Danse macabre, by Camille Saint-Saëns

The dance of death. Detail from an unidentified 18th-century oil painting

Camille Saint-Saëns was a prolific composer and acknowledged genius, but he is known today only for a fraction of his output. Today’s audiences enjoy one of his most enduring masterpieces, Danse macabre, for reasons that would have baffled Saint-Saëns’ own generation.

From the elderly Saint-Saëns’ scorn of Debussy and Stravinsky, it may appear that he was conservative and not open to new trends.

But from the start of his career, he allied himself with Liszt and other revolutionary composers. His four symphonic tone poems of the 1870s all explore Lisztian innovations. Danse macabre (1874) is the third of these. “Danse macabre” means “dance of death.” Continue reading

The birth of the idea of classical music

composer montage -- idea of classical musicWhere did the idea of “classical music” come from? Nowadays it has such a wide range of meanings that it’s in danger of meaning not much of anything at all.

At its narrowest, it refers to a style period between Baroque and Romantic composed between about 1750 and 1830.

The representative composers are nearly all Viennese: Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and in some enumerations, Schubert. None of these composers knew they were writing classical music.

No one thought of “classical music” until after they died. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: There’s a song in the air

Beloved Christmas carols: There's a song in the airFor the past two years, I have been at gatherings where the song leader has introduced an old song he suspects no one knows. It’s “There’s a Song in the Air.”

Since it’s my mother’s favorite carol, my family sings it a lot. I’m happy to do my part to make it better known.

Actually, it’s not that old. The music first appeared only in 1905. The poem itself is only a little older. How much older is an open question. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: I wonder as I wander

Christ child and cross. Niles I wonder as I wanderWhile much Christmas music is either jubilantly celebratory or tenderly domestic, “I Wonder as I Wander” pensively meditates on the personal significance of the incarnation. It comes from the folk music tradition of the Appalachian Mountains.

It isn’t exactly authentic folk music, but an original composition by John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). The eccentric Niles was an odd amalgam of classically trained musician, folk-song collector, and showman. Continue reading

The social benefits of music education

high school orchestra. benefits of music education

Pinellas County All County High School Orchestra, 2016

Our schools have become obsessed with job training and getting students into college. So much so that they tend to devalue everything else. They fail, or perhaps refuse, to value the social benefits of music education and other seeming frills.

My wife taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in a middle school.

All the teachers of “real” subjects had a duty-free lunch. Subjects such as ESL, foreign languages, physical education, art, and music seemed less important. So their teachers had to eat their lunch in the cafeteria and enforce discipline.

If anyone has seriously written about why schools should not offer music, I haven’t found it. That search term gets articles by music education advocates who present some negatives and answer them.

Unfortunately, the top search results for the benefits of music education are too often bare lists with little explanation.

I hope this post will be more useful for defending school music programs. Continue reading

4 interesting facts about music history, and one questionable anecdote!

composers interesting facts about music history

History means more than dates and battles. Classical music history means more than lists of compositions.

It’s personalities that make it interesting.

Sometimes, for example, composers and their associates go to desperate means to solve a problem.

People have loved classical music anecdotes as long as classical music has existed. Writers have long supplied trivia about musical personalities, including themselves, to an eager readership.

Most have stuck to the facts, but occasionally a story has broken into print with no corroborating evidence. But hey, that just makes it fiction. It’s still a good read. Continue reading

Davis Shuman: neglected pioneer trombone soloist

Davis Shuman album coverIn 1994, Michael Meckna issued the collective biography Twentieth-Century Brass Soloists. To my surprise, it didn’t include Davis Shuman.

The careers of some of the people in the book would not have been conceivable without Shuman’s example.

As I performed the research for my most recent book on the trombone, I found him absent from most of the rest of the literature.

Davis Shuman biography

Davis Shuman was born in the Ukraine in 1912. Pograms in conjunction with the Russian Revolution forced many Jewish families to leave. Shuman’s father relocated to Lawrence, Massachusetts in the late 1910s. The rest of the family joined him in 1921.

