Tales of Classical Christmas

The great composers of classical music celebrated Christmas just like us: they visited family, they reconnected with friends, they gave presents. While their Christmas stories might involve fewer gift receipts than ours, you might recognize some of your holiday experiences in these stories. Read on for tales of lavish meals, awkward moments and creative ways of getting over the holiday blues.

Bonn, 1790: Haydn Meets Beethoven for the First Time


Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven.

(Joseph Willibrord Mähler / Wikimedia Commons)

When Ludwig van Beethoven was 20 years old, Santa Claus brought him the chance to meet one of his musical idols. Franz Joseph Haydn was passing through Beethoven’s hometown, Bonn, on his way to London. On the day after Christmas, Bonn’s Elector, Max Franz, invited Haydn to a party in his honor with local musicians. While no records indicate the dinner party’s precise guest list — there was no Evite back then — Beethoven, considered Bonn’s best pianist and emerging composer, was almost definitely there. 

Whatever impression the young Ludwig might have made on the exalted master that Christmas, a year and a half passed before Haydn, stopping again in Bonn, concluded that Beethoven’s unprecedented talent demanded the cultivation of none other than Haydn himself. In November of 1792, Beethoven, his luggage full of scores and sketches, arrived in Vienna as Haydn’s newest pupil, beginning the most significant chapter yet of his instruction.



Mannheim, 1798: Aloysia Weber Swipes Left on Mozart


Aloysia Weber as Zémire in André Grétry's opera “Zémire et Azor,” circa 1784.



The theater singer Aloysia Weber was 17 when she started taking lessons with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Mannheim, Germany. The 21-year-old composer was soon smitten and wrote her an aria to showcase her talents. But his father Leopold didn’t want this growing infatuation to slow his son’s career and insisted that he leave for the bright lights of Paris.

Mozart returned on Christmas Day the following year for a brief stay at the Weber family home. But the thrill, as they say, was gone.  To Mozart’s dismay, Aloysia pretended not to recognize him! Not one to pout or cry on Christmas, the undeterred composer set his sights on Aloysia’s younger sister, Constanze, and the two eventually married.



Tribschen, 1870: Richard Wagner Nails the Whole Secret Santa Thing

Richard Wagner would never win Husband of the Year, but every once in a while he could bring his “A” game. After his wife Cosima gave birth to the couple’s son Siegfried in 1869, Wagner started working on a new composition. He kept it secret and made elaborate plans to surprise her on her birthday, December 25. That Christmas morning, Cosima Wagner awoke to the sound of a small ensemble on her staircase, playing her husband’s new piece called “Siegfried Idyll.”





Helsinki, 1911: Sibelius Beats the Christmas Blues With Song 

Though Jean Sibelius was not religious, he made an exception once per year for Christmas observances. But the composer wasn’t exactly a sweater-wearing and gingerbread-baking Christmas superfan. In fact, the holiday seemed to put him a remarkable funk: “Immediately after Christmas is over, things improve and life is fun once more,” he told his secretary. Nevertheless, Christmas brought the Sibelius family together: the children would sing songs their father had composed just for the occasion. His carols, which remain an important part of the Finnish holiday tradition, offer no hints of the composer’s dark mood.






Johannes Brahms drinking it up with family in Fellinger, 1896. (UNESCO)
If you wanted to find a composer who looked like Santa Claus, then look no further than Johannes Brahms. Not only did he have the beard, but he also had a joyful and generous spirit every Christmas. Christmas Eve for Brahms found him dining with friends, including an occasional celebration with Clara Schumann alone. Christmas Day, however, brought with it an ironclad tradition. It began with a lunchtime appointment at a tavern called The Red Hedgehog, followed by naptime at a nearby coffeeshop (why is that not still a thing?), and then packing for the annual festival held in his honor by the Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen. Brahms kept this Christmas schedule — and Santa beard — until his death.

