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Thursday Evening Classics
Composer Capsules for Nov/Dec 2005

Presented by Steve Petke

November 3
Vincenzo Bellini
Birth: November 3, 1801
Catania, Sicily, Italy
Death: September 23, 1835 in Puteaux, France
  Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini was one of the great composers of Italian opera in the early 19th century. He was born to a family already immersed in music; his father and grandfather were both career musicians. Vincenzo began composing before receiving any formal music education. He developed a reputation for fine craftsmanship, particularly in the way he fused music and libretto. To perform his operas, singers required extremely agile voices. His abilities and talent earned him the admiration of other composers, including Berlioz, Chopin, and even Wagner, and his flowing, exquisitely sculpted vocal lines represent the epitome of the bel canto ideal. Bellini entered the Royal College of Music of San Sebastiano in 1819. He soon developed into a teacher, becoming a primo maestrino in 1824. Bellini's first opera, Adelson e Salvini, was chosen to be performed by the conservatory's students. This particular work was never performed outside of the conservatory, but it did serve as a source of material for at least five other operas Bellini composed. Shortly thereafter, Domenico Barbaja of the San Carlo Opera offered Bellini his first commission for an opera, which resulted in Bianca e Gernando (1826). That first commission was followed by a second from Barbaja, Il Pirata (1827), and led to a long-term collaboration between Bellini and librettist Felice Romani. The premiere of Il Pirata, at La Scala, Milan, established Bellini as an internationally acclaimed opera composer. The year 1831 proved most successful for Bellini as two of his most famous operas, La Sonnambula and Norma, were produced. He then moved to Paris, where he composed and produced his last opera, I Puritani. Unlike Bellini's previous two operas, I Puritani was enthusiastically received. At the height of his career and only 33 years old, Bellini died of a chronic intestinal ailment in a small town near Paris.

November 10
François Couperin
Birth: November 10, 1668
Paris, France
Death: September 11, 1733 in Paris, France
  François Couperin was the most important member of the illustrious Couperin family and was one of the leading composers of the French Baroque era. He is best known for his harpsichord works, all of which are found in the collection of more than 220 pieces entitled Pieces de Clavecin, comprising four books. His music showed the influence of Lully and incorporated elements from the Italian school. Many of his works were lost to posterity, as none of his original manuscripts have survived. Couperin's father, Charles, was an organist, and young François' early musical training probably came from him. Couperin became the organist at Saint-Gervais at age 17. In 1689, four years later, he married Marie-Anne Ansault, daughter of a wine merchant who had many relatives in other business endeavors. It was around this time that the composer came under the influence of the Italian school. He would display this assimilation in several chamber works he wrote in 1692 that he called sonades, ("sonatas)". On December 26, 1693, Couperin was appointed organist at the Royal Chapel by King Louis XIV, sharing the post with other composers. In the early part of the 18th century, Couperin began composing his Pièces de Clavecin. In 1719, Couperin became harpsichordist to King Louis XV, a position he most probably had held in all but title for a number of years. By this time, he was recognized as the leading composer in France and the greatest exponent of organ and harpsichord teaching as well.

November 24
Scott Joplin
Birth: November 24, 1868
Bowie City, TX
Death: April 1, 1917 in New York, NY
  Ragtime was jazz's direct predecessor and Scott Joplin was ragtime's greatest composer. Joplin lived in St. Louis during 1885-93, playing in local bars and clubs. In 1894 he led a band at the Chicago World's Fair and formed the Texas Medley Quartet which played in vaudeville shows. He Relocated to Sedalia, MO, Joplin and in 1899 his "Maple Leaf Rag" became ragtime's most popular work, selling over 75,000 copies of sheet music during its first year. Joplin soon had many other rags published that helped to make ragtime the pop music of its day, but the tragedy of his life was that his personal ambitions were loftier than ragtime. He staged a ballet (The Ragtime Dance) and two ragtime operas (The Guest of Honor and Treemonisha) but none were successful, a fact that continually frustrated him. By 1910 Joplin was becoming ill with syphilis and at his death in 1917, ragtime was in the process of being replaced by jazz. Ironically, 57 years after his death, Scott Joplin finally became a household name because his music (most notably "The Entertainer") was used for the popular film The Sting. Alfred Schnittke Birth: November 24, 1934 in Engels, Russia Death: August 3, 1998 in Hamburg, Germany Schnittke was born in the Soviet Union to German parents. After living for several years in Vienna, he returned to Moscow to attend the Conservatory from 1953-58. He returned there to teach instrumentation from 1962 through 1972. Thereafter, splitting his time between Moscow and Hamburg, he supported himself as a film composer. Schnittke wrote nine symphonies, six concerti grossi, four violin concertos, two cello concertos, concertos for piano and a triple concerto for violin, viola and cello, four string quartets, ballet scores, choral and vocal works. In 1985, Schnittke suffered a series of strokes, but nevertheless entered into the most creative period of his life. His first opera, Life with an Idiot, was premiered in Amsterdam in 1992. Two more operas, Gesualdo and Historia von D. Johann Fausten were unveiled in 1995 in Vienna and Hamburg, respectively.

