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Thursday Evening Classics
Composer Capsules for Jan/Feb 2006

Presented by Steve Petke

January 5
Nikolai Medtner
Birth: January 5, 1880 in Moscow, Russia
Death: November 13, 1951 in London, England
Nikolai Karlovich Medtner was born to parents of German descent who had lived in Russia for several generations. The family background was musical; his mother's brother was Theodore Goedicke, a composer and professional pianist. He received early piano lessons from his mother and entered into the Moscow Conservatory's junior classes at the age of twelve, winning a gold medal when he completed his keyboard training in 1900. He studied privately with Sergei Taneyev, but largely taught himself composition. He went on tour as a pianist and received the Rubinstein Medal in Vienna. He gradually devoted more time to composition, but still performed, and in 1909 he was invited to join the conservatory faculty as a piano professor. A quiet person, he did not enjoy teaching, and resigned after a year. In 1910, the wealthy conductor Sergei Koussevitzky invited Medtner to join the editorial board of his new music publishing firm, Editions Russe. He also made the acquaintance of Sergei Rachmaninov the same year. The two composer-pianists became close friends. Medtner moved to Germany, but was repatriated when World War I broke out, with Russia and Germany on opposite sides. In 1919 he married Anna Medtner, who had been the wife of his brother. In 1921 they were granted permission to tour abroad. After a tour of the United States in 1925, they settled in Paris, which had the most important Russian emigré colony in Europe. Medtner's music was harmonically adventurous, but had a Romantic aesthetic that was out of fashion in trendy Paris. In 1935, Medtner moved to England. Failing health compelled him to give up concertizing in 1944, but he was able to make some classic recordings of his piano music. While there is a Russian flavor to his music, it strongly resembles that of Schumann and Brahms. Medtner was overlooked during the largely anti-Romantic twentieth century, but his music has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest.

January 12
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari
Birth: January 12, 1876 in Venice, Italy
Death: January 21, 1948 in Venice, Italy

Wolf-Ferrari was born to a Bavarian father and an Italian mother. He showed unusual talent on the piano as a child, but was drawn toward painting, the art world of his father. He enrolled at the Academia di Belle Arti when he was 15 and two years later moved to Munich to pursue further art instruction. However, he soon began composition studies with Rheinberger. In 1895, the young composer, previously known Ermanno Wolf, became Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, attaching his mother's maiden name to the family surname. He returned to Venice that year in a vain attempt to launch his composing career. He failed to interest the famous publisher Ricordi in his early operas, Irene and the incomplete La Camargo. However, his first serious effort at opera, Cenerentola, did reach the stage in Venice in 1900. Though it failed, the composer's 1902 revision achieved great success in Bremen. Wolf-Ferrari's next operas met with acceptance as well; Le Donne curiose, I quattro rusteghi and Il segreto di Susanna, all comedies, were staged in Munich. The latter two became quite popular in the repertoire for a time. The First World War forced Wolf-Ferrari to abandon Munich for Zurich, where he wrote little. His output remained meager until the mid-1920s when he completed Das Himmelsklied and Sly. Wolf-Ferrari was a gentle man with a childlike manner, whose music reflected a conservative sensibility. After three decades away from instrumental music, Wolf-Ferrari returned to the genre with the 1933 Idillio-concertino, Op. 15. By the mid-1940s his output had reached above 30, largely by his renewed efforts in instrumental music. Yet, apart from the 1946 Violin Concerto, most of these works were subsequently ignored.

February 9
Alban Berg
Birth: February 9, 1885 in Vienna, Austria
Death: December 24, 1935 in Vienna, Austria

Alban Maria Johannes Berg is one of the central figures of twentieth century musical composition. As one of the triumvirate of the Second Viennese School, Berg produced a rather small body of work that is nonetheless distinguished by a strongly Romantic aesthetic and a distinctive dramatic sense. Berg's father was an export salesman, his mother the daughter of the Austrian Imperial jeweler. Alban's musical training consisted mainly of piano lessons from his aunt. By his teenage years, however, he had composed dozens of songs without the benefit of formal compositional studies. Berg was a dreamy youth and an indifferent student. In 1903, he endured the end of a passionate love affair, failed his school final exams, and became despondent over the death of his idol, composer Hugo Wolf, all of which led to a suicide attempt. However, he survived to repeat his final year of school and went to work as an apprentice accountant. In 1904 Berg's brother, Charley, took Alban's compositions to Arnold Schoenberg, who accepted Berg as a student. In 1907 Berg met the singer Helene Nahowski, overcame her parents' objections over his poor health and lack of prospects, and married her in 1911. The composer was drafted into the Austrian army in 1915, served for eleven months, and was discharged for poor health. The army experience led him to revisit Woyzeck, Georg Büchner's tragedy about a horribly brutalized private. In 1917, Berg began an operatic adaptation of the play. After a number of interruptions related to personal and familial affairs, Berg completed Wozzeck in 1922. Though initially savaged by critics, the opera eventually gained momentum, enjoying performances throughout Europe and recognition as a masterpiece. Berg's next major work, the Chamber Concerto was among his first to demonstrate the influence of Schoenberg's 12-tone method. In 1925-6, Berg wrote the Lyric Suite for string quartet, parts of which systematically employ 12-tone principles. The last of Berg's works are among his most important. The Violin Concerto is dedicated "to the Memory of an Angel," a reference to the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, Manon who had died at the age of 19. At the time of his death from blood poisoning in 1935, Berg was in the middle of work on his opera Lulu, a sexual horror story. The opera's unfinished third act was completed by Friedrich Cerha in 1976.

February 23
George Frideric Handel
Birth: February 23, 1685 in Halle, Germany
Death: April 14, 1759 in London, England

A contemporary of Bach and Vivaldi, Handel excelled in all genres of his art - instrumental, chamber, orchestral, operatic and both sacred and secular choral music. Handel's father recognized but did not nurture George's musical talent, and he had to sneak a small keyboard instrument into his attic to practice. As a child he studied music with the organist Friedrich Zachow, and for a time he seemed destined for a career as a church organist himself. After studying law briefly at the University of Halle, Handel began serving as organist, at the Domkirche there. Dissatisfied, he took a post as violinist in the Hamburg opera orchestra in 1703, and his frustration with musically provincial northern Germany was perhaps shown when he fought a duel the following year with the composer Matheson over the accompaniment to one of latter's operas. In 1706 Handel left for Italy, and mastered contemporary trends in Italian serious opera. He returned to Germany to become court composer in Hannover, whose rulers were linked by family ties with the British throne. English audiences embraced his 1711 opera Rinaldo, and several years later Handel jumped at the chance to move to England permanently. He impressed King George early on with the Water Music of 1716, written as entertainment for a royal boat outing. Through the 1720s Handel composed Italian operatic masterpieces for the London stage: Ottone, Serse, Giulio Cesare and other works often based on classical stories. His popularity was blemished, though, by new English-language works of a less formal character, and in the 1730s and 1740s Handel turned to the oratorio, a grand form that attracted England's new middle-class audiences. Messiah, Israel in Egypt, Samson, Saul, and many other works established him as an esteemed master of English choral music. In 1737, Handel suffered a stroke, which caused both temporary paralysis in his right arm and some loss of his mental faculties, but he recovered sufficiently to carry on most normal activity. Blind in old age, he continued to compose until his death in 1759.

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