Leipzig, 1723: The New Guy Makes a Big Impression




There are some people who can vacation and unplug during the Christmas holiday and then there was Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1723, Bach arrived in Leipzig as the new choirmaster of the city’s St. Thomas Church. Determined to make a great first impression during the busiest time of the church year, Bach worked avidly to unveil his first major liturgical composition, his Magnificat, as well as four bonus hymns for that Christmas. Bach hadn’t been the first choice for the Leipzig job (Georg Philipp Telemann was the church’s first pick) but he more than beat expectations and remained happily in Leipzig until the end of his life.

Read more


The Composer and His Muse: Harriet Smithson and Hector Berlioz



In 1827, Berlioz attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet given by a troupe of British actors at the Odéon Theatre in Paris. There, the 24-year-old composer became infatuated with the Ophelia of the production, an Irishwoman named Harriet Smithson. 

The composer had to find an outlet for his obsessive love – naturally, that was music. He formed the idea of a “fantastic symphony” portraying an episode in the life of an artist who is constantly haunted by the vision of the perfect, unattainable woman.  




In Symphonie fantastique Berlioz imagines himself, the lovelorn artist, attempting suicide by opium poisoning. He doesn’t administer a lethal dose as intended, but instead succumbs to a deranged, drug-fueled dream in which he has killed his beloved and faces execution for the crime.
Marie Moke

By now recoiling from his obsession with Smithson, Berlioz fell in love with a nineteen-year-old pianist, Marie ("Camille") Moke. His feelings were reciprocated, and the couple planned to be married. In December Berlioz organised a concert at which the Symphonie fantastique was premiered. Protracted applause followed the performance, and the press reviews expressed both the shock and the pleasure the work had given. Berlioz's biographer David Cairns calls the concert a landmark not only in the composer's career but in the evolution of the modern orchestra. Franz Liszt was among those attending the concert; this was the beginning of a long friendship. Liszt later transcribed the entire Symphonie fantastique for piano to enable more people to hear it.


Shortly after the concert Berlioz set off for Italy: under the terms of the Prix de Rome, winners studied for two years at the Villa Medici, the French Academy in Rome. Within three weeks of his arrival he went absent without leave: he had learnt that Marie had broken off their engagement and was to marry an older and richer suitor, Camille Pleyel, the heir to the Pleyel piano manufacturing company. Berlioz made an elaborate plan to kill them both (and her mother, known to him as "l'hippopotame"), and acquired poisons, pistols and a disguise for the purpose. But by the time he reached Nice on his journey to Paris he thought better of the scheme, abandoned the idea of revenge, and successfully sought permission to return to the Villa Medici. He stayed for a few weeks in Nice and wrote his King Lear overture.


Symphonie Fantastique was premiered in 1830 but Smithson did not hear the work until 1832, when she realised she might be the inspiration for it. Intrigued, she agreed to meet the composer and was blown away by the force of his emotion.

Despite neither speaking the other’s language, Harriet and Hector married on October 3, 1833. Happy ever after? Sadly, no – the obsession faded and they divorced seven years later.  Symphonie Fantastique has an enduring popularity and gives us a musical memoir of Berlioz’s infatuation with Smithson. 'Love cannot express the idea of music, while music may give an idea of love,' wrote the composer.


Sources: Limelight Magazine
Classic FM
Classic Music.com
Wikipedia


Pianist Alexander Melnikov on Playing Historic Instruments




The Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov has made several recordings using period instruments, and his latest disc features music by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt and Stravinsky on instruments from the 1830 and 1875, and a modern concert Steinway (he has also performed this programme on similar instruments), offering listeners and audiences the chance to experience four great works of the piano repertoire interpreted in their original instrumental environment. It’s a fascinating exploration of familiar repertoire through the medium of different pianos and how the composers responded to them. Meanwhile, the organisers of the International Chopin Competition have launched a new competition in which participants will perform on period instruments. The inaugural competition takes place in September this year and I sincerely hope this competition will offer competitors and audiences something more than a novelty or “living museum recital” and will cultivate sensitivities and sensibilities in pianists, who can appreciate and respond to what period pianos provide.

