The selling of Gounod’s Faust

Who can think of Charles Gounod without thinking of Faust, one of the most successful operas of the entire nineteenth century? And yet it looked for a while like its London premiere would be a dismal failure. Impresario James Henry Mapleson learned a few days before it was scheduled that only 30 pounds worth of seats had been sold. The cashier told him that there was no sense in performing it four successive nights as scheduled, because it had attracted no interest from the public.

Mapleson had another idea. No tickets to the first three performances would be offered for sale. The few people who had already bought tickets would come, of course, but he collected all remaining tickets, took them home, and mailed them all over London and its suburbs.  That is, he made sure that the audience for the first three nights would be full, and since the tickets weren’t selling, he gave most of them away.

At the same time, he placed an advertisement in the Times.  It said that Faust had excited so much interest that the first three performances had been sold out, but that because of a death in the family, two stalls for the first performance had been made available and were on sale from a jeweler and a stationer in Cockspur Street. He quietly promised the proprietors of those stores free tickets if they managed to sell what he gave them. Meanwhile, of course, the box office had nothing.

Meanwhile, everyone who tried to get a ticket there was naturally told that all the tickets were gone, not only for the premiere, but for the next two nights as well. They told their friends, who also inquired at the box office and learned that it was quite impossible to obtain tickets until the fourth evening.

The first performance drew an appreciative, but not particularly enthusiastic response, but Mapleson made sure Gounod appeared for multiple curtain calls. The second night got a better response from the audience, and the third night better still. On the fourth night, the people who had waited so long to get a chance at this new sensation loved it. Of course, Mapleson had no choice but to offer Faust for more than the advertised four nights, due to popular demand.

Thus, at least, according to Mapleson’s own memoirs, as excerpted in The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Lebrecht.

Slonimsky scorecard: Aaron Copland

Little by little, I plan to look at composers who were still living at the time Nicolas Slonimsky published bad reviews of their music in his Lexicon of Musical Invective. He compiled this most unusual and entertaining book because he believed in the idea of musical progress. The bad reviews, he said, from “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar,” and the subsequent popularity of these same composers proved that the critics were bad prophets.

It should, of course, be child’s play to find bad reviews of bad and now-forgotten composers. Slonimsky picked good composers. If he was a better prophet than the critics he quoted, then the living composers he sympathized with should all have more critical and popular acclaim now than they did when the bad reviews first appeared.

Slonimsky selected  five reviews of Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto, all published between January 29 and February 5, 1927, that is, shortly after Copland played the world’s premiere of that piece with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Here are parts of two of them:

Since there must be a bit of jazz in all American music nowadays, Mr. Copland has his measures in that view, but as one young man in the audience remarked, “No dance-hall would tolerate jazz of such utter badness.”

The jazz theme was a pretty poor pick, as those things go. But Mr Copland surrounded it with all the machinery of sound and fury, and the most raucous modernistic fury at that. The composer-pianist smote his instrument at random; the orchestra, under the impassioned baton of Mr. Koussevitzky, heaved and shrieked and fumed and made anything but sweet moans until both pianist and conductor attained such a climax of absurdity that many in the  audience giggled with delight.

A sixth review, by Lazare Saminsky in 1949, dismissed Copland as “the great man for small deeds,” “a shrewd manager of musique à success,” and a “flagrant example of composer propaganda” who chose to “sway his esthetics with the claims of the day.” He uses specific examples to justify this point of view, calling the Short Symphony “a quite bewildering piece of creative impotence,” Appalachian Spring “a feeble score” and “anemic and insignificant.” As to Lincoln Portrait, Saminsky sniped, “After a short-lived attempt at the grand line, the petit maître appears in all his nakedness.”

At about the same time Saminsky dismissed Copland at such length, most people interested in American concert music considered Copland the dean of American composers and America’s most important musical voice. The pieces he panned still begin anyone’s list of Copland’s best-loved works.

