Berlioz and Post-Christian Europe

In the 16th century, the Catholic Church largely collapsed with the Protestant Reformation. The schism and the century of war that followed it led many Europeans to doubt the Christian faith; how could there be competing, mutually exclusive versions of what was supposed to be the ultimate truth about life? In the 17th century, Descartes and Spinoza founded a new Western philosophy we call Liberalism, that was atheist or at least non-theistic in nature. All of Western philosophy since that time has been a response to Descartes. In the 18th century, the “Enlightenment,” that philosophy replaced Christianity as the foundation of Western intellectual culture and politics. Then in the 19th century, the Romantic era, common people and societies began more and more to abandon Christianity. In Europe today that abandonment is all but complete. Only 1% to 3% of Europeans practice Christianity. In the United States many people still practice, but every indication is that after 2 or 3 more generations, we will end up where Europe has.

In 1837 Berlioz composed one of the great musical settings of the Catholic Requiem Mass. He wrote it to celebrate a political revolution, however, not to affirm the Catholic faith. In his memoirs, Berlioz wrote of his great affection for the Catholic Church. Of all religions, he said, “it is the most charming, since it stopped burning people.” Like his father he was agnostic, but in his memoirs we also read, “So greatly am I in sympathy with [the Catholic] creed that, had I the misfortune of being born into the the clutches of one of the schisms hatched by Luther and Calvin, I should certainly, at the first awakening of my poetic instinct, have thrown off its benumbing grasp and flung myself into the arms of the fair Roman.” In 1824, though, after graduating from medical school, Berlioz told his parents that he had decided to pursue a career in music. His agnostic father eventually came around and supported his decision, but his devout Catholic mother cursed him, and wouldn’t see or speak to him before he returned to Paris to continue his musical studies. His memoirs state that Berlioz’s “hatred of those medieval doctrines” began on that day. Writing of the first time he met Felix Mendelssohn in Rome, Berlioz said, “Mendelssohn believes firmly in his Lutheran creed, and I am afraid I shocked him terribly by laughing at The Bible.”

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Thomas Dartmouth Rice: The Original Jim Crow

In 1837, after 11 years spent pursuing his composing career in Europe, Anthony Philip Heinrich returned to the United States. He tracked down his 20 year old daughter Antonia in New York City — he hadn’t seen her since she was an infant, as explained in 1837: A Year in Classical Music, vol. 4. There was a popular entertainer working theaters at the time name Thomas Dartmouth Rice. Here is an excerpt from the transcript of 1837: A Year in Classical Music, vol. 4:

“One New York performer who was doing very well at the time was named Thomas Dartmouth Rice. He put on blackface and did a minstrel show at New York’s Bowery Theater. The songs he sang portrayed dimwitted Southern slaves, and were enormously popular with the Yankees. The stage name Rice used for these minstrel shows was Jim Crow.”

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Ferenc Erkel’s Masterpiece: His Opera “Bánk Bán”

In the upcoming podcast, 1837: A Year in Classical Music, vol. 6, I’ll discuss a very good chamber piece written by the lesser-known Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel. He would go on to compose the great Hungarian national opera of the 19th century, Bánk Bán, in 1861. (The title is the name of the opera’s main character. You’d render it in English as something like Duke Bánk.) Click the link above to purchase a preferred recording.

This marks the second time, so far, that A Year in Classical Music has encountered a composer who’s written his country’s great national opera. Leevi Madetoja would do so for Finland with Pohjalaisia in 1924.