Albert Einstein: The Violinist




Einstein's mother, Pauline, was an accomplished pianist and wanted her son to love music too, so she started him on violin lessons when he was six years old. Unfortunately, at first, Einstein hated playing the violin. He would much rather build houses of cards, which he was really good at (he once built one 14 stories high!), or do just about anything else. When Einstein was 13-years old, he suddenly changed his mind about the violin when he heard the music of Mozart. With a new passion for playing, Einstein continued to play the violin until the last few years of his life. For nearly seven decades, Einstein would not only use the violin to relax when he became stuck in his thinking process, he would play socially at local recitals or join in impromptu groups such as Christmas carolers who stopped at his home.

Music for fun and physics

Einstein with Bronislaw Huberman
Music was not only a relaxation to Einstein, it also helped him in his work. His second wife, Elsa, gives a rare glimpse of their home life in Berlin. “As a little girl, I fell in love with Albert because he played Mozart so beautifully on the violin,” she once wrote. “He also plays the piano. Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”

In later life, his fame as a physicist often led to invitations to perform at benefit concerts, which he generally accepted eagerly. At one such event, a critic – unaware of Einstein’s real claim to fame as a physicist – wrote, “Einstein plays excellently. However,his world-wide fame is undeserved. There are many violinists who are just as good”.

One wag, on leaving another concert in which Einstein had played, commented, “I suppose now [the Austrian violinist] Fritz Kreisler is going to start giving physics lectures”.

There are nevertheless conflicting accounts of his musical abilities. Probably the least generous come from great artists, of whom Einstein counted many as personal friends as well as chamber-music partners. These included the pianist Artur Rubinstein, the cellist Gregor Piatigorski, and Bronislaw Huberman, one of the most remarkable and idiosyncratic violin virtuosos of the 20th century.

In 1936 Huberman visited Einstein in Princeton to discuss his plans to found the orchestra that eventually became the Israel Philharmonic, of which Einstein was a prominent supporter. Probably the summary of Einstein the violinist that comes nearest to the mark comes from his friend Janos Plesch, who wrote, “There are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling”.




Fascinating Stories Behind Classical Music Compositions

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony

Dubbed the Eroica symphony, which means “heroic” in Italian (not “erotic”), Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was initially his tribute to Napoleon, whom he admired. But when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven angrily declared that Napoleon had become a tyrant and tore out the score’s title page dedicating the symphony to the general-turned-emperor. The Eroica was the first work of Beethoven’s in which he finally arrived at the peak of his composing abilities.



Mozart’s Requiem

If you believe the fantastic 1984 movie “Amadeus,” then Mozart’s rival, Salieri, plotted to kill Mozart while helping the younger artist compose the Requiem, as Mozart lay dying. The truth is somewhat different, and the Salieri plot is a creative fiction. The youthful genius apparently completed only the first movement sometime before his death, while the remaining outlines were completed by others. How much Mozart actually did before he died is still subject to much debate.



Beethoven’s 9th symphony

As you may know, Beethoven eventually lost his hearing. The maestro composed some of his later pieces while literally pounding the piano with his ear close to the keys. When he premiered his magnificent 9th Symphony, he conducted it without hearing a single note. Because of his deafness—and perhaps the fact that he had not conducted in public for 12 years—Beethoven’s conducting was sporadic and unsynchronized with the orchestra. A member of the orchestra even had to turn him around so that he could see the enthusiastic approval of the audience.




Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

People with a passing knowledge of classical music would know this one: Igor Stravinsky’s ballet of pagan springtime rituals sounded, and looked, so bizarre to early 1900s audiences that during its first public performance the audience rioted. It didn’t help matters that the composer and his choreographer came to despise one another. The dance steps, costumes and intricate music didn’t sit well with some in the audience. Soon, supporters and detractors started fistfights, which degenerated into a riot—even though many could no longer hear the music. Musicians were even assaulted. Think about that the next time you hear of an audience going crazy at a rock or rap concert.




