Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Y is for Yost

Not much is known about the French clarinet virtuoso Michel Yost.  Born in Paris in 1754, he showed an early aptitude in music.  His father was a military trumpeter, and young Michel learned the musical basics from military instructors.  While his studies began with the oboe, he switched to clarinet under the tutelage of the German clarinetist Johann Joseph Beer.  He gave his first concert as a soloist in 1777 at the Paris Concerts Spirituels, and critics noted that he possessed a fluid style and his sound was highly melodious.

In the following decade he became one of the most popular clarinet soloists in Paris, performing with many ensembles, and was better known by his first name even outside of France.  It was his musical brilliance that partly caused the demand for clarinet music to increase.  Although he had no formal training in composition he still created fourteen concertos for clarinet and orchestra, as well as many chamber pieces that featured the instrument.

He also passed his knowledge to others through teaching; one of his students, Xavier Lefevre, went on to become the first professor of clarinet at the Paris Conservatory and was highly influential to the following generation.  Yost died suddenly in 1786 in Paris at the young age of thirty-two.

Here is the first movement of Yost's Concerto No. 11 in B-flat Major for Clarinet and Orchestra.
Allegro - Concerto No. 11 in B-flat Major

Monday, 27 April 2015

X is for XTC

It's time for a look back at the British invasion with XTC, a "new wave" rock band from Swindon, England.  Originally formed in 1972 by Colin Moulding, Terry Chambers, and Andy Partridge the band went through several name changes before they were joined by Barry Andrews in 1976 and settled on XTC.  In the early days they played glam rock with homemade costumes and slowly built up a following.

They signed a recording contract with Virgin Records in 1977 and began to tour following the release of their debut album "White Music" in 1978.  The album had favourable reviews but its lead single "Statue of Liberty" was banned by the BBC for supposedly having lewd lyrics.  1979 saw some major changes: Barry Andrews left the band and was replaced by Dave Gregory and the band steered themselves toward a more traditional rock sound.  The song "Life Begins at the Hop" was their first charting single, and soon after this they were fortunate enough to secure recording time at the prestigious Townhouse Studio in London.

Hoping to crack the American market, XTC embarked on an ambitious tour in the U.S. and Canada, often performing with fellow UK-based band, The Police.  The accompanying album "Black Sea" had two singles that made the UK Top 40 and the album itself reached Number One in Australia.  However, at their peak of popularity, Andy Partridge suffered a mental breakdown while on stage during a concert in 1982.  His wife, concerned about his dependency on medication, had thrown away his pills without seeking medical advice, which caused him to have anxiety attacks so severe that he was unable to perform.  The situation forced the band to cancel the remaining shows of their tour.

Thereafter, the band worked only in the studio.  Their subsequent album "Mummer" had a more pastoral vibe to it.  Dissatisfied with doing only studio work, founding member Terry Chambers left in 1983, requiring the band to use session drummers for later albums.  The band modified their sound and continued to produce music, but not touring was a disappointment to both their record label as well as their fans and the band's popularity began to wane.

In 1986 in an attempt to reinvigorate the band's success, songwriter and producer Todd Rungren was hired.  Despite personality clashes with band members, his direction got results: their next four albums were very well received.  A contractual dispute with Virgin Records in 1992 prompted the band to go "on strike" for six years, and finally they were able to get out of their contract and begin to work independently, forming their own label.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the band struggled with financial issues and the departure of Dave Gregory due to differences of opinion on the band's musical style.  The albums "Apple Venus Volumes 1 and 2" and a four-CD compilation "Coat of Many Cupboards" would be some of the last works that XTC would record.  In 2006 it was announced that Colin Moulding no longer had any interest in songwriting, and since the other members felt they couldn't continue without him, the band broke up.

Here's a remastered video of one of XTC's early hit singles.
Making Plans for Nigel

Sunday, 26 April 2015

W is for Waller

Back to New York we go for Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller who was one of the most innovative jazz pianists.  He was born in 1904 in Harlem, the youngest of 11 children of whom only five survived childhood. His father was a clergyman who disapproved of young Fats' interest in music even though his mother tutored him in piano and organ.  At age 14 he began to perform organ accompaniment to the shows in Harlem's Lincoln Theater, and his off-beat tunes caught the attention of professional pianist James P. Johnson who took the young man under his wing.

Before long, Fats was composing and performing his own tunes, and developing two career paths: jazz pianist and theater organist.  His preference for working at Harlem clubs led to the development of his famous capacity for liquid refreshment; one anecdote states that as part of his contract, Waller insisted on having a two-fifths of gin at the piano before beginning his set.  The life of a club hopping musician took its toll on his personal life however; his marriage in 1920 only lasted three years, and he was dogged by officials seeking alimony payments for many years thereafter.

As his career continued to rise he became known to many musicians of the time, including Gene Austin, Fletcher Henderson, and Count Basie.  Even the underworld was impressed with him: in 1926 Waller was kidnapped following a performance in Chicago, only to discover that he had been "invited" to mobster Al Capone's birthday party to play.  Around this time he signed a recording contract with RCA Victor which he would continue to associate with for the rest of his life.  In the 1930s he toured the UK and appeared on one of the first BBC television broadcasts.

Back in the U.S. he formed his own band in 1934 and commenced a huge recording project of his music, including a series of pipe-organ solos.  His songs became hits for Louis Armstrong, Erroll Garner and other musicians, and he even had a few small roles in films, notably "Stormy Weather" (1943).  Unfortunately the end came far too soon for him to fully enjoy his success.  On the way home from Los Angeles following the successful premiere of "Stormy Weather", he contracted pneumonia and died.  After his funeral his ashes were scattered from an airplane over Harlem.

His music remains popular to this day; the Broadway musical "Ain't Misbehavin'" showcasing his tunes has been revived several times.  He has been posthumously inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Here's a recording of Ain't Misbehavin'.
Ain't Misbehavin'

Friday, 24 April 2015

V is for Vivaldi

We continue the globe-hopping A to Z challenge in Italy with Antonio Vivaldi who was born in 1678 in Venice.  His father was a professional violinist who ensured that his son also had musical instruction from an early age.  An illness in his youth that today would be classified as asthma prevented him from playing wind instruments but he took up the violin and composition to compensate.

