Friday, 4 March 2016


The month of March features some of Classical Music’s most notable births, events, premieres and deaths. Bizarrely, a vast number of them occurred on the fourth of March. 

"Town Crier" - Anthonie van den Bos (1763-1838)

Here are just a few notable entries to start off the month:

Antonio Vivaldi
March 1678, Venice, Italy:

March 4th marks the birth of 17th century Italy’s most tempestuous master of the violin, Antonio Vivaldi.

Immediately baptized following his birth, the sickly future “Prete Rosso” and maestro di violino at the Ospedale della Pietà (an Italian orphanage for abandoned girls funded by the state), would lead a highly sensationalized, occasionally scandalous and remarkably influential life as one of the baroque era’s most prolific composers.

At young Antonio’s side throughout many of the composers’ musical milestones was his father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, himself a respected violinist who operated out of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and who would become a founding father of the Sovvegno dei musicisti di Santa Cecilia association of musicians (whose President was the gifted baroque composer Giovanni Legrenzi). 
 It was Battista who had defended his son Antonio Vivaldi before the board at the Pietà when it's commissioners opted to expel the temperamental teacher from the Ospedale after failing to secure for the unsuspecting Vivaldi the required 2/3 majority vote in favor of continued tenure - resulting in the Junior Vivaldi's unexpected and abrupt dismissal in 1709 - a fateful end to his six year tenure as teacher of the violin. Vivaldi's dismissal from the Pietà is alleged to have been the result of the ‘Red Priests' (as Vivaldi was then known about town - alluding to the shade of his hair, apparently fiery temper and frequent outbursts directed at both staff and pupils). (the latter two attributions being later, snarkily inspired - yet quite apt - adscriptions). 
 The Senior Vivaldi is also believed to have been young Antonio’s first violin teacher, and would take with him his son whilst on tour.

It was only after a brief stint with the Priesthood (which Vivaldi is believed to have been forced into by Battista at the age of 15 – he earned Holy Orders in 1703) that Antonio Vivaldi set the bulk of his focus into composition. This shift in dynamic would occur during the violinist’s tenure as teacher at the Ospedale when the musician, ever hungry for continental fame, made the fateful decision to showcase the talents of his most gifted students by composing a series of sonatas and concertos for them.
A facsimile of a so-called "Roger Edition" of
the L'estro Armonico,[1] by French publisher
Estienne Roger of Amsterdam. Roger is
believed to have printed the Armonico in
spades, 'creating' some twenty-odd prints
for the then-staggering price of 143
florins, making the collection the most
valuable of any current (he presently
had two) Vivaldi Opus.

Within two years of having been ordained a Priest (which amounted to almost no time spent worshiping in Church: Vivaldi would join the Ospedale that same year) and voted into mentorship at the Orphange, the temperamental composer published his first set of 12 trio sonatas in 1705 and 12 solo sonatas in 1709, followed two years later by the iconic L’estro Armonico, Vivaldi’s third Opus– a collection of twelve concertos – that would place both Vivaldi and Venice on the map as the birthplace of the highly complex Concerti that would later dominate 18th century classical music. Vivaldi's innovations on the "Corelli method" featured dynamic lyricism, an innovative use of ritornelli and Vivaldi’s signature employment of the so-called 'fast-slow-fast' musical format.
 It was through the multiple publications of Vivaldi’s third opus which had so astounded Italian audiences during one of the Ospedales' Sunday/Feast Day public concerts in Venice, that the hopeful composer achieved his lifelong goal of international renown. Editions of the Armonico were published in Amsterdam, making their way to London and France – two meccas of Western Classical Musicwith further editions of the work appearing in Dresden, Vienna and Schwerin and attracting composers of the ilk of Johann Sebastian Bach to create his own collection of ten keyboard transcriptions, six of which were borrowed from the Armonico.

Listen below to the beautiful Largo e Spiccato from L’Estro Armonico's 11th concerto in D minor : *

*The largo e spiccato is the 4th movement of Vivaldi's 11th Concerto and is catalogued under the RV number 565.

Footnote & Suggested Reading:

Also occurring on the 4th day of March:

A late portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1791, Vienna, Austria: 

An favorite, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in his 35th and final year on this musical sphere [likely] performed at the première of his rather muted, yet undeniably delightful Piano Concerto No. 27 at the Jahn’s [concert] Hall in Vienna, marking the often-sickly composer’s last performance before the public before succumbing to an un-diagnosed, highly theorized illness some nine months later in December of 1791, weeks shy of his 36th birthday.

