Category Archives: Fleisher Collection

Two Composers Defining America

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday 3 Dec 2016,  5–6 pm on WRTI:

conversebuschFrederick Shepherd Converse (1871-1940): Serenade (c.1903)
Converse: The Mystic Trumpeter (1904)
Carl Busch (1862-1943): Omaha Indian Love Song; Chippewa Lullaby, from Four North American Legends (1918)
Busch: Elegie (1899)
Converse: Flivver Ten Million (1926)

In January we began a survey of the history of American orchestral music with George Bristow, born in 1825. Now in December we end 2016 with two composers who lived into the 1940s, wrapping up an American century with Frederick Shepherd Converse and Carl Busch, representing American music as well as any other two.

New Englander Converse could be a model for the American composer at that time. The son of a wealthy businessman, his musical gifts overrode his father’s desire for him to join the business. He studied composition with John Knowles Paine and George W. Chadwick, then went to Munich and studied with Chadwick’s teacher Joseph Rheinberger. Returning to the States, he taught at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music (Chadwick having in the meantime become its director), then at Harvard. But after only eight years total of teaching, Converse left academia to compose full-time.

He wrote choral, orchestral works, and operas. The Irish-themed The Pipe of Desire was the first opera by a native-born American to see the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The small Serenade for strings was followed by his grand tone poem based on Walt Whitman, The Mystic Trumpeter, premiered by the young Philadelphia Orchestra in 1904.

That and his much later Flivver Ten Million have become his most-played orchestral works. Flivver humorously celebrates the ten-millionth Ford Model T to roll off the conveyor belt. Converse said he wondered “what Mark Twain would have done with such a theme if he had been a musician.”

The Danish composer and violinist Carl Busch studied in Brussels and Paris, and at 25 was invited to Kansas City, Missouri by the Danish consulate there. He formed a string quartet, came to America, and stayed. He became the leading musician in Kansas City, directing the Philharmonic Choral Society and the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.

Busch fell in love with American Western and Native American cultures. Many of his works use home-grown melodies, including, in his Four North American Legends, Chippewa tunes. The so-called Indianist Movement in music, though a short-lived phase, grew out of the urge to find unique American folk elements from which to craft an American classical music. The irony that Americans were partly spurred on in this quest by foreigners has not been lost. Antonin Dvorak famously wrote the very thing in the 1890s while here, and the Danish-American Carl Busch was one of those who led the way.

The Music of Presidents (A Century Ago)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, November 5th, 5-6 pm:

The Star-Spangled Banner: Music (c.1773) by John Stafford Smith (1750-1836); words by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)
Percy Grainger (1882-1961): Spoon River (1919)
Grainger: Mock Morris (1910)
Grainger: Youthful Rapture (1901)
Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry (1902)
Grainger: Molly on the Shore (1907)
Grainger: Shepherd’s Hey (1908)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): La bohème, Mi chiamano Mimi … O soave fanciulla
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Cello Concerto No. 2 in D, 2. Adagio, 3. Rondo (Allegro)


Pablo Casals, 1917

Presidents, like everyone else, bring music into their lives according to their individual tastes, and the White House has witnessed the growing appropriation of music for home life and official functions. George Washington danced a minuet at his 1789 inaugural ball, and in 1801 the United States Marine Band played at the first public reception at the White House, for John Adams.

Thomas Jefferson heard the Marine Band play the popular tune “To Anacreon in Heaven” in 1806. That song would soon be fitted with new words by Francis Scott Key, inspired by an image from the War of 1812. The new song, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was immediately popular, and was made official by the United States Navy in 1889. President Woodrow Wilson authorized its use for military occasions in 1916, and it finally became the national anthem in 1931, during the Hoover administration.

Wilson’s oldest daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, was an accomplished soprano, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a San Francisco world’s fair in 1915. She was First Lady of the White House after her mother died and before Wilson remarried in 1915. It was a family that loved music. We’ve already seen that the president asked Enrique Granados to play at the White House, and Percy Grainger also played a piano recital there in 1916.

The new technology of gramophone recordings had already by then entered the presidential quarters. In 1909, William Howard Taft was listening to records of Enrico Caruso on the brand-new Victrola he had installed in the Blue Room. For composers, his tastes ran from Wagner to Puccini, with La bohème becoming a particular favorite.

Working back to his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, we see an appearance by one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Pablo Casals. He played for T.R. in 1904, and then 57 years later, for J.F.K. in 1961.

