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Thursday Evening Classics
Composer Capsules for November / December 2006

Presented by Steve Petke


November 2
Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf
Birth: November 2, 1739 in Vienna, Austria
Death: October 24, 1799 in Neuhof, Czech Republic

  Karl Ditters was a contemporary of Haydn and one of the most admired composers in Europe in his day. His popularity was said to rival that of Haydn, Gluck, and Mozart. He composed over 120 symphonies and 45 operas, as well as concertos and sacred and chamber works. Although his music circulated all over Europe, he never found the stable patronage that Haydn did, and he reportedly died in near financial ruin. Ditters began his career at age 10 as a violin virtuoso in a church orchestra, then moved to the court orchestra of the Prince of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. There he met Haydn, and Gluck, a fellow violinist. In the early 1760s, Ditters was appointed court violinist and made his first trip abroad, traveling with Gluck to Italy. Ditters left the imperial court in 1764 after a dispute to become Kapellmeister at the court of the Bishop of Grosswardein, in present-day Romania. After a dispute with Empress Maria Theresia, the Bishop disbanded his chapel, leaving Ditters unemployed. The following year, Ditters secured a post as court composer to the Prince-Bishop of Breslau, Schaffgotsch. The court was located in the small hamlet of Johannisberg, and to persuade Ditters to remain in such a remote locale, the prince bestowed upon him many honors and titles, including noble status for which he appended "von Dittersdorf" to his surname. The Johannisberg years were his most creative, and for a time Ditters was in the running for Kapellmeister at the court of Emperor Joseph II. In the middle 1780s, several of his compositions were presented in prestigious settings, including the imperial palace for performances of six of his twelve "Ovid" symphonies. The year 1786 was a defining one for Ditters. His comic opera, Der Apotheker und der Doktor (The Pharmacist and the Doctor) premiered in Vienna with overwhelming success. It soon became the most popular opera in Europe, rapidly spreading to opera houses across the continent. In the middle 1790s, Ditters' employment with the Prince-Bishop Schaffgotsch ended and his popularity began to fade. Facing an uncertain future, Ditters found another patron in Baron Ignaz von Stillfried, who installed the composer in his castle in southern Bohemia. His final years were spent editing his works and writing his autobiography, which he completed two days before his death.

November 23
Manuel De Falla
Birth: November 23, 1876 in Cádiz, Spain
Death: November 14, 1946 in Alta Gracia, Córdoba, Argentina

  Manuel de Falla is widely regarded as the most distinguished Spanish composer of the early 20th century. His output was small by choice, and revolved largely around music for the stage. Falla's reputation is based primarily on two lavish ballet scores - El amor brujo (Love, the Magician), and El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat). His evocative piano concerto, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, has also gained a permanent place in the concert repertory. Falla first took piano lessons from his mother in Cádiz, and later moved to Madrid to continue the piano and to study composition with Felipe Pedrell, who had earlier influenced Isaac Albéniz. Under Pedrell's guidance, Falla was drawn to Renaissance Spanish church music, folk music, and native opera. The latter two influences are strongly felt in Falla's opera La Vida breve (The Short Life), for which Falla won a prize in 1905. A second significant influence resulted from Falla's 1907 move to Paris, where he met and fell under the Impressionist spell of Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Maurice Ravel. It was in Paris that he published his first piano pieces and songs. In 1914 Falla returned to Madrid to compose El amor brujo and El sombrero de tres picos. In between the two ballets came Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a suite of three richly scored impressions for piano and orchestra, evoking Andalusia. In the 1920s, Falla altered his stylistic direction, coming under the influence of Stravinsky's Neo-Classicism. Works from this period include the puppet opera El retablo de Maese Pedro (The Altarpiece of Maese Pedro) and a harpsichord concerto, with the folk inspiration now Castilian rather than Andalusian. After 1926 he essentially retired, living first in Mallorca and, from 1939, in Argentina. He spent his final years in the Argentine desert, at work on a giant cantata, Atlántida, which remained unfinished at his death in 1946.

