It's Gift-Giving Season. All Year.
The Christmas season is the main gift-giving time of the year, and so many of us stress out over the perfect gift for the friend who has everything... your child’s wonderful teacher, the spouse who put up with you – er, I mean, your loving spouse – the previous 365.
Our commitment to finding that perfect gift boils down to one thing: we want to delight our giftees because we really care about them and want them to know it.
Classical music composers are no different from us. They also give gifts to their circle of friends, family, patrons, and even people whom they admire. Instead of running out to a mall, however, some composers have, over the years, shared their “personal gifts” of talent and imagination through music. Here are just some of those lovely musical gifts.
Let’s start with an actual Christmas gift! Composer Engelbert Humperdinck wrote a “singspiel” for voices and piano for his fiancée for Christmas, 1890. It was based on the children’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” by the Brothers Grimm. She was so delighted with her gift that Humperdinck decided to orchestrate it the following year. He gave the now full opera to her, now his wife, on Christmas of 1891.
Richard Strauss conducted the premiere on December 23, 1893, and the piece, an audience favorite from the beginning, has long been associated with Christmastime. Here are Hansel (Kate Lindsey) and Gretel (Aleksandra Kurzak) singing their "Evening Prayer." Robin Ticciati conducts the Metropolitan Opera.
Just a personal note, my parents took me to see a performance of the opera when I was really young, maybe 5. I don’t remember where it was performed or anything about the performance except that I thought it was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen, and I had already been to the Ice Capades that Christmas! I loved that my parents believed in shared experiences as Christmas gifts.
A WCRB listener favorite is the Minuet in G from Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook. Bach wrote original tunes for this collection and also copied over other composers’ works. The 42 pieces were compiled in a large green notebook with his second wife’s initials on the cover, and the year 1725 in gold. The edges of the book were also gilded.
This painstakingly hand copied collection must have wowed Anna Magdalena. Imagine your spouse not only writing or choosing the music, but then creating this one-of-a-kind book just for you so that you could enjoy playing your harpsichord in your free time! While we credit Bach with that above-mentioned Minuet, it is also attributed to Christian Petzold. Here’s a Bach expert, Angela Hewitt, playing her custom-made Fazioli.
Two beautiful gifts were written for outstanding guitarists of the day. First, Joaquín Rodrigo’s 1954 gift to the great Andrés Segovia, Fantasía para un gentilhombre, (Fantasy for a Gentleman), was based on 17th century dance tunes by Gaspar Sanz. In fact, Rodrigo’s movements retained the titles Sanz gave his dances.
Can it be considered an actual gift since Segovia asked for a piece of music written just for him? In this case, yes, because Rodrigo was thrilled to honor the great guitarist this way. Here’s Segovia playing the third movement of what became his signature piece with the Symphony of the Air, Enrique Jorda conducting.
English composer Richard Harvey wrote his Concerto Antico as a gift for the internationally renowned Australian guitarist John Williams. Unlike the Rodrigo, Harvey’s 1995 work was entirely original. Gramophone Magazine said that in his notes, Harvey wrote that he hoped to stretch Williams’s technique by “writing the impossible.” The thing is, John Williams is a guitarist of perfection and polish. Here he is playing the second movement, titled “Contredanse,” with the London Symphony Orchestra, Paul Daniel conducting.
Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated about a half dozen pieces to his royal patron and composition student Archduke Rudolf, including the “Archduke” Piano Trio, the Violin Sonata, Op. 96, and the Missa Solemnis. My favorite story concerned the Piano Sonata No. 26, known as “Les Adieux.”
When Napoleon Bonaparte led the French attack on Vienna, Archduke Rudolf and his family were forced to leave. The first movement, titled “The Farewell,” was written while Rudolf was still in Vienna. The second movement, “The Absence,” was written during his exile, and Beethoven said he would not write the final movement, “The Welcome Home,” until the Archduke was able to return. The Archduke did a year later, and as promised, Beethoven finished and dedicated it to him. Here’s the whole piece played by Daniel Barenboim.
Let’s end all this gift-giving with another Christmas present. For their Christmas card in 1897, Edward Elgar and his wife sent a copy of a little part song he wrote to an essay, “Grete Malverne on a Rocke,” about his hometown, in the book Historic Worcestershire.
About 10 years later, Elgar’s friend and retired former publisher J.A. Jaeger, asked the publishing company Novello to turn that Christmas card tune into an actual Christmas carol. They agreed and published “A Carol for Christmastide” with lyrics by poet Sharpcott Wensley. Here is The Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by David Temple.
Coda: Just sharing a lovely quote about gift giving from Danny Castillones-Sillada who said, “The essence of gift-giving does not rely on material things, but on something transcendent, as if it were the last and the only thing that one could willingly give, that gently makes the soul smile.”