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Thursday Evening Classics
Composer Capsules for November / December 2007

Presented by Steve Petke

November 1

Roger Quilter
Birth: November 1, 1877 in Brighton, England
Death: September 21, 1953 in London, England

  Roger Quilter remains known primarily for his nearly 100 distinguished art songs, although he also produced choral, instrumental, and stage works. He had to work hard at composition, for it never came naturally, but his output shows a composer with exceptional sensitivity and seemingly effortless grace. Quilter was educated at prestigious Eton College, later going abroad to study at Frankfurt's Hoch Conservatory. Quilter, along with fellow students, Percy Grainger, Cyril Scott, Norman O'Neill and Balfour Gardiner, became known as the "Frankfurt Group." As a song composer, Quilter became well established in the 1900s with performances of his Songs of the Sea, To Julia and Seven Elizabethan Lyrics. On occasion, Quilter would accompany his songs in public, and he did record many of them with close friend and colleague Mark Raphael. His only attempt at opera, Julia, was a failure, but several pieces from it were extracted and published as separate songs. His light orchestral music was more successful, including A Children's Overture, written for the Promenade Concerts and conducted by Henry Wood. Quilter never had to earn a living, but he was a philanthropic artist, helping to found and administer the Musicians' Benevolent Fund, as well as privately aiding his colleagues. After a productive and benevolent artistic life, Quilter experienced a period of mental decline that ended with his death.

November 8

Arnold Edward Trevor Bax
Birth: November 8, 1883 in Streatham, England
Death: October 3, 1953 in Cork, Ireland

  Born of cultured and wealthy parents, Bax was insulated from the anguish that many composers felt during, and immediately after, the First World War. For him the pre-war world of Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky was still alive in all its myth and mystery. Bax described himself as "a brazen romantic," and in some respects could be considered the last of the European post-Romantic school of composers. During his years at the Royal Academy of Music, Bax was deeply impressed by the poetry of W.B. Yeats, an influence that led to a close association with Celtic culture and legend. His first mature work, In the Fairy Hills, is typical of the fantastic and exotic nature of his orchestral writing, chromatic and opulent, with a broad melodic sweep and luminous harmonies. The Garden of Fand, an imaginative evocation of an ancient legend of sea gods and goddesses, is similarly impressionistic. Tintagel, a tone poem inspired by traditional English stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table was composed in 1919 after a holiday in Cornwall and quickly became Bax's most frequently performed work. Living in the shadow of composers of the stature of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Bax received little public recognition until late in life. Had it not been for a broadening of his style and the support of Sir Adrian Boult, Bax would probably be remembered, if at all, for his comparatively youthful works. Between 1922 and 1939 Bax turned to the symphonic form and produced 7 taut, structured and contrapuntal masterworks that nevertheless retain elements of fantasy and mysticism. Symphony No. 1, the only one recorded in his lifetime, was first performed in 1922. The fifth is dedicated to Sibelius and the sixth contains a theme from Sibelius' tone poem Tapiola. Bax did not take well to approaching old age, and like his friend Sibelius, became dependent on alcohol. In 1943, he wrote a bitterly nostalgic memoir of his earlier years. He died while on holiday in Cork, Ireland.

November 22

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
Birth: November 22, 1710 in Weimar
Death: July 1, 1784 in Berlin

  Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is considered by some the most original and interesting of the composer-sons of the great Johann Sebastian. His music bridged the transitional period between Baroque and Classical styles, but it was distinctive and personal. Naturally, he was taught by his father, who also sent him to study violin with J.G. Graun and saw to it that W.F. Bach's great successes in general education at Leipzig's Thomasschule and the University of Leipzig did not interfere with his music. After graduation he worked as a musical assistant for his father, then left home at the age of 23 to become organist of the Sophienkirche in Dresden. This was a part-time position, allowing him to compose operas and ballets for the local Court. In 1746, he became the organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Hallé, a more prestigious position which included organizing orchestral performances in the city's three main churches. He became known for his brilliant organ improvisations and is generally regarded as the last great German Baroque organist. He courted trouble due to his interests in emerging enlightenment philosophy and his inability to adhere to the very pious manner of the town's rulers. Resisting their attempts to restrict him, he applied for various jobs elsewhere, further irritating the town fathers. In 1751 he married Dorothea Elisabeth Georgi. In 1756 and the coming of the Seven Years' War, Hallé became an open city and Bach and his family suffered depredations from the various armies that passed through. Despite inflation, the town fathers turned down his request for a raise in 1761. In 1762, he received an appointment as Kapellmeister in Darmstadt, but Bach delayed leaving Hallé and lost the job. He finally resigned from his position in Hallé in 1764, setting himself up as a teacher in the town. He lived precariously after that and also managed to lose many of the manuscripts of his father that had come into his care. He treated his own music as carelessly, and much of it is also lost. He died in poverty in 1784 from a pulmonary disease.

