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.”

1

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.

Chorus

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

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

But cell phones hadn’t been invented yet! (A Beethoven eccentricity)

As recently as ten years ago, it seemed strange to see someone walking down the street talking to no one visible and gesturing. Everyone wondered about whether that person was really all there. Since then, of course, we have gotten used to cell phones.

Nowadays, we still might meet people who talk out loud and make gestures and don’t have a cell phone. We can still wonder about them. Are they crazy? Or maybe just an eccentric genius? Here’s how Gerhard von Breuning described Beethoven in 1825:

Beethoven’s outward appearance, owing to that indifference to dress peculiar to him, made him uncommonly noticeable on the street. Usually lost in thought and grumbling to himself, he not infrequently gesticulated with his arms as well when walking alone. When he was in company, he spoke very loudly and with great animation and, since whoever accompanied him was obliged to write down his answers in the conversation notebook, the promenade was interrupted by frequent stops, something which in itself attracted attention and was made more conspicuous by the replies he made in pantomime. . .

Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók

Bartók and his wife fled their native Hungary and moved to New York in 1940, shortly after he composed his last work in Europe, the Sixth String Quartet. He never felt comfortable in the United States and composed nothing at all for three years.

The money he received from royalties, occasional performances, and a research fellowship at Columbia University hardly provided enough to live on. To make matters worse, he contracted leukemia. The first symptoms appeared in 1940, but he did not receive a definitive diagnosis until 1944.

As he got sicker and less able to work, his friends became concerned, but he refused to accept charity. Two of them, violinist Joseph Szigeti and conductor Fritz Reiner, suggested to Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitsky, much wealthier than either of them, that something should be done for Bartók.

Koussevitsky went to Bartók’s hospital room and offered him a commission for any kind of orchestral work he wanted to compose. The emaciated Bartók protested that he was in no condition to write a new piece. Koussevitsky told him he could write it when he felt better and Bartók, with some apparent reluctance, said he’d be glad to.

When Koussevitsky took out his checkbook to pay the commission, Bartók protested that he could not accept the money until he finished the work. The quick thinking Koussevitsky replied that commissions required that half the payment be made up front, and only the other half on completion. Now, of course, Bartók had no choice. He had to write something.

At the final rehearsal before the premiere performance of Concerto for Orchestra on December 1, 1944, Koussevitsky urged Bartók not to hesitate if he had any comments. Bartók took him up on it every few measures for twenty minutes.

Koussevitsky then suggested that perhaps it would be more efficient if the composer simply took notes. Bartók wrote feverishly until the orchestra had completed the last  movement.

He seemed full of pep as he and the very tired conductor went to Koussevitsky’s dressing room to talk it over. When they finally came back out, after a longer than usual rehearsal break, Koussevitsky had a spring in his step and Bartók shuffled back without energy. Kousssevitsky mounted the podium and told the orchestra, “Gentlemen, Mr. Bartók agrees with everything.”

Statue of Bartók in Brussels

Like all of his mature works, Bartók’s new orchestral work does not follow traditional expectations. Its opening movement has a slow introduction, like so many Classical symphonies, but otherwise, it has only isolated moments of symphonic density.

It more nearly resembles a classical serenade and has passages that demand soloistic virtuosity from every section of the orchestra. The latter feature certainly justifies the title.

The mainly joyful mood of the work gave Bartók a couple of chances to express his political and artistic views. He heard, and disliked, a radio broadcast of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, and responded in his fourth movement, Intermezzo interrotto (Interrupted intermezzo).

The march from Shostakovich’s symphony, partly borrowed from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, interrupts the main musical idea. The whole orchestra grimaces, especially trombones. The exposed bass trombone glissando is one of the most notoriously awkward passages in the entire orchestral repertoire.

The fifth movement shows Bartók’s lifelong preoccupation with folk music. It includes not only the central European folk music he had studied so diligently, but also some tunes, played by trumpets, that sound very African-American. Perhaps in the evocation of American music, Bartók intended to thank the United States for it’s hospitality and victorious advance against Nazi Germany.

How old is that trombone joke? Really?

When I was in fifth grade, just learning trombone, one of my friends, who was learning clarinet, asked me how I could play trombone. Doesn’t it go up into my mouth? I had to take the slide apart to show him how it looked.

Some time after that, I started to hear jokes about some hayseed who watched a trombonist intently, and then declared to one and all, “He don’t really swaller that thing.”

Since I actually knew someone who thought I did, I guess it should be no surprise how long the confusion has been around. For those who don’t mind jokes “as old as the hills and twice as dusty:”

And when one of his companions demaunded him what kind of Musicke did please him best of all he heard there [in Venice], hee saide: “All were good, yet among the rest I saw one blow on a straunge Trumpet, which at every push thrust it into his throate more than two handfull, and then by and by drew it out againe, and thrust it in a fresh, that you never saw such a greater wonder!”

Then they all laughed, understanding the fond imagination of him that thought the blower thrust into his throat that part of ye Shagbut that is  hid in putting it back againe.

Source: Baldassare Castiglione. The Book of the Courtier (1528), translated from the Italian in 1561.

(Sackbut, in various spellings, was the sixteenth-century English equivalent of the original Italian word trombone.)