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Cornetist, trumpeter, singer, and entertainer. An early nickname was “Dipper” (or “Dippermouth”) and somewhat later (and more famously) “Satchelmouth” or “Satchmo,” both references not just to physical characteristics but to the hugeness of his sound. Armstrong was one of the most important figures in the history of jazz.
He was born in perhaps the worst slum of New Orleans, but surrounded from an early age by the rich and varied musical culture of that unique city. As a youngster he sang as part of a vocal quartet, and his first instrument was reportedly a tin horn given him by a Jewish family he worked for.
After being arrested in 1912 for firing a pistol on New Year’s Eve, he was sent to the Home for Colored Waifs, where he began playing the cornet and had his first musical training. During his later teen years, Armstrong began playing with trombonist Kid Ory’s Jazz Band, and in 1922 moved to Chicago where he joined the band of King Oliver, with whom he played second cornet. In 1924 he traveled to New York to play with Fletcher Henderson’s band, a stint that had a startling impact on the large-ensemble jazz played in that city. In 1925, back in Chicago, he began a series of recordings under his own name that would become classics of early jazz (“Hotter Than That,” “West End Blues,” “Weather Bird,” and many others). By the end of the Twenties he had emerged as perhaps the greatest trumpeter in jazz, and is largely credited for jazz’s evolution from a collective style to a soloist’s art. In 1929 he moved to New York, and in the next decade became an international superstar.
His appearance in almost 20 films and State Department-sponsored tours in the 1950s and 1960s brought jazz to international audiences and earned him the nickname “Ambassador Satch.” Though he always considered himself first and foremost an entertainer, his solo trumpet playing is remarkable for its brilliance and virtuosity, hot tone, and fluid rhythmic sense. The rough, gravelly quality of his voice (in many ways similar to his trumpet technique) is instantly recognizable and his dazzling vocal improvisations using nonsense syllables, called “scatting,” became widely imitated. Among his hits as a singer toward the end of his career were “What a Wonderful World” (featured in the movie Good Morning Vietnam), “Mac the Knife,” and especially “Hello, Dolly,” the immense popularity of which took him utterly by surprise (the song knocked the Beatles out of first place on the pop charts in 1964). Armstrong’s generosity was legendary, and in later years he could often be found on the steps of his home in Corona, Queens (now a museum), playing his horn with neighborhood kids.
Born in Chicago, performance artist Laurie Anderson studied both art and the violin until age 16 when she decided to stop playing the instrument in order to focus on art and literature. Her passion for reading and art led her to Barnard College where she studied art history. After graduation she studied with Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt at the School of Visual Arts and completed an M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia University in 1972. Music became a part of Anderson’s work in her 1973 performance Automotive (a concert for “nice cars in harmony”) and she returned to the violin (although in an unconventional way) in 1975 when she invented the tape bow violin by replacing the violin strings with a tape recorder playback head and the bow hair with a prerecorded piece of magnetic tape. Sound was produced as she dragged the magnetic tape bow back and forth over the playback head.
Johann Sebastian Bach was the most illustrious member of a musical dynasty in which his ancestors for several generations had been musicians and three of his own 20 children were important composers and performers.
Bach began his professional career at 18 when he was appointed to the court orchestra at Weimar in Germany. Over the next 20 years he held positions as organist, composer, and musical director in other north German cities, finally accepting the post as head of music at one of the major churches in Leipzig, where he remained until his death.
In some respects Bach was a provincial composer who spent his entire life in towns and moderate-size cities of northern Germany at a time when the great musical centers of Europe were London, Paris, Rome, Naples, and Venice. Moreover, although his creative output was vast, very few of his works were published during his lifetime. But while he was relatively unknown, he was both aware of and profoundly interested in the music of his predecessors and contemporaries. As a young man he walked 200 miles to experience at first hand the music of the aging organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. His justification for the three-month absence from his job was that he needed to “comprehend one thing and another about his art.” A major reason for his move to Leipzig in 1723 was the cultural and educational opportunities available to himself and his family in a university city. Bach’s large library of scores and theoretical writings also attests to the wide range of his musical interests, from Italian keyboard collections of the early Baroque to works by such contemporaries as the Frenchman Francois Couperin and the Italian Antonio Vivaldi. He also owned many writings on theological subjects, including the complete works of Martin Luther.
The relatively limited reputation Bach achieved during his lifetime was primarily as an organ virtuoso. In one contemporary account his playing on the pedals, for which he was especially renowned, was described as follows:
Bach deserves to be called the miracle of Leipzig as far as music is concerned. For if it pleases him, he can by the use of his feet alone (while his fingers do either nothing or something else) achieve such an admirable, lively, and rapid concord of sounds on the church organ that others would seem unable to imitate with their fingers. He ran over the pedals as if his feet had wings, making the organ resound with a fullness of sound that penetrated the ears of those present like a thunderbolt. Frederick, Prince of Cassel admired him with such astonishment that he drew a precious ring from his finger and gave it to Bach as soon as the sounds had died away. If Bach earned such a gift for the agility of his feet, what, I ask, would the Prince have given him if he had called his hands into service as well?
Unfortunately, many of Bach’s compositions that were preserved only in manuscript were lost in the years after his death. Nevertheless, the scholarly edition of his known surviving works fills almost 50 large volumes and a project to record them all in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of his birth in 1985 produced over 100 CDs. He made major contributions to every genre of the time except opera, and had he lived in a major cosmopolitan area with an opera house, he would undoubtedly have composed operas as well.
The duties and circumstances of the different positions Bach held largely dictated the focus of his compositional activity. Thus, many of his works for organ date from the periods when he was a church organist, those for instrumental ensemble from when he served Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen as director of chamber music, and his Lutheran church music from his 27 years as cantor and director of music of the four principal churches of Leipzig. The music for the Leipzig Sunday services, which began at 7 A.M. and lasted about three hours, included an organ prelude and postlude by Bach, often improvised, congregational singing of hymns selected by Bach, and a multi-movement cantata by Bach for soloists, choir, and instrumentalists on a text appropriate to that Sunday in the church calendar. In addition to providing music for church services and civic events, Bach’s responsibilities included the musical training of the town’s professional musicians, and daily instruction of the boys at the boarding school attached to the St. Thomas Church. Teaching was an important activity of Bach’s professional life and a number of his compositions were at least partly didactic. On the title of page of one of his important collections of keyboard music, the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach writes that he has composed the 24 preludes and fugues “For the Use and Profit of Musical Youth Desirous of Learning as well as for the Pastime of those Already Skilled in this Study.”
Bach’s thousands of surviving works are considered pinnacles of the art of polyphony, the musical texture consisting of the interweaving of two or more independent but simultaneous melodies. As described by a contemporary:
The strands of his harmony are really concurrent melodies. They flow easily and expressively, never engross the hearer’s attention, but divide his interest as now one, now the other becomes prominent. The combination of several melodies obliges the composer to use devices which are unnecessary in homophonic music. A single melody can develop as it pleases. But when two or more are combined each must be so delicately and cleverly fashioned that it can be interwoven with the others in this direction and that.
There is considerable documentary evidence that Bach’s astonishing mastery of contrapuntal procedures was apparent not only in the works that survive in notation but in his ability to create complex polyphonic works extemporaneously. One famous incident occurred toward the end of his life when he was visiting his son, a musician at the court of the Prussian monarch Frederick the Great. Bach asked the king, who loved music and was a fairly accomplished flutist, to “give him a subject for a Fugue, in order to execute it immediately without any preparation. The King admired the learned manner in which his subject was thus executed extempore.” Upon returning to Leipzig, Bach wrote out a series of contrapuntal elaborations on the royal theme that demonstrate every aspect of the art of counterpoint and dedicated them to the king with the title “Musical Offering.”
Bach may have lived and worked in relative obscurity, but many of his contemporaries who achieved fame and celebrity during their lifetimes are now considered minor figures while Bach is regarded as one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.
Bela Bartok was born in an area of Hungary that is now the westernmost tip of Romania.He began piano lessons at age five and in 1899 was admitted to the Budapest Academy of Music to study piano and composition. After his graduation in 1903, he embarked on a career unusually wide-ranging in its scope and impact. He was a concertizing pianist; a teacher of piano and member of the faculty of the Budapest Academy of Music; an internationally known composer; and a pioneer in the study of Eastern European folk music. In the 1930s, Bartok was among the many intellectuals and artists who came under attack for their protests against fascism and in 1940 he emigrated to the United States, where he continued to perform, teach, compose, and pursue his ethnomusicological research until his death.
Ethnomusicology is the scientific study of music of oral tradition, encompassing tribal and folk music and the art music produced by various world cultures. The discipline, whose origins date back to the 1880s, draws on methodologies of musicology, the scholarly study of Western art music, and anthropology, whose subject is mankind and human culture. Throughout the history of Western music, art and folk music repertories have influenced and enriched each other. The conscious exploitation of folk materials was especially important among 19th-century composers involved in the nationalist movement, who sought to imbue their music with a folk flavor by incorporating folk-like elements and even quoting actual folk melodies. But to Bartok and other ethnomusicologists, folk music was not a source of exotic atmosphere but an expression of human culture worth documenting for its inherent value. Beginning in his early twenties, Bartok and his friend and fellow musician Zoltan Kodaly made numerous expeditions to remote parts of Hungary and neighboring Slavic regions, recording on wax cylinders thousands of peasant tunes. As recalled by one of the singers they recorded:
I was a girl. It happened one Sunday…. The professors…asked my mother to receive them and to agree to my singing into the gramophone for them. They called the machine a ‘gramophone.’ I sang one nice verse, and then another one. It came back sounding so beautiful. The whole village gathered around us. The whole village. Everyone was wanting to sing. The young men sang, the old women sang…. I remember that the professors asked me not to sing songs we’d learned from the soldiers, but only those from the mountain region here. So I only sang ones from the mountains.
From these recordings, the music and text of the songs were notated, analyzed, and codified.
Bartok’s published transcriptions of Twenty Hungarian Folksongs in 1906 was followed in 1908 by the first of his many musico-ethnological studies based upon his folk song research. He also composed numerous arrangements of folk songs—for piano, for voice and piano, for chorus—often publishing his settings alongside the notations of the tunes as recorded from the folk singers.
Bartok’s folk music studies were seminal in the formulation of a strikingly personal language in which compositional practices of art music are fused with melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic materials of Eastern European folk music. Bartok was himself conscious of this profound influence, which he acknowledged in his many lectures and writings about his research and experiences in the field of folk music. As described by a scholar of Bartok’s music:
His music was nourished by his folkloristic studies while the scientific profited by the musician’s experience in both theoretical and practical issues. Viewing it from this angle Bartok was a very rare combination of scientist and artist….And Bartok himself considered his folk music research as entirely equal in importance to his creative activity as a composer.
That creative activity encompassed a broad range of musical genres—opera and ballet; orchestral, chamber, and solo piano works; songs and choral compositions. It is in the design and character of Bartok’s melodies, rhythms, textures, and harmonies that the influence of Eastern European folk music is most apparent. Bartok’s ethnographic music studies brought him in contact with melodies based on scales other than major and minor, which is evident in the modal flavor of many of his works. His use of irregular accents derives from the practice he encountered of grouping rhythms not into repeated patterns of two’s and three’s but into five’s, seven’s and other combinations of two’s and three’s. His textures reflect performance practices in many folk-music traditions that involve the addition of drone accompaniments and improvised countermelodies created through heterophony and parallel motion. And Bartok creates sonorities based on pitch combinations characteristic of Eastern European music in addition to those traditionally employed in Western classical music.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, an important intellectual and cultural center in Germany and the seat of a court that flourished with particular brilliance in the late 18th century. Beethoven’s father, a court musician, recognized his son’s unusual musical gifts and sought to exploit them to his own advantage. Yet despite his scheming, which included representing Beethoven as two years younger than he actually was, and despite the boy’s extraordinary talents, Beethoven never achieved wide acclaim as a child wonder as had Mozart a couple of decades earlier. Indeed, it was not until after Beethoven had permanently settled in Vienna in 1792 that he earned public recognition, initially as a virtuoso pianist, and later as a composer.
