmer became Pope Eugene IV.



Gabriele Condulmer (1383-1447); Pope Eugene IV (1431-1447



Eugene IV was the second post-schism pope to rule over a reunited church. (The “Western Schism” – 1378-1417 – was a period that saw two, and even three men simultaneously claim to be the one, “true” pope, each one excommunicating the others.) Unfortunately, the end of the schism did not mean that peace reigned in Rome, and just three years into his reign – in 1434 – a rebellion once again forced the pope to flee Rome (which is what had caused the schism in the first place). The papal court, including the papal choir, went north and set up shop in Florence.



Along with being thin and rich, location and timing are everything. For Du Fay, the timing of the papacy’s move to Florence could not have been more fortuitous. Florence was at the height of her wealth and power, and in 1436 Florence’s great cathedral – under reconstruction since the 1290s – was ready to be rededicated. On March 25, 1436 (the Feast of the Annunciation and the Florentine New Year’s Day), Florence’s distinguished guest, Pope Eugene IV, conducted the consecration ceremony himself. The cathedral, to that time known as Santa Reperata, was renamed Santa Maria del Fiore (“St. Mary of the Flowers”) in honor of the Virgin Mary. To commemorate the occasion, the pope commissioned Guillaume Du Fay to compose a motet.]]>
Music History Monday 13:23
Music History Monday: A Very Bad Ending https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-very-bad-ending/ Mon, 29 Jul 2019 15:54:05 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5544 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-very-bad-ending/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-very-bad-ending/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/05085659/814px-Robert_Schumann_1839.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the death on July 29, 1856 – 163 years ago today – of the German composer, pianist, and music critic Robert Schumann at the age of 46. The actress Valerie Harper was back in the news this week. Now nearly 80 years old (her birthday is on August 22nd), she is best remembered for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then its spin-off, Rhoda, in the 1970s. Ms. Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer back in 2009, and she has fought like the proverbial tiger since. Her time is almost up; this week’s news was about her husband’s refusal to ship her off to a hospice. During the course of her illness, she has pointed out – correctly, if painfully for us all – that we are all “terminal.” I know, I know, I know: it’s not something anyone wants to think about, especially not on a Monday, which by itself is depressing enough. Yes, our time will come when it comes, but I, for one, want to spend as little energy as possible thinking about it. But having buried three beloved family members long before their time should have been up,… <p><a href="https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-a-very-bad-ending/" rel="nofollow" class="btn">Continue Reading…</a></p>
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) in 1839
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) in 1839

We mark the death on July 29, 1856 – 163 years ago today – of the German composer, pianist, and music critic Robert Schumann at the age of 46.

The actress Valerie Harper was back in the news this week. Now nearly 80 years old (her birthday is on August 22nd), she is best remembered for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then its spin-off, Rhoda, in the 1970s. Ms. Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer back in 2009, and she has fought like the proverbial tiger since. Her time is almost up; this week’s news was about her husband’s refusal to ship her off to a hospice.

Valerie Harper circa 1975
Valerie Harper, b. 1939, in the day circa 1975

During the course of her illness, she has pointed out – correctly, if painfully for us all – that we are all “terminal.” I know, I know, I know: it’s not something anyone wants to think about, especially not on a Monday, which by itself is depressing enough. Yes, our time will come when it comes, but I, for one, want to spend as little energy as possible thinking about it. But having buried three beloved family members long before their time should have been up, I am as aware as anyone of the randomness of disease and death and the emotional catastrophe it leaves in its wake.

Are you still with me? 

Death sucks; no two ways about it. But there is such a thing as a good death: quick, painless, and in old age. And, tragically, there is such a thing as a bad death: slow, painful, and at a young age. 

Robert Schumann, bless him, suffered a very bad death.

He was a big, sweet, talented bear of a man with bi-polar disease. In 1831 – at the age of 21 – he acquired syphilis from a prostitute known to us as only “Christal” or “Charitas.” Writing in his diary at the time, Schumann referred to a “wound” that caused him “biting and gnawing pain”, in all likelihood a reference to a penile lesion. Not long before his death he scribbled a note recorded by his doctor: “In 1831 I was syphilitic and treated with arsenic.”

Schumann was one of the very few to not just emerge from the first two stages of syphilis physically intact but into a 20-year-long latency, during which he was non-infectious and symptom-free. He must have believed he was one of the blessed few to have been cured of what was, at the time, an otherwise fatal disease. 

But between January and November of 1853, Schumann – now a married father of six, living and working in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf – experienced a series of increasingly worrisome neurological disorders, among them an inability to speak or write for days at a time, rheumatoid pain, dizziness, aural disturbances and enlarged pupils in both eyes. Whether he realized it or not, Schumann’s syphilis had entered its mortal, tertiary stage.

In February of 1854, his mind gave way. 

During the evening of February 10, he was tormented by what he called:

“very strong and painful aural disturbances.” 

Within a week, the sounds in Schumann’s ears had taken shape; he reported hearing:

Clara and Robert Schumann in 1850
Clara (1819-1896) and Robert Schumann in 1850

“Magnificent music, with instruments of splendid resonance, the like of which has never been heard on earth before.”

His wife Clara was becoming more and more frightened. She wrote in her diary:

“My poor Robert suffers terribly. All sounds are transformed for him into music . . . He has said several times that if it does not stop, he’ll go out of his mind.” 

On February 18, as if in some terrifying horror movie, angels that had been singing to him turned into devils that took the form of tigers and hyenas. Clara wrote:

“His condition soon became hysterical. He cried out in agony, and the two doctors, who luckily were there, could hardly hold him. I shall never forget the way he looked at me; I suffered with him the cruelest torments.”

And so it went, day-by-day getting worse.

Finally, on February 26th, 1854, terrified that he might physically injure his wife and children, Schumann asked to be taken to a lunatic asylum. His doctor, Dr. Boger, convinced him to settle down and go to bed. When he woke up the next day Robert murmured to Clara:

“Ah, Clara, I am not worthy of your love.” 

The awful climax was at hand. It was February 27th; a cold and rainy day in Düsseldorf. Wearing only his slippers and his dressing gown, Schumann slipped unnoticed out of the house. He turned left and, with his head down, he walked – unsteadily and sobbing – towards the Rhine River, only four blocks away. His friend Rupert Becker, the concertmaster of the Düsseldorf Orchestra, reports what happened next:

“Schumann snuck out of his bedroom at two in the afternoon and headed straight for the Rhine, jumping into the river from the middle of the Rhine Bridge. Luckily, he was noticed at the entrance to the bridge, because he had given his handkerchief [to the toll taker] since he had no money for the toll! Fortunately, several fishermen came along with a little boat immediately after he had leapt and saved him. Once in the boat, he tried to jump into the water again, but the fishermen prevented him. The trip home must have been dreadful; he was transported by eight men and followed by a group of people (it was Carnival season) who amused themselves at his expense.” 

Clara, herself on the verge of a breakdown, had to be physically restrained in order to keep her from seeing her husband. For reasons quite impossible to fathom, she was not told about his suicide attempt until some two years after Robert’s death. Schumann again demanded to be institutionalized and this time his doctors agreed. He was admitted to a private sanitarium run by Dr. Franz Richarz, located in Endenich, a suburb of Bonn. Schumann’s doctors, fearing that any sight of his wife and children would agitate their patient, forbade Clara from either seeing him or saying goodbye to him. Instead, in Clara’s own words:

“I sat at [the house of] Fraulein Leser in a stupor, thinking, ‘now I’m done for.’” 

Johannes Brahms circa 1854
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), circa 1854

The only bright spot – if it can be called such – was the actions of the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, who had befriended the Schumanns just four months before. When he heard about the suicide attempt, Brahms rushed to Düsseldorf and stayed at Clara’s side for the better part of two years. He quickly assumed many of the duties of the “head-of-the-household” and in the process, he fell in love with Clara. Whether they were ever lovers is still a matter of speculation, as it has been since the 1850s. In any case, what is certain is that Clara and her children survived these times largely intact because of Johannes Brahms’ selflessness and loyalty. 

Endenich

Schumann spent 2½ years in the asylum at Endenich. Clara’s hopes and emotions rose and fell by the day, depending upon the news from the asylum. The physical and emotional strain she suffered are almost impossible to imagine.

Despite early hopes that he was improving, Schumann’s madness progressed inexorably. He would pace back and forth incessantly, frequently kneeling down and wringing his hands in despair. He held conversations with voices that accused him of plagiarism; he would become hysterical, screaming:

“That’s not true; it’s a lie!” 

The resident doctor – Dr. Franz Richarz – kept a detailed log of Schumann’s condition. Many of the entries are painful to read, as they show us a man in the throes of what was incurable madness. For example, the log entry for May 8, 1855, fourteen months after Schumann’s hospitalization reads as follows:

“Yesterday Schumann was continually agitated, talking drivel loudly and rapidly, also while walking in the garden he made fierce gesticulations; afterward, he played the piano in a wild and crazy manner for almost two hours, hollering all the while; after dinner he was violent with the attendant, threatening him with a chair. At night, sleepless, uninterrupted ranting and raving, threatened the attendant again. His speech is indistinct, like a drunkard.” 

Sometime around July 15, 1856, his immune system shattered, Schumann fell ill with a respiratory infection. His weakened body could not fight off the infection, which rapidly turned into full-blown pneumonia.

On July 23, 1856, Clara received a telegram from Dr. Richarz:

“If you want to see your husband alive, come with all haste.” 

Four days later, on Sunday evening, July 27, 1856, Clara saw Robert for the first time in nearly 2½ years. He was almost unrecognizable – emaciated, aged beyond his years, bed-ridden. Clara wrote:

“He smiled at me, and with great exertion – for he could no longer control his limbs – put his arm about me. I shall never forget it. Not all the treasures in the world could equal this embrace.” 

The next day Clara helped him to drink a little wine. Some of it spilled on her hand and, according to Clara, 

“[Robert], with the happiest expression and truly in haste, licked the wine from my fingers – ah. He knew it was me.” 

As this played out, the 23-year-old Johannes Brahms, standing in a corner of the room, looked on with horror.

Throughout the day Schumann’s arms and legs convulsed almost continuously. He died the next day, July 29, 1856, at four o’clock in the afternoon. He was alone; Clara had gone with Brahms to pick up their friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, at the train station. Clara arrived back at the hospital only to find that Robert was dead. She wrote in her diary:

“I saw him only half an hour later. I stood by his corpse, my ardently beloved husband, and was quiet; all my thoughts went up to God with thanks that he was finally free. As I knelt at his bed, it seemed as if a magnificent spirit was hovering over me. If only he had taken me along.” 

