Special feature: Vasily Kalinnikov, the forgotten Russian Romantic

(Today’s post is my second “special feature,” highlighting a composer who, while not completely unknown, remains on the fringes of the classical repertoire. These features will be posted at irregular times, depending on my schedule for the week – planned future subjects include Edmund Rubbra, Federico Mompou, Willem Pijper, and Nikolai Roslavets.)

From Tchaikovsky to Mussorgsky, a number of Russian composers from the Romantic era have been frequently performed to wide acclaim in the West. However, as is often the case, many other composers popular in Russia are often overlooked in concert programs; today’s post concerns one of these forgotten masters, Vasily Kalinnikov.

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Vasily Kalinnikov (Wikipedia)

Kalinnikov was born on January 13, 1866 near the city of Oryol in what is now western Russia. The son of a policeman, he studied in the Oryol seminary and became director of the seminary choir at 14. A few years later, he sought to enroll in the Moscow Conservatory but could not afford the tuition; instead, he won a scholarship to the Moscow Philharmonic Society School (now the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts), where he was given lessons in bassoon and composition by the composer Alexander Ilyinsky.

To increase his income, Kalinnikov played bassoon, violin, and timpani in a theatre orchestra and also worked as a music copyist. It was in this period that his compositional career began in earnest; although he had written several choral works in the prior years, Kalinnikov’s Serenade for string orchestra and Suite for orchestra are some of his first mature compositions.

During his studies in Moscow, Kalinnikov befriended Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who would ultimately serve as one of the greatest champions of his music. In 1892, Tchaikovsky recommended him as director of the Maly Theatre, and he took up a position at the Moscow Italian Theatre in the same year. Unfortunately, Kalinnikov was unable to build on these successes; by this time, he had contracted tuberculosis, and his diagnosis was worsening.

Because of these unfortunate circumstances, Kalinnikov was forced to move south to the warmer climate of the Crimea, and he lived in Yalta for the rest of his life. Despite his failing health, Kalinnikov’s years in Crimea were his most productive; in addition to several symphonic poems, piano compositions and vocal works, he composed the pieces for which he is best known today; his two symphonies and the incidental music to Count Aleksey Tolstoy’s play Tsar Boris.

Kalinnikov’s first symphony, written between 1894 and 1895, is a classic example of the melodic gifts with which many Russian composers were endowed. Imbued with rich folk melodies, the symphony contains clear influences from the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, but several aspects set it apart from the work of these masters. The exuberance and vivacity of the three faster movements and the pureness and beauty of the second create a riveting atmosphere, while the colorful instrumentation brings out each section of the orchestra.

This symphony was premiered in Kiev in 1897 under the baton of Aleksandr Vinogradsky (who also premiered many orchestral works by Kalinnikov’s friend Tchaikovsky.) After receiving rave reviews – the audience gave encores for both the second and third movements – performances outside of Russia followed, taking place in Moscow, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. Thanks to the efforts of a number of contemporaries, Kalinnikov’s first symphony remained popular during the USSR period and continues to maintain its place in the Russian orchestral repertoire. However, it remains relatively unknown in the US, although a concert band transcription of the finale has made its way into the repertoire.

The second symphony, completed in 1897 and also based on folk melodies, keeps the exuberance and brightness so characteristic of Kalinnikov’s style, but it is somewhat more tonally adventurous, tending towards the direction of Borodin rather than that of Tchaikovsky. Although lesser known and less performed than his first, some find the second symphony to be a more mature and developed work.

In 1901, four years after completing his second symphony and two days before his 35th birthday, Kalinnikov lost his battle with tuberculosis. Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, two titans of Russian music, played integral roles in keeping Kalinnikov’s work alive – with help from Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky had his publisher, P. Jurgenson, purchased three of Kalinnikov’s songs and his second symphony. Later, Jurgenson also had the composer’s first symphony published, paying the fees he would have paid Kalinnikov to his widow.

Despite his relatively short life, Kalinnikov was a fairly prolific composer, writing twelve orchestral works, around twenty songs and choral pieces, nine works for solo piano, and the opera In 1812 (left unfinished at his death.) He was survived by a younger brother, Viktor, a choral composer who taught at the Moscow Philharmonic Society School.

Thanks to the efforts of several local and community orchestras (one of which I had the chance to hear perform last year), Kalinnikov’s first symphony is becoming more well-known in the orchestral repertoire, and many of his other works are equally deserving of more frequent performances in the West. To that end, I will leave you with another little-played work by Kalinnikov, his Elegie for solo piano.

As usual, please leave a like, follow, or comment if you enjoyed this or any other post on my blog! Look out for my next entry later this week, which will profile three great Canadian composers of the 20th century – Jean Coulthard, Barbara Pentland, and Violet Archer.

(All information in this post was derived from Wikipedia, a biography of Kalinnikov on the Parker Symphony Orchestra website, and a short article about Aleksandr Vinogradsky.)

