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From One Composer to Another, a Toast!

photos by Lanty

When we think about the great classical composers, we usually think about them creating some of the most respected, trailblazing, and even beloved pieces we know, all of which elevated their personal place in music history. But many of them also wrote music in honor of other composers. Here are a few that come to mind:

One of the more famous homages is Peter Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, which is subtitled “Mozartiana.” Tchaikovsky always made it clear that he was Mozart’s biggest fan. You could say that he went “looking for an excuse” to produce something in Mozart’s honor and found it in 1887 when he wrote this piece to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. It might surprise you, then, to know that he didn’t use any pieces or themes from the opera. Instead, he took three of Mozart’s solo piano pieces, and one piece by Christoph Willibald Gluck, also based on a Mozart theme, and orchestrated them. Here’s a recording of Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.

The renowned choreographer George Balanchine liked Tchaikovsky’s “Mozartiana” enough to stage a ballet based on the music. He actually did so twice: his first version was for his own dance company, Les Ballets 1933. The better known 1981 version for the New York City Ballet’s Tchaikovsky Festival was Balanchine’s last major work.

Ottorino Respighi paid tribute to a fellow Italian composer whom he considered one of his musical heroes, Gioacchino Rossini, in much the same way Tchaikovsky honored Mozart. Actually, Respighi did so twice, using the same music both times. It began in 1919 when Respighi took four solo piano pieces by Rossini from a collection known as Sins of Old Age and turned them into a ballet he called La Boutique fantasque (The Magic Toyshop). Just a few years later, in 1925, Respighi took the same four pieces and re-orchestrated them as Rossiniana. Salvatore Di Vittorio conducts the Chamber Orchestra of New York.

While Respighi's reworked version of Rossiniana wasn't intended to be for the ballet, some recordings of the piece list it as ballet music.

In 1907 when he was 31, Spanish composer Manuel de Falla moved to Paris. He became acquainted with, and influenced by, some of the leading composers of the day, including Claude Debussy (who championed Fallas’s music), and Paul Dukas. He stayed there seven years before returning to his native Spain, where he composed some of his best-known pieces. In 1939 he moved again, this time to Argentina, where he lived out the rest of his life.

One of the first pieces he wrote there in 1938 was Hommages, four pieces in honor of some of the composers who had influenced his composition style: Enrique Fernández Arbós, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Felipe Pedrell. Debussy was French, but Falla wrote the tribute to him with a strong Spanish sound. He said it was to honor Debussy’s Piece en forme d’Habanera and La Soiree dans Grenade (Evening in Grenada). The piece is played by the legendary Julian Bream.

In 1954, the Polish composer Alexandre Tansman paid tribute to Falla. His Hommage a Manuel de Falla, for guitar and chamber orchestra, uses some of the rich Spanish sounds for which Falla was known. Here is guitarist Ermanno Brignolo, conductor Paolo Ferrara and Orchestra del conservatorio di Alessandria.

Hard to guess how Falla would have reacted to the piece in his honor. He was described by many as being humble.

Edvard Grieg’s final work for piano, Moods, was a collection of seven pieces composed between 1901 and 1905. Most relied on Norwegian folk tunes. One that stands out for its “different” sound was No. 5, which was subtitled “Hommage à Chopin.” It was the only one to pay tribute to another composer, and one of the shortest of the pieces. Cyprien Katsaris plays it here.

There are numerous other examples of pieces that honored other composers, whether they quoted from their works, like Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, or Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, or collected and re-orchestrated their works, such as Joaquín Rodrigo’s Soleriana (eight pieces by Antonio Soler). All were meant to show respect and gratitude to composers who came before them.

CODA: After all the hoopla from the 1984 movie Amadeus, Austrian musician Johann Holzel, whose stage name was Falco, had a huge “Euro-technopop” hit titled Rock Me Amadeus. In the lyrics he honors his fellow countryman, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, by describing him as a superstar whom everyone loved, as they’d call out to him “Come and rock me, Amadeus...”

By the way, Rock Me Amadeus reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1986. That’s right. Mozart.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.