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Music manuscripts from the 17th and 18th centuries in the British Library

- December 3, 2013 in beethoven, British Library, CC, classical, classical music, collections, Curator's Choice, Digital Copy: No Additional Rights, handel, haydn, Images, Music, purcell, Underlying Work: PD Worldwide

CURATOR’S CHOICE #6: SANDRA TUPPEN FROM THE BRITISH LIBRARY Sandra Tuppen, curator of Music Manuscripts at the British Library, explores some highlights from their digitised collection of music manuscripts, including those penned by the hand of Haydn, Handel, Purcell, and a very messy Beethoven. Ever since the earliest methods of notating music were devised, composers and scribes have written out music by hand – on vellum in the medieval period and subsequently on paper. (Only now is this beginning to change, with the advent of computer programs for music notation.) Even after the perfecting of music printing techniques in the 16th century, when music was printed using moveable type and later by engraving, and the burgeoning of a trade in music publishing, much music continued to be written out by hand and circulated in manuscript. Printing music was expensive, time-consuming and complex; copying out music by hand could be done relatively cheaply and quickly, especially when a few copies only of a particular composition were needed. In the 17th and 18th centuries, music was written out in manuscript for several purposes. These included the creation of ‘master copies’ from which further handwritten copies could be made when required, the provision […]

A Closer Look at Richard Wagner’s Manuscripts

- May 22, 2013 in classical music, collections, composer, Images, Images-19th, Images-Illumination, manuscripts, Music, richard wagner, score, wagner, zoomology

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, one of the most influential and controversial composers ever to have lived. With his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) – by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts – he revolutionised opera and gave birth to such masterpieces as Tristan und Isolde and the epic four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. If his music was sublime, his political views regarding “race” were far from it – in his writings he frequently expressed anti-semitic views (particularly in his racist tract Judaism in Music). The beauty of his music and the vileness of some of his political opinions (complicated by the fact that he was reported to have had life-long Jewish friends), make him a continuing source of intrigue and debate for scholars the world over. To mark the anniversary the British Library have made available online its collection of Wagner manuscripts, mostly from early on in his career. The manuscripts come from the huge music-related manuscript collection of the great Austrian writer and music obsessive Stefan Zweig (whose writings, incidentally, passed into the public domain this year). Zweig acquired the Wagner manuscripts [...]

Almost as good as Presley: Caruso the pop idol

- February 13, 2012 in al jolson, Articles, classical music, early recording, enrico caruso, Music, opera, over there

When he died in 1921 the singer Enrico Caruso left behind him approximately 290 commercially released recordings, and a significant mark upon on the opera world including more than 800 appearances at the New York Met. John Potter, singer and author of Tenor: History of a Voice, explores Caruso’s popular appeal and how he straddled the divide between ‘pop’ and ‘classical’.

Caruso in 1910, photograph by the Laveccha Studio, Chicago (Source: Library of Congress)


‘…Then someone sat me down last night and I heard Caruso sing / He’s almost as good as Presley…’

Ben Watt (Everything But The Girl), from ‘The Night I heard Caruso Sing’, Idlewild.


Every generation seems to reinvent the tenor as something closer to a pop star than an opera star. The Three Tenors were among the late 20th century’s great musical marketing successes, and the brightest star that they acknowledged in the tenor firmament was cinema heart throb Mario Lanza. Lanza himself claimed Enrico Caruso as his greatest influence and famously played him on screen, reminding a wider audience that there was nothing incompatible with classical tenors and genuine popularity, whatever they were singing. Although many fine divas stamped their mark on early recording, it was the tenor voice of Caruso which was the defining voice of the early twentieth century. His reputation was due to the fact that people could not only hear him in their own homes, but that his success could actually be measured in record sales; he was the first global superstar of the gramophone era. Such celebrity wasn’t new in what we think of as classical music, however, it was not uncommon in the nineteenth century for opera singers (such as Adelina Patti or Giuditta Pasta) to meet with the kind of reception we associate with pop stars. The fact is, there was no equivalent of today’s mass popular music – and nothing like today’s classical (in the sense of unpopular) either. Popular entertainment took a huge variety of forms from conjuring to celebrity whistling but singing was in the end just singing, and the best singers were opera singers largely because they had the best tunes. They all shared a basic level of vocality: even a vaudeville personality had to have voice enough to carry right to the back of a theatre: crooning and the intimate nuances enabled by the microphone were still in the future when Caruso died in 1921.

