Special feature: Edmund Rubbra, the forgotten British symphonist

Hello again, everyone! I’ll be continuing my blog posts weekly for at least the next two weeks, but I’ll be heading to the Brevard Music Festival for a month and a half starting in late June to study composition and write orchestral and chamber works. I also have a trip to Iceland planned just before I head back to college, so I’m not sure what my schedule will look like for most of the summer – I’ll provide more updates when I can, but I’ll at least try to maintain a biweekly schedule for my posts.

That aside, today we’ll be looking at (in my opinion), one of the most underappreciated orchestral composers of the 20th century – the Englishman Edmund Rubbra. Although Rubbra’s music was enormously popular in Britain in the mid-20th century and greatly appreciated by fellow musicians, much of his work has fallen out of fashion today; I hope this special feature will give his compositions a slightly larger audience.

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Rubbra in 1961 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Rubbra was born in Northampton on May 23, 1901. Although his mother sang in a church choir and his father sometimes played the piano by ear, his parents were not trained musicians; they nevertheless encouraged his musical pursuits. More so than many composers, Rubbra’s experiences in his youth shaped several aspects of his music. For instance, when he was walking with his father one morning around the age of ten, the composer was transfixed the “downward drifting sounds” of distant church bells in Northampton, inspiring him to frequently use downward scales in his musical textures later in life.

Rubbra began his musical training as a piano student, taking lessons from a local lady who owned a moderately worn instrument. The pianos on which he practiced at home were far less used and of better quality, as Rubbra’s uncle owned a piano shop and lent his family demonstration pianos. Potential buyers of these pianos would go to Rubbra’s house, where he would play Mozart’s (in)famous “Sonata facile” to demonstrate their quality; if a piano was bought, Rubbra’s family earned a commission and a new demonstration piano would be brought in to replace the old one. With the aid of these instruments, the future composer made substantial progress in his early piano studies.

However, this improvement was cut short in 1915, when Rubbra was sent to work for the Northampton shoe company Crockett & Jones; a few years later, he took a job as a correspondence clerk in a railway station. It was during this time that Rubbra’s interest in composition began to develop – while continuing to study piano outside the hours of his job, he also studied organ, harmony, and counterpoint. He also became active in the Northampton chamber music scene, writing a string quartet and a violin and piano sonata for himself and the violinist Bertram Ablethorpe, and also befriended fellow young composer William Alwyn.

At the age of 17, while still working as a clerk, Rubbra planned a concert of works by the British Late Romantic composer Cyril Scott at the Northampton Library. Unexpectedly, this concert turned out to be a life-changing one; a minister from Rubbra’s church who had attended was an acquaintance of Scott and sent the latter a concert program, eventually leading to Rubbra becoming Scott’s pupil and setting him on the path to a career in composition.

A year later, Rubbra gained a scholarship to University College, Reading, where he studied with, among others, Gustav Holst. On the latter’s recommendation, he then applied for a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, further developing his compositional style. Near the end of his time at the Royal College, Rubbra took up a position with the touring Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre, giving him experience playing and writing music for dramas; he also earned money by played with dancers from the Diaghilev Ballet in the mid to late 1920s.

Although not rich in biographical detail, the next decade was one of the most fruitful periods of Rubbra’s career. In addition to a string quartet, several sonatas and sonatinas, and a number of vocal pieces, Rubbra began composing the pieces for which he is best known today – his eleven symphonies. Completed in 1937, his first symphony is an excellent example of his overall writing style – while his harmonies and orchestration differ to some extent from late Romantic composers like his mentor Cyril Scott, the symphony maintains a focus on melody and evokes a “pastoral” sort of atmosphere that many of Rubbra’s British contemporaries and immediate predecessors strove to emulate.

Like much of the British male population, Rubbra was called up for army service in 1941. Given an office post after 18 months due to his clerkship skills, he spent the rest of his time running a large orchestra along with a former BBC Orchestra double bass player. Shortly afterward, the War Office asked Rubbra to form a piano trio to play to the British troops; along with the cellist William Pleeth and violinist Joshua Glazier, he formed the “Army Classical Music Group” which was later expanded to seven people. Ultimately, the group performed not only in England and Scotland but also in Germany, traveling in a lorry with their own grand piano.

After the war, in 1947, Rubbra converted to Roman Catholicism, writing a mass to celebrate the British victory. In the same year, he was appointed as a lecturer at the new Department of Music at Oxford, serving as a lecturer and fellow of Worcester College until 1968. Pieces composed Rubbra’s time at Oxford include his lyrical 1953 viola concerto and the 1958 Sonata in C for Oboe and Piano.

The immediate postwar period was also the height of Rubbra’s fame – it is an indication of the regard in which his music was held that his Sinfonia Concertante and song Morning Watch were played alongside the likes Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Vaughan Williams’s Job at the prestigious Three Choirs Festival in 1948. A particular high point of Rubbra’s career came when the BBC commissioned him to write a piece for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, leading to his Ode to the Queen for voice and orchestra in 1953.

After his “retirement” from Oxford in 1968, Rubbra continued to teach, moving to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where his students included the contemporary composers Michael Garrett and Christopher Gunning. He also continued to compose right up to the end of his life; although his last completed symphony, his eleventh, was finished in 1978, he began sketching plans for a twelfth symphony a year before his death. Written late in his life, Rubbra’s one-movement eleventh symphony includes many of the ascending and descending motifs that are hallmarks of his work while producing a much more dreamy and atmospheric texture than his earlier symphonies. Although Rubbra’s later symphonies were less popular with concert audiences than his earlier examples of the genre, I find them to be more developed and quite pleasant to listen to.

