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.

Mozart procrastinates

Mozart family interesting facts about classical music

The Mozart family, ca. 1780 / Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Mozart had to travel to Prague for the first performance of Don Giovanni.

For some reason, he hadn’t written the overture yet. He didn’t write it between rehearsals. In fact, he waited till after the dress rehearsal. The night before the show opened.

So did he decide to get a good night’s sleep and tackle the overture in the morning?


He decided to compose it overnight and asked his wife, Constanza, to help him stay awake. She told him stories from Arabian Nights to entertain him. (Who else but Mozart could compose while someone was talking to him?) She also made punch for him.

Unfortunately, it only made him sleepier. Whenever she stopped talking, he started to nod off. Even Mozart couldn’t compose in his sleep. Finally, they decided he would take a nap. He made her promise to wake him up after one hour. She didn’t have the heart to wake him up after such a sound sleep, though, and let him sleep two hours.

By that time, it was five o’clock in the morning. He finished composing at seven and delivered the score to the copyists. It took them all day to write out all the parts.

When they were ready, it was almost curtain time. The orchestra had no opportunity to rehearse the overture. So they sight-read it. They must have played it pretty well.

One of the members of the orchestra later wrote that the overture roused the audience to great enthusiasm. Mozart turned to the orchestra and said, “Bravo, bravo, gentlemen. That was excellent.”

Schubert forgets his own work

Franz Schubert. classical music trivia

Franz Schubert. Detail from a watercolor portrait (1825) / Wilhelm August Rieder.

Schubert once told a visitor, “I compose every morning. When I finish one piece I start on another.”

He wrote more than 600 songs in his brief life. Between his first (in March 1811) and his last (in October 1828) he averaged about thirty-five songs every year, or about three every month. And of course, he also composed reams of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music, church music, and operas.

How could he keep track of it all? He didn’t.

Michael Vogl gave the first performances of many of Schubert’s songs. One batch of songs included one Vogl especially liked, but it was in an uncomfortably high key.

He transposed it and had a professional copyist prepare a new manuscript. About two weeks later, Vogl pulled it out for one of their singing sessions.

Schubert exclaimed, “That’s a good song. Who wrote it?”

An incompetent performer Gottschalk couldn’t dismiss

Gottschalk monster concert. interesting facts about music history

Caricature illustration of “monster concert” by Louis M. Gottschalk at Fluminese Theater, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 5 October 1869

American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk knew what thrilled European audiences. He had a successful solo career there. He also attended “monster concerts” put on by Pierre Musard and other popular orchestra conductors.

When he returned to the US, he decided to try his own monster concert.

He arranged the March from Wagner’s Tannhäuser for fourteen pianos and decided to offer the first performance in San Francisco in 1865.

It required every professional pianist in town. The day before the heavily advertised concert, one of them called in sick.

San Francisco had its share of talented amateurs, and the owner of the hall suggested his son, who, he said, could play Liszt, Thalberg, and Gottschalk’s own music without difficulty. The young man declared the music too easy for him to need to attend a rehearsal and sat down at a piano to show his stuff.

It took Gottschalk about two measures to realize that he could only ruin the performance. He thought he’d have to postpone the concert until the piano tuner had a brilliant idea.

He removed the pianos entire mechanism, leaving a dummy keyboard.

Before the performance started, Gottschalk reminded all the pianists not to extemporize any preludes. The entire effect demanded that all fourteen pianos coming in together take the audience by surprise. The audience loved the piece and demanded the group repeat the piece.

The arrogant young amateur forgot that Gottschalk had forbidden preludes. He began to play something and realized no sound came from the piano. Before he could say or do anything, Gottschalk gave the signal for the piece to start again. For the sake of impressing all his friends in the audience, the young amateur pantomimed playing his part.

Gottschalk later wrote that the mixture of discouragement and anger on his face would have been worth painting.

Sharp business practices rescue Gounod’s Faust

Mephistopheles from Faust by Gounod. interesting facts about classical music

Polish opera singer Edouard de Reszke (1853-1917) as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s “Faust” in the 1890s

Music is an art, isn’t it? It’s also a business. As Claudio Monteverdi observed, “Music is spiritual. The music business is not.”

Consider the promotional shenanigans behind Charles Gounod’s Faust.

One of the most successful operas in history, it looked like a failure in London before its first performance. The impresario, James Henry Mapleson, had scheduled four consecutive performances.

A few days before the first, he learned than Londoners had bought only 30 pounds worth of tickets. The cashier advised not to offer four performances.

Instead, of cutting back, Mapleson decided to remove all the tickets for the first three nights from the box office.

He gave them away to people from all over London and its suburbs. He took out an advertisement in the Times and claimed that the first three nights had been sold out. But because of a family death, tickets for two stalls were available on sale from a jeweler and a stationer.

Meanwhile, the box office had nothing. Whoever went there for a ticket learned that it had no tickets for any of the first three nights. They would have to wait till the fourth night.

Mapleson made sure Gounod appeared for multiple curtain calls to the audiences admitted with the free tickets. The first night’s audience responded to the opera with appreciation, but not with enthusiasm. The second and third nights got a successively better response. Paying customers for the fourth night, who had had to wait so long to see Faust loved it.

And so, by popular demand, Mapleson extended the run of Gounod’s Faust past the advertised four nights.

