Familiar Names

by Hannah Liberman

When you think of Mendelssohn, odds are that you’re not picturing Fanny plucking out a tune on the piano. Ask people about Mozart, and the name that comes to mind probably isn’t Maria Anna. But these women, whose brothers, fathers, and husbands enjoy legacies as classical music heroes, had noteworthy careers of their own, albeit often overshadowed by their male relatives’ successes. Here are some great female composers whose music is so magical you’ll find yourself saying “Wolfgang Amadeus who?”

Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s baby brother Felix might be the household name, but the German-born pianist composed over 460 pieces herself, including a number of songs published under her brother’s name. Fanny and Felix were close; her only known public performance was of his Piano Concerto No. 1 and after her death, Felix wrote his String Quartet No. 6 in her memory.

Check out the hauntingly beautiful melody of Fanny Mednelssohn’s Noturno in G Minor.

Schumann, "one of the most soulful and famous pianists of the day", according to Edvard Grieg.

Clara Schumann

Clara was a child prodigy turned accomplished pianist who premiered several works by Johannes Brahms. Her husband was the famous composer Robert Schumann; the two were so close and so respected each other’s talents that they kept a joint musical diary. Clara composed more when she was younger, before her pianist career and married life got in the way. She wrote several piano pieces, songs, and orchestral works.

Here is Clara Schumann’s gorgeous piece Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Opus 22.

Maria Anna Mozart

Maria Anna Mozart

Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart was Wolfgang’s older sister and enjoyed a short-lived career as the family’s musical prodigy. Her father would take Nannerl and Wolfgang on tours across Europe to showcase their musical talents (she was incredible on the harpsichord and piano forte and even received top billing over her brother). Unfortunately, society and Nannerl’s own father dictated that she stop pursuing music once she reached a marriageable age. Wolfgang wrote letters indicating Maria Anna composed pieces herself, but no such records exist. However, you can learn more about Ms. Mozart’s life through a variety of pop culture references, including this recent play from Sylvia Milo in 2013.


Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.

High Tech Hollywood Gets Medieval

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Fionn Whitehead in a scene from

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Fionn Whitehead in a scene from “Dunkirk.” (Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

By Bruce Scott

Director Christopher Nolan is known for slickly futuristic films including Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight. Yet, in the Academy Award-nominated blockbuster Dunkirk, Nolan takes his high-tech, movie-making arsenal backward in time to the early days of World War II, telling a story with legendary status — the near-miraculous rescue of stranded British troops from the beaches of France.

So, it seems appropriate that Hollywood veteran Hans Zimmer, in his Oscar-nominated musical score for that film, hints at artistic strategies that also look back into history, reflecting techniques pioneered by composers nearly 1000 years ago.

Beginning in the very first moments of the film, Zimmer’s music makes extensive use of a theme familiar to lovers of classical music everywhere, and especially in Britain. It’s the melody of the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Elgar’s “Nimrod” has become an artistic icon in England. It’s played at moments of great national pride and patriotism, remembrance and mourning. That makes it an obvious choice for a film evoking a pivotal moment in British history — an event vividly recalled for both its tragedy, and its heroism.

Yet, in an intensely driven film lasting 105 minutes, the extensive use of such a widely familiar melody, no matter how appropriate, might easily dilute its meaning. So, how does a composer continuously employ a familiar and beloved melody in ways that expand its significance, reflecting the profoundly moving story it helps to tell, without allowing it to become trite and repetitive?

As it happens, church composers in the Middle Ages — the days of Gregorian chant — had a similar problem. They were bound by tradition, and often by doctrine, to set each liturgical text to its own, specific melody — a plainchant. To expand their means of expression while meeting that requirement, composers used a method now known as organum.

Over decades, and even centuries, organum took many forms. In one, the plainchant became a cantus firmus, or “fixed song.” The melody was greatly extended — stretched out until each note sounded like an underlying drone. Then, over those extended notes, composers wrote freely moving harmonies and counterpoint — leaving the mandatory melody technically intact, but barely recognizable.

The music in Dunkirk does something similar. In the film’s opening scene, the “Nimrod” melody emerges slowly, its notes extended and overlapping, obscured by an eerie atmosphere of sonic effects. In subsequent scenes, the theme is stretched even further, with counterpoint provided both in the music, and by movie sounds — the chaos of battle, the pounding of the sea, the cheering of men who, finally, see rescue at hand.

