The Composer and his Muse: Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel

A Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor Stravinsky is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.

Stravinsky first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Serge Diaghilev and first performed in Paris by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with choreography by Michel Fokine Firebird has historic significance not only as Stravinsky's breakthrough piece, but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would also produce Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella and others.

The alleged affair between eminent Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and fashion design-icon Coco Chanel is shrouded in mystery. The relationship is claimed to have taken place while Stravinsky was still married to his second wife Vera, and she adamantly denied the credibility of Chanel’s assertions in her biography (written by Paul Morand) that she and Stravinsky were lovers.

The two definitely met, introduced by Ballet Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1920. Indeed Chanel invited the whole Stravinsky family to stay with her in Paris for eight months, and it is also claimed that Chanel personally underwrote the 1920 Ballet Russes production of The Rite of Spring with a donation of 300,000 francs.

While the truth of their relationship remains an enigma, it is nonetheless an exciting thought that two such influential and iconic artists may have shared a secret tryst.

Read more

Johanne Strauss The Waltz King

Johann Strauss was an Austrian composer of light music, particularly dance music and operettas. He composed over 500 waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and other types of dance music, as well as several operettas and a ballet. In his lifetime, he was known as "The Waltz King", and was largely then responsible for the popularity of the waltz in Vienna during the 19th century. 

Some of Johann Strauss' most famous works include "The Blue Danube", "Kaiser-Walzer" (Emperor Waltz), "Tales from the Vienna Woods", and the "Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka". Among his operettas, Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron are the best known.

Johannes Brahms was a personal friend of Strauss; the latter dedicated his waltz "Seid umschlungen, Millionen!" ("Be Embraced, You Millions!"), Op. 443, to him.

A story is told in biographies of both men that Strauss's wife Adele approached Brahms with a customary request that he autograph her fan. It was usual for the composer to inscribe a few measures of his best-known music, and then sign his name. Brahms, however, inscribed a few measures from the "Blue Danube", and then wrote beneath it: "Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.

Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn is one of the most celebrated pianist this country has produced. Though he will always be remembered as the winner of the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition and remains the only American ever to have won it.

His mother, an accomplished pianist and piano teacher, discovered him playing at age three and mimicking one of her students. She arranged for him to start taking lessons. He developed a rich, round tone and a singing voice-like phrasing, having been taught from the start to sing each piece.

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1Played by Van Cliburn in Moscow, 1962. He was accompanied by Kirill Kondrashin.

Mr. Cliburn, a Texan, was a lanky 23-year-old when he clinched the gold medal in the inaugural year of the Tchaikovsky competition, and the feat, in Moscow, was viewed as an American triumph over the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. He became a cultural celebrity of pop-star dimensions and brought overdue attention to the musical assets of his native land.

When Mr. Cliburn returned to New York, he was given a ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan, which offered the sight of about 100,000 people lining the streets and cheering a classical musician. In a ceremony at City Hall, Mayor Robert F. Wagner proclaimed that Mr. Cliburn’s accomplishment was “a dramatic testimonial to American culture” and that “with his two hands, Van Cliburn struck a chord which has resounded around the world, raising our prestige with artists and music lovers everywhere.”

In his 1999 memoir, “The Times of My Life,” Mr. Frankel recalled his coverage of Mr. Cliburn’s triumph in Moscow: “The Soviet public celebrated Cliburn not only for his artistry but for his nationality; affection for him was a safe expression of affection for America. My account of his rapturous reception landed on the front page of The Times two days before the pianist was crowned the contest winner because I posed the obvious question of whether the Soviet authorities would let an American beat out the finest Russian contestants. We now know that Khrushchev” — Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet premier — “personally approved Cliburn’s victory, making Van a hero at home and a symbol of a new maturity in relations between the two societies.”

Mr. Cliburn was a naturally gifted pianist whose enormous hands spanned 12 notes each. He developed a commanding technique, cultivated an exceptionally warm tone and manifested solid musical instincts. At its best, his playing had a surging Romantic fervor, but leavened by an unsentimental restraint that seemed peculiarly American. The towering Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, a juror for the competition, described Mr. Cliburn as a genius — a word, he added, “I do not use lightly about performers.”