December 8
Jean Sibelius
Birth: December 8, 1865
Hämeenlinna, Finland
Death: September 20, 1957 in Järvenpää, Finland
Sibelius was born in Southern Finland, the second of three children. His physician father left the family bankrupt, owing to his financial extravagance, a trait, along with heavy drinking, he would pass on to Jean. Jean showed talent on the violin and at age nine composed his first work for it. In 1895 Sibelius entered the University of Helsinki to study law, but after only a year found himself drawn back to music. Though Sibelius auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he would come to realize he was not suited to a career as a violinist. In 1889 Sibelius traveled to Berlin to study counterpoint, where he also was exposed to new music, particularly that of Richard Strauss. In Vienna he studied with Karl Goldmark and then Robert Fuchs. Sibelius returned to Finland and in June 1892, married Aino Järnefelt, daughter of General Alexander Järnefelt, head of one of the most influential families in Finland. The premiere of Sibelius' nationalistic Kullervo in April 1893 created a sensation, and established him as the foremost Finnish composer. The Lemminkäinen Suite, premiered in 1896, has come to be regarded as the most important music by Sibelius up to that time. In 1897 the Finnish Senate voted to pay Sibelius a short-term pension, which some years later became a lifetime conferral. The year 1899 saw the premiere of Sibelius' First Symphony, which was a tremendous success. In the next decade Sibelius would become an international figure in the concert world, with premieres of his next three symphonies and Violin Concerto. In 1903 Sibelius built a villa outside of Helsinki, named "Ainola" after his wife, where he would live for his remaining 53 years. Sibelius made frequent trips to England, having visited first in 1905 at the urging of Granville Bantock. In 1914 he traveled to Norfolk, CT, where he conducted his newest work, The Oceanides. Sibelius spent the war years in Finland working on his Fifth Symphony. His last work was the incidental music for The Tempest in 1925. For his last 30 years Sibelius lived a mostly quiet, though not always sober, life working only on revisions and being generally regarded as the greatest living composer of symphonies. Sibelius died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1957.

Bohuslav Martinu
Birth: December 8, 1890
Policka, Czechoslovakia
Death: August 28, 1959 in Liestal, Switzerland

  Along with Leos Janacek, Martinu was one of the two giants of Czech music in the 20th century, a composer with who excelled in every medium from stage works to symphonies to string quartets. Starting violin lessons at seven, he gave his first recital when he was 15. By the age of ten he had written his first compositions. In 1906, he entered Prague Conservatory, but reading and the theater diverted Martinu from his studies, and he was finally expelled for "incorrigible negligence" in 1910. However, he continued composing and produced many works during the World War I. Returning to the Conservatory, he studied composition with Josef Suk, later working in Paris with Albert Roussel, whose muscular, rhythmically vigorous music eventually influenced Martinu's own. Like many of his contemporaries, Martinu absorbed the influence of jazz. In 1930, Martinu's constant desire to learn more led him to the music of Corelli, Vivaldi, and Bach, signaling a new concern with rhythmic continuity and contrapuntal technique. Following the resounding success of his opera Julietta in Prague in 1938, World War II forced Martinu to flee his adopted home of Paris. After spending nine miserable months in the south of France, the composer and his wife made their way to Spain, and then to America, in 1941. For the duration of the war, the composer lived in various cities in the Eastern United States, surviving on commissions and producing five symphonies by 1946. Though Martinu had planned to return to Czechoslovakia after the war, injuries and health problems prevented him from traveling. He eventually regained his health, however, producing such works as the Sixth Symphony (1951-53), widely regarded as a masterpiece, two of operas for television, and many chamber compositions.