Rubbra passed away in Gerrards Cross, a town in south Buckinghamshire, in 1986 at the age of 85. Although his music, which encompasses symphonies, concerti, solo and chamber works, choral compositions, and songs, was highly esteemed by his contemporaries (the legendary conductor Sir Adrian Boult once said that Rubbra “has never made any effort to popularize anything he has done, but he goes on creating masterpieces”), his work has largely fallen out of the repertoire even in Britain. Rubbra’s symphonic masterpieces and his colorful works for small ensemble form a unique part of British musical history and deserve many more hearings today.

If you enjoyed this article or any of the others I’ve published, please leave a like or a follow, and see you next week!

(All the information for this post, was, helpfully enough, derived from Wikipedia, with the assistance AllMusic to find the years of completion for some works.)

Fela Sowande: an early exponent of Nigerian art music

I’ve done a significant amount of research for the blog thus far, learning a great deal about the Western classical tradition in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to New Zealand. Almost all of the countries I have profiled are home to a few notable composers who are regarded as figures of national importance decades after their death. However, perhaps due to the very prominent status of traditional music in many African countries, I found relatively few such composers in the African continent. Today, I’ll profile perhaps the most famous African composer of Western classical music, Fela Sowande.

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Fela Sowande (Wikipedia)

Olufela Obafunmilayo Sowande was born on May 29, 1905 in the town of Abeokuta in southwestern Nigeria. He was greatly influenced by his father Emmanuel, a priest and early innovator in Nigerian church music, and sang in several church choirs at a young age. Later in his childhood, Sowande studied organ with composer and organist Dr T. K. Ekundayo Phillips; he also served as a bandleader, playing both jazz and a popular form of music called highlife which combined Western and traditional Ghanaian ideas.

In 1934, Sowande left his native Nigeria to study European classical and popular music in London. During his time in Europe, he was soloist at a performance of Rhapsody in Blue and met several notable musicians, particularly in the jazz world. In addition to playing in a piano duo with Fats Waller, he accompanied the well-known jazz and pop singers Adelaide Hall and Vera Lynn on the organ in a few 1939 recordings and served as theatre organist for the BBC. Just prior to World War II, Sowande studied organ with the well-known British organists George Oldroyd and George Cunningham, and in 1943 he was named a fellow of the Royal College of Organists. During World War II, he obtained a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of London and worked as musical advisor for the Colonial Film Unit, writing background music for government films.

Unlike many of the composers I have profiled thus far, Sowande started composing much later in his life, writing his first significant work at the age of 40. In 1945, he was appointed as organist and choirmaster at the West London Mission of the Methodist Church, and it was here that he began to compose organ music. Much of Sowande’s organ works combine conventional Anglican church music with Nigerian melodies that were popular among the black members of his congregation; these pieces, such as Obangiji, written in 1955, exemplify his unique style of writing.

In addition to writing for solo organ, Sowande also composed solo songs and choral and orchestral works. Although his works in all of these genres maintain their characteristic richness and color, I find Sowande’s orchestral music to be the most compelling expression of his style. One of his prominent works in this genre is the vibrant “African Suite” for string orchestra, which hearkens back to the Romantic era while also incorporating fascinating rhythmic ideas.

From the information I can find, it seems that Sowande decreased his compositional output after leaving the BBC Africa Service around 1960 and moved towards teaching and ethnomusicology. After initially taking up positions with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and the University of Ibadan, he moved to the U.S. in 1968, where he taught at Howard University, the University of Pittsburgh and Kent State University until his retirement in 1982. Five years later, in March 1987, he passed away at the age of 81.

Although Sowande’s compositional career seems to have lasted under two decades and much of his work is unpublished or out of circulation, his existing recorded music is written in a unique idiom, combining the traditional musical forms of his country with European influences in a very different way than African-American contemporaries like William Grant Still had attempted. Sowande’s distinct musical voice merit a greater place in today’s concert halls.

As usual, if you enjoyed reading about this forgotten composer, please leave a like or a follow. I haven’t yet decided on a composer to profile in my next post, but stay tuned!

(I would loved to have included more details about Sowande’s orchestral works – and more information about him in general – but there seem to be almost no recordings of them around besides the linked movements of the African Suite, and the only extended-length biographies of him that exist are rather disorganized and fragmentary; I used Wikipedia and AfriClassical.com, listed as a source under the Wikipedia article. If anyone has more information or can point me to a good website detailing his works, leave it in the comments and I’d be happy to write more!)

Dora Pejačević – the matriarch of Croatian composers

For hundreds of years, most women classical composers lived and wrote in obscurity,  often overshadowed by sexism or, like others profiled on this blog, forgotten due to the works of their better-connected male contemporaries. However, there is one composer whose place in her native country’s history has remained more secure – Dora Pejačević.

Pejačević (Wikipedia)

Born in Budapest in 1885 to a Croatian-Hungarian count descended from one of Croatia’s oldest families and a Hungarian baroness who was herself a well-regarded pianist, Pejačević lived a luxurious early life. After receiving her first piano lessons from her mother, she began composing at the age of 12; shortly afterward, she was sent abroad to study in Zagreb, Dresden, and Munich, receiving a few lessons in instrumentation and composition from Dragutin Kaiser, Walter Courvoisier, and Percy Sherwood. Pejačević also attended a number of concerts across the continent, including the 1911 premiere of Der Rosenkavalier.

