Past the last minute: a Mozart overture barely finished on time

When an opera performance starts, the overture is the first thing the audience hears, but it is the last thing the composer writes. Rossini disliked writing overtures, and the various impresarios he worked for had legendary difficulties keeping him on track. I haven’t found why Mozart waited so long to compose the overture to Don Giovanni, but for whatever reason, it produced a drama equal to anything Rossini did.

Don Giovanni received its first performance in Prague, and Mozart had to travel there for the rehearsals. After the dress rehearsal, that is, the night before the opening performance, Mozart decided to pull an all-nighter and write the overture and asked his wife to stay up with him.

Constanaza’s job was to make punch to keep his spirits up and keep talking to him. So she told him stories from Arabian Nights and other common collections of stories. Probably only Mozart could ever listen to stories, laugh at them, and compose music at the same time.

The trouble was that the punch made him even sleepier than he would have been ordinarily at that time of night. Whenever his wife stopped talking, he began to doze off. Even Mozart could not write music in his sleep. Finally, she suggested that he take a nap and promised to wake him in an hour.

He slept so soundly that she didn’t have the heart to keep her promise. She let him sleep for two hours. By that time, it was five o’clock in the morning. He finished composing at seven and delivered the score to the copyists.

By the time the copyists finished writing out the parts and passed them out, there was no time for the orchestra to rehearse the overture. So they sight-read it. They must have played it pretty well. One of the members of the orchestra later wrote that the overture roused the audience to great enthusiasm. Mozart turned to the orchestra and said, “Bravo, bravo, gentlemen. That was excellent.”

The what? of Seville: animated opera

Not so long ago, quite a number of classical tunes were well known in popular culture. It has not entirely vanished. I have heard an aria from Carmen in a pizza commercial (wondering if the producers realized they were using French music as a background for their very Italian visuals) and an aria from Gianni Schicchi in a commercial for I don’t recall offhand just what.

All the same, it seems that classical music has become less visible (audible?) lately. It has been a long time since I have paid any attention to Saturday morning cartoons. They’re all new, now. When I was growing up, I think all the cartoon shows just reran what had been originally aimed at adult audiences during the Depression and the Second World War.

Does any cartoon character now sing a popular Italian aria–in Italian–during the entire length of the cartoon? Here’s Woody Woodpecker giving some marvelously patient fellow a shave:

Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini

Puccini was born into Lucca’s most prominent musical family, a dynasty that began with his great-great-grandfather. Only the Bach dynasty (seven generations) lasted longer than the Puccini dynasty. Although Puccini was only five when his father died, everyone assumed that he would eventually take over the now hereditary position of organist and music director at San Martino Cathedral. Instead, he turned away from church music and devoted his life to opera.

He always had trouble finding suitable librettos and even more trouble once he had them. He started and abandoned as many operas as he completed. In 1913, he decided to compose a set of three one-act operas, to be called Il trittico. Of all of his original ideas, he completed only Il tabarro. His eventual choices for companion pieces, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, are his only works written (by librettist Giovacchino Forzano) as operas and not adapted from an earlier stage play. Additionally, Gianni Schicchi is his only comic opera.

Even though the medieval poet Dante’s most famous work is called The Divine Comedy, it was never intended to be funny, Dante had consigned Gianni Schicchi to hell for forging a will and collecting Buoso Donati’s legacy for himself. Dante himself was related to the Donati family and thus suffered from Schicchi’s fraud, so he found nothing humorous about it. Forzano did.

As the curtain rises, we see Buoso’s corpse on the bed and all of his relatives mourning his death. Before long, a more practical matter comes up. No one knows where his will is, and one of them has heard the rumor that he had left all of his money to the friars. After a feverish search of the room, they discover the will and the truth of the rumor.

If they are to get any benefit from Buoso’s estate, they have to do something about the will, but what? One of them, Rinuccio, suggests that they call the father of his beloved Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi, a notorious con man.

Schicchi and Lauretta arrive in due time, the daughter begging permission to marry Rinuccio. For her sake only, he agrees to take the corpse’s place on the deathbed and dictate a new will. Each relative lays claim to some particular piece of property, but every one of them wants his house, his mule, and his sawmills.

They wrangle dangerously long until one of them proposes to let Schicchi decide. Actually, what he says and the rest agree to is, “Let’s leave it all to Schicchi.”

Before going through with the plan, Schicchi reminds them of the penalties for falsifiers of wills and their accomplices: banishment from Florence and having their fingers amputated.

