Composers Datebook

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Composers Datebook™ is a daily two-minute program designed to inform, engage, and entertain listeners with timely information about composers of the past and present. Each program notes significant or intriguing musical events involving composers of the past and present, with appropriate and accessible music related to each.

Episode Date
The Twilight Zone


“This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality: you're on a through-route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable... Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you're entering the wondrous dimension of imagination…”

Next stop The DATEBOOK Zone.

OK, all kidding aside, but “submitted for your approval” as Rod Serling would say, this is the COMPOSERS DATEBOOK for September 30th. I’m John Birge.

On today’s date in 1960, the second season of “The Twilight Zone,” — the legendary TV series created by Mr. Serling — began airing on CBS. For this, the producers added a new signature theme written by Marius Constant, a Romanian-born French composer. Constant had studied composition with Olivier Messiaen, Arthur Honegger, and Nadia Boulanger and had a very respectable career as a composer and teacher, but he’s best known for his brief, but iconic, “Twilight Zone” theme.

During its five-season run, that show also employed the talents of other famous composers, including Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Rosenman, Fred Steiner, and Franz Waxman.

And in case you’re wondering who wrote the theme for the FIRST season of “The Twilight Zone,” well, that was another famous Hollywood composer by the name of Bernard Herrmann.

Music Played in Today's Program

Marius Constant (1925-2004): The Twilight Zone Main Theme (2nd version) –Orchestra; Joel McNeely, cond. (Varese-Sarabande VSD2-6087)

Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975): The Twilight Zone Main Theme (1st version) –Orchestra; Joel McNeely, cond. (Varese-Sarabande VSD2-6087)

Sep 30, 2022
Holst (and Colin Matthews) in outer space


One of the most popular works of 20th-century orchestral music, “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, had its first performance on today’s date in 1918. This was at a private concert at Queen’s Hall, London, under the baton of Adrian Boult, who later became one of the most famous interpreters of this work. The first public performance of excerpts from “The Planets” took place in February of 1919, after which it quickly became Holst’s best-known composition.

The great success of “The Planets” actually dismayed Holst, who feared it would create a demand for more orchestral works in the same vein, and Holst always liked to do something new and different. He never considered “The Planets” anywhere near his best work, but posterity disagrees.

Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite is based on the symbolic astrological associations of the planets. Only seven planets are represented because Pluto had yet to be discovered when the music was written. This omission has recently been rectified by a contemporary English composer, Colin Matthews.

At the request of conductor Kent Nagano, Matthews composed a “Pluto” movement, which had its premiere performance in England in May of the year 2000. Matthew’s new piece has also been recorded, as you might expect, as an occasional eighth planetary appendix to new recordings of Holst’s original seven.

Music Played in Today's Program

Gustav Holst (1874-1934): The Planets –Montréal Symphony; Charles Dutoit, cond. (London 460 606)

Colin Matthews (b. 1946): Pluto –Hallé Orchestra; Mark Elder, cond. (Hyperion 67270)

Sep 29, 2022
Bielawa's "Chance Encounter"


It happens to all of us: you’re in some public space and overhear someone say something that strikes you as memorable, oddly poetical, or perhaps even moving. The American composer Lisa Bielawa and soprano Susan Narucki started collecting such overheard phrases, and created a musical work incorporating them.

Commenting on the phrases, Bielawa says, "I noticed… people often say things… that help locate themselves in space and time: 'Last time I ate here by myself’ or 'Remember – it was snowing horribly? And she was holding the dog?'” Or nostalgic phrases like “We used to have a house here, but then my father lost his job. I never go there now.”

The resulting composition for soprano and 12 instrumentalists, entitled “Chance Encounter,” was designed to be performed in a public spaces as well, with the performers arriving and leaving at different times and from different directions, taking up positions scattered around the site, with the soprano singing the overheard phrases as she strolls among them.

This unusual work received its premiere performance at Seward Park in New York City on today’s date in 2008. Since then, “Chance Encounter” has been performed in Rome on a walkway along the banks of the Tiber River, and in other public spaces in places ranging from Venice to Vancouver.

Music Played in Today's Program

Lisa Bielawa (b. 1968): Chance Encounter –Susan Narucki, soprano; The Knights (Orange Mountain Music 7004)

Sep 28, 2022
In Memoriam: Schubert and Oldham


On this date in 1828, Franz Schubert attended a party at the Vienna home of one of his admirers and played some of his new piano sonata in B-flat, which he had completed only the previous day. That same month, Schubert composed one of his greatest works, the String Quintet in C Major.

Tragically, in less than two months, Schubert would be dead, an apparent victim of tertiary syphilis, the most dreaded sexually-transmitted disease of Schubert’s day. In our time, antibiotics can treat this once fatal disease, but in the early 1980s, its place was taken by the AIDS epidemic, which, before effective treatments were discovered, shortened the lives of many contemporary artists.

One of these was the American composer Kevin Oldham, born in 1960 in Kansas City. His piano concerto was premiered to critical acclaim and a standing ovation by the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Bill McLaughlin in 1993.