Joaquín Rodrigo
Birth: November 22, 1901 in Sagunto, Valencia, Spain
Death: July 6, 1999 in Madrid, Spain

  Rodrigo was one of the most honored of 20th century Spanish composers. Several of his compositions, in particular the Concierto de Aranjuez, have attained worldwide fame. Blind from the age of three due to diphtheria, Rodrigo undertook early musical studies under Francisco Antich in Valencia and Paul Dukas at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. While in Paris, Rodrigo befriended many of the great composers of the time, and received particular encouragement from his fellow Spaniard, Manuel de Falla. In 1933 he married the Turkish pianist Victoria Kamhi and they remained inseparable companions until her death in 1997. After returning to Spain in 1934, Rodrigo quickly won, with some help from Falla, the Conde de Cartagena scholarship that allowed him to return to Paris to study musicology at the Conservatoire and the Sorbonne. The Spanish Civil War period of the late 1930s was a difficult time in Rodrigo's life. His scholarship was cancelled, and he and his wife lived in France and Germany, virtually penniless. By 1939, they were able to return to Spain. Due to his blindness, Rodrigo always composed in Braille, and later painstakingly dictated the music to a copyist. His real breakthrough as a composer came with the Concierto de Aranjuez, which was acclaimed from its first performance in Barcelona. Rodrigo was quickly recognized as one of Spain's great composers, and the awards and commissions started to pour in. In 1947, the Manuel de Falla Chair was created for him at the University of Madrid, where he taught music history for many years. He was much in demand as a pianist and lecturer, traveling to Europe, Central America, the U.S., Israel, and Japan. Many of the world's great instrumentalists commissioned concertos of him, and he eventually wrote works for, among others, guitarist Andrés Segovia, flutist James Galway, harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. In 1953, he was awarded the Cross of Alfonso X the Wise by the Spanish government, and as part of the celebration of his 90th birthday in 1991, Rodrigo was raised to the nobility by King Juan Carlos I with the title "Marqués de los jardines de Aranjuez." He was ultimately given Spain's highest international honor, the Prince of Asturias Prize for the Arts, in 1996. The government of France also recognized Rodrigo's importance, making him a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1960 and promoting him to Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 1998. By the end of his life, he had also received six honorary doctorates from universities worldwide. Rodrigo died in 1999; he and his wife are both buried at the cemetery at Aranjuez.

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Lord Benjamin Britten
Birth: November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England
Death: December 4, 1976 in Aldeburgh, England

  Britten is regarded by some as the greatest English composer since Purcell. A man of wide-ranging talents, Britten found in the human voice a special source of inspiration that resulted in a remarkable body of work, in operas to song cycles, to the massive choral work, War Requiem. He also produced music for orchestra, chamber ensembles and solo performers. Britten's father was a prosperous oral surgeon and his mother was a leader in the local choral society. When Benjamin's musical genius became evident, the family engaged composer Frank Bridge to supervise his musical education. Bridge's tutelage was one of the formative and lasting influences on Britten's compositional development. Britten would pay tribute to his teacher in his Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge. Britten's formal training also included studies at the Royal College of Music. Upon graduation from the RCM, Britten obtained a position scoring documentaries for the Royal Post Office film unit. Working on a tight budget, he learned how to extract the maximum variety of color and musical effectiveness from the smallest combinations of instruments, producing dozens of such scores from 1935 to 1938. He rapidly emerged as the most promising British composer of his generation and entered into collaborative relationships that exerted a profound influence upon his creative life. Among the most important of his professional associates were literary figures like W.H. Auden, and later, E.M. Forster. None, however, played as central a role in Britten's life as the tenor Peter Pears, who was Britten's closest partner, both personally and professionally, from the late '30s to the composer's death. Pears' voice inspired a number of Britten's vocal cycles and opera roles, and the two often joined forces in song recitals and, from 1948, in the organization and administration of the Aldeburgh Festival. A steadfast pacifist, Britten left England in 1939 as war loomed over Europe. He spent four years in the United States and Canada, his compositional pace barely slackening. He returned to England and with a Koussevitzky Commission backing him, Britten wrote the enormously successful opera Peter Grimes, which marked the greatest turning point in his career. Over the next several decades Britten wrote a dozen more operas, several of which - Albert Herring, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Death in Venice - became instant and permanent fixtures of the repertoire. He also continued to produce much vocal, orchestral, and chamber music. Britten suffered a stroke during heart surgery in 1971, which resulted in a decline in his creative activities. Nonetheless, he continued to compose until his death in 1976, by which time he was recognized as one of the principal musical figures of the 20th century.