Contemporary accounts of Beethoven’s playing stress especially the compelling emotion of his performance and his spectacular improvisations. In the words of one witness:
His improvisation was most brilliant and striking. He knew how to achieve such an effect upon every listener that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs, for there was something wonderful in his expression in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited style of rendering them.
The course of Beethoven’s life was profoundly affected by deafness, whose first signs appeared a few years after his arrival in Vienna when he was in his mid-twenties. At first he tried to conceal his condition because, as he confessed in a will he drew up in 1802:
It was not possible for me to say: speak louder, shout, because I am deaf. Alas, how would it be possible for me to admit a weakness of the one sense that should be perfect to a higher degree in me than in others, the one sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection that few others of my profession have ever possessed…. For me there is no recreation in the society of others, no intelligent conversation, no mutual exchange of ideas. Only as much as is required by the most pressing needs can I venture into society. I am obliged to live like an outcast.
Beethoven’s hearing continued to deteriorate and during the last decade of his life he was almost totally cut off from experiencing the performance of music. At the premiere of his great Ninth Symphony in 1824, he sat among the performers, following the manuscript of the score, but hearing nothing. As reported in a contemporary account:
At the performance, a man went up to him at the end of each movement, tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the audience. The motion of the clapping hands and the waving of handkerchiefs caused him to bow, which gave rise to great jubilation.
Beethoven’s deafness brought his career as a pianist to a premature end. In his frustration at not being able to hear, he would strike the keys with such force that he broke hammers and strings, while in soft passages, he would play so lightly that no sound came out. He was also compelled to curtail his activities as a conductor because of incidents such as one where “the deaf composer caused the most complete confusion among the singers and orchestra and got everyone quite out of time, so that no one knew any longer where they went.”
Beethoven’s social relationships also suffered. Beethoven would speak, but the spontaneity of the conversation suffered because those with whom he spoke had to write down their words. Many of these conversation books have been preserved and are an important source of information about Beethoven’s thoughts, personal relationships, and daily routine. Observers of the time frequently describe Beethoven as eccentric and coarse-mannered, and these qualities seem to have been accentuated by his deafness. For example, he spoke too loudly and often hummed to himself when out walking.
As Beethoven retreated more and more from the world, he directed his energies increasingly to composition, for though he could no longer hear with his physical ear, he experienced music and worked out his musical ideas in his hearing mind. According to his account:
I carry my ideas about with me for a long time, often for a very long time, before I write them down. In doing so, my memory is so trustworthy that I am sure I will not forget, even after a period of years, a theme I have once committed to memory. I change a great deal, eliminate much, and begin again, until I am satisfied with the result. The working-out, in extension, in paring down, in height and in depth begins in my head and, since I know what I want, the basic idea never leaves me. It mounts and grows, I hear and see the work in my mind in its full proportions, as though already accomplished, and all that remains is the labor of writing it out…. You will ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot say with certainty. They come unbidden, indirectly, directly. I could grasp them with my hands. In the midst of nature, in the woods, on walks, in the silence of the night, in the early morning, inspired by moods that translate themselves into words for the poet and into tones for me, that sound, surge, roar, until at last they stand before me as notes.
During the last years of his life, Beethoven was in poor health off and on. Early in the winter of 1826 he became progressively weaker and died in March of 1827. His funeral, three days after his death, was attended by 20,000 people.
Beethoven has long been recognized as one of the towering geniuses in music and as one of the great figures in artistic expression generally. Probably more than any other composer, his music suggests the grappling of a courageous soul with universal meanings and truths. The originality and profundity of many of his works, especially those from the last decade of his life, still astonish and challenge performers and listeners today. His compositions include 9 symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, and one opera as well as numerous other orchestral, chamber, piano, and vocal compositions.
The beginning of Leonard Bernstein’s career as one of the 20th-century’s most remarkable figures in the world of serious music is usually dated as 1943 when, at the age of 25, he was called to substitute for the indisposed conductor of the New York Philharmonic. At this time, Bernstein had studied composition and conducting at Harvard, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts; he had become involved with a circle of popular entertainers who performed at the Village Vanguard in New York City; and he had been employed as an arranger and transcriber of popular songs and jazz. His conducting of the nationally broadcast concert of the New York Philharmonic was praised in rave reviews on the front page of the New York Times and in other newspapers. This critical acclaim thrust him into public spotlight, a position he was to retain for the rest of his life.
Over the next decades, Bernstein conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic, of which he served as the first American-born music director from 1958 to 1969. His warm personality, engaging public manner, and dynamic style at the podium drew large and devoted audiences to his concerts. Millions also learned about music, from standard repertory to experimental styles and jazz, through his radio broadcasts, televised lectures, young people’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic, and from his books on music. He was a particularly effective spokesman for music by American composers, which he programmed frequently. Like John Kennedy, a friend with whom he shared liberal political views, Bernstein embodied a particular image of the American character through his energetic enthusiasm, engaging freshness, photogenic good looks, and ability to communicate with all kinds of people.
Bernstein’s creative output was wide-ranging, from major concert-hall, chamber, vocal music and opera to scores for film, dance and Broadway musicals. He drew upon many musical styles, fusing elements from popular music and jazz with traditional art music practices. His own Jewish heritage finds voice in the thematic material of several important works, including the two symphonies subtitled Jeremiah and Kaddish. But he believed music was an international language and strove to transcend boundaries and reconcile differences through his work as a musician. In his own words, “I count the artist to be a citizen, a politic contributor to the art of living together in this lovely land and on this trembling planet.”
Among Bernstein’s best-known works are Mass, which was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in 1971; the film score for On the Waterfront; the comic opera Candide; and the musicals Wonderful Town and West Side Story. The latter opened in 1957 at the Winter Garden Theater and was Bernstein’s greatest Broadway success.
John Cage was born in Los Angeles. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, he was at the forefront of experimental music both as a composer and as an exponent of new concepts in music. His originality as a thinker may be attributable in part to the fact that his father was an inventor. Cage was not the follower of any “school” of composition. Although he studied privately with Arnold Schoenberg and was a student in his music theory courses at UCLA, Cage’s later music would transcend the total control implied by Schoenberg’s serial techniques in favor of a music free of intention, memory, and personal likes and dislikes. Indeed, Cage’s notions about the materials and experience of music were equally shaped by his study of Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies as they were by his study of the compositional methods of Schoenberg and the music of Anton Webern. Contact with the music of non-Western cultures was also important in the formation of Cage’s style. In the words of Henry Cowell, a pioneering American composer and theorist whose example profoundly influenced Cage, “the future progress for composers of the Western world must inevitably go toward the exploration and integration of elements drawn from more than one of the world’s cultures.”
Cage regarded all sounds, including noise, as legitimate materials for his compositions, so in addition to “normal” musical sounds he employed such untraditional sources as automobile brake drums, thunder sheets, and radios. While studying with Schoenberg, Cage worked in a book bindery and after hours started a percussion orchestra with his coworkers. Cage invented his own instruments for the group drawing on the waste materials found in and around the shop (scrap wood, metal objects, etc.). Years later, in Seattle, Cage was asked to compose percussion music for a dance, but only had a grand piano available to him. Remembering some of the piano pieces by Henry Cowell, Cage experimented with putting small objects between and around different strings of the piano, transforming its timbre so that it sounded like a percussion ensemble. This became one of Cage’s best-known inventions, the prepared piano.
Silence can be as important as sound in a work of Cage. A prime example, inspired by the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, was Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds, composed in 1952 and premiered that same year on August 29th in Woodstock, New York by the pianist David Tudor. In this performance Tudor came on stage, sat down at the piano, started a stopwatch, and closed the lid on the piano keyboard to begin the piece. He followed a musical score with a vertical line drawn on it showing the precise duration for each soundless event, turning the pages as time passed. After thirty-three seconds Tudor opened the keyboard lid and reset the stopwatch ending the first movement. For the second movement Tudor followed the same procedure of stopwatch and keyboard lid, ending after two minutes, forty seconds, and likewise for the third movement, which lasted one minute, twenty seconds.
Cage was, in effect, asking the audience to experience whatever aural events occurred during that period of time as being part of his composition, whether ambient sounds or silence. (In fact, one realizes very quickly that Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds is anything but silent.) Cage’s goal was to let sounds exist purely for their own sake within the time structure that he had established. In his words, the composer should “set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments.” The Woodstock audience, a group of fellow artists and musicians normally sympathetic to the avant-garde, was perplexed by this piece and the first performance ended in a riot.
Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds was the culmination of a search that began for Cage at the end of World War II when he saw what extreme human intention led to in Nazi Germany. He was “concerned about why one would write music at this time in this society?” It eventually became clear to him “that the function of art is not to communicate one’s personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation.” Cage found in the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Changes), with its random procedure for obtaining an oracle numbered from one to sixty-four, an objective model of how nature operates. After 1950 Cage began to use the I Ching to determine the pitches, durations, and other essential aspects of his music; initially by using the coin oracle (tossing three copper coins six times) and later by programming a computer to generate a virtual coin oracle. The result was “chance music,” in which significant aspects of composition and/or performance are governed through chance procedures, like the I Ching, in order to free the music from ego, memory, and taste. With Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds, Cage used the I Ching to compose the piece “note by note,” it just turned out that each note, according to the I Ching, was silent. His compositionRadio Music is performed by tuning to chance (I Ching) determined stations on eight radios, producing a mixture of talk, music, and silence, depending on whatever is on the air at the moment.
Cage also experimented with giving performers greater freedom in their interpretation of his music. The instructions for one work read “for any number of players, any sounds or combinations of sounds produced by any means, with or without other activities” (which could include dance and theater). These experiments were not always successful. At the premiere of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra he found that some of the musicians “introduced into their performance sounds of a nature not found in [his] notation characterized for the most part by their intention, which had become foolish and unprofessional.”
The scores Cage composed as the music director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company were conceived independently of the choreography, so in performance, music and dance simply coexist rather than being consciously shaped as a unified work. In addition to his long association with Cunningham, Cage was a close friend of the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, both of whom depicted common objects in their paintings, for example, Johns’ series of the American flag, or numbers and letters of the alphabet. In explaining this interest in everyday experience, Cage described his intention as “to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of the way and lets it act of its own accord.”
Frederic Chopin was born near Warsaw, Poland, of a French father and a Polish mother. He was a precocious child but largely self-taught in music, receiving most of his formal training during his high school years at the Warsaw Conservatory. In 1829 he toured Germany and Italy as a pianist. On a second tour, which took him to France in 1831, he found Parisian life and society so congenial that he settled there for most of the remainder of his life. His extraordinary playing and personal charm won him many admirers among the aristocracy and in artistic circles. Among his artist friends was the novelist George Sand, the pen name of the novelist Aurore Dudevant, with whom he began a liaison in 1838. After their separation in 1847, tuberculosis, from which he had been suffering for many years, weakened his already frail constitution. He died in Paris.
