Kali Blevins

Composer Pierre Boulez, A Revered Iconoclast, Has Died At 90

Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor whose career spanned from the avant-garde post-World War II era to the computer age, has died, according to the French culture ministry. He was 90. Boulez famously challenged his peers and his audience to rethink their ideas of sound and harmony.

In his music, Boulez often created rich and contrasting layers that were built on musical traditions from Asia and Africa, and on the 12-tone technique pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg — as in his 1955 work, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer Without a Master).

“I see music as a kind of continuity, like a big tree,” Boulez told NPR in 2000. “Of course there are many branches, many different directions. I think music is in constant evolution, and there is nothing absolutely fixed and rigidly determined.”

NPR’s Tom Huizenga cited the quote in a piece last year examining the composer’s rebellious roots: Boulez once disrupted a Stravinsky concert, and later said that opera’s problems could be solved by blowing up opera houses.

Boulez also had a knack for polemics — for instance, The Guardian referenced this quote: “anyone who has not felt… the necessity of the dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is OF NO USE.”

But the oft-repeated idea that his music was centered in mathematics is a bit overblown, Boulez told Fresh Air host Terry Gross in 2005.

Saying that a musical language always includes both rational and irrational parts, he noted, “What I tried to find, that’s freedom — but a freedom which is based on discipline.”

Boulez, who won 26 Grammy awards, had a prodigiously broad musical reach. In the 1970s, he founded the IRCAM music and science research center at the Pompidou Center in Paris. That’s where, in 1984, he conducted music from Frank Zappa’s album The Perfect Stranger.

Born in 1925, Boulez studied at the Paris Conservatory under Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz, before embarking on a career that perpetually sought new and modern approaches to music.

He emerged as a conductor in the late 1950s, and for a stretch of years in the 1970s, he served as both the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and as the music director of the New York Philharmonic. He also had a long relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which in 2006 named him conductor emeritus.

Discussing Boulez’s work on the podium back in 2010, Fresh Air’s Lloyd Schwartz wrote:

“Boulez is famous for his amazing ear. He lets you hear every detail. But there are two other Boulez qualities he isn’t often given credit for. One is his innate and effortless sense of the right style. In Boulez’s hands, Haydn’s symphony — for a change — actually sounds Viennese.”

As for his famous statement that opera houses should be blown up, Boulez told Fresh Air in 2005 that he was only joking. The headlines that followed, he said, missed the humor in the statement.

“That was very funny to me,” Boulez said. “A number of times I have heard this quote. I thought I would have said only one sentence in my life.”

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

Hollywood’s Greatest Year

The world of 1939 was falling into turmoil. Europe was inching closer toward—and, on September 1, finally commenced—World War II.  Americans were looking for distractions. They wanted to escape, and Hollywood was working over time churning out movies to help in that regard, films that would go down in history as some of cinema’s most enduing classics. It’s hard to think of any other year that saw so many masterpieces released: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Of Mice and Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Wuthering Heights, Son of Frankenstein, and on and on.

Catch “Reel Music – Hollywood’s Greatest Year: 1939,” Friday night, August 28, at 9:00pm. We’ll sample scores from some of these great classics. In the meantime, enjoy trailers from a few movies that made 1939 Hollywood’s greatest year.

Gone With the Wind

The Wizard of Oz

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Dark Victory

Son of Frankenstein

Ohlsson’s His Name, and Chopin’s His Game

This week on Open Air Brevard, piano legend Garrick Ohlsson takes the stage to perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. You may be asking, “Who is this Mr. Ohlsson, and why should I want to hear him play?” Fair question. WDAV features a lot of talented pianists on its airwaves.

But Garrick is more than your average piano player. He is a three-time international piano competition champion – this includes a gold medal win in the 8th annual Chopin Competition. Reviews from Ohlsson’s concerts have earned him nicknames such as “The Bear/Butterfly” and “The Thousand-Handed God of the Piano.” (Who wouldn’t want a nickname like that last one!). Even though it’s Brahms he’ll be conquering alongside the Brevard Music Center Orchestra this weekend, his nearly eighty-work repertoire is very Chopin heavy.

Learn more about Mr. Ohlsson below, and keep scrolling to hear him perform. There’s even an excerpt from his Chopin Competition appearance in 1970!

Ohlsson Infographic


Ohlsson performs after winning the Chopin Competition in 1970.

Ohlsson returns to the Chopin Competition as a guest performer.

Ohlsson’s career summed up by the pianist himself.