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Berlioz’s Plot to Assassinate Pleyel

Early in 1831, just after Berlioz won the Prix de Rome and began his two years of study at the Academy there, his fiancé Marie Moke — the piano virtuoso he proposed to after his infatuation with English actress Harriet Smithson when unreciprocated — called of their engagement at the insistence of her mother and married piano virtuoso Camille Pleyel (owner of the famous piano manufacturing company his father had founded, Pleyel et Cie), instead. Berlioz, in one of his quintessentially Romantic fits of rage, planned to travel back to Paris while the orchestra at the the Academy of Rome was rehearsing and performing his Symphonie Fantastique to murder Marie, her mother, Pleyel, and then himself. He purchased a woman's maid costume to disguise himself for the assassination, complete with dress, hat, and green veil. He left Rome and traveled by carriage to Genoa; upon arrival there he realized his luggage had been lost and he had to have himself fitted for a woman's maid costume a second time. He made it just across the border into France, as far as the city of Nice, before he calmed down a little and reconsidered his plan. He stayed at Nice for a month, pondering everything and composing the King Lear Overture there. Berlioz's assassination plan fell through when the police at Nice became suspicious of the stranger with a maid's dress and loaded pistols, who had no piano and told them he was composing a music about an English king 800 years ago while he walked up and down the beach. So he returned to Rome to finish his studies at the Academy, and did not assassinate his former fiancé, her mother, or the owner of the Pleyel piano company.

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“Jazz and Romanian Fiddling in Classical Music from 1926” — April 23rd, 2017

The decade that gave us flappers, women's suffrage, prohibition and the Great Depression, also delivered works by music greats Aaron Copland, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and George Enescu. These composers will be featured during "Jazz and Romanian Fiddling in Classical Music from 1926," a recital presented by A Year in Classical Music at the Presbyterian Church of the Cross in Omaha, on 114th St. between Center and Pacific, 3 PM, April 23rd.

Violinist William Wolcott and pianist Yulia Kalashnikova will perform Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, by Copland, its two movements entitled "Ukulele Serenade," and "Nocturne"; Sonata for Piano and Violin, by Crawford Seeger; and Violin Sonata No. 3 — In the Popular Romanian Style, by Enescu. Each piece was composed in 1926.

AYICM creator and host Brian Linnell calls the 1920s, "perhaps the most dynamic decade in the history of classical music. The 1920's heard the mainstream classical tradition inflected with early Modernist techniques, and with many nationalist styles that were addressed by classical composers for the first time, such as jazz and Eastern European folk music."

Wolcott, a protégé of famed violinist Eugene Fodor, is a member of the Nebraska Arts Council's Touring Artists Roster, and has his own teaching studio in Omaha. Kalashnikova, who earned her Master's Degree in piano performance from Russia's Kazan State Conservatory, is a member of the Omaha Conservatory piano faculty and the accompanist for the Omaha Children’s Chorus™.

The Nebraska Arts Council, together with A Year in Classical Music’s sponsors, have made the performance available to the public free of charge; a donation plate will be passed for those who would like to offer the suggested contribution of $10. Donors may also contribute to A Year in Classical Music through its PayPal™ account, by following the link on the AYICM.com homepage. A Year in Classical Music is a project of The Linnell Foundation for Music History, Inc., which the IRS recognizes as a tax-exempt organization under code 501(c)(3). The Linnell Foundation will provide tax-deductible receipts to sponsors who make their donation through our PayPal™ account.

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Matthew B. Tepper’s Berlioz Requiem Page

Hector Berlioz finished two of his most important compositions in 1837, one of them his immense and powerful Requiem. I highly recommend to anyone interested in this piece that you visit Matthew B. Tepper's web page of reviews of the important recordings of the piece, which has been immensely helpful to me in researching these records and choosing my favorite. Mr. Tepper wrote a Master's Degree thesis on the topic at the University of Minnesota in 1983, called Tempo, Style, and Options in Modern Performances of Hector Berlioz' Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5. As for my anxiously awaited recommendation for A Year in Classical Music, which owes much to Mr. Tepper's site and to my correspondence with him, it is forthcoming on my upcoming podcast, A Year in Classical Music, 1837, vol. 5: Bull, Henselt, Berlioz, which will be posted here soon.

