July 2008 - Posts
Operas take place in many different locales and time periods, ranging from ancient Egypt to the present day. Wagner's monumental Ring Cycle takes place in an inaginary world of German gods, goddesses, dwarves, giants, water nixies and valkyries etc In opera you can travel back to Russia at the time of Ivan the terrible, see quaint Sicilian villages, observe the amorous intrigues of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth the first, French . Spanish, and other European kings and the aristocracy, and much, much more.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it ? Maybe, but many who direct operas and design the sets in productions today have different ideas. It's become commonplace, especially in Europe, for some reason, to set productions of operas which take place in the past in the present day, with modern costumes. It's a gimmick, and sometimes it's interesting and dramatically effective, but too often it's just plain weird. Directors often add all manner of arbitrary gimmicks to productions.
Verdi's early opera Nabucco is a story of the Jews of the Bible during the Babylonian captivity. Nabucco is short for the legendary king Nebachudnezzar. One production of this opera actually transfered the action to modern day Iraq, and Nabucco was none other than the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein ! And it gets weirder ! Mozart's Marriage of Figaro , which takes place in the elegant castle of an 18th century Spanish aristocrat, has actually been tranferred to the Trump tower in Manhattan. Figaro is the valet to a count; here he's the chauffeur of a very wealthy man ! Boris Godunov, which deals with the torments of a Tsar 400 years ago, and political intrigue, has been updated to present day Moscow.
The 1976 production of Wagner's Ring at the Bayreuth festival which comemorated the centennial of the first Ring production there, set the cycle in Wagner's 19th century Germany, and the gods were Industrial plutocrats ! The Rhine nixens were prostitutes at a hydroelectric dam. Many were outraged, but the production actually achieved considerable success, and you can get it on DVD, as well as the Metropolitan's much more traditional production. These stagings are called Eurotrsh productions, or as the Germans call it Regietheater, or productions in which the director's "concept" is the main attraction.
The recent Met production of Verdi's Macbeth set it in the present day, but fortunately did not use any ridiculous arbitrary gimmicks, and the PBS telecast worked for me, at least. But one Spanish director known for his gross stagings opened a Verdi opera in a men's room with members of the chorus sitting on toilet seats, and that is far from the grossest thing he's done.
Although American productions do update productions, truly loony stagings seem to be much less common here. Many of the wacky stagings can be seen on DVD, but there are relatively traditional one, too. Perhaps you should try the normal ones, and then check the weird ones out. Decide for yourself. The reviews at websites such as classicstoday.com and classicalcdreview.com describe the productions well , so you can be forewarned.
Is classical music "superior" or "higher" than other kinds of music ? Or is it an elitist art form created by dead white males for wealthy snobs ? Or are only other kinds of music valid ? These are loaded questions. The answer is that no kind of music is superior or inferior to others. One kind of music does not invalidate another.
Different people have different preferences, period. There's nothing wrong with that. My preference happens to be for classical music. Do you have any problem with that ? I hope not. Some people are jazz fans, others are Rock fans, others love Country Western, and so on. That's fine with me.
But unfortunately, snobbism in music preference exists, and it's not confined to lovers of classical music. Can't we all just get along ? Some years ago, I saw a debate on PBS between an opera singer, a Jazz critic and others about whether the government should support opera and classical music. The Jazz critic was adamantly opposed. Why ? He claimed that opera is not an "American" form of music, and that audiences for it don't go for the music, but only to see and be seen, and to show off their furs and jewelry etc. If this wasn't snobbism, I don't know what snobbism is. This critic was totally ignorant of opera, and blindly accepted stereotypical , distorted views of it. He obviously was ignorant of the fact that European opera was popular in America long before Jazz even existed.
And also, he must have been unaware of all the operas by American composers that have been written and successfully performed here. And Jazz has many fans all over Europe, and Jazz festivals are very popular there.
I may be a passionate lover of classical music, but I have absolutely nothing against other kinds of music. And at least I've actually heard other kinds of music. I've probably heard more Jazz and Rock etc than fans of other kinds of music have heard classical music. As the old saying goes, don't knock it if you haven't tried it.
It's interesting how many operas have been made out of Shakespeare's plays. It's hard to know how many, and a number of them are quite popular.
