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The University of Hartford

Thursday Evening Classics
Composer Capsules for
September/October 2009

September 3

Pietro Locatelli
Birth: September 3, 1695 in Bergamo, Italy
Death: March 30, 1764 in Amsterdam, Netherlands
A child prodigy on the violin, Locatelli was once referred to as the "Paganini of the 18th century". Very little is known about Locatelli's early life and training, other than that he held a post as violinist in Bergamo until 1711. By 1712, he was in Rome, probably studying with Giuseppe Valentini, Corelli's rival. During the subsequent years, Locatelli worked exclusively as a violinist, particularly at the basilica of St. Lorenza in Damaso. In 1725, he was appointed virtuoso da camera of Mantua, a position which allowed him free rein to travel as a virtuoso. In 1729, Locatelli moved permanently to Amsterdam, where he devoted his attention to teaching and composing with an occasional concert tour. He was also involved in importing Roman violin strings and in publishing. By his death in 1764, Locatelli had been successful enough to leave behind a considerable estate. Locatelli's works are mainly for the violin. His most significant publication is probably the Arte del Violino Op 3, a collection of 12 concertos for the instrument which incorporate 24 technically demanding caprices.  These could function as extended cadenzas, but are often extracted and played separately from the concertos. Locatelli also wrote violin sonatas, a cello sonata, trio sonatas, concerti grossi and a set of flute sonatas Op 2. Locatelli worked within the conservative forms of the composers of the Roman school, but incorporated many of the more progressive elements of the Venetian school (especially Vivaldi). With the exception of those flute sonatas, which occasionally have three movements, his other works were almost exclusively in the older four-movement format. Locatelli also made the written-out cadenza a standard part of his violin concertos, a departure from the earlier practice of exclusively improvised cadenzas.

October 1

Paul Dukas
Birth: October 1, 1865 in Paris, France
Death: May 17, 1935 in Paris, France
Although Paul Dukas wrote a fair amount of music, he was a perfectionist and destroyed many of his pieces out of dissatisfaction with them. Only a few of his compositions remain. Dukas was the son of a cultured Jewish banker and musically-inclined Catholic mother. He studied the piano without displaying special aptitude in music until he was 14. While convalescing from an illness, he started composing, and from that point on, he gravitated toward music, enrolling at the Paris Conservatoire when he was 16.  He studied harmony, piano, conducting, and orchestration there under Théodore Dubois and Ernest Guiraud and became friends with Claude Debussy. At 17, he wrote his first two adult compositions, overtures to Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen and Shakespeare's King Lear. He left the conservatory in 1888, frustrated over his inability to win any prizes for his early work. He was drafted into the army and then returned to civilian life as a critic and composer, enjoying his first success in 1892 with the premiere of his overture Polyeucte. The same year, he began the first of several unsuccessful attempts to write an opera.  Instead, he wrote his two most well-known instrumental works: the Symphony in C and The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The latter became one of the most popular orchestral works of the late Romantic era and has since been enshrined in American popular culture through its use in the Walt Disney film Fantasia. For the next decade, Dukas devoted himself to an opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue, while continuing to write criticism and completing his Piano Sonata. Dukas's last major work was the sumptuous oriental ballet La Péri about a man who reached the Ends of the Earth in a quest to find immortality, coming across a mythical Peri, holding The Flower of Immortality. In the last decades of his life, Dukas became well known as a teacher of composition, with many famous students including Joaquín Rodrigo, Manuel Ponce, Maurice Duruflé, Olivier Messiaen, Jehan Alain, Carlos Chávez, and David Van Vactor. After Dukas died, he joined the dozens of other famous people buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

October 8

Louis Vierne
Birth: October 8, 1870 in Poitiers, France
Death: June 2, 1937 in Paris, France
Louis Vierne was born nearly blind due to congenital cataracts but partially regained sight at age six. As early as age 2, he displayed an unusual gift for music.  He studied piano and solfège and later added harmony and violin at the Institution National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris in 1880. There he was befriended by César Franck who, from 1886, gave him private tuition in harmony while including Vierne in his organ class at the Paris Conservatoire. Franck died in 1890 and was succeeded by Charles-Marie Widor as professor of organ. Vierne soon became Widor's assistant, a post he continued to hold under Alexandre Guilmant, and deputized for Widor at St. Sulpice. Vierne took the Conservatoire's first prize for organ in 1894, but his career was spectacularly launched when, on May 21, 1900, he prevailed over four other organists in a competition for the prestigious post of principal organist at Notre Dame de Paris. After being passed over for professorship of the Conservatoire's organ class in 1911, Vierne taught at the Schola Cantorum. His Symphony #2 for organ, completed in 1903, drew the highest praise from no less a critic than Debussy. Vierne’s output of disturbingly eloquent compositions — mélodies, piano pieces, chamber works, mass settings, and numerous works for organ (including six symphonies) — continued to pour forth until his death. During his life, he was deeply affected by a separation and subsequent divorce from his wife, and he lost both his brother René and his son Jacques to the battlefields of World War I. Though he held one of the most prestigious organ posts in France, the Notre-Dame organ was in a state of disrepair throughout much of his tenure at the instrument. He eventually undertook a concert tour of North America in the mid 1920s to raise money for its restoration. The tour, which included major recitals on the famous Wanamaker organs in New York and Philadelphia, was very successful, although it physically drained him. A street accident in Paris caused him to badly fracture his leg, and it was briefly thought his leg would need to be amputated. The leg was saved, but his recovery, and the task of completely re-learning his pedal technique, took a full year during one of the busiest times of his life. Despite his difficulties, however, his students uniformly described him as a kind, patient and encouraging teacher. Vierne died of a stroke or heart attack at the organ of Notre Dame during a public concert on June 2, 1937.

