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

Don Drummond, a great, but underappreciated trombonist

Don Drummond

Don Drummond, by unknown photographer, possibly 1962

I came across the name “Don Drummond” on the Trombone Forum in connection with something called “ska.”

I mentioned Drummond and ska trombone in A History of the Trombone, but didn’t investigate. Then I thought of him when trying to decide what to write about here and listened to some videos.

Wow! Continue reading

The birth of the popular music industry


18th century sheet music.. popular music industry

18th century sheet music. “Rule Britannia” by Thomas Arne

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 manufacturing
  • a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises industry>

An industry, in other words, seeks to create something of value, is capital and labor intensive, and intends to make a profit. Popular music is inherently commercial and industrial. The popular music industry began in the late 18th century. Continue reading