Probably the most famous are by Giuseppe Verdi (1813- 19010.) He was a great admirer of the plays , which he knew from Italian translations only. The earliest is Macbeth, or Macbetto, which dates from the 1840s and exists in an original and revised version. It follows the original fairly closely, which not all Shakespearean operas do, and can be very exciting to hear. It contains two juicy roles for a soprano as Lady Macbeth, and a baritone as Macbeth. Verdi did not want a conventionally beautiful voice for lady Macbeth, but one that was harsh and sinister-sounding. The sleepwalking scene is really spooky. The Metropolitan opera did a new production of Macbeth this past season, and it could be seen at High Definition movie theater broadcsts, PBS and heard over the radio. Look for it on DVD when it comes out.
Otello (Othello ), is Verdi's next to last opera, and one of the most powerful and compelling operas ever written. It was premiered at the famous La Scala opera in Milan in 1887. Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito(who also composed the opera Mefistofele ) omit Shakespeare's first act and begin the opera with a tumultuous storm in which Otello's ship arrives in Cyprus after defeating the Ottoman navy in battle. The role of Otello is one of the most demanding tenor roles in opera, and has long been a signature role of the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and other famous tenors of the 20th century. Check out the Franco Zefirrelli film version with Domingo, and the live DVD from the Met.
Verdi's final opera is Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. He had written only one comic opera before early in his career , which is almost never performed today. The role of the fat, jolly, boozing rogue Falstaff is one of the great baritone roles. Verdi is famous for tragic operas like La Traviata, Rigoletto, and others, but Falstaff is unlike anything else by this composer. It's full of wit and enchantment. There are a number of DVD versions available.
Some lesser known but worthwhile operas based on Shakespeare are "Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor" , by the German composer Otto Nicolai (1810- 1849 ) , which is basically the same as the Merry Wives of Windsor. It's in German, and as far as I know there are no DVD versions, but it has been recorded. If not as great as Verdi's Falstaff, it's quite charming and tuneful.
Verdi wanted to write an operatic version of King Lear but never got around to it, but the contemporary German composer Aribert Reimann has written an interesting if musically very complex and difficult one , premiered in Munich in in 1978 and written for the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer -Dieskau (1925-), now retired. The live recording of the world premiere recording has recently been reissued on Deutsche Grammophon records. It's anything but easy listening, but worth getting to know.
The gifted young English composer Thomas Ades (A-dess) (1971), has written very recent version of the Tempest, which I have not heard. The composer conducted the world premiere at the Royal opera in London a few years ago, and the Metropolitan opera is scheduled to do it in a couple of years or so. It sounds interesting.
The French composer Ambroise Thomas , an almost exact contemporary of Verdi, is little known today, but his operatic version of Hamlet was once very popular. Unfortunately, the opera takes many liberties with Shakespeare's plotline. I have heard the EMI recording with the famous American baritone Thomas Hampson, but this may not be availabe at the time. Check arkivmusic.com. I believe there is at least one DVD version. If not one of the greatest operas, it's very entertaining.
Recently, I had a conversation with someone I know slightly, a man in his early 50s, around my age , who knows about my advocay of classical music. He made some comments knocking this kind of music, saying that it just wasn't for normal people, or something to that effect. He just doesn't like it. He mentioned that when he was growing up, his father , who enjoyed classical music, often played classical LPs, and that he couldn't stand listening to them.
Well, I guess there's just no arguing over taste. But I asked him this question ; do you think that if some people would just give classical music a chance, they might really enjoy it ? He said, possibly they would. That's right. Many people just aren't willing to give classical music a chance. They've heard that it's stuffy, boring and "elitist", whatever that means. Perhaps they have a mental image of pianists with long white hair, and fat sopranos in ridiculous costumes.
But what if they would set aside such negative stereotypes and get some classical Cds of music by Beethoven, Bach and Mozart etc. And read the liner notes, or do a google search on these composers and find some information about them on the internet ? They might come to realize that this kind of music is terrific, and be curious to try other composers, too.
When I was about 13, I started to to investigate classical Lps in my public library out of curiosity, and I got hooked for life on this kind of music. It may have been by chance, but I have never regretted it. I didn't have any preconceived notions about what kind of music I was supposed to like. I began devouring every book or magazine on classical music I could find in the library. I had already been playing the French horn for some time and was playing in the school band, and went on to play in as many groups as I could over the years.
