Louis Moreau Gottschalk and thirteen and a half pianists

American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk grew up in New Orleans and made such an excellent reputation there that he decided to try his hand at a European tour. There, he joined the traveling virtuoso circuit and conquered France, Switzerland and Spain. Critics compared him as a pianist to Chopin. His compositions more nearly resemble what I have described in earlier posts as “high-status popular music”—brilliant displays of bravura playing coupled with the novelty of his Creole background.

At the same time Gottschalk was in France, Pierre Musard and his various rivals put on “monster concerts,” which featured a gigantic orchestra. When Gottschalk decided to take his success back to the United States, he had acquired great familiarity with what dazzled European audiences.

By 1865 he had made an arrangement of the March from Wagner’s Tannhäusser for fourteen pianos and decided to try it out in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the day before the concert where the piece had been announced, one of the pianists became ill and had to drop out. He had few options. He was unwilling to postpone the concert, but playing it with only thirteen pianists seemed even more dangerous. The public, after all, could count and would immediately recognized that the concert didn’t live up to its billing.

Unfortunately, as he later wrote, “San Francisco, although filled with all the corruption and with all the plagues arising from civilization, did not then possess but thirteen first-class pianoforte players.” Any town of that size had plenty of amateurs, however. The proprietor of the concert hall suggested his son, who could play Liszt, Thalberg, and Gottschalk’s own music without difficulty. When Gottschalk suggested a rehearsal, the son saw no need. After all, the music was very easy.

Gottschalk recalled, “He then placed himself at the piano, and like all amateurs, after having executed a noisy flourish, attacked with boldness and innocence the piece of Tannhäusser. At the end of two bars, my mind was made up.” This kid would not work, and there was no option but to postpone the concert.

His piano tuner, however, had a better idea. He recognized that the young man could not play along with the other pianists without ruining the piece, but it wouldn’t hurt to have him on stage so long as no one could hear him! He removed the entire interior mechanism from one piano, leaving only a dummy keyboard. The amateur, with characteristic self-confidence, requested that his piano be placed in downstage near the footlights so all his friends could see him. Gottschalk gladly moved the dummy piano there.

Before the piece started, Gottshalk reminded all the others that they must not extemporize a prelude. The full effect demanded that all fourteen pianos take the audience by surprise in playing the opening trumpet flourish that begins the march. During the performance, Gottschalk looked over at the amateur and noticed that he looked superb, and that he would glance out into the audience as he played the most intricate passages with the greatest of ease.

The audience loved it and demanded an encore. The amateur’s friends shouted out his name. He was delighted with his success. At the time, the word “encore” did not mean, “play something else,” as it does today. It had its original meaning of “play it again.” Gottschalk decided to repeat the piece. Unfortunately, the amateur forgot that preludes were forbidden. He played a little chromatic scale, but no sound came from his piano. He tried again, with the same result and tried to get Gottschalk’s attention. Gottschalk quickly signaled the start of the piece, and all thirteen and a half pianists restarted the piece.

“My young man, to save appearances before the audience, made the pantomime of the passage, but his countenance, which I saw from below, was worth painting, it was a mixture of discouragement and spite. The fury with which he struck the poor instrument, which could do nothing, was very funny.”

Source: Notes of a Pianist, by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1881).

Johann Strauss, Jr.: Tales of his first orchestra tour

Johann Strauss, Sr., one of the most successful dance composers of his generation, famously did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. Johann Strauss, Jr. eventually eclipsed his father’s fame—despite the near disaster of the first of his  orchestra tours.

When he was 19, Strauss Jr. enlisted 33 other young musicians and set out with high hopes and very little money. In Pancsova, a town in Lower Banat, they had run out completely. Strauss decided they would play an impromptu concert under the window of the town’s mayor. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss and his orchestra some money, on the condition that they present concerts in Pancsova and repay him from the proceeds.

That would have been a good deal, except that hardly any townspeople attended the concerts. When it became apparent that the orchestra would not make enough money to repay the mayor, the local police raided a concert in order to seize the instruments. After some long and heated negotiations, town officials gave Strauss and his musicians permission to continue their tour, on condition that one of the town constables join them at the orchestra’s expense until he had collected enough money to repay the entire loan.

