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Subject: ‘Famous Composers’

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Wotan’s farewell to Brunnhilde in Wagner’s ‘Die Walkure’

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Wotan's farewell,  picture, image, illustration
Wotan's farewell to Brunnhilde in Wagner's 'Die Walkure' by Konrad Dielitz

In Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Die Walkure’, Brunnhilde, favourite daughter of Wotan, defies her father’s command and tries to protect Siegmund the Walsung in his battle with Hunding. Wotan, however, ensures the outcome of this fight and sees that Hunding stabs Siegmund to death. After Brunnhilde has gathered up the shattered fragments of the Walsung’s sword, Nothung, she hurries away in order to give them to Sieglinde, pregnant with Siegmund’s child, the future hero, Siegfried. Wotan pursues her, and after a lengthy argument punishes her by removing her divine powers, and puts her into a deep sleep on a mountain peak. “Leb’ wohl” he sings, in the famous ‘Farewell’ scene for which Wagner composed some of his most intensely moving music. She has begged him to make sure that only a hero can claim her, so Wotan surrounds the rocky eminence with fire to test any future adventurer. It will be Siegfried who finally crosses those flames to take Brunnhilde for his bride.

Many more pictures relating to opera can be found at the Look and learn picture library.

Verdi’s ‘Aida’: On the banks of the Nile, near the Temple of Isis

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Aida act three,  picture, image, illustration
Aida and Radames sing a love duet in Act III of Verdi's 'Aida' by William de Leftwich Dodge

In Act III of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, the heroine is torn between her love for Radames, the Captain of the Egyptian Guard, and her father and countrymen, who are anxious to discover where and when the Egyptian army will attack the Ethiopians. The captive Aida, a princess of Ethiopia disguised as a slave girl, finds herself faced with a terrible dilemma. She and Radames sing a love duet on the banks of the Nile, the spectacular setting for the Third Act of this grandest of grand operas, which was composed for Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt.

Many more pictures relating to opera can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Mozart’s Commendatore asks Don Giovanni to repent

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Don Giovanni,  picture, image, illustration
The statue of the Commendatore visits Don Giovanni at the end of Mozart's opera buffa, by William de Leftwich Dodge

In the penultimate scene of Act II of Mozart’s opera buffa ‘Don Giovanni’, the dissolute Don has had a splendid meal served for him by Leporello, with pastiche C18 popular music provided by an onstage band. Donna Elvira enters and forgives him his sins, only asking that he change his ways to save his soul. His characteristic mockery drives her away, but her terrible screams disturb the party atmosphere, and when the Don answers heavy knocking at the door, he is horrified to see the statue of the dead Commendatore. “Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m’invitasti”, sings the phantom, and when the irrepressible Don refuses to repent, the statue drags him screaming down to the bowels of the earth and Hell itself.

Many more pictures relating to opera can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Sir Henry Wood and the invisible pianists

Posted in Famous artists, Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music, Oddities on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Henry Wood concert,  picture, image, illustration
Sir Henry Wood and the invisible pianists

A remarkable concert was recently held at Queen’s Hall, where a ‘Pianola’ Piano (‘Duo-Art’ Reproducing Model) – untouched by human hands – played Harold Bauer’s interpretation of Saint-Saens’ Concerto in G minor, accompanied by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under the direction of Sir Henry J. Wood. It adequately accompanied Miss Carrie Tubb in vocal numbers, and Mr William Murdoch in a pianoforte duet. Pianoforte recordings by Paderewski, Madame Chaminade, Busoni and Pachmann were also given, the latter listening to his own playing from a seat in the stalls.

Many more pictures relating to London entertainments can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

A foundling boy assists at a performance of Handel’s Messiah

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Institutions, London, Music, Philanthropy on Saturday, 1 February 2014

This edited article about the Foundling Hospital first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

 The Chapel in the Foundling Hospital,  picture, image, illustration
The Chapel in the Foundling Hospital where Handel's Messiah was performed

Pinned to the grubby, cotton smock of a small boy, left by his pauper parents to toddle homelessly through the filthy streets of 18th century London, was a torn strip of paper bearing the words, “Necessity knows no laws.”

