Jeffrey Gedmin's weekly newsletter on politics, culture, and music is made possible by American Purpose's generous members. Join today to receive his newsletter and other great benefits.
I’m fond of Elgar, even if—or perhaps because—Herbert von Karajan dismissed his work as “second-hand” Brahms. Edward Elgar was born on June 2 in a small village near Birmingham in 1857. I admire Elgar for all that he had to overcome.
Elgar was a Roman Catholic in Protestant England. He was a country boy who struggled to make a living in cosmopolitan London. As a student, he studied German in hopes to attend the Leipzig Conservatory. In the end, his parents could not afford the tuition fees. It seems life dealt Edward a weak hand.
He was an introvert who struggled with serious mood swings. It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that medical science began to understand and think about ways to treat depression.
Eventually recognition would come. In March 1904 there was a three-day festival at Covent Garden devoted solely to Elgar’s music. A member of the royal family attended each concert. Three months later, at age forty-seven, he was knighted. Sir Edward Elgar’s music would be played at Covent Garden for the king and queen. Even still: A 1955 British reference book asserted that Elgar’s work was a true reflection of Edwardian times—music with “emotional vulgarity” and a “ruthless philistinism.”
Here’s Elgar’s great cello concerto, about which our colleague Rebecca Burgess has written. It’s performed in this instance by Jacqueline du Pré under the baton of Daniel Barenboim (the two married on June 15, 1967). Mstislav Rostropovich stopped playing the concerto after he heard du Pré’s stunning rendition. I like the lesser known gems by Elgar. Here’s one.
There are a thousand reasons to love and appreciate music for music’s sake. Music also offers us a lens and unique perspective on a particular time and period. Music is social and cultural history. I’ve always been fond of the C.S. Lewis quote that, “Day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”
Vincent Persichetti was born in Philadelphia on June 6, 1915. His father came from the Italian village of Torricella Peligna in Abruzzo (east of Rome), home to the family of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801–35).
Young Vincent was a prodigy. He performed his first piano recital at five, and was taken under the wing of Olga Samaroff, Samaroff being an accomplished Texan-born pianist who changed her name—her agent persuading her to drop “Lucy Mary Olga Agnes Hickenlooper”—to pursue a career in classical music. Persichetti went on to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and join the faculty at New York’s famed Juilliard.
Persichetti is remembered most as a great teacher. He taught the Washington, D.C., composer and music critic Robert Evett, who, incidentally, worked from 1952 to 1968 as music and literary editor for The New Republic. But Persichetti composed interesting and beautiful music, too.
Here’s mesmerizing piano music by Persichetti. Persichetti studied double bass as a child. Try this, with Uxía Martínez Rotana from Spain. I like this very much. Persichetti’s “Hollow Men” is inspired by the poem of the same name by T.S. Eliot, written in 1925 and influenced by the mood of post-World War I Europe.
Igor Stravinsky came of age just before World War I. Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882, in the town Oraniembaum on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, twenty-five miles west of St. Petersburg. He owed his fame and fortune, one could say, to the art critic Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929), who is remembered as the greatest impresario of the early 20th century. Diaghilev knew everyone in literature, music, theater, painting, and dance—Émile Zola, Charles Gounod, Giuseppe Verdi, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Vaslav Nijinsky, Modest Mussorgsky. He founded the most important ballet company of the time.
Stravinsky’s Firebird (1910) was the first hit of Diaghilev’s company. Critics loved the scenery, choreography, and music. Here’s Stravinsky himself conducting in 1959. Petrushka followed a year later. It quickly became one of Ballets Russes’ most popular productions. Here’s a scene with Rudolf Nureyev from 1976. In 1913 came The Rite of Spring—scandal due to the polytonality of Stravinsky’s score. The frenzied rhythmic changes, the primordial grunts prompted the audience to hiss and laugh (“Exactly what I wanted!”, claimed Diaghilev afterwards).
Herbert von Karajan came onto the scene at another troubled time. In 1938, the year Germany annexed Austria, the thirty-year-old conductor from Salzburg led a performance of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Berlin State Opera that captured quite a bit of imagination. It was the moment of the strong man. By 1938 in Italy Mussolini was driving forward his fascist agenda with full force.
After his Tristan performance, the Berliner Zeitung proclaimed in a headline, “Von Karajan the Miracle.” That same year von Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for the first time. With von Karajan it was complicated. He consented to the playing of the Nazi anthem, the Horst-Wessel-Lied, before concerts, but was never forgiven by the Führer after a June 1939 performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Von Karajan had led a deliberately un-Germanic performance, a livid Hitler was convinced. Apparently heroism and glory were absent that evening. After the war, von Karajan tried to conceal his Nazi Party membership. He had first joined in Austria in 1933.
Von Karajan developed a reputation for promoting young talent: Conductors Claudio Abbado and Seiji Ozawa and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter all benefited from his support. He started the Orchestra Academy in 1972 to prepare musicians for work in a professional orchestra.
In 1982 von Karajan hired, against the will of the Berlin Philharmonic, clarinetist Sabine Meyer. Members argued that the style and sound of the gifted young soloist would not blend. Von Karajan—who himself for years had opposed having women in his orchestra—was convinced that discrimination was playing a role in the opposition to Meyer. The dispute led to von Karajan’s departure.
Von Karajan died on July 16, 1989. Here’s his intense rendering of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I’m fond of this quote by Abbado, who said, “I love the sound of snow; the Berlin Philharmonic manages it sometimes.” Try this. It’s the Berlin Phil with American composer Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
Image: Edward Elgar posing in his study, 1931. (Wikipedia)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe