Vltava (The Moldau) by Bedřich Smetana




Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) is remembered chiefly as a Czech nationalistic composer. His nationalism expressed itself above all in his operas, but he also wrote symphonic tone poems after the example of Franz Liszt. One of them, The Moldau, has become a beloved part of the international orchestral repertoire. He would probably not be happy that it’s known by that name. He called it Vltava … Continue reading

Opera: when did it become highbrow culture?




“I’d hate this to get out, but I really like opera,” said former Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick. What is it about opera that would make anyone hesitant to admit that they like it? It seems to have this reputation as highbrow culture, an entertainment only for the rich, the old, the white, and the snobbish. Two hundred years ago Italian opera had a reputation as mindless entertainment for lowbrows who didn’t appreciate good music. What happened? … Continue reading

Classical music that used to be popular music




You don’t have to be a classical music lover to recognize names of important classical composers. Bach Beethoven Brahms Wagner Liszt Rossini Except that the music of Rossini and others was considered popular music when it was first heard. And people who liked classical music scorned it. One French writer divided musicians into two kinds: classicists and Rossinists. So what else that we think of as classical music used to be considered popular? And what changed? … Continue reading

1812 Overture and 4th of July fireworks: why?




The U.S. and Great Britain fought the War of 1812. Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture, but it commemorates a different war. The 4th of July celebration has nothing to do with the War of 1812, either. So why does the 1812 Overture so often accompany the 4th of July fireworks display? Not many worthwhile pieces include cannon fire, which it makes such an excellent companion to fireworks. Music history is littered with justly forgotten battle music. Such pieces are difficult to write effectively. Even Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory did not succeed as well as the 1812 Overture. It had to jump through … Continue reading

Classical and pop music: 200 years of rivalry




Is classical music or pop music better? Perhaps you’ve seen conversations on sites like quora.com or debate.org. Did you know that these arguments have been going on for more than 200 years? Typically, someone will ask if classical music is superior to pop music, or if classical music has to be elitist. Or perhaps someone will post a putdown of one, which will attract passionate defenses. It amazes me how little people in these discussions actually know. Some of them, for example, contrast classical music and modern music. That’s on both sides. They seem not to know that popular music … Continue reading

Music Inspired by Romeo and Juliet




William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe. No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music. In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music. This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet … Continue reading

Getting off the classical music merry-go-round




Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true. If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off. The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts. For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio. Performing organizations always seek to … Continue reading

Perspective on yet another obituary for classical music




Another obituary for classical music appeared recently at marketplace.org.  It points out that classical music sales only amount to 1.4% of music consumption. It says that audiences of classical music are not diverse. It quotes a pianist as being “kind of tired of making music for the same people all the time.” The obituary in Slate by Mark Vanhoenacker that made the rounds last year said, “Classical music has been circling the drain for years.” Such pronouncements usually provoke a flurry of posts about how healthy classical music is. By “for years,” Vanhoenacker means since some time in the mid-20th … Continue reading

The reputation of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach




This year marks the 300th anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His contemporaries held him in much higher esteem than later generations, who have regarded him as just one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons. Yet in his lifetime, he was known as the “Great Bach.” When Mozart said, “Bach is the father. We are the children,” he had Emanuel in mind, not Sebastian. We may see him only in the shadow of his father, but in his lifetime, his father cast hardly any shadow at all. Why isn’t C.P.E. Bach better known today? … Continue reading

Before Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Became a Cliche




Not too long ago, when an orchestra announced it would play a piece of new music, they had to program it carefully. They performed between two very well-known and popular pieces and right before intermission. The audience was stuck if it wanted to hear both favorites. New music was like medicine. It’s good for you, but no one expects you to like it. All of the favorites were once new. They never would have survived if audiences of their day behaved like modern audiences. What is classical music, anyway? Narrowly speaking “classical” music refers to the generation of Haydn, Mozart, … Continue reading