Caruso with a flower in 1913 (Source: Library of Congress)

Caruso listening to his own voice on a Victor phonograph machine in 1913 (Source: Library of Congress)

Three years earlier he was at the height of his fame. His many triumphs in 1918 included a Carnegie Hall debut (at one of several hugely successful find raising galas) and recording the patriotic song ‘Over There’ which would become the best selling recording by an opera singer for generations to come, putting him alongside Al Jolson as one of the century’s most successful recording artists to date. ‘Over There’ was certainly not an opera aria, and although Caruso was practically resident at the Metropolitan Opera for seventeen years his best selling records were actually lighter music such as Neapolitan songs and ‘Italian airs’. It was his voice that his public wanted, and they’d buy into whatever he chose to record. That same year Al Jolson did a recital of his own songs with the 50 strong Boston Symphony Orchestra, having a month or two earlier followed Caruso on stage at a marathon concert in New York sponsored by the Army Tank Corps Welfare League in aid of returning soldiers. It was the first time Jolson uttered his famous catch phrase ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet’, a response to Caruso’s rousing performance of Italian war songs culminating in a rendering of ‘Over There’ which had brought the house down. The two singers, both European émigrés who had conquered America, were then probably the most successful singers on earth. Although Jolson the entertainer and Caruso the opera singer inhabited different musical worlds, there were clearly circumstances where their respective arts could appeal to similar audiences and even happen at the same venue. Both singers’ biographers tend to be rather reticent on the connections between these two great stars, but we know that they appreciated each other’s place in the scheme of things, and even each other’s singing. After their performances for the Tank Corps, Caruso invited Jolson back to his hotel room, and is said to have suggested they sing together at the Met. He may have been joking of course, and Jolson knew he wasn’t himself an opera singer, but the fact that he could make himself heard over a 50 piece orchestra shows that Jolson would have had no problem with the vast acoustic space of the world’s most famous opera theatre. Jolson and Caruso duetting on the opera stage is not as improbable as it might seem (had they been able to agree on what to sing): two months later the erstwhile vaudeville artiste Rosa Ponselle made her Met debut opposite Caruso himself in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino.

Drawing by Caruso depicting the rehearsals for the world premiere of La fanciulla del West at the Met in 1910 (Source: Metropolitan Opera Archives)

Vaudeville singers at the Met? Caruso able to duet with someone who called himself a jazz singer? How could such things possibly happen? Before amplification divided singers into those who were proper singers and those who might not be, all singers had to make themselves heard at the back of the hall, whether they were opera singers, vaudeville entertainers or blues shouters. That’s why so many ‘popular’ singers recording at the beginning of the 20th century sound so stilted and stylised – to project their voices a long way they had to sing with their larynxes lower than in normal speech. That maximised their acoustic efficiency and as a by-product gave them the richer sound that we now associate with classical singers. If they were singing in English it also generated the deeper vowels associated with Received Pronunciation (the non-regional accent sometimes called BBC English). Caruso and Jolson, faced with having to fill a vaudeville theatre or an opera house with sound, inevitably adopted a similar technique: there was no other way to sing in large theatres or halls, so they had much more in common vocally than, say, Placido Domingo and Sting.

(Caruso singing vowels from Caruso’s method of voice production, by P. Mario Mariafioti, 1922 – click to enlarge)

Many people would have bought both singers’ records and may not have been very conscious of the different genres that they were later seen to represent. The idea of music being categorised as ‘popular’ or ‘classical’ would have meant very little to the man on the famous Clapham omnibus. Caruso didn’t see a big difference between a Puccini aria and a Neapolitan folk song – they were both ‘popular’ and likely to appear beside each other in recital programmes. Verdi and Puccini knew, as composers for generations before them had known, that the secret of a successful opera was to hit the punters with a stand-alone stonking good tune every now and again, a format which supported a huge sheet music industry and the burgeoning record business. For every person who heard an opera at the Met or Covent Garden, there was a potentially infinite number of record buyers or people who would sing the arias round the piano at home, alongside the ‘popular’ songs of entertainers such as Al Jolson. Jolson was aware that opera was of sufficiently high status to make it worth satirising, as in his hilarious (at the time) Pagliacci sketch. He knows exactly how opera singing works (he was the son of a cantor, who hoped for greater things from his absurdly ambitious offspring) but he surely understood that he could really only play one role: that of Al Jolson. Caruso was a huge success in many (carefully chosen) roles but his more serious repertoire didn’t give him many opportunities to shine simply as an entertainer.

