In Praise of Drinking

1815 was an extraordinarily creative year for Franz Schubert. Aged 18, working as a schoolteacher and receiving composition lessons from Antonio Salieri, in the same year he composed four operas, two symphonies, 150 songs (nine in one day!), liturgical music (including two masses), one string quartet and several piano pieces.

Composers and the Demon Drink

Theirs was not an auspicious first meeting. The young Johannes Brahms was on a walking holiday en route to visiting Robert and Clara Schumann, when he stopped at  Weimar in June 1853 to hear Franz Liszt give a private performance of his magisterial Piano Sonata in B minor, a work now regarded as one of…

The Astonishing Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes

When in 1917 Sergei Diaghilev was stranded in Spain with his itinerant company the Ballet Russes and in dire financial straits, he fired off a telegram to the wealthy patron of the arts Misia Sert (and friend of Coco Chanel) in Paris for assistance. The reply was curt: “GIVE IT UP SERGE”. This was just…

The Composer and the Hollywood Starlet

The strange and largely true story of the composer George Antheil and the actress Hedy Lamarr, told in the style of fan fiction. Apologies to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and everyone else. 

Transfigured Night

During his years of permanent exile in America, Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951) once remarked “There is nothing I long for more intensely than to be taken for a better sort of Tchaikovsky. People should know my tunes and whistle them”.

Philip Glass and La Boulangerie

In his recently published memoirs, Words Without Music (2015), the American minimalist composer Philip Glass tells the story of a lesson in musical counterpoint he had one afternoon with the formidable Nadia Boulanger.  

The Carnival of the Animals

The attitude of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw towards Saint-Saëns’ music was fairly typical for the time. He accused him of plagiarism, saying that if Bach, Meyerbeer and Gounod were taken out of the scores, all that would remain would be “nothing but graceful knick-knacks, barcarolles, serenades, ballets and the like”.

Murder, He Wrote …

In his day, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (c1561 – 1613) was known as “il musical macellaio di Venosa” (the musical butcher of Venosa), not for his provocative musical harmonies but for his unseemly penchant for murder.

Dreams and the Shock of the New: The Genesis of The Rite of Spring

The ballet The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) is one of the most famous and influential pieces in twentieth century music. It sparked a furore on its first performance in Paris in 1913, owing its startling, coruscating score and the controversial theme of a pagan sacrificial rite. It has nevertheless become…