unmusical

a collection of history and stories behind music throughout the ages.
~ Sunday, November 4 ~
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It is widely known that composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was very much a working man. Throughout his entire life, he composed ceaselessly, lived a thrifty lifestyle, and often argued over his lack of money through many letters to both employers and friends.
Just how “economical” was the composer, really? In one particular exchange with his cousin, Johann Elias, Bach writes about a gift of wine that Elias had sent him. Humorously, in the postscript of the letter, Bach complains about the many various fees he had to pay simply to accept the gift!

Although my honored Cousin kindly offers to oblige with more of the liqueur, I must decline his offer on account of the excessive expenses here. For since the carriage charges 16 groschen, the delivery man 2 groschen, the customs inspector 2 groschen, the inland duty 5 groschen, 3 pfennig, and the general duty 3 groschen, my honored Cousin can judge for himself that each quart costs me almost 5 groschen, which for a present is really too expensive.

It is widely known that composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was very much a working man. Throughout his entire life, he composed ceaselessly, lived a thrifty lifestyle, and often argued over his lack of money through many letters to both employers and friends.

Just how “economical” was the composer, really? In one particular exchange with his cousin, Johann Elias, Bach writes about a gift of wine that Elias had sent him. Humorously, in the postscript of the letter, Bach complains about the many various fees he had to pay simply to accept the gift!

Although my honored Cousin kindly offers to oblige with more of the liqueur, I must decline his offer on account of the excessive expenses here. For since the carriage charges 16 groschen, the delivery man 2 groschen, the customs inspector 2 groschen, the inland duty 5 groschen, 3 pfennig, and the general duty 3 groschen, my honored Cousin can judge for himself that each quart costs me almost 5 groschen, which for a present is really too expensive.

Tags: 15th century bach classical history johann elias bach johann sebastian bach letter music trivia composer
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~ Saturday, November 3 ~
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The chair of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) perhaps gained as great a reputation in the music world as the pianist himself. The 14-inch tall wooden folding chair was built in 1953 by Gould’s father, Russell Gould, for his son to use at the piano. Since then, The Chair would be a faithful companion to Gould for twenty-one years of performances and recordings.

A twenty-one year-old chair would not see good condition. In fact, Gould absolutely refused to have his chair repaired or reupholstered; the padding wore out, the legs were sawn off, and eventually only a single plank of wood was left on the seat of the chair.

Still, Gould refused to play while sitting on anything else. Everywhere the musician went, his chair went alongside him. Today, Gould’s precious folding chair, in all its glory, rests behind glass at the National Library of Canada.

Gould: It [the chair] is a boon traveling companion, without which I do not function, I cannot operate. It has been with me for 21 years.

Monsaingeon: Do you mean it’s been as close a companion to you as Bach has been in your musical career?

Gould: Oh, much closer, actually.

Tags: 20th century chair classical glenn gould history music piano performer trivia
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~ Friday, November 2 ~
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The Heiligenstadt Testament is a letter written by composer Ludwig Van Beethoven, addressed to his brothers Carl and Johann. It was written on October 6, 1802 in the Viennese village of Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven had temporarily stayed at the consent of his doctor.
In the testament, Beethoven addresses his deep depression, severe to the verge of suicide, and his frustration at his growing deafness. He suffered from a severe case of tinnitus, and his hearing showed signs of deterioration as early as in 1796. By the time Beethoven had written the testament, he had lost over 60% of his hearing. By 1816, he was completely deaf.

“I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady … I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.”

The Heiligenstadt Testament was kept hidden by Beethoven throughout his lifetime and was only discovered after his death. Even though Beethoven was clearly undergoing a period of personal crisis at the time of the letter, his brightest years as a composer were only soon to come. Like a cry of defiance towards his fate, Beethoven would stay in Heiligenstadt to begin work on his monumental 3rd symphony, “Eroica”.

The Heiligenstadt Testament is a letter written by composer Ludwig Van Beethoven, addressed to his brothers Carl and Johann. It was written on October 6, 1802 in the Viennese village of Heiligenstadt, where Beethoven had temporarily stayed at the consent of his doctor.

In the testament, Beethoven addresses his deep depression, severe to the verge of suicide, and his frustration at his growing deafness. He suffered from a severe case of tinnitus, and his hearing showed signs of deterioration as early as in 1796. By the time Beethoven had written the testament, he had lost over 60% of his hearing. By 1816, he was completely deaf.

“I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady … I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.”

The Heiligenstadt Testament was kept hidden by Beethoven throughout his lifetime and was only discovered after his death. Even though Beethoven was clearly undergoing a period of personal crisis at the time of the letter, his brightest years as a composer were only soon to come. Like a cry of defiance towards his fate, Beethoven would stay in Heiligenstadt to begin work on his monumental 3rd symphony, “Eroica”.

