Welcome to the new Program Notes Database! Below find writings on more than 300 compositions, grouped by composer and sorted by last name, Aho to Zemlinsky. Use the navigation above to skip to a particular letter or press "More" for additional notes sorted by concert title. Hashtags located at the top right corner of every box will take you to MusicCentral blog posts which discuss that composer or topic. Tip: Linked PDFs often include notes for more than one composition; scroll through the document until you reach the desired composition.
Mamlok, Ursula (1923-2016)
Although born in Berlin, the composer Ursula Mamlok would spend much of her career in New York City. Jewish, she and her family fled Berlin after Kristallnacht, first to resettle in Ecuador before her compositional promise won her a full scholarship to the Mannes School of Music. There as a student of George Szell, she gained an appreciation for the classics while additional studies with Krenek, Wolpe, and Sessions introduced her to twelve-tone practices. Over time Mamlok became a valued member of the avant-garde and a respected composition instructor, remaining in New York until 2006 when she finally returned to Berlin.
Manookian, Jeff (*1953)
The music of Jeff Manookian stands at an interesting cultural crossroads. Manookian was born and raised in Salt Lake City and is a practicing Mormon. Since 2007, however, and his appointment as director of Argentina’s Orquesta de la Provincia de Tucumán, he has lived in this south American country, composing works which express his admiration for Hispanic culture. Manookian is also of Armenian descent and has written numerous compositions tied to this heritage. As of June 2020, he has joined the Utah Conservatory as chair to the piano and composition programs.
Khachkar for alto flute, harp, and strings
Martinů, Bohuslav (1890-1959)
Although the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů spent much of his creative career away from his homeland, he retained his national identity through his music. Paris became Martinů's home in the 1920s and 1930s where he studied with Albert Roussel and also encountered the music of Stravinsky, Les Six, and jazz. The music of past centuries fascinated him, especially the English Renaissance madrigal and the Baroque concerto grosso. Later, after relocating to the United States, the symphonic output of Beethoven was his ideal in crafting his own cycle of symphonies at the behest of Koussevitzky.
Duo No. 1, H. 157 for violin and cello
Matthews, David (*1943)
The English composer David Matthews, like his younger brother Colin, is perhaps best-known for his arrangements and completions of works by past masters. As young men, the two brothers worked with Deryck Cooke on his completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony; they also worked alongside Benjamin Britten in his last years. As a composer, David Matthews has carried the languages of Britten and Mahler into his own music as well as those of other British symphonists. He has worked tirelessly in the classical genres of the symphony, concerto, string quartet, and lately the oratorio.
Mendelssohn, Felix (1809-1847)
Felix Mendelssohn was a composer whose music was well-connected to the past. A devotee of Bach, he revived this Baroque master’s St. Matthew Passion through a celebrated performance in March 1829 which has been cited as the beginning of the "Bach revival" as well as a new historical consciousness in the programming of concert music. His own oratorios, Elijah and Paulus, appeal to the tradition of Handel and Haydn. Furthermore Mendelssohn often emulated the grace and refinement of Mozart as well as the drama and emotional vigor of Beethoven and Weber, writing absolute music after their examples.
Milhaud, Darius (1892-1974)
Today it seems that with a few exceptions the music of French composer Darius Milhaud is more often written about than performed. Scholars discuss such topics as his explorations into jazz and Latin American music, his pioneering experiments with percussion instruments, his unique approach to polytonality, and his radical early years as part of Les Six. Yet only a handful of the more than four hundred compositions Milhaud wrote are regularly performed. Indeed his expansive catalog contains twelve symphonies, numerous concerti for a wide variety of instruments, eighteen string quartets, and more than a dozen operas.
Miller, Alexander Lamont (*1968)
Assistant Principal Oboe of the Grand Rapids Symphony, Alexander Miller has been called this Michigan orchestra’s "unofficial composer-in-residence." Since starting with the Symphony in 1992, most of his orchestral works have been premiered if not also commissioned by this ensemble. Miller studied oboe at the Juilliard School where was the only student not officially enrolled in the composition program whose works were allowed to be played at the Composer’s Forum concerts. Let Freedom Ring, Fireworks, and Remix in D are perhaps his most notable compositions.
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (1756-1791)
For a composer who died at the young age of thirty-five, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was immensely prolific, writing over six hundred compositions while exploring each genre of music that then existed. The musicologist Alfred Einstein wrote "No species of music current in his time was left untouched by Mozart, none is without a matchless contribution from his pen." There are symphonies, concerti, serenades, divertimenti, string quartets, sonatas, sacred music, and of course opera, and there are masterpieces in each category. Popularly remembered for his prodigious abilities as a child, the fluency he would ultimately gain in the tonal language is perhaps even more impressive.
Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370
Sonata in D major, K. 381 for piano four hands
String Quartet No. 10 in C major, K. 170
Muczynski, Robert (1929-2010)
An American composer and pianist of Polish descent, Robert Muczynski made his career in academia with notable appointments at University of Arizona and DePaul. His Saxophone Concerto was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, and among other honors were two Ford Foundation fellowships and more than thirty ASCAP creative merit awards. Muczynski spoke proudly of his distance from the avant-garde, dismissing its proponents as too eager to attain novelty. He instead acknowledged Brahms and Poulenc as major influences, and like them he carefully integrated contemporary advances with proven tradition.
Voyage, Op. 27 for trumpet, horn, and trombone
Nielsen, Carl (1865-1931)
Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s late style has often been likened to the contemporaneous neo-Classicism of Igor Stravinsky. Rather than a specific Stravinskian influence, however, his aesthetic shift more accurately reflects the general pairing down and reevaluation of musical materials heard in the post-World War I idioms of composers as diverse as Ravel, Hindemith, Schoenberg, and Webern as well as Stravinsky himself. The anger of his Fourth Symphony and the uncertainty of the Fifth, both composed during the war years, arise from personal crises and wartime depravations while earlier works had optimistically sought a progressive tonality peculiar to his Nordic outlook.
Offenbach, Jacques (1819-1880)
Jacques Offenbach is perhaps too readily identified—and quickly disregarded—as the composer of the Can-Can. In actuality though Offenbach not only composed nearly one hundred operettas and other works for the Parisian stage, but also chamber and orchestral music. He was known primarily as a virtuoso cellist in his early years, and his output includes many solos, duets, and even a few works for cello and orchestra. Some are styled as popular waltzes or fashionable salon pieces while the duets are pedagogical in nature. Much of his cello music places considerable demands on its players, indicating his own proficiency.
Orff, Carl (1895-1982)
In the mid-1930s as Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were stirring many Germans to renewed optimism, their regime was already taking violent measures against those people who would not or could not conform. Unlike other, more radical composers who were forced to flee Nazi Germany, the Bavarian Carl Orff found it possible to remain with his simple tonal language and his frequent incorporation of German material from centuries past. Indeed Carmina Burana won immense popularity after its 1937 premiere. At most Orff seems to have been complicit, if never a direct participant in the atrocities himself.
Paganini, Niccolò (1782-1840)
Italian composer Niccolò Paganini is remembered as the first superstar of the violin, yet he was also a talented guitarist. In the same way that Paganini wrote so much music for violin, he wrote a considerable amount of music for guitar too. These include thirty-seven guitar sonatas, many character pieces, a series of forty-three Ghiribizzi or Whims, as well as duets for guitar and violin. Whereas his violin music was written to amaze the public with its fierce technical displays, Paganini’s more subtle guitar music was mostly written to be played among friends in quieter settings.
Pärt, Arvo (*1935)
Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is one of the leading voices in contemporary music. His importance indeed rests upon his originality for, in rejecting the various avant-garde styles that predominated art music at the outset of his career, he developed a quite personal method for recapturing the tonal stability that many twentieth-century composers had either denied or found unattainable. Pärt calls his method tintinnabuli, from the Latin word for "bell," and it has been this process of tying a simple flowing melody to the equally simple accompaniment of tolling chords that has guided Pärt's compositions since the 1970s.
Piazzolla, Astor (1921-1992)
Astor Piazzolla is a household name in his native Argentina. This composer, bandleader, and accordionist nevertheless faced much resistance from his countrymen when he first introduced his nuevo tango. These “new tangos,” built on the characteristic rhythm and passionate emotions of this favorite Argentine dance, could include extreme chromaticism, fugal elements, and aspects of jazz; they also often exceeded the typical instrumentation of more traditional tangos. Since the 1980s, however, his music has been hailed in Argentina as having saved the tango which had stagnated in preceding decades.
Puccini, Giacomo (1858-1924)
Giacomo Puccini is by most accounts regarded as one of the foremost composers of Italian opera with such masterpieces as La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly all to his credit. Puccini, however, is not someone we often associate with chamber music. Yet, not unlike other masters of Italian opera, he also made a contribution here, if rather limited in his case. Crisantemi for string quartet is one of only a handful of chamber works by Puccini, and, although created as a standalone piece, its two principal themes were within a few years incorporated into his opera Manon Lescaut.
