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This Week In Music History

Ludwig van Beethoven died 192 years ago this week. What else happened to him this week in music history?

The big news of the week is definitely the Mueller Report. Don’t worry, Ether Game isn’t going political. Instead, we’re asking ourselves: what were the big news stories in weeks past? It’s a show we’re calling “This Week In Music History,” exploring the week of March 24–30.

Check out our timely playlist below:


  • The Vienna Philharmonic has their first performance (Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony), March 28, 1842: The Vienna Philharmonic is one of the oldest orchestral ensembles in the world, and they had their very first concert on March 28, 1842, 177 years ago this week. The concert consisted of this work, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and composer Otto Nicolai conducted it—although he wasn’t too keen on leading the orchestra. He was more interested in composing and conducting operas, so the Philharmonic only gave about a dozen concerts in its first six years. They’ve since gone to be the biggest advocates of Vienna’s storied musical history, including the music of the Strauss brothers and Vienna’s famous resident Ludwig van Beethoven. Speaking of Beethoven, a few other notable things happened to him this week in music history. On March 26, 1778 (241 years ago this week), he gave his first public performance at age 7. And on March 26, 1827 (192 years ago this week), Beethoven died at age 56.

 

  • Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony premieres, March 28, 1897 (and dies on March 28, 1943): On March 28, 1897, 122 years ago this week, the first symphony of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff premiered in St. Petersburg, conducted by fellow composer Alexander Glazunov. It was, by all accounts, a bad premiere. In a rehearsal, Rimsky-Korsakov said that he did not find the music agreeable, and Cesar Cui said that Rachmaninoff was “more concerned about sound than about music.” It was a huge blow to Rachmaninoff’s confidence, causing him to give up composing for two years and even seeking out hypnotic therapy to get him out of his funk. But it might not have been entirely Rachmaninoff’s fault. Glazunov was apparently a terrible conductor: he poorly rehearsed the orchestra and showed up to the performance drunk! March 28th turned out to be a doomed day for Rachmaninoff. Forty-six years to the day after this disastrous premiere, Rachmaninoff died, four days before his 70th birthday.

 

  • Happy Birthday Béla Bartók, born March 25, 1881: This week, we wish happy birthday to the man who composed the music we use as our theme music here on Ether Game, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Bartók was born on March 25, 1881, 138 years ago this week. His Concerto for Orchestra remains one of his most celebrated works, and has been a staple of the orchestral repertoire ever since its premiere in 1944 under the baton of Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky. In the work, Bartok highlighted different sections of the orchestra as if they were groups of soloists, hence the name Concerto for Orchestra. The second movement, called “Game of Pairs” or “Presentation of the Couples,” features pairs of the same instrument in succession: bassoons, oboes, clarinets, etc. It was the “game” part that appealed to us, and has been the Ether Game theme music for many years!

 

  • The Florence Cathedral opens with a performance of Dufay’s Nuper Rosarum Flores, March 25, 1436: Dufay’s motet “Nuper Rosarum Flores” is what’s known as an isorhythmic motet, a work where specific rhythmic patterns are related by mathematical ratios. Dufay used an architect’s precision to construct this complex piece—and that’s actually extremely appropriate, given the circumstances of its premiere. On March 25, 1436, 583 years ago this week, “Nuper Rosarum Flores” was first performed at the consecration of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower in Florence (or Il Duomo di Firenze), a glorious cathedral with an epic dome designed by architect Filippo Brunelleschi. As it turned out, the ceremony was a bit early. The Florence Cathedral had been under construction for over a century, and Brunelleschi’s dome took 16 years to complete. But the Pope insisted the consecration take place on the first day of the year, which in those days was the spring equinox in March. It took another five months for the dome to be completed.