It's vital to debunk the myths about classical music, and to show people that they can obtain a lifetime of listening enjoyment from it. But how I'd like to explore the possibilities in later posts.
If you read commentary by classical music critics , composers and others today, you will notice a great deal of nostalgia on their part for the "Good Old Days" of classical music, when everything was so much better. Supposedly, things were so much better in the past because "all or most music was new at the time ".
This may be true to some extent, but this statement needs some clarification. These commentators seem to be upset with the current classical music scene because there is so much music from the past being performed. They say we ought to hear much more new music. The repertoire of classical music is "ossified". The established "canon" of classical repertoire rules at concerts and opera. Surely there is something wrong with musical life today.
But consider these facts. In the heyday of such great composers as Haydn , Mozart and Beethoven, which lasted from circa 1750- 1825 , the symphony orchestra as we know it was a relatively new thing. They just did not have the amount and variety of music for orchestra we have today.
And performances were much scarcer. There was no such thing as a public orchestra, resident at one concert hall all year playing a different program each week with a chief conductor and guest conductors. This is the norm today. In the past, some wealthy music-loving members of the aristocracy in Europe had their own private small orchestras and paid composers to write music for them. Joseph Haydn, (1732- 1809) , was the Kapellmeister, or music director to a Hungarian count who loved music. Haydn was literally a servant in livery who provided music for the count and his guests, and led the count's small orchestra and led opera performances. The famous Haydn was a feather in the count's cap.
In the last years of Mozart's life in Vienna, 1781- 1791, he was a freelance composer and pianist who put on his own concerts, and hired and paid the musicians. Beethoven was also a famous pianist until deafness forced him to abandon performing
But today, things are very different. There are infinitely more orchestras, opera companies , chamber ensembles and solo instrumentalists than ever before. Yes, music from the past is still popular, but there is absolutely no lack of new music. Every year, orchestras commission composers to write new works, and those works are played , even if audiences and critics don't always like them. The same is true of opera companies. There are ensembles which specialize in music from the renaissance and medieval periods, and use replicas of ancient instruments, and there are ensembles which specialize in new music. Orchestras play music by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Scubert and Brahms etc, and they also play the latest works by living composers. Certain famous works have remained lastingly popular, and many interesting works that had been long neglected are revived every year.
In sum, we have an infinitely greater variety of classical music available to us than ever before. How can this be bad ?
Richard Wagner, the visionary genius who revolutionized opera (see my earlier post on him ), founded a unique music festival devoted to performances of his operas in 1876 in the small northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth (pronounced buy- royt ), and the world of opera has never been the same. The festival has continues to this day, run by his descendants and has just opened with a new production of his final work, the mystical "Parsifal", about the guardians of the holy grail in medieval northern Spain.
For the festival, Wagner had a special theater built , known as the Festspielhaus, or festival house. This is no ordinary opera house. It's constructed as an amphitheater with no box seats, and has a sunken orchestra pit in which the conductor and orchestra are out of view of the audience. The string instruments are on top, and the brass instruments are on a slope far below the stage. This makes it virtually impossible for the orchestra to drown out the singers. I haven't been there (but would love to go ), and the acoustics are supposed to be amazing.
Every July and August, world famous singers and conductors have come to Bayreuth to perform. The festival orchestra is made of of some of the finest musicians from the top German orchestras. The pay is not great, but there is enormous prestige in being invited to sing or conduct there. Many of the world's greatest conductors have appeared there, such as Toscanini, Furtwangler, and other legendary maestros of the past, and eminent living ones such as James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, etc, as well as such great Wagner singers as Kirsten Flagstad, Birgot Nilsson, Lauritz Melchior from the past, and leading singers of today.
Tickets are unbelievably hard to come by. It's easier to get an audience with the Pope. You have to get on a waiting list and wait several years !
The festival opened in 1876 with the first complete performance of the monumental Ring cycle of four music dramas based on Norse and German mythology, and the cycle has been repeated there many times, staged, designed and conducted by many individuals. The opening was attended by many eminent composers, critics and even kings and emperors of Europe and South America ! Unfortunately, Hitler , who was a crazed Wagnerite, was closely associated with the festival in the 30s and 40s. There were intermittant closings during WW2, but the festival reopened in 1951, run by Wagner's two grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang, who staged performances there. Wolfgang Wagner is still alive and almost 90, and in failing health. There has been some struggle over who will succeed him, but Wagner's great granddaughters will be doing so. Prior to this, the festival had been run by Wagner's widow, Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, and his son Siegfried, who was also an opera composer and conductor.