Music and mountaineering: the many talents of Mieczysław Karłowicz

Poland is a country with a rich musical history, from the brilliant piano works of Chopin to the captivating virtuosity of Paderewski to the inventiveness of Penderecki and Lutosławski later in the 20th century. However, many intriguing Polish composers have received little recognition for their work, particularly outside their homeland. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing one of these overlooked composers, Mieczysław Karłowicz.

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Mieczysław Karłowicz (Wikipedia)

Karłowicz was born in 1876 to a noble family in what is now Belarus (then part of Poland) to the linguist Jan Karłowicz and Irena Sulistrowska. In addition to his main profession, Jan was an orchestra director and mountaineer, and in both of these activities his son would follow in his footsteps; during his childhood, Mieczysław also heard several works by the likes of Brahms and Smetana. From 1882 to 1887, Karłowicz’s family moved between Heidelberg, Prague, and Dresden before finally settling in Warsaw. There, he began studies in violin with Jan Jankowski and Stanisław Barcewicz.

Because of poor health, Karłowicz was forced to give up his violin studies a few years later, switching to composition under the tutelage of Gustaw Rogulski in Warsaw and then Henrich Urban in Berlin (where he also studied philosophy, psychology, and physics). During this time, he composed incidental music for Jozefat Nowiński’s play The White Dove, whose section “Bianca da Molena” receives occasional performances in Poland today.

Having completed his studies in 1901, Karłowicz returned to Warsaw, and in 1903 he took up a directorial position at the Warsaw Music Society. During this period of his career, especially after moving in 1906 to the mountain resort of Zakopane, Karłowicz focused primarily on symphonic poems. Some of his best-known works in this genre include Eternal SongsReturning Waves and the Lithuanian Rhapsody, the latter of which is based on Lithuanian and Belorussian melodies; describing his construction of the Rhapsody, Karłowicz stated, “I have tried to encapsulate within it the total grief, sadness and eternal servitude of that race whose songs I heard in my childhood.” Both pieces illustrate his mastery of orchestration and ability to bring out each section of the orchestra in a very compelling manner.

An avid mountaineer like his father, Karłowicz joined the Tatra Society, provided accounts of hiking trips, and was fond of skiing and photography. Unfortunately, these activities ultimately brought his life to a premature end. In February 1909, three months after completing the symphonic poem A Sorrowful Tale, Karłowicz was killed in an avalanche while on a skiing trip at the age of 32.

Karłowicz left behind five complete symphonic poems, several songs and piano works, incidental music to The White Dove, a Serenade for Strings, as well as a symphony titled “Rebirth” and a violin concerto dedicated to his former teacher Stanislaw Barcewicz. Although the composer’s early death may have deprived us of his most developed work, his extant compositions are shining examples of the sweeping late Romantic style. Influenced by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Wagner, Karłowicz was initially criticized by many in Polish music circles for diverging from the norm, but his works eventually gained appreciation during his lifetime, with one critic calling his tone poem Eternal Songs a “precious musical gem shining like a rainbow.”

Despite his many influences, Karłowicz developed his own musical language, one which is rich with color, texture, and emotion. It is high time that he be recognized as one of the leading lights of the late Romantic era.

I will leave you with recordings of Karłowicz’s violin concerto and his “Rebirth” symphony, both of which are important but underperformed contributions to their respective genres. If you’re interested in other lesser-known Polish Romantic composers, I’d suggest looking at Grzegorz Fitelberg (who completed Karłowicz’s unfinished tone poem Episode at a Masquerade), Zygmunt Noskowski, and Emil Młynarski.

Thank you so much for reading – if you enjoyed this feature, please leave a like or follow. Next week’s post will be on the Canadian composer Jean Coulthard, one of a triumvirate of women composers who dominated Canadian classical music in the 20th century!

(All text from this post is derived from Wikipedia, USC’s Polish Music Archive, a biography from Oxford Bibliographies, and an article from culture.pl.)


Zhu Jianer: the voice of Western classical music in China

A quick update on the timing of my posts: due to popular demand, I will be writing weekly instead of biweekly. This also means I have to find more composers to cover, so if you’ve heard a piece by someone who isn’t very well-known and you’d like to know more about them and their works, write the composer’s name in the comments section – I’ll probably cover them in the coming weeks.

Several of the world’s most talented performers of classical music hail from China – Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, for instance, are held in very high regard among pianists. Despite a plethora of diverse and fascinating works, Chinese composers, on the other hand, are much more sparsely recognized. For today’s post, I’ll be discussing Zhu Jianer, probably the most influential Chinese composer of the 20th century.

Chinese composer Zhu Jianer (centre) is applauded by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra last year. Photo: Weibo
Zhu (center) being applauded by the Shanghai Symphony in 2016

Born Zhu Rongshi on October 18, 1922 in Tianjin, Zhu moved with his family to Shanghai at a young age and taught himself the piano in his early teens. In his youth, he was heavily influenced by the composer Nie Er, who wrote what is now China’s national anthem, changing his name to “Jianer” (literally, “carrying out Nie Er’s will”) after Nie’s death in 1935.

