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.

Popular song in America, part 5: some early American song-writers

Nineteenth-century America’s greatest song writer, Stephen Collins Foster, owed much to a variety of musical influences. Earlier posts in this series have shown the amalgam of English, Irish, and Italian influences that led to the first distinctively American style of song. The first recognized American form of entertainment added detailed (if racist) observation of the dialect and mannerisms of African slaves to make up a separate genre, the plantation song. With its choral refrains and other innovations, plantation songs in turn influenced other American song writers who were not at all involved with minstrel shows. At about the same time, a growing appreciation of German Lieder enabled American song writers to explore more independent accompaniments and more chromatic harmonies. This post will examine some of the important composers in the generations leading up to Foster.

Francis  Hopkinson claimed to be the first native-born American to compose music. He claimed too much, but he was the first to compose and publish secular songs for solo voice and keyboard accompaniment. His Seven Songs for the Harpsichord, published in1788, are a landmark in American musical history, but they seem to have made little impression at the time. Indistinguishable in style from the output of popular English composers, they did not sell well enough to justify a reprint and did not appear singly in any anthology.

The 1817 celebration of the Fourth of July in Boston featured a choral concert that, among other things, included two songs by Oliver Shaw of Providence, Rhode Island–the first time an American composer had been so honored. Instead of offering up imitations of songs by Arne, Hook, and other English song writers, Shaw demonstrated a thorough familiarity with the styles of Handel and Haydn as well. His songs exhibited a polish comparable to that of the finest composers Americans had ever heard, so most of the audience simply assumed that a European had written them. His first successful song,”Mary’s Tears” (1812) remained in print even after Stephen Foster wrote most of his best songs, but his style did not keep up with the times. His last songs attracted little interest.

The single best-selling song in America before Foster, “The Minstrel Returned from the War,” by John Hill Hewitt, appeared in 1825. The son of an English musician who emigrated to New York as a young man and composed several successful songs, Hewitt did not make   Shaw’s mistake. His earliest songs show all of the same characteristics of a thoroughly English style that his father’s did, but he absorbed the influences from Irish songs and Italian arias, and his songs of the 1830s and 40s are themselves a microcosm of the development of American song writing, including a significant number of minstrel songs. He could have been more influential if he had lived in a major center for musical publication instead of Baltimore and point south, and if he had not been pro-slavery in his politics.

As the nation lurched toward civil war over slavery, the Hutchinson Family risked their reputation to deliver an increasingly strident abolitionist message. The youngest four of thirteen surviving children of a musically inclined family, Judson, John, Asa, and Abby Hutchinson first sang together as “The Aeolian Vocalists” and started on a lengthy tour in 1842. Soon, they changed their name to “The Hutchinson Family” and started to emphasize their New England roots in both programming and costuming. At first singing a mixture of popular melodramatic and comic songs, they gradually started programming more and more of their own songs, which deliberately used the same folk-like “crude” part-writing that characterized hymns by William Billings and his contemporaries.

They had their first personal encounter with slavery on the 1842 tour, and it disturbed them. Shortly thereafter, an older brother befriended Frederick Douglass and began to oppose slavery actively. The family singing group participated in its first anti-slavery rally in 1843 and toured England with Douglass in 1845  (performing mostly in rural towns and receiving first-hand experience with English social problems). Little by little, their zeal to abolish slavery began to dominate their programs. Although they met with opposition–not only for their political views, but the very fact that they introduced them in their concerts–they persevered at the cost of declining popularity and even pro-slavery mobs breaking up their concerts and rallies where they appeared. Musically, nothing about their original songs held any interest after they were no longer around to perform them. Historically, as the first American performers to use popular music as a means of social protest, their importance and influence is incalculable.

Although born in England (in 1812), Henry Russell first established his reputation as a song writer after he moved to Rochester, New York (by way of Italy and Canada) some time before 1835. In that year, he attended a speech by Sen. Henry Clay. Fascinated not so much by Clay’s topic as by his magnetic ability to  hold an audience’s attention, he went home and wrote a song, or more properly, an operatic scena in a thoroughly Italian style that includes frequent changes of meter and tempo to match the dramatic content of the  poem. A Rochester publisher offered it for sale. Russell, with his professionally trained baritone voice and formidable keyboard technique, decided to undertake a tour so he could establish himself as the Henry Clay of popular music.

Before two musical seasons had passed, Russell had a nationwide reputation as both a singer and song writer. Although he continued to write dramatic narrative pieces on Italian models, he also wrote many simple, strophic songs with easy accompaniments, suitable for domestic performance. It is important to remember that, in the time before the invention of recordings, the piano was the “home entertainment center” and the music industry depended on sales of sheet music to the average citizen. Rudimentary accompaniments guaranteed that people with the most modest keyboard skills could play them. People with greater technique could easily “fill them out.”

After only six years as one of the most popular singers and song writers in the United States, Russell returned to England, leaving behind an amazing number of the best-selling songs before Stephen Foster, among them “The Old Arm Chair” and “Woodman! Spare That Tree!” A classically trained musician, Russell quickly grasped that the audience with the background to appreciate the classical masters was small in this country, but that the many Americans who could read and write musical notation constituted a vast market for popular songs. He composed for them, and along the way earned the contempt of J. S. Dwight, the leading proponent of classical music in America.