At that time, Oldham was seriously ill in a New York hospital and weighed only 135 pounds. Nevertheless he checked himself out, flew to his home town to solo in his concerto, then returned to the hospital the following day. He died six weeks later at age 32.

When Schubert died, he was only 31.

Music Played in Today's Program

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Piano Sonata in Bb, D. 960 –Alfred Brendel, piano (Philips 456 573)

Kevin Oldham (1960-1993): Concerto for Piano, Op. 14 –Ian Hobson, piano; Kansas City Symphony; Bill McGlaughlin, cond. (BMG/Catalyst 61979)

Sep 27, 2022
Weill's "September Song"


The haunting melody “September Song” by Kurt Weill was first heard by the public on today’s date in the year 1938, during a trial run in Hartford, Connecticut, of a new musical titled “Knickerbocker Holiday.”

Kurt Weill was 38 at the time and had been in America just three years. In Europe, he had been a successful composer of both concert and stage works, most notably the enormously popular “Three-Penny Opera” from 1928, a collaboration with the Marxist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. He had left his native Germany after being warned that he was under danger of imminent arrest by the Gestapo.

In America, Weill set out to establish himself on Broadway, but to remain faithful to the philosophical thrust of his European work. The text for his “Knickerbocker Holiday,” for example, was by Maxwell Anderson, inspired by Washington Irving’s fanciful “Father Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” But in the Anderson-Weill treatment, the historical Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant comes off as a proto-Fascist dictator, a comic but pointed reference in the year 1938, when both Hitler and Mussolini were at the height of their power.

Until his untimely death in 1950, for his Broadway musicals Weill continued to set serious subjects – ranging from psychoanalysis to South African apartheid – in a distinctive yet accessible style.

Music Played in Today's Program

Kurt Weill (1900-1950): September Song (arr. Morton Gould) –Hollywood Bowl Orchestra; John Mauceri, cond. (Philips 446 404)

Sep 26, 2022
Shostakovich's 60th


On today’s date in 1966, the 60th birthday of composer Dimitri Shostakovich was celebrated at the Moscow Conservatory with a gala orchestral concert of his music. Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich gave the premiere performance of Shostakovich’s brand-new Second Cello Concerto, and the composer’s son, Maxim, conducted his father’s youthful Symphony No. 1 from 1926.

On the morning of the concert, it was announced that, for his outstanding services in the development of Soviet musical culture, the Central Committee had awarded Shostakovich the title “Hero of Socialist Labor,” along with the Order of Lenin and the gold medal “Hammer and Sickle.”

Ironically, earlier that year, Shostakovich had composed a self-deprecating parody piece for voice and piano titled “Preface to the Complete Edition of My Works and a Brief Reflection apropos of This Preface,” whose text included a deadpan recitation of just a small portion of the many honorific titles he had received and the imposing but meaningless official posts with which he had been honored — and now, he found, he had been awarded several more to boot!

All that must have seemed grimly comic to Shostakovich, who, some 30th years earlier, had written an opera which had so offended Joseph Stalin that the composer had come perilously close to disappearing without a trace into the Soviet prison system.

Music Played in Today's Program

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 1, Op. 10 –St. Petersburg Philharmonic; Yuri Temikanov, cond. (BMG 68844)

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Cello concerto No. 2. Op. 126 –Msistislav Rostropovich, cello; Boston Symphony; Seiji Ozawa, cond. (DG 437 952)

Sep 25, 2022
Bach and Hoover "double their pleasure, double their fun"


In the age of the Baroque, Double Concertos were quite common: there were concertos written for two flutes, two trumpets, or, like the famous concerto by J.S. Bach, for two violins. These Double Concertos represented a civilized give-and-take between the two soloists, a sense of balance or decorum perhaps typical of 18th century society in general. In the 19th century, however, the concept of the solitary artist as hero — or rebel — helped make the virtuosic solo concerto much more typical of the Romantic age.

In our time, the Double Concerto occasionally makes a civilized comeback, and, on today’s date in 1989, one for two violins was premiered in Pittsburgh, Kansas. It’s by the American composer Katherine Hoover, who offered this explanation:

“When two violinists get together to perform with an orchestra, its usually a friendly celebration, a chance for colleagues who value each other’s talents and skills to enjoy making music together… So I began to think: If I were one of the players, I would want the piece to be grateful and warm, with lyricism and a sense of playfulness. This is what I have attempted to write.”

Katherine Hoover’s 1989 Double Concerto was commissioned and premiered by the Southeastern Kansas Orchestra.

Music Played in Today's Program

J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Double Concerto in d, S. 1043 –Vladimir Spivakov, Arkady Futer, violins; Moscow Virtuosi; Vladimir Spivakov, cond. (RCA 7991)

Katherine Hoover (1937-2018): Double Concerto –David Perry, Suzanne Beia, violins; Wisconsin Philomusic; Vartan Manoogian, cond. (Parnasus 96019)

Sep 24, 2022
A Mass in Time of Terror?


