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

My 10 favorite lesser-known Christmas pieces

I have been enjoying my Christmas records for the past couple of weeks. I have also seen plenty of online articles and blogposts with titles like, “The Ten Best Christmas Pieces of All Times,” or more modestly, “My Ten Favorite Christmas Songs.” A lot of them list the music we hear in church, concerts, on the radio, and in stores and shopping malls year after year. I thought I’d do something a little different and list some of my favorite pieces that are less well known. Most are older than the what we usually hear many times over the course … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 4: the influence of German songs

German-speaking people began to emigrate to America in modest numbers as early as the late seventeenth century. Generally, they got on well with the Anglophone majority and willingly adopted American habits and viewpoints. Settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina by the Moravian Church featured musical practices inherited from Germany, but had little influence on the surrounding culture. Things began to change by about the 1830s. The rate of immigration from Germany increased rapidly. This new influx brought German culture not to isolated settlements, but to major cities. Simply examining census records over the course of several decades of the nineteenth … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 3: minstrel shows and plantation songs

As was the case with many things popular in America, black characters played by whites on stage originated in England. As early as 1768, black characters offered comic relief in English operas. Some of these same operas were equally popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Poets attempted to develop a dialect that could sound suitably like how a black person might speak, although they didn’t use it consistently even within a single song. Composers had no idea what kinds of melodies blacks may have sung. Some made no attempt, writing the same kinds of melodies they would have used … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 2: the influence of Italian opera

At first glance, the performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in New York on November 29, 1825, seems to have little to do with popular music. It marks the first American production of any opera in Italian, or indeed any other foreign language. (New Orleans had a long tradition of presenting opera in French, but then it was originally a French city and remained largely French in culture long after the United States acquired it. Opera in French there hardly counted as a foreign language.) Actually, it affected American popular music almost as much as … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 1: from colonial times to ca. 1825

It never ceases to amaze me how many books on American popular song begin their coverage somewhere in the twentieth century, as if nothing of interest came before. Popular music is essentially a business that requires constantly updated products. It is an older business than perhaps many people imagine. The first ballad operas heard in Britain’s American colonies were performed as early as the 1730s. American cities began to establish pleasure gardens, likely as not named for one of the major gardens in London, as early as the 1760. For most of the rest of the eighteenth century, the colonies … Continue reading

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