In 1703 after resigning from a brief career as a priest, Vivaldi accepted the position of Master of Violin at the Devout Hospital of Mercy orphanage in Venice, where he spent nearly 30 years and composed many of his major works.  He wrote pieces that were inspired by the children, and even taught music to them.  However his relationship with the board of directors was often strained; he was voted out in 1709 but voted back in the following year after the board realized his importance.  His first major breakthrough as a composer was with his first concerto for strings, "L'estro armonico" which became hugely successful.

In addition to his liturgical music Vivaldi began to compose operas on the side.  One of his early works "Arsilda, regina di Ponto" was about a woman who falls in love with another woman who was disguised as a man; Vivaldi had to persuade the state censor to allow its performance, and it fared admirably.  His progressive style put him at odds with more conservative musicians of the time.  Around 1717 he was offered the prestigious position of Maestro di Cappella of Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt of Mantua, and he stayed there for three years, writing more operatic music before moving to Rome.

He returned to Venice in 1725, having achieved a successful career in composition, and went back to work at the Hospital of Mercy.  There he continued to redefine his art: "The Four Seasons" was described as a "revolution in music conception" as the piece evokes natural scenes.  Now at the height of his career, he received commissions from the European nobility and royalty.  A meeting with Emperor Charles VI in 1728 impressed the monarch enough for him to bestow the title of Knight on Vivaldi.

With his father he migrated to Vienna in 1740, perhaps in the hopes of gaining a position in the imperial court.  He continued to compose and produce music, but the changing musical tastes left many of his works outmoded.  The death of the Emperor was a huge blow which left him without a steady source of income, and sadly he was forced to sell the bulk of his manuscripts.  Vivaldi died suddenly in 1741 of what was believed to be an infection and he was buried in Vienna.  There are several memorials to him in Vienna, and his music was revived to great success in the 20th century.

Below is the first movement of Vivaldi's "Gloria" which I performed in several times while with my university choir.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Thursday, 23 April 2015

U is for U2

There are few musicians with names beginning with U so it was natural that the first one that popped into my head was the Irish rock band.  The band was originally formed in 1976 by Larry Mullen, Jr., Paul Hewson, David Evans (The Edge) and his older brother Dik Evans, and Adam Clayton.  They went through two names and several lineup changes before settling on the name U2 because it was the name they "disliked the least".  On Saint Patrick's Day 1978 the band won a talent show where part of the prize was the chance to do a demo recording for a record label.  This proved to be a major step forward for them, but their early singles were distributed mainly in Ireland and performances in England didn't gain much attention.

Luckily their 1980 debut album "Boy" demonstrated their potential to international audiences.  A setback occurred when a briefcase containing working lyrics for several songs was stolen during a 1981 performance in Oregon; this and lukewarm reception to their second album "October" motivated them to improve.  By the time they released their third album "War" in 1983, U2 had polished its "deep and meaningful songwriting" to become a major player on the rock and roll stage.  Their subsequent tour was sold-out.

Their works through the remainder of the 1980s experimented with various styles, underlaid with the themes of pacifism, cultural richness, and anti-politics.  On the way they developed friendships with other artists such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Keith Richards.  Now they were performing in arenas and were described as "the band that matters most" by Rolling Stone magazine.  However at the end of the decade they felt as if they were stagnating and sought to transform themselves again.

Recording sessions in the early 1990s were difficult, because each of the founding members had a differing opinion on their musical direction and the quality of their material.  They very nearly broke up, but finally had a breakthrough with the improvised song "One".  The 1991 album "Achtung Baby" was a marked departure from their earlier style: darker and more introspective.  The tours became more flashy and elaborate to satirize the escalating pervasiveness of the media and commercialism.  One highlight of this era was a 1997 performance in Sarajevo, where they were the first major music group to perform since the Bosnian War.

Heading into the 2000s the band changed again, hearkening back to a conventional rock sound.  The aptly titled "All That You Can't Leave Behind" released in 2000 debuted at Number One and won three Grammy Awards.  They scaled down their productions and designed stages that allowed them to get closer to their audiences; band members said later that doing so made the tours more memorable and emotional.

Today the band continues to record albums and their tours are commercial successes.  When not on tour the band members support issues such as poverty, disease, and social injustice.  U2 has performed at many benefit concerts and were awarded Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award for their work in promoting human rights.  Also they've composed and performed music for film and TV.  They are one of the best-selling music artists in history and members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The following song was one of their first Number One hits in the United States.
With Or Without You

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

T is for Tchaikovsky

Now we head to Russia. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in what was then the Russian Empire, into a large family. His father was an engineer but his parents both had schooling in the arts, given the potential need for it during postings to remote communities.  At his own insistence he began formal study at an early age and quickly learned several languages and the piano.  Recognizing his talent, the family sent him to school in Saint Petersburg in 1850.  However the sudden death of his mother from cholera in 1854 would haunt him for the rest of his life; one of his earliest compositions was a waltz dedicated to her.

Although he studied for the civil service and spent three years as an assistant counselor after he graduated school, he preferred music and enrolled in the new Saint Petersburg Conservatory.  This move gave him the tools he needed to become a professional composer and musician, and he gained the sense that his art belonged to the world and not any one country.  After graduation he faced financial difficulties, but then was offered a post as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory in 1865.  There he began his career in earnest: teaching, producing compositions, and travelling around Europe.  During this time he formed lasting friendships with several other composers who became known as The Five, who shared similar goals of creating a singular Russian style of music.

In 1869, inspired by compositions from other countries, began to create operas.  He wasn't satisfied with his first attempts and destroyed the manuscripts.  However his opera "The Oprichnik" staged in 1874 was relatively well received and he continued in this vein with other operas, ballets, and symphonic works.  As his career in music was gaining traction, his personal life was difficult.  He married on three occasions but all failed after a short time, forcing him to admit that he was likely homosexual.  For several years after this he wandered extensively across Russia and Europe, and despite his personal difficulties his reputation remained solid.

Finally in 1884 he returned to Russia to great favour: he was awarded the Order of St. Vladimir by the Tsar and commissioned to produce music for the nobility.  He disdained the public life but saw it as his duty to promote Russian music.  Soon he was in considerable demand throughout Europe and even traveled to the United States.  In 1892 he was voted a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France, only the second Russian subject to be honored so.  The following year, the University of Cambridge in England awarded him an honorary doctorate in music.

Late in 1893 Tchaikovsky died suddenly in Saint Petersburg.  The cause of his death is unknown; current theories include cholera, deterioration from the long-term effects of alcohol, or suicide.  Regardless, his music remains popular with world audiences to this day, and are considered a bridge between classic Russian music and modern works.