Despite taking a few lessons in composition, Pejačević was practically self-taught, working through exercises in harmony and counterpoint in her notebooks. Her early period includes several short compositions for solo piano, including the 1898 piece Gondellied (somewhat reminiscent of Chopin in its style.) This piece was among many of her early works to be premiered in Germany.

Over the following ten years, Pejačević continued to develop her compositional style, writing more advanced chamber works, and the years after 1913 were the productive time of her compositional career. One of her first mature works was the Piano Concerto in G minor (1913), written in the lush later Romantic style of the early 20th century. Filled with rich melodies and masterfully orchestrated, this little-played piano concerto, the first by a Croatian composer, deserves a higher and more important place in the instrument’s repertoire.

Although raised as an aristocrat, Pejačević did not enjoy the privileges that came with her status, and she witnessed the sufferings of common people firsthand when volunteering as a nurse in her hometown of Nasice during World War I. These experiences not only solidified Pejačević’s socialist political leanings but also led her to throw herself into her compositions – the most prominent of which is the magnificent Symphony in F-sharp Minor, written between 1916 and 1917 and premiered in 1920 in Dresden. As with the piano concerto, Pejačević was also the first composer from her country to explore the symphonic genre; the renowned conductor Artur Nikisch was so impressed with this work that he regularly programmed it with the Leipzig Symphony.

In 1921, Pejačević settled in Munich and married the military officer Ottomar von Lumbe – also during the postwar years, through her friendship with the Czech aristocrat Baroness Sidonie von Borutin, she met and was influenced by several prominent writers and artists of the period, including Rainer Maria Rilke and the Austrian journalist Karl Kraus. Alas, just as a great career and international recognition seemed to be ahead of her, Pejačević passed away in 1923 from complications of the birth of her son Theo at the age of just 38.

We will never know what could have been had Pejačević been able to compose later in the 20th century, but she was a prolific composer and left behind 58 works in her short life. In addition to four symphonic works and concerti, she wrote over twenty pieces for solo piano, several songs for voice and piano and voice and orchestra, and sixteen pieces of chamber music, many of which would certainly be appreciated by concert audiences today. Despite her important place in the history of Croatian classical music, Pejačević’s work was played relatively little in her homeland for decades after her death; perhaps it will take many more years for this wonderful composer to appear with any frequency on other countries’ concert programs.

To conclude, I’ll let Pejačević’s music speak for itself; enjoy two works from her middle period, the “Slavonic Sonata” for violin and piano and the Piano Quintet in B minor (uploaded to YouTube in two parts, hence three videos).

As usual, if you enjoyed this post, please leave a like or follow. Next time, we’ll move to the African continent for the first time to profile the pioneer of Nigerian classical music, Fela Sowande!

This profile includes information from Wikipedia and articles by Pamela Blevins and Martin Buzacott. (Information on Pejačević in English is in relatively short supply, but if anyone can read Croatian there’s probably a lot more out there to explore!)

Douglas Lilburn: the preeminent composer of New Zealand

Thus far, the composers profiled in my blog cover three different continents: North America, Europe, and Asia. Today, we’ll move to Oceania with a profile of the New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn.

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Lilburn in 1940 (The Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

Lilburn was born in the city of Whanganui (in southern North Island) in 1915. Unlike many of the composers I’ve written about so far, he did not come from a musical family; his parents, Robert Lilburn and Rosamund Louisa Shield, were farmers, and he grew up on his family sheep farm at Drysdale Station. In 1925, Lilburn’s parents retired to Whanganui, and around this time he began taking piano lessons. Four years later, he was sent to a boarding school, Waitaki Boys’ High School, where he stayed until 1933.

Upon enrolling in Canterbury University College in 1934, Lilburn intended to study journalism, but his growing interest in composition led him to change his plans; he obtained his bachelor of music with Dr. J.C. Bradshaw in 1936. In his final year (and having never seen an orchestral performance), Lilburn won the Percy Grainger prize for composition, the first exhibition of his compositional talents to the wider world.

The following year, he took probably the most pivotal step of his career, attending the Royal College of Music in London to study with the renowned Ralph Vaughan Williams. During his time at RCM, Lilburn won several awards, including the Hubert Parry Prize for composition and the Cobbett Prize for string quartet writing; he also wrote several early works inspired by his homeland, such as the Drysdale Overture in 1937 and Festival Overture and Prodigal Country two years later. Vaughan Williams remained close with Lilburn after the latter’s departure in 1940; Lilburn would often send him jars of New Zealand honey, of which Vaughan Williams was a connoisseur.

Just before leaving the Royal College, he wrote one of his best known works, the Aotearoa Overture. Written in a grand, unabashedly late Romantic style like much of Lilburn’s other early work, the overture is rich and dramatic at every turn, and this performance by the Auckland Philharmonia certainly seems to do it justice.

After returning home in 1940, Lilburn spent three months guest conducting the NBS String Orchestra. The following year, the composer moved to Christchurch, where he freelanced as a composer, conductor, teacher, and music critic. (Remarkably, for almost a decade, he was practically the only professional composer in his country!) During the 1940s, Lilburn also became active in the general arts scene in New Zealand, developing friendships with many influential artists and poets which aided his creative output. This period was the most productive of his career; Lilburn’s major works composed during this time include his Sonatina No. 1 for solo piano and his String Quartet in E Minor, both completed in 1946.