He learned trombone in high school and matriculated in 1930 to Northeastern University. Even as a freshman, he wanted to be a trombonist, but he majored in civil engineering to give him something to fall back on if he didn’t succeed. While there, he studied trombone with Jacob Raichman, principal trombonist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Before joining the orchestra in Boston, Raichman had served as principal trombonist in orchestras in Moscow and Paris. In Moscow he had been a colleague of the important trombone teachers Vladislav Blazhevich and Petr Volkov.

After graduation, Shuman made no attempt to find an engineering job. Instead he took a position as trombonist in the State Symphony Orchestra in Boston. He won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with Ernest Clarke. Upon Clarke’s death in 1947, Shuman succeeded him as trombone instructor.

Pioneering solo trombonist

Shuman finished his graduate studies in 1938. By that time, the trombone had been a well-established solo instrument in American bands for decades. Its repertoire comprised transcriptions of largely operatic music and novelty showpieces. Especially those of Arthur Pryor. It was also well established as a solo instrument in jazz.

It had hardly any serious concert repertoire. The Paris Conservatory held solo competitions for every instrument. It commissioned a new required composition nearly every year. American trombonists didn’t yet know that music.

One reason the trombone had no “classical” repertoire? Classical trombonists were content to play in orchestras. None of them had any interest in becoming soloists until Shuman. He performed two solos with the Goldman Band in 1943, music of Glinka and Rossini.

Paul Hindemith, then on Yale University’s music faculty, wrote sonatas for every instrument. His trombone sonata appeared in 1941. Shuman played it in 1945 when Juilliard held a concert to honor Hindemith’s fiftieth birthday.

On April 13, 1947, Shuman presented a full-length trombone recital at Town Hall in New York. He wasn’t the first trombonist to present a recital.

Alfred Phasey presented three series of concerts billed as bass trombone recitals at London’s Crystal Palace from 1889 to 1891. Each consisted of three short pieces, accompanied by organ. All earlier trombone soloists, and until Shuman all later ones, performed with a band or orchestra.

Shuman’s repertoire

Davis Shuman Shuman’s recital presented Beethoven’s horn sonata, Brahms’ horn trio, Hindemith’s trombone sonata, and three original works he commissioned.

The review in the New York Times praised Shuman’s tone, intonation, and technical facility. It dismissed two of the new pieces as lightweight and unassuming.

After that, Shuman gave a recital in Chicago and two more in New York.

He performed frequently on other concerts, mostly in New York. The first performance of Ernst Bloch’s Symphony for Trombone took place in Houston, Texas with Leopold Stokowski conducting. He gave his very last performance in Santa Barbara, California.

Of necessity, Shuman commissioned a lot of new music—at least 26 pieces. Ten of them were never published. Only a few have made any lasting impression.

I compiled a list of pieces on recitals submitted to the International Trombone Journal in its first 25 years. Hindemith’s Sonata for Trombone received 214 performances on those programs. Only four Shuman commissions were performed as many as 15 times.

  • Bloch’s Symphony (25)
  • Jacob Druckman’s Animus I for trombone and tape (40)
  • Darius Milhaud’s Concertino d’hiver (44)
  • Vincent Persichetti’s Serenade no. 6 for viola, cello, and trombone (49)

Shuman introduced the previously unknown Concerto for Trombone and Band by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1952 with the Goldman Band. His edition quickly became his most lasting contribution to the trombone’s solo repertoire.

Unfortunately, he decided it would make a better effect if he transferred several passages up an octave. Shuman’s edition is still available for sale, but anyone who wants to play the piece should use a more authentic one.

Shuman also made and performed numerous transcriptions. Besides some music originally written for horn, he transcribed Hindemith’s Trauermusik, originally for viola and strings.

His arrangements of Joseph Haydn’s baryton trios make a good effect. The baryton is an obsolete bowed stringed instrument, nothing like the modern baritone horn. But it had about the same range as the trombone.

Recording artist

Shuman made eight recordings of solo and small ensemble music. He recorded the Hindemith sonata twice. Of all the music he commissioned, he only recorded two pieces.

He introduced a new concerto by Tibor Serly with great fanfare. Roger Goeb’s Concertino for Trombone and String Quartet appears on the second of the Hindemith recordings, along with the first recording of Frank Martin’s Ballade.

