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Subject: ‘Famous Composers’
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Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Wednesday, 9 January 2013
This edited article about Gioacchino Rossini originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 811 published on 30th July 1977.
In Rome in 1816, the first night of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” was a dismal failure. This was because another opera of the same name by a popular composer was already in existence and much admired.
Twenty-four-year-old Gioacchino Rossini did not bother next day to attend the second performance of his new work. In the middle of the night, however, he was roused from his bed by a huge, cheering crowd outside the window: Rome had changed its mind and was now demonstrating its approval of Rossini’s masterpiece of opera buffa (comic opera).
Gioacchino Antonio Rossini was born in Pesaro in 1792. His father had a rather unusual combination of jobs, that of Town Trumpeter and Inspector of Slaughter Houses.
Papa Rossini evidently had no intention of his son following in his musical footsteps; Gioacchino had very little musical instruction, apart from being taught to sing properly.
Fate took a hand, however. The unlucky Town Trumpeter ran foul of the local authorities when Napoleon invaded Italy. He was thought by them to sympathise with the French and was thrown into jail.
His wife, who sang well, decided she must support the family and became an opera singer. Through her Gioacchino too became interested in opera and vowed to become an operatic composer.
He studied musical composition and almost at once began composing music which deeply impressed his teachers.
Before he was 21, he was the rage of Venice. Then he went on to Naples and to Rome, where he wrote “The Barber of Seville” – in a fortnight!
Travelling between Naples, Rome and Milan, Rossini became rich and famous and set about enjoying himself in between writing operas. Everything he wrote seemed blessed with success.
“La Cenerentola”, an opera which has enjoyed new popularity in recent years, “The Lady of the Lake” and “The Thieving Magpie”, were some of the works written at the time.
Rossini now made the grand European tour that many great composers embarked upon. Usually, as he arrived in each new country, one of his operas was being performed in its capital city.
In Vienna Rossini met Beethoven. In London he sang duets with King George IV. And in Paris he wrote “William Tell”, an opera for which he was awarded the Legion of Honour.
This opera, which has since rivalled “The Barber of Seville” for popularity, was performed five hundred times in Paris in Rossini’s lifetime.
He was now 37 and had written more than thirty operas in 19 years. The name of Rossini was famed throughout the world.
But, after “William Tell”, he wrote no more operas. At this brilliant point in his career he laid down his pen and scarcely composed another note for the rest of his long life.
There were several reasons for this. First, he thought that musical tastes were changing and moving away from his kind of music.
Secondly, he was rich and famous and there was no need for him to compose. Thirdly, he had already overworked; his health began to decline and he suffered from a nervous complaint.
He went back to live in Pesaro for a time and then moved to Paris where he remained for many years. He died in November 1868 after a forty-year “retirement”.
Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Wednesday, 9 January 2013
This edited article about Hector Berlioz originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 810 published on 23rd July 1977.
The French composer Hector Berlioz was described by those who knew him as “violent, naive, unreasonable, ungoverned, but, above all, sincere.” He was certainly a fiery man. Once when an orchestra he was conducting misinterpreted his instructions he threw the music at it.
And his shouted interruptions from the audience, when players misread their music during concerts which he was attending, made him famous in Paris.
While he was staying in Italy at one time, he received a letter from his fiancee’s mother, telling him that her daughter was about to marry another man.
Berlioz set off for home at once, determined to kill the man, his fiancee and her mother. He took with him the costume of a servant girl to disguise himself when he reached France, in case they heard he was on his way.
Luckily for his victims, he lost his disguise en route and, while waiting for a new one at Nice, his temper cooled. He returned to Rome.
Nevertheless, his journey was not wasted for on it he composed overtures for “King Lear”, “The Corsair” and “Rob Roy”.
Berlioz’s music was part of the romantic movement in France, which encompassed all art forms. Romantic music is that which stirs the emotions and the imagination, and the work of Berlioz is a prime example of it.
Like his music, Berlioz was incurably romantic. In 1827, when a British company presented Shakespeare in Paris, he fell madly in love with an Irish actress, Harriet Smithson.