 

Toru Takemitsu
Birth: October 8, 1930 in Tokyo, Japan
Death: February 20, 1996 in Tokyo, Japan
Toru Takemitsu was a self-taught Japanese composer who combined elements of Eastern and Western music and philosophy to create a unique sound world. Takemitsu had no important teachers, and his musical career really began with the formation of the Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) to promote and perform mixed-media art works. Some of his early influences were the sonorities of Debussy, and Messiaen's use of nature imagery and modal scales. There is a certain influence of Webern in Takemitsu's use of silence, and Cage in his compositional philosophy, but his overall style is uniquely his own. It was Stravinsky's acclaim of the Requiem for Strings in 1959 that launched Takemitsu's international career. Takemitsu's fame skyrocketed after the premiere of November Steps, flooding him with commissions and honors that established him as one of the most influential Japanese composers of the century. The next few years produced a wide variety of works including Takemitsu's prolific film work, and numerous new music concerts and festivals that culminated in 1967 with a commission for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. By this time, Takemitsu had begun using traditional Japanese instruments in his music. Takemitsu believed in music as a means of ordering or contextualizing everyday sound in order to make it meaningful or comprehensible. His philosophy of "sound as life" lay behind his incorporation of natural sounds, as well as his desire to juxtapose and reconcile opposing elements such as Orient and Occident, sound and silence, and tradition and innovation. From the beginning, Takemitsu wrote highly experimental music involving improvisation, graphic notation, unusual combinations of instruments and recorded sounds. The result is music of great beauty and originality. It is usually slowly paced and quiet, but also capable of great intensity. The variety, quantity and consistency of Takemitsu's output are remarkable considering that he never worked within any kind of conventional framework or genre. In addition to the several hundred works of music, he scored over ninety films and published twenty books.  He also appeared frequently on Japanese television as a celebrity chef.

 

October 15
Bernhard Henrick Crusell
Birth: October 15, 1775 in Uusikaupunki (Nystad), Finland
Death: July 28, 1838 in Stockholm, Sweden
Born to an impoverished family of bookbinders in Nystad (a part of Finland where the culture and language were Swedish), Crusell obtained basic instruction from a clarinetist in a regional band. He was discouraged by his parents' lack of interest in music, however, and might have found himself bound to another profession had a patron not taken him as an apprentice to a military band at Sveaborg. At age 16, Crusell traveled to Stockholm and, from 1793 to 1833, he was a clarinetist in the Royal Court Orchestra. It is indicative of his reputation that he was for many years the best-paid musician in the entire orchestra. He studied composition with Abbé Vogler, and in 1798 he journeyed to Berlin to study clarinet technique with Franz Tausch, recognized as one of the supreme players of the time. Subsequent travels took him to Paris in 1803 to perform and study composition and to Leipzig in 1811 and 1822 to seek publication of his compositions. For his travels, Crusell studied several languages, becoming fluent in German, French, and Italian. During his years as Court Orchestra principal clarinetist, Crusell performed most of the leading works for ensemble and solo clarinet, learning from each of them and forming his own ideas for composition. Crusell's major works were three clarinet concertos, three clarinet quartets, and a Sinfonia Concertante. As a skilled player of that instrument, Crusell sought to expand its repertory at a time during which fellow players were capitalizing on the advances made in instrument design.

 

