October 27 marks five anniversaries—three births, two deaths—of four composers and a musicologist, so we’ll tune in to examples of their output, some of which may be familiar, others less so.
It would be remiss, however, to begin without mentioning that October 27 also marks Black Cat Appreciation Day in the UK. The occasion attempts to rectify the undeserved stigmatisation of black cats, tarnished through past associations with witches and as the embodiment of evil omens. So, we’ll do our bit in support by showcasing feline black and white voices on an equal footing, or pawing, with an extract from Ravel’s enchanting opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (8.660215). It’s the musical duet of mewings between the Black Cat and the White Cat.
Five years ago on this day, we lost Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012), who was among the most prolific and successful contemporary German composers. His Violin Concerto No. 2 (8.573289), written in 1971, occupies a space between the theatre and concert hall. It’s a dramatic work with a role for a speaker, and is scored for a large experimental chamber orchestra. Peter Sheppard Skærved, the soloist on our extract, gives a flavour of this extraordinary work:
“At the beginning, the orchestra starts playing and the soloist strides on stage late, dressed as the semi-fictional character ‘Baron Munchausen’ … Not only does the ‘Baron’ arrive late, but is repeatedly prevented from playing by the conductor, a conflict which rages throughout the work, leading to a momentary Putsch, when the violinist grabs the baton.”
The soloist’s final note in the work is a bit of a death trap. It came up in an interview between Sheppard Skærved and Henze in 1988:
HWH: The almost impossible is always interesting in music. It’s a bit like a circus act—will she, or will she not, fall from the rope? Will Peter Sheppard get the high note at the very end right? Usually, you know, that last note is played too short [laughter]!
PSS: You’re talking about the last note of the Second Concerto, aren’t you? It’s very exposed, almost unplayable—it’s a horrible note!
HWH: Maybe it’s a misprint!
Deryck Cooke (14 September, 1919 – 27 October, 1976) was the English musicologist who put everyone in his debt by constructing the first performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (SWR19042CD), a work which the composer left largely incomplete. The version was first performed in London on 13 August, 1964, with Berthold Goldschmidt conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Purist Mahlerians protested Cooke’s boldness, but general, positive opinion prevailed. Writing in the London Sunday Times a few days after the première, Desmond Shawe-Taylor summarised his impression of Cooke’s version in one sentence:
“The practical result is that the world has gained a new Mahler symphony, and in all important aspects a very good one, which rises to exceptional majesty in the last of its five movements.”
Our earliest birthday anniversary is that of Johann Gottlieb Graun, who was born on 27 October, 1703. Graun was a prolific and admired German composer, if now unduly neglected. His compositions include nearly 100 symphonies, 80 concertos, trios and solo sonatas. The second of three musician brothers, he was a pupil of Vivaldi’s pupil Pisendel and, for a short time, of Tartini himself. He taught Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and in 1732 he joined the musical establishment of the future Frederick the Great, before the latter’s accession to the Prussian throne in 1740. In Berlin he was appointed concertmaster of the new opera orchestra, established by the King. Here’s part of the finale of Graun’s Viola da Gamba Concerto in D major (C10237).
Nicolò Paganini (b. 27 October 1782) was the greatest violinist of his age. He exercised a strong influence on the developing technique of violin playing and, through his virtuosity on the instrument, also influenced the ambitions of performers on other instruments. From 1810 he travelled as a virtuoso, at first in Italy and then, from 1828, abroad, causing a sensation wherever he went, his phenomenal technique giving rise to rumours of diabolical assistance. His career went into partial decline from 1834, followed by a significant deterioration in health. He died in Nice in 1840. As a birthday treat for us, here’s part of the finale of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (CDS260), performed on his very own violin, the famous 1742 Guarneri del Gesù.
Finally, a real-time Happy 90th Birthday to Dominick Argento (b. 1927), who is considered to be one of America’s preeminent composers of lyric opera and choral music. In August of this year, Naxos released a recording of two of Argento’s major song cycles that demonstrate his flair for setting unusual texts to music. From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Music, is based on eight of the writer’s confessional journal entries, while The Andrée Expedition sets diaries and letters from an ultimately tragic balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1897. From Part II of the latter, “On the Ice”, here’s Anna’s Birthday (8.559828).