Setting the Stage with Richard Wagner

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday October 1st,  5–6 pm on WRTI:

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Die Meistersinger, Procession of the Masters (1862-67)
Wagner: Das Liebesverbot, Overture (1835)
Wagner: Symphony in C (1832)

richardwagnerparis1861Looking over the landscape of American orchestral music covering the 19th and into the 20th centuries as we have been, we see two names—not American—looming large. One is Beethoven, the other, Wagner. They are still huge now; imagine them in the eyes of American musicians then.

We’ve already considered Beethoven’s influence in the past few months, so we’ll pause here for an appreciation of Wagner. As with Beethoven, it’s hard to overstate his influence. While 19th-century symphonic music and beyond cannot be conceived of without Beethoven, 20th-century music would not have begun or developed as it did without the vision of Richard Wagner.

This isn’t just the opinion of those of us living one hundred and more years later. It was the conviction of the composers of the time. Debussy, Strauss, and Schoenberg are just the largest of the names of those who heard Wagner’s siren voice and steered toward it. Many also turned away from it, or so they thought, as time went on. Later generations acted similarly; Hindemith and Boulez both became who they were, in one way or another, because of their reaction to Wagner and Wagner’s one-time disciples.

And what was his voice? What was the magnetic draw of Wagner? Perhaps it can be described like this: He took the tonal language that had been growing in Europe for centuries and stretched it to its breaking point. Tonality had developed a system of shifting between keys or tonal centers (what musicians call modulation) to the point that the shifts could jump quicker and farther than ever before. Because of that heightened activity, music became festooned with chromatics, those note-altering flats and sharps.

Wagner pushed music, many believed, as far as it could go in that direction. He devised swaths of music in which one chord would lead not where you thought it was going, but in any direction. One key could jump to any other key at any time. Rare for any composer, he wrote his own opera librettos, of overreaching pride and forbidden love, and set them in a seething miasma of unsettled and heightened emotional states, bathing them in a dizzying, barely tonal realm. Listeners wondered where they were. Most loved it; a few despised it.

He did not find that language all at once, of course. A lifetime of operatic toil allowed Richard Wagner to develop his voice, heard most universally appealingly (perhaps because it’s a comedy) in Die Meistersinger. It’s a rollicking tale of love, community, and lifted steins, a world away from Tristan, the Ring cycle, and Parsifal. It hearkens back to his early comic opera, Das Liebesverbot, or The Novice of Palermo, based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Even earlier than that, when he was 19, Wagner wrote a Symphony in C. Wagner was not always the operatic composer we know him as now, but had wanted to be a symphonist. Music in America, struggling to make its voice heard against those of Wagner and Beethoven, would need to accept this truth: You have to start somewhere.

Enrique Granados Had Just Conquered America

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday September 10th, 5 to 6 pm.


Enrique Granados (1867–1916): Intermezzo from Goyescas (1914)
Granados: Spanish Dances, Nos. 1–10

Last month we left the Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl in late 19th-century New York City, where he led, at one time or another, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Not too long after, the Spanish composer and pianist Enrique Granados was there, basking in a successful premiere at that same Met. The year was 1916—100 years ago.

It seems odd to devote an entire program of orchestral music to a composer who wrote mostly for piano. But what beguiling music it is. Others couldn’t leave his music alone, wanting to transcribe it for other instruments and larger venues. The Spanish conductor Rafael Ferrer is one; the Fleisher Collection has some of his orchestrations of the Spanish Dances. In their original form they present a challenge for pianists. The brilliant keyboard writing demands not only great power but great control.

Granados did compose a few works involving orchestra, including two operas. He based the second, Goyescas, on his earlier piano pieces inspired by Francisco Goya paintings. Granados and a librettist created a story, and because much of the music was already written, they often worked backward, fitting the words into the music. This Intermezzo from Goyescas is one of his most-performed works, and the opera, the first Spanish-language opera on the Metropolitan stage, did well at the premiere.

He and his wife finally left the United States on a later ship, which went to England rather than Spain, as they had first planned. Granados would have returned to Spain immediately, but a piano-roll company wanted to record him on its new machine, and then he was engaged to play a recital for none other than President Woodrow Wilson at the White House.