Here is a segment from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Waltz of the Flowers.
Waltz of the Flowers

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

S is for Saint-Saens

Today we're going for a French connection.  Camille Saint-Saens was born in Paris in 1835, the only child of a French politician and his wife.  His father died shortly after he was born, and his mother took him to the country for several years before returning to Paris to enroll her son in school.  Before he was five he showed the ability of perfect pitch and began training in piano, although his mother didn't wish him to become famous at a young age like other prodigies had before him.  He gave small performances in the family home but didn't have an official public debut until age 10.  Music wasn't his only area of expertise; he showed high aptitude for literature, languages, and mathematics.

At age 13 he was accepted into the Paris Conservatoire where he studied organ as well as piano and received formal instruction in composition.  Upon his graduation in 1853 he accepted a church organist post, which gave him time to concentrate on composing.  His talent was quickly spotted by other composers of the time such as Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt, who declared him to be one of the best organists in the world.  He became a music teacher in 1861, and among his students was Gabriel Fauré.  He conceived his best-known piece, "Carnival of the Animals" with his students in mind, although he wouldn't finish it for several more years.

The breakout of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 put his musical plans on hold and he escaped to England temporarily.  Upon his return, the general thinking of the musical community was to promote more French musicians, and Saint-Saens became vice-president of the new National Music Society.  He experimented with new styles such as opera and symphonic poems.  Surprising his peers, he married briefly, but the loss of their elder son to an accident and a younger son to illness was devastating and they separated.

Saint-Saens was not a particularly religious man and found the dogma irritating; he eventually resigned his post as organist (rarely to play it thereafter) and concentrated on composing.  After the success of his opera "Samson and Dalila" in 1877 he traveled internationally and built upon his reputation as a musician.  Soon though he would face difficulties at home: by the mid 1880s the music scene was becoming increasingly German-dominated and the society that he helped found no longer was focused on French interests, so he resigned in protest.  The death of his mother in 1888 was another blow that left him unable to compose for over six months.

For the next decade he traveled extensively and regained his composer's touch; he staged several operas and concert pieces during this time.  Finally he settled in Paris once again but continued to pay visits to and perform in England, Italy, Spain, and Monaco.  He even made two successful tours to the United States.  However by the early years of the 20th century he disliked the encroachment of "modernism" into music which put him at odds with other composers of the time.  His attempt to lead a boycott of German music at the outbreak of the First World War did not help his reputation, and so he spent the war years on a number of charitable efforts, giving concerts on both sides of the Atlantic.

After the war he retired to Paris, and died suddenly of a heart attack at his winter home in Algiers in 1921.  Over the course of his life he had contributed greatly to French music and was loved by many.  He was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour, awarded a membership in the British Royal Victorian Order, and had honorary doctorates from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

Here is the Finale from the suite Carnival of the Animals, as animated in the film Fantasia 2000.  "We finally answer the age-old question: What would happen if you gave a yo-yo to a flock of flamingos?"
Carnival of the Animals - Finale

Monday, 20 April 2015

R is for Rich

Percussion instrumentalists often don't get appreciated for their work even though almost all music requires some form of beat to play by.  Bernard "Buddy" Rich was born in 1917 in Manhattan New York to parents who were active in the vaudeville scene.  He showed a talent for rhythm very early in his life, but reportedly had no formal instruction on the drums because he believed that it would degrade his ability.  Also he wasn't known to read music or even practice on a regular basis.

By age 11 he was already a bandleader and during his youth played in various jazz bands, which included the Vic Schoen Orchestra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.  By some accounts he was the second-highest paid child entertainer in the world.  In 1942 Buddy enlisted in the Marine Corps but after the war he returned to performing and put together his own band with the financial backing of Frank Sinatra.  Through the 1950s and 1960s his bands remained successful even in an era when the popularity of the Big Band style was waning.  He had stated on multiple occasions that he enjoyed playing at schools and clubs in order to entertain young people and get their interest in music.

Buddy also had a long recording career, as he served as the session drummer for such big stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Oscar Peterson.  One of his most popular performances was a big band arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story".  He was a frequent guest on variety shows, most notably a 1981 episode of The Muppet Show in which he challenged Muppet drummer Animal to a drum battle.  Despite being known for a hot temper he was also kind-hearted.

He remained active in the music scene and continued to perform until the end of his life, touring around the globe and playing for heads of state from Queen Elizabeth II to Ronald Reagan.  Buddy died in 1987 from heart failure after surgery for a brain tumor, and was buried in Los Angeles.  The Downbeat Magazine Hall of Fame Award, the Modern Drummer Magazine Hall of Fame Award, and the Jazz Unlimited Immortals of Jazz Award are just a few of his numerous honours.  There have been memorial concerts in his name, and his grandson Nick also plays drums.

Here is a video of the Buddy Rich vs. Animal drum duel.
The Muppet Show - Buddy Rich vs Animal

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Q is for Queen

I couldn't continue the A to Z Challenge without writing about one of the most successful hard rock bands in history.  Its original incarnation, "Smile" was formed in 1968 by guitarist Brian May and fellow students Tim Staffell and Roger Taylor.  Staffell left join another band in 1970, so after a few member shuffles the band was renamed "Queen" and set to work on their first album.  Their early demo songs didn't attract much interest but they did perform on few times on local stages which attracted the attention of Trident Recording Studios.

Their debut album was released in 1973.  Although it didn't do well in the mainstream it was well received by critics and rock fans alike, and went on to be certified gold.  Their second album would do just as well.  Despite Brian May's bout with hepatitis while performing a series of shows in New York, the band was gaining international success as they experimented with a variety of musical genres in their subsequent works.

After a world tour in 1975 they had a dispute with Trident and negotiated themselves out of their contract.  It didn't take them long to find a new manager in John Reid (who was also manager for Elton John at the time).  The album "A Night at the Opera" went triple platinum in the U.S. and contained one of their most enduring hits, "Bohemian Rhapsody".  The band had attained super-stardom.  They didn't let this go to their heads though, and continued to produce music at a rapid pace through the remainder of the 1970s.  Their video of "Bohemian Rhapsody" is considered to be the first "true" music video every produced.