If you were a member of the European nobility, the summer of 1798 was a scary time. That revolutionary wild man Napoleon Bonaparte had crushed your armies on land and now word had it his fleet had escaped a British blockade. The possibility that Napoleon would control both land and sea struck terror in many a nobleman’s breast.

During this anxious time Prince Nicholas Esterhazy the Second’s favorite composer Joseph Haydn composed a Latin mass titled “Missa in angustiis” or “Mass in Time of Fear.” It opens in the key of d minor, the key employed by Mozart for the spookiest scenes in “Don Giovanni,” an opera that had made a big impression on Haydn at its premiere in Vienna ten years earlier. As Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon puts it, in ‘Don Giovanni,’ 18th century listeners were presented with "the presence of real fear – nay terror.”

So, when word reached the rattled princes of Europe that the British Admiral Nelson had destroyed the French fleet, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief, and, coincidentally, Haydn ends his Mass in the more optimistic key of D Major.

First performed on today’s date in 1798, Haydn’s work soon came to be known as the “Lord Nelson Mass,” and in Robbins Landon’s view stands as “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Franz Joseph Haydn: Missa in angustiis (Lord Nelson Mass)

Sep 23, 2022
Higdon welcomes Autumn


As the season begins, we offer you this “Autumn Music” — a woodwind quintet by American composer Jennifer Higdon. Higdon says she wanted to write a companion piece to another famous woodwind quintet titled “Summer Music” by Samuel Barber. Higdon’s “Autumn Music” was commissioned by Pi Kappa Lambda, the national music honorary society, and premiered at their 1994 national convention in Pittsburgh.

“Autumn Music,” says Higdon, “is a sonic picture of the season of brilliant colors. The music of the first part represents the explosion of leaves and the crispness of the air of fall. As the music progresses, it becomes more spare and introspective, moving into a more melancholy and resigned feeling.”

Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn in 1962, and teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her chamber and orchestral pieces have been performed by ensembles coast to coast. She’s also active as a performer and, as she explains, as an enthusiastic member of the audience:

“I love exploring new works — my own pieces and the music of others — in a general audience setting, just to feel a communal reaction to new sounds. Music speaks to all age levels and all kinds of experiences in our lives. I think it can express anything and everything.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962): Autumn Music –Moran Woodwind Quintet (Crystal 754)

On This Day


  • 1875 - Lithuanian composer Mikolajus Ciurlionis, in Varena (then the Kaunas province of the Russian Empire; Julian date: Sept. 10);

  • 1933 - Spanish composer Leonardo Balada, in Barcelona;

  • 1961 - American composer Michael Torke, in Milwaukee, Wisc.;


  • 1989 - American song composer Irving Berlin, age 101, in New York City;


  • 1869 - Wagner: opera, "Das Rheingold," in Munich at the Hoftheater, Franz Wüllner conducting; The opera was performed at the Bavarian emperor Ludwig II's request, but against the composer's wishes;

  • 1938 - Webern: String Quartet, Op. 28, at South Mountain, Pittsfield, Mass., during the Berkshire Chamber Music Festival; This work was commissioned for $750 by the American music patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge;

  • 1964 - Jerry Bock: musical "Fiddler On the Roof" opens on Broadway: It would run for 3,242 performances before closing;

  • 1971 - Barber: "The Lovers" for solo voice and chorus (after a poem by Pablo Neruda), in Philadelphia;

  • 1989 - Bernstein: "Arias and Barcarolles" (orchestrated version prepared by Bright Sheng), at the Tilles Center of Long Island University with the New York Chamber Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz and featuring vocalists Susan Graham and Kurt Ollmann; The first version of this work, for soloists and piano four-hands, premiered on May 9, 1988, at Equitable Center Auditorium in New York City;

  • 1990 - James MacMillan: "The Beserking" (Piano Concerto), at Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow by pianist Peter Donohoue and the Royal Scottish Orchestra, Matthias Bamert conducting;

  • 1990 - Christopher Rouse: "Jagannath" for orchestra, by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach conducting;

  • 2000 - Philip Glass: “Tirol Concerto” for piano and orchestra, by Dennis Russell Davies (piano and conductor) with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, at the 7th annual Klangspuren Festival in Schwaz, Tirol (Austria);

  • 2000 - Zwilich: "Millennium Fantasy" for piano and orchestra, by the Cincinnati Symphony, Jesús Lopez-Cobos conducting with soloist Jeffrey Biegel;


  • 1937 - During the Spanish Civil War, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas conducts his 1935 composition “Homage to Federico Garcia Lorca” in Madrid while the city was under siege by Spanish fascist forces; The Spanish poet Lorca had been killed by the Falangists;

Sep 22, 2022
Of froth and Friml


Today’s date marks the premiere in New York City, in 1925, of a classic operetta “The Vagabond King” by Rudolf Friml, the source of many once-popular sentimental tunes, including “Love Me Tonight,” and “Only a Rose.”

Friml was born in Prague in 1879, and he studied composition there with no less a master than Antonin Dvorak. He started his career as a piano accompanist to the famous Czech violinist Jan Kubelik, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1906. In 1907, he appeared as a soloist in his own First Piano Concerto with the New York Symphony, and decided to make America his home.