Every summer, Wagner fans and others make the pilgramedge to Bayreuth, it's supposed to be a unique, unforgettable experience.. Some radio stations from Europe offer radio broadcasts of performances, and now the computer enables people to hear performances. There are many Bayreuth performances captured at performances on CD; Decca records has just released a special 33 CD set of all the Wagner operas that are performed at Bayreuth (his early, immature ones are not ), and this can easily be ordered, although it's selling so briskly stocks are now low. Bu it's a great bargain. Frederic Spotts has written a fascinating history of the festival which can easily be ordered from amazon.com. It's a must read.
Long ago, before movies , Opera was a spectacular form of entertainment where people flocked to hear their favortite singers show of their spectacular voices, and see the fantastic special effects on stage. The most popular opera singers , and the rock stars of the day were actually men who had been castrated before pubery. They retained the high female range of singing and portrayed women on stage. The greatest had spectacular voices with incredible breath control, and audiences went wild. George Frideric Handel (1685- 1759 ), whose operas are still performed today, and other once famous composers wrote operas for them.
If a young boy showed real talent as a singer, his parents would often arrange to have the surgical operation done on him in the hopes that he would become rich and famous. Of course, not all did, and some sang in church choirs, including the prestigious on of the Vatican.
Women sought out the most famous castrati to have affairs with them, knowing they could not become pregnant. It seems that groupies are nothing new ! Perhaps the most famous was Farinelli , born Carlo Broschi. Several years ago, there was a film about him which I haven't seen, but it may be available on DVD. Other famous castrati went by a single name, such as Senesino, Pacchierotti, and Caffarelli. The last active one in opera, Giovanni Battista Velluti , lived as late as 1861. By that time, castration had become illegal in Italy.
In Italy, audiences, cheering famous castrati after a brilliantly executed aria , would shout "Evviva Il Coltello !" , meaning "hurrah for the knife" !
Castrati continued to sing in the Vatican choir until 1913, when the last one, Alessandro Moreschi, retired He lived until 1922, and was the only one to make recordings. Of course, these recordings are of an older man no longer in his vocal prime, so only a vague impression of what these legendary singers were like survives. Wouldn't it be terrific if we had a time machine and could hear these fascinating singers ?
Being a major opera star may seem like a glamorous lifestyle where you're idolized by the opera-going public, but it's a definitely a tough life. You're under constant pressure to be at your best. There's always the worry about getting sick for this or that ailment, and you always worry if you're going to be in good form.
And singing opera is infinitely more difficult than singing Rock or Pop. The music is just technically much more difficult. And you don't have the luxury of a microphone, although body mikes have occaisionally been used in opera, mainly in opera houses where the acoustics are not so good.
Than there's the orchestra you have to sing over. They vary in size from rather small in Mozart to enormous in Wagner and Richard Strauss, 100 players or so ! So you have to have a voice capable of projecting over an orchestra into the auditorium of a large opera house. They vary in size from the Met in Lincoln center, the world's largest opera house, seating 3,800, to considerably smaller in Europe. Unfortunately, conductors sometimes let the orchestra drown out the singers. And you have to sing softly, too, when the music calls for it.
It takes years of training to become an opera singer. It's necessary to find a good teacher or teachers to teach vocal technique, which is anything but easy to learn, if you are fortunate to be born with a fine voice and raw potential. Aspiring opera singers go to Juilliard and other top music schools, and often go on to graduate work in opera training programs. They learn not only vocal technique, but interpretation, languages, acting, and music theory. Many famous opera stars teach voice when they retire from singing.
Then, the singers go through the difficult process of auditioning, and not every one makes it. Many start off singing small roles , and gradually progress to leading roles. Some of the top opera singers today are sopranos Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Natalie Dessay, Anna Netrebko, Diana Damrau, Mezzo-sopranos Denyce Graves, Susan Graham, Magdalena Kozena, Olga Borodina, Tenors Placido Domingo, Juan Diego Florez, Ben Heppner, Roberto Alagna, Ramon Vargas, Marcello Giordani, baritones Thomas Hampson, Bryn Terfel, Simon Keenlyside, and basses Rene Pape and Matti Salminen, to name only a handful. You can hear them on many CDs and DVDs.