In 1980 it was Michael Jackson who suggested that the song "Another One Bites the Dust" be released as a single, and the idea worked: it spent three weeks at Number One and won a Favorite Pop/Rock Single Award for that year.  The next year Queen became the first rock band to tour Latin America, where they drew record crowds.  During the 1980s the band would collaborate with many other popular artists, notably David Bowie in "Under Pressure".  A stint in South Africa in defiance of the UN Apartheid boycott in 1984 caused outrage among British fans and the band was blacklisted.  However all seemed to be forgiven at their sold out appearance in the 1985 Live Aid concert at Wembley.

In the late 1980s, rumours began circulating that vocalist Freddie Murphy was dying of AIDS, which the band denied as they were about to sign a new contract.  Despite his deteriorating health he continued to make contributions to the band until his death in 1991.  The comedy film Wayne's World in 1992 that featured "Bohemian Rhapsody" as part of the soundtrack revitalized the band's popularity and urged them to release the "Made in Heaven" album in Mercury's honour.  Bassist John Deacon chose to retire in 1997, and the remaining members performed several times with guest singers before winding down their appearances.

The surviving duo of Brian May and Roger Taylor still perform regularly with guest artists at awards ceremonies and commemorative concerts.  During the band's heyday they earned many achievements, such as entry into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a star on Hollywood Boulevard.  They've also been credited with inspiring many other musicians from Def Leppard to Trent Reznor.

Here's a recording of Queen's tribute to all artists who have died too young.
No One But You (Only the Good Die Young)

Friday, 17 April 2015

P is for Peterson

Here's another Canadian post.  Oscar Peterson was born in 1925 in Montreal to immigrants from the West Indies.  The population of his home neighbourhood of Little Burgundy was at the time predominantly black, so he grew up influenced by the jazz culture.  A bout of tuberculosis made it more difficult for him to play wind instruments such as the trumpet that he favoured; thereafter he focused on piano. Although he was trained in Classical music he was captivated by jazz and ragtime, and quickly earned the nickname "Brown Bomber of the Boogie Woogie".

At 14 years old, after winning a national music competition, he dropped out of school to begin working as a professional pianist.  His music was inspired by musicians like Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, and Art Tatum.  In 1949, while performing at a club, Peterson was discovered by impresario Norman Granz who quickly arranged for Peterson to perform at Carnegie Hall.  The two became friends and Granz was Peterson's manager for most of his career.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Peterson formed and performed with many duos and trios comprised of some of the best musicians of the time.  Most had both black and white performers, a controversial move in the times of segregation, but it worked.  Their performances and recordings were considered some of the most influential in modern jazz.  By this time Peterson had gained worldwide recognition as a leading jazz pianist as well as a composer for piano, small groups, and big band.  When not on tour he taught piano in Toronto and mentored the York University jazz program.

He continued to perform through his later years, but was sidelined by hip replacement surgery and health issues caused by his weight.  In 1993 he suffered a stroke which required two years to recuperate from and he never regained the full motion of his left hand.  Even so, he returned to public performing on a limited basis and friends commented that "a one-handed Oscar was better than just about anyone with two hands".  He toured the U.S. and Europe for one month out of every year and continued to record albums.

In 2007 his health declined dramatically, forcing him to cancel a number of engagements.  He died of kidney failure in December of that year.  He left an enormous legacy of music and recognition, including eight Grammy Awards, election to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the BBC Radio Lifetime Achievement Award, and membership in the Order of Canada.  The concert hall at the Loyola campus of Montreal's Concordia University is named for him.

Oscar Peterson plays his interpretation of "Body and Soul" with the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Oscar Peterson - Body and Soul

Thursday, 16 April 2015

O is for Offenbach

Jakob Offenbach was born in 1819 to a Jewish family in the city of Cologne, Germany which was then part of Prussia.  The seventh of ten children, he showed musical aptitude at the age of six and was composing his own songs and dances soon thereafter.  Taking up the cello at age nine, he gave performances of his own compositions that were so technically difficult they stumped his own teacher.  With two of his siblings he played at local dance halls and inns, until their father decided that he should continue his studies at the Paris Conservatoire in 1833.  Upon his arrival in France he changed his name to Jacques.

Within a year, Offenbach grew bored of academia and struck out on his own, getting jobs as a cellist with various theatre orchestras.  His tendency to prank his fellow musicians got him into trouble routinely, but he eventually matured and built a reputation for himself in composing and performing at salons in Paris.  It was at one of these salons that he met Herminie d'Alcain, with whom he fell in love.  Since he wasn't in a strong enough financial position to propose to her, he spent a year touring France, Germany, and Britain to enhance his reputation and his bank account.  In 1844 following his conversion to Catholicism, the two were married.

Gradually he shifted his focus to composing and producing musical burlesques.  He was set to break into the musical theatre scene when the 1848 revolution occurred, and he quickly packed up his family and fled back to Cologne.  Upon their return a year later, the grand salons had been closed down but Offenbach was able to secure work with orchestras and begin composing anew.  Between 1833 and 1835 he wrote and staged small operettas in Paris which were received well and enabled him to open his own theatre.

From here his career in musical theatre ascended. He wrote many operettas, one-act plays, and satirical pieces.  Also he presented works by many other composers, including a neglected one-act comic opera by Mozart on the centenary celebrations in 1856.  By now he was known by Napoleon III who himself reportedly enjoyed Offenbach's work.  His productions were lavishly staged which often put a strain on the theatre's finances, and to offset this he opened a subsidiary production house in London for the 1857 season.

In 1858 Offenbach presented his first full-length opera "Orpheus in the Underworld" which touched off his most successful decade.  He was granted French citizenship by Napoleon in 1860 and his company flourished.  However the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 was devastating; he and his family fled to Spain and were unable to return due to public suspicions regarding his heritage and his connections to Napoleon and the old regime.  Fortunately he still had success in England and weathered the storm well.

Once Paris settled down after the war, Offenbach and his family returned.  Both his new works and revival of previous works did well.  A successful tour of the United States in 1876 enabled him to recoup his financial losses, and life in France proved more than satisfying.  His frequent travels and advancing age left him with severe gout and his health declined in the latter half of the 1870s.  Sadly he didn't live to finish his final opera, "The Tales of Hoffmann", which was later completed by his son and a close family friend. Jacques Offenbach died in Paris in 1880.

By his own count he had composed over 100 operas and more than 50 non-operatic songs amid many other works.  His work has been credited for inspiring the duo of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the composer Franz von Suppé, among others.

