Happy Birthday, Gustav

Leonard Bernstein talks about Mahler’s last Symphony as prefiguring not just the music but the tragic wars of the 20th Century.

Mahler’s Third Symphony with a larger-than-life guide:

Flaming chariots of the Titan Symphony:

Gustav Mahler was born this day in 1860.



Get to know Leoš Janáček, Czech composer born this day in 1854.


Mladi for wind sextet

Musical biography

Brahms and Tchaikovsky

Born in 1833 and 1840, in Hamburg and Votkinsk, both on the 7th of May.   The most popular, most beloved of all the great late romantic composers, and yet they couldn’t appreciate one another.  Brahms was indifferent to Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky actively disliked Brahms’s music and argued that it was unappealing.

Today, their reputations are both solid.  We think of Brahms as more the formalist, the intellectual.  But compared to many 20th Century composers, his music is not at all abstract or difficult to appreciate with our hearts.  We think of Tchaikovsky as sentimental, but what a genius!  In originality of orchestration he is unsurpassed.   His works have deep integrity of structure, an intellectual attribute for which Brahms is known.  Even his counterpoint—the most abstract of compositional techniques—is brilliantly original.

(When I was young, I learned a prejudice against Tchaikovsky from musician friends who said his music was shallow.  So I’ve learned to love his music later in life than Brahms.)

Both repressed their sexuality.  Brahms was in love with the wife of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann.  Tchaikovsky was attracted to men, but secretive and ashamed in the repressive environment of Czar Nicholas.

The two men met twice in their lives.  Brahms was reported to be solicitous, Tchaikovsky a bit more stand-offish.  Neither was warm.

      “It is impossible in listening to Brahms’ music to say that it is weak or unremarkable,” Tchaikovsky goes on. “His style is always elevated. Unlike all our contemporary musicians, he never has recourse to purely external effects; he never attempts to astonish us, to strike us by some new and brilliant orchestral combination; nor do we meet in his music with anything trivial or directly imitative. It is all very serious, very distinguished, apparently even original, but in spite of all this, the chief thing is lacking – beauty! A few years ago, when I frankly expressed my opinion of Brahms to [pianist-conductor] Hans von Bülow, he replied: ‘Wait a minute, the time will come when you will enter into the depth and beauty of Brahms. Like you, it was long before I understood him, but gradually, I was blessed by the revelation of his genius. It will be the same with you.’ And still I wait; but the revelation tarries. I deeply revere the artistic personality of Brahms. I bow to the actual purity of his musical tendencies, and I admire his firm, proud renunciation of all the tricks that solemnize the Wagner cult, and in a much less degree the worship of Liszt, but I do not care for his music.   — Bradley Bambarger

Here are links to the scherzo 3rd movements of Brahms Symphony #4 and Tchaikovsky Symphony #4. Both movements are palpably joyous. (If you’e interested, you might listen to what comes right after the pizzicato string fade at the end of the Tchaikovsky movement. I won’t give away more.)

Grażyna Bacewicz

Among many protegés of the 20th Century’s greatest musical mentor, Nadia Boulanger, Polish Grażyna Bacewicz stands out as multi-talented and inventive.  She was best known as virtuoso violinist, retiring after WW II to devote full time to composition.  In her later years, she wrote a novel and short stories.

Listen to the Overture for Orchestra of Grażyna Bacewicz, born this day in 1909.

For me the work of composing is like sculpting a stone, not like transmitting the sounds of imagination or inspiration. The majority of contemporary composers work as systematically as bureaucrats. If there is no inspiration one does the menial “workshop” jobs, if there is inpspiration the creative work continues. Discipline, strict discipline in composition is essential to for me. There is a saying: the house will fall down if it were to be built without principles. However, since dodecaphony does not appeal to me very much I am sitting alone and working out my own system. [Letter of Grażyna Bacewicz to her brother, Witold (Vytautas Bacevicius), 23 October 1958].

If Mozart were Alive Today

Alma Deutscher
We cannot know for sure if young Mozart was a delightful, innocent child or a petulant brat.

It may lie on the tip of the tongue to accuse Leopold Mozart of forcing his children into child labour. On the other hand, Wolfgang Mozart not only immensely enjoyed his performances, but his musical genius compelled him to perform.  Mozart.com

But we can know Alma Deutscher as playful, spontaneous, and unself-conscious.  Also with a belief in beauty and sensitivity to just about everything.

Here she is playing her own violin concerto and her own piano concerto.

“By the time Alma was 4, I had taught her all I could about music. We were living in Oxford then so I talked to some music teachers there and suggested that they teach her theory. They laughed and told me to come back in 10 years.
“Then I found a book by Robert Gjerdingen about the Naples conservatory in the 18th and early 19th centuries and its method to teach the youngest students the principles of music — not as theory but through active experience. I knew this was the right way for Alma.
“Since Alma was 5, Gjerdingen has been monitoring her development from afar. Every few months he sends her exercises and we send him some of the pieces she’s writing. He returns them with comments, which she doesn’t always accept. We’ve never met him in person.”
from an interview with Alma’s father

It took her three years to write her first opera, so she didn’t finish it until she was 11.