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.

Popular song in America, part 9: Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley started during a time of transition in American musical theater. Late in the nineteenth century, the variety show began to supplant the minstrel show as America’s chief form of entertainment. Both consisted of sequences of various acts with no plot, but in the minstrel show, the entire cast stayed on stage from beginning to end and sometimes performed as an ensemble. Variety shows had a wider range of acts, and performers took the stage only for their own.

Songs continued to follow the traditional verse/chorus form, but the change in theatrical practice eliminated four-part harmony from the chorus. The new solo choruses were either as long as the verses or longer.

The newer songs had fewer verses. Perhaps because performers encouraged the audience to sing along with the chorus, the general public thought first of the chorus when they thought about their favorite songs.

The new style coincided with the rise of ragtime and the popularity of music in triple meter (Johann Strauss, Jr.’s operettas, for example) imported from Europe. The rag songs did not quite succeed in capturing true ragtime rhythms, but the new rhythms were radically different from most earlier songs.

Knowing only the energetic rhythms and the words of the chorus, one would think that most of the songs were happy and carefree, but the verses very frequently tell a tragic story of betrayal, failure, and death.

But what truly set this period apart from earlier American songs was the dominance of publishers, especially those based in New York. Up until the 1880s, publishers based in Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, and many other cities issued at least as many important popular songs as those in New York.

Change was small and subtle at first. T. B. Harms, founded in New York in 1881, hit it big with “Wait Till the Clouds Roll By” by Charles Pratt, which in retrospect became known as the first Tin Pan Alley hit. By the end of the decade new publishers in New York (including Willis Woodward and M. Witmark) had brought out their own hits.

Charles K. Harris, offended by a low payment from Witmark, decided to publish “After the Ball” himself. His company started out in Milwaukee, but soon moved to New York. The song quickly grossed $25,000 per week and eventually sold 5 million copies. No song had sold that well before.

Older firms, such as Boston’s Oliver Ditson, published a wide variety of music (popular songs, piano pieces, choral music, piano-vocal scores of operas, instructional materials, etc.) and sold it through their store, catalogs, and newspaper advertisements. Publishers in one city not uncommonly established reciprocal arrangements with publishers in other cities. Each would sell each other’s music in their own home cities.

The New York publishers all specialized in  popular songs and marketed them directly to performers on the vaudeville/variety show circuit. Hearing songs performed by professionals made a more compelling advertisement than any catalog could.

It would be pointless to list all of the important firms that sprang up after Harris moved his firm to New York. Many of them, like his, were founded by successful song writers who wanted to be paid more than a pittance per song. By the late 1890s, most of them were clustered around 28th Street. Singers regularly visited the area, and each publisher employed song pluggers to catch their attention.

The constant sound of pianos and singers up and down the street earned it the nickname “Tin Pan Alley.” Publishers used all kinds of other inducements (drinks, cigars, fancy meals, railroad tickets, etc.) to gain the singers’ favor for their songs. They sold sheet music in unprecedented quantities. Production and sales of popular songs became centralized in New York.

City people with no knowledge of traditional American music began to determine what people everywhere else could hear or purchase, and for a couple of generations, most of the country was delighted with the product. Tin Pan Alley publishers redefined the very meaning of traditional music by creating the traditions.

The first generation of Tin Pan Alley composers included Charles K. Harris, Paul Dresser, Harry von Tilzer, and George M. Cohan. Some classically trained contemporaries likewise  produced successful songs, including Reginald De Koven, Ethelbert Nevin, Victor Herbert, and Carrie Bond-Jacobs, who established her own publishing company in Chicago after Tin Pan Alley rejected her songs as “too classical.”

Tin Pan Alley reached its artistic peak with later generations of composers, including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and many more. City people like the first generation and disproportionately Jewish, many of these composers were classically trained. As a result, they wrote much more adventuresome harmonies than any previous generation of American song writers.

