After earning a degree in agricultural engineering in Cairo, Halim El-Dabh traveled to outlying Egyptian villages to assist with agricultural development projects. During these visits he became increasingly drawn to traditional music and dance.
Fascinated by the possibilities of manipulating sound, he borrowed a wire recorder from a Cairo radio station and began recording folk songs, religious rites, and vendors’ cries in the city’s streets. The experience gave rise to an early electronic composition using his recording of the zaar, a traditional exorcism ritual, which he manipulated in the studio.
“I was carving sound,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1974. “I used noise like I would a piece of stone”.
That work, later released as Wire recorder piece, was well-received, and became one of the catalysts for El-Dabh’s decision to pursue a career as a composer. In the late 1950s he became associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a hotbed of sonic ferment.
This according to “Halim El-Dabh, composer of Martha Graham ballets, dies at 96” by Margalit Fox (The New York times 8 September 2017).
Today would have been El-Dabh’s 100th birthday! Above, a photo by Robert Christy (Kent State University; used with permission); below, Leiyla and the poet, which brought him international recognition in the early 1960s.
BONUS: An excerpt from Wire recorder piece, often cited as the earliest example of musique concrete.
In the preface to his collection Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica (1619) Michael Praetorius engaged in a play on words, juxtaposing the similar-sounding Latin terms concio and cantio. But the passage is not a mere display of cleverness—it is a theological assertion that musicologists have described as a manifesto on liturgical music.
Praetorius wrote (translated here): “it is essential to the highest ideals of church government, as well as to a corporate worship service, that there be not only concio, a good sermon, but also cantio, good music and singing.” By stating that worship would be incomplete without “good music and singing” he was expressing the underlying premise of his entire career as a Lutheran church composer and cantor.
This according to Michael Praetorius Creuzbergensis: The man, the musician, the theologian by David Susan, a Master of Divinity thesis accepted by Concordia Seminary in 1971 (RILM Abstracts 1971-15384).
Today is Praetorius’s 450th birthday! Below, the Monteverdichor Würzburg and the Monteverdi Ensemble, conducted by Matthias Beckert, perform his Puer natus in Bethlehem from the same collection.
Although he was best known as the guitarist and leader of The Mothers of Invention and other rock bands, Frank Zappa grew up with a keen interest in 20th-century concert music and aspired to be an orchestral composer as well; his scores have been recorded by Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and others.
Appropriate listening strategies for Zappa’s pieces for acoustic concert ensembles should be based primarily on models developed from his more abundant commercially successful output, and less so on the music of early–20th-century composers, such as Stravinsky and Varèse, whose music he admired.
This according to “Listening to Zappa” by Jonathan W. Bernard (Contemporary music review XVIII/4  pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts 1999-44563).
Today would have been Zappa’s 80th birthday! Below, conducting his G-spot tornado in 1992 with Ensemble Modern and dancers Louise Lecavalier and Donald Weikert.
Related article: Frank Zappa and Uncle Meat
Having once considered himself “one of the staunchest opponents of classical music”, Charles Schultz (1922–2000) discovered the symphonies of Beethoven in 1946 and became an avid fan of classical music with a prodigious record collection. He also created the piano-playing Schroeder, a Beethoven fanatic, for his comic strip Peanuts.
A well-worn 1951 LP in Schultz’s collection by the pianist Friedrich Gulda of the Hammerklavier sonata, op. 106, may have inspired a series of strips from the early 1950s in which Schroeder is seen playing this work. The one reproduced above is the only one in which the piece is named, though it still relies on the reader to read music—and German!—for a full identification. Note Schultz’s imitation of German Fraktur script for both the work title and his signature.
This according to “Michaelis’ Schulz, Schulz’s Beethoven, and the construction of biography” by William Meredith (The Beethoven journal XXV/2 [winter 2008], pp. 79–91; RILM Abstracts 2008-8914).
Today is Beethoven’s 250th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter celebrates with the Hammerklavier sonata.
Related articles: Beethoven in Bibliolore
Dave Brubeck helped to rekindle jazz’s mainstream popularity in the 1950s and 1960s with recordings like Time out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and Take five, the still instantly recognizable hit single that was that album’s centerpiece.
In a long and successful career, Brubeck brought a distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility that won over listeners who had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. He experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, Baroque compositional devices, and non-Western modes.
Brubeck did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic, and—a word he particularly disliked—stolid. But his very stubbornness and strangeness—the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone—make the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.
This according to “Dave Brubeck 1920–2012: His music gave jazz new pop” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 6 December A1; RILM Abstracts 2012-10080).
Today is Brubeck’s 100th birthday! Above and below, the composer and pianist in 1964. (Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
The 12 keyboard polonaises of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach were immensely popular during the composer’s lifetime, and they are among his best-known pieces today.
