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Composer Capsules for
July/August 2009

July 2

Christophe Willibald Von Gluck
Birth: July 2, 1714 in Erasbach, Germany
Death November 15, 1787 in Vienna, Austria
Christophe was the first of 6 surviving children of Alexander Johannes Gluck and Maria Walburga. His father came from a long line of foresters and in 1717 the family moved to Bohemia, where the father would become head forester in the service of Prince Philipp Hyazinth von Lobkowitz. Gluck first studied with the Czech cellist and composer Bohuslav Cernohorsky and later with Giovanni Battista Sammartini in Milan. In 1745 Gluck accepted an invitation to become house composer at London's King's Theatre, where just two of his operas were performed.  A greater benefit to Gluck was exposure to the music of Handel and the naturalistic acting style of David Garrick. In 1747 Gluck received a commission to produce an opera for Dresden to celebrate a royal double wedding that would unite the ruling families of Bavaria and Saxony. The success of this work brought Gluck a commission for an opera to celebrate Maria Theresa's birthday. In 1750 he returned to Prague and married Maria Anna Bergin, the daughter of a deceased rich Viennese merchant. The marriage gave Gluck financial security. Gluck finally settled in Vienna where he became Kapellmeister. In 1755 he wrote La Danza for the birthday of the future Emperor Leopold II. After his opera Antigono was performed in Rome, Gluck was made a Knight of the Golden Spur by Pope Benedict XIV. From that time on, Gluck used the title "Ritter von Gluck" or "Chevalier de Gluck".  Gluck had long pondered the fundamental problem of form and content in opera. He thought both of the main Italian operatic genres — opera buffa and opera seria — had strayed too far from what opera should really be. In opera seria, the singers were effectively absolute masters of the stage and the music, decorating the vocal lines so floridly that audiences could no longer recognize the original melody. Opera buffa had long lost its original freshness, its jokes were threadbare and its characters no more than stereotypes. Gluck wanted to return opera to its origins, focusing on human drama and passions, and making words and music of equal importance. The first result of the new thinking was Gluck's reformist ballet Don Juan, but a more important work was soon to follow. In 1762, Orfeo ed Euridice was given its first performance. Gluck's idea was to make the drama of the work more important than the star singers who performed it, and to do away with dry recitative which broke up the action. Gluck and the librettist Calzabigi followed with Alceste and Paride ed Elena, pushing their innovations even further. In 1770, Gluck signed a contract for six stage works with the management of the Paris Opéra. He began with Iphigénie en Aulide. The premiere sparked a huge controversy. Gluck's opponents brought the leading Italian composer, Niccolò Piccinni, to Paris to demonstrate the superiority of Neapolitan opera and Paris engaged in heated arguments between "Gluckists" and "Piccinnists". Over the next few years the now internationally famous composer would travel back and forth between Paris and Vienna. Gluck would go on to write Armide, Iphigénie en Tauride and Echo et Narcisse for Paris. During the rehearsals for Echo et Narcisse, Gluck suffered his first stroke. In November 1787, in Vienna, Gluck suffered another stroke and died a few days later. Like many other prominent musicians and painters, Gluck was buried in the Matzleinsdorfer Friedhof. When this cemetery was turned into a park in 1923, Gluck's remains were transferred to a tomb in the Vienna Zentralfriedhof. Gluck's musical legacy includes some 3 dozen complete operas, together with numerous ballets and instrumental works. His reforms influenced Mozart, Salieri, Sacchini, Cherubini, Méhul and Spontini. Gluck's greatest French admirer would be Hector Berlioz, whose epic Les Troyens may be seen as the culmination of the Gluckian tradition. Though Gluck wrote no operas in German, his example influenced the German school of opera, particularly Weber and Wagner, whose concept of music drama was not so far removed from Gluck's own.


July 9

Ottorino Respighi
Birth: July 9, 1879 in Bologna, Italy
Death: April 18, 1936 in Rome, Italy
Mostly known for his richly descriptive orchestral Roman trilogy – The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals – Respighi was a versatile composer whose music evokes powerful visual experiences and feelings of deep attachment to cherished places. Respighi's symphonic works are praised primarily for their exquisite orchestration, but they also possess a charm which transcends the merely picturesque. This charm is particularly evident in works inspired by Medieval and Renaissance music, such as the Ancient Airs and Dances. Respighi studied from 1891 to 1900 at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. In 1900 and 1902, he traveled to Russia, where he played the viola in the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. During his two extended visits to Russia, Respighi studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, absorbing the Russian master's ideas regarding orchestral color. In 1903, Respighi began a career as a concert violinist. He also played chamber music, joining Bologna's Mugellini Quartet as a violist. During the early 1900s, Respighi started writing music, but his compositions attracted little attention. In 1913, Respighi settled in Rome, accepting a composition professorship at the Liceo di Santa Cecilia. Enchanted by Rome, Respighi found inspiration in the city's unique atmosphere and created an original, personal musical language, exemplified by The Fountains of Rome. After the Fountains of Rome, Respighi gathered inspiration from early music, introducing Renaissance and Medieval themes into his compositions. In 1917, he composed his first set of Ancient Airs and Dances for Lute, for piano duet and strings. The second and third sets, for strings, were composed in 1923 and 1931, respectively. Works composed in the 1920s reflected both Respighi's fascination with early music and his desire to translate visual sensations into music. The Concerto Gregoriano for violin and orchestra and Quartetto Dorico evoke the spirit of ancient music, while The Pines of Rome describes the splendor of the Roman landscape. In 1924, Respighi was named director of the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, but resigned, two years later to compose full time.  This period included two American tours, in 1925-1926 and 1932, as a conductor and pianist. He also accompanied singers, including his wife, Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, who was also a composer. Works composed during this period include Church Windows and the Three Botticelli Pictures, inspired by three paintings by the great Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.