Where in the first generation of Tin Pan Alley lyricists counted for almost nothing, they came into their own in the next. The snappy lyrics of such writers as Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields, and Johnny Mercer, not to mention composers like Berlin and Porter who wrote their own, contributed greatly to the overall effect of the songs. Many of their songs had only a single verse, or none at all.

The period approximately between Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat (1928) and Irving Berlin’s last musical, Mr. President, (1962) marks the golden age of American musical theater.

Certain social developments challenged New York’s centrality and expanded outlets for Tin Pan Alley song writers. New technologies, including recordings, film, radio, and television, began to challenge the primacy of music publishers.

Around 1910, popular song became closely allied with social dancing. Dance bands, both black and white, performed in ballrooms all over the country, with Tin Pan Alley songs the foundation of their repertoire.

The birth of the swing era ushered in a time where popular songs began to draw inspiration from an authentic African-American style and began to get the rhythms and inflections right.

Who wrote the first opera in the United States?

The usual answer to that question, William Henry Fry, produced Leonora in Philadelphia in 1845. A skillful imitation of Bellini and Donizetti it ran for twelve performances, successful enough to justify publication of a piano-vocal score. Fry’s brother Joseph adapted the libretto from a novel by Bulwer-Lytton.

In the November 23, 1843 issue of the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, appears notice of a new opera:

“The idea of a Native American Opera is something so new and unexpected that our musical amateurs and connoisseurs were not a little taken aback by the announcement of Andre at the American Theatre, and, the consequence was . . . a considerable stirring up of curiosity. The name of Cioffi, in connection with the affair, was alone sufficient to give it respectability, and ensure for its proper consideration. . . .”

Felippe Cioffi was best known as an excellent trombonist. Apparently Italian born but educated and trained in this country, he had many years experience playing in theater orchestras. He was also a military band master, composer of marches, and winner of a local contest for the best arrangements of American patriotic melodies.

The article goes on to say that Andre “afforded satisfaction” for two performances. Then it disappeared from sight. Fry, an experienced and well-rounded composer, undoubtedly wrote a better opera. Cioffi produced his more than a year earlier.

Popular song in America, part 8: After the Civil War

It takes a long time to recover from a trauma. The United States did not begin to recover from the Civil War for at least two decades after it ended. The healing of mutual hatred between North and South did not begin until much later than that.

Perhaps because of the continuing bitterness and recrimination in business and politics, popular music of the postwar period did not witness any important innovations or new song writers.

Many composers who made their reputations before and during the war continued to produce new songs, but without any reference to current events or social conditions. Nostalgia, out of favor in Europe, characterized American song so thoroughly that it became a means of escaping from the pressures of the modern world.

Two songs by Henry Clay Work became especially popular after the war. “Come Home, Father,” a temperance song, is one of the few songs dealing with any social issue that achieved real popularity. The other, “Grand-Father’s Clock,” captures the spirit of the 1870s in being emotionally gentle, with no drama or pathos.

Hart Pease Danks, composer of “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” became the second American (after Stephen Foster) to make his entire living from song writing. Others who achieved success after the war include Septimus Winner (“Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone”), Thomas Paine Westendorf (I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen”), Will Hays (“Write Me a Letter from Home”), and Charles A. White (“The Little Church Around the Corner”).

Minstrel shows continued as popular entertainment long after the end of the war, but their character changed. Still loosely organized sequences of a variety of acts, their productions became more polished and more lavish.

While they still continued to present the same kind of racial stereotyping as the prewar show, they broadened their focus in two different ways. They began to subject other ethnic groups such as  American Indians, Chinese, Irish, and Germans to the same satirical treatment. And they began to include black performers, sometimes with their faces blackened.

Both Hays and White made their reputations as composers of minstrel songs. So did James Bland, the first successful black song writer. Son of a black lawyer educated at Howard University, Bland dropped out of Howard to pursue a career on the minstrel stage.

His songs, including “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” and “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” are no different either musically or textually from any other minstrel songs. He could not have achieved success if they had dared any but the traditional image of black people.

