The Fantasticks: book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt

Musicals, or at least so it seemed according to the example set by Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein, ought to be big, bold, impressive, with elaborate production numbers, fancy costumes, and lighting effects. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt thought so when they became friends at the University of Texas and dreamed of conquering New York.

Even while serving is different army units, they managed to collaborate on songs by mail. Once in New York, they tried to make an elaborate musical out of a one-act spoof on Romeo and Juliette by Edmund Rostand, Les Romanesques. In hindsight, they attempted a Texas version of West Side Story, even including a character and song called “Maria,” but after a three-year struggle they couldn’t make it work.

When Jones decided simple staging on a platform could solve their problem, another Texas alum promised to produce their musical at Barnard College if they could reduce it to one act in three weeks. Discarding everything except the opening song (“Try to Remember”) and the basic idea of adapting Rostand’s play, the two almost effortlessly beat the deadline.

The performances at Barnard (the week beginning August 3, 1959) might have been the end of the story, but producer Lore Noto was in the audience and asked Jones and Schmidt if they could make it into a full-length musical. It opened off-Broadway nine months later. No one could guess that it would run for 42 years.

It must have seemed an oddity. It had no scenery. Actors retrieved props from a large chest at one side of the platform. In place of an orchestra, two pianos, a harp, some percussion and one person doubling on bass and cello provided the accompaniment.

Behind the comic hijinks lay a philosophic meditation on the necessity of winter (or death) for spring (rebirth). “Try to Remember” sets the stage for a story about both the innocence and folly of young lovers and the necessity of suffering to achieve maturity.

Opening to mixed reviews, the play often had very sparse audiences in its early performances. Schmidt remembered, “We’d only have three people in the audience on some nights, but you’d look out and it’d be Tallulah Bankhead, Richard Rogers, and Vivien Leigh.”

Word got around, helped, no doubt, by Noto’s habit of carrying the original cast album around with him wherever he went. He also gambled by releasing stock company and amateur rights after only a few months. It paid off. No other musical ever had 17,162 performances in its original theater before closing.

An experimental brass band in 1832

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the only possible all-brass ensemble was the cavalry band, which could only play military signals. Once keyed bugles and valved trumpets and horns became available, massed brass could play real music.

The movie Brassed Off provides a glimpse of the British brass band tradition. The band in that movie, where all the members worked for a coal mining company, reflects the working class origins of that institution. No one can identify the first British brass band with certainty, but several existed before the end of the 1830s.

I found an interesting article in the January 28, 1832 issue of the Times. Because it describes an ensemble of London’s leading brass players, it probably has no real connection with the development of the working-class brass band tradition. The article certainly takes no notice of it, but does show the quick response to new technology that transformed musical instruments and musical ensembles during the nineteenth century.


A novel combination of musical effect, at least in this country, was tried yesterday morning at the King’sTheatre, before a select audience of of professors and amateurs expressly invited to obtain their judgment on its results.

A complete band has been collected, consisting wholly of instruments of metallic formation. There are, for example, eight French horns, six trumpets, six keyed bugles, three trombones, and a double bass horn, of extraordinary compass in depth, being below the serpent and instruments of that class in military bands.

The pieces performed were the Overture to Spohr’s Jessonda ; the march of the Priests in the Zauberflote ; with some movements from Weber, Rossini, and Auber. The experiment, which, it should be observed, has been only six weeks in preparation, was decidedly a successful one. In passages of pure harmony is difficult to imagine any thing more perfect.

The movement seemed to have the same unity of design as if it proceeded from one stupendously grand and powerful instrument, and what is still more remarkable, was subdued when requisite to a degree of softness which might have been borne in the boudoir of a sick duchess.

The prevalent defect, in the judgment of the auditory, was, that the basses were inadequate, in strength, to sustaining so great a weight of harmony ; but this’ll admit of a very easy remedy. We think, however, that there was another defect, but perceptible only in those compositions written for a full orchestra, the violin parts of which have been transferred to the bugles and trumpets, instruments incapable of sustaining properly high and quick treble passages.

But it is very possible that instruments of the same genus may be invented, capable of continuing the scale up to the highest notes of the violin, and thus allowing the performance of the great symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. In the mean time, up to a certain extent, the effect, of its kind, leaves nothing to be desired.

