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

When "classical" music was "popular"–Part 2




My first article on this topic explored how Rossini’s music was considered “popular” music in the sense of being somehow inferior to “classical” music, although it is now regarded as “classical” music. This one will explore the narrowing of gaps between social strata that resulted in a new style of music, which music history has come to regard as the Classical period. It was among the most truly popular music of all times, in the sense of appealing to audiences that crossed geographical and social boundaries (not to mention time!) At least from the late Middle Ages through the end … Continue reading

Trombone in the (old) news–part two




Here are some more gems from the Times of London: Dec 25, 1863. In the midst of the American Civil War, the Christy Minstrels, among the most important American entertainers of the time, went on an international tour and presented ten concerts in London during the week following Christmas 1863. The advertisement lists all of the music to be played on the two concerts on Saturday, the 26th, including a trombone solo performed by J. Randall. 1866. Two different horses named Trombone appear in the “Sporting Intelligence” column. One owned by Mr. Machell is mentioned on Sept. 29, and Oct. … Continue reading