A somewhat more authentic black voice emerged when the Fisk Jubilee Singers began to tour to raise money for Fisk University in Nashville, the first all-black university in America. George White, their founder and conductor, transcribed words and melodies from songs slaves had traditionally sung, but arranged them for performance using European-style harmony.

The postwar years saw little innovation in song, but did witness a certain standardization of form, resulting in a distinctly American pattern. The typical song began with an introduction for piano, had two to four verses, a refrain, and a postlude.

The sixteen-measure verse, which always reused the music of the introduction, could exhibit some variety of structure using various permutations of two or three different four-measure phrases.

The refrain, usually arranged for four voices, was based on one of the phrases in the verse. The postlude, often identical to the introduction, featured material from the first phrase of the verse.

Poetically, the verse presented a brief dramatic story line, which could have a tragic, nostalgic, pathetic, or cautionary coloring. The refrain text, usually derived from the first verse, offered an unchanging commentary on the verses.

New Year’s musical musings and questions

“Every turnip green, every kidney bean,
Every plant grows according to the plot;
But with childerin, it’s bewilderin’.
Just as soon as you think you know what kind you’ve got,
It’s what they’re not.” — The Fantasticks (from memory)

This blog is only about two months old. I hoped it would be more like a kidney bean than the teenagers the two fathers in The Fantasticks bemoaned. It has become like a fast-growing baby that outgrows clothes with reckless abandon.

I have all the instincts of an academic writer. Blogging requires something much different. Posts must be both much shorter and much more frequent than journal articles. In a sense, I knew that from the start, but it has been quite a sharp learning curve.

My series on popular song in America seemed like it would be fairly easy. In fact, to keep each installment not too much longer than blogposts ought to be, I have had to lengthen the series as a whole. I will finish what I started, but I have spent most of a day (Monday 1/4) looking at other blogs.

There does not seem to be anything else on the web comparable to what I want to do. So with no obvious role models, I’ll just ask for advice from anyone who appreciates what I have posted over the last couple of months:

What works? What doesn’t work? What would make you most likely to keep coming back for more?

Popular song in America, part 7: Civil War Songs


Issues of slavery and states rights so divided the nation that the American Civil War broke out as soon as Abraham Lincoln was proclaimed President-elect. It lasted four years, but strangely music unified the opposing armies at times.  

Two publishers, the Chicago’s Root & Cady and Boston’s Oliver Ditson, account for the bulk of the North’s best war songs. George Frederick Root, brother of one of the Root & Cady’s founders, wrote “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Vacant Chair,” “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” and Brother, Tell Me of the Battle.” Henry Clay Work, who also published with Root & Cady, contributed “Kingdom Coming,” “Grafted Into the Army,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “Wake Nicodemus.”

Ditson’s firm published nearly as many important songs, although no one composer contributed as many songs as either Root or Work. The most important war song to come off the press in Boston, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was apparently composed by William Steffe, of South Carolina as the camp meeting hymn “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?”  One can only imaging his consternation when his tune was used first for “John Brown’s Body” and then for Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Other important war songs issued by Ditson include “Tenting Tonight” by Walter Kittridge” (made famous by the Hutchinson Family) and “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” by Luther O. Emerson.

The South countered with two patriotic rallying songs. “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” by Dan Emmett first appeared as a minstrel song in 1859. The tune was popular in both North and South. Harry Macarthy, a singer who toured all over the South during the early years of the war, wrote “Missouri! or, A Voice from the South,” “The Volunteer; or It Is My Country’s Call,” and the song that became the semi-official Confederate national anthem, “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”

As the war dragged on, less militaristic songs appeared, which commented on the human misery it caused. Charles Carroll Sawyer wrote the words for several of them. By far the most popular of them, “Weeping, Sad and Lonely; or When This Cruel War is Over” (music by Henry Tucker) was familiar on both sides. First published in Brooklyn, it came out in at least four Southern editions. Some Southern generals found it so bad for morale that they forbade their soldiers to sing it.

