WDAV Blog

Musical Friendships

By Casey Margerum

July 30 marks the International Day of Friendship, and we’re honoring the occasion by reflecting on some famous friendships between classical musicians. Who do you and your best friend most resemble?

If one of you is the “paternal friend”
Aaron Copland with Leonard Bernstein, ca. 1940
Aaron Copland with Leonard Bernstein, ca. 1940.

…then you can definitely identify with the famous bond between Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Like any good paternal friend, Copland, who was eighteen years older than Bernstein, took Lenny under his wing, offered (sometimes too-honest) advice, and encouraged him to develop his own unique style. Bernstein showed his gratitude by giving his own critiques of Copland’s work and by championing his friend’s pieces throughout his conducting career.

The two met on Copland’s birthday in 1937—Bernstein happened to be seated next to Copland at a performance, and Copland invited the entire front row to his birthday party. Bernstein, a sophomore at Harvard at the time, played Copland’s Piano Variations impressively at the party. The friendship that resulted from this initial interaction lasted a lifetime, and the two composers died less than two months apart in the year 1990.

Hear Bernstein talk about meeting Copland and read an acrostical sonnet Bernstein wrote for Copland’s 80th birthday here.

If opposites attract
Portraits for Richard Strauss (left) and Gustav Mahler (right).

…you and your friend can relate to the relationship between Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. The two composer-conductors may have worked in the same field, but that’s about the extent of their similarities. While Mahler was egocentric and unstable, Strauss was more reserved. Mahler’s wife, Alma, once said that “They enjoyed talking to one another as they were never of one mind.”

Despite their differences, the two musicians held each other’s work in the highest regard. Mahler, for example, wanted to conduct the Austrian premiere of Strauss’ Salome in Vienna (he couldn’t get permission from the censors, and instead it premiered in Graz). And when the Nazis took control of Austria in World War II and appointed Strauss to the position of Reichmusikkammer, one of the reasons that he accepted the position (in addition to his need to protect Jewish family members) was so that he could preserve the music of banned composers like Mahler.

Mahler once wrote that he would “never cease to be thankful” to his friend “for setting things going, and in what a truly high-minded way! … Apart from the fact that my works would doubtless have earned me a reputation as a freak if Strauss’s successes had not paved the way for me, I number it among my greatest joys that I found among my contemporaries such a comrade-in-arms, such a comrade in creation.”

If you’re (reluctant) workout buddies
Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst walking in the Malvern Hills.
Photos of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams (from left to right in each photo) were taken during one such walk in the Malvern Hills by fellow composer W.G. Whittaker.

…then you can find common ground with Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan-Williams. The two composers were determined to cultivate the “English sound” within the genre of classical music, so they famously walked through the English countryside because, according to Holst’s daughter, they were “looking for folk songs.” These walks could be more than ten miles long, because of Vaughan-Williams’ size and Holst’s poor health, these adventures weren’t particularly enjoyable.

The two composers met in 1895, when they were both students at the Royal College of Music, and they ended up being huge influences on each other’s work. Vaughan-Williams would later write that “What one really learns from an Academy of College is not so much from one’s official teachers as from one’s fellow-students…. [Holst and I] discussed every subject under the sun from the lowest note of the double bassoon to the philosophy of Jude the Obscure.”

If you’ve helped each other through the hard times

…then you bear some resemblance (though hopefully with far less awkwardness) to Johannes Brahms’ relationship to Clara and Robert Schumann.

Robert helped launch Brahms’ career, and the two were close friends. But in 1854, Schumann attemped suicide and admitted himself to an asylum, where he would die two years later. During these last two years, Brahms lived with Clara and her seven children, lending her his support and comfort. Clara wasn’t allowed to visit her husband until two days before his death, so Brahms kept her informed about her husband’s condition.

Clara and Brahms found herself torn between loyalty to Robert (and the Schumann’s love story is one of the greatest in classical music) and love for each other. The extent to which they acted on their feelings is unknown, and they distanced themselves from each other after Robert’s death. Nevertheless, their friendship endured throughout the rest of their lives.