This early version of the Johann Strauss Orchestra played in at least six towns over the course of several with the constable in tow. He turned out to have a voracious appetite and thirst, but every time concert receipts exceeded expenses, Strauss gave him some money until finally he said that he had enjoyed himself immensely and that Strauss’ debt to the town of Pancsova had been fully repaid.

By that time, since the musicians had no money left over to take proper care of themselves, they had become quite bedraggled: dirty, unshaved, with clothes in deplorable condition. They did not look like musicians at all. Instead they looked like a band of robbers trying to pass themselves off as musicians. No inn in the town of Kronstadt would give them any food or shelter, and Strauss could not arrange any concerts. Instead, the whole orchestra got a military escort not only out of town, but out of the entire district.

At this point, the orchestra attempted to mutiny. Strauss made a stirring speech about how they were all in the same predicament and persuaded them to give a farewell performance in the next town, divide whatever profit there was, and then they could each return to Vienna as best they could.

That plan had only one problem. They would have to go through the Carpathian pass to Romania, a route notorious for its highwaymen. Strauss feared that prospect perhaps even more than the rest of the orchestra.  So they decided to sell two violins and purchase some pistols. They could afford only a few rusty specimens and no ammunition, but Strauss distributed most of them, keeping three for himself.  His trombone player, however, refused to take one, declaring that he could handle any ten bandits with his trombone.

Thus armed, they looked like a fierce gang of bandits, so much, in fact, that a real but much smaller robber band fled from them in terror on the way down the mountains. Eventually they made it to Bucharest and somehow managed to look enough like an orchestra to perform numerous times. The Johann Strauss Orchestra finally made some good money there.

Source: The Book of Musical Anecdotes, by Norman Lebrecht (Free Press, 1985). Lebrecht says that the story is not corroborated. But as I read at the start of a different anecdote once, “I don’t know if this story is strictly true, but it doesn’t matter.”

Benjamin Franklin on Handel

I have written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about how the distinction between classical and popular music arose. (See, for example, “Popular Music: the Birth of an Idea.”)  Years before it became apparent, Benjamin Franklin anticipated it when he advised his brother on how to write a popular ballad: don’t use Handel’s music for a model.

Peter Franklin had written a ballad text disapproving of expensive foppery and encouraging hard work and thriftiness. Benjamin thought it very good, but pointed out that its poetic meter did not resemble that of any of the common and well-known tunes. That would have been an advantage for making it popular. As it was, it required an original tune.

Benjamin Franklin thought the prevailing taste among composers most unsuitable for a popular song: “They are admirable at pleasing practiced ears and know how to delight one another; but in composing songs, the reigning taste seems to be quite out of nature, or rather the reverse of nature, and yet like a torrent, hurries them all away with it; on or two perhaps only excepted.”

Apparently referring to ancient Greek philosophers, Franklin commented that the music most likely to influence public manners was simple and conformed to the ordinary cadence of spoken language. Modern music, in contrast, introduced all kinds of absurdities and defects and ignored the propriety and beauty of spoken language.

Assuming that Peter would not take his word for it, Franklin decided to illustrate his points using the first piece of music he could lay his hands on, which turned out to be “Wise men flattering may deceive us,” touted on the cover as the “FAVORITE Song in Judas Maccabeus” by George Frideric Handel. He admitted that it was written when Handel’s creative powers and popularity were at their highest, but found numerous defects in it.

Some unimportant intervals received the stress: “with their vain mysterious art,” or “God-like wis-dom from above.” The first two measures of the latter used a “Scotch snap,” but Franklin didn’t like a later setting of the same words with a half-note quarter-note (in 3/4 time) for wisdom. The accentuation was correct, but no one would hold the first syllable twice as long in speaking. He called this defect “drawling.”

Franklin dismissed melismatic passages, many notes to one syllable, as stuttering. These three defects combined made the music unintelligible. Let the best-taught singers perform such a song for people who had never heard it, and no one would understand three words in ten.

