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COMPOSERS’ CALLING CARDS

BACH’S MASTERFUL ART of the Fugue is based on a four-note theme: B flat, A, C, and B. In the musical notation of his time, this spells B-A-C-H. What a calling card!

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750, German composer extraordinaire in the Baroque period. Below, title page of Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080, first edition, published in 1751. See also smalin’s video of The Art of the Fugue, Contrapuntus 1.


Other composers have left musical calling cards as well. Tidbits follow, gleaned from here and there.

Haydn’s Messages. Joseph Haydn was instrumental in the development of chamber music as well as the symphonic form. He composed 106 symphonies between 1757 and 1795, much of his career spent as a composer for the Esterházy family.

Franz Joseph Haydn, 1732–1809, Austrian composer in the Classical period.

One of Haydn’s calling cards, The Farewell symphony, has already appeared here at SimanaitisSays. This is the one in which Haydn and his musicians all longed to go home after an extended summer Esterházy gig. As the piece draws to a close, one by one, each musician gets up and leaves the concert stage.

Another calling card came with Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, which earned the nickname The Surprise. Its message: Never doze off during a concert! Here’s why.

A City Favored by Mozart. Prague was special to Mozart. In 1786, his Marriage of Figaro was a big hit there and, in early 1787, to great local acclaim Mozart visited Prague for a month.

His Symphony No. 38 in D, K. 504, had its premiere as the Prague Symphony there on January 19, 1787. According to Wikipedia, Mozart “counted this day as one of the happiest in his life.”

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfganus Theophilis Mozart, 1756–1791, Austrian composer in the Classical period. Portrait by Barbara Kraft.

In the years between his first visit to Prague and his death in 1791, Mozart visited this city four more times. He supervised the premiere of Don Giovanni in late 1787, was there twice in 1789, and returned for the premiere of his penultimate opera, La Clemenza di Tito, on September 6, 1791. Though in failing health, Mozart also conducted the premiere of his last opera The Magic Flute there on September 30. On December 5, he died at age 35 in Vienna.

Had Prague been more than a provincial capital, Mozart might well have chosen to reside there. Instead, he had a post as musician to the Imperial court in Vienna.

Brahms’ Drinking Songs. In 1880, Johannes Brahms was awarded an honorary doctorate in philosophy at what was then the University of Breslau (now Poland’s University of Wroclaw). According to Wikipedia, Brahms loathed being a celebrity and intended to send a handwritten note of acknowledgement to the university.

Johannes Brahms, 1833–1897, German composer in the Romantic period. Along with Bach and Beethoven, one of the “Three B’s” of music.

Brahms was persuaded by a colleague that nothing less than a musical calling card was in order. He responded with the Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80. Wikipedia writes, “Brahms, who was known to be a curmudgeonly joker, filled his quota by creating a ‘very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs à la [light opera composer] Suppé.’ ”

This was the calling card equivalent of flicking it in through the mail slot.

Berg’s Palindrome. Alban Berg’s music took Romantic lyricism and enhanced it with the avant garde tonality of twelve-tone technique.

Alban Maria Johannes Berg, 1885–1935, Austrian composer of the Second Viennese School. Sketch by Emil Stumpp, 1927.

Berg’s opera Lulu was composed between 1929 and 1935, the year of his death at age 50. The opera was premiered incomplete in 1937, and not performed in completeness until 1979.

Berg’s posthumous calling card is a Lulu musical palindrome. According to Wikipedia, “Berg was obsessed with symmetry in his works, and Lulu is no exception… emphasized by Lulu’s husbands in Act I being played by the same singers as her clients in Act III. The motifs associated with each, being repeated.”

What’s more, in Act II there’s a film interlude accompanied by music that reads precisely the same, forwards or backwards.

A palindromic portion of Berg’s Lulu.

A palindromic score, twelve-tone musicality, Berg’s calling card is as unique as The Art of the Fugue’s B-A-C-H. ds

Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

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