Did Johann Strauss, Jr.’s career really start this badly?

Johann Strauss, interesting facts about music history

Johann Strauss, Jr. as a young man.

The fabulous career of Johann Strauss, Jr. got off to a rocky start.

At least according to a book of “personal reminiscences and sketches of character” by William Beatty-Kingston, an English writer on music. No other writer in any language corroborates the story.

But so what if it’s not true! It’s too good a story to ignore.

Johann Strauss, Sr. famously didn’t want his son to follow him in the music business. According to Beatty-Kingston, the younger Strauss, then 19, recruited an orchestra of 33 other young musicians and set out on a tour with much more enthusiasm than money.

They ran out of money in a town called Panscova. Strauss decided to play a concert under the mayor’s window. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss some money, provided the orchestra repay him from concerts in town. Townspeople stayed away from the concerts.

When it became evident the orchestra could not earn enough money to repay the mayor, local police seized the instruments. The town government eventually agreed to return them so they could continue their tour. But Strauss had to agree that a town constable would accompany the tour at the orchestra’s expense until he collected enough money.

His appetite and thirst greatly added to the expenses. He ate, drank, listened to concerts, and collected money from time to time while the orchestra traveled in the general direction of Bucharest. He left them in Kronstadt, having collected enough to satisfy the debt.

By that time, the orchestra had not made enough money for members to take proper care of themselves. They had become so bedraggled, dirty, and unshaved that no inn in Kronstadt would give them lodging or let them perform there.

They looked like a band of robbers pretending to be musicians.

Strauss and his orchestra left not only the town but the entire district. With a military escort. After some heated discussion, they agreed to split whatever money they made in the next town, Bucharest, and then go home. But the road to Bucharest went through a pass notorious for its highwaymen. They decided to sell two violins and buy some old rusty pistols.

Now they were musicians who looked the part of a huge gang of thieves.

Villages emptied in panic at their approach. Even a smaller band of highwaymen withdrew rather than challenge them. Once they got to Bucharest, somehow they managed to look enough like an orchestra to perform numerous times.

The Johann Strauss Orchestra finally made some good money there and went on to its spectacular success.

Source: The Book of Musical Anecdotes / Norman Lebrecht (Free Press, 1985)

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

Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary: without the opera hype

Claudio Monteverdi 450th anniversary

Claudio Monteverdi / Bernardo Strozzi, ca. 1630

The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death.

By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history.

Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form. Continue reading

Opera: when did it become highbrow culture?

Rossini. highbrow culture, lowbrow culture

Rossini / Le Hanneton, July 4, 1867. Definitely considered lowbrow in his lifetime

“I’d hate this to get out, but I really like opera,” said former Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick.

What is it about opera that would make anyone hesitant to admit that they like it? It seems to have this reputation as highbrow culture, an entertainment only for the rich, the old, the white, and the snobbish.

Two hundred years ago Italian opera had a reputation as mindless entertainment for lowbrows who didn’t appreciate good music.

What happened? Continue reading

Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofé

Coronado Butte, Grand Canyon. Suite

Coronado Butte in the Grand Canyon as seen from the east rim drive

Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite remains one of the most popular of American orchestral pieces. He first wrote it for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and devoted his entire career to popular music.

Classical music critics long scorned popular music. Throughout the 20th century, most standard classical music reference works ignored popular music figures as much as possible.

The 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, has no article on Grofé, although it devotes ample space to some of his contemporaries who never composed anything as successful as the Grand Canyon Suite.

The few available online biographies have conflicting information. Fortunately, the second edition of Grove has an authoritative article. It points out their mistakes. Continue reading

Victor Cornette and his trombone method

Victor Cornette trombone method 1854 cover

Colombier edition of Cornette’s method for trombone (ca. 1854)

For most of a century, advanced trombone students have worked from a combination of the trombone method by Victor Cornette (1795-1868) and the Melodious Etudes compiled from Marco Bordogni’s vocalises by Johannes Rochut.

Cornette published the first edition of his method in 1831.

The Paris Conservatory taught trombone when it opened in 1795, but soon abandoned it. It didn’t offer trombone again until after Cornette published his method, Continue reading

What a Wonderful World, by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss

What a wonderful world cover
What a Wonderful World, made famous by Louis Armstrong, always sounded to me like a Tin Pan Alley hit from the 1940s. I was surprised to learn that it first appeared in 1967.

In reading for this post, I was also surprised at finding next to nothing about the composition of the song.

Bob Thiele, who wrote the words, was at the time head of Impulse Jazz, a subsidiary of ABC Records.

When he took that position, he was already a veteran of more than 20 years as a producer of jazz records. His obituary in the New York Times doesn’t even mention his role in this song. Continue reading

Earliest jazz recordings: this year’s the 100th anniversary

Original dixieland jass band. earliest jazz recordings

An advertising card from 1918, by which time the band had changed its spelling of jazz

A record of two songs by the Original Dixieland Jass band appeared in May 1917. It has gone down in history as the earliest jazz recording. Or was it?

In any case, it made a huge splash. Recordings of dozens of other pieces with either jazz in the title or the name of the group appeared before the end of the year.

The year 1917 marks a turning point not only in a particular art form, but in black music. Even though whites made the overwhelming majority of the earliest jazz recordings. Continue reading