The Harris Ninth:
Composers—like anybody else—can be quite superstitious about numbers. Gustav Mahler, for example, was reluctant to assign the number “9” to his song cycle symphony, “Das Lied von der Erde,” fearing that work would turn out to be his last: after all, Beethoven and Bruckner had only completed nine symphonies. Ironically, Mahler did go on to complete a Ninth Symphony, but died before he could finish work on a Symphony No. 10. For the most part, American composers have avoided this problem by rarely if ever producing more than one or two symphonies of their own. Naturally there have been exceptions. On today’s date in 1963, the Ninth Symphony of the American composer Roy Harris had its premiere performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, who had commissioned the work. Like many of his other symphonies composed during and after the Second World War, Harris’s Ninth has a patriotic program, and each of its sections bears a subtitle from either the American Constitution or Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” This music, from the symphony’s opening movement, is titled “We the People.” Harris went on to write 13 Symphonies in all—although, perhaps submitting to a bit of numerological superstition himself—when his symphony No. 13, a Bicentennial Commission, was first performed in Washington, D.C. in 1976, it was billed as his Symphony Number Fourteen!
Einstein and Glass on stage:
When TIME magazine chose Albert Einstein as its “Person of the Century” for their Millennium issue, their profile catalogued his achievements in physics and philosophy, but made no mention of Einstein’s interest in music—or music’s interest in him. That’s where we come in. In addition to being a brilliant thinker, Einstein was a talented amateur violinist. On this day in 1934, he even performed the second violin part of Bach’s Double Concerto at a private recital in New York to raise money for scientists who had suffered at the hands of Hitler. So, was Einstein any good? After his 1934 concert, the Musical America critic wrote, “Representatives of the press had been asked not to criticize Professor Einstein’s playing or to describe his manner on the platform. Unofficially, however, they confessed to being impressed. He played, according to their non-critical report, as all great artists play, with ‘technique,’ ‘expression’ and a complete absorption in his music.” Einstein was not only inspired by classical music—he’s inspired more than a few musical works himself. The 1976 opera “Einstein on the Beach,” by American composer Philip Glass features a solo violinist dressed as Einstein who wanders in and out of scenes. Music from Glass’s opera was quoted as an in-joke during a TV commercial showing Einstein trying to choose between Coke and Pepsi.
The birth of "Les Six":
Today marks the anniversary of the creation of a famous classical music nickname, “Les Six”—French for “The Six.” That’s what Parisian music critic Henri Collet dubbed six composers on this day in 1920, in a magazine article. Three of the composers Collet named included three still often heard today—Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Francis Poulenc—but the three other are not: performances of works by George Auric, Louis Durey, and the only woman in the group, Germaine Tailleferre, are still rare. Though Tailleferre is counted among the neglected half of Les Six, her music has been having something of a revival lately. Perhaps this is part of a general renewal of interest in concert works written by women composers, and perhaps a belated recognition that much of her work remains fresh and appealing. This music is from her Violin Sonata No. 1, composed in 1921 and dedicated to the great French violinist Jacques Thibaud. Born near Paris in 1892, Tailleferre was a prodigy with an astounding memory. Erik Satie proclaimed her his “musical daughter,” and she was also close friends with Maurice Ravel. Two unhappy marriages and resulting financial insecurity inhibited Tailleferre’s talent in later years, and dimmed her fame, but she continued to compose and teach until her death at age 91, in 1983.
A Messiaen premiere in a German prisoner of war camp:
The modern French composer Olivier Messiaen played the piano part in one of the strangest premiere performances of the 20th century on today’s date in 1941. As the composer put it: “My Quartet for the End of Time was conceived and written during my captivity as a prisoner of war and received its world premiere at Stalag 8a in Görlitz, Silesia.” One of the four performers was cellist Etienne Pasquier, who offered this recollection: “We were captured at Verdun. Our entire company was initially held in a large field near Nancy. Among our comrades was a clarinetist who had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen started to write a piece for him while we were still in this field as he was the only person there with an instrument. And so Messiaen wrote a solo piece that was later to become the third movement of the Quartet. The clarinetist practiced in the open field and I acted as his music stand. The piece seemed to him to be too difficult from a technical point of view and he complained about it to Messiaen. “You’ll manage,’ was Messiaen’s only reply.” Pasquier reports that the performance was a great success, and led to the release of Messiaen and his three colleagues, as the Germans assumed—wrongly, it turns out—that the four musicians must have all been non-combatants.
Harp concertos by Villa-Lobos and Rautavaara:
Some instruments seem to have all the luck—or at least all the concertos! If you play piano or violin, you have hundreds of concertos to choose from. But if your instrument is the harp—and you will forgive the pun—the pickings are rather slim. This hardly seems fair to one of mankind’s oldest instruments, depicted on murals from ancient Egypt and traditionally associated with King David in the Bible. In the 18th and early 19th century, there are a handful of great classical harp concertos by Handel, Mozart, and others. In the 20th century, things start to improve a little, with modern concertos by Gliere, Pierne, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Rodrigo. On today’s date in 1955, we’re happy to report, one of the finest modern works for harp and orchestra had its premiere performance when harpist Nicanor Zabeleta played this concerto—by the prolific Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos—with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by the composer. And slowly, but surely, the repertory is expanding. One of the newest additions comes from the pen of the Finnish composer, Einojuhanni Rautavaara. His harp concerto was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, and was premiered in Minneapolis in October of the year 2000, by the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, with Kathy Kienzle as the soloist.