Sergei Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto #2

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Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (April 1, 1873–March 28, 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor who is widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music. The Rachmaninoff family, of Russian and distant Moldovan descent, was a part of an “old aristocracy,” having been in the service of the Russian tsars since the 16th century, with strong musical and military leanings. The composer’s father, Vasily Arkadyevich (1841–1916), an amateur pianist and army officer, married Lyubov Petrovna Butakova (1853–1929). Sergei was born on April 1, 1873, at the estate of Semyonovo, near the administrative city of Great Novgorod in north-western Russia. When he was four, his mother gave him casual piano lessons, but it was his paternal grandfather, Arkady Alexandrovich, who brought Anna Ornatskaya, a teacher from Saint Petersburg, to teach Sergei in 1882. Ornatskaya remained for “two or three years”, until Vasily had to auction off their home and they moved to a small flat in Saint Petersburg.

Ornatskaya arranged for Sergei to study at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which he entered in 1883, at age ten and studied with Vladimir Delyansky. That year his sister Sofia died of diphtheria, and his father left for Moscow, so Sergei’s maternal grandmother stepped in to help raise the children, especially focusing on their spiritual life. She regularly took Sergei to Russian Orthodox services, where he was first exposed to the liturgical chants and the church bells of the city, which would later permeate many of his compositions. Another important musical influence was his sister Yelena’s involvement in the Bolshoi Theater. She was just about to join the company, being offered coaching and private lessons, but she fell ill and died of pernicious anemia at the age of 18. As a respite from this tragedy, grandmother Butakova brought him to a farm retreat on the Volkhov River, where he had a boat and developed a love for rowing. In 1885, back at the Conservatory, Sergei played at events often attended by Grand Duke Konstantin and other important people. His mother consulted with her nephew by marriage Alexander Siloti, already an accomplished pianist studying under Franz Liszt, who recommended that Sergei attend the Moscow Conservatory to study with his own original teacher and disciplinarian, Nikolai Zverev. Besides piano lessons from Zverev, Rachmaninoff studied theory under such men as Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev; amongst Rachmaninoff’s classmates was Alexander Scriabin.

While in Moscow Rachmaninoff lived with the Satins, a family of cousins. He would marry his cousin Natalia Satina. In the spring of 1891, he took his final piano examination at the Moscow Conservatory and passed with honors. He moved to Ivanovka with Siloti, and composed some songs and began what would become his Piano Concerto No. 1 (Op. 1). During his final studies at the Conservatory he completed Youth Symphony, a one-movement symphonic piece, Prince Rostislav, a symphonic poem, and The Rock (Op. 7), a fantasia for orchestra. He gave his first independent concert on February 11, 1892, premiering his Trio élégiaque No. 1, with violinist David Kreyn and cellist Anatoliy Brandukov. He performed the first movement of his first piano concerto on March 29, 1892 in an over-long concert consisting of entire works of most of the composition students at the Conservatory. His final composition for the Conservatory was Aleko, a one-act opera based on the poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin, which Rachmaninoff completed while staying with his father in Moscow. It was first performed on May 19, 1892 and gained him the Great Gold Medal. The Conservatory issued him a diploma on May 29, 1892, at the age of 19.

Rachmaninoff continued to compose, publishing at this time his Six Songs (Op. 4) and Two Pieces (Op. 2). He spent the summer of 1892 on the estate of Ivan Konavalov, a rich landowner in the Kostroma Oblast, then moved back with the Satins in the Arbat District. He took an engagement at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition, where he premiered his landmark Prelude in C-sharp minor (Op. 3, No. 2). This small piece was part of a set of five pieces called Morceaux de fantaisie. He spent the summer of 1893 in Lebedyn with some friends, where he composed Fantaisie-Tableaux (Suite No. 1, Op. 5) and his Morceaux de salon (Op. 10). At the summer’s end, he moved back to Moscow, and at Sergei Taneyev’s house discussed with Tchaikovsky the possibility of his conducting The Rock at its premiere. However, because it had to be premiered in Moscow, not Europe, where Tchaikovsky was touring, Vasily Safonov conducted it instead, and the two met soon after for Zverev’s funeral. Rachmaninoff had a short excursion to conduct Aleko in Kiev, and on his return, received the news about Tchaikovsky’s unexpected death on November 6, 1893. Almost immediately, on the same day, he began work on his Trio élégiaque No. 2, just as Tchaikovsky had quickly written his Trio in A minor after Nikolai Rubinstein’s death.

The sudden death of Tchaikovsky was a great blow to young Rachmaninoff that he immediately began writing a second Trio élégiaque in his memory. His First Symphony (Op. 13) was premiered on March 28,1897, in one of a long-running series of “Russian Symphony Concerts”, but was brutally panned. After the poor reception of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff fell into a period of deep depression that lasted three years, during which he wrote almost nothing. Savva Mamontov, a famous Russian industrialist and patron of the arts, who two years earlier had founded the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company, offered Rachmaninoff the post of assistant conductor for the 1897–8 season. During this period he became engaged to fellow pianist Natalia Satina whom he had known since childhood and who was his first cousin.

In 1900, Rachmaninoff began a course of autosuggestive therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl, who was himself an excellent though amateur musician. The composer began to recover his confidence and eventually he was able to overcome his writer’s block. In 1901 he completed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, arguably the most beloved concerto in western music, and dedicated it to Dr. Dahl. In that same year, his Cello Sonata was also composed. The little-heard cantata Spring followed in 1902. He and Natalia were wed in a suburb of Moscow by an army priest on April 29 of that year. The marriage was a happy one, producing two daughters: Irina, later Princess Wolkonsky (1903-1969) and Tatiana Conus (1907-1961). His and Natalia’s union lasted until the composer’s death. Natalia Rachmaninova died in 1951. After several successful appearances as a conductor, Rachmaninoff was offered a job as conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904, although political reasons led to his resignation in March 1906, after which he stayed in Italy until July. He spent the following three winters in Dresden, Germany, intensively composing such works as The Miserly Knight (Op. 24, 1904) and Francesca da Rimini (Op. 25, 1905), and returning to the family estate of Ivanovka every summer. Other works during this time included the Fifteen Songs (1906) for voice and piano, Symphony No. 2 (1908), and Piano Sonata No. 1 (1908).

Rachmaninoff made his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909, an event for which he composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (Op. 30, 1909) as a calling card. These successful concerts made him a popular figure in America. However, he declined requests for future American concerts until after he emigrated from Russia in 1917, including an offer to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The early death in 1915 of Alexander Scriabin, who had been his good friend and fellow student at the Moscow Conservatory, affected Rachmaninoff so deeply that he went on a tour giving concerts entirely devoted to Scriabin’s music. The 1917 Russian Revolution meant the end of Russia as the composer had known it. Rachmaninoff was a member of the Russian bourgeoisie, and the Revolution led to the loss of his estate, his way of life, and his livelihood. On December 22, 1917, he left Petrograd for Helsinki with his wife and two daughters on an open sled, having only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions and two orchestral scores, his unfinished opera Monna Vanna and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel. He was 44 years old. He spent a year giving concerts in Scandinavia while laboring to widen his concert repertoire.