For lots more on Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses, Great Masters biographies, The Schumanns: Their Lives and Music and Brahms: His Life and Music, which can be sampled and downloaded here on RobertGreenbergMusic.com.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

]]>
We mark the death on July 29, 1856 – 163 years ago today – of the German composer, pianist, and music critic Robert Schumann at the age of 46. The actress Valerie Harper was back in the news this week. Now nearly 80 years old (her birthday is on August... Robert Schumann (1810-1856) in 1839



We mark the death on July 29, 1856 – 163 years ago today – of the German composer, pianist, and music critic Robert Schumann at the age of 46.



The actress Valerie Harper was back in the news this week. Now nearly 80 years old (her birthday is on August 22nd), she is best remembered for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then its spin-off, Rhoda, in the 1970s. Ms. Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer back in 2009, and she has fought like the proverbial tiger since. Her time is almost up; this week’s news was about her husband’s refusal to ship her off to a hospice.



Valerie Harper, b. 1939, in the day circa 1975



During the course of her illness, she has pointed out – correctly, if painfully for us all – that we are all “terminal.” I know, I know, I know: it’s not something anyone wants to think about, especially not on a Monday, which by itself is depressing enough. Yes, our time will come when it comes, but I, for one, want to spend as little energy as possible thinking about it. But having buried three beloved family members long before their time should have been up, I am as aware as anyone of the randomness of disease and death and the emotional catastrophe it leaves in its wake.



Are you still with me? 



Death sucks; no two ways about it. But there is such a thing as a good death: quick, painless, and in old age. And, tragically, there is such a thing as a bad death: slow, painful, and at a young age. 



Robert Schumann, bless him, suffered a very bad death.



He was a big, sweet, talented bear of a man with bi-polar disease. In 1831 – at the age of 21 – he acquired syphilis from a prostitute known to us as only “Christal” or “Charitas.” Writing in his diary at the time, Schumann referred to a “wound” that caused him “biting and gnawing pain”, in all likelihood a reference to a penile lesion. Not long before his death he scribbled a note recorded by his doctor: “In 1831 I was syphilitic and treated with arsenic.”



Schumann was one of the very few to not just emerge from the first two stages of syphilis physically intact but into a 20-year-long latency, during which he was non-infectious and symptom-free. He must have believed he was one of the blessed few to have been cured of what was, at the time, an otherwise fatal disease. 



But between January and November of 1853, Schumann – now a married father of six, living and working in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf – experienced a series of increasingly worrisome neurological disorders, among them an inability to speak or write for days at a time, rheumatoid pain, dizziness, aural disturbances and enlarged pupils in both eyes. Whether he realized it or not, Schumann’s syphilis had entered its mortal, tertiary stage.



In February of 1854, his mind gave way. 



During the evening of February 10, he was tormented by what he called:



“very strong and painful aural disturbances.” 



Within a week, the sounds in Schumann’s ears had taken shape; he reported hearing:



Clara (1819-1896) and Robert Schumann in 1850



“Magnificent music, with instruments of splendid resonance, the like of which has never been heard on earth before.”



His wife Clara was becoming more and more frightened. She wrote in her diary:



“My poor Robert suffers terribly. All sounds are transformed for him into music . . . He has said several times that if it does not stop, he’ll go out of his mind.” 



On February 18,]]>
Music History Monday 14:09
Music History Monday: Can We Blame the Weather? https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-can-we-blame-the-weather/ Mon, 22 Jul 2019 16:12:02 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5523 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-can-we-blame-the-weather/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-can-we-blame-the-weather/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/22090319/Aretha_Franklin.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />On July 22, 1969 – 50 years ago today – Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was arrested for disorderly conduct in Highland Park, Michigan, a community within the metropolitan area of her native Detroit. She had been involved in a minor traffic accident in a parking lot. Two Detroit policemen had responded; Ms. Franklin took offense at something or other, swore at the officers and then tried to slap them. Never, ever a good idea. She was placed under arrest and hauled off to the local police station, where she posted $50.00 bail and was released. On driving away from the station, she ran down a road sign; not a good idea, either. Franklin was, admittedly, going through a rough patch in her life at the time. Her meteoric rise to stardom in 1967 had changed her life almost entirely, and not necessarily for the better. In 1968 she separated from her physically abusive husband (and manager) Ted White; they were divorced in 1969. Following the separation, she was reportedly drinking heavily (although alcohol was not cited in her parking lot fracas with the police).  That Aretha Franklin was a passionate and potentially temperamental woman is obvious to anyone who has ever… <p><a href="https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-can-we-blame-the-weather/" rel="nofollow" class="btn">Continue Reading…</a></p>

On July 22, 1969 – 50 years ago today – Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was arrested for disorderly conduct in Highland Park, Michigan, a community within the metropolitan area of her native Detroit. She had been involved in a minor traffic accident in a parking lot. Two Detroit policemen had responded; Ms. Franklin took offense at something or other, swore at the officers and then tried to slap them. Never, ever a good idea. She was placed under arrest and hauled off to the local police station, where she posted $50.00 bail and was released. On driving away from the station, she ran down a road sign; not a good idea, either.

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin during a recording session on January 10, 1969, in New York

Franklin was, admittedly, going through a rough patch in her life at the time. Her meteoric rise to stardom in 1967 had changed her life almost entirely, and not necessarily for the better. In 1968 she separated from her physically abusive husband (and manager) Ted White; they were divorced in 1969. Following the separation, she was reportedly drinking heavily (although alcohol was not cited in her parking lot fracas with the police). 

That Aretha Franklin was a passionate and potentially temperamental woman is obvious to anyone who has ever heard her sing; there’s not a snowball’s chance in Mali that a shrinking violet could sing and sell a song the way she could. Nevertheless, she was not known as someone who went around trying to smack officers of the law, which has made me wonder – given the weather this past weekend – whether climatological factors played a role in her actions that day 50 years ago. 

The article below appeared two days ago, on Saturday, July 20th

The Braintree, Massachusetts Police Department
The Braintree, Massachusetts Police Department

(CNN) It’s dangerously hot across much of the country this weekend — so hot, in fact, that police in Braintree, Massachusetts, are imploring would-be criminals to hold off on illegal activity until Monday.

The Braintree Police Department asked the community to put a pin in crime until the heat wave passes in a Facebook post Friday. “It is straight up hot as soccer balls out there,” the department wrote in the post.
 
Yes, a police department really used the phrase “hot as soccer balls.”

While temperatures in the area could reach 102 degrees, it’ll likely feel even worse: the heat index, or the more accurate temperature your body feels when air temperature and humidity are both factored in, could be as high as 115 degrees, the weather service said.

That’s simply too hot for lawbreaking, Braintree police said.

Committing a crime in this sort of weather is “next level henchmen status,” the department said, not to mention dangerous to the offender’s health.

In the post, the department suggested everyone wait out the heat wave indoors and suspend the illegal stuff until things cool down. “Stay home, blast the AC, binge Stranger Things season 3, play with the face app, practice karate in your basement,” police said. “We will all meet again on Monday when it’s cooler.”

The message is signed, “The PoPo.”

While I’m sure we all think it’s swell that the Braintree Police Department is concerned for the health of potential law breakers, I’m just cynical enough to believe that they were motivated by two factors other than the health of those potential law breakers. One, the “PoPo” themselves did not want to have to go out in the heat if they didn’t have to, and two, they know – as we’ve known for over 100 years – that our heart rates, blood pressure, and testosterone levels rise with the mercury, which means that irritability, aggressive behavior, and violent crime rise with the heat as well.

We all know this to be true; it’s built into our very language. Arguments get “heated”; tempers “boil over”; “hotheads” must calm down so that “cooler” heads may prevail. We tell each other to “be cool”; to “cool it”; to “chill”, “chill out”; and to “chillax” (that’s chill and relax).

Could the weather have played a part in Aretha Franklin’s behavior on July 22, 1969? Could it have been so hot and sticky in Detroit that her irritability level was already well into the “red” even before her accident in the parking lot? Was her car air conditioned, or was she parboiling there in the front seat? Were she and another driver vying for the same parking spot when they collided? Were nasty words exchanged with the other driver, who was likely as hot and irritable as Franklin? And then did one or both of the police officers speak to her with D-I-S-R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Maybe yes; maybe no; I have had no luck pulling up the weather in Detroit for that day 50 years ago. But I, for one, as a devoted fan-boy of Aretha Franklin, will believe what I want to believe and will claim, without a shred of evidence, that the weather made her do it!

The Rolling Stones in 1967
Looking like every father’s nightmare, the Rolling Stones in 1967. Top, left-to-right: Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman; seated left-to-right: Mick Jagger, Bryan Jones, Keith Richards.

Postscript

Aretha Franklin is not the only musician who had to cough up cash for bad behavior on this date. On July 22, 1965 – 54 years ago today – Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones were each fined £5 plus court costs at West Ham Magistrates’ Court, London, after having been found guilty of “insulting behavior”, behavior perpetrated back on March 18. On their way back to central London after a gig, they had not been allowed to use a private toilet at the Francis Service Station on Romford Road by a 41-year-old pump attendant named Charles Keely. The 21-year-old Jagger told Keely that “we’ll piss anywhere, man”, at which point Mick, Bryan, and Bill did just that by relieving themselves on a wall of the garage. They departed yelling obscenities while, to quote the court proceedings, “making a well-known gesture.”

I trust we all know what middle-fingered “gesture” the court was referring to. 

Naughty, naughty boys. 

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On July 22, 1969 – 50 years ago today - Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was arrested for disorderly conduct in Highland Park, Michigan, a community within the metropolitan area of her native Detroit. On July 22, 1969 – 50 years ago today – Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was arrested for disorderly conduct in Highland Park, Michigan, a community within the metropolitan area of her native Detroit. She had been involved in a minor traffic accident in a parking lot. Two Detroit policemen had responded; Ms. Franklin took offense at something or other, swore at the officers and then tried to slap them. Never, ever a good idea. She was placed under arrest and hauled off to the local police station, where she posted $50.00 bail and was released. On driving away from the station, she ran down a road sign; not a good idea, either.



Aretha Franklin during a recording session on January 10, 1969, in New York



Franklin was, admittedly, going through a rough patch in her life at the time. Her meteoric rise to stardom in 1967 had changed her life almost entirely, and not necessarily for the better. In 1968 she separated from her physically abusive husband (and manager) Ted White; they were divorced in 1969. Following the separation, she was reportedly drinking heavily (although alcohol was not cited in her parking lot fracas with the police). 



That Aretha Franklin was a passionate and potentially temperamental woman is obvious to anyone who has ever heard her sing; there’s not a snowball’s chance in Mali that a shrinking violet could sing and sell a song the way she could. Nevertheless, she was not known as someone who went around trying to smack officers of the law, which has made me wonder – given the weather this past weekend – whether climatological factors played a role in her actions that day 50 years ago. 



