Johann Strauss, Jr.: Tales of his first orchestra tour




Johann Strauss, Sr., one of the most successful dance composers of his generation, famously did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. Johann Strauss, Jr. eventually eclipsed his father’s fame—despite the near disaster of the first of his  orchestra tours. When he was 19, Strauss Jr. enlisted 33 other young musicians and set out with high hopes and very little money. In Pancsova, a town in Lower Banat, they had run out completely. Strauss decided to play an impromptu concert under the window of the town’s mayor. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss and his orchestra some money. … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about Mozart




In 1764 his father was dangerously ill. No one was allowed to touch the piano. To keep himself occupied, young Wolfgang decided to compose his first symphony for full orchestra (K.16). Mozart’s habit of laying in bed to compose alarmed his doctor, who advised him to stand while composing and get as much bodily exercise as he could. Mozart loved billiards, bowling, and skittles, largely because they did not occupy his mind. He could get some exercise and compose at the same time. His Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola (K. 498) is known as the Kegelstatt Trio (skittles alley) … Continue reading

Non-musicians on music: 10 quotations




Just as no one has to be a musician to listen to and enjoy music, no one has to be a musician to have interesting, informative, and even provocative things to say about it. Here are ten quotations to demonstrate that truth: Music with dinner is an insult both to the cook and the violinist. ~ G. K. Chesterton Military justice is to justice what military music is to music. ~ Groucho Marx Music is a discipline, and a mistress of order and good manners, she makes the people milder and gentler, more moral and more reasonable. ~ Martin Luther … Continue reading

Why do some composers and works not survive in the repertoire?




I’m sure everyone knows that the amount of classical music performed and recorded today represents only a small fraction of what has been written. It seems a common assumption that these composers must have written inferior music that deserves to be forgotten. While that is certainly true in some cases it does not explain everything. Fashions change. A hundred years ago, music lovers thought Haydn hopelessly old-fashioned. They welcomed Rossini overtures on concert programs, but only The Barber of Seville of all of his operas maintained its place on stage. They regarded Telemann as one of Bach’s inferior contemporaries and … Continue reading

Composers on music: 10 quotations




Many musicians have observed that if everything could be expressed with words, music would be unnecessary. That doesn’t mean that musicians can’t use words. Composers have talked or written about music for centuries. They have had opinions about their own music and musical abilities, praise or disdain for other composers, and philosophical musings about the nature and importance of music in general. Here are some interesting quotations. Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music. — Gioacchino Antonio Rossini My music is best understood by children and animals. — Igor Stravinsky Truly there would be reason to … Continue reading

The Ferris Wheel: (what does that have to do with music?)




Ferris Wheels are a staple of every amusement park that ever set up for a week in a parking lot, and usually among the tamest rides. They resemble the original Ferris Wheel, the landmark attraction of the Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago 1893), in name only. At a height of 264 feet, the Ferris Wheel towered over the rest of the fair. The 45-foot-long axle alone weighed 71 tons. No one had ever built or seen anything remotely similar. A popular and financially successful ride, it must have nonetheless invited awe and dread. In one way, however, the … Continue reading

Rossini on Wagner




Some scholars have theorized that Rossini retired from composing operas after Guillaume Tell because he disliked the direction opera was going and the kinds of things he had to write in order to maintain  his popularity. He became really upset with Wagner’s music. Two of his comments are very well known: Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour. One cannot judge ‘Lohengrin’ from a first hearing, and I certainly do not intend to hear it a second time. Those were his polite comments. Once he was talking with a singer about Wagner’s music when he decided to … Continue reading

On the many, many songs of Franz Schubert




In 1827 the composer Hummel visited Vienna and brought his sixteen-year-old student Ferdinand Hiller with him. After seeing Hummel deeply moved by hearing Schubert and singer Michael Vogl performing several of the songs, Hiller dropped in on Schubert’s home the next morning. There he saw piles of finished manuscripts laying around, with another in progress on Schubert’s desk. He exclaimed, “You compose a great deal!” Schubert answered simply and seriously, “I compose every morning. When I finish one piece I start on another” He wrote his first song, “Hagars Klage,” in March 1811 and his last, “Der Hirt auf Felsen,” … Continue reading

Niccolò Paganini: The devil’s violinist?




Niccolò Paganini became the world’s first international superstar of the violin beginning when he was 22. He could perform technical feats no other violinist could match. If anything, his showmanship was even more marvelous than his technique. The first virtuoso to perform from memory, he could  move around the stage and interact with the audience. People wondered, could his brilliance possibly be natural? Or did he have diabolical help? In part, he could outdo other violinists because he invented new techniques such as left-hand pizzicato and various new kinds of bowing and tuning. Later violinists have learned them all. But … Continue reading

Past the last minute: a Mozart overture barely finished on time




When an opera performance starts, the overture is the first thing the audience hears, but it is the last thing the composer writes. Rossini disliked writing overtures, and the various impresarios he worked for had legendary difficulties keeping him on track. I haven’t found why Mozart waited so long to compose the overture to Don Giovanni, but for whatever reason, it produced a drama equal to anything Rossini did. Don Giovanni received its first performance in Prague, and Mozart had to travel there for the rehearsals. After the dress rehearsal, that is, the night before the opening performance, Mozart decided … Continue reading