Classic Mornings

A Fischer Story For You


I’m sure he was only trying to be helpful. But I really don’t think that people around the world are going to embrace his recommendations.

The Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer turned 70 on January 20. I’d been curious to see whether he was celebrating. It turns out that three orchestras presented a special event in his honor. It was a joint online production compiled from memorable concerts. The orchestras included the Budapest Festival Orchestra (of which he is Music Director and co-founder), the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (he’s an honorary conductor and honorary guest conductor of those ensembles).

If there was any singing of Happy Birthday that accompanied the celebration, the singers would have to have proceeded with caution. Why? It turns out that several years ago, Fischer complained that the tune didn’t work well with the lyrics. The emphasis is on “to” rather than “you,” he said. And that high note is always sung off key. So, he went about making some minor changes to the tune in hopes that those “improvements” might be welcomed around the world. I have to say that I haven’t heard about his changes being adopted anywhere.

There’s an amusing video of Fischer making his case while seated at the piano and surrounded by young musicians at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland several years ago. He seems to be quite passionate about coming to the rescue of those who sing the song and those to whom it’s sung. And he demonstrates his proposed changes while speaking and singing at the keyboard. 

If Fischer had broken out laughing at the end, admitting that he was only joking, I would have admitted that I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. And I would have found that entertaining. But I’m entertained just by the thought that he was serious and that he really believed he could make this happen. Simply imagining the reactions to such changes by people I know was like an encore.

Composers have had no problem writing variations on the “Happy Birthday” tune just as it is. To keep the fun going after I explained Fischer’s proposal to Classic Mornings listeners, I played Misha Rachlevsky’s arrangement for Chamber Orchestra Kremlin of variations he borrowed from Claus Peter Ludwig and Joseph Heidrich. Neither of those composers attempted to change the legendary tune, but just to take it places – musically, that is.

The Welsh harpist and composer John Thomas (1826-1913) borrowed all sorts of tunes in writing works for his instrument. He also responded to the popularity of music for two harps or harp and piano during his lifetime. The newest recording by Duo Praxedis includes works for two players by Thomas (Toccata Classics 561). In one of those, he borrows tunes from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. He called it the Duet on Subjects from Bizet’s Carmen. Written in 1885, it was inspired by a performance with the famous Italian soprano Adelina Patti in the title role. The collection also includes Thomas’s variations on a Russian tune, which he titled Souvenir du Nord.

Duo Praxedis features two family members with the first name Praxedis, which is Greek in origin and the name of a second century saint. Swiss harpist Praxedis Hug-Rütti and her daughter Praxedis Geneviève Hug began performing together 25 years ago. We were introduced to them just over 6 years ago with their recording of the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms.

Conductor John Wilson and the London Philharmonic have another new recording of works by Eric Coates (Chandos 20148), which introduces us to an orchestral suite titled Summer Days. It was a success during the English composer’s lifetime. That led him to name his summer cottage “Summer Days.” The finale, “At the Dance,” is a charming waltz.

One of the most charming depictions of marching toys is German composer Leon Jessel’s Parade of the Tin Soldiers. It’s in the same league as Victor Herbert’s March of the Toys from the operetta Babes in Toyland, The Toy Trumpet by Raymond Scott and Gabriel Pierne’s March of the Little Lead Soldiers. I’m sure that those tunes and their composers are often mixed up by listeners. January 22 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jessel. He was best known for operettas, as well as for the “Parade,” which was his biggest hit.

New York-born Alfred Reed (1921-2005) is remembered for the music he wrote for school bands, wind ensembles and choruses. Years before that, he was a composer and arranger for radio, film and television.  January 25 marked the centennial of his birth. That morning I played a selection from his Music for Hamlet, which was written 50 years ago.

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