Kali Blevins

How Handel’s ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ Premiered with a Bang

Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks has a history almost as loud as its namesake. The work’s premiere is a story of disagreements, bonfires, and… a lot of traffic.

The Royal Fireworks suite was commissioned by King George II in 1749 to mark the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, an eight-year territorial dispute involving most of the European powers. His Majesty wanted to celebrate the treaty signing with an event of grand proportions. A 400-foot wooden pavilion was constructed for the occasion in London’s Green Park. George’s Comptroller of his Majesty’s Fireworks for War as for Triumph – I kid you not – organized a fireworks display involving nearly 10,000 rockets and 101 cannons. But what good are elaborate pyrotechnics without the right music?

George Frideric Handel

Enter Handel.

Much to the composer’s chagrin, Handel was given guidelines for the piece that would accompany the king’s beloved fireworks: not overly long, heavy on the military instruments (i.e. brass, woodwinds, and percussion), and ‘no fiddles.’ Handel was a bit irritated by that last request. He would later rescore the Royal Fireworks suite for a full orchestra, which is the version we hear most often today.

At its premiere, however, the composition did not include strings. The piece was written for 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 12 bassoons, 24 oboes, three pairs of kettle drums, and a handful of side drums.

Six days before the big celebration, 12,000 people crowded streets, roofs, and boats to hear the piece performed at the dress rehearsal. Afterwards, the audience dispersed in mass. To make matters worse, the London Bridge had fallen down – the central arch of the new structure had collapsed – so the main road was blocked. The resulting chaos caused a three-hour traffic jam of carriages!

In the end, that dress rehearsal turned out to be significantly more successful than the concert itself. On the night of the big event, despite the incredible music, the fireworks failed to wow the crowd. Rockets misfired or refused to light at all. The display was said to be “pitiful and ill-conducted, with no changes of coloured fires and shapes: the illumination…lighted so slowly that scarce anybody had patience to wait the finishing.”

However, the evening did end with a dazzling display. A stray rocket caught the wooden pavilion on fire, and most of it burned to the ground. Oops. Something tells me Mister Comptroller of his Majesty’s Fireworks was out of a job the next day.

CSO Performs Handel’s Messiah

Oratorios singers practice Handel's MessiahThe holiday season is a time for traditions: baking sugar cookies using mom’s special recipe, buying that one new ornament to add to your collection, having a gingerbread house decorating contest with the entire family. For many classical music lovers, attending a performance of Handel’s Messiah is one of those traditions.  Lucky for them, on December 12th at 7:30pm, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, along with the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, is presenting its annual performance of this holiday masterpiece.

“Messiah is one of the most special compositions ever conceived,” says Scott Allen Jarrett, the Director of Choruses and Assistant Director for the CSO. Jarrett is in awe of Handel’s work, which makes the job of giving new life to the piece each year easy for him. When asked how he accomplishes this task, he says it’s a matter of finding new meaning: “We have to engage this text in a different way. ‘And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.’ Well, what is the glory? Who is the glory?” He asks his singers to turn off their “autopilot” and think about what the words they are voicing really mean. The decades’ worth of Messiah performance dates scribbled on the chorus folders are testament to the Jarrett’s ability (and to those before him) to make this familiar music fresh. The performers keep coming back.

In Jarrett’s understanding, the yearly performances of Messiah act as a framework for life. “To me, [each performance] is a point of the year to measure one’s life. Every year, we can measure our lives, our gains, our losses, in the image of the story. The story does not change, but we do.” Conducting the Messiah becomes a very personal experience for this retrospective musician.

Jarrett has one piece of advice to impart on those of you attending the concert on Wednesday night: “I would say to a listener, first time or thirtieth time listener, listen with great openness, listen as if you’ve never heard the story before.”

Visit charlottesymphony.org for information on the soloists, songs, and tickets.

WDAV Gets into Holiday Spirit

The holiday season is a great time to be a part of WDAV, whether you’re on the staff like me or you’re a listener and supporter. First, there’s the wonderful seasonal music. As usual, we will increase the holiday selections as we get deeper into December, and let the holiday feeling linger a little longer by continuing to play Christmas music until the 31st.