Near the end of 1918, Rachmaninoff received three offers of lucrative American contracts. Although he declined all three, he decided the United States might offer a solution to his financial concerns. He departed Kristiania (Oslo) for New York on November 1, 1918. Once there, Rachmaninoff quickly chose an agent, Charles Ellis, and accepted the gift of a piano from Steinway before playing 40 concerts in a four-month period. At the end of the 1919–20 season, he also signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1921, the Rachmaninoffs bought a house in the United States, where they consciously recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka, entertaining Russian guests, employing Russian servants, and observing old Russian customs. Due to his busy concert career, Rachmaninoff’s output as composer slowed tremendously. Between 1918 and his death in 1943, while living in the U.S. and Europe, he completed only six compositions. Aside from the need to constantly tour and perform to support himself and his family, the main reason was homesickness. It was during these years that he toured the United States as a concert pianist.

When Rachmaninoff left Russia, it was as if he had left behind his inspiration. His revival as a composer became possible only after he had built himself a new home, Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939. There, in the comfort of his own villa, which reminded him of his old family estate, Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, one of his best known works, in 1934. He went on to compose his Symphony No. 3 (Op. 44, 1935–36) and the Symphonic Dances (Op. 45, 1940), his last completed work. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the Symphonic Dances in 1941 in the Academy of Music. In December 1939 he conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. This was the first time he had stood on a conductor’s podium since January 1917, his last appearance as a conductor in Russia.

In late 1940 or 1941 he was approached by the makers of the British film Dangerous Moonlight to write a short concerto-like piece for use in the film, but he declined. The job went to Richard Addinsell and the orchestrator Roy Douglas, who came up with the Warsaw Concerto. Sergei Rachmaninoff was also on the Board of Directors for the Tolstoy Foundation Center in Valley Cottage, New York. In 1940, with the composer’s consent, pianist Vladimir Horowitz created a fusion of the 1913 original and 1931 revised versions of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata. Horowitz remained a champion of Rachmaninoff’s solo works and his Third Concerto which received an August 7, 1942, Hollywood Bowl performance. The two men continued to support each other’s work, each making a point of attending concerts given by the other.They regularly gave two-piano recitals at the composer’s home in Beverly Hills. The recitals, never recorded, are known to have included Rachmaninoff’s Second Suite and the two-piano reduction of the Symphonic Dances.

Rachmaninoff fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942 and was subsequently diagnosed with advanced melanoma. On February 1, 1943 he and his wife became American citizens. His last recital, given on 17 February 1943 at the Alumni Gymnasium of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, included Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, which contains the famous Marche funèbre (Funeral March). A statue called “Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert”, designed and sculpted by Victor Bokarev, now stands in World Fair Park in Knoxville as a permanent tribute to Rachmaninoff. He became so ill after this recital that he had to return to his home near Los Angeles, and he died of melanoma on March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, CA, just four days before his 70th birthday. A choir sang his All Night Vigil at his funeral.

Rachmaninoff’s compositions are limited in number, but their lush sonorities and grandeur have made them standards of classical music. Rachmaninoff wrote five works for piano and orchestra: four concertos, plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Of the concertos, the Second and Third are the most popular. He also composed a number of works for orchestra alone, including the three symphonies, works for piano solo, two major a cappella choral works, other choral, three operas, some chamber music, and many songs for voice and piano such as the wordless Vocalise. Early influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other Russian composers gave way to a personal style notable for its song-like melodicism, expressiveness and his use of rich orchestral colors.

The following works by Sergei Rachmaninoff are contained in my collection:

Caprice Bohemien, op. 12 (1894).
(Piano) Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in f#m, op. 1 (1891).
(Piano) Concerto No. 2 in cm, op. 18 (1901).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in dm, op. 39 (1909).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in gm, op. 40 (1927).
The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Poem, op. 29 (1907).
Prince Rostislav, Symphonic Poem after Alexei Tolstoy (1891).
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The Rock, Fantasy for Orchestra, op. 7 (1893).
Scherzo in FM (1887).
Spring, Cantata for Baritone, Chrous, and Orchestra, op. 20 (1902).
Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (1940).
Symphony in dm, Youth (1891).
Symphony No. 1 in dm, op. 13 (1895).
Symphony No. 2 in em, op. 27 (1908).
Symphony No. 3 in am, op. 44 (1940).
Symphony “The Bells” for Soprano, Tenor, Baritone, Chorus and Orchestra, op. 35 (1913).
Three Russian Songs for Chorus and Orchestra, op. 41 (1927).
Vocalise for Orchestra, op. 34, no. 14 (1912).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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Henry Purcell and Abdelzar

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Henry Purcell (September 10, 1659–November 21, 1695), was an English composer who incorporated Italian and French stylistic elements into his compositions, but left a legacy that was a uniquely English form of Baroque music. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest English composers, and no other native-born English composer approached his fame until Edward Elgar. Purcell was born to Henry Purcell and his wife Elizabeth in St Ann’s, Westminster, the area of London later known as Devil’s Acre, on September 10, 1659. Henry Purcell Senior, whose older brother Thomas Purcell (d. 1682) was also a musician, was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and sang at the coronation of King Charles II of England. Henry the elder had three sons, Edward, Henry and Daniel. Henry Purcell’s family lived just a few hundred yards west of Westminster Abbey from the year 1659 onwards.

After his father’s death in 1664, Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle Thomas who showed him great affection and kindness. Thomas arranged for Henry to be admitted as a chorister of His Majesty’s Chapel. Henry studied first under Captain Henry Cooke (d. 1672), Master of the Children, and afterwards under Pelham Humfrey (d. 1674), Cooke’s successor. He also took keyboard lessons from Christopher Gibbons, son of the composer Orlando Gibbons, and it is likely that he studied with Matthew Locke. Henry was a chorister in the Chapel Royal until his voice broke in 1673, when he became assistant to the organ-builder John Hingston, who held the post of keeper of wind instruments to the King. From time to time, he was also paid for copying out music by other composers, and he would have learnt much from this, as well as from the formal music training he received as a choir-boy. Purcell is said to have been composing at nine years old, It is assumed that the three-part song Sweet tyranness, I now resign was written by him as a child, but the earliest work that can be certainly identified as his is an ode for the King’s birthday, written in 1670. The dates for his compositions are often uncertain, despite considerable research.

After Humfrey’s death, Purcell continued his studies under Dr John Blow. He attended Westminster School and in 1676 was appointed copyist at Westminster Abbey. On September 10, 1677, Purcell was given the Court position of composer-in-ordinary for the 27 violins. Purcell’s earliest anthem Lord, who can tell was composed in 1678. In 1679, he wrote songs for John Playford’s Choice Ayres, Songs and Dialogues and an anthem, the name of which is unknown, for the Chapel Royal. From an extant letter written by Thomas Purcell we learn that this anthem was composed for the exceptionally fine voice of John Gostling, then at Canterbury, but afterwards a gentleman of His Majesty’s Chapel. Purcell wrote several anthems at different times for Gostling’s extraordinary basso profondo voice. The dates of very few of these sacred compositions are known. Perhaps the most notable example is the anthem They that go down to the sea in ships.