Bands of this structure have for some time, existed on the continent, but for their introduction here musicians have to thank Mr. Harper, the celebrated trumpet-player, who took a leading part in the performance, which was filled up throughout by professors of the first eminence.

The horns were most ably led by Mr. Platt, Mr. Rae, and others, who took the solo parts in succession. The trombones were also finely played, and with great discretion as to the strength of intonation.

All present appeared much gratified at the result of the experiment.

Trois gymnopédies by Erik Satie

Erik Satie, an eccentric composer of minor talent but great imagination, exercised enormous influence on twentieth-century musical thought. Above all a musical humorist, he issued his first published composition as op. 62. His longest work, Vexations, consists of just over a minute’s worth of music played 840 times without pause.

The Gymnopédies, composed in 1888 for piano solo, exhibit a different kind of humor, based on Satie’s conscious and deliberate antagonism to verifiable facts. In ancient Greece, the gymnopedia, or festival of naked youth, was celebrated every year in Sparta to honor Apollo, Pythaeus, Artemis, and Ledo. The days-long festival concluded with gymnastic exhibitions and frenzied dancing offered not to the four deities already named, but to Dionysius.

Satie composed slow, dignified, pieces utterly devoid of passion and chose to give them a title that conjured up images of a boisterous celebration. Having thus deliberately misrepresented the gymnopedia, perhaps he would be astounded to learn that the whole concept of serene classicism just as thoroughly misrepresents ancient Greek esthetics as a whole.

Scholars have since determined that the gleaming whiteness of the marble, which we admire so greatly, does not reflect the original intent of the artists. They did not consider their works complete without application of flamboyant colors, which the passage of centuries has stripped away.

That Satie became so well known and influential can be traced in part to his friendship with Claude Debussy. In 1911 Debussy orchestrated the third and first of the Gymnopédies, in that order. Many critics have complained that the orchestration obscured Satie’s clear outlines. Be that as it may, the pieces gained more in prestige than they lost in clarity. It is in Debussy’s version that they, and Satie himself, first became well known.

A historical perspective on orchestra concerts: programing and ritual

Today, American orchestra concerts usually have three or four pieces. In one very typical formula, they have some kind of overture, a concerto, and a symphony.

If the program should happen to include music by a living composer–or even by one who died some time after, say, 1945–it typically comes right before intermission, sandwiched between two popular standards. That way the audience will come on time to hear the opening piece and be forced to stay in their seats through the new piece in order to hear whatever delight awaits after the intermission.

Certain unwritten laws dictate concert ritual, including applause for the concert master and entrance of the conductor, but no applause between movements of a concerto or symphony.

There are both good and bad reasons for our current practices, but they are not sustainable very long into the future. Concerts have become museums for music that, for a number of reasons, seems less and less relevant to our society. As audiences grow older, demographics threaten orchestras’ long-term viability unless changes in programing and ritual can attract a wider following.

Most of Americas orchestras were founded some time in the twentieth century. The New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, is the oldest of them, but not by any means the first. Even colonial America had many orchestras, but no one at the time conceived of a concert orchestra as a permanent institution. An orchestra might have been assembled for a single performance, or as a social institution for the sake of reading though symphonic music and occasionally giving public performances.

Typical eighteenth-century concerts, both in America and Europe, featured a very mixed repertoire. Orchestral works like symphonies and concertos shared the stage with chamber music, songs, operatic excerpts, and choruses. An entire program without any singers, let alone an entire program by the orchestra alone, was simply unthinkable. In fact, this approach to programing lasted well into the nineteenth century.

For a while in the nineteenth century, brass bands (and later, mixed wind bands)seemed a more viable and truly American ensemble than orchestras. There were more of them, but no particular ideological rivalry. Harvey Dodworth, leader of one of New York’s successful brass bands, helped found the New York Philharmonic and played violin there.

Like all other nineteenth-century American orchestras, the Philharmonic did not have a long enough season that any of its members could make a living from it. Many musicians besides Dodworth played for both orchestras and bands, and both kinds of ensembles programed similar music.