The Birth of Brevard

When Brevard Music Center and Summer Festival began in 1936, I’m not sure even the founder could have foreseen what a cultural treasure the program would become. Now, 79 years later, Brevard is a hub for quality music education and performance, and WDAV gladly returns each summer to share the experience with our listeners. But this 180-acre camp nestled in the North Carolina Mountains didn’t always exist in the form we know and love today. It actually began in WDAV’s own (future) backyard!

Dr. James Christian Pfohl conducting

Dr. James Christian Pfohl

Brevard was the brainchild of Dr. James Christian Pfohl, Davidson College Director of Music circa late 1930s. Originally named the Davidson College Music School Camp, the program’s first summer had fifty male high-school instrumentalists.

The music camp remained at Davidson until 1943, when – fun college fact – the army repurposed the campus as a training ground. After a summer spent becoming co-ed at Queens College in Charlotte, NC, the program came to rest at its final home:  an abandoned boys’ camp in Brevard, NC.

Pfohl wasted no time in expanding “Transylvania Music Camp.” And no, the new name isn’t as odd as it sounds. Brevard is in Transylvania county. Takes some of mystique out of it, right?

Just two years after the big move, Pfohl tacked on a three week music festival to the end of the six week camp. The festival featured high-quality concerts by students, faculty, and guest artists, much like we see today. Ten years passed before the camp’s name was officially changed to Brevard Music Center.

Today, the Brevard Music Center and Summer Festival trains, houses, and feeds over 400 students, age 14 to post-college, each year. During the seven week intensive camp, more than 80 concerts are presented, featuring everything from symphonic classics and chamber music to opera and movie scores.

Sound like a magical, musical summer you would like to experience for yourself? That’s where WDAV comes in! We’ll be presenting concert highlights each week on Open Air Brevard, beginning July 4. Tune in Saturdays at 3pm and Thursdays at 9pm to hear renowned soloists and conductor, dedicated faculty from leading orchestra, and talented students from across the country do what they love most – perform!


Check out this short 1937 clip of the Davidson College Music School Camp, provided by longtime supporter and listener Bill Vinson, who is hidden in there somewhere playing the cornet:

Mozart 101, Part 4 of 4: The Requiem

Who remembers the 1984 film Amadeus? Told from the perspective of composer Antonio Salieri, this delightful biopic highlights the genius, vulgarity, and dramatics of the great Mozart. At its core, the movie makes Salieri culpable for Mozart’s death, the cause of which to this day remains unconfirmed. According to the film, Salieri appeared on Mozart’s doorstep in “the guise of a frightening emissary from beyond” to commission a requiem, which eventually drove Mozart to his grave. During the final days of Mozart’s life, Salieri visited the great composer’s bedside and wrote down Mozart’s plan for the rest of the requiem. He later finished the work and attempted to claim it as his own.

Although the idea that Salieri killed Mozart is complete fiction, Amadeus didn’t stray far from the truth in its depiction of Wolfgang’s final composition. In July of 1791, Mozart was visited by what he describes as a “gray messenger.” This mysterious visitor brought a commission for a requiem from an unknown individual, who later turned out to be Count Walsegg. Walsegg was an amateur musician who notoriously hired ghost writers for compositions he would later claim as his own. In this instance, he wanted a mass to perform each year on the anniversary of his young wife’s death. Mozart, then in a fair amount of debt, quickly accepted the proposition.

After finishing up several compositions, including The Magic Flute, Mozart finally began work on the requiem in October. As he fell ill with what would be a terminal sickness, he became obsessed with the piece. He slaved over the requiem day and night. In the delirium of his illness, the “gray messenger” morphed into a herald from beyond. The composer even said to his wife, “I fear I am writing a requiem for myself.”

144792907On the day before he passed away, Mozart, along with his family and friends, sang through the work. He died eleven hours later, leaving the requiem only 2/3 complete.

Mozart’s death left his wife to deal with the family’s copious amount of debt on her own. Fairly business savvy, Constanze knew she needed the money from the unfinished requiem’s commission. Luckily, Mozart left behind the full vocal parts and baseline, plus an outline of the instrumentation for the sections he had completed. No sketches or guidelines have been found for the last three movements.

Constanze enlisted the help of Joseph Eybler, good friend and colleague of her husband. Eybler finished orchestrating portions of the requiem. However, he soon returned the work to Constanze out of respect for his dear friend. He feared he could not do Mozart’s creation justice.