Pity the poor viola, butt of so many jokes. It's similar to the violin, but slightly larger and can reach notes slightly below the violin. In the hands of a first-rate player, the viola can sound very beautiful, with a distinctive , slightly dusky timbre. The great JS Bach , who was not only a great organist but an accomplished violinist, is said to have greatly enjoyed playing the viola, and the same is true of Mozart.
The prolific German composer Paul Hindemith (1895- 1963 ), was not only a composer , teacher ,and theorist but one of the leading violists of the 20th century. He started out as a violinist, like many violists, and is said to have been able to play every instrument in the orchestra to some degree !
Other well-known violists have been England's Lionel Tertis (1776- 1975 ), the Scotsman William Primrose (1904- 1882 ), Rebecca Clarke of England, also a composer. Some famous contemporary violists are Ukrainian Yuri Bashmet , Kim Kashkashian, and Israeli Rivka Golani.
The world renowned violionist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman (!949-, has also performed as a violist, as did Yehudi Menhin (1916- 1999 ), and the legendary violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini (1782- 1841 ).
The viola does not have as large a solo repertoire as the violin, but it is larger than most realize. Probably the most famous is the programmatic symphony by Berlioz "Harold in Italy", based on the epic poem by Byron. It is a description of a young English aristocrat and his adventures in Italy, and was commissioned by none other than Paganini, who wanted to show his prowess on the viola. The work is not really a concerto or a regular symphony, and Paganini was said to have been dissapointed that the viola part was not as prominent or showy as he wanted. Some notable recordings are conducted by Colin Davis, Leonard Bernstein, Charles Munch, Charles Dutoit and Arturo Toscanini.
The great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, famous for his Concerto for Orchestra and other works, left a viola concerto unfinished at his death in 1945, and another composer finished it. "Der Schwanendreher"( The Swan Turner ), is a concerto for viola and small orchestra based on medieval German songs. The odd title comes from an old German song about a cook whose job was to turn roasting swans on the spit.
The Swiss-Jewish composer Ernest Bloch (1880- 1959 ), wrote a suite for viola and orchestra. Other viola concertos have been written by Englishman William Walton, and Americans Morton Gould and Walter Piston. The eccentric avant-garde American composer Morton Feldman (1926- 1987 ), wrote a large scale work called "The Viola In MY Life ". Don't underestimate the viola !
Just as there are all kinds of music, Classical, Pop, Rock, Country Western, Folk, World Music, Jazz, etc, there are many kinds of food.
We have our choice of Italian, French, Mexican, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and many others cuisines when we go to a restaurant. Who is to say that one cuisine is "better" than another ? It's the same with music. One kind isn't "superior" or "inferior" to another. I just happen to love classical music, and have devoted my life to it. But if other people are fans of other kinds of music, that's fine with me.
Perhaps you could compare classical with pop music by comparing Pop music with fast food, which you get a Mc Donald's and Burger King etc, and describe classical music as slow food in a fancy restaurant. Now, eating fast food is conveniant and fun, but it's great to go to a fancy restaurant and eat gourmet food, too. I hope no one miscontrues this as snobbery on my part.
Don't get me wrong. I don't mind eating fast food at all (I prefer Burger King to McDonald's), and I enjoy take out pizza, too. But to me, classical music is the kind of music I enjoy the most. De gustibus non est disputandum, different strokes for different folks, Chacun a son gout.
Some people are reluctant to try classical music because of the negative stories they've heard about it. But how can they know they would not like it if they've never even given it a chance ? It's the same with restaurants that serve cuisine you're not familiar with. I've never been to an Ethiopian restaurant, but I hear that this kind of food is really delicious.
I'm definitely willing to try it. I also like the traditional music of exotic places such as the non-Russian parts of the former Soviet Union, such as the Caucasus , of which Chechnya is a part, the central asian republics such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc, and Siberia. I have long been fascinated by the history and culture of these regions, and have read a lot about them. I have a CD of traditional music for men's choir from the republic of Georgia, where Joseph Stalin was born. He was a Georgian whose original last name was Dzhugashvili. The Georgian language is as different from Russian as Arabic, and even has its own alphabet. The choral music from here is fascinating.
