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Thursday Evening Classics
Composer Capsules for
January/February 2005

January 6

Max Bruch
Birth: January 6, 1838 in Cologne, Germany
Death: October 20, 1920 in Friedenau, Germany
Bruch started composing as a child, displaying an extraordinary musical talent. In 1852, he wrote a symphony and a string quartet, the latter work bringing him a scholarship from the Frankfurt-based Mozart foundation. In 1858, having embarked on a teaching career in Cologne, he produced his first opera, Scherz, List und Rache. Bruch's opera Loreley was produced in 1863. After leaving his Mannheim post, Bruch moved to Koblenz, Sonderhausen, and Berlin, where his third opera, Hermione, was produced in 1872. In 1881, he resumed his career as a conductor, leading the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, but he did not get along with the players, who had rather lax standards. In 1883 Bruch left Liverpool and became director of the Breslau Orchesterverein, where he stayed through the end of the season in 1890. That autumn, Bruch took up an appointment as professor of composition at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, working there until his retirement in 1910 and retaining his rank as a professor there until his death in 1920. During his lifetime he had a reputation one of music's great composers. Bruch's best-known work is his passionately romantic Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor (1868), a major item in the standard violin repertoire.

Alexander Scriabin
Birth: January 6, 1872 in Moscow
Death: April 27, 1915 in Moscow
Mystic, visionary, virtuoso, and composer, Scriabin dedicated his life to creating musical works that would, he believed, open the portals of the spiritual world. Scriabin took piano lessons as a child, joining, in 1884, Nikolay Zverov's class, where Rachmaninov was a fellow student. From 1888 to 1892, Scriabin studied at the Moscow Conservatory, where his teachers included Arensky, Taneyev, and Safonov. Although Scriabin's hand could not easily stretch beyond an octave, he developed into a prodigious pianist, launching an international concert career in 1894. Mostly inspired by Chopin, his early compositions include nocturnes, mazurkas, preludes, and etudes for piano. Toward the end of the century, Scriabin started writing orchestral works, earning a solid reputation as a composer, and obtaining a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory in 1898. In 1903, however, Scriabin abandoned his wife and their four children and embarked on a European journey with a young admirer, Tatyana Schloezer. During his sojourn in Western Europe, which lasted six years, Scriabin started developing an original, highly personal musical idiom, experimenting with new harmonic structures and searching for new sonorities. In 1905, Scriabin discovered the theosophical teachings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, which became the intellectual foundation of his musical and philosophical efforts. Scriabin embraced theosophy as an intellectual framework for his profound feelings about humankind's quest for God. Works from this period, exemplified by the Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus (1910), reflect Scriabin's conception of music as a bridge to mystical ecstasy. While Scriabin never quite crossed the threshold to atonality, his music nevertheless replaced the traditional concept of tonality by an intricate system of chords. In 1915, Scriabin died in of septicemia caused by a carbuncle on his lip. Among his unfinished projects was Mysterium, a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts, which would herald the birth of a new world.

January 20

Ernest Chausson
Birth: January 20, 1855 in Paris
Death: June 10, 1899 in Limay, France
Chausson came from a well-to-do family; in fact, comfortable circumstances throughout his entire life made it unnecessary for him to pursue a living as a musician. Although interested in music from a young age, Chausson pursued law studies at his father's behest. In 1877, he was sworn in as a lawyer in Paris; in the same year, he wrote his first work, the unpublished song Lilas. The impulse to devote himself to composition was sparked in 1879, when he attended a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Munich. Chausson entered the Paris Conservatory in the following year and began studies with Jules Massenet; his formal musical education was rounded out by private study with Cesar Franck. As secretary of the Société Nationale de Musique (an organization founded by Saint-Saëns and others), Chausson became a full-fledged member of the Parisian musical community. A prolific composer of songs, Chausson also composed works for voice and orchestra, choral music, and several operas. He is best known, however, for his chamber music — the Concerto for piano, violin, and string quartet, Op. 21 (1889-91) and the Piano Quartet, Op. 30 (1897) — and for imaginative orchestral works like the Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20 (1889-90) and the Poème for violin and orchestra, Op. 25 (1896). Chausson died in 1899, at the age of 44, from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident.

