Getting off the classical music merry-go-round




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

Perspective on yet another obituary for classical music




Another obituary for classical music appeared recently at marketplace.org.  It points out that classical music sales only amount to 1.4% of music consumption. It says that audiences of classical music are not diverse. It quotes a pianist as being “kind of tired of making music for the same people all the time.” The obituary in Slate by Mark Vanhoenacker that made the rounds last year said, “Classical music has been circling the drain for years.” Such pronouncements usually provoke a flurry of posts about how healthy classical music is. By “for years,” Vanhoenacker means since some time in the mid-20th … Continue reading

The Civil War and Musical Institutions in the South




Last week’s post examined how the Civil War affected performance of music in three Northern cities: Boston, New York, and Chicago. This week’s is devoted to musical institutions in the South, looking at New Orleans, the state of Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia. Disruptions to Northern musical institutions came as a result of citizens’ preoccupation with war news, the number of musicians called to military service, and in New York, the exodus of foreign opera stars. These same concerns also disrupted musical life in the South, but the South knew at least one major disruption that the North did not suffer. … Continue reading

The Civil War and Musical Institutions in the North




As young men fought and died on Civil War battlefields, most of the population of both the Union and the Confederacy remained on farms or in towns and cities. Life went on, and in some cities, life included attendance at concerts, the opera, or other musical theater. But life went on in wartime conditions, though not as normal. How did the war affect the institutions that provided this entertainment? This post looks at some of the ones in Boston, New York, and Chicago as representative of Northern cities. Boston In his history of the Handel and Haydn Society, John S. … Continue reading

Music in the Civil War Letters of Seneca B. Thrall

Music played a key role in the American Civil War on the home front and on the battlefield. Letters home from Civil War soldiers record much of what we know of music in camps and on battlefields. An officer of the 13th Iowa Infantry, Seneca B. Thrall, wrote 44 letters, mostly to his wife, that provide an officer’s-eye view of part of the Union army’s successful campaign in Mississippi.   It seems to be a fairly well-known collection. A Google search of Thrall’s name turns up several hits. Several of the letters describe music within the regiment.

Sacred Choral Music from the Former Soviet Bloc




As an undergraduate composition student in the 1970s, I tried to like the music that my teachers thought important, including Webern, Stockhausen, Cage, et al. General audiences have never liked it, and I never did manage to like the music only an academic can love. Inevitably a new generation of composers arose, but it was only after one of my graduate students invited me to a concert of mostly sacred choral music by Henryk Górecki in 1994 that I heard any European post-avant-garde music. A surprising number of devoutly Christian composers lived and worked in countries of the former Soviet … Continue reading

How Original Band Music Marginalized the Concert Band




When Patrick S. Gilmore took over leadership of the New York 22nd Regiment Band, he took it on a coast-to-coast tour. The age of the professional touring band had begun. Like all bands before or contemporaneous with the Gilmore Band, as it soon became known, it performed a mix of music for popular entertainment and serious orchestral and operatic repertoire. Music composed originally for concert band was limited to marches, music Gilmore’s soloists wrote for themselves, and other lighter fare by Gilmore himself. Gilmore’s great successor John Philip Sousa and all their notable contemporaries constructed comparable concert programs. Not until … Continue reading

How the Trombone Cheated Death




At the beginning of the 1600s, courts, towns, churches, and individual members of the nobility all over Western Europe sponsored musical organizations that included trombone. These ensembles participated in music making from dance music to public concerts to participation in Christian worship. By the end of the century, they had practically disappeared, and the trombone along with it. If no one had used it anywhere, the trombone would have become like the krummhorn and other obsolete instruments that early music enthusiasts resurrected in the mid 20th century. No one else would know or care anything about it. Instead, it lay … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: In the Bleak Midwinter

in the bleak midwinter



“In the Bleak Midwinter,” text by Christina Rosetti, is just about the only well known Christmas carol that I can think of with a text by a woman. She also wrote “Love Came Down at Christmas.” No combination of keywords I could think of yielded any other titles. Christina (1830-1894) Rosetti was part of an artistic family. One brother, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; another William Michael Rosetti, soon joined the movement, but mostly as editor and critic. Their sister Maria Francesca Rosetti published at least one important essay. Their father, … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day



The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied. His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he … Continue reading