Here's a performance of a duet from Offenbach's final opera.
Barcarolle from Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

N is for Nelson

We've arrived at the halfway point of the A to Z Challenge and we're feeling good so far.  Willie Nelson was born in 1933 in Texas, to a working-class family with English, Irish, and Cherokee roots.  His parents' marriage broke up so he and his sister were raised by their grandparents.  He learned guitar at the age of six, and during high school he helped the family make some extra money by singing in dance halls and taverns. His early musical style was influenced by Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong among others.

After a brief stint in the U.S. Air Force he studied agriculture at Baylor University but dropped out to pursue a musical career.  After working odd jobs for a few years he landed a job at a radio station in Pleasanton Texas which enabled him to begin making recordings of his songs.  In 1956 he moved to California, and then to Oregon, and finally got another radio job in Vancouver, Washington where he worked as an announcer and began to appear on television.  Unfortunately his first attempt at a studio album failed, and he and his new wife and young son returned to Texas.

For two years he worked at a radio station near Houston and sang in clubs.  In 1960 he moved to Nashville in search of a record contract but most of his demos were rejected.  Luckily he attracted the attention of songwriter Hank Cochran who recorded several of Nelson's songs and later helped him get a solid contract with Liberty Records in 1961.  All the moving around didn't suit his wife and they divorced in 1962.  He soon remarried and by 1964 had signed on to RCA records where he made a number of successful singles.  At last his career seemed to be taking off.

However by 1970 his efforts stopped turning a profit, and his second wife divorced him after uncovering evidence of an affair.  When his ranch burned he took it as a sign for change and moved yet again, then married a third time and chose to retire from music.  That didn't last long, as the hippie music scene in Austin revived him and he released several albums to critical acclaim and piloted the show "Austin City Limits".  His first number one hit in 1975 was a cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" which brought him the success he had been searching for.  Several of his albums in the 1970s and 1980s sold gold and platinum and he continued to top the charts consistently.

Yet more setbacks occurred in the 1990s.  The IRS came after him for unpaid taxes, and he had lost money on investments.  By 1993 he was debt-free as he continued to write music and perform on tour.  Today he remains as active as ever.  He has guest starred on many television shows, written books, and is involved in a number of charitable and environmental organizations.  Achievements include: induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, induction into the National Agricultural Hall of Fame, and an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music.

The following is a recording of one of Nelson's top hits.
Always On My Mind

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

M is for Mendelssohn

Anyone who has played piano will invariably come across the works of Felix Mendelssohn, a composer of the Romantic era. He was born in the independent city-state of Hamburg in 1809 to a wealthy family; both he and his older sister were highly intelligent and displayed a talent for music.  They were given some of the best education available but at that time it was considered improper for a girl to pursue a musical career, so the young Felix persevered on her behalf.

He received lessons in piano and composition both in Paris and later in Berlin. By the age of 12 he was already a prolific composer of chamber music, which was frequently performed in his parents' home for the elite of Berlin.  In 1826 he composed one of his first major works, the "Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream".  His knowledge in music, literature, and languages enabled him to qualify for admission into the Humboldt University of Berlin.

With the support of his friends, musician Carl Friedrich Zelter and actor Eduard Devrient,  Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a performance of J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" in 1829.  This earned him widespread acclaim.  He spent the next few years traveling around Europe to gain insight from other musicians and artists, and during this time composed some of his most famous works.  In 1833 he was appointed musical director of the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in Dusseldorf, but frustration with his duties and the city's politics led him to resign in 1835 and move to Leipzig to become conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

While in Leipzig he received many offers from other composers to arrange and perform their works, including Richard Wagner and Robert Schumann.  When Friedrich Wilhelm IV came to the Prussian throne and decided to develop Berlin into a cultural centre, Mendelssohn reluctantly agreed to assist.  Unfortunately many promises were broken and funds never materialized, so Mendelssohn founded his own school in 1843: the Leipzig Conservatory, which still stands today as the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy University of Music and Theatre.

Over the course of two years he paid many visits to Britain to conduct orchestral performances and meet other composers.  On one such visit he met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who were both great admirers.  His compositions during this time were heavily influenced by the British culture; his protégé, British composer and pianist William Sterndale Bennett translated many of his works into English.

Suffering from overwork and nervous problems, Mendelssohn's health declined in 1847 until he died from a series of strokes at the height of his career.  He was buried in Berlin after a funeral in Leipzig with full honours.  Today there are monuments to him in Leipzig, Berlin, and London; his works continue to be performed on a regular basis, including the "Wedding March in C Major".

Below is a recording of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words Op. 85 No. 1 in F Major which I played in one of my graduate concerts.
Songs Without Words Op. 85 No. 1

Monday, 13 April 2015

L is for Lightfoot

Many Canadian artists don't get the credit they deserve so I'm including Gordon Lightfoot in my A to Z Challenge.

He was born in 1938 in Orillia, north of Toronto Ontario.  His mother quickly recognized his musical talent and encouraged him to take part in choirs both at school and in church.  Performances at local radio stations and music festivals gave him the exposure he needed to enter a singing competition in Toronto's historic Massey Hall.  In his teenage years he learned piano, percussion, and guitar while continuing to sing in the resort area of Muskoka for extra income.

In 1958 he moved to California and studied at the Westlake College of Music; at the same time producing commercial jingles to support himself.  His style became influenced by prominent folk singers like Pete Seeger, Bob Gibson, and The Weavers.  Returning to Canada in 1960 he quickly became known in the Toronto area as he promoted folk music.  A year-long stint on the BBC TV's Country and Western Show in 1963 helped him develop as a songwriter and led to a recording contract upon his return to Canada.

His live performances throughout the 1960's and 1970's enabled him to consistently place singles in the Canadian Top 40 and brought him his first gold disc.  However in 1972 he was forced to ease up on his busy touring schedule after contracting Bell's Palsy, a stress-related nerve dysfunction that affects the muscles on one side of the face.  After recovering he went to work again, writing songs in a variety of subjects that had inspired him, including "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" to commemorate the loss of the so-named freighter in a storm on Lake Superior.

Lightfoot kept up with the changing musical tastes of the time by shifting toward a more folk-pop style in the 1980's and then returned to his acoustic roots in the 1990's.  His success was briefly marred by his 1987 lawsuit of composer Michael Masser, in which he claimed that Masser stole a melody from one of his early tunes (the matter was settled out of court).