Frantically Berlioz wrote music to attract Miss Smithson’s attention. But she never even knew he existed until the day before she left France.
Six years later Berlioz invited her to a concert in Paris. After the concert she agreed to see him, and soon afterwards they were married.
Berlioz made his reputation with two major works, the symphonies “Harold in Italy”, inspired by a poem of Lord Byron’s, and “Romeo and Juliet”, inspired by the sight of Harriet in Shakespeare’s play.
When the gifted Italian violinist, Niccolo Paganini, heard “Harold in Italy” he sent Berlioz 20,000 francs, money which the composer needed desperately. The grateful composer wished to thank his benefactor by dedicating “Romeo and Juliet” to him, but Paganini died before the work was finished.
After the death of Harriet in 1854, Berlioz married Marie Recio, a singer. Marie died in 1862, and almost until his own death in March 1869, Berlioz was unsuccessfully proposing marriage to an elderly widow, named Estelle.
Poor Berlioz – ever the romantic. He had first met Estelle when he was twelve and she was eighteen – ever since, he confessed, he had been in love with her!
Like many great men Berlioz was not really appreciated in his own land until after his death, although his work had gained a large following in other parts of Europe.
Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 8 January 2013
This edited article about Charles Gounod originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 809 published on 16th July 1977.
Faust makes a pact with the Devil in Gounod’s grand opera, Faust
, by Andrew Howat
Charles Gounod, one of the kindliest and most sensitive men in the history of French music, was born in Paris in 1818. He inherited his artistic sensitivity from his father who was a talented painter, and from his mother, a fine musician.
As a boy he was uncertain whether to become an artist or a musician. Eventually Charles decided to make music his career.
While studying music at the Paris Conservatory, Charles won the coveted Rome Prize in 1839 and spent several years in Italy. He was especially inspired by the sacred music he heard in the Sistine Chapel.
When he returned to Paris he took up a position as an organist. In 1851 a “Solemn Mass” composed by Gounod was performed in London, bringing his name to the forefront in the musical world.
That same year his first opera, “Sappho”, was put on in Paris. Other operas followed, all possessing lyric charm and lively tunefulness. But he revealed comparatively little ability as a dramatist.
In March, 1859, however, Gounod’s opera “Faust” made its first public appearance at the Theatre Lyrique, Paris.
It astonished the world and there were many people who doubted that it was really Gounod’s work.
True, Gounod’s gift for flowing melody abounds in this great opera; but it is also one of the most vividly dramatic of all musical dramas.
In style, too, “Faust” differed from anything that had yet appeared in French opera, revealing more kinship with the stronger German “Wagner-like” school of music.
Even fifty years after the first performance, the controversy still smouldered, and certain people who claimed to have known Gounod well, stated that the composer had stolen the score from a young genius who had died in a lunatic asylum.
In the light of today’s greater knowledge, it is apparent that Gounod’s inspiration for “Faust” came from his visits to German masters, like Mendelssohn and Schumann, and his careful study of their music.
Nevertheless, Gounod did not again rise to the dramatic heights he revealed in “Faust”. The operas that followed were exquisitely tuneful and elegant. They revealed the firm construction gained from his study of the German composers. But that sudden, vivid surge of stage mastery which helped to place “Faust” among the most important of French operas is absent.
As he grew older, Charles Gounod became absorbed in writing religious oratorios and other music for the church.
His work had a powerful effect on French music – many great composers were indebted to his genius. Today, his operas are rather overshadowed by those of his contemporary, Wagner. But to be the composer of “Faust” is alone enough to ensure Charles Gounod a lasting place among the masters of music.
Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music on Thursday, 3 January 2013
This edited article about Otto Klemperer originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 803 published on 4th June 1977.
Beethoven was Klemperer’s musical god. Picture by Ralph Bruce
Otto Klemperer, who was to become the greatest Beethoven conductor of the post-war era, was only four years old when he first saw the sinister and mysterious black dog which was to haunt him for the rest of his accident-prone life.