Still other songs, such as “Grafted into the Army” and “Corporal Schnapps” (both by Work) and “Goober Peas” (signed P. Nutt, Esq.) dealt, often humorously, with such issues as conscription, camp life, the ethnic diversity of both armies, and various  political and financial scandals.

Many soldiers, both Northern and Southern, carried songsters with them, pocket-sized books with the lyrics of favorite songs. Although Northern and Southern songsters obviously had very different selections of patriotic songs, they also included songs that had been popular all over before the war. Therefore, when not occupied with fighting or marching, they sang the same songs around their campfires.

In fact, the opposing troops often sang to each other when their camps were within earshot. On at least one occasion, northern and southern bands alternated playing patriotic tunes to each other well into the night and ended up playing “Home Sweet Home” together. The next morning, in the Battle of Murfreesboro, thousands died on each side. And so there was civil by night giving way to war by day.

Gate crashers: trombones in Handel’s Messiah

Merry Christmas! Although Messiah is, strictly speaking, not Christmas music, having been composed for Lenten performances, today we most often hear it at Christmas.

Handel used trombones to great effect in two of his oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, both first performed in 1738. Apparently he did not have access to trombones in any later year; he considered adding trombones to two later oratorios, not including Messiah, but soon abandoned the effort.

Unlike most other music of his time and earlier, Handel’s did not suffer posthumous neglect. The Concert of Ancient Music, founded in 1776, actually had a rule that it would perform no music unless it was at least 20 years old. There was hardly any music with authentic trombone parts that came within these limits, but Adam Carse reports that W. Greatorex, its secretary and librarian, “an incorrigible arranger and adder of accompaniments, was kept fairly busy gilding lilies.” The orchestra regularly included clarinets, four horns, and three trombones.

Not only did English audiences continue to enjoy his oratorios, they even came into vogue in Vienna. Mozart reorchestrated Messiah, among other Handel works, to bring them up to date. Typical of Mozart’s own church music, his Messiah arrangement includes three trombones (1789).

The English apparently did not use a standard orchestration. The great Handel commemoration of 1789 assembled a large chorus and orchestra, including every instrument Handel had ever used. Sources differ, but the orchestra had either three or six trombonists, who all played other instruments when there were no trombone parts. That does not mean that they played trombone only for Saul and Israel in Egypt. Various accounts of the performance mention trombones in several other pieces.

After the three performances originally scheduled, the king commanded that some of the music be repeated in two more concerts. Commenting on the repetition of Messiah on the second of these, Charles Burney, the event’s official historian, noted  some significant differences in the manner of playing it: “Another new and grand effect was produced to-day in the Hallelujah, and last Chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb,” by the introduction of the tromboni, which were not used in these Choruses, on the former occasion.”

The Times of London advertised at least twelve Lenten performances of Messiah between 1797 and 1800 “assisted by the Trombones and Double Drums, used at Handel’s Commemoration at Westminster Abbey.” As far as I can tell, Mozart’s orchestration was not yet known in England. Its eventual discovery did not keep meddlers from adding to it, as this complaint from the Times about the 1846 Birmingham Festival attests:

The brass instruments (two serpents, an ophicleide, and three trombones included) completely murdered the choruses, “the Lord of hosts,” and “Hallelujah.” Surely Mozart has done as much with Handel’s score as is necessary, and, indeed, permissible; the noisy unmeaning additions of loud instruments by Greatorex and others, only serve to transmogrify the sublimity of Handel into mere rant; and moreover, the object of increased power is not obtained, since those choruses in which the score of Handel remains untouched, except by the mastery and considerate hand of Mozart, are twice and loud and brilliant as those which have been smothered under a weight of brass, &c., by incompetent and injudicious meddlers. The intrusion of two serpents, three trombones, and an ophicleide, into the score of such a complete masterpiece as the Messiah, is absolutely ridiculous; and it should be the duty and wish of judicious conductors to restore Handel to his primitive integrity.