Ravel, Maurice (1875-1937)
The music of French composer Maurice Ravel is often blindly categorized as impressionism, although not without some justification in the cases of Daphnis et Chloé and a handful of other works. Yet, beginning around 1914, Ravel’s aesthetic became far more eclectic. Whereas a work like Le tombeau de Couperin applies Baroque dances, his Piano Concerto in G looks to American jazz in its outer movements and the lyricism of Mozart and Saint-Saëns in its tender middle movement. The wonder of Ravel’s artistry, nevertheless, is that each work remains in itself a unified whole and part of a unified body of works.
Reich, Steve (*1936)
American minimalist Steve Reich initially defined his aesthetic through electronic media, developing his concept of “phasing” after hearing two tapes containing identical material gradually lose sync with each other. Drumming, however, completed in 1971, marks a landmark in Reich’s early career, written after studying West African drumming in Ghana. This experience confirmed for Reich a natural inclination toward percussion and also encouraged him to see the expressive possibilities of acoustic instruments. Later compositions like Different Trains have witnessed Reich engaging with his Jewish-American heritage while also combining acoustic music and electronics in a single score.
Clapping Music for two performers
Respighi, Ottorino (1879-1936)
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opera had seemed the only means of expression available to Italian composers. Ottorino Respighi and his generation, however, set out to challenge the assumption that Italians were incapable of writing instrumental music. His breakthrough came in 1917 with the premiere of Fountains of Rome, the first in a trilogy which would include Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. More numerous though are the works in which Respighi approached Renaissance and Baroque music with a modern ear, including the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, Botticelli Pictures, and The Birds.
Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai (1844-1908)
As late as the mid-nineteenth century, symphonic music was still coming into its own in Russia. Change came only in the 1860s with Mily Balakirev and his “Mighty Handful” to which a young Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov belonged. Although he would soon seek more than the amateurism which Balakirev proposed, Rimsky-Korsakov would never lose his dedication to writing specifically Russian music. To this end, he infused his music with quotations and imitations of Russian folksong and often invoked Russian folk legends and sceneries. Ultimately Rimsky-Korsakov would become Professor of Composition at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and the premier orchestrator of his generation.
Roussel, Albert (1869-1937)
Alongside Ravel, the lesser-known Albert Roussel was the other major French composer of the generation after Debussy but before Les Six. In his music, we can also detect the traits associated with impressionism, though his break with this aesthetic after World War I was more decisive than that of Ravel. Like other composers active in France during the interwar years, he turned to neo-Classicism, producing major works like his ballet Bacchus et Ariane and his Third and Fourth Symphonies. Most impressive in his late style is his vivid counterpoint which comes in striking contrast to the clouded textures of his earlier works.
Elpénor, Op. 59 for flute and string quartet
Schnittke, Alfred (1934-1998)
Alfred Schnittke was a leading figure in the Soviet avant-garde which emerged during the cultural thaw of the post-Stalin years. He was also an active participant in Russia’s early music movement which allied itself with new music at this time. Through their allusions and quotations, Schnittke’s compositions demonstrate how closely he identified with the eighteenth-century masters especially Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, as well as the German tradition more broadly, being of German heritage himself. Often these references are made in jest, grossly distorted by the Modern devices then arriving from the West.
Schubert, Franz (1797-1828)
The Austrian composer Franz Schubert was not only an inheritor to Viennese Classicism but also one of the first Romantics, pioneering many of the expressive, shorter genres that had typically remained an afterthought for his predecessors. Among these shorter genres, Schubert brought new insight to both the Lied and the character piece for piano, enriching these genres with a melodic brilliance not heard previously. Only in his final years, however, as the young man saw his health declining, did Schubert become a master of the extended genres of the symphony, string quartet, and piano sonata, inspired in this direction by the model of Beethoven.
Schulhoff, Erwin (1894-1942)
The Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff was in the 1920s and early 1930s regarded as a leader among European Modernists. Yet his music was nearly forgotten after his death in a Nazi concentration camp. Schulhoff had initially pursued a career in music on the recommendation of Antonín Dvořák, and his earliest compositions reflect this esteemed countryman’s influence as well as that of Brahms, Reger, Strauss, and Debussy. After World War I, he embraced the expressionism of the Second Viennese School, the absurdism of the Dadaists, and American jazz before a turn to folk sources and Socialist Realism in his last years.
Schumann, Robert (1810-1856)
Robert Schumann’s Lieder had much to do with the courtship of his future wife Clara Wieck Schumann. In 1840, the year they were married, he wrote an amazing 140 of his 250 songs. As would be expected, many of these are on the subject of love. His unstable genius would see him fixating on other genres at other times throughout his life, including music for solo piano before his “Year of Song” and chamber and orchestral music afterwards. Schumann was also a noted music critic, friend to Mendelssohn, and mentor to Brahms.