In 2002 he was hospitalized and underwent surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, and also endured a six-week coma and a tracheotomy.  His recovery was long but in 2004 he made a surprise comeback with a new album.  Today he continues to perform over sixty shows a year to sell-out crowds - despite the occasional Internet hoax that claims his death.

He has produced more than 200 recordings.  His honours include 16 Juno Awards, induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, a star on Canada's Walk of Fame, and being made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

This is a recording of the song that earned him a Gold Disc in 1971.  According to Lightfoot it was written as a reflection on his disintegrating marriage at the time.
If You Could Read My Mind

Sunday, 12 April 2015

K is for King

Many people are aware that Ben E. King co-wrote the song "Stand By Me" used as the theme for the 1986 movie of the same name.  However his career comprised much more than that.

Born Benjamin Earl Nelson in 1938 in North Carolina, he moved to New York with his family at age 9 where he became exposed to the city's thriving music industry.  As a young adult he joined up with a doo-wop group called the Five Crowns and began recording songs with them.

However after a few years he left the group, now called the Drifters, due to a contract dispute over salary.  In 1960 he changed his name to Ben E. King and began to build a career as a solo artist.  During this time several of his songs were named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" as well as earning a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

In the mid-1960s the music scene became dominated by British pop bands, but King still was able to create enough R&B hits to cement his position as one of the greatest singers in the history of rock and roll and rhythm and blues.  His popularity was rejuvenated with the release of the movie "Stand By Me" and to this day he continues to perform and tour.

King has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, and is active in his Stand By Me charitable foundation for children.

Here's a recording of his first solo hit.
Spanish Harlem

Saturday, 11 April 2015

J is for Joplin

Anyone who has seen the 1973 movie The Sting will be familiar with the bouncy theme tune, "The Entertainer" composed by Scott Joplin.  Born in 1867 to an impoverished family in Texas, Scott Joplin showed an early talent in music and was encouraged to pursue it by his mother at the cost of her marriage: Joplin's father was adamant that music wouldn't lead to "practical income".  A sympathetic music professor tutored the boy free of charge and even helped the family acquire a piano.

By the age of 16, Joplin was performing in vocal groups around the area as well as giving guitar lessons. Although he worked briefly in railroad construction he chose to leave home and become a traveling musician.  Times were harsh, especially for a black performer.  In 1893 he performed at the Chicago Worlds Fair, and many historians credit this event with spreading the popularity of ragtime music, which Joplin was becoming adept in.

During 1894 he arrived in Missouri and performed both as a solo musician, and as a leader of his own band. He also began to publish his compositions and taught piano to a number of others who would later become musicians in their own right, including Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden.  Then in 1899 he signed a publishing contract to produce his first major work, The Maple Leaf Rag.  From then on Joplin was known as "the king of ragtime writers".

He moved his young family to St. Louis in 1900 and produced some of his best-known works, including The Entertainer, but his successful career took its toll on his personal life.  Joplin and his first wife divorced, and his second wife died of an illness.  Later he opened a company to showcase his first ragtime opera, but the theft of box office receipts caused it to fail.

Hoping for a fresh start, he moved to New York in 1907 and attempted to woo audiences there, but the big-city crowds were too accustomed to the lavish European stage productions of the time and didn't appreciate Joplin's simple staging style.  In 1915 he suffered a breakdown from overwork and the encroaching symptoms of syphilis.  Aware of his rapidly declining health, he continued to polish his operas and other compositions until he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital in 1917, where he died.

Despite the plethora and popularity of his work during his prime, Joplin's accomplishments were sadly unheralded until many years after his death.  Even his grave went unmarked until 1974.  However he and his ragtime contemporaries rejuvenated interest in American popular music, particularly tunes that had been composed by black musicians.  In 1970 Joplin was posthumously named to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1989.  Many of his piano rolls are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution.

Here's a recording of one of his most popular pieces, "The Entertainer".  It's a challenging piece to play but worth the effort.
The Entertainer (1902)

Friday, 10 April 2015

I is for Ives

Burl Ives was an American actor, writer, and folk singer; best known for his banjo playing.  He grew up in rural Illinois, where he began a life-long involvement with the Boy Scouts as well as showing a talent for music.   After dropping out of college during his second year, he claimed that he was wasting his time there and wanted to do other things.

Ives spent much of the 1930s traveling around the United States, playing gigs on his banjo.  In 1940 he started his own radio show to showcase his music, which led to associations with contemporaries Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, and Pete Seeger.  After a brief stint in the U.S. Army he went to New York to work in radio, which cemented his career as a musician and enabled him to get small parts in films.

In the 1950s he was blacklisted as being suspected of having Communist ties; his subsequent pro-U.S. testimony in court allowed him to continue to work but caused a long-standing rift between him and his fellow folk singers, Pete Seeger in particular.  After this he chose to expand his appearances in film and television.  Thereafter his popularity increased, and he continued to record music as well as work in Hollywood.  One of his best-known roles remains the voice of Sam the Snowman in the 1964 animated special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

His career wound down in the 1970's due to shifting musical demographics, but he remained active in his later years, until he was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1994.  Deciding against invasive treatment, he chose to spend his last days at his home; he died in the spring of 1995.  Among his many accolades was a Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Recording (1963), and the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit (1975), honoring his influence on American vocal music.

The following tune is from the album "Walt Disney Presents Burl Ives' Animal Folk" of which I had a copy when I was a child.

The Black and White Pigeon with the Eight Red Toes

Thursday, 9 April 2015

H is for Handel

Georg Friedrich Handel was a Baroque composer born in 1685 in a small community in Germany.  His father had intended him to study civil law and was alarmed when young Georg showed an interest in music instead.  His talent on the organ persuaded his father to allow music lessons through their church.  When he reached adulthood Georg respected his father's wishes and went into law, but was unsatisfied.

In 1702 he accepted a job with the Hamburg Opera company, and there he began composing his own work.  Later he traveled to Italy, where he was encouraged to write and perform sacred music.  Audiences were fascinated by his musical style, and quickly became Master Musician for George of Hanover, who would later become George I King of England.

He followed his patron to England and settled there in 1712, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen.  There followed an intense spurt of creativity, which included choral works, cantatas, and operas.  He formed his own company but it was devastated during a financial disaster in 1720.  Then he joined the Royal Academy of Music where he focused mainly on writing opera.  In 1727 Handel was commissioned to write a suite for the coronation of George II; one of the pieces, "Zadok the Priest", has been performed at every British royal coronation since.

