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:

Overture
Minuet
The Fencing Master
Entrance and Dance of the Tailors
Minuet of Lully
Courante
Entrance of Cléonte
Intermezzo
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.

Popular song in America, part 10: The rock revolution

Tin Pan Alley songs appealed to a predominantly urban, white, affluent, and musically literate segment of the population. They remained unknown to much of the rest of the country, including most blacks and rural whites, who had their own music, learned and passed down orally.

The advent of the recording industry and radio gave this music a wider reach within their respective niches. Consequently, when Billboard began to document record sales, it kept three charts, one for “popular music,” (Tin Pan Alley songs), one for Country-Western, and one for black music, labeled at various times Harlem Hit Parade, Race Records, Rhythm and Blues, or Soul Music.

Tin Pan Alley music had evolved smoothly from English pleasure garden songs of the eighteenth century by assimilating other influences. It featured the smooth, cultured singing, written arrangements, rich instrumental backgrounds, and imaginative harmonies befitting most of those influences.

Country music traditionally featured a thin, nasal singing style accompanied by fiddles and banjos, perhaps to a degree left over from the old minstrel shows, perhaps reminiscent of descendants of English colonists who had never heard the urban pleasure garden sounds.

As early as the 1920s, some people found country songs an attractive alternative to Tin Pan Alley songs, but not the traditional ways of performing them. They listened instead to the trained voices of John Jacob Niles and Burl Ives.

At about the same time, Southern blacks developed an amalgam of blues, jazz, and traditional spirituals in both secular and gospel flavors. Its singers often had raw, raspy voices that likewise did not resemble “pop music” performance practice. As blacks began to migrate north in large numbers, black performers began to establish themselves in northern cities, where they found some white people attracted to their music.

Initially it never occurred to anyone that music for any one of these audiences would have any widespread appeal to either of the others, but by 1953, “Crying in the Chapel” by the Orioles made it to number 1 on the R&B chart and also to number 11 on the pop chart. Over the next few years, three songs by Elvis Presley and one by the Everly Brothers topped all three charts.

The revolution arrived in full  force when “Rock around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets topped the pop chart in July 1955, held that position for eight weeks, and became the year’s best-selling record.  Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis dominated the development of a new style called “rock ‘n’ roll.”

Significantly, this group included both whites and blacks, coinciding with the drive toward racial integration that gathered steam at about the same time. Their vocal styles and the instruments they chose for background came from various traditional black and white rural musics. The overall sound, much more intense than any previous popular music, was percussive and loud

Rock ‘n’ roll greatly appealed to youth, but not all all to older people brought up on the Tin Pan Alley style. To them, the new performers no longer sang. They rasped, shouted, snarled, rasped, whined, and basically made an ugly noise rather than music.

The youth responded to this new music with the same excitement with which the previous generation had greeted Frank Sinatra, but there was one critical difference: the parents of Sinatra’s young fans also liked his music. Parents of young rock fans not only disliked the new style, but disapproved of it on moral grounds. Instead of singing respectably about love, the new performers were overtly sexual, both in their texts and stage deportment. The black roots of the new music troubled parents who resisted the drive toward racial integration.

No one in the country was more dismayed than the music industry. It had made room for musically illiterate song writers (that is, those who could not read or write musical notation) for generations, but someone always had to write the music down for publication as sheet music.

The new music, dependent on oral, not written traditions, did  not require the step of notating it. The new singers simply learned songs by hearing them in either live or recorded performances, then went straight to the recording studio. Their fans likewise had no need to buy sheet music. That development devastated the  publishing industry. The recording industry had its own problems. A few companies had always dominated the popular music market, but these new performers, not headquartered in New York, recorded for other labels.

The music industry expressed strong opposition to the new style. The recording industry tried to remake it in its own image by issuing new records of the Country-Western  or Rhythm and Blues hits using established singers like Tony Bennett and Patti Page and younger ones like Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon. These new recordings specifically appealed to the traditional popular audience with their polished arrangements, lush instrumental backgrounds, and the performers’ non-threatening, clean-cut looks.

For a while, the ploy appeared to succeed. These “covers” coexisted with more standard Tin Pan Alley fare at the top of the pop chart for several years on either side of 1960. Even Presley and other rock pioneers began to soften their style.

Therefore, no one was prepared for the impact of the Beatles. They used the early sounds of rock ‘n’ roll as a starting point and began to write their own songs. By the time their fame reached the United States, they were about the only ones performing authentic rock. The so-called British invasion followed, with other groups likewise offering a version of American music that American performers had all but abandoned.

A resurgent rock style took off from there among American singers, with additional stylistic elements added from almost everywhere in the country except New York. Harry Belafonte built a very successful career based on the traditional music of the Caribbean. The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Bob Dylan; and Joan Baez all continued the folk music revival that had started before the Second World War.

Dylan, by the way, did not attempt the polished sound of most folk singers. He based his vocal technique on the nasal and rasping sound of anonymous country singers–and the sound of the terminally ill Woodie Guthrie, who by the time Dylan heard him could no longer sing as he did in his prime. Dylan and Baez, like the Beatles and others, eventually started singing mainly their own compositions rather than traditional folk songs.

New sounds came from California and Detroit. The first successful California group, the Beach Boys, featured songs about surfing, fast cars, women, and suburbia. Others, such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, came out of San Francisco’s hippie scene. Detroit produced first northern, urban, black, sound, with Diana Ross and the Supremes among the most successful of many groups and singers recording for the Motown label.

Eventually, everyone put aside acoustic instruments. With electric guitars and keyboards and sophisticated sound systems, music became almost incessantly loud. I remember feeling some amazement at hearing one Peter, Paul, and Mary song that included singing one phrase softer than the rest.