Liszt’s Les Preludes

The Nazis used parts of Les Preludes to be the official theme song for the propagandistic German Weekly Newsreel service, circa 1940-1945. (Can you imagine watching news footage of Luftwaffe Stukas dive-bombing Soviet troops and towns with The Prelude blaring, just like Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries was used during the helicopter attack in the movie Apocalypse Now?)


Reposted from Listverse.com

5 Reasons Listening to Classical Music Could Be Good for Your Health



Classical music can be a wonderful thing to experience, with its varying moods and tones, and science actually shows us that classical music in particular can have the power to improve our health. Here are five ways you might benefit from listening to classical music.

1. Classical Music Might Lower Our Blood Pressure


Researchers from the University of Oxford presented findings at the British Cardiovascular Society Conference in Manchester recently that certain genres of music appear to lower blood pressure. The researchers believe that the key may be the 10-second repeated rhythm that is found in many classical works such as Va Pensiero, Nessun Dorma, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Classical music that had a faster rhythm, such as Verdi’s Four Seasons, did not produce this effect.

The researchers caution that their findings need more extensive testing, but this may be the underlying reason why classical music has been shown to have various other benefits, and so has been greeted with cautious optimism by other researchers.

2. Can’t Sleep? Try Some Sebelius

Research has shown that stress-related insomnia can be tough to beat if we don’t resort to medication, however controlled studies have shown that students who listen to classical music tend to sleep better and sometimes for longer (in terms of unbroken sleep) than those who listen to things like audiobooks or nothing at all. It’s unlikely that classical music alone will cure a chronic case of insomnia, but it might be that if you’re just having a rough patch, classical music could form part of an improved sleep routine.

3. Classical Music May Help Calm Your Road Rage (But There’s a Catch)

Due to the fact that classical music is calming, some therapists have recommended classical music as part of a stress reduction program for people who experience what’s often termed “road rage.” Interestingly, a recent study actually showed that music by popstars like Adele might offer even more of a calming effect, and other studies show that soft-rock may have a similar impact.

However, being too relaxed on the road can be a bad thing. One study has shown that classical music might actually be too soothing and could put the average driver in danger of becoming complacent, so if you do listen to classical music while driving, try to go for lively pieces that will keep you engaged.

4. Classical Music Won’t Improve Your Memory But it Could Help You Study Better

The idea that listening to certain kinds of music can help improve your memory or even raise your intelligence has actually been disproved. Researchers have repeatedly tested the so-called Mozart effect, and found that it doesn’t hold true–or, at least, not in the way that we traditionally perceive improved brain performance. However, what the research does show is that well-chosen background music can help to make for a better study experience which in turn might lead to better fact retention and cognitive performance. It doesn’t have to be Mozart or even classical music though, as genres like soft jazz and other mostly instrumental music with a gentle tempo tend to aid concentration.

5. Classical Music May Help Boost Your Mood


It’s not going to be a substitute for medical help if you have a mental health condition, but incorporating music as part of your own wellness strategy might be a good idea. Some studies have shown that classical music and other, so called softer music, might be good for helping to ease depressive states. The reason why that might be isn’t fully understood, but some researchers think it’s because it helps us to regulate our breathing better and generally relaxes us in ways that other interventions can’t. As above, classical music also improves sleep quality, and this in turn is a known benefit for combating mood disorders. Other studies have shown that music in general helps to elevate our moods.

This is not to say that other musical genres don’t have their worth. In fact, science shows that rap music and heavy rock may be particularly good if you are working out because its tempo can help you keep your heart rate up which, if safely managed, can ensure you’re getting the maximum benefits from a fat burning workout.

Read more: Care2.com

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.

Read more