The Royal Academy ceased to function in 1729 but Handel was ready and became joint manager of the Queen's Theatre in London.  He traveled to Italy and around Europe to attract more singers to perform in his operas.  Refusing to retire when his contract was up, he founded another opera company and remained successful.  What might have been a stroke in 1737 disabled his right hand, causing rumours that he might never be able to perform again.  However he defied expectations and recovered.

From here he moved to works known as oratorios, which were highly popular - including the 1741 masterpiece "Messiah".  He was seriously injured in a carriage accident in 1750 while on the way home from a journey in Europe.  This proved to be a terrible blow as his health markedly declined afterwards, and he died in London in 1758.

Here is a recording of "Zadok the Priest". I've performed this in concert several times, it's short but a very challenging piece to sing.  The lyrics are: "Zadok the Priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king; And all the people rejoiced, rejoiced and said: God save the King, long live the King, God save the King; May the king live forever, hallelujah, Amen!"

Zadok the Priest - Choir of Westminster Abbey

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

G is for Gershwin

George Gershwin was one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century.  He was born in 1898 in New York to Russian Jewish parents; his father had changed his surname to Gershwin upon his arrival in the United States.  The family changed residences frequently due to the father's jobs, but remained in the Yiddish theatre district.  George became interested in music upon hearing a friend's violin recital, and quickly took up the piano (to the annoyance of his brother Ira).

His first job at age 15 was for a publishing firm in New York's Tin Pan Alley, which led to other opportunities in music publishing and recording.  Within two years he had produced dozens of his own songs, leading up to a meeting with music director William Daly, with whom he collaborated on several Broadway musicals. Then his brother Ira joined him and the two embarked on a long creative stint in musical theatre.

In 1924 Gershwin composed his first major classical work, Rhapsody in Blue.  Soon afterwards he traveled to Paris for further musical study.  The French composer Maurice Ravel commented, "Why become a second-rate Ravel when you're already a first-rate Gershwin?"  This encouragement partly inspired him to write the play An American in Paris, but he soon grew tired of the Parisian musical scene and returned home.

He was contacted by Hollywood in 1929 to produce a film score, which he did, but he was so discouraged upon finding out that only a fraction of his music was used in the final film, he didn't work in Hollywood again for a long time.  Going back to his roots in musical theatre he composed Blue Monday, followed by his most ambitious project to date, Porgy and Bess.  Sadly, its first staging failed due to the Depression.  Gershwin reluctantly headed back to Hollywood where he composed more music for films.

During this time he began to complain of mysterious symptoms that included blinding headaches, visual and olfactory hallucinations, and lack of coordination.  Eventually doctors realized that he had a brain tumour and attempted surgery but it was unsuccessful.  Gershwin died in hospital at the too-young age of 38.

UCLA established The George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Musical Achievement Award to honor the brothers for their contribution to music.  George Gershwin was posthumously inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

The first Gershwin composition that I became familiar with was Rhapsody in Blue, so here it is.
Rhapsody in Blue, Original Jazz Version

Monday, 6 April 2015

F is for Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald was referred to as the "First Lady of Song" for her elegant tone and ability to improvise.  She was born in 1917 in Newport News Virginia but soon moved to New York state with her family.  She "fell in love" with jazz through recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and the Boswell Sisters; then showed an interest in dancing, frequently performing for her schoolmates.

The sudden death of her mother in 1932 and abuse by her stepfather caused her to end up in a series of state institutions, from which she repeatedly escaped before eventually making a home for herself in New York City.  She made her singing debut in 1934 at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and subsequently performed with a variety of bands until she was hired by bandleader Chick Webb.  She recorded several songs with him, then became the bandleader herself upon Chick's death in 1939.  Nearly 150 songs were attributed to her and her Famous Orchestra before it broke up in 1942.

Now a solo artist, she developed her vocal style in response to the changes in jazz music by integrating bebop and scat singing into her repertoire.  She was described by the New York Times as being "dazzlingly inventive".  An engagement at the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood in 1955 was made possible by Marilyn Monroe, and this would be a pivotal event in her career as it enabled her to perform for a non-jazz audience.  Her recordings of The Cole Porter Songbook and The Duke Ellington Songbook became her most commercially successful works.

By the 1960s she was touring at both national and international levels, making guest appearances on television shows, and even gaining cameo roles in a few movies.  The busy schedule took a toll on her health however, and by the mid 1970s her voice was showing the strain and she chose to go into semi-retirement.  It has been said that one of her unrealized ambitions was a studio album with Frank Sinatra; both had complex contractual obligations that prevented them from doing it.

Fitzgerald died in 1996 of complications from diabetes, well-loved and fulfilled.  She is honoured by a statue in Yonkers where she grew up, and archival material from her career is preserved at the Smithsonian Institute.

Here Ella performs "Summertime" in a 1968 performance in Berlin.
Summertime (from Porgy and Bess)

Sunday, 5 April 2015

E is for Ellington

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was one of the most prolific jazz musicians of all time, and widely considered to be a pivotal figure in jazz history.  Born in 1899 in Washington DC to musician parents, he earned the nickname "Duke" from one of his childhood friends who was impressed by his dapper bearing. Although he began piano lessons at the age of 7, he preferred baseball; it wasn't until he turned 14 and began sneaking into Frank Holiday's Poolroom to listen to the piano performers that he began taking his music studies seriously.

After high school he began to play in clubs, turning down a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in order to bolster his passion.  He soon assembled groups for playing at dances and parties throughout the Washington DC and Virginia area.  His band thrived as they played for both white and Afro-American audiences, which was a rarity for that time.

In the early 1920s he made the decision to move to New York City, where he found the competitive jazz scene difficult to break into.  Despite the initial difficulties, Duke eventually landed a contract at a well-to-do club in Harlem where he and his group made their first recordings.  Then an agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills enabled Duke to record sessions on almost every record label of the time, and soon garnered regular bookings at Harlem's famous Cotton Club.

The Depression hit the recording industry hard but Duke persevered by performing in England and Europe.  Competition intensified as the swing dance became popular. The band adapted, but as Duke himself said "jazz is music, swing is business".  He started splitting up his now 15-member orchestra into smaller groups to record certain styles and feature certain soloists.  This helped to further the careers of many players who were associated with him.