One afternoon in the summer of 1889, he was walking with his parents through the streets of his home town of Breslau in Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), when a large black dog suddenly dashed up to him and jumped on to his shoulders. The youngster fell to the ground crying, and Klemperer later stated:
“Since then, I have always been frightened of dogs. Again and again, in various forms. I have seen this black dog, or ones very much like it, shortly before disaster has struck at me and at my private and professional life.”
Altogether, there were to be four grave and sometimes almost fatal accidents to the conductor before he came to the end of his long and memorable career – what a music critic called “a Job-like succession of misfortunes.” However, it was to be many years before Otto Klemperer again saw the black dog, or a “duplicate” of it, after that first frightening occasion in Breslau.
Later that year his father, an unsuccessful businessman, moved the family to Hamburg, and it was there that young Otto received his musical education. Academically, he afterwards called himself “basically uneducated.” But there was no denying his talent for music.
In 1906, when he was aged twenty-one, he gained an introduction to the great Bohemian composer, Gustav Mahler, who scribbled a note on one of his visiting cards and gave it to Klemperer. The note said: “Gustav Mahler recommends Herr Klemperer as an outstandingly good musician. In spite of his youth he is already experienced and is pre-destined for the career of a conductor.”
However, the visiting card did not immediately open the doors to musical recognition and success. Klemperer look the precious card to some dozen theatres and opera houses in Central Europe, where he was invariably turned away before he could even show the directors what he could do.
At last, he landed a job at Berlin’s Neues Theater as chorus-master, deputy-director, and stand-by conductor. His first important assignment was to conduct the gay Offenbach operetta, “Orpheus in the Underworld”, which he did some fifty times – “a very amusing occupation,” he said afterwards.
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Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music on Wednesday, 2 January 2013
This edited article about Sir Henry Wood originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 802 published on 28th May 1977.
Sir Henry Wood
In London, in the summer of 1895, the call went out for a very special kind of conductor. He had to be young, good-looking, and have plenty of personality. An expert knowledge of music was, of course, essential. But the most important quality of all was a love of young people, and the desire to bring all the great symphonies, concertos, and oratorios to them.
The opportunity to hear such music had been denied the capital’s youngsters throughout the 1890s, when only the middle-aged and well-to-do could afford to visit the various concert halls. The manager of one such place, Robert Newman of the Queen’s Hall, near Oxford Circus, was determined to provide what he called “music for everyone”, and so he re-introduced the idea of Promenade Concerts, or “Proms”.
Tickets for such “standing-room only” events would be cheap and plentiful. Their sale would be restricted to boys and girls under the age of, say twenty-five, and the music would be specially chosen to suit and to educate young tastes. The Proms were due to start that August and all that was needed was the right person to wield the baton.
Then, after a long and careful search, Mr Newman settled on a black-bearded and swarthy maestro, 26-year-old Henry Wood, who had been born of musical parents above a pub just a short distance from the Queen’s Hall.
Although he rightly claimed to be as “English as Big Ben”, Wood looked much more like the typically Bohemian type of foreign conductor. And when he was introduced to Queen Victoria three years later she asked imperiously: “Are you quite English. Mr Wood? Your appearance is rather un-English!”
However, despite his “unpatriotic” appearance, Wood recruited a full-scale symphony orchestra, and at 8 p.m. on August 10, 1895, he raised his baton in the crowded Queen’s Hall. A few seconds later the opening bars of Wagner’s Rienzi overture crashed out, and the Proms, which were to become the world’s biggest annual music festival, were under way.
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Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, London, Music on Wednesday, 2 January 2013
This edited article about Sir Thomas Beecham originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 801 published on 21st May 1977.
Sir Thomas Beecham
The Mayor of St. Helens, in Lancashire, was in what he called “a terrible fix”. He had arranged a “grand symphony concert” to mark the start of his second term of office, and the renowned Halle Orchestra, from nearby Manchester, had been engaged to play.
At the last minute, however, its conductor, the Hungarian-born Hans Richter, fell ill and couldn’t be on the rostrum. What, wondered the Mayor, Sir Joseph Beecham, was to be done? Who could possibly step in at this late stage and take over the orchestra?