In one striking instance, the opening note of “Nimrod” actually bridges two scenes — the tragedy of a dying boy, and a pilot’s glimpse of distant beaches and the troops he hopes to protect. That first note alone lasts more than 30 seconds! It’s only after the second and third notes are played that the theme itself becomes evident.

Eventually, near the film’s end, “Nimrod” is again heard in extended form, at first hard to discern, as that pilot faces a life-or-death predicament. At the pivotal moment, the rhythm accelerates, the harmonies resolve, and the famous melody reveals itself, with its full measure of tragedy, resignation … and relief. Thus, a distinctly modern film tells an immensely moving story from history, made even more effective by timely music with ancient roots.

This Is My Story, This Is My Song

Pictured: Corey Barksdale‘s Budda Bar I, Acrylic on Canvas 48″ x 24″

by Dr. Carl Dupont

It is a great honor to tour the country with the American Spiritual Ensemble. The group’s mission, to preserve and celebrate the Negro Spiritual, fulfills a professional goal of mine as a teacher, performer, and researcher interested in promoting the intellectual legacy of black musicians.

However, and most significantly, performing with the group also fulfills a desire I have to communicate with my ancestors. In this country’s infancy Africans and their descendants were prohibited from acquiring literacy in an attempt to control their reality in service to a white supremacist agenda.

In response, these mothers, fathers, architects, farmers, dancers, healers, inventors, mechanics, and preachers became musical storytellers in order to create music that could tell of their experience during enslavement. Without the aid of pen or paper they implemented the Negro Spiritual as a musical tool to transmit their hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations into the present.

Whereas some people proudly show off their family’s tartan or crest, I can look to the Negro Spiritual as my connection to the past. I can hear the voices and feel spirits of the ancestors singing to me as I sing to them.

When I am performing with the American Spiritual Ensemble, I am on stage with a generation of talented opera singers that have sung in major opera houses and concert halls all over the world – and I can feel how proud we are making the ancestors – who endured the harshest of conditions – so we could thrive.

Honoring their sacrifice by keeping their music alive is a privilege and a duty. It reminds me to keep pressing towards a day for full equality and inclusion.

Dr. Carl Dupont is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. To learn more about the American Spiritual Ensemble, click here.


Romantic Pieces by Black Composers

Pictured: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

At WDAV, the month of February brings with it two great programming opportunities. Though we play a wide selection of classical music throughout the year, in February we get to highlight certain pieces as we celebrate both Black History Month and Valentine’s Day. It may seem that the calendar coincidence is all that connects these two holidays, but they actually overlap when it comes to classical music, too. Many incredibly romantic pieces have been composed by talented black musicians, and we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorites below. Enjoy!

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Romance in G for Violin and Orchestra

Coleridge-Taylor was a prolific composer whose works included several string quartets, symphonies, sonatas, and songs. Named after the famous poet, Coleridge-Taylor studied at the Royal College of Music in London and soon gained renown as the “African Mahler.” Here, one of his many romances is performed by the London Philharmonic with Nicholas Braithwaite conducting and Lorraine McAslan on violin.



Robert Nathaniel Dett: “Magnolias” from Magnolia Suite

Dett is a Canadian-born composer, musician, and professor who grew to fame in America for his use of African American folk and spiritual music as inspiration for Romantic Era-style classical music. His piano and choral pieces are so noteworthy that a choir in Canada dedicated to the works of black composers bears his name. Here, Denver Oldham performs the opening to Dett’s Magnolia Suite, which premiered around 1912.



H. Leslie Adams: “The Heart of a Woman”

Adams went from studying music at Oberlin College, California State University, and Ohio State to a successful career as an orchestral composer. His works, mostly notably piano etudes and choral pieces, have been performed by countless symphonies around the world. Here, Darryl Taylor performs his piece The Heart of a Woman, an arrangement of the poem by G.D. Johnson, with Robin Guy on piano.



Florence Price: “Song to a Dark Virgin”

Price is one of the most successful black female composers in the 20th century, as she was “the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer.” This piece, an arrangement of the Langston Hughes poem by the same name, is hauntingly beautiful, performed here by opera singer Marie Hadley Robinson

William Grant Still: A Music-Maker and a Groundbreaker

Pictured: William Grant Still in 1949; credit: Carl van Vechten on Wikipedia.

by Hannah Liberman

To the opera-goers who attended the NYC Opera on March 31, 1949, Troubled Island was simply another original work premiering at the renowned theatre. But the three-act opera, chronicling the assassination of a self-proclaimed emperor during the Haitian revolution of the late 18th century, was so much more than initially met the eye.