He and his wife finally left the United States on a later ship, which went to England rather than Spain, as they had first planned. But then, heading to the Continent from England, their ferry was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Granados saw his wife in the water and jumped in to save her. They both drowned. To add to the tragedy, the part of the ship they were in did not sink; everyone else in that part survived. Amparo and Enrique Granados left behind six children.

Goyescas and Granados were twice ill-fated by this First World War, for at the 1916 premiere the opera was already two years old. Paris was to have had the premiere in 1914, but that was canceled when war broke out.

Anton Seidl died in 1898 at age 47, after a tremendous New York career. Granados, living to 48, conquered the city in his one visit. His music has attracted performers, orchestrators, and listeners ever since.

Anton Seidl and New Music in the New World

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, July 2nd, 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM:

Richard Wagner (1810-1883): Die Meistersinger, Prelude (1862)
Victor Herbert (1859-1924): Cello Concerto No. 2 (1894)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Prelude and Love Death (1857–59)

Conductor Anton Seidl

Conductor Anton Seidl

As we’ve seen this year on Discoveries, the rise of American orchestral music followed composers and orchestras, as you might think. And because orchestras have leaders, we’ve started looking at conductors, too.

We began last month with Theodore Thomas, who not only led his own ensemble but helped start the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In between—along with many other jobs—he directed the New York Philharmonic Society from 1877 to 1891, after having played in its first violin section since 1854. Thomas solidified classic German orchestral literature—beginning with its central voice, Beethoven—in the Philharmonic. He also brought in the new and revolutionary Richard Wagner.

Seidl and Wagner

When Thomas left for Chicago in 1891, the Hungarian Anton Seidl took over in New York. As a boy, he had thought of becoming a priest, loving to read the mass and to preach to his friends. But his love of music, and his adeptness at it, won out. He studied at the Hungarian National Academy, which Franz Liszt directed, then went to the Leipzig Conservatory, and began copying and preparing operas for performance, working with none other than Wagner himself, who launched him on his career as a sought-after opera conductor.

In 1885, after a stint at Bremen’s opera house, he accepted the call from New York and became a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde both had their American premieres at the Met under Seidl. Soon, the Philharmonic noticed, and as he took over from Thomas in 1891, New York was already America’s musical powerhouse. Many other Europeans crossed the Atlantic to perform or to set up shop there.

Antonin Dvořák was one; he ran New York’s National Conservatory for a few years and in 1893 the Philharmonic commissioned his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Seidl had already been at the helm of the Philharmonic for two years, so the world premiere performance of the “New World” Symphony was conducted by Anton Seidl.

Victor Herbert

Someone else who made the American voyage (in 1886) was an Irish cellist and composer who had studied in Germany, Victor Herbert. He took a job at the Met when his new wife, a soprano, was hired there. He also taught at the National Conservatory. Operettas would later make him famous (Babes in Toyland, Naughty Marietta), but he was a gifted composer of concert music. In 1894 Seidl conducted, and Herbert soloed, in the premiere of his most successful work, the Cello Concerto No. 2, with the Philharmonic.

Seidl, being well trained in Hungary and Germany, believed strongly in education. “America does not need gorgeous halls and concert rooms for its musical development, but music schools with competent teachers,” he once said. But the role of friends to help pave the way was not lost on him. He benefited from Wagner’s influence, and he gave back, too. On the boat to America, in fact, who befriended the newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Herbert, on the way to new jobs in New York? It would be the one who had hired them: Anton Seidl.

America Returns the Favor: Theodore Thomas

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, July 2nd, 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893): Piano Concerto No. 2 (1879–80), Finale
Richard Strauss (1864–1949): Symphony in F minor, Op. 12 (1883–4)

American conductor Theodore Thomas in Cincinnati, 1902

American conductor Theodore Thomas, Cincinnati, 1902

For the last few months on Discoveries, we’ve looked at the beginning generations of American composers of orchestral music. In the last decades of the 19th century they began making their way to Europe—mostly to Germany—to study their craft, which they then brought back. MacDowell, Chadwick, Parker, Paine, and others are prime examples of this pilgrimage. Their legacy remains to this day, through their music and their students.

We’ll turn the focus now, however, from the American composer to the American conductor—specifically, to Theodore Thomas, who, living from 1835 to 1905, fits right into this time. As the first music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and as conductor of other ensembles including the New York Philharmonic and his successful Theodore Thomas Orchestra, he is the emblem of the burgeoning life of classical music in the U.S. Thomas is the first truly famous American orchestral conductor.

