Beloved Christmas carols: Good Christian men, rejoice

Both the original text and tune of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” appeared in early fourteenth-century Germany. European conditions then were not very pleasant. Temperatures were cooling as the earth entered the so-called “Little Ice Age.” The King of France had arrested the Pope and removed the papal court from Rome to Avignon. Bubonic plague, known as the “black death,” ravaged Europe. England and France became embroiled in the Hundred Years War.

In its multiplied upheavals and catastrophes, the fourteenth-century resembles our own time. Then as now, many people dreaded what seemed likely in the future. Then as now, devout Christians found more cause to rejoice in the God than to sink into despair. One of them, a German mystic and Dominican monk named Heinrich Suso, decided that the birth of Christ deserved celebration regardless of the gloomy headlines.

One night in 1328 he had a vision of dancing angels, who commanded him to lay aside all sorrow and misery in order to keep them company. He danced with them and then wrote the poem “In  dulci jubilo” remembering his vision. The text is macaronic. That is, it combines Latin with a vernacular language, in this case German.

The familiar tune is preserved in the library of Leipzig University in a manuscript copied around 1400. It probably existed some time before then and may even be contemporaneous with Suso’s poem. Many songs and texts of the Medieval period fell into disuse and sat forgotten until rediscovery over the past two centuries. “In dulci jubilo,” on the other hand, has enjoyed unbroken popularity of the association of text and tune.

The first known English version appeared in 1540, and numerous others have followed, some maintaining the original Latin and merely substitution English for the German. John Mason Neale, who also translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” published  his English paraphrase, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” in 1853.

In some ways, the world has changed a lot since the Middle Ages. In other ways it has not. World conditions, which seemed grim back then, have seemed just as grim most of the time since then. People still do horrible things to each other and very often appeal to religion as justification. But the coming of Jesus is still worth celebrating, because Jesus alone brings redemption to a world the rest of the humanity has ruined.

Source: Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Gisele MacKenzie sings Papa Loves Mambo in a holiday setting. 12-18-1954

The mambo, a Cuban dance form, first became popular in the United States in the late 1940s and reached its peak of  popularity here in about 1954. Perry Como’s recording of the song “Papa Loves Mambo,” by Al Hoffman, Dick Manning, and Bix Reichner,  was released on August 31, 1954 and made it to #5 or #4 on the Billboard chart later in the year.

Nowadays most recording artists perform their own material, but in the 1950s, the fact that Como scored big did not mean that other stars regarded the song as his. Many performers sought to capitalize on the success of others by releasing other versions of their songs.

And so in December of that same year, Giselle MacKenzie, admired as both singer and dancer with beautiful legs, appeared on Your Hit Parade singing and dancing to “Papa Loves Mambo.” Since it was December, the dance features Santa Claus (Papa) dancing at the North Pole.

This and similar televised acts are important predecessors of todays music videos. It is probably only because technology did not yet permit it that such performances were not released as singles, just like the records themselves were.

Beloved Christmas carols: O come, o come Emmanuel

“O come, o come Emmanuel” is among the oldest of hymns still known, both in terms of the words and the tune. Like many old Gregorian chants, it lay forgotten for centuries before its rediscovery. Thomas Helmore published the tune in 1856 in Part II of The Hymnal Noted. He said it was found in a French missal in the Portuguese National Library in Lisbon, but no one since has found it there.

The French National Library in Paris has a fifteenth-century processional of Franciscan nuns with the identical tune, an added second voice, and words from the funeral antiphon “Libera me, Domine.” That means neither that the chant melody is from the fifteenth century nor that its original text was “Libera me, Domine.”

The Latin text of “O come, o come Emmanuel” (“Veni, veni Emmanuel”) probably originated in the twelfth century as part of one of the seven great antiphons sung at Vespers along with the Magnificat during Advent.Those seven antiphons address Jesus as Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of Nations, and Emmanuel. The first letter of each (in Latin) in reverse order yields the phrase ero cras, which means “tomorrow I come.” The original melody could even be the same one used for “Libera me, Domine” in the fifteenth century.