Charles Hamm wrote, “In a very real sense, the concept of popular song may be said to have begun with Henry Russell–an English-born Jew who studied in Italy, first came to Canada, and then furnishing Americans with songsmith an Italian musical style, mostly to texts reflecting an Irish type of nostalgia. Of such ethnic mixtures was popular song in America born” (Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, p. 184).

My 10 favorite lesser-known Christmas pieces

I have been enjoying my Christmas records for the past couple of weeks. I have also seen plenty of online articles and blogposts with titles like, “The Ten Best Christmas Pieces of All Times,” or more modestly, “My Ten Favorite Christmas Songs.” A lot of them list the music we hear in church, concerts, on the radio, and in stores and shopping malls year after year.

I thought I’d do something a little different and list some of my favorite pieces that are less well known. Most are older than the what we usually hear many times over the course of the season. Readers of this blog have probably heard at least some of these pieces, just not as often as the popular favorites.

10. Hacia Belén / Spanish composer (unknown time)

Probably until the invention and commercialization of Santa Claus, even secular carols focused on Jesus and his birth. In this silly little villancico, some gypsies, a man in a sombrero, and a donkey laden with chocolate arrive at the stable in Bethlehem. The refrain calls to Mary to hurry up, but she doesn’t. The gypsies steal the swaddling clothes, somehow the chocolate disappears, and the donkey eats the sombrero.

9. Riu, riu chiu / anonymous Spanish villancico (published in 1556)

The nobility of Vallencia prided themselves on the subtlety of their erudition and ability of their conversation and their poetry. The text of this piece explains the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, portraying the devil as a wolf, Mary as a precious ewe, and God the Father as a shepherd who builds an impregnable wall around her. I especially enjoy this piece for the exuberant rhythm of its refrain.

8. Allon, gay, gay bergères / Guillaume Costeley (late 16th century)

Another secular piece. Here the shepherds go to Bethlehem to visit the new-born king and, among other things, comment on how well he drinks from his mother’s breast. This chanson exhibits Costeley’s skill in counterpoint. It’s very fun to sing.

7. Quem pastores laudavere / German (late 16th century)

When Luther broke from the Roman church, he did not abandon the use of Latin or the liturgical structure of worship services. This piece, used for Christmas night services, has been so popular in Germany that “Quempas” became slang for the more proper “Weihnachtslied” (Christmas carol). I suppose if Christmas in Germany is as commercialized as it has become in the US, German shoppers probably get their fill of this tune every year. It’s a beautiful change of pace here.

6. A virgin unspotted / William Billings (late 18th century)

Throughout the eighteenth century, a number of composers whose names are now known only to musicologists composed unsophisticated music for use in rural English churches. Since English styles were the source of nearly all American music, it is no surprise that William Billings and other largely self-taught American composers used fuging tunes and other rural English practices as their model. “A virgin unspotted” does not include a fuging tune, but it does have a jig-like refrain and a vigor typical of his other works.

5. Quelle est cette odeur agréable? / French (17th century)

An anonymous seventeenth-century cleric, likely from  Lorraine, wrote a fairly sophisticated dialog between the shepherds and the angel that announced Jesus’ birth to them. It was fitted to a tune already well known in both France and England, where, with other words and doubtless a different singing style, appeared in comic operas and as a drinking song. As a Christmas song, it exudes a beautifully serene mood.

4. Still, still, still / Austrian (18th century?)

Neither of my recordings of this piece have liner notes. Searching the Web does not turn up much either, except that it was published in a collection called “Salzburger Volkslieder” (Folksongs from Salzburg) in 1819. Who knows how much older  it actually is? it. It is another very simple, very serene piece asking for stillness so the Christ child can sleep and commenting on the depth of love God exhibited in leaving his throne to become this child.

3. Gesu bambino / Pietro Yon (1917)

The Italian-born Yon moved to New York in 1907 to serve as organist and choirmaster of the church of St. Francis Xavier. He remained in New York for the rest of his life, eventually taking a similar position at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Gesu bambino,” his most famous piece, has a flowing Italianate melody that borrows its refrain from the traditional “Adeste fidelis” (“O come let us adore him”).

2. O magnum mysterium / Tomas Luis de Victoria (1572)

I can justify inclusion of this often-recorded masterpiece on a list lesser-known pieces mostly because has not suffered the kind of overexposure as much of the standard Christmas music on other top ten lists. I cannot recall when I first heard it or remember a time before it was one of my favorite pieces.

1. In principio erat verbum / Josquin des Prez (early 16th century)

I had the opportunity to sing this with a Renaissance choir more than 30 years ago. It was as difficult to learn as anything I ever remember singing, but well worth it. I fell in love with the piece and began to look for a recording, to no avail. Apparently no one ever recorded it until maybe a couple of years ago. Someone called a 99¢ download to my attention, and last year I decided to look for it. This time, I even found the piece on a recent CD. It’s not a Christmas CD, but the text, from the first chapter of John’s gospel, is the text appointed for Christmas morning in every lectionary I ever heard of. Maybe now that this beautiful motet  has been recorded once, someone will put it on a Christmas CD. Meanwhile, printed music has been easily available for years. I strongly recommend it to any choir that does Renaissance music.