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

A revolution in the music business: the phonograph

78 rpm record, history of phonograph, recording music industry

Victor Record 78 rpm License Label, ca. 1905-1906

New media and services like YouTube and Spotify are shaking up the music industry. But they have no more impact than the phonograph record player did just over a hundred years ago.

Not very long ago, if anyone wanted to experience music, they had to go to a concert or make it themselves.

Many towns and smaller cities had no local professional concert organizations. Their citizens could attend a concert only if traveling performers chose to stop there.

On the other hand, nearly every middle class household had a piano. Many people sang and played other instruments. Even small towns had bands, perhaps attached to a local militia unit.

Then came the phonograph record player. Continue reading

Dueling melodies: Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs

Irving Berlin, Tony Martin, counterpoint songs

Photo of Irving Berlin and Tony Martin from the television program Irving Berlin’s Salute to America.

Lovers of Irving Berlin’s music know that he wrote double songs.

Two characters on stage sing different songs in succession. Then they sing them together in counterpoint.

Most may not be aware that Berlin published 15 of them between 1914 and 1966. Continue reading

Classical music that used to be popular music

composers classical vs 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