W.F. Bach did not treat the polonaise as a light, unpretentious dance form for dilettantes; rather, he approached the genre with the same compositional refinement and sophistication found in his large forms.
Written during the period when the popular galant style dominated, these pieces display aspects of the older contrapuntal art and a level of complexity that rarely appears in light popular dance genres of the time.
This according to “‘…welche dem größten Concerte gleichen’: The polonaises of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach” by Peter Wollny, an essay included in The keyboard in Baroque Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 169–83; RILM Abstracts 2003-4580).
Today is W.F. Bach’s 310th birthday! Below, the 12 polonaises played on the fortepiano by Slobodan Jovanović.
While Aaron Copland’s works are widely celebrated for their elegant formal coherence, his compositional method was strikingly nonlinear; in fact, he spoke of himself as an artist who primarily assembled materials.
Rather than writing pieces from start to finish, Copland wrote down fragments of musical ideas when they came to him. When it was time to produce a complete work he would turn to these ideas—he called them his “gold nuggets”—and if one or more of them seemed promising he would write a piano sketch and proceed to work on them further at the keyboard.
This piano phase was so integral to Copland’s creative process that it permeated his compositional style in subtle and complex ways. His habit of turning to the keyboard tended to embarrass him until he learned that Stravinsky did the same.
This according to Copland. I: 1900 through 1942 by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984, 255; RILM Abstracts 1984-3448).
Today is Copland’s 120th birthday! Above, the composer in 1962; below, a selection of his “miniature” piano works suggests how he worked with his gold nuggets.
Luigi Cherubini’s Médée was the first new major operatic work based on classical subject matter to appear on a Paris stage after years of lip service to—but little artistic concern with—the heritage of Gluck. The work’s 1797 premier met a lukewarm reception because it attempted to reinterpret the classical tradition in revolutionary terms at a time when the conservative backlash of the Directoire had already begun.
Dramatically, the character of Médée symbolizes the fury of the Jacobin, while musically the colorful mass effects and harmonic boldness of revolutionary opera are matched with stylistic conventions of prerevolutionary composers. The result is an intermixture of musical realism and expressionism that anticipated not only the last works of Verdi and his veristic successors but also the psychological dramas of Strauss and Berg.
This according to “Cherubini’s Médée and the spirit of French Revolutionary opera” by Alexander L. Ringer, an essay included in Essays in musicology in honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th birthday (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969 281–99; RILM Abstracts 1969-1154).
Today is Cherubini’s 260th birthday! Above, the composer as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, ca. 1820; below, Maria Callas sings an aria from Médée in a widely used Italian translation.
Unlike the troubled fictional character of stage and screen, the real Antonio Salieri was described by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the master librettist of Mozart’s operas, as “a most cultivated and intelligent man…whom I loved and esteemed both out of gratitude and by inclination…more than a friend, a brother to me.” He also had a nimble wit and enjoyed jokes at his own expense.
Salieri wrote a memoir that is now lost, but some quotations from it have survived. In one particularly winning anecdote, Salieri is recounting the première, in 1770, of his second opera, Le donne letterate. The applause is vigorous, and the young composer follows the audience out into the street, hoping to soak up more praise. He overhears a group of operagoers:
“The opera is not bad” said one. “It pleased me right well” said a second (that man I could have kissed). “For a pair of beginners, it is no small thing” said the third. “For my part” said the fourth, “I found it very tedious.” At these words, I struck off into another street for fear of hearing something still worse.
This according to “Salieri’s revenge: He was falsely cast as music’s sorest loser, and he’s now getting a fresh hearing” by Alex Ross (The New Yorker XCV/15 [3 June 2019] 26–31; RILM Abstracts 2019-6047).
Today is Salieri’s 270th birthday! Above, a portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler; below, excerpts from Axur, re d’Ormus, one of Salieri’s collaborations with Da Ponte.
BONUS: The finale of Axur as depicted in the film Amadeus.
Related article: Telemann’s wit
Gustav Mahler’s attachment to the idea that art is a mirror of nature can be found echoing throughout his works, including performance indications that refer both to nature in its broadest sense and to specific elements of the natural world.
Yet the pastoral element in Mahler is often presented through a language of brokenness, as in the third movement of his third symphony, where the appearance and disappearance of the posthorn can also be likened to the processes of memory depicted in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, notably the madeleine episode in Du côté de chez Swann.
This according to “In search of lost time: Memory and Mahler’s broken pastoral” by Thomas Peattie, an essay included in Mahler and his world (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002 185–98; RILM Abstracts 2002-7257).
Today is Mahler’s 160th birthday! Above, the composer in Fischleintal in 1909; below, the movement in question.
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