The text takes the viewpoint of ancient Jews, crying out to God to come and ransom them from the captivity that resulted from their sin. They can pray in faith, secure in the knowledge that the same prophecies that told of their captivity also told of God’s plan to redeem them. We, too, suffering from our own sins, can repeat their cry in the same assurance of faith.

John Mason Neale provided the English translation. One of the most prolific hymn writers of nineteenth-century England, he had no equal as a translator of ancient and medieval Latin texts. His translation of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” changes the order of the verses. Originally, it began, “Draw nigh, draw nigh Emmanuel;” Fortunately it has since become the more singable  “O come, o come Emmanuel.” Among his original poems, Neale wrote “Good King Wenceslas” on the basis of an old Bohemian story, which he loved so much he didn’t care if it was history or legend.

Toyota robot musicians

Recently someone posted four videos on Trombone-L of musical robots made  by Toyota. Someone else found them very depressing. Live musicians, he wrote, have enough  trouble without competition from yet another machine. If Toyota has already had this much success, what’s next? I have an answer, but first, here are the robot musicians:

A tuba player–to me the least impressive of the bunch but still quite amazing:

A trumpeter with pretty good sound. It plays better than a lot of human trumpeters, even if it’s stage presence is a little, shall we say, mechanical.

A small jazz combo. What, no trombone?

And finally, a brief appearance by a robot violinist. This final video reveals the reason why Toyota is working on robot musicians. The engineers have no particular interest in music. Developing these robots is no more than a means to an end.

Toyota engineers (among others) want to develop robots with more useful and practical skills. You will notice a robotic wheel chair and a robot capable of acting as a tour guide and signing its name. Ultimately, Toyota wants to produce robots capable of interacting with people in real time, robotic cars, for example. Apparently people will still drive the cars, but the robots will notice road conditions, hazards, and whether the human is too tired or otherwise impaired to continue safely.

In other words, Toyota engineers have developed the ability to build an entire orchestra of robots, but they  probably won’t. Once they learn all they can from building robot musicians, they will turn to other challenges, long before they make robot musicians for every instrument. I, for one, would love to see them build a trombonist that can play Pryor’s Blue Bells of Scotland before they move away from music.

Even though it is possible to build robots with the mechanical ability to play tunes or even ensembles, I can’t conceive of robots playing with feeling or taste. So there are at least three reasons not to worry about live musicians losing work to robots: engineers are not interested in making enough robots; they would be far too expensive to build, program, and maintain; and they can never make the jump from technological mastery to artistry.

The raucous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

By the time Stravinsky mounted  Rite of Spring in 1913, history had already seen many premieres of operas and other theatrical works where audiences loudly disliked what they saw. In some cases, such as the premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the noise came from a paid claque. In Rossini’s case, he dared to use the same story as an already successful opera by Giovanni Paisiello, who sent his friends to shout it down. But what happened to Rite of Spring (original title Sacre du Printemps) topped anything that had happened before.

Stravinsky’s earlier ballets for the same company, Firebird and Petroushka, had been successful, even though the music was quite different than what French audiences were accustomed to hearing, as was the choreography of the Russian dancer Vaslev Nijinsky. In Rite of Spring, both men pushed the envelope still further.  Nijinsky’s wife anticipated that the new ballet would make the audience fidget.

Instead, within moments after the music started, they began to murmur. Then some of them started making cat-calls and shouting. That angered  other audience members who wanted to hear the music. Their attempts to stop the shouting simply added to the noise. The orchestra, conducted by Pierre Monteux, continued to play even though no one could hear them at all. He looked to the box of impresario Serge Diaghilev for instructions, and Diaghilev signaled him to keep going.

The theater manager ordered the house lights turned on. Instead of stopping the noise, it only made audience members visible enough to each other that they could begin to fight with each other. When one lady slapped the face of a man nearby, he and her escort exchanged cards and fought a duel the next day. Eventually the police arrived and emptied the theater, except for the performers. The orchestra had never stopped playing and finished performing the ballet to the quiet of an empty room.