Friml wrote two piano concertos, a symphony, solo piano pieces — and three film scores for Hollywood. But he’s remembered today chiefly for 24 stage works, beginning in 1912 with “The Firefire,” his first big musical success, and continuing with many others, including the 1924 operetta “Rose Marie” – which in 1936 was made into a successful film starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Their rendition of Friml’s “Indian Love Call” has become a campy cult classic.

Even Friml was occasionally embarrassed by the success of some of his flufflier pop works, and would publish some of these under the pseudonym of Roderick Freeman. He died in Los Angeles in 1972, aged 92.

Music Played in Today's Program

Rudolf Friml (1879-1972): Song of the Vagabonds, from The Vagabond King –Eastman-Dryden Orchestra: Donald Hunsberger, cond. (Arabesque 6562)

Rudolf Friml (1879-1972): Chanson "In Love" –New London Orchestra; Ronald Corp, cond. (Hyperion 67067)

Sep 21, 2022
Sibelius passes


Today’s date commemorates the death, in 1957, of the most famous Finnish composer of modern times, Jean Sibelius. Born in 1865, Sibelius studied at the University of Helsinki, developed a strong sense of nationalism in the 1890s, and achieved world fame in the first years of the 20th century. He wrote little after the First World War, however, and lived his last 30 years in almost complete seclusion.

Even so, he was one of the most popular composers of his time. In 1938, a recording of his tone-poem “Finlandia” was selected as one of only three pieces of music to be deposited along with other artifacts of modern civilization in an indestructible time capsule buried on the site of the New York World’s Fair.

By 1957, the enormous acclaim that Sibelius enjoyed during his lifetime had faded somewhat, but these days his reputation seems on the rise once again, as does the influence of Finnish music in general.

A remarkable number of talented composers are thriving in that tiny nation today, and operas, orchestral works, and chamber pieces by contemporary Finnish composers like Aulis Sallinen, Einojuhanni Rautavaara, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho are increasingly finding worldwide audiences.

Sibelius would have been very pleased.

Music Played in Today's Program

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Alla Marcia, from Karelia Suite –Finnish Radio Symphony; Jukka-Pekka Saraste, cond. (RCA 7765)

Sep 20, 2022
On the Transmigration of Souls


On today’s date in 2002, just a little over one year after two passenger jetliners had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, the New York Philharmonic gave the premiere performance of a new work by the American composer John Adams.

Entitled “On the Transmigration of Souls,” this high-profile commission sought to address a nation still in shock and grief at the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

"I realized right up front that the public didn't need any more reiteration of the narrative of that day,” Adams said in an interview. “Certainly it didn't need some tasteless dramatization of the events… If I was going to do something meaningful, I was going to have to go in the opposite direction."

Adams chose to set some of the words scribbled on posters plastered around Ground Zero by families searching for their loved ones. "They were a mixture of hope and a slowly dimming acceptance of reality," Adams said. “When people are deeply in shock… they don't express themselves in fancy language… they speak in the most simple of terms."

Adams said he hoped his new piece would provide "memory space,” a musical work that could be at once a platform for either communal or personal reflection.

Music Played in Today's Program

John Adams (b. 1947): On the Transmigration of Souls –New York Philharmonic; Lorin Maazel, cond. (Nonesuch CD 79816)

Sep 19, 2022
Prokofiev and Leifs agree: "There's no place like home!"


On this day in 1918, Russian composer Serge Prokofiev arrived in America to give a recital of his piano works in New York. He told interviewers that despite the revolution in his homeland and widespread conditions of famine, Russian musicians continued to work.

Prokofiev himself, however, stayed away from his homeland for years. His opera “The Love for Three Oranges” and his Third Piano Concerto received their premieres in Chicago in 1921. From 1922 to 1932, Prokofiev lived mainly in Paris before eventually returning home for good.

Another temporary expatriate composer, Jón Leifs of Iceland, also has an anniversary today, when in 1950, his “Saga-Symphony” was performed for the first time in Helsinki. Leifs was born in Iceland in 1899 and died there in 1968. He studied in Leipzig, where, in his words, he (quote) “began searching whether, like other countries, Iceland had some material that could be used as a starting-point for new music… some spark that could light the fire.”

Leif’s years in Germany coincided with the rise of the Nazis, who at first found him a sympathetic Nordic composer. When Leifs married a Jewish woman, however, he soon fell out of favor and eventually fled to Sweden with his family. After the war he returned home and today is honored as Iceland’s first great composer.

Music Played in Today's Program

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 –Martha Argerich, piano; Montréal Symphony; Charles Dutoit, cond. (EMI Classics 56654)

Jón Leifs (1899-1968): Saga Symphony –Iceland Symphony; Osmo Vänskä, cond. (BIS 730)

Sep 18, 2022
Ellington's "Money Jungle"


In 1962, American jazz composer, performer, and bandleader "Duke" Ellington was 63 years old – an acknowledged master, but trends in American jazz were changing, and there were much younger figures emerging, with more challenging styles.

