Category Archives: Fleisher Collection

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)

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)

Charles Koechlin and the Law of the Jungle

koechlinOn Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection this Saturday, February 4th, 5 to 6 pm on WRTI…the music of Charles Koechlin is not performed much; that much is certain. We may even call it, in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth, neglected. While there are logical reasons his legacy may have suffered, we also can’t fully understand why.

The French composer worked at a time when the composers of every European nation were creating, in one way or another, music particular to their countries. There have always been regional colors in music—the Spanish Renaissance is tinted differently from the Italian—but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries nationalism was bubbling up all over Europe. It was fueled by political realities, by the re-discovery of folk cultures, and by Romanticism, which reigned in art, literature, and philosophy.

In France, the standard-bearers of a new French sound were Debussy, Ravel, and then the new generation who followed the modernism of Satie. Where did that leave Koechlin? His music is not the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. It has been called impressionistic, and while it is lovely, it is darker and cooler. Sometimes it is Bach-like in the inner workings of its voices. It is also modernist, but it isn’t the French modern of his time. A German piquancy of atonality runs, like allspice, through Koechlin’s music.

Its being hard to place may explain why it isn’t performed so much. But here’s where we may not understand the neglect of the music of Charles Koechlin: It is downright gorgeous.

Rudyard Kipling wrote his series of The Jungle Book stories in the 1890s, and it grabbed the attention of Koechlin. Today we’ll hear three of his stand-alone Jungle Book works, in reverse order of their completion, although he worked on them over decades. The Law of the Jungle is not the me-first nihilism it has come to mean now. For Kipling and Koechlin, it is Baloo the Bear laying down the governing precepts of civilization to Mowgli the man-cub. It is Confucius rather than Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” A holy man’s mysticism and sacrifice informs The Meditation of Purun Bhagat. Spring Running, the longest, is in four sections: Spring in the Forest, Mowgli, The Running, and (when Mowgli leaves the jungle) Night.

Throughout these Jungle Book works and all of Koechlin’s music runs the aspiration to color (with exquisite orchestration) and concision that is, yes, very French. There is much else, also, leaving us still pondering his neglect.

PROGRAM:
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950). The Law of the Jungle (1939)
Koechlin. The Meditation of Purun Bhagat (1936)
Koechlin. The Spring Running (1908-25)

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)

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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.

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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.