When the notary arrives, the bogus Buoso leaves a pittance to the friars and gives the relatives exactly what they asked for–except the house, the mule and the sawmill. Those he leaved to his good friend and neighbor, Gianni Schicchi. He stifles the relatives’ outcry by singing the warning song again, “Farewell, dear Florence!” and slyly waving to them “with tiny little fingers.”

Everyone who has earned any sympathy from the audience–Schicchi, Lauretta, and Rinuccio–receive exactly what they wanted, and Schicchi asks the audience for pardon.

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

I love the trombone, but it does have its disadvantages. It can be very heavy. I confess I didn’t like the trombone too much when I had to carry it to school. In junior high, I wasn’t on a school-bus route, but it was too far to walk. My dad put some kind of carrier on the front fender of my bike, and that’s how I got the trombone back and forth.

Another problem: The slide makes the trombone one of the longest instruments in a band or orchestra even in first position. Granted, bassoons, baritone saxophones, double basses, etc. are just as long or longer, but their length is measured from the ground up. The trombone sticks out in front and back. With the slide in seventh position, it’s another two feet longer.

Now someone has come up with a trombone you can carry in your pocket. Actually, it’s an iBone, an iPhone app with some neat features. It sounds good, too. I wonder if Mr. Faulk would have let me use an iBone instead of my big, heavy, long trombone?

Update on my next book–and this blog

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

Of course, the time to do this final bit of work has to come from someplace. I cannot sustain the pace at which I have been adding content to the web. I don’t intend to suspend writing new posts for this blog, but they will come less frequently for a while. Taxes (shudder) are due before the index!

"Easter Parade," by Irving Berlin

Perhaps the most popular Easter song in the English language, “Easter Parade” started out with completely different words. In 1917, Berlin wrote “Smile and Show Your Dimple” to cheer up women whose men had just been deployed to fight in the First World War. No one remembered it very long except Berlin himself.

In 1933, Berlin and playwright Moss Hart decided to collaborate on a satiric review with sketches taken from the daily newspaper. They called it As Thousands Cheer. It had sketches not only from the news sections, but also the society column, advice column, weather report, and comics.

Blues singer Ethel Waters sang four of the songs, making As Thousands Cheer the first theatrical event in which black and white stars took the stage together with equal billing.

The first act closed with a big Fifth Avenue number, and Berlin wanted an old-fashioned song for it. He had trouble finding just the right kind of melody until he remembered “Smile and Show Your Dimple.” It required only some minor reworking and all new words.

He later explained that a hit song was like a marriage between the music and the words; “Easter Parade,” however first required the divorce of the tune and its not particularly successful original lyric. In this second marriage, he had a winner.

For centuries, the English-speaking world, at least, observed a tradition of wearing new clothes at Easter. In New York, high society had long indulged in holding a parade from St. Patrick’s Cathedral down Fifth Avenue. During the Depression, of course, most women had to be content with a new hat.

True to the satiric intent of the show, Berlin’s lyrics picture working class couple. The man sings to his girl how wonderful she’ll look in a bonnet “with all the frills upon it, which hardly sounds like upper-class elegance.

Several of the songs outlasted the popularity of the revue. Berlin used it again in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, which required a song for every major holiday. In 1948 he built an entire new film around the song, and called it, not surprisingly, Easter Parade.

Here’s a clip of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire singing it to each other:

St. Luke Passion, by Krzysztof Penderecki

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki grew up under the heavy hand of communism and its socialist realism aesthetic. Like many Eastern Europeans of his generation, he looked to the West for inspiration and a sense of liberation from official dictates.

What he and many other likeminded composers found was the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, and other representatives of a generation of composers who grew up chafing under similarly oppressive Nazism and fascism.

As he commented later, this music gave the illusion of universalism, but strayed too far from the expressive qualities of Western music. Of course, his earliest works to attract international intention, including hisThrenody to the Victims of Hiroshima and St. Luke Passion, were written under the influence of these older composers.

They display, however, emotional qualities which have continued to earn them performances where most post-war avant garde music has never been welcome. Composing the Passion further allowed Penderecki to express his devout Roman Catholic faith and thereby find yet another way to snub communist orthodoxy.

He wrote the St. Luke Passion on commission to honor the 700th anniversary of the Münster Cathedral. The enormously successful premiere took place on March 30, 1966. It is divided into two parts, each further subdivided into shorter sections but performed without pause.

The text comes from Scripture (mostly from Luke, with some passages from John and Psalms) and the Roman liturgy. Except for three short Greek phrases, it is entirely in Latin.

