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
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.
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.
The composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn were friends. Their relationship is not very well-documented, but the evidence that they enjoyed each other's company and greatly respected each other's work is strong, and suggests that the elder Haydn acted in at least a minor capacity as a mentor to Mozart.
Haydn was already a fairly well-known young composer in Mozart's childhood. His six string quartets Opus 20 (1772), called the "Sun" Quartets from the drawing of the sun on the cover of the first edition, were widely circulated and are conjectured (for instance, by Charles Rosen) to have been the inspiration for the six early string quartets K. 168–173 the 17-year-old Mozart wrote during a 1773 visit to Vienna.
The two composers, a generation apart, met in Vienna around Christmas of 1783 at a performance sponsored by the Vienna Tonkünstler-Societät, a charitable organization for musicians. On the program were works by both Haydn (Jones: "a symphony and a chorus, both probably from [the oratorio] Il ritorno di Tobia") and Mozart ("a new concert aria, probably 'Misero! o sogno!' [K. 431], and, on the first night, a piano concerto").
After sensing a great kinship of spirit, they moved quickly across the concentric circles of platonic relationships and arrived at the center of a deep friendship. Having already admired Haydn for years and even considered him his teacher, Mozart composed six string quartets dedicated to his friend and hero.
Haydn last saw Mozart in the days before he departed for London in December 1790. Haydn, still in London a year later when the news of Mozart's death reached him, was distraught; he wrote to their mutual friend Michael Puchberg, "For some time I was quite beside myself over his death, and could not believe that Providence should so quickly have called away an irreplaceable man into the next world". Haydn wrote to Constanze Mozart offering musical instruction to her son when he reached the appropriate age, and later followed through on his offer.