Take, for example, the bassist Charles Mingus, Jr, a master of collective improvisation, and drummer Max Roach, a pioneer in the Be-Bop movement. Despite their age and stylistic differences, these three jazz titans went into a recording studio on today’s date in 1962 and, while tape rolled, using bare-bones charts provided by Ellington of melodies and harmonies, the three jazz titans improvised. The results were issued the following year as a classic LP entitled, “Money Jungle.”

Despite his fame, Ellington did not have a recording contract in 1962, and, perhaps after decades experiencing the highs and lows of life as a Black jazz musician in a segregated society, “Money Jungle” reflects a certain bitterness. Along with the charts he gave Mingus and Roach, Ellington also provided poetic story lines for each track, like: "Crawling around on the streets are serpents who have their heads up; these are agents and people who have exploited artists. Play that along with the music.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Charles Mingus (1922-1979), and Max Roach (1924-2007) –Money Jungle: Blue Note 31461

Sep 17, 2022
A concerto by Sally Beamish


The British composer Sally Beamish was born in London and studied music there and in Germany, but more recently has come to be associated with both Scotland and Sweden due to successful composer residencies in those two countries.

Her saxophone concerto, “The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone,” is a perfect example of this association. “The piece begins with a reference to a Swedish herding call,” she explains, “a special high-pitched song which carries over long distances… after this the music becomes more fragmentary, half-heard glimpses, as if the shaft of light has somehow released sounds stored in stone for millennia, layers of music long forgotten… drawing on psalms and chants from different tradition celebrating the enlightenment of [Pentecost].”

The work was a joint commission of the St. Magnus Festival which takes place at midsummer on the islands of Orkney off the north coast of mainland Scotland, a landscape of wind-swept cliffs, and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. The premiere performance took place at the St. Magnus Festival in June of 1999, and on today’s date that same year, the concerto’s Swedish herding call was heard in that country at its Örebro premiere.

Music Played in Today's Program

Sally Beamish (b. 1956) –The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone (John Harle, sax; Swedish Chamber Orchestra; Ola Rudner, cond.) BIS 1161

Sep 16, 2022
Henry Brant's Northern Lights


If you’ve ever witnessed a spectacular display of the Northern Lights, you’ll know the feeling: jaw-dropping wonder at the powerful forces unleashed in the vast spaces of the night sky.

The American composer Henry Brant experienced something like that in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1982 during a visit, and later translated the experience into his “Northern Lights over the Twin Cities,” a work commissioned by Macalester College in St. Paul to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1985.

Like most of Brant’s works, this piece employs several distinct groups of performers separated by space, a technique called “spatial” composition. For his Macalester Centenary commission, Brant utilized all the musical ensembles the College had to offer, including its chorus and orchestra, its wind, marching, and jazz bands, and even its bagpipe ensemble, all positioned at various points around the College’s cavernous Field House.

Brant said his own “spatial” works were inspired by the antiphonal works of the Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli, the multiple brass ensembles in the “Requiem Mass” by the French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, but above all by “The Unanswered Question,” by the modern American composer Charles Ives.

Brant was born on today’s date in 1913. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2002, and died at the age of 94, in 2008.

Music Played in Today's Program

Henry Brant (1913-2008) –Northern Lights Over the Twin Cities (Combined musical forces of Macalester College; with six conductors, including Henry Brant) Innova CD 408

Sep 15, 2022
A ghost story by Henry James and Benjamin Britten


Do you enjoy a good ghost story? The American novelist Henry James did, but liked to give the ones he wrote an extra twist – another “turn of the screw” you might say. In fact, one of his classic ghost stories from 1898 is titled just that: “The Turn of the Screw.”

In it, a young British governess is entrusted with the care of two orphaned children, who may – or may not – have been abused by their previous governess and her lover, both now dead, who may – or may not – have returned as ghosts to continue their torment of the children. The manner in which Henry James tells the story leaves open the question whether the ghosts are real or just figments of the young governess’s lurid imagination.

“The Turn of the Screw” has been adapted for both stage and screen, and, on today’s date in 1954, an operatic version by the British composer Benjamin Britten received its premiere performance at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Each of the 16 scenes in Britten’s chamber opera is preceded by a variation on a ghostly 12-note theme, a “tone row” in the style of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, and since we see and hear the ghosts on stage, it’s pretty clear Britten is suggesting the ghosts and the evil in the tale are disturbingly real.

Music Played in Today's Program

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) –The Turn of the Screw (Sir Peter Pears, tenor; English Opera Group, Benjamin Britten, cond.) London/Decca 4256722

Sep 14, 2022
Bernstein meets Wharton


On today's date in 1993, the first gala preview screening of a new film, "The Age of Innocence," based on the novel by Edith Wharton, took place at the Ziegfield Theater in Manhattan, as a benefit for the New York Historical Society. That was only appropriate, since Wharton's historical novel describes upper-class New York society of the 1870s – an age, if the film is to be believed, so emotionally repressed that the unbuttoning of a woman's glove can be a breathtakingly sensual moment.

