Classical KUSC

Encounters with Brahms (an occasional series)

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 7/24/2014 9:39:00 AM

   Johannes Brahms

By this time in his life, but really all his life, Brahms (Doktor Brahms) was absolute master of his world, a world which included many of the most astute & serious-minded ladies and gentlemen in artistic Vienna. Unmarried to the end, Brahms had collected in his over-stuffed apartment the treasured objects of a lifetime. He had privately resolved to retire, and was in the process of destroying all his work that he determined to be incomplete or unsatisfactory. He had even retrieved his letters to his late mother and erased them from posterity. Putting his house in order. Late this spring afternoon, Brahms was expecting a visit from young Josef Suk.

Suk had recently graduated from the Prague Conservatory, where he’d been a favorite pupil of Brahms’ friend Antonín Dvořák. At the Conservatory, Suk enjoyed a goodly share of student success as a violinist, but he had ...

Knabe Pianos

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 6/17/2014 11:11:00 AM

Lifetimes ago, Knabe pianos were among the finest in the land, manufactured in Baltimore by a venerable firm and played in home parlors, churches and school rooms, in the White House, and on the concert platform from Tennessee to Tokyo. Today, pianos – grand pianos, square pianos, and uprights – displaying the name "Wm. Knabe & Co." have nearly vanished from the cultural landscape, and a grand American contribution to music has disappeared with them.

The story of Wm. Knabe & Co. (pronounced Kah-nob-aye), is a 19th century tale of earnestness and pluck, salted with intelligence, taste and vision. It begins in 1803, in Germany, with the birth of Wilhelm Knabe in Kreuzberg, a small town near Berlin. Martin Friedrich Knabe, the town apothecary, and his wife Ernestine intended their son Wilhelm for a learned profession. But in 1812, Napoleon’s army marched through Germany, bringing the calamities of war. Like ...

Powerful Medicine

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 5/20/2014 8:34:00 PM

In the 1880s, as a struggling musician in his twenties, Edward Elgar worked five years as "composer in ordinary" at the quaintly-named Worcester City & County Pauper & Lunatic Asylum at Powick. He conducted a motley band and glee club, and composed polkas and quadrilles for the entertainment of patients.

Personally, I've often found Elgar's Enigma Variations more soul-troubling than soothingly therapeutic, as great music often can be. Conversely, the great composer's ode to childhood, The Wand of Youth, is not so great but far more soothing. Judging from the repertoire at Powick (consisting of light fare), music's calming qualities were most sought at the asylum, the superintendent of which believed in the therapeutic powers of music, though he was backed by no official medical sanction at the time.

One-hundred thirty years later, music has been codified as a therapeutic tool. Doctors at hospitals and psychiatric facilities commonly encourage patients ...

Boléro: A Perfect Ten

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 4/29/2014 7:00:00 PM

1. The dancer Ida Rubinstein commissioned Boléro, originally asking for Ravel to orchestrate pieces from Albéniz's Iberia. Instead, Ravel composed an original piece, which received its premiere at the Paris Opéra, November 22, 1928 by Mme Rubinstein's troupe, Walther Straram conducting.

2. In an interview published in London's Evening Standard, February 24, 1932, Ravel said, "I love going over factories and seeing vast machinery at work. It is awe-inspiring and great. It was a factory which inspired my Boléro. I would like it always to be played with a vast factory in the background."

3. The first recording of Boléro, on four 78-rpm sides, was made in January 1930 at the Salle Pleyel, by a pick-up Paris orchestra under Piero Coppola, an Italian conductor and composer active in Paris in the 1920s and 30s who lived to sing the praises of Boléro into the 1970s. Ravel supervised the recording session, ...

Beethoven Photo Essay

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 4/8/2014 1:12:00 PM

The thirteen year old Ludwig Beethoven (sans "van" which he added later once he moved to Vienna). Beethoven was assistant harpsichordist in the Electoral Kapelle, in Bonn. He also composed three keyboard sonatas at this time, posthumously published as WoO47. A notice in the Almanach likened his first published works to those of "a third or fourth-form student."


This is Beethoven at age twenty, still living in Bonn. He had been granted half his father's salary in order to act as the head of the family. He was playing viola in an opera orchestra. Joseph Haydn came through Bonn during that year on his way to London. On his way back two years later he was shown one of Beethoven's cantatas and he agreed to take him as a pupil in Vienna, a decision that would lead to Beethoven moving to the Imperial City.


This is Beethoven in ...

The Magic Flute Without Myths

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 3/23/2014 1:44:00 PM

These things we know for certain. It is the spring of 1791 and Mozart is in desperate debt. He owes at least twelve of his brothers at the Benevolence Masonic Lodge, including thirty-thousand (in today's dollars) to one member, while his annual income has dwindled by half to about forty-thousand. His wife of nine years, Constanze, is pregnant again, for the sixth time, and ill; gone with their only child Karl to the spa at Baden for convalescence.

Faced with such straits, Mozart agrees to collaborate on a Singspiel (a German musical with comic patter) with an old acquaintance, Emanuel Schikaneder (pictured right), a longtime singer, actor and all-around theater hack, five years older than Mozart. Schikaneder recently became manager of the Freihaus Theater on the city's outskirts, so called because it is a free theater, as opposed to a court theater, and caters to the lower brow tastes of ...

Classical Dogs

Posted By: Dennis Bartel · 3/5/2014 6:35:00 PM

Listen closely and soon you will hear, coming from out back of the timpani, the sound of dogs in classical music. Many of the Great Composers kept dogs. Some put dogs into their music.

The Mozart family dog, a fox terrier, was named Bimbes, though the prodigy Wolfy changed her name to the southern German diminutive Bimperl. So pleased was he with this clever dog-eared ornamentation that he similarly re-christened his sister Anna to Nannerl.

Correspondence by the Mozart family is tracked with mentions of Bimberl. Whenever traveling, Wolfy seldom failed to send "a thousand kisses to Bimberl."

At twenty-one, Mozart went with his mother to Paris where the young genius hoped to land a job. But his was a long, dark stay in the City of Lights, and turned tragic when Frau Mozart died.

Back in Salzburg, Nannerl kept her brother informed as to his dear Bimberl, describing how ...

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