There are wonderful special programs we look forward to every year, some of which we produce ourselves. This year we continue our collaboration with St. John’s Baptist Church for another live broadcast of Charlotte Lessons and Carols from St. John’s at noon on December 7th, which we’ll repeat twice more later in the month. Our special guests this year are the choral group Renaissance led by Robert Pritchard and the Wingate University Singers under the direction of Kenney Potter, plus the Ballantyne Brass Quintet. I hope you’ll plan to join us either in the warmth of the St. John’s sanctuary or on the radio.

Many international listener favorites are returning as well, including live broadcasts from King’s College in Cambridge, England and the perennially popular New Year’s Day concert from Vienna.

It all makes for a festive way to bring the year to an end, and to reflect on what we’ve been able to accomplish, and what we have in store for the New Year: on air, online and out in the community.

None of it is possible without the support of devoted listeners who become members. So in the spirit of gratitude and optimism that is so appropriate at this time of year, we say thanks to you, and invite you to continue the musical journey with us on into the New Year.

Wishing you all the warmth of the season,

Frank Dominguez
Interim General Manager

***Make sure you check out wdav.org for details on our upcoming Holiday Programming


Charlotte’s Brodt Music Company to Close After 78 Years

Brodt Music Company has been serving the Charlotte community since 1934. Recently, WDAV Digital Producer George Marshall visited Brodt to interview owner Lee Northcutt about the store’s 78 year life and imminent closure.

Over the years, Brodt has not only supplied print music, but also supplemented the community by organizing band and choral workshops for the Charlotte Mecklenburg school system, creating displays for church music conferences, and hosting nationally recognized composers to offer workshops for local musicians. Brodt Music has also existed as a locale for regional and guest musicians alike to meet and chat. Artists of such international rapport as Kathleen Battle and Itzhak Perlman have found themselves in Brodt Music, while more frequent patrons have included local jazz legends Loonis McGlohon and Jim Stack.


Due to financial constraints resulting from the 2008 recession and continuing web-based movement of print music sales, Brodt Music will be closing at the end of October 2012. With tighter budgets, too many schools and churches have had to cancel their purchase orders with Brodt Music – as many as 50 cancellations were received in one afternoon, recalled the owner, who hopes to sell as much of their vast inventory as possible before they close.

You can hear Northcutt’s interview on WDAV October 25 at 9:30am and October 27 at 11:30am. Can’t wait that long? Click the play button below to listen now!

Davidson College Receives $45 Million Investment – Largest Gift Ever!

Davidson College is excited to announce the largest gift in its history: a $45 million grant from The Duke Endowment to transform the academic heart of its campus.

Beginning in 2013 with a comprehensive construction/renovation plan for six academic buildings, and continuing with new opportunities for curricular expansion, Davidson is embarking – thanks to the generous investment of The Duke Endowment – on a 10-year plan to remake the model of liberal arts education.

The new academic neighborhood configuration will provide for increased opportunities for collaboration with outside businesses, organizations, and universities, significantly enhancing Davidson’s already considerable program of undergraduate research.

“Davidson graduates lead and serve in an increasingly interconnected, rapidly changing world,” explains Davidson College president Carol Quillen. “To stay ahead of these changes, we need to shift how we work, both physically and intellectually. This bold campus plan will enable our exceptional faculty to create a curriculum centered on students doing original work. It will support our dedicated staff as they help students build bridges between learning and life. The Duke Endowment understands the opportunities that our changing world offers, and we cannot thank the Trustees enough for endorsing Davidson’s vision.”

“The founder of The Duke Endowment, James B. Duke, was a visionary in business matters and in philanthropy and I believe he would have taken delight in this historic grant,” says Minor Shaw, chair of the Endowment’s Trustees. “The Trustees of The Duke Endowment wanted to support Davidson’s plan as a testament to our strong belief in the college, its leadership, faculty and staff, and student body.”