In another twist from our recent look at American music, we’ll hear two works from Europe that received their world premieres by Theodore Thomas—in America.

It may be that no composer’s career is completely smooth, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s, although extremely successful, is no exception. Nikolai Rubinstein violently dismissed Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto to the composer’s face, but later completely changed his mind. In repentance he offered to premiere the Second Concerto. He would have, too, if he hadn’t died in 1881, so the world premiere went to Madeleine Schiller. She performed it in front of the New York Philharmonic that very year, conducted by Theodore Thomas.

Thomas was touring the U.S. with his own orchestra, mostly in cities with many German immigrants: Philadelphia, Cincinnati (where he also directed its conservatory and led its yearly May Festival), St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. His orchestra was to play Chicago one October night but arrived to find a large part of the city, including its intended concert hall, burned to the ground. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had happened just the day before.

But Thomas was unstoppable. After two stints as New York’s music director in 1877–78 and 1879–1891, he worked with business leaders to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891. He led it until his death in 1905.

Back to New York and the Philharmonic, in 1884 Richard Strauss was only 20 and by no means world famous. However, he was ferociously gifted and just happened to be a friend of Theodore Thomas. The world premiere of the Strauss First Symphony also took place in New York under Thomas’s baton.

And that hints at the other twist in this story of American classical music. It was natural that Theodore Thomas would know the music of Strauss and Tchaikovsky because Theodore Thomas, the first great American conductor, was born in Germany. His family emigrated to the States when he was 10, and so this reversed pilgrimage sparked America’s growth as an orchestral beacon to the world ever since.

The Greatness of Edward MacDowell

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, June 4th, 5-6 p.m.

Edward MacDowell (1860–1908): Piano Concerto No. 1 (1882)
MacDowell: Suite No. 1 (1888–93)

EdwardMacDowellAt the end of the 19th century, many thought that Edward MacDowell was the great composer America had been waiting for. He may have been. But if so, he was a great American composer cut down in his prime. The music of MacDowell is lyrical, vigorous, and at times gripping, but we get the feeling that we are witnessing the first blossoming of a great artist, one about to enter the later stages of a career that never happened.

His mother took the 17 year old to the Paris Conservatory. Already a prodigious pianist, he had taken lessons in his native New York City, even with the world-famous Venezuelan pianist/ composer Teresa Carreño. After top honors in Paris, he moved to Frankfurt, continuing with piano but also studying composition with Joachim Raff. He composed, performed, traveled, and met an impressed Franz Liszt in Weimar, who introduced him to the powerful music publisher Breitkopf & Härtel (which would publish MacDowell’s First Piano Concerto in 1911, three years after his death).

MacDowell also taught piano, and took on an American girl who had come to Frankfurt to study with the great Clara Schumann. Schumann was out of town at the time, though, so the school assigned Marian Nevins to MacDowell. Three years later they married.

The MacDowells moved back to the States in a few years, settling in Boston at the instigation of the pianist and conductor Benjamin Lang. It was a congenial place for MacDowell, who taught and whose work began to be performed by major ensembles. Both his First Piano Concerto and his first Suite for orchestra were premiered in that city, with Lang, in fact, conducting the concerto’s premiere. MacDowell had already composed the piece in Germany and had dedicated it to Liszt. The Suite was picked up by the Boston publisher Arthur P. Schmidt.

America was noticing Edward MacDowell, his success burgeoning from many solo piano pieces and songs. He did write a handful of orchestral works—a second concerto and the famous Second “Indian” Suite, some tone poems—but no symphonies. He moved back to New York City and became the first professor of music at Columbia University. Princeton gave him an honorary doctorate. He was one of the first elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He and his wife bought a summer home in New Hampshire.

All was not well, however. He had battled ill health of various, baffling forms for years, when in 1904 a horse-drawn cab ran him over as he crossed Broadway in New York. His physical recovery was hampered by severe depression and perhaps dementia. Dying four years later, his body was taken to be buried at his summer home, now the MacDowell Colony. His wife, by his side all though his illness, used the proceeds from his publications not only to establish the Colony, but to fund the work of other composers. Marian MacDowell, born in 1857, died in 1956.

Was Edward MacDowell the great American composer? For a time, yes, he may have been exactly that, a great composer cut down on the way to greatness. But even greater, his legacy enlivens countless artistic creators who live, work, and become a part of his beloved summer home.