Who was he? Nobody knows, but a kind passerby saw him sleeping in a doorway and took him to a foundling hospital in St. Pancras. This was started by Captain Thomas Coram, especially for deserted children like this young lad.

Sometimes, the children taken here were named after the parish in which they were found. Others were given the name of a famous churchman, soldier or scholar.

Our foundling might have become John Finsbury, Oliver Cromwell or Isaac Newton. But it so happened that one of the governors had been to the theatre on the evening before the child’s arrival and been so impressed by a play by William Shakespeare that he decided to give the lad Shakespeare’s name.

By the time he was ten William, for that is what he was called, had shown little talent for writing. But the governors were not unduly worried. A boy given the name of John Milton had become an excellent chimney sweep and another called Geoffrey Chaucer was doing well as a carpenter.

William’s talents, if they existed at all, appeared to be musical. He had a good ear and a pleasant voice, and when he was put among the blind foundlings to learn an instrument, he quickly mastered the fife.

The governors marked him down for a career in His Majesty’s Armed Forces as a musician. But first they sent him to the organist, Mr. Smith, to help with the preparations for the annual performance of “Messiah” composed by George Frederick Handel.

Mr. Handel was very interested in the hospital in which William found himself. This was because Captain Thomas Coram, who had started it, had practically beggared himself to keep it going.

Fortunately, a number of prominent people, like Handel, came to its aid. In 1749, Handel offered to put on a concert in aid of their funds. The governors accepted the offer eagerly. The event was so successful that it was repeated. Handel was made a governor and presented the chapel with an organ. His former pupil and secretary, John Christopher Smith, became organist and performed “Messiah” there annually.

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Mikhail Glinka’s musical nationalism inspired Russia’s ‘Mighty Handful’

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Wednesday, 13 November 2013

This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 456 published on 10 October 1970.

Glinka, picture, image, illustration
Mikhail Glinka's landmark Russian opera, La Vie pour le Czar

Can music sound “national”? Is there such a thing as a distinctly British or Russian tune? Are there composers who truly reflect the spirit of their country in their music? Even if they cannot read a note of music, most people recognise the tune of “God Save the Queen” when they hear it, for it is the British National Anthem, and is heard on innumerable occasions. But it is only one among a number of songs which are considered typically British, such as “Rule, Britannia,” “Land of Hope and Glory,” and many sea-shanties, all of which have for years been highlights of the last night of the famous “Proms” at the Albert Hall.

It is difficult to say what it is that makes these songs so British in feeling. The words, no doubt, have played their part, as have the occasions when they are sung, but there is something about the music, too, which makes it as British as the Union Jack.

One of the interesting things about music is that it has this power to express the mood, and even the very character, of the nation for which it is written, and to stir up patriotic feelings in that nation when it is played. An exiled Scot thrills to the sound of the bagpipes; the Welsh can be moved to tears by the strains of “Land of my Fathers,” while the French are always stirred by the strains of the “Marseillaise.”

In different countries there have been times when this national spirit has taken a musical form, and inspired a composer, or even a “school” of composers, to write music in which the spirit of their nation is clearly expressed. Sometimes these composers have used the simple folk-songs of their fellow-countrymen as themes for their own works; sometimes they have used music to create sound-pictures of the actual countryside which they know and love so well. Dvorak, a native of the country which we now call Czechoslovakia, is an example of the first sort. He recalls in his music the songs and dances of the Bohemian peasants. Sibelius, Finland’s greatest composer, is an example of the second; in his music the gloom and grandeur of Finnish lakes and forests seems to be re-created in sound.

