Brahms and the clarinet:
During his later years, the German composer Johannes Brahms was a frequent visitor to the town of Meiningen, where the Grand Duke had a fine orchestra that gave stellar performances of Brahms’ music. Early in 1891, Brahms heard one member of that orchestra, the clarinetist Richard Mülhfeld, perform chamber works by Mozart and Weber. Brahms was so impressed that they became fast friends. Listening to Mülhfeld play, Brahms became so enthusiastic about the clarinet’s possibilities that began writing chamber works for his new friend. Brahms was always particularly fond of the female alto voice, whose timbre is similar to the clarinet’s, and so Brahms promptly nicknamed Mülhfeld “Fraeulein Clarinet” or the “new primadonna.” For Mülhfeld, Brahms first wrote a clarinet trio, which was followed by a clarinet quintet, and finally, a pair of clarinet sonatas, both composed in the summer of 1894. These two sonatas were first played by Mülhfeld with Brahms at a private performance in the home of the sister of the Duke of Meiningen on today’s date that year. In November, the pair also gave private performances in Frankfurt for Clara Schumann and at Castle Altenstein for the Duke of Meiningen. The first public performances occurred in Vienna in January of 1895.
Thomson's "portrait" Concerto:
The American composer Virgil Thomson was fond of writing what he called “portraits”—musical sketches of people he knew. When asked how he did this, Thomson replied: “I just look at you and I write down what I hear.” This music by Thomson was a portrait in disguise. It premiered on today’s date in 1954 at the Venice Festival in Italy, identified simply as his Concerto for Flute, Strings, Harp, and Percussion. Thomson later confessed it was in fact a musical portrait of Roger Baker, a handsome young painter he had recently befriended. Born in Kansas City in 1896, Thomson studied music at Harvard, and lived in Paris through much of the 1920s and 30s. In 1940, he became the music critic of The New York Herald-Tribune, and held that post until 1954. Thomson once defined the role of music critic as one who “seldom kisses, but always tells.” But in 1954, Thomson decided fourteen years as a music critic was enough, and it was time to concentrate on his own music for a change. Perhaps not by coincidence, one of the friends who encouraged him to do so was Roger Baker, the artist “portrayed” by Thomson in his 1954 concerto. Ironically, Thomson’s successor at the Herald-Tribune, music critic Paul Henry Lang, dismissed the New York premiere of Thomson’s new concerto as (quote): “mortally fatigued music” and “not one of Mr. Thomson’s good pieces.”
Wagner gets a Ride in New York:
In 1871, one year after the premiere in Munich of Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre,” a German-born American conductor named Theodore Thomas wrote to Wagner asking if he might perform some excerpts of this new work in the United States. Wagner turned him down, probably worried that loose American copyright laws might not be able to protect his new music. Undeterred, Thomas turned for advice to the famous German conductor Hans von Bulow, who suggested Thomas try to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Wagner to plead his case. After all, Bulow told Thomas, Wagner was actually quite interested in America. That meeting never took place, but somehow Thomas secured a manuscript of what would become the most popular orchestral excerpt from “Die Walküre,” its famous “Ride of the Valkyries.” To this day, no one knows for sure how Thomas managed this. Some speculate von Bulow himself provided the music, others suggest the American conductor got his copy from Franz Liszt. In any case, on today’s date in 1872, this music was performed for the first time in America at one of Theodore Thomas’s concerts in Central Park, an all-Wagner evening, in fact. The “Ride of the Valkyries” proved to be a smash hit with Manhattanites. As Thomas recounted in his memoirs, “the people jumped on the chairs and shouted.”
Barber at the Met:
There’s a fun little book entitled “Great Operatic Disasters,” which chronicles some of the humorous—and some of the harrowing—mishaps that have befallen opera singers and productions over the last few centuries… and September 16th seems to have been a particularly unlucky day in the history of opera: Consider that on today’s date in 1782, one of the most celebrated opera stars of the 18th century, the Italian castrato Farinelli, died in Bologna after his dismissal from the Spanish court; on September 16th in 1920, the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso made his last records in Camden, New Jersey; and in 1977, opera diva Maria Callas dropped dead of a heart attack in Paris. And it was on today’s date in 1966 that the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center opened with a gala production of a brand-new opera specially commissioned from the American composer Samuel Barber. Despite an all-star cast headed by Leontyne Price and a lavish stage production designed by Franco Zefferelli—you guessed it—the opera was a flop. Maybe everyone expected too much, or perhaps the lavish sets were too distracting. Whatever the reason, despite its gorgeous music, even today Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” has never found a lasting place in the repertory of popular American works. Maybe it was just the operatic jinx of September 16th?
Ives at Yaddo:
On today’s date in 1946, at the Yaddo Music Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York, the Walden Quartet gave the first professional performance of the String Quartet No. 2 by the American composer Charles Ives. Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 was his first major work—its manuscript is dated 1896, back when Ives was a 21-year-old student at Yale. While Ives’ First Quartet was written under the watchful eye and conservatively tonal ear of the Yale music professor Horatio Parker, Ives Second, composed between 1907 and 1913, is more often than not a wildly atonal work that would have given poor Professor Parker a heart attack. On the first page of its score, Ives provided a kind of program. It reads: “String Quartet for four men who converse, discuss, argue politics, fight, shake hands, shut up, and then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.” From some musical quotations in the first movement of Ives Quartet, it seems the American Civil War was one of the political topics fought over by the four men mentioned by Ives, and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is quoted, along with Ives’ perennial favorite, “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” By 1946, a serious revival of interest in Ives music was underway, and, just one year later, Ives would win the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3. Ives gave the prize money away to other composers, and grumbled: “Prizes are for boys—I’m all grown up.”