Classical music that used to be popular music

You don’t have to be a classical music lover to recognize names of important classical composers. Bach Beethoven Brahms Wagner Liszt Rossini Except that the music of Rossini and others was considered popular music when it was first heard. And people who liked classical music scorned it. One French writer divided musicians into two kinds: classicists and Rossinists. So what else that we think of as classical music used to be considered popular? And what changed? … Continue reading

The birth of the popular music industry

  What’s the popular music industry? For that matter, what’s popular music? Most people today seem to equate “music industry” with “recording industry,” but it’s older than that. There’s no point in talking about a “classical music industry.”I looked that term up and only found articles about how badly classical music leaders conduct business. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of “industry.” Only three seem applicable: systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; especially:  one that employs a large personnel and capital especially in … Continue reading

Music Inspired by Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe. No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music. In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music. This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet … Continue reading

Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials

Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865. They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists. For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both. On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths. … Continue reading

Medieval Night Watchmen and the Modern Wind Band

What do a night watchman and a professional musician have in common? The first professional wind musicians were night watchmen. Many modern wind instruments can find their ancestors being played from towers to keep the city safe at night and entertain citizens by day. Protective walls surrounded every European town of any significance until the 18th century. Many cities had hundreds of towers. … Continue reading

Symphony no. 7 by Sergey Prokofiev

I never gave much thought to Prokofiev symphonies until my orchestra needed to hire a new conductor. We interviewed six semi-finalists and listened to them explain a sample program. Five of the six built their proposed program around Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony! We’re working on performing it now. Prokofiev as symphonist When Sergey Prokofiev first performed some of his piano music in public (in 1908) critics found it unintelligible. In response, he carefully maintained his reputation as an ultramodern radical.  … Continue reading

A prehistory of the trombone

The familiar shape of the slide trombone has been around at least since 1490. That’s when Filippino Lippi included an image of it in frescos he painted at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. It hasn’t been around as long as the word “trombone,” which first appeared in 1439 in court records in Ferrara. The court at Ferrara had a three-piece wind band for most of the century. Pietro Agostino played played trombone in that band from at least 1456 to at least 1503. … Continue reading

Street music from antiquity to now

In many places in many cities all over the world, pedestrians are treated to live music. Pop singers, jazz musicians, gospel singers, even classical musicians perform for whomever passes by, most often with instrument cases or some other container open in order to solicit donations. Collectively, these entertainers are known as buskers. They represent an ancient tradition. I say all over the world, and I’m sure that’s no exaggeration, but this post concerns only street entertainments that can be traced back to the Roman Empire. … Continue reading

I like that symphony. Who wrote it?

If you attend a lot of live classical music concerts (especially orchestra concerts), chances are you hear music by the same composers over and over. If you listen to classical music radio, you hear music by unfamiliar composers, but chances are it’s very nice music. Have you ever wondered who these composers are and why they’re not well known? Anton Bruckner Wait, you may say. Bruckner is hardly an unknown composer. He was one of the great symphonists of the late 19th century. Oh, and he also wrote some lovely choral music. But did it occur to you that probably … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Today’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra, but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols. Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it. At about the same … Continue reading