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Franz Schubert and the exquisite art of song

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music on Wednesday, 13 November 2013

This edited article about originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 455 published on 3 October 1970.

Schubert, picture, image, illustration
Franz Schubert by Neville Dear

The human voice is the oldest of musical instruments, and many musicians say it is still the finest. It has been used to produce music in the form of song, for all sorts of occasions. There are battle-songs and love-songs; marching songs and hunting songs; lullabies, nursery rhymes, carols, sea shanties, and dozens of other forms of song.

Although people in every century and all countries have found an important place in their lives for singing, there have also been times and places in which particular kinds of song have been specially popular, and exceptionally well composed and performed. The Troubadours, who in the Middle Ages travelled Western Europe and sang at the courts of kings, were famous for their singing of songs of love and war. In Tudor times, every educated English man or woman was expected to be able to take a part in the madrigals written by composers of that time. In America during the last century, the sorrows of the slaves produced the “Negro Spirituals” and folk songs, which are known and loved the world over.

Perhaps the greatest city of song is Vienna, and the greatest age of it there was the first quarter of the 19th century, when Franz Schubert wrote songs by the hundred before he died at the early age of thirty-one. He is almost certainly the greatest composer of song who ever lived, and songs written by him have been performed by singers of international fame ever since they first came from his pen. Today they are recorded and broadcast throughout the world.

If Vienna was always a city of song, in Schubert’s day it was especially so. A place for artists and poets, of wealthy noblemen and talented ladies, it was a delightful city in which to be born, and grow up, and, as Schubert did, to lead a gay and boisterous life among high-spirited companions. The son of a schoolmaster of musical tastes, Schubert had a good education, which included lessons on the violin and piano, as well as training as a chorister in the choir of the famous Church of St. Stephen at Vienna. But from the time when he left school Schubert can only be said to have worked spasmodically in regular jobs. He soon tired of school-teaching at his father’s school, for he was one of those people whom we call “a born musician.” Having learned all that he needed to know of the musician’s craft during his schooldays, music became his constant delight and pursuit for the rest of his short life. He had some wealthy friends; one, especially, Franz von Schober, who often helped with his living expenses, including his increasingly heavy wine bills. So Schubert was able to spend the greater part of his time walking in the parks, sitting in the cafes, reading volumes of German poetry, and listening to the witty and intelligent conversation of his circle of friends.

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The invention of the pianoforte inspired some peerless poets of the keyboard

Posted in Famous Composers, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Music on Tuesday, 12 November 2013

This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 454 published on 26 September 1970.

Frederic Chopin, picture, image, illustration
Frederic Chopin composing his Preludes from a painting by Lionello Balesteieri

The year was 1747, and in the royal palace of King Frederick the Great at Potsdam there stood a new-fangled instrument called a piano-forte – what most of us today just call “a piano.” It was one of several which the king had recently bought, for he was interested in all kinds of music, and could play the flute as well as any court musician.

This was a special day. The king’s old favourite, Johann Sebastian Bach – the greatest musician of the age, and perhaps of any age – was coming to try one of these new instruments. Bach was now over sixty years old, and like most people as they get older, he was very suspicious of anything new. He had tried one of these “piano-fortes” before, and did not like it. The quality of the sound it produced was uneven when compared with the familiar harpsichord, and he did not like the way a player’s wrists, elbows, and even shoulders, affected the way he played. A good harpsichord player could get all the effects he needed with three fingers of each hand only! This new instrument, in which little felt-covered hammers struck the strings when the keys were pressed, and produced a remarkable “singing” sound, did not please Bach at all. But to satisfy the king he had to show some interest in it.

The pianoforte was, in fact, invented too late for Bach to enjoy it, and to write music for it as he might have done, for he died only a year after that visit to Potsdam. But from that time the new instrument gradually took the place of older keyboard instruments, like the harpsichord and clavichord, and this must certainly be counted as a milestone in music.