Read more about Mozart and his spectacular - yet all too brief -  musical journey on the European Continent, and re-discover why his profoundly majestic works of art (what else could one call the composers exquisite oeuvre!) continue to delight, thrill, and astonish audiences across the globe in the present era:


The Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
1877, Moscow, Russia:

It was also on the 4th day of March, this time in the late 19th century that audiences at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater first took in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s [now] infamous ballet[1] and orchestral masterpiece “Swan Lake.” What may be surprising to modern spectators of the frequently staged work is the fact that the ballets' premiere was anything but a ravishing success. In a quite markèd contrast, the premier production was a complete disaster.
 This was the era of Romantics – moreover, it was the era of innovation, risk taking – of mass expansion. With it brought the abundant, and loud vocal and orchestral crescendos of late classical composer Rossini, who would in turn influence the 'noisy' brass of Berlioz - signifying the new, superfluously expressive romantic age - and both of whom unwittingly ushered into the blossoming era the all inclusive "gesamtkunstwerk" stylings of Wagner.
 As in the case of most any new arena, not everyone was ready or welcome for such dynamic alterations from the status quo. Such feelings of discontent weren’t relegated only to critics, but to composers as well, each of whom had to struggle to find their own niche – their own rhythm – in the rapidly developing, and critically fluctuating new era.

Surprisingly, Tchaikovsky’s orchestrations for Swan Lake – now considered to be some of the most moving – and at times soothing – melodic music to come out of 19th century Russia was, at it's premier performance, universally panned by contemporary critics, who found it too “noisy” and too reminiscent of Wagner (who, incidentally, was as controversial then as he is in modern times, albeit for different reasons). Adding to the catastrophe of the premiere, according to said critics, was poor stage design and a set of inept dancers.

Talk about a disaster!

Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, performed by the Kirov Ballet:


Austrian composer Gustav Mahler
1895 Berlin, Germany:

It was on the fourth of March at the tail end of the 19th century that 'Mahlerites' in Berlin saw the world premiere of Late-Romantic Composer Gustav Mahler’s most prized 2nd Symphony (only the first three movements) in the German capital with Mahler himself at the helm conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Originally composed as a single-movement symphonic poem in 1888 drawing on the composers frequently employed themes on death (the Symphony’s first movement was aptly titled "Totenfeier" (Funeral Rites)), Mahler would compose the second and third movements five years later, in 1893. It would be after the death of beloved conductor and hero to the solemn tempered composer, Hans von Bülow in 1894 that Mahler would experience an epiphany which struck him through, hard and fast “like lightning,” transforming the piece into an orchestral and vocally lush treatise on man’s eternal and universal quest to conclusively answer the question “Is there life after death?” (a question asked by the composer himself in the 1901 programme for a premier performance of the 2nd Symphony in Dresden - which he later abandoned).

Over the course of the first three movements, man’s travels in life are represented by the protagonist (i.e. the audience) experiencing a wide range of philosophical quandaries: he (or she) first encounters death at a funeral, prompting the question of life after death. This is followed in the second movement by a state of reflection to happier and more joyous times in days past, while the third movement quite frustratingly questions the purpose of a life represented by “meaningless activity" (a sort of piquant cynicism best understood by young twenty-somethings first encountering the [late] works of Tolstoy or Samuel Beckett).

The first three movements, as performed on March 4th, 1895, and indeed, the 'complete 2nd',' following a rather dismal critical reception, would go on to become one of the present era's most beloved and frequently performed symphonies of the Mahler repertoire.

Listen below to the first three movements* of Gustav Mahler's 2nd Symphony (this video features
maestro Claudio Abbado at the conducting helm. It would be through this performance with the

European Community Youth Orchestra
that Abbado would achieve international renown and find 

his niche in the works of Gustav Mahler).

*start time - 49:00

Compositional History / Later Editions (and Additions):

The first three movements that were performed at the premiere in Vienna were composed between 1888 and 1893. Mahler procrastinated for roughly a year before completing the symphony, with the full intention to add to the work a vocal score that was both personally significant, philosophically and spiritually poignant, and, most crucially for the composer, the addition(s) had to be original and avoid drawing comparison to any other contemporary composers. Mahler's inspiration for the symphony's finale would unwittingly present itself one year later: drawing on a hymn sung at von Bülow's funeral (a choral setting of German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s "Resurrection"), Mahler would employ the themes of redemption, release and “renewal” to the work, later adding the gooseflesh-inducing aria,[1] "Urlicht," which would serve as the Symphony’s penultimate - and most majestic – movement, representing “release” from a life filled with vacuous trivialities, ultimately culminating in further reflection, a sense of acceptance, and a spirited yearning for renewal in the fifth and final movement.

The exquisite "Urlicht" from Mahler's 2nd Symphony. This, the works penultimate
[fourth] movement presents both a stillness and a yearning that is as earthly
as it is heavenly majestic. The Urlicht, along with the Symphony's final
movement were later additions to the work, and although both were complete one year
prior to March of 1895, neither would be performed at the premiere. It is showcased
here merely to share with the reader the sublime beauty of the piece. The clip below is
sung by English contralto Norma Procter. I am fully aware it is de rigueur amongst
classical music elite to favor Abbado's version with dramatic soprano Jessye Norman -
which itself could melt glaciers at Mach 1 speed - but it was in the contralto voice of
Procter that I first fell in love with this piece. 

[1]in some regards the use of the term "aria" commonly employed to describe the Urlicht is misleading. The 'song' in question is really more of a Lied - one that has been enhanced by a backing orchestra.


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