Dag Wiren
Birth: October 15, 1905 in Stridsberg, Sweden
Death: April 19, 1986 in Stockholm, Sweden
Dag Wirén showed musical talent at an early age, but did not enroll at the Swedish Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm until age 20. There he studied composition with the conservative composer Ernst Ellberg. Wirén also studied organ at the academy, becoming quite proficient, but never developing enough interest to write for the instrument as he would the piano. Wirén graduated from the academy in 1931 and then departed for Paris, where he would study composition from 1932-34 with Leonid Sabaneyev. There he also developed camaraderie with fellow Swedish composers Gunnar de Frumerie and Gösta Nystroem. Wirén acknowledged that his exposure to the music of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Honegger had a great influence on him, though he still considered Bach, Mozart, and Nielsen his idols. His first serious compositions date to the 1930s and divulge a neo-Classicism tinged by a Romantic warmth. He produced his Symphony #1 in 1932 and the Symphony #2 in 1939, neither making much of an impression. The former was withdrawn by the composer and the latter is often looked upon by musicologists as diluted Sibelius. While his style was still evolving in the 1930s and often not successful, Wirén did produce his most popular composition then, the Serenade for Strings, whose march-like fourth movement has become familiar to listeners the world over. In 1938, Wirén became music critic of the Stockholm newspaper Svenska Morgenbladet. By the middle of the following decade, his style had settled into a kind of early form of minimalism, but with themes, usually short, motto-like creations divulging a more complex and subtle form of evolution, relying on little repetition. During the war years, Wirén composed some of his most important works, including the Symphony #3. In 1943, he composed incidental music for a stage production of The Merchant of Venice and by the end of the war, he finished his String Quartet #. In 1947, Wirén became the vice-chair for the Swedish Composers Association, a post he would hold until 1963. By that time, he was working on his fifth symphony, which he completed the following year. Although Wirén produced a fairly sizable output, he is not widely known outside his native Sweden.

October 22
Franz Liszt
Birth: October 22, 1811 in Raiding, Hungary
Death: July 31, 1886 in Bayreuth, Germany
Franz Liszt was born to a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother in the village of Raiding (Doborján), then part of the Habsburg Monarchy.  His father played the piano, violin, cello, and guitar, was in the services of Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy and knew Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven personally. His father began teaching Franz the piano at age seven and Franz began composing in an elementary manner when he was eight. He appeared in concerts at age 9. After these concerts, a group of Hungarian magnates offered to finance Franz's musical education abroad. In Vienna, Liszt received piano lessons from Carl Czerny, who in his own youth had been a student of Beethoven and Hummel. He also received lessons in composition from Antonio Salieri, music director of the Viennese court. His public debut in Vienna on December 1, 1822, was a great success. He was welcomed in Austrian and Hungarian aristocratic circles and also met Beethoven and Schubert. After his father's death Liszt went to Paris and for the next five years he was to live with his mother in a small apartment. To earn money, Liszt gave lessons in piano playing and composition, often from early morning until late at night. Liszt kept uncertain hours and also took up smoking and drinking—all habits he would continue throughout his life. The following year he fell in love with one of his pupils, Caroline de Saint-Cricq, the daughter of Charles X's minister of commerce. However, her father insisted that the affair be broken off. Liszt fell ill and he underwent a long period of religious doubts and pessimism. During this period Liszt read widely to overcome his lack of a general education, and he soon came into contact with many of the leading authors and artists of his day, including Victor Hugo, Lamartine and Heine. After attending an April 1832 charity concert, given by Niccolò Paganini, Liszt vowed to become as great a virtuoso on the piano as Paganini was on the violin. Paris in the 1830s had become the nexus for pianistic activities, with dozens of steel-fingered pianists dedicated to perfection at the keyboard. Liszt's strength and ability to stand out in this company was in mastering all the aspects of piano technique cultivated by his rivals.  In 1833, Liszt began his relationship with the Countess Marie d'Agoult. In 1835 the countess left her husband and family to join Liszt in Geneva. For the next four years Liszt and the countess lived together, mainly in Switzerland and Italy with occasional visits to Paris. In 1839 relations between them became strained. The countess returned to Paris with their children while Liszt gave concerts in Vienna then toured Hungary.  For the next eight years Liszt continued to tour Europe; spending holidays with the countess and their children. In spring 1844 the couple finally separated. Ironically, this was Liszt's most brilliant period as a concert pianist as "Lisztomania" swept across Europe. Women fought over his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. Helping fuel this atmosphere was the artist's mesmeric personality and stage presence. Adding to his reputation was the fact that Liszt gave away much of his proceeds to charity and humanitarian causes. Liszt had made so much money by his mid-forties that virtually all his performing fees went to charity. After a tour of the Balkans, Turkey and Russia, Liszt gave his final concert for pay at Elisavetgrad. The following year, he settled at Weimar, remaining there until 1861. Liszt had time to compose and during the next 12 years revised or produced the orchestral and choral pieces upon which his reputation as a composer mainly rests. After a lifetime of near-constant sensation, Liszt settled down in his later years. In his final decade he joined the Catholic Church and devoted much of his creative effort to the production of sacred works. He died in Bayreuth on July 31, 1886, officially as a result of pneumonia which he may have contracted during the Bayreuth Festival hosted by his daughter Cosima. Liszt was a prolific composer. Most of his music is for the piano and much of it requires formidable technique. Liszt pioneered the practice of thematic transformation, a method of development which was related to both the existing variation technique and to the new use of the leitmotif by Wagner. Liszt's piano works are usually divided into two categories – “original works” and “transcriptions”, “paraphrases” or “fantasies” on works by other composers. Liszt is also known for the creation of the symphonic poem, orchestral music in one movement in which some literary or visual arts program provides a narrative or illustrative element.

Copyright©WWUH: September/October Program Guide, 2009

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