by Daniel Hathaway
IN THIS EDITION:
. Trinity FranckFest, Gordon square postcards, Tuesday Musical on Wednesday: “genre bending transformations” from Nu Deco Ensemble
. Jeremy Denk webinar
. Precursors of the grand piano, the phonograph record, and the international orchestral tour
Today at Noon, Trinity Cathedral begins its celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of “French composer” César Franck with two of his organ works played by Nicole Keller and Josh Kraybill, and his Violin Sonata performed by Andrew Sords and pianist Elizabeth DeMio.
Is that rattling sound we just heard coming from the grave of Hercule Poirot — Agatha Christie’s fictional detective with the distinctive mustaches — a protest by a fellow Belgian, who like Franck, was often misidentified as French? Catch the program in person, or watch a live stream.
Tonight at 7:30, composer Ryan Charles Ramer presents — online only — the third iteration of his program featuring “Pieces That Fit on the Front of a Postcard,” including a song cycle for baritone and bassoon trio. And Akron’s Tuesday Musical presents — on Wednesday! — Miami’s Nu Deco Ensemble in what the New York Times described as “genre-bending transformations of the works of Aretha Franklin and Queen” as well as “reimaginations of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.”
Tit for Tat? The Guardian reports that Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater has canceled productions by critics of Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, including Timofey Kulyabin’s opera Don Pasquale and Kirill Serebrennikov’s ballet Nureyev.
On Thursday, May 5 at 5:00 pm, the Oberlin Conservatory Professional Development Speaker Series will present Jeremy Denk, “pianist, author, and esteemed Oberlin alumnus” in a 90-minute webinar. To register, click here.
May 4 in classical music history marks some important beginnings that ultimately led to the modern grand piano, the phonograph record, and the international orchestral tour.
Italian craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori, born in Padua on May 4, 1665, was responsible for inventing the first practical pianoforte, an instrument that looks just like a harpsichord until you raise the hood. Inside, instead of quills that pluck strings, a hammer mechanism strikes them and then retreats, allowing the performer to play soft, loud, or at any dynamic level in between. Thus Cristofori named his invention the “gravicembalo col piano e forte.”
Cristofori’s pianoforte mechanism was so sophisticated that no major improvements were made for the next 75 years, and the basic concept has persisted to today. You can see the 1720 model he built in Florence in the musical instrument collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, read about it here, and listen to Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in d played on it here by Dongsok Shin.
A number of late 19th century inventors were involved in creating machines that would reproduce sound, but on May 4, 1887, Emile Berliner was the first to file a patent application (U.S. patent 372,786) for a device he called the gramophone. His machine “recorded a lateral pattern on lamp-blacked paper wrapped on a cylinder, similar to the phonautograph of Leon Scott, but with an oil applied to the surface mixed with lampblack to make a fatty ink better able to be engraved with a cutting stylus.” Read about it in The Early Gramophone.
That a lot remained to be done before Sony could develop a single disc capable of reproducing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is suggested in the first news story about Berliner’s invention. A two-page article in Electrical World dated November 12, 1887 described a device driven by a weight box and controlled by a paddle-wheeled governor that recorded four minutes of sound on an 11-inch glass disc at 30 rpm.”
And on May 4, 1920, The Symphony Society of New York — which eventually became the New York Philharmonic — played the opening concert of its debut European Tour at the Paris Opera, making it the first American ensemble to perform overseas.
The Symphony Society Bulletin of March 18, 1920 noted that the European Tour was being undertaken “by official invitation from the governments of France, Italy, Belgium and a committee of England’s foremost musicians.” The Orchestra embarked on the transatlantic crossing aboard the Rochambeau on April 22, beginning “a tour which is unprecedented and indicates in a remarkable manner the new position of America in the world of music.”
The May 4 performance, led by Walter Damrosch, included Berlioz’ Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, d’Indy’s Istar: variations symphonique, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, “Fragment Symphonique.” The Orchestra’s European adventure lasted nearly two months, culminating in a June 20 matinee at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Like the Middle Eastern tour The Cleveland Orchestra was forced to cancel at the beginning of the pandemic, orchestral touring will eventually resume, however slowly and more modestly. On this May 4th, it’s good to look back and recall that cultural exchanges had until recently been important tools of international diplomacy, and not merely expensive expressions of musical vanity.