The Duke Endowment’s gift will enable Davidson to restructure the main academic portion of its campus to create learning spaces that foster new methods of interdisciplinary learning. Six buildings will be expanded, renovated or constructed over the next decade to create a “neighborhood” with flexible spaces and common areas that encourage the exchange and generation of ideas across conventional academic boundaries—between departments, between disciplines, and between the arts and sciences.

Faculty and staff will be grouped in these facilities by the resources they need and their potential interactions with others. Community and flexible spaces such as a café, artist studios, learning labs, shared equipment, and computational facilities will be situated to promote interactions among all members of the campus community.

Clark G. Ross, Davidson College Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty adds: “President Quillen has shown extraordinary academic foresight in working with the faculty to develop this exciting and ambitious initiative. With this creative interdisciplinary project, Davidson should be an academic beacon among the liberal arts colleges. The Duke Endowment gift helps demonstrate the exciting potential before us.”

The new neighborhood configuration will provide for increased opportunities for collaboration with outside businesses, organizations, and universities, significantly enhancing Davidson’s already considerable program of undergraduate research.

“This gift will help us demonstrate the inestimable value of what highly selective liberal arts colleges do—graduate talented individuals from across the socio-economic spectrum who exert a disproportionate impact for good in the world,” says President Quillen.

Visit http://www.davidson.edu/davidsongift/ for more details!

Debussy Turns 150 Years Old!

“Music is the silence between the notes.”

“I love music passionately. And because I love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.”

“Art is the most beautiful of all lies.”

Claude Debussy was a man of powerful words, daring music, and poignant nuances. The father of musical Impressionism – although Debussy loathed the title – this French pianist turned the very foundations of composition on its head. According to a recent article by The New York Times, however, Debussy is not receiving the honor he is due as he approaches his 150th birthday:

“Perhaps Debussy is not considered enough of an audience draw, but I suspect that the real reason may be more complicated. We like to think we know and admire Debussy. Ah, Debussy the great Impressionist! … “La Mer,” how gorgeous. … Yet the alluring surfaces of Debussy’s works can mask the utter daring of the music. … I think we take Debussy for granted, and this may explain the lack of celebration this year.”

Conversely, here at WDAV, you should expect to hear an extra helping of Debussy for his sesquicentennial on August 22.

But what about the man himself?


Achille-Claude Debussy, the son of a china shop owner and a seamstress, was born in 1862 to a poor French family. When he showed a natural talent for music, Debussy’s aunt began paying for piano lessons when he was just seven years old. By eleven, he was studying piano and composition at the Paris Conservatory. His time at the conservatory foreshadowed the direction he would go with his composing; while his peers acknowledged that he was gifted, they found his compositional experiments strange.

In 1880, Debussy fell under the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, a Russian woman who was also a large sponsor of Tchaikovsky’s. Meck hired Debussy as a piano teacher for her children, and he spent years traveling around Europe with them. His time at Meck’s estate also allowed him to become familiar with Russia’s musical greats, specifically Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin. These exposures would later greatly influence his works.

At age twenty-two, Debussy won the “Prix de Rome,” a composition competition, and was awarded a scholarship for two-years of musical study in Rome. While at school, he studied the opera Tristan and Isolde and came to greatly respect the show’s composer Wagner – Debussy loved his ambition but not his flashy approach. He would later model his one and only opera Pelleas et Melisande after Wagner’s work.

Based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, Debussy’s opera was an immediate success, although it had a polarizing effect on its audiences – you either loved it or hated it. The show had a gloomy tone, which was periodically interrupted by surges of terror. As one writer noted, “[the opera’s] rule of understatement and deceptively simple declamation, also brought an entirely new tone to opera – but an unrepeatable one.”

Yet another influence soon followed as Debussy returned to Paris for the 1887 World Exhibition. He fell in love with the music of the Javanese gamelan, an ensemble that included bells, gongs, xylophones, and sometimes vocals. The composer incorporated these sounds into many of his mature works.

