The Composer and his Muse: Richard Wagner

Born on May 22, 1813. German composer, theater director, polemicist, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, "music dramas"). Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works.

Until his final years, Wagner's life was characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment since the late 20th century, especially where they express antisemitic sentiments. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; his influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theater.

Wagner began composing the music for Das Rheingold between November 1853 and September 1854, following it immediately with Die Walküre (written between June 1854 and March 1856). He began work on the third Ring opera, which he now called simply Siegfried, probably in September 1856, but by June 1857 he had completed only the first two acts. He decided to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story Tristan and Iseult.

One source of inspiration for Tristan und Isolde was the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, notably his The World as Will and Representation, to which Wagner had been introduced in 1854 by his poet friend Georg Herwegh. Wagner later called this the most important event of his life.


A second source of inspiration was Wagner's infatuation with the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks, who were both great admirers of his music, in Zürich in 1852. From May 1853 onwards Wesendonck made several loans to Wagner to finance his household expenses in Zürich, and in 1857 placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal,which became known as the Asyl ("asylum" or "place of rest"). During this period, Wagner's growing passion for his patron's wife inspired him to put aside work on the Ring cycle (which was not resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan. While planning the opera, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder, five songs for voice and piano, setting poems by Mathilde. Two of these settings are explicitly subtitled by Wagner as "studies for Tristan und Isolde".


Amongst the conducting engagements that Wagner undertook for revenue during this period, he gave several concerts in 1855 with the London Philharmonic Society, including one before Queen Victoria. The Queen enjoyed his Tannhäuser overture and spoke with Wagner after the concert, writing of him in her diary that he was "short, very quiet, wears spectacles & has a very finely-developed forehead, a hooked nose & projecting chin."

Wagner's uneasy affair with Mathilde collapsed in 1858, when his wife Minna intercepted a letter to Mathilde from him. After the resulting confrontation with Minna, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice, where he rented an apartment in the Palazzo Giustinian, while Minna returned to Germany. Wagner's attitude to Minna had changed; the editor of his correspondence with her, John Burk, has said that she was to him "an invalid, to be treated with kindness and consideration, but, except at a distance,  a menace to his peace of mind." Wagner continued his correspondence with Mathilde and his friendship with her husband Otto, who maintained his financial support of the composer. In an 1859 letter to Mathilde, Wagner wrote, half-satirically, of Tristan: "Child! This Tristan is turning into something terrible. This final act!!!—I fear the opera will be banned ... only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad."


After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered at the National Theatre Munich on 10 June 1865, the first Wagner opera premiere in almost 15 years. (The premiere had been scheduled for 15 May, but was delayed by bailiffs acting for Wagner's creditors, and also because the Isolde, Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, was hoarse and needed time to recover.) The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde, a child not of Bülow but of Wagner.

Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was herself illegitimate, the daughter of the Countess Marie d'Agoult, who had left her husband for Franz Liszt. Liszt initially disapproved of his daughter's involvement with Wagner, though nevertheless the two men were friends. The indiscreet affair scandalised Munich, and Wagner also fell into disfavour with many leading members of the court and was finally forced to leave Munich.

Minna had died of a heart attack on 25 January 1866 in Dresden. Wagner did not attend the funeral. Following Minna's death Cosima wrote to Hans von Bülow on a number of occasions asking him to grant her a divorce, but Bülow refused to concede this. He only consented after she had two more children with Wagner; another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of Meistersinger, and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring. The divorce was finally sanctioned, after delays in the legal process, by a Berlin court on 18 July 1870. Richard and Cosima's wedding took place on 25 August 1870. On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner arranged a surprise performance (its premiere) of the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life.




Classical Works Inspired by Rain


‘I love all films that start with rain…’ writes the poet Don Paterson. But how has rain been rendered in music? Is the mood of a rainy day necessarily melancholic and disappointing or can the rhythm of a good downpour suggest something joyful or cathartic? Here are examples of how rain has been made in music. 

Chopin: Prelude Op. 28, No. 15 – ‘Raindrop Prelude’




A sudden rain shower can create both distance and intimacy. It can often induce a meditative or dream-like mood in the adult, or for the child who cannot go out to play. It is thought Chopin’s ‘Raindrop Prelude’ was indeed inspired by a dream, according to his partner George Sand’s account of the moment of composition.

In her autobiography, Sand writes that: ‘He saw himself drowned in a lake – heavy, icy drops of water falling rhythmically on his chest - and when I had him listen to the drops of water falling rhythmically on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry at what I translated by the expression ‘imitative harmony.’’ 