The answer seemed to be “no one”, and it looked as if the heavily-booked concert would have to be cancelled. Then the Mayor’s son, twenty-year-old Thomas Beecham, approached his worried father. “Don’t panic, dad,” he said calmly. “I’ll conduct the Halle tonight!”
For a moment Sir Joseph thought his son was joking. Then, remembering that Tommy already ran an amateur orchestra in the town and was “dead set” on being a fully-blown conductor, he reluctantly agreed to the suggestion.
“I had no other choice,” he said later, “and was filled with grave misgivings. It was one thing to conduct the town bend, consisting of off-duty clerks and shop assistants, and quite another to conduct a world-class orchestra like the Halle. But if I was fearful about the outcome, Tommy certainly was not!”
A few hours later, after young Beecham had steered, prompted and inspired the orchestra in a triumphant performance of Beethoven’s tricky Fifth Symphony, Sir Joseph readily changed his tune. Tommy had firmly placed his feet on the first rung of the ladder to musical success, and there would be no stopping him until he reached the top.
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Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music on Monday, 10 December 2012
This edited article about Joseph Haydn originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 794 published on 2nd April 1977.
Joseph Haydn grew up, lived and died a musician. He was born in the small Austrian village of Rohrau on 31st March 1732, the son of the local cartwright. When he was enrolled in a school of music at the age of six, his childhood ended and he began the serious task of becoming a musician.
Later, he was sent to another school in Vienna where he remained until he was 17. It was then that Haydn’s career as a musician received a severe set-back. The head of the school had taken a dislike to Haydn and was looking for an excuse to get rid of him.
The opportunity came when Joseph mischievously snipped off the pigtail of one of his fellow students during a class. For this offence, Joseph was caned and then expelled.
For some time, he practically starved. Then he was rescued by a friendly chorister, who found a corner for him in his garret. Later, Haydn found an attic room of his own, where he gave music lessons on a worm-eaten clavier, a keyboard instrument.
Fortunately, Haydn lived at a time when it was the fashion among the Austrian nobility to maintain their own musical establishments. He eventually came to the notice of Prince Anton Esterhazy, whose family had been connected with many of the great musicians in history. The Prince hired him as a member of his musical staff, and for the rest of Haydn’s life he remained in the service of the Esterhazy family.
Joseph Haydn was short, dark-skinned and ugly, but his grey eyes were full of kindness and good humour. They reflected something of the character which led to his being called Papa Haydn.
Joseph Haydn was undoubtedly the most prolific of composers. Operas, oratorios, symphonies, songs and chamber music flowed in rapid profusion. Although the main body of his music was composed for his patron. Prince Esterhazy, he was sometimes inspired to compose for the most unusual reasons.
On one occasion he was approached by the local butcher, who begged him to write a minuet for the wedding of his daughter. Haydn was touched by the humble earnestness of the butcher and, a few days later, presented him with the minuet. Greatly overcome by the composer’s generosity, the butcher hurried away with his prize.
But that was far from being the end of the matter. A fortnight later, Haydn was awakened by the sounds of discordant “music” being played outside. Looking out of his windows, he was amazed to see a magnificent ox, decked out with flowers and vine leaves, being led towards his front door.
Accompanying it was a band of musicians struggling – unsuccessfully – to play Haydn’s minuet. The ox was a present from the butcher.
Some of Haydn’s compositions were inspired by more dramatic events. While crossing the English Channel on the occasion of his first visit to London, he witnessed a terrible storm at sea. Watching the lightning streak across the blackness of the sky. Haydn was so impressed by its savage force that he tried to recapture something of its dramatic grandeur in parts of two of his oratorios. “The Creation” and “The Seasons”.
Haydn eventually settled in Vienna, where he lived until the end of his life. His last few months were marred by the French, who occupied the city after bombarding it.
But he had nothing to fear from the French, who greatly admired his work. When he died, they showed their respect for him by the military honours they accorded him at his funeral: the beloved Papa Haydn was laid to rest by a funeral escort of French soldiers.
Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Myth, Sea, Ships, Superstition, Theatre on Tuesday, 23 October 2012
This edited article about the Flying Dutchman originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 770 published on 16th October 1975.