Monteux later recalled that the company presented five performances in all in the same theater, all with the same kind of reaction. Each time, he concentrated on keeping the orchestra together and did not look up to see the ballet itself. After a couple of performances in London, where audiences sat quietly and left, it seemed that Rite of Spring had simply failed. Usually in case of such failure, that is the end of the story.

But as friends described the ballet to Monteux, he concluded that the choreography upset the Parisian audiences at least as much as the music. Monteux persuaded Stravinsky to allow a concert performance of Rite of Spring in Paris. With nearly every important musician in town attending a sold-out concert hall, some of the more conservative members of the audience still hated the music, but they simply walked out. Others left at the end of the concert with renewed appreciation for Stravinsky’s music in general and Rite of Spring in particular.


By 1940,  Rite of Spring had become so much accepted in concert  halls that Walt Disney had no qualms about including it in an animated feature with a sound track entirely comprising classical music. Nowadays, as regular readers of Musicology for Everyone may recall, conducting Rite of Spring has literally become child’s play, at least to one five-year-old!


Sources: The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Lebrecht (Free Press, 1985), numbers 721, 722; pp. 306-07.

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by dalbera

Help me help the needy all over the world

With the ads and affiliate links on my blogs, it’s no secret that I intend to make money from them. To that end, I read quite a bit on advice on blogging. Saturday, a post caught my eye that suggested a means of using blogs to give to various causes. As a Christian, I believe in tithing to the Lord, so I found that post so exciting that I dropped all of my other plans to follow through on it. That explains why I didn’t update any of my blogs today, even though I had not managed to update all of them over the past week.

So I’d like to introduce you to a new widget where you can donate to World Relief, a wonderful charity I have donated to for years.

For more than 60 years, World Relief has been equipping churches and communities to help victims of disease, hunger, war, disaster and persecution. World Relief reaches people no one else reaches, people often overlooked or forgotten, including many in volatile and vulnerable situations. The heart of our mission is to create a lasting impact by strengthening local churches to serve those who are hurting.

The blogger whose post inspired this move asked  his readers and followers to help him raise $10,000 over two years. I’m not as big as he is, so I have set what feels like a very ambitious goal of raising $1,200 over one year. That will take God’s help and all of yours.

I’m starting to get decent traffic to my blogs, and frankly I hope this move will earn enough trust that I can get more traffic. I also welcome your comments. The better I know you, the better I will be able to understand how and what to write to fulfill the interests and needs that draw you here.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the widget leads you to FirstGiving, and you will make your donation through them. They will pass it on to World Relief. I will not see any of the money. 

Children and classical music revisited

classical music

Last March I wrote Children and classical music, which featured Charlie Loh, a professional conductor’s five-year-old son conducting Rite of Spring. The proud father also mounted a video of Charlie conducting something else when he was only four. Charlie got off to a good start then, but made remarkable progress by the time he was five!

Lately, a video of a three-year-old, identified only as Jonathan, conducting the finale to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has been making the rounds. There are 10 videos in all (as of today) of Jonathan either playing violin or conducting something. I see he showed interest in classical music and started conducting on his own at about eight months of age.

Jonathan is clearly not an ordinary three-year-old. I’m not sure how many children at that age have the attention span to listen to a four-and-a-half minute piece and come to know it as well as he clearly knows the Beethoven. But on the other hand, he and Charlie Loh enable us to make some generalizations about classical music:

  • Children love what becomes familiar. If they hear classical music growing up, they will love it.
  • Because young children know nothing of history, sociology, or class distinctions, the fact that they can love classical music proves that it is not elitist.
  • Children can learn to read music and sing from solfège at an early age. (No surprise there; solfège was first designed as an easy way to teach music to children.)
  • Young children learn new skills much faster and easier than teenagers or adults.
  • After a certain age, it takes longer for something to become familiar and comfortable, and learning it becomes less fun and more of a chore.
  • Therefore, the best time to introduce children to classical music, music reading (and for that matter, their first foreign language) is early in childhood.
  • Children, all children regardless of race or social class, deserve to be exposed to a wide variety of excellent things (classical music and any other good music, art, literature, etc.). They will choose which enthusiasms to carry into adulthood, when developing new enthusiasms for the arts might be more difficult.

