Guillaume de Machaut: the gaps in his biography

Our knowledge of history is limited by the accident of what kind of documentation exists. Even for recent people and events, historians cannot always find information about what they most want to learn. Given roughly equivalent fame and importance, the earlier a person lived, the sparser the documentation. The great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) provides a good illustration.

No other fourteenth-century composer left behind as much music as Machaut, and possibly none other provided so much detail about his life and times. While many prolific composers over the course of history have produced vast quantities of music of mediocre quality or worse, Machaut’s reputation, both in his lifetime and in the estimation of scholars, places him in the top rank not only of composers of his time, but also poets. He also had a very sophisticated understanding of mathematics.

Machaut the poet wrote about current events and about himself. From him we know that he was short, blind in one eye, had gout, and, as an old man, became involved in a platonic relationship with a teenaged poetry lover. He preserved her letters to him, too.

History records a great deal of information about his patrons. He came to the attention of King John of Luxembourg as a young priest in the 1320s and remained as his secretary until the King was killed in the Battle of Crécy in 1346. After that, he worked for the Duke of Normandy (later King John II of France), King Charles V of France, and the Dukes of Berry, Savoy, and Navarre. He devoted  his later years to preparing a catalog of his works and presentation manuscripts of them for his patrons.

Of his early life, almost nothing is known. We know he was born somewhere in the province of Champagne, possibly in Rheims. An older man with a similar name may have been his father, but no records survive. We know nothing of his family, his education, when he was ordained, how he came to the attention of his first patron, when he started to compose and write poetry, or how he developed his reputation. But we do know that he sold a horse in 1340.

Francesca Caccini, the first woman operatic composer

Today we find nothing unusual about women becoming professional musicians. Women play every imaginable instrument. They conduct orchestras, choruses, and opera companies. They are well represented on anyone’s list of leading living composers. It can be hard to remember that until recently women were discouraged from playing certain instruments, and certainly from ever thinking about becoming composers. Francesca Caccini’s career is, then, something of an anomaly. She composed songs and operas for court entertainments in the early seventeenth century.

Her father, Giulio Caccini, was a highly regarded singer, composer, and music teacher in Florence. Francesca, his foremost pupil first sang in public at the age of 13 at the wedding of French King Henry IV and Maria de’ Medici (a member of Florence’s ruling family) in 1600.

Four years later, the king declared her the best singer in France and asked permission to hire her for his own household. The Tuscan court refused and the family returned to Florence. Francesca officially entered service there in 1607 at a reasonable salary. Seven years later, her salary had doubled, making her one of the highest paid musicians at the court.

So far, her career had followed a fairly ordinary path for a talented woman serving a ruling family, but soon she began to compose court entertainments. Performances in Rome, Milan, Lucca, Parma, Genoa, and Savona spread her reputation far beyond Florence.

In 1621, Grand Duke Cosimo II died, leaving a child, Ferdinando, as his heir. Until Ferdinando came of age, his mother and grandmother ruled as regents. They had a great interest  in asserting the right of women to rule and used, among other things, symbolism in major court entertainments, as Medici rulers had for more than a century. And who better to supply the music for them than the highly respected Francesca Caccini?

Her best known opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, was commissioned in 1625 to celebrate the visit of future King Wladislaw IV of Poland. Most such occasional pieces were published in handsome commemorative copies for invited guests, and then quickly forgotten after after the ceremony was over. La liberazione di Ruggiero must have made a strong  impression. It was performed again in Warsaw in 1681, making it the first Italian opera presented outside of Italy.

Live vs recorded music

Discussion of the relative merits of live and recorded music probably started as soon as recordings became widely available. As the fidelity of recorded sound improved, the discussion evolved somewhat, but it still continues.

One of my professors in college disapproved of recorded music, but frequently attended concerts. He did not even own a record player. I have never met anyone else who prefers live music to the absolute exclusion of listening to recordings, but I know lots of people who agree that there is an immediacy in live performances that recordings cannot duplicate. What’s more, recordings must be almost totally free of mistakes. Otherwise, listeners must hear the same mistakes over and over. That, in turn, has raised unrealistic expectations for live performances.

Today I offer another observation. You can hear more of the music in a live performance than on a recording. My high school orchestra performed the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony, and I played bass trombone. One passage gave me fits, and when I got a recording of the piece, I could not hear the sound of the trombone there at all.

