Classic Mornings

Casting a Spelling


It made my early morning! In a recent report on Morning Edition about the National Spelling Bee, I heard a word presented to one of the contestants that I knew how to spell. That doesn’t happen very often. It’s a word that appears in the text of one of the WILL underwriting announcements.

I have to admit that as excited as I was, I felt as if I had an unfair advantage. It reminded me that with CD booklets in hand, complete with composer, composition, and performer information, I unleash dozens of words and names each day on Classic Mornings that must baffle some listeners who are just beginning to learn about classical music.

I do spell a word on the air from time to time. But I’m aware that there are countless others that leave some listeners feeling the way I feel when I’m listening to those audio clips every spring in which young spelling bee finalists have words come at them like off-speed curve balls. Fortunately, some of those kids manage to “hit ‘em out of the park.”

It has to be some comfort to listeners that we now have our playlists online. You can find out how to spell words and names such as: symphonie concertante, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Jiři Bělohlávek, Maria João Pires, and Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä.

Now, I have to be honest. I sometimes make use of the non-familiarity of certain names and their homophonous characteristics for amusing effects. Have you heard me mention a famous conductor with the name Vague, pieces of music known as Chrysler miniatures or compositions with titles like “Aisle of Apples” or “Russell of Spring?” OK, so it’s Hungarian conductor Sandor (pronounced SHAHN dor) Végh, miniatures by the Austrian/American violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler, Isle of Apples (by Richard Addinsell) and Rustle of Spring (by Christian Sinding).

From time to time, I’ll tell listeners even on a hot day that we’re putting on our Coates – that is, putting on one of our recordings of the music of English composer Eric Coates. I’ll promise to play something from Ireland and I do: music of English composer John Ireland. Or I’ll mention viol or Weill music, though music for those bowed and fretted instruments known as viols or works by Kurt Weill are not at all vile.

Last week I had fun presenting a new recording featuring a composer with a name that’s familiar to anyone who would have been listening, no matter what their background. I guessed that all of central Illinois would hush up at just the mention of the name. What’s amusing, though, is that the particular composer with that name is unknown even to long-time listeners.

The composer’s family name happens to be Potter. Well, it’s no contest when it comes to the most famous Potter of all time. A search for the name will convince you of that. But there are strong runners-up including Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life) and 2 real-life Potters: Author Beatrix Potter and film director Sally Potter.

I had never heard of Cipriani Potter. He was a pianist, composer, conductor, and teacher who was born in London in 1792 – the year after Mozart died. He was born Philip Cipriani Hambley Potter. I understand that he acquired the name Cipriani from his godmother. Supposedly she was a sister of the 18th century painter and engraver Giovanni Baptista Cipriani, who was born in Florence but spent much of his life living and working in England, where he died in 1795. According to the British music scholar Jeremey Dibble, Cipriani Potter was known as “Chip” or “Little Chip” because of his small stature. That’s also a play on the Italian pronunciation of the first syllable of his name.

Potter studied with Beethoven’s so-called rival Joseph Wölfl. So it’s amusing when Jeremy Dibble mentions in the CD notes that Wölfl told Potter he was spending too much time with Beethoven’s music, though I don’t think Dibble meant to suggest that the advice was tempered by the rivalry. Potter did admire Beethoven’s music and had the chance to meet and to get some tips from the composer in Vienna. Potter gave the English premieres of 2 of Beethoven’s piano concertos.

Recently, pianist Howard Shelley has spent a bit of time with Cipriani Potter’s music. His new recording with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (Hyperion 68151) includes 2 concertos by Potter as well as variations for piano and orchestra on a tune by Rossini. Dibble notes that Potter was fond of Rossini’s music, as well as Mozart’s, whose concertos he performed in London.

Cipriani Potter may be rescued from oblivion in our time because he shares Harry, Henry, Beatrix and Sally’s family name. But ultimately, music has to endure on its own, apart from all the names and the labels. You could say that the best loved works of music cast a spell and not just a spelling.