What do you think?

Photo credit: AttributionSome rights reserved by dcaseyphoto

Classical music at a bar?

According to a story on NPR’s Weekend Edition, “Beethoven and Beer at the Happy Dog,” members of the Cleveland Orchestra have been playing classical chamber music since June 2010 at the Happy Dog, a neighborhood bar on the near-west side of town, under the name Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog. People love it, and the bar is packed every time they play. It gives customers who would never go to Severance Hall a chance to hear classical music and gives the bar customers who would not otherwise come.

It also gives the musicians a chance to make music more spontaneously. Orchestra players must necessarily pay close attention to very small details and subordinate their individual musicality to the ensemble as a whole. As rewarding as that can be, relaxation from strict discipline can be refreshing. Audiences in concert venues see musicians at their most disciplined. Audiences in the bar see them having fun.

The story observes that there is nothing new about taking classical music out of the concert hall and cites a group that played in non-concert venues way back in the 1970s. Actually, it’s much older than that.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra played both symphonies and popular dance music in various summer pleasure gardens during its off season as late as 1835. Classical and popular music were only beginning to be regarded as different kinds of music, and no orchestra provided full-time employment to its members until well into the twentieth century.

The orchestra’s principal violist, Carl Traugott Queisser, owned a pleasure garden called the Kuchengarten. Perhaps best known as one of the three most prominent trombone soloists in Germany, he also played viola in the world’s first professionally viable string quartet, was a member of the town band, and director of two military bands. Dissident members of the town band selected Queisser as their leader. He probably regretted that the resulting incessant legal battles cost him the chance to tour Europe as a traveling virtuoso.

Queisser and the Gewandhaus represent an ordinary fact of life for orchestral musicians in the nineteenth century. Not a one of them could make a living playing for only one ensemble or only one kind of music. Most of them had to make at least part of their living from non-musical activities. There was nothing unusual about orchestra members playing in a tavern or anywhere else they could find. After all, between seasons they still needed to earn a living.

Today’s top professional orchestra players have year-round salaries. Even so, many of them teach, conduct community groups, or play in other ensembles. The main difference between the Gewandhaus orchestra playing in pleasure gardens and Orchestral Manoeuvres at the Dog is that the Cleveland players do not depend on the bar gig for a living. Playing classical music in venues like that has become highly unusual.

The Cleveland Orchestra players have demonstrated that it’s good for them, good for the bar’s business, and good for the audience to play classical music away from ordinary concert venues. Now, the idea should spread. Cleveland has more than one bar that offers entertainment, and the orchestra has more than six musicians available to play at them. And of course, many other cities besides Cleveland boast of good professional orchestras.

Concert organizations have to work hard to get audiences to come to their concerts to hear the music. Their job would be a lot easier if musicians would regularly take the music to the audience in unusual venues.

Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 2

Op. 18 no. 4, in C minor

As I wrote in the introduction to the first article in this series, sonata form is inherently dramatic, but where Haydn and Mozart conceived theirs in terms of comic opera, Beethoven, even in his early works, often sought a more melodramatic or even tragic effect. His music in C minor always displays great dramatic tension.

The opening movement of this quartet is less stormy than many of Beethoven’s C minor movements. The dark but lyrical opening theme flows congenially enough, but Beethoven subjects his material to a number of new harmonies and textures. In fact, this sometimes menacing and passionate movement exhibits a richer texture than the first movements of any of the other op. 18 string quartets.

Oddly enough, this quartet has no slow movement. Its second movement is the scherzo that had become fairly typical for string quarts; the third movement comprises the older minuet that had long formed third movements of symphonies. Both rely heavily on fugal procedures. The scherzo has a light and playful mood, helped along by counterpoint that pointedly breaks lots of rules. In fact, to anyone who understands all of the conventional techniques and rules, it is even funny, like much of Haydn’s music. The minuet returns to the passionate and somber mood of the opening. In fact, Beethoven enhances the disquieting aspect of the movement by instructing that the reprise of the first part be played at a faster tempo.