The musical careers of the Schumanns and Brahms also demonstrate their strong affection for one another. After meeting the young Brahms in 1853, Robert wrote an article praising his talent. Clara, for her part, was the first to publicly perform one of Brahms’ works (his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel). Brahms, meanwhile, dedicated several pieces to Clara, including Variations on a Theme by Schumann (Op. 9), which contained the “Clara theme” written by Robert.

Listen to Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Schumann (Op. 9), dedicated to Clara:


If you’re an unstoppable workplace duo

…then you’re a lot like Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten. The cellist and the composer were introduced to each other by their mutual friend, Dmitri Shostakovich, after a 1960 concert in London. Britten had been utterly in awe of Rostropovich’s playing during the performance. Rostropovich, however, had almost no idea who Britten was—he thought that Britten must be a Baroque composer because of his Purcell Variations! At this famous first meeting, Rostropovich demanded that Britten write something for him. Though he apparently asked this of every composer he met, Britten actually complied, and the resulting Sonata for Cello and Piano was the first piece he had written that featured the cello.

Britten continued writing cello pieces for Rostropovich, which would become standard pieces within the cello repertoire. The two musicians also performed together (with Britten on the piano); after they had played Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata side by side, Rostropovich couldn’t perform it with anyone else.

Listen to a recording of these two greats performing the Sonata for Cello and Piano together:


Turkey – a delight and a terror to Vienna

By Lawrence Toppman

Perhaps you’ve read the recent news that Turkey has bought a surface-to-air missile system from Russia, making America and Europe wonder once again where that nation fits in the scheme of international diplomacy. Turkey, connecting the west to the east across the narrow Bosporus, has long puzzled and fascinated Europeans, especially in the time of Mozart and beyond.

The Orientalism movement in the arts came from the generation after Mozart. Napoleon occupied Egypt from 1798 through 1801, and Europeans first visited the Middle East in significant numbers. Painters (the best being Eugène Delacroix) set works of splendor and cruelty there, not always travelling outside their home countries to get facts.

In Mozart’s time, Austrians viewed the declining but significant Ottoman Empire as a menace. It had tried to conquer western Europe in the late 1600s and had gotten as far as the outskirts of Vienna. The Austrians and Turks fought wars again in 1716-1718 and 1735-39, with Austria and Russia teaming up to defeat the Islamic enemy 17 years before Mozart’s birth.

Young WAM never visited Constantinople on his tour of major cities as a child and never went east of his homeland as an adult. But images of harems, autocratic sultans and janissaries (mercenaries who fought for the Ottoman emperor) swirled in his head.

He first gave them musical shape in the “Turkish” finale of his Violin Concerto No. 5, where slashing martial rhythms interrupt a calm rondo with exciting results. Later, he wrote a “Rondo alla Turca” as the pounding finale to his Piano Sonata No. 11.

His best-known Turkish work remains “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (“Abduction from the Seraglio”), an opera without recitatives. There the Spanish nobleman Belmonte attempts to rescue his beloved Konstanze from Pasha Selim, who has bought her from pirates. Mozart showed unusual enlightenment for the time, depicting Selim as a benevolent man who not only frees Belmonte when he’s captured but allows him to depart with his betrothed.

This musical craze burned out after about 50 years, though Beethoven added one more fine piece to the repertoire: The “Turkish March” from his incidental music for the play “The Ruins of Athens.” My own favorite Turkish-themed music, the full-length “Turkish” Symphony in C, comes from Franz Xaver Süssmayr – who’s known today only as the guy who completed Mozart’s Requiem.

Pictured above: Cafe House, Cairo (Casting Bullets); provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why Mozart wasn’t hard to Handel

By Lawrence Toppman

This week brings the 302nd anniversary of my favorite Baroque orchestral hit, the set of three suites known as “Water Music.” It’s a good time to discuss the composer Mozart apparently admired above all others: George Frideric Handel.