“Greatorex and others” appears to include John Smithies, one of the most active trombonists in London at least from the early 1820s into the middle of the 1840s. Apparently, most later conductors continued to use the same arrangement for the rest of the century. The Times summarized a lecture about the subject in 1899:

Gresham Lectures in Music.–The last two of the series of four lectures given by Sir Frederick Bridge on Handel’s Messiah were exceedingly interesting; that on Thursday could not fail to be most amusing throughout, since it dealt with the incredible “improvements” of Mozart’s additional accompaniments, and with the added trombone parts of a certain Mr. Smithies, who perpetrated an appalling number of dissonances and harmonic errors, which apparently have been retained down to the present day.

Perhaps by that time, someone started to make an effort to clean up the standard score and parts, but performances with a thousand choristers and orchestras with instruments Handel never heard of continued until the attempt to find authentic performance practice started in earnest after the Second World War.

Popular song in America, part 6: Stephen Collins Foster

I can remember as a child reading of Stephen Foster as the “American Schubert.” That is absurd. His knowledge of musical composition was too scanty to deserve that comparison. But during his lifetime he was regarded as the best American songwriter ever. Not until the twentieth century did anyone surpass him.

He was the first full-time professional songwriter in American history. His predecessors had all earned most of their living from performing, publishing, or some other activity and could not have survived on their songs alone. Publishers usually bought songs outright, and if they sold well over a period of years, the song writers made no more money from them. Alone among  his contemporaries, Foster received royalties. Unfortunately, he could not manage  his money well and died deeply in debt.

Foster grew up in a music-loving family, who owned many of the most important and popular song collections. His brother reported that Stephen spent  hours studying the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and other masters, although he certainly did not learn much if anything about form or harmony from it. If he had any formal training, it took the form of a few lessons with Henry Kleber, a German-born musical jack-of-all-trades living in Pittsburgh.

His earliest songs, beginning with “Open Thy Lattice, Love” (1844)  most greatly resemble those of English composers such as Henry Rowley Bishop and Charles E Horn, who were already going out of style. In 1845, he made his first, tentative foray into “Ethiopian songs.” He wrote “Lou’siana Belle,” “Old Uncle Ned,” “Oh, Susannah,” and a few others strictly for the private entertainment of some of his friends in Pittsburgh.

The “wealthiest and best-educated classes” disapproved of minstrel shows and their low-brow humor and music, so Foster did not publish his immediately. “Oh, Susannah” actually appeared in 1848 attributed to E. P. Christy. In 1851, so did “Old Folks at  Home,” which quickly became his best-selling song. Not until 1852 did Foster notify Christy that he had decided to “pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame” so he could establish his own name as “the best Ethiopian song-writer.” By that time, it appears, he already had. His twelve “Ethiopian songs” were his most popular.

A previous article in this series described how typical minstrel songs evolved from demeaning “nigger songs” to “plantation songs” that fully humanized their African subjects. Foster, in fact, pioneered the latter. Even when his texts are at their most offensive to modern sensibilities, they are never mean-spirited. His black people are never the butt of racist jokes. At their best, Foster’s texts invest black people with the same range of emotion as white people, especially with the nostalgia that so characterized the Irish element in American song and many of Foster’s other songs.

Musically, melodies of minstrel songs partook of the same amalgam of English, Irish, and Italian styles (with some occasional elements from Scottish and German songs) as any other American song, except that they ended in refrain lines that could be sung by the entire company. Before Foster, these refrains were often sung in unison. Foster, having written three- and four-part harmony for his Pittsburgh friends, continued to do so. Working with Christy he knew that professional entertainers  would perform them.

Over the course of his career, Foster wrote about 135 domestic songs, mostly love songs or nostalgic reminiscences of past events. He could write this kind of respectable song “without fear or shame.”  He wrote only 28 plantation songs. And yet his reputation rests on them. The best of his domestic songs partake of some of the characteristics that made his “Ethiopian” songs so popular.