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Copland, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the Hoe-Down from Rodeo

Everyone knows the “Hoe-Down” tune from Aaron Copland’s Ballet Rodeo (even if they don’t know who Aaron Copland was or what the name of the tune is):

Copland didn’t compose that melody. His teacher, Nadia Boulanger, had encouraged him as she did all her students to base his compositions on the indigenous folk music of his own country. So we have Boulanger to thank, in large part, for the Americana that colored Copland’s oeuvre. For the “Hoe-Down” movement of Rodeo, Copland harmonized and orchestrated a tune called “Bonaparte’s Retreat” that Kentucky fiddler William Hamilton Stepp recorded for musicologist Alan Lomax in 1937. Ruth Crawford Seeger later transcribed Lomax’s recording, and it was from her transcription that Copland drew the main theme of the famous final movement of his 1942 ballet.

As you’ll recall from my discussion of Ruth Crawford Seeger in A Year in Classical Music: 1926, vol. 9, Seeger was a highly gifted Modernist American composer, but she stopped writing music in the mid-1930’s because she and her husband, the musicologist and composer Charles Seeger (father of Pete Seeger, who would make a name for himself in the American folk music movement of the 1960’s along with Bob Dylan, among others), had developed socialist convictions sufficient to convince them to abandon fine art music, which they had come to see as elitist and of no benefit to the working class and its nascent revolution. From the mid-30’s on, the couple devoted their musical skill to collecting and anthologizing American folk music.

You can find Seeger’s transcription in Jeff Titon’s anthology Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes.

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Princess Christina Belgiojoso

It was Princess Christina Belgiojoso who hosted the Liszt vs. Thalberg duel and commissioned the Hexaméron Variations in 1837, all of which I discuss in A Year in Classical Music: 1837, vol. 3. Liszt’s biographer Alan Walker calls Belgiojoso “one of the strangest and most bizarre women ever to grace the salons of Paris.” Her support of the Italian unification movement made her a criminal, wanted for treason by the Austrian authorities, but she’d escaped arrest and fled to France in exile. (I discuss the Italian unification movement at the start of A Year in Classical Music: 1837, vol. 1.) She sent the money she raised through the Liszt vs. Thalberg event and the publication of Hexaméron to support the Italian revolutionaries.

One of those revolutionaries was Giuseppe Mazzini. Besides being a political revolutionary, Mazzini had been a leading proponent of opera reform. Opera was so important a component of Italian culture, its social influence so far-reaching, that Mazzini had called upon opera composers to recognize and act upon the political responsibility their influence placed upon them. It was Mazzini’s Philosophy of Music, published in 1836, that had convinced Mercadante to write the first of his “reform operas” in 1837: Il Giuramento. I talk about Il Giuramento, too, in A Year in Classical Music: 1837, vol. 1.

Living up to the reputation of French lovers, Belgiojoso bedded many prominent Parisian men, including the Marquis de Lafayette: the military general who’d played a crucial role in the colonial Americans’ defeat of England in the Revolutionary War. When her lovers arrived for these liaisons, there were greeted by a tall, bearded black man wearing a turban and a robe, who led them down a corridor decorated with human skulls and crossbones to her room. Her bed was built high up on a pedestal, like an altar, decorated with ebony, elephant tusks, and white silk drapes.

In 1848 Belgiojoso was arrested, after French police searched that bedroom and found, inside a wardrobe and dressed in formal evening wear, the embalmed corpse of one of her former lovers. She hadn’t killed him; she’d dug up his grave and stolen his corpse, to keep it for herself. Still, she fled Europe to Istanbul. Eventually she was able to return to a unified Italy, living out the rest of her life back at Milan.

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Havergal Brian, Symphony no. 1 “The Gothic”

Of the many 1926 compositions I didn't have time to cover in the podcasts (see "More Compositions from 1926"), the most formidable was Havergal Brian's Symphony no. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic."