November 30
Charles-Valentin Alkan
Birth: November 30, 1813 in Paris, France
Death: March 29, 1888 in Paris, France

  Charles-Valentin Alkan was one of the great composer/pianists of the 19th century and a major influence on many subsequent musicians. He wrote some of the most peculiar and technically demanding music of his time, an output that compared favorably to the piano music of Liszt. Alkan was an extraordinary prodigy. He entered the Paris Conservatoire when he was 6 years old and won numerous prizes for solfège, piano, harmony, and organ. He quickly made a name for himself in the Paris salons as a gifted young pianist and performed in London to great acclaim. Alkan was acquainted with the likes of Victor Hugo, George Sand, and Frederic Chopin, but he was always something of an introvert and misanthrope. At age 25 he dropped out of society, the first of his frequent and sometimes lengthy withdrawals. Over the next 35 years he rarely appeared in public. Only in 1873 did he make a return to the concert stage, playing a series of concerts at the Salle Erard. Alkan published his first music at age 14. His earliest compositions were in the familiar forms of the day - opera paraphrases and collections of studies that showed off his remarkable facility. His compositions started to get more ambitious in the 1840s and many of the works called for extravagant, nearly superhuman technique. Perhaps his most ambitious opus is the set of Twelve Études in all the minor keys, Op. 39. Alkan rarely played his own works in public, choosing instead to perform the then-unfashionable late Beethoven sonatas, Schubert sonatas, and Baroque music. His playing style was noted for its clarity, its restraint in rhythm and dynamics, and its intellectual quality. Alkan and his music were largely neglected during his lifetime, and he was nearly forgotten upon his death. But with the attention of a few 20th century composers and pianists, Alkan's position in music history has been restored.

December 7
Pietro Mascagni
Birth: December 7, 1863 in Livorno, Italy
Death: August 2, 1945 in Rome, Italy

  Though regarded by many as a "one-hit wonder", Pietro Mascagni wrote several operas of interest and quality. Aside from the well-known Cavalleria Rusticana, the charmingly comic L'amico Fritz, the wrenchingly dramatic Iris, and Il Piccolo Marat manifest a diversity of mood and manner. Still, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana was so successful that subsequent works have lapsed into obscurity. Although encouraged by his parents to pursue a career in law, Mascagni did receive some private musical training. However, when he began to study with the director of the newly formed Istituto Musicale Livornese, his father forbade further musical studies until an uncle interceded to offer young Pietro a home and means to finance his musical education. After only two years at the Milan Conservatory, Mascagni embarked on an unsettled career as an orchestra member and occasional conductor of touring operetta companies. In 1889 he married and settled in Puglia as a music instructor. To a competition mounted by the music publisher Sonzogno, Mascagni submitted his third opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, in February 1890. At its Roman premiere, an unprecedented success propelled the composer from provincial hopeful to overnight celebrity. The following year, Mascagni enjoyed more muted approval with L'Amico Fritz. In 1895 he staged the verismo Silvano, although its reception was less positive than that accorded Iris. In 1903 he began an illicit relationship with Anna Lolli, which lasted until Mascagni's death in 1945. In his later operas, including the overblown Nerone, written in 1935 to please the Fascist regime, Mascagni often explored the outer limits of vocal possibility with punishing tessituras and unrelentingly high volume. His subsequent association with Mussolini's regime seemed self-serving and it left Mascagni discredited and impoverished.