The piece calls for three soloists (soprano, baritone, and bass), and an Evangelist (a speaking role). It requires a large chorus, divided into three four-part choirs and a fourth of sopranos and altos.

Penderecki divides the violins into 24 parts rather than the conventional two. He treats the other string sections similarly. Each stand of two players has its own part. The winds include two saxophones, but no oboes, and more than the usual number of most other instruments. Besides a large percussion section, the orchestra also includes piano, organ, and harmonium.

All of this division enables Penderecki to achieve very dense, complex textures, with harmonies based on tone clusters, using quartertones as well as semitones. In the choir, singers sometimes hiss, jeer, and whistle. Sometimes words are broken up into syllables and tossed back and forth till they become unintelligible.

For all it’s innovation, the St. Luke Passion also acknowledges a debt to the past. It quotes Gregorian chant and a Polish folk song. One section uses the Baroque passacaglia technique. Others use contrapuntal techniques of Renaissance composers, although, of course, not their harmonies.

Comparisons with Bach’s Passion settings are unavoidable. Both Bach and Penderecki wrote from deep religious conviction. Both provided music suitable the the intrinsically dramatic nature of the Passion story: the murder of God by his own people. But they approach the drama very differently.

Bach, in common with other composers of his time, provides opulently descriptive music suitable to portray the outward drama of events. Penderecki’s much more austere and gloomy music portrays more of an inner drama. So where Bach shows Peter rushing from the courtyard, Penderecki portrays a penitence that can only be felt, not seen or heard.

The crowd scenes reverse this contrast. At the words “Let him be crucified,” Bach used tritones and chromaticism to produce remarkably ugly music that nevertheless proceeds in a dignified fugato. His music therefore shows more of an inward ugliness, where Penderecki’s harmonies and counterpoint allow him to portray a howling mob.

The dramatic impact of Penderecki’s mob largely results from the contrast between the overt descriptiveness of those scenes and the understatement of the rest of the work. But where Bach sometimes casts his soloists and chorus as observers commenting on the action, all the singers in Penderecki’s setting participate fully.

When the choir does not portray the mob, it represents a world crying out to God for forgiveness and redemption. The baritone soloist represents Christ. The bass soloist portrays Peter, Pilate, and the penitent thief. The soprano soloist briefly takes the role of a servant girl, but more importantly partakes of the penitent mood of the chorus, representing not humanity as a whole, but the individual.

Two rays of light pierce the pervading darkness and gloom. The Stabat Mater (section 24) suddenly coalesces on a D major triad for its final word, “gloria.” The final phrase of the work, “Thou has redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth” concludes on a triumphant E major chord.

These chords underline the implication of the text at these points: God’s love can conquer the darkness of the world. The Passion story, which ends with the death of Christ, thus also ends on a note of triumph.

Much of the postwar avant garde music produced revulsion in most audiences. It withdrew into into a new music ghetto and developed a strong contempt for classical music audiences. It makes it difficult for any new music to get a hearing even today when that style is now passé.

Penderecki’s achievement goes beyond producing an emotionally powerful work. The St. Luke Passion still receives not only performances, but enthusiastic responses from the audience. Future generations will likely consider it one of the few masterpieces of its time.

Multiple recordings of the pieces mentioned are available from ArchivMusik by clicking on the button in the sidebar.

An early song about Chicago

Probably everyone knows, or at least knows about, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” and “My Kind of Town.” Frank Sinatra sang both with great success. Surely no one will be surprised to learn that nearly 200 more songs about Chicago exist that no one is ever likely to sing again. But could anyone expect that the earliest published song about Chicago takes such a dim view of the place?

In 1868, Chicago music publisher H. M. Higgins found a very insulting poem about Chicago in a Pittsburgh newspaper and decided to set it to music. Musically, the piece has little interest, but I hope you enjoy the words, along with Higgins’ preface:

Some slanderous writer in a Pittsburg (sic) paper vents his spleen upon the Queen of the Lakes in a manner most disrespectful and cheeky. He must have fallen into very bad company to have formed such an unjust estimate of our city and citizens. His rhyme is good, though its sentiment is atrocious. For the gratification of our St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee friends, we have set it to music, well knowing that Chicago can “Hoe out its own row.”


I have been to the North, I have been to the South,
But in traveling a man may afar go
To the jumping-off place before he will find
A town to compare with Chicago.
If you never have altered your name in your life
Nor ever did up to the bar go,
Or else run away with another man’s wife,
They won’t let you live in Chicago.