The article below appeared two days ago, on Saturday, July 20th: 



The Braintree, Massachusetts Police Department



(CNN) It’s dangerously hot across much of the country this weekend — so hot, in fact, that police in Braintree, Massachusetts, are imploring would-be criminals to hold off on illegal activity until Monday. The Braintree Police Department asked the community to put a pin in crime until the heat wave passes in a Facebook post Friday. “It is straight up hot as soccer balls out there,” the department wrote in the post.  Yes, a police department really used the phrase “hot as soccer balls.” While temperatures in the area could reach 102 degrees, it’ll likely feel even worse: the heat index, or the more accurate temperature your body feels when air temperature and humidity are both factored in, could be as high as 115 degrees, the weather service said. That’s simply too hot for lawbreaking, Braintree police said. Committing a crime in this sort of weather is “next level henchmen status,” the department said, not to mention dangerous to the offender’s health.In the post, the department suggested everyone wait out the heat wave indoors and suspend the illegal stuff until things cool down. “Stay home, blast the AC, binge Stranger Things season 3, play with the face app, practice karate in your basement,” police said. “We will all meet again on Monday when it’s cooler.”The message is signed, “The PoPo.”



While I’m sure we all think it’s swell that the Braintree Police Department is concerned for the health of potential law breakers, I’m just cynical enough to believe that they were motivated by two factors other than the health of those potential law breakers. One, the “PoPo” themselves did not want to have to go out in the heat if they didn’t have to, and two, they know – as we’ve known for over 100 years – that our heart rates, blood pressure, and testosterone levels rise with the mercury, which means that irritability, aggressive behavior, and violent crime rise with the heat as well.



We all know this to be true; it’s built into our very language.]]>
Robert Greenberg 7:56
Music History Monday: What Would We Do Without Him? https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-what-would-we-do-without-him/ Mon, 15 Jul 2019 13:00:27 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5493 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-what-would-we-do-without-him/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-what-would-we-do-without-him/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/14170519/Carl_Czerny-684x1024.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the death on July 15, 1857 – 162 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, pianist and teacher Carl Czerny.  What would we do without him? Indeed. Excepting Ferdinand Ries (who was, like Czerny, a student of Beethoven’s), no one has left us more numerous and more accurate first-hand accounts of Beethoven than Czerny. He was a great pianist and perhaps the greatest pianist who never played in public. (I would qualify that statement, because as a young man Czerny did indeed play in public a handful of times; for example, Beethoven entrusted the 21-year-old Czerny with the first public performance in Vienna of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the “Emperor”, on February 12, 1812. But in fact, Czerny hated the pressure of performing in public, hated travelling, and felt that “my playing lacked the type of brilliant, calculated charlantry that is usually part of a travelling virtuoso’s essential equipment.” So he stayed home in Vienna, where he performed in private, composed, and taught.) He was, very likely, the single most important piano teacher of the nineteenth century. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians he was “a central figure in… <p><a href="https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-what-would-we-do-without-him/" rel="nofollow" class="btn">Continue Reading…</a></p>

We mark the death on July 15, 1857 – 162 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, pianist and teacher Carl Czerny. 

Carl Czerny in 1833
Carl Czerny (1791-1827) in 1833

What would we do without him? Indeed. Excepting Ferdinand Ries (who was, like Czerny, a student of Beethoven’s), no one has left us more numerous and more accurate first-hand accounts of Beethoven than Czerny. He was a great pianist and perhaps the greatest pianist who never played in public. (I would qualify that statement, because as a young man Czerny did indeed play in public a handful of times; for example, Beethoven entrusted the 21-year-old Czerny with the first public performance in Vienna of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the “Emperor”, on February 12, 1812. But in fact, Czerny hated the pressure of performing in public, hated travelling, and felt that “my playing lacked the type of brilliant, calculated charlantry that is usually part of a travelling virtuoso’s essential equipment.” So he stayed home in Vienna, where he performed in private, composed, and taught.)

He was, very likely, the single most important piano teacher of the nineteenth century. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians he was “a central figure in the transmission of Beethoven’s legacy”, a piano teacher who numbered among his star students Stephan Heller, Sigismond Thalberg, Theodor Leschetizky, and Franz Liszt.

 
Flow-chart of Czerny’s impact as a piano teacher as of 1927
Flow-chart of Czerny’s impact as a piano teacher as of 1927, from The Etude magazine

(In late August of 1819 Liszt’s father Adam brought his son to Czerny’s studio in Vienna. Czerny remembered:

“One morning in 1819, a man with a small boy approached me with a request to let the youngster play something on the piano.  He was a pale, sickly-looking child who, while playing, swayed about on the stool as if drunk, so that I thought that he would fall to the floor. His playing was also quite irregular, and he had so little idea of fingering that he threw his fingers quite arbitrarily around the keyboard. But that notwithstanding, I was astonished at the talent nature had bestowed upon him. He played something which I gave him to sight-read like a pure ‘natural’. It was just the same when, at his father’s request, I gave him a theme on which to improvise. Without the slightest knowledge of harmony, he still brought a touch of genius to his rendering. The father told me that he himself had taught the boy till now; but he asked me whether if I would myself accept his little ‘Franzi’. I told him I would be glad to.”

Czerny later wrote:

“Never before had I had so eager, talented, or industrious a student. After only a year I could let him perform publicly, and he aroused a degree of enthusiasm in Vienna that few artists have equaled.” 

Czerny, who taught from 8 am to 8 pm, giving twelve lessons a day – a workload he himself called “lucrative but taxing.” – taught Liszt for free, giving him lessons every evening after having finished his day’s work. Liszt became a de-facto member of the Czerny family, and was grateful to Czerny – whom he always referred to, no matter how famous he got, as “My Dear, Revered Master” – for the rest of his life.)

Carl Czerny as a young man
Czerny as a young man

Czerny was a tireless composer, who churned out thousands of works and whose final opus number was a staggering Op. 861(!!!) Harold Schonberg describes Czerny’s method of composing:

“A skullcap on his head, he would work on four or five compositions simultaneously, running from one to the other as the ink dried enough for him to turn the pages, while carrying on an animated conversation with anybody who happened to be in the room.”

While many of Czerny’s works are pedagogical in nature, many are not, and his music – derided by many – has been admired by some heavy hitters, including Igor Stravinsky, who wrote:

“As to Czerny, I have been appreciating the full-blooded musician in him more than the remarkable pedagogue.”

Carl Czerny was born in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna on February 21, 1791. He was a musical child prodigy who began playing the piano at three, composing at seven, and made his public debut at nine – in 1800 – performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor.

That same year – 1800 – Czerny began regular lessons with Beethoven, which continued to 1804 and occasionally thereafter. In 1805 Beethoven gave Czerny the following written recommendation:

“I, the undersigned, am glad to bear testimony to young Czerny having made the most extraordinary progress on the pianoforte, far beyond what might be expected at the age of fourteen. I consider him deserving of all possible assistance, not only because of what I have already referred to, but because of his astonishing memory.”

Beethoven wasn’t exaggerating when he referred to Czerny’s “astonishing memory.” That memory allowed him to memorize virtually every one of Beethoven’s piano works. During the years 1804 and 1805, the 13 and 14-year-old Czerny performed Beethoven’s music once or twice a week at the Viennese palace of Beethoven’s patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky. During these musicales, Lichnowsky would simply call out an opus number, and Czerny would perform it.

Portrait of Beethoven in 1801
A rather idealized portrait of Beethoven (1770-1827) in 1801

For all of his pianism, his enduring influence as a teacher, and his countless compositions, it is Czerny’s memories of Beethoven that have made him “the person we cannot do without.” As an example, here is Czerny’s wonderful account of his first meeting and initial lessons with Beethoven.

“I was about 10 years old [more likely 9] when I was taken to Beethoven through the kind offices of Krumpholz. [Václav Krumpholz was a Czech-born mandolin and violin player who arranged to introduce Czerny to Beethoven.] It was the winter of 1799-1800. How I was overjoyed and terrified on the day when I was to meet the esteemed master! On a winter’s day, my father, Krumpholz and I walked from the Leopoldstadt, where we still lived, into the city, to the so-called Tiefer Graben [a street name], climbed up, as if in a tower, to the fifth or sixth floor, where a rather grubby looking servant announced us to Beethoven and showed us in. A very barren looking room, papers and clothes strewn all over the place, a few boxes, bare walls, hardly a single chair save for a rickety one by the piano, a Walter, at the time the best make. In this room were gathered six to eight persons, including [the violinist] Schuppanzigh and one of Beethoven’s brothers.

Beethoven himself was dressed in a jacket of some shaggy dark grey cloth and trousers of the same material, so that he immediately reminded me of Robinson Crusoe which I had just then read. The coal-black hair cut a la Titus stood up around his head. His black beard, unshaven for several days, darkened the lower part of his already dark-complexion face. Also I noticed at a glance, as children are wont to do, that his ears were stuffed with cotton wool which seems to have been dipped in some yellow fluid. Yet at that time not the slightest sign of deafness was apparent. I had to play something immediately, and since I was too shy to begin with one of his compositions, I played Mozart’s great C Major Concerto [K. 503] which begins with chords. Beethoven was immediately attentive; he came close to my chair and played with his left hand the orchestra part in those sections where I had only accompanying passages. His hands were very hairy and his fingers, especially at the tips, very broad. He expressed himself as being satisfied, so I made bold and played [his] Pathétique Sonata which had then just appeared. When I had finished, Beethoven turned to my father and said, ‘The boy has talent. I will teach him myself and accept him as my pupil. Send him to me a few times a week. Before anything else, obtain for him Emanuel Bach’s handbook on the proper way to play the clavier [keyboard], so he can bring it with him the next time he comes.

In the first lessons, Beethoven gave me scales in every key, showed me the only proper position of the hands and of the fingers and particularly the use of the thumb, then unknown to the majority of players, rules whose complete scope I mastered only at a much later time.

Then he went over the exercises of the handbook with me and drew my special attention to legato [smooth, singing playing] of which he himself was an unequalled master and which, at that time, all other pianists believed to be impossible to obtain on the Fortepiano. At that time, dating still from Mozart’s days, the clipped and staccato way of playing was the fashion.”

Priceless!

As we might expect for someone with 861 published works, Czerny made a lot of money, and had no one to leave it to when he died: he never married, had no brothers or sisters or any other near relatives; just cats (7-10 of them at any given time). So he willed his fortune to a number of different charities – including one for the deaf – to the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna, and to his housekeeper.

Rest easy, Maestro.

For lots more on Ludwig van Beethoven, I would invite you to peruse my courses on Beethoven’s life, his symphonies (on sale now), his piano sonatas and his string quartets produced by The Great Courses and available for examination and download here at RobertGreenbergMusic.com.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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We mark the death on July 15, 1857 – 162 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, pianist and teacher Carl Czerny. We mark the death on July 15, 1857 – 162 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, pianist and teacher Carl Czerny. 



Carl Czerny (1791-1827) in 1833



What would we do without him? Indeed. Excepting Ferdinand Ries (who was, like Czerny, a student of Beethoven’s), no one has left us more numerous and more accurate first-hand accounts of Beethoven than Czerny. He was a great pianist and perhaps the greatest pianist who never played in public. (I would qualify that statement, because as a young man Czerny did indeed play in public a handful of times; for example, Beethoven entrusted the 21-year-old Czerny with the first public performance in Vienna of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the “Emperor”, on February 12, 1812. But in fact, Czerny hated the pressure of performing in public, hated travelling, and felt that “my playing lacked the type of brilliant, calculated charlantry that is usually part of a travelling virtuoso’s essential equipment.” So he stayed home in Vienna, where he performed in private, composed, and taught.)



He was, very likely, the single most important piano teacher of the nineteenth century. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians he was “a central figure in the transmission of Beethoven’s legacy”, a piano teacher who numbered among his star students Stephan Heller, Sigismond Thalberg, Theodor Leschetizky, and Franz Liszt.



 



Flow-chart of Czerny’s impact as a piano teacher as of 1927, from The Etude magazine



(In late August of 1819 Liszt’s father Adam brought his son to Czerny’s studio in Vienna. Czerny remembered:



“One morning in 1819, a man with a small boy approached me with a request to let the youngster play something on the piano.  He was a pale, sickly-looking child who, while playing, swayed about on the stool as if drunk, so that I thought that he would fall to the floor. His playing was also quite irregular, and he had so little idea of fingering that he threw his fingers quite arbitrarily around the keyboard. But that notwithstanding, I was astonished at the talent nature had bestowed upon him. He played something which I gave him to sight-read like a pure ‘natural’. It was just the same when, at his father’s request, I gave him a theme on which to improvise. Without the slightest knowledge of harmony, he still brought a touch of genius to his rendering. The father told me that he himself had taught the boy till now; but he asked me whether if I would myself accept his little ‘Franzi’. I told him I would be glad to.”



Czerny later wrote:



“Never before had I had so eager, talented, or industrious a student. After only a year I could let him perform publicly, and he aroused a degree of enthusiasm in Vienna that few artists have equaled.” 



Czerny, who taught from 8 am to 8 pm, giving twelve lessons a day – a workload he himself called “lucrative but taxing.” – taught Liszt for free, giving him lessons every evening after having finished his day’s work. Liszt became a de-facto member of the Czerny family, and was grateful to Czerny – whom he always referred to, no matter how famous he got, as “My Dear, Revered Master” – for the rest of his life.)



Czerny as a young man



Czerny was a tireless composer, who churned out thousands of works and whose final opus number was a staggering Op. 861(!!!) Harold Schonberg describes Czerny’s method of composing:



“A skullcap on his head, he would work on four or five compositions simultaneously, running from one to the other as the ink dried enough for him to turn the pages, while carrying on an animated conversation with anybody who hap...]]>
Robert Greenberg 12:15
Music History Monday: The Futurist Terrible https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-futurist-terrible/ Mon, 08 Jul 2019 13:48:35 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5471 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-futurist-terrible/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-futurist-terrible/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/08063956/Antheil1927-712x1024.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We mark the birth on July 8, 1900 – 119 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, author, inventor and self-described “bad boy of music”, George Antheil (pronounced Ann-tile).  Antheil lived a fascinating life. He composed a lot of music, including six operas, twenty works for orchestra (including six numbered symphonies); 15 major works of chamber music (including three string quartets and four violin sonatas); scores for over 30 movies and lots of music for TV. He wrote magazine and newspaper articles, and wrote three books, including a crime novel edited and published in 1930 by his friend T. S. Eliot entitled Death in the Dark. And he invented stuff.  For all of this, he is remembered – when he is remembered at all – for his firstmajor composition, a work entitled Ballet Mécanique and for having invented and patented, along with a woman known best by her stage name as Hedy Lamarr, a system for the radio control of airborne torpedoes that made them impervious to jamming. (Yes, I will tell that story!) Antheil was born and grew up in Trenton New Jersey and died in New York City (a heart attack) on February 12, 1959.  He started… <p><a href="https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-the-futurist-terrible/" rel="nofollow" class="btn">Continue Reading…</a></p>
A robotic performance of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique (sans airplane engines) staged at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in March 2006

We mark the birth on July 8, 1900 – 119 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, author, inventor and self-described “bad boy of music”, George Antheil (pronounced Ann-tile). 

George Antheil in 1927
George Antheil (1900-1959) in 1927

Antheil lived a fascinating life. He composed a lot of music, including six operas, twenty works for orchestra (including six numbered symphonies); 15 major works of chamber music (including three string quartets and four violin sonatas); scores for over 30 movies and lots of music for TV. He wrote magazine and newspaper articles, and wrote three books, including a crime novel edited and published in 1930 by his friend T. S. Eliot entitled Death in the Dark. And he invented stuff. 

For all of this, he is remembered – when he is remembered at all – for his firstmajor composition, a work entitled Ballet Mécanique and for having invented and patented, along with a woman known best by her stage name as Hedy Lamarr, a system for the radio control of airborne torpedoes that made them impervious to jamming. (Yes, I will tell that story!)

Antheil was born and grew up in Trenton New Jersey and died in New York City (a heart attack) on February 12, 1959. 

He started piano lessons at six, and by the time he was in his late teens he had become a formidable (if idiosyncratic) pianist. 

Margaret Caroline Anderson, the founder, editor and publisher of the extremely influential art and literary magazine The Little Review described the roughly 20-year-old Antheil as being short, as having a strangely shaped nose, and as someone who played on the piano:

“a compelling mechanical music [that used] the piano exclusively as an instrument of percussion, making it sound like a xylophone or a cembalo.”

Antheil was a technology nut, and the music he composed in the early 1920s was obsessed with the “machine” as a metaphor for modern life. But more than just a good pianist with a modernist bent, and despite the fact that he never formally graduated from high school or college, Antheil had a combination of chutzpah, charisma and enthusiasm that enabled him to ingratiate himself to a wide variety of older people who today would be called “influencers.” These people included the aforementioned Margaret Anderson; the photographer Alfred Stieglitz; the conductor Leopold Stokowski; and the publishing heiress Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who founded the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924 and who underwrote Antheil’s career for twenty years, giving him the financial freedom to “follow his muse.”

It was as a self-styled “musical prophet” that the not-quite 22-year-old George Antheil set sail for Europe on May 30, 1922, intent on making a name for himself as – in his own words – “a new ultra-modern pianist composer” and a “futurist terrible.” He started out in Berlin but moved to Paris on the advice of none-other-than Igor Stravinsky (who Antheil temporarily managed to charm but who dropped him like a hot pierogi when he found out that Antheil was telling people that “Stravinsky admired his work”).

Antheil circa 1925, photographed by Man Ray
Antheil circa 1925, photographed by Man Ray

Paris was a hotbed of intellectual and artistic experimentation in the 1920s. Antheil rented a one-bedroom apartment above the famous left-bank bookshop “Shakespeare and Company.” Its founder and owner, Sylvia Beach – who was the first to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses – described him as: 

“a fellow with bangs, a squished nose and a big mouth with a grin in it. A regular American high school boy.” 

To which we would add a brash “American boy” with the gift of gab and an armload of talent. Antheil was described by his Parisian friends as a combination of Igor Stravinsky and James Cagney. Those friends were an impressive bunch, and they included Erik Satie, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virgil Thomson, and Ernest Hemingway.

Antheil’s first major work, composed in Paris in 1926, is also his most famous work: the Ballet Mécanique. The Ballet Mécanique was originally intended to accompany an experimental film likewise entitled Ballet Mécanique. The film – created in 1924 – is a Dadaist art film conceived, written, and co-directed by the artist Fernand Léger in partnership with the filmmaker Dudley Murphy with cinematographic input from Man Ray. Goodness; Paris in the 1920s was a namedropper’s heaven. For our information, Antheil’s composition and the Léger-Murphy-Ray film were not actually heard-and-seen together until 1935, in a “performance” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)

Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique was originally scored for 16 synchronized player pianos (called “pianolos”, Antheil devised a system that synchronized the pianos), 2 standard pianos, 3 xylophones, 7 electric bells, 4 bass drums, a tam-tam (a large suspended cymbal), a siren, and three airplane engines and propeller assemblies mounted on stands. 

As we have observed Antheil loved machines and what he called the: 

“anti-expressive, anti-romantic, coldly mechanistic aesthetic of the early twenties.” 

He described his Ballet Mécanique as:

“Scored for player pianos. All percussive. Like machines. All efficiency. No LOVE. Written without sympathy. Written cold as an army operates. Revolutionary.” 

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 15 avenue Montaigne, Paris
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 15 avenue Montaigne, Paris

The link to the robotic version of the Ballet Mécanique above runs under twelve minutes. If you find that roughly 11½ minute version too unrelentingly intense, imagine how the audience at the premiere at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on June 19, 1926 felt about the original, twenty-seven-minute-long version of the piece! Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique is devoid of reflection or feeling; it is music that would seem to mirror the same brutal, mindless, industrial war that had just slaughtered an entire generation of European men.

The audience’s reaction at the premiere was mixed, and the technical problems began immediately, when the large fans that were being substituted for the airplane engines began blowing off the hats and toupees of various audience members. The American writer Bravig Imbs (yes, that is a real name), described the scene:

“People began to call each other names and to forget that there was any music going on at all. Ezra Pound took advantage to jump to his feet and yell, “You are all imbeciles!” One fat, bald gentleman lashed out his umbrella, opened it, and pretended to be struggling against the gale of wind from the electric fans. His gesture was immediately copied by many.” 

After the concert, fistfights broke out in the street between Antheil’s supporters and his detractors. It was the most substantial musical riot since the Paris premiere – at exactly same theater – of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913: 13 years, one month, and six days before. Antheil was thrilled. He wrote: 

“From this moment on I knew that, for a time at least, I would be the darling of Paris. Paris loves you for giving it a good fight.” 

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (Hedy Lamarr)
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (Hedy Lamarr) (1914-2000)

Antheil returned to the United States for good in 1933. In 1936 he settled in Los Angeles, where he became a sought-after composer for film. In 1940, he met a Vienna-born woman named Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1914-2000). Antheil knew her by her stage name of Hedy Lamarr. (Lamarr was born Jewish but converted to Christianity at the insistence of the first of her six husbands when she was 19-years-old. Nevertheless, she left Europe for good in 1938 after the Anschluss that saw Nazi Germany absorb and annex Austria. She managed to get her mother out of Austria as well; they both eventually became naturalized American citizens.) 