Mozart adapted music by Johann Sebastian Bach, his son Johann Christian, and many lesser composers. He deeply respected Franz Josef Haydn. But he spent months laboring over four of Handel’s oratorios, re-orchestrating “Messiah,” “Acis and Galatea,” “Alexander’s Feast” and “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day.” And he did that at the height of his creative powers, in his last three years of life.

Today we revere Bach as the pinnacle of Baroque composition. Composers and audiences in the late 18th and early 19th centuries didn’t think so, especially before Felix Mendelssohn revived Bach’s masterworks in 1829 and beyond. They adored Handel.

Haydn called him “the master of us all.” Beethoven reportedly said “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived … I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb.” Mozart allegedly said that, if he’d had to be born any other composer, he’d choose Handel.

Handel died in London in 1759, a few years before young pianist Mozart went there on his amaze-the-royals tour of European cultural centers. Though we often think of music history as neatly defined periods, the Baroque had only just begun to evolve into what we call the Classical era, and Mozart heard music by J.S. Bach and Handel.

His love for it and for reinventing it never died. Though connoisseurs of his day still studied and played the original scores, the general public had mostly forgotten them. Mozart wanted to bring Handel into the 1780s in a way every Viennese could appreciate.

He added viola, clarinet and horn parts to make the sound richer, shortened sections he thought ran on too long for Classical-era listeners and added drama in places: Handel gave unison string backing to the bass aria “The people that walked in darkness,” but Mozart made this somber “Messiah” moment even more ominous with contrapuntal accompaniment.

The results honor the originals while setting them off in fresh ways, as a great film adaptation might do for a great novel. They don’t improve on Handel – Mozart never claimed they did – but they inspire us to listen to his oratorios with reawakened ears.

10 Songs to Add to Your Summer Workout Playlist

By Casey Margerum

Summer is here, and it’s time to get outside and get moving! In partnership with OrthoCarolina, WDAV is ready to be your workout buddy. Our new playlist is bursting with energetic, upbeat, playful pieces that are sure to get your blood flowing!

Jog through Italy with Mendelssohn and jump rope in the English countryside with Vaughan Williams. Race John Adams’ fast machine, row to the golden gates with Curiale, or dance to a summer thunderstorm with Johann Strauss, Jr. No matter your exercise style, you’ll find something on this playlist to energize your workout!

  1. Joseph Curiale: Gates of Gold (I. “Arrival: A View from the Sea”)
  2. John Adams: “Short Ride in a Fast Machine”
  3. Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4, “Italian” (I. “Allegro Vivace”)
  4. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (II. Larghetto)
  5. W.A. Mozart: Symphony No. 23
  6. Dimitri Kabalevsky: “Overture to Colas Breugnon
  7. Antonin Dvorak: Five Bagatelles (No. 5, “Poco Allegro”)
  8. J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major (III. “Allegro”)
  9. Ralph Vaughan Williams: “English Folk Song Suite”
  10. Johann Strauss, Jr.: “Thunder and Lightning Polka”

Ready to run? Read OrhthoCarolina’s tips for training for your next race.

Composer prodigies: Baby geniuses? Maybe….

By Lawrence Toppman

A New York Times article last month acquainted me with Alma Deutscher, who at 14 has been writing and playing her own work for a decade.

Writer Melissa Eddy tells us, “In December, she will make her debut at Carnegie Hall, where she will play the solo violin and piano in her two concertos, while the orchestra will play selections from her opera (“Cinderella”) and her most recent work, a Viennese waltz. Next month, she will record a retrospective album with Sony of piano melodies she composed, going back to when she was just 4 years old.”

You can learn more at her YouTube channel, where you’ll get complete performances of her violin concerto – it reminded me of Bruch’s first, which also starts with a slow section — and Mendelssohnian piano concerto. She’s an accomplished soloist and polished composer who grounds her music in 19th-century structures, melodies and harmonic patterns.

The headline reads “A Musical Prodigy? Sure, but Don’t Call Her a ‘New Mozart’.“ Yet it’s hard not to.

