The buccin: a dragon-headed trombone




In the early nineteenth century, some  French and Belgian instrument makers manufacturered a fanciful adaptation of the trombone known as the buccin. In place of the standard bell section, it had a widely curving tube  ending with a gaudily painted serpent’s or dragon’s head.  The same makers also put monster’s heads on serpents, serpent bassoons, and other precursors of the ophicleide. Judging from the trombone parts in French music during or after the Revolution, the was played loudly, primarily in the lower register.  As the French used a very small-bore trombone, its sound must have been coarse and at times … Continue reading

Trombone vs bull




This article, copied from the September 23, 1841 issue of the [Pittsfield, Massachusetts] Sun speaks for itself: Trombone vs. Bull.–The Lafayette (Louisiana) Chronicle, in enumerating the various definitions given to the word “gentleman,” relates the following anecdote: An intoxicated trombone player was returning from a country ball, and while crossing a field he was accosted by a bellowing bull. What with the darkness in the eyes of a man who could not have seen straght had it been daylight, the trombone player mistook the bull for a brother musician,and the bellow for a defiance to a trial of skill. Possessessed … Continue reading

An ear for music




Lest anyone doubts that Rossini’s music was once deemed contemptible by lovers of classical music, English publisher Vincent Novello visited Europe in 1829 with the hope of hearing good music (specifically Mozart) in the land of its birth. He was disappointed. In Mannheim, he noted in  his  journal, “Heard Rossini’s Overture to “Barbiere de Siviglia” on the Piano Forte. . . I should have preferred hearing something by their celebrated townsman John Cramer, but sterling music appears to be at a very low ebb here, . . .” In Vienna, he wanted to find Beethoven’s last residence, and was upset … Continue reading

Popular singing and the invention of the microphone




Bing Crosby and microphone The microphone, like all successful new technology, had a profound impact on life and culture, including the development of entire new industries. It affected music in numerous ways. For one, it enabled the development of an entirely new approach to singing popular songs. Before the microphone came along, people singing in public had to develop a technique of vocal production that could make their voices heard in the farthest corner of the largest venues. Opera singers were the first to require it, but they were not alone. Singers of American popular music did not need a … Continue reading

Taps




Armies have used trumpet calls as signals to the troops for centuries. Because early trumpets had no valves and early trumpeters played only the lowest notes in the overtone series, only four or five notes are available. When trumpets became fully chromatic in the early nineteenth century with the invention of valves, military calls did not take advantage of the easy availability of extra notes. In fact, the military soon gave up trumpets in favor of bugles for their basic calls. As simple as these calls must be, someone had to compose them. In recent history, the task has usually … Continue reading

Untouched by performers’ hands: the theremin




The theremin, named for its inventor Louis Théremin, is the only instrument that is played without the performer touching any part of it. It uses two ultrasonic oscillators, one of fixed pitch and the other variable. The variable frequency oscillator is attached to an antenna. Audible pitch results from the heterodyne interaction of the two oscillators. That is, what we hear are the beats between two ultrasonic pitches, the difference tones. The frequency of the pitch results from how close or how far away the performers right hand is to the antenna. The performer’s left hand similarly controls the volume … Continue reading

Rossini overtures




During the latter part of the nineteenth century until the latter part of the twentieth, most of Rossini’s operas (the chief exception being The Barber of Seville) disappeared from the repertoire. Many of their overtures, at the same time, became mainstays of the orchestral repertoire. It is therefore ironic that Rossini hated writing them and put them off as long as possible. In an undated letter he advised a young colleague: Wait till the evening before the opening night. Nothing primes inspiration like necessity, whether it takes the form of  a copyist waiting for your work or the coercion of … Continue reading

A Friday the 13th post




For most of his life, Arnold Schoenberg experienced fear not only of the number 13, but multiples of it.  He was sure that he would die during a year that was a multiple of 13, such as 1939 (’39 = 13 x 3). An astrologer assured  him that the year would be dangerous, but not fatal. In 1950, when he turned 76, another astrologer pointed out that 7 + 6 = 13. July 13, 1951 was the first Friday the 13 of his 76th year, he spent the day in bed, afraid of death. The story goes that his wife … Continue reading

The Ophecleide




The serpent eventually morphed into the ophecleide, a metal instrument built more or less in the form of a bassoon. This shape made it possible for the tone holes to be correctly placed and the right size. Unlike the serpent, then, its intonation was dependable. It made a logical bass to the keyed bugle, which was invented at about the same time and for a while became a popular solo instrument. The ophecleide, too, in the hands of skilled players, made an excellent effect both in bands and orchestras and as a solo instrument. But notice that I must use … Continue reading

Military band intonation




According to orchestral conductor Walter Legge, a number of British military bands were summoned to Drury Lane Theatre during the winter of 1943-44 to audition for a long overseas tour. It was icy outside, and the theater was not heated, and yet all the bands played with impeccable intonation. At lunchtime, Legge commented to the band directors that he had conducted some of the world’s best orchestras under much better conditions, and yet had not been able to achieve such good results. One of the band directors reminded him of something he could never obtain: “You would have no intonation … Continue reading