The inclusion of Javanese Gamelan music was not the only technique that made Debussy stand apart from his contemporary composers. He used Eastern traditions in his works, such as pentatonicism (only using five notes in a scale), modality (the creation of mood), parallelism (the parallel movement of two or more lines of music) and the whole tone scale (each note in the scale is separated by a whole step). Debussy also challenged how instruments were characterized in composition. He believed strings did not have to be merely lyrical and thus instructed players to pluck their strings – instead of using their bow – where written in the music. He began including more clarinet in his works to take advantage of the instrument’s rich tone. He even experimented with the use of piano in various genres.

Unfortunately, the late part of Debussy’s career was rather stagnant. His pieces became less relatable and harder to deconstruct. Other up-and-coming composers such as Igor Stravinsky began to overshadow him, using his own techniques to do so. Debussy also began a public dialogue about art and music with his alter ego Monsieur Croche.

As with many great artists, Debussy died early – at only fifty-six years of age – of colon cancer.

A Few “Debussyisms”

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun 

Clair de Lune 

Children’s Corner


Olympic Focus: South Africa

As the 2012 London Olympics moves into its fifth day of competition, world records continue to be broken. Last Sunday, twenty-four-year-old South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh earned a gold medal in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke. In the process, he shaved twelve seconds off of the world record by completing the event in just 58.46 seconds. Van der Burgh is the first South African man to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

Two days later, fellow South African Chad le Clos won a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly, a victory that forced American Michael Phelps to accept the silver for his record-breaking 19th medal. All is now redeemed for South Africa after a poor showing in Beijing in 2008.

The Olympics always inspires extreme bursts of patriotism (just think about how moving those VISA commercials with the Morgan Freeman voiceover become this time of year). South Africa is no exception to this trend. Following the gold medal wins – particularly van der Burgh’s – Twitter exploded with support from South African citizens. Here are a few of the tweets from that night:

“u made us so proud last night and gold is your colour”
“I”d just like to point out that Cameron van der Burgh is from Pretoria. That”s right, my home city. The one other SAcans always laugh at…”
“I just wanted to say that you are my absolute inspiration and that you r a legend and I really look up to you! Thank you for being so amazing!”

Even van der Burgh himself had something to tweet: 

“I am an Olympic Champion! 🙂 humbled by your tweets. Overwhelmed Emotions! … all my life had been but preparation for this challenge!”

But we’ve always known that South Africa is passionate about its sports. Let’s flash back to the 2010 World Cup. Remember the vuvuzelas? Those long plastic trumpets that made every soccer game sound like the stadium was being attacked by a swarm of bees? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please, let me introduce them…I present to you the South African soccer fan’s best friend:

Music in South Africa

 South African music, however, is not limited to these one-pitch plastic horns. Music in this country is a melting pot of Western and African instruments, gospel, a cappella, and a variety of tribal tunes. The South African national anthem provides a good example of many of these ingredients:

This song has a fascinating history. During apartheid, two separate anthems developed, one for the black Africans and one for the white Africans. From 1995-1997, under Nelson Mandela’s watch, both anthems lived on, often one playing right after the other at sporting events. Then, in 1997, someone finally decided it was time to merge the two songs. And ta-da, you end up with what you just listened to above!

The current South African national anthem is unique in two fascinating ways. First, this anthem is only one of two – Italy being the second one – that modulates during the song, thus ending in a different key than it started in. Second, the lyrics come from five of South Africa’s eleven official languages. How much more multi-cultural can you get?

Language Lyrics English Translation
Xhosa Nkosi sikelel” iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw” uphondo lwayo,
God bless Africa
Raise high its glory
Zulu Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
Hear our prayers
God bless us, your children
Sesotho Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa, South Afrika — South Afrika.
God, we ask You to protect our nation
Intervene and end all conflicts
Protect us, protect our nation,
Nation of South Africa — South Africa.
Afrikaans Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,
Ringing out from our blue heavens,
From our deep seas breaking round,
Over everlasting mountains,
Where the echoing crags resound,
English Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.