Like him, she’s Austrian, a native of Vienna. She plays multiple instruments with unusual proficiency. She writes quickly in various genres. And like him, she has public eccentricities: She goes everywhere with a pink jump rope and skips to provoke inspiration. (Sviatoslav Richter, one of the 20th century’s great pianists, could not play near the end of his life unless his red plastic lobster sat atop the piano.)

Would we be so receptive to her story if she were less pleasantly modest, less photogenic, less young? Would these pieces excite the same interest if she were a 28-year-old New Yorker with purple hair and rings through her nose and lips? Never. This old-fashioned music, coming from such a person, would excite mostly scornful comment or be ignored altogether.

We’re taken with Alma Deutscher mostly because she fuels the myth of genius: God’s finger (or Fate, if you prefer) touched this baby and set creativity aflame. She fascinates us like a lottery winner who never had to buy a ticket: Why should she be so lucky?

Mozart the Patriot: Missing In Action

By Lawrence Toppman

Because America celebrates its 243rd birthday this week, I looked through the list of Mozart’s compositions for works celebrating Germany or Austria. I found exactly none.

Many major composers from the Renaissance through the late 20th century wrote music to commemorate a great public figure, an important event, the anniversary of a political or military action, the noble or sacrificial behavior of citizens, etc.

The most famous early example must be Handel’s “Water Music,” played for King George I on trips up and down the Thames in 1717. Shostakovich wrote pieces to celebrate the 1917 Russian Revolution more than 200 years later, though some of his public conformity to Soviet policy was lip service. Along the way came Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory,” Brahms’ “Triumphlied” and many more.

F.J. Haydn, Mozart’s greatest contemporary, wrote marches in honor of the Prince of Wales, the Royal Society of Musicians and Hungary itself. The adagio of his “Emperor” string quartet (No. 62) is a set of variations on “God Save Emperor Francis,” an anthem he wrote for Emperor Francis II that became the German national anthem. Carl Maria von Weber, whose cousin Mozart married, sometimes wrote songs to texts provided by a duke or prince.

Often these composers later trashed their occasional pieces. Prokofiev disowned the fervor of the cantata “Seven, They Are Seven,” written right after the Russian Revolution and revised under Stalin. Tchaikovsky had harsh words for his “gun for hire” work, from the Slavonic March (inspired by Russia’s part in the Serbo-Turkish War) to the “1812” overture, written for the 70thanniversary of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

But nobody asked Mozart for such a thing. Or, if someone did, he said no. Why would that be?

Perhaps, though he repeatedly described himself as a good citizen of his homeland, his constant travels around Europe prevented officials from thinking of him on state occasions. Perhaps other composers, such as Antonio Salieri, sprang to mind when a “Parademarsch” for wind quintet needed to be whipped up for a state function.

Perhaps people in power thought Mozart would be insulted by the idea, too unreliable to deliver on time or likely to grind out hackwork nobody liked, although his pieces commissioned by the Freemasons include minor masterworks. Whatever happened, patriotic music is about the only type he never gave us.

Six LGBTQ American Musicians to Celebrate This Pride Month and Beyond

By Casey Margerum

1. Lucia Lucas

Transgender baritone Lucia Lucas made history last month when she sang the title role of Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Tulsa Opera. Her performance marks the first time that a transgender woman has performed a principal role in the United States.

“The more authentic you are with yourself,” says Lucas, “the more authentic your art will be.”

Listen to her absolutely stunning performance in Verdi’s Falstaff. 


2. David del Tredici

Born in Cloverdale, California in 1937, Pulitzer-prize-winning composer David del Tredici is at one of the first neo-Romantic composers, and he earned the admiration of Aaron Copland himself.

“I know of no other composer of his generation,” said Copland, “who composes music of greater freshness and daring, or with more personality.”

Much of his recent work is devoted to exploring his own sexuality. These works include Gay Life, Love Addiction, and Bullycide. OUT Magazine has named him one of its People of the Year twice.


3. Jennifer Higdon

Neoromantic composer Jennifer Higdon came to music relatively late. She taught herself to play the flute when she was 15, began formal music training at 18, and didn’t start studying composition until age 21. Yet despite her late start, Higdon’s has an almost unending list of accolades. 