November 29

Gaetano Donizetti
Birth: November 29, 1797 in Bergamo, Italy
Death: April 8, 1848 in Bergamo, Italy

  Donizetti was among the most important composers of bel canto Italian and French opera in the first half of the 19th Century. Many of Donizetti's more than 60 operas are still part of the modern repertoire and continue to challenge singers with their musical and technical demands. Donizetti stands stylistically between Rossini and Verdi. His scenes are usually more expanded in structure than those of Rossini, but he never blurred the lines between set pieces and recitative as Verdi did in his middle-period and late works. Often compared to his contemporary, Bellini, Donizetti produced a wider variety of operas and showed a greater stylistic flexibility, even if he never quite achieved the sheer beauty of Bellini's greatest works. Donizetti studied in Bergamo with the opera composer, Simon Mayr from 1806 to 1814. His youthful works include chamber operas, religious works, and some chamber music. Donizetti's first opera of note was La Zingara, which was premiered in Naples in 1822. He continued to work in Naples throughout the 1820's and 1830's, where he was active as both a conductor and composer. In 1830, Donizetti finally achieved international fame with his opera Anna Bolena. Notable for its expressive music and more extended scenes, it established Donizetti as one of the leading contemporary opera composers. The comic opera L'elisir d'amore and the tragic Lucrezia Borgia came shortly after. Donizetti's next work was Maria Stuarda, followed the same year by Lucia di Lammermoor, which became an internationally recognized masterpiece. The Elizabethan tragedy Roberto Devereux completed his trilogy of operas that chronicle the English court from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. Donizetti's operas from the late 1830s were unable to match the success of Lucia, and when Donizetti was passed over for the directorship of the Naples Conservatory in 1840, he moved to Paris. There he composed the opera comique La fille du Régiment, which was celebrated immediately for its charm and virtuosity. Later that year he completed La favorite, another major contribution to the French repertoire. In 1842 Donizetti was appointed Kapellmeister of the Austrian court in Vienna, but retained his association with Paris. Among Donizetti's last operas are Maria di Rohan, and his French tragedy Dom Sébastian. Caterina Cornaro is also one of his finest works for its strong dramatic content. These late operas, although rarely performed, are serious works that set the standard for Verdi.

December 20

Franz Xaver Pokorny
Birth: December 20, 1729
Death: July 2, 1794 in Regensburg Frantisek

  Xaver Thomas Pokorny may have been related to some other Bohemian musicians of the same surname. But as it is a very common name (literally meaning "humble") it is difficult to confirm any such connections. In particular, there seems to be no connection between him and Frantisek Xaver Jan Pokorny (1797 - 1850). The older Franz Xaver was sent by Count Philipp Karl of Oettingen-Wallerstein to study with Johann Stamitz, Richter, and Holzbauer in the major musical center of Mannheim. With the promise of a position as choral director, the Count summoned him back in 1754. However, the Count did not keep this promise, even when Pokorny petitioned him for it in 1766. Perhaps exasperated, Pokorny applied to the court of Thurn and Taxis at Regensburg. He was admitted as a member of the royal Kapelle, and stayed there until his death. Over 100 symphonies have been attributed to him, of which more than half are the subjects of authorship disputes. The symphonies attributed to him are usually four-movement works for strings, two flutes, and two horns, with occasional use of clarinets, oboes, timpani, and trumpets. The melodies are in a popular style, and he tends to use sequential repetition in place of real symphonic development.

Vagn Holmboe
Birth: December 20, 1909 in Horsens, Denmark
Death: September 1, 1996 in Ramløse, Denmark

  Few Scandinavian composers other than Sibelius and Nielsen have succeeded in claiming international attention. Holmboe was an exception and he is becoming widely recognized as the most important Danish composer since Nielsen. His 13 symphonies, 20 string quartets and other compositions, including three operas, 13 chamber concertos and choral works, are increasingly regarded as significant contributions to 20th century music. Holmboe's musical development was cosmopolitan. He studied in Denmark, Berlin and in Romania, where he came into contact with Balkan folk music and heard the works of Béla Bartók whose style he assimilated. On returning to his homeland, he continued to work as a composer and critic and was professor at the Royal Danish Conservatory from 1950 - 1965 where he became immersed in Medieval church music. Holmboe's approach, with its free use of melodic and diatonic patterns was, however, basically neo-Classical, though more austere and inward-looking than either Nielsen or Sibelius, whose influence is less evident than that of Stravinsky and Bartók. The First Symphony is a work of chamber proportions, while the third and fourth (a choral work), respectively subtitled "Sinfonia rustica" and "Sinfonia sacra," are precursors of a later, darker style in which the idea of "metamorphosis" is reminiscent of Hindemith, and at times, even Wagner. International attention came when his Fifth Symphony was performed at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Copenhagen in 1947, after which Holmboe received commissions in various parts of Europe. The seventh and ninth symphonies are the most intense of Holmboe's orchestral output, and the Fourth Quartet the most intimate of his chamber works. After his marriage in 1931 to the pianist Meta Graf, he traveled to her homeland, Romania, to collect folk tunes, and later to the Faeroe Islands on a similar quest though, folk elements are rarely prominent in Holmboe's major works

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