Chopin’s compositions are almost exclusively for the piano. Of the three major keyboard instruments (piano, harpsichord, organ), the piano is the most familiar and widely used today, and also the most recent. Its complete name is pianoforte, Italian for soft-loud, reflecting the fact that varying the pressure with which the keys are depressed directly influences the force of the hammers that strike the strings and thereby gives the player control over the volume of sound. The piano was invented in Italy in the early 18th century but did not attract serious attention from composers and performers until the time of Haydn and Mozart. At this early period it was a comparatively small, light-framed instrument of delicate tone. By the time of Chopin, at the height of the romantic period, its pitch and dynamic ranges had been expanded to essentially those of the modern piano.
During the 19th century, public concerts largely replaced aristocratic patronage as a major source of income for performers. Audiences of the time expected to be dazzled by the virtuosity of performers they went to hear and many of Chopin’s works are technically very challenging. But despite his popularity and success as a concert artist, Chopin soon retired almost totally from public appearances, preferring to play for small groups of friends and admirers. As he observed about himself, “I am not the right person to give concerts. The public intimidates me. I feel asphyxiated by the breath of the people in the audience, paralyzed by their stares and dumb before that sea of unknown faces.” Indeed, much of his music seems unsuited to a large concert hall setting. Contemporary observers refer to Chopin as a “tone poet” and typically stress the delicacy and sensitivity of both his music and his style of playing it. He was particularly known for his use of rubato, slight pushing forward and pulling back in tempo for expressive purposes. Even his flashiest, most virtuosic works, such as the concertos and etudes, require the performer to balance technical prowess with nuances of tempo, dynamics, and tone color.
After Charlie Parker, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane is probably the most widely imitated saxophonist in jazz. Born the son of a minister in North Carolina, he was something of a late-bloomer as a musician; his earliest recordings, from the 1940s, show only a shadow of the genius he would become. But by the mid-1950s, he was one of the most important jazz musicians on the scene, and the recordings he made with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis (especially Davis’s Kind of Blue from 1959) are now legendary.
A gentle, deeply spiritual man, Coltrane was also obsessed with music: It was not uncommon for him to spend an entire night practicing in his room after playing three sets in a jazz club. His style showed immense authority of his instrument, yet also a deep passion gained from his early exposure to black church music and his experience playing with rhythm-and-blues bands in the 1940s. He is also noteworthy as a composer of such jazz standards as “Impressions,” “Naima,” and “Giant Steps,” the latter—with its complex, rapidly changing chord structure—still a “test” piece for aspiring jazz musicians. Coltrane’s quartet of the 1960s—which featured bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist McCoy Tyner, and drummer Elvin Jones—was, along with Miles Davis’s Quintet, one of the most important jazz ensembles of the decade. This group recorded, in 1964, what is widely considered Coltrane’s masterpiece: the four-movement suite A Love Supreme. This work, inspired by a “religious awakening” Coltrane experienced in 1957, featured in its last movement the “sermonizing” on saxophone of a text Coltrane wrote himself, which is included with the liner notes. Coltrane also became deeply interested in avant-garde jazz of Ornette Colemen and others, recording in 1965 a 40-minute nearly atonal group improvisation called Ascension. Coltrane was strongly interested in Eastern spirituality and philosophy, and some even came to view him as something of a religious mystic (though he never encouraged this trend himself). To this day there is still a Church of St. John Coltrane in San Francisco, which features weekly performances of music from A Love Supreme. His early death from liver cancer, at age 40, was an immense loss to the jazz community.
Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. He was the last of five children and the only child who was not given music lessons. However, he picked up the rudiments of the piano from an older sister and then, on his own initiative, began formal piano lessons and later studies in harmony and counterpoint. He also attended concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At 20 Copland followed the path that had become traditional for young American artists: He set off for several years of study and travel in Europe. He returned to the United States in 1924, thoroughly trained in techniques of French modernism and strongly under the spell of Stravinsky, as evident in works composed at this time. But Copland had also become interested his own national heritage and shared with other American composers a desire to cultivate a style both modern and uniquely American. In his own words:
We wanted to find a music that would speak of universal things in a vernacular of American speech rhythms. We wanted to write music on a level that left popular music far behind—music with a largeness of utterance wholly representative of the country that Whitman had envisaged.
He saw his goal as creating “a musical vernacular, which, as language, would cause no difficulties to my listeners” while at the same time “composing in an idiom that might be accessible only to cultivated listeners.” The attempt to reconcile “low brow” and “high brow” has challenged many American composers of the last century and led to new syntheses such as rock opera and symphonic jazz.
Copland’s American orientation is reflected in the subjects of many of his compositions, for example, the ballets Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944); his scores for films based on stories by John Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder, and Henry James; and orchestral works with such titles as John Henry, Lincoln Portrait, and Fanfare for the Common Man. His quotation of folk tunes and use of jazz rhythms, his sturdy, wide-ranging melodies and energetic rhythms, and the openness and clarity of his orchestration are among the “American” features of his style.
At his death, Copland had become one of the most influential figures in American music. In addition to his composing activities, he was a leader in promoting new music through his books and articles, the concerts he organized and musician’s groups he founded, his lectures at Harvard and The New School, and his teaching of young composers. His own creative work received crucial support through private patronage, prizes, and commissions. His many awards include a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, Miles Davis was one of the most important jazz musicians of the post–WW II period. With a restless spirit and hugely creative imagination, he participated in (and often led) some of the most important developments in jazz after the early bebop records of the mid-1940s. Davis began his career playing on some of the important early bebop sessions, accompanied by musicians such as Charlie Parker. In the late 1940s he began a long collaboration with arranger and composer Gil Evans, which resulted in two of the most important and popular jazz albums ever produced: The Birth of the Cool (1949) and Kind of Blue (1959). The latter remains possibly the best-selling jazz album of all time. In these sessions, and many others, Davis reinterpreted the legacy of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, softening the edges somewhat, and focusing on distinctive sonorities (Birth of the Cool featured a large ensemble that included a French horn). In the late 1950s, Davis explored “modal jazz”—that is, jazz improvisation that is built on a particular scale rather than a chord progression. In “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue, for example, the soloists are given five scales and allowed to improvise on each as long as they wish. Davis’s influential quintet of the 1960s, which featured saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter, and pianist Herbie Hancock, helped redefine the role of the rhythm section in jazz (making it an equal partner with the other soloists) and often featured loose improvisations on melodic motives and tonal centers, rather than chords. In the late 1960s, strongly influenced by rock and soul groups (especially Sly and the Family Stone), Davis made the controversial move to amplified instruments and rock-based rhythms, particularly in his album Bitches Brew (1970). He is considered at the forefront of the jazz-rock fusion movement, and many alumni from his group (including Shorter and Hancock) went on to play with highly successful fusion groups. In the 1980s, Davis continued to remain relevant by surrounding himself with younger musicians and recording current popular songs, such as “Human Nature,” featured on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. In 2006, Davis was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was one of Europe’s most accomplished composers of the latter 19thcentury and one of the most influential figures of the nationalist movement in what is now Czechoslovakia. His romantic orchestral, choral, and chamber works were often influenced by Slovic and other Eastern European folk music.
In 1892 Dvorak accepted a position at the National Conservatory of Music in New York to teach composition and orchestration and to conduct the choir and orchestra. The following year Dvorak composed one of his most famous pieces, Symphony no. 9, From the New World, which was premiered in Carnegie Hall in December of 1893. Based on simple pentatonic themes, which Dvorak believed were common to Native American and African American folk music, the piece occasionally evokes a feeling of African American spirituals and includes a fragment from “Swing Low Sweet Chariots” in the G major theme of the work.
In 1893 Dvorak penned an article in the New York Herald in which he urged American composers to turn to their own folk music, particularly African American melodies and Native American chants, as source material for compositions that would reflect a distinctly “American” flavor. While a number of composers tried unsuccessfully to work with Native American materials, black spirituals influenced the works of a number of American composers including George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, William Grant Still, Harry Burleigh, and Duke Ellington.
Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, singer/songwriter/poet Bob Dylan is the most influential popular folk singer in the post–WW II years. After a year of college Dylan dropped out of the University of Minnesota and in early 1961 arrived in Greenwich Village where he became a rising star in the burgeoning folk music scene. His gruff voice and wailing harmonica on his first recording of traditional ballads, blues, and gospel songs made for Columbia Records in 1962 became his trademark. On his second album,Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), he demonstrated his prowess as a brilliant songwriter with such pieces as “Blowing in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice Its All Right.” The former established Dylan as a national figure when the popular folk trio Peter Paul, and Mary made the song a hit in 1963. Over the next two years Dylan turned out a number of topical songs in the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger tradition. Pieces such as “Masters of War,” “It’s a Hard Rain Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are a Changing,” “With God on Our Side,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “Oxford Town” were seething indictments of war and racism in America. These protest songs earned him the title of “the voice of the new generation,” a role he would soon reject. As he matured, his lyrics began to become more abstract and surreal in songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Back Pages.”
Ellington was born into a middle-class black Washington family. His father was a butler in the White House and had the means to provide his son with a solid education and cultural opportunities, including piano lessons. For a brief period after winning a high school poster designing contest, Ellington ran his own sign-making business. However, he soon gave up commercial art to play piano in Washington clubs, then in 1923 moved to New York where he became leader of a small combo. In the late 1920s his band began a five-year stint at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, which established him as a pianist, composer, and arranger of genius and originality. Recordings and international tours over the next decades spread the reputation of Ellington’s band and at his death in 1974 he was widely recognized as perhaps the most versatile and accomplished creative force in the history of jazz. His many honors include presidential medals, honorary degrees, and keys to many cities all over the world. He earned the nickname “Duke” early in life because of his personal refinement and elegance.
Among the sources of Ellington’s music are the blues, the “hot” style of solo improvisation, and images of urban life (“Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Harlem Air-Shaft”). His compositions have been estimated at six thousand, including popular songs, instrumental pieces, film scores, musical comedies, ballets, and an opera. He was the first jazz composer to enlarge the scope of jazz composition, extending the length of individual works and employing devices of thematic treatment associated with the Western classical tradition. In the last decade of his life he devoted himself especially to writing sacred music, a natural expression of his deep religious faith. Although he was an extraordinary pianist, Ellington generally gave himself only a modest role in his music, commenting that “my instrument is not the piano, it’s the orchestra.” Indeed, his compositions characteristically feature other members of his band. These included many of the best musicians of the time, and Ellington’s arrangements and orchestrations were always heavily influenced by their personalities. As the membership of the band changed, so did Ellington’s style so that many of his works have been recorded in quite different interpretations.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Brooklyn-born George Gershwin began his musical career as a Tin Pan Alley pianist and songwriter, quickly rising to prominence as a writer for the Broadway stage and composer of orchestral works. Gershwin began taking formal piano lessons at the age of twelve, and as a teenager worked as a house pianist in a musical publishing house in Midtown’s legendary Tin Pan Alley. There he absorbed the sounds of musical theater, Broadway popular songs, and ragtime. His first hit song, “Swanee” (written in 1919 with lyrics by B. G. DeSylvia) sold over a million copies when popularized by the famous singer Al Jolson, and propelled Gershwin onto the Broadway Stage where he would write some of America’s most notable musicals. His most successful shows, including Lady, Be Good (1924), Oh Kay(1926), Funny Face (1927), and Girl Crazy (1930), were written in collaboration with his lyricist brother Ira Gershwin (1896–1983) and featured songs heavily influenced by the syncopated rhythms and blues tonality of ragtime and early jazz. Gershwin’s musicals helped define the modern American musical that moved beyond the vaudeville-derived review to a show with an integrated plot and sophisticated musical score.