Searle, Humphrey (1915-1982)
The English composer Humphrey Searle studied at the Royal College of Music with the establishment figures John Ireland and Gordon Jacob, and also received private tutelage from Anton Webern while on a six-month scholarship to Vienna. The music of Webern proved to be a decisive influence on Searle’s compositional style: he would utilize twelve-tone serialism from the late 1940s and also learn from Webern to regard each sound as vital. Yet rather than the total abstraction of the continental avant-garde, he would follow Schoenberg by adapting Classical genres and Romantic expression to the new twelve-tone idiom.
Shostakovich, Dmitri (1906-1975)
Dmitri Shostakovich was a controversial figure, revered by many as the Soviet Union’s most-talented composer, but also regularly criticized for disregarding official policies on music. A fierce Modernist in his early years, his radical opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District prompted his first denunciation, albeit after he had already turned in a more Classicist direction. Then, although declared a war hero for his Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich was again condemned for his projected victory symphony—the Ninth—when it amounted to a dance hall romp. In his later years, he would reluctantly join the Communist Party while once more integrating Modernist elements into his idiom.
Sousa, John Philip (1854-1932)
American bandmaster John Philip Sousa composed a total of 135 marches, including The Stars and Stripes Forever!, The Washington Post, Liberty Bell March, and Semper Fidelis. His compositions also include fifteen operettas, and he had hoped to become the American equivalent of Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as songs and suites. Sousa led the United States Marine Band for twelve years and later created a band in his own name which he led for nearly four decades. He toured ceaselessly, visiting American towns large and small and also Europe. Ultimately Sousa himself became a symbol of the young nation, matched in innocence and brash energy.
Strauss, Richard (1864-1949)
A Wunderkind in the footsteps of Mozart and Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss began composing at the age of six. In the 1880s and 1890s, Strauss succeeded Liszt as the preeminent composer of tone poems and then proved himself a capable successor to Wagner too through his shift to opera. His aesthetic, like theirs, made use of heavy chromaticism, lush orchestration, and leitmotivs, although Strauss pushed each of these elements even further—to the very brink of tonality with Salome and Elektra—before backtracking into more Classical realms after World War I. He declared his life’s work complete with Capriccio in 1942, yet kept composing until the end.
Taffanel, Paul (1844-1908)
The French flutist, pedagogue, and composer Paul Taffanel is often regarded as the father of the modern French school of flute playing. He was one of the primary advocates for the Boehm flute which has become the standard and wrote an influential Méthode still taught today. He showed the flute to be an expressive and colorful soloist, and although Tchaikovsky never completed his promised flute concerto, great French composers of the era including Saint-Saëns, Fauré, and Debussy were all drawn to the flute thanks to Taffanel. His activities also helped revive interest in earlier flute music by Bach and Rameau.
Tavener, John (1944-2013)
The English composer Sir John Tavener often drew inspiration for his music from his participation in Orthodox Christianity as well as his fascinations with Byzantine chant and the cultures of Greece and Russia. About the time of his conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977, Tavener began describing his compositions as "icons in sound," a comparison to the paintings so characteristic of Orthodox Christianity which depict Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and other religious figures. Like painted icons, Tavener’s compositions speak of a different time and place through their unsophisticated yet stunningly beautiful imagery.
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich (1840-1893)
The final years of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s life were in many ways his most successful professionally but his least happiest personally. They witnessed in quick succession the creation of some of his greatest works, including the ballets The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, his acclaimed opera The Queen of Spades, and ultimately his formidable Sixth Symphony. Even though he no longer required the financial support of his longtime patron Nadezhda von Meck, depression soon plagued him when she ceased her communications. Nor was never satisfied with The Nutcracker, surely the composition for which he has been best remembered.
Vieuxtemps, Henry (1820-1881)
The Belgian violinist Henry Vieuxtemps was one of the most-praised virtuosi of his era, and with Niccolò Paganini he still ranks among the greatest of the many violinist-composers of the nineteenth century. Schumann was perhaps the first to compare Vieuxtemps to Paganini in 1834 following a concert in Leipzig when Vieuxtemps was but a teenager. Within a few months, Paganini himself had heard Vieuxtemps play, and reportedly he predicted that the young violinist would find much success in his future endeavors. His career as a violinist would indeed take him around the world.
Vivaldi, Antonio (1678-1741)
When we think of the Italian composer and violinist Antonio Vivaldi, our first thoughts are probably of the man who wrote more than five hundred concerti and especially of his set of violin concerti called The Four Seasons. Indeed, through his prolific compositional activities and especially his publications, his solo concerti defined their genre and inspired contemporaries as celebrated as Johann Sebastian Bach. In addition to the concerti though, Vivaldi also composed numerous operas, sacred music, sinfonias, and sonatas. And, as mentor to the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà, he fashioned one of his era’s finest ensembles.