Al Jolson as featured on the cover of the sheet music to When Grown Up Ladies Act Like Babies, published by Maurice Abrahams Music Corp., New York, 1913

But that didn’t stop him equalling Jolson in popularity. It wasn’t just patriotic songs and Italian lollipops: the big tunes that came out of the realistic plots and less cluttered singing of verismo opera were enormously successful too. In the first quarter of the 20th century (roughly between the first recordings and the first radio broadcasts) the worlds of what we now think of as the classical and popular were still tantalisingly close, with the difference between singers of the calibre of Caruso and Jolson often just one of repertoire and a certain sort of public engagement. As the century progressed they would become increasingly polarised: composers, divorced from private patronage but often indirectly supported by the state, could indulge in the luxury of writing music that very few people wanted to hear, while the microphone rendered over-blown natural vocal projection unnecessary for those excited by the possibilities of a more subtle vocal delivery. Opera singers retained their stylised vocality with its inevitable loudness, growing in status but contracting in reach with each generation. The mass audience that had been there for Rossini and Verdi preferred the immediate emotional hit provided by crooners, a direct mouth-to-ear experience which they could enjoy with friends at home rather than brave the stratified world of the opera house; ‘classical’ came to mean the opposite of ‘popular’.

Caruso examining a bust sculpture of himself in 1914 (Source: Library of Congress

Caruso would know nothing of this: he would continue to sing from beyond the grave, but increasingly on the wrong side of the growing divisions between the two genres. The 21st century is beginning to see (and hear) things differently, though, and many of us now take a broader view of Caruso’s art and achievement. ‘Over There’ has even been plundered for a TV commercial (which I’m sure Caruso would have enjoyed), but Ben Watt comparing the great tenor with Elvis Presley is a sign of more enlightened times. The digital age gives us unfettered access to the whole of music, unfiltered by snobbery and tradition, and perhaps Caruso can be released from the stale old classical ghetto: in his time he was indeed as good as Elvis.

John Potter is the author of Tenor: History of a Voice (Yale University Press 2009 & 2010). His latest book, A History of Singing, jointly written with ethnomusicologist Neil Sorrell, is published this month by Cambridge University Press. A former member of the Hilliard Ensemble, he records for ECM (the Dowland Project) and Hyperion (Red Byrd and the Conductus Project), with new releases on both labels later this year.

Links to Works


Please note these Caruso recordings are in the public domain in the European Union, but may not be in other jurisdictions (e.g. the US). Please check its status in your jurisdiction before re-using.

Caruso Collected Works Part 1 (scroll down within the playlist to access all 100 tracks, visit Internet Archive for downloading options)

Caruso Collected Works Part 2 (scroll down within the playlist to access all 28 tracks, visit Internet Archive for downloading options)

  • Caruso’s method of voice production: the scientific culture of the voice, by P. Mario Mariafioti (1922)
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What Makes Franz Liszt Still Important?

- October 17, 2011 in Articles, classical music, franz liszt, leon botstein, Music

This week sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, explores what we can still learn from the life and music of Liszt. Marking anniversaries of the birth and death of historic figures, particularly in music, is somewhat akin to commemorating annually the date of death of family members. It is never quite clear whether we are struggling to remember those to whom we were once close as we pursue our lives without them, all in an effort to assuage the guilt that comes with the natural tendency to forget, or whether we are indulging in a form of nostalgia, shaped in part by using the selective memory of the past to make claims about what our present and future lives ought to be but have seemingly little chance of becoming. And as we commemorate we rarely penetrate beneath the surface of received opinion, revising a set of inherited judgments. In our concert life these anniversaries become easy excuses to justify a comfortable and unexamined account of what history has bequeathed as “great” music. Marking the 100th or 200th anniversary rarely leads to a change in the concert repertory. We belabor the obvious. One might consider the Gustav Mahler centenary in 1960 as an exception since it took place at the beginning of a Mahler revival. But the two-year extended Mahler remembrances that are justified by the 100th anniversary of his death (2011) and the 150th of his birth (2010) have functioned to ossify a sentimental historical portrait and further enshrine the central place Mahler’s music has in the orchestral repertory.

The Four ages of Franz Liszt, as published in The Etude magazine, 1913.

