Brahms, Bruckner and critics

At the end of the nineteenth century, everyone in the world who cared about modern German music (who were a lot more than just Germans) got into a free for all about the relative merits of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Anton Bruckner, a rather timid symphonist, got caught in the middle. After all, Brahms wrote no operas and Wagner wrote no symphonies. Bruckner, who wrote symphonies and liked Wagner’s operas found himself an easy target for people who disliked Wagner. It took a generation after the chief antagonists died before anyone could publicly admit to liking both Brahms and … Continue reading

Rodeo, by Aaron Copland

Rodeo: The Courting at Burnt Ranch launched the ballet career of Agnes de Mille in 1942. It remains one of only three of de Mille’s ballets that remain in the repertoire. The greatness and popularity of Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet deserves at least some of the credit, but it almost didn’t get written at all. When de Mille spoke to Copland about the basic theme of the ballet, he responded that he had already written a western ballet (Billy the Kid, 1938). Why should he write another one? Why couldn’t she provide him with something about Ellis Island? … Continue reading

Unlikely greatness: Joseph Haydn as a child

In the middle of the eighteenth century, peasant boys born in villages tended to remain peasant villagers for the rest of their lives. Musicians of any social class usually came from musical families. Joseph Haydn, born to a wheelwright and a cook in the Austrian village of Rohrau, seems an unlikely candidate to become a musician at all, let alone become wealthy and internationally famous. His father, Mathias, could not read music, but learned to play the harp by ear. Singing songs while playing the harp, or playing harp while the family sang, was a favorite pastime. Visitors might also … Continue reading

From the New World: 9th symphony by Antonin Dvořák

Antonin Dvořák came to America because of a woman who was used to getting her own way. In 1884, a wealthy arts patroness in New York, Jeanette Thurber, established the National Conservatory of Music and hired a Belgian singer as its first director. The Conservatory was unusual for a number of reasons: She conceived and ran it as a philanthropic, not commercial venture. Therefore, it admitted students who otherwise could not have gotten a musical education. Women as well as men comprised the student body. The student body was not limited to white students. Some Native American and African American … Continue reading

John Williams at 80

This year marks the 80th birthday of one of the most successful, honored, and loved American composer in history. John Towner Williams was born on Long Island, New York on February 8, 1932. Probably no one ever sees the middle name unless they’re looking up biographical information, but it’s good to know. John Williams is a very common name, one he shares with other musicians. John Williams is also the name of an Australian classical guitarist. There is another American conductor named John McLauglin Williams. No longer with us are a Chicago blues guitarist and a notable jazz drummer both … Continue reading

Olympic fanfare(s): John Williams and Leo Arnaud

With the Olympics in progress, and snippets of John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme heard constantly, it seems good to take a closer look at this piece–especially since Williams’ 80th birthday is this month. One of Williams’ challenges in composing Olympic Fanfare and Theme was writing music that could bear comparison with a 20-year-old theme that was already synonymous with the Olympics. Another favorite Olympic theme Ever since the modern Olympics began in 1896, music has been composed especially for various Olympiads. Most of it seems to have been forgotten soon afterward. Ironically, the best known music associated with the … Continue reading

George Frederick Root’s Civil War Songs

Chicago was the musical capital of the North when it came to production of great Civil War songs. The firm of Root & Cady employed two composers (the founder’s younger brother George Frederick Root and Henry Clay Work). Between the two of them, they composed all of the best-selling songs in the firm’s catalog and probably more big hits than any other Northern composer. George Frederick Root was born in 1820 in Sheffield, Massachusetts to a musical family. He studied piano with George J. Webb and, in 1845, moved to New York to establish a career as church organist and … Continue reading

Ironies in Rossini’s life and works: humorous anecdotes

The ironies in Rossini’s life and career are many: By the time he composed his last opera, William Tell, in 1829, he had long been the most popular operatic composer all over Europe. Then he stopped writing operas entirely. He composed 38 operas by the time he retired–at age 38–and yet he has an abiding reputation for laziness. While today we think of opera as a part of “classical” music, during his lifetime lovers of classical music uniformly despised Rossini. Although he had some formal study, he did not complete it, and his part-writing and counterpoint were full of errors. … Continue reading

Franz Liszt and the symphonic poem

Early in his career, no one would have guessed that Franz Liszt would ever become capable of writing symphonic poems like Les Préludes. He was a piano virtuoso, known for the flashy brilliance of his playing. Most piano virtuosos of his generation and earlier contented themselves with composing what Robert Schumann scorned as Philistine music. Schumann recognized that Liszt wrote musically more substantial pieces. Therefore it makes sense that out of all the famous virtuosos, Liszt would invent the symphonic poem. Franz Liszt, a different sort of piano virtuoso It appears that the most famous and notorious of these Philistine … Continue reading

Duke Ellington’s music: how did he do it?

Duke Ellington was hardly a composer at all in the traditional sense. For centuries, both “classical” and “popular” composers had worked in solitude. They often collaborated with other people in the process, but they worked out their ideas by themselves. Ellington composition didn’t usually come about that way. He didn’t compose for instruments. He composed for people, and he needed those people around him. Composers rarely share their procedures with the public, but Ellington briefly described his in a magazine article. Sometimes he wrote out a melody, worked out the arrangement, and presented it to the band. That’s traditional composition, … Continue reading