April 4

Early Performances of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata op. 106 in France and England

By Marten Noorduin

(Image: Beethoven in 1818. Pencil drawing by August von Kloeber. Beethoven-Haus Bonn)

Between late 1817 and early 1819, Beethoven wrote one of his most substantial works for piano: the Sonata op. 106 in B-flat major, now often known as the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. Although it has now secured its place in the repertoire, it only acquired this position several decades after it was written, unlike some of Beethoven’s other works which were popular straight away, such as the Septet op. 20. This can be at least partially explained by the fact that throughout its lengthy playing time the performer of op. 106 is confronted with almost insurmountable technical challenges, often exacerbated by the rather fast tempo that Beethoven indicates. This is particularly clear at the beginning of the first movement. Here is Artur Schnabel’s admirable but by no means flawless attempt to tackle these difficulties, recorded in the 1930s:

Other pianists have delivered much more controlled performances, but have often done so by playing all four movements at a slower speed than indicated. A good example of such a pianist is Alfred Brendel, whose performance of the first movement in particular has a much less hurried feeling than Schnabel’s:

Of course, twentieth-century pianists were hardly the first to struggle with this sonata, as the piece was considered unusually difficult to understand in the first decades after publication. This can be seen in an article published on 5 January 1835 in the French periodical Le Pianiste, which discusses all of the opus numbers individually up to and including the sonata op. 101. The remaining sonatas (except op. 111, which the reviewer does not even mention) are described as almost impenetrable, a judgement that is applied to op. 106 in particular.

(Anon., ‘Notices: Luigi Van Beethoven, considéré comme pianist …’, Le Pianiste, Journal Spécial Pour le Piano, les Théâtres lyriques et les Concerts, 2e année, no. 5 (5 Janvier 1835), 33-34.)

Op. 106, 109, 110. In these three works, —106 in particular,—the musical sense is almost as clear as in a philosophical treatise of Kent, or a chapter of M. Cousin. There is no doubt that Beethoven—who was more deaf than ever at this time—did not understand himself what he wrote; but his infirmity, so fatal to a musician, had perhaps rendered his intuitive sense more delicate, and enabled him to see nebulae which we cannot distinguish. In general, his last works are imbued with a sort of mysticism that is impenetrable to the common people.

The next year, however, Franz Liszt played op. 106 in Paris, and Hector Berlioz reviewed it in some detail La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris. According to the review, Liszt (consistently spelled Listz in this periodical!) had broken through the perceived impenetrability, resulting in what appears to be the first positive review of a performance of this sonata.

(H. Berlioz ‘Listz’, La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, 3e année, no 24 (12 juin 1836): 198-200.)

Liszt has explained the work in such a way that if the composer himself had returned from the grave, joy and pride would have swept over him. Not a note was left out, not one added (I followed the performance with the sheet music), not one alteration was made in the tempo that was not indicated in the text (….) It was the ideal performance of a work with the reputation of being unperformable. Liszt, in bringing back a work that was previously not understood has shown that he is a pianist of the future. Honour to him!

H. Berlioz

Whether or not Liszt actually followed the metronome mark in the score is difficult to say, but Berlioz’s article seems to suggest that Liszt’s performance was probably not far off.  Three years later, Moscheles played this sonata in England, and although the reviewer of his performance seems to have been less familiar with the work, Moscheles’s performance still left a good impression:

(Anon., ‘Musical Intelligence. Metropolitan’, The Musical World, New Series, Vol. IV, No. 64 — Vol. XI, No. 158 (March 21, 1839): 182-83.)

Although the reviewer is certainly not as dismissive of op. 106 as the author of the article in Le Pianiste mentioned above, the enthusiasm that characterised Berlioz’s writing on Liszt’s performance is not present, the reviewer’s praise for Moscheles’s technical abilities notwithstanding. Instead, the reviewer points out that there ‘is much to be developed by a full and perfect acquintance with this work’, indicating that the piece was not as well understood. Perhaps indicative of this are the alterations that Moscheles made to the sonata in the Cramer edition, which he edited, apparently unbeknownst to this reviewer. One of the more noticeable and presumably significant alterations was changing the metronome mark for the first movement from (minim/half note) =138 to (crotchet/quarter note) =138, since the former seemed unreasonably fast to him. Most recent scholarship, however, and many performers too have come down on the side of (minim/half note) =138 as the intended speed.

