A point in time: December 8

An article in The Independent caught my eye a couple of months ago; maybe yours, too. A ghostly, unfinished, non-miniature portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots had been discovered layered beneath a later painting. The article about this colourfully tragic monarch gave a detailed account of both the queen and her unfinished likeness. I then noted that Mary was born this day, 8 December, 475 years ago, which led me to consider other births and significant musical events that mark the date.

Let’s start, however, with a nod to Mary herself with John Dowland’s Galliards by Mary, Queen of Scots (8.553381).

The French musician Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was born on 8 December 1724. His profile may not be so well known today, but in his time he was a noted keyboard player and composer. That was during the genteel period of France’s ancien régime. Despite his musical renown and association with the aristocracy, he was able to escape subsequent arrest and execution following the French Revolution; nonetheless, he was fated to die in poverty ten years after that tumultuous turning point in history. Balabstre was spared the chop owing in part to patriotic pieces he composed that ostensibly embraced the ideals of the revolution, the most famous dating from 1792, Marche des Marsellois et l’Air Ça-ira (8.572034-35). Added to which, his daughter married a man associated with the revolutionary government, which undoubtedly helped to save the family from prosecution. A marriage of convenience indeed.

A contemporary of Balbastre, the Czech composer František Xaver Dušek was born on 8 December, 1731. He held an important place in Prague’s musical life and was a friend of Mozart: he welcomed him to Prague when he attended a performance of Le nozze di Figaro; also during the composition of Don Giovanni in 1787 (which Mozart completed in Dušek’s summer villa); and for the staging in 1791 of La clemenza di Tito. Dušek left behind a collection of solo and duet keyboard sonatas, some 37 sinfonias and a number of concertos. Here’s the finale of his Sinfonia in G major, Altner G4 (8.572683), which has a suitable birthday bounce about it.

A number of first performances took place on 8 December in the early 19th century.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (8.553477) was premiered on that date in 1813. In spite of his deafness Beethoven, in his early forties, was at the height of his powers, but the new symphony was greeted by some contemporary critics as the work of a drunkard. Weber summed up this opinion of the work:

“The extravagances of  Beethoven’s genius have reached the ne plus ultra in the Seventh Symphony, and he is quite ripe for the mad-house.”

At the first performance, however, the work was received with considerable enthusiasm. The occasion was a patriotic one, a concert organised by Maelzel, inventor of the new metronome, in aid of the wounded at the battle of Hanau. Here’s the symphony’s closing section.

Verdi’s opera Luisa Miller (CDS523) received its first performance on 8 December, 1849 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. It was a contractual obligation that Verdi write a follow-up work to Alzira, which had been a failure in 1845; not a felicitous starting point. Although Luisa Miller was initially a success, it struggled to establish itself, largely because the cast was not fully equal to the score’s demands. The four leading roles need to have an extended vocal range, with the title role covering more than two octaves. As a taster for the work, here’s part of Rodolfo’s aria Quando le sere al placido from Act II.

Berlioz first discovered Goethe’s Faust in 1828, but it was some years later before the work morphed into his La damnation de Faust (8.660116-17). It was given its first performance on 8 December, 1846, having been composed episodically during an 1845-46 concert tour of Vienna, Prague, Pest and Brunswick. Berlioz claimed to have written parts of the work in a variety of locations: in a German post-chaise, in coaches, trains and steamboats, and in an inn. I wonder where he was when he penned these familiar strains from Part I, Scene 3.

Finally a double whammy of a work that was premiered on 8 December, the composer’s 50th birthday, in 1915, namely Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony (8.550200)—maybe a triple whammy if we add the fact that Sibelius himself conducted the performance. A second and a final version of the work appeared respectively in 1916 and 1919. But Sibelius already had the work in mind in 1912, when he spoke of it in somewhat apocalyptic terms, declaring that he saw himself in a deep valley, with the mountain that he should ascend visible before him:

“God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”


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