What’s in a number (Dvořák)?

Some music has distinctive titles, like Romeo and Juliette or The Tree-Cornered Hat. More than one composer might use the same title, but so long as we specify whether we mean the Romeo and Juliette by Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, or anyone else, there is no question of which piece we refer to. Other music has form titles, like Sonata, Concerto, Symphony, etc. Not only have many composers used those titles over a long period of years, but many use them more than once. We keep them apart by numbering them, among other things. When we see or hear a reference … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about Gustav Mahler

When he was a little boy, someone asked Mahler what he wanted to be when he grew up; he said, “a martyr.” One day, a friend noticed that Mahler looked sad; Mahler said he had just learned that his father was ill. The next day, the same friend saw a man running through the street sobbing. It was Mahler. Had something happened to his father? It was much worse than that; he learned that Richard Wagner had died. Conducting his first Ring Cycle, Mahler was furious when the timpanist missed an important cue in the final scene of Das Rheingold; … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about J. S. Bach

When Bach was a  hungry young man with no money to buy food at an inn, someone tossed two herrings’ heads to him. That seemed like a good deal, but not as good as the Danish ducats in each one, which enabled him to purchase a really good meal with some money left over. One of his students in Arnstadt called him a “dirty dog” and  hit him with a stick. The authorities determined Bach himself was as fault for having earlier called the student a “nanny goat bassoonist.” In response to this rebuke, he took a long and unauthorized … Continue reading

Who wrote the first opera in the United States?

The usual answer to that question, William Henry Fry, produced Leonora in Philadelphia in 1845. A skillful imitation of Bellini and Donizetti it ran for twelve performances, successful enough to justify publication of a piano-vocal score. Fry’s brother Joseph adapted the libretto from a novel by Bulwer-Lytton. In the November 23, 1843 issue of the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, appears notice of a new opera: “The idea of a Native American Opera is something so new and unexpected that our musical amateurs and connoisseurs were not a little taken aback by the announcement of Andre at the American … Continue reading

Guillaume de Machaut: the gaps in his biography

Our knowledge of history is limited by the accident of what kind of documentation exists. Even for recent people and events, historians cannot always find information about what they most want to learn. Given roughly equivalent fame and importance, the earlier a person lived, the sparser the documentation. The great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) provides a good illustration. No other fourteenth-century composer left behind as much music as Machaut, and possibly none other provided so much detail about his life and times. While many prolific composers over the course of history have produced vast quantities of music … Continue reading

Francesca Caccini, the first woman operatic composer

Today we find nothing unusual about women becoming professional musicians. Women play every imaginable instrument. They conduct orchestras, choruses, and opera companies. They are well represented on anyone’s list of leading living composers. It can be hard to remember that until recently women were discouraged from playing certain instruments, and certainly from ever thinking about becoming composers. Francesca Caccini’s career is, then, something of an anomaly. She composed songs and operas for court entertainments in the early seventeenth century. Her father, Giulio Caccini, was a highly regarded singer, composer, and music teacher in Florence. Francesca, his foremost pupil first sang … Continue reading