In 1679, Blow, who had been appointed organist of Westminster Abbey in 1669, resigned his office in favor of his pupil, a great keyboard virtuoso by his late teens. Purcell now devoted himself almost entirely to the composition of sacred music, and for six years severed his connection with the theatre. However, during the early part of the year, probably before taking up his new office, he had produced two important works for the stage, the music for Nathaniel Lee’s Theodosius, and Thomas d’Urfey’s Virtuous Wife. Between 1680 and 1688 Purcell wrote music for seven plays. The composition of his chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, which forms a very important landmark in the history of English dramatic music, has been attributed to this period, and its earliest production may well have predated the documented one of 1689. A short work supposedly designed for a girls’ school, it was written to a libretto furnished by Nahum Tate, and performed in 1689 in cooperation with Josias Priest, a dancing master and the choreographer for the Dorset Garden Theatre. It is sometimes considered the first genuine English opera, though that title is also given to Blow’s Venus and Adonis.

Soon after Purcell’s marriage in 1682 to his wife Frances Peters, with whom he would have at least six children, though only two survived to adulthood, he was appointed on the death of Edward Lowe as organist of the Chapel Royal, an office which he was able to hold simultaneously with his position at Westminster Abbey. His eldest son was born in this same year, but his life was short lived. Purcell’s first printed composition, Twelve Sonatas, was published in 1683. Also in 1683 a group of gentlemen amateurs and professional musicians started a “Musical Society” in London to celebrate the “Festival of St. Cecilia, a great patroness of music” yearly on November 22nd. They asked Henry Purcell, then only 24, to be the first to write an Ode for their festivals; Purcell was to compose two more such Odes for the Society. The following month, upon Hingeston’s death, he was named royal instrument keeper while retaining his other posts. For some years after this, he was busy in the production of sacred music, odes addressed to the king and royal family, and other similar works.

In 1685, Purcell wrote two of his finest anthems, I was glad and My heart is inditing, for the coronation of King James II. The new King introduced many changes at Court, one of which was to make Purcell the Court harpsichordist and Blow the Court composer. In 1687, Purcell resumed his connection with the theatre by furnishing the music for Dryden’s tragedy, Tyrannick Love. In this year, Purcell also composed a march and quick-step, which became so popular that Lord Wharton adapted the latter to the fatal verses of Lillibullero. Near the end of 1687, Queen Mary’s pregnancy was announced and in or before January 1688, Purcell was commissioned to compose an anthem for Psalm 128, Blessed are they that fear the Lord by express command of the King. A few months later, he wrote the music for D’Urfey’s play, The Fool’s Preferment. Many other of his anthems appeared in 1688, as did one of his more famous ones for church use, O sing unto the Lord. In 1690 Purcell composed a setting of the birthday ode for Queen Mary, Arise, my muse and four years later wrote one of his most elaborate, important and magnificent works – a setting for another birthday ode for the Queen, written by Nahum Tate, entitled Come Ye Sons of Art.

With the ascension of William and Mary to the throne on April 11, 1689, Purcell retained his post as royal instrument keeper, and he, along with Blow and Alexander Damazene, shared the duties of Court composers. With his royal duties reduced, he was able to pursue other opportunities, including teaching and writing for other organizations. In 1690, he composed the music for Betterton’s adaptation of Fletcher and Massinger’s Prophetess (afterwards called Dioclesian and Dryden’s Amphitryon. During the first ten years of his mastership, Purcell composed much, precisely how much can only be guessed. In 1691, he wrote the music for what is sometimes considered his dramatic masterpiece, King Arthur, or The British Worthy. In 1692, he composed The Fairy-Queen, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and his longest score for theatre.

In 1693, Purcell composed music for two comedies: The Old Bachelor, and The Double Dealer. Purcell also composed for five other plays within the same year. Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate Deo were written for Saint Cecilia’s Day, 1694, the first English Te Deum ever composed with orchestral accompaniment. He composed an anthem and two elegies for Queen Mary II’s funeral, which took place in March 1695. Besides the operas and semi-operas already mentioned, Purcell wrote the music and songs for Thomas d’Urfey’s The Comical History of Don Quixote, Bonduca, , a vast quantity of sacred music, and numerous odes, cantatas, and other miscellaneous pieces. The quantity of his instrumental chamber music is minimal after his early career, and his keyboard music consists of an even more minimal number of harpsichord suites and organ pieces.

In July 1695, Purcell composed an ode for the Duke of Gloucester for his sixth birthday. The ode is titled Who can from joy refrain? That year he also wrote songs for Dryden and Davenant’s version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, probably including “Full fathom five” and “Come unto these yellow sands”. The Indian Queen, which was adapted from a tragedy by Dryden and Sir Robert Howard, followed . In the final six years of his life, Purcell wrote music for forty-two plays, including Aphra Behn’s Abdelazar or The Moor’s Revenge, a rondeau from which provides the theme for Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. In the final year of his life Purcell remained exceedingly busy, writing much for the stage, including The Indian Queen, left incomplete at his death. Purcell died on November 21, 1695, at his home in Westminster, at the height of his career. He is believed to have been 35 or 36 years old at the time. The cause of his death is unclear. One theory is that he caught a chill after returning home late from the theatre one night. Another is that he succumbed to tuberculosis. The youngest of his brothers, Daniel Purcell (d. 1717), was also a prolific composer and wrote the music for much of the final act of The Indian Queen after Henry Purcell’s death.

There is hardly an area of music known in his day to which Purcell did not contribute with true distinction. His anthems were long since accorded their place in the great music of the church. There are enough fine orchestral movements in his works for the theatre to establish him in this field. His fantasies and sonatas entitle him to honor in the history of chamber music. His keyboard works, if less significant in themselves, hold their place in the repertory. His one true opera, Dido and Aeneas, is an enduring masterpiece. And his other dramatic works, sometimes called operas, are full of musical riches. And, most especially, Purcell’s songs themselves would be sufficient to insure his immortality. His sensitivity to his texts has been matched by few masters in musical history, and when he had worthy poetry to set, he could hardly fail to produce a masterpiece.

My collection includes the following works by Henry Purcell:

Abdelzar (1695): Overture, and Rondeau.
Ampitryon (1690): Hornpipe, and Scotch Tune.
Bess of Bedlam.
Birthday Ode for Queen Mary (1694): Come Ye Sons of Art, and Sound the Trumpet.
Birthday Song for Queen Mary (1693).
Bonduca (1691): 3 selections.
Dido and Aeneas: Thy hand Belinda, and When I am laid in earth.
The Double Dealer (1693): Overture, and Hornpipe.
The Fairy Queen (1692): The Plaint (O, O Let Me Weep).
King Arthur (1691): Fairest Isle.
The Married Beau (1694): 3 selections.
Oedipus (1692): Music for a while.
The Old Bachelor (1693): 5 selections.
Sonata No. 9 in FM (from 10 Sonatas in Four Parts).
Trumpet Tune and Bell Symphony.
Voluntary on the Doxology, Old 100th.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

Sergei Prokofiev and his Symphony No. 1 “Classical”

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Sergei (or Sergey) Sergeyevich Prokofiev (April 23, 1891–March 5, 1953) was a Russian composer, pianist and conductor. Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891, in Sontsovka (now Krasne, Krasnoarmiisk Raion, Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine), an isolated rural estate in the Yekaterinoslav Governorate of the Russian Empire. His father, originally from Moscow, was an agronomist. Prokofiev’s mother, Maria (née Zhitkova), came from a family of serfs owned by the Sheremetev family, where serf-children were taught theatre and arts from an early age. Having lost two daughters, she devoted her life to music and spent two months a year in Moscow or St. Petersburg taking piano lessons. Sergei was inspired by hearing his mother practicing the piano in the evenings – mostly works by Chopin and Beethoven – and composed his first piano composition at the age of five, an ‘Indian Gallop’, which was written down by his mother. At the age of nine he was composing his first opera, The Giant, as well as an overture and various other pieces.

