Nancarrow's Quartet No. 3:
The expatriate American composer Conlon Nancarrow is famous for writing pieces for player pianos. Nancarrow apparently came to the conclusion that the rhythmically complex, intricate contrapuntal music he wanted to write would prove just too difficult for mere mortals to tackle. Despite its complexity, Nancarrow’s music drew some of its deep and lasting influences from the human, all-too-human jazz stylings of Art Tatum and Earl Hines, and the complex rhythmic patterns of music from India.Nancarrow was born in 1912 in Texarkana, Arkansas. At the age of 18, he heard Igro Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which sparked his life-long interest in rhythmic complexity. Soon after, Nancarrow began private music studies with American composers Roger Sessions and Walter Piston. Like many idealistic Americans in the 1930s, Nancarrow joined the Communist Party, volunteered for the Lincoln Brigade, and fought in the Spanish Civil War. He moved to Mexico City in 1940, where he lived and worked until his death. Nancarrow composed in almost total isolation until the late 1970s, when some of his piano roll compositions started appearing on record. These created quite an impact, and the MacArthur Foundation awarded him its prestigious ‘genius’ award of $300,000. Late fame even brought a series of commissions for live performance and performers willing to take on the challenge of performing his difficult music. One of these pieces, Nancarrow’s String Quartet No. 3, was premiered on today’s date in 1987 by the Arditti Quartet. Nancarrow died in Mexico in 1997.
An all-star Gershwin premiere:
Imagine the cocktail party bragging rights you’d have if you had attended the first night of “Girl Crazy,” a new musical that opened in New York on today’s date in 1930. That show marked the Broadway debut of Ethel Merman, and co-stared Ginger Rogers. But that’s just for starters… “Why,” you could say, “in the pit orchestra that night was the Red Nichols ensemble, which included among its players Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, and Jack Teagarden—gentlemen who would all go on to become famous band leaders in their own right.” “And,” you might continue, “Speaking of band leaders, for the opening night of ‘Girl Crazy,’ the show’s composer, George Gershwin himself, was there in the pit conducting that all-star ensemble.” For his part, Gershwin recalled: “The theater was so warm that I must have lost three pounds perspiring. But the opening was so well received that FIVE pounds would not have been too much. With the exception of the some dead head friends of mine, especially the critics, I think the notices, especially of the music, were the best I have ever received.” Gershwin was right: “Girl Crazy” included two songs that quickly became classics: “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You.” The show ran for 272 performances—an impressive statistic in the first year of the Great Depression, and Hollywood produced not one but TWO cinematic versions of the show in 1932 and 1943.
On today’s date in 1944, a 29-year-old American composer named David Diamond had his Second Symphony premiered by the Boston Symphony under the famous Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Diamond says he had actually written this music for the charismatic Greek maestro Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was then music director of the Minneapolis Symphony. “Mitropoulos had given a fine performance of my First Symphony,” said Diamond. “When I showed him the score of the Second he said, ‘you must have the parts extracted at once!’ As these were readied, I asked him whether he was planning to perform the work. He then told me he thought he would not stay on in Minneapolis, but he said, ‘Why don’t you send it to Koussevitzky?’ I did so, and Koussevitzky sent me a telegram that there would be a trial reading of my work at Symphony Hall. When it was over, the orchestra applauded like crazy. Koussevitzky turned to me and said, ‘I vill play!’” Successful as the Diamond premiere was back in 1944, for many decades thereafter his neo-Romantic symphonies were rather neglected. In 1989, conductor Gerard Schwartz sparked a revival of interest with this Seattle Symphony recording of the Diamond Second. By then, Diamond was in his 70s, and commented: “It is my strong feeling that a romantically inspired contemporary music, tempered by reinvigorated classical technical formulas, is the way out of the present period of creative chaos in music... the romantic spirit in music is important because it is timeless.”
On today’s date in 1945, the Third Symphony of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu had its premiere performance at Symphony Hall in Boston. The new symphony’s dedication read: “To Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony,” and the new score was presented on the occasion of Koussevitzky’s 20th anniversary as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Martinu had finished the first two movements of his symphony that summer, as the Second World War was rushing to a close. Martinu later claimed he had Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” very much on his mind in those days. He said he was convinced that there was somehow an ethical force at work in the creation of a symphonic work, and, as in Beethoven’s “Eroica,” it was possible to express in music a sense of moral forces at work. As an exile from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and France, Martinu had come to the United States in 1941, and his mood is understandable in the anxious yet hopeful spring and summer of 1945. After liberation of Czechoslovakia, Martinu returned to his homeland and was offered a teaching post in Prague. Martinu, unhappy with Czechoslovakia’s new Communist rulers, declined the offer, and returned to the America, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1952. Even so, Martinu returned to Europe in 1953 and settled in Switzerland. He died there in 1957, but eventually his remains were returned to his family mausoleum in Czechoslovakia, and in 1990, the Centenary of his Birth was celebrated in that country as a major cultural event.
Vivaldi and Messiaen for the birds:
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then composers must really have a thing about birds. For centuries, composers have imitated bird song in their music: Vivaldi’s “Goldfinch” concerto for flute is one of the best-known examples from the18th century, and there are hundreds of other examples throughout music history. On today’s date in 1953, at the Donaueschingen Music Festival in Germany, one of the most famous 20th century examples of “music for the birds” had its premiere performance. This was a piece by the French composer Olivier Messiaen for piano and orchestra, entitled “Le Réveil des Oiseaux,” or “The Awakening of the Birds.” The musical themes for this work were all based on Messiaen’s precise notation of the songs of 38 different French birds. The piece’s structure progresses from midnight to midday, with the birds’ actual “awakening” occurring precisely at 4 a.m. at the first light of a spring day. Messiaen’s interest in bird songs and nature was rooted in his deep religious faith. As he put it: "My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith. I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none."