When Viennese ballerina Fanny Elssler toured America in 1840-42, she performed not only classical ballet, but various folk dances. Her programs appealed to all segments of American society and established a model for later foreign stars. Swedish operatic soprano Jenny Lind combined popular British and American songs with operatic standards. Their audiences, and American audiences in general, behaved more like rock audiences than modern symphony audiences.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Theodore Thomas and others struggled mightily to purify orchestral concerts by purging light music and enforcing a quiet reverence among the audience.

I would not advocate returning to the days when musicians could not make a living from playing in an orchestra, or when concerts included trivial music but often not full performances of multi-movement works, or when audiences came and went as they pleased and held loud conversations during the performance.

On the other hand, it seems that some lightening of concert programing and concert etiquette would help dissipate the aura of stuffiness that shrouds modern orchestra concerts. Perhaps a look back at what worked well in earlier concerts would provide some useful ideas.

Earlier orchestra concerts included not only music by revered masters, but new music–both new symphonic works and popular tunes. Somehow, rock tunes or rap do not seem good partners on orchestra concerts, but plenty of new composers, who have a great desire to connect with a broad audience, write music partly under the influence of contemporary popular music.

Instead of using Beethoven as a draw to force people to listen to Webern or other musical brussels sprouts, perhaps at least some orchestra concerts could be devoted to music by living composers who already have a following, and then sprinkle some Beethoven.

I suppose anyone who goes to a concert to hear music by, say, John Adams, Libby Larsen, Michael Torke, Jennifer Higdon, Michael Daugherty, any one of a number of living American composers would enjoy the great classics, even if hearing some of them for the first time.

As classical audiences develop a taste for new American music, maybe they’d all enjoy Arvo Pärt, Giya Kanchelli, or any number of European composers who have turned their back on audience-repelling avant gardists of the post-war era.

Maybe there is a way to allow audiences to participate more interactively, not just sit in silence in the dark, yet still listen intently to the music. Orchestra concerts have so much to offer to society. Good art is such a welcome antidote to the tawdry industrialization and commercial manipulation behind so much popular music.

Art overcame manipulative marketing of cheap tricks in the 1840s. It has the power to triumph over empty commercialism again. All it requires is imagination and willingness to jettison unsustainable programing and ritual.

Concert bands and big bands

I used to play summers with the Wheaton Municipal Band in Wheaton, Illinois. The last concert of the season is always “big band” music, which means that most of the 90 members are finished and only 17 people play that concert. It has always struck me as funny that after a season of full band concerts, the one called the big band concert involves only about a fifth as many players.

The difference in names turns out to be a matter of history and tradition. During the French Revolution, Bernard Sarrette took charge of training military musicians and assembled a the largest band in history. The standard military band in the eighteenth century had been pairs of oboes, clarinets, oboes, and bassoons–eight players. Sarrette assembled a band of 45 musicians who played all those instruments and more. By the end of the year, it had grown to 78.

When Napoleon came to power, he had no interest in infantry bands and allowed Sarrette’s band to shrivel away. He wanted a good cavalry band, though. His band master David Buhl worked with a group of 16 trumpets, 6 horns, and 3 trombones, a group that influenced military bands all over Europe.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the French, Prussian, and Austrian governments had all established standards for both cavalry bands (all brass) and infantry bands (mixed brass and woodwinds). European civilian bands modeled on infantry bands could have as many as 100 members.

American military bands, run by the states and not the federal government, had no standard instrumentation at all. In 1859 Patrick Gilmore agreed to become conductor of the Boston Brigade Band, but only on condition that it be renamed Gilmore’s Band and that he have complete control not only of the music, but also bookings and finances. His financial success in touring the whole nation enabled him to indulge his taste for large and impressive ensembles.

Gilmore’s band soon became the model for both professional and amateur bands. Today’s Wheaton Municipal Band, as well as countless school bands, university bands, and professional and amateur community bands, stands very much in the Gilmore tradition, which in turn traces its ancestry back to Sarrette.

Jazz, on the other hand, traces its ancestry to the rural South, especially but not exclusively New Orleans. Many black people in southern cities played in bands in every way comparable to white bands. Rural blacks, who lacked the educational opportunities of the cities, acquired instruments, taught themselves to play them, and improvised in small groups. Several musical streams joined together to make jazz, including how bandsmen from the written and aural traditions influenced each other.