In 1902, Prokofiev’s mother met Sergei Taneyev, director of the Moscow Conservatory, who initially suggested that Prokofiev should start lessons in piano and composition with Alexander Goldenweiser. When Taneyev was unable to arrange this, he instead arranged for composer and pianist Reinhold Glière to spend the summer of 1902 in Sontsovka teaching Prokofiev. This first series of lessons culminated, at the 11-year-old Prokofiev’s insistence, with the budding composer making his first attempt to write a symphony. Glière subsequently revisited Sontsovka the following summer to give further teaching. Equipped with the necessary theoretical tools, Prokofiev started experimenting with dissonant harmonies and unusual time signatures in a series of short piano pieces which he called “ditties,” laying the basis for his own musical style. Despite his growing talent, Prokofiev’s parents hesitated over starting their son on a musical career at such an early age, and initially considered the possibility of his attending a quality high school in Moscow.

By 1904, Prokofiev’s mother had decided instead on Saint Petersburg, and she and Prokofiev visited the capital to explore the possibility of their moving there for his education. They were introduced to composer Alexander Glazunov, a professor at the Conservatory, who asked to see Prokofiev and his music; Glazunov was so impressed that he urged Prokofiev’s mother that her son apply to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. By this point, Prokofiev had composed two more operas, Desert Islands and The Feast during the Plague, and was working on his fourth, Undina. He passed the introductory tests and entered the Conservatory that same year. During this period, he studied under, among others, Alexander Winkler for piano, Anatoly Lyadov for harmony and counterpoint, Nikolai Tcherepnin for conducting, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestration. He also shared classes with the composers Boris Asafyev and Nikolai Myaskovsky, the latter becoming a relatively close and lifelong friend. As a member of the Saint Petersburg music scene, Prokofiev developed a reputation as a musical rebel. In 1909, he graduated from his class in composition but continued at the Conservatory, studying piano under Anna Yesipova and continuing his conducting lessons under Tcherepnin.

In 1910, Prokofiev’s father died and Sergei’s financial support ceased. Fortunately he had started making a name for himself as a composer and pianist outside the Conservatory, making appearances at the St Petersburg Evenings of Contemporary Music. There he performed several of his more adventurous piano works, such as his highly chromatic and dissonant Etudes, Op. 2 (1909). In 1911, the renowned Russian musicologist and critic Alexander Ossovsky wrote a supportive letter to music publisher Boris P. Jurgenson, and a contract was offered to the composer. Prokofiev’s harmonic experimentation continued with Sarcasms for piano, Op. 17 (1912), which makes extensive use of polytonality, and Visions fugitives, Op. 22 (1915-1917). He composed his first two piano concertos around this time. Prokofiev made his first foreign trip in 1913, travelling to Paris and London where he first encountered Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

In 1914, Prokofiev finished his career at the Conservatory by entering the so-called ‘battle of the pianos’, a competition open to the five best piano students for which the prize was a Schreder grand piano: Prokofiev won. Soon afterwards, he journeyed to London where he made contact with the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev commissioned Prokofiev’s first ballet, Ala and Lolli. Diaghilev then commissioned the ballet Chout (The Fool or “The Tale of the Buffoon who Outwits Seven Other Buffoons”). During World War I, Prokofiev returned to the Conservatory and studied organ in order to avoid conscription. He composed The Gambler based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name, but rehearsals were plagued by problems and the scheduled 1917 première had to be canceled because of the February Revolution. In the summer of that year, Prokofiev composed his first symphony, the Classical. This was his own name for the symphony. This symphony was also an exact contemporary of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19, which was scheduled to premiere in November 1917. The first performances of both works had to wait.

After completing the score of Seven, They Are Seven, a “Chaldean invocation” for chorus and orchestra, Prokofiev decided to try his fortunes in America until the turmoil in his homeland had passed and set out in 1918. Arriving in San Francisco, CA, he was soon compared to other famous Russian exiles, such as Sergei Rachmaninoff. His debut solo concert in New York led to several further engagements. He also received a contract from the music director of the Chicago Opera Association, Cleofonte Campanini, for the production of his new opera The Love for Three Oranges. In April 1920, he left for Paris, not wanting to return to Russia just yet. In Paris Prokofiev reaffirmed his contacts with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and also completed some of his older, unfinished works, such as the Third Piano Concerto. The premiere of Chout in Paris on May 17, 1921, was a huge success and was greeted with great admiration by an audience that included Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, and Maurice Ravel.

In March 1922, Prokofiev moved with his mother to the town of Ettal in the Bavarian Alps, where for over a year he concentrated on an opera project, The Fiery Angel, based on the novel by Valery Bryusov. By this time his later music had acquired a following in Russia, and he received invitations to return there, but he decided to stay in Europe. In 1923, Prokofiev married the Spanish singer Carolina Codina (1897–1989) whose stage name was Lina Llubera, before moving back to Paris where several of his works were performed. Diaghilev commissioned Le pas d’acier (The Steel Step), a ‘modernist’ ballet score intended to portray the industrialization of the Soviet Union. It was enthusiastically received by Parisian audiences and critics. Around 1924, Prokofiev was introduced to Christian Science. He began to practice its teachings, which he believed to be beneficial to his health and to his fiery temperament, and remained faithful for the rest of his life.

In 1927, Prokofiev made his first concert tour in the Soviet Union. Over the course of more than two months, he spent time in Moscow and Leningrad (as Saint Petersburg had been renamed. In 1928, he completed his Third Symphony, which was broadly based on his unperformed opera The Fiery Angel. During 1928–29, Prokofiev composed what was to be the last ballet for Diaghilev, The Prodigal Son. That summer, Prokofiev completed the Divertimento, Op. 43 (which he had started in 1925) and revised his Sinfonietta, Op. 5/48, a work started in his days at the Conservatory. In October that year, he had a car crash while driving his family back to Paris from their holiday. As the car turned over, Prokofiev pulled some muscles on his left hand and was therefore unable to perform in Moscow during his tour shortly after the accident, but he was able to enjoy watching performances of his music from the audience. With his left hand healed, Prokofiev toured the United States successfully at the start of 1930, propped up by his recent European success. That year Prokofiev began his first non-Diaghilev ballet On the Dnieper, Op. 51, a work commissioned by Serge Lifar, who had been appointed maitre de ballet at the Paris Opéra. In 1931 and 1932, he completed his fourth and fifth piano concertos. The following year saw the completion of the Symphonic Song, Op. 57.

By the early 1930s, both Europe and America were suffering from the Great Depression, which inhibited both new opera and ballet productions, though audiences for Prokofiev’s appearances as a pianist were, at least in Europe at least, undiminished. Having been homesick for some time, Prokofiev began to build substantial bridges with the Soviet Union. His premieres and commissions were increasingly under the auspices of the Soviet Union. One such was Lieutenant Kijé, which was commissioned as the score to a Soviet film. Another commission, from the Kirov Theatre was the ballet Romeo and Juliet, composed to a scenario created by Adrian Piotrovsky and Sergei Radlov. In 1936, Prokofiev and his family settled permanently in Moscow. In that year he composed one of his most famous works, Peter and the Wolf, for Natalya Sats’s Central Children’s Theatre.

