Beloved Christmas carols: The Christmas Song

In a web environment, someone can write an article or record a song and put it online immediately. Conventional publishers must work months in advance of publication. Whatever new magazine articles on Christmas, Christmas record albums, etc. appear this month were probably written some time last summer. Once upon a time, selling sheet music made at least as much money as recordings. Publishers often had song-writing teams under contract to provide new music. On a hot July day in 1946, lyricist Bob Wells was not thinking of songs for Christmas or otherwise. He only cared about cooling off. Swimming didn’t … Continue reading

Did Sax invent the saxhorn?

(Saxhorns are the top row of instruments in this 1872 advertisement) In1845, French military music reached the bottom of a long decline. The war ministry, desiring to reorganize it completely, arranged for a contest among bands with various instrumentation. The band led by Adolphe Sax won. The Belgian-born Sax had only moved to Paris and set up shop three years earlier. His quick success (largely due to the superior craftsmanship of his instruments but also to notable supporters such as Hector Berlioz) annoyed established French makers. That this upstart should win the right to reorganized French military music added insult … Continue reading

Franz Liszt at an artistic crossroads

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a social division arose between two kinds of music. Some loved what they called classical music. They quarreled with people who preferred what William Weber has called high-status popular music. Classical music specifically meant the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and a few others. High-status popular music included popular operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, and others. It also included traveling virtuosos who performed largely in salons. That is, they performed before invited guests in the homes of aristocratic or upper-middle-class hosts. Robert Schumann began his career as a critic specifically to protest against … Continue reading

Guillaume de Machaut: the gaps in his biography

Our knowledge of history is limited by the accident of what kind of documentation exists. Even for recent people and events, historians cannot always find information about what they most want to learn. Given roughly equivalent fame and importance, the earlier a person lived, the sparser the documentation. The great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) provides a good illustration. No other fourteenth-century composer left behind as much music as Machaut, and possibly none other provided so much detail about his life and times. While many prolific composers over the course of history have produced vast quantities of music … Continue reading

Second thoughts on the ophicleide

I wrote earlier about the ophicleide mainly to introduce a humorous poem. I later received a stern reprimand from a friend of mine, who objected to my statement that “it does not have a lot of love or respect now.” He wondered how I could possibly justify the statement and  hoped I would write another article after I learned more about it. That friend, Douglas Yeo, deserves more attention to and respect for his comments to me than almost anyone else I know. He is the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and also plays other instruments such as … Continue reading

Francesca Caccini, the first woman operatic composer

Today we find nothing unusual about women becoming professional musicians. Women play every imaginable instrument. They conduct orchestras, choruses, and opera companies. They are well represented on anyone’s list of leading living composers. It can be hard to remember that until recently women were discouraged from playing certain instruments, and certainly from ever thinking about becoming composers. Francesca Caccini’s career is, then, something of an anomaly. She composed songs and operas for court entertainments in the early seventeenth century. Her father, Giulio Caccini, was a highly regarded singer, composer, and music teacher in Florence. Francesca, his foremost pupil first sang … Continue reading

Live vs recorded music

Discussion of the relative merits of live and recorded music probably started as soon as recordings became widely available. As the fidelity of recorded sound improved, the discussion evolved somewhat, but it still continues. One of my professors in college disapproved of recorded music, but frequently attended concerts. He did not even own a record player. I have never met anyone else who prefers live music to the absolute exclusion of listening to recordings, but I know lots of people who agree that there is an immediacy in live performances that recordings cannot duplicate. What’s more, recordings must be almost … Continue reading

Vienna, 1800: the divergence of classical and popular music

Revised February 27, 2017 What kind of music do you think of when you think of Vienna? Classical music, of course. Extra credit if you thought of Johann Strauss and realize that his waltzes aren’t classical music. But did you know classical music was hard to find in Vienna in 1800? Mozart had been dead for nine years. Haydn was an old man close to retirement from composing. The young Beethoven had made a strong start in establishing his reputation. Schubert was only three years old. And most of the public idolized musicians you’ve probably never heard of. In fact, … Continue reading

Tension and resolution, or, an odd musical alarm clock

In tonal music (that is, the majority of what we listen to), each chord has a function. One chord, the tonic (the chord build on the first note of the scale) is a place of rest. Once the key is firmly established, every other chord has some degree  of tension that demands eventual resolution to the tonic. Probably every listener knows, at least instinctively, whether the occasional pause in a piece is on the tonic, a fit place to end, or something else, which requires the music to continue. Professional musicians, of course, are acutely aware of the tonic. If … Continue reading

The birth of the popular music industry

In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, a rigid social stratification arose when the ruling classes began to patronize music for their own entertainment that none but their peers ever heard. The nobles usually maintained wind bands for ceremonial purposes and keeping common people entertained. These bands played tunes that everyone knew. I have described this social stratification in some detail in an earlier post. As I tried to demonstrate there, “classical” music started in the eighteenth century when the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie started liking the same music. By that time, everyone had forgotten most of the music formerly … Continue reading