Years later, a friend invited me to a concert where he was playing a concerto with a community orchestra. One of the other pieces was Brahms’ First Symphony. I have never heard a worse orchestra. Every oboe solo, in particular, met with disaster. And yet I found the performance fascinating. I thought I knew that symphony very well, having listened to it frequently on my own stereo and over the radio for years. And yet I heard not only that difficult trombone part, but many details of orchestration and counterpoint in the inner voices I had never known about.

At about the same time, the orchestra I was in played Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Now, I have always thought the back row of an orchestra is the worst place to listen to music. The trombones sit much closer to the other wind instruments, which often have accompanimental parts, than to the violins, which usually have the melody. Community orchestras, it seems, never have quite enough strings anyway.

But I couldn’t help noticing that on my recording, not only did I not hear the inner parts played by the upper woodwinds, but the violas, cellos, and basses barely came through. That recording, at least, focuses so much on the violins that the entire bass line almost disappears, and whenever one of the woodwinds has the main melody, it is covered by whatever filigree the violins play.

I recently participated in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Having heard the waltz many times, I was surprised at the first rehearsal. When unison trombones play the main theme, it sounds on every recording that I have ever heard like there are persistent rests on the downbeat. Actually, there is a note there. In every measure.

It makes breathing tricky to play such a  long phrase at such a loud dynamic. Had Tchaikovsky written it the way it sounds on recordings, it would have been a lot easier to play. I don’t believe that all the trombones and tubas in all those professional orchestras that issue recordings omit the low notes on all those downbeats, but having listened to several since I learned how Tchaikovsky wrote the part, I can testify that I still cannot hear them at all.

So if you have a chance to hear a familiar orchestral piece live, go. You’ll hear things you can’t hear on your own stereo or radio, not counting any mistakes.

Vienna, 1800: the divergence of classical and popular music

Revised February 27, 2017

Vienna Kohlmarkt. classical and popular music in Vienna

Vienna ca. 1800. The Kohlmarkt. Artaria, Beethoven’s publisher, is on the right.

What kind of music do you think of when you think of Vienna?

Classical music, of course.

Extra credit if you thought of Johann Strauss and realize that his waltzes aren’t classical music. But did you know classical music was hard to find in Vienna in 1800?

Mozart had been dead for nine years. Haydn was an old man close to retirement from composing.

The young Beethoven had made a strong start in establishing his reputation. Schubert was only three years old.

And most of the public idolized musicians you’ve probably never heard of.

In fact, the concept of classical vs popular music is only about 200 years old. It is foreshadowed by the 18th-century phrase “Kenner und Liebhaber,” or “connoisseurs and music lovers.”

Up until about 1790, many European cities enjoyed an active and varied concert life. Popular music and art music mingled on every concert, but no one yet thought in those terms. Music lovers without much knowledge or training could enjoy the art music, because its style was familiar. Connoisseurs found something to like in the less sophisticated music.

Between 1790 and the middle of the 1810s, concert life ceased entirely in London and Paris, two of the three major musical capitals. By the time it started again, the people with no special knowledge of music no longer knew how to listen to what by that time was recognized as “classical” music.

Consider the foremost musical magazine of the early 19th century, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, or “General Music Newspaper.” It first appeared in 1798 when it was still conceivable for one magazine to appeal to all musical tastes.

An article by its Vienna correspondent in 1800 shows the beginning of a divergence of taste there.

Vienna theaters

St. Michael's Square. classical and popular music in Vienna

St. Michael’s Square, Vienna, ca. 1800. Burg theater (the German theater) is far right

Vienna, the third major musical capital, did not suffer complete loss of its concert life, but the number and quality of concerts diminished. Opera suffered, too.

Vienna had an Italian opera theater and a German opera theater. As far as their orchestras were concerned, the Italians had some excellent players.

But its members frequently sent substitutes to whenever they had a chance to make more money somewhere else.

The director was “obviously unequal to his task.” As a result, the Italian orchestra did not play well.

The correspondent disapproved of the selection of operas: “The recognized older ones are neglected in favor of the newer ones which, taken as a whole, can please no connoisseur.”

The recognized older operas probably included the works of Mozart and Gluck. I haven’t identified the newer ones he complained about. They must have contained spectacular vocal effects without much sophistication of form, harmony, or melody.

