The what? of Seville: animated opera




Not so long ago, quite a number of classical tunes were well known in popular culture. It has not entirely vanished. I have heard an aria from Carmen in a pizza commercial (wondering if the producers realized they were using French music as a background for their very Italian visuals) and an aria from Gianni Schicchi in a commercial for I don’t recall offhand just what. All the same, it seems that classical music has become less visible (audible?) lately. It has been a long time since I have paid any attention to Saturday morning cartoons. They’re all new, now. … Continue reading

Children and classical music




My parents–my father especially–love classical music. When I was growing up, Dad always had a record on whenever he had a chance to relax. It wasn’t always classical music. He had lots of Broadway musicals and big band jazz in his collection, too. I’ve always figured that’s why I grew up loving that music, although I never shared his enthusiasm for opera. I have a much younger sister, and I can remember her first record player. Her record collection mostly consisted of the horrible songs intended for children. I can hear some of the horrible, sloppy performances of them even … Continue reading

A cruel abuse of classical music




Life has begun to imitate life in the worst way. In Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange (written in 1962), authorities subject an unruly but music-loving youngster to “the Ludovico technique.” They force him to take nausea-inducing drugs and watch violent movies while listening to Beethoven. In the end, he is no longer able to enjoy Beethoven’s music. They stole his former love with that treatment. Lately it has come to my attention that certain British authorities have reinvented “the Ludovico technique.” Apparently having eliminated exposure to classical music from the curriculum, they assume that young people will automatically find … Continue reading

Joshua Bell in the subway: what does it mean?




On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell took his Stradivarius violin to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, D.C. and played great classical music for 43 minutes. According to the subsequent article in the Washington Post, more than one thousand people passed by. Only one person recognized him; only seven stopped to listen for even as much as a minute, but some people tossed money into his case as they hurried by. Bell collected just over $32. The incident probably says a lot about American culture, but apparently no one agrees just what. Just the other day, it was retold … Continue reading

Beethoven plays a new concerto




Nowadays, soloists in a concerto play from memory, especially pianists. Occasionally, players of other instruments will use written music, but I have only seen one pianist using music. He was on the faculty when I was in graduate school, and students discussed the oddity for days afterward. Since the piano requires the use of both hands, memorizing music for performances has the obvious benefit of not requiring a third hand to turn pages. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that pianists have not always performed from memory and audiences have not always expected them to. For a … Continue reading

A historical perspective on orchestra concerts: programing and ritual




Today, American orchestra concerts usually have three or four pieces. In one very typical formula, they have some kind of overture, a concerto, and a symphony. If the program should happen to include music by a living composer–or even by one who died some time after, say, 1945–it typically comes right before intermission, sandwiched between two popular standards. That way the audience will come on time to hear the opening piece and be forced to stay in their seats through the new piece in order to hear whatever delight awaits after the intermission. Certain unwritten laws dictate concert ritual, including … Continue reading

Franz Liszt at an artistic crossroads




In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a social division arose between two kinds of music. Some loved what they called classical music. They quarreled with people who preferred what William Weber has called high-status popular music. Classical music specifically meant the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and a few others. High-status popular music included popular operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, and others. It also included traveling virtuosos who performed largely in salons. That is, they performed before invited guests in the homes of aristocratic or upper-middle-class hosts. Robert Schumann began his career as a critic specifically to protest against … Continue reading

Live vs recorded music




Discussion of the relative merits of live and recorded music probably started as soon as recordings became widely available. As the fidelity of recorded sound improved, the discussion evolved somewhat, but it still continues. One of my professors in college disapproved of recorded music, but frequently attended concerts. He did not even own a record player. I have never met anyone else who prefers live music to the absolute exclusion of listening to recordings, but I know lots of people who agree that there is an immediacy in live performances that recordings cannot duplicate. What’s more, recordings must be almost … Continue reading

Vienna, 1800: the divergence of classical and popular music




Revised February 27, 2017 What kind of music do you think of when you think of Vienna? Classical music, of course. Extra credit if you thought of Johann Strauss and realize that his waltzes aren’t classical music. But did you know classical music was hard to find in Vienna in 1800? Mozart had been dead for nine years. Haydn was an old man close to retirement from composing. The young Beethoven had made a strong start in establishing his reputation. Schubert was only three years old. And most of the public idolized musicians you’ve probably never heard of. In fact, … 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