The new film was directed by Martin Scorsese, famous for decidedly UN-repressed thrillers likes "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," and "Cape Fear" – and initially some thought Scorsese a poor choice to film Wharton's novel. The skeptics were proven wrong.

Much of the success of the film can be attributed to its ravishing orchestral score by American composer Elmer Bernstein. "It was my personal tribute to the music of Johannes Brahms," said Bernstein, who also credited Scorsese for appreciating the importance of music in bringing a movie to life: Unlike most directors today, Scorsese brought in Bernstein before "Age of Innocence" was filmed – not after.

"We started talking about the character of the music long before Scorsese ever shot a frame of film," recalls Bernstein, with admiration. Bernstein's "Age of Innocence" score was nominated for an Academy Award – the 12th time Bernstein had been so honored in his long and productive cinematic career.

Music Played in Today's Program

Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) –Farewell Dinner, from “The Age of Innocence” (Studio Orchestra; Elmer Bernstein, cond.) EMI Classics 57451

Sep 13, 2022
Reisenberg and Mozart


During her lifetime, pianist Nadia Reisenberg was regarded as one of this country’s finest concert artists. She performed at Carnegie Hall 22 times, often with the New York Philharmonic.

But she made history on today’s date in 1939 as she embarked on a series of concert performances encompassing of all 27 of the Mozart Piano Concertos. These were live radio broadcasts conducted by Alfred Wallenstein, originating at WOR in New York, relayed coast-to-coast via the Mutual Network and the CBC in Canada, and overseas via short wave. There were 29 broadcasts in all, one a week, starting on September 12, 1939 and ending on March 26, 1940.

Mozart’s 27 piano concerts were first published in 1850, almost 60 years after the composer’s death, but before Reisenberg’s broadcasts, no one had performed ALL of them in such a series. The French composer and pianist Camille Saint-Saens played 9 Mozart concertos in Paris in 1864/1865, and 11 during a series in London in 1910, but Reisenberg was the first to perform all 27 in one concert sequence, since even Mozart himself never played them all in just one season.

Amazingly, live aircheck recordings of most of these historic radio broadcasts have survived and are now part of the Nadia Reisenberg Collection in the International Piano Archives at Maryland.

Music Played in Today's Program

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) –Piano Concerto No. 26 in D, K. 537 (Coronation) (Nadia Reisenberg; WOR studio orchestra; Alfred Wallenstein, cond.) (r. March 19, 1940) IPA of Maryland Reisenberg Mozart Piano Concertos CD 13

Sep 12, 2022
Leroy Anderson in the studio


On today’s date in 1950, Decca recording engineers committed to disc seven short works by the American composer Leroy Anderson, with Anderson himself conducting top-notch New York freelance musicians.

Since 1938, Anderson had been associated with the Boston Pops, for whom he had composed a string of very successful pieces, beginning with “Jazz Pizzicato” and “Jazz Legato,” complimentary works designed for the two sides of a 78-rpm disc. Anderson recorded both those pieces at his 1950 Decca session and also the first performance of a brand-new work, entitled “The Waltzing Cat.” In fact, after 1950 most of Anderson’s premieres took place at Decca recording sessions. One of them, “Blue Tango,” sold over a million copies.

By 1953, one national survey found that Leroy Anderson was the most-performed American composer of his day. That was the year that Anderson wrote his only extended orchestral work, a Piano Concerto. With the exception of a short-lived Broadway musical from 1958 entitled “Goldilocks,” the bulk of Anderson’s works are short, witty orchestral pieces, superbly crafted works intended to make audiences smile.

“I just did what I wanted to do,” Anderson once said, “and it turned out that people liked it.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Leroy Anderson (1908–1975) –Jazz Pizzicato and The Waltzing Cat (Decca studio orchestra; Leroy Anderson, cond.) MCA 9815

Sep 11, 2022
Berlioz and the Parisian prudes


We tend to think of Paris as the most sophisticated and worldly of European capitals – a city whose residents are unlikely to be shocked by anything they see or hear.

Ah, but that’s not always the case, as poor Hector Berlioz discovered on today’s date in 1838, when his new opera “Benvenuto Cellini” premiered at the Paris Opéra. One line in the libretto about the cocks crowing at dawn was considered, as Berlioz put it, “belonging to a vocabulary inconsistent with our present prudishness” and provoked shocked disapproval. And that was just the start of a controversy that raged over both the morality and the music of this new opera.

Following the dismal opening night, Berlioz wrote to his father: “It’s impossible to describe all the underhanded maneuvers, intrigues, conspiracies, disputes, battles, and insults my work has given rise to… The French have a positive mania for arguing about music without having the first idea – or even any feeling – about it!”

From the fiasco of the opera’s premiere, however, Berlioz did retrieve some measure of success. His famous contemporaries Paganini and Liszt both admired the work – and said so – and one flashy orchestral interlude from “Benvenuto Cellini” did prove a lasting success when Berlioz recast it as a concert work: his “Roman Carnival Overture.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) –Benvenuto Cellini and Roman Carnival Overtures (Staatskapelle Dresden; Sir Colin Davis, cond.) BMG/RCA 68790

Sep 10, 2022
Edward Burlingame Hill


Today is the birthday of the American composer and teacher Edward Burlingame Hill, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872.