December 21
Zdenek Fibich
Birth: December 21, 1850 in Vseborice, Czech Republic
Death: October 15, 1900 in Prague, Czech Republic

 
Fibich is regarded as the third of the leading Czech composers of the last half of the 19th century, after Dvorák and Smetana. His music is strongly Romantic and often intensely personal. Less nationalistic than was fashionable for much of his later life, his works have recently seen a revival of interest. Fibich's mother came from a cultured Viennese family, while his father was a Czech forestry official. Fibich was home-schooled by his mother until he was 9. She also taught him piano, and then referred him to a local priest for studies in music theory. He later attended a private music school in Prague. By the end of his schooling, Fibich had written over 50 compositions. Most were piano pieces and songs, but some were more ambitious, including sketches for the final part of Romeo and Juliet and a symphony. In 1865 he entered the Leipzig Conservatory, studying with Ignaz Moscheles and others. He returned to Bohemia in 1870, lived with his parents a year until he had turned 21, and then moved to Prague to compose. In 1873 he married Ruzena Hanusova and took a position directing a choir in Vilnius, Lithuania. The couple had twins, but Fibich suffered the loss of his wife, her sister, and both babies over the next two years. Fibich took a job at the Provisional Theater in Prague, and married a third Hanusova sister, Betty, in 1875. Finding that his theatrical duties took him away from composition, Fibich gave them up in favor of a position at the Russian Orthodox Church in Prague in 1878. He wrote a modestly successful opera, Blanik, and became interested in the unusual musical form of the melodrama. In 1881 Fibich resigned from his church position and devoted himself full-time to composing and teaching. Soon he fell in love with a pupil, a singer named Anezka Schulzova, and eventually abandoned his wife and son for her. Miss Schulzova was a well-read young woman who directed Fibich toward texts with a feminist orientation. Indeed, of his last four operas, she wrote the texts for three of them. Sarka, about a Czech female military leader, was his most successful work, in part due to its patriotic theme. Fibich also began writing an immense series of short piano works called Moods, Impressions, and Reminiscences, composed between 1891 and 1899. They form virtually a musical diary of his affair with Schulzova, and often are exceptionally intimate and passionate. In 1899 he returned to a position as producer at the Provisional Theater, now called the National Theater. He died unexpectedly of a kidney infection in 1900.

December 28
Roger Sessions
Birth: December 28, 1896 in Brooklyn, NY
Death: March 16, 1985 in Princeton, NJ

  One of America's musical icons, Roger Sessions had an immeasurable influence on the evolution of composition in the 20th century. A deeply passionate composer of rare accomplishment, he attained a level of craftsmanship which nearly 75 years of work honed into profound knowledge and skill. In addition, the achievements of his numerous students, including such luminaries as Milton Babbitt and David Diamond, reveal Sessions as a teacher of uncommon stature. Sessions was a precocious lad. By the age of 14, he had already composed a complete opera, and entered Harvard University, where he studied music with Edward Burlingame Hill. Following graduation from Harvard in 1914, Sessions enrolled for further studies at Yale with Horatio Parker. Accepting a position at Smith College in Massachusetts, Sessions worked privately with Ernest Bloch in New York, and when Bloch was invited to become director of the newly-formed Cleveland Institute of Music, Sessions went along as his assistant, remaining there until 1925. From 1925 to 1933 Sessions lived and worked in Europe, first in Florence, then later in Rome and Berlin. During these years the musical establishment began to take notice, and Sessions scored a notable success with his Suite from the Black Maskers in 1928. Sessions' earliest music had been written in a lush, chromatic style. By the time of the Black Maskers, however, he had begun to favor a leaner, neo-Classical language. Following his return to the US in 1933, Sessions accepted teaching positions at a number of American institutions including Boston University, Princeton, Berkeley and Juilliard. Beginning with the Violin Concerto of 1935, Sessions' music became increasingly complex, and during the 1950s he adopted serial compositional techniques, though he used them with great flexibility, always suiting the techniques to match his own highly unique musical voice. Sessions was awarded a special Pulitzer citation for lifetime achievement in 1974, and in 1982 received an actual Pulitzer Prize for his magnificent Concerto for Orchestra. No further works appeared after this notable musical achievement, and Sessions died in 1985 at the age of 88.

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