Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

"It is no wonder that during the intense concentration required in choosing, grouping and studying lieder, the master himself is conjured up, makes his presence felt and insists on having his say....For I am then no longer alone or with only the accompanist, but in the uncomfortable presence of the composer... Wolf never relaxes his demands for a wide range of expression  shading of vocal colour and clarity of consonants. What he achieved so naturally between his first reading of a poem and the writing out of his musical setting should always be within the grasp of the listener"


Count Ferdinand Waldstein

 Dear Beethoven: You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-frustrated wishes. The Genius of Mozart is still mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. She found a refuge but no occupation with the inexhaustible Haydn; through him she wishes once more to form a union with another. With the help of assiduous Labour you shall receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands. Your true friend, Waldstein.

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Nikita Khrushchev

"Is he the best? Then give him the prize!"

-his response, when asked by the selection committee of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 whether they were allowed to give an American, Van Cliburn, the first prize of a competition that initially set out to prove Russian cultural superiority after the scientific success of Sputnik. Van Cliburn performed Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in the final round. His recording of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto was the first classical album to ever "go platinum."


Jeremy Nicholas

"Of the myriad Piano Concertos composed in the second half of the 19th century all but a handful are forgotten. The survivors are played with a regularity that borders on the monotonous – the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky No. 1, the Grieg, Saint-Saëns’s second in G minor, the two by Brahms and, really, that is just about all there is on offer. Pianists, promoters and record companies play it safe and opt for the familiar. Even a masterpiece can become an unwelcome guest, especially when subjected to an unremarkable outing by yet another indifferent player, as happens so frequently today. How refreshing, then, to have the dust brushed off ... forgotten specimens of late 19th century piano concertos and rendered clean and polished for inspection again. Refreshing and rewarding, for they are exactly the sort of pieces that make one wonder why we are forced to live off such a limited concerto diet.How is it that such appealing, well-crafted, imaginative works with their high spirits and luscious tunes could have vanished from the repertoire? .. What is it about them that has failed to put them in the classical pop charts? Listening to them afresh it is a teasing question to answer; the longer one ponders the matter, the fewer become the justifiable, verifiable reasons why today’s audiences so rarely have the opportunity to enjoy works such as these delightful crowd-pleasers. It is time for those who promote and play piano music to be more adventurous and imaginative in their programming."

-a musician, composer and writer, commenting in the 1991 Hyperion "Romantic Piano Concerto" boxed set liner notes about the worth of many good concertos that have been mostly lost to obscurity...and reminds one how limited the typical concert hall canon seems to have become.

Charles Rosen

"Yet those who take in their stride the most abstruse complexities of Beethoven, the subtlest nuances of Mozart, and the most complex effects of Wagner or Mahler, will stalk angrily out of the hall when presented with, say, the enchanting simplicities of Alban Berg’s post-card lieder...It is paradoxically not what is actually to be heard that makes music difficult, but what cannot be heard because it is not there. It is the lack of something which the listener expects to hear but which is refused him that makes his blood boil, that brings the aged Philharmonic subscriber to the verge of apoplexy. Every original work represents an omission, even a deliberate erasure of what was previously indispensable to art, as well as a new ordering and new elements. The real irritant for the listener is that what he has so far considered as essential to a work of music he now cannot perceive. The composer has left it out. The appreciation of a new style is as much an effort of renunciation as of acceptance."

-from an article discussing Elliot Carter's Double Concerto (read the rest here). Probably the best explanation of the difficulty listeners have in accepting/understanding modern works as will ever be said by anyone. He passed away yesterday.

classical christmas #1 - tchaikovsky's nutcracker ballet


    Everyone has a different idea of when its appropriate to start playing their Christmas music. Some people start the day after Thanksgiving, others wait until December 1st...and then there are those who can't wait and jump the gun as soon as they see the red cups appear at Starbucks. Regardless of when we start, we all have our favorite Christmas albums that we can't wait to dust off (or re-appropriate onto playlists, for those who are fully digital) for the holiday season every year. What does seem to get overlooked every year as we rush to pull out the carols, the classic crooners and the modern day remakes of our favorites are the many pieces composers focused about Christmas. Sure, we have the standards like the Nutcracker and the Messiah, but there are many others that get ignored (when was the last time someone played Poulenc or Messiaen's holiday works...?). So, since I have finished my graduate school applications and need a break from Mahler/Strauss/Gershwin...I thought it would be fun to explore the classical works composed about Christmas. I figure its best to start with the most well known and work our way to the depths of the largely forgotten as we move closer to the big day. What better to start with than the Nutcracker?

    Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (1892) is probably the most widely known of all the compositions about Christmas (for little known trivia and facts about the piece, check last year's post). It has sort of become the resented juggernaut of the ballet industry and all the famous melodies from the suite have been co-opted by advertising agencies to sell everything from airplane tickets to panty hose. However, if you ask someone to sing a song from outside the numbers used in the Nutcracker Suite, most people draw a blank. There are many great melodies that reside elsewhere in the ballet and shouldn't be ignored. A great example is the Intrada from the Pas De Deux that takes place between the "Waltz of the Flowers" and the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies." Another wonderful one is "Christmas Tree", which takes place after "Miniature Overture" when all the guests are arriving for the party. However, this year I've grown most attached to "Into the Christmas Tree," which immediately follows the death of the Rat King when the Nutcracker transforms into human and he and Clara dance together for the first time. This is sometimes also referred to as "A Pine Forest in Winter - aka. Journey through the Snow." Its powerful and strong and stands out as unique against most of the other numbers in the ballet.

Get the recording mentioned in this post:

Josh Kun

"If you are an immigrant Jew, what are the ways to fast-track yourself into American-ness? There's Hollywood, there's Tin Pan Alley, and there are Christmas songs, and they all work together."


-music writer and founding member of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a volunteer non-profit organization for the understanding and preservation of Jewish history through music.

Read the rest of the article on the influence Jewish composers on Christmas songs here. It's quite enlightening. In fact, did you know that both "White Christmas" and "Christmas Song" were written by Jewish composers?

Learn more about the Idelsohn Society here.

James Conlon*

"Could it be that simply performing and not interpreting the work (however unfashionable that notion might be at this moment in history) is to render to it the greatest service possible?"


-music director of the Los Angeles Opera, describing their most conservative, yet most successful, performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni in years. While set in period and taking no artistic liberties with staging or costumes, Conlon tries to explain why this might have been what made it so successful.


*As quoted in Richard S. Ginell’s review in the Los Angeles Times

Riccardo Muti

"The Germans understand more than others that culture isn't just spiritual well-being, but when it's utilized well, when it's valued, it brings economic well-being."


-explaining why German orchestras and arts programs are not receiving the same harsh budget cuts as similar ones in other countries. See the rest of Muti's thoughts on appreciation of culture helping the economy here.

John Towner Williams

"I'm happy to be busy. I'm happy to have a wonderful family. And I think also, especially for practicing musicians, age is not so much of a concern, because a lifetime is just simply not long enough for the study of music anyway. You're never anywhere near finished. So the idea of retiring or putting it aside is unthinkable. There's too much to learn."


-reflecting on being an active musician at his 80th birthday celebration at Tanglewood this past summer. Read the full article here.

Robert Schumann

"Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out."

-taken from a page in his journal

mahler's favorite dessert


    Today I was digging through the index of Henry-Louis de La Grange's Gustav Mahler, Vol 4: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911), looking for any additional information I could use in my essay i'm revising on the historically ambiguous relationship between Mahler and Stauss (Richard, of course), when I see APPENDIX 31 way back on page 1716, containing a recipe for Mahler's favorite dessert. Marillenknödel ('apricot dumplings', for those who don't speak German) is a traditional Viennese dessert where apricots are wrapped in a dough, gently simmered in water and then rolled in melted butter with sugar and cinnamon. My favorite part is that after you peel and pit the apricots, you put a big dab of sugar where the stones used to be before sandwiching it back together and encasing it in dough. While in Mahler's time they were usually made with a potato dough, La Grange provides 3 additional dough variations: pâte à choux (cream puff dough), Strudel dough and cheese pastry. In modern Vienna, you can even find them with the dough replace with ice cream (in which you clearly wouldn't boil them) and the butter/cinnamon-sugar exterior is replaced with chopped nuts/streusel.Too bad Appendix 31 is so far back I'm sure most people don't even know its there.

     If anyone is looking for a dessert project, I say put on Gustav's Symphony No. 5 and make a dozen of these! For those of you who can't go to the university library and copy the recipe out of the back, there are many recipes available online you can use.

one down, one more to go

Yesterday I finally finished my 15 page research paper on Bernstein's relationship with Rhapsody in Blue to submit with my graduate applications. After spending the last 6 weeks working on it, I'm pretty sure I never want to hear that piece again. This will be my last goodbye to it...and hopefully I don't hear any of those melodies again for at least a year....though ideally it would be longer. I stumbled upon this while researching...hope you like it.

Duke Ellington's lost 1932 arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue

Ryan Raul Bañagale (research and piano) with Harvard Dudley House Big Band

December 12 2009