Although he lacked formal conservatory training in music theory, composition, and orchestration, Gershwin nonetheless was determined to write serious music. In 1924 his first extended orchestral composition,Rhapsody in Blue, premiered in a concert of new works billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Gershwin’s Rhapsody was built around five distinctive themes that reflected his genius as writer of memorable melodies, and incorporated syncopated rhythms, blues tonalities, and jazzy instrumental shadings (such as the use of muted brass). The success of Rhapsody and his subsequent compositions Concerto in F(1925) and An American in Paris (1928) established him as a leading figure in the emerging symphonic jazz movement that sought to create extended compositions by fusing European orchestral forms and instrumentation with jazz-inflected rhythms and tonalities.
Gershwin’s achievements with symphonic jazz in the 1920s and the sophisticated operettas of the 1930s—Strike Up the Band (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931, the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize), andLet’m Eat Cake (1933)—led critics of both decades to cast him as a contender for the honor of creating the first distinctly American opera. In 1935 he premiered Porgy and Bess, based on the 1926 novel Porgy— DuBose Heyward’s wistful tale of life, love, and death in Catfish Row, a semi-fictitious black slum situated adjacent to the bustling docks of Charleston, South Carolina, the author’s hometown. Part opera and part Broadway musical, Porgy and Bess remains one of America’s most enduring staged works, and produced several of Gershwin’s most memorable songs including “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Loves You Porgy.”
In 1936 Gershwin relocated in Los Angeles and the following year wrote the soundtrack for the popular movie Shall We Dance staring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But that year Gershwin unexpectedly fell ill and died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. Today his songs, musicals, and opera endure and he remains one of America’s most beloved songwriters and perhaps its most popular composer.
Jazz trumpeter, pianist, arranger and composer. Along with Charlie “Yardbird” (or “Bird”) Parker, Gillespie is credited as one of the founding fathers of modern jazz. He was originally self-taught on a variety of instruments, but in 1933 he attended the Laurinberg Institute in North Carolina. After two years playing trumpet with the school’s band, he moved to Philadelphia, where he met trumpeter Charlie Shavers. It was through Shavers that Gillespie was introduced to the artistry of his great musical hero, trumpeter Roy Eldridge; in fact, many of his early solos are very much in Eldridge’s style. It was in Philadelphia that Gillespie’s clowning earned him the nickname “Dizzy” (sometimes shortened to “Diz.”). Gillespie moved to New York in 1937, and joined singer Cab Calloway’s band in 1939. It was in this band that the trumpeter met Afro-Cuban percussionist Mario Bauzá, sparking a lifelong interest in the fusion of jazz and Latin American music. Gillespie also provided some imaginative compositions and arrangements for Calloway’s ensemble. Gillespie first met Parker in 1940, and was soon participating in the after-hours jam sessions that would give rise to the new jazz style known as “bebop.” Gillespie made a variety of important recordings with Parker before the latter’s premature death in 1955. He performed with some of the most important jazz artists of his day, and, with conga player Chano Pozo, made some of the earliest explorations into the fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban music, the most famous being “Manteca” of 1947. In the 1950s, Gillespie toured internationally for the State Department. In the 1980s, he returned to work with small groups, often with younger musicians, and continued performing up to the time of his death. He usually played a peculiarly bent horn, which, though originally the result of accidental damage, produced a tone he preferred. It is now housed in the Smithsonian Institution.
George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, a town in northern Germany where he received his early musical instruction from a local organist. In accordance with his father’s wishes, he prepared for a career in law. On his father’s death in 1703, Handel moved to Hamburg where his first two operas were successfully staged. In 1706 he accepted an invitation to Italy. The dramatic and Latin church music he composed during his three years in Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice reveal the profound influence of his contacts with Italian musicians, particularly in his development of a richly expressive melodic style. In the words of one historian, “He arrived in Italy a gifted but crude composer with an uncertain command of form, and left it a polished and fully equipped artist.” In 1709 Handel accepted a position in Hanover, Germany, but with the provision that he be granted a year’s leave in London. He enjoyed considerable success with both the English nobility and public and in 1712 he returned to London, which became his home for the rest of his life.
Handel composed a phenomenal number of vocal and instrumental compositions, many of them intended for public performance for the rising English middle class. The pressures of continually producing new works led him to reuse his own material and to draw on that of others, generally without attribution. When asked about his borrowing from one particular composer, Handel is reported to have responded that the material in question was “much too good for him, he did not know what to do with it.”
Handel was particularly drawn to composing operas on Italian librettos, which during the Baroque period favored stories from Greek mythology and ancient history. The plots provided a loose framework for extravagant display of vocal virtuosity that, along with lavish scenic effects, drew audiences to hear their favorite singers. Numerous contemporary accounts describe audiences talking, eating, and playing cards during the recitatives, waiting for their favorite singer’s next aria. One of the bizarre manifestations of this superstar adulation was the castrati, male sopranos and altos whose change of voice had been surgically prevented during puberty. The practice, originally associated with the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, continued into the 19th century and is said to have produced voices with the purity and range of a boy but the strength and endurance of a man. The career of one of the most famous castrati of Handel’s day is the subject of the 1995 film, Farinelli. Leading male roles were assigned to the castrati, for example, the role of Caesar in Handel’s Guilio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt). In contemporary revivals of Baroque operas, castrati roles are either sung by a woman or by a countertenor (a man with an alto range), or the music is transposed down to a normal male range.
Handel composed over 40 operas, most during his years as the musical director of London opera companies. In addition to providing new operas each season, either by himself or other composers, Handel made yearly trips to the continent to engage the sensational singers who the public would pay to hear. During intermission, audiences were treated to Handel performing his organ concertos.
Another important category of Handel’s output is the oratorio, whose musical structure is similar to that of opera, but is based on a religious subject and performed without costumes, scenery, and acting. The Old Testament furnished the material for most of Handel’s 25 oratorios—among them Saul, Israel in Egypt, Samson, Joshua, and Solomon—which were presented in public concert halls during Lent, when operas and other theatrical entertainments were banned from the stage. The texts of the oratorios are in English, which probably contributed to their enormous popularity with the English public. His instrumental works include concertos, the Water Music performed for King George I by musicians on a barge in the Thames, and Music for the Royal Fireworks for a fireworks display.
Lillian Hardin, a pianist and composer, was one of the few women to forge a long and successful career in the male-dominated world of early jazz and in a segregated America. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, she took piano lessons as a child and briefly attended Fisk University before moving with her family to Chicago in 1917. Because she could read music, she got a job demonstrating sheet music at a music store, where she attracted the attention of local bandleaders. While performing with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, she met Louis Armstrong. They married in 1924 and Hardin (Armstrong) is generally credited with encouraging the young trumpeter to strike out on his own. During the 1920s she played the piano and sang on many of the recordings of the Hot Five and Hot Seven and composed several of the group’s hit songs. Though usually relegated to the role of accompanist, her occasional solos show a talented pianist strongly influenced by Jelly Roll Morton (whom she knew well), and even hint at a well-developed classical technique. During the 1930s Hardin (Armstrong) worked in New York, where she appeared in several Broadway shows and also led her own swing band. She returned to Chicago in 1940 where she continued to perform in nightclubs and record. Armstrong and Hardin separated in 1931 and were divorced in 1938, but they remained friends for the rest of their lives. In August of 1971, while playing in a memorial concert for Armstrong who had died the previous month, Hardin (Armstrong) suffered a massive heart attack and died.
The details of Haydn’s early life are sketchy. He was born in an Austrian village and came from a humble background. At about the age of eight he was chosen to join the choir of one of Vienna’s most important cathedrals. After his voice changed, he supported himself by teaching and working as a freelance performer, then at the age of 29, entered the service of a wealthy and powerful Hungarian aristocratic family, the Esterhazys. Music was a central component of life at the Esterhazy estate in the Hungarian countryside and the household staff included orchestral musicians, opera singers, and a chapel choir. Haydn’s contract specified that he was responsible to provide music as required by the prince, care for the musicians and instruments, and conduct himself “as befits an honest house officer in a princely court.” For 30 years Haydn lived and worked at the Esterhazy palace, largely isolated from what was happening elsewhere. As he himself recalled, “My prince was content with all my works, I received approval, I could, as head of an orchestra, make experiments, observe what created an impression, and what weakened it, thus improving, adding to, cutting away, and running risks. I was set apart from the world, there was nobody in my vicinity to confuse and annoy me in my course, and so I had to become original.” With the succession of a new Esterhazy prince in 1790, Haydn’s life took a new direction. Although he continued to earn a salary, he was no longer required to live at the Esterhazy estate. He moved back to Vienna, one of the musical capitals of the time, where he met and befriended Mozart and for several years was the teacher of the young Beethoven. He also accepted invitations for two lengthy trips to London, for which he composed a number of important new works. In London, performances devoted to his music, including 12 brilliant new symphonies, were highlights of the concert season. He appeared before the royal family, was sought after as a guest at social occasions, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. In Vienna, where his monumental oratorios The Creation and The Seasons were enthusiastically received, he was named an honorary citizen. At his death at the age of 77, Haydn had become one of Europe’s most celebrated figures.
Haydn’s vast compositional output includes 52 piano sonatas, 104 symphonies, concertos for a variety of instruments, works for a variety of chamber groupings, masses and other sacred vocal music, operas, and oratorios. Written over more than a half century, his works document the transition from the late Baroque to the mature classical style, to which he himself made definitive contributions. In his works in sonata form, he deepened and extended practices of motivic development and he elevated the string quartet from one of many possible groupings to the most important chamber music ensemble. His late symphonies balance simplicity of themes with brilliant orchestration. And his musical language encompasses a broad spectrum of expressive content—folk-like innocence, intense passion, playfulness, high-spirited humor, tenderness, joyful exuberance, sorrow.
Charles Ives was born in New England. He received a thorough education, including college at Yale where he studied composition and was organist of a New Haven church, in addition to pursuing a regular academic program. But the most profound influences on his personality and political, religious, and aesthetic views were his New England heritage and his father, a village bandmaster and something of a renegade in his musical thinking. After graduation from Yale, Ives came to New York where he began a successful career in the insurance business, believing that “a man could keep his music interest stronger, cleaner, bigger and freer if he didn’t try to make a living out of it.” He composed evenings and weekends, completing hundreds of songs, choral works, piano pieces, and works for a variety of instrumental groupings, from a few players to a full symphony orchestra. The strain of this rigorous routine took its toll and in 1918 Ives suffered his first heart attack, after which he gradually retired to a life of seclusion with his wife, Harmony, at their home in Connecticut. At his death his works, most of which were in manuscript, were just beginning to attract attention outside the small group that had long recognized his originality and importance as a truly American voice.
Ives’s music, with its bold, adventurous experiments with tonal materials and structures, is rooted in the American ideals of rugged independence and freedom of individual expression, which also inspired such observations as the following:
“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.”
“Down with politicians & Up with the People!”
“Some of these… pieces…were in part made to strengthen the ear muscles, the mind muscles, and perhaps the Soul muscles, too.”
“The great fundamental truths—freedom over slavery; the natural over the artificial; the goodness of man; the Godness of man; God.”
Many of Ives’s works are highly personal recreations of his own experiences, memories, and imagination with such titles as George Washington’s Birthday, Central Park in the Dark, The Circus Band, From the Steeples and the Mountains, Harvest Home Chorales, The Concord Sonata, General William Booth Enters into Heaven. The titles of others—Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Pianos, Chromatimelodtune, Tone Roads, for example—suggest the abstract, purely musical dimension of Ives’s compositional thinking. In both types, he often quotes or imitates marches, ragtime, patriotic, folk, and popular songs within a complex, dissonant, and seemingly discontinuous musical fabric.
