Famous births, premieres and notable concerts. Check out our playlist of significant events in classical music that occurred on December 22nd.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 'Pastoral' December 22nd at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna; if you had a ticket to the evening’s musical performance, you were likely the aristocracy, as tickets cost the equivalent of a week’s worth of the average wage. You were probably wearing a coat, as the theater, one of the biggest in Vienna, was famously frigid this time of year. You hopefully used the bathroom before you sat down, as the concert would last four hours. But chief of all, you were there to support Vienna’s most famous composer, Beethoven, who booked the concert as a private benefit to support his future musical endeavors. The concert has been described as the pinnacle of Beethoven’s career because it featured the premieres of three of his now most popular works: Both his Symphonies no. 5 and 6, and his 4th piano concerto. We are all aware of the influence of Beethoven Five, but the 6th was also important, as it elevated the use of directly programmatic music to the symphony genre, and paved the way for future Romantic era composers to write their own program symphonies.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun Today marks the premiere of Debussy’s impressionistic masterpiece, the symphonic poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which was first performed in Paris in 1894 under the baton of Gustav Doret, The work was a success and earned the admiration of many, including the symbolist poet Mallarmé whose poem on which the work is based. Mallarmé was so impressed that he sent Debussy a copy of the poem inscribed with a new verse, which read “ Oh forest god of breath primeval/If your flute be true,/Listen now to all the light/Debussy will breathe through you.” Later Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was used as a setting for a ballet in 1912, performed by Vaslav Nijinsky, which would prove to be far more shocking than the original premier, as the public was scandalized by the eroticism of the choreography.
John Williams (b. 1932) Harry's Wondrous World from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone The first Harry Potter book was published in Britain under the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. American publishers were worried that American audiences would not associate the alchemy-related “philosopher’s stone” with magic and the title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Veteran film composer John Williams, with experience writing music for other fantastical films, such as “Star Wars” and “Superman”, seems to have been a natural fit to compose for the first three Potter films. They went on to become some of the most popular films of early aughts. The main villain of the book series is the evil wizard Voldemort, who was portrayed in the movies by English actor Ralph Fiennes. Although his shadows looms large from the beginning of the series, Fiennes does not formally appear as Voldemort until the 4th Potter movie, The Goblet of Fire, having been defeated in events before the first book. After one of his minions performs a dark magic ritual, the evil wizard is resurrected, triggering an epic wizarding war between Voldemort’s forces and the friends of Harry Potter.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Tosca Today is Giacomo Puccini’s 162 birthday andis also almost exactly a month before the premiere of his operatic tour de force, Tosca. Tosca is one of opera’s most powerful and tragic heroines. In true Puccini style, the heroine meets a tragic end but not before moving the audience to sympathize with her plight. Puccini fell under Tosca’s spell after seeing the play performed with French actress and courtesan Sarah Bernhadt taking the title role. Bernhadt, who later went on to star in silent movies, was known also known as “the divine Sara.” After wrangling with publishers, Puccini secured the rights to compose the opera. The dark, dramatic imagery and larger-than-life characters made it a perfect fit for the opera stage. Puccini’s adaptation premiered in Rome in 1899.
Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908) Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20 When speaking of the composer Pablo Sarasate, playwright George Bernard Shaw once declared that, though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music. Sarasate was a virtuoso known for composing a handful of show-stopping encores, including the fiendishly difficult Zigeunerweisen, a virtuosic showcase of folk themes and rhythms from the Roma people, including the ever popular Czardas. Although he would spend his life touring the world, traveling all over Europe, North America, and South America, he never lost touch with his Spanish roots, and made his own recording of this piece in 1904. The recording we just heard was conducted by Felix Slatkin, who was born on this day in 1915 and was himself an accomplished violinist. Felix Slatkin’s son Leonard also became a hugely successful conductor, and joined the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music in 2006.
Varèse, Edgard (1883-1965) Density 21.5 We have a lot of music-related birthdays today, including the birthday of avant-garde French composer Edgar Varèse. Varèse's compositions were guided by a belief in a fusion of science and art, in which artists invented instruments, made discoveries, and expanded the sonic possibilities of music. Several of his works have titles inspired by science, such as the solo flute piece we just heard. Written in 1936 for the French flautist George Barrére, Density 21.5 refers to the density, or specific gravity, of platinum, the metal from which Barrére’s flute was constructed. Performing on an exceptionally fine instrument was not Barrére's only claim to fame before working with Varèse. He was also the first flautist to perform the opening flute solo in Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Barrère's performance of Density 21.5 also marked a compositional revolution for Varèse. After completing the piece, he gave up composing for acoustic instruments to pursue an interest in electronic music.
Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) Symphony No. 8 in E-flat, Op. 83 Known for his exceptional ear and musical memory, Russian composer Alexander Glazunov began studies with Rimsky-Korsakov in 1879. Although the composer was only fourteen, he proved that he was a major musical talent. By age 17, Glazunov’s first symphony and string quartet had already received public performances. 23 years later, at the height of his creative productivity, Glazunov’s 8th Symphony would premiere on this day, marking a streak of epic compositions influenced by Russian nationalism. However, this would be the last grand symphony composed by Glazunov. Though he still continued to compose, he abandoned an incomplete ninth symphony, as he was soon finding himself at odds with the more modern trends in Russian music being led by the likes of Stravinsky and Shastokovich.
Carl Friederich Abel (1723-1787) Suite for Unaccompanied Bass Viol in d, Prelude and Allegro The viola da gamba declined in popularity towards the end of the Baroque Era, but one of it’s last great master virtuosos was Carl Friederich Abel, who was born on this day in 1723. Abel is most famously connected with J.S. Bach, who taught the young violist while he was learning music at the Thomaskirche school in Leipzig. He later became friends with Bach’s son Johann Christian, and the two even established a highly successful subscription concert series in London known as the Bach-Abel concerts. Abel was especially known for his virtuosic improvising on the viola da gamba. The opening prelude that we just heard, with its rolling chord changes and emotional angst, is thought to be a transcription that Abel made of one of his famous improvised solos.
Traditional American: Man of Constant Sorrow In the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which premiered on this day in 2000, the lead character Ulysses Everett McGill travels across the Great Depression-ravaged landscape of the rural south to win back his love Penelope (or Penny), encountering along the way a blind oracle, a one-eyed man, and a group of beautiful singing women. If that sounds vaguely like Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, well, there’s a reason. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen loosely based the plot of the film on The Odyssey, despite having never read the entirety of the mythological tale. While the film is a delightfully goofy romp, the real draw is the music. Country music producer T Bone Burnett worked with the Coen Brothers to create a soundtrack of traditional American folk music, performed by some of the best Bluegrass and Americana musicians, including Ralph Stanley, Dan Tyminski, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, and Emmylou Harris.