The requiem next landed in the hands of fellow composer Franz Xaver Sussmayr. He is the one credited today for completing Mozart’s Requiem.  The amount of influence he had on the work remains a highly debated topic. Given that Sussmayr had no guidance for the three unwritten movements, there is no way to tell whether he followed the great composer’s wishes. However, the quality of the composition and the continuation of the common themes indicate strong influence from Mozart. As one critic put it, “how [else] could music of such grandeur and sublimity possibly [have] come from one who produced nothing else in his life of lasting value.”

Sussmayer rewrote the entire Requiem, with his additions included, in his own hand and forged Mozart’s signature. Constanze presented the completed work to Count Walsegg, secretly keeping a copy for herself. Although the Count expected to premiere the work himself in late 1793, Constanze presented Mozart’s Requiem eleven months earlier at a benefit concert in honor of her husband.

Explore the Mozart 101 Series:

Mozart 101, Part 1: Mozart’s Life
Mozart 101, Part 2: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Mozart 101, Part 3: The Magic Flute
Mozart 101, Part 4: The Requiem

Mozart 101, part 3 of 4: The Magic Flute

Mozart’s last opera has mesmerized music lovers since its premiere in September 1791. The Magic Flute, a zauberoper or “magic opera,” embodies all that was expected from the popular genre. With its intentionally jumbled plot full of comic relief and larger-than-life characters, the opera was an immediate success with audiences, who became enthralled with its quirkiness.

Critics, on the other hand, weren’t quite so pleased. The Magic Flute was called “one of the most absurd specimens of a form of literature in which absurdity is regarded as a matter of course.” So how could Mozart – a talented, successful, and highly-celebrated composer with a passion for opera – be the one responsible for such a puzzling and eccentric work?

The answer is simple: there is more to the opera than meets the eye. A lot more, actually. German poet Goethe once said about The Magic Flute, “If the multitude find pleasure only in what is actually visible, the initiated will not fail to perceive the higher meaning.” Those “initiated” are none other than the Freemasons.

Freemasonary Logo - Mormon - Books of Foundation - Peter CrawfordMozart became a Mason in December 1784 and was an active member until his death seven years later. Freemasonry in Mozart’s time was driven by a desire to spread the ideals of the Enlightenment – reason, tolerance, and humanism. Mozart found solace in these principles as he dealt with the passing of his father, troubles in his marriage, and his ever-growing debt. It is no surprise then that his later works became saturated with Masonic themes. The Magic Flute is certainly no exception.

Written at a time when Freemasonry was condemned and discredited, The Magic Flute has been called an “Enlightenment allegory, veiled in masonic ritual.” At the time of its premiere, many read the allegory as one reflecting that very moment in history. The Queen of the Night – embodying the darkness and superstition of The Middle Ages – represented Empress Maria Theresa, whose decree had closed most of the Masonic lodges. Long story short, the Queen ends up as the bad guy. In contrast, Sarastro, the benevolent leader who uses Enlightenment ideals to unite the opera’s young lovers, personified Joseph II, son of the empress and advocate of the Masonic order.

Mozart didn’t limit his Masonic nods to just the abstract allegorical level. Freemason rituals and symbolism are scattered throughout the opera. Take the number three, for example. This numeral, an important figure to the Masons, occurs again and again: the main character Tamino is rescued by three ladies and guided along his journey by three boys; he must endure three trials to join the brotherhood; the snake representing ignorance is cut into three pieces. Mozart even goes so far as to write the work in a key signature with three flats. And that’s just scratching the surface of the symbolism. You can find a more detailed listing here.

The Magic Flute, meant to epitomize the meaning of Freemasonry, was Mozart’s last completed composition. He fell ill two days after its premiere. In the delirium of that fatal sickness, Wolfgang would run through the opera in his head, experiencing the power of his own music. He died after the show’s 67th performance. One hypothesis regarding Mozart’s death is that Masons poisoned him for revealing their secrets.

Next week, we learn about Mozart’s unfinished Requiem and the mysterious circumstances behind its commission.

Explore the Mozart 101 Series:

Mozart 101, Part 1: Mozart’s Life
Mozart 101, Part 2: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Mozart 101, Part 3: The Magic Flute
Mozart 101, Part 4: The Requiem


Mozart 101, Part 2 of 4: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is considered to be one of Mozart’s most famous compositions. Completed August 10, 1787, while the composer was freelancing in Vienna, A Little Night Music is an upbeat serenade originally written for two violins, viola, cello, and double bass.

Consisting of just 4 movements, the piece has been dubbed a “supreme mastery in the smallest possible frame.” In reality, Mozart intended the piece to be longer, at least according to his own record keeping. The composer lists the piece with 5 movements – the first of two minuets is missing from the surviving manuscript.