Just as the earliest rock hits coincided with the beginning of the civil rights movement, the new rock style coincided with the beginnings of widespread protests over the Vietnam war, the growth of the drug culture, and general rebellion against the “establishment.” No protest rally was complete without marijuana and at least one rock band.

As all of the various roots of the new rock blended together into the more sophisticated sound of the 1960s, it began to take on themes and emotions never before associated with popular music, from a generalized anger to a drug-induced cloud. It began to push the envelope on the fringes of respectability.

Rock represents the first absolute rejection of the immediate past in the history of American popular music. Previously, music was marketed to adults, which may explain the long continuity and the fact that much of the music of one generation remained popular in the next. Rock music was always for youth.

I have heard rock fans of my generation confess that it took years for them to realize that their parents really liked Tin Pan Alley songs and swing band music, and that they didn’t play it simply to annoy their offspring. I heard a man a generation younger than I admit that Elvis Presley was, to him, the boring old stuff his parents listened to. He figured that meant Presley was classical music!

Some younger folks express disapproval that the Rolling Stones still perform rock on the grounds that they’re too old for it. What other music are they supposed to play?  After a certain age, must they put down their guitars and perhaps start playing string quartets on violins?

I end this series where many surveys of popular music begin, with the confession that from the first time I heard heard rock, in about 4th grade, I disliked it.

Clearly, popular music continues to evolve, as it always has. Rap music evokes some of the same complaints that early rock music did, but it has far more in common with rock than early rock had with Tin Pan Alley music. However popular music develops in the future, it will likely have some kind of rock flavor for at least another couple of generations.

Five things you probably didn’t know about J. S. Bach

When Bach was a  hungry young man with no money to buy food at an inn, someone tossed two herrings’ heads to him. That seemed like a good deal, but not as good as the Danish ducats in each one, which enabled him to purchase a really good meal with some money left over.

One of his students in Arnstadt called him a “dirty dog” and  hit him with a stick. The authorities determined Bach himself was as fault for having earlier called the student a “nanny goat bassoonist.” In response to this rebuke, he took a long and unauthorized leave to go hear Buxtehude.

When J. G. Görner, the organist at Thomaskirche, played a rare wrong chord, Bach flipped his wig–literally. He threw the wig at the unfortunate organist, and yelled that the man should have become a “cobbler rather than an organist.” Görner later became the guardian of Bach’s younger children.

People frequently asked Bach to write some pieces that were easy to play. He was seldom able to comply, but when they complained of its difficulty, he merely told them to practice diligently. After all, both he and they had five healthy fingers on each hand.

Bach’s duties as Leipzig’s cantor included teaching the boys in the choir. He was terrible at keeping discipline. It didn’t help much to keep order when he occasionally expelled a boy from the choir in the middle of a church service.

Girls and trombone: odder than I first thought?

I had just begun seventh grade the first time I met a girl trombonist, who was also in seventh grade. It didn’t take long to realize that she was better than any other trombonist in the band, and there were lots of them. When we got to ninth grade (freshman year of high school), she played better than any of the seniors.

Her older sisters, recent graduates, had been just as outstanding on  horn and tuba. The best trumpet player was a girl, as were all of the hornists, and a euphonium player. It never occurred to me that there was anything odd about girls playing brass instruments.

Once out of high school, I continued to meet women who played various brass instruments. Many were very good, but as I talked with them and read about musicians in orchestras and on college faculties, I learned that many people did find women brass players more than a little disconcerting.

Many years later, I heard a friend from graduate school deliver a paper based on her doctoral research. She had studied references to music in almost fifty years of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an important magazine of the mid-nineteenth century. One particular thought sticks with me. Society expected respectable young women to play piano. I do not recall if violin was considered suitable for women, but respectable women did not play wind instruments of any kind.

That surprised me. I had always thought of flute as a woman’s instrument. No boys in my high school played flute, and I met only one boy flutist at another school. A man taught flute at my undergraduate school, but only one man studied with him. A woman taught flute in my graduate school, and I don’t recall any men students.

These musings came to mind recently as I read an account of Abbie Conant’s troubles with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Playing behind a screen, she won an audition for principal trombonist when conductor Sergiu Celebidache exclaimed, “that’s the one we want” and sent seventeen other applicants away without hearing them. Only then did he learn that he  had selected a woman.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, holding auditions behind a screen, which takes away all visual cues, has resulted in the hiring of many women in orchestras. Any number of orchestras may have been surprised that the best-sounding candidate was a woman or non-white, but most trusted their ears and adjusted.

Celibidache made no attempt to turn away from his hidebound prejudice that a woman could not possibly play principal trombone adequately. Conant took the orchestra to court, and the  litigation lasted more than a dozen years. She won every round. Celibidache, having decided to trust his eyes instead of his ears, could no longer hear what any other musician testified, that Conant fully deserved the position that she had won.

Now, when I see “Who says girls can’t play trombone?” in a woman’s signature line, I’m no longer surprised, but it’s sad. Everyone is good at something and no good at something else. No one can determine a person’s aptitudes merely by observing sex or ethnicity. I wish everyone would stop trying.

Meanwhile, check out this clip of an all-woman trombone quartet called Bones Apart playing an arrangement of Stars and Stripes Forever. You’ll be thinking, “Hey, you can’t play that on trombones!” But they do.

References:
Music and references to music in Godey’s Lady’s Book : 1830-77 / by Julia Eklund Koza (Ph.D. dissertation: University of Minnesota, 1988).

Blink: the power of thinking without thinking / by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Back Bay Books, 2005), pp. 245-54.