The first New Orleans jazz band to take its music on a nationwide tour, the Creole Band, had seven members. Plenty of other bands were smaller. Louis Armstrong’s first band was called the Hot Five. When Fletcher Henderson started out with a ten-piece band in 1925, it seemed very large, but it still played in the standard New Orleans style of group improvisation, along with Henderson’s own written arrangements.

Several things set New Orleans style bands apart from the later Swing bands. The latter relies much more heavily on written arrangements. Written arrangements, in turn, allow the arranger to plan different instrumental effects. In some cases, the arrangers needed additional instruments to create those effects. Henderson and others began to feature a trio of clarinets, or in other words, a clarinet section.

In other cases, when a band leader hired additional players, it could force arrangers to think differently. From 1923 to 1929, Duke Ellington’s band had one trombone (Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton after1926). When Ellington hired Juan Tizol in 1929 not to replace Nanton but join him in the band, he had to change his whole approach to scoring for brass. He no longer had a trumpet and a trombone. He had a brass section.

The replacement of single instruments with sections drove the growth of jazz bands. The minimum size band with sections would seem to be ten: three reeds, two trumpets, two trombones, and three rhythm (bass, drums, and one chordal instrument). Four reeds, three of each brass, and using both piano and guitar in the rhythm section (14 players in all–twice the size of the Creole Band) offered more resources for the arranger.

In the heyday of the Swing bands, most of them had more than 14 players. Stan Kenton’s Progressive Jazz Orchestra had 20. With the addition of strings and horns, his Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra numbered 39.

These larger groups never completely supplanted bands representing the older tradition of improvisation by a group of half a dozen or so players. Even before the Swing bands started to decline in numbers and importance, bebop combos usually consisting of one solo player and rhythm became common. That explains why a 17-piece jazz band is a big band, while a 90-piece concert band is just a band.

Rapsodie espagnole by Maurice Ravel

Ironically, in view of Maurice Ravel’s reputation as a brilliant orchestrator, he conceived only Rapsodie espagnole as a purely orchestral display piece from the beginning, and that only in part. He either wrote his other orchestral works for the stage or transcribed them from piano pieces. In fact, the “Habanera” in Rapsodie espagnole was written originally for two pianos.

Ravel shared the enthusiasm of many French composers for Spanish music. In his case, he absorbed an understanding of both French and Spanish culture as a child. Son of a Swiss father and Basque mother, he grew up in the Basque region. In a review of Rapsodie espagnole, Spanish composer Manuel de Falla wrote:

“It surprises me by its genuinely Spanish character. In absolute agreement with my own intentions this “Hispanization” is not achieved merely by drawing upon popular or “folk” sources (except the Jota in “Feria”), but rather through the free use of modal rhythms and melodies and ornamental figures of our “popular” music, none of which has altered in any way the natural style of the composer.”

The first movement, “Prélude à la nuit” (Prelude to the night), never gets louder than mezzo-forte. Ravel achieved the veiled sound in part by spacing muted violins and violas two octaves apart. Two dance movements follow, “Malagueña” and “Habanera.” In the final movement, “Feria” (The fair), several instruments exchange the solo lines. The opening dancelike material gives way to a quiet middle section before returning to bring the piece to a rousing close.

Five things you probably didn’t know about Gustav Mahler

When he was a little boy, someone asked Mahler what he wanted to be when he grew up; he said, “a martyr.”

One day, a friend noticed that Mahler looked sad; Mahler said he had just learned that his father was ill. The next day, the same friend saw a man running through the street sobbing. It was Mahler. Had something happened to his father? It was much worse than that; he learned that Richard Wagner had died.

Conducting his first Ring Cycle, Mahler was furious when the timpanist missed an important cue in the final scene of Das Rheingold; he wasn’t there at all, having left before the performance ended to catch the last train home to a distant suburb. When Mahler called him on the carpet the next day, the timpanist said he could not afford to live in the city and support a wife and child on his salary. Mahler immediately decided to raise the salaries of every musician in the orchestra and economize on scenery and costumes, if necessary.