With music composed by William Grant Still and a libretto partially written by Langston Hughes, it was the first opera composed by an African American to be produced by a major opera house.

As unprecedented as it was, Troubled Island was met with mixed reviews. Critics questioned Still’s ability to transition from “the soufflé of operetta [to] the soup bone of opera,” and the show was never revived in full.

What’s more, the opening cast featured two white opera stars as the lead characters, while both had been written as black Haitians. But Troubled Island earned 22 curtain calls its opening night, and its legacy as a revolutionary work- both in content and context- continues to this day.

It not only beautifully brought new subject matter to the opera world, but opened up conversation about the lack of representation of marginalized groups in American opera.

Troubled Island may not be in some opera enthusiasts’ repertoires, but it has stood the test of time, with noteworthy productions happening as recently as 2013. Meanwhile, opera companies are starting to replace outdated practices so more prolific artists like Still can have their works produced.

Watch a performance of “I Dream a World” from Troubled Island:


Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.

2018 Grammy Awards: Full list of Classical Music & Film Score Winners

The 60th annual Grammy Awards celebrated a lot of great music, including some fabulous film scores and classical recordings. Read the list of nominees and winners in the Classical, Music for Visual Media  and Arranging/Composing categories below:


Best Orchestral Performance

WINNER Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio
Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

Concertos For Orchestra
Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
Copland: Symphony No. 3; Three Latin American Sketches
Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Debussy: Images; Jeux & La Plus Que Lente
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)
Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Osmo Vänskä, conductor (Minnesota Orchestra)

Best Opera Recording

WINNER Berg: Wozzeck
Hans Graf, conductor; Anne Schwanewilms & Roman Trekel; Hans Graf & Brad Sayles, producers (Houston Symphony; Chorus Of Students And Alumni, Shepherd School Of Music, Rice University & Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus)

Berg: Lulu
Lothar Koenigs, conductor; Daniel Brenna, Marlis Petersen & Johan Reuter; Jay -David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra)
Bizet: Les Pêcheurs De Perles
Gianandrea Noseda, conductor; Diana Damrau, Mariusz Kwiecień, Matthew Polenzani & Nicolas Testé; Jay David Saks, producer (The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus)
Handel: Ottone
George Petrou, conductor; Max Emanuel Cencic & Lauren Snouffer; Jacob Händel, producer (Il Pomo D’Oro)
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel
Valery Gergiev, conductor; Vladimir Feliauer, Aida Garifullina & Andrei Serov; Ilya Petrov, producer (Mariinsky Orchestra; Mariinsky Chorus)

Best Choral Performance

WINNER Bryars: The Fifth Century
Donald Nally, conductor (PRISM Quartet; The Crossing)

Handel: Messiah
Andrew Davis, conductor; Noel Edison, chorus master (Elizabeth DeShong, John Relyea, Andrew Staples & Erin Wall; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir)
Mansurian: Requiem
Alexander Liebreich, conductor; Florian Helgath, chorus master (Anja Petersen & Andrew Redmond; Münchener Kammerorchester; RIAS Kammerchor)
Music Of The Spheres
Nigel Short, conductor (Tenebrae)
Tyberg: Masses
Brian A. Schmidt, conductor (Christopher Jacobson; South Dakota Chorale)

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance

WINNER Death & The Maiden
Patricia Kopatchinskaja & The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Buxtehude: Trio Sonatas, Op. 1
Divine Theatre Sacred Motets By Giaches De Wert
Stile Antico
Franck, Kurtág, Previn & Schumann
Joyce Yang & Augustin Hadelich
Martha Argerich & Friends – Live From Lugano 2016
Martha Argerich & Various Artists

Best Classical Instrumental Solo

WINNER Transcendental
Daniil Trifonov
Bach: The French Suites
Murray Perahia
Haydn: Cello Concertos
Steven Isserlis; Florian Donderer, conductor (The Deutsch Kammerphilharmonie Bremen)
Levina: The Piano Concertos
Maria Lettberg; Ariane Matiakh, conductor (Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin)
Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2
Frank Peter Zimmermann; Alan Gilbert, conductor (NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester)

Best Classical Solo Vocal Album

WINNER Crazy Girl Crazy
Music By Gershwin, Berg & Berio – Barbara Hannigan (Orchestra Ludwig)

