May 2014 - Posts
Poor Antonio Salieri (1750- 1825 ) has gotten a bum rap in music history . For so long , he's been seen a mediocre composer with a pathological envy of the divinely gifted Mozart , and there have been long-standing but totally bogus rumors that he may have been guilty of causing the untimely death of his supposed rival in 1791 by poisoning him .
The enormous popularity of Milos Forman's film Amadeus , which came out 30 years ago and was based on the play of the same name by Peter Schaeffer , hasn't exactly done much for Salieri's reputation . In fact , the film, while highly entertaining , makes mincemeat of the historical facts and also paints a highly misleading picture of Mozart .
So just who was Antonio Salieri ? Far from being a non-entity , he was one of the best known and respected composers of the 18th and early 19th century . He was a prominent composer, conductor and teacher who was a pupil of none other than the great opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, whose 300 th anniversary comes this year . He was highly connected within the classical music world of his day , friend of the most powerful aristocrats of Europe and many of the most important composers of his day . He knew Mozart well and the two were on good terms . Does this sound like a mediocrity ?
Salieri was born in the Veneto region of Italy , that is the mainland area of Italy surrounding Venice , and showed great promise as a composer in his youth . But he moved to Vienna and spent the rest of his life there while making frequent trips around Europe , and became fluent in German .
Salieri was one of the leading opera composers of his day and wrote numerous stage works which were widely performed in his lifetime but which have been completely forgotten until recent revivals , but also composed symphonies, concertos , choral works such ass Masses and Requiem etc .
Somehow , rumors began to circulate after Mozart died in 1791 that he had poisoned him , but there is not one shred of evidence for this absurd accusation . The film Amadeus portrayed him as being insanely envious of Mozart and obsessed with his inferiority to his rival , and shows him as an old man living in an insane asylum many years later constantly brooding over Mozart .
Interestingly , Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov , famous for his exotic orchestral suite "Scheherezade " , wrote a brief one act opera with small orchestra called "Mozart and Salieri ". The two are the only characters apart from a non-singing or speaking role for a violinist . Salieri has invited Mozart to his home for dinner , and sure enough , by the end , we find that Salieri has poisoned Mozart . The opera has been recorded a few times and you can see it on youtube with English subtitles . It's certainly interesting but not at all typical of the other Rimsky-Korsakov operas , which deal with Russian history and folklore .
You can also see and hear recordings of some of Salieri's music on youtube . A few years ago, I took out a DVD of a performance of Salieri's opera "Falstaff " from my library, based on Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor ". Verdi's final opera "Falstaff ", also based on the play, is of course far better known, and one of the greatest comic operas ever written .
But I found the Salieri opera highly enjoyable , and would definitely recommend the DVD , which was filmed at the opera festival in Schwetzingen, Germany , which specializes in reviving obscure operas ,about 20 years ago . The music is witty and vivacious , not at all the work of a mediocrity .
The renowned Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli is an enthusiast for Salieri's music and has recorded a number of arias and othervocal works by him , and recordings of his music are no longer scarce . So forget the movie Amadeus , entertaining as it is, and give the music of Antonio Salieri a chance ! You won't regret it .
The classical recordings industry isn't what it used to be . Gone are the days when the world's leading orchestras used to have recording contracts with such presitgious classical labels as Deutsche Grammophon , Decca , EMI Classics , R.C.A . and others and produced a steady stream of studio recordings and sometimes ones from concerts under the world's most eminent conductors . Works ranging from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to 20th century repertoire .
What happened ? Classical recordings are very expensive to produce , and few of them sell like the proverbial hot cakes . Especially expensive in America for some reason; it costs less to produce classical recordings in Europe . In the 1960s , when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic , Leonard Bernstein made regular studio recordings of works he was conducting live for what is now Sony Classical records , Columbia records at the time, later CBS records . Most of these are still available, and still sell well by the standards of classical recordings .
His successor , French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez , now 89 years , continued to make recordings with the orchestra . The Indian-born Zubin Mehta was next, but the orchestra lost its contract . The Philharmonic began to make recordings with Deutsche Grammophon and then Teldec records when the German conductor Kurt Masur took over , but under Lorin Maazel, who took over after Masur , the orchestra made exactly one recording , a new work by American composer John Adams . And this was a live recording, not a studio one .
Now , under Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic has begun making live recordings of the six symphonies of the great Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931 ) for a Danish label . During his more than 40 years with the Philadelphia orchestra , the Hungarian-born Eugene Ormandy made hundreds of recordings of a wide repertoire for Columbia, R.C.A. and later England's EMI and a couple of other labels ,many of which are still available .