In the same year, Lilburn’s compositional isolation finally ended with the establishment of the Cambridge summer music school in the Waikato region, where he was appointed composer-in-residence. For four years, he tutored a small group of students at the school, among them David Farquhar, Edwin Carr, Ronald Tremain and Larry Pruden; these students would go on to become the preeminent New Zealand composers of their own era. After being offered a part-time position at the newly-established music department of Victoria University in Wellington in 1946, his position was made full-time in 1949.

The 1950s saw a sharp change in Douglas Lilburn’s style of composition. While his works up to that point had been nationalistic and very tonal in nature, a trip to the U.S. and Europe on sabbatical in 1955 led him to have doubts about his music; in his own words, “I realised acutely how provincial and inadequate my musical knowledge and composition techniques were in face of the new musical context I found.” This led him to turn towards dodecaphony, a technique which is most prominent in his acclaimed third symphony of 1961. Although it maintains something of a late Romantic feel, the third symphony is harmonically very different and uses sparser orchestration than his earlier orchestral works.

In a sense, Lilburn’s changes in style are a microcosm (if slightly delayed) of the changes in 20th-century music; having moved from late Romanticism to twelve-tone music, he abandoned writing for traditional instruments in 1963 and turned to electronic composition instead. Over a period of sixteen years, Lilburn wrote a variety of electronic works, from the light sounds of his 1976 work Carousel to the ambient atmosphere of his final piece, Soundscape with lake and river (an attempt to recreate his impressions of Lake Taupo on North Island.)

Outside of his compositional contributions, Lilburn is also known for his efforts to promote New Zealand music even after his withdrawal from conventional composition. In 1967, he helped found Wai-te-ata Press Music Editions, the first publisher dedicated to the works of New Zealand composers; in 1974, he played a key role in establishing the Archive of New Zealand Music in Wellington, and a decade later he set up the Lilburn Trust to promote composition using his own funds. (The Lilburn Trust is still alive and well, by the way; if you need funding for work related to New Zealand or Maori music, the deadline for grants this year is May 31!)

In recognition of his musical and philanthropic efforts, Lilburn was awarded the Order of New Zealand in 1988. Although he donated to several charities and continued working on the Lilburn Trust after his retirement in 1980, he became reclusive and stopped composing altogether. Lilburn passed away at his home in Wellington on June 9, 2001, at the age of 85.

Although a national figure in New Zealand, Lilburn is rarely, if ever, performed outside his homeland. All three phases of his work – his lush late-Romantic writing, serialist-influenced works, and electro-acoustic music – contain unique and powerful elements that deserve much more appreciation worldwide.

Thank you again for reading! I pieced together this post from information provided by Wikipedia and The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.



Jean Coulthard: a pioneering composer of 20th-century Canada

To those of you who are regular readers of my blog, my apologies for depriving you of your usual fare – I’ve been overloaded with homework for my courses over the last few weeks and haven’t had any time to write posts. Ironically, my workload will be lower during finals week than it has been recently, so my weekly posting will resume from now on.

In the mid-20th century, a new “musical generation” of American experimentalist composers gained prominence, led by the likes of John Cage, Milton Babbitt, and Elliot Carter. However, their contemporaries north of the border remained in relative obscurity – even today, the works of Canadian composers are rarely performed, particularly outside of the country.

In today’s post, I’ll attempt to help remedy this problem by profiling the influential Canadian woman composer Jean Coulthard. Coulthard and her contemporaries Barbara Pentland and Violet Archer not only contributed to Canada’s musical history through their diverse works but also left a lasting legacy, teaching many of today’s prominent Canadian composers and laying a platform for future generations. (I will likely cover both Pentland and Archer in future posts, so stay tuned!)


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Coulthard at the piano (Vancouver Sun)

Born in Vancouver in 1908, Coulthard received musical training early in life through her mother, a well-known music teacher in the area. At a young age, she heard the work of Debussy and Ravel; both composers would serve as influences throughout her compositional career. Coulthard initiated her formal musical education in 1924, when she began studying piano with Jan Cherniavsky and theory with Frederick Chubb; four years later, on a scholarship from the Vancouver Woman’s Musical Club, she spent a year at the Royal College of Music under the tutelage of, among others, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

After marrying Donald Adams in 1935, Coulthard continued her studies with the likes of Bartok, Copland, Milhaud, and Schoenberg over the following ten years and also spent a year at the Juilliard School near the end of World War II. As she continued to develop her compositional style, Coulthard made ends meet by teaching piano, beginning in 1925 in her mother’s studio and continuing as an independent teacher until 1947. That year, she was hired to teach theory and composition in the newly formed Department of Music at the University of British Columbia.

Although her work was often marginalized by the male members of the department, Coulthard’s time at UBC led to the most productive musical period of her career. Completed shortly after her appointment, Coulthard’s first piano sonata is a colorful, rich work that sadly is rarely performed today.

By the mid-20th century, as serialism (the use of dodecaphony-like methods for duration, dynamics and other aspects in addition to pitch) gained a foothold in then-contemporary North American music, Coulthard felt alienated from the musical “establishment”. However, a year in France, the country that produced so many great late Romantic masters, in 1956 revitalized her, and she continued writing in her own voice for more than three decades. By the time she retired in in 1973, Coulthard had completed a number of large-scale works, including a piano concerto and the symphonic poem Endymion, and taught several now-influential Canadian composers such as Chan Ka Nin and Michael Conway Baker. You can listen to both of the aforementioned works below – special thanks to Corentin Boissier, who has put up six or seven recordings of Coulthard’s compositions along with countless other rare works on his “collectionCB” set of YouTube channels.

