Wednesday, August 21, 2019
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Paul Kilbey

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Paul is a freelance classical music writer and editor who lives in Germany. Read more about him on http://paulkilbey.co.uk/.
It’s a strange thought that the farcical Figaro would be followed up with an opera in which the protagonist—a compulsive womanizer, as well as a murderer—literally descends to hell, leaving behind a smattering of his victims to try and rebuild their shattered lives.
Franz Liszt was born in the Hungarian town of Raiding on October 22, 1811—a little more than a year after the births of Chopin and Schumann. Unlike those two composers, however, he reached old age: he died at 75, three years after his friend and son-in-law Richard Wagner. He’s one of very few composers whose life makes the 19th century look rather short.
Debussy began La mer in August 1903. Buoyed by the success of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, the composer decided to embark on a set of “three symphonic sketches” inspired by the sea: his second tripartite work for orchestra, following the Nocturnes of 1899.
"How could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others," Beethoven asks in his Heiligenstadt Testament.
Tchaikovsky’s three ballet scores are all revered today, but they drew mixed—sometimes very negative—reviews when they were first performed. "The melody is too… how can I say it? Too confused, too capricious—in a word, it was not written 'balletically.'” (St Petersburg News, 1877) That was a critic’s verdict after the premiere of—wait for it—Swan Lake.
It’s not entirely clear when Vladimir Horowitz was born, or where. The date was October 1 (in the ‘new’, Gregorian style), but the year isn’t certain. He was once thought to have been born in 1904, but it seems that his passport was doctored in 1925—the year he left the Soviet Union—so that it said he was a year younger than he really was.
In her book Shostakovich: A Life, Laurel E. Fay describes the memorable first lesson Dmitri received from his piano teacher mother, Sofya. “Within minutes,” Fay writes, “she recognized that she was dealing with a youngster of precocious musical ability, possessing perfect pitch and a phenomenal memory.” He progressed on the piano with ridiculous ease, and also started composing from the age of nine.
Vincenzo Bellini was just 33 years old when he died of dysentery in a Parisian suburb on September 23, 1835: younger than Chopin (39), Bizet (37) or even Mozart (35) at the time of their deaths...
Sunday, September 13, 1840 was Clara Schumann’s 21st birthday, but it was the preceding day that she described in her diary as the “most beautiful and most important” of her life. In fact, given how much had already happened in Clara’s life, she must have felt like an adult well before that birthday. The “most beautiful” event was, of course, her marriage to Robert...
“You see: they don’t need me. They do perfectly well by themselves,” says Leonard Bernstein, as he strolls away from an orchestra that blithely continues to play Brahms’s First Symphony. So begins one of his legendary Omnibus episodes, entitled “The Art of Conducting,” in which he provides a (so to speak) unbeatably clear guide to the practicalities of conducting an orchestra, from how to read a score to how to beat in time. So, then. Why does the orchestra need him, when they can apparently get by—even in a large-scale work like the Brahms—on their own?