Shortly afterward, Zhu began composing, working in a “Literature and Arts Troupe” in the 1940s. By the end of the decade, he was a well-known figure in his country’s classical music scene, and in 1949 he was appointed as composer for the Shanghai and Beijing National Film Studios despite having had no formal compositional training. During this period, he composed the film score Days of Emancipation, a piano reduction of which is now known as one of Lang Lang’s favorite encores.

In 1955, largely thanks to the popularity of Days of Emancipation, Zhu was chosen to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where he stayed for five years. A supporter of Mao’s communist regime, Zhu wrote two notable works during his time in Moscow – a Festive Overture for the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic and the cantata Hero’s Poem, based on the poetry of Mao Zedong. After graduating from the Conservatory in 1960, he returned to his homeland, where he continued to write patriotic works and songs. During this period, much of Zhu’s writing was tonal and pentatonic, a sharp contrast to his later style.

Like that of many Chinese artists and intellectuals, Zhu’s career came to a halt in 1966 with the advent of the Cultural Revolution. With orchestral works being practically banned during this time, Zhu was instead assigned to work on the revolutionary ballet The White-Haired Girl. However, instead of working on the score for the ballet, he arranged it into a fugato for string quartet that was played for Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. As one might expect, this was the most unproductive period of Zhu’s career – as he himself put it, “after those 10 years of futility working on The White-Haired Girl, we became white-haired men and women.”

The Cultural Revolution had a significant impact on Zhu’s view of the regime, and many of his works written afterward express his difficulties during those ten years. By the time he began composing again, the death of Mao and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping had changed the political landscape in China, and his 1980 symphonic work “In Memory of the Martyrs for Truth” was well-received.

In 1975, Zhu had been appointed composer-in-residence of the Shanghai Symphony and, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he began attending lectures on new music at the Shanghai Conservatory. Armed with these ideas, Zhu began writing more tonally adventurous and experimental works, many of which were based on the twelve-tone technique. These qualities are apparent in his first symphony, completed in 1986 and based on his memories from the Cultural Revolution.

Although some sections somewhat resemble Shostakovich in style (another composer who had mixed feelings about the government of his country), Zhu has a unique voice – the dark, foreboding timbres created by the percussion section are one of the symphony’s many hallmarks, and the names of the movements – “!”, “?!”, “…”, and “!” – give the piece an air of mystery.

Over the next 15 years, Zhu would go on to write another ten symphonies, each with a differing character. In both his symphonies and symphonic poems written during his later period, he often utilized Chinese traditional instruments, other unusual members of the symphony orchestra, or non-standard instrumentations – his eighth symphony, “Seek and Quest,” is scored for 16 percussion instruments and cello.

Zhu continued to compose into his old age, writing an autobiography in 2015 and regularly attending performances of his works in Beijing and Shanghai. He passed away in Shanghai in 2017, at the age of 95.

I’ll leave you with a recording of Zhu’s third symphony, titled “Tibet.” See you next week, when I’ll be covering the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz!

(The information in this post originates from Wikipedia, an article by the South China Morning Post, and a brief biography by German Sinologist Barbara Mittler.)

John Blackwood McEwen: a late Romantic composer inspired by Scottish folklore

Welcome back to another blog post! Today, I’ll be discussing a fascinating late Romantic Scottish composer, Sir John Blackwood McEwen.

McEwen in 1937, painted by Reginald Eves (Wikipedia)

McEwen was born in Hawick, a town in southeastern Scotland, to the Presbyterian minister James McEwen and his first wife Jane in 1868. Little information is available about his childhood, but he received his MA degree from the University of Glasgow by age 20, going on to work as a choirmaster and organist in Glasgow and at Lanark parish church.

In 1891, McEwen moved to London, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music for four years with Ebenezer Prout, Frederick Corder, and Tobias Matthay. During this time, he won the Charles Lucas medal for composition, had his first string quartet premiered, and wrote numerous works including three symphonies and a mass. After finishing his studies, he returned to Scotland, teaching composition at the Athenaeum School of Music and serving as choirmaster in a parish church at Greenock for three years.

By this time, the composer was becoming fairly well-known in English and Scottish musical circles. In 1898, the Scotsman John Alexander Mackenzie, then president of the Royal Academy, invited McEwen to teach harmony and composition there. He would go on to hold the position for over 25 years; his pupils included the notable film-score composer William Alwyn.

McEwen’s early tenure at the RAM was the most productive period of his compositional and musical career. In 1901, like his contemporary William Walton, he completed a violin concerto for Lionel Tertis. The following year, he married Hedwig Ethel Cole, the daughter of a naval architect, and in 1905 (with his former teachers Corder and Matthay) he co-founded the society of British composers. That same year, he completed the choral work Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity and began writing one of his best-known orchestral cycles, the Three Border Ballads.

The Border Ballads, completed in 1908, are comprised of three works – CoronachThe Demon Lover, and Grey Galloway – each based on a story from Scottish folklore. Described by McEwen’s biographer Jeremy Dibble as “rivaling mature Elgar” in construction and scope, each piece is well-orchestrated, emotional, and powerful.