After her retirement, Coulthard continued to compose, completing her last major works in the mid-1990s. Having been made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978, she was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 1994 in recognition of her contributions to Canadian music. Six years later, she passed away at the age of 92.

In Canada, particularly in her native British Columbia, Coulthard’s place in musical history is secure – in 2008, a series of concerts in honor of her 100th birthday were held in Montreal and Vancouver, and the University of British Columbia, where she taught for 25 years, established the Jean Coulthard Fund for Canadian Music Studies in her honor. However, she and her work remain obscure and very rarely performed elsewhere – it’s a shame that a composer who wrote such lyrical, evocative, and powerful music is so often overlooked.

Thank you for reading – as usual, if you enjoyed this post or any others on my blog, please leave a like and/or a follow. Next week, I’ll resume my weekly posts with a profile of New Zealand’s most famous composer, Douglas Lilburn!

(This post uses information from Wikipedia, a biography from the Canadian Music Centre, and a profile in The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

Special feature: Vasily Kalinnikov, the forgotten Russian Romantic

(Today’s post is my second “special feature,” highlighting a composer who, while not completely unknown, remains on the fringes of the classical repertoire. These features will be posted at irregular times, depending on my schedule for the week – planned future subjects include Edmund Rubbra, Federico Mompou, Willem Pijper, and Nikolai Roslavets.)

From Tchaikovsky to Mussorgsky, a number of Russian composers from the Romantic era have been frequently performed to wide acclaim in the West. However, as is often the case, many other composers popular in Russia are often overlooked in concert programs; today’s post concerns one of these forgotten masters, Vasily Kalinnikov.

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Vasily Kalinnikov (Wikipedia)

Kalinnikov was born on January 13, 1866 near the city of Oryol in what is now western Russia. The son of a policeman, he studied in the Oryol seminary and became director of the seminary choir at 14. A few years later, he sought to enroll in the Moscow Conservatory but could not afford the tuition; instead, he won a scholarship to the Moscow Philharmonic Society School (now the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts), where he was given lessons in bassoon and composition by the composer Alexander Ilyinsky.

To increase his income, Kalinnikov played bassoon, violin, and timpani in a theatre orchestra and also worked as a music copyist. It was in this period that his compositional career began in earnest; although he had written several choral works in the prior years, Kalinnikov’s Serenade for string orchestra and Suite for orchestra are some of his first mature compositions.

During his studies in Moscow, Kalinnikov befriended Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who would ultimately serve as one of the greatest champions of his music. In 1892, Tchaikovsky recommended him as director of the Maly Theatre, and he took up a position at the Moscow Italian Theatre in the same year. Unfortunately, Kalinnikov was unable to build on these successes; by this time, he had contracted tuberculosis, and his diagnosis was worsening.

Because of these unfortunate circumstances, Kalinnikov was forced to move south to the warmer climate of the Crimea, and he lived in Yalta for the rest of his life. Despite his failing health, Kalinnikov’s years in Crimea were his most productive; in addition to several symphonic poems, piano compositions and vocal works, he composed the pieces for which he is best known today; his two symphonies and the incidental music to Count Aleksey Tolstoy’s play Tsar Boris.

Kalinnikov’s first symphony, written between 1894 and 1895, is a classic example of the melodic gifts with which many Russian composers were endowed. Imbued with rich folk melodies, the symphony contains clear influences from the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, but several aspects set it apart from the work of these masters. The exuberance and vivacity of the three faster movements and the pureness and beauty of the second create a riveting atmosphere, while the colorful instrumentation brings out each section of the orchestra.

This symphony was premiered in Kiev in 1897 under the baton of Aleksandr Vinogradsky (who also premiered many orchestral works by Kalinnikov’s friend Tchaikovsky.) After receiving rave reviews – the audience gave encores for both the second and third movements – performances outside of Russia followed, taking place in Moscow, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. Thanks to the efforts of a number of contemporaries, Kalinnikov’s first symphony remained popular during the USSR period and continues to maintain its place in the Russian orchestral repertoire. However, it remains relatively unknown in the US, although a concert band transcription of the finale has made its way into the repertoire.

The second symphony, completed in 1897 and also based on folk melodies, keeps the exuberance and brightness so characteristic of Kalinnikov’s style, but it is somewhat more tonally adventurous, tending towards the direction of Borodin rather than that of Tchaikovsky. Although lesser known and less performed than his first, some find the second symphony to be a more mature and developed work.

In 1901, four years after completing his second symphony and two days before his 35th birthday, Kalinnikov lost his battle with tuberculosis. Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, two titans of Russian music, played integral roles in keeping Kalinnikov’s work alive – with help from Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky had his publisher, P. Jurgenson, purchased three of Kalinnikov’s songs and his second symphony. Later, Jurgenson also had the composer’s first symphony published, paying the fees he would have paid Kalinnikov to his widow.

Despite his relatively short life, Kalinnikov was a fairly prolific composer, writing twelve orchestral works, around twenty songs and choral pieces, nine works for solo piano, and the opera In 1812 (left unfinished at his death.) He was survived by a younger brother, Viktor, a choral composer who taught at the Moscow Philharmonic Society School.

Thanks to the efforts of several local and community orchestras (one of which I had the chance to hear perform last year), Kalinnikov’s first symphony is becoming more well-known in the orchestral repertoire, and many of his other works are equally deserving of more frequent performances in the West. To that end, I will leave you with another little-played work by Kalinnikov, his Elegie for solo piano.