The unusually slow metronome mark in Moscheles´s edition of op. 106 did attract scepticism, especially from pianists. In 1857, one correspondent, a certain R.A.M, wrote the following passionate letter to the editor of the Musical World, pointing out a particular problem with taking a speed of (crotchet/quarter note) =138 in performance:

(R. A. M., ‘The Metronome. To the Editor of the Musical World’, The Musical World, Vol. 35 — No. 34 (August 22, 1857): 532.)

Miss Goddard, who both the editor and R.A.M refer to, was a young pianist who had recently given several performances of op. 106 in England, and with great success. Provided that the editor did not misrepresent her interpretation, she seemed to have played the piece at a speed of around of (minim/half note) =100. Despite this alteration—or perhaps because of it!—her performances appear to have constituted the emancipation of this work in the United Kingdom, as several reviews of the time show:

(Anon., ‘Miss Arabella Goddard (From the Morning Herald), The Musical World, Vol. XXXI, No. 17 (April 23, 1853): 253.)

(Anon., ‘Miss Arabella Goddard (From the Atheneum), The Musical World, Vol. XXXI, No. 17 (April 23, 1853): 254.)

It is of course unlikely that we can get a much clearer picture of how Liszt or Goddard played the sonata beyond these descriptions, considering the absence of recording technology and the scarceness of the evidence. Even the degree to which they followed the metronome mark of the first movement is difficult to assess, although it appears that both Goddard and Moscheles simply played the movement slower than indicated. Whether Liszt adhered to the speed is hard to say with certainty, but a recent performance by Stephan Möller shows that the indicated speed is at least within the realm of possibilities, even on a modern piano:

For a detailed discussion of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 106, see András Schiff’s lecture from 2004 in the Wigmore Hall in London.

Search tip: Concert reviews are available in RIPM in many languages, and the database contains a wealth of information on the repertoires, venues, reception, and even performers themselves. As the above shows, searching for particular repertoires can bring to light the struggles of past musicians and the critical trajectories of certain repertoires, but entering the names of performers into the database can often provide interesting biographical information on prominent musicians of the time, many of whom have now been largely forgotten. Consider the following letter to the editor of the Musical World, dated 22 August 1857, on the popular Austrian bass singer Joseph Staudigl (1807-1861).

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September 30

Portraits of Pianists and Pianist-Composers on the cover pages of Le Pianiste (1833-1835)

From November 10, 1833 to October 20, 1835, the Librarie J. Delacour in Meudon and Vaugirard published the French pedagogical music journal, Le Pianiste. In its first year of publication, the journal dealt only with subjects related to the piano. Thereafter, it began covering the musical world at large, with concert reviews, anecdotes, and information about musical archives. The pianist and pedagogue, Charles Chaulieu was the only contributor who signed articles and, although there is no official mention that he was the journal’s editor, it is generally considered that Chaulieu fulfilled that role.

One of the interesting features of the journal is a lovely series of portraits of well- and lesser-known pianists and pianist–composers.  These illustrations appeared on the cover of its issues. The portraits were often accompanied by studies, with biographical notes, offering insights into the individual’s compositions, talent, style, personality, qualities as a performer, and pedagogical exercises. In all there are twenty-four portraits, eight of which are reproduced below.  Each is followed with a quote from the journal, translated into English, that helps define the manner in which  the individual was viewed by his contemporaries.  We thought you might enjoy seeing them. 


J. N. Hummel (of Vienna) [Lith. by J. Delacour in Vaugirard] (1, 2, December 1833)

“He is the founder of the modern school. He is today the greatest of composer pianists, which is not to be confused with the pianist composers.”



F. Kalkbrenner [Lith. by Benard, rue de l’Abbaye 4] (1, 3, January 1834)

“Look at Kalkbrenner, when he touches the piano… neither his body nor his face reflect the immense difficulties his fingers master. As a performer, Kalkbrenner stands as a model.”



J. B. Cramer [Lith. by Benard] (1, 4, February 1834)

“We can confidently give all of Cramer’s works to students; their fingers and ears will surely be well trained. This is a privilege not shared by many of today’s composers.”