Joplin was born and raised in Texarkana, on the border between Texas and Arkansas. His father, an ex-slave, scraped together enough money to buy a piano for his musically inclined son, who soon taught himself to play with remarkable facility. In his early teens Joplin left home to seek a musical career in St. Louis, Chicago, and Sedalia, Missouri, finally moving to New York in 1907. Joplin’s compositions include about 50 rags for piano, a folk ballet, and two operas. Though the earliest of his operas, A Guest of Honor, has been lost, the second, Treemonisha, was completed in 1910 and though never fully staged at the time has since become a staple of the operatic repertoire. His early piano rags, especially “Maple Leaf Rag” of 1899, brought him considerable fame and fortune and earned him the title King of Ragtime. But with the passing of the ragtime craze after the first decade of the new century, and the increasing complexity of his compositions, Joplin found little appreciation for his work. Afflicted by syphilis, Joplin’s health declined until his death in 1917.
One of the greatest composers of the Renaissance, Josquin des Prez was born in the north of France and spent about two decades of his creative career in Italy. His first appearance in documents as a musician comes in 1477, when he is named as a singer in the court of Rene of Anjou in France. The early 1480s are largely unaccounted for, but by the middle of the decade he was working for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza of Milan, before moving to work for the papal chapel in Rome. After a period of employment at the Florentine court of Duke Ercole d’Este in the early 1500s, he returned to France where he died.
Although biographical detail about Josquin is scant, including the exact date and place of his birth, there is ample evidence of his fame during his own day. Aristocratic patrons vied to have him in their employ, even passing over highly respected contemporaries who were known to be cheaper, easier to get along with, and more reliable about completing work on time. He was particularly admired for his mastery of counterpoint and his gift for expressing the meaning of words in his musical settings, an important goal of humanist composers. In the words of one commentator, “Josquin may be said to have been, in music, a prodigy of nature, just as our Michelangelo Buonarroti has been in architecture, painting and sculpture. Thus far there has not been anybody who in his compositions approaches Josquin. As with Michelangelo, among those who have been active in these his arts, he is still alone and without a peer. Both have opened the eyes of all those who delight in these arts or are to delight in them in the future.” One surviving portrait thought to be of Josquin is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and his death was mourned in several musical laments.
The invention of music printing during Josquin’s lifetime, coupled with his fame and popularity, ensured the preservation of a large number of his works and his enduring reputation today. Recent scholarship indicates some works formerly attributed to Josquin were, in fact, by other composers but published under Josquin’s name to ensure wider sales. As reported by one commentator toward the end of the period, “I recall that a certain famous man said that Josquin wrote more compositions after his death than during his life.”
Josquin’s surviving output is entirely vocal and, even discounting disputed works, impressive in quantity: 18 complete setting of the Mass, over 100 polyphonic settings of Latin religious texts (motets), and about 80 on French and Italian secular texts. Most are for four voices—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—and, following the practice of the time, to be performed a cappella, that is, by voices alone, without instruments. His gracefully shaped vocal lines interact in a highly contrapuntal web, diverging, converging, crossing, echoing, and imitating each other, sometimes with great rhythmic independence, sometimes in hymn-style texture.
Riley B. King, better known as B. B. King, is unquestionably the most influential bluesmen of the 20th century. Born on a plantation near Indianola, Mississippi, he moved to Memphis in the late 1940s where he gained local fame as a singer, guitarist, and host of a weekly blues show on WDIA, the first major radio station to go to an all black format in 1948. His 1951 R& B hit “Three O’Clock in the Morning” launched a recording and touring career that would eventually make him the world’s most renowned blues singer.
King’s guitar style, based around eloquent single-string runs, is a refinement of techniques pioneered by legendary blues guitarists Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and T-bone Walker. King’s guitar solos were backed by smooth, riffing horns and a pulsing rhythm section that combined to define a style know as “jump blues” in the 1950s. His early vocals were in the vein of classic blues shouters, but as he matured his voice took on a distinctive gospel feel, characterized by a soulful, pleading delivery complete with falsetto swoops, shouts, and extended melismas (stretching a single syllable over several pitches).
In the late 1960s, following appearances at the Newport Folk Festival and Bill Graham’s legendary rock palace the Filmore West, King extended his popularity among younger white audiences. Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and the Rolling Stones were among the many rock stars who idolized King’s music and who recognized his contributions to the development of rock and roll. In the new millennium King’s sophisticated blues sound continues to move black and white audiences, and his Time Square blues club (opened in 2000) remains a center of blues activity in New York City.
Jazz composer, bassist, and band leader Charles Mingus is one of the most creative proponents of modern jazz. Born in Arizona in 1922, he grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where in school he studied trombone, cello, and bass, learning both jazz and classical techniques. He toured with big bands led by Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton before moving to New York in the early 1950s. There he worked with bop musicians Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell before staring his own ensemble in the mid-1950s. During this period he became active in New York’s Jazz Composer’s Workshop, and eventually abandoned written transcription and began dictating his compositions to his players by ear, allowing them considerable room for personal interpretation. By the early 1960s he had established himself as the premiere bassist in jazz, and a leading composer for both big band and small ensemble formats.
Mingus drew on many styles, ranging from blues, gospel, and big-band swing to bebop and modern jazz that featured dissonant, collective improvisation. Among his best know compositions are the bluesy Haitian Fight Song (1957), the extended jazz suite Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) that chronicles the rise and decline of modern civilization with a finale of cacophonous improvisation, and the classical sounding Half-mast Inhibition (1960). Mingus objected to categories like “classical” and “jazz,” choosing rather to construct extended works that combined compositional forms, themes, and complex harmonic changes associated with classical music with techniques of individual and group improvisation, complex rhythms, and tonal elements of blues and gospel common to jazz.
Perhaps the most important jazz composer of the mid 20th century, Mingus summed up his creative philosophy on liner notes to the 1956 Pithecanthropus Erectus LP:
I “write” compositions—but only on mental score paper—then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the “framework” on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used. Each man’s own particular style is taken into consideration, both in ensembles and in solos….In this way, I find it possible to keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet to allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos.
One of America’s foremost experimental composers, Meredith Monk grew up in New York City in an artistic household. Her mother was a professional singer, working primarily in radio through the nineteen-thirties and forties. Although Monk identifies herself as a composer, she does not separate music from the other performing arts. While a student at Sarah Lawrence College she studied singing, composition, and dance and performed in theater as a student in their combined performing arts program. Her earliest works, such as 16 Millimeter Earrings, included film along with music, theater and dance, establishing Monk as a significant multidisciplinary artist and eluding classification of her work by critics until the term performance artist came into usage.
Monk is less interested in telling a narrative story through her performance art than she is in creating an experience where all of the faculties are employed. The music, words, movement, and staging all have equal importance. She is an attentive listener to the sounds in her environment and she often develops extended performance techniques in order to replicate some of those that are more interesting. The influences on her extended vocal techniques, in particular, include the music of non-European cultures (harmonic singing and ululation), city sounds (the glissando of a car alarm), and the sounds of nature (bird song and animal cries).
In Dolmen Music, Monk allows us to peak into an archaic community inspired by her reaction to seeing the dolmen in Brittany (La Roche aux Fées). Her initial response to The Fairy Rocks inspired her to infuse the work with the sense of being ancient and futuristic at the same time. A Meredith Monk piece usually has no specific interpretation yet many works, like Memory Song and Gotham Lullaby, are so intimate that they often engender an explicit meaning in the listener based on their life experiences.
While the timbres that Monk creates may be complex and unusual, the music underlying her work is often simple and consonant. The pure open intervals of medieval music are especially attractive to Monk. She once stated that the European music that she most admired began with the Medieval and went through to the Renaissance, skipped the Common Practice Period, and continued with 20th/21st Century music. One of her favorite composers is Perotin.
Pianist and composer. Monk is one of the most important figures in jazz history, but he is also one of the most controversial and least-understood. Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Monk’s family moved to New York when he was four, and he remained there the rest of his life. In the early 1940s he became house pianist at Minton’s in Harlem, helping to formulate what would become “bebop”—the style that would define modern jazz—though Monk himself never considered himself a “bebopper” and his music does not fit easily into that category. Monk was a highly accomplished pianist, but his idiosyncratic keyboard technique—full of dry, punchy chords, complex syncopations, intentional “wrong notes,” and long stretches of silence—led many to believe mistakenly that he was simply a poor musician. His erratic personal behavior did little to improve his stature in many peoples’ eyes, though his influence on other musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane remains legendary. Monk’s most important contribution to jazz may be as a composer, for pieces such as “Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” and “Ruby, My Dear” not only became jazz standards but expanded harmonic, rhythmic, and formal possibilities for those who improvised on them. Recent scholarship—much of it as yet unpublished—will hopefully provide a better understanding of this enigmatic musician.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, an Austrian cathedral town where his father was a violinist in the orchestra of the archbishop, an important official in the Roman Catholic Church. All evidence indicates that Mozart’s natural musical gifts were phenomenal and became apparent at an early age. When he was six, his father took him on the first of several extended European tours, one lasting more than three years, during which he astonished audiences with his ability to compose, improvise, and perform at the keyboard and on the violin. The many surviving letters between members of the Mozart family and friends back home in Salzburg record the highs and lows of these trips, from the exhilaration of command performances before royalty to the dangers and discomforts of travel by coach and several serious illnesses that afflicted Mozart and his older sister, Nannerl, including typhoid fever. Herr Mozart’s reference to Wolfgang cutting a tooth reminds us that these trips began when he was the age of a first grader of today.
After his experiences in London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, and other musical capitals of the time, Salzburg seemed provincial and confining. But when at the age of 17 he had not been offered a satisfactory position in any large city, Mozart grudgingly entered the service of the archbishop. He found his duties in Salzburg abhorrent and his treatment by the archbishop demeaning. Frequent disagreements ensued, culminating in a stormy encounter in 1781 during which the archbishop released him from service “with a kick on my behind,” as Mozart reported in a letter.
Mozart spent the rest of his life in Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire, home of the Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph II, and one of Europe’s major cultural centers. Although he held some minor court appointments, he was one of the first composers to seek a career as a free agent rather than in the employ of the church or aristocracy. For a few years he presented a series of very popular and lucrative concerts of his own works, among them 12 spectacular piano concertos in which he was featured as the soloist. He also received several commissions to compose operas, among them Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, which premiered in Prague in1786 and 1787, respectively. But Mozart’s success was sporadic and short-lived. He died at age 35 and was buried in a common grave, his impoverished circumstances due in part to his extravagant tastes and inability to manage his finances. In retrospect he also emerges as a tragic casualty of a society in transition, a man too proud and conscious of his own genius to abase himself in the service of the ruling class, yet too profound a musical thinker to be appreciated by the new bourgeois audience.
Mozart was an extraordinarily prolific composer, creating enduring works in virtually every genre of his day—operas, symphonies, piano sonatas, chamber music, works for the Roman Catholic Church. As a composer of the classical period, the ideals of clarity and balance inform Mozart’s music, from his early piano pieces written at age six and seven through his great opera The Magic Flute and the unfinished Requiem Mass from the last year of his life. What sets him apart from his contemporaries is the mastery of counterpoint, intensity of developmental processes, expressive power, and sophisticated orchestration that characterize works written during Mozart’s decade in Vienna. This maturing and deepening of his compositional craft, while also creating works that would be accessible, seems to have been a conscious pursuit. As he wrote to his father in 1782:
These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult. They are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.
Two hundred and fifty years after his birth, Mozart’s works remain staples of the concert repertory of artists and ensembles all over the world.