As usual, please leave a like, follow, or comment if you enjoyed this or any other post on my blog! Look out for my next entry later this week, which will profile three great Canadian composers of the 20th century – Jean Coulthard, Barbara Pentland, and Violet Archer.

(All information in this post was derived from Wikipedia, a biography of Kalinnikov on the Parker Symphony Orchestra website, and a short article about Aleksandr Vinogradsky.)

Music and mountaineering: the many talents of Mieczysław Karłowicz

Poland is a country with a rich musical history, from the brilliant piano works of Chopin to the captivating virtuosity of Paderewski to the inventiveness of Penderecki and Lutosławski later in the 20th century. However, many intriguing Polish composers have received little recognition for their work, particularly outside their homeland. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing one of these overlooked composers, Mieczysław Karłowicz.

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Mieczysław Karłowicz (Wikipedia)

Karłowicz was born in 1876 to a noble family in what is now Belarus (then part of Poland) to the linguist Jan Karłowicz and Irena Sulistrowska. In addition to his main profession, Jan was an orchestra director and mountaineer, and in both of these activities his son would follow in his footsteps; during his childhood, Mieczysław also heard several works by the likes of Brahms and Smetana. From 1882 to 1887, Karłowicz’s family moved between Heidelberg, Prague, and Dresden before finally settling in Warsaw. There, he began studies in violin with Jan Jankowski and Stanisław Barcewicz.

Because of poor health, Karłowicz was forced to give up his violin studies a few years later, switching to composition under the tutelage of Gustaw Rogulski in Warsaw and then Henrich Urban in Berlin (where he also studied philosophy, psychology, and physics). During this time, he composed incidental music for Jozefat Nowiński’s play The White Dove, whose section “Bianca da Molena” receives occasional performances in Poland today.

Having completed his studies in 1901, Karłowicz returned to Warsaw, and in 1903 he took up a directorial position at the Warsaw Music Society. During this period of his career, especially after moving in 1906 to the mountain resort of Zakopane, Karłowicz focused primarily on symphonic poems. Some of his best-known works in this genre include Eternal SongsReturning Waves and the Lithuanian Rhapsody, the latter of which is based on Lithuanian and Belorussian melodies; describing his construction of the Rhapsody, Karłowicz stated, “I have tried to encapsulate within it the total grief, sadness and eternal servitude of that race whose songs I heard in my childhood.” Both pieces illustrate his mastery of orchestration and ability to bring out each section of the orchestra in a very compelling manner.

An avid mountaineer like his father, Karłowicz joined the Tatra Society, provided accounts of hiking trips, and was fond of skiing and photography. Unfortunately, these activities ultimately brought his life to a premature end. In February 1909, three months after completing the symphonic poem A Sorrowful Tale, Karłowicz was killed in an avalanche while on a skiing trip at the age of 32.

Karłowicz left behind five complete symphonic poems, several songs and piano works, incidental music to The White Dove, a Serenade for Strings, as well as a symphony titled “Rebirth” and a violin concerto dedicated to his former teacher Stanislaw Barcewicz. Although the composer’s early death may have deprived us of his most developed work, his extant compositions are shining examples of the sweeping late Romantic style. Influenced by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Wagner, Karłowicz was initially criticized by many in Polish music circles for diverging from the norm, but his works eventually gained appreciation during his lifetime, with one critic calling his tone poem Eternal Songs a “precious musical gem shining like a rainbow.”

Despite his many influences, Karłowicz developed his own musical language, one which is rich with color, texture, and emotion. It is high time that he be recognized as one of the leading lights of the late Romantic era.

I will leave you with recordings of Karłowicz’s violin concerto and his “Rebirth” symphony, both of which are important but underperformed contributions to their respective genres. If you’re interested in other lesser-known Polish Romantic composers, I’d suggest looking at Grzegorz Fitelberg (who completed Karłowicz’s unfinished tone poem Episode at a Masquerade), Zygmunt Noskowski, and Emil Młynarski.

Thank you so much for reading – if you enjoyed this feature, please leave a like or follow. Next week’s post will be on the Canadian composer Jean Coulthard, one of a triumvirate of women composers who dominated Canadian classical music in the 20th century!

(All text from this post is derived from Wikipedia, USC’s Polish Music Archive, a biography from Oxford Bibliographies, and an article from culture.pl.)


Zhu Jianer: the voice of Western classical music in China

A quick update on the timing of my posts: due to popular demand, I will be writing weekly instead of biweekly. This also means I have to find more composers to cover, so if you’ve heard a piece by someone who isn’t very well-known and you’d like to know more about them and their works, write the composer’s name in the comments section – I’ll probably cover them in the coming weeks.

Several of the world’s most talented performers of classical music hail from China – Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, for instance, are held in very high regard among pianists. Despite a plethora of diverse and fascinating works, Chinese composers, on the other hand, are much more sparsely recognized. For today’s post, I’ll be discussing Zhu Jianer, probably the most influential Chinese composer of the 20th century.

Chinese composer Zhu Jianer (centre) is applauded by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra last year. Photo: Weibo
Zhu (center) being applauded by the Shanghai Symphony in 2016

Born Zhu Rongshi on October 18, 1922 in Tianjin, Zhu moved with his family to Shanghai at a young age and taught himself the piano in his early teens. In his youth, he was heavily influenced by the composer Nie Er, who wrote what is now China’s national anthem, changing his name to “Jianer” (literally, “carrying out Nie Er’s will”) after Nie’s death in 1935.