And who, in speaking, would repeat the same few words two or three times in succession? And so anyone who attends an opera or oratorio must have the libretto and read along with the performance of even the best singers if they want to understand what is being sung.

As for the defect of screaming, Franklin could not find an example in the Handel piece except perhaps for one brief passage where a couple of short notes are an octave higher than the rest of the melody. But he wrote that anyone who has ever attended an opera has heard plenty of passages where the performers scream rather than sing.

Franklin insisted that the untutored, ordinary person liked the simple songs of the ancients much more than modern music. Indeed, the songs of Thomas Arne, which might seem rather fussy and ornate today, struck Charles Burney, an English contemporary of Franklin, as ushering in a new era of simplicity and refinement in music, based more on Italian than English models.

Handel’s music continued to please both connoisseurs and casual listeners long after Franklin’s death, but when the distinction between classical and popular music became a burning social issue, popular music lovers always complained that the music of Beethoven and other classical icons was too complicated and unnatural.

For the text of Franklin’s letter, with musical examples, see Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 31-35.

Carl Stalling: cartoon music pioneer

Soon after his first cartoon with music (Steamboat Willie, 1928), Walt Disney hired Carl Stalling as his music director.  Stalling provided music for many more cartoons over the next few years, including the earliest Silly Symphonies. Beginning in 1936, he worked for Warner Bros. and wrote all of the cartoon music there (including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, Porky Pig, and Sylvester) for 22 years until his retirement in 1958.

Stalling saw his first movie at age 12 in1903 and vowed to be involved in movies in some way. Seven years later, he got his first job, playing in a movie theater in Independence, Missouri. For more than 20 years he played piano or organ and directed theater orchestras. He could distribute music for the orchestra to accompany feature films, but for cartoons and newsreels, he could only improvise.

In a way, as he recalled later, he was composing for films before he ever met Disney; he just didn’t write the music out. Disney was unwilling to pay royalties for any music under copyright when Stalling worked for him. Stalling either had to use earlier music (like Stephen Foster or nineteenth-century operatic music) or write something that sounded like it. At Warner Bros., he could also use current popular hits.

Stalling loved musical puns. For example, when Sylvester swallowed some soap, Stalling used “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” to accompany the bubbles Sylvester hiccuped. Although some of the directors at Warner Bros. complained about the puns and borrowing, and considered composers at other studios more original and serious, Stalling insisted that his music was about 80 or 90 percent original. “It had to be,” he said, “because you had to match the music to the action.”

He is said to have invented the click track, a system by which the musicians could stay synchronized to the action. He used exposure sheets, which broke the picture down frame by frame. Twelve frames of film went through the projector in exactly half a second. That enabled Stalling to plan out the music, including abrupt style changes when the mood or scene changed.

Perhaps because the soundtrack played such an important part in the impact of the cartoon and because Stalling incorporated so much classical music, he has served as the introduction  to classical music for generations of listeners. Listeners and critics today increasingly appreciate the artistry of Stalling’s more original music.

For excerpts from Stalling’s only interview, see Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 421-27.

Five things you probably didn’t know about Mozart

In 1764 his father was dangerously ill. No one was allowed to touch the piano. To keep himself occupied, young Wolfgang decided to compose his first symphony for full orchestra (K.16).

Mozart’s habit of laying in bed to compose alarmed his doctor, who advised him to stand while composing and get as much bodily exercise as he could. Mozart loved billiards, bowling, and skittles, largely because they did not occupy his mind. He could get some exercise and compose at the same time. His Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola (K. 498) is known as the Kegelstatt Trio (skittles alley) because he is said to have written it while playing skittles.

While novelist Karoline Pichler was playing “Non più andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart came for a visit. Pichler later wrote, “I must have been playing it to his satisfaction, for he hummed the melody as I played and beat the time on my shoulders; but then he suddenly moved a chair up, sat down, told me to carry on paying the bass, and began to improvise such wonderfully beautiful variations that everyone listened to the tones of the German Orpheus with bated breath. But then he suddenly tired of it, jumped up, and, in the mad mood which so often came over him, he began to leap over tables and chairs, miaow like a cat, and turn somersaults like an unruly boy.