So are the examples of traditional music from central asia, where most of the people are muslim and speak languages that are very similar to Turkish, except those in Tajikistan who speak Persian. Afghanistan is close to this region, too. And in the regions near Mongolia, they have an amazing kind of vocal music called"THroat Singing", where one singer actually produces two or three pitches at the same time ! You have to hear it to believe it. There are recordings available , and it's like nothing you've ever heard ! The region is called Tuva, and it's on the northwestern border of Mongolia. You can find out about it on the internet by putting Tuva and Throat Singing on your search engine.
Yes, there's more to life than classical music, as much as I love it.
There are many people who love their Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and other composers of juicy, melodious romantic music. But if they go to a concert where something by such important but challenging 20th century music by such composers as Arnold Schoenberg (1874- 1951 ), Alban Berg (1885- 1935 ), or Anton Webern (1883- 1945 ), and other modern composers whose music is not so warm and cuddly is played, they might as well be going for a root canal at the dentist. This is unfortunate. If you just keep an open mind and give these composers a chance, you can really enjoy it.
Arnold Schoenberg was a revolutionary Viennese born composer , largely self taught, who started out writing in a lush late romantic style influenced by Wagner and Brahms, whose music he greatly admired. But he started experimenting in the early 20th century with abandoning tonality. That is, music that is no longer in any key (c major, d major, a minor etc). He invented a radically new way of writing music in which all twelve tones of the scale are equal; there is no tonal center any more. His strange new music provoked a great deal of hostility among many listeners and other composers and critics, but he had his champions among musicians, and got performances. He attracted many pupils, the most important being Berg and Webern, who adopted his techniques, albeit in their own way. As a Jew, he had to escape his native Austria, and settled in Los Angeles, and taught at UCLA for some years.
Many other composers were influenced by Schoenberg, and adapted his techniques in different ways. Schoemberg's music is not wildly popular, but it is performed and recorded. You could start with his early and more approachable works, the string sextet "Transfigured Night", and the monumental oratorio "Guurelieder", based on an old Danish legend , for a huge orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists. Then try such more difficult works, no longer ina key, as "Five Pieces for orchestra", "Variations for orchestra", the concertos for violin , and piano, the string quartets, the biblical opera "Moses and aron", performed despite the last act which was never written, and the weird "Pierrot Lunaire", for instrumental ensemble, and a reciter who uses mixture of speech and singing called "Sprechstimme", which is actually neither.
You may find this music weird, and even disturbing at first, but if you give it repeated hearings, it will start to make much more sense, and even come to sound melodic. Also try the great operas "Wozzeck" and "Lulu", by Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg, which have been successfully performed by opera companies everywhere. Wozzeck , premiered in Berlin in 1925, is the strange pitiful story of a poor German soldier and his girlfriend, who have an illegitimate child. The simple but sensitive Wozzeck is tormented by his pompous captain and a sadistic quack doctor who pays him a little extra money for being his guinea pig for experiments. His girlfriend is seduced by a macho drum major, and Wozzeck gradually loses his sanity. He kills his girlfriend Marie, and drowns in a pond while desperately looking for the knife he used to kill her. The child , unaware of what has happened when his mother's body is discovered, is left an orphan.
Pretty grim stuff, but it's a powerful opera. There are a number of CDs abd DVDs available. Once you get accustomed to it, you'll realize what a masterpiece it is.
There's an old saying - familiarity breeds contempt. But with music like this, it's just the opposite. Unfamilarity breeds contempt. Give these composers a chance, and you won't regret it.
The music of the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841- 1904 ) is fairly popular and well-known to classical audiences, but the problem is, that most people know only a handful of the many wonderful works he wrote. His ever popular symphony no 9, (From the New World ), written while he was living in America in the 1890s, has been a staple of the orchestra repertoire since its first performance in Carnegie hall in 1893. The 7th and 8th symphonies are also popular. But you seldom hear his first six symphonies at concerts, which is a shame, as they are very appealing works. There are quite a few CDs of them though.
Dvorak's gorgeous cello concerto has been played and recorded by just about all the world's leading cellists, but you don't hear the attractice piano concerto very often; some pianists don't like the way it's written for the instrument. The lovely violin concert, though, is gaining in popularity.
There are some delightfiul tone poems based on Czech fairy tales, such as "The Wood Dove", "The Golden Spinning Wheel", "The Water Goblin, and "The Noonday Witch". You should also try other shorter orchestral works as "The Heroic Song", "Hussite overture", "In Nature's Realm", "Othello", etc.
The gorgeous if tragic opera "Rusalka", about a watersprite and her ill-fated love for a prince, has been gaining in popularity at opera houses around the world ; get the DVD with the great American soprano Renee Fleming. You'll fall in love with it.
Dvorak's choral works, such as the Requiem and the Stabat Mater, are also wonderful, as well as the oratorio "The Spectre's Bride", the tale of a young woman who longs for her beloved , who has been killed in battle, but ends up meeting his ghost instead.
Your chances of hearing some of these works live are fairly slim, but fortunately there are plenty of fine recordings. You can't go wrong with the authentically Czech performances on the Czech national record label Supraphon, although there are fine recordings on other labels, too. Check out arkivmusic.com to order. Dvorak wrote a veritable goldmine of wonderful music.
Devotees of classical music are familiar with the wonderful music of such universally loved composers as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Debussy and Ravel etc. And those who are new to it are getting familiar with what we call the"Standard Repertoire". This is a canon of lastingly popular works which are performed everywhere all the time and which have been recorded countless times. Orchestras and opera companies are often criticized for sticking to these thrice-familiar works and their alleged failure to try something new and different.
But there are many fine composers of all periods who deserve to be played more often , and whose music can easily be found on recordings. And their music has been revived and performed. In fact, there is greater diversity of repertoire being performed today than ever before in the history of western classical music. And an absolutely staggering amount of obscure classical music has been recorded in recent years, some of it well-worth hearing.
The late American composer and music critic Virgil Thomson (1896- 1989 ), used to sneer at orchestras in America because, according to him, they just kept repeating the same old "Fifty Pieces". This of course is something of an exaggeration. But Thomson's active period as a critic was in the 40s and early 50s, at a now defunct New York newspaper. But things are very different today. Yes, those"50 pieces" are still popular, but this hasn't kept an enormous number of new works from being premiered since his haeyday as a critic, and many revivals of long neglected works from the past.
Who are some of those lesser-known but excellent composers who are now sometimes heard ? I could cite Carl Nielsen of Denmark (1865- 1931 ), whose highly original music was almost totally unknown in America until the late Leonard Bernstein became enthusiastic about it in the 1960s, and also recorded it. Nielsen is best known for his six wonderful symphonis, which have been recorded fairly often. You should also try his marvelous woodwind quintet, and shorter orchestral works, and his clarinet concerto, to start.
The French composer Albert Roussel (1869- 1937 ) was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel , but unfortunately never became as well-known. His music is not really impressionistic, although it's very colorful. Try his four symphonies, and the ballet scores"The Sider's Feast" and "Bacchus & Ariane" to start. Roussel's colorful and exotic opera "Padmavati", a story of India during the Moghul conquest has just been revived with great success in Paris, and can be heard on a recently reissued EMI CD.
Karol Szymanowski (1882- 1937 ) is probably the best known Polish composer since Chopin. There are elements of Polish folk music, and the composer was also interested in oriental lore, and wrote music based on it. Some of his piano music sounds like what Chopin might have written if he had been a 20th century composer ! Szymanowski's colorful opera "King Roger", is based on an imaginary incident in the life of a great medieval Sicilian king in which the Greek god Dionysus lures the Sicilian people away from Christian asceticism. It's being performed this summer at Bard College in upstate New York by Bard president and conductor of the American symphony orchestra Leon Botstein, an advocate of lesser-known music.
Other notable composers who are not as well-known as they should be are German and Austrian composers Hans Pfitzner (1869- 1949 ), Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871- 1942 ), Franz Schmidt (1874- 1939 ), Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890- 1959 ), Russia's Mikolai Myaskovsky (1881- 1950 ), (sometimes spelled Miaskovsky ), who wrote no fewer than 27 symphonies, English composers Arnold Bax (1883- 1953 ), Sir Arthur Bliss (1891- 1975 ), and Havergal Brian (1876- 1972 ) , Wilhelm Stenhammar of Sweden (1871- 1927 ), and Ion Leifs of Iceland (1899- 1968 ). (Yes, Iceland has produced composers ! All of these composers in this post have written music that is well worth getting to know. Arkivmusic.com , with its huge selection , is the perfect place to order CDs of their music. Just look up these composers alpahbetically there. Classicastoday.com has reviews of recordings of their music that are very helpful and informative.