His best-known recording is probably the Rimsky-Korsakov concerto. He also made one of the earliest recordings of brass music by the Gabrielis and Johann Pezel.


Davis Shuman patent drawing

Drawing that accompanied Shuman’s patent application

Shuman didn’t waste his experience as an engineering major. He worked as an engineer for the US Navy during the Second World War. He also redesigned the trombone’s slide.

Shuman designed an angled slide, with a choice of 15, 20, or 45 degrees.

He claimed it allowed a more comfortable and natural movement of the arm.

The 45-degree angle allowed young people with short to reach the outer positions more accurately.

He told the New York Times that the traditional design relegated the trombone to a secondary musical position and that it had always been hard to get composers interested in it. He was sure his new design would encourage more people to study the trombone and more composers to write for it.

No one used it besides Shuman and his students. No major manufacturer adopted it. It made intonation more difficult because it took away the bell as a reference point. Moving the slide laterally can also pull the embouchure out of alignment.

And sometimes there simply isn’t room to the player’s right for the slide. Shuman himself discovered that the first time he tried to play his new design in a pit orchestra.

As someone wrote in the New York Times,

We have nothing but respect for the good sense and the ingenuity of Davis Shuman, inventor and exponent of the side-sliding trombone. His arguments in favor of it are persuasive. There will be less likelihood of clipping the ears of the unfortunate horn players who occupy the row just ahead of their noisier brothers. There will be less wear and tear on the biceps and triceps of the trombonists. It all makes sense.

But solemnly we warn Mr. Shuman. To a lot of us old-times it won’t be quite the same. To those of us who saw Sousa’s trombone choir march majestically to the front of the state, to all the small boys who in Abe Martin’s phrase were “suckers for a slip-horn solo,” there is only one authentic trombone. A trombone that slides down to the side? The pitcher will be tossing balls and strikes at third base.

Why is Davis Shuman so obscure?

In some ways, Shuman was ahead of his time. Other trombonists had no interest in solo trombone. Only one trombonist attended his 1947 recital: John Swallow, one of Shuman’s students. It’s easy to understand that we don’t remember what we don’t notice in the first place.

His studies with Raichman also put him outside the American mainstream. Raichman represented the Russian and French schools of trombone playing.

Shuman’s sound had a harsher articulation than the standard American trombone sound. He played with a rapid slide vibrato, unlike most American orchestral trombonists. Jazz soloists used slide vibrato, but with a very different sound and effect. He also played a small-bore trombone his entire career.

Emory Remington, trombone professor of trombone at the Eastman School of Music since 1922, dominated music education. His students already occupied many important positions in American orchestras and university music departments.

Remington advocated the Conn 88-H, a large-bore trombone. So that’s what his students played and taught. Collectively, they exemplified what a trombone was supposed to sound like in classical music.

Most American orchestral players had already adopted large-bore Conn trombones. Shuman’s angle-slide trombone was available only with a small bore.

His students had tremendous respect and admiration for him. Almost any other trombonist who heard his recordings likely found his sound unfamiliar and unpleasant. They’re long out of print. None is available on YouTube. And so, even though many of his students are still alive, Davis Shuman has been largely forgotten.

Davis Shuman: a biography / Mark Paul Babbitt (DMA Essay: University of Washington, 2005)
New York Times articles. April 14, 1947; February 19, 1950; August 18, 1952; September 1, 1966
Oh, patents! Davis Shuman angular trombone / Françoise Herrmann, Patents on the Soles of Your Shoes. April 15, 2014
Recital repertoire of the trombone as shown by programs published by the International Trombone Association / David M. Guion, Online Trombone Journal. 1999

Vltava (The Moldau) by Bedřich Smetana

Vltava painting. smetana vltava moldau program notes

Vltava from Prague / Vojtech Adalbert Brechler (1826-1891)

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) is remembered chiefly as a Czech nationalistic composer.

His nationalism expressed itself above all in his operas, but he also wrote symphonic tone poems after the example of Franz Liszt.

One of them, The Moldau, has become a beloved part of the international orchestral repertoire. He would probably not be happy that it’s known by that name. He called it Vltava

Continue reading