The latter half of the 1950s saw the deaths of two youngish conductors who, with the significant encouragement of eminent senior practitioners, had established themselves firmly enough to create not only expectations but outright assurances of great careers ahead of them. The Italian Guido Cantelli was a protégé of no less a figure than Arturo Toscanini, who brought him to New York to conduct his NBC Symphony Orchestra. Engagements quickly followed with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Cantelli conducted both concerts and opera at La Scala; appeared with the Scala Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival, and he recorded with four of the orchestras mentioned here (all but Boston), variously for RCA Victor, American Columbia, and EMI’s HMV. Many of those recordings have been recirculated on CD by the respective originating companies, and an international conducting competition was established in Cantelli’s name in Milan, where he had been named director of La Scala only a few days before his tragic death in an airplane accident in France in November 1956, at age 36.
The Spanish conductor Ataúlfo Argenta (1913-1958), seven years older than Cantelli, was patiently establishing his podium credentials while Cantelli was still in school, and both came to international attention at about the same time. While the younger Cantelli had the backing of Toscanini, Argenta attracted the interest of Ernest Ansermet, who was apparently grooming him to be his successor with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande -- and then he was suddenly gone, dead in a freak accident at age 44. According to Alan Sanders’s splendid biographical piece for a CD set of all of Argenta’s Decca recordings, the Spanish conductor "threw his life away with an act of thoughtlessness. One evening in January 1958 he returned home [in Madrid] with a student, and as his study was cold they went to the garage beneath while it warmed up. Argenta switched on the car engine and heater, but the garage doors were shut. The student was found unconscious and Argenta died of carbon monoxide poisoning. . . . On the day of his funeral crowds lined the streets through which the cortège passed, and his death was mourned [throughout Spain]."
Music for ballets has been composed by some of the greatest composers since music as we know it today began, and a good deal of it has found its way into the concert repertory, either in whole or in suites prepared by the respective composers, or simply in the form of excerpts. At the same time, innumerable concert works have been used as is or adapted for service in ballets, only to come back to the concert hall in new form. One ballet score in particular, which straddles these categories, has been inexplicably absent from the concert hall and mysteriously neglected by the recording companies, despite its unarguable attractiveness: Scuola di ballo -- "School of Dancing" -- whose brilliant, vivacious score was fashioned by the aptly named French composer Jean Françaix from movements of Luigi Boccherini’s astonishingly numerous and substantial string quintets. Its nearest parallels in substance may be Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, based on music attributed (mostly in error) to Pergolesi, and the contemporaneous Good Humoured Ladies, which the otherwise forgotten Vincenzo Tommasini spun out of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas -- but Scuola di ballo clearly has the best tunes. And Françaix’s witty treatment suits them down to the ground.
Like his earlier compatriot Scarlatti, Boccherini spent some of his most productive years in Spain and died in Madrid. He made use of Spanish forms and some actual Spanish tunes in more than a few of his works -- particularly in his several quintets for guitar and strings, one of which is an impression of the night watch in Madrid, and another includes a celebrated Fandango. Not all of his compositions betray a Spanish influence, but every one of them is filled with good tunes. So rich was his source of them that even Mozart based a movement in his own D major Violin Concerto, K.218, on one of Boccherini’s slow movements. He was an admired cellist as well as a prolific composer, and enriched that noble instrument’s repertory with sonatas, concertos, and dozens of string quintets in which the fifth instrument is a second cello. The minuet from one of them was notoriously popular on its own for years, as was a cello concerto the 19th-century virtuoso Friedrich Grützmacher cobbled together from parts of two different Boccherini concertos.
Back in the glory days of RCA Victor’s "Living Stereo" LPs, Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra shared with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago SO that label’s top honors, recording big chunks of the basic orchestral repertory along with valuable examples of their respective personal specialties. Reiner (1888-1963) was in Chicago only ten years (1953-1963), and toward the end of his first season there began his celebrated series of stereophonic recordings. Toward the end of his tenure, however, illness caused him to cancel plans for the orchestra’s first European tour, and also kept him from fulfilling his commitments on several of the concert and recording dates scheduled for him in Chicago. His former pupil Walter Hendl, whom he brought with him as associate conductor (and who served as director of the orchestra’s summer activities at Ravinia) took over many of Reiner’s concerts and also wound up recording in his place with such soloists as Jascha Heifetz, Henryk Szeryng, Gary Graffman and Van Cliburn. Munch (1891-1968), though less than three years Reiner’s junior, enjoyed better health and had a longer tenure in Boston, succeeding Serge Koussevitzky there in 1949 and stepping down in 1962, not because of illness but simply in order to base himself once again in Paris and pursue other objectives.
Munch had not been known in America, except for a few concerto recordings, until the end of World War II, when he began recording with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra for Decca/London. Although born in Alsace when it was German territory, and actually drafted into the German army during the previous war, he emerged at the end of WWII as not only the most admired of French conductors, but also as a respected figure of the Resistance, who presided over celebratory concerts following the liberation of Paris. He made his US debut with the Boston SO at the end of 1946 and appeared frequently with the New York Philharmonic, with which he made some recordings for Columbia (among them an exciting account of the Saint-Saëns "Organ Symphony"). He also brought the French Radio SO to the US in 1948. Koussevitzky was still active when Munch succeeded him the following year, and in fact made some memorable recordings with the BSO after that succession, but one of Munch’s notable gestures in Boston was his inviting the legendary Pierre Monteux to conduct, record and tour with the orchestra. Monteux had been the BSO’s conductor immediately before Koussevitzky, and had reorganized and sustained it through some difficult years, but he was never invited back during Koussevitzky’s 25 years there.