Shortly afterward, Zhu began composing, working in a “Literature and Arts Troupe” in the 1940s. By the end of the decade, he was a well-known figure in his country’s classical music scene, and in 1949 he was appointed as composer for the Shanghai and Beijing National Film Studios despite having had no formal compositional training. During this period, he composed the film score Days of Emancipation, a piano reduction of which is now known as one of Lang Lang’s favorite encores.

In 1955, largely thanks to the popularity of Days of Emancipation, Zhu was chosen to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where he stayed for five years. A supporter of Mao’s communist regime, Zhu wrote two notable works during his time in Moscow – a Festive Overture for the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic and the cantata Hero’s Poem, based on the poetry of Mao Zedong. After graduating from the Conservatory in 1960, he returned to his homeland, where he continued to write patriotic works and songs. During this period, much of Zhu’s writing was tonal and pentatonic, a sharp contrast to his later style.

Like that of many Chinese artists and intellectuals, Zhu’s career came to a halt in 1966 with the advent of the Cultural Revolution. With orchestral works being practically banned during this time, Zhu was instead assigned to work on the revolutionary ballet The White-Haired Girl. However, instead of working on the score for the ballet, he arranged it into a fugato for string quartet that was played for Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. As one might expect, this was the most unproductive period of Zhu’s career – as he himself put it, “after those 10 years of futility working on The White-Haired Girl, we became white-haired men and women.”

The Cultural Revolution had a significant impact on Zhu’s view of the regime, and many of his works written afterward express his difficulties during those ten years. By the time he began composing again, the death of Mao and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping had changed the political landscape in China, and his 1980 symphonic work “In Memory of the Martyrs for Truth” was well-received.

In 1975, Zhu had been appointed composer-in-residence of the Shanghai Symphony and, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he began attending lectures on new music at the Shanghai Conservatory. Armed with these ideas, Zhu began writing more tonally adventurous and experimental works, many of which were based on the twelve-tone technique. These qualities are apparent in his first symphony, completed in 1986 and based on his memories from the Cultural Revolution.

Although some sections somewhat resemble Shostakovich in style (another composer who had mixed feelings about the government of his country), Zhu has a unique voice – the dark, foreboding timbres created by the percussion section are one of the symphony’s many hallmarks, and the names of the movements – “!”, “?!”, “…”, and “!” – give the piece an air of mystery.

Over the next 15 years, Zhu would go on to write another ten symphonies, each with a differing character. In both his symphonies and symphonic poems written during his later period, he often utilized Chinese traditional instruments, other unusual members of the symphony orchestra, or non-standard instrumentations – his eighth symphony, “Seek and Quest,” is scored for 16 percussion instruments and cello.

Zhu continued to compose into his old age, writing an autobiography in 2015 and regularly attending performances of his works in Beijing and Shanghai. He passed away in Shanghai in 2017, at the age of 95.

I’ll leave you with a recording of Zhu’s third symphony, titled “Tibet.” See you next week, when I’ll be covering the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz!

(The information in this post originates from Wikipedia, an article by the South China Morning Post, and a brief biography by German Sinologist Barbara Mittler.)

John Blackwood McEwen: a late Romantic composer inspired by Scottish folklore

Welcome back to another blog post! Today, I’ll be discussing a fascinating late Romantic Scottish composer, Sir John Blackwood McEwen.

McEwen in 1937, painted by Reginald Eves (Wikipedia)

McEwen was born in Hawick, a town in southeastern Scotland, to the Presbyterian minister James McEwen and his first wife Jane in 1868. Little information is available about his childhood, but he received his MA degree from the University of Glasgow by age 20, going on to work as a choirmaster and organist in Glasgow and at Lanark parish church.

In 1891, McEwen moved to London, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Music for four years with Ebenezer Prout, Frederick Corder, and Tobias Matthay. During this time, he won the Charles Lucas medal for composition, had his first string quartet premiered, and wrote numerous works including three symphonies and a mass. After finishing his studies, he returned to Scotland, teaching composition at the Athenaeum School of Music and serving as choirmaster in a parish church at Greenock for three years.

By this time, the composer was becoming fairly well-known in English and Scottish musical circles. In 1898, the Scotsman John Alexander Mackenzie, then president of the Royal Academy, invited McEwen to teach harmony and composition there. He would go on to hold the position for over 25 years; his pupils included the notable film-score composer William Alwyn.

McEwen’s early tenure at the RAM was the most productive period of his compositional and musical career. In 1901, like his contemporary William Walton, he completed a violin concerto for Lionel Tertis. The following year, he married Hedwig Ethel Cole, the daughter of a naval architect, and in 1905 (with his former teachers Corder and Matthay) he co-founded the society of British composers. That same year, he completed the choral work Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity and began writing one of his best-known orchestral cycles, the Three Border Ballads.

The Border Ballads, completed in 1908, are comprised of three works – CoronachThe Demon Lover, and Grey Galloway – each based on a story from Scottish folklore. Described by McEwen’s biographer Jeremy Dibble as “rivaling mature Elgar” in construction and scope, each piece is well-orchestrated, emotional, and powerful.

Unfortunately, UnsungMasterworks, the only channel that previously contained The Demon Lover, was taken down several months ago due to copyright issues, but the other two works are available.