Though his life was brief and often tragic (he died at the same age as Mozart), Parker made a profound impact on jazz that is still felt today. In fact, Parker and Louis Armstrong are probably the most significant and influential figures in all of jazz history. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, he started playing alto saxophone at age 13, and played around his hometown for several years until taking a brief trip to New York in 1939. From 1940 to 1942, he toured with Jay McShann’s band and made several recordings. He also participated in informal jam sessions at Minton’s in Harlem and other New York jazz clubs, helping to create the music that would become known as “bebop.” In 1945 he participated in some important recording sessions with fellow bebop musician trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. His most influential and productive years were from 1947 to 1951, when he performed extensively and made dozens of recordings that have become indispensable jazz classics. Plagued by years of drug and alcohol abuse, Parker died just a week after his final performance at Birdland, a club named in his honor. As a composer of many tunes that have become jazz standards, Parker’s harmonic inventiveness and rhythmic sophistication have influenced legions of jazz musicians. His nickname, according to McShann, came from an incident while on tour, when the band’s bus hit a chicken (or “yardbird”) that Parker insisted on having cooked up by their host. But the moniker, especially in its shorter form “Bird,” seemed to fit Parker and his flights of musical brilliance perfectly.
Piazzolla was world-famous as a composer, bandleader, and virtuoso of the bandoneón, a type of 38-key accordion considered one of the crucial instruments of the traditional tango ensemble. A child prodigy, Piazzolla was born in Argentina, but his family emigrated to the US in 1924. Thirteen years later they returned to their homeland, where Piazzolla made arrangements for some of Argentina’s most popular bandleaders and studied classical music with the great Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. In 1944 Piazzolla formed his own band, which featured primarily his own compositions. In 1954 he went to Paris to study with legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger, who felt his tango compositions showed great promise. He returned to Argentina, and for the next twenty years worked with his own tango groups. In 1974 he returned to Paris. Piazzolla’s distinctive music became known as nuevo tango (“new tango”) and was at first widely criticized by those who felt he had abandoned some of the important traits of the nearly century-old tango tradition. However, he was later widely viewed as responsible for tango’s renewed international popularity, as the music’s audience had declined sharply in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1980s, his works were featured by important classical performance groups, including the Kronos Quartet. At the time of his death he was at work on an opera about the life of Carlos Gardel, a hugely popular tango singer of the 1920s and 30s. He composed about 750 works, including a symphony, a concerto for bandoneón, and a sonata for the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
Known around the world as “the King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the son of a poor white truck driver. Presley and his family moved to Memphis in 1948, where he was exposed to both white country and black R&B and gospel music. In 1954, the year after he graduated high school, he made his first recordings at Sam Philip’s now legendary Sun Studios on Union Avenue in Memphis. Philips had recorded both white country singers and black blues singes, but in Presley he discovered a young white man who had exceptional feel for the black music, as demonstrated on his early blues covers “That’s All Right Mama” (original by Arthur Crudup), “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (original by Roy Brown), and “Mystery Train” (original by Jr. Parker). Accompanied by the twangy electric guitar of Scotty Moore and bouncing bass of Bill Black, Presley’s sound was dubbed “rockabilly” by early critics in deference to his hillbilly roots and his ability to rock the blues.
Presley appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride live radio shows, but it was not until Philips sold his contract to the major record label RCA that Presley would become a teen idol and national star. In 1956 and 1957 he recorded over a dozen hit songs, with “All Shook Up,” “Hound Dog,” “Teddy Bear,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Don’t be Cruel” charting number one on the pop, country, and R&B charts. His appearances on the popular TV shows Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan shows brought him further fame and earned him the title “Elvis the Pelvis” due to his sexually suggestive dancing. In 1958 Elvis entered the army, and after completing a two-year commitment returned to the United States to continue to record and pursue a career in the Hollywood. He died in his Memphis home in Graceland in 1977, the victim of drug abuse.
Presley’s early Sun and RCA recordings are considered by many critics to be the pioneering sounds of rock and roll. Presley was the first white pop singer to popularize black rhythm and blues, and in doing so he opened the door for innumerable young white artists to become rock and roll singers. His success demonstrated the tremendous allure black R&B held for the baby boomer generation, and the willingness for white musicians to embrace and at times exploit black music.
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy, into a family whose members had been prominent musicians, mostly church organists, for several generations. He was not a child prodigy and his early musical studies gave little promise that he would fulfill his mother’s ambition that he follow in the family tradition. The turning point was apparently attending a performance of Verdi’s Aida when he was 18, after which he decided to devote himself to opera. For three years, 1880 to 1883, he studied seriously at the Milan Conservatory, but his early works were failures with audiences and critics and have not remained in the repertory. His third opera, Manon Lescaut of 1893, was a triumph and demonstrated the extraordinary sense of theater that was to characterize the six other full-length and three one-act operas he completed over the course of his life.
Puccini was drawn to stories of passionate relationships set in exotic locations. His reputation rests largely on three operas: La Boheme (1896) that takes place around 1830 in the Latin Quarter of Paris, Tosca (1900) in several historic sites in Rome, and Madame Butterfly (1904) on a hillside overlooking Nagasaki, Japan. Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, is set during a legendary time in Peking (Beijing), China. Puccini, a chain smoker, developed throat cancer and died while he was working on the final scene, which was completed by another composer. At its premiere in 1926 in Milan, at the point in the score where Puccini had stopped working, the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, stopped the performance, turned to the audience and said, “Here the opera finishes, because at this point the Maestro died.”
The power of Puccini’s scores lies in his gift for writing music that evokes and intensifies the passions and atmosphere of each dramatic situation. A particularly effective device is recalling music associated with earlier moments in the story, but now heard in the new context of the evolving drama. His poetic imagination is also apparent in lush harmonic language and sensuous orchestration. Expressive melody is continuous, either sung in soaring arias that climax at the top of the singer’s range or shifted to the orchestra during passages of vocal recitative. Puccini roles require singers with tremendous vocal strength, technical virtuosity, and emotional projection.
Steve Reich was born in New York City. His early musical studies were lessons on piano and percussion. He graduated with honors in philosophy from Cornell University in 1957 and subsequently studied composition at The Juilliard School in Manhattan and at Mills College in California. While on the West Coast, he developed an interest in electronic music, jazz, African drumming, and the Balinese gamelan, the percussion ensemble of Bali and other Indonesian islands. In 1966 he founded the New York–based ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, devoted exclusively to the performance of his own music. In the 1970s, he studied drumming with a master drummer of the Ewe tribe at the Institute of African Studies in Ghana, and Balinese gamelan music at the Center for World Music in Berkeley, California. More recently he has pursued an interest in traditional forms of cantillation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Reich first became known as a leading exponent of musical minimalism, a movement of the 1970s that grew out of a predilection for extreme simplification in painting and sculpture in the 1960s. Minimalism was to some extent a reaction against serialism and other complex and highly intellectual theories of composition. In developing compositional techniques and formulating an aesthetic for their new musical language, minimalist composers looked to popular music and non-Western cultures, in Reich’s case, to Africa and the islands of Indonesia. In his own words, “I studied Balinese and African music because I love them and also because I believe that non-Western music is presently the single most important source of new ideas for Western composers and musicians.” While in Ghana, he was introduced to a structural concept of the “timeline,” a basic rhythm over which other musicians play repeated rhythmic patterns, with the most complex performed by the group leader or master drummer. The essential organization is thus polyrhythmic, the simultaneous performance of independent repeated patterns resulting in a complex interplay of rhythmic layers.
The materials of minimalist composers are short melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic patterns. Reich’s musical materials may be originally composed, or samples from recorded speech and urban sounds. A taped phrase of a street vendor, for example, supplies the main musical idea of Check it out, one of the five movements ofCity Life.
Whether original or borrowed, patterns are repeated and gradually transformed over musical spans ranging from a few minutes to a half hour or more. Through a technique called phasing, a pattern gradually moves out of sync with itself, becoming its own counterpoint. The rate of change in minimalist music is slow, creating a hypnotic effect that reflects the influence of Eastern mysticism and practices of meditation embraced by Reich and other minimalist composers.
Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna. He did not come from a musical family and was largely self-taught in music, learning the violin and cello without benefit of study with a good teacher. His formal education ended when financial circumstances following the death of his father forced him to take a job as a bank clerk, but he continued to pursue his interests in literature, philosophy, and music on his own. Schoenberg was drawn to the ferment that characterized artistic and intellectual movements around the turn of the century and allied himself with the Viennese avant-garde. His first compositions are clearly indebted to late romantic influences, but a more personal style, characterized by extreme chromaticism and polyphonic complexity, emerged in an outpouring of works written in his thirties. Between 1915 and 1923, Schoenberg stopped composing, devoting himself to the formulation of his twelve-tone theory of composition on which all of his works after 1923 are based. In 1925 he was appointed a professor of composition at the Berlin Academy of Arts, which provided a supportive environment for experimental art. This situation changed radically when Hitler came to power in 1933. Schoenberg, vulnerable to persecution as an artist and because of his Jewish background, emigrated with his family from Germany, landing first in Great Brittan and eventually immigrating to the United States. He taught at the University of California at Los Angeles until his retirement in 1944, and continued to compose until his death.
Since medieval times, Western music theory had been based on the concept of a key center, or tonic, in melodies and harmonies, and on the distinction between consonance and dissonance in the relationship between voices in music of two or more parts. These are seminal principles that form the underpinnings of the religious music of the Renaissance, the fugues and cantatas of Bach, the symphonies of Beethoven, the operas of Mozart and Verdi, and other masterpieces of Western art music. At the end of the 19th century, however, there was a sense among progressive musicians that the major/minor system and the compositional procedures and forms it had produced had run their course. It was in this atmosphere of searching for alternative approaches that Schoenberg came up with a new theory of composition. Perhaps his lack of formal training in a discipline where complex problems of form, counterpoint and harmony, instrumentation, and notation have traditionally required years of study with a master freed him to think outside established conventions. In any case, Schoenberg’s “method of composing with twelve tones” was a radical departure from traditional compositional procedures. Central to the method is his revolutionary idea that all twelve tones into which the octave is divided in Western music should be treated as equal. In other words, no tone would dominate as a tonic. The composition of a work according to Schoenberg’s method begins with the creation of a tone row containing all twelve pitches. This row is the germinal cell from which all melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal materials are derived. The principles for configuring a tone row and the complex ways it can be manipulated are formulated in Schoenberg’s theoretical writings. Because of the absence of a key center, twelve-tone music is often called “atonal,” a term to which Schoenberg objected, or “serial” because the compositional technique involves manipulation of a tone row, or series.
While twelve-tone describes Schoenberg’s compositional procedure, his style is classified as expressionist. Expressionism was an early 20th-century movement that sought to reveal through art the irrational, subconscious reality and repressed primordial impulses postulated and analyzed in the writings of Freud. Rather than depict impressions received from the outer world, painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Edvard Munch, and Max Beckmann, and writers such as August Strindberg, Frank Wedekind, Stefan George, and Franz Kafka explored the shadowy and distorted images, hallucinatory visions, and irrational terrors of the subconscious. Hysteria, isolation and alienation, the grotesque and macabre were favorite subjects of Expressionist artists. Schoenberg himself took up painting in 1908 and, over the course of his life, created imaginatively intense if technically amateurish pictures, including several self-portraits. In the music of Schoenberg and other Expressionist composers, relentless emotional intensity is attributable to jagged, highly disjunct melodic lines; instruments in extreme ranges; unresolved tension through avoidance of consonant sonorities; texts dealing with violence and abnormal behavior; and exaggeration and distortion of the natural accents of speech.
Schoenberg applied the twelve-tone technique to every type of genre to which he contributed—opera; choral and solo vocal; orchestral, chamber and keyboard. His music, never readily accessible or easy to listen to, has always aroused controversy, even hostility, on both aesthetic and intellectual grounds. He was drawn to subjects and forms of expression that resonated with a devoted, if small, following, and he never sought to entertain or gain popularity with a wide public. In his own words:
There are relatively few people who are capable of understanding, purely musically, what music has to say. Such trained listeners have probably never been very numerous, but that does not prevent the artist from creating only for them. Great art presupposes the alert mind of the educated listener.
