Dvorak's Serenade for Winds:
November 17, 1878, marked a milestone in the career of the 37-year old Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. For the first time Dvorak engaged and conducted the orchestra of the Provisional Theater in Prague in a concert entirely of his own works, including the premiere performance of a new Serenade for Winds. Earlier that year, Dvorak heard a performance of a Mozart wind serenade in Vienna, and was so taken by the sound of Mozart’s double-reeds and horns that he wrote a similar work of his own in just two weeks. Dvorak added to the open-air feel of Mozart’s 18th century wind serenade some lively 19th century Czech dance rhythms. But he also chose the key of D minor, reserved by Mozart for some of his most serious works. That enables Dvorak’s Serenade to seem both somber and upbeat, infused with musical shadows AND sunlight. The new Serenade was well received in Prague and also in Vienna, where one its biggest fans was Johannes Brahms. ``A more lovely, refreshing impression of real, rich and charming creative talent you can't imagine,” wrote Brahms, “I think it must be a pleasure for the wind players!'' Dvorak must have been fond of this Serenade, too. Fourteen years later he chose it to conduct at his own 1892 “farewell” concert in Prague, just before departing for the New World to take up his teaching job at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.

Coleridge-Taylor in Washington:
On today’s date in 1904, the Washington Post’s headline read, “Hiawatha Tonight: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Masterpiece to be sung at Convention Center.” The 29-year old British composer himself, on his first visit to America, was to conduct the 200 members of the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington DC, accompanied by the Marine Band orchestra. So who was this British composer and what had he done to inspire an American chorus to name itself after him? Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875 to an African father from Sierra Leone and an English mother. Showing remarkable musical talent, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and rapidly established himself as a major choral composer with a trilogy of oratorios, all based on Longfellow’s epic poem “Hiawatha.” The first, “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” had premiered in 1898. “The Death of Minnehaha” followed in 1899 and “Hiawatha’s Departure” premiered in 1900. These oratorios became wildly popular in England, but the 1904 concert in Washington DC was the first time all three had been performed on the same concert. The Coleridge-Taylor Society of Washington DC was America’s first African-American concert choir. Attending the Washington performance were many members of the Federal government and distinguished members of both black and white society. Coleridge-Taylor died young, at the age of 37, in 1912. His “Hiawatha” Trilogy continued to be very popular through the early decades of the 20th century, but nowadays is rarely, if ever, heard or performed.

Shostakovich and his String Quartets:
In 1974, St. Petersburg was still called “Leningrad” and still very much a part of what we now call the “former Soviet Union.” Back then, the most famous living Soviet composer was Dimtri Shostakovich, whose health was rapidly failing from the cancer that would claim his life the following year. On today’s date in 1974, Shostakovich’s final string quartet, his Fifteenth, was given its premiere performance by the Taneyev Quartet. The work was supposed to have been premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, but their cellist died unexpectedly, and, mindful of his own mortality, Shostakovich was reluctant to postpone the scheduled premiere. After all, he himself might not be around by the time the Beethoven Quartet found a replacement cellist. When his String Quartet No. 1 had premiered in 1938, Shostakovich had described that work as “joyful, merry, lyrical” and “spring-like.” His Fifteenth Quartet, on the other hand, is obviously a “winter-work,” written by someone who knows he may never see another spring. If Shostakovich’s Fifteen Symphonies represent the “public” side of a Soviet composer, his fifteen string quartets might be described as chronicling his “private” inner world of hopes, fears and dreams. So much so that the Emerson String Quartet, an ensemble formed two years after Shostakovich’s death, celebrated its 25th anniversary season by collaborating with a British theater troupe and, with the help of historical audio and video clips, put Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Quartet chillingly in the context of the composer’s—and the Soviet Union’s—troubled life and times.

Danielpour's "American Requiem":
On today’s date in the year 2001, the Pacific Symphony premiered a new choral work by the American composer Richard Danielpour. Titled “An American Requiem,” its text in part was based on the traditional Latin mass for the dead, but included as well excerpts from American writers such as Emerson and Whitman on themes of life and death. In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II had prompted many Americans to reconsider the sacrifice of American veterans, the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Danielpour conducted informal interviews with World War II vets, as well as veterans of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. “I found myself in the presence of individuals with an integrity and nobility of heart that I had rarely seen in my own generation,” wrote Danielpour, after finishing his “An American Requiem.” On the morning of September 11, 2001, two months before its scheduled premiere, Danielpour received a delivery of the orchestral parts of his new work to correct. Looking at his score, Danielpour realized he had forgotten to inscribe a dedication on its title page, and called his publisher in New York to discuss the matter. He ended up talking to someone who, from her office window, had just seen the second jetliner slam into the World Trade Center. “In the ensuing days as I edited and finalized the score of my work, I had, in the most disquieting way, found my dedication.”

Martinu's Symphony No. 1:
The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu had written around 300 works before he started on his first symphony in 1942. In fact, he had written pieces in just about every orchestral genre EXCEPT a full-blown symphony. At heart, Martinu was a cosmopolitan European composer, but with a deep link to the specifically Czech musical legacy of Smetana, Dvorak, and Janacek. In 1942, Martinu was experiencing a cultural mid-life crisis: both his native land of Czechslovakia and his adopted home of Paris had been overrun by the Nazis. Martinu was living as an exile in America. Musical AND ethical considerations were both on his mind. In a program note for the Boston Symphony’s premiere on November 13, 1942, the 52-year old Martinu wrote: “You will understand that when someone is face to face with the problem of his first symphony, he takes up a very nervous and serious attitude… his reflexes link with Beethoven’s and Brahms’s First… The large proportions, the expansive form of the symphony force the composer to put himself on a high plane… My deepest conviction is the essential nobility of thoughts and things which are quite simple and which, not explained in high-sounding words and abstruse phrases, still hold an ethical and human significance.” Martinu’s First Symphony somehow captures both the nervous tension of the times and the yearning for a nobility of spirit in the face of a world in crisis.