In 1911, McEwen wrote what is probably his most famous work, the Solway Symphony; the symphony, like many of his other works, is based on a geographic region, in this case Solway Firth in his home country. The first piece written for the gramophone, it continued to receive occasional performances in Britain throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Although it was not performed until 1922, eleven years after it was written, the symphony is an enjoyable work with fascinating textures – I particularly enjoy the soft, colorful sounds of the strings and winds in the opening of the second movement.

After suffering a breakdown in 1913, McEwen turned his focus to chamber music, writing several more string quartets, trios, and piano sonatas. Many critics consider McEwen’s late string quartets to be among his best work; his expressive eighth string quartet, named “Biscay” after the bay in northwestern France, is a prime example of his writing for small ensemble.

McEwen also wrote a small number of large-scale orchestral pieces during his later period, including Hills o’ Heather for cello and orchestra in 1918 and the 1936 work Where the Wild Thyme Blows.

One of the reasons McEwen is so rarely heard today is because he almost never promoted his own work – instead, he often supported other British composers, particularly during the interwar period as a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Nevertheless, his compositions were widely respected among colleagues, including the prolific symphonist Havergal Brian, who praised his orchestral work upon McEwen’s retirement in 1936. He was also known for his work in music education, producing two textbooks, Exercises on Phrasing in Pianoforte Playing and The Principles of Phrasing and Articulation in Music, and the article The Thought in Music: An Inquiry into the Principles of Musical Rhythm, Phrasing and Expression in addition to his role at the Royal Academy.

Thanks to his educational contributions and the success of some of his compositions at the time, McEwen was knighted in 1931. Although he retired five years later, he continued to compose until his death in 1948; having had no children, he bequeathed his estate to the University of Glasgow to promote the music of Scottish composers.

Although McEwen’s works, like those of other relative unknowns in British music, have experienced a revival since the 1990s, they are still rarely performed compared to those of his contemporaries. His well-constructed and beautifully orchestrated orchestral compositions, as well as his lively chamber works, deserve a much greater place in the musical repertoire.

As usual, all material used for this post was sourced from Wikipedia and AllMusic. If you enjoyed this or other posts on my blog, please leave a like and/or a follow! My next post will profile the Chinese composer Zhu Jian’er.

Jazz and neoclassicism: the music of Leo Smit

My apologies for the delayed post – I’ve been quite busy over the past week or two, and I felt that today would be a more appropriate day to write about this composer.

Today is my birthday, but on a more poignant note, it’s also Holocaust Remembrance Day. People from all walks of life were affected by the Holocaust, including a number of composers whose lives and careers were tragically cut short. In this post, I’ll take a look at one such individual – the Dutch composer and pianist Leo Smit.

Leo Smit
Credit: Leo Smit Foundation

Smit was born on May 14, 1900 to a Portuguese Jewish family in Amsterdam. He began music lessons at a very young age and wrote his first composition at 16; his younger sister Nora was also a talented harpist and studied with the renowned Rosa Spier, who frequently visited his family’s home.

At 19, Smit entered the Amsterdam Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition with Sem Dresden and Bernard Zweers. Three years later, he wrote his first major work, Silhouetten, which was premiered by the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Silhouetten is a colorful piece influenced by the ideas of jazz as well as by contemporary classical music of the time. Especially notable is Smit’s manipulation of timbre – the sound quality of a particular instrument or group of instruments –  to elicit different emotions from the listener; the delicate touch of the pitched percussion, the rhythmic elements in the unpitched percussion, and the magic of harp arpeggios particularly stand out in this regard. These characteristics and influences combine to create an engaging work, one which, sadly, is almost always passed over by major orchestras.

Two years after writing Silhouetten, Smit graduated from the Conservatory, finding a post as a lecturer in harmony and music appreciation. During this time, he was also called for military service, but was quickly declared unfit for service because of his short and slight figure.

In 1927, Smit left his homeland for Paris, where he associated with the likes of Les Six and delved deeply into the work of Stravinsky and Ravel. This period saw an evolution in Smit’s style of composition – many of his later works have a clear French influence, having much in common with Ravel and Debussy. In 1933, Smit married Engeline de Vries and entered probably his most productive musical period, writing a trio, quintet, and concertino for harp (all dedicated to and premiered by Rosa Spier); over the next seven years, he would go on to write concerti for piano and winds and viola and strings, as well as his only symphony.

In 1936, Smit moved to Brussels before returning to Amsterdam the following year, giving private lessons in piano, theory, and composition. By this time, he had become well-known in the Netherlands, with his music regularly being played on the radio.

Sadly, the invasion of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany turned Smit’s life upside down. By 1941, Jewish musicians were no longer allowed to perform – eventually being banned from music completely – and Smit’s non-Jewish students began leaving him. The following year, Smit was forced to leave his house for another district of Amsterdam. Despite these hardships, he continued to compose, completing his final work, a sonata for flute and piano, in February 1943.

In early April 1943, Smit and his wife were rounded up in the Hollandse Schouwburg theatre. After a month in a transit camp, they were transferred to the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where they were killed in the gas chambers.

Smit left behind about 25 works, spanning music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo instruments, and voice. Despite a revival of interest over the last few decades, Smit’s music still rarely performed; given the quality and breadth of his oeuvre, it deserves far more.

All the biographical information in this post is drawn from Wikipedia as well as the Leo Smit Foundation, whose goal is to inform the public about the lives and work of composers persecuted during World War II. There are many more composers whom the foundation has profiled – I would highly recommend reading about at least one or two of them under the “Composers” section of the website to understand the contexts in which they lived and worked.