When eating out, Mahler always wiped every piece of table service before using it. One day he and his sister sat on the upper terrace of an elegant restaurant in Budapest. His back to the balcony, he rinsed his out his glass and tossed the water over his shoulder. Of course, it landed on some shocked, well-dressed ladies below. He apologized profusely, and they, recognizing the famously absent-minded opera conductor, quickie forgave him. Five minutes later, his sister asked for a glass of water. He rinsed out her glass, too, again tossing the water over his shoulder and showering the ladies before. The waiter almost dropped his tray, laughing so hard. Mahler did not go anywhere near that restaurant again for a long time.

Mahler thought his music never achieved everything he intended. Passages inspired by his deepest emotions always seemed to be spoiled by commonplace melodies. Late in life, he remembered that he had fled the house to avoid watching a painful argument between his parents, and outside, a hurdy gurdy was playing a popular tune. He concluded that with high tragedy and light amusement coexisting in that one moment, one mood forever after invoked the other.

Time for Three: in concert in Greensboro, North Carolina

Last November and December, I heard and enjoyed the group (violinists Zachary De Pue and Nicholas Kendall, and bassist Ranaan Meyer) Time for Three (Tf3) a couple of times on NPR’s Performance Today. They are classically trained musicians with an interest in improvisation and old time country fiddling. Zachary De Pue is son of Wallace De Pue, one of my college theory teachers. Naturally, I was excited to learn that they planned to perform in my current home town with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and attended the January 23, 2010 concert.

The program opened with a rarely-played concerto for three violins and string orchestra by Vivaldi. GSO conductor Dmitri Sitkovetsky joined De Pue and Kendall as soloist. After the full orchestra took the stage and Sitkovetsky traded his violin for his baton, Meyer joined his Tf3 colleagues for a new concerto written for them by Jennifer Higdon. Once that was over Tf3 played a jam session, comprising an improvised take-off on Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance no. 5” and “The Orange Blossom Special,” a cut from their brand new CD. The program closed with Schubert’s great C major symphony.

I’m sure that nearly everyone involved in classical music has looked at the graying of the audience and frequently unadventurous programming, read all the accounts of how classical music is becoming irrelevant, and wondered what can be done to preserve it for another generation. This program may hold part of the answer.

The name Vivaldi is well known to concert goers, but orchestras play only a fraction of his output, which not only includes concertos, but lots of sacred music (much more than the justly well-loved Gloria) and dozens of operas, only recently explored much. The “usual suspects” are popular for good reason, but opening a program that also includes a local premiere of a modern work with an unknown Vivaldi concerto seems a bold stroke.

Kendall announced from the stage that Higdon has won two Grammy awards and is one of the most frequently performed living American composers. In looking for more information about her, I learned that she graduated from Bowling Green State University, like I did, and therefore probably had classes with Wallace De Pue. Small world.

I found the concerto delightful, if a bit long. It is certainly not a profound work, but since when does everything on a symphony concert have to be profound? Neither is very much of Vivaldi’s output. Higdon teaches at the Curtis Institute for Music, where Tf3 first formed, and so has close familiarity with the group’s love of country fiddling and improvisation. She based the concerto on both of these enthusiasms. I suppose the outer movements are written out, limiting most of the improvisation to the second movement, where the orchestra is silent.

Since Felix Mendelssohn first introduced the whole concept of a standard repertoire to orchestral programming, the percentage of new music on symphonic concerts has steadily declined. Throughout most of the twentieth century, many composers had greater interest in “educating” the audience rather than writing music to please it.

After the Second World War, the academically respectable composers (there’s a red flag if I ever saw one) seemed to develop a deep contempt for symphony concert audiences. New music became box office poison, as concert-goers simply assumed that they would not like the piece inevitably stuck right before intermission . That concert order forced people to come in time to hear the first work and not walk out before the final work, which were probably favorite old war horses.

Over at least the past thirty years, a new generation has arisen that really wants to write music capable of giving audiences the same enjoyment that the standard repertoire does. More than 200 orchestras have performed Higdon’s blue cathedral. That’s a good start. Now, how many of them have played it several times, so audiences can get to know it?

Most of the audience greeted the concerto Higdon wrote for Tf3 with enthusiasm. The woman next to me kept her arms tightly folded during the applause and told me she thought it very ugly. She did enjoy the jam session.