But if the Tchaikovsky competition represented Mr. Cliburn’s breakthrough, it also turned out to be his undoing. Relying inordinately on his keen musical instincts, he was not an especially probing artist, and his growth was stalled by his early success. Audiences everywhere wanted to hear him in his prizewinning pieces, the Tchaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Third. Every American town with a community concert series wanted him to come play a recital.

“When I won the Tchaikovsky I was only 23, and everyone talked about that,” Mr. Cliburn said in 2008. “But I felt like I had been at this thing for 20 years already. It was thrilling to be wanted. But it was pressure, too.”

His subsequent explorations of wider repertory grew increasingly insecure. During the 1960s he played less and less. By 1978 he had retired from the concert stage; he returned in 1989, but performed rarely. Ultimately, his promise and potential were never fulfilled. But the extent of his talent was apparent early on.

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition takes place every four years and holds the most extensive audition screening tour by judges of any international contest. The winner of the Cliburn gets three years of professional management, international bookings and publicity. This year's winner is Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea. Sunwoo, trained at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School.

To promote music-making as a part of everyday life, the Cliburn established the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 1999. Now a quadrennial forum for non-professional musicians, the competition is open to pianists age 35 and older who do not derive their principal source of income through piano performance or instruction.

Beethoven's touching response to a young fan

In the summer of 1812, a young aspiring pianist named Emilie sent her hero a beautiful hand-embroidered pocketbook to express her admiration for his artistic genius. Touched by the gesture, 41-year-old Beethoven wrote back, offering some simple yet profound words of encouragement and advice on the creative life — an exquisite micro-manifesto for what it means to be an artist and what art demands of those who make it.

This was Beethoven’s response which was included in the Michael Hamburger's documentary book Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations.

    My dear good Emilie, my dear Friend!

    Do not only practice art, but get at the very heart of it; this it deserves, for only art and science raise men to the God-head. If, my dear Emilie, you at any time wish to know something, write without hesitation to me. The true artist is not proud, he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.

    I would, perhaps, rather come to you and your people, than to many rich folk who display inward poverty. If one day I should come to [your town], I will come to you, to your house; I know no other excellencies in man than those which causes him to rank among better men; where I find this, there is my home.

    If you wish, dear Emilie, to write to me, only address straight here where I shall be still for the next four weeks, or to Vienna; it is all one. Look upon me as your friend, and as the friend of your family.

Beethoven Suffered from Lead Poisoning

New tests confirm that Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning. The legendary composer, who experienced decades of illness that left him in misery for most of his life, died in 1827.

Researchers aren't sure why his lead levels were so high, but they have some ideas. "There are many possibilities," says Bill Walsh, who headed a team that studied Beethoven's hair samples and fragments from his skull at the Department of Energy laboratory in Argonne, Ill.

The composer was a wine lover, and wine at the time was known to contain high lead levels. He also drank out of a goblet made partially of lead and stayed at a spa where he drank mineral water, Walsh says. But Walsh says Beethoven may not have been exposed to higher-than-normal lead levels. The composer may have been hyper-sensitive to lead and his body may not have been able to eliminate it, Walsh says. Walsh says researchers are convinced the hair and bone samples they tested are Beethoven's because they came from two different sources and were matched by DNA tests.

Beethoven's Ear Horns

Beethoven's Last Days

Beethoven wrote a series of quartets, known as the "Late Quartets," the last quartets amidst failing health. In April 1825 he was bedridden, and remained ill for about a month. The illness—or more precisely, his recovery from it—is remembered for having given rise to the deeply felt slow movement of the Fifteenth Quartet, which Beethoven called "Holy song of thanks ('Heiliger Dankgesang') to the divinity, from one made well." He went on to complete the quartets now numbered Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Sixteenth. The last work completed by Beethoven was the substitute final movement of the Thirteenth Quartet.

Of the late quartets, Beethoven's favorite was the Fourteenth Quartet, op. 131 in C♯ minor, which he rated as his most perfect single work. The last musical wish of Schubert was to hear the Op. 131 quartet, which he did on 14 November 1828, five days before his death.