Lamarr signed her first contract with MGM in 1938; by the time George Antheil met her in 1940 she was one of MGM’s hottest stars and one of the greatest beauties ever to grace the screen. It was said that when her face appeared on screen:

“everyone gasped. Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away.”

However, Lamarr was much more than just a pretty face (she once said that “any girl can be glamorous; all you have to do is stand still and look stupid”). She was – like Antheil – a self-taught inventor of genius. She tinkered constantly, and invented – among other things – an improved traffic light and a tablet that when dissolved in water would make a carbonated drink. Lamarr herself judged the latter to be a failure, claiming that it tasted like Alka-Seltzer.

Antheil recalled their first meeting:

“We began talking about the war, which, in the late summer of 1940, was looking most extremely black. Hedy said that she did not feel very comfortable, sitting there in Hollywood and making lots of money when things were in such a state. She said that she knew a good deal about munitions and various secret weapons and that she was thinking seriously of quitting MGM and going to Washington, DC, to offer her services to the newly established National Inventors Council.”  

Hedy Lamarr, George Antheil and his Wife
Hedy Lamarr, center; George Antheil, second from right and his wife, Boski, second from left

After America entered the war in December 1941, Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes – which were then a brand-new technology – could be easily jammed and thus sent off course. She figured that if the radio frequency controlling the torpedoes could be changed rapidly, in a semi-random sequence known only to the transmitter and receiver, jamming would become impossible. She contacted her friend George Antheil, and together they invented a system for the radio control of airborne torpedoes that made them impervious to jamming, a technology they called “frequency-hopping.” Lamarr and Antheil received a US Patent (#2,292,387) for the technology on August 11, 1942, although it wasn’t until the 1960s that the technology was finally adopted by the U.S. Navy. The principles of frequency-hopping are today a key element in Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth technology. Under the heading of better-late-than-never, in 2014 both George Antheil and Hedy Lamarr were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

A happy 119th, George Antheil!

For lots more on the music of the twentieth century, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, The Great Music of the Twentieth Century, which can be examined and purchased for download at RobertGreenbergMusic.com.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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We mark the birth on July 8, 1900 – 119 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, author, inventor and self-described “bad boy of music”, George Antheil.

A robotic performance of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique (sans airplane engines) staged at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in March 2006



We mark the birth on July 8, 1900 – 119 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, author, inventor and self-described “bad boy of music”, George Antheil (pronounced Ann-tile). 



George Antheil (1900-1959) in 1927



Antheil lived a fascinating life. He composed a lot of music, including six operas, twenty works for orchestra (including six numbered symphonies); 15 major works of chamber music (including three string quartets and four violin sonatas); scores for over 30 movies and lots of music for TV. He wrote magazine and newspaper articles, and wrote three books, including a crime novel edited and published in 1930 by his friend T. S. Eliot entitled Death in the Dark. And he invented stuff. 



For all of this, he is remembered – when he is remembered at all – for his firstmajor composition, a work entitled Ballet Mécanique and for having invented and patented, along with a woman known best by her stage name as Hedy Lamarr, a system for the radio control of airborne torpedoes that made them impervious to jamming. (Yes, I will tell that story!)



Antheil was born and grew up in Trenton New Jersey and died in New York City (a heart attack) on February 12, 1959. 



He started piano lessons at six, and by the time he was in his late teens he had become a formidable (if idiosyncratic) pianist. 



Margaret Caroline Anderson, the founder, editor and publisher of the extremely influential art and literary magazine The Little Review described the roughly 20-year-old Antheil as being short, as having a strangely shaped nose, and as someone who played on the piano:



“a compelling mechanical music [that used] the piano exclusively as an instrument of percussion, making it sound like a xylophone or a cembalo.”



Antheil was a technology nut, and the music he composed in the early 1920s was obsessed with the “machine” as a metaphor for modern life. But more than just a good pianist with a modernist bent, and despite the fact that he never formally graduated from high school or college, Antheil had a combination of chutzpah, charisma and enthusiasm that enabled him to ingratiate himself to a wide variety of older people who today would be called “influencers.” These people included the aforementioned Margaret Anderson; the photographer Alfred Stieglitz; the conductor Leopold Stokowski; and the publishing heiress Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who founded the Curtis Institute of Music in 1924 and who underwrote Antheil’s career for twenty years, giving him the financial freedom to “follow his muse.”



It was as a self-styled “musical prophet” that the not-quite 22-year-old George Antheil set sail for Europe on May 30, 1922, intent on making a name for himself as – in his own words – “a new ultra-modern pianist composer” and a “futurist terrible.” He started out in Berlin but moved to Paris on the advice of none-other-than Igor Stravinsky (who Antheil temporarily managed to charm but who dropped him like a hot pierogi when he found out that Antheil was telling people that “Stravinsky admired his work”).



Antheil circa 1925, photographed by Man Ray



Paris was a hotbed of intellectual and artistic experimentation in the 1920s. Antheil rented a one-bedroom apartment above the famous left-bank bookshop “Shakespeare and Company.” Its founder and owner, Sylvia Beach – who was the first to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses – described him as: 



“a fellow with bangs, a squished nose and a big mouth with a grin in it.]]>
Robert Greenberg 14:43
Music History Monday: Pierre Monteux: One of the Great Ones https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/pierre-monteux-one-of-the-great-ones/ Mon, 01 Jul 2019 19:04:00 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5445 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/pierre-monteux-one-of-the-great-ones/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/pierre-monteux-one-of-the-great-ones/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/01115329/Pierre-Monteux-1952.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We acknowledge the death – on July 1, 1964, 55 years ago today – of the French-American conductor and teacher Pierre Monteux, who passed away at his home in Hancock, Maine at the age of 89. Conductors: love them or hate them, we can’t live without them. Composers and instrumental musicians have mixed feelings about conductors, and rightly so. (I’m leaving singers out of the mix here because it’s been my experience that singers, bless them, will generally do what they damn please, conductor or no conductor.)  As a composer, I can tell you that it is disquieting to hand over a “child of my imagination” – a score – to a conductor. I know that 99% of the time that conductor will do her level best to perform the piece to my specifications, whether she herself “likes” the piece or not. But you never really know what’s going to happen in a performance, and every composer I know has at least a couple of horror stories to tell when it comes to their experience with conductors. (I had a Concerto for Vibraphone and Chamber Orchestra premiered on a Monday Evening Concert at the Los Angeles County Museum some 25… <p><a href="https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/pierre-monteux-one-of-the-great-ones/" rel="nofollow" class="btn">Continue Reading…</a></p>
Pierre Monteux in 1952
Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) in 1952, San Francisco

We acknowledge the death – on July 1, 1964, 55 years ago today – of the French-American conductor and teacher Pierre Monteux, who passed away at his home in Hancock, Maine at the age of 89.

Conductors: love them or hate them, we can’t live without them.

Composers and instrumental musicians have mixed feelings about conductors, and rightly so. (I’m leaving singers out of the mix here because it’s been my experience that singers, bless them, will generally do what they damn please, conductor or no conductor.) 

As a composer, I can tell you that it is disquieting to hand over a “child of my imagination” – a score – to a conductor. I know that 99% of the time that conductor will do her level best to perform the piece to my specifications, whether she herself “likes” the piece or not. But you never really know what’s going to happen in a performance, and every composer I know has at least a couple of horror stories to tell when it comes to their experience with conductors.

(I had a Concerto for Vibraphone and Chamber Orchestra premiered on a Monday Evening Concert at the Los Angeles County Museum some 25 years ago. The dress rehearsal was a disaster. Now, there is a school of thought that subscribes to the belief that a terrible dress rehearsal means a successful first performance. I myself do not attend that school; merde on Monday afternoon does not usually transmogrify into ambrosia on Monday evening. Anyway, after the dress rehearsal, the conductor – a super guy, really – sheepishly said to me, “Well, we got the shape of the piece!” My response was something on the lines of, “I drop my toddler off at daycare at 8 am. I pick him up at 4 pm. He’s missing an arm; his ears are mangled; a few of his toes are gone and his hair has been torn out. When I ask ‘what happened?!?’ I’m told, ‘well, his shape is still there.’”)

As for musicians, no one likes being told constantly what to do, particularly if it goes against the grain of one’s own experience, and yet that’s exactly what orchestral musicians deal with on a day-to-day basis. And for – say – a 60-year-old professional violinist, who has been there and done that, to be told what to do by a thirty-something conductor the violinist does not respect? That can create a degree of bitterness in the mouth of the violinist that makes apple cider vinegar taste like Hawaiian Punch. 

It takes a certain sort of person to want to be a professional conductor; the same sort of person who wants to be a CEO, or a head coach, or a battlefield commander, or for that matter, the President of the United States: someone who both wants to lead and is, at the same time, convinced beyond any doubt of the rightness of his or her thinking. If such an individual is a principled person of sensitivity and intelligence, the inherent megalomania in wanting to always “be-in-charge” will almost certainly be moderated by ethical behavior. But heaven help us when a person-in-charge is unprincipled, insensitive and unintelligent. And while it is unusual in the professional world for such a person to attain a high-leadership role, it is sadly – even tragically – not as rare as we might like to think. 

And while such less-than-savory conductors have indeed existed, from here on out, let us dwell not on the negative but rather, on what makes conductorial greatness.

What makes a great conductor?

A great conductor is a musician of the very first rank, able to hear in his head and play at the piano even the most complex orchestral scores. But more than just a top-flight musician, he must be, alternately, a therapist, critic, benevolent friend and tyrant as he rehearses and shapes a work for performance. 

Some new age-type conductors even talk today about giving their players ownership of the music. This is a lovely, politically-correct concept, though it is a concept, as every leader knows, that can be taken only so far. The bottom line is that a conductor can neither abdicate nor delegate his or her responsibility: the musical buck must stop at the podium. An orchestra is not a democracy. A great conductor is an enlightened despot who can, to a degree, empower her players without ever surrendering her own power, vision, and responsibility.

Permit me to add to this list of what makes a conductor “great” a few very personal qualifications, qualifications with which not everyone will agree.

One. It has been my experience that the best high school and youth orchestra conductors qualify as great conductors, and here’s why: they must not just lead with a clarity and precision far greater than someone conducting professionals, but they must also teach and at the same time encourage and inspire their student charges. Such a conductor changes lives on a daily basis, and I stand in awe of what they do.