These include the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto and two Grammys, and she’s one of the most performed living composers. Her most popular work is the orchestral work blue cathedral, and her first opera is Cold Mountain.

She’s inspired by nature and especially by the mountains of Tennessee. Another fun fact? Higdon’s marriage to Cheryl Lawson was officiated by none other than the eminent conductor Marin Alsop. Which brings us to… 


4. Marin Alsop

In 2007, Marin Alsop became the first female music director of a major orchestra in the United States. She’s held that position (with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) ever since, and she also directs the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra and in September will take over the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Alsop was one of Leonard Bernstein’s most famous students, and she’s also a talented violinist. She’s vocal on issues of sexism in classical music and is an advocate for music education, beginning the OrchKids program for Baltimore’s most impoverished youth and the Rusty Musicians program for adult amateur musicians. She lives with her partner, horn player Kristin Jurscheit, and their son.

Pictured: Marin Alsop; photo by Adriane White.


5. Tona Brown

On June 25, 2014, Tona Brown became the first African American transgender woman to perform at Carnegie Hall. She’s also performed for Barack Obama, making her the first black transgender woman to perform for a sitting president.

The Norfolk native has been playing the violin since the age of 10, and on top of that, she’s a talented mezzo-soprano. She also has a series of YouTube videos, Conversations with Tona Brown, that began as a way of addressing the problematic ways in which the media often interview queer, and especially transgender, people.

Listen to her first album, This Is Who I Am, below.


6. Jory Vinikour

Jory Vinikour hails from Chicago, and he’s both a harpsichordist and conductor. In fact, he’s the first ever harpsichord player to be nominated for a Grammy for Best Classical Solo Instrumental Recording (and he was nominated for a second one, too!).

Vinikour advocates for contemporary harpsichord music, and he’s premiered many works—some written especially for him! He is both a sought-after soloist and accompanist, performing alongside major symphonies and artists. He’s lived in Paris since 1990, but he travels extensively to perform and conduct.

Grieving a mother’s death in music

By Lawrence Toppman

Anna Maria Mozart accompanied her 22-year-old son on a job-hunting trip in 1778, hoping to find commissions their native Salzburg had been slow to supply. She didn’t want to go; unlike her husband, she hadn’t enjoyed the countless tours the Mozarts undertook as a family when their performing children were the toasts of Europe in the 1760s.

But Leopold didn’t trust his son alone and out of sight. The kid had shown interest in women, and marriage might have removed a source of income from the family. So mama accompanied Wolfgang to Augsburg, Mannheim and finally Paris. She died there 241 years ago next week at the age of 57.

Mozart, the last of seven children – five of whom died in infancy — was devastated. He loved her deeply, and she had always treated him with more kindness than his father. Leopold, who’d ignored her requests to come home or improve their living conditions in Paris, quickly berated his son in letters for failing to take care of Anna Maria. He all but blamed Wolfgang for her death, though the young man had been busy composing.

Mozart created beautiful music from his sorrow: His eighth piano sonata, the first (and one of only two) in a minor key. It begins with an allegro maestoso touched by melancholy, goes on to an andante cantabile con expressione (“singing, with expression”) full of troubled reflections, and concludes with a presto that doesn’t let listeners off the hook: It plunges forward anxiously, like a piece of early Beethoven.

Yet while his mother languished, he also put the finishing touches on a buoyant, major-key symphony: The 31st, nicknamed “Paris.” The opening allegro assai surges forward, the final allegro introduces a mini-tempest but quickly blows it away, and even the slow movement in the middle saunters along jauntily. It premiered three weeks to the day before she died, while doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with her. (They couldn’t.)

Insensitivity? No, pragmatism. It received warm reviews and stayed in the repertoire of the Concert Spirituel, which premiered it publicly, for a decade. Mozart wrote the sonata from his heart and the symphony from his head, satisfying himself in the first case and a mass audience in the second – another reminder that we can’t always know the artist by the art he makes.