 

  • The Royal Albert Hall (another famous domed building) opens, March 29, 1871: In London’s South Kensington district on March 29, 1871, 148 years ago this week, Rossini’s overture to La Gazza Ladra could be heard echoing loudly inside a brand new building. The work was on the bill at the dedication ceremony to the Royal Albert Hall, a beautiful domed concert hall named in honor of the late Prince Albert. Albert was the husband of Queen Victoria, who wanted his legacy to be a number of cultural institutions to the South Kensington district. Sadly, Prince Albert died before the hall was completed. The design was influenced by ancient amphitheatres, and is known primarily for its massive wrought iron dome. That dome caused trouble at that first concert, however. Its shape created significant acoustical problems, resulting in lots of echo inside the hall. The prevailing joke was that the Royal Albert Hall was “the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice.” That echo wasn’t properly fixed until nearly 100 years later.

 

  • Enrique Granados drowns in the English Channel after a German U-Boat attack, March 24, 1916: Enrique Granados became one of the most important Spanish composers at the beginning of the 20th century, known for his enticing Spanish dances and his piano suite called Goyescas. His fame brought him to America in 1916, where he had his music performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Shortly after that performance, President Woodrow Wilson, recognizing that a major Spanish composer was in the U.S., asked Granados to visit and play at the White House, delaying his trip back to Spain. He ended up traveling back to Spain via England aboard the S.S. Sussex in the English Channel. In a tremendous bit of bad luck, this passenger ship was tragically torpedoed by a German U-Boat. Despite initially making it to the lifeboat, Granados drowned in a failed attempt at saving his wife and died in the English channel 103 years ago this week.

 

  • Charles-Valentin Alkan dies under mysterious circumstances involving a bookcase, March 29, 1888: The last week in March involves a lot of composer deaths. We’ve mentioned Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Granados so far, and to that list we can add Modest Mussorgsky (died on March 28, 1881) and Claude Debussy (died on March 25, 1918). But probably the strangest composer death of this ill-fated week took place on March 29, 1888, 131 years ago. It’s so strange, and also probably not true. Charles-Valentin Alkan was a celebrated virtuoso pianist in the mid-19th century, considered to be on par with contemporaries like Chopin and Liszt. The story goes that on that fateful day in March, Alkan, a Jewish man, was reaching for the Talmud on a high shelf when the bookcase came crashing down upon him, killing him. The likely truth was that a coat rack, not a bookcase, fell on Alkan after he fainted. Although, it didn’t kill him. He died later that day of more natural causes.

 

  • Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem premieres not in Japan, March 29, 1941: Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem predates his more famous War Requiem by about two decades. It premiered in Carnegie Hall on March 29, 1941, 78 years ago this week, but the story of its premiere is a little more complicated. In 1939, Britten, along with composers Richard Strauss and Jacques Ibert, were commissioned to write pieces for an unspecified foreign country. Turns out, it was Japan, who was about to celebrate their 2600th anniversary as an empire and wanted some Western music for the occasion. Britten only had about six weeks to complete the commission, so he gave them his Sinfonia da Requiem, an orchestral work that was almost complete and based on the Roman Catholic requiem mass. The Japanese government rejected the work as too Christian and too gloomy, not appropriate for the celebration of a non-Christian nation. By that time, it didn’t really matter: Japan and England had become enemies in World War II.

 

  • John Lennon and Yoko Ono stage their “Bed-In For Peace” on their honeymoon, March 25–31, 1969: The Beatles’ song “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” their final number one single in the UK, is an autobiographical song all about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s whirlwind marriage and honeymoon that took place at the end of March 1969, 50 years ago this week. As the song describes in detail, the two love birds tried to get married in Paris, but ended up getting married in the British territory of Gibraltar instead because of their citizenship. Their first honeymoon stop was Amsterdam, where they staged a highly-publicized “Bed-In For Peace,” followed by a “lightning” trip to Vienna. John chronicles the honeymoon in this song, and recorded it with only Paul McCartney present a few weeks later. When it was released in America, several radio stations banned it because Lennon used the words “Christ” and “Crucify.” Usually this wouldn’t have been a big deal, except three years earlier, Lennon had said that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”

Music Heard On This Episode

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