The case of Franz Liszt, who was born in 1811 and died in 1886, is more complex. Celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth ought to have been an opportunity to revisit a figure who helped define Romanticism, the role of the piano on the stage and in the home, and, most importantly, how music functions for most of the literate public. Yet our attention to him remains largely muted and ambivalent. Only a few of his works are still in the standard orchestral repertory — the piano concertos and one tone poem Les Preludes. Pianists bring out a few select works in recital, mostly to display the virtuosity they demand. This is in stark contrast to Chopin, his contemporary, whom Liszt championed. The choral and organ music are never performed. If one compares this to Liszt’s output, not only for the piano, (which is gargantuan in scope), one cannot help but be struck by the obscurity that most of his music has fallen into. The last effort in a major city to revive Liszt’s music took place in New York in the 1970s under the leadership of Pierre Boulez. If we choose to remember Liszt more than in passing, it is as the legendary and charismatic personality he was, with all its complexities — his notorious love life, his turn to religion, his relationship with Richard Wagner and Wagner’s second wife, Liszt’s daughter Cosima. There never has been a better subject in music history for a Hollywood movie. He was classical music’s most successful, colorful, and long-lived superstar; he acquired and retained more groupies than any one before or since.

Photograph of Franz Liszt taken in 1858, featured in Die berühmten Musiker by Lacroix Jean, Kunstverlag by Lucien Mazenod, 1946.

We may also choose to recall that he was likely the greatest and most facile pianist that ever lived and perhaps the most influential teacher of the instrument. Liszt’s pupils and their pupils dominated the musical landscape for generations. He defined the personality of the concert pianist, even though, ironically, Liszt gave up concertizing relatively early in his career. Perhaps we also acknowledge Liszt’s uncommon generosity to and support for his contemporary composers, from Chopin and Wagner to Grieg and Saint-Saëns, as well as his influence on a younger generation, including Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Jean Sibelius. As the bicentenary comes to a close without much ado, what have we missed? What indeed might we still learn and profit from taking a deeper and more comprehensive look at Liszt and his career? First, Liszt ought to remind us that our approach to music should not be dependent on some construct of nationality that helps prop up the popularity of a composer. Reputations in classical music after Beethoven seem increasingly dependent on nationalist enthusiasms. We seek Hungarians to perform Bartók, Russians Tchaikovsky, the English Elgar, the French Debussy, and Americans Copland and Ives. Liszt defies this easy categorization. He was at one and the same time crucial to what we now regard as quintessentially Hungarian, German, and French. His reach as an artist and composer transcended national categories and reminds us of the limitations of nationalist appropriations and stereotypes.

Top: Hungarian Stamp from 1961 celebrating 150th anniversary of Liszt's birth. Bottom: German stamp from 1996 celebrating the 100th anniversary of his death.

Second, Liszt’s art bridged all genres. At the heart of his music for the piano was improvisation, an art sadly lost in what we now term classical music. Few, if any classical musicians can do it. Notation in his piano music sought to mirror an art that was spontaneous and tied to a moment of performance. His elaborations and fantasies for the piano based on the operatic works of others suggest many ways of freely adapting and altering music we like and wish to remember. The same can said for his transcriptions of works by Bach and Beethoven, where music written for one medium is translated into another. Liszt’s piano versions of the Beethoven symphonies (Beethoven was a composer Liszt venerated and spent a lifetime advocating) were particular favorites of that brilliant eccentric, Glenn Gould. We musicians would be well served by following Liszt’s example by liberating ourselves from some delusive ideology of faithfulness to historic texts, adapting old and new music into the framework of our own new music, and altering it to reach a generation of listeners accustomed to new sounds and a novel acoustic environment. Liszt did that using the piano, and by so doing he helped create an enthusiastic audience of spectators. Third, Liszt pioneered in rendering music an art form connected to literature, painting, and narration. His notion that instrumental music can and should evoke character, landscape, plot, emotion, and ideas (for example in his tone poem Die Ideale, based on Schiller) laid the groundwork for what we now take for granted as the musical semantics and rhetoric we encounter in music for film and television. The magic in Liszt was that just music alone sufficed to spur the audience’s imagination. Playing Liszt and listening to his work reminds us of the power of music to tell and augment a story and evoke and embellish a memory. This is particularly the case with respect to the connection between spirituality and religion and music, as Liszt’s late orchestral work From the Cradle to the Grave and his massive oratorio Christus make clear.