In the next decade, Rossini’s operas took all of Europe by storm. Connoisseurs hated them. The arias all sounded alike, they said, and the orchestra drowned out the singers.

As the greatest of German musical centers, Vienna should have had an excellent German theater. The correspondent wrote that it fell short. It didn’t pay its musicians enough. As a consequence, it had fewer good musicians. It had a much more competent leader, though, so it often gave better performances. It still performed Haydn’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas.

Concerts in Vienna

Beethoven. classical and popular music in Vienna

Beethoven in 1804, the year he composed his Fifth Symphony / Detail of a portrait by W. J. Mähler

Except for four annual concerts sponsored by the Fund for Musicians’ Widows, Vienna had no regular concert life in 1800. It also had no place devoted to orchestral concerts.

Instead, composers and performers had to rent the theaters at a high cost. For that reason, traveling artists rarely presented concerts in Vienna.

The correspondent panned two concerts and singled out two with excellent music. The horn virtuoso Punto introduced Beethoven’s horn sonata.

Beethoven himself presented a piano concerto, his first symphony, and his Septet at the Italian theater. The utter incompetence of the orchestra kept the music from making its best effect.

Amateur musicians played an outsized role in musical performances, not only in Vienna, but in other major capitals as well. The correspondent pointed out that in Vienna, everyone took music lessons and performed. Therefore, the city boasted many proficient amateur musicians, although fewer than earlier.

If there were so few public concerts, the number of private concerts made up for it. Nearly every aristocratic or upper-middle-class family opened their homes to invited musical guests all winter long. Unfortunately, Baron van Swieten, author of the words to Haydn’s oratorios, offered nothing that year.

Amateurs and private concerts

Daniel Steibelt. classical and popular music in Vienna

Daniel Seibelt by unidentified artist

Amateurs of all levels of proficiency took turns entertaining. They usually chose uncomplicated, unsophisticated music such as favorite arias from the latest Italian operas or whatever piano pieces were making the rounds.

The correspondent drew a careful distinction between the entertainment value of these concerts (high) and their artistic value (negligible).

Traveling virtuosos, shut out of the public theaters by their high costs, made the circuit of the private concerts.

Of necessity, they appeared everywhere they could and praised the talent of all the amateurs they heard. Those who were good at flattery and public relations made a big hit in Vienna.

Eventually the amateur community divided into parties of those who preferred this or that virtuoso above others. The correspondent noted that the ardor of their partisanship often made up for a lack of true artistic discernment.

When Beethoven bested Daniel Steibelt in their infamous contest in 1800, the substance of a classical master trounced the gimmicks of a man who had been a popular favorite everywhere else.

With so much trivial and frivolous music dominating Vienna, where were the connoisseurs? The correspondent noted,

Yet, truly, the genuine connoisseurs and friends of music––music as art, that is––are more numerous here than strangers seem to think. The reason why they are so little bruited abroad may well be that they themselves make so little noise, preferring to worship and enjoy their idol unobtrusively.

It appears, in other words, that they gathered in each other’s homes to practice chamber music. Or symphonies if enough of them could scrape together an orchestra. They made no attempt to attract an audience.

Vienna and elsewhere

Henri Herz, classical and popular music, Vienna

Austrian pianist and composer Henri Herz (1803–1888), by Achille Devéria (1800–1857)

Vienna had some concert life and a great composer living and working there. London and Paris didn’t. So connoisseurs in those capitals likewise had to band together to entertain themselves. As in Vienna, they represented a small slice of the musical public.

Even with the return of permanent orchestras and public concerts, much of the public didn’t return to the concert halls.

By the time Robert Schumann decided to become a music critic, traveling virtuosos like Henri Herz captured the lion’s share of the audience for music.

They specialized in flashy dance pieces, sets of variations, and all manner of gimmicks.

William Weber has identified Herz and other virtuosos on the salon circuit as representative of “high-status popular music.”

Like all other popular music, it was more business than art. It relied on a combination of easy familiarity and novelty to keep up a steady stream of new sales. These were the Philistines that Schumann devoted his critical career to attacking.

Meanwhile, Beethoven had no immediate followers among composers. He died in 1828. The generation of Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz started to make their mark internationally in the 1830s. Until then, those who preferred music as an art to music as entertainment had little to listen to by living composers.

