Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 by George Enescu




George Enescu (1881-1955) was 3 when he heard some village fiddlers. The next day he tried to imitate the instruments. He made a violin by attaching some thread to a piece of wood and a cimbalom from some wooden sticks. He imitated the reed pipe with his lips. His parents noticed his growing preoccupation with music and gave him a toy violin with three strings when he was 4. Offended at not getting a real violin, he threw it in the fire. Once they bought him a real one, he started picking out tunes by ear, using one finger on … Continue reading

Tricky Sam Nanton and the jungle trombone




The trombone was once regarded as the voice of God and long considered grand and noble, but the early 20th century saw development of different, more raucous trombone sounds. Duke Ellington and his first great trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton developed the “jungle sound.” In Nanton’s hands, the trombone learned to growl with a plunger and mute. Ellington’s band had the reputation of having the “dirtiest” sound of any jazz band. Although many pioneers of jazz knew and loved “high class” music like opera, the early jazz audiences probably didn’t. While more “refined” audiences may have found the jungle sound … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: We Three Kings




“We Three Kings” isn’t exactly a Christmas carol. The coming of the kings marks Epiphany, but that doesn’t keep people from singing it earlier. Three men or boys have been selected to sing the solo parts the song assigns to each king in at least tens of thousands of Christmas pageants and Christmas parties over the years. The author and composer John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891) was the son of an Episcopal priest who was later Bishop of Vermont. He received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Vermont intending to go on to law school, but then he felt … Continue reading

Youth orchestras: killing two stereotypes at once




Young people these days can’t be pried away from their cell phones. They’re lazy and undisciplined. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype. Classical music is just about dead according to obituaries that seem to appear in magazine articles and well-read blogs every year. No one cares about such old-fashioned music except an increasingly aging population. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype. Don’t be fooled. Youth orchestras all over the country (and all over the world, for that matter, in case the stereotypes cross international borders) work very hard to polish performances of the standard orchestral repertoire. They love the music, … Continue reading

Music Inspired by Romeo and Juliet




William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe. No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music. In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music. This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet … Continue reading

Composers: quotations about other composers




As a lover of classical music, you enjoy the music of many composers, but dislike others. Composers are no different, except that they are required to study other composers’ music carefully whether they like it or not, both their contemporaries and generations of earlier composers. Perhaps you have never heard of Brian Ferneyhough. Living composers are little known to today’s public, but he made the observation more eloquently than I can: “Composers dialogue – and obsessively, bitterly argue – with other composers, often over the span of several centuries.” … Continue reading

Kid Ory, Trombonist, Businessman




Music history has no shortage of musicians with no business sense. In jazz, Jack Teagarden never led a successful band; he drank too much, was too generous with friends, and had no idea how to make contracts. Fletcher Henderson failed so miserably financially that he had to sell all of his arrangements to Benny Goodman just to get money. In contrast, Kid Ory, the legendary tailgate trombonist, displayed his business sense at the age of 8, the same time he started performing music. … Continue reading

Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials




Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865. They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists. For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both. On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths. … Continue reading

Race relations, social change, and American music

Minstrel show poster 1910




Race relations in the US are probably better than at any time in history. The recent racially motivated mass murder at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina demonstrates that they are not good enough. Many simmering misunderstandings and controversies rooted in racial tension likewise show that we have a long way to go achieve racial harmony. Harmony. That’s a musical term. The history of American music reflects the history of race relations. Music has also played a role in bridging the racial divide. … Continue reading

Getting off the classical music merry-go-round

Walt Disney Concert Hall




Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true. If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off. The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts. For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio. Performing organizations always seek to … Continue reading