The quartet concludes with a Haydnesque rondo. The lively main theme, played several times, alternates with a lyrical first episode and a rather ill-tempered second episode. The final appearance of the main theme cheats the listeners’ expectation not once but twice. It begins at a very fast tempo as if it intends to build to a climax. Instead of the climax, it appears to head towards a quiet ending in C major. Again, it switches gears and the quartet ends loudly with a brusque reminder of the central episode.

Op. 18 no. 5, in A major

Beethoven follows the most forceful quartet of the set with the quietest. The opening movement is conventional and almost old-fashioned, except that the second theme is in a minor key instead of the expected major and when the listener expects the opening theme to return after the development, Beethoven delays it. What sound like a scale passage in the cello descending to the tonic key winds up half a step too high, and it takes several measures for everyone to wind up in the right place.

The apparent simplicity of the second movement (a minuet) conceals excellent contrapuntal workmanship. By this time in his career Beethoven felt comfortable enough in his technique and craft that he had no need to call attention to it. The occasional loud or heavily accented passages do not contribute to a stormy mood, as in the C minor string quartet, but rather to a cheerful good time. The third movement, a theme and five variations, likewise exudes fun and, at the end, toys playfully with distant keys before returning gradually to the tonic.

The quartet ends with another sonata movement. Beethoven weaves various textures very skillfully. He allows himself a dramatic moment in the development before ending the quartet very quietly.

Op. 18 no. 6, in B-flat major

Conventionally sonata movements (whether in a piece called a sonata, symphony, string quartet, or whatever else) have the greatest emotional weight in the first movement. In his sixth string quartet, Beethoven experimented with moving the weight to the end. Therefore, the first movement is lively and pleasant, but almost trivial. He provides just enough incidental niceties of texture and modulations to keep it from being boring.

The slow movement, somewhat more substantial, displaying some very resourceful and deft changes in texture. Elegant and graceful, it still lacks really distinguished thematic material. The scherzo shows still more character and originality, with then-unconventional rhythms, the collapse of what seemed to be an exhilarating climax, and other touches of rough comedy.

All of that sets the stage for the finale, subtitled La Malanconia (Melancholy), a sonata form with a slow introduction. The opening adagio immediately begins to explore some weird chromatic, almost atonal harmonies, punctuated with many abrupt changes from soft to loud and back again. Beethoven follows this with a quick dancelike movement. It is curiously conventional, but at the point where it ought to end, Beethoven brings back the eeriness of the adagio. The slow and fast ideas alternate for a while before the fast one wins out. As it unsure it has shaken the slow idea, the quartet gets faster and faster from there to the end.


Except for the one in B-flat major, each of these string quartets rely heavily on particular quartets of Haydn and Mozart as models, although the whole set also shows lessons Beethoven had absorbed from some of their lesser contemporaries. In each case, he falls short of his models. During his early period, he had mastered the basic techniques he used, but had still not quite gotten the hang of the subtleties.

The most experimental of the set, the last quartet, is in many ways the least satisfactory, but it shows great imagination and ambition. At this time of his career, he was a very good composer. Greatness would come once his command of the subtleties matched his ambition.

Again, I call attention to the link for ArchivMusic. If you want a recording of these quartets, or any other classical music, it’s a wonderful source.

An excellent high-school orchestra from Indiana

A friend of mine sent me a link to the video below and said to prepare to be impressed. It is a prize-winning performance of the Carmel (Indiana) High School Symphony Orchestra playing “Jupiter” from The Planets by Gustav Holst. As a result of this performance last May, they were named the Indiana State Orchestra Champion. My friend tells me they also won in 2008 playing the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and “Mambo” from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. These performances are also available on YouTube.
This performance is better than many concerts I have heard by prestigious university orchestras. It is better than a few I have heard by professional orchestras. I am used to hearing young musicians play at this level at the Eastern Music Festival. I would hope that the various all-state high school orchestras would routinely play this well. It blows my mind that a single high school could marshall the talent and discipline to play such difficult music so well.

Congratulations to Carmel High School, not only for the orchestra, but for the amount of support it has obviously gotten from the community and school administration. May it maintain its tradition of excellence for many years to come.