Opera: when did it become highbrow culture?

Rossini. highbrow culture, lowbrow culture

Rossini / Le Hanneton, July 4, 1867. Definitely considered lowbrow in his lifetime

“I’d hate this to get out, but I really like opera,” said former Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick.

What is it about opera that would make anyone hesitant to admit that they like it? It seems to have this reputation as highbrow culture, an entertainment only for the rich, the old, the white, and the snobbish.

Two hundred years ago Italian opera had a reputation as mindless entertainment for lowbrows who didn’t appreciate good music.

What happened? Continue reading

Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofé

Coronado Butte, Grand Canyon. Suite

Coronado Butte in the Grand Canyon as seen from the east rim drive

Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite remains one of the most popular of American orchestral pieces. He first wrote it for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and devoted his entire career to popular music.

Classical music critics long scorned popular music. Throughout the 20th century, most standard classical music reference works ignored popular music figures as much as possible.

The 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, has no article on Grofé, although it devotes ample space to some of his contemporaries who never composed anything as successful as the Grand Canyon Suite.

The few available online biographies have conflicting information. Fortunately, the second edition of Grove has an authoritative article. It points out their mistakes. Continue reading

Victor Cornette and his trombone method

Victor Cornette trombone method 1854 cover

Colombier edition of Cornette’s method for trombone (ca. 1854)

For most of a century, advanced trombone students have worked from a combination of the trombone method by Victor Cornette (1795-1868) and the Melodious Etudes compiled from Marco Bordogni’s vocalises by Johannes Rochut.

Cornette published the first edition of his method in 1831.

The Paris Conservatory taught trombone when it opened in 1795, but soon abandoned it. It didn’t offer trombone again until after Cornette published his method, Continue reading

What a Wonderful World, by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss

What a wonderful world cover
What a Wonderful World, made famous by Louis Armstrong, always sounded to me like a Tin Pan Alley hit from the 1940s. I was surprised to learn that it first appeared in 1967.

In reading for this post, I was also surprised at finding next to nothing about the composition of the song.

Bob Thiele, who wrote the words, was at the time head of Impulse Jazz, a subsidiary of ABC Records.

When he took that position, he was already a veteran of more than 20 years as a producer of jazz records. His obituary in the New York Times doesn’t even mention his role in this song. Continue reading

Earliest jazz recordings: this year’s the 100th anniversary

Original dixieland jass band. earliest jazz recordings

An advertising card from 1918, by which time the band had changed its spelling of jazz

A record of two songs by the Original Dixieland Jass band appeared in May 1917. It has gone down in history as the earliest jazz recording. Or was it?

In any case, it made a huge splash. Recordings of dozens of other pieces with either jazz in the title or the name of the group appeared before the end of the year.

The year 1917 marks a turning point not only in a particular art form, but in black music. Even though whites made the overwhelming majority of the earliest jazz recordings. Continue reading

What is music? Classical composer quotes

composers quotationsYou know what music is when you hear it. Then again, someone else might have a completely different idea. One person’s music is another person’s noise.

So what is music? And where does it come from?

It’s not as if anyone can actually define it, but composers have expressed their opinions. What did they think they were doing? Here are some famous composers’ quotes Continue reading

L’histoire du soldat, or, The soldier’s tale by Igor Stravinsky

L'histoire du soldat, a soldier's tale. program noteIgor Stravinsky didn’t set out to write a masterpiece when he composed L’histoire du soldat (or The Soldier’s Tale).

The popular cliché of the starving artist came too close to home for him when World War One broke out. He needed cash.

For that purpose, the piece utterly failed. Continue reading

Fake histories of the trombone, or, where was Snopes?

Book of the dead. trombone history

Book of the Dead’, Papyrus of Ani (sheet 3). Did these people invent the trombone?

Widely copied misinformation did not begin with the Internet. Reliable historical writings about the trombone in English begin with a 1906 article by Francis Galpin, for example.

Before that? Fake histories abounded. In fact, likely as not, they appeared in encyclopedia articles.

They frequently name sources, but except for the Bible, not with enough precision that interested readers could actually find them. Or else they name current secondary sources that refer only to bibliographic fog. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: In dulci jubilo / Good Christian men, rejoice

Carolers in Union Square, San Francisco

Carolers in Union Square, San Francisco

Most of what we call Christmas carols are actually Christmas hymns. “In dulci jubilo” is a true carol, that is, a medieval dance tune.

Carol texts could be either sacred or secular. Sacred texts usually concerned major feast days, including the birth of Jesus, thus the association of carols with Christmas music.

Folk instruments, including drums and other percussion, frequently accompanied carols and other dances.

The use of dance rhythms, instruments, and non-Latin texts made carols like “In dulci jubilo” unsuitable for use in Roman Catholic church services.

But the Medieval world knew no separation between religious and secular life. Civic ceremonies and private entertainment at all levels of society made frequent reference to religious imagery.

English-language hymnals often pair the tune with a free translation by John Mason Neale, “Good Christian Men, rejoice.” Continue reading

Autumn in New York by Vernon Duke

record cover, Autumn in New York by Vernon Duke

One of a flood of early recordings that established “Autumn in New York” as a standard.

The season of autumn has inspired some of America’s best popular songs.

New York has inspired more songs than any other American city. Inevitably, someone wrote a song called Autumn in New York.

That it became a standard, recorded by dozens of the giants of American popular music was not inevitable. Continue reading