A journalistic war of words began between lovers of the artistic ideals of dead composers and the novelty offered by popular living composers. A French critic in the 1830 proclaimed that there were only two kinds of musicians: classicists and Rossinists.

The argument continues along the same lines today.

Related posts

The birth of the popular music industry
Classical and pop music: 200 years of rivalry
Classical music that used to be popular music
Making sense of sonata form

“A sketch of the principal features of contemporary musical life in Vienna” / Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 3 (1800): cols. 41-50, 65-68. Excerpt translated by Piero Weiss in Music in the Western World, selected and annotated by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984).

William Weber. Music and the middle class: the social structure of concert life in London, Paris and Vienna. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975.

Tension and resolution, or, an odd musical alarm clock

In tonal music (that is, the majority of what we listen to), each chord has a function. One chord, the tonic (the chord build on the first note of the scale) is a place of rest. Once the key is firmly established, every other chord has some degree  of tension that demands eventual resolution to the tonic.

Probably every listener knows, at least instinctively, whether the occasional pause in a piece is on the tonic, a fit place to end, or something else, which requires the music to continue. Professional musicians, of course, are acutely aware of the tonic. If the car radio is in the middle of the piece when I get to my destination, I find myself waiting for some level of resolution before I turn it off.

A story told about Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein illustrates the point nicely. I’m not sure whether it’s true or not, but maybe it really doesn’t matter. At least it fits with what we know of his character.

The story goes that his wife had trouble getting  him out of bed in the morning, and when he overslept, he missed appointments. So she started playing piano in the morning–loudly. Now, anyone with a clock radio knows how easy it is to roll over and go back to sleep. Mrs. Rubinstein did not play all the way through a piece. She stopped on a chord with a high degree of harmonic tension and then left the room. That bothered her husband so much that he had to get up, go to the piano, and play the resolution. By that time, she had removed the blanket from the bed.

The birth of the popular music industry

In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, a rigid social stratification arose when the ruling classes began to patronize music for their own entertainment that none but their peers ever heard. The nobles usually maintained wind bands for ceremonial purposes and keeping common people entertained. These bands played tunes that everyone knew. I have described this social stratification in some detail in an earlier post.

As I tried to demonstrate there, “classical” music started in the eighteenth century when the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie started liking the same music. By that time, everyone had forgotten most of the music formerly that the aristocracy had formerly patronized. When it was rediscovered, it naturally became attached to “classical” music. Whatever music the aristocracy and commoners shared, such as the pieces played by the old wind bands,  likewise joined the stream of “classical” music. The commoners’ music that did not suit the tastes of the nobility survive, if at all, as folk music.

Where, then, did what we can call popular music come from? That question is too complicated to deal with here, so this article is  mostly about the English roots of American popular music and the industrial mindset that is one of its defining characteristics.

Audiences in England, a country later disparaged as a “nation of shopkeepers” and “the land without music,” lost interest in Italian opera by the 1740s. A distinctive English opera might have developed earlier if Henry Purcell had either not died so young or had had contemporaries or successors capable of building on his foundation. Instead, English opera developed from The Beggar’s Opera (1728), in which the libretto by John Gay was set not to new music in any kind of operatic style, but to familiar, traditional tunes.

Other English authors soon provided a multitude of usually satirical libretti, likewise performed as so-called “ballad operas.” Somewhat later, professional composers, such as Thomas Arne and Joseph  Hook, wrote numerous operas in English.  Unlike Italian opera, which appealed only to the aristocracy, English opera attracted all social classes.

By the late 1790s, however, English  theatrical life had deteriorated to the point where the principal composer at the Drury Lane Theatre, Michael Kelly, could not write musical notation. He simply hummed his tunes to someone else, who wrote them out and fitted them with simple harmonies. They were very nice tunes, though, and audiences continued to go to the theater to hear them.

London’s pleasure gardens (the most important being Vauxhall, Marylebone, and Ranelagh) likewise welcomed audiences of all classes to listen to a wide variety of music. Programs included older music by Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel, newer orchestral music by Joseph Haydn and Johann Christian Bach, and songs by composers that included Arne and Hook.

What later became known as classical music (Haydn, J.C. Bach, et al.) was certainly loved by a wide spectrum of society all over Europe, but it appealed especially to sophisticated members of the audience who understood the conventions of various set forms, such as sonata form, and found pleasure in hearing what cleverness the most imaginative composers could bring to them. The music required multiple hearings of each piece to reveal all of its secrets.