By now the entire world is familiar with the Vienna Philharmonic New Year concerts, which are televised live and are made up mostly of waltzes, overtures, polkas and marches by the Strauss family: Johann II (the Waltz King, 1825-1899), his brothers Josef and Eduard, and their father Johann I. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic has a unique authority in, and abiding affection for, this music, which until about 50 years ago had a firm place in the general orchestral repertory.
Until the second half of the last century, in fact, "light music" of all sorts was part of that repertory. It was not unusual for the greatest conductors to begin a concert with a Beethoven, Brahms or Bruckner symphony, and in the second half give the audience some elegant bonbons by Chabrier, descriptive suites by Massenet, ballet music by Delibes or Glazunov, overtures to Offenbach operettes -- or the magnificent waltz poems of Johann Strauss.
Nowadays a typical concert program is built with the "big piece" at the end; there must always be a soloist in a concerto or similar showcase; the only ballet music deemed worthy of subscription concerts is Ravel’s or Stravinsky’s, and, since the nature of the pop concert has changed utterly since the glory days of Arthur Fiedler, the entire genre of "light music" has all but disappeared. When it is given a nod, it is all too often based on the grotesquely mistaken notion that it can simply be sight-read. (As actors and stage directors will tell you, effective comedy generally requires more intense preparation than straight drama; the same rule applies to the preparation of light music, for whose success the warmth and brilliance of the performance may amount to more than the substance of the music itself.)
Last summer the mail-order Musical Heritage Society added to its catalog the Chilingirian Quartet’s recording, originally issued on LP by ASV in 1975, of the three string quartets of Juan Crisóstomo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola, who will never be among the top 100 composers of all time, perhaps, but whose music is nonetheless very much worth getting to know. When you do get to know it, and get to know a bit about Arriaga himself, you will find some of those little coincidences which actually mean little but are nevertheless intriguing and can hardly fail to be noticed, mentioned, and remembered.
Arriaga, who came to be known as "the Spanish Mozart," was born in Bilbao on January 27, 1806, the 50th anniversary of the actual Mozart’s birth. As in Mozart’s case, Arriaga’s father was a respected musician. Leopold Mozart was a respected violinist and composer, whose violin method is still in circulation today. Arriaga’s father, an organist, was not unmindful of the significance of his son’s birthdate: the name he gave the boy begins with the Spanish equivalent -- Juan Crisóstomo -- of the beginning of Mozart’s full baptismal name, Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Both composers had short lives: Mozart died seven and a half weeks shy of his 36th birthday; Arriaga died ten days before his 20th. But the reason Arriaga became known as "the Spanish Mozart" has less to do with names and dates, and rather more with both composers’ having demonstrated their remarkable gifts before getting into their teens, and consistently producing music of both charm and substance.
Do centenaries and other round-numbered anniversaries of composers have any real significance? They are of course seized upon as marketing tools by concert promoters and recording companies, but have they any useful purpose beyond that? To be sure, we hardly need an anniversary to remind us of Beethoven or Bach or Mozart, but, despite our not unjustified skepticism, we do enjoy honoring the memory of the creative wonders who gave us such amazing, self-renewing intellectual and sensory stimulation and pleasure. (I don’t recall the phenomenal Johann Strauss’s being so honored, but then he does have the New Year concerts.) Last year we had the bicentenaries of the death of Joseph Haydn and the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, this year the bicentenaries of the births of both Robert Schumann and Fryderyk Chopin (and the centenary of our own Samuel Barber and William Schuman), and next year the bicentenary of the formidable Franz Liszt. The season just ended and the one beginning now are marked with festivals of various proportions and other activities (specifically including recordings) marking the sesquicentenary of the birth of Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860) and the centenary of his death (May 18, 1911).
In this context, the 150 years since Mahler’s birth break down neatly into three 50-year periods: (a) his life and the recognition he enjoyed, primarily as a conductor; (b) his death, at which time he confidently predicted, “My time will yet come,” and the years of artistic and political upheaval, including two horrendous World Wars, during which various disciples and enthusiasts worked to bring his music into the mainstream; (c) the 50 years since the Mahler centennial, which have confirmed and reconfirmed the ever more secure place of his music in the so-called standard repertory. One of the conspicuous validations, in honor of the double anniversary, is the “free streaming experience of all of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies,” performed by the Orchestre de Paris under Christoph Eschenbach, offered as a collaborative undertaking by the websites of that orchestra and of Medici TV.
In his own lifetime Mahler was vastly respected as a conductor, but far less accepted as a composer. He did have his enthusiasts, and several were powerful figures. When he conducted the premiere of his vast, six-movement Third Symphony, on June 9, 1902, in Krefeld, Richard Strauss, whose tall, slim figure made him recognizable to everyone present, strode down an aisle to the stage at the end of the performance to congratulate him. Also in the audience was the 31-year-old Willem Mengelberg, who had seven years earlier taken up the post of conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and who determined at that concert in Krefeld to champion Mahler’s music.