D. Steibelt [Lith. by Benard] (1, 6, April 1834)

“[Steibelt] was truly a salon pianist: loved, adored by the women of society, he knew how to cater to their pleasures.”



Henri Herz [Lith. by Benard] (1,7, May 1834)

“Germany sends you this malicious mockery, from the Gazette of Leipzig, namely: It is only the women without esprit and without talent that enjoy the music of H. Herz.”



J. L. Dussek [Lith. by Benard] (1, 10, August 1834)

“Today we select Dussek for our leaflet: the famous Dussek, so refined without softness, so educated without pedantry, and whose playing was, so to speak, as beautiful to watch as it was delightful to hear.”



G. F. Handel, born in 1682, died in 1759 (1, 12, October 1834)

“The Italians who possessed him for years, called Handel il Sassone [the Saxon], and the English, with whom he remained for forty-seven years and for whom he composed all of his oratorios with English words, considered him a compatriot.”



J. Haydn [Impr. of J. Delacour in Vaugirard] (2, 16, 1835)

“With a physiognomy a bit gruff and a kind of terseness when speaking which would seem to indicate a coarse man, Haydn was cheerful, open minded and pleasant by nature. This vivacity was easily suppressed when he was in the company of strangers or of people of a superior rank.”


Search Tip: The full text of Le Pianiste  is available in the RIPM Online Archive. To explore the other portraits, select  Le Pianiste in journal title field and “illustrations “ in the record type field of the RIPM Retrospective Index.  Thereafter simply “click” through the results. You might also wish to use Browse Mode to explore this fascinating French perspective on pianists and pianist-composers in the 1830s.

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August 30

The “Hymn to Apollo”: “the most important musical find of the nineteenth century”


[The Musical Times. Vol. XXXV (June 1, 1894):584]

In May 1893, the École Française d’Athènes unearthed, at the Athenian Treasury in Delphi, two of the oldest surviving musical compositions, the hymns to Apollo. The discovery sparked great interest and contributed in the late nineteenth century to a growing awareness  of ancient Greek music and a desire on the part of some composers to seek inspiration therein.  This awareness is reflected, for example, in Felix Mendelssohn’s Antigone  and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Antigone and Hélène.

In this month’s Curios, News, and Chronicles we focus on how the  discovery of the first of two Delphic hymns  was reported in the musical press and Gabriel Fauré’s arrangement of it.

After the German classical scholar Otto Crusius, the philologist Henri Weil, and French archeologist Theodore Reinach restored, analyzed, and transcribed the hymn, the first public performance of this melody took place on March 26, 1894 in the presence of King George I and Queen Olga of Greece at a soirée organized by the French School.  Based on a comment in The Musical News, it did not generate a great deal of enthusiasm.


[Musical News, Vol.VI, No. 162 (Saturday, April 7, 1894):327]

Later the work was performed in several European cities, after which the same journal underscored its importance, the ‘stir’ it was creating and published photographs of the ashlar blocks containing the inscribed hymn.


[Musical News. Vol. VI, No. 173 (June 23, 1894):579]

ashlar1 ashlar2

[Musical News. Vol. VI, No. 173 (June 23, 1894):582]

The Musical Times went as far as to refer to the hymn as “the most important musical ‘find’ of the nineteenth century,” and published a transcription of it in modern musical notation in an extra supplement to one of its issues.


[The Musical Times. Vol. XXXV (June 1, 1894):386]


[Transcription of the Hymn to Apollo, The Musical Times. Vol. XXXV (June 1, 1894):386-7]

On April 12, 1894 Reinach presented the discovery at the École des Beaux-Arts to the members of the Association pour l’Encouragement des Études Grecques en France. After the presentation there was a performance of an arrangement of the work by Gabriel Fauré with the composer himself at the harmonium.

The hymn continued to be discussed years after it was discovered. For example, Music: A Monthly Magazine, published in 1897 a translated version of an article by the Czech Ludvik Kuba, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, in Prague. In the article, Kuba discussed the significance of the hymn’s discovery and the difficulties of deciphering ancient Greek music, given the very few surviving examples of music from this period.