Unfortunately, UnsungMasterworks, the only channel that previously contained The Demon Lover, was taken down several months ago due to copyright issues, but the other two works are available.

In 1911, McEwen wrote what is probably his most famous work, the Solway Symphony; the symphony, like many of his other works, is based on a geographic region, in this case Solway Firth in his home country. The first piece written for the gramophone, it continued to receive occasional performances in Britain throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Although it was not performed until 1922, eleven years after it was written, the symphony is an enjoyable work with fascinating textures – I particularly enjoy the soft, colorful sounds of the strings and winds in the opening of the second movement.

After suffering a breakdown in 1913, McEwen turned his focus to chamber music, writing several more string quartets, trios, and piano sonatas. Many critics consider McEwen’s late string quartets to be among his best work; his expressive eighth string quartet, named “Biscay” after the bay in northwestern France, is a prime example of his writing for small ensemble.

McEwen also wrote a small number of large-scale orchestral pieces during his later period, including Hills o’ Heather for cello and orchestra in 1918 and the 1936 work Where the Wild Thyme Blows.

One of the reasons McEwen is so rarely heard today is because he almost never promoted his own work – instead, he often supported other British composers, particularly during the interwar period as a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Nevertheless, his compositions were widely respected among colleagues, including the prolific symphonist Havergal Brian, who praised his orchestral work upon McEwen’s retirement in 1936. He was also known for his work in music education, producing two textbooks, Exercises on Phrasing in Pianoforte Playing and The Principles of Phrasing and Articulation in Music, and the article The Thought in Music: An Inquiry into the Principles of Musical Rhythm, Phrasing and Expression in addition to his role at the Royal Academy.

Thanks to his educational contributions and the success of some of his compositions at the time, McEwen was knighted in 1931. Although he retired five years later, he continued to compose until his death in 1948; having had no children, he bequeathed his estate to the University of Glasgow to promote the music of Scottish composers.

Although McEwen’s works, like those of other relative unknowns in British music, have experienced a revival since the 1990s, they are still rarely performed compared to those of his contemporaries. His well-constructed and beautifully orchestrated orchestral compositions, as well as his lively chamber works, deserve a much greater place in the musical repertoire.

As usual, all material used for this post was sourced from Wikipedia and AllMusic. If you enjoyed this or other posts on my blog, please leave a like and/or a follow! My next post will profile the Chinese composer Zhu Jian’er.

Jazz and neoclassicism: the music of Leo Smit

My apologies for the delayed post – I’ve been quite busy over the past week or two, and I felt that today would be a more appropriate day to write about this composer.

Today is my birthday, but on a more poignant note, it’s also Holocaust Remembrance Day. People from all walks of life were affected by the Holocaust, including a number of composers whose lives and careers were tragically cut short. In this post, I’ll take a look at one such individual – the Dutch composer and pianist Leo Smit.

Leo Smit
Credit: Leo Smit Foundation

Smit was born on May 14, 1900 to a Portuguese Jewish family in Amsterdam. He began music lessons at a very young age and wrote his first composition at 16; his younger sister Nora was also a talented harpist and studied with the renowned Rosa Spier, who frequently visited his family’s home.

At 19, Smit entered the Amsterdam Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition with Sem Dresden and Bernard Zweers. Three years later, he wrote his first major work, Silhouetten, which was premiered by the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Silhouetten is a colorful piece influenced by the ideas of jazz as well as by contemporary classical music of the time. Especially notable is Smit’s manipulation of timbre – the sound quality of a particular instrument or group of instruments –  to elicit different emotions from the listener; the delicate touch of the pitched percussion, the rhythmic elements in the unpitched percussion, and the magic of harp arpeggios particularly stand out in this regard. These characteristics and influences combine to create an engaging work, one which, sadly, is almost always passed over by major orchestras.

Two years after writing Silhouetten, Smit graduated from the Conservatory, finding a post as a lecturer in harmony and music appreciation. During this time, he was also called for military service, but was quickly declared unfit for service because of his short and slight figure.

In 1927, Smit left his homeland for Paris, where he associated with the likes of Les Six and delved deeply into the work of Stravinsky and Ravel. This period saw an evolution in Smit’s style of composition – many of his later works have a clear French influence, having much in common with Ravel and Debussy. In 1933, Smit married Engeline de Vries and entered probably his most productive musical period, writing a trio, quintet, and concertino for harp (all dedicated to and premiered by Rosa Spier); over the next seven years, he would go on to write concerti for piano and winds and viola and strings, as well as his only symphony.

In 1936, Smit moved to Brussels before returning to Amsterdam the following year, giving private lessons in piano, theory, and composition. By this time, he had become well-known in the Netherlands, with his music regularly being played on the radio.

Sadly, the invasion of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany turned Smit’s life upside down. By 1941, Jewish musicians were no longer allowed to perform – eventually being banned from music completely – and Smit’s non-Jewish students began leaving him. The following year, Smit was forced to leave his house for another district of Amsterdam. Despite these hardships, he continued to compose, completing his final work, a sonata for flute and piano, in February 1943.