Sats also persuaded Prokofiev to write two songs for children – “Sweet Song”, and “Chatterbox” which were eventually joined by “The Little Pigs”, published as Three Children’s Songs, Op. 68. Prokofiev also composed the gigantic Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, originally intended for performance during the anniversary year. Forced to adapt to the new circumstances, whatever misgivings he had about them in private, Prokofiev wrote a series of “mass songs” (Opp. 66, 79, 89), using the lyrics of officially approved Soviet poets. In 1938, Prokofiev collaborated with Eisenstein on the historical epic Alexander Nevsky for which he composed some of his most inventive and dramatic music. Although the film had a very poor sound recording, Prokofiev adapted much of his score into a large-scale cantata for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and chorus, which was extensively performed and recorded. In the wake of Alexander Nevsky’s success, Prokofiev composed his first Soviet opera Semyon Kotko, which was intended to be produced by the director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Prokofiev was also ‘invited’ to compose Zdravitsa (literally translated ‘Cheers!’, but more often given the English title Hail to Stalin) (Op. 85) to celebrate Joseph Stalin’s 60th birthday.

Later in 1939, Prokofiev composed his Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7, and 8, Opp. 82–84, widely known today as the “War Sonatas.” In 1941, Prokofiev suffered the first of several heart attacks, resulting in a gradual decline in health. Prokofiev had been considering making an opera out of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, when news of the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941 made the subject seem all the more timely. Prokofiev took two years to compose his original version of War and Peace. Because of the war he was evacuated together with a large number of other artists, initially to the Caucasus where he composed his Second String Quartet. During the war years, restrictions on style and the demand that composers should write in a ‘socialist realist’ style were slackened, and Prokofiev was generally able to compose in his own way. The Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 80; The Year 1941, Op. 90; and the Ballade for the Boy Who Remained Unknown, Op. 93 all came from this period. In 1943 Prokofiev joined Eisenstein in Alma-Ata, the largest city in Kazakhstan, to compose more film music (Ivan the Terrible), and the ballet Cinderella (Op. 87), one of his most melodious and celebrated compositions. The underrated ballet The Stone Flower also dates from 1943. His Eighth Piano Sonata had a triumphant premiere on December 30, 1944.

In 1944, Prokofiev spent time at a composer’s colony outside Moscow in order to compose his Fifth Symphony (Op. 100). Prokofiev conducted its first performance on January 13, 1945. Shortly afterwards, he suffered a concussion after a fall due to chronic high blood pressure. He never fully recovered from this injury, and was forced on medical advice to restrict his composing activity. The composer’s last creative efforts were directed largely toward the production of “patriotic” and “national” works, typified by the cantata Flourish, Mighty Homeland (1947). Prokofiev had time to write his postwar Sixth Symphony and his Ninth Piano Sonata (for Sviatoslav Richter) before the so-called “Zhdanov Decree”. In early 1948, following a meeting of Soviet composers convened by Andrei Zhdanov, the Politburo issued a resolution denouncing Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, and Khachaturian of the crime of “formalism.” Prokofiev’s latest opera projects, among them his desperate attempt to appease the cultural authorities, The Story of a Real Man, were quickly cancelled by the Kirov Theatre. By August 1948, Prokofiev was in severe financial straits, his personal debt amounting to 180,000 rubles.

This snub, in combination with his declining health, caused Prokofiev progressively to withdraw from public life and from various activities, and increasingly he devoted himself exclusively to his own work. After a serious relapse in 1949, his doctors ordered him to limit his activities, limiting him to composing for only an hour a day. In spring 1949 he wrote his Cello Sonata in C, Op. 119, for the 22-year old Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the first performance in 1950, with Sviatoslav Richter. For Rostropovich, Prokofiev also extensively recomposed his Cello Concerto, transforming it into a Symphony-Concerto, his last major masterpiece and a landmark in the cello and orchestra repertory today. The last public performance he attended was the première of the Seventh Symphony in 1952. Prokofiev died at the age of 61 on March 5, 1953, the same day Joseph Stalin’s death was announced. In breathing new life into the symphony, sonata, and concerto, Sergei Prokofiev emerged as one of the truly original musical voices of the twentieth century. Though regarded as impossibly dissonant and avant-garde in his youth, Prokofiev can now be seen as in the direct line of Russian composers, embodying the bold and colorful strokes of 19th-century nationalists into a 20th-century style strongly marked by its brittle wit and capacity for pungent dramatic characterization.

The following works by Sergei Prokofiev are contained in my collection:

Ala and Lolly (ballet, 1914): Scythian Suite, op. 20 (1920).
(Piano) Concerto No. 1 in DbM, op. 19 (1911).
(Piano) Concerto No. 2 in gm, op. 16 (1913).
(Piano) Concerto No. 3 in CM, op. 26 (1921).
Lieutenant Kije (film, 1933): Symphonic Suite, op. 60.
The Love for Three Oranges (1919): Symphonic Suite, op. 33b (1924).
Overture on Hebrew Themes, op. 34b (1919/1934).
Peter and the Wolf, A Symphonic Musical Fairy Tale for Children, op. 67 (1936).
Romeo and Juliet ballet, op. 64 (1938): Excerpts.
Russian Overture, op. 72 (1936).
Symphony No. 1 in DM, op. 25, Classical (1917).
Symphony No. 4, op. 47 (1930).
Symphony No. 5, op. 100 (1944).
Symphony No. 7, op. 131 (1952).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

Francis Poulenc and “Les Biches” (The Does)

francis-poulenc
Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc (January 7, 1899–January 30, 1963) was a French composer and pianist, associated with the French group Les Six who composed art songs, solo piano music, chamber music, oratorios, choral music, operas, ballet music, and orchestral music. Poulenc was born into a wealthy family of musicians at Paris, France, on January 7, 1899. His father Émile Poulenc was a second-generation director of the Poulenc, and later Rhône-Poulenc, chemical corporation. His mother, an amateur pianist, gave him his first lessons on the instrument. Later he studied with a niece of César Franck. In 1914 he was introduced to the Spanish virtuoso pianist Ricardo Viñes, a champion of the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Poulenc became his pupil shortly afterwards and developed into a capable pianist whose early compositions were dominated by the keyboard. In 1916 a childhood friend, Raymonde Linossier (1897–1930), introduced Poulenc to Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop, the Maison des Amis des Livres. There he met avant-garde poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Paul Éluard and Louis Aragon. He later set many of their poems to music. He had his first major successes as an 18-year-old composer without a single composition lesson.

Poulenc’s first surviving composition, Rapsodie Nègre (1917), caught the attention of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky who was later instrumental in having the work published in London. Le bestiaire, ou Le cortège d’Orphée (1917) is a cycle of mélodies on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire. In 1918, Poulenc performed the premiere of his Sonata for Piano Four Hands with a fellow Viñes pupil, Marcelle Meyer. The young composer served in the military during the years 1918-1921, during which time he gave first performances of several of his new pieces, the Sonata for Two Clarinets, the Sonata for Piano Four Hands, a Sonata for Violin and Piano, and Trois mouvements perpétuels, at a series of concerts held from 1917 to 1920 in the studio of the painter Émile Lejeune in Montparnasse. There Poulenc met other young composers, and together they formed Erik Satie’s Les nouveaux jeunes, followed by Jean Cocteau’s Les Six, a loose-knit group of young French and French-Swiss composers made up of Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Germaine Tailleferre. Poulenc composed his Valse en ut for L’Album des Six (1920). He contributed to Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921) with Discours du Général and La Baigneuse de Trouville.

