All Beginnings

“Searching for the First Steps,” or alternatively a definite question interviewers ask composers, “How did you get started, what was your first piece, your Opus One?” The curiosity usually stems from the desire to compare the first work to what happens next, or whether already in the first work it could be seen that the composer-creator discovered the same gift, the talent that was widely expressed in later days. Another question is how important, if at all, that first work is to the composer. A source of pride. There is another interest, completely non-musical, organizational and non-artistic. For example, the first work composed by Gustav Mahler is a piano quartet, a chamber work, not even an entire work – a single movement comprised of several sub-movements, which he composed when he was a student at the Vienna Conservatory, created by a student submitting works in preparation for a scholarship and awards. What can be learned from the work? A little about the influences of the two important composers in Vienna at that time, Brahms and Bruckner. Was the audience exposed to the same piece? Mahler himself played it in the premiere performance in 1876. There was another premiere performance ninety years later. Mahler did not compose chamber music again.

Played by Gidon Kremer (violin), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Boris Pregamenschchikov (Cello), Oleg Maisenberg (Piano)

Brahms, one of Mahler’s sources of influence, treated his first work differently. But the work that got to appear on his list as No. 1 was not his first work. The young Brahms composed works that he disapproved of later. He destroyed his first works and catalogued his Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major as his Opus 1. The process of re-editing will accompany Brahms further down the road: the first piano concerto underwent processes of change and re-editing until it received its final form and number. His first symphony also underwent a slow maturation of about twenty years.

Sviatoslav Richter plays the Brahms Piano Sonata Op. 1

Felix Mendelssohn wrote an oratorio when he was ten and in the following years he composed symphonies that would ‘disappear’ from the catalogue of his works. He is associated with later symphonies such as the “Italian”, the “Reformation” and the early symphonies were named “youth symphonies” and numbered as such. At the age of thirteen he composed a chamber quartet which is considered to be his first cataloged work. Still as a young man, at the age of 17, Mendelssohn composed two of his most important works: the Overture for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Octet for Strings, works that will resonate in his subsequent output. 

Kurt Masur conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Overture “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Mendelssohn: Octet in B flat Major, played by students of the New England Conservatory 

Dmitry Shostakovich’s first contact with music was at his parents’ house. The boy who saw his sisters getting music lessons wanted to join them. His mother did not readily agree. “Wait,” she said, to his chagrin. When he reached a reasonable age, his mother agreed to teach the young ‘Mitya’, but he did not care for children’s pieces. His mother had no idea what to do and finally, in order to silence his demands, she placed Haydn’s Piano Sonatas on the piano. The boy Shostakovich asked a few questions, especially about the flat and sharp signs and then played the entire first movement, slowly but without error. He had no wrong notes and got the rhythm right. Mom did some tests for him at home and when he passed them successfully she brought him to the conservatory in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The eminent teachers were surprised by his talent. His first piece, Scherrzo for an orchestra, was written at the age of 13.

Scherzo in F sharp minor, Op. 1: The USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky

Zvi Avni, who is currently (early September) celebrating his ninety-fourth birthday, began his career playing as a teenager in Haifa on various instruments. The instruments were a hand harmonica (gramushka), flute and mandolin, instruments he found in thrift stores in Haifa. His serious music studies began relatively late, after moving to Tel Aviv. He composed his first official work as a student of Paul Ben-Haim. At that time, as a tradition prevalent then and in fact there as a natural continuation of composing traditions in Europe and in Israel, he composed texts from the Bible. Avni set three songs out of The Song of Songs and they were premiered in 1955 on the IDF Radio Station by the singer Rama Samsonov.

Daniela Lugassy and Hagai Yodan performing three songs from The Song of Songs by Zvi Avni

Author: Yossi Schiffmann