Bach & Telemann: Sacred Cantatas
Philippe Jaroussky; Petra Müllejans, conductor (Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann & Juan de la Rubia; Freiburger Barockorchester)
Gods & Monsters
Nicholas Phan; Myra Huang, accompanist
In War & Peace
Harmony Through Music – Joyce DiDonato; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor (Il Pomo D’Oro)
Sviridov: Russia Cast Adrift
Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra & Style Of Five Ensemble)

Best Classical Compendium

WINNER Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto & Oboe Concerto
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer

Alexandre Tharaud; Cécile Lenoir, producer
Kurtág: Complete Works For Ensemble & Choir
Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor; Guido Tichelman, producer
Les Routes De L’Esclavage
Jordi Savall, conductor; Benjamin Bleton, producer
Mademoiselle: Première Audience – Unknown Music Of Nadia Boulanger
Lucy Mauro; Lucy Mauro, producer

Best Contemporary Classical Composition

WINNER Viola Concerto
Jennifer Higdon, composer (Roberto Díaz, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
Track from: Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto & Oboe Concerto

Concerto For Orchestra
Zhou Tian, composer (Louis Langrée & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) Track from: Concertos For Orchestra
Picture Studies
Adam Schoenberg, composer (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony) Track from: Schoenberg, Adam: American Symphony; Finding Rothko; Picture Studies
Tigran Mansurian, composer (Alexander Liebreich, Florian Helgath, RIAS Kammerchor & Münchener Kammerorchester)
Songs Of Solitude
Richard Danielpour, composer (Thomas Hampson, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony) Track from: Danielpour: Songs Of Solitude & War Songs




Best Compilation Soundtrack For Visual Media

 (Various Artists) Marius de Vries & Justin Hurwitz, compilation producer

Baby Driver (Various Artists)
Edgar Wright, compilation producer
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2: Awesome Mix Vol. 2 (Various Artists)
James Gunn, compilation producer
Hidden Figures: The Album (Various Artists)
Pharrell Williams; Pharrell Williams, compilation producer
Moana: The Songs (Various Artists)
 Opetaia Foa’i, Tom MacDougall, Mark Mancina & Lin-Manuel Miranda, compilation producers

Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media

Justin Hurwitz, composer

Jóhann Jóhannsson, composer
Hans Zimmer, composer
Game Of Thrones: Season 7
Ramin Djawadi, composer
Hidden Figures
Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams & Hans Zimmer, composers

Best Song Written For Visual Media

WINNER How Far I’ll Go
Lin-Manuel Miranda, songwriter

City Of Stars
Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, songwriters
I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)
Jack Antonoff, Sam Dew & Taylor Swift, songwriters
Never Give Up
Sia Furler & Greg Kurstin, songwriters
Stand Up For Something
Common, Andra Day & Diane Warren, songwriters




Best Instrumental Composition

WINNER “Three Revolutions”
Arturo O’Farrill, composer (Arturo O’Farrill & Chucho Valdés)

Pascal Le Boeuf, composer (Le Boeuf Brothers & JACK Quartet)
Choros #3″
Vince Mendoza, composer (Vince Mendoza & WDR Big Band Cologne)
“Home Free (For Peter Joe)”
Nate Smith, composer (Nate Smith)
“Warped Cowboy”
Chuck Owen, composer (Chuck Owen And The Jazz Surge)

Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella

WINNER “Escapades For Alto Saxophone And Orchestra” From Catch Me If You Can – John Williams, arranger (John Williams)

“All Hat, No Saddle”
Chuck Owen, arranger (Chuck Owen And The Jazz Surge)
“Home Free (For Peter Joe)”
Nate Smith, arranger (Nate Smith)
“Ugly Beauty/Pannonica”
John Beasley, arranger (John Beasley)
“White Christmas”
Chris Walden, arranger (Herb Alpert)

Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals

WINNER “Putin”
Randy Newman, arranger (Randy Newman)

“Another Day Of Sun”
Justin Hurwitz, arranger (La La Land Cast)
“Every Time We Say Goodbye”
Jorge Calandrelli, arranger (Clint Holmes Featuring Jane Monheit)
“I Like Myself”
Joel McNeely, arranger (Seth MacFarlane)
“I Loves You Porgy/There’s A Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon For New York”
ShellyBerg, Gregg Field, Gordon Goodwin & Clint Holmes, arrangers (Clint Holmes Featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater And The Count Basie Orchestra)

For a complete list of winners and nominees from the awards ceremony, click here.
Image by: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images