During the 1920s, Poulenc’s most immediate influences were Chabrier, Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. He generally followed the irreverent, flippant aesthetic stance of Les Six with melodies influenced by Parisian music halls. Between 1921 and 1925, Poulenc received his first formal training in composition when he studied with Charles Koechlin (1921–25). He remained a mostly self-taught composer. Sergei Diaghilev commissioned ballet music from Poulenc for Les biches. This was performed by the Ballets Russes in January 1924, with settings by Marie Laurencin. In 1926 Poulenc met the baritone Pierre Bernac, who became a very close friend. A great many of the chansons and melodies Poulenc wrote were composed for Bernac. They gave recitals throughout the world together from 1935 until 1959. In 1927, Poulenc bought Le grand coteau, a house close to Noizay in the Touraine, where he enjoyed the quiet atmosphere he needed to work.

In 1928 Poulenc composed the Concert champêtre, a piece for harpsichord and orchestra commissioned by Wanda Landowska. Also in 1928, Poulenc recorded his Trois mouvements perpétuels and the Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon, and then Le bestiaire. He also started publishing musical reviews in Les arts phoniques. He first performed his Concerto for two pianos and orchestra with Jacques Février in 1932. Also in 1932 Le Bal Masqué, a lighter piece, was performed privately at the home of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles. In 1936 Poulenc came to a religious reawakening of his Catholic faith after the deaths of several friends, such as Raymonde Linossier in 1930, a woman to whom he had proposed a marriage in 1928, and the fellow composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, followed by a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour in 1935. Here, before the statue of the Madonna with a young child on her lap, Poulenc experienced a life-changing transformation. Thereafter, he produced a sizeable amount of liturgical music or compositions based on religious themes. Poulenc continued to compose light music, such as the Quatre chansons pour enfants (1934) on texts by Jean Nohain. However, some of his works were more somber and austere. This is exemplified by his first sacred pieces, Litanies à la vierge noire (“Litanies to the Black Madonna,” 1936) and the Mass in G (1937). The trend toward “new dimensions and greater depth” in the composer’s style was continued by the song cycle Tel jour, telle nuit (1937) and Concerto in G minor for organ, strings, and timpani (1938).

One of Poulenc’s most popular songs is “Les chemins de l’amour.” It was originally written as part of the incidental music for Jean Anouilh’s play Léocadia (1940), but it achieved fame outside that context. The remainder of the Léocadia music is lost. During World War II Poulenc, Durey and Auric joined the Comité de Front National des Musiciens, created in May 1941, and led by Elsa Barraine and Roger Désormière. He also composed film music, including La Duchesse de Langeais (1942) and Jean Anouilh’s Le voyageur sans bagage. In his humorous ballet, Les animaux modèles (1942, with Serge Lifar), Poulenc used the theme of a French patriotic song performed without the German officers noticing. In 1943, he set to music Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, although the poet was a member of the French Resistance. This piece was given at the salle Gaveau in December 1943. The cantata Figure humaine was finished in 1943, but it was not publicly performed until 1945, in London. It set to music poems by Paul Éluard, notably Liberté, thousands of copies of which had been dropped over French territory in 1942 by the Royal Air Force.

It was also in 1945 that Poulenc composed L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar the Elephant, based on a popular children’s book). Although the score of Poulenc’s only opera bouffe, Les mamelles de Tirésias after Guillaume Apollinaire’s surrealist drama, was completed in 1945, it was not performed until 1947, after Poulenc met soprano Denise Duval. Between 1947 and 1949, he became a radio host for À bâtons rompus. His choice of music was very diverse, including many pieces from the French repertoire. Poulenc’s compositions continued, including chansons accompanied on the piano, choral music, secular pieces such as Huit chansons françaises (1945), religious works like Stabat Mater (1950) works, orchestral pieces such as Sinfonietta (1947), chamber music particularly for wind instruments, works for one or two pianos such as L’embarquement pour Cythère, a valse musette (1951).

Poulenc gave the first of his many concerts in the United States in 1948 with Pierre Bernac. During his time in the US, he met the American soprano Leontyne Price, who sang his chansons, and the composer Samuel Barber. His Mélodies passagères were performed in Paris in February 1952 by Bernac and Poulenc. In 1952,Poulenc started working on what was to become the opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on a play by Georges Bernanos. Poulenc soon became obsessed with this work. Poulenc adapted Bernanos’ text for the libretto. The opera was first performed at La Scala in Italian, in January 1957 with Virginia Zeani singing the principal soprano role of Blanche. In June 1957, it was produced at the Paris Opera with Denise Duval as Blanche and Régine Crespin as Madame Lidoine. In September of that year, it was produced in San Francisco in English starring Leontyne Price as Mme Lidoine; this was her first stage opera. Denise Duval also sang the role Elle in La voix humaine (1958), a lyric tragedy based on Jean Cocteau’s play which was Poulenc’s last opera. Poulenc wrote the song cycle La courte paille for her (and her child) in 1960, and La dame de Monte Carlo in 1961.

Poulenc travelled to the U.S. in 1960–61 for the American premieres of Les mamelles de Tirésias and La voix humaine. Commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, his Gloria (1961) for soprano solo, choir and orchestra was premiered in both Boston, conducted by Charles Munch, and in Paris, conducted by Georges Prêtre. Poulenc published a book on Emmanuel Chabrier in 1961. He composed Sept répons des ténèbres in 1962. Poulenc died suddenly of heart failure in Paris on January 30, 1963, and is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. His last two works were premiered posthumously, in April and June 1963: the Sonata for Oboe and Piano, dedicated to the memory of Prokofiev, was given by Pierre Pierlot and Jacques Février and the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. Poulenc was particularly fond of woodwind instruments: having planned a set of sonatas for all of them, he lived to complete only four, for flute, oboe, clarinet, and the Elégie for French horn.

One of the great melodists of the twentieth century, Poulenc created some very “French” music which was at the same time natural, light, graceful, solemn and subtle. He never really cottoned to the symphony and wrote few orchestral works not tied to the theater. His best orchestra pieces include the ballets Les Biches and the profound Model Animals (based on La Fontaine) of 1942. He wrote in a direct and tuneful manner, often juxtaposing the witty and ironic with the sentimental or melancholy. He heavily favored diatonic and modal textures over chromatic writing. His music also shows many elements of pandiatonicism, introduced around 1920 by Stravinsky, whose influence can be heard in some of Poulenc’s compositions, such as the religious choral work, Gloria. Poulenc is regarded as one of the most important twentieth century composers of religious music, and in the realm of the French art song he is also a major voice of his time. Poulenc was also a pianist of considerable ability. He was particularly fond of woodwinds, and planned a set of sonatas for all of them, yet only lived to complete four: sonatas for flute, oboe, clarinet, and the Elegie for horn. Among his last series of major works is a series of works for wind instruments and piano.