This story is part of the mythology that surrounds the magic of this intimate, introspective piece.



Britten, Noye’s Fludde




Britten’s opera for children, Noye’s Fludde, depicts the dramatic story of Noah’s Ark. The sound of the first drops of this epic deluge is actually made and inspired by domestic objects: the china mug and the wooden spoon. 

Britten’s assistant, Imogen Holst, recalls her own involvement in this moment of experimental composition shared with Britten: ‘I had once to teach Women’s Institute percussion groups during a wartime ‘social half hour’, so I was able to take him into my kitchen and show him how a row of china mugs hanging on a length of string could be hit with a large wooden spoon.’



Debussy Estampes, ‘Jardins sous la pluie’


‘Jardins sous la pluie’ or ‘Gardens in the Rain’ is from Debussy’s Estampes for solo piano. It evokes the light and colour of a spring shower through its trembling, fluid and slightly frenetic sound. It also seems to capture the delicate quality of each raindrop through this rapidity of notes.

Pianist Stephen Hough writes that ‘Debussy’s discovery of new sounds at the piano is directly related to the physiology of hands on keyboard.’ As we are transported by the intense mood of rain communicated in this piece, we are also experiencing the physicality of the piano and the movement of fingers in a new way.



Judith Weir, The Welcome Arrival of Rain



Rain in this piece is a response to the monsoon rains returning in India, and is inspired by an extract of verse from the Hindu text, Bhagavata Purana. The piece captures the sense of sudden rain, its syncopating rhythmic energy, and the change, renewal and growth it brings. 

It also becomes a metaphor for the process of creativity itself, as Weir describes: ‘Whilst I composed it, as the notes and the pages multiplied, I began to think of a comparison with the arrival of the monsoon in India, when aridity is pierced by life-giving rain; and humans, animals and vegetation revel in sudden activity and fertility.’


 John Luther Adams, In the Rain




How does rain sound? In the Rain investigates and experiments with how we hear its changing rhythms. Adams encourages us to attend to the sonic expression of the natural world, as well how the rain encounters and catches on objects and surfaces. There is a numinous, otherworldly quality to this work.


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The Composer and his Muse: Mothers

Brahms: German Requiem

While the death of his dear friend Robert Schumann provided an initial impetus for Brahms's German Requiem, the composer dedicated it to his mother, who died nine years later. The memory of Johanna Brahms is particularly apparent in the work’s fifth movement, which takes Isaiah 66:13 for its text: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.”





Strauss’s “Muttertändelei” 

Any proud mama would be charmed by Richard Strauss’s “Muttertändelei” (Mother-chatter) in which a new mom brags about her angelic-looking child, with a disposition to match. Using verse from the 18th-century German poet Gottfried August Burger, Strauss wrote the piece in 1899, two years after his wife Pauline gave birth to their son Franz. Apparently Pauline was so taken with the work she would not lend the manuscript to fellow musicians.



Dvorak: "Songs My Mother Taught Me"

Dvorak’s melancholy folk melody “Songs My Mother Taught Me” is part of the Czech composer’s collection of Gypsy songs. The short melody tells of a woman passing down the songs she learned to her own children. It was an immediate hit when Dvorak composed it and still remains one of his best-known melodies.




Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra

Though Anton Webern dedicated his Six Pieces for Orchestra to his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, the works attempt to sort out his emotions from his mother’s recent death. "The first piece is to express my frame of mind when I was still in Vienna, already sensing the disaster, yet always maintaining the hope that I would find my mother still alive,” wrote Webern. The subsequent miniatures express the composer’s grief and also joyous memories with his mom.




Barber: Knoxville Summer of 1915

Samuel Barber’s destiny towards becoming a composer seems to have been cemented in a prophetic letter the nine-year-old composer wrote to his mother, begging her to let him make music rather than playing football (“I have written to tell you my worrying secret...I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure”). While Barber dedicated his orchestral suite, Knoxville Summer of 1915, to his father (as did its original author, James Agee), the piece tenderly describes a mother “who is good to me.”



Angelica Hale Debuts Her New Single Feel the Magic!

From Dr. Fuddle's very own honorary Messenger of Music. 