Arne and Hook took a different approach. They wrote especially for an audience that expected music with immediate appeal, music that could be fully understood at first hearing. Arne published hundreds of songs, and Hook more than 2000.  Later critics have declared that mass production of songs according to a few facile formulas seriously hampered the composers’ artistic development. Their contemporaries, including the often caustic Charles Burney, did not see it that way.

Both of these composers were quite capable of writing more challenging, complicated, and sophisticated music. The fact that the musically illiterate Kelly met success with his songs indicates that as far as a mass audience is concerned, an advanced degree  of musical knowledge is unnecessary as  long as the songs are appealing–a fact that continues to this day. Of course, the songs could not be too much alike. The formula also had to provide novelty, the sense that each season’s songs were something somehow new and different, yet still familiar.

The mass audience likewise did not care if the singers’ voices were among the best or if they possessed good technique. They rewarded the ability to get into a song and deliver it with a strong conception, quick sensibility, and correct taste.

These simple, mass produced songs became the mainstay of the English music publishing business. Publishers found that with this kind of music, they could market their wares to a much broader and larger spectrum of the population than had ever been interested in printed, notated music before.

And it was not only English composers who became prosperous selling popular songs. I am limiting this article to English developments largely for convenience and to keep it a reasonable length. Parisian publisher Ignace Pleyel, who built his early reputation on such projects as the complete string quartets of Haydn in miniature score, eventually abandoned “classical” music entirely in favor of more  lucrative romances by such composers as Pauline Duchambge and Hortense de Beauharnais (to mention another musically illiterate song writer).

The political, economic, and social convulsions caused by the French Revolution and Napoleonic period put an end to formal concert life in the three most important European capitals (London, Paris, and Vienna). Once it started up again, Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were dead. Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert still lived, but had no real followers among either contemporary composers or the immediate younger generation.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the same people could enjoy both the symphonies of Haydn and the songs of Arne, and new examples of both kinds of music appeared regularly. After the end of the Napoleonic era provided the economic and political stability necessary to sustain a high level of cultural life, there was still a steady stream of music with both immediate appeal and novelty, but there was no dependable concert life for performance of new symphonies and chamber music.

To put it another way, people who preferred to regard music as an art could only listen to performances of music by dead composers, at least until the generation of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann became established. The audience that preferred a steady stream of new music that had to be both familiar and novel flocked after performers and publishers who regarded music less as an art than as a business. When music became a commodity, the popular music industry was born.

The buccin: a dragon-headed trombone

In the early nineteenth century, some  French and Belgian instrument makers manufacturered a fanciful adaptation of the trombone known as the buccin. In place of the standard bell section, it had a widely curving tube  ending with a gaudily painted serpent’s or dragon’s head.  The same makers also put monster’s heads on serpents, serpent bassoons, and other precursors of the ophicleide.

Judging from the trombone parts in French music during or after the Revolution, the was played loudly, primarily in the lower register.  As the French used a very small-bore trombone, its sound must have been coarse and at times entirely unmusical.  Charles Burney once described a badly-played serpent as “exactly resembling in tone, that of a great hungry, or rather angry, Essex calf”.

Putting a dragon’s head on either instrument could only emphasize the worst aspects of their sound.  Henri Castil-Blaze, writing in 1821, observed, “This form, picturesque for the eye, essentially harms the results of the instrument, of which it hinders and curtails the vibrations.  The sound of the buccin is duller, harsher, and drier than that of the trombone.”

The gaudy head was not intended for sound, however. The primary customers for this model, military bands, cared more about visual display than sound. J. A. Kappey’s history of military music includes this recollection:

“I distinctly remember having seen in childhood a large Austrian band, which made a lasting impression upon me; it had about 5 or 6 brass serpents in the front rank, the bell of each being shaped like an open mouth of a huge serpent, painted bloodred inside with huge white teeth, and wagging tongue which moved up and down at every step! For ‘picturesque’ effect—I never forgot that; as to what or how the band played, I remember nothing except those terrible open jaws!!”

