Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini

Puccini was born into Lucca’s most prominent musical family, a dynasty that began with his great-great-grandfather. Only the Bach dynasty (seven generations) lasted longer than the Puccini dynasty. Although Puccini was only five when his father died, everyone assumed that he would eventually take over the now hereditary position of organist and music director at San Martino Cathedral. Instead, he turned away from church music and devoted his life to opera. He always had trouble finding suitable librettos and even more trouble once he had them. He started and abandoned as many operas as he completed. In 1913, he decided … Continue reading

A pocket-sized trombone with a full-sized sound!

I love the trombone, but it does have its disadvantages. It can be very heavy. I confess I didn’t like the trombone too much when I had to carry it to school. In junior high, I wasn’t on a school-bus route, but it was too far to walk. My dad put some kind of carrier on the front fender of my bike, and that’s how I got the trombone back and forth. Another problem: The slide makes the trombone one of the longest instruments in a band or orchestra even in first position. Granted, bassoons, baritone saxophones, double basses, etc. … Continue reading

Update on my next book–and this blog

My next book, A History of the Trombone, is due out from Scarecrow Press in June. That means I have lots of work to do this month. I just got the page proofs and have about three weeks to proofread the whole thing and prepare the index. I’m so excited! I have been working on this project for about 14 years now. Of course, I can’t expect anyone to be as excited as I am, but I hope a lot of trombonists will be excited when it becomes available. Of course, the time to do this final bit of work … Continue reading

"Easter Parade," by Irving Berlin

Perhaps the most popular Easter song in the English language, “Easter Parade” started out with completely different words. In 1917, Berlin wrote “Smile and Show Your Dimple” to cheer up women whose men had just been deployed to fight in the First World War. No one remembered it very long except Berlin himself. In 1933, Berlin and playwright Moss Hart decided to collaborate on a satiric review with sketches taken from the daily newspaper. They called it As Thousands Cheer. It had sketches not only from the news sections, but also the society column, advice column, weather report, and comics. … Continue reading

St. Luke Passion, by Krzysztof Penderecki

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki grew up under the heavy hand of communism and its socialist realism aesthetic. Like many Eastern Europeans of his generation, he looked to the West for inspiration and a sense of liberation from official dictates. What he and many other likeminded composers found was the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, and other representatives of a generation of composers who grew up chafing under similarly oppressive Nazism and fascism. As he commented later, this music gave the illusion of universalism, but strayed too far from the expressive qualities of Western music. Of course, his … Continue reading

An early song about Chicago

Probably everyone knows, or at least knows about, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” and “My Kind of Town.” Frank Sinatra sang both with great success. Surely no one will be surprised to learn that nearly 200 more songs about Chicago exist that no one is ever likely to sing again. But could anyone expect that the earliest published song about Chicago takes such a dim view of the place? In 1868, Chicago music publisher H. M. Higgins found a very insulting poem about Chicago in a Pittsburgh newspaper and decided to set it to music. Musically, the piece has little interest, … Continue reading

Children and classical music

My parents–my father especially–love classical music. When I was growing up, Dad always had a record on whenever he had a chance to relax. It wasn’t always classical music. He had lots of Broadway musicals and big band jazz in his collection, too. I’ve always figured that’s why I grew up loving that music, although I never shared his enthusiasm for opera. I have a much younger sister, and I can remember her first record player. Her record collection mostly consisted of the horrible songs intended for children. I can hear some of the horrible, sloppy performances of them even … Continue reading

Menuhin on Toscanini

Bruno Walter und Yehudin Menuhin

As a teenager, violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under the baton of the volatile Arturo Toscanini. While they rehearsed in Toscanini’s apartment, the young soloist was treated to perhaps the calmest, quietest temper tantrum of Toscanini’s life. As he described it later: It was during the preparation for this performance that Toscanini showed me what it meant to be sure of oneself. In his apartment at the Hotel Astor on Times Square–which had an Italian proprietor and no doubt reliable pasta–we had reached the middle of the slow movement where, after the second tutti, the sound marked … Continue reading

But cell phones hadn’t been invented yet! (A Beethoven eccentricity)

As recently as ten years ago, it seemed strange to see someone walking down the street talking to no one visible and gesturing. Everyone wondered about whether that person was really all there. Since then, of course, we have gotten used to cell phones. Nowadays, we still might meet people who talk out loud and make gestures and don’t have a cell phone. We can still wonder about them. Are they crazy? Or maybe just an eccentric genius? Here’s how Gerhard von Breuning described Beethoven in 1825: Beethoven’s outward appearance, owing to that indifference to dress peculiar to him, made … Continue reading

Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók

448px-Béla_Bartók_Bruxelles

Bartók and his wife fled their native Hungary and moved to New York in 1940, shortly after he composed his last work in Europe, the Sixth String Quartet. He never felt comfortable in the United States and composed nothing at all for three years. The money he received from royalties, occasional performances, and a research fellowship at Columbia University hardly provided enough to live on. To make matters worse, he contracted leukemia. The first symptoms appeared in 1940, but he did not receive a definitive diagnosis until 1944. As he got sicker and less able to work, his friends became … Continue reading