Two. I personally have no patience for abusive, sarcastic, or dictatorial behavior from conductors which, thankfully, has been on the decline since the mid-twentieth century. Color me a candy-derriere, but I do not believe – given the way most people are today – that quality music making can take place in a hostile environment. (The last casual band I ever played in was a combination Top-40/Klezmer[!] quartet called “Hot Borscht.” I hated every minute I was in that band. A primary reason was the drummer, who was a total jerk. At one point I asked him up front why he always had to be such a butt-wipe. His response, after telling me to go eff myself, was that “you don’t have to like someone to play with him.” Au contraire dude, music is love, and I do need to at least “like” the people I perform with. I left that band as soon as I was able to.)

Three. Conductorial greatness requires taking risks and not being afraid of what is new. To me, the most important conductors are those who have both distinguished themselves in the standard repertoire and have, as well, championed new music across the course of their careers.

By every standard – including mine – Pierre Monteux was among the very greatest of conductors.

Pierre Monteux in 1935
Pierre Monteux in 1935

What an amazing life he led. 

Pierre Benjamin Monteux was born in Paris on April 4, 1875, the fifth of six children born into a Sephardic Jewish family. 

He began to play the violin at six and was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 9. (Among his fellow violin students at the Conservatoire were George Enescu, Carl Flesch, and Fritz Kreisler. Whoa.) At the age of 12 he organized and conducted an orchestra of Conservatoire students in order to accompany his friend and fellow student, the pianist Alfred Cortot, in performances of concertos in and around Paris. While he was still a student – from 1889 to 1892 – Monteux played violin in the pit at the Folies Bergère; many years later he told George Gershwin that it was playing the popular dance music at the Folies that forged his rhythmic sensibilities.

 
Monteux (second from right) playing viola in a string quartet
Monteux (second from right) playing viola in a string quartet with Johannes Wolff, Gustave Lijon and André Dulaurons, circa 1900; Edvard Grieg sits in front

In the early 1890s, Monteux joined the Geloso String Quartet – the resident quartet of the Beethoven Society – as a violinist and violist. 

He loved to share what Johannes Brahms himself said when the quartet played one of his quartets for him: “It takes the French to play my music properly. The Germans all play it much too heavily”. 

(Many years later – while in his seventies – Monteux sat in with the Budapest Quartet and played Beethoven quartets without the benefit of a score or a part. When he was asked by the record producer and pianist Erik Smith if he could actually write out the parts of any one of the Beethoven quartets, Monteux nodded and said, “You know, I cannot forget them.”)

Short, portly, and sporting a walrus moustache, this was the already distinguished musician who began conducting professionally in 1902, when he was hired as an assistant conductor at the Dieppe Casino on the Normandy coast.

Monteux’s break came in 1910. He was, at the time, the principal violist and assistant conductor of a Paris-based orchestra called Concerts Colonne. In 1910, this orchestra was hired by Serge Diaghilev to play in the pit for the second season of his Ballets Russes. Monteux played viola for the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. In 1911, Stravinsky personally chose Monteux to conduct the premiere of Petrushka, and Monteux’s conducting career was truly launched. Diaghilev appointed him the Principal Conductor of the Ballets Russes. He toured with the troupe and performed, among many other works, Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet version of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the world premiere of Debussy’s Jeux, and of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.

Pierre Monteux in 1912
Monteux in 1912, “Head of the Orchestra of the Ballets Russes”

The event that almost overnight made Monteux a world-famous conductor at the age of 38 occurred on May 29, 1913, when he conducted the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Monteux had first heard the score as played on a piano by Stravinsky in a tiny rehearsal room in the Théâtre du Casino. Monteux recalled:

“Stravinsky sat down to play a piano reduction of the entire score. Before he got very far, I was convinced he was raving mad. Heard this way, without the color of the orchestra – which is one of its greatest distinctions – the crudity of the rhythm was emphasized, its stark primitiveness underlined. The very walls resounded as Stravinsky pounded away, occasionally stamping his feet and jumping up and down to accentuate the force of the music; not that it needed much emphasis. My only comment at the end was that such music would surely cause a scandal.”

Monteux was correct: the premiere of The Rite did indeed “cause a scandal”. The riot that occurred at that first performance remains among the most legendary events in the history of Western music. The hero of that night was not Stravinsky, who left his seat in a huff (or perhaps a minute-and-a-huff; thank you Groucho); nor was it Diaghilev, who kept flicking the house lights on and off in an attempt to quiet the audience; nor was it the choreographer Nijinsky, who kept shouting numbers (“like a coxswain”, according to Stravinsky) in his futile attempt to keep the dancers together; rather, the hero was Pierre Monteux, who kept going. Stravinsky recalled:

“The image of Monteux’s back is more vivid in my mind today than the picture of the stage. He stood there apparently impervious and as nerveless as a crocodile. It is still incredible to me that he actually brought the orchestra through to the end.”

(For our information, Monteux’s recording of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with the Boston Symphony Orchestra will be the topic of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post.)

Thanks to that premiere performance of The Rite of Spring, Monteux’s conducting career went into high international gear. He was the principal conductor of French repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1917 to 1919; the Principal Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1919 to 1924; the “First Conductor” of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam from 1924-34; a principal conductor of the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris from 1929 to 1938, and the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony from 1936 to 1952. 

Monteux circa 1945 during Dungeness Crab season in San Francisco
Monteux circa 1945 during Dungeness Crab season in San Francisco

Monteux had first conducted in San Francisco in 1931. When he was offered the Directorship in 1935, he hesitated: his wife had no desire to live off the west coast of the United States and financial issues had forced the symphony to cancel its entire 1934 season. Nevertheless Monteux – now 60 years old – took the job and, according to the New York Times, his tenure had:

“an incalculable effect on American musical culture, [giving him] the opportunity to expand his already substantial repertory, and by gradual, natural processes to deepen his understanding of his art.”

With the invasion and occupation of France in 1940, Monteux could not return to Paris, and he became a naturalized American citizen in 1942.

In 1961, at the age of 86, he was offered and he signed a 25 year contract to become the Chief Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, which he retained until his death three years later, 55 years ago today, on July 1, 1964.

By every possible standard, Pierre Monteux was a great conductor.

He was a tireless champion of new music as well as lesser-known works by lesser-known composers. 

Monteux’s fidelity to “the score” was absolute. In an era when conductors took liberties that would be unthinkable today, Monteux’s conducting, more than even Toscanini’s, was about the score. He wrote: 

 “Our principal work is to keep the orchestra together and carry out the composer’s instructions, not to be sartorial models, cause dowagers to swoon, or distract audiences by our ‘interpretation.’”

In many ways, Monteux was the “anti-Leonard Bernstein”, the “un-Lennie”, a conductor who simply refused to call attention to himself. In 1957, the music writer and director of the National Arts Foundation Carleton Smith observed:

“His approach to all music is that of the master-craftsman. Seeing him at work, modest and quiet, it is difficult to realize that he is a bigger box office attraction at the Metropolitan Opera House than any prima donna.”

As for teaching and inspiring students, Monteux considered teaching to be, after conducting, his second greatest calling. He wrote:

“Conducting is not enough. I must create something. I am not a composer, so I will create fine young musicians.”

And that he did. He began teaching conducting classes in Paris and Les Baux (in Provence) in the 1930s, where among his students was the great Ukranian-born conductor Igor Markevitch. Among the many student conductors who studied with him privately in the United States were Seiji Ozawa, José Serebrier, Robert Shaw, and André Previn. (Previn called Monteux “the kindest, wisest man I can remember, and there was nothing about conducting he didn’t know.”)

The name-dropping doesn’t stop there. In 1943 Monteux founded what is today known as the Monteux School and Music Festival in Hancock, Maine. Monteux School alums include Leon Fleisher, Erich Kunzel, Lorin Maazel, Neville Marriner, and David Zinman.

Finally, unlike that un-named drummer from “Hot Borscht” and many of Monteux’s fellow conductors, Monteux was beloved by the musicians that worked with him. The pioneering record producer for Decca Records John Culshaw described Monteux as being:

“that rarest of beings – a conductor who was loved by his orchestras. To call him a legend would be to understate the case.”

Well, we’re not understating the case. To you Maestro Monteux, on the anniversary of not your death, but the conclusion of a long and extraordinary life, well-lived.

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We acknowledge the death - on July 1, 1964, 55 years ago today – of the French-American conductor and teacher Pierre Monteux, who passed away at his home in Hancock, Maine at the age of 89. Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) in 1952, San Francisco



We acknowledge the death – on July 1, 1964, 55 years ago today – of the French-American conductor and teacher Pierre Monteux, who passed away at his home in Hancock, Maine at the age of 89.



Conductors: love them or hate them, we can’t live without them.



Composers and instrumental musicians have mixed feelings about conductors, and rightly so. (I’m leaving singers out of the mix here because it’s been my experience that singers, bless them, will generally do what they damn please, conductor or no conductor.) 



As a composer, I can tell you that it is disquieting to hand over a “child of my imagination” – a score – to a conductor. I know that 99% of the time that conductor will do her level best to perform the piece to my specifications, whether she herself “likes” the piece or not. But you never really know what’s going to happen in a performance, and every composer I know has at least a couple of horror stories to tell when it comes to their experience with conductors.



(I had a Concerto for Vibraphone and Chamber Orchestra premiered on a Monday Evening Concert at the Los Angeles County Museum some 25 years ago. The dress rehearsal was a disaster. Now, there is a school of thought that subscribes to the belief that a terrible dress rehearsal means a successful first performance. I myself do not attend that school; merde on Monday afternoon does not usually transmogrify into ambrosia on Monday evening. Anyway, after the dress rehearsal, the conductor – a super guy, really – sheepishly said to me, “Well, we got the shape of the piece!” My response was something on the lines of, “I drop my toddler off at daycare at 8 am. I pick him up at 4 pm. He’s missing an arm; his ears are mangled; a few of his toes are gone and his hair has been torn out. When I ask ‘what happened?!?’ I’m told, ‘well, his shape is still there.’”)



As for musicians, no one likes being told constantly what to do, particularly if it goes against the grain of one’s own experience, and yet that’s exactly what orchestral musicians deal with on a day-to-day basis. And for – say – a 60-year-old professional violinist, who has been there and done that, to be told what to do by a thirty-something conductor the violinist does not respect? That can create a degree of bitterness in the mouth of the violinist that makes apple cider vinegar taste like Hawaiian Punch. 



It takes a certain sort of person to want to be a professional conductor; the same sort of person who wants to be a CEO, or a head coach, or a battlefield commander, or for that matter, the President of the United States: someone who both wants to lead and is, at the same time, convinced beyond any doubt of the rightness of his or her thinking. If such an individual is a principled person of sensitivity and intelligence, the inherent megalomania in wanting to always “be-in-charge” will almost certainly be moderated by ethical behavior. But heaven help us when a person-in-charge is unprincipled, insensitive and unintelligent. And while it is unusual in the professional world for such a person to attain a high-leadership role, it is sadly – even tragically – not as rare as we might like to think. 



