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Even Steven: Classical Music’s Famous Steves

Classical music's Stevens, Stephens, Steves, Stefanes, Estebans, Stefanos, and Étiennes for St. Stephen's Day (December 26th)!

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Photo: Mark Chilla

Who are the famous Stephens in classical music? Ether Game answers this question on this St. Stephen's Day special!

For a portion of the world, December 26th is St. Stephen’s Day, commemorating an early martyr for Christianity. Here at Ether Game, we’re celebrating St. Stephen’s Day by looking at some famous Steves in the world of classical music. Here’s our list:

  • Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930) – Stephen Sondheim’s first high profile professional gig was working with Leonard Bernstein, writing the lyrics for Bernstein’s new musical West Side Story. Now, talk about a good start. At the time, he was still in his 20s, and was probably more interested in writing his own material, rather than assisting with another project. However, his mentor and teacher throughout his teenage, the famed lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, convinced Sondheim that it would be a good learning experience. So, Sondheim wrote the memorable lyrics and it put him on the map. He’s written dozens of musicals including A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Sunday In The Park With George,  Sweeney Todd, and A Little Night Music—all with complex lyrics and harmonies, his signature style.

  • Stephen Foster (1826–1865) – Stephen Foster was the father of American popular song—although examining his biography is an illuminating way to uncover the racism present in 19th-century America. Foster was born on the fourth of July, 1826 and died a year before the end of the American Civil War. When he was in his early 20s, his tunes quickly became popular all across the United States. By 1850, he had signed an exclusive contract with the Christy Minstrels, one of the most popular performing groups. The Christy Minstrels were a blackface minstrel group who lampooned people of African descent, most of whom were slaves at the time. Foster wrote beautiful melodies, and his songs like “Camptown Race,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Hard Times Come Again No More” are ingrained in American culture. But these songs also have a sinister past, written for the purpose of putting down the people of another race.

  • Steve Reich (b. 1936) – Composer and native New Yorker Steve Reich hit the scene in the 1960s by experimenting with loops of recorded sound and trying out phasing experiments, where one line of music slowly moves out of sync with another line of music, causing strange combinations of notes. His early works “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” test out this experiment with tape loop, whereas Piano Phase, Violin Phase, and Clapping Music, bring it into the realm of live performance. In 1976, Reich produced this breakthrough work, Music for 18 Musicians. The work cycles through 11 chords, with different larger sections based on one of those 11 chords. Music For 18 Musicians had its premiere in New York’s Town Hall. Not long after, it found an even larger audience when Reich recorded it with his own percussion-oriented ensemble.

  • King Stephen Overture, by Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770–1827) – Ok, Ludwig van Beethoven was not a composer named Steve. But the subject of this piece was named Steve. King Stephen was the founding king of Hungary, ruling from the year 1000 to 1038. He greatly expanded Christianity in the region and was canonized in 1083, leading to a joint celebration on August 20th of the anniversary of Hungary’s foundation and King Stephen’s feast day. In 1812, Beethoven wrote incidental to a new play called King Stephen, based on the king’s life. The play was written for the grand opening a new theater in Pest, half of the city we now know as Budapest. Although the play was subtitled “Hungary’s First Benefactor,” it was clear that the play was really a way to pay homage to Hungary’s current benefactor, Kaiser Franz, the emperor of Austria and Hungary. The music isn’t considered Beethoven’s greatest, and only the overture from this incidental music is performed today.

  • Steven Stucky (1949–2016) – There are a number of important and influential Steves in late 20th-century choral music: notably Stephen Paulus and this composer Steven Stucky. Both Paulus and Stucky, in fact, were born in 1949, and both passed away far too young in just the past few years. Steven Stucky, who we just heard, had a very large output of not just choral music, but also orchestral music, chamber music, and even an opera. He was one of the most celebrated composers from the last 50 years, winning several awards including a Pulitzer-Prize in 2005 for his Second Concerto for Orchestra. This particular work Whispers is one of his more fascinating compositions. It’s a setting of a poem by Walt Whitman called “Whispers of a Heavenly Death.” In the piece, fragments of William Byrd’s 1605 anthem Ave Verum Corpus appear alongside the new music. Stucky wrote that both Whitman and Byrd transmuted the image of death through their great art, creating not sadness but rather “mystical exaltation.”

  • Étienne Nicolas Méhul (1763–1817) – Étienne Nicolas Méhul was an important composer around the French revolution, and one of the first composers in the Romantic style. Although this piece below is a symphony by Mehul, his biggest contribution comes from the world of opera. Mehul took the French opera tradition established by Gluck in the 18th century, and added more dissonance and more psychological distress to the characters—ushering in later French romantic operas by Berlioz, Bizet, and Gounod. Etienne Mehul had a rivalry with fellow French composer Jean-Francois Le Sueur. Both vied for prominent positions at the newly formed Paris Conservatoire, and for favor with France’s leader at the time, Napoleon Bonaparte.

  • Stefando Landi (c. 1586–1639) – 17th-century composer Stefano Landi was a musical polymath from Rome: a harpist, guitarist, organist, singer, and composer. By 1618, Landi was appointed as the maestro di capella for the Bishop of Padua, and had already written his first set of motets and his first opera La Morte d’Orfeo (the myth of Orpheus was the subject of several early operas, and quite a few later operas too). He eventually moved back to Rome, and spent most of his later years working for the papal choir.

And just for fun…

  • Stéphane Grappelli (1908–1997) – Stephane Grappelli is the father, no, really the grandfather of jazz violinists. Born in 1908 in Paris, Grappelli along with guitarist Django Reinhardt were jazz pioneers in Paris in the 1930s, creating their own brand of hot jazz, or gypsy jazz, or continental jazz… whatever you want to call it. Grappelli was influenced by jazz violinist Joe Venuti, who worked with Paul Whiteman in American in the 1920s. Grappelli heard Venuti on jukeboxes in Paris, and began to emulate his style. Grappelli and Reinhardt first collaborated in the early 1930s and founded the “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” an all-string jazz quintet—likely the first of its kind. Django Reinhardt passed away in 1953, but Grappelli kept on playing. He worked all over the world, continuing to record well into his 80s.

  • Steve Allen (1921–2000) – In the early era of television, Steve Allen was the hardest working man in show business. Not only was he the very first host of The Tonight Show, the host of his own variety series, a comedian, a game show panelist, an actor, and an author of more than 50 books, Allen was also an incredibly prolific songwriter. By his own estimates, he composed over 8,500 songs (that’s an average of about one every couple days for most of his adult life). Most of these songs were unpublished, but some them became standards. He was so prolific, that once he made a $1,000 bet with singer Frankie Laine that he could compose 50 songs a day for a week. He won the bet publically, composing at a piano in the window of a Hollywood music store. Laine paid him the $1,000, and one of those songs (“Let’s Go To Church Next Sunday”) was later recorded by Perry Como and Margaret Whiting.

What Steves are we missing? Let us know!

Music Heard On This Episode

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  • Steve Kudlo

    Well, there’s me.

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