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Angelica on Listen World Tour with the TNT Boys 
Performs Feel the Magic


The Composer and His Muse: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Désirée Artôt



The Belgian mezzo-soprano Désirée Artôt started her career at the Paris Opera in 1858 when Giacomo Meyerbeer engaged her to sing in his Le prophète. Berlioz, uncharacteristically, could not find enough accolades to praise her singing. However, she quickly bid farewell to the French repertoire and went on to sing in Italy a year later. With an Italian opera company under the direction of Merelli, she extensively toured throughout Europe, and in 1868 arrived in Moscow. Moscow immediately fell in love with her. An anecdote relates that at a reception for her at the home of Maria Begicheva, “the hostess knelt before Artôt and kissed her hand.” But Begicheva was not the only artistic personality smitten with Artôt. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had also met Artôt at a Begicheva soiree, and when they met again a couple of months later, she “started to send him invitations every day, and he became accustomed to visiting her every evening.”

He later told his brother Modest, that she possessed “exquisite gesture, grace of movement, and artistic poise.” He even stopped working on his symphonic poem Fatum to give her all his attention. Tchaikovsky did, however, write a little Romance in F minor for piano, which he dutifully dedicated to her.


Artôt’s mother was fiercely opposed to the marriage on official grounds that Tchaikovsky was too young—he was seven year’s her junior—and that he would force Désirée to live in Russia. It is more likely that she found out about Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation and wasn’t going to allow her daughter to engage in a destined to be unhappy union.

Désirée was quickly rushed off to her next singing engagement and kept far away. Tchaikovsky sensed that something was afoot, and writes to his brother Anatoly, “This affair is beginning to fall apart.” Maybe he instinctively knew that Artôt had quietly married the Spanish baritone Mariano Padilla y Ramos without telling him. Tchaikovsky was in the middle of rehearsals for his opera The Voyevoda, and when Nikolai Rubinstein brought him the news, “he became quite upset, abandoned the rehearsal, and left immediately.” Musicologists have suggested that the musical chipper of her name, in the manner of Schumann, appears in his First Piano Concerto, and Tchaikovsky certainly never revealed the program of Fatum. And let’s not forget that Romeo and Juliet was completed a mere two months after Artôt’s clandestine marriage.


It was in December 1887 that they actually renewed their acquaintance in Berlin. He spent an evening at her place, and later wrote in his diary. “This evening is counted among the most agreeable recollections of my sojourn in Berlin. The personality and the art of this singer are as irresistibly bewitching as ever.” She asked him to compose a song on a text by a French poet, and he sent her a set of six. “I have tried my best,” he writes, “to serve you and hope that you will be able to sing them all, since all six of them correspond to the current range of your voice. I sincerely hope that you will enjoy these melodies, but unfortunately, I am not so sure of this. I must confess that I have been working very hard lately and that my latest compositions have sprung from good intentions rather than from true inspiration. And besides, it is a little awkward to write for a singer whom I consider to be the greatest among the greatest.”

Tchaikovsky never revealed exactly how deep a wound this affair inflicted, he in his personal letters, always praising her beauty and artistry.  His torch for Artot may perhaps never have been totally extinguished.

Tchaikovsky may have coded her name into works such as his First Piano Concerto and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. The use of initials spelled out in musical pitches is a device often used by Robert Schumann (for example, in his Carnaval), and Tchaikovsky was a great admirer of Schumann's music.



There are other suggestions that Tchaikovsky coded his own name into the concerto, and Artôt's name into the symphonic poem Fatum, the Symphony No. 3, and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. He never revealed the program of Fatum, and later even destroyed the score (although it was reconstructed from the orchestral parts and published posthumously as Op. 77).




The Artôt episode was very fresh in Tchaikovsky's mind at the time he wrote Romeo and Juliet. He could easily have drawn a parallel between his personal loss and the tragedy of Shakespeare’s drama.

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The String Quartet


The string quartet is one of the most prominent chamber ensembles in classical music, with most major composers, from the late 18th century onwards, writing string quartets.

The origins of the string quartet can be traced back to the Baroque trio sonata, in which two solo instruments performed with a continuo section consisting of a bass instrument (such as the cello) and keyboard. A very early example is a four-part sonata for string ensemble by Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) that might be considered an important prototype string quartet. By the early 18th century, composers were often adding a third soloist; and moreover it became common to omit the keyboard part, letting the cello support the bass line alone. Thus when Alessandro Scarlatti wrote a set of six works entitled “Sonata à Quattro per due Violini, Violetta [viola], e Violoncello senza Cembalo” (Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord), this was a natural evolution from existing tradition.





The string quartet rose to prominence with the work of Joseph Haydn. Haydn’s own discovery of the quartet form appears to have arisen essentially by accident.

