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

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

Beethoven rises to a challenge!!

Everyone knows about Ludwig van Beethoven. He is a towering figure in Classical music, renowned for his contributions to the symphony, the string quartet, the piano sonata, and much more. No one but musicologists know much about Daniel Steibelt. They mostly remember him for using the tambourine in so many of  his piano sonatas (his wife played tambourine), for introducing the Chinese gong into his opera Romeo et Juliette (although later musicologists have determined it was some kind of tuned bell instead), and for coming out the loser in a brash challenge to Beethoven. Steibelt was born in Berlin. He … Continue reading

A Dog’s Taste for Bruckner

Some of Anton Bruckner’s students decided to play a trick on him. While he was out to  lunch, they played music on the piano for Bruckner’s dog. As one of them played a motive from Richard Wagner’s music, the others chased the dog around the room and slapped him. But when they played from Bruckner’s own Te Deum, they gave the dog treats. Once the dog started running away every time he heard Wagner’s music and came bounding toward the piano with his tail wagging every time he heard Bruckner’s, the students prepared the next part of their plan. When … Continue reading

Suite(s) from Swan Lake

The community orchestra I play in just played the suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake–at least that’s what I thought it was when we first started rehearsing. I certainly didn’t know anything unusual about the piece. I’d heard the waltz many times, and it was nice to have a chance to play it. Some of the other movements have fun trombone parts, too. Trombone parts in orchestral music always have lots of long rests and seldom have good cues. If I don’t already have a recording of the pieces we perform, I try to get one. So I went online and … Continue reading

Welcome to Musicology for Everyone

I’m not sure when I first heard the word musicology, but it must have been some time before I had any interest in pursuing it seriously. I majored in composition and trombone performance as an undergraduate. I have a masters in musicology, but started to work on a doctorate in performance before I decided musicology was a better fit. When I started college, I had a double major in music and history. (And yes, my music major was a double major, too. Kids! Think they can do it all! What a glutton for punishment!) The history major did not survive … Continue reading