What do you get when you cross a French horn with a goal post ? A goal post that can't march.
How do you get a viola section to sound like a horn section ? Have them miss every other note.
What's the difference between a horn section and a ' 57 Chevy ? You can tune the Chevy.
What's the favorite movie of brass players ? Gone with the woodwinds.
What's the difference between a squirrel in the back of taxi and a horn player in the same taxi ? The squirrel is probably goinng to work.
How do you know a horn player is coming to you ? The doorbell has missed the tune.
What's the difference between an orchestra and a bull ? The orchestra has the horns in the rear and the ass up front.
Lily was practicing the piano when she heard sirens outside, followed by a heavy pounding at her front door. When she opened it, she was surprised to see three police officers with their guns drawn. "Where's the body ?, "asked the anxious cop in charge. "What body?", asked Lily. "Don't act so innocent with me", said the cop. "We got a tip that someone was murdering Beethoven in this house !".
By the way, an English composer whose name I can't remember actually wrote an addition to Holst's Planets called Pluto recently. I haven't heard it, but is has been recorded as an addition to at least one recording . The reviews I read did not like it.
Gustav Holst : The Planets. This is a colorful suite consisting of seven movements, each providing an astrological description of the various planets, not including earth. It was first heard in London in 1919, some years before the now discredited Pluto was discovered.
Gustav Holst, (1874- 1934 ), was an English composer of Swedish descent . The Planets is his only frequently heard work, although concert bands sometimes play his suites for wind emsemble. The seven movement suite reflects his interest in astrology and astronomy and occult lore.
The first movement is called Mars, bringe of war; it's very agressive and is in the irregular 5/4 time signature. ( five beats per measure instead of the usual 4,3 or 2 ) The second is Venus, bringer of peace, and is much more gentle. Movement 3 is called Mercury, the winged messenger , and is quick and yes, mercurial. The fourth is Jupiter, bringer of Jollity, and is full of festive merriment. The fifth is Saturn, bringer of old age, and is solemn and mysterious. Uranus the magician is the seventh and also somewhat mysterious. The final movement is Neptune the mystic and has an eerie and static character, complete with a women's chorus singing wordlessly; the ending fades out into utter silence.
There are many fine recordings of this vivid work. Among the most famous are by the eminent English conductor Sir Adrian Boult (1889- 1983 ), who conducted the world premiere, Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, Andre Previn and others.
Bedrich Smetana : Ma Vlast (My Fatherland ) Smetana (1824-1884 ), was the first great Czech composer, and his music celebrates the history and folklore of his native Bohemia, now the Czech republic. His monumental six part cycle of symphonic poems is a celebration of Czech history and national traditions.
It opens with "The High Castle", the historic Prague landmark where Bohemian kings lived, and bards sang of ancient lore. The second or "The Moldau", German name for the river Vltava which flows through the Bohemian countrysideide and ends up in Prague, the capitol. It's a day in the life of a river, and you hear a wedding in process, a hunt, watersprites singing at night before the majectic ending when you reach Prague. This is the only part of Ma Vlast which is usually performed, for some reason.
The third section is "Sarka" (pronounced sharka) . She was the leader of a legendary revolt of Czech women in the distant past, who betrayed her lover , the hero Ctirad, and massacred him and his warriors by deceit.
The fourth is "From Bohemia's Meadows and forests" , and is a vivid portrayal of the picturesque Czech countryside.
The last two parts are "Tabor" and "Blanik". These deal with the battles in 15th century Bohemia caused by the execution of the great Czech religious reformer Jan Hus, who anticipated Luther's protestant reforms by a century, but was bunrt at the stake for heresy. His followers, the Hussites, fought the armies of the Holy Roman Empire to establish religious freedom.
The work ends in a blaze of patriotic glory. The Czech people revere this great work, and festive p[erformances of the complete cycle take place every year in Prague. There are many recordings of the Moldau as a separate piece, but you should get the whole cycle too. Such great Czech conductors as Vaclav Talich, Rafael Kubelik, Vaclav Neumann and others have recorded the cycle, and more than once, as well as James Levine, Paavo Berglund and other non Czechs.
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