The young composer was working for Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg sometime around 1755-1757 at his country estate in Weinzierl, about fifty miles from Vienna. The Baron wanted to hear music, and the available players happened to be two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. Haydn’s early biographer Georg August Griesinger tells the story thus:

"The following purely chance circumstance had led him to try his luck at the composition of quartets. A Baron Fürnberg had a place in Weinzierl, several stages from Vienna, and he invited from time to time his pastor, his manager, Haydn, and Albrechtsberger (a brother of the celebrated contrapuntist Albrechtsberger) in order to have a little music. Fürnberg requested Haydn to compose something that could be performed by these four amateurs. Haydn, then eighteen years old, took up this proposal, and so originated his first quartet which, immediately it appeared, received such general approval that Haydn took courage to work further in this form."

Haydn went on to write nine other quartets around this time. These works were published as his Op. 1 and Op. 2; one quartet went unpublished, and some of the early “quartets” are actually symphonies missing their wind parts. They have five movements and take the form: fast movement, minuet and trio I, slow movement, minuet and trio II, and fast finale. As Finscher notes, they draw stylistically on the Austrian divertimento tradition.





Haydn then ceased to write quartets for a number of years, but took up the genre again in 1769-1772 with the 18 quartets of Ops. 9, 17, and 20. These are written in a form that became established as standard both for Haydn and for other composers, namely four movements, consisting of a fast movement, a slow movement, a minuet and trio and a fast finale .





Ever since Haydn’s day the string quartet has been prestigious and considered a true test of the composer’s art. This may be partly because the palette of sound is more restricted than with orchestral music, forcing the music to stand more on its own rather than relying on tonal color; or from the inherently contrapuntaltendency in music written for four equal instruments.

Quartet composition flourished in the Classical era, with Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert writing famous series of quartets to set alongside Haydn’s. A slight slackening in the pace of quartet composition occurred in the 19th century; here, composers often wrote only one quartet, perhaps to show that they could fully command this hallowed genre, although Antonín Dvořák wrote a series of 14.

The String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, nicknamed the American Quartet, is the 12th string quartet composed by Antonín Dvořák. It was written in 1893, during Dvořák's time in the United States. The quartet is one of the most popular in the chamber music repertoire.





With the onset of the Modern era of classical music, the quartet returned to full popularity among composers, and played a key role in the development of Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, and Dmitri Shostakovich especially. 

After WWII, some composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen questioned the relevance of the string quartet and avoided writing them. However, from the 1960s onwards, many composers have shown a renewed interest in the genre.



Happy Easter


It’s Easter, and whether you believe in the story surrounding the holiday or just looking to crack some Easter eggs, one thing is true – it’s a time associated with some great musical works. In fact, if you’re into classical music, you would realize that some of the best compositions are associated with the messages of this time of the year.

From oratorios by Bach to ballets by Stravinsky, there are musical masterpieces that have continued to draw crowds at public performances around the world, as well as served as sources of comfort for minds looking for musical relaxation and reflection during Easter. With that said, here are five of the best classical pieces to listen to this Easter. Enjoy!

Easter Oratorio by J.S. Bach – 1725-46

Based on the resurrection story, this is an Easter favorite for many who follow closely the Easter tradition. It was written for a Lutheran church service by the master composer and has been a mainstay of many of today’s Easter performances to be led by famous conductors, such as Sir Jon Eliot Gardiner.



The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross by Joseph Haydn – 1783-96

Regarded by many classical aficionados as an epic orchestral composition, this piece by Haydn represents the last words to be uttered by Christ on the cross before he gave up the ghost. It was originally created to be interspersed by seven readings during Easter service.




Symphony No 2, “Resurrection” by Gustav Mahler – 1888-1894

While not exactly about Christ’s resurrection, this piece was considered to be one of the greatest works by Gustav Mahler. A rousing, thought-provoking number, Mahler got the idea for this symphony after the funeral of a fellow musician and friend got him thinking about the afterlife. Today, it remains among Easter audience favorites.




The Mystery Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – 1678

Written for his employer, Biber composed this piece to be made up of 15 short sonatas related to a part of the Rosary Devotion of the Catholic Church. A renowned violin virtuoso, Biber’s skill brings the Rosary’s 15 meditations (on mysteries surrounding the life of Christ and Mary) to life in stunning fashion. It’s a reflective piece, hence why it is still an Easter favorite.



Messiah by George Frideric Handel – 1741

The longest on this list, “Messiah” is a favorite piece for well-known orchestras around the world, especially at Christmas. Its popularity during the Yuletide season is due to the fact that the first section of this masterpiece deals with the birth of Christ. However, the rest of the composition covers the death and resurrection, which is why it was originally launched as an Easter performance. It includes the well-known “Hallelujah,” which is just one of the many reasons why audiences around the world can’t get enough.



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