Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari – La Vita Nuova

(Das neue Leben/The New Life) Cantica su parole di Dante op. 9 (1901)

(b. Venice, 12 January 1876 – d. Venice, 21 January 1948)

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is now known almost exclusively as the composer of his once extremely successful comic operas. But even these operas, with their fine humour and subtle musical qualities, have almost completely disappeared from the repertoire, as they are not suitable for the provocative placativity of modern director’s theatre. Apart from the fact that not only his colleague Hans Pfitzner considered Wolf-Ferrari the most wonderful master of comic opera since Albert Lortzing, Wolf-Ferrari also wrote wonderful orchestral and chamber music as well as vocal works. Most frequently played today are some preludes and interludes from his operas as well as the solo concertinos for oboe, bassoon and cor anglais.

Wolf-Ferrari was born as the son of the German painter August Wolf (1842-1915) and the Venetian Emilia Ferrari (1848-1938) under the name Ermanno Wolf and later added the birth name of his mother to his surname. In fact, his music perfectly combines Italian grace, lightness and cantabile with German intimacy and depth. …

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Walter Braunfels – Orchestral Suite from The Glass Mountain op. 39b

(19 December 1882, Frankfurt am Main – 19 March 1954, Cologne)

For many decades, silence shrouded the composer Walter Braunfels. Following Hitler’s seizure of power, Braunfels’ rapidly ascendant career came to an end, and he disappeared from public consciousness until the 1990s, when his music experienced a gradual renaissance. Through the efforts of Braunfels’ grandchildren, the opera The Birds [Die Vögel] was staged with an all-star cast, Ulenspiegel was brought to light again and the Capriccio label began systematically to record Braunfels’ works, enticing viewers with eye-catching designs.

Braunfels grew up in a household that exhibited a lively interest in culture – his mother Helene Spohr was a grandniece of the composer Louis Spohr and kept in active contact with Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt; Braunfels’ father, the lawyer Ludwig Braunfels, died three years after Walter was born. Following an education at home with his mother, Walter Braunfels attended Hoch’s Conservatory in Frankfurt, but later enrolled to study law and economics in Munich. After hearing a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Braunfels felt drawn back to music, and consequently went to Vienna to study piano with Theodor Leschetitzky and theory with Karl Nawratil. Returning to Munich, he continued his studies with Ludwig Thuille and joined Felix Mottl’s class – it was indeed Mottl’s performance of Tristan and Isolde that had brought Braunfels back into the musical fold. …

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Siegmund von Hausegger – Wieland der Schmied

(b. Graz, 6. May 1872 – d. Munich 10. October 1948)

Siegmund von Hausegger finished his third and last symphonic poem Wieland der Schmied on March 26th, 1904. Its premier was the same year. The inspiration was Wagner’s literary fragment of that name. Characteristically, Hausegger’s treatment is less convoluted and more idealistic. He prefaced the score with an outline of its program, summarized here:

The power and fame his arts have created do not suffice for Wieland; he yearns for more. A swan-maiden hovers, descends out of the sky and inclines towards Wieland. He reaches out, but, frightened by his singeing subterranean fire, she flies away. Powerless to follow, he collapses, assailed by the paralyzing thought that he who would be lord of the skies is bound insolubly to the earth.

The vision of Schwanhilde fades; a cripple, Wieland stumbles friendless through his life. Of what use is his art, power, fame? The pain of longing builds up to a cry for redemption.

Suddenly, the lethargy melts away. The transfiguring and blissful vision of Schwanhilde rises within him. His strength returns, bolder than ever. His art will carry him to luminous heights!

He forges himself wings of glittering steel. From the sky, the voice of Schwanhilde calls. Free of earthly woes, he spreads his mighty wings and flies up to his woman. United in love, the couple soars into the sun.  …

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Harald Sæverud – second string quartet

(17. April 1897 – 27. March 1992)

Harald Sæverud was born in Bergen, the son of a respected and modestly wealthy business man and a devout mother. When Sæverud was 12 years old, disaster hit the household: his father, with his business partners, was found guilty of tax evasion and became bankrupt. He was sent to jail for three months. It was at this time that young Harald began to write music, perhaps as an inner escape from grim reality. His first formal studies took place at the Bergen conservatoire where his main teacher was the pianist and composer Borghild Holmsen (1865- 1938). By the time he was 17 Sæverud was working on his first symphony, often skipping school in order to do so.
Between 1920 and 1922 Sæverud studied at the Berlin Hochschule. While there a wealthy friend hired the Berlin Philharmonic for the first performance of Overtura Apassionata.
Later in life Sæverud would claim that he learned nothing in Berlin, and that his only teachers were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. However, letters from the period show that he did in fact learn a lot in Berlin, where he studied with Friederich Koch (1862 – 1927).
Upon returning to Norway in 1922 he slowly built a reputation as one of the country’s most promising young composers, making ends meet as a music critic and by giving piano lessons. He received unexpected encouragement from Carl Nielsen (1865 –1931), who wrote Sæverud a letter expressing his great enthusiasm for his Five Capricci for piano, op. 1.
Harmonien (today known as Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra) would eventually become Sæverud’s main expressive outlet. The ensemble went on to premiere many of his orchestral works.  …

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Smetana, Bedrich – The Two Widows

Comic opera in two acts (Vocal score with German and Czech libretto)

(b. Litomyšl, 2 March 1824 – d. Prague, 12 May 1884)

Information about the opera:

“Mr. Smetana has an enormous salary as composer, conductor, artistic director, and director of the opera school. As a composer his activities are negligible. … As a conductor he is known by name only in the theater handbook. … As director of the opera school he has an immense timetable: two lectures since the school began. … In short, Mr. Smetana must be considered a nothing – a zero – a blank!” (František Pivoda, Politik, 12 September 1874)

Thus the climate of conservative opinion that greeted Bedřich Smetana in 1874, expressed in a tone we are more likely to associate today with weblog cranks. History has proven Pivoda wrong, of course, but it was this climate that surrounded and gave rise to Smetana‘s fifth opera, The Two Widows (Dvě vdovy). Intent on creating a broad repertoire of national opera – that is, operas written to Czech librettos on Czech subjects in a distinctively Czech musical idiom – he had already produced a historical romance on a Sir Walter Scott-like medieval subject (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, 1866), a folk comedy in a rural setting (The Bartered Bride, 1866), and a lofty heroic tragedy (Dalibor, 1868) and had completed the score to his great pageant on the founding of the Czech nation, Libuše. But the virulent reception given to Dalibor in the press, where it was accused (among other things) of introducing Germanic Wagnerisms into the nascent language of Czech opera, caused him to hold back on mounting Libuše, which he knew would invite attacks at the same level of ferocity (eventually it was produced in 1881 to inaugurate the newly built Prague National Opera). Instead, Smetana turned his mind to a lighter subject and wrote what he termed a “conversational” opera, one in which the Czech language would be put to use on more homely themes than the historical or legendary subjects of its four predecessors. To quote the composer’s own words, “I purposely gave the music a certain style so that the elegance of the drawing-room should be joined with tenderness and nobility. It was an attempt … to write an opera for once in an elevated drawing-room style” (letter of 21 February 1882 to Ludevít Procháska).  …

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