Oh Sodom was some and Gomorrah was great,
And in Venice each man’s an Iago.
But nothing out there can a moment compare
With the sweet state of things in Chicago


Some people send on by Adams’ Express
And some put their faith in a Fargo,
But if you would go to the devil direct
You enter yourself at Chicago.
They won’t let a clergyman live in the town
On such they have put an embargo,
Unless he drinks sherry with all his young friends
And they he may stay in Chicago.


There the infants are fed on whiskey direct.
For liquor they all to their ma go.
And the muley cows give, as a man might expect,
Milk punch in the town of Chicago.
The town with fast ladies and gay gamblers
Is as full as a ship with her cargo;
And the very best men, it is truthfully said,
Fight cocks in the town of Chicago.


There all the boys play at “poker” and “cram,”
For most of them did to the war go.
And they sing that wild song call’d “I don’t care a — cent”
All night in the streets of Chicago.
Yet it cannot be said that their morals are bad
Or that they too much below par go.
For the devil a moral the folks ever had
Who live in the town of Chicago.

Children and classical music

My parents–my father especially–love classical music. When I was growing up, Dad always had a record on whenever he had a chance to relax. It wasn’t always classical music. He had lots of Broadway musicals and big band jazz in his collection, too. I’ve always figured that’s why I grew up loving that music, although I never shared his enthusiasm for opera.

I have a much younger sister, and I can remember her first record player. Her record collection mostly consisted of the horrible songs intended for children. I can hear some of the horrible, sloppy performances of them even as I write, because she’d play the same song half a dozen times in a row.

She also grew up hearing everything Dad played. It didn’t take her long to outgrow the cheap kiddie music, but she still loves the popular music of the big band / Tin Pan Alley era. I understand some children think they’ve outgrown the music of their parents’ generation by the time they’re teenagers, but since none of us did, I can’t relate.

I thought of that when I came across a video of a five-year-old conducting to a recording of The Rite of Spring. He has obviously listened to that piece a lot, because his gestures match the music pretty well for such a complicated piece. Just as obvious, he has seen conductors well enough to imitate them. I was not surprised to learn that his father, Lawrence Loh, is the Resident Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, among other accomplishments.

Little Charlie probably likes all kinds of things that make his dad cringe. The Rite of Spring makes my dad cringe; many people still find twentieth-century “classical” music an acquired taste, but children don’t know that. If they grow up with it, chances are they’ll like it. Charlie will outgrow his current tastes for a lot of things, but will always enjoy The Rite of Spring, among other classical masterpieces.

The classical music of the eighteenth century, surely the most listener-friendly music ever written, appealed to all levels of society. It appealed to people who wanted an artistic experience and to those who only wanted entertainment. It was contemporary and familiar.

Ever since then, it has been something old. For some reason, people have found it easier to love old paintings, old statues, old buildings, even old literature than old music. Children, however, don’t know what’s old. They know what they like. Whatever they like as children that is good, they will keep liking it as they grow into adulthood. Every child deserves the right to hear good music often.

And now, here’s Charlie Loh, with an appearance by his little sister at the end.

Menuhin on Toscanini

As a teenager, violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under the baton of the volatile Arturo Toscanini. While they rehearsed in Toscanini’s apartment, the young soloist was treated to perhaps the calmest, quietest temper tantrum of Toscanini’s life. As he described it later:

It was during the preparation for this performance that Toscanini showed me what it meant to be sure of oneself. In his apartment at the Hotel Astor on Times Square–which had an Italian proprietor and no doubt reliable pasta–we had reached the middle of the slow movement where, after the second tutti, the sound marked perdendosi [dying away] hangs by a thread, when the telephone rang.

Naturally I ignored it; so did my father in his unobtrusive corner; so fumbling at the piano (for he was not a great pianist) did Tocsanini. There was a second ring. We went on playing, I at least tensely aware that the pressure in the room was boiling up to a reaction.

At the third ring, Toscanini stopped, rose from the piano stool, and with light quick determined steps walked not to the telephone, but to the installation in the wall and jerked the whole thing bodily out, wooden fitting, plaster, dust, severed dangling wires; then, without a word uttered, he came back to take up where we had stopped, in total serenity.

When the third movement ended there was a timid knock at the door. Relaxed, unembarrassed, amiable, Toscanini gently called, Avanti!–his first word nice the incident–and the door opened on an abject trio, his wife, the hotel proprietor and an electrician, all  promising to do better another time.

I couldn’t find a picture of young Menuhin with Toscanini, but here he is with Bruno Walter.