Andrei Strizek

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Ottorino Respighi, 1879-1936

Continuing with birthday celebrations, Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was born July 9, 1879, in Bologna, Italy. He's probably best known his "Roman Trilogy" for orchestra, and for also being a musicologist and writing a number of pieces based on music from the 16th-18th centuries. He hasn't been favored by standard music history texts. Much like composers Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, he wasn't enough of a revolutionary to warrant much space in a Western music history text, but he remains a favorite of musicians and audiences alike.

My favorite Respighi piece, aside from the bombastic finale to The Pines of Rome (which speaks clearly to the low brass player inside me and was used to great effect in Fantasia 2000), is his Trittico Botticelliano (Three Botticelli Pictures). (I adore the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recording, but this version on YouTube is pretty good.)

I had the extreme fortune of visiting Florence, Italy, my junior year of college (when I studied abroad just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland). I took it upon myself to visit the Uffizi Gallery, where 2 of the 3 Botticelli paintings hang. I was aware of this, and purposely brought my Discman (this was pre-MP3 player) with my Orpheus CD and listened to those movements whilst standing in front of the paintings. Looking back, I probably wouldn't do that if I were to visit the museum today (for the first time), but it was a moving experience, nonetheless.

I remain in awe with Respighi's scoring in the third movement, especially, with how the piece seems to float through the air almost aimlessly. In my mind, its a perfect description of "The Birth of Venus." The double-reed writing in the second movement, based on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," is also fantastic.

Respighi is even lesser-known for his piano music, but his Nocturne is a wonderful piece.

Happy birthday, Signore Respighi! Know that your music is still played, heard and enjoyed today, 132 years after your birth.

Happy Birthday, Percy Grainger!

via Wikimedia CommonsAustralian-born composer Percy Aldridge Grainger was born on July 8, 1882. For a composer, performer and folk-song collector who had a place of importance and popularity during his lifetime, his stature has lessened in the intervening years.

Unless, that is, you're in the field of wind bands. Grainger holds a special place in the hearts of wind band conductors and performers. I was first introduced to him, as are many people, at a young age by playing his Irish Tune from County Derry (commonly known as "Danny Boy" or "Londonderry Air"). (The history on this tune is long and still somewhat mysterious, but the words for "Danny Boy" were written after Grainger first found this folk song and starting writing is multitude of settings of it.) As a euphonium player (now on hiatus), how could I not love this piece? The euphonium part has the great melody in the beginning and the countermelody towards the end. Finally: a piece that is more than just boom-chicks!

His compositions span from original lyrical tunes to highly chromatic melodies and harmonies, from simple folk-song settings to the creation of new folk songs. His Lincolnshire Posy is widely regarded as one of the top 5 pieces ever composed for wind bands. He made concert piano settings of several Gershwin tunes. He was friends with Grieg and Delius, toured the globe as a concert pianists, and was a pioneer with using electronics in music and with "free" music. Ever the oddball, much as been written about his non-musical life, including his relationship with his mother.

Personality and quirks aside, I enjoy so much of Grainger's music. His folk song settings are unique and inventive. And though the popular setting of Irish Tune holds a special place in my heart, my favorite setting is his highly chromatic version, heard below in a version for wind band (performed by the Cincinatti Conservatory of Music):

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Happy Birthday Sousa!

Happy 156th birthday to one of America's most famous musicians, John Philip Sousa! He made The President's Own into a world-class ensemble, and, with his own band, toured the country and brought fine music to thousands, if not millions. And of course, there's his namesake instrument.

"Grand opera is the most powerful of stage appeals and that almost entirely through the beauty of music."

In addition to being the March King, Sousa wrote ragtime pieces, several operettas, and many transcriptions, including Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser:

It's so well-done that you don't miss the string section. (And the euphonium lick around 9:45 is pretty wicked!)

"There is much modern music that is better adapted to a wind combination than to a string, although for obvious reasons originally scored for an orchestra. If in such cases the interpretation is equal to the composition the balance of a wind combination is more satisfying."

If you're in the DC area, celebrate with The President's Own.

"An attempt to place a melody within geographical limits is bound to fail. Rhythmic qualities are imitated in all popular forms, but music, although it has many dialects, is, after all, a universal language. The waltz may have been German in the beginning but is certainly belongs to the world to-day."

If you're in the Champaign, Illinois, area, you can check out the massive Sousa Archives, housed in the Harding Band Building at the University of Illinois.

"Anybody can write music of a sort. But touching the public heart is quite another thing"

If nothing else, listen to a few of his pieces. (Or perhaps watch some Monty Python.)

"Believing then and - even more strongly now - that entertainment is of more real value to the world than technical education in music appreciation, I would not accept the symphonic orchestra as my medium."

And what birthday wish would be complete without Sousa's most famous piece?

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