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December 22
Giacomo Puccini
Birth: December 22, 1858
Lucca, Italy
Death: November 29, 1924 in Brussels, Belgium

  After Verdi, Giacomo Puccini was the most important composer of Italian opera. He wrote in the verismo style, a counterpart to the movement of Realism in literature and a trend that favored subjects and characters from everyday life. On his often commonplace settings Puccini lavished memorable melodies and lush orchestration. Young Giacomo took organ lessons early on from his uncle, and later from Carlo Angeloni. At ten, he sang in local church choirs and by age 14 was freelancing as an organist at religious services. His first compositions were for organ, often incorporating operatic and folk elements. By age 18, under the spell of Verdi's Aida, he decided he would study composition with an emphasis on opera. At around this time, he composed his first large-scale work, Preludio Sinfonico, for an 1877 competition. In 1880, Puccini entered the Milan Conservatory, where he studied for three years under Ponchielli and Bazzini. While there, he wrote his first opera, Le Villi, which he once more entered in a competition. Though he lost, Arrigo Boito and, more importantly, the publisher Giulio Ricordi helped arrange a premiere in Milan on May 31, 1884. The work was enthusiastically received, and Puccini was on his way to great fame. Around this time Puccini met Elvira Gemignani, wife of a merchant in Lucca. They carried on an illicit affair, and she gave birth to his son in 1886. When her husband died in 1904, the two were married. Puccini's next opera, Edgar, was poorly received at its 1889 premiere. His next effort, however, Manon Lescaut, was a sensational success at its 1893 Turin premiere. Puccini's next three operas confirmed his preeminence in Italian opera. La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904) were not immediately as successful as Manon Lescaut, but in time achieved greater acclaim. By the middle of the 20th century, they had become - and remain today - his most often performed and recorded works. Puccini was unable to finish another opera until the moderately successful La Fanciulla del West (1910), which premiered in New York with Toscanini conducting and Caruso singing the role of Johnson. His sluggishness of inspiration owed much to charges by his wife he was having an affair with a servant girl, charges that drove the hapless, and as it turned out, innocent young girl to suicide in 1909. In 1913, Puccini accepted a lucrative commission from Vienna interests, which resulted in La Rondine. Received warmly at its 1917 Monte Carlo premiere, it faded under the judgment it was the least of his operatic efforts. Puccini followed this disappointment with his trilogy of one-act operas, Il Trittico - comprised of Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi - all premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1918. While Puccini was working on his last opera, Turandot, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. During radiation treatment in Brussels, he suffered a heart attack and died on November 29, 1924.

Franz Schmidt
Birth: December 22, 1874
Pressburg, Hungary
Death: February 11, 1939 in Perchtoldsdorf, Austria

  Born to a German father and Slovakian mother in what was then Hungary, Schmidt was hailed as a "musical miracle child" by the priest with whom he took organ lessons in Pressburg (Bratislava today). This encouraged his poor but hopeful parents to move to Vienna in 1888. Schmidt became a piano pupil of Theodor Leschetizky at the Vienna Conservatorium, where he studied composition with Bruckner, theory with Robert Fuchs, and cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger. Chronic privation forced Schmidt to play in dance hall orchestras after graduation until he was chosen in 1896 to be a cellist in the Vienna Hofoper Orchestra and the Philharmonic. From 1901 to 1908, Schmidt taught piano and cello at the Conservatorium in addition to his duties in the opera house. He resigned from the Philharmonic in 1911, but continued to play with the opera until 1914, when the Staatsakademie appointed him professor of piano. He became professor of counterpoint and composition in 1922, director in 1925, and head of the Musikhochschule from 1927 to 1931. Although Schmidt's financial and professional fortunes stabilized, his marriages were ill-fated. His first wife went insane, was institutionalized in 1919, and was murdered by the Nazis in 1940. Their only child, Emma, died after the birth of Schmidt's grandchild. A second marriage to a much younger piano pupil was plagued by Schmidt's ill-health, which worsened progressively until his death. After the deaths of Berg and Schreker, and the flight of Schoenberg and Zemlinsky to the U.S., Schmidt was proclaimed Austria's most important composer of the time.

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