Hill studied at Harvard, which was not surprising, since his grandfather had been President of the college, and his father taught chemistry there. “My father sang the songs of Schubert,” recalled Hill, “and was a great admirer of Bach. Thus at an early age I was imbued with a deep love for serious music.” Hill studied with the 19th century American composer John Knowles Paine, who had established at Harvard the first music department in any American university. After Hill took all of Paine’s courses, he went on to study in Paris with Charles Widor.

Hill’s early works were in the French style, and you might say that he “wrote the book on the subject” – literally. In 1924, Hill published a study titled “French Music” and was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his efforts. During his lifetime, major American orchestras performed Hill’s music, but today, if he’s remembered at all, it’s as a teacher at Harvard. Toward the end of tenure, one his students was Leonard Bernstein, who, in 1953, made a recording of his teacher’s “Prelude for Orchestra.” Hill died in New Hampshire in 1960, at the age of 88.

Music Played in Today's Program

Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960) –Prelude for Orchestra (Columbia Symphony; Leonard Bernstein, cond.) CBS/Sony 61849

Sep 09, 2022
Bernstein's "Mass"


On today’s date in 1971, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was inaugurated with a gala performance of a new work by Leonard Bernstein. Entitled “Mass,” this was a musical and visual extravaganza which reinterpreted the text of the Latin liturgy and involved more than 200 singers, dancers, and instrumentalists.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had asked Bernstein to write a piece to open the new Center but was conspicuous by her absence. President Richard Nixon also chose to stay away, rightly fearing that Bernstein’s “Mass” would be interpreted as an embarrassing protest against the war in Vietnam.

The Washington Post’s front-page review, titled “A Reaffirmation of Faith,” was glowing in its praise, but Time magazine’s assessment was condescending, quoting some New York wits who dubbed it the “Mitzvah Solemnis.” The New York Times review was brutal, calling Bernstein’s Mass “a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness . . . [and] the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce.”

But Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, when she finally did hear Bernstein’s work, sent the composer an inscribed photograph which read: “Lenny – I loved it, yes, I did, and I love you, too. Thank you for making ‘Mass’ so beautiful.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) –Sanctus, from Mass (Empire Brass) Telarc 80159

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) –Simple Song, from Mass (Boston Pops; John Williams, cond.) Philips 416 360

Sep 08, 2022
Hymnus Paradisi by Herbert Howells


“The Three Choirs Festival” is one of England’s oldest musical traditions. Established around 1715, it showcases the cathedral choirs of Gloucester, Worcester, and Herford, and presents both choral and orchestral works by British composers

Vaughan Williams' “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” was premiered there in 1910, and in the audience was an 18-year-old aspiring composer named Herbert Howells, who later would relate how Vaughan Williams had sat next to him for the remainder of the concert and shared his score of Elgar's “The Dream of Gerontius” with him.

Howells studied music at Gloucester Cathedral before heading off to London and the Royal College of Music. He also got married and had two children. In 1935, his 9-year-old son Michael contracted polio and died three days later. The grief-stricken Howells began composing a memorial work as private therapy, choral sketches he considered too painful to complete and too personal to have performed.

But in 1950 Howells was asked for a new work to be premiered at Three Choirs Festival, and, at the urging of Vaughan Williams and others who had seen Howell’s private sketches, Howells completed a work he titled “Hymnus Paradisi,” and led the premiere himself on September 7, 1950, one day after the 15th anniversary of his son's death.

Music Played in Today's Program

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) –Hymnus Paradisi (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra; Vernon Handley, cond.) Hyperion 66448

Sep 07, 2022
Henry Kimball Hadley


Works by Henry Kimball Hadley rarely shows up on concert programs anymore, but in the early years of the 20th century, he ranked as a major and very popular American composer. In 1910, Gustav Mahler, during his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, conducted Hadley’s tone poem “The Culprit Fay,” and in 1920, Hadley’s opera “Cleopatra’s Night” was staged at the Metropolitan Opera.

But by the time of his death on today’s date in 1937, Hadley’s full-blown, late-Romantic style was falling out of fashion in the modernist age of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

In other aspects of his musical career, however Hadley was quite avant-garde and forward-looking: In 1921 he became associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic -- the first American-born conductor to hold a full-time post with any major American orchestra. In 1926, he was invited by Warner Brothers to conduct the Philharmonic at the New York premiere of their silent film “Don Juan,” starting the legendary actor John Barrymore, and the following year wrote an original score for a second Barrymore silent feature entitled “When A Man Loves.”

Hadley is also credited with making the first symphonic “video,” a 10-minute Vitaphone film of Hadley conducting Wagner’s “Tannhauser” Overture that was shown in movie theaters back then and you can still see today via YouTube!