[Music: A Monthly Magazine. Volume XI, Number 4 (February 1897):398]

In the video below, you can listen to Fauré’s arrangement of the Hymn for voice and piano, performed by the French soprano, Renée Doria. From today’s perspective does it still merit the title the most important musical find of the nineteenth century?

Théodore_Reinach_1913         Gabriel_Fauré_Paul_Nadar_1905

[From left to right: the French archeologist Théodore Reinach, 1913 / the composer Gabriel Fauré, photographed by Paul Nadar, 1905 ]

RIPM Search Tip: To read what the French musical press wrote about the discovery of the Hymne à Apollon, search for it in the RIPM index and e-Library.


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April 1

“The Plains: Ode-Symphonie par Jabez Tarbox”

In July 1854, after what seemed to be a successful performance of Félicien David’s ode-symphony, Le Désert, in San Francisco, an anonymous musical review appeared in the Californian magazine The Pioneer. The excessively flowery language of the review caught the attention of one of its contributors, who was none other than American humorist George H. Derby (better known by his noms de plume “John Phoenix” and “John P. Squibob”), and inspired him to write a satire which he entitled “The Plains: Ode Symphonie, par Jabez Tarbox.” Although this would be his only attempt at “music criticism”, it would achieve great popularity, as shortly after it was published, journals began citing and referring to it. For example, three years later, it was cited  in The Musical World.

Musical World

[The Musical World, Vol. 35 No. 47 (November 21, 1857): 743]

In this month’s Curious, News, and Chronicles, we will briefly explore how this interesting satirical text circulated throughout the musical press, especially among articles concerning the nature and purpose of program notes. But first, for those who have not had the distinct pleasure of reading it, here it is in its entirety.


[New York Musical Review and Choral Advocate, Vol. 5 no. 19 (14 September 1854): 325-26]

Frequent debates in the late nineteenth-century musical press concerned the purpose and style of program notes. How informative and descriptive should they be? Should these texts be educational, providing historical information and scientific (musicological) analysis? Or should they be interpretative, offering the listener a corresponding narrative, a mental journey to aid the listener’s appreciation of a work? Should the notes have any relation at all to the work they describe? It was in such debates that Derby’s text often reappeared. In the example below, the editor of Music: A Monthly Magazine (Chicago, 1891-1902), William Smythe Babcock Matthews, cites Phillip Hale’s complaints against the overly descriptive programs of the Boston Symphony, written at the time by the music critic and editor, William F. Apthorp.


[Music: A Monthly Magazine, Vol. XV no. 1 (November 1898): 75]

Further in the same article, he refers again to Hale’s argument in which Derby’s original text appears.


[Music: A Monthly Magazine, Vol. XV no. 1 (November 1898): 75, 77]

Fifty-two years later, an article in Musical America returned Derby’s ever increasingly cited text.


[Musical America, Vol. IV No. 11 (28 July 1906): 10]

After more than a hundred years, the sentiment expressed by Derby remains pertinent. A rare photograph taken of him appears below.


George Horatio Derby (1823-1861)

RIPM Search Tip: For more on lampoons, burlesques and/or humorous articles, including those by Derby, search his nom de plum “John Phoenix” or the word “satire” in the Retrospective Index and the RIPM e-Library.

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February 20

No. 6: The 200th Anniversary of the Premiere of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville

Paisiello   Rossini-portrait(Camuccini_c.1815)










Both Paisiello and Rossini wrote operas based on Beaumarchais’ comedy The Barber of Seville. [From left to right: Paisiello, by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1791 / Gioachino Rossini, by Vincenzo Camuccini, c. 1815].

Two hundred years ago today, Giaochino Rossini’s opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia  was premiered in Rome on February 20, 1816. The performance was reportedly a “stormy one” full of mishaps such as instrument strings breaking, a cast member falling on his nose, and an errant cat walking across the stage (see below).  On top of this, hisses erupted from audience members who were friends of Giovanni Paisiello, voicing their displeasure that the upstart Rossini dared write an opera based on the same source as Maestro Paisiello. Luckily for Rossini, the next evening’s performance was a success.