A scene from Wagner;s opera, The Flying Dutchman
by Ralph Bruce
Around the year 1800 the Dutch sea captain Wilhelm Vanderdecken was taking his ship around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern extremity of Africa and originally called the Cape of Storms. The waters there are among the trickiest and most dangerous in the world, but so far on his voyage the captain had had the assistance of favourable winds.
Suddenly, however, the weather changed and a violent storm blew-up. Loath to turn back, and anxious to get his cargo of gold and precious jewels safely home to Holland, he headed straight into the storm. He swore “by all the devils” that nothing and no one would stop him.
He didn’t care about the conditions, nor about the mutinous attitude of his crew – who feared for their lives and his sanity. Before long, as the storm worsened, some of the seamen decided to take control of the ship themselves. So they attacked and killed some officers, including the first mate.
But when it came to the captain none of them had the nerve – or the foolhardiness – to use his weapons on him. Despite this, Vanderdecken had no compunction in shooting down several of the mutineers “as if they were dogs”, mindless of the bad luck this might bring him and his ship.
However, although he didn’t then know it, he had already forged his own tragic destiny when he uttered his ill-fated oath. The bodies of the dead and dying men on the deck merely added to the grimness of the scene.
From that day on the ship – soon to be known as The Flying Dutchman – was cursed to sail forever about the seven seas, hopelessly seeking sanctuary. Due to the rotting corpses plague soon broke out, and no port would allow the Dutchman to dock there.
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Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music, Religion, Royalty on Friday, 15 June 2012
This edited article about music in Handel’s England originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 727 published on 20 December 1975.
A concert at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in Handel’s time by Peter Jackson
The traffic jams were so bad that, if they occurred today, they might well make a policeman on traffic duty ask for a transfer to Land’s End and a taxi-driver to switch to market gardening! But this was April 21, 1749, and there were no police in London then, and the nearest equivalent to taxi-drivers were sweating, swearing and straining watermen ferrying hundreds across a Thames almost solid with every sort of craft. Thousands of Londoners were converging on Vauxhall Gardens.
The only bridge across the river was historic old London Bridge, still packed with houses, and with a road running between them, and that day there was a three-hour hold-up because so many carriages had arrived at the river at the same time.
But what was going on in Vauxhall Gardens to cause such chaos? Was a famous highwayman being hanged in front of legions of his admirers? Was a boxing match arranged for that evening? By no means: it was something far less lethal, a rehearsal for a concert, yes, a rehearsal, which was causing the stampede, the one work on the programme being the great Mr. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.
This stirring and stunning music was being given in the open air in preparation for its official premiere in Green Park on the 27th to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, the treaty between Britain and France having been signed the previous year. 12,000 Londoners managed to get into Vauxhall Gardens at the then considerable sum of 2/6 (12 and a half pence) a head and many more never reached the spot. 18th century Britons adored music, and, most of all, they loved the tunes of German-born George Frederic Handel, who by now had become British to the backbone.
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Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music on Thursday, 31 May 2012
This edited article about Frederick Delius originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 715 published on 27 September 1975.
Charles Bradlaugh MP and iconoclast, who so impressed the young Delius by Spy
To be forced into a clerk’s job, in the office of a wool merchant, does not sound a promising start for the career of a composer of music, but it was what happened to the Yorkshire-born, musician Frederick Delius. And Delius, whose music always sounds so very “English” had a German father, a half-Dutch mother, and a Norwegian wife, and lived most of his life in France.
The wool trade was booming in the 1880s, when Delius was a young man. There was money to be made, and his prospering father could not understand why Frederick took so little interest in the family business.
Among the hard-headed business men of Bradford, there were also some disturbing rebels, and one of these appealed to Frederick. His name was Charles Bradlaugh, and one day he stood in the centre of the city square, and in front of a large crowd, called on his creator – to strike him dead in two minutes. Young Frederick was in that crowd, and watched in breathless fascination as Charles Bradlaugh stood there, defiantly looking at his watch till the two minutes had passed without anything happening. The scene made a deep impression on the young man, and perhaps drove out the last traces of religious feeling which he had.
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