Music Played in Today's Program

Henry Kimball Hadley (1871–1937) –The Culprit Fay (Ukraine National Symphony; John McLaughlin Williams, cond.) Naxos 8.559064

Sep 06, 2022
Amy Cheney and Mrs. Beach


Amy Marcy Cheney Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire, on today’s date in 1867. Amy Beach – or, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, as she was also called – was one of America’s first major women composers and a gifted concert pianist to boot

We probably have Mr. Beach to thank for Amy’s decision to devote herself more to composition than performance. In the spring of 1885, at the age of 18, Amy debuted as a soloist with the Boston Symphony, and it seemed a major concert career was in the offing. But later that same year, she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a prominent New England physician. In respect to his wishes and the custom of the day for women in high society, Mrs. H.H.A. Beach curtailed her concert career and concentrated instead on writing music. Her first published work was a setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a long-time family friend.

Only after her husband’s death in 1911, did Amy revive her career as a concert pianist with a concert tour throughout Germany, returning to America at the outbreak of World War I. In her later years, she acted as mentor to a whole new generation of American women pursuing careers in music. She died in New York in 1944.

Music Played in Today's Program

Amy Beach (1867-1944) –Piano Concerto in c#, Op. 45 (Joanne Polk, piano; English Chamber Orchestra; Paul Goodwin, cond.) Arabesque 6738

Sep 05, 2022
Milhaud's "Symphonies"


On today’s date in 1892, Darius Milhaud was born in Aix-en-Provence. He was one of the most amiable – and prolific – of 20th century French composers, producing over 400 works, including a dozen symphonies. Milhaud spent many years in America teaching at Mills College in California, whose climate reminded him of his beloved Provence.

Despite the rheumatoid arthritis that eventually confined him to a wheelchair, and the fact that he was forced to flee his native country when the Nazis arrived, Milhaud titled his 1973 autobiography: “My Happy Life.”

In his autobiography, Milhaud says that after composing his Twelfth Symphony, his publisher, half in jest, asked him to please stop and that surely twelve symphonies were enough. “I did not stop writing symphonies,” Milhaud slyly noted, “but a minor incident prompted me to give them other titles.” That incident occurred after a concert with the Boston Symphony when Milhaud conducted some of his own music. He heard the grandmother of one of his students remark, “All that is very nice, but it is NOT music for Boston!” Amused, Milhaud composed a work he titled: “Music for Boston,” and soon embarked on a whole NEW series of symphonic works, referred to generically as the “Music For” series, which include “Music for” Indiana, New Orleans, Lisbon, and Prague.

Music Played in Today's Program

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) –Symphony No. 9, Op. 380 (Basel Radio Symphony; Alun Francis, cond.) CPO 199 166

Sep 04, 2022
Ives in San Francisco


On today’s date in 1931, a short notice appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, which began: “Music never before heard in San Francisco will make up the program of the New Music Society to be conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky of Boston tonight in the Community Playhouse.” In addition to new works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Slonimsky conducted pieces by three American composers, including the world premiere of “Washington’s Birthday,” by Charles Ives.

Ives had written “Washington’s Birthday” in 1909, and the following year had talked some theater musicians into giving the work a run-through. “They made an awful fuss about playing it,” Ives recalled, “and only after some of the parts that seemed to me to be the best and strongest were cut.” About 10 years later, he asked some players of the New York Symphony to give the score a private reading at his home. Again, the musicians complained it was just too difficult.

Slonimsky’s 1931 performance in San Francisco presented the score complete and as originally written. Ives, who lived on the East Coast, was not present for the San Francisco premiere, but was delighted to learn – as he put it: “Neither the audience nor the critics were disturbed to the point of cussing.

Music Played in Today's Program

Charles Ives (1874-1954) –Washington's Birthday (Chicago Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.) CBS/Sony 42381

Sep 03, 2022
Haydn at Esterhazy


On today’s date in 1773, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa was visiting the country estate of Prince Nikolaus of Esterhazy. Among the attractions there were an opera house, a marionette theater, and the Prince’s impressive chamber orchestra led by Franz Joseph Haydn.

It’s possible that Haydn’s Symphony No. 48 was performed for the Empress – in any case, this symphony came to be nicknamed the “Maria Theresa.” We do know that Haydn and his orchestra did perform for the Empress – and that they were all dressed up in Chinese costumes for one performance during her visit! Among other “duties as assigned,” Haydn shot three wild game hens that were cooked up for the Empress’s dinner. Ah, the life of a court musician in the 18th century!

It’s also reported that Haydn told the Empress an amusing story from his childhood in Vienna. Apparently repair work was being done on St. Stephens Cathedral when Haydn was a boy soprano in the Cathedral Choir. The Empress was annoyed at the racket made by choirboys playing on the scaffolding and ordered that the next one caught playing up there would get a spanking. The following day Haydn climbed the scaffold, was caught, and received the promised punishment.

Apparently they both got a good laugh out of recalling the story.

Music Played in Today's Program

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) –Symphony No. 48 in C (Maria Theresa) (Polish Chamber Orchestra; Jerzy Maksymiuk, cond.) EMI Classics 69767

Sep 02, 2022