MusicalExaminer1stPerformance[The Musical Examiner, no. 72 (March 16, 1844): 478]

Almost a hundred years later, the so-called  “failure” was explained as follows:



[Musical America, XVIII no. 25 (October 25, 1913): 4]

The opera’s success was such that by 19 September 1821 it was performed in a French version by Castil-Blaze. He was payed for his efforts; Rossini was not. This led to a public outcry and the sculptor Dantan Jeune to depict, in a caricature-statuette,  Castil-Blaze riding on Rossini’s back.


[Dantan Jeune, 1833. “XXX” is the manner in which Castil-Blaze, also a music critic, signed some of his articles.]

The U.S. premiere of Il Barbiere di Siviglia took place at The Park Theatre in New York City on November 29, 1825, nine years after the opera’s premiere. It was the first Italian opera performed in a foreign language in New York City, thereby making theatrical history. The celebrated tenor Manuel García who created the role of Almaviva in  Rome, repeated it in New York, while his young daughter Maria, sang Rosina, and his wife Joaquina, the role of Berta.  The following article announced the event:


[The Harmonicon IV, no. 37 (January 1826): 16]   [Manuel García, attributed to Francisco Goya, c. 1810-1815]

Rossini’s opera was so popular, that it regularly spawned the creation of numerous transcriptions wherever it was performed, permitting music lovers to surround themselves at home with Rossini’s well-known melodies. Here are two examples from the contemporary press in London that pass in review two British transcriptions.



[The Quarterly Musical Magazine & Review III, No. 9 (1821):112-113]


[The Harmonicon I, no. 10 (October 1823): 147]

The popularity of The Barber of Seville has of course, continued to grow. Some may even recall the famous Warner Brothers Looney Tunes’ parody of the opera seen in the cartoon short, Rabbit of Seville (1950). For those who don’t, you’re in for a treat…

Finally, here is a 1925 recording of the celebrated baritone Riccardo Stracciari singing an excerpt from “Largo al Factorum,” from The Barber of Seville. We think it’s a “knockout”.

RIPM Search Tip: For more on this opera, including articles in languages other than English, search the Retrospective Index and the RIPM e-Library for Il Barbiere di Siviglia with language expanders turned on.

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January 28

No. 5: Gershwin on Jazz and Rhapsody in Blue

MusicalCanadaCover                        GershwinPortrait

[Musical Canada vol. 6, no. 10 (October, 1925)]

The first jazz recording was made in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band playing “Livery Stable Blues” as you can hear here:

It was an immediate hit, bringing jazz to mainstream attention.  Within seven short years of this milestone recording, Gershwin composed his jazz-influenced Rhapsody in Blue. Paul Whiteman and his band organized the premiere concert of the Rhapsody, which took place at New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924 (92 years ago next month) with Gershwin as piano soloist. Over the next 10 years, Rhapsody in Blue would continue to be popular, earning Gershwin more than a quarter of a million dollars from performances, recordings, and rental fees.

The performances generated a debate about whether these uniquely American jazz elements were at home in a new mixture of popular music and that of the European concert tradition. After the Rhapsody’s London premiere, Gershwin was interviewed by Herbert S. Greenhalgh for the BBC’s Radio Times with the interview later reprinted in Musical Canada (October 1925, 13-14). In this interview Gershwin offers not only his views on jazz and the intermingling of musical genres, but also his opinion on syncopation in Bach, Stravinsky and the future of modern music, as well as personal insights about his night-owl working tendencies, his musical sketchbook, and his enthusiasm over the future of a new exciting technology: the “wireless” (i.e. radio).  See excerpts from this interview below:

InterviewPart1  InterviewPart2



InterviewPart3      InterviewPart4

[Musical Canada, vol. 5, no. 10 (October, 1925): 13-14]

One can see the popularity of Gershwin through illustrations in music journals; this caricature accompanied Virgil Thomson’s 1935 article in Modern Music (December 1935) dealing with Gershwin’s symphonic compositions:


[Modern Music XIII, no. 1, (November-December 1935): 15]

This video is the original 1924 recording of Rhapsody in Blue performed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra.

And in this interview, Paul Whiteman talks about George Gershwin.


RIPM Search Tip: To read the entire article, use the “browse” mode in the RIPM e-library for the periodical Musical Canada, specifically the October 1925 issue.