Clara Wieck Schumann is one of a small number of women prior to the second half of the 20th century whose musical activities included composition, a reflection of the relatively subordinate role women composers have played in the history of concert hall music. That their creative output has been less than that of men with respect to both quantity and quality is attributable to a number of factors, chiefly attitudes regarding women’s appropriate role in society, presumptions about their inherent intellectual and emotional capacities, their lack of access of education and training, their financial dependence on men, and the exclusion of women from many forms of musical activity. The following assessment appeared in an 1891 article in Women’s Journal:
It is probably true that more women than men have received musical instruction of a sort, but not of the sort which qualifies anyone to become a composer. Girls are as a rule taught music superficially, simply as an accomplishment. To enable them to play and sing agreeably is the whole object of their music lessons. It is exceedingly rare that a girl’s father cares to have her taught the underlying laws of harmony or the principles of musical composition.
In Germany and Italy, the countries where the greatest musical composers have originated, the standard of women’s education is especially low and the idea of woman’s sphere particularly restricted. The German or Italian girl who should confess an ambition to become a composer would be regarded by her friends as out of her sphere, if not out of her mind.
When women have had for several centuries the same advantages of liberty, education, and social encouragement in the use of their brains that men have, it will be right to argue their mental inferiority if they have not produced their fair share of geniuses. But it is hardly reasonable to expect women during a few years of liberty and half education to produce at once specimens of genius equal to the choicest men of all the ages.
Unlike most women of her day, Clara Wieck Schumann was carefully trained from the age of five as a pianist and musician by her father, Friedrick Wieck. In other areas, including the so-called feminine arts of sewing, knitting, or crocheting, her education was meager. She made her public debut in 1828, at age nine; the same year she met Robert Schumann, her future husband, who was then eighteen. Robert was to become one of the leading composers associated with musical romanticism. Between 1828 and 1838 Clara launched a highly promising career, and her friendship with Robert deepened into love. Her father vehemently opposed their relationship and, hoping to reassert his control, sent 19-year-old Clara to Paris with a total stranger as a chaperone. To his astonishment, and probably her own as well, she dismissed the chaperone and managed to support herself in the strange city. She presented herself to the French public through successful concerts she arranged, and she found students, composed music, and had her works published. Even today we would find this remarkable, but in 1839 it was an amazing act of courage, especially for a woman.
Schumann was considered the foremost woman pianist of her day and a peer of contemporary male virtuosi. Her concert programs and her high musical standards changed the character of the solo piano recital in the 19th century. She introduced much new music by her husband, and by Chopin and Brahms, and she was also distinguished as being the first pianist to perform many of Beethoven’s sonatas in public. At the end of her long career, she had played over 1,300 public programs in England and Europe. Clara’s training in composition was also excellent. Her compositions were published, performed and reviewed favorably during her lifetime, and she was encouraged by both her father and her husband.
Clara’s marriage to Robert Schumann took place the day before her twenty-first birthday in 1840, after a lawsuit the couple brought against Wieck was decided in their favor. Both before and after her marriage, she wrote chiefly piano works and songs, genres considered appropriate for female creative expression since such works were intended primarily for performance in the home. Her output was also small, undoubtedly because of her hectic performing schedule and domestic responsibilities associated with raising eight children. With the exception of one work, Clara ceased composing after her husband’s death in 1856.
Much of what is known about Clara’s personal life after her marriage is found in her diaries, in her joint diaries with Robert, and in her letters. It is clear that, while she felt confident of her powers as a performer, she had ambivalent feelings toward her ability and skill as a composer. Comments such as the following from her 1839 diary reflect the prevailing notion of the time that women were unfit by nature for intellectual pursuits and limited to manners of expression which were inherently feminine in character.
I once thought I possessed creative talent, but have given up this idea. A woman must not desire to compose – not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to? It would be arrogance, although indeed, my father led me into it in earlier days.
Clara never intended to give up her concert career after her marriage, and Robert never seriously suggested it. Despite his desire for a quiet home and a woman to look after him and their children, he was aware of his wife’s needs as an artist and his attitude toward her career was, for a man of his time, unusually enlightened and supportive. Clara’s letters and diary entries indicate she recognized her importance as a pianist and considered herself first an artist and only afterward a parent. The conflicts between public concertizing and raising a family intensified in 1854 when Robert, suffering from mental illness and depression, entered a sanitarium where he died two years later. Clara was pregnant at the time he became terminally ill, and soon after the birth of their eighth child, she set out on the first of many concert tours that were to become a regular feature of her life for more than 30 years. She now bore the entire responsibility of providing for a large family. But she also seems to have felt a need for artistic self-expression, which she sought in performing. She may also have found comfort in bringing her husband’s music to the attention of the public. As she wrote to a friend:
You regard them [the concert tours] merely as a means of earning money. I do not. I feel I have a mission to reproduce beautiful works, Robert’s above all, as long as I have the strength to do so, and even if I were not absolutely compelled to do so I should go on touring, though not in such a strenuous way as I often have to now. The practice of my art is definitely an important part of my being. It is the very air I breathe.
Franz Schubert received his earliest musical education from his father, a schoolmaster in a village outside Vienna, followed by formal study at a music school in Vienna and composition lessons with the composer Antonio Salieri (depicted as Mozart’s rival in the play and movie Amadeus). For a brief period he taught at his father’s school, but from the age of 18 to his death at 31, he was plagued by illness and poverty. Except for a few published piano pieces and songs for which he was miserably paid, his works had been heard by only a small group of friends and admirers and his genius was almost totally unrecognized for some time. Schubert produced a phenomenal number of works, from symphonies, operas, and church music to chamber works, piano pieces, and songs written for performance in the homes of the growing middle class. As he observed about himself, “I write all day and when I have finished one piece, I begin another.”
Schubert was particularly successful in small, intimate forms, notably his piano pieces with such titles asMoment Musicale (musical moment) and impromptu, and his songs. He is considered to be the father of the art song, a composition for voice and instrumental accompaniment (most often piano) that flowered during the Romantic period. Unlike folk songs, which are passed on through oral tradition and usually of unknown authorship, art songs are notated (written down) songs in which a composer consciously seeks to develop expressive connections between poetry and music. The lyric poetry of Goethe, Schiller, and Heine in the late 18th century provided a rich source of texts for the outpouring of German art song in the 19th century. The concept of the art song was not Schubert’s invention, but his over 600 songs demonstrate a facility for penetrating to the essence of a poem and forcefully enhancing its meaning and images that was unprecedented. He responded immediately and intuitively to poetry, often writing a song from start to finish in an afternoon. There is a story of friends leaving a poem lying out on a table for the unsuspecting to Schubert to happen upon, and returning a few hours later to discover it transformed into a completed song.
New York City–born Pete Seeger is undoubtedly the most well-known and influential figure of the mid-20thcentury urban folk song revival. The son of the erudite musicologist Charles Seeger and a professional violinist Constance de Clyver Edison, Seeger was educated at elite New England boarding schools before entering Harvard University where he joined John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a member of the class of 1940. But two years later he dropped out of college and moved to New York City in hopes of pursuing a career in journalism.
Seeger had begun playing the four-string banjo in a high school Dixieland jazz combo, but his interests shifted toward folk music after attending the Asheville, North Carolina folk festival in 1936 with his father. Charles, who was beginning to study and promote folk music through his position with the federal Resettlement Administration, introduced Pete to the famous folk music collector Alan Lomax, who offered him a temporary position working at the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Music. There Seeger immersed himself in recordings of traditional Anglo and Afro American folk music and began teaching himself to play the guitar and five-string banjo.
Seeger relocated in New York City in the early 1940s where he sang with Woody Guthrie and Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter in the burgeoning urban folk music revival. He helped found the Almanac singers in 1941, a loosely knit group of left-leaning folk singers and political activists who sought to use folk music to promote union and other progressive causes. In the 1950s he organized the Weavers, a more professional sounding folk ensemble whose 1950 recording of the Lead Belly song “Goodnight Irene” brought folk music to the popular music charts. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s Seeger’s solo concerts and recordings for Folkways Records put urban American audiences in touch with the rich heritage of traditional American ballads, blues, work songs, and spirituals. Seeger encouraged thousands of young people to pick up guitars and banjos and to discover American folk music. He also demonstrated that new folk songs could be written using traditional forms and instruments, as he authored or coauthored well-known anthems of the folk revival including “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.”
Seeger was devoted to using folk music to promote progressive political causes. His socialist leaning made him a victim of McCarthy blacklisting in the 1950s, and in the 1960s he emerged as a prominent voice in the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements. Today, in his late eighties, Pete Seeger remains an outspoken critic and controversial figure, beloved to old leftists and young progressives who see him as the “voice of the people,” and reviled by conservatives who dismiss him and other urban folk singers as hypocritical leftist phonies.
Composer and folk music transcriber Ruth Crawford was born in East Liverpool, Ohio. She studied piano as a child in Florida, and in 1921 moved to Chicago to study at the American Conservatory of Music. In Chicago, she became a friend of the poet Carl Sandburg and taught piano to his three daughters. Her work in arranging folk songs began with her association with Sandburg, to whose collection The American Songbag(1927) she contributed several exceptional piano arrangements.
Crawford’s compositions impressed the composer Henry Cowell who generously assisted her professional career. He recommended her as a pupil to his friend Charles Seeger, a noted pedagogue, theorist, and philosopher of music, published several of her compositions in his influential New Music Quarterly, and helped her obtain a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. Crawford moved to New York in 1929, and became a vital participant in the “ultra-modern” school of composition, a group of composers that included Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Marc Blitzstein, and Earl Robinson. Through her studies with Seeger, Crawford became increasingly interested in linear writing and “dissonant counterpoint,” a 20th-century approach to counterpoint that turned traditional contrapuntal rules on their head. Her best-known work is the String Quartet 1931, a striking example of modernist musical experimentation, which established her brilliant and inventive musical mind.
Crawford and Seeger married in 1932, and their first child, Michael, was born in 1933. After the birth of Peggy, their first daughter, in 1935, the Seeger family moved to Washington, DC, so that Charles could begin a position as a music specialist with the federal government’s recently created Resettlement Administration. With four children in all (Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny) to raise and a demanding schedule of teaching piano, Crawford stopped composing ultra-modern music, and turned to the work of teaching music to children and of collecting, transcribing, arranging, and publishing folk songs. Her three volumes of children’s folk songs—American Folk Songs for Children (1948), Animal Folk Songs for Children (1950), and American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953)—helped introduce a generation of young Americans to folk music and fueled the urban folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her son Mike, daughter Peggy, and stepson Pete would be major figures in that movement.
Music from the Indian subcontinent is one of the non-Western repertories that has fascinated Western musicians and audiences in recent decades. One of its principal exponents has been the great sitarist Ravi Shankar. As a child he exhibited unusual gifts as both a dancer and a musician, but during his mid-teens began to focus on mastering the sitar. For years he studied as the discipline of a prominent guru, ultimately receiving the blessing of his teacher. His first tour outside India was to the Soviet Union in 1954. During the 1960s he became well known to Western audiences through his many tours and recordings. He has often performed for humanitarian causes, such as the 1958 UNESCO concert in Paris, the United Nations Human Rights Day concert in New York in 1967, and fund-raising events for Bangladesh. The 1971 “Concert for Bangladesh” with the Beatle George Harrison is available on CD and DVD. Harrison studied with Shankar, and their friendship led to Shankar’s appearances at the Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals.