And while such less-than-savory conductors have indeed existed, from here on out, let us dwell not on the negative but rather, on what makes conductorial greatness.



What makes a great conductor?



A great conductor is a musician of the very first rank, able to hear in his head and play at the piano even the most complex orchestral scores. But more than just a top-flight musician, he must be, alternately, a therapist, critic, benevolent friend and tyrant as he rehearses and shape...]]>
Robert Greenberg 19:22
Music History Monday: Boogie Fever https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-boogie-fever/ Mon, 24 Jun 2019 18:11:29 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5423 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-boogie-fever/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-boogie-fever/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/24110535/StJohnsdance.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />On June 24, 1374 – 645 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to dash out of their houses and into the streets, where – inexplicably, compulsively and uncontrollably – they began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or simply dropped dead. Real disco inferno, boogie-fever stuff. It was the first major occurrence of what would come to be known as “dancing plague” or “choreomania”, which over the next years was to spread across Europe. There had been small outbreaks before, going back to the seventh century. An outbreak in 1237 saw a group of children jump and dance all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in what today is central Germany, a distance of some 13 miles. It was an event that might very well have given rise to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. But the outbreak in Aachen 645 years ago today was big: before it was over thousands upon thousands of men, women and children had taken to the streets as the “dancing plague” spread from Aachen to the cities of Cologne, Metz, Strasbourg, Hainaut, Utrecht,… <p><a href="https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-boogie-fever/" rel="nofollow" class="btn">Continue Reading…</a></p>

On June 24, 1374 – 645 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to dash out of their houses and into the streets, where – inexplicably, compulsively and uncontrollably – they began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or simply dropped dead. Real disco inferno, boogie-fever stuff. It was the first major occurrence of what would come to be known as “dancing plague” or “choreomania”, which over the next years was to spread across Europe.

 painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, after drawings by his father.
The authorities typically had music played during outbreaks of dancing plague, as it was believed to somehow “cure” the mania. A painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, after drawings by his father. Pieter Breughel the Younger, painting.

There had been small outbreaks before, going back to the seventh century. An outbreak in 1237 saw a group of children jump and dance all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in what today is central Germany, a distance of some 13 miles. It was an event that might very well have given rise to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

But the outbreak in Aachen 645 years ago today was big: before it was over thousands upon thousands of men, women and children had taken to the streets as the “dancing plague” spread from Aachen to the cities of Cologne, Metz, Strasbourg, Hainaut, Utrecht, Tongeren, and then across Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

This huge outbreak came to be called “St. John’s Dance”, though at other times and in other places it was called “St. Vitus’ Dance”. (These names were coined based on the assumption that the “plague” was the result of a curse cast by either St. John the Baptist or St. Vitus, the former having been beheaded by Herod Antipas between 28 and 36 CE and the latter martyred in 303 during the persecution of Christians by the co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian.) 

Writing in his book The Black Death and the Dancing Mania, the German physician and medical writer Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker (1795-1850) describes St. John’s Dance this way:

“They formed circles hand in hand and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack.”

The American medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew (born 1958) is an expert on mass hysteria, mass psychological illness, and hysterical contagion. Writing in his book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion (Macfarland, 2001), Bartholomew observes that sometimes tens of thousands of people would dance for hours, days, weeks, and even months at a time and that throughout, dancers screamed, laughed or cried.  And while we do not know whether the dancing was spontaneous or organized, the dancers themselves appeared to be unconscious and unable to control themselves. Bartholomew further notes that some dancers “paraded around naked, made obscene gestures and acted like animals”, while still others managed to have sexual intercourse while they danced. (This is all starting to sound like Studio 54 in New York City during the 1970s.)

Choreomania with Disco Granny at Studio 54, 1978
Choreomania with Disco Granny at Studio 54, 1978

So to the question each and every one of us is asking: what could cause such mass frenzy? Regrettably (but not unexpectedly), the answer is that no one really knows for sure. Of course, this doesn’t mean that lots of explanations haven’t been put forward, and here are a few of them.

Rye fungus. Writing in Toxipedia, Steven G. Gilbert, Ph.D. (who, according to his biography, “has been working to bring awareness about the health effects, history and politics of toxic substances to the public for over 30 years”) claims that the dancing plague was caused by a psychoactive toxin produced by a fungus that grows on rye grain. The fungus is called Claviceps purpurea, and it produces alkaloids that induce something called ergot poisoning or “ergotism,” which can induce hallucinations, delusions, and involuntary spasms. But as Robert Bartholomew points out, “not all of the regions affected by the strange compulsion to dance would been home to people who consumed rye. Furthermore, the outbreaks didn’t always happen during the wet season when the fungus would have grown.”

Okay; scratch ergot poisoning. 

Disease. Other folks have suggested that dancing mania might have been caused by encephalitis, epilepsy, or typhus, but like ergotism, those diseases cannot account for all the symptoms exhibited by dancing mania. 

Sydenham chorea. Another explanation is something called Sydenham chorea, a childhood neurological disorder caused by the same bacterium that causes rheumatic fever that strikes children and does indeed cause involuntary tremors and movements in the arms, legs and fascial muscles, but not the sort of movements attributed to dancing mania. Besides, dancing mania was experienced by people across a full spectrum of age, from toddlers to the elderly.

Others claim that the outbreaks were simply staged, but this cannot explain the scale of the events or the fact that no small number of participants actually died during the outbreaks.

The dancing mania by Hendrik Hondius, after Pieter Brueghel
The dancing mania by Hendrik Hondius, after Pieter Brueghel

Madness. The most likely explanation is stress induced psychosis: temporary madness. When choreomania broke out in Aachen 645 years ago today, the region around the Rhine was coping with a recent outbreak of the real plague, the big cahuna, the Black Death. It is believed that the extreme psychological duress produced by years of plague, disease, and famine, coupled with the superstitious belief that a region was cursed by evil spirits (or even the devil himself) could create the panic-induced trance-state necessary for the dancing mania to take hold, during which normal societal prohibitions and personal inhibitions could be tossed aside, leaving people free to purge themselves of their fear through unrestrained behavior and pure exhaustion. 

We can only hope that we’ll experience no such choreomania on either side of the political spectrum following the next presidential election.

For more musical blogs, vlogs, reviews and rants, please visit and subscribe to my Patreon page at Patreon.com/RobertGreenbergMusic.

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On June 24, 1374 – 645 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or simply dropped dead. Real disco inferno, On June 24, 1374 – 645 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to dash out of their houses and into the streets, where – inexplicably, compulsively and uncontrollably – they began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or simply dropped dead. Real disco inferno, boogie-fever stuff. It was the first major occurrence of what would come to be known as “dancing plague” or “choreomania”, which over the next years was to spread across Europe.



The authorities typically had music played during outbreaks of dancing plague, as it was believed to somehow “cure” the mania. A painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, after drawings by his father. Pieter Breughel the Younger, painting.



There had been small outbreaks before, going back to the seventh century. An outbreak in 1237 saw a group of children jump and dance all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in what today is central Germany, a distance of some 13 miles. It was an event that might very well have given rise to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.



But the outbreak in Aachen 645 years ago today was big: before it was over thousands upon thousands of men, women and children had taken to the streets as the “dancing plague” spread from Aachen to the cities of Cologne, Metz, Strasbourg, Hainaut, Utrecht, Tongeren, and then across Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.



This huge outbreak came to be called “St. John’s Dance”, though at other times and in other places it was called “St. Vitus’ Dance”. (These names were coined based on the assumption that the “plague” was the result of a curse cast by either St. John the Baptist or St. Vitus, the former having been beheaded by Herod Antipas between 28 and 36 CE and the latter martyred in 303 during the persecution of Christians by the co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian.) 



Writing in his book The Black Death and the Dancing Mania, the German physician and medical writer Justus Friedrich Karl Hecker (1795-1850) describes St. John’s Dance this way:



“They formed circles hand in hand and appearing to have lost all control over their senses, continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together, in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion. They then complained of extreme oppression, and groaned as if in the agonies of death, until they were swathed in cloths bound tightly round their waists, upon which they again recovered, and remained free from complaint until the next attack.”



The American medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew (born 1958) is an expert on mass hysteria, mass psychological illness, and hysterical contagion. Writing in his book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion (Macfarland, 2001), Bartholomew observes that sometimes tens of thousands of people would dance for hours, days, weeks, and even months at a time and that throughout, dancers screamed, laughed or cried.  And while we do not know whether the dancing was spontaneous or organized, the dancers themselves appeared to be unconscious and unable to control themselves. Bartholomew further notes that some dancers “paraded around naked, made obscene gestures and acted like animals”, while still others managed to have sexual intercourse while they danced. (This is all starting to sound like Studio 54 in New York City during the 1970s.)



Choreomania with Disco Granny at Studio 54, 1978



So to the question each and every one of us is asking: what could cause such mass frenzy? Regrettably (but not unexpectedly), the answer is that no one really knows for sure. Of course,]]>
Robert Greenberg 8:48
Music History Monday: Igor Stravinsky https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-igor-stravinsky/ Mon, 17 Jun 2019 14:00:05 +0000 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/?p=5390 https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-igor-stravinsky/#respond https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-igor-stravinsky/feed/ 0 <img src=https://d3fr1q02b1tb0i.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/16162218/Stravinsky_1968.jpg class="RSSimage" style="width:100%;margin-bottom:16px;" "border="0" tabindex="0" />We offer up our very best birthday wishes to Igor Stravinsky, who was born 137 years ago today, on June 17, 1882. A word of warning: saying Happy Birthday! to a Russian born before February 14, 1918 — as Stravinsky was — is an exercise in asterisks and parentheses. This is because it wasn’t until February 14, 1918 that Russia stopped using the Julian Calendar (which was named for Julius Caesar and went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C.E.) and joined pretty much the rest of world in using the Gregorian Calendar (which was introduced in October 1582 and named for Pope Gregory XIII). According to the old-style Julian Calendar, Stravinsky was born on June 5, 1882. For reasons entirely his own, Stravinsky made everything that much more complicated by celebrating his birthday on June 18. Whatever; June 17th is Stravinsky’s Gregorian Calendar birthday and a happy birthday we wish him. Stravinsky was the defining composer of the twentieth century. He began his compositional life as a Russian musical nationalist, writing in the style of his teacher, the great Russian nationalist composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But even as he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, the young Stravinsky fell under the spell of Claude Debussy, and so… <p><a href="https://robertgreenbergmusic.com/music-history-monday-igor-stravinsky/" rel="nofollow" class="btn">Continue Reading…</a></p>
Igor Stravinsky circa 1968
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) circa 1968

We offer up our very best birthday wishes to Igor Stravinsky, who was born 137 years ago today, on June 17, 1882.

