20th century’s most exciting composer

igor-stravinsky_c_jpg_681x349_crop_upscale_q95Where literature had James Joyce and the art world had Picasso, music had the genius of Igor Stravinsky. Even though it would be easy to label him a modernist, especially in the light of his more disruptive works that he composed for the Ballets Russes, he was resistant to many of the modernist ideals: he did not care much for the importance of the unconscious and the irrational, and considered avant-garde movements such as futurism quite risible. We can place him in the same category as T.S. Eliot, as both were well-versed in literary/musical tradition and well aware of the current avant-garde movements, but maintained quite a conservative approach to novelty. This is particularly true in Stravinsky’s case: after spending the 1910s innovating the symphonic music panorama, he retreated to the realm of Greek mythology, neoclassicism and sacred music.

Edvard Grieg was born on 15th June

edvard-grieg-2He is best known for his Piano Concerto in A minor and Peer Gynt. Grieg appears to have dedicated himself to establishing single-handedly a national identity for classical music in Norway. Writing to his American biographer, Henry Finck once explained:”The traditional way of life of the Norwegian people, together with Norway’s legends, Norway’s history, Norway’s natural scenery, stamped itself on my creative imagination from my earliest years.” During a visit to Copenhagen in 1862 Grieg met the young composer Rikard Nordraak, whose passionate interest in the sagas, landscape and music of his homeland inspired Grieg to take up the musical cudgels on behalf of Norway.

Sir Edward William Elgar

edward-elgar-1235641401-hero-wide-0One of the greatest English composers was born at Broadheath, a village some three miles from the small city of Worcester. The young Elgar had the great advantage of growing up in a thoroughly practical musical atmosphere. He studied the music available in his father’s shop and taught himself to play a wide variety of instruments. It is a remarkable fact that Elgar was very largely self-taught as a composer – evidence of the strong determination behind his original and unique genius. His long struggle to establish himself as a pre-eminent composer of international repute was hard and often bitter. For many years he had to contend with apathy, with the prejudices of the entrenched musical establishment, with religious bigotry, as he was a member of the Roman Catholic minority in a Protestant majority England, and with a late Victorian provincial society where class consciousness pervaded everything.

The man who reinvented the German opera

wagnerRichard Wagner was born in May of 1813. He reinvented German opera and became one of the most influential composers of all time. His reforms affected opera composition, theatrical practice in general, and the development of the orchestra. Now, the Bayreuth Festival is one of the most famous festivals in the world where only Richard Wagner’s music dramas are performed. Wagner himself conceived and promoted the idea of a special festival to showcase his own works, in particular his monumental cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. While Wagner was in exile (due to the thorny issue of his increased revolutionary activity in Dresden), he completed several key works including his opera Lohengrin. However, unable to stage the work himself, he wrote to his friend Franz Liszt in the hope of getting it produced. Not only did Liszt get the work staged, he also conducted the premiere in Weimar. Wagner later married Liszt’s daughter Cosina.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in May

csajkovszkijWith a body of work of 169 compositions, whose genres include symponies, concertos, operas, ballet, chamber music and even a choral setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Tchaikovsky composed some of the most popular theatrical music within the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer to acquire a solid reputation and career abroad, to the point that he appeared at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in New York in 1891. Tchaikovsky studied at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where he received a western-oriented teaching that set him apart from the nationalist Russian composers. However, in 1880, during commemoration ceremonies for the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, Fyodor Dostoyevsky maintained that Pushkin had voiced the need for Russia to pursue a “universal unity with the west.” Not only was Dostoyevsky’s message widely acclaimed throughout the country, but the disdain for Tchaikovsky’s music evaporated.

There can be few more evocative words in music than passion

munkacsy_golgotaAs well as its familiar English definition, in a musical context it also suggests the commemoration of that most emotive Christian story, the journey of Jesus to the cross. The passions of John and Matthew were the first to gain a place in the liturgical canon: Pope Leo the Great established that they should be presented during Holy Week as early as the 5th century AD. Performances of the passions from this time onwards appear to have developed in much the same way as religious music generally: initially the texts would have been recited or chanted by a single priest, and by the 12th century there is evidence of musical notation being used to determine pitches. Also apparent in the early sources are indications of a sense of drama: many distinguish clearly between passages relating to the Evangelist/narrator, Christ, and the crowd.

The scandal of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

stravinsky3During a late spring night of 1913, the audience that was crammed in the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées would listen to what would later be called the most relevant composition of the twentieth century: the Rite of Spring. Hired by Diaghilev from the Ballets Russes for their 1913 season, composer Igor Stravinsky had come up with what he summarized as “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”, featuring primitive rituals celebrating spring and ending with a sacrificial dance, where a young maiden dances herself to death. The famous opening melody consists of a Lithuanian folk song played at the top of the bassoon’s register, which makes it sound like a completely different instrument. Instead of graceful sequences, Nijinsky had made his dancers perform a sequence of stomping steps. The audience’s discontent kept growing from “derisive laughter to what Stravinsky described it as a “terrific uproar”, and two factions of the audience first attacked each other, then they directed their barbs to the orchestra.

The art of the prelude – Fryderyk Chopin

Fryderyk Chopin was born in Poland, west of Warsaw, on either February 22nd or March 1st 1810. Chopin was composing and writing poetry at six, and gave his first public concerto performance at the age of eight. He became a leading advocate of ‘absolute music’, producing some of the earliest Romantic pieces and arguably the finest body of solo music for the piano. In 1836 Chopin met the novelist George Sand (alias Aurore Dudevant), and so began one of the most famous love affairs in the history of music. By 1841, both sets of Chopin’s Etudes had been published. They went on to become indispensable tomes for piano students everywhere.

Orchestras and conductors: versatility is the watchword

The top slot in the list of busiest orchestras goes for the first time to the United Kingdom’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. We asked RPO Managing Director James Williams to what he attributed this:

“We focus on inclusive and versatile programming in the seven Principal Residencies we serve around the UK. We are delighted to be recognised as one of the busiest orchestras in the world. Some 305,000 people experienced the RPO live during its 2017/18 season, performing 143 concerts in the UK in addition to 35 concerts abroad.”


The rising popularity of women conductors

Of the concert conductors, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla got into the top 50 conductors despite taking four months off for maternity leave. Goodness knows how many performances she will be able to clock up in 2019! A newcomer to the conductor list is Karina Canellakis, an American of Greek and Russian origin. She takes up the baton at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in September and as winner of the Critics’ Circle Emerging Talent award is definitely one to watch.

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