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December 10

No. 4: How Did Celebrated 19th-century Composers and Performers Spend the Holiday Season?

christmasPartywithCaption                 BatonChristmasCover

[The Baton III, no. 3 (December, 1923): 13]                [The Baton V, no. 3 (December, 1925): 1]

To celebrate the holiday season, we turn to the December 1925 issue of The Baton (New York, 1922-1932). The following article, “Glimpses of Christmas: From the Correspondence of Great Musicians” shows how some celebrated nineteenth-century musicians “of the past spent Christmas” as illustrated through their correspondence and diaries.

Read the article below to see how Robert Schumann, Jenny Lind, Hans von Bülow, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and others celebrated Christmas and the holiday season. (Click on each image to zoom in.)




[The Baton V no. 3, (December, 1925): 2-4]


The staff at the RIPM Center wishes all of you a happy and healthy holiday season and best wishes for the coming year!


RIPM Search Tip: For more interesting holiday stories, search RIPM’s Retrospective Index for “Christmas” within the periodical The Baton.


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November 6

No. 3: Remembering Edgard Varèse on the 50th Anniversary of his Death

JuilliardReviewCover                   VareseinStudy

                                  [The Juilliard Review I, no. 3 (Fall, 1954): 4/5]

50 years ago today, on November 6, 1965, French composer Edgard Varèse died in New York.  During his lifetime, Varèse was a lightning rod for controversy, particularly among American concertgoers after he founded the International Composers Guild, the first U.S. society dedicated to championing the music of contemporary composers. The first mention of Varèse in the RIPM databases occurs in 1916 with the following article in which the “ultra-modern music of the futurists” is discussed:


[New Music Review 15, no. 177 (August, 1916): 270]


On the composer’s 70th birthday, the following article appeared in The Juilliard Review in honor of Varèse, recalling how early performances of his works in New York and Philadelphia were received with catcalls, hisses, and applause.  In fact at the end of one concert, opinions were so divergent they led to a fistfight:



[The Juilliard Review I, no. 3 (Fall, 1954): 3-10]

And yet, the actions of Varèse were closely watched in the musical press, which tracked his professional activities (the progress of the International Composers’ Guild and his first appearance as conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra) as well as his personal life (his marriage, and even an auto accident).

VareseAutoAccident                          NewOrchDebut

[Musical America 24, no. 19 (September 9, 1916): 14]    [Musical America 24, no. 25 (April 19, 1919): 2]

VareseMarriage               IntlComposersGuild

[Musical America 35, no. 14 (January 28, 1922): 2]           [The Baton III, no. 4 (January, 1924): 12]


Varèse’s music also attracted the attention of fellow composers, as evidenced by this discussion of his music by Henry Cowell.


[Modern Music V, no. 2 (January-February 1928): 9-19]


When questioned whether it was necessary for people to understand his music to truly enjoy it, Varèse replied simply: “You have just to listen with unprejudiced ears.”


[Modern Music V, no. 2 (January-February 1928): 19]



The following two documentary films offer fascinating insights into Varèse’s music and life. The first (with English subtitles) contains an interview with the composer in which he recounts how he moved to New York with only $90 (around 1:42).  The documentary also contains interviews with Iannis Xenakis and Olivier Messaien, who was not surprised by the public’s intense reaction to modern music (around 8:00).


And in the second documentary film, also with English subtitles, one can see the house in Eindhoven, the Netherlands in which Varèse lived from 1957-1958 (around 1:58) and his residence in New York, now occupied by one of his students, Chou Wen-Chung (around 14:35).  The video also displays historic footage of interviews with Varèse, sprinkled throughout, and the composer Iannis Xenakis’ sharing his memories of collaborating with Varèse (around 6:25).


RIPM Search Tip: For the articles cited above and related articles, simply search the RIPM Retrospective Index for “Varèse” and/or “International Composer’s Guild.”