A word of warning: saying Happy Birthday! to a Russian born before February 14, 1918 — as Stravinsky was — is an exercise in asterisks and parentheses. This is because it wasn’t until February 14, 1918 that Russia stopped using the Julian Calendar (which was named for Julius Caesar and went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C.E.) and joined pretty much the rest of world in using the Gregorian Calendar (which was introduced in October 1582 and named for Pope Gregory XIII). According to the old-style Julian Calendar, Stravinsky was born on June 5, 1882. For reasons entirely his own, Stravinsky made everything that much more complicated by celebrating his birthday on June 18. Whatever; June 17th is Stravinsky’s Gregorian Calendar birthday and a happy birthday we wish him.

Stravinsky in 1910
Stravinsky in 1910, at the time of the premiere of The Firebird

Stravinsky was the defining composer of the twentieth century.

He began his compositional life as a Russian musical nationalist, writing in the style of his teacher, the great Russian nationalist composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

But even as he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, the young Stravinsky fell under the spell of Claude Debussy, and so inspired, he composed a number of works that reflect Debussy’s so-called Impressionist style. It was thanks to one of these works that he came to the attention of the impresario and visionary Serge Diaghilev in 1909. Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to compose a series of scores for the Ballet Russes, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (composed in 1912). The Firebird made the 28-year-old Stravinsky an international star, and the brutal (“Fauvist”) The Rite of Spring — inarguably the most important single work composed in the twentieth century — vaulted Stravinsky to the forefront of Western music, where he remained until his death (on April 6, 1971).

Stravinsky in 1914
Stravinsky in 1914, at the age of 32

Like so many of his generation, Stravinsky was appalled by the catastrophic destruction and incomprehensible barbarity of World War One (1914–1918). In the years immediately following the war, he turned away from the explicit musical modernism of his pre-war music and looked for inspiration to the musical styles of the past, principally the Baroque and Classical eras, music that appeared, on its surface, to represent simpler, more “humane” times.

Stravinsky in 1927
Stravinsky in 1927, at the age of 45

During the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, he was equally swept away by the force and energy of such “popular” musical idioms as ragtime, tango, and big-band jazz, and he composed works that evoked all of these idioms. And then in the mid 1950s and 1960s Stravinsky — now in his seventies and early eighties — underwent yet another compositional transformation and began writing ultra-modern, serial music.

(For many if not most of his friends and fans, Stravinsky’s late-in-life conversion from neo-Classicism/neo-tonalism to serialism was considered a betrayal of historic import, on the lines of those perpetrated by Judas, Brutus, Benedict Arnold and Fredo Corleone. In the 1950s, the great oppositional poles of neo-Classicism/neo-tonalism versus serialism defined the compositional politics of the day. Consequently, to see Stravinsky cross the line and not just fraternize but mate with the serialist enemy was seen by many as being as heretical as it was inexplicable!)

Stravinsky conducting in 1965, at the age of 82
Stravinsky conducting in 1965, at the age of 82

Stravinsky’s last major work — Requiem Canticles — was completed and premiered in 1966, 56 years after the premiere of his first major work, The Firebird.

(Requiem Canticles was premiered at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey on October 8, 1966. Among the audience was the composer Aaron Copland and the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. After having heard the piece, Oppenheimer asked that it be played at his own funeral, a wish that was granted just four months later. The piece was performed as well at Stravinsky’s funeral in Venice, 4½ years later.

Musical Nationalism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Neo-Classicism, Neo-tonalism, Ultra-serialism; Stravinsky’s compositional career is a virtual catalog of styles and trends from the turn of the twentieth century to the late-1960’s. He wrote masterworks in each of these stylistic “genres”; in the case of musical Fauvism and neo-Classicism/neo-tonalism, Stravinsky composed the defining masterworks.

Variety. Variety might well be considered the catchword of not just Stravinsky’s music but his life as well. He was an international man who at one time or another made his home in St. Petersburg, Paris, London, Switzerland, Venice, Boston, Los Angeles and New York. He was a citizen of three different countries; from 1882 to 1917, Tsarist Russia; from 1917 to 1934 he was — thanks to the Russian Revolution — virtually a man without a country; from 1934 to 1945 he was a citizen of France; and finally, from 1945 to the end of his life he was a citizen of the United States. (For our information, Stravinsky’s sponsor for American citizenship was his friend, the actor Edward G. Robinson.)

Edward G. Robinson
Edward G. Robinson (1893–1973)

Between 1905 and 1970 Stravinsky had the opportunity to meet and work with and befriend an unbelievable litany of A-listers; he was a name-dropper’s wet dream. The list of his close friends and collaborators reads like who’s who of twentieth century Western culture: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Serge Diaghilev, Vaslav Njinsky, Giacomo Puccini, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Dylan Thomas, Nicholas Nabokov, George Balanchine, Woody Herman (!), Edward Weston, Paul Klee, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Ingmar Bergman, John F. and Jackie Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein, Edward G. Robinson, Charlie Chaplain, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Aldous Huxley, Serge Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Aaron Copland, Christopher Isherwood, T. S. Eliot, and Zsa Zsa Gabor (I kid you not); the list goes on and on and on, though mercifully I will not (though I could). The point: Stravinsky was your classic “been there, done that” sort of person. The only other twentieth century artist who could rival Stravinsky’s creative longevity, stylistic versatility, and almost universal fame was his friend and contemporary Pablo Picasso (1881–1973).

Christopher Isherwood
Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986)

The English-American novelist Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986) was a particularly close friend later in Stravinsky’s life. Isherwood’s so-called written ‘snapshots’ of Stravinsky describe him as well (if not better!) than any photograph could:

“Stravinsky was physically adorable, so small that one wanted to protect him. The first time I saw him in his house he said, ‘Shall we listen to my Mass before we get drunk?’”

Stravinsky, in turn, recalled Isherwood:

“We have often been drunk together — as often as once a week in the early fifties, I should think — and in such different climes as Sequoia Park and the Santa Monica Beach. On Christopher’s first visit to my home [in Los Angeles] he fell asleep when someone started to play a record of my music. My affection for him began with that incident.”

Igor and Vera Stravinsky with the Kennedys
Stravinsky and his wife Vera with the President and Mrs. Kennedy, 1962

(I don’t think that Stravinsky would mind me telling you — we’re all friends here, right? — that there were times when he overindulged his affection for Scotch. For example, in 1962, he was invited to dinner at the White House in celebration of his 80th birthday. In attendance were Stravinsky and his second wife Vera, President and Mrs. Kennedy, Stravinsky’s assistant Robert Craft and his old friend, the composer and writer Nicholas Nabokov, Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Goddard Lieberson (the president of CBS), Arthur Schlesinger and his wife, Pierre Salinger and his wife, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister Lee Radziwell. The dinner was extremely formal, as it turned out, rather too formal for Stravinsky’s taste; he got bored and drank too, too much. The evening ended poorly, as Stravinsky — the guest of honor — got so drunk that he had to leave early.)

Stravinsky taking a little nip
Stravinsky taking a little nip

Were you with us now, maestro, we’d open up a nice bottle of single malt, pour it neat — the way you liked it — and toast your 137th.

The happiest of birthdays to you.

For lots more on the life and music of Stravinsky, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses/Great Masters survey, Stravinsky: His Life and Music.

Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale

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We offer up our very best birthday wishes to Igor Stravinsky, who was born 137 years ago today, on June 17, 1882. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) circa 1968



We offer up our very best birthday wishes to Igor Stravinsky, who was born 137 years ago today, on June 17, 1882.



A word of warning: saying Happy Birthday! to a Russian born before February 14, 1918 — as Stravinsky was — is an exercise in asterisks and parentheses. This is because it wasn’t until February 14, 1918 that Russia stopped using the Julian Calendar (which was named for Julius Caesar and went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C.E.) and joined pretty much the rest of world in using the Gregorian Calendar (which was introduced in October 1582 and named for Pope Gregory XIII). According to the old-style Julian Calendar, Stravinsky was born on June 5, 1882. For reasons entirely his own, Stravinsky made everything that much more complicated by celebrating his birthday on June 18. Whatever; June 17th is Stravinsky’s Gregorian Calendar birthday and a happy birthday we wish him.



Stravinsky in 1910, at the time of the premiere of The Firebird



Stravinsky was the defining composer of the twentieth century.



He began his compositional life as a Russian musical nationalist, writing in the style of his teacher, the great Russian nationalist composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.



But even as he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, the young Stravinsky fell under the spell of Claude Debussy, and so inspired, he composed a number of works that reflect Debussy’s so-called Impressionist style. It was thanks to one of these works that he came to the attention of the impresario and visionary Serge Diaghilev in 1909. Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to compose a series of scores for the Ballet Russes, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (composed in 1912). The Firebird made the 28-year-old Stravinsky an international star, and the brutal (“Fauvist”) The Rite of Spring — inarguably the most important single work composed in the twentieth century — vaulted Stravinsky to the forefront of Western music, where he remained until his death (on April 6, 1971).



Stravinsky in 1914, at the age of 32



Like so many of his generation, Stravinsky was appalled by the catastrophic destruction and incomprehensible barbarity of World War One (1914–1918). In the years immediately following the war, he turned away from the explicit musical modernism of his pre-war music and looked for inspiration to the musical styles of the past, principally the Baroque and Classical eras, music that appeared, on its surface, to represent simpler, more “humane” times.



Stravinsky in 1927, at the age of 45



During the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, he was equally swept away by the force and energy of such “popular” musical idioms as ragtime, tango, and big-band jazz, and he composed works that evoked all of these idioms. And then in the mid 1950s and 1960s Stravinsky — now in his seventies and early eighties — underwent yet another compositional transformation and began writing ultra-modern, serial music.



(For many if not most of his friends and fans, Stravinsky’s late-in-life conversion from neo-Classicism/neo-tonalism to serialism was considered a betrayal of historic import, on the lines of those perpetrated by Judas, Brutus, Benedict Arnold and Fredo Corleone. In the 1950s, the great oppositional poles of neo-Classicism/neo-tonalism versus serialism defined the compositional politics of the day. Consequently, to see Stravinsky cross the line and not just fraternize but mate with the serialist enemy was seen by many as being as heretical as it was inexplicable!)



Stravinsky conducting in 1965, at the age of 82



Stravinsky’s last major work — Requiem Canticles — was completed and pre...]]>
Robert Greenberg 11:40