Brahms might not have recognized his Hungarian Dance at all. Tf3 added some of the look and feel of country fiddling, unexpected modulations, and occasional other tunes, including one from Fiddler on the Roof. At one point, both De Pue and Kendall played the same violin at the same time, and that was not the only part of the performance that elicited laughter.

Here, then, are two aspects of this concert worthy of repetition in orchestras all over the country: 1) Perform new music written with the intention of pleasing the audience (even if not everyone likes every piece). 2) Inject some humor and spontaneity in the presentation of the concert–not necessarily the same way Tf3 did–in order to break up the perceived snobbishness and rigidity of the symphonic routine.

Le saquebute

Readers may recognize the title of this post, and of the article reproduced above, as the French cognate for the old English word “sackbut,” or trombone. And of course it is. For anyone who doesn’t read French, however, the article is actually about a French trombone sextet founded in 1909.

It played nothing but music written for trombone. Surely that means transcribed. Hardly any original trombone ensemble music existed then, and I doubt if any exists even now for the group’s instrumentation.

It used six different sizes of trombone, one each of piccolo (!), soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and contrabass.

I am indebted to one of musicology’s “four Rs”: RIPM (the others being RISM, RILM, and RIdIM). The acronyms are all French, but they are international databases that guide musicologists to various kinds of resources. RIPM indexes nineteenth- and early twentieth-century musical periodicals.

The last chapter of my upcoming book is based, in part, on sources I could not have discovered without RIPM

Le bourgeois gentilhomme, by Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss and Hugo van Hoffmannstthal had already achieved operatic success with Elektra and Der Rosenkavilier when Hoffmannsthal suggested Molière’s comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme for their next collaboration.

In that play, Jourdain, a social-climbing cloth merchant, wishes to be thought an aristocrat. A boorish fool concerned only with appearances, he hires teachers of music, dance, fencing, and philosophy so he can learn aristocratic ways. Hofmannsthal proposed to shape Molière’s hopelessly tangled plot into an opera within a play.

Harlekin's costume for Ariadne auf Naxos, from Boston Public Library

In his version, Jourdain decided to patronize a struggling young composer and commissioned an opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, and a burlesque, The Unfaithful Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers, for performance at a banquet he planned to give. When it turns out there is not time for both, Jourdain, unwilling to choose between them, orders that they be performed simultaneously.

Unfortunately, what began as a short, pleasant trifle grew to a monstrous production that lasted more than four hours. The audience for plays did not come at all, and the audience for opera did not care for the introductory play. After several attempts to fix it, Strauss and Hoffmannsthal reluctantly agreed to separate Le bourgeois gentilhomme from Ariadne auf Naxos. Strauss later extracted a suite from incidental music to the play:

The Fencing Master
Entrance and Dance of the Tailors
Minuet of Lully
Entrance of Cléonte
The Dinner

The overture to Le bourgeois gentilhomme portrays Jourdain’s oafish character, as well as a gaggle of prospective employees and tutors. Frequent modulations in the minuet perhaps reflect the dancing master’s suffering in trying to teach Jourdain how to dance it.

The fencing master (bass trombone solo, then trumpet solo) then attempts to show Jourdain (piano) the proper lunging motions. To the tune of an obsequious violin solo, the tailors make last minute alterations to Jourdain’s suit as he tries to strike a noble pose.

Next, Strauss introduced his adaptations of three of Jean Baptiste Lully’s pieces for Molière’s play. Cléonte, introduced by the last of these, is another wealthy cloth merchant, not interested in social climbing but in love with Jourdain’s daughter. The Intermezzo introduces two aristocrats plotting Jourdain’s downfall, but then a fanfare calls everyone to a banquet.

And what a banquet it is! Strauss fits each dish with appropriate music: Salmon of the Rhine (wave music from Wagner’s Das Rheingold), mutton (bleating of sheep from Strauss’ own Don Quixote), and thrushes and larks (bird warbling from Der Rosenkavalier). A bit of “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto and an original cello solo underscore some amorous goings on. An omelette surprise, with more dancing, brings the banquet and Le bourgeois gentilhomme to a close.