Trombone vs bull

This article, copied from the September 23, 1841 issue of the [Pittsfield, Massachusetts] Sun speaks for itself:

Trombone vs. Bull.–The Lafayette (Louisiana) Chronicle, in enumerating the various definitions given to the word “gentleman,” relates the following anecdote:

An intoxicated trombone player was returning from a country ball, and while crossing a field he was accosted by a bellowing bull. What with the darkness in the eyes of a man who could not have seen straght had it been daylight, the trombone player mistook the bull for a brother musician,and the bellow for a defiance to a trial of skill. Possessessed with this idea, he gave a blast on his instrument that made the “welkin ring.” The bull taking this as a challenge from some other bull, advanced towards the trombone player, and bellowed with greater energy. “You’ll hava to blow–hic–blow louder than that, my–hic–fine fellow,” said the musician; whereupuon he propped himself against a stone wall and gave another blast. The enraged bull, without more ado, interrupted the strain by attacking the trombone player in the rear, and throwing  him over the wall. “There,” he ejaculated as he slowly regained his legs, “you–hic–may be a musician, but by gosh you’re no gentleman!”

An ear for music

Lest anyone doubts that Rossini’s music was once deemed contemptible by lovers of classical music, English publisher Vincent Novello visited Europe in 1829 with the hope of hearing good music (specifically Mozart) in the land of its birth. He was disappointed.

In Mannheim, he noted in  his  journal, “Heard Rossini’s Overture to “Barbiere de Siviglia” on the Piano Forte. . . I should have preferred hearing something by their celebrated townsman John Cramer, but sterling music appears to be at a very low ebb here, . . .”

In Vienna, he wanted to find Beethoven’s last residence, and was upset to find that people walking within a few yards of it had never heard of him, a mere two years after his death. But everyone knew and liked Rossini’s music. He visited the Volksgarten, where he had been told there would be a wind orchestra. He found only a small, seven-piece military band:

“As we entered, they were playing a poor commonplace waltz [Lanner or Strauss Sr. perhaps?]. On requesting they would be so good as to play something of Mozart or Haydn the man said, ‘O yes, Mozart or Rossini’–but I said, ‘No Rossini–some air of Mozart.’ He accordingly went away for the purpose of telling his companions our wishes–but instead of what we had requested they played the Cavatina in A flat. . . and I really believe that they had not a single piece by Mozart in all their book and probably thought we should not detect the difference.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that Novello, a founding member of the Philharmonic Society of London, would prefer the classics, but even musical amateurs could, too. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the following in 1830:

“An ear for music is a very different thing from a taste for music. I have no ear whatever; I could not sing an air to save my live; but I have the intensest delight in music, and can detect good from bad. Naldi, a good fellow, remarked to me once at a concert, that I did not seem much interested with a piece of Rossini’s which had just been performed. I said, it sounded to me like nonsense verses. But I could scarcely contain myself when a thing of Beethoven’s followed.”

Even today, when Rossini is regarded among the classical masters, I suppose that most concert goers like Rossini well enough, but recognize in Beethoven a far superior musical intellect.

Popular singing and the invention of the microphone

Bing Crosby and microphone

The microphone, like all successful new technology, had a profound impact on life and culture, including the development of entire new industries. It affected music in numerous ways. For one, it enabled the development of an entirely new approach to singing popular songs.

Before the microphone came along, people singing in public had to develop a technique of vocal production that could make their voices heard in the farthest corner of the largest venues. Opera singers were the first to require it, but they were not alone. Singers of American popular music did not need a voice suitable for opera, but they did need a big voice and forceful delivery. Listen to this 1928 video of Al Jolson singing “It All Depends on You,” and especially watch his posture as he concludes the song. It appears to be not only a dramatic gesture, but a means of adding sheer power to the finish.

Of course, Jolson could not have recorded that clip or anything else without a microphone, but as long as microphones were used only for recording, no one could sing in a theater, dance hall, or otherwise large venue without developing a comparable vocal technique. Only when it became available for live performance could professional singers use a softer, more intimate style.

Rudy Vallee appears to have been the first major star to use a microphone to sing in a ballroom, in 1930. Although it is uncertain how rapidly the sort of sound system he used became commonplace, others in the business surely noticed. Listen to this 1934 recording of Bing Crosby singing “The Very Thought of You.” The microphone  picks up the slightest sound of his voice. If he sang that way unaided in a large hall, no one would have been able to hear him. The microphone enabled a gentler, more intimate delivery in public that before would have been suitable only in the privacy of someone’s house.