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October 22

No. 2: Tristan und Isolde in London (1882) – a Shaky Reception

MusicalWorldCoverJune101876                          WagneratTimeofPerformance

                                [Il Teatro illustrato I, no. 3 (March 1881): 5]

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first performance of Tristan und Isolde (1865).  While now accepted as a masterpiece, critics at first performances were not always complimentary. On September 16, 1876, a letter to the editor of The Musical World gave a scathing and strident condemnation of Wagner’s work, deploring the discordant harmonies and lack of melody in a review titled “The Wagner Epidemic” (excerpts below):



[The Musical World 54, no. 38 (September 16, 1876): 623]


Six years later, on June 24, 1882, four days after the London premiere of Tristan und Isolde,  The Musical World published this caricature, supporting the opinion initially expressed.  It depicts James William Davison, editor of The Musical World, reacting to the “Tristan chord.” WagnerListenerOpening

[The Musical World 60, no. 25 (June 24, 1882): 385]


One month later on July 1, 1882, a much more nuanced and somewhat favorable view emerges.PositiveTristanReviewExcerpt







[The Musical World 60, no. 26 (July 1, 1882): 395-96]


However, the journal also underscored the difficulties in performing this work.  One week later The Musical World published on July 8, 1882 these two caricatures by Charles Lyall — the first depicting the conductor Hans Richter during a rehearsal of Tristan and the second, his appearance after the first performance.


[The Musical World 60, no. 27 (July 8, 1882): 415]


The following two French caricatures were reproduced in Musical America on February 12, 1910.  The first one (bottom left), an 1869 caricature by Andre Gill, expresses a similar view as Wagner ‘worked’ “on the eardrum of his contemporaries.”  The second (bottom right) illustrates the effect of a performance of a Wagner opera.

WagnerEarCaricature                            RunningoutofTheatre

[Musical America XI, no. 14 (February 12, 1910): 18]


The past was not always kind to Music of the Future.


In honor of the 150th anniversary of Tristan und Isolde, here is an arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in a style we think you will recognize.

And finally, one of the earliest recordings of the Prelude (1932), conducted by Arturo Toscanini two years after he conducted a performance at Bayreuth, the first by a non-German musician.

RIPM Search Tip: For the articles cited above and others related, search the RIPM Retrospective Index  for “Wagner” or “Tristan” in The Musical World from 1876-1882. The full text of the journal’s complete run (1836-1891) is available.

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September 14

No. 1: Does Ragtime Cause Insanity?



In the first of RIPM’s Curios, News, and Chronicles, we are highlighting articles from Musical America presenting conflicting views of the value and dangers of ragtime. As this new genre’s popularity increased in the early 1900s, it became a hotbed of controversy. Was ragtime “the limit of musical idiocy and degeneracy” or does it “put a pleasing effect upon the listener”? Please scroll down to the bottom of the page for the full story. 



The debate began in October of 1911 when  Dr. Ludwig Brunner, professor at the Imperial Academy of Medical Research in Berlin, proclaimed that ragtime could ruin both health and sanity.

BerlinDoctor                RagtimeDanceJoplinCover[Musical America, XIV, no. 23 (October 14, 1911): 127]

Within a week, on October 21, 1911, Harvard Professor Phillip Clapp apparently taking to heart Dr. Brunner’s disparaging comments, responded with a defense of ragtime.

HarvardProfessor             ragtime_review

[Musical America, XIV no. 24 (October 21, 1911): 6]




The following year, on March 16, 1912, the Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto jumped into the fray, siding caustically with ragtime’s critics.





[Musical America, XV no. 19 (March 16, 1912): 19]

The debate raged on for several years, so much so in fact that this poem published on August 14, 1915 opens with a reference to Dr. Brunner’s 1911 comments.









[Musical America, Vol 22 No. 15 (August 14, 1915): 17.]

Supporters and critics of ragtime continued to argue over its relative merits, eventually leading the public to enter the debate the following month, September 1915.




[Christensen’s Ragtime Review I, no. 9 (September, 1915): 24.]

Here is historic footage of the Cakewalk, one of the first forms of ragtime, performed in 1903 (media adapted from Library of Congress). Both this and the poem above carry with them the racial bias of their time.  A cautionary note: determine your views of ragtime’s dangers before viewing. Our dear Finnish colleagues should particularly take this warning to heart.

The following is an excerpt of “Smoky Mokes” played by famous banjoists Fred Van Eps & Vess L. Ossman (1900).

In closing, here is a video of the ragtime finale of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.

RIPM search tip: for the articles cited above and other related articles, search the RIPM e-library for “ragtime” and “insanity” (or “morality”) in Musical America from 1911-1915. The full text of this journal is available from 1898-1922.


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