Beloved Christmas carols: I wonder as I wander

While 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

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 … Continue reading

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

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

In 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 … Continue reading

Vltava (The Moldau) by Bedřich Smetana

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

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?

“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

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 … Continue reading