Mozart gave his barber fits. He couldn’t sit still. Whenever a musical idea came to him, he had to run over to his piano to try it out. The poor barber had to chase after him.

While Don Giovanni made a hit in Prague, its Vienna premiere was a failure. The Emperor told librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, “That opera is divine; I s hould even venture that it is more beautiful that Figaro, but such music is not meat for the teeth of my Viennese.” When da Ponte told Mozart about it, Mozart answered, “Give them time to chew on it.”

It’s Too Darn Hot, from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate

There have been a lot more 90º degree-days than normal this summer. From what I see on weather reports, most of the country has been broiling, baking, roasting, or stewing, depending on how bad the humidity is. So lots of other people must be thinking, “It’s Too Darn Hot.”

The song of that name by Cole Porter appears in his great musical Kiss Me Kate, a play within a play in which a divorced couple, who still secretly love each other despite their constant quarreling, star in a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s bawdiness provided Porter with the license to introduce “It’s Too Darn Hot” and other risque songs into what turned out to be his first hit in three years.

So get back at summer. Enjoy the video and dance sequence, and be glad to watch and not dance so energetically when “It’s Too Darn Hot.”

Non-musicians on music: 10 quotations

Just as no one has to be a musician to listen to and enjoy music, no one has to be a musician to have interesting, informative, and even provocative things to say about it. Here are ten quotations to demonstrate that truth:

  • Music with dinner is an insult both to the cook and the violinist. ~ G. K. Chesterton
  • Military justice is to justice what military music is to music. ~ Groucho Marx
  • Music is a discipline, and a mistress of order and good manners, she makes the people milder and gentler, more moral and more reasonable. ~ Martin Luther
  • Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons.  You will find it is to the soul what a water bath is to the body. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • Life can’t be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years. ~ William F. Buckley, Jr.
  • Music cleanses the understanding; inspires it, and lifts it into a realm which it would not reach if it were left to itself. ~ Henry Ward Beecher
  • Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends. ~ Alphonse de Lamartine
  • The pleasure we obtain from music comes from counting, but counting unconsciously.  Music is nothing but unconscious arithmetic. ~ Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
  • If you want to make beautiful music, you must play the black and the white notes together. ~ Richard M. Nixon
  • Prayer is when you talk to God. Meditation is when you’re listening. Playing the piano allows you to do both at the same time. ~ Kelsey Grammer

Why do some composers and works not survive in the repertoire?

I’m sure everyone knows that the amount of classical music performed and recorded today represents only a small fraction of what has been written. It seems a common assumption that these composers must have written inferior music that deserves to be forgotten. While that is certainly true in some cases it does not explain everything.

Fashions change. A hundred years ago, music lovers thought Haydn hopelessly old-fashioned. They welcomed Rossini overtures on concert programs, but only The Barber of Seville of all of his operas maintained its place on stage. They regarded Telemann as one of Bach’s inferior contemporaries and had no interest in listening to his music. Vivaldi’s music, meanwhile, remained undiscovered in various archives. Who can guess which composers the  present generation dismisses that future generations will rediscover and appreciate?

Before the age of recordings, composers who lived and worked outside the major capitals had no chance of developing an international reputation. Bruckner, for example, toiled as an unknown provincial composer of church music until he moved to Vienna, began teaching at the conservatory, and composing symphonies.

Scholars have rediscovered Swedish composer Joachim Eggert (1779-1813) and told the musicological world that he displayed a powerful and original musical imagination. The major musical centers of the time were London, Paris, and Vienna. Composers who did not make a reputation in at least one of those cities had little chance of being well-known. Eggert’s poor health made it impossible for him to travel. He spent nearly all of his short career in Stockholm

Meanwhile, Stockholm audiences heard the works of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven because Eggert, as court conductor, introduced them. Of the three, Haydn had the widest reputation. Eggert’s own compositions rely mostly on his influence, yet he used three trombones in his Third Symphony a year and a half before Beethoven introduced them in his Fifth Symphony. It appears that Eggert’s Third Symphony is the only one of his works available on a recording. It is not a great work, but it certainly compares favorably with much of the music by minor composers in the modern repertoire.

