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How Tin Pan Alley transformed the popular music industry

I want a girl. Tin Pan  Alley songTin Pan Alley represents the apex of the sheet music industry in the United States. The term refers to publishers concentrated on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

They raised marketing and commercialism to unprecedented sophistication.

The popular music industry traces its history back to 18th century London. Thomas Arne and other composers wrote songs specifically for a mass audience. No one had cared so much about an unsophisticaled audience before. Continue reading

1812 Overture and 4th of July fireworks: why?

4th of july fireworks 1812 overtureThe U.S. and Great Britain fought the War of 1812. Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture, but it commemorates a different war.

The 4th of July celebration doesn’t have anything to do with the War of 1812, either. So why does the 1812 Overture so often accompany the 4th of July fireworks display?

Not many worthwhile pieces include cannon fire, which makes such an excellent companion to fireworks. Music history is littered with justly forgotten battle music. Such pieces are difficult to write effectively. Even Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory did not succeed as well as the 1812 Overture.

It had to jump through one more hoop before it could fit with Independence Day. American popular culture had to wrest the piece from its original association. Continue reading

orKIDstra: delightful music outreach to children

orKIDstra audienceThe local newspaper had an article about a concert called orKIDstra. It combined building both literacy skills and enthusiasm for classical music in preschoolers.

I wondered if it is strictly a local program, or something larger. Yes, sort of, to both questions.

The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra has called its outreach to pre-school students “orKIDstra” for more than 15 years. Its emphasis and structure have changed a few times. It has used current combination of percussion ensembles and children’s books for about five years.

A web search found classical music programming for children called orKIDstra in three different countries. Besides the clever pun, I find no connection. Continue reading

10 odd facts about trombonists you’d never guess

trombonist enrages neighbor

Enraged Neighbor, a lithograph by Bourdin after an image by Robert William Buss (1838)

Trombonists, who have been mostly human, have always had lives. Some of them have commanded great personal and professional respect, but not others.

The trombone itself has had its ups and downs. In fact, the high points in the reputations of the trombone and trombonists have not necessarily coincided.

Sometimes playing trombone has been their principal profession, more often, though, not. In fact, most musicians throughout history have had to earn money from something besides music in order to survive. Continue reading

April in Paris, by Vernon Duke

April in Paris

April in Paris

Vernon Duke didn’t expect “April in Paris” to be a hit. He had written his first complete score for a Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster, in 1932. It did not include that song.

Walk a Little Faster was one of the few shows that opened in the early years of the Depression.

The producer got a hold of a second-hand Parisian set and wanted a song to go with it. Nothing Duke had written fit. Continue reading

Answers to a Civil War tearjerker: Weeping sad and lonely

weeping sad and lonely coverIn a nation torn and divided over slavery, everyone could unite in their fear and grief at the carnage.

“Weeping Sad and Lonely, or, When This Cruel War Is Over” became the most popular of the many songs that expressed it.

Families on both sides of the conflict sang it. So did the soldiers. The lyrics sounded such a note of despair that some commanders tried to forbid soldiers to sing it.

It was so successful commercially that it inspired more optimistic songs explicitly published as answers to it. Continue reading

Classical and pop music: 200 years of rivalry

classical music composers (vs pop music)Is classical music or pop music better? Perhaps you’ve seen conversations on sites like quora.com or debate.org. Did you know that these arguments have been going on for more than 200 years?

Typically, someone will ask if classical music is superior to pop music, or if classical music has to be elitist. Or perhaps someone will post a putdown of one, which will attract passionate defenses.

It amazes me how little people in these discussions actually know. Some of them, for example, contrast classical music and modern music. That’s on both sides.

They seem not to know that popular music existed before Elvis Presley, or even before Frank Sinatra. They apparently don’t know that plenty of modern music is written for symphony orchestras or other typically classical ensembles. Continue reading

9 odd wind instruments you have probably never seen

Over the last couple of centuries, inventors have brought out a remarkable number of odd wind instruments that somehow never became successful. Or if they did, their success didn’t last. In some cases, pieces in the standard orchestral repertoire call for one or more. There is a growing interest in restoring them for performance of this music.

Ophicleide

Ophicleide

Ophicleide

At the beginning of the 19th century, as the orchestra began to expand, only two instruments existed that could serve as bass of the brass choir: the bass trombone and the serpent. Neither was satisfactory.

The serpent, a cornett-like bass instrument invented in the late 16th century, had its tone holes cut to fit players’ fingers. They were acoustically neither drilled in the right places nor large enough. Continue reading

Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 by George Enescu

Georges Enesco as a child

Enescu with his violin as a young child

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 a single string.

Eduard Caudella, professor of composition at the Conservatory in Iași, noticed him when he was 5 and persuaded his parents to let him direct the boy’s musical studies. Young Jurjac (his family’s pet name for him) made his first attempts at composition when he was 6. Continue reading

Tricky Sam Nanton and the jungle trombone

Trio with Tricky Sam Nanton

A trio of Duke Ellington’s musicians, Hurricane Ballroom, April 1943. Left to right: Tricky Sam Nanton, Harry Carney, Wallace Jones

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 repellant, jazz audiences loved it. Continue reading