Other notable conductor/orchestra/record label teams include George Szell and the Cleveland orchestra , Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago symphony , Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston symphony for R.C.A . , Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic ,mostly for Decca , William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh symphony , and the Hungarian Antal Dorati with several orchestras in Minneapolis , Washington, D.C. , Dallas and Detroit , and so forth .
Under the dynamic young French Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin , Deutsche Grammophon has believe it or not, just issued a studio ! recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring for the centennial celebration of this seminal work with the Philadelphia orchestra .
In Europe , Herbert von Karajan made hundreds of recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic , which he led from 1954 to 1989, the year of his death . No fewer than three sets of the nine Beethoven symphonies for example , plus and earlier one with the Philharmonia orchestra of London, not to be confused with the London Philharmonic . Most of the Berlin recordings were for Deutsche Grammophon , and some for EMI . Karajan also made numerous recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic , for Decca and D.G. .
The five orchestras of London , the London symphony, the Philharmonia , the London Philharmonic , the Royal Philharmonic and the B.B.C. symphony , have long been the most prolific makers of recordings , under countless different conductors , famous and lesser known .
These great orchestras still make recordings , but they have been becoming ever more scarce, and almost all are from live concerts , usually with sessions after concerts to clean up any mistakes and flubs , which are inevitable live .
But within the past ten years or so , a number of leading orchestras have decided to form their own recording companies and issue recordings of live performances on their own . One of the first was the London symphony orchestra , founded in 1904 as a self-governing entity , and some of these have become classical best sellers . The late, great Sir Colin Davis , the L.S.O. chief conductor at the time led an acclaimed series of live recordings of the music of the great 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz , who music he had long championed . The L.S.O . and Sir Colin had already made renowned recordings of these Berlioz masterpieces years ago for the now defunct Dutch label Philips , but these were studio recordings .
In America , the Chicago , Boston and San Francisco symphonies soon began issuing their own recordings , under respectively Riccardo Muti, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink (Chicago ), James Levine (Boston ) and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco ). The Atlanta symphony under its current music director Robert Spano has just released its first recordings on its own label , of Sibelius symphonies, and the Seattle symphony is about to begin its own recordings .
The Royal Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam , the leading orchestra of the Netherlands had made an enromlous number of recordings for Philips , and a fair number for other labels such as Decca under numerous distinguished conductors, such as Willem Mengelberg and Bernard Haitink , two of the most eminent Dutch conductors , as well as the Italian Riccardo Chailly, who was the first non-Dutch music director of the orchestra , and now under its current head , Latvian maestro Mariss Jansons , is issuing its own recordings .
The Berlin Philharmonic , now led by the British maestro Sir Simon Rattle , has just issued its first recordings on its own , of the four symphonies of Robert Schumann .
A number of independent classical labels such as the budget label Naxos , Chandos of England , and CPO of Germany , are still issuing recordings by a variety of different orchestras , including the radio orchestras of Germany , which have long enjoyed generous government support . Naxos has issued recordings by the Detroit , Baltimore, Nashville and other U.S. orchestras . (Yes, there is an excellent symphony orchestra in Nashville, home of Country Western music !) .
Is this a good trend ? Will it increase sales of orchestral recordings ? Will more and more orchestras begin to issue their own recordings ? It's difficult to answer the first two questions , but the trend seems to be growing , and most likely, more and more orchestras will become free agents . It seems to be an eminently sensible move
By coincidence , Johannes Brahms and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, two icons of 19th century classical music , were born on May 7th, respectively in 1833 and 1840 . So I thought it might be interesting to compare both composers , who were very different indeed in their musical and aesthetic philosophies .
Both composers have long been extremely popular, and the music of both has caused considerable controversy . Neither was very fond of the other's music , although they met a number of times and got along well . Both produced beloved staples of the repertoire ; symphonies, concertos, chamber music , songs, choral works, music for solo piano etc , but unlike Tchaikovsky , Brahms never wrote any operas .
The music of both composers is highly melodious and full of warmth , but the music of Brahms is more austere and restrained . Tchaikovsky has been accused by more than a few prominent critics and musicologists of writing cheap , sentimental and even vulgar works intended to appeal to the lowest common denominator, although this is anything but a fair accusation . On the other hand , Brahms has been accused of writing dry , grayish and labored music , lacking in freshness and sponaneity , also an unfair accusation .
Tchaikovsky's music probably has more immediate appeal to newcomers to classical music ; it is certainly more colorful and superficially exciting to the general public . The supposed "sentimentality" of Tchaikovsky's music is probably the fault of performers who are guilty of exaggerating the emotional qualities of his works .
