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

Theodore von La Hache: a leading composer of Confederate songs




I had never heard of Theodore von La Hache until recently, but he is a fascinating figure in American musical history who deserves to be better known. One of the many German musicians who moved to the United States, he settled in New Orleans in about 1842. There he served as organist and choirmaster at St. Theresa of Avila Church, co-founded the New Orleans Philharmonic Society, and composed prolifically. During the Civil War, La Hache wrote his Missa Pro Pache (op. 644) in response to its horrors. He also wrote many songs and piano pieces related to the war. Having … Continue reading

The first woman to compose operas: Francesca Caccini




Until very recently, music was a man’s career. Women could be singers, but rarely anything more. Francesca Caccini became well known as an operatic composer early in the history of opera. That fact testifies not only to her talent, but also the fame of her father and the untimely death of a Grand Duke of Tuscany, leaving his wife and his mother as co-regents. Francesca’s father Giulio practically invented opera. At least, that was his version. He and some like-minded friends in Florence (seat of the Medici family ruling as Grand Dukes of Tuscany) invented a new, declamatory style of … Continue reading

Chestnuts being roasted: Pachelbel’s Canon by PaGAGnini




Johann Pachelbel was a fine composer. He wrote lots of music. Why does it seem like the canon from his Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo is the only piece he wrote? Why is it that when a radio announcer says that music by Pachelbel is coming up, it’s always the Canon–unless the announcement specifically says that it will be something besides the Canon? Anything that’s overexposed on the radio also appears on too many live performances. Orchestras can do it once in a season and be done with it, but pity the poor string group that … Continue reading

The English headwaters of American hymn singing




I expect that hardly any of my readers have ever heard of William Tans’ur. That is partly because the history of church music in the eighteenth century has been written almost exclusively about music for various courts and major cities, to the exclusion of music for country churches. But Tans’ur appears to have had more influence on musical life in colonial America, including the important composer William Billings, than anyone else. The name William Tanzer appears in the baptismal register at Dunchurch in 1706, the son of a common laborer named Edward Tanzer. As an adult, William adopted the spelling … Continue reading