Walter Hamor Piston
Birth: January 20, 1894 in Rockland, ME
Death: November 12, 1976 in Belmont, MA
Piston was born of Italian lineage; the family name had been Pistone but his grandparents had Anglicized it by dropping the "e." In his teens, Piston's musical education commenced with piano and violin lessons. At that time, however, painting was his main interest, but he conceded the superiority of his future wife, Kathryn Nason, in that field and concentrated on music. With the entry of the US into the First World War, Piston hurriedly crammed the rudiments of saxophone technique and enlisted in the Navy as a band musician. In between rehearsals and performances, he familiarized himself with most of the other instruments in the band, learning to produce at least a few tunes on each one. After the war, Piston entered Harvard to study music, graduating summa cum laude in 1924. From there he went to Paris on a Paine Fellowship to study with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. This was a heady time, for many of who would become America's most noted composers were under the wing of the latter: Copland, Harris, Thompson, and Barber, to name a few. Piston returned to the U.S. in 1926 and joined the faculty of Harvard, retiring in 1960. 1938 his ballet, The Incredible Flutist was performed, and the suite from this was for a long time his most celebrated work. Meanwhile, Piston had commenced upon his series of eight symphonies with his First in 1937. With these the composer revealed his prowess in the field of large-scale absolute music, garnering a steady stream of prestigious awards and honors, among them the New York Music Critics Circle for the Second Symphony (1945), and the Pulitzer Prize for the Third (1948) and the Seventh (1959). 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.

January 27

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Birth: January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Death: December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the lone surviving son of a proud, shrewd, exploitative father. Leopold toured the boy and his sister, Nannerl, as prodigies between 1762 and 1773, from London to Italy via Germany, France, England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and, of course, Vienna. Mozart, although frequently and seriously ill, spent less than four years at home in Salzburg before 1773. The arrival of a haughty, stingy new archbishop curtailed father-son travel time. Grudgingly, Leopold sent his wife in 1777 to chaperone an ill-fated trip to Paris (where she died). En route, Mozart fell in love with Aloisia Weber, whose sister Constanze he happily married in 1783, without his father’s approval. From 1782 on, Mozart was his own man (although perpetually nagged by papa, whose funeral in 1787 Mozart boycotted). Before age 20 Wolfgang had written nine operas, five violin concertos, at least 30 symphonies, dozens of divertimentos and serenades, a ream of liturgical pieces, six sonatas, and six concertos for klavier. Mozart began presenting solo concerts with orchestra, which produced a trove of sublime klavier concertos between 1782 and 1786. After the successful singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail in 1782, he wrote just two operatic fragments and the single-act Der Schauspieldirektor before five final and uniquely brilliant operas. When Constanze became chronically ill (six pregnancies in as many years), the family coffers that had been well filled since 1783 emptied quickly, as Mozart had no sense of money management whatsoever. All debts were repaid before Mozart's untimely death, except 1000 kroner owed a fellow mason, which Constanze settled posthumously. In his last year, Mozart earned the equivalent of $80,000, including his fee for the unfinished Requiem, completed by a pupil.

Edouard Lalo
Birth: January 27, 1823 in Lille, France
Death: April 22, 1892 in Paris
Lalo left home at 16 because his father did not want him to be a professional musician. He studied the violin at the Paris Conservatoire, also learning composition privately. In the 1850s, Lalo became an important member of a movement to revive chamber music in France. By the mid-1850s, he had already composed two piano trios and he helped found the Armingaud Quartet, an ensemble created to promote the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Lalo, who was the quartet's violist and second violinist, composed a string quartet in 1859, thus enhancing his stature as a composer of chamber music. In 1865, Lalo married Julie Bernier de Maligny, a singer who eventually became a leading performer of his songs. The creation, in 1871, of the Societe Nationale de Musique, provided Lalo with an impetus to continue composing for the orchestra. During the 1870s, Lalo composed several impressive works, including a Violin Concerto in F major, the famous Symphonie espagnole, the Cello Concerto, and the Fantaisie norvegienne for violin and orchestra. In 1875, Lalo started work on Roi d'Ys, an opera based on a Breton legend. Lalo offered it to the Paris Opera in 1881, but theaters refused to produce the work. Throughout the 1880s, however, Lalo continued promoting Le Roi d'Ys. The opera was finally performed at the Opera-Comique in 1888, and the reception was extremely favorable.