Pastel impression of Liszt by the German artist Franz von Lenbach (1836–1904), ca. 1880, currently at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Fourth, Liszt was a tireless innovator, never content to repeat himself. Without Liszt’s experiments in the uses of harmony and sonority and the shape of musical form (for example, the stress on single melodies and motives and therefore imaginative repetition in works of considerable duration) much of late Romanticism and Modernism, particularly that associated with Wagner, would be unthinkable. He harbored few prejudices and was, to the end of his days, receptive to the work of younger composers and enthusiastic about new ideas — as his generous treatment of Russian composers amply suggests. We live in too segmented an environment, where the classical and the popular are still segregated, except for occasional all too facile efforts at so-called crossover works and events. Originality was just one of the goals Liszt pursued. He borrowed happily from others and sought to integrate diverse influences into a synthetic and syncretic expressive musical art form. That expansive tendency helped lend him early on in his career as a composer the ill deserved reputation of being all too facile and superficial. Fifth, consistent with his adherence to improvisation and transcription, he defined interpretation as a creative act, even when performing a Beethoven sonata, as close to a “sacred” text as exists in the 19th-century piano literature. He added and subtracted, inserted transitions, and refashioned the meaning of historic masterpieces. Perhaps the best known is his adaptation of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy into a work for piano and orchestra. A more protean, gifted, generous, and versatile figure in music’s history can hardly be imagined, one who sought to keep the past alive and to link tradition with the contemporary. From Liszt we can learn that mere imitation and endless repetition of the same will not do and will condemn an art form to a form of living death. Virtuoso par excellence that he was, he despised mere athleticism in music — the single-minded obsession with speed, accuracy, circuslike tricks, and above all, arbitrary affectation in the rendering of music, attributes that have come to define our contemporary concert life. He demanded that performance and composition be kept together and define the performing musician. And yet he reveled in the theater of performance, with lightness and irony.

Photograph of Liszt in his music room in Weimar in 1884 - published in Modern Music and Musicians, University Society, New York, 1918

However, in order to gain the full measure of Liszt’s achievement and to benefit from his example far more of his music needs to be heard on the concert stage. Two great symphonic works, the Dante and Faust symphonies—although they have made periodic comebacks—need to be a regular part of the repertory. The same applies to the many orchestral tone poems, from Orpheus to Tasso. And the great choral music (the Missa solennis and the 13th Psalm, for example) should return to active life and take their place alongside the Mozart Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. Last but not least, there is the endless treasure trove of piano music well beyond the Transcendental Etudes. Liszt was the first composer-performer to find ways, as a pianist and conductor, to reach a wide public, to make music accessible and enjoyable to more than a self-styled elite of connoisseurs. He did so by connecting music to the public’s wider interests, in poetry and prose, in politics, in history, and in art and religion. He wrote on music, including a biography of Chopin. He ran a court theater in Weimar where he gave the first performances of Wagner’s Lohengrin and Schumann’s Genoveva. He laid the foundations of Hungary’s modern musical life by founding Budapest’s conservatory. He used his fame and artistry on behalf of political and humanitarian causes. What we can and must learn from Liszt is precisely what it means to be a musician, and to be, as a musician, at the center of a community’s political and cultural life, and to do so fearlessly, courageously, and generously. He set an example of what it requires to be, truly, a citizen of the world as a composer and performer, as one who broke rules and conventions to chart new paths. That was the message contained in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1911 centenary appreciation of Liszt. The very same exhortation needs repeating a century later. The difference is that in 1911 Liszt the composer had become largely derided. Today he is no longer controversial, just neglected.

Franz Liszt Fantasising at the Piano (1840) by Josef Danhauser - depicting Liszt playing in a Parisian salon on a grand piano made by Conrad Graf, who commissioned the painting; on the piano is a bust of Ludwig van Beethoven by Anton Dietrich; the imagined gathering shows seated Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, Franz Liszt, Marie d'Agoult; standing Hector Berlioz or Victor Hugo, Niccolò Paganini, Gioachino Rossini; and a portrait of Byron on the wall.



Leon Botstein is music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. He is founder and coartistic director of the Bard Music Festival, which celebrates its 22nd season this year at Bard College, the institution he has served as president since 1975. He is the editor of The Musical Quarterly and the author of many articles and books. For his contributions to music he has received the Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Centennial Medal of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art. He is a recipient of the Carnegie Foundation’s Academic Leadership Award and a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Links to Works


  • Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – The Philadelphia Orchestra performing Stokowski’s orchestration. Recorded in 1926 and 1927.
Download and more info from Internet Archive
  • Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (part 1) – Performed by the Edison Concert Band in 1913.
Download and more info from Internet Archive
  • Concerto for Piano No.1 in E flat major – Antal Dorati conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Artur Rubinstein, pianist. Recorded in 1947.
  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Quasi adagio
  3. Allegro vivace
  4. Allegro marziale animato
Download and more info from Internet Archive
  • Liebestraume – Performed by Martha Goldstein on an 1851 Erard piano.
Download and more info from Internet Archive