Tags: beethoven heiligenstadt testament music classical 17th century history trivia composer music history
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~ Sunday, August 26 ~
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Video: Ivo Pogorelić plays Chopin’s 2nd Ballade at the 10th International Fryderyk Piano Competition (1980)

Ivo Pogorelić is a Croatian pianist, born October 20, 1958 in Belgrad, Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia). He is known for his dynamic musicianship and often unorthodox interpretations.

As a youth, Pogorelić won a number of competitions, notably the Casagrande Competition (1978) and the Montreal International Music Competition (1980). However, he was made famous by the uproar he caused when he was eliminated in the third round of the 1980 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. Internal chaos broke out among the judges, and the panel was split into two: those who favored his elimination, and those who opposed it just ast strongly.

Pogorelić’s elimination was followed by the public resignations of some jury members in protest, among them the renowned Martha Argerich who proclaimed him a “genius”. The 1st prize of the 1980 Chopin Competition was eventually awarded to Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son.

Although the competition was not a victory for Pogorelić, it was most certainly a victory for his career. Record company Deutsche Grammophone signed a contract with Pogorelić shortly following the competition, deviating from its tradition of signing with the winner. In 1981, Pogorelić made both his Carnegie Hall and London debuts, signaling the start of his career as an international pianist.

Tags: 20th century history ivo pogorelich piano chopin classical biography performer music history
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~ Monday, May 7 ~
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Audio: Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Image: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone”

Arnold Schönberg - Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4

Schönberg’s 1899 composition named Verklärte Nacht, or Transfigured Night, is a string sextet that was inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name. 

Two people walk through a bare, cold grove;
The moon races along with them, they look into it. 
The moon races over tall oaks,
No cloud obscures the light from the sky, 
Into which the black points of the boughs reach. 
A woman’s voice speaks: 

I’m carrying a child, and not yours, 
I walk in sin beside you. 
I have committed a great offense against myself. 
I no longer believed I could be happy
And yet I had a strong yearning
For something to fill my life, for the joys of Motherhood
And for duty; so I committed an effrontery, 
So, shuddering, I allowed my sex
To be embraced by a strange man, 
And, on top of that, I blessed myself for it. 
Now life has taken its revenge: 
Now I have met you, oh, you. 

She walks with a clumsy gait, 
She looks up; the moon is racing along. 
Her dark gaze is drowned in light. 
A man’s voice speaks: 

May the child you conceived
Be no burden to your soul; 
Just see how brightly the universe is gleaming! 
There’s a glow around everything; 
You are floating with me on a cold ocean, 
But a special warmth flickers
From you into me, from me into you. 
It will transfigure the strange man’s child. 
You will bear the child for me, as if it were mine; 
You have brought the glow into me, 
You have made me like a child myself. 

He grasps her around her ample hips. 
Their breath kisses in the breeze. 
Two people walk through the lofty, bright night.

Tags: schonberg verklarte nacht string sextet chamber contemporary 19th century transfigured night music classical pieces music history
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~ Sunday, April 29 ~
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Audio: Part I “Universe” of Mysterium; Berlin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy
Picture: Alexander Nemtin (left), Alexander Scriabin (right)

Alexander Scriabin - Mysterium (Realized by Alexander Nemtin)

In 1903, Russian composer Alexander Scriabin began work on Mysterium, a mammoth piece scored for an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. Scriabin planned for this work to be synesthetic, incorporating the senses of smell and touch as well as hearing. The composer wrote that:

"There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture."

The premiere of Mysterium was to be given in a temple in the foothills of the Himalayas, and the piece itself would last for a full 7 days and nights. According to Scriabin, the end of the performance would bring about a glorious apocalypse, in which the universe would enter a state of ecstasy and humans would be replaced by “nobler beings”.

Unfortunately, Scriabin passed away in 1915 from septicemia before his masterpiece even had a chance to be finished. At the time of his death, Scriabin left 72 pages of sketches for the Prefatory Action, which was only a prelude to Mysterium. Composer Alexander Nemtin then took on the task of assembling together these sketches into a three-hour performable version, a feat that took him 28 years.

Tags: 20th century classical history music mysterium scriabin alexander nemtin contemporary pieces music history
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Franz Joseph Haydn was an Austrian classical musician and composer, known for popularizing the symphony and the string quartet (earning him the nickname “Father of the Symphony/String Quartet”). He was the mentor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a teacher to Ludwig Van Beethoven. Joseph Haydn was born on March 31, 1732 in Rohrau, Austria and died May 31, 1809 in Vienna. At the time of his death, Haydn was one of those most celebrated and highly-regarded composers in all of Europe.

Haydn served a colorful musical career as the court musician for a number of noblemen and aristocrats. He spent most of his professional life as the Kappellmeister of the Esterházy chamber orchestra in Einstadt. Haydn’s position at the Esterháza palace allowed him to experiment with symphonic writing.

In 1781, Haydn met and befriended a young talent by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although Mozart was merely half the age of Haydn, they held each other in very high regard. Haydn referred to Mozart as “the greatest composer known to me either in person or by reputation”.

