Why do some composers and works not survive in the repertoire?




I’m sure everyone knows that the amount of classical music performed and recorded today represents only a small fraction of what has been written. It seems a common assumption that these composers must have written inferior music that deserves to be forgotten. While that is certainly true in some cases it does not explain everything. Fashions change. A hundred years ago, music lovers thought Haydn hopelessly old-fashioned. They welcomed Rossini overtures on concert programs, but only The Barber of Seville of all of his operas maintained its place on stage. They regarded Telemann as one of Bach’s inferior contemporaries and … Continue reading

Composers on music: 10 quotations




Many musicians have observed that if everything could be expressed with words, music would be unnecessary. That doesn’t mean that musicians can’t use words. Composers have talked or written about music for centuries. They have had opinions about their own music and musical abilities, praise or disdain for other composers, and philosophical musings about the nature and importance of music in general. Here are some interesting quotations. Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music. — Gioacchino Antonio Rossini My music is best understood by children and animals. — Igor Stravinsky Truly there would be reason to … Continue reading

Rossini on Wagner




Some scholars have theorized that Rossini retired from composing operas after Guillaume Tell because he disliked the direction opera was going and the kinds of things he had to write in order to maintain  his popularity. He became really upset with Wagner’s music. Two of his comments are very well known: Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour. One cannot judge ‘Lohengrin’ from a first hearing, and I certainly do not intend to hear it a second time. Those were his polite comments. Once he was talking with a singer about Wagner’s music when he decided to … Continue reading

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