Therefore, at first glance, it looks like Slonimsky picked a winner. But let’s take a closer look. [BELOW IS NUMBERED LIST]

Those who disliked the Piano Concerto did not reject it because jazz was unfamiliar. They thought his concerto was bad jazz.
In the  1920s Copland had an attitude that he unknowingly shared with Arnold Schoenberg and Slonimsky himself, that modern composers had to write for a small audience of knowledgeable people, because the masses would only understand it later. Perhaps that explains why at least five critics thought he had written “meaningless, ugly sounds.”
Very little of the music he wrote with that attitude has remained successful with the public, whether it came before his his turn to a more popular idiom in the 1930s or after he decided to start writing more “difficult” works later in life.
Saminsky specifically attacked his best-loved pieces, not because they were unfamiliar, but because they were too familiar. Perhaps he would have preferred if Copland had continued to write “challenging” works for a small audience of intellectuals instead of “sway[ing] his esthetics with the claims of the day.” His invective, in other words,  does not embody the attitude Slonimsky wanted to exposed, but something very much the opposite. Saminsky seems to condemn Copland for pandering to a less advanced taste, even though quite capable of writing something more modern.

Because of the music Copland wrote to appeal to a broader audience, he remains a highly respected and beloved figure in American music. It is difficult to predict the future, but my guess is that the best of these pieces will remain as popular fifty years from now as they are today. Lesser pieces may or may not fall by the wayside. I doubt if future audiences will like the more difficult and esoteric pieces any better than the audiences up until this time.

Slonimsky picked a winner in predicting that future audiences would appreciate Copland’s music. People still perform and record Piano Concerto, but I know of no list of his best works that includes it. Time has pretty much repudiated Saminsky’s judgment, but that review in no way represents “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar.” Slonimsky gets a B- as a prophet for this chapter.

Schnabel the mathematician

Have you ever heard people at a restaurant trying to figure out how much each owes when they couldn’t get separate checks? Opinions can become quite heated. The same thing might very well happen to a group of musicians trying to decide how to split a single fee for a concert among themselves. It helps to have someone  very good at math and very persuasive that his or her solution is fair to everyone.

Pianist Artur Schnabel, violinist Bronislaw Hubermann, violist Paul Hindemith, and cellist Gregor Piatagorsky faced just that situation in 1933. Johannes Brahms would have been 100 years old that year, and they played a concert of his chamber music for piano and strings.

After some discussion, Hubermann wanted to leave it to the management how much each would receive, figuring that he’s get the best possible deal that way.  Schnabel refused. After that, the discussion became very heated until Schnabel declared, “We will divide the fee into 35 parts.”

Brahms wrote three trios (violin, cello, and piano), three quartets (violin, viola, cello, and piano), three sonatas for violin and piano, and two for cello and piano and two for viola and piano (although clarinet players don’t see it that way! They’re for clarinet or viola and piano). Three people playing three trios amounts to 9 parts, the quartets for 12, etc. for a total of 35 parts.

Schnabel, the pianist, played all 13 pieces, so claimed 13 of 35 parts. Hubermann played 9 pieces, Piatagorsky 8, and Hindemith 5. Even Hindemith, who wound up with the least pay, agreed that Schnabel had come up with a good plan, although Piatagorsky later mused that it was lucky Schnabel had not proposed counting notes. He and everyone else would have come out much worse!

10 quotations by jazz masters

No particular music makes me feel nostalgic. If it’s great, it just keeps me in the present moment. That level of music is like a classic story, like the Iliad–something so perfect it can never be old. ~ Wynton Marsalis

You can study orchestration, you can study harmony and theory and everything else, but melodies come straight from God. ~ Quincy Jones

We all do “do, re, mi,” but you have to find the other notes yourself. ~ Louis Armstrong

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art. ~ Charlie Parker

Jazz came to America three hundred years ago in chains. ~ Paul Whiteman

Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is. ~ Miles Davis

Music is my mistress and she plays second fiddle to no one. ~ Duke Ellington

Music happens to be an art form that transcends language. ~ Herbie Hancock

A jazz musician is a juggler who uses harmonies instead of oranges. ~ Benny Green

Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom.  If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. ~ Charlie Parker

Beethoven and musical invective

Perhaps not every classical music lover considers Beethoven the greatest composer in history, but I’m sure everyone puts  him among their top three or four. Yet in  his lifetime, he got some bad press. Here is a selection of German, French and English reviews written during his lifetime from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective:

  • Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, which refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect.
  • Beethoven, who is often bizarre and baroque, takes at times the majestic flight of an eagle, and then creeps in rocky pathways. He first fills the soul with sweet melancholy, and then shatters it by a mass of barbarous chords. He seems to harbor together doves and crocodiles.
  • [End of a long review of the Sonata op. 111] . . . and yet the publishers have, in their title, deemed it necessary to warn off all pirates by announcing the Sonata as a copyright. We do not think they are in much danger of having their property invaded.
  • The Heroic Symphony contains much to admire, but it is difficult to keep up admiration of this kind during three long quarters of an hour. It is infinitely too lengthy. . . If this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.
  • The effect which the writings of Beethoven have had on the art must, I fear, be considered injurious. Led away by the force of his genius and dazzled by its creations, a crowd of imitators have arisen, who have displayed as much harshness, as much extravagance, and as much obscurity, with little or none of his beauty and grandeur. Thus music is no longer intended to soothe, to delight, to ‘wrap the senses in Elysium’; it is absorbed in one principle–to astonish.

Slonimsky clearly states his purpose in compiling his Lexicon in his opening essay:

Its animating purpose is to demonstrate that music is an art in progress, and that objections leveled at every musical innovator are all derived from the same psychological inhibition, which may be described as Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar.

In other words, Slonimsky tried to demonstrate that there will always be critics who misunderstand the music of their time and that future audiences will understand it. Yet he prints invective against  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony written as late as 1899. And guess what. That symphony is not universally admired even to this day.

Half a century after the  Lexicon appeared, it is interesting to read the reviews of then-contemporary composers and see how many of the ones Slonimsky thought unfairly maligned have stood the test of time.

I will devote future blogposts to that thought. For now, I would like to propose an alternative viewpoint that at least partially explains some of the criticism of Beethoven. As William Weber demonstrated some quarter of a century after the publication of Slonimsky’s Lexicon, Beethoven lived during a time when a division of taste arose between those who preferred “classical” music  (especially Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven), and those who preferred “popular” music (Rossini and virtuoso pianists like Henri Herz).

Lovers of “popular” music prized novelty (but not too much) and music that they could fully appreciate on first hearing. Then as now, popular pieces did not often retain their appeal for a long time. People tired of them after a few years and sought something new.

Lovers of “classical” music on the other hand, held high artistic ideals and prized music that revealed more of its worth with repeated hearing and careful study. Haydn had sought to please both the serious and casual listeners. Beethoven did not.

Therefore, it seems to me that at least some of the invective leveled against Beethoven’s music during his lifetime and twenty or thirty years after his death requires a different explanation than Slonimsky’s. Some of the authors must have preferred music with a pleasant surface, music with no other intention than to “soothe, to delight, to ‘wrap the senses in Elysium.'” People, in other words, who sought not art but ear candy.

People who write about classical music today must remember this: For as long as there has been a distinction between “classical” and “popular” music, not everyone who commented on “classical” music when it was new was a fan of “classical” music. We need to keep in mind all of the various kinds of music that constituted “popular” music and interpret published musical criticism accordingly.

When Beethoven’s Fifth was new: thoughts on newer new music

During my lifetime, American audiences have stayed away in droves if they know their orchestra is playing a new piece. For much of the twentieth century, a lot of new music was indeed hard to appreciate at first hearing. For about two and a half decades after the Second World War, the most “respectable” composers had such contempt for the general public that they seemed not to care whether anyone liked their music or not. Guess what: in a way, finding modern music difficult is nothing new. Beethoven’s symphonies struck many of their first hearers the same way.

Nineteenth-century New York lawyer George Templeton Strong kept a diary that has become one of the very best primary sources for American musical history. He had trouble at first with one particular piece of new music: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I hope any of my readers who have any influence on a professional orchestra’s programming will take his comments as a cautionary tale.

Strong first heard Beethoven’s Fifth as a young man of 21, played by a pick-up orchestra in 1841. He wrote, “The music was good, very well selected and excellently well performed, so far as I could judge. The crack piece, though, was the last, Beethoven’s Sinfonia in C minor. It was generally unintelligible to me, except the Andante.’