February 3

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Birth: February 3? 1525 in Palestrina?, Italy
Death: February 2, 1594 in Rome, Italy
Regarded by some as the “Prince of Music” and the “Savior of Church Music”, Palestrina was one of the most highly acclaimed musicians of the sixteenth century. He spent his entire career around Rome, working in churches with good archival records. His exact birth date remains unknown, but his age at death is given in a famous eulogy. Whether he was born in Rome or in the provincial town of Palestrina, "Gianetto" received his first musical training in Rome as choirboy at Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1544, he accepted a post as organist for the Cathedral of Palestrina. While there, he married Lucrezia Gori and met the future Pope Julius III. He returned to Rome in 1551, serving as Master of the Boys for the Vatican's Capella Giulia and then, at Pope Julius' instigation, singing in the Sistine Chapel. Fired by a later Pope because of his marital status, he quickly became choirmaster for Saint John Lateran. He served the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Seminario Romano and the wealthy Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, published four more books of music, and turned down an offer to become chapelmaster for the Holy Roman Emperor. His last professional appointment was a long tenure (1571-94) as master of the Capella Giulia in St. Peter's. In addition, he performed freelance work for at least 12 other Roman churches and institutions, managed his second wife's fur business, and invested in Roman real estate. Palestrina marketed his immense compositional output in nearly 30 published collections during his lifetime; many more of his roughly 700 works survive in manuscripts. He is best known for more than 100 masses, though he composed in every other liturgical genre of his day, as well as nearly 100 madrigals.

Felix Mendelssohn (Bartholdy)
Birth: February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
Death: November 4, 1847 in Leipzig, Germany
Great musical prodigies, Felix and his sister Fanny were given piano lessons and both joined the Berlin Singakademie. Although he did spend some time at the University of Berlin, most of his education was received through friendships and travel. Mendelssohn's advocacy was the single most important factor in the revival of Bach's vocal music in the nineteenth century, most famously realized in the 1829 performance of the Saint Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakadamie. He did some touring as a pianist with Ignaz Moscheles, then took the position as music director in Düsseldorf from 1833 to 1835. Tension with the theater owner caused him to resign some of his duties, and in 1835, Mendelssohn became municipal music director in Leipzig, where he also would conduct the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He would raise the level of the still-thriving ensemble to a new standard of excellence. In 1838, he married Cécile Jeanrenaud, enjoying an idyllic marriage and family life that was quite unlike the stormy romantic entanglements, which profoundly affected such composers as Berlioz, Chopin, and Liszt. He was even able to establish a new conservatory in the city, which is still a well-respected institution. A talented visual artist, he was a refined connoisseur of literature and philosophy. Mendelssohn's music overflows with energy, ebullience, drama, and invention, as evidenced in his most enduring works: the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream; Hebrides Overture; Songs Without Words; Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; and the Violin Concerto in e.

February 17

Arcangelo Corelli
Birth: February 17, 1653 in Fusignano, Italy
Death: January 8, 1713 in Rome
Corelli was born in the town of Fusignano to a wealthy family. He most likely began his musical studies with a local priest before moving to Bologna where he studied at the Accademia Filarmonica. Before 1675, Corelli moved to Rome, where he began appearing as a violinist in ensembles formed for various religious and civic occasions. He soon emerged as one of the city's pre-eminent musicians and entered the service of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had established herself in Rome after abdicating her throne. Following her death, Corelli entered the service of Cardinal Pamphili, who gave him a generous salary and a place to live; he would remain in the Cardinal's service until 1690, when the Cardinal left the city. Corelli's patronage was then assumed by the young Cardinal Ottoboni, who had received his office through the intervention of Pope Alexander VIII, his uncle. Few musicians have ever enjoyed a more secure or lucrative relationship with a patron. In this position, Corelli achieved wide fame and extreme wealth, and upon his death in 1713 he was interred in the Pantheon. Arcangelo Corelli was the first master of the modern violin, and the predominance of that instrument in the music of the following three centuries is his technical and pedagogical legacy. The fundamentals of modern string playing — including bowing and fingering technique — descend directly from Corelli. Though he did not create the concerto grosso form, Corelli wrote the first significant compositions in the genre, laying the foundations for the achievements of Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach a generation later.

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2005

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