My collection includes the following works by Francis Poulenc:

Concert Champetre in DM for harpsichord and Orchestra (1929).
(Organ) Concerto in gm for Organ, String Orchestra, and Timpani (1936).
Concerto in dm for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932).
Les Biches (1924).
Suite Francaise.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

Otto Nicolai and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”

ottonicolai
Carl Otto Ehrenfried Nicolai (June 9, 1810 –May 11, 1849) was a German composer, conductor, and founder of the Vienna Philharmonic who is best known for his operatic version of Shakespeare’s comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor as Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor but also composed four other operas, lieder, and works for orchestra, chorus, ensemble, and solo instruments. Nicolai, a child prodigy, was born in Königsberg, Prussia, now Kaliningrad, Russia. He received his first musical education from his father, himself a composer and musical director, Carl Ernst Daniel Nicolai. During his childhood his parents divorced, and while still a youth, early in June 1826, Nicolai ran away from his parents’ “loveless” home, taking refuge in Stargard with a senior legal official called August Adler who treated the musical prodigy like a son and, when Nicolai was seventeen, sent him to Berlin where he took singing lessons at the Zum Grauen Kloster school and studied music with Goethe’s favorite, Carl Friedrich Zelter.

In 1830, following two years further study at the Royal Institute for Church Music, Nicolai began teaching music and singing in concerts, but still struggled in poverty. He had already published his earliest compositions, including his Op. 4 choral work, Preussens Stimme and the Six Lieder, Op. 6. After some initial successes in Germany, including his Symphony No. 1 in C of 1831 and public concerts, Nicolai became musician and organist to the Prussian embassy chapel in Rome from 1833 to 1836, where he studied with Giuseppe Baini. Contact with the theatre led him to drop contrapuntal studies and turn to composing opera. When Giuseppe Verdi declined the libretto of Il proscritto by the proprietors of La Scala in Milan, it was offered instead to Nicolai. Later, Nicolai refused a libretto by the same author, and it went to Verdi, whose Nabucco was his first early success.

After returning to Vienna to serve as Kapellmeister at the Hoftheater for a year, Nicolai returned to Italy in 1838 and began working on his first operas. Enrico II, originally entitled Rosmonda d’Inghilterra (1839), and Il templario (1840), after Scott’s Ivanhoe, were successes at their premieres, though his subsequent Italian operas, much influenced by Bellini, received lukewarm receptions. He became enamored of Italian culture and spoke of its great influence on him, not only in the realm of music but also in literature and painting. All of Nicolai’s operas were originally written in Italian, the sole exception being his last and best known opera, The Merry Wives of Windsor, written in German. At one time he was more popular in Italy than Verdi himself was.

Nicolai made a reputation in Trieste and Turin before becoming principal conductor at the Vienna Hofoper in 1841. His uncompromising standards, and energy in founding the Vienna Philharmonic Concerts in 1842 for the purpose of presenting adequate performances of Beethoven’s music made a great impact. During the early 1840s, Nicolai established himself as a major figure in the concert life of Vienna. In 1844 he was offered the position, vacated by Felix Mendelssohn, of Kapellmeister at the Berlin Cathedral; but he did not reestablish himself in Berlin until the last year of his life. In 1848 he returned to Berlin as opera Kapellmeister and cathedral choir director. On May 11, 1849, two months after the premiere of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and only two days after his appointment as Hofkapellmeister at the Berlin Staatsoper, he collapsed and died from a stroke in Berlin. On the very same day of his death, he was elected a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Arts.

Nicolai has come to be viewed by many as a one-work composer, and his masterpiece was the comic opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor or The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849). It brought to a peak the bourgeois Romantic comic opera and his own creativity, reconciling his conflicting imaginative and intellectual impulses. His church and orchestral music is conventional, while his partsongs and choruses show his penchant for felicitous melodies. Nicolai was artistically bound by a certain perfectionism and caution that hampered his productivity. However, The Merry Wives of Windsor occupies an important position in German Romantic operatic repertoire and remains one of the most popular comic operas of the 19th century.

The following work by Otto Nicolai is contained in my collection:

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849): Overture.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

Ignace Pleyel and his symphonies

Ignace_Joseph_Pleyel
Ignace Joseph (or Ignaz Josef) Pleyel (June 18, 1757–November 14, 1831) was a highly talented Austrian-born French composer, music publisher, and piano builder of the Classical period, born on June 18,1757, at Ruppersthal in Lower Austria, the son of the village schoolmaster named Martin Pleyel and his wife Anna Theresia. He was the 24th of 38 children in the family. While still young, the support of a patron enabled him to study with Johann Baptist Vanhal, and from 1772 he became the pupil of Joseph Haydn in Eisenstadt. Pleyel benefited in his study from the sponsorship of aristocracy, in this case Count Ladislaus Erdődy (1746–1786) in Pressburg (present-day Bratislava). Pleyel dedicated his String Quartets Op 1 to Count Erdödy in appreciation of his generosity, paternal solicitude, and encouragement. Pleyel evidently had a close relationship with Haydn, who considered him to be a superb student. Among Pleyel’s apprentice work from this time was a puppet opera Die Fee Urgele, (1776) performed in the marionette theater at the palace of Eszterháza and in Vienna. Pleyel apparently also wrote at least part of the overture of Haydn’s opera Das abgebrannte Haus, from about the same time.

Pleyel’s first professional position may have been as Kapellmeister for Count Erdődy, although this is not known for certain. Among his early publications was a set of six string quartets, his Opus 1. In the early 1780s, Pleyel visited Italy, where he composed an opera (Ifigenia in Aulide) and hurdy-gurdy works commissioned by the King of Naples. Attracted to the benefits associated with an organist position, Pleyel moved to Strasbourg, France in 1783 to work alongside Franz Xaver Richter the maître de chapelle at the Strasbourg Cathedral. The Cathedral was extremely appealing to Pleyel as it possessed a full orchestra, a choir, and a large budget devoted to performances. After establishing himself in France, Pleyel voluntarily called himself by the French version of his name, Ignace. Beginning in 1786, at the cathedral he organized and conducted a series of public concerts that featured his symphonies concertantes and liturgical music in collaboration with the Kapellmeister of the Strasbourg Temple Neuf, J. P. Schönfeld..

After Richter’s death in 1789, Pleyel assumed the function of full maître de chapelle. In 1788 Pleyel married Françoise-Gabrielle Lefebvre, the daughter of a Strasbourg carpet weaver. The couple had four children, the eldest being their son Camille. In 1791, the French Revolution abolished musical performances in churches as well as public concerts. Seeking alternative employment, Pleyel traveled to London, where he led the “Professional Concerts” organized by Wilhelm Cramer. In this capacity Pleyel inadvertently played the role of his teacher’s rival, as Haydn was at the same time leading the concert series organized by Johann Peter Salomon. Although the two composers were rivals professionally, they remained on good terms personally. Just like Haydn, Pleyel made a fortune from his London visit. On his return to Strasbourg, he bought a large house, the Château d’Ittenwiller in nearby St. Pierre.

With the onset of the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794, life in France became dangerous for many, not excluding Pleyel, who was brought before the Committee of Public Safety a total of seven times due to his foreign status, his recent purchase of a château, and his ties with the Strasbourg Cathedral. He was subsequently labeled a Royalist collaborator. The outcome of the Committee’s attentions could easily have been imprisonment or even execution. With prudent opportunism, Pleyel preserved his future by writing compositions in honor of the new republic including La Prise de Toulon, Hymne chanté au Temple de la Raison, Hymne à l’Être Suprême, and La Révolution du 10 août. All were written in Strasbourg and debuted at the Strasbourg Cathedral, known during the Terror when churches were outlawed as the Temple de l’Être Suprême (Temple of the Supreme Being).