In early April 1943, Smit and his wife were rounded up in the Hollandse Schouwburg theatre. After a month in a transit camp, they were transferred to the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where they were killed in the gas chambers.

Smit left behind about 25 works, spanning music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo instruments, and voice. Despite a revival of interest over the last few decades, Smit’s music still rarely performed; given the quality and breadth of his oeuvre, it deserves far more.

All the biographical information in this post is drawn from Wikipedia as well as the Leo Smit Foundation, whose goal is to inform the public about the lives and work of composers persecuted during World War II. There are many more composers whom the foundation has profiled – I would highly recommend reading about at least one or two of them under the “Composers” section of the website to understand the contexts in which they lived and worked.

Birthday edition: the genius and eclecticism of Giacinto Scelsi

In my posts, I normally tend to focus on composers whose works are well off the beaten path, but today is something of an exception. Although his works were mostly neglected during his own lifetime, the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, who would have turned 114 today, has become more and more widely recognized over the past few decades for the creativity of his works and the pioneering techniques they utilized – many of which are now staples of modern music.

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Scelsi at 30 (Wikipedia)

Scelsi was born to an aristocratic family near the city of La Spezia on January 8, 1905. He spent most of his childhood on his mother’s estate, where he learned music, chess, and fencing from a private tutor. Later in childhood, Scelsi began taking private lessons with the composer Giacinto Sallustio before going on to study with students of Alban Berg and Alexander Scriabin in Austria and Switzerland. As a result of his studies, Scelsi became the first Italian composer to extensively use dodecaphony, although he rarely utilized it in his mature works.

During this time, Scelsi also became active in intellectual circles, meeting the likes of Virginia Woolf and Jean Cocteau. Furthermore, his travels in Egypt in 1927 marked his first exposure to non-European music, an event which would prove pivotal later in his career.

In the mid-1930s, Scelsi began organizing performances of contemporary works by Hindemith, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, introducing them to Italian audiences for the first time. However, due to Mussolini’s strict enforcement of laws against music by Jewish composers, these concerts subsided. Over the next few years, Scelsi frequently traveled away from Italy; he was in Switzerland during the outbreak of World War II. During the war period, Scelsi continued to compose and develop his musical style and married an Englishwoman, Dorothy Ramsden.

When his wife left him after the war, Scelsi fell into a psychological crisis; in 1948, he entered a sanatorium in Switzerland. During this time, he developed a profound interest in Eastern spirituality and significantly transformed his compositional thinking. Interestingly, Scelsi’s time in the sanatorium also provided inspiration for one of his most famous works; he would often pass the time by repeatedly playing a single note at a piano, leading to the composition of his Quattro pezzi per Orchestra over ten years later.

Written in 1959 and premiered two years afterward, Quattro pezzi is built on a completely different foundation from any previous composition in the classical repertoire. Rather than focusing on some sort of melody and harmony as most other composers had done, each of Scelsi’s four pieces are based on a single note which is subsequently modified through changes in tone, dynamics, rhythm, and timbre (the “quality” of a particular sound). In focusing on these aspects of the music rather than on harmony, Scelsi directly or indirectly influenced many late 20th-century composers, including Tristan Murail – one of the founders of spectralism – who continued down this path.

Scelsi’s idiosyncrasies extended not only into his style of composition, but also into his persona. Because he considered his compositions as conveying a higher plane of existence to the listener, he refused to associate the image of himself with his music; instead, he represented himself by an Eastern symbol, a line under a circle. In addition, he often ignored the paradigm of composition and notation for his pieces, instead improvising on the piano; tape recordings of these improvisations were transcribed by collaborators before being orchestrated and modified after consultation with performers.

Although completely unknown in the early part of his career, Scelsi and his works became more well-known in the 1970s, when he began collaborating with musicians like the Arditti Quartet and the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti. During this time, he also met and befriended the American composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earl Brown, and Alvin Curran.

In the last decade of his life, Scelsi edited and recorded La Trilogia, a work nearly four hours long which Morton Feldman called Scelsi’s “autobiography in sound.” In the mid-1980s, a number of his works began being premiered in concert halls, including an acclaimed 1987 concert in Cologne; he attended all of the premieres and personally supervised many rehearsals. Less than a year after the Cologne concert, on August 9, 1988, Scelsi passed away at the age of 83.

Scelsi was a prolific composer, writing hundreds of works across almost every genre of classical music. In addition to his influence on spectralism, he was revered among members of Ennio Morricone’s free improvisation group, “Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza,” who dedicated a track on the album ‘Musica Su Schemi’ to him. Scelsi’s music also makes an appearance in the Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island along with the likes of Penderecki, Ligeti, and Cage.

All my information in this post came from Wikipediaclassical.net, and an abstract of a paper in the Journal of Musicological Research. Thank you again for reading!

