Wagner plays Faust:
The Latin word “juvenilia” is commonly used for works produced in an artist’s, writer’s, or composer’s youth. Sometimes, as in the case of Mozart or Mendelssohn, these early works are still worth hearing. Other composer’s juvenilia, such as the early, bombastic concert overtures of Richard Wagner, are seldom granted more than one hearing—if that. Take his “Columbus” Overture… PLEASE! Most musicologists—and modern audiences—have decided the title is probably the best thing about that work of the 20-something Wagner. But persistence pays, and some seven years later, on today’s date in 1844, a 31-year-old Wagner conducted the premiere in Dresden of an overture he wrote that still shows up occasionally on concert programs today. This piece is entitled “A Faust Overture,” and was originally conceived as the first movement of a “Faust” Symphony that Wagner never got around to completing. In his autobiography, Wagner claimed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a principal influence, but to modern ears it’s apparent that Wagner had been studying the scores of his slightly older French contemporary, Hector Berlioz, when at work on this piece. Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” Symphony, in particular, seems to have impressed Wagner at the time, and so Wagner’s orchestra recounts the Faust legend with just the slightest hint of a French accent.

Maelzel's Mechanical Wonders:
On today’s date in 1838, the crew of the American brig Otis, docked in the harbor of La Guiara, Venezuela, was about to set sail for Philadelphia, when they discovered that one of their passengers had died in his cabin. He was the German inventor and one-time business associate of Beethoven, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Maelzel was born in Regensburg in 1772, the son of an organ builder. Perhaps a childhood spent among the inner workings of pipe organs predisposed young Johann to become an inventor of mechanical instruments, similar to this old Viennese flute clock. At the age of 20, Maelzel came to Vienna, and if you had 3000 florins of disposable income, you could buy one of Maelzel’s mechanical wonders and hear it play short tunes by Haydn and Mozart on demand. But Maezel didn’t stop there: he invented entire mechanical orchestras, and other wonders, all to be displayed in a museum he opened in Vienna in 1812. Beethoven composed a piece for Maelzel’s mechanical orchestra entitled “Wellington’s Victory.” The two collaborators fell out over who owned what, and in any case, Beethoven re-orchestrated his piece for conventional, human performers. Maelzel took his contraptions on tour, and spent a good deal of his later life exhibiting them in the United States and even the West Indies. Today, Maelzel’s musical inventions are regarded as obsolete curios—with one exception: he’s credited with finessing and popularizing the use of the metronome.

Stravinsky and Schoenberg chamber premieres:
Today’s date marks the premiere of two chamber works from the 1920s, both landmark and transitional works of two of the 20th century’s most influential composers. Today in 1920, at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet led the first performance of a “Grand Suite” of instrumental selections from Igor Stravinsky’s biting anti-war stage fable entitled “The Soldier’s Tale.” During and immediately following the First World War, Stravinsky had developed a spiky, jagged, and occasionally jazzy style, and music from “The Soldier’s Tale” is typical of this period in his development. But Stravinsky did a compositional about-face after his “Soldier’s Tale,” and that same year came out with one of his earliest “neo-classical” scores: the ballet “Pulcinella,” based on musical themes by 18th century composers. Stravinsky’s “neo-classical” period would last for another three decades until the 1950s, when he became fascinated with the 12-tone method of composition developed by the Austrian composer, Arnold Schoenberg. And speaking of Schoenberg, on today’s date in 1924, his “Serenade” received its premiere at the Fourth Festival of Chamber Music in the German town of Donaueschingen. “Serenade” was the first work in which Schoenberg employed his strict “12-tone” method of composition, avoiding traditional 18th century rules of melody and harmony… and only its Mozartean sounding title could be considered “neo-classical.”

Symphonic Penderecki:
In 1961, a new and difficult work for strings announced the arrival of a composer with a new and difficult name: Krzysztof Penderecki. Having lived as a young man under Nazi occupation and then under Poland’s repressive and ultra-conservative Communist regime, it’s not surprising, perhaps, that as a young composer Penderecki developed an ultra-modern, rebelliously-experimental musical style. The success of his “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” made Penderecki famous worldwide. Subsequent choral works, operas, and more experimental orchestral works followed for the next dozen years or so. By 1973, however, he accepted a commission for a symphony—a rather traditional form for a rebellious composer. On today’s date that year, Penderercki himself conducted its first performance, with the London Symphony at Peterbourough Cathedral in central England. While his First Symphony remained in his aggressively experimental style, Penderecki would go on to write several more, each in much more conservative musical language, influenced by more traditional composers like Bruckner and Shostakovich. This music is from the finale to his Symphony No. 3, for example… "[My composing in this style],” explained Penderecki, “maybe goes a little back in time, but it goes back in order to go forward. With all the complications of the new discoveries in music, many composers, myself included, had to stop and think about history, about tradition. Sometimes music has to stop and relax a little bit. Sometimes it's good to look back and to learn from the past."

Fucik joins the circus?:
Today we celebrate the birthday of one of Dvorak’s composition pupils: one Julius Fucik, who was born in Prague on today’s date in 1872. Fucik studied with Dvorak at the Prague Conservatory, where he also took lessons in violin and bassoon—and perhaps only a bassoonist could have conceived of a work with a prominent bassoon part entitled “The Old Bear with a Sore Head.” Is this possibly a musical recollection of one of his old Conservatory teachers in a particularly grumpy mood? In any case, the bassoon was the instrument Fucik played at the German Theater in Prague, and he was also the bassoonist of the Czech Wind Trio. In 1897 he was appointed bandmaster of the 86th Austro-Hungarian Regiment, and started writing works for wind band. Fucik’s first appointment with the Regiment took him to Sarajevo, and in 1910 he became bandmaster of the 92nd Regiment stationed at Theresienstadt, or Terezin as the town is now called. Now, in the years before World War I, “Sarajevo” and “Theresienstadt” did not have the ominous connotations of political assassination, concentration camps, and ethnic cleansing that they do for us today. In any case, Fucik retired from the military in 1913 and died in Berlin in 1916. But speaking of connotations, one wind band composition by Fucik, entitled “Entry of the Gladiators,” has a quite specific connotation for most Americans... Even if you’ve never heard of Julius Fuick, chances are you’ve heard this music, since it was taken up by American circus bands as the unofficial anthem of life under the big top.