Beethoven was bedridden for most of his remaining months, and many friends came to visit. He died on 26 March 1827 at the age of 56 during a thunderstorm. His friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who was present at the time, said that there was a peal of thunder at the moment of death.

The following art works and objects describe Beethoven's final days and the accounts of eye witnesses, including the young man who clipped Beethoven's  lock of hair, Ferdinand Hiller.

Beethoven on his deathbed

Beethoven on his deathbed (Beethoven auf dem Sterbelager)

Reproduction of an engraving by J. Adé, based on a drawing by Wilhelm von Lindenschmit (date unknown)

This original drawing was probably by Lindenschmit the Younger (1829-1895), whose father was also a well-known historical painter. His paintings on musical subjects include Hall of Fame of German Music (1740-1867) [Ruhmeshalle der deutschen Musik (1740-1867)], which depicted the most famous German musicians surrounding a platform on which sat Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, among others. In Beethoven On His Deathbed, the man holding Beethoven's hand appears to be J.N. Hummel, but the young man in the back of the room is likely meant to be Gerhard von Breuning, the son of Beethoven's childhood friend Stephan.

Hummel portrait

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)

Hummel was one of the greatest composers and fortepianists of his time, both friend and rival of Beethoven. A child prodigy, he studied with Mozart and like Beethoven learned composition from Albrechtsberger, Salieri, and Haydn.

In 1804 he left Vienna to serve as Kapellmeister of Prince Esterhazy's court orchestra, but returned in 1811 to focus on composition and performance in Vienna's theaters.

In 1813 he married the singer Elisabeth Röckel (1793-1883), who Beethoven knew and was very fond of. Elisabeth was the sister of Josef August Röckel, the tenor who sang the role of Florestan in the 1806 revival of Beethoven's opera Fidelio. Hummel's relationship with Beethoven was occasionally strained; Beethoven was said to have taken offense to Hummel's criticism of his Mass in C. However, the friendship persevered, and in 1814 Beethoven enlisted Hummel as the percussionist for a performance of hisWellington's Victory, with this delightful letter:

"Most charming Hummel! Please conduct this time too the drum-rolls and cannonades with your excellent Kapellmeister's and Master of the Ordnance's baton-Please do so. If you would like me to cannonade you sometime, I am at your service, both body and soul. Your friend, Beethoven."

Hummel left Vienna in 1816, and became court conductor in Weimar two years later. His sense of loss at Beethoven's death was strongly felt. When hearing of Beethoven's grave illness, he and his wife rushed to Vienna from Weimar with Ferdinand Hiller in tow to pay their last respects. They kept some mementos of that final meeting, including the last quill Beethoven used and a lock of his hair (now in the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn). Hummel served as a pallbearer at the funeral and he performed at the memorial concert, improvising themes from Beethoven's works on the fortepiano.

Photo of Ferdinand Hiller

Ferdinand Hiller from ca. 1855

Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885) was a German conductor, composer, teacher and a close friend of Felix Mendelssohn. At the age of thirteen he began musical studies with J.N. Hummel in Weimar, and in 1827 he traveled with Hummel to Vienna to visit Beethoven on his deathbed.

An excerpt from his reminiscences of this visit follows:

"On March 13th, Hummel took me to see Beethoven for the second time. We found that his condition had deteriorated considerably. He lay in his bed, seemed to be suffering great pain and at times uttered a deep groan; nevertheless, he spoke freely and vigorously. He seemed to be deeply concerned with his failure to enter the married state. Already during our first visit he joked about this with Hummel, whose wife he had known as a young and beautiful girl. This time he said to him, smiling: 'You are a lucky fellow: you have a wife, she looks after you, she is in love with you-- but I'm a poor bachelor!' -- and he sighed deeply. Also, he begged Hummel to bring his wife, who had been unwilling to face in his present state a man whom she had known at the height of his powers ..."