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The mausoleum erected in Westminster Abbey, London, at the funeral of Queen Mary II

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, London, Music, Royalty on Monday, 28 October 2013

Monument to Mary II, picture, image, illustration
The mausoleum erected in Westminster Abbey at the funeral obsequies of Queen Mary II.

Queen Mary II was the joint Sovereign with her Dutch Protestant husband, William of Orange. She was reviled and vilified by the Jacobites as a self-serving disobedient daughter who had deposed her own father to gain the English throne for her husband and herself; but her loyal subjects thought she was capable, honourable and worthy of comparisons with Elizabeth I. She was modest and diffident, however, unlike her great Tudor predecessor, and was happy to defer to her husband, whom she adored. For his part, William willingly entrusted her with the business of constitutional monarchy when he was otherwise engaged, and was utterly grief-stricken when she died in 1694. She had contracted smallpox late in that year, and isolated herself to prevent the spread of the disease. The end came three days after Christmas in the early hours of 28 December, and the King took the news very badly. That winter was particularly severe, and the Thames froze over as the capital mourned its Queen. Indeed, her death was a shock to the whole country and public grief was widespread. Her embalmed body lay in state beneath the great Rubens ceiling of Banqueting House, Whitehall, built by her great-grandfather, James I, to designs by Inigo Jones. She was buried at Westminster Abbey on the 5 March before both Houses of Parliament. It was for this national ceremony that England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell, wrote one of his finest masterpieces, ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’. The monument pictured was erected for those same solemn funeral obsequies.

Many more pictures relating to London’s monuments can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The enigmatic Edward Elgar captured the spirit of England

Posted in Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Religion on Friday, 11 October 2013

This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 423 published on 21 February 1970.

Edward Elgar, picture, image, illustration
Edward Elgar, and the window in Worcester Cathedral based on his Dream of Gerontius by Angus McBride

One evening in the summer of 1897 Edward Elgar was in his living-room, idly strumming on the piano. His wife, who was sitting opposite to him, suddenly looked up from her book and asked him what it was he was playing. “Nothing,” he replied vaguely. “But I dare say something might be made of it.” At that stage in his musical career Elgar was regarded as a minor composer – someone whose talent was unlikely to blossom into genius.

Elgar – the son of a Worcester organist and music-seller – was all too aware of this. At the age of forty he was dissatisfied with both his work and his reputation. Although he was a competent violinist, he had given up the instrument in favour of the more demanding life of a composer. Several of his early pieces – including the overture Froissart – had been very popular, but he despised their easy success.

So, when his wife praised the unusual melody he had improvised, he decided to use it as the basis for a larger, more ambitious work. When the piece was finished he dedicated it: “To my friends pictured within” – saying that the thirteen variations on the theme were how he imagined some of those closest to him would have written the music.

He called the work the Enigma Variations, and revelled in the controversy which it aroused. Musicians all over Britain tried to solve the riddle of the mysterious and unheard theme. Time and again they failed to do so, and Elgar himself refused to help them.

As Elgar had hoped it would, the Variations established him as the most important English composer since Purcell, who had died just over two hundred years before. By now Elgar was displaying a spiritual turn of mind, which led him to compose his great oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, a setting of Cardinal Newman’s religious poem.

The oratorio was first performed in 1900 at the Birmingham Festival, where it enjoyed only a limited success. Due to lack of rehearsals and the poor quality of the choir it was not heard to full advantage, but the more discerning critics realised that they were witnessing the birth pains of a masterpiece.

During his long career Elgar was known as the most British of composers, and after leaving religious music for a while he produced his two deeply patriotic Pomp and Circumstance marches – the first of which set a Coronation Ode to Edward VII and became generally loved as Land of Hope and Glory.

When he died in 1934, Sir Edward Elgar had taken his place at the forefront of modern musicians. Today his symphonies, violin and cello concertos, and chamber music are still as widely played as his music was at the beginning of the century.