Shankar is an undisputed master of the purest classical style of Indian music. He is also a composer and teacher. In his writings on music, he refers frequently to the spiritual dimension of Indian music, a system that “can be traced back nearly two thousand years to its origin in the Vedic hymns of the Hindu temples, the fundamental source of all Indian music. Thus, as in Western music, the roots of Indian classical music are religious. To us, music can be a spiritual discipline on the path to self-realisation, for we follow the traditional teaching that sound is God—Nada Brahma. By this process individual consciousness can be elevated to the realm of awareness where the revelation of the true meaning of the universe—its eternal and unchanging essence—can be joyfully experienced. Our ragas are the vehicles by which the essence can be perceived.” He describes the experience of performing as one in which he infuses the “breath of life into a raga” and “each note pulses with life and the raga becomes vibrant and incandescent.”
Shankar has also crossed the boundaries of traditional Indian music. The experimental side of his career is illustrated by his appearances with George Harrison of the Beatles and three recordings from the early 1970s—one of classical North Indian music with American violinist Yedudi Menuhin, another with Japanese musicians, and a third his Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra. Shankar has composed works for All-India Radio’s instrumental ensemble and scores for ballets and films, including Gandhi and the Apu Trilogy. Shankar has exerted formative influence on Western musicians speaking a broad range of musical dialects, from the minimalist composer Philip Glass to pop groups such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Traffic. His honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and of the United Nations International Rostrum of Composers. His discography totals almost 70 albums and he currently holds the Guinness record for the longest international career in music. In recent years, Shankar has toured and recorded with his daughter, Anoushka, who also plays sitar. Another daughter is the pop musician Norah Jones.
Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the age of 14 she had become the protégé of the blues singer Ma Rainey and began performing in minstrel shows, cabarets, and vaudeville. Her tours and recordings during the 1920s brought blues to a wide audience and made her the best-known black artist of her day—the “Empress of the Blues.” Her vocal style, which has been immortalized in 160 recorded selections, is characterized by expressive alterations of melody and rhythm, slurred intonation, blue-note inflections, and raspy, growling tone-color effects. She performed with many of the jazz greats, including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and James P. Johnson. Her commercial popularity declined along with that of the blues in the early 1930s. She died following a car accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Igor Stravinsky, probably the most influential European-born composer of the 20th century, was born outside Leningrad. His father was a bass singer at the Russian Imperial Opera, but Stravinsky was encouraged to pursue a career as a government lawyer, studying music on an amateur level. However, with the encouragement of his teachers, when he was 20 he began to study composition seriously. By the time he was 30, two brilliant and audacious works, The Fire Bird and Petrushka, had thrust him into the forefront of the modernist movement. Both were ballet scores commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, director of one of the most important ballet companies of the early 20th century, the Paris-based Ballet Russe (Russian Ballet).
From 1911 to 1939, Stravinsky resided principally in France and Switzerland, touring Europe as a pianist and conductor of his own works. His third collaboration with Diaghilev, The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre de Printemps), provoked a near riot at its premiere in 1913. The choice of subject, a pagan ritual in which a virgin is sacrificed to propitiate the gods, reflects a fascination with “primitive” or preliterate cultures that also inspired Picasso’s collection of African sculpture and influenced the development of the Cubist style in art. This was also the period of Freud’s writings about the fundamentally savage impulses of human nature. The raw sensuality and hypnotic musical repetition, paralleled by compulsively repeated choreographic movements, were among the features found offensive by members of the audience. One critic expressed the opinion that the work “constituted a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art.” Others characterized it as “stupifying,” “haunting,” “a beautiful nightmare.” Almost a century after its composition, Rite of Springno longer stirs such impassioned controversy but continues to arrest listeners with the elemental power of the musical materials and the overwhelming force of their expression. One section of Fantasia, the pioneering 1940 animated film from the Disney Studios, is based on the score of TheRite of Spring.
In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Stravinsky was presenting a series of lectures at Harvard. Rather than return to Europe, he decided to settle in the United States, where he remained until his death. Over his long life, he completed a huge body of work encompassing virtually every musical genre—opera, ballet, symphony, concerto, choral, chamber. T. S.Eliot, Charlie Chaplin, and Pablo Picasso, who sketched a famous portrait of Stravinsky while sitting at a Paris café, were among his friends. He collaborated with many leading artists of his time, including Vaslav Nijinsky, George Balanchine, Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, and W. H. Auden. He had an affair with Coco Chanel, gave autographs to Sinatra and the pope, and was honored at a White House dinner given by the Kennedys (whom he called “nice kids”).
Like Pablo Picasso, Stravinsky went through different stylistic periods during which his works reflect a variety of past and contemporary traditions, most importantly the folk and classical music of his native Russia, the compositional practices of Bach and Mozart, jazz, and the serial technique of Arnold Schoenberg. Stravinsky seems to have been conscious of how seminal such influences had been on his evolution as a composer. When in 1969 he was asked to explain why, at age 87, he was moving from Los Angeles to New York, he replied, “to mutate faster.”
Edgard Varèse was born in Paris. His initial training was in math and engineering, but in 1903, over the objections of his family, he began serious musical studies in Paris and Berlin. None of his works from this period survive, although by 1915, when he moved to New York, he had acquired notoriety as a boldly original composer and thinker. In New York, Varèse became a leading advocate for new music, organizing concerts and founding the International Composers’ Guild, the New Symphony Orchestra, and the Pan American Association of Composers. He considered the United States to be a place “symbolic of discoveries—new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men.”
Varèse was fascinated by the timbral aspect of music. In a 1915 interview he stated: “I refuse to submit myself only to sounds that have already been heard. What I am looking for are new technical mediums which can lend themselves to every expression of thought and can keep up with thought.” He defined music as “organized sound” and asserted “the right to make music with any and all sounds,” even those considered to be “noise.” He often tried to persuade scientists and technicians to help him invent new instruments, and actively sought funding for such research.
Varèse’s compositional output was small—twelve completed works and a handful of unfinished projects. But no two works are alike, each representing a unique solution in his search for ways to achieve the “liberation of sound.” For example, Ionisation (1931) is scored entirely for percussion instruments, which until the early 20th century were used primarily in orchestral music for rhythmic emphasis and dramatic or coloristic effects, such as cymbal crashes. In addition to a huge array of traditional orchestral percussion, Varèse’s score calls for instruments of non-Western origin as well as chains, sirens, and anvils. The piece unfolds as a succession of contrasting blocks and masses of sound. The title “ionization” suggests a connection between the interaction of electronically charged atoms or groups of atoms studied in physics and Varèse’s concept of music as “moving bodies of sound in space.” For his Poeme Electronique, Varèse recorded bells, sirens, the human voice, and other sounds which he manipulated electronically, created other sounds in a studio, and assembled them onto an 8-minute tape that played inside a futuristic building designed by the architect Le Corbusier for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair.
Giuseppe Verdi was born in a village near Parma that, like the rest of northern Italy, was under Austrian control. His musical experiences up through his mid-twenties occurred close to home—early lessons with a local musician, church organist job at age 9, further private study after being denied admission to the Conservatory at Milan, a job giving instrumental and vocal lessons. A turning point in his life occurred in 1939 with the enthusiastic reception of his first opera, Oberto, in Milan. This led to a commission for three more operas, one of which, Nabucco, was produced in several major European cities and in New York in the 1840s. Once an obscure provincial musician, Verdi had achieved the international celebrity that he was to enjoy for the rest of his life, almost exclusively for his operas. Although openly critical of the Roman Catholic Church, he also composed several settings of religious texts.
Verdi’s career coincides almost exactly with the Risorgimento, the nationalist movement that he passionately supported and that culminated with the unification of Italy under King Victor Emmanuele in 1861. Although the scenes and characters in Verdi’s operas have no direct connection to contemporary events in Italy, the stories of tyranny, conspiracy, political assassination, and suppression of individual and national liberties struck a chord with the Italian public. The slogan of the unification movement became VIVA, VERDI, the letters of the composer’s name standing for Vittorio Emanuele, Re di Italia (Victor Emmanuele, King of Italy). Toward the end of Verdi’s life, opera was developing in new directions under the influence of German and younger Italian composers, but he was still beloved by his countrymen. The route of his burial procession in Milan was said to have been lined by as many as 200,000 people and an estimated 300,000 attended the official memorial service.
Almost 20 of Verdi’s operas are staples of the romantic repertory today, among them Macbeth, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos, Aida and, from late in his life, Otello and Falstaff. With the exception of his first and last operas, which are comic, Verdi was drawn to passionate, eventful stories that are dark, violent, and end with the death of one or more major characters. In his words, “I want subjects that are novel, big, beautiful, varied and bold—as bold as can be.” The librettos of three are based on Shakespeare, others on Friedrich Schiller, Voltaire, and the romantic writers Victor Hugo, Lord Byron, and Dumas. Having chosen his subject, Verdi worked closely with his librettists to construct fast-moving, eventful plots with vividly contrasting emotions. Conflicts between fear, love, jealousy, fidelity, patriotism create dramatic tension both between and within individual characters. As the libretto evolved, so did Verdi’s ideas for the powerful melodies, energetic rhythms, and climactic buildups through which those passions would find musical expression. In casting his operas, Verdi looked for singers who brought to their roles a combination of high level of vocal accomplishment and vivid stage presence, qualities that continue to be the hallmarks of the great interpreters of Verdi today. In the words of the soprano Renata Tebaldi: “Verdi suffered a great deal through his life and I hear it in his music as the expression of his own soul. Singers must remember to try and achieve the greatest ‘expressione’ in singing Verdi to do justice to this great Maestro.”
Antonio Vivaldi was one of the most prolific and influential composers of the Italian Baroque. He received his musical education from his father, then at the age of 15 began his training for the priesthood. In 1703, the year of his ordination , he assumed the position of teacher of violin at the Pietá, a Venetian home for orphaned, illegitimate, and indigent girls. He spent most of the rest of his life in Venice, although productions of his operas took him to Rome, Mantua, Verona, and Prague. At the height of his popularity, his commissions and published works amassed him considerable wealth, but at the time of his death, in Vienna, he had become impoverished and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
The list of Vivaldi’s compositions is both large and diverse, encompassing orchestral and instrumental chamber works, masses and other sacred music, and operas. Of his over 40 operas, more than half have been lost and none are part of the standard operatic repertory today. On the other hand, his concertos, of which over 500 have been preserved, are firmly established in the instrumental literature. His music has been featured in numerous television commercials and in the scores of such recent films as The Royal Tenenbaums, Sidewalks of New York, Being John Malkovich, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Final Cut, andShine.
Many of Vivaldi’s concertos were written to be played by the more talented of his students at the Pietá. During one six-year period, from 1723 to 1729, the records of the Pietá show he was paid for 140 concertos, an astonishing twelve per month. These and other of his instrumental and sacred works would have been performed by the girls at concerts that became major events in the social life of the Venetian nobility and foreign visitors.
Vivaldi was a seminal figure in the history of the concerto, especially the violin concerto. About 200 of his 500 extant concertos are for one violin and another 30 or so for two or more violins, or violins with other solo instruments. His writing for the violin explores the instrument’s virtuoso capabilities as well as its capacity to “sing.” He standardized a three-movement design for the concerto as a whole, in which the fast tempo and animated character of the first and third contrast with a more lyrical and expressive slow movement in the middle. Vivaldi also established a formal pattern for the fast movements, called ritornello form, which involves a systematic alternation of solo and tutti forces. He was a pioneer of program music, instrumental music that portrays a story, scene, or other nonmusical subject. The most famous of his programmatic works is The Four Seasons, a collection of four violin concertos, one devoted to each of the four seasons of the year.