Brahms wrote four symphonies ; Tchaikovsky six, although only the last three have been performed often for some reason . The German wrote two piano concertos, one for vioilin and one for violin and cello . Tchaikovsky completed two ; a third exists in torso form and only the first is played with any frequency ,although the second deserves to be better known . Tchaikovsky also wrote one violin concerto .
Brahms also wrote two concert overtures , The "Tragic" overture, and the "Academic Festival overture" , which uses popular German university songs . It was written on the occaision of the composer being awarded an honorary degree from the University of Breslau, formerly in Germany , but now in Poland .
Brahms was a strong believer in "absolute " music, music with no programmatic story behind it ; pure ,abstract music , but Tchakovsky wrote such well known programmatic , descriptive works as the symphonic poems "Romeo & Juliet,"" Francesca D Rimini ", based on Dante's Inferno , and other orchestral works . Thye programmatic symphony "Manfred " , based on a poem of Byron , is not numbered among his six symphonies .
Tchaikovsky wrote three ballet scores which are frequently performed in excerpt form at concerts, the famous "Nutcracker", "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty . " His mist famous opera is "Yevgeny Onegin " (Eugene Onegin ) , based on a long poetic drama by Pushkin about a cynical bachelor who rejects the love of a naive y0oung woman ,only to realize later how much he loved her now that she is married . Another remarkable opera is Pique Dame ,(Queen of Spades ) also based on a story by Pushkin about a troubled soldier and gambler who is obsessed with finding a magical formula in gambling in order to win the love of a beautiful , elusive young woman of the aristocracy , with disastrous results .
Tchaikovsky's other operas , such as "The Maid of Orleans ", a fictionalized opera about Joan of Arc, and others , are rarely performed outside of Russia , and not even that often there .
The best known choral work by Brahms is the "German Requiem ", which does not use the traditional Latin Requiem text , but familiar passages in Martin Luther's German version on death and dying . Unlike Verdi's intensely dramatic ,almost operatic Requiem , the German Requiem is a gentle and reflective work , full of consolation and resignation .
Brahms was born to humble parents in a lower class section of Hamburg in 1933 ; his father was a local musician who played the double bass and encouraged his son to develope his talents as a budding young pianist and composer , and the young man acheived a considerable reputation as a pianist , attracting the attention of the great Robert Schumann ( 1810-1856 ), who recognized his great talent . Brahms moved from dour maritime Hamburg to glamorous, cosmopolitan Vienna , where he spent the rest of his life .He never married .
Tchaikovsky was the son of a provincial Russian government official , born in the town of Votkinsk , far from Moscow and St.Petersburg ; he came from a fairly well off family and also showed great talent in his youth , but Russia did not as yet have the developed and sophisticated musical life of Germany , and he studied law , well as studying at the recently opened Moscow conservatoire . He attracted the attention of a very wealthy woman who was the widow of a Russian tycoon, Nadezhda von Meck, who admired his music so much she provided him with generous support so he would not have to seek employment in another field , as his contempraries Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov had done .
Curiously , the widow insisted that the two never meet personally , and they never did . Tchaikovsky was a gay man , which was hardly acceptable in polite society at the time , and he reluctantly entered into a brief sham marriage to a young woman who was infatuated with him . This nearly drove the sensitive and rather neurotic composer to suicide , and the two were soon divorced .
The death of Tchaikovsky in 1893 under mysterious circumstances 1893 has long been a subject of discussion and speculation . Apparently, he drank contaminated water during a cholera epidemic and died . According to some stories, he was ordered to commit suicide by certain individuals in the Russian aristocracy because of an affair with the nephew of a prominent member of the Tsar's family, but this has not been confirmed . Brahms died of natural causes in Vienna in 1897 , a year after the death of his close friend Clara Schumann , widow of Robert and a well known pianist and composer in her own wright . There has been speculation that the two may have been lovers , but this has not been confirmed .
Tchaikovsky was prone to depression and was frequently overcome by homesickness on his frequent trips to countries such as France, Italy , Germany etc, and visited America in 1891 , conducting his music at the opening of Carnegie hall . Brahms had a reputation of being gruff and curt with people , and according to one story which may or may not be true , he once left a party in Vienna offering his apologies to anyone there he had not insulted !
If you're new to classical music , there is a huge array of recordngs of the music of these two great composers available , by so many great classical musicians , living and dead , as well as plenty of DVDs . A good place on the internet to get recommendations for these is classicstoday.com .