Haydn wrote a wide variety of works, including symphonies, string quartets, divertimenti, operas, choral works, and incidental music for plays. His style is often characteristic his usage of short, simple motifs, which are then developed into larger and more complex passages. Haydn’s job as court musician was often to delight princes, therefore the majority of his works have a happy and humorous mood. Some of his most famous compositions include Symphony No. 45 “Farewell”Symphony No. 94 “Surprise”, and his oratio The Creation.

Tags: 16th century classical haydn string quartet symphony history music biography composer music history
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~ Saturday, April 28 ~
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Video: Eugene Ormandy conducts Holst’s The Planets with the Philadelphia Orchestra, 1975

Gustav Holst - The Planets, Op. 32

The Planets, written by English composer Gustav Holst during 1914-1916, is a seven-movement orchestral suite that portrays the planets of the solar system and their corresponding astrological character as viewed by Holst. It is considered Holst’s largest and most successful work, yet completely uncharacteristic of the composer as well. It is said that Holst hated the popularity of The Planets; had he been asked for an autograph, the composer would hand out a typed sheet of paper that stated that he didn’t give out autographs!

In March of 1913, Holst received an anonymous gift that allowed him to travel to Spain with astrologer Clifford Bax, brother of the composer Arnold Bax. Holst developed a strong friendship with Clifford Bax, which allowed Bax to introduce the composer to astrological and theosophic concepts. Without a doubt, these concepts greatly inspired Holst’s composition of The Planets.

The premiere of The Planets took place on September 29, 1918, during the last weeks of WWI. It was a private concert (around 250 invited guests) held in the Queen’s Hall, and an incredibly last-minute performance; the musicians were given the completed score only two hours before going on stage. The first public concert was given in London on February 27, 1919, which only consisted of five out of the seven movements. The first complete public performance did not occur until November 15, 1920.

Tags: 20th century classical contemporary history holst music orchestra the planets pieces music history
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~ Friday, April 27 ~
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Prokofiev (left) and Rostropovich (right)

Audio: Rostropovich and Richter debut Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, 1952
Picture: Prokofiev (right) with young Rostropovich (left)

Sergei Prokofiev - Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 125

Between the years 1950 and 1951, esteemed composer Sergei Prokofiev completed his Sinfonia Concertante (also referred to as Symphony-Concerto), a three-movement major work for orchestra and solo cello. Sinfonia Concertante was dedicated to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the work in Moscow on February 18, 1952 with pianist Sviatoslav Richter conducting. (This performance was the only instance of Richter as a conductor.)

Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante spawned off of his Cello Concerto no. 1, Op. 58, which had been completed earlier in 1938. Unfortunately, said concerto was not well-received upon its premiere, largely in part due to a faulted interpretation by the soloist. Instead, the blame fell on Prokofiev, who became criticized for writing a “soulless” concerto. His first cello concerto was seldom performed after its premiere.

However, 12 years later, the young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich performed the concerto at the Moscow Conservatory — a concert that Prokofiev himself had attended. Rostropovich’s performance moved the composer so greatly that he promised to rewrite the work for him. It was then that Prokofiev’s interest in the cello was reawakened.

The first draft of this revised concerto was drawn up in 1950 and discarded; the final version, a collaboration between Prokofiev and Rostropovich, was completed during the summer of 1951. On February 18, 1952, Rostropovich gave the premiere under the name “Cello Concerto no. 2, Op. 125”, which was later changed to “Sinfonia Concertante”. To date, the Sinfonia Concertante remains as Prokofiev’s most personal compositions.

Tags: cello classical contemporary mstislav orchestra post-romantic prokofiev rostropovich sinfonia concertante symphony-concerto 20th century pieces music history
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~ Thursday, April 26 ~
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Video: Menuhin plays Bach’s Chaconne from Partita for Violin No. 2, 1972

Yehudi Menuhin was an American violinist and conductor of Russian-Jewish descent. He was born to parents Moshe and Martha Menuhin on April 22, 1916 in New York City. Yehudi Menuhin had two younger sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah.

Menuhin was a child prodigy; his first interests in music shone through when he was only two, when he accompanied his parents to a San Francisco Symphony Orchestra concert and sat through the entire performance without making a sound. Menuhin began his violin lessons at the age of five and gave a solo performance with the orchestra only 3 years later.

As a youth, Menuhin toured Europe in order to pursue his musical career. His talents were quickly recognized all throughout the continent. After a 1929 concert in Berlin, Albert Einstein went backstage, kissed the 13-year-old prodigy and said, "Today, Yehudi, you have once again proved to me that there is a God in heaven".

Since then, Menuhin has made many significant recordings in the classical violin repertoire. Among his greatest feats include his commissioning and performance of Béla Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin. Menuhin also opened the Yehudi Menuhin School in 1963, a school for the exceptionally musically gifted. During the same year, he also began his career as a conductor, which he would continue to pursue until his death. As a performer, conductor, teacher, spokesperson, Yehudi Menuhin passed away on March 12, 1999 as one of the most legendary and aspiring musicians of the 20th century.

Tags: 20th century history menuhin music violin yehudi classical biography performer music history
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