Notice that this orchestra placed the Beethoven piece last on the program. If a twentieth-century orchestra did the same with a new piece, most of the audience would have been gone. It became a programming cliché that if any orchestra (string quartet, pianist, etc.) decided to play something by difficult composers like Stravinsky, Bartók, (gasp) Schoenberg, or (heaven help us) Webern–or worse yet, any piece by a younger composer–it had to come right before intermission. If it came first, most of the audience would be late. If it came after intermission, they would leave.

In 1842, Strong subscribed to concerts by the brand-new New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It programmed Beethoven’s Fifth on its very first concert. Strong panned the vocal selections. Neither soloist sang well. On the other hand, “The instrumental part of it was glorious . . . Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor was splendidly played, and the Overture to Oberon still better, if possible.”

He wrote a couple more sentences about the overture and nothing about the symphony, but even though he had not heard it for more than a year, he did not hedge about his ability to judge the performance. In those days before recordings, people who wanted to become familiar with a new piece had to buy a piano reduction and try to play through it. Perhaps Strong had done so. The next time he heard the Beethoven (in 1844), Strong wrote a rapturous diary entry:

Feel today particularly happy–or particularly unhappy–I can’t certainly determine which–for did I not hear the Symphony in Ci minor by one Ludwig van Beethoven, opus 67, played ad unguem [played to exactness] by the Phiharmonic? Haven’t I been fairly tingling all day with the remembrance of that m sot glorious piece of instrumental music extant, the second movement? (Twice played, by the by–the first encored symphony on record.) Haven’t I been alternately exulting the accurate possession of this relic and lamenting the fruitlessness of my efforts to get hold of that all day long?

I expected to enjoy that Symphony, but I did not suppose it possible that it could be the transcendent affair it is. I’ve heard it twice before, and how I could have passed by unnoticed so many magnificent points–appreciated the spirit of the composition so feebly and unworthily–I can’t conceive.

The entry goes on for about four more paragraphs. His rapture seems to have been reserved for the second and last movements. The fact that it took the third hearing for Strong to “get” Beethoven’s Fifth surprised him, but it doesn’t surprise me. As soon as “classical” music became something distinct from “popular” music, it has meant, among other things, music that reveals its true worth only after repeated hearings.

Back then, music lovers could provide their own repeated hearings by learning to play a new piece on the piano. They wouldn’t necessarily have had to play it well enough to try it out in front of an audience to find the various themes and appreciate the clever ways the composer put them together, took them apart, and recombined the fragments into new themes. Only by playing it himself on the piano, or at least hearing other people play it, could he grow in appreciation of a piece he heard on one concert in February 1841, again in December 1842, and then not again until May 1844.

Today, not nearly as many people know how to play piano, and the music has become more difficult to play than even Beethoven’s. We have recordings, though. Anyone can get a record and listen to a new piece over and over, assuming than anyone had recorded it. Unfortunately, today’s performing organizations do not seem nearly as open to new music as were those of the nineteenth century.

Any composer’s web site will probably list all of the orchestras etc. that have played his or her music. But how often have any of them played any one particular piece? How many of the composer’s other pieces have they played? A new piece of classical music will become popular to the extent that it becomes familiar. Lately, composers once again desire to connect with a general audience

It appears that, quite often, an orchestra that commissions a new piece will present the premiere with great fanfare, and then not play it again. How is anyone supposed to know, at first hearing, if it is a good piece or not? I have long thought that any orchestra that commissions a new work should program it on two programs the first year, and at least once over the next two years.

If after that, the musicians and the audience enjoy it more, it is a good piece and the organization should actively encourage performances in other cities. If the musicians and audience enjoy it less over time, then perhaps it’s a weak piece, but they’ve played it and heard it enough to find out.

I’m sure some listeners grasped more of Beethoven’s works on first hearing than Strong did, but it is also a matter of historical record that many others had at least as much difficulty as he did. How could a revolutionary symphony like Beethoven’s Fifth ever have become such a warhorse if the first generation of its audience had not been able to enjoy multiple hearings? And how else can we discover which pieces by living composers might become universally popular themselves?

Source: Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 172-73.

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.