"When we stood beside his bed once more on the 20th, it was certainly clear from his remarks how greatly this attention had pleased him; but he was extremely weak and spoke only softly, in clipped sentences. 'I rather think I shall soon be setting out on the upward journey,' he whispered after our greeting. Similar exclamations occurred frequently; but, in between, he spoke of his plans and hopes, neither of which, unfortunately, were to be realized. Speaking of the noble conduct of the Philharmonic Society and praising the English, he said that it was his intention to leave for England as soon as his condition had improved. 'I wish to compose a grand overture and a grand symphony for them.' And then, too, he wished to visit Frau Hummel (who had come with her husband) and go to Heaven knows how many different places. It did not occur to us to write down anything for him. His eyes, which during our last visit had still been quite lively, were now drooping and only with difficulty could he sit up from time to time. We could no longer deceive ourselves: the worst was to be feared."

Ferdinand Hiller was not the only visitor who wanted a lock of hair as a remembrance of the composer. Beethoven's young friend Gerhard von Breuning reported that

"On March 29 I went with my father to Beethoven's dwelling and wanted to cut off a lock of his hair. Father had not allowed me to do this before the lying-in-state ended, in order not to spoil his appearance; but now we found that strangers [sic] had already cut off all his hair." (Memories of Beethoven, ed. Maynard Solomon, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992).

Reproduction of Beethoven's death mask

Death mask by Joseph Danhauser (1827)

Reproduction in plaster
The painter Joseph Danhauser (1805-1845) made a plaster mask of Beethoven's face shortly after Beethoven's death.

Danhauser's brother Carl recorded the story:

"On March 26 [1827] early in the morning while we were still asleep, Ranftl knocked on our door and brought in the news that Beethoven had died in the night."

"Since we had a plaster in our firm, my brother Joseph, who in the course of his studies of heads had been prompted to try that sort of work, immediately struck on the idea of taking a death mask of the departed great man. We dressed quickly, had the horses harnessed and since the stucco worker Hofmann had arrived in the meanwhile, we took him along with us in the carriage."

"It was still early in the morning as we arrived at the dead man's house, and we could find no one who could tell us anything. Finally, a woman let us go upstairs, and as we arrived at the landing we found an open entrance hall; the door leading to the next room was ajar, so we lifted the latch and went in. A bed stood against the main wall of this room, and in this bed lay Beethoven's body."

"Since during the dead man's illness his beard had grown very thick, we sent the plasterer to fetch a barber, who shaved him clean. The barber's apprentice said that he could never use the razor again after he had shaved a dead man with it. I bought it from him."

"In the meanwhile we had cut off two locks from the temple where it grew thickly, as a memento of the celebrated head, and then we went to work. My brother, who knew less about this kind of work than the plasterer, was glad to have him help, and so we soon obtained a good cast which we brought home with great care; for my brother, a painter, had conceived the idea of trying his hand at modeling and at producing a bust of Beethoven. He went right away to work and actually succeeded in making a bust of the master ..." [From H.C. Robbins Landon, Beethoven: a documentary study]

The earliest known extant cast of the death mask was given by Danhauser to Franz Liszt in 1840 and is now in Vienna at the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien. Another cast is at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn.

Read more

How Classical Music Advanced the Civil Rights Movement

Remembering Marian Anderson's landmark Met performance, 60 years later

Marian Anderson Acting On Stage
Marian Anderson acting on stage during the Metropolitan Opera production of Un Ballo in Maschera, New York City, January 8, 1955. Afro Newspaper—Gado/Getty Images

Anderson, fittingly, had a habit of rhetorically erasing her own significance by referring to herself as “one” — and she didn’t behave like the typical prima donna in her debut at the Met:
“I’m not quite sure it’s happening,” Contralto Anderson told friends and reporters [after the performance]. Apologizing for her jitters, she added: “A serious person, when beginning anything, is usually a little overanxious.” … As for the possibility of other roles at the Met, she said in her modest, impersonal way: “One is so involved in this one, no other has been thought about.”
Meanwhile, out in the packed house, it was the crowd that lifted the singer to hero status: “There were eight curtain calls. ‘Anderson! Anderson!’ chanted the standees,” TIME reported, “and men and women in the audience wept.”

Reposted from