I’ve included YouTube links to some other works by Scelsi below. This is just a small subset of his compositions that are available on YouTube – search his name and you’ll find many more.

The remarkable achievements of Luise Adolpha Le Beau

When female composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries come to mind, some of you might think of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn; for those who have looked more into this topic, you might also recognize the names of Amy Beach, Emilie Mayer, and Louise Farrenc. However, one female composer whose achievements are often overlooked is Luise Adolpha Le Beau.

Le Beau in 1872 (Wikipedia)

Born in 1850 in Rastatt, Germany – a town I had the opportunity to briefly visit this past summer – Le Beau was the daughter of a military officer, Wilhelm, and his wife Karoline. In addition to serving in the military, Wilhelm was also a pianist and composer, and upon his retirement in 1856 he began giving his daughter piano lessons. Just two years later, at the age of eight, Le Beau composed her first work.

At 13, Le Beau was sent to a local girl’s school, where she studied languages for three years. During this time, she also began studying piano with Hofkapellmeister (court chapel master) Wilhelm Kalliwoda at Karlsruhe and also took singing lessons from the noted tenor Anton Haizinger. After graduating with a degree in 1866, she would spend the rest of her life on music.

In 1868, Le Beau debuted as a pianist, playing piano concertos by Beethoven and Mendelssohn in Karlsruhe. Two years later, she met Franz Lachner and Anton Rubinstein, two important musical figures of the late 19th century, and in 1873 she began taking lessons with Clara Schumann in Baden-Baden; due to differences between the two as well as an aversion to Schumann’s teaching methods, these lessons lasted for only one summer. The following year, Le Beau toured the Netherlands, where she performed in Utrecht, Arnhem, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Amsterdam.

Looking to further her studies, Le Beau turned to none other than Hans von Bülow, a student of Liszt and one of the most renowned conductors of the 19th century. On von Bülow’s recommendation, Le Beau and her family moved to Munich, where she studied with the pianist and organist Josef Rheinberger at the Royal Music School. During this time, Le Beau faced an obstacle common to many of her female contemporaries; because of school regulations, she was not allowed to be tutored with male students.

While studying in Munich, Le Beau toured the Bavarian countryside, performing her own compositions with the singer Aglaia Orgeni and the violinist Bartha Haft. She also worked briefly as a music critic, writing for the “Allgemeine Deutsche Musik-Zeitung” in Berlin beginning in 1878, but stopped writing articles after her reviews were shortened and modified by her editor. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), she established a “private music course for daughters of the educated classes” which aimed to prepare women for careers in piano teaching.

In 1880, Le Beau stopped lessons with Rheinberger to focus more on the work of other composers. During the five years that followed, she met Franz Liszt, the critic Eduard Hanslick, and Johannes Brahms; she also wrote several of her best-known works, including a piano quartet, a piece titled “Ruth – Biblical Scenes” for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, and a cello sonata which took first prize in an international composition contest.

Le Beau’s cello sonata is a powerful work reminiscent of Schumann; it is one of many pieces by women composers that deserve to be heard and performed more often.

In 1885, with her parents’ health deteriorating and declining opportunities in Munich, Le Beau took up residence in Wiesbaden, beginning her opera Hadumoth and a piano concerto while also offering lessons in music theory in voice. During this time, her music began being played outside of Europe, with performances in Sydney and Istanbul – a remarkable feat given the obstacles all women composers of the 19th century faced.

Five years later, she relocated again to Berlin, where she completed both pieces, studied music history at the Royal Library, and continued her teaching activities. While in Berlin, she was also nominated for a position at the Royal School of Music, but it was not granted, as the position was not given to women.

In 1893, Le Beau and her family moved again, this time to Baden-Baden. Around the turn of the century, she wrote several more important works, including a symphony and the tone poem “Hohenbaden”. After her mother’s death in 1900, Le Beau’s output decreased, although she completed an unpublished string quintet and an opera, “The Enchanted Caliph.”

In 1903, Le Beau essentially ceased her music career. From 1906 to 1910, she lived in Italy, publishing an autobiography, “Memoirs of a Female Composer.” After returning to Baden-Baden, she once again became involved in music, appearing occasionally as a concert pianist and writing reviews for a local newspaper; on her 75th birthday, she gave a concert of her own compositions.

Two years later, in 1927, Le Beau passed away. The city of Baden-Baden named its music library after her, and in 2004, a memorial plaque was installed at her former residence in the city, Lichtenaler Straße 46.

Overall, Luise Adolpha Le Beau is one of the most underappreciated female composers of the Romantic era. In total, she wrote over a hundred works, including pieces for piano solo, chamber compositions, symphonic poems, choral works, and operas – not to mention her distinguished career as a pianist!

I will leave you with a recording of Le Beau’s enjoyable piano concerto, completed during her time in Wiesbaden and Berlin.

Thank you again for reading!

Pancho Vladigerov and the Bulgarian classical tradition

Like those of Japan and the Caucasus, many composers from Eastern Europe are often overlooked in present-day repertoire. Today, we’ll look at the work of probably the most influential Bulgarian composer, Pancho Vladigerov.

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Pancho Vladigerov (Wikipedia)

Although born in Switzerland, Vladigerov moved back to Bulgaria with his family at a young age. Interestingly, he was first cousin to the renowned Russian writer Boris Pasternak, who began as a distinguished pianist (even writing a Scriabin-influenced one-movement piano sonata) before starting his literary career. At the age of eleven, two years after his father’s premature death, Vladigerov began studying with the composer Dobri Hristov in Sofia.

In his late teens, Vladigerov moved on a governmental scholarship to Berlin, where he attended a conservatory run by the German Academy of Arts. There, he twice won the prestigious Mendelssohn Prize. After graduation, he worked at the Deutsches Theater, collaborating with the well-known theater director Max Reinhardt. During his time in Berlin, Vladigerov gained fame after many of his works were published by Universal Edition in Vienna and recorded under the Deutsche Grammophon label. In 1932, Vladigerov returned to Sofia to teach at the State Academy of Music, which is now named for him.

Having spent much of his life in Bulgaria, Vladigerov was one of the first to combine the folk music of his country with classical traditions. He adopted this style from a very early age; one of his first notated works – the piano piece Potpourri – contains elements of folk music. Although Vladigerov’s writing developed and evolved over his career, the influence of the Bulgarian folk tradition on his work remained.

That influence is best exemplified by his most famous work, the Vardar Rhapsody. A fiery, nationalistic piece for violin and piano, the Rhapsody was dubbed by one critic as “the Bulgarian equivalent of Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major.”

This powerful work has since been adapted for a variety of different instrumentations, including piano solo and full orchestra. Bearing resemblance to the likes of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid but more passionate and expressive than the former, Vladigerov’s Vardar Rhapsody is one of several works that merits greater attention in concert programs.

Folk influence can also be seen in one of Vladigerov’s most expansive compositions, his first symphony. Written in 1950 based on a Jewish tune taught by his grandfather, the symphony won Vladigerov the Dimitrov Prize, the highest award given to Bulgarian artists.

Vladigerov’s first symphony seamlessly combines the folk tunes of his youth with more modern harmonies and orchestration, creating an orchestral sound distinct from that of his contemporaries.

Vladigerov is also known for writing a number of concerti, comprising two for violin five for piano. While less influenced by folk traditions and harmonically less complex than others working in the same time period, Vladigerov’s piano concerti are interesting and enjoyable works that are not often performed.

In addition to his two symphonies and concerti, Vladigerov wrote extensively for solo piano, a number of chamber works (introducing the violin sonata and piano trio to Bulgaria), fifty concert arrangements of folk songs, ten choral songs, and a plethora of incidental music for the theater. Vladigerov’s son Alexander was also a notable composer in his own right, writing a set of variations on the Bulgarian folk song “Dilmano, Dilbero”.

As usual, thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to follow my blog.

(All information taken from Wikipedia and a doctoral thesis from Rice University.)

Traditional music and modern harmonies: the composers of Azerbaijan

I’m taking final exams next week, so this post is a few days late – my regular schedule will resume starting from my next entry.

Today, I’ll be taking a look at another non-European country, one whose composers are rarely performed in the US today – Azerbaijan. Originating from a country with rich musical traditions (both ethnic and classical), Azerbaijani composers usually tended to adapt forms of traditional music for orchestra or alternatively worked in the somewhat dissonant vein of 20th-century classical music.

Until the 20th century, there had been no operas written and performed in the Islamic world, but that changed in 1908 with Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s “Leyli and Majnun”. Hajibeyov was the first Azerbaijani composer and is thus considered the father of classical music in the country. Several years later, in 1936, the first symphony by an Azerbaijani was written, the first of eight by Jovdat Hajiyev.

Born five years after Hajiyev in 1922, the first Azerbaijani composer to achieve worldwide renown was Fikret Amirov.

Fikret Amirov (source: Wikipedia)

Amirov grew up around music – his father, Mashadi Amirov, not only was a well-regarded singer and performer on the tar (a traditional lute), but also wrote one of the first operas by an Azerbaijani composer, Seyfal mulk. Perhaps most importantly, Amirov’s father was an expert in mugam, a traditional art form that combined poetry and musical improvisation.

In his teenage years, Amirov primarily composed for the piano, entering a local music college before moving on to the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire. After being drafted into the Soviet army and wounded in World War II, Amirov returned to composition. Around this time, Amirov began the work for which he is most remembered, transforming the Azerbaijani art of mugam into a new classical genre, symphonic mugam. Some of his most famous works are in this genre, such as “Shur” (1946) and “Kurd Ovshari” (1949) – which together won him the USSR state prize.

Because of my current schedule, I don’t have the time to analyze “Shur”, but (as usual) I have included a recording of it below.

Thanks to his innovations, Amirov became a relatively well-known composer in the classical world of the mid-20th century; several of his works been performed by renowned orchestras and conductors from that period, such as the Houston Symphony under Leopold Stokowski.

Since Amirov wrote “Shur”, his first symphonic mugam, the genre has been expanded by a number of his compatriots, such as Vagif Mustafazadeh and Hajibeyov’s nephew Niyazi. Furthermore, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, a contemporary composer who combines mugam and 20th-century techniques, has had her works performed by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, Hilary Hahn, and the Kronos Quartet.

Other composers, while still influenced by the melodies of Azerbaijan, preferred to delve into the prevalent styles of classical music at the time. Two composers who exemplified this idiom are Vasif Adigezalov and Gara Garayev. Both of these composers were fairly prolific and have a number of works available on YouTube, but I am including video of a composition I have listened to on several occasions – Garayev’s 24 Preludes for piano.

For me, Garayev’s preludes hit exactly the right balance in a piano piece – neither too heavy and brooding nor too lighthearted, neither wholly tonal nor wholly atonal – giving the listener a pleasant experience through all 45-plus minutes. If anyone is looking for an interesting set of piano works to play, I would highly recommend looking at Garayev – especially in Europe, where much of his work is now in the public domain.

Before I finish this post, I’d like to highlight a few other Azerbaijanis who also deserve mentions here, including a number of notable women composers. Haji Khanmammadov, a student of Garayev, wrote the first concerti for the traditional string instruments tar and kamancheh; in 1974, with the opera “Galin gayasi”, Shafiga Akhundova became the first female composer of an operatic work in the East. Finally, Elmira Nazirova is mostly remembered as the subject of the “Elmira” theme in Shostakovich’s 10th symphony but is a notable composer in her own right, writing a “piano concerto on Arabian themes” with Amirov and (from what limited information I have) at least three string quartets.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this post, feel free to leave a follow so you can stay up to date with my blog. Until next time!

Takashi Yoshimatsu: Romanticism for the 21st century

I have many gripes about the classical music typically played in concert halls today, but one of the most significant is that non-white and/or non-male composers are often overlooked. As a result, several of my posts, such as today’s, will highlight composers from non-Western countries as well as women composers.

Japan has produced many composers with varying styles and ideas, but perhaps only Toru Takemitsu has achieved significant renown in the classical world. Today, I’ll discuss another name in classical composition today: the criminally underappreciated (and underperformed) Takashi Yoshimatsu, born in Tokyo in 1953.

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Takashi Yoshimatsu (source: http://yoshim.music.coocan.jp/)

In comparison to the previous centuries, today’s classical music is shorter, more spontaneous, and more dissonant, tending towards producing effects that are unexpected to the human ear. The Romanticism of the 19th and early 20th centuries is often considered out of date and unfitting in the 21st. However, Yoshimatsu manages to straddle this gap – he maintains the tonal harmonies of earlier times while incorporating modern extended techniques, particularly in his larger orchestral works.

Perhaps the best proof of Yoshimatsu’s concept is his piano concerto, titled “Memo Flora”. According to Yoshimatsu, “the words ‘Memo Flora’ were written by the poet Kenji Miyazawa on the cover of a notebook that contained notes for a diagram of the placement of flowers (melody) in a flowerbed (score).”

As in almost all piano concerti, the piano interacts with the orchestra, taking the melody at times and less prominent at others. However, instead of aiming to dazzle the listener and show the full range and virtuosity of the instrument, Yoshimatsu’s work creates much more synergy between the piano and its supporting cast.

This synergy is created through both the instrumentation and the way Yoshimatsu utilizes harmony. Instead of a large orchestra, which can include close to 100 instruments, Yoshimatsu writes for a smaller chamber orchestra and entirely omits the trombone and tuba. This creates a much more intimate atmosphere, and removing the harsher tones of the low brass also increases the subtlety and warmth of the orchestral accompaniment. Harmonically, the shifting key of the music keeps the listener interested, while the frequent use of intervals such as fourths and sevenths adds color.

Within this environment, the piano is much more connected to the orchestra, giving the music a “flow” not found in many other concerti. Yoshimatsu’s use of repeated motifs, a constant theme in his work, and the piano’s variations on those motifs add to the concerto’s connectedness.

Overall, Yoshimatsu’s “Memo Flora” piano concerto is one of the most pleasant works I have ever listened to and belongs to a style distinct from both his contemporaries and composers from the previous few centuries. Although it has been recorded a few times before, this concerto deserves to be heard far more than it is now, and it certainly would not sound out of place in any concert hall.

Although I am focusing on only his piano concerto for this post, Yoshimatsu has far more works that deserve greater attention. I will leave you with a few of his six symphonies, many of which are very “earthy” in tone and use existing orchestral instruments in innovative ways to create fresh sounds.

Many other works by Yoshimatsu, such as his cello concerto, trombone concerto, and his other four symphonies, are available on YouTube. Whether you’re actively listening or doing homework, I would encourage everyone to listen to more of his work!

(All non-original material, including Yoshimatsu’s description of the Memo Flora concerto, is from the composer’s website, http://yoshim.music.coocan.jp.)

New music for the 21st century