The link above is to the best recording of the piece to date: a live performance at the BBC Proms in 2011. Conductor Martyn Brabbins leads the huge performance forces: two full orchestras that include bass oboes, bass trumpets, a 17 part percussion section, 2 harps, a virtuoso xylophone solo in the third movement, cornets and euphoniums, two full symphonic choirs, a children's chorus, four offstage brass bands, 8 offstage trumpet players, an SATB quartet of vocal soloists, and an organ. It amounts to more than 800 performers on- and offstage. It takes around an hour and forty-five minutes to perform. Brian told a friend that the shape, the concept of the symphony came to him all at once in a surge of inspiration, but it took him about eight years to write it out. He did most of that writing at night, after he came home from the day jobs he worked to support his family, and he did so with no expectation of ever hearing the piece performed — he completed the score in 1926, but it was 1961 before before he heard it played. And the Gothic was the only the first of 32 symphonies he would compose through the course of his career. A prolific composer was he, to say the least.

The architecture of the music, its formal construction, is not easy to understand at first. Those who admire it tend to be well familiar with Brian's style, devotees who give his pieces multiple listenings (that, or they're simply better able to understand complex music at first hearing than I am). They're also usually British, and eager to embrace the music of one of their countrymen; where they brought up the Brabbins performance on their stereos, I was probably listening to something by Copland or Hanson, instead. Much of Brian's Symphony no. 1 is dense, complex counterpoint that doesn't leave you with tunes to hum to yourself. Without those big, Romantic melodies it's harder to remember a piece, and memory, after all, is music's canvas. Brian's harmonic language is Post-Romantic, like that of Strauss, Mahler, and early Schoenberg, taking functional tonality up to and beyond its capacity to convey a sense of tonality at all. Furthermore, Brian was not much interested in establishing relationships between his major themes and musical ideas by linking them with transitional passages. Instead, a contrasting idea follows suddenly after the idea that preceded it, to suprising or disorienting effect.

Still, Havergal Brian's Symphony no. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic" has earned a reputation as one of the best overlooked pieces in the repertoire, alongside works such as Suk's Asrael Symphony and Rott's Symphony in E Minor. Richard Stauss read through the score and declared it "magnificent," and Deryck Cooke said that it "reveals the mind of a truly visionary genius." Click the link to the CD at Amazon, above, and read the customer reviews; you'll see just how much those who are well acquainted with the piece love it. It features spectacular brass writing, and it leaves you with much to ruminate over, philosophically: Part One presents an instrumental depiction of Goethe's Faust, and Part Two a setting for choirs and orchestras of the Te Deum.

This is a work worth getting to know.

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Piano Concertos by Mozart and Salieri from 1773

To my surprise… I find the Salieri C Major concerto to be the equal of Mozart's D Major.

Mozart, Piano Concerto no. 5 in D
Salieri, Piano Concertos in C and B-flat

Mozart's piano concertos are my favorite music. My favorite music of all music — especially the last 12 or 14 of the twenty-seven he wrote, together with no. 9 in E-flat, the Jeunehomme. Mozart came closer than any other composer to balancing form and function in music, to resolving the conflicting demands of the subjective and the objective in art. That's what's distinctive about his best work, and I think we hear it in the piano concertos more so than in any other genre — more than in his operas, his symphonies, or his chamber music, for as sublime as they are.

Mozart is best known to popular culture through Milos Forman's film Amadeus — a modern recreation of Pushkin's 1830 play, Mozart and Salieri. A good drama needs an antagonist, so these dramas quite falsely transform Salieri into Mozart's rival and murderer. (I addressed this in an earlier blog post: Amadeus and Moneyball.) Not only that, but in Forman's film, Salieri is portrayed as a barely competent hack, if he's portrayed as competent at all. This, of course, is to make Mozart seem that much more ingenious by comparison. But even if it's fair to say that Mozart was twice the composer Salieri was, Salieri was nevertheless a proficient craftsman, and at his best a fine composer.