During and after the years of World War II he continued to play with small groups, seeking to break out of the so-called "3 minute limit" for tunes and weathering the shifts in popular musical style.  By the late 1950s he was seen as being outmoded but his reputation fortunately didn't suffer as greatly as many others' did.  A performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 introduced him to a new generation of fans, and let to Ellington gracing the cover of Time Magazine.  Unfortunately his hope that television would give him a new outlet for his music was not fulfilled.

In the 1960s he was performing all over the world and made recordings with many popular artists from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra.  He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Music (he didn't win) and the piano at which he composed many of his pieces was showcased at the Smithsonian Institute.  He continued to perform and compose until his death in 1974.  Numerous memorials have been dedicated to him and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Below is one of my favourite Ellington pieces.
Take the A Train

Saturday, 4 April 2015

D is for Davis

Celebrities have many difficulties, especially since their every move is scrutinized, but few had life-long criticism like Sammy Davis Jr.  Born in New York of Afro-Cuban descent, he learned to dance and act at an early age, as his father took him on tours with his dance troupe.  However when he grew up and joined the army he was subject to racism in all its ugliness.  Fortunately his talent of performing lessened the prejudice.

After his discharge he began to achieve success on the stage, and soon became a member of the famous Rat Pack alongside Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Joey Bishop.  His career took off and he starred in several movies as well as continuing performances in Las Vegas.  Due to the strict requirements that were imposed on black performers at the time, Sammy Davis Jr. refused to perform at establishments that practiced racial segregation.  A car accident in 1954 caused the loss of his left eye. While in hospital a close friend told him of the similarities between Judaism and black culture, which inspired him to convert to Judaism a few years later.

Although his career recovered, many of his personal relationships were controversial.  A revealed relationship with a white actress prompted him to hurriedly marry a black woman instead, only to have the marriage dissolved a short time later.  His second marriage to white actress May Britt, caused him to receive hate mail.  He attempted to escape the problem by continually performing, but that took a toll on the marriage and it eventually ended.  His marriage in 1970 to dancer Altovese Gore lasted until his death.

Through the 1970s and 1980s he not only was well known on stage - he had become a good friend of Elvis Presley - he also had many cameo roles in films and television.  His liking of soap operas led to a recurring role on One Life to Live which earned him a Daytime Emmy nomination.  He became an enthusiast of photography and fast-draw competitive shooting.

Sammy Davis Jr. died in 1990 of complications from throat cancer.  During his life he won many awards and honours, including an Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy; induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame; and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

This clip was taken from the Playboy After Dark Show in December 1968.
I Gotta Be Me

Friday, 3 April 2015

C is for Chopin

As a former musician and pianist, I have a great respect for those who committed their lives to composing music for the piano.  Frederic Chopin was born in 1810 near Warsaw, Poland and quickly became recognized as a child prodigy.  By the age of seven he was giving concerts and had composed two works for the piano.

After completing his education at the Warsaw Conservatory he continued to perform, and produce music, even garnering the attention of the visiting Tsar Alexander I.  His burgeoning success as a composer led him to travel to various places in Europe before settling in Paris.  There he encountered many distinguished people who would play large roles in his life and music: Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Heinrich Heine, among others.

He received his first major endorsement by Robert Schumann who called him "a genius".  Thereafter he realized that his keyboard technique was more suited to smaller salons and not concert halls, and support from the wealthy Rothschild family ensured him access to gatherings of the French elite.  His successes on a personal front were sadly much fewer: his proposal to Countess Maria Wodinska was ultimately rejected, and a long-time relationship with author Amantine Dupin (known as George Sand) broke up as his health deteriorated.

Political strife in the late 1840s caused Chopin financial difficulties, so he traveled to England to perform and give music lessons.  Within a year however, recognizing that his illness was terminal, returned to Paris to be with his friends and family for support.  His final request upon his deathbed was that his heart be returned to Warsaw; despite his father's French roots Chopin always had considered himself Polish.

The following is one of Chopin's best-known works: Op. 64 No. 1 known as the Minute Waltz.
Chopin Minute Waltz

Thursday, 2 April 2015

B is for Bowie

I had my first experience with David Bowie and his music when my parents took me to see the film Labyrinth.  Being a teenager at the time I was immediately starstruck by Bowie's twisted charm and handsome countenance.  The music was just an aside.  Until a few weeks later when I heard more of his songs on the radio and I was hooked for life.

David Bowie was born David Jones in London England.  He was exposed to music at an early age, and inspired by the likes of Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard.  A brawl with his best friend over a girl permanently damaged his left eye; the resulting discoloration added mystique to his later rock-and-roll personas.  After a few unsuccessful starts, he changed his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees and proceeded to take the world by storm with his 1969 hit "Space Oddity".

Thereafter he became a master chameleon, changing his look, persona, and music style with every album. As his popularity soared, the price of fame was heavy: he became addicted to cocaine, had disputes with his managers, and was eventually divorced from his first wife.  However after a period of recovery he took the 1980s by storm with a series of pop and dance-oriented albums.

After a brief stint as a member of the hard-rock band Tin Machine, Bowie happily remarried and returned to solo work with several hip-hop and jazz inspired albums in the 1990s.  In the 2000s his style changed yet again into electronica and neoclassical.  A heart attack while on tour in 2004 obliged him to scale back his appearances, but he still produces music from a seemingly endless wellspring.  He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Linked below is one of my current favourite Bowie songs. The video was filmed in the streets of New York City.

I'm Afraid of Americans

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A is for Adams

I just heard about the April A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world are asked to write posts based around each letter of the alphabet.  I decided to write about not just any subject, but one that I've enjoyed my whole life: music.  There's no shortage of material there.

Today's letter is A.

Park "Pepper" Adams was a baritone saxophone player from the Detroit area whose career spanned the 1940s to the 1980s.  He took up saxophone while in high school, and after studying with saxophonist Skippy Williams he frequented the famous Blue Bird Inn to gain stage experience.

Following several tours of duty in Korean War as a musician, he participated in many recording sessions with other rising musicians of the time, including John Coltrane, Stan Kenton, and Thelonious Monk.  He then stepped up to become a bandleader, recording a number of albums between 1957-1978.

In 1977 he went solo, recording with the likes of Charles Mingus, Lionel Hampton, and Chet Baker.  He continued to tour across the United States, Europe, and Asia before a severe leg injury in late 1983 sidelined him for almost a year.  His final performance before his death from lung cancer was at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1986.

Here is an example of his versatile playing.  The baritone sax is not an easy instrument to master.

Pepper Adams, Barcelona Jazz Festival, 1983