For many people, the week running up to Christmas Day is a frenzy of last-minute shopping, gift wrapping and chestnut peeling, not forgetting rehearsals for Carol Services and Midnight Masses. This week’s blog post, however, skirts the tinsel and mistletoe to look back at some of the more sober events that took place in this particular week during Christmas Past.
On 19 December, 1843 Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. No doubt author and publisher alike had little inkling of the enduring success it would go on to enjoy, nor the alternative media into which it would be refashioned. Among the more recent of these is Bryan Kelly’s 20-minute distillation of the tale for narrator and orchestra, Scrooge (8.572744). So, put down that chestnut peeler and listen here to Simon Callow setting the opening scene from the work.
Darius Milhaud’s Symphony No. 2 (9.80590) was premièred on 20 December, 1946, with the composer himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Milhaud’s L’Orestie d’Eschyle (8.660349-51) received its world première recording on Naxos earlier this year. It’s a complex work that’s difficult to categorise, and if you’re unfamiliar with Milhaud’s output, this extract from an archival recording of that Second Symphony, played by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, will give you a good taste for starters. It always suggests to me chaotic Christmas traffic circling the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris.
21 December, 1850 was the birthday of the Czech composer Zdeněk Fibich whose early life sounds as busy as the pre-Christmas rush. He was educated at home by his mother up to the age of nine, then sent to study in Vienna for two years before attending a school in Prague, where he stayed until he was fifteen. After this he was sent to Leipzig where he remained for three years studying piano with Ignaz Moscheles and composition with Salomon Jadassohn and Ernst Richter. Then it was a year’s study in Paris, followed by a stint of further study in Mannheim, and finally a return to Prague. This month Naxos released the fourth volume in what is the first complete set of recordings of Fibich’s orchestral works (8.573310). Here’s the atmospheric opening of A Night at Karlštejn Castle.
December 22 marks the birthday of two distinguished Italian composers, Giovanni Bottesini (in 1821) and Giacomo Puccini (in 1858). Bottesini was not only among the most famous double bass virtuosos of his time, but he was also a distinguished conductor (see below) and composer. Known to some as the Paganini of the double bass, he significantly extended the technical possibilities of the instrument. The Naxos catalogue has a wealth of discs devoted to Bottesini’s music, and the Gran Concerto in F sharp minor (8.570397) is arguably his most accomplished and involved composition for the double bass, in which the instrument’s resources are fully exploited with virtuoso passages and adventurous modulations. Here’s the final stretch of the work.
While December 23, 2007 marked the sad passing of that giant of jazz, Oscar Peterson, the same date in 1943 witnessed the birth of Ross Edwards, one of Australia’s most distinguished and versatile composers. After taking lessons at the University of Adelaide with Peter Maxwell Davies, Edwards moved to England for further study with Davies, returning to Australia in 1972. He began writing for guitar in 1994; his Concerto for Guitar and Strings was premièred the following year by John Williams and subsequently performed by Timothy Kain, who commissioned the Blackwattle Caprices (8.570949) from Edwards. Enjoy here the introspective opening to that work.
Christmas Eve, 1871, saw Giovanni Bottesini changing hats from composer/performer to conductor when he directed the first performance of Verdi’s opera Aida (8.660033-34) at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo. You can remind yourself here of that thumper of a march from Act II. Completed in 1869 and built to mark the opening of the Suez Canal, it was another Verdi opera, Rigoletto, thatwas chosen as the opera house’s opening work.
And so the week’s survey ends with Christmas Day. I’ll finish not with musical references to the revered birth to which the date is now dedicated, but to that of a little-known musical collective in North America at the start of the 20th century, a time when the country started to show a substantial interest in the North American Indian culture. Known as the Indianists, their number included one Harvey Worthington Loomis. His 3-movement Lyrics of the Red Man for solo piano (8.223715) incorporates themes from Omaha tribal music. We end with A Song of Sorrow, an appropriate memento for a composer who died on Christmas Day, 1930.