July 23

Franz Berwald
Birth: July 23, 1796 in Stockholm, Sweden
Death: April 3, 1868 in Stockholm, Sweden
Franz Berwald was one of the seminal composers of the first half of the 19th century, a precursor of the Scandinavian symphonic school which would come to fruition a half century later. His four symphonies are especially significant as they anticipate the works of Sibelius and Nielsen in their streamlined contours and unexpected harmonic and melodic devices Yet as a musician in his native Sweden he labored in obscurity and was forced to make a living in glass-blowing, lumbering, orthopedics, and physical therapy. Berwald’s father, a German orchestral violinist, provided some musical training, but Franz was largely self-taught. At 16 he joined the Royal Opera Orchestra and began to compose. His Grand Septet for Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and String Quartet was premiered in 1828, but it was met with indifference by Swedish audiences. Berwald spent some time in Norway, and then went to Berlin to study music further. From there he went to Vienna where he found an audience for his works. There his opera Estrella di Soria was performed to acclaim. In 1841, he married and the following year produced his First Symphony, "La Serieuse." That same year he returned to Sweden only to find lingering indifference to his music. He continued to compose, writing operas and three more symphonies: #2 "La Capricieuse", #3 "La Singuliere”, and #4 “Naïve”. Failed performances prompted Berwald to go abroad again, unsuccessfully to Paris where he received no performances, and to Vienna where once again he found an appreciative audience for his opera A Swedish Country Betrothal. It was ironic then that in his homeland he obtained neither the post of music director at Uppsala University nor that of court conductor. Thwarted in his first career, the composer was often forced to turn to other endeavors. But Berwald, a kindly and humanistic man, found a rewarding career in orthopedics and in blazing trails in its accompanying physical therapy, specializing in congenital spinal deformities of children. Finally, in his sixties, musical opportunities came his way in Sweden. His first Vienna-period opera Estrella di Soria was performed and earlier instrumental works began to appear in print. He was accepted in the Swedish Academy and made a professor of composition in 1867. But, sadly, Berwald succumbed to pneumonia the following year.

August 27
Eric Coates
Birth: August 27, 1886 in Hucknall, Nottingham, England
Death: December 21, 1957 in Chichester, England
Eric Coates was perhaps the most important composer of symphonic light music in the first half of the 20th century outside the Viennese tradition. He elevated that music genre into a bona fide and influential art form as worthy as that created by the Strauss family. His music is characterized by light emotional expression, colored by splashy orchestration and perky rhythms. It has an elegance and aristocratic air that could capture moods and, in stage works, story lines with deftly vivid imagery. Among his important compositions are the 1930 ballet Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, revised eight years later and re-titled The Enchanted Garden; and Springtime Suite. Even though Coates composed music in a less serious genre, he is regarded by some nearly as highly as England's other important figures from his time, Vaughan Williams, Sir Arnold Bax, and Gustav Holst. Coates was the youngest of five children.  His father was a physician and amateur flutist and his mother was an accomplished pianist. Eric began study on the violin at age six and later took up the viola. He showed no serious interest in composing until age 20 when he entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied viola with Lionel Tertis and composition with Frederick Corder. In the period between 1908 and 1909, he wrote his first vocal works: Four Old English Songs and Stonecracker John. In 1910 he began playing the viola in the Beecham Symphony Orchestra and shortly afterward got a similar post in the Queen's Hall Orchestra, under Sir Henry Wood. He wrote his first orchestral work, the Miniature Suite, in 1911. Two years later, Coates married 18-year-old Phyllis Black, who would write lyrics for him and be of immense help to him throughout his career. Because of a progressive neuritis in his left hand and arm, Coates was exempt from military service during the war years. By 1919, however, the condition forced him to give up his first-chair viola post in the Queen's Hall Orchestra. In 1927, Coates composed his orchestral suite Four Ways, which achieved considerable popularity. Perhaps his greatest success, though, came with the 1933 London Suite, which contained a section called "Knightsbridge." This little march took on a life of its own when it was used to introduce the BBC radio program In Town Tonight, which became familiar to virtually every British listener during its 27-year run. When his wife began working for the Red Cross in 1940, Coates was moved to write Calling All Workers, whose theme was subsequently used by the BBC for another radio show, Music While You Work. The orchestral suites Four Centuries and Three Elizabeths solidified his position as the composer of the most familiar British music of all time. In the postwar years, Coates continued to be active as a conductor in his last years, taking up the baton at one notable Promenade concert in August 1956. The 70-year-old Coates led the ensemble in his Four Centuries Suite and drew an enthusiastic response from the audience. Coates suffered a stroke and died on December 23, 1957.

Copyright©WWUH: July/August Program Guide, 2009

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