Living in a major capital does not insure a composer a reputation that outlives him, but French operatic composer Fromental Halévy had particularly bad luck. His first opera, La Juive, established his reputation and served as one of the cornerstones of French opera for more than a century. Although not performed as frequently as it once was, major opera companies of the world continue to stage it.

He is best known today as a teacher and administrator. None of Halévy’s later operas duplicated the success of La Juive. Perhaps inspiration flagged, but in the case of Charles VI, other factors explain why it received so few performances in his lifetime. Like  La Juive, it is set near the end of the Hundred Years War between England and France. It might well have provided the dramatic content to enhance his reputation as a composer.

Unfortunately, 1843 was not a good year to produce an opera about a weak king who went insane. The government thought people might compare the hapless Charles with the current King Louis-Philippe, whose popularity was waning, and banned it.

Halévy tried to revive  his opera in 1850, after the king had been deposed. It ran for three performances, and someone in the audience dropped dead every evening right after an aria whose title is translated “God punish him and strike him low.” The last performance during his lifetime, scheduled for 1858, had to be canceled after a terrorist bombed Emperor Napoleon III’s coach. No one attempted to mount another performance until 2005. I don’t suppose anything awful happened by that time.

[Most of the information about Charles VI‘s performance history comes from A Thing or Two about Music by Nicolas Slonimsky.]

Building an audience for symphony orchestra concerts — with video games?

According to stereotype, classical music in general and symphony orchestra concerts in particular appeal to an aging elite. That perception justifies cutting orchestras from schools, booking orchestras for school assemblies or college arts series much less frequently than in the recent past, and changing classical music radio stations to other formats. Orchestras must develop strategies for building an audience in order to survive.

Here is a video about the kind of orchestral music used as the sound tracks to video games. Someone on an email list I follow sent it along.

Several orchestras have presented entire concerts devoted to video game music, and more than one has found it so successful that they decided to  do it again in a later season. Concerts like this bring in an audience of people who would otherwise never think of attending an orchestral concert. Is that a good way to build an audience for orchestras and classical music in general?

One person on the list commented that it seemed to be a “desperate attempt to stay relevant” and called the cellist on the guitar-hero segment a sellout. It’s easy to understand how many in the classical music world might view with alarm an approach that gives an orchestral concert the look and feel of a rock concert. Will it destroy the central mission of the symphony orchestra and eventually allow it to survive only to play background music for a visual show?

To be sure, orchestras exist to perform music that can stand on its own for people who want to listen to it. When I go to the gym, I am a captive audience to piped-in music, the sound track of music videos displayed on television monitors visible from almost anywhere.

Would anyone be interested in listening to songs that consist of a measure or so of tune repeated over and over if there was no choreography to watch? Has the importance of video, along with ubiquitous and unavoidable background music in every store and restaurant, destroyed the ability to simply sit and listen to anything? Or even the desire?

I vastly prefer the music on the video clip to anything I get to hear at the gym. Some classical music lovers might wonder if anyone really thinks it can be as good as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. That’s not a fair question, actually. It doesn’t match up to the best music by the best geniuses of classical music, but it is at least as good as the popular orchestral music of the nineteenth century. Let us not forget that nineteenth-century classical music lovers often looked down their noses at Rossini and other Italian opera , as well as dance music like Strauss waltzes.

The whole concept of teaching music appreciation was developed to “improve” people’s taste by showing them that Beethoven et al. wrote better music than Johann Strauss or Giuseppe Verdi, and people who liked the former had more elevated taste than those who preferred the former. As it turns out, people don’t much want other people to come along and elevate their taste.

