Monthly Archives: March 2017

Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Home at Last

Near the Peterson-Berger home in Frösö, Sweden

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday April 1st, 5–6 pm… It almost seemed as if Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was never at home. Born 150 years ago, he grew up in a small northern Swedish town, Umea, nearer to Lapland than to Stockholm. He felt hemmed in and he longed for the wider world. When he discovered Edvard Grieg’s mix of moody lyricism, myth, and folk culture, he was transfixed. He knew that he must become a composer.

He left Umea for Stockholm, studied organ and composition at the Royal College of Music, and played piano. Still, he chafed against the worldview of teachers who wouldn’t hear of the modernist Grieg, let alone his other great musical love, Wagner. So he moved to Germany and studied in Dresden. He traveled to Bayreuth to immerse himself in the excruciatingly romantic operatic world of Wagner. He wrote a symphony. He wrote an Oriental Dance.

But then, of all things, he became homesick. He went back to Sweden, to Umea, and wrote little piano pieces. He didn’t know it, but they would become the most-loved music of his career. These Flowers of Frösö (named for a town on an island in a lake west of Umea) were everything Wagner wasn’t: small, innocent, at peace. He bought a parcel of land on the island.

And then, off to Germany again, to teach. But his students from rich families didn’t care about music, and he again was frustrated. He wrote pieces about a Stockholm carnival and about hiking through the mountains. He wrote the words and the music. Sweden called again, and in three years he was back, in those mountains.

But not for long. After a few years he was in Stockholm, at age 28, and for the next 34 years he served as the powerful music critic for the Daily News of Stockholm. “Criticism must be ruthless,” he would say, and he was unrelenting. For two years he also produced operas at the Royal Stockholm Opera—at the same time that the conductor was suing him for defamation. He liked Beethoven, Wagner, Grieg, and the modern August Söderman, but he decried what he believed to be the lessening of standards in much of what was current. Sibelius came under fire, as did Saint-Saëns, impressionists (just about anything French, for that matter), Nielsen, Stenhammar, Alfvén, and Schoenberg.

And he paid for it. Alfvén ran a festival, and wouldn’t play Peterson-Berger’s music. Others steered clear. Still, he was performed a little, and he did receive honors, including a knighthood and election to the Royal Academy.

His Third Symphony is his most successful large work. The Philadelphia Orchestra with Stokowski performed it in 1927, and it is still played to this day. Lapland had been a part of Sweden, and Peterson-Berger quotes five Lapp songs. The third movement contains some of the most gorgeous Swedish orchestral music written at the time, and it sounds—dare we say it?—almost French.

Peterson-Berger built a house on Frösö and lived there after retirement until his death. A friend noticed him on a train, heading to the land of the lake and the island. The composer and irascible critic was looking at the landscape slipping by, and wept uncontrollably. He was going home.

PROGRAM:
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867–1942). Symphony No. 3, Lapland (1913–15)
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907). Sigurd Jorsalfar, Homage March (1872)

From Pi to Prime on Now Is the Time

Another Pi Day, 3/14, just slipped by, so let’s hear the magic of numbers on Now Is the Time on WRTI this Saturday, March 18th at 9 pm. Reginald Bain based his Pi Day on… well, you’ll hear as much of the 3.1415926… sequence that can fit into four minutes and 50 seconds, read aloud over his inventively pulsing music. You can check here to see if he got it right.

From a number the end of which is unattainable we then go to Unattainable Spaces by David Laganella, abstract music based on an abstract painting. We see a recognizable number in Daniel Schnyder’s The Iron Tetrapod, but have no idea what a Quiptych is, until we enjoy a piece with that title by David Evan Thomas, performed by Zeitgeist.

For pianist Jerome Lowenthal, Ned Rorem wrote 75 Notes for Jerry, and for the Baroque/new music ensemble Mélomanie, composer and lutenist Mark Rimple composed Partita 622. Mark Zuckerman’s Proverbs for Four at Fifty sets Hebrew scriptures to celebrate the jubilee of 50th birthdays. Then our numbers program, which started with pi, closes by circling back to Reginald Bain and his entertaining piece The Music of the Primes.

PROGRAM:
Reginald Bain: Pi Day
David Laganella: Unattainable Spaces
Daniel Schnyder: The Iron Tetrapod
David Evan Thomas: Quiptych
Ned Rorem: 75 Notes for Jerry
Mark Rimple: Partita 622
Mark Zuckerman: Proverbs for Four at Fifty
Reginald Bain: The Music of the Primes

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Mackenzie, Holbrooke, and British Music Coming into Its Own

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, March 4th, 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM:

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Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Two British composers populate this month’s Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday at 5:00 p.m. on WRTI. Josef Holbrooke and Alexander Mackenzie were well known and enjoyed success, but they often struggled to gain more than a foothold in performance circles. The reasons, however, were different.

Holbrooke was also a critic and writer. His opinions about music, especially music from outside of England, both rankled and were seen as self-serving. Mackenzie for almost four decades was busy running the Royal Academy of Music, which left him little time to compose. Nevertheless, he helped begin the renaissance of 20th-century British music, of which Holbrooke was a beneficiary.

Mackenzie’s musical family included a violinist father and grandfather. Young Alexander played in his father’s orchestra from the age of 8, and two years later he was studying in Germany. At 14 he was an employed violinist in a German orchestra. He later lived in Italy, and along with becoming fluent in German and Italian, he would become good friends with Liszt, von Bülow, Sarasate, Joseph Joachim, Clara Schumann, Gounod, and Dvořák.

He led the Royal Academy of Music from 1888 to 1924, bringing it to international stature. He conducted British premieres of European works, helped English composers, and among many official honors received the adulation of a 24-year-old Elgar, who said that meeting Mackenzie was “the event” of his life. But for all his national and international success, Sir Alexander Mackenzie was moved by the music of his beloved Scotland. His “Scottish Concerto” is a lively dissertation on folk tunes, a pleasant introduction to this affable composer.

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Josef Holbrooke

“Affable” is the last adjective many people would be inclined to apply to Josef Holbrooke. Like William Henry Fry in America, Holbrooke complained often and loudly about the adulation of foreign composers at the expense, he thought, of homegrown ones. He pulled two of his works from a concert (something his career could ill afford), because the typeface of the foreign soloist’s name was larger than his on the posters.

And yet Hans Richter, Thomas Beecham, and Henry Wood conducted his music; Granville Bantock and others were his friends. He could be humorous and ebullient, but rarely did an opinion form in his brain but that he did not give it out.

His music is filled with sweep, color, and intricacy. Ironically, for all his bemoaning of foreign influence, his work is largely Wagnerian and Straussian. But there is an English warmth and—might we say—an affability to it that is endearing. Mackenzie at the beginning of a new English music, and Holbrooke in the next generation, are two composers who should fascinate us today.

PROGRAM:
Josef Holbrooke (1878–1958). Pantomime Suite (Ballet from Pierrot and Pierrette) (1908)
Alexander Mackenzie (1847–1935). Scottish Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1897)
Holbrooke. The Girl I Left Behind Me, Symphonic Variations (1908)