Walker, George (1922-2018)
In 1996 George Walker became the first African-American composer awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his work Lilacs for voice and orchestra. Born in Washington, D.C., Walker studied at the Curtis Institute where his teachers included the famous pianist Rudolf Serkin and Rosario Scalero who had previously taught Samuel Barber. A Fulbright Fellowship allowed for further studies in France with Nadia Boulanger. His music draws on a variety of sources from the nineteenth-century piano tradition to jazz, spirituals, and church hymns. His catalog includes orchestral works, concerti, solo piano compositions, chamber music, and works in other genres.
Winkler, Alexander (1865-1935)
A colleague and almost exact contemporary to Glazunov, the composer Alexander Winkler was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov which was then part of the Russian Empire. He taught at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory for nearly three decades and also participated in the Belyayev Circle alongside such luminaries as Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Scriabin. In addition to thirty-one published works, Winkler also arranged others’ music for piano four hands. Winkler, however, is best-remembered as a piano instructor to Sergei Prokofiev. After the Russian Revolution, Winkler emigrated to France.
Wolff, Christian (*1934)
The music of Christian Wolff belongs to the American experimental tradition associated with John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and others. Wolff, who was almost entirely self-taught as a composer, instead studied classics at Harvard where he gained his doctorate and continued teaching until 1970 when he was appointed professor at Dartmouth. Throughout his career, Wolff has sought ways of engaging the performer as co-creator, granting the musician freedom to shape the flow of the music while reacting to the sounds produced. In the early 1970s, he also began addressing political subjects through his compositions.
Cello Song Variations ("Hallelujah, I'm a Bum")
Wuorinen, Charles (1938-2020)
American Modernist Charles Wuorinen won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his electronic piece, Time’s Encomium. Despite these and other successes, he was someone who stood outside the mainstream of American art music, outspoken in his opposition to post-minimalism and the neo-tonalities. In some sense, he was a "man out of time" and his music can be more clearly associated with the sound world and the philosophical views of the preceding generation—figures like Babbitt, Carter, and Wolpe. With Harvey Sollberger, he founded The Group for Contemporary Music in 1962. His operatic setting of Brokeback Mountain became a defining later work.
Xenakis, Iannis (1922-2001)
For the Greek-born composer Iannis Xenakis, his dual interests in music and architecture were one in the same. His compositions were regularly prefigured by rigorous calculations, and he saw the mathematical principles of probability and stochastics as guiding forces behind his music. Yet, unlike the music of so many other composers affiliated with the post-World War II avant-garde, the music of Xenakis does not sound calculated. It instead has a rawness to it, very different from the manufactured realms of Stockhausen and Boulez. His compositions, incredibly taxing for their performers, have been a source for the New Virtuosity in contemporary music.
Ysaÿe, Eugène (1858-1931)
The Belgian violinist-composer Eugène Ysaÿe was regarded as one of the foremost virtuosi of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ysaÿe greatly admired the sonatas and partitas of Bach and, through his own Six Sonatas for solo violin, Op. 27, he hoped to create new works in their image. Although his sonatas occasionally quote Bach’s music, more significantly they imitate its technical and musical demands. Each sonata is dedicated to a violinist of the next generation whom Ysaÿe admired, including Joseph Szigeti, Fritz Kreisler, George Enescu, Jacques Thibaud, Manuel Quiroga, and Mathieu Crickboom.
Yun, Isang (1917-1995)
The Korean composer Isang Yun was both influential in new music circles and controversial politically. Although Yun spent most of his career in Germany, he nonetheless advocated for the reunification of Korea and in his music posited a unity of Eastern and Western materials. "I was born in Korea and project that culture," Yun once stated, "but I developed musically in Europe. I don’t need to organize or separate elements of the cultures." As he himself was a combination of East and West, so was his music as he sought to develop Korean concepts by way of Western instruments and avant-garde techniques.
Zemlinsky, Alexander (1871-1942)
The Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky is best-remembered as a friend and mentor to Arnold Schoenberg. Zemlinsky, however, never abandoned the late Romantic idiom, and his music is more characteristic of Mahler. Zemlinsky’s career was spent mostly in opera, both as a composer of eleven operas and also as an opera conductor. Otherwise, his Lyric Symphony has become well-known as much for its own merit as for Berg’s endearing quotation from it in his Lyric Suite. With the rise of the Third Reich, he resettled to New York City where he spent his final years.