This week, our game fell on the first of the month. We took the opportunity to exhibit some famous firsts in classical music. Browse below and see if you are a first-timer to any of our music and trivia.
Englebert Humperdinck (1854-1921) Hansel and Gretel: Overture In April 1890, Humperdinck’s sister gave him four songs from Grimm’s fairy tale Hänsel und Gretel, and asked the composer to provide music for them for her children to sing. Soon he considered turning the songs into a full-fledged opera. For next year’s Christmas present, he gave his wife Hedwig a draft score of the opera, and the first performance of Hänsel und Gretel took place two years later. When the Great Depression hit, the Metropolitan Opera turned to the hugely popular opera for its first live radio broadcast in order to expand the company's audience and support. Two decades earlier radio pioneer Lee De Forest had attempted experimental broadcasts of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci from the Met Stage, but Hansel and Gretel was the first opera to reach network receivers in its entirety. The Met Broadcasts would go on to become the longest running continuous classical music program in radio history.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Saxophone Rhapsody One doesn’t usually associate the saxophone with classical music. It was quite the novelty when Ravel gave the alto saxophone a major solo part in his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s popular Pictures at an Exhibition. However, the presence of the saxophone on the concert stage would not even have been possible if not for Elise Hall. Born in Paris to the eminent Boston Coolidge family and an ambitious amateur saxophonist with cash to burn, Hall was unhappy that, in the late 19th century, there was no good classical music for the saxophone. She went on a commissioning spree (collecting works from Vincent D’indy and André Caplet among others), and began performing classical works on the saxophone throughout the United States. She commissioned this rhapsody from Claude Debussy, who did not finish it until 18 years after it was commisioned. By that point, Hall had grown too old to continue playing on the concert stage. However, she holds the distinction of being the first saxophonist to perform in a major American concert hall, and a pioneer of the instrument.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) Danse Macabre (after Saint Saens) If someone were to describe a concert hall packed with swooning and screaming fans, you might think they were describing a Beatles concert in the 1960s. However the delirium and mania associated with rockstar fandom existed over a century earlier, thanks to the piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. During an intense period of international touring in the 1840’s, Liszt cultivated an image embodying the Romantic ideal of an artist. Dramatic and charismatic with long, flowing locks, Liszt is considered to be the first true musical celebrity, and the 19th century equivalent of a superstar. The fame was certainly not unmerited. Liszt’s work was groundbreaking both in composition and performance. He is credited with inventing the piano recital, where he improvised on popular arias, premiered his own compositions, and played incredibly difficult transcriptions of grand symphonic works which pushed the boundaries of the piano’s capabilities, such as this transcription of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre. And audiences ate it up! Eyewitness accounts describe fans tearing their hair in ecstasy during Lisz’s public appearances, and one account even reports that people were desperate to collect Liszt’s used handkerchiefs, wine glasses and half-smoked cigars!
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Swan Lake, Op. 20: Excerpts Tchaikovsky wrote only three ballets—Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker—but they are perhaps the most well-known staples of the ballet repertoire. His first ballet was Swan Lake, all about a princess who turns into a beautiful swan. Not only was it Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, it was the first time in history that an exclusively symphonic composer scored a ballet. Unfortunately, this ended up contributing to the disasterous premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877. The work was too complicated for the dancers and the conductor. It wasn’t until its revival in 1895 (two years after Tchaikovsky’s death) that Swan Lake finally earned its place among the great ballets. This subsequent production at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with alterations made by composer Riccardo Drigo and Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest. The work is now one of the most frequently performed ballets, behind only The Nutcracker.
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA: 'Pur ti miro' The early days of opera were rooted in the extravagance of the nobility. Monteverdi was engaged by the Italian courts in the early 17th century to create vast spectacles of musical theater combined with dancing, elaborate stage designs and costumes as a display of wealth. Almost fifty years later, Monteverdi was again at the center of a new revolutionary development in Italian opera: the public stage. His opera L'incoronazione di Poppea was one of the first public operas to open in Venice. Because these performances relied on public financing and profit margins, productions were comparably simple affairs. Poppea used a much smaller orchestra than Monteverdi's earlier operas, with some performances only including continuo and upper string parts. The set design was also simplified to cut costs. Much of the plot of this opera takes place in and around a Roman palace, so that only one set piece was needed and could be rearranged according to the different locations within the palace.
Max Steiner (1888-1971) King Kong Overture The original 1933 King Kong film was groundbreaking in its time and remains iconic, with an equally iconic music score which holds the distinction of being the first full-length score composed for a Hollywood film. Originally, the production company RKO didn’t want to invest in a brand new score. But King Kong’s film writer Merian C. Cooper knew the film needed it, so he personally bankrolled Max Steiner, and later had the studio reimburse him after the success of the film. This score was Steiner’s first real breakthrough. Many musical techniques that would become conventional to movie scoring were developed for King Kong, like using thematic material from the title sequence throughout the rest of the film, and also using music to express unspoken emotional aspects of the film’s narrative.
Elliott Carter (1908-2012) Violin Concerto Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Elliott Carter wrote 40 works between the ages of 90 and 100. After he turned 100, he composed over 20 more becoming the first composer ever to reach that milestone. He finally passed away in 2012 at the age of 103, making him one of the longest-lived composers. During the later period of such a long and storied career and still being in high demand, he was able to set terms on commissions that less-seasoned composers might not have enjoyed. He refused to be held to any deadlines, and for a while he did not accept any commissions from orchestras who had not played his work previously. Carter’s violin concerto was completed in 1990 when the composer was 82. The relationship between soloist and orchestra are on more equal footing in this concerto, with the orchestra providing more of a musical commentary to the violin part rather than pure accompaniment.
Barbara Strozzi (1619-1664) MADRIGALS, OP.1: Dialogo in partenza; Il Ritorno Barbara Strozzi made for herself a long and respected life as a musician in her native Venice, but she was born as a black sheep. Strozzi was the illegitimate daughter of Venetian politician and one of his serving maids. Under typical circumstances, this would have made her social life awkward, but her father ameliorated the situation by having her listed as his adoptive daughter, and set about supporting her budding music career. Strozzi was not only a skilled singer, but she was also a trained violinist and composer who studied under Francesco Cavalli. Most of her surviving work consists of collections of ariettas, which are shorter arias in strophic form, and favor the lyric soprano. By the end of her life, she had more secular music in print than any composer of her era, and was one of the first female composers to have music published under her own name.
Milt Grant (1923-2007) & Link Wray (1929-2005) Rumble Perhaps there are few instrumental tracks which have had as much influence on pop music as “Rumble” by Link Wray. Though many musicians, particularly black blues musicians, had been incorporating effects and sounds from damaged equipment into their music, “Rumble” was for many listeners their first time hearing distortion and tremolo being used intentionally on a commercial record. With its slow, thudding and sinister backbeat, the 1958 single was sensational and caused a moral panic, with its detractors claiming the song sounded “dirty” and that its title would encourage juvenile delinquency. To this day it is the first and only instrumental track to have been banned from airplay, and has been named by many musicians as an early inspiration, including Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan and Jack White.