You may be surprised to find that historians have little information about how this beloved work came to exist. Despite the large collection of letters, documents, and notes left by Mozart, the only mention of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is in the composer’s personal catalogue of works. No commission request is listed, and the piece was published posthumously. Hence, theories abound as to why Mozart wrote the piece in the first place.

Was it spontaneous composition? Or was the work written for a special occasion? In Mozart’s time, serenades served as festive music for social gatherings and celebrations. Because this musical form was usually performed outside, serenades were often heavy on the wind instruments. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, however, is written for all strings, which indicates an indoor event. Serenades could also be quite lucrative for composers. Since Mozart was severely in debt when he wrote this piece, money may have been a motivation.

To further add to the mystery, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik has a drastically different tone than the other works Mozart completed at that time. He was in the midst of writing his opera buffa Don Giovanni, which ends with the main character being dragged off to hell. This dark comedy seems to be a reflection of Mozart’s life in that moment. The composer was short on work, out of money, and had recently lost his father. The jubilant sounds of A Little Night Music may simply have been Mozart’s attempt to bring some light into his quickly darkening world.


Explore the Mozart 101 Series:

Mozart 101, Part 1: Mozart’s Life
Mozart 101, Part 2: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Mozart 101, Part 3: The Magic Flute
Mozart 101, Part 4: The Requiem

Learn More:

Mozart 101, Part 1 of 4: Mozart’s Life

Mozart 101, part 1 of 4: Mozart’s Life

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilius Mozart, known as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — or Wolfie for short — was born in Salzburg, Austria on January 27, 1756. The child of violinist and composer Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang showed an affinity for music from a very early age. He had an innate sense for chords, tempo, and rhythm, which encouraged Leopold to start piano lessons with the then three year old. Mozart learned to play the violin at age four. By five, he had composed his first piece – a piano minuet. At six years old, the child prodigy – along with his father and sister, also a talented pianist – was traveling Europe to perform for royalty.


Wolfie, playing piano at age three, playing violin at four, and composing at five

When he wasn’t performing, little Wolfie caused his fair share of trouble. Mozart had an illustrious personality. He was precocious, craved attention, and loved bathroom humor. Anecdotes describe Wolfgang as immature, brash, and excitable. Even getting his haircut was a challenge. His barber could never get the musical genius to sit still. Mozart would think of a new idea and rush to the piano, with the barber brandishing scissors behind him.

As Mozart’s musical career progressed, he quickly outgrew the opportunities available to him in Salzburg. With his mother as traveling companion, he traversed Europe in search of a high-status court position. This trip was a particularly dark time in Mozart’s life. His job hunt was unsuccessful. A young singer named Aloysia Webber stole the composer’s heart, but did not return Mozart’s love. And in 1778, Mozart’s mother became sick and passed away. He returned to Salzburg broken-hearted and jobless. Eventually, Mozart packed his things and headed for Vienna, becoming one of the first-known freelance musicians.

Life in Vienna suited Mozart well. He fell in love with a different Webber sister and married Constanze in 1782, much to the chagrin of his father. He was highly successful as a pianist and composer, allowing the family to live an extravagant lifestyle filled with fancy apartments, expensive pianos, and ample servants. Wolfgang even befriended the famed Joseph Haydn, who sang Mozart’s praises: “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that [Mozart] is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” Haydn would become a strong influence on Mozart’s work.

Sadly, Mozart’s lavish lifestyle and lack of savings caught up with him. Due to the ongoing Austro-Turkish war, the Aristocracy had limited money to support the arts, which left Mozart without work. Compounding debt forced the family to move to inexpensive housing and borrow funds from friends and colleagues.

In the last year of Mozart’s life, the future looked bright. His opera The Magic Flute had seen astounding success, which enabled him to repay his debts. But while in Prague for the premiere of La Clemenza di Tito, he fell ill. Two months later, the sickness had him bedridden. Although his health was quickly deteriorating, Mozart remained mentally engaged in writing his Requiem until his final days.

Mozart died on December 5th, 1791 at 1 a.m. The cause of his death – officially listed as “severe military fever” – is a highly debated topic. The nearly 120 hypotheses include everything from strep throat and flu to vitamin D deficiency and poison. The beloved composer was buried in a common grave.

Explore the Mozart 101 Series:

Mozart 101, Part 1: Mozart’s Life
Mozart 101, Part 2: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Mozart 101, Part 3: The Magic Flute
Mozart 101, Part 4: The Requiem