Five things you probably didn’t know about J. S. Bach




When Bach was a  hungry young man with no money to buy food at an inn, someone tossed two herrings’ heads to him. That seemed like a good deal, but not as good as the Danish ducats in each one, which enabled him to purchase a really good meal with some money left over. One of his students in Arnstadt called him a “dirty dog” and  hit him with a stick. The authorities determined Bach himself was as fault for having earlier called the student a “nanny goat bassoonist.” In response to this rebuke, he took a long and unauthorized … Continue reading

Girls and trombone: odder than I first thought?




I had just begun seventh grade the first time I met a girl trombonist, who was also in seventh grade. It didn’t take long to realize that she was better than any other trombonist in the band, and there were lots of them. When we got to ninth grade (freshman year of high school), she played better than any of the seniors. Her older sisters, recent graduates, had been just as outstanding on  horn and tuba. The best trumpet player was a girl, as were all of the hornists, and a euphonium player. It never occurred to me that there … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 9: Tin Pan Alley




Tin Pan Alley started during a time of transition in American musical theater. Late in the nineteenth century, the variety show began to supplant the minstrel show as America’s chief form of entertainment. Both consisted of sequences of various acts with no plot, but in the minstrel show, the entire cast stayed on stage from beginning to end and sometimes performed as an ensemble. Variety shows had a wider range of acts, and performers took the stage only for their own. Songs continued to follow the traditional verse/chorus form, but the change in theatrical practice eliminated four-part harmony from the … Continue reading

Who wrote the first opera in the United States?




The usual answer to that question, William Henry Fry, produced Leonora in Philadelphia in 1845. A skillful imitation of Bellini and Donizetti it ran for twelve performances, successful enough to justify publication of a piano-vocal score. Fry’s brother Joseph adapted the libretto from a novel by Bulwer-Lytton. In the November 23, 1843 issue of the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, appears notice of a new opera: “The idea of a Native American Opera is something so new and unexpected that our musical amateurs and connoisseurs were not a little taken aback by the announcement of Andre at the American … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 8: After the Civil War




It takes a long time to recover from a trauma. The United States did not begin to recover from the Civil War for at least two decades after it ended. The healing of mutual hatred between North and South did not begin until much later than that. Perhaps because of the continuing bitterness and recrimination in business and politics, popular music of the postwar period did not witness any important innovations or new song writers. Many composers who made their reputations before and during the war continued to produce new songs, but without any reference to current events or social … Continue reading

New Year’s musical musings and questions




“Every turnip green, every kidney bean,Every plant grows according to the plot;But with childerin, it’s bewilderin’. Just as soon as you think you know what kind you’ve got,It’s what they’re not.” — The Fantasticks (from memory) This blog is only about two months old. I hoped it would be more like a kidney bean than the teenagers the two fathers in The Fantasticks bemoaned. It has become like a fast-growing baby that outgrows clothes with reckless abandon. I have all the instincts of an academic writer. Blogging requires something much different. Posts must be both much shorter and much more … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 7: Civil War Songs




Issues of slavery and states rights so divided the nation that the American Civil War broke out as soon as Abraham Lincoln was proclaimed President-elect. It lasted four years, but strangely music unified the opposing armies at times.   Two publishers, the Chicago’s Root & Cady and Boston’s Oliver Ditson, account for the bulk of the North’s best war songs. George Frederick Root, brother of one of the Root & Cady’s founders, wrote “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Vacant Chair,” “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” and Brother, Tell Me of the Battle.” Henry Clay Work, who also published with … Continue reading

Gate crashers: trombones in Handel’s Messiah




Merry Christmas! Although Messiah is, strictly speaking, not Christmas music, having been composed for Lenten performances, today we most often hear it at Christmas. Handel used trombones to great effect in two of his oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, both first performed in 1738. Apparently he did not have access to trombones in any later year; he considered adding trombones to two later oratorios, not including Messiah, but soon abandoned the effort. Unlike most other music of his time and earlier, Handel’s did not suffer posthumous neglect. The Concert of Ancient Music, founded in 1776, actually had a rule … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 6: Stephen Collins Foster




I can remember as a child reading of Stephen Foster as the “American Schubert.” That is absurd. His knowledge of musical composition was too scanty to deserve that comparison. But during his lifetime he was regarded as the best American songwriter ever. Not until the twentieth century did anyone surpass him. He was the first full-time professional songwriter in American history. His predecessors had all earned most of their living from performing, publishing, or some other activity and could not have survived on their songs alone. Publishers usually bought songs outright, and if they sold well over a period of … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 5: some early American song-writers




Nineteenth-century America’s greatest song writer, Stephen Collins Foster, owed much to a variety of musical influences. Earlier posts in this series have shown the amalgam of English, Irish, and Italian influences that led to the first distinctively American style of song. The first recognized American form of entertainment added detailed (if racist) observation of the dialect and mannerisms of African slaves to make up a separate genre, the plantation song. With its choral refrains and other innovations, plantation songs in turn influenced other American song writers who were not at all involved with minstrel shows. At about the same time, … Continue reading