Salieri was also six years older than Mozart, so there was a brief period in the 1770's when he was writing the music of his early maturity, while Mozart was still somewhere in-between child prodigy juvenelia and his mature mastery. Our A Year in Classical Music project provides a good case study for those years. In 1773, the 23 year old Salieri composed two piano concertos: one in C Major, and another in B-flat. That same year, the 17 year old Mozart composed his Piano Concerto no. 5 in D — his first serious effort in the genre, following the four apprentice piano concertos his father had guided him through seven years earlier. So, then: how do Salieri's concertos of 1773 compare to Mozart's?

I compared Robert Levin's recording of the Mozart to Andreas Staier's recording of Salieri's. To my surprise, being the ardent fan of the Mozart piano concertos that I am, I find the Salieri C Major concerto to be the equal of Mozart's D Major. Here's how I would grade the three works:

Salieri, Piano Concerto in C: B+
Mozart, Piano Concerto in D: B+
Salieri, Piano Concerto in B-flat: C+

Comparing the Mozart to the Salieri C Major, I give Mozart's first movement a slight edge over Salieri's — but only slight. When it comes to dazzling, virtuosic scales and passagework Salieri can't match Mozart, who creates such elegantly shaped and perfectly proportioned lines with such material, he can support lengthy passages of his sonata forms with them. The passagework in Salieri's first movement is more workmanlike, and the groups of phrases he builds out of it present only half-formed ideas at times; not being the performing virtuoso Mozart was, it's evident to me that Salieri wasn't entirely sure what to do with this component of concerto writing. Even so, Salieri offers greater expressive range, more contrast than Mozart does. He's more thoughtful, where Mozart is lighthearted and playful. The full chords with which Salieri's soloist makes his entrance suggest Beethoven more so than Mozart, and Staier gives us the full Beethovinian treatment with his cadenza.

Salieri is much better than Mozart in the slow movement. Mozart's G Major Andante is well-constructed and graceful and very pretty, of course, but it strikes me as a bit perfunctory and uninspired — especially when heard alongside Salieri's incredible A Minor Larghetto. Salieri employs full operatic drama here, summoning the intensity we associate with the slow movements of Mozart's later, Vienna-period piano concertos. He's is 4 or 5 years ahead of Mozart with this Larghetto: the Salzburg wunderkind wouldn't bring this degree of expressive ambition to a concertante middle movement until the later 1770's: the "Jeunehomme" Piano Concerto no. 9 of 1777, the Sinfonia Concertante of 1779.

In the final movements the Mozart D Major and Salieri C Major concertos, it's a close call. Mozart offers a theme and variations movement. He doesn't venture beyond cheerful, understated, early Classicist expression here — the ethos of Stamitz and J.C. Bach — but his writing within those narrow boundaries is clever, inventive, masterful. Mozart draws a markedly different effect from his theme with each variation, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra is marvelous. Salieri again offers greater urgency and depth of expression with his final movement, and the passagework for the soloist is more effective here than in his opening movement. His finale is more soulful than Mozart's, but Mozart's is more imaginative, and flawlessly constructed. So, advantage Mozart.

That gives Mozart the edge in two of three movements, but even so, Salieri's incredible middle movement — the poignant, delightful suprise on Staier's album, by itself worth the purchase price — makes enough of an impression on me to declare a tie between the two pieces. 

Salieri is less successful with his meandering Piano Concerto in B-flat. Like the C Major its strength is the middle movement, which allowed the opera composer to write an aria — a form he understood and felt confident with — without words. Opera was what Salieri knew and could write well. He hadn't been groomed from early childhood as a pianist, violinist, and symphonist like Mozart had. But even if he falls short with his B-flat concerto, tip your hat to him for producing in his C major a piano concerto more or less the equal of Mozart's in '73. It's something that didn't come as easily to him as it did to Mozart; he rose to the occasion.

(A final note: keep to Staier's performances of Salieri and avoid Pietro Spada, who plays too slowly and saps the music of its vitality.)

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