Pleyel became a naturalized French citizen and thus came to be known as Citoyen (citizen) Pleyel. With his involvement in artistic propaganda and loyalty to the new regime, Pleyel can be seen as the ultimate musical champion of Strasbourg republicanism. In addition to composing these works for the Strasbourg public, Pleyel also contributed to the Parisian music scene during the Revolution. One example is Le Jugement de Pâris, a pantomime-ballet by Citoyen (Citizen) Gardel and performed with Pleyel’s music, along with that of Haydn, and Étienne Méhul, on March 5, 1793. There is no documentation for the often-told tale that he was arrested and released only after composing a revolutionary hymn under guard.

Pleyel moved to Paris in 1795. In 1797 he set up a business as a music publisher (“Maison Pleyel”), which among other works produced a complete edition of Haydn’s string quartets (1801), as well as the first miniature scores for study (the Bibliothèque Musicale, “musical library”). The publishing business lasted for 39 years and published about 4000 works during this time, including compositions by Adolphe Adam, Luigi Boccherini, Ludwig van Beethoven, Muzio Clementi, Johann Baptist Cramer, Johann Ladislaus Dussek, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Georges Onslow. Pleyel visited Vienna on business in 1805, meeting his now elderly mentor Haydn for a final time and hearing Beethoven play. In 1807, Pleyel founded the piano firm Pleyel et Cie and became a manufacturer of pianos. The firm was continued by Pleyel’s son Camille (1788–1855), a piano virtuoso who became his father’s business partner as of 1815. Pleyel retired in 1824 and moved to the countryside outside of Paris. He died on November 14, 1831, aged 74, and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Pleyel was prolific, composing 41 symphonies, a Requiem, 6 Symphonies Concertantes, 8 Concertos, 70 string quartets, 17 string quintets, 48 Trios, 64 Duets, and several operas, plus songs and church music. Many of these works date from the Strasbourg period; Pleyel’s production tailed off after he had become a businessman. Pleyel is an instance of the phenomenon of a composer, such as Cherubini, Meyerbeer, and Thalberg, who was very famous in his own time but presently obscure. Pleyel’s fame even reached the then-remote musical regions of America. There was a Pleyel Society on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, and tunes by Pleyel made their way into the then-popular shape note hymnals. Pleyel’s work is twice represented in the principal modern descendant of these books, The Sacred Harp. Pleyel continues to be known today as a composer of didactic music: generations of beginning violin and flute students, for example, learn to play the numerous duets he wrote for those instruments.

My collection includes the following works by Ignace Pleyel:

Symphony in cm, B. 121 (1778).
Symphony in CM, B. 128 (1786).
Symphony in fm, B. 138 (1786).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

Walter Piston and “The Incredible Flautist”

Walter_Piston
Walter Hamor Piston Jr, (January 20, 1894 – November 12, 1976), was an American composer, music theorist, and professor of music at Harvard University who is best known for his ballet The Incredible Flutist, his two violin concertos, eight symphonies, and numerous wonderful chamber works. Piston was born in Rockland, ME, on January 20, 1894. His paternal grandfather, a sailor named Antonio Pistone, changed his name to Anthony Piston when he came to America from Genoa, Italy. In 1905, when the boy was ten, the composer’s father, Walter Piston Sr, moved with his family to Boston. Walter Jr first trained as an engineer at the Mechanical Arts High School in Boston, but was artistically inclined. In his teens, Piston’s musical education commenced with piano and violin lessons, but painting was his main interest. After graduating in 1912, he enrolled in the Massachusetts Normal Arts School, where he completed a draftsmanship course in 1916.

During the 1910s, Piston made a living playing piano and violin in dance bands and later playing violin in orchestras led by Georges Longy. During World War I, he joined the U.S. Navy as a band musician after rapidly teaching himself to play saxophone. While playing in a service band, he taught himself to play most wind instruments. After the war, Piston was admitted to Harvard College in 1920, where he studied counterpoint with Archibald Davison, canon and fugue with Clifford Heilman, advanced harmony with Edward Ballantine, and composition and music history with Edward Burlingame Hill. He often worked as an assistant for various music professors there, and conducted the student orchestra. In 1920, Piston married artist Kathryn Nason (1892–1976), who had been a fellow student at the Normal Arts School. Their marriage lasted until her death in February 1976, a few months before his own.

On graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Piston was awarded a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship and chose to go to Paris, living there from 1924 to 1926. At the Ecole Nationale de Musique in Paris, he studied composition and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger, composition with Paul Dukas, and violin with George Enescu. His Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon of 1925 was his first published score. Upon his return to the U.S., he taught at Harvard from 1926 until his retirement in 1960 appointed in 1951 as Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Music. His students include Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Gordon Binkerd, Elliott Carter, John Davison, Irving Fine, John Harbison, Karl Kohn, Ellis B. Kohs, Gail Kubik, Billy Jim Layton, Noël Lee, Robert Middleton, Robert Moevs, Conlon Nancarrow, William P. Perry, Daniel Pinkham, Frederic Rzewski, Allen Sapp, Harold Shapero, and Claudio Spies. In 1928 the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky performed Piston’s Symphonic Piece.

Piston studied the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg and wrote works using aspects of it as early as the Sonata for Flute and Piano (1930). In 1936, the Columbia Broadcasting System commissioned six American composers, Aaron Copland, Louis Gruenberg, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, William Grant Still, and Piston, to write works for broadcast on CBS radio. The following year, Piston wrote his Symphony No. 1 and conducted its premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on April 8, 1938. Piston’s only dance work, The Incredible Flutist, was a ballet written for the Boston Pops Orchestra, which premiered it with Arthur Fiedler conducting on May 30, 1938. His first fully twelve-tone work was the Chromatic Study on the Name of Bach for organ (1940), which nonetheless retains a vague feeling of key. Also, Piston arranged an Incredible Flautist concert suite including a selection of the best parts of the ballet. This version was premiered by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on November 22, 1940.

In 1943, the Alice M. Ditson fund of Columbia University commissioned Piston’s Symphony No. 2, which was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra on March 5, 1944, and was awarded a prize by the New York Music Critics’ Circle. His next symphony, the Third, earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, as did his Symphony No. 7 in 1961. His Viola Concerto and String Quartet No. 5 also later received Critics’ Circle awards. Although he employed twelve-tone elements sporadically throughout his career, these become much more pervasive in the Eighth Symphony (1965) and many of the works following it, such as the Variations for Cello and Orchestra (1966), Clarinet Concerto (1967), Ricercare for Orchestra, Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra (1970), and Flute Concerto (1971). Piston wrote four books on the technical aspects of music theory which are considered to be classics in their respective fields, Principles of Harmonic Analysis, Counterpoint, Orchestration, and Harmony. He died at his home in Belmont, MA, on November 12, 1976.

As a composer, Walter Piston remained an enlightened conservative. Taking the neo-Classic mode of expression and infusing it into larger Romantic forms with flawless craftsmanship, he was one of the great bearers of the symphonic tradition in the twentieth century. Piston was a leading light among those mid-twentieth century American composers who opted to explore traditional musical forms and language. Although he was perhaps better known as a teacher and the author of a widely used book on harmony than as a composer, Piston’s music displays superb craftsmanship within his selected neo-Classic-Romantic idiom, though in his last decades his works also explore more complex harmonies and aspects of serialism within a tonal context.

The following works by Walter Piston are contained in my collection:

Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra (1939).
Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra (1960).
Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra (1970).
The Incredible Flutist Ballet Suite.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources