Nighttime dangers and the beginning of a musical tradition

Bologna 11th c

                                      The Towers of 11th-century Bologna Brass players know the term Stadtpfeifer mostly in reference to a group of municipal trombonists and cornettists in Leipzig, whose members included composers  Johann Pezel and Gottfried Reiche in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Other German towns sponsored similar bands. The first such bands (known in the literature as alta Bands) formed in the Middle Ages, and the last ones persisted into the nineteenth century. Bands started in other countries at about the same time (in England they were called waits), but the tradition did not last as long. These bands, and similar ones … Continue reading

Another musical reason to love New Orleans

Probably every big city has some kind of street music. I lived in the Chicago area for more than 20 years and heard quite a variety. Off hand, though, I only remember  one or two times that I encountered more than two musicians playing at once. I I’ve only been to New Orleans twice, and don’t particularly recall hearing larger groups there, either, but thanks to YouTube, I have come across some amazing things. Here’s a group playing “Summertime” by George Gershwin. The video opens and closes with a singer, who is not well recorded. In between, there is an … Continue reading

The Ferris Wheel: (what does that have to do with music?)

Ferris Wheels are a staple of every amusement park that ever set up for a week in a parking lot, and usually among the tamest rides. They resemble the original Ferris Wheel, the landmark attraction of the Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago 1893), in name only. At a height of 264 feet, the Ferris Wheel towered over the rest of the fair. The 45-foot-long axle alone weighed 71 tons. No one had ever built or seen anything remotely similar. A popular and financially successful ride, it must have nonetheless invited awe and dread. In one way, however, the … Continue reading

A "second line" in New Orleans (with video)

Probably no city in the country loves parades as much as New Orleans. As we all watch the progress of that horrendous oil spill and pray for Louisiana, it seems appropriate to highlight some of the musical aspects of the unique character of that part of the country. New Orleans was founded as a French city in 1718 and did not become American territory until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Where English-speaking southern governments dating back to colonial times attempted to stamp out all vestiges of African culture among their slave populations, the French did not. A west-African heritage of … Continue reading

Eastern Music Festival

The Eastern Music Festival has been an institution in Greensboro, North Carolina for almost 50 years now. This year’s Festival takes place June 26 through July 31 under the direction of Music Director Gerard Schwartz. It looks to be a great five weeks. It is one of the premiere music education programs in the country. The Young Artists Orchestra, made up of students from 14 to 22 years of age, will be presenting nine concerts. The Festival’s faculty, leading musicians from all over the world, make up the Festival Orchestra, which is presenting five concerts, with soloists Lynn Harrell (cello), … Continue reading

Rossini on Wagner

Some scholars have theorized that Rossini retired from composing operas after Guillaume Tell because he disliked the direction opera was going and the kinds of things he had to write in order to maintain  his popularity. He became really upset with Wagner’s music. Two of his comments are very well known: Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour. One cannot judge ‘Lohengrin’ from a first hearing, and I certainly do not intend to hear it a second time. Those were his polite comments. Once he was talking with a singer about Wagner’s music when he decided to … Continue reading

Classical music for machines

The attempt to create music mechanically, without human performance, has a long history, dating back to ancient Egyptians and Asians. Leonardo da Vinci and others in the late Renaissance designed sophisticated instruments. Only in the late eighteenth century did composers–including Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven venture to compose music especially for mechanical clocks. Museums hold least some of the original clocks with their music, but to my knowledge no recordings have been made. Most of the time, therefore, the only way we get to hear this music is through a transcription for human performance. Here’s a modern clock … Continue reading

On the many, many songs of Franz Schubert

In 1827 the composer Hummel visited Vienna and brought his sixteen-year-old student Ferdinand Hiller with him. After seeing Hummel deeply moved by hearing Schubert and singer Michael Vogl performing several of the songs, Hiller dropped in on Schubert’s home the next morning. There he saw piles of finished manuscripts laying around, with another in progress on Schubert’s desk. He exclaimed, “You compose a great deal!” Schubert answered simply and seriously, “I compose every morning. When I finish one piece I start on another” He wrote his first song, “Hagars Klage,” in March 1811 and his last, “Der Hirt auf Felsen,” … Continue reading

Keeping the slide slick and slipping

Trombonists are the only instrumentalists who have to push a pair of tubes as much as two feet along a pair of narrower tubes inside. They have a wide variety of choices for lubricating the slide–a variety of oils, creams, silicon. And they discuss slide lubrication so much that sometimes they even bore each other. Oh no! Not another discussion of Slide-o-Mix™ vs Superslick™! (No need to panic now. That’s not where this is going!) A recent discussion on Trombone-L, a popular email list, proved worthy of the attention to a wider audience both for its historical erudition and the … Continue reading

Niccolò Paganini: The devil’s violinist?

290px-Nicolo_Paganini

Niccolò Paganini became the world’s first international superstar of the violin beginning when he was 22. He could perform technical feats no other violinist could match. If anything, his showmanship was even more marvelous than his technique. The first virtuoso to perform from memory, he could  move around the stage and interact with the audience. People wondered, could his brilliance possibly be natural? Or did he have diabolical help? In part, he could outdo other violinists because he invented new techniques such as left-hand pizzicato and various new kinds of bowing and tuning. Later violinists have learned them all. But … Continue reading