The very fact that video games and many film scores still use an orchestra instead of a rock band testifies that the rock band cannot provide suitable music for every popular purpose. Themes of heroism and adventure need an orchestra for movies and games as much as they do for opera. Composers who write the sound tracks for them can certainly bear comparison to any operatic or dance composer.

My community orchestra plays film score music for its summer pops concerts and for its children’s concert. It does not play it for its more formal spring and fall concerts. “Serious” orchestral concerts may occasionally include overtures by Rossini or Verdi, but hardly ever Strauss waltzes. By the same token, I suspect that orchestras limit film and game music to their pops concerts or otherwise less formal occasions.

From the invention of the pops (or more technically, promenade) concert in the 1830s to the present, serious concert music has taken its place alongside dance music and various novelties. At first, it was for the enjoyment of people who could not afford to attend the upper-crust symphony concerts. Now, perhaps, conductors plan their concerts hoping that people who come for the film scores will enjoy the ballet music or symphonic tone poem well enough to come back again.

If that’s the case, I see no danger of a deterioration of artistic integrity or  the orchestra being reduced to providing background for whatever is being projected on some screen. And it just might work in building an audience.

Among the 600+ comments the video has gotten on YouTube, these few, copied and pasted with typos and all, acknowledge a link between video game music and, shall we say, more traditional roles for the orchestra:

  • yeah…my cousing hinself has go a vionlin and i bet this playing videogame songs thing influentiated him
  • I know this is true for myself… but maybe not for such a simple an explanation. I REALLY enjoy orchestral (not video game) music, but usually only of a certain kind. The kind you might hear in a movie trailer, or in more modern pieces. Video game soundtracks tend to fall into this area of interest, sooo.. I like a concert that plays this music. It doesn’t have to start with video games, but obviously yeah, if you like the games, you would be there. Kinda obvious.
  • Nothing could have got me more into classical style music than the video game industry. Especially games like final fantasy, and the Zelda series. Both of those game’s composers are incredible. But it’s great to see other once small video game companies like blizzard come out with games with great music. I will definitely keep my eyes peeled on PBS for this program.
  • And yes, young adults are the base of the popular music industry, but I think VGL is talking more about getting young adults into symphonic music–and not just video games and movie soundtracks, but concert music as well.
  • oh yeh.. this is gonna be win. now, if we could only get this type of music into our school music programs.
  • It pains me to not see games like Everquest on here that started the whosle orchestrated sound tracks within MMO genre of games. WoW only took what EQ had done, because they realized how deeply cemented and nostalgic the music at even
  • It is true that many of WoW’s original designers were EQ players, so they certainly knew the music from EQs opening. On the other hand, Warcraft III had some orchestrated music as well (the Warcraft Suite in VG Live is a medley of music from both WoW and cutscenes from WCIII), and I seriously doubt anyone was thinking “Let’s totally ignore EQs music for the sake of WoW.” There’s simply nowhere near enough time to include a piece from every worthy game soundtrack, so you take what you can get.
  • In Los Angeles, this is the best gift possible. The cyber world of our quests and imaginations, being experienced with choir and symphony. It is an experience I will remember forever.

Composers on music: 10 quotations

Many musicians have observed that if everything could be expressed with words, music would be unnecessary. That doesn’t mean that musicians can’t use words. Composers have talked or written about music for centuries. They have had opinions about their own music and musical abilities, praise or disdain for other composers, and philosophical musings about the nature and importance of music in general. Here are some interesting quotations.

  • Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music. — Gioacchino Antonio Rossini
  • My music is best understood by children and animals. — Igor Stravinsky
  • Truly there would be reason to go mad were it not for music. — Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass? — Michael Torke
  • The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. –Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. — Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Most people use music as a couch; they want to be pillowed on it, relaxed and consoled for the stress of daily living.  But serious music was never meant to be soporific. — Aaron Copland
  • Music is a performance and needs the audience. — Michael Tippett
  • All talk of method and style seemed suddenly trivial; I became interested in meaning. I wanted to say something musically about life and living. —  Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
  • To be a great composer requires immense experience One acquires this by listening not only to other men’s work, but above all to one’s own! — Frederic Chopin