Thursday, November 8, 2007

Three Untimely Deaths

Episode Number: 011
Title: Three Untimely Deaths
Introduction Music: Chaconne for Violin - J.S. Bach
Narrated by Nicolas Caporale - Recorded November 8, 2007

Jean-Baptiste de Lully was a French Baroque composer of Italian origins. He is mostly known for adapting Italian opera for the French language. He became a court composer for Louis XIV of France in 1661 when the king came to power. Later this year Lully was naturalized as a French citizen. He wrote many ballets, opera, as well as various vocal and instrumental pieces. He became very famous working under the King and later was considered to be one of the King’s closest friends. By the time he was fifty-years old he had reached the peak of his career. He had already been involved in some scandals and legal disputes but he never lost the King’s favor. However, in the 1680s he seduced a male page that was assigned to him and thought he had enough popularity to flaunt this. This was inexcusable by the King and Lully was forced to find a new patron. In 1687 Lully was conducting his own Te Deum (which is a hymn of praise) that he wrote in honor of King Louis’s recovery from an illness. In these days the conductor’s baton had not been “invented” yet. Instead, a staff was used to beat the time against the floor. Lully accidentally smashed his foot, causing an abscess which eventually turned gangrenous. He died on March 22, 1687 as a result from this self-inflicted wound at the age of 55.

Maurice Ravel is another notable French composer that was a contemporary of Claude Debussy. He is considered a composer of the impressionist period, though not all of his works are impressionistic. Ravel considered himself a classicist, as he used many forms and the structure of Classical music as a foundation for his innovative and subtle harmonies. His most famous works are Bolero, his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Le Tombeau de Couperin, String Quartet in F, and Pavane pour une infante défunte (which can be heard at the end of the previous episode). In 1932, while riding in a taxi Ravel hit his head, but at the time it did not seem like a major injury. However, he later developed aphasia, which is a brain disorder that causes an inability to either write language or speak it. For the next five years Ravel suffered immensely as he was barely able to even sign his own name. Writing music was out of the question. His condition slowly got worse over the next five years and in 1937 his brother, Edouard Ravel, took him to the rue Boileau Clinic for tests. Unbeknownst to Maurice, his friends and doctors had decided to attempt an experimental operation to try and cure him (since he was only getting worse and not better). Brain surgery was still experimental and primitive in these days and as a result, Ravel died. Doctors were hoping to find a tumor but instead they found part of his brain collapsed. They injected it with serous fluid but Ravel only regained consciousness for a few moments, before slipping into a coma. He died nine days later at the age of 62.

Anton Webern was an Austrian composer who studied under Arnold Schoenberg in the early twentieth century. There he met Alban Berg, who also was one of Schoenberg’s first pupils. The three of them constituted what became known as the Second Viennese School of composition, though others are considered to be a part but not as important as these first two pupils of Schoenberg. Webern only wrote thirty-one pieces that he assigned opus numbers to. Opus is Latin for “a work” and works that are officially published are usually assigned Opus numbers. The music of the Second Viennese school departed from conventional tonality and made use of atonality. Atonality is a system of composing music that lacks any key or tonic note. This means each of the twelve pitches are equal, and the music is not required to return to any particular note. This music was banned by the Nazis when they came to power in the 1930s and was listed as “degenerate” music. Webern found it nearly impossible to make a living during this time and was forced to work as a proofreader for his publishers. Near the end of World War II Webern moved to Mittersill (near Salzburg) from Vienna hoping it would be safer for him and his family. While the Allied forces occupied Vienna they imposed curfews and Mittersill was no exception. One evening Webern stepped out after dark to enjoy a cigar so he didn’t have to bother his grandchildren with the smoke. An American soldier accidentally shot and killed him. He died at the age of 60.


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