Untouched by performers’ hands: the theremin

The theremin, named for its inventor Louis Théremin, is the only instrument that is played without the performer touching any part of it. It uses two ultrasonic oscillators, one of fixed pitch and the other variable. The variable frequency oscillator is attached to an antenna. Audible pitch results from the heterodyne interaction of the two oscillators. That is, what we hear are the beats between two ultrasonic pitches, the difference tones. The frequency of the pitch results from how close or how far away the performers right hand is to the antenna. The performer’s left hand similarly controls the volume by moving in relation to a metal loop on the instrument. With some difficulty and practice, performers can play melodies. They can make weird sound effects much more easily. Slonimsky notes that is very effective for killing cockroaches.

Rossini overtures

During the latter part of the nineteenth century until the latter part of the twentieth, most of Rossini’s operas (the chief exception being The Barber of Seville) disappeared from the repertoire. Many of their overtures, at the same time, became mainstays of the orchestral repertoire. It is therefore ironic that Rossini hated writing them and put them off as long as possible. In an undated letter he advised a young colleague:

Wait till the evening before the opening night. Nothing primes inspiration like necessity, whether it takes the form of  a copyist waiting for your work or the coercion of an exasperated impresario tearing his hair out in handfuls. In my day all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty.

I wrote the overture to Othello in a little room at the Barbaja Palace, in which the baldest and fiercest of those impresarios had locked my by force with nothing but a plate of macaroni and the threat that I should not leave the room aloof until I had written the last note. I wrote the overture to La Gazza ladra on the day of the first performance in the theater itself, where I was imprisoned by the director and watched over by four stage hands, who had instructions to throw my manuscript out of the window page by page to the copyists who were waiting to transcribe it below. In the absence of pages, they were to throw me.

With the Barber I did better still. I didn’t compose an overture, but simply took one that had been meant for Elisabetta; the public was delighted. I wrote the overture to Comte Ory while fishing, with my feet in the water, in the company of Signor Aguardo, who was talking about Spanish finance. The one for William Tell was done under more or less similar circumstances. As for Moses, I just didn’t write one at all.

A Friday the 13th post

For most of his life, Arnold Schoenberg experienced fear not only of the number 13, but multiples of it.  He was sure that he would die during a year that was a multiple of 13, such as 1939 (’39 = 13 x 3). An astrologer assured  him that the year would be dangerous, but not fatal. In 1950, when he turned 76, another astrologer pointed out that 7 + 6 = 13. July 13, 1951 was the first Friday the 13 of his 76th year, he spent the day in bed, afraid of death. The story goes that his wife was skeptical and late at night pointed out that it almost midnight and nothing bad had happened. He looked up at her and promptly died: at 11:47 (1+1+4+7 =13), 13 minutes before midnight.

On the subject of unlucky and untimely deaths (although not associated with Friday the 13th or fear of it), consider the following:

Jean Baptiste Lully conducted his orchestra by pounding a heavy stick on the floor. One night he missed the floor and crushed his toe instead. Because he refused to let the doctors amputate it, gangrene set in and  he died more than two months later.

Alessandro Stradella composed some beautiful music, but also made many enemies both by embezzling money from the church and having careless affairs with so many women who were either wives or mistresses of powerful men. He had to leave first Rome, then Venice in a hurry. In Venice, an outraged patron hired thugs to kill him. They reportedly heard him perform and were so overcome by the beauty of his music they couldn’t follow through. He fled to Genoa and got involved with another woman. This time, a hired assassin found him outdoors and stabbed him.

Johann Schobert is no longer well known, but Mozart and many others esteemed his music. In addition to being a skilled harpsichordist and imaginative composer, he was an amateur mushroom hunter. One night on a walk with his wife and several friends, he gathered some mushrooms and took them to a tavern to have them prepared. The chef refused, saying they were poisonous. So the party took them to another tavern, with the same result. Schobert and a physician in the party were so sure that they were good that they went back to Schobert’s home and had a feast. Unfortunately, the two chefs were correct. All those who ate the mushrooms became sick at once, so no one could go for help. They were not found till noon the next day, when it was too late for any medicine to work, but it took painful days for them to die.

Ernest Chausson and Wallingford Riegger both died more quickly. Chausson lost control of his bicycle going down a hill and crashed into a brick wall. It killed him instantly. Riegger was walking his dog when it got into a fight with another dog. He got tangled in the leashes, fell, and  hit  his head, and did not survive emergency surgery.

Military band intonation

According to orchestral conductor Walter Legge, a number of British military bands were summoned to Drury Lane Theatre during the winter of 1943-44 to audition for a long overseas tour. It was icy outside, and the theater was not heated, and yet all the bands played with impeccable intonation. At lunchtime, Legge commented to the band directors that he had conducted some of the world’s best orchestras under much better conditions, and yet had not been able to achieve such good results. One of the band directors reminded him of something he could never obtain: “You would have no intonation troubles if you had our authority to put any man who played out of tune on seven days latrine duty.”

Beethoven rises to a challenge!!

Everyone knows about Ludwig van Beethoven. He is a towering figure in Classical music, renowned for his contributions to the symphony, the string quartet, the piano sonata, and much more. No one but musicologists know much about Daniel Steibelt. They mostly remember him for using the tambourine in so many of  his piano sonatas (his wife played tambourine), for introducing the Chinese gong into his opera Romeo et Juliette (although later musicologists have determined it was some kind of tuned bell instead), and for coming out the loser in a brash challenge to Beethoven.

Steibelt was born in Berlin. He had already started his musical studies when his father forced him to join the Prussian army. He deserted and drifted around Europe supporting himself as a pianist. In 1790 he settled in Paris, where wrote many large-scale compositions. Late in the decade, he visited London, where his brilliant technique as a pianist attracted considerable attention. He became especially known for imitating the effect of a storm with rapid tremolos in the left hand.

He set out on a tour of German-speaking cities in 1799. In general, he met with a good reception everywhere he went–including a pardon for his desertion–until he arrived in Vienna in 1800. One favorite pastime of the Viennese nobility was to host improvisation contests between two pianists. Beethoven had already bested every other pianist in Vienna. Whether on  his own initiative or with the urging of a Viennese patron, Steibelt issued a challenge to Beethoven.

It might have been just another contest, quickly forgotten, had Steibelt not deliberately offended Beethoven. Shortly before the date of the contest, Steibelt attended a concert where Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat for clarinet, cello, and piano, op. 11, was performed. The trio ends with a set of variations on a theme from the opera L’amor marinaro by Joseph Weigl. Steibelt greeted the piece with rather public condescension and then began the contest with a flashy set of variations on the same theme, including plenty of his storm effects.

Beethoven was in a foul mood when it was his turn to play. Steibelt had brought a new quintet with him, so Beethoven picked up the cello part, turned it upside down on the music rack, plunked out a few notes with one finger, and proceeded to improvise for a long time on this new theme. Beethoven’s improvisation not only demonstrated his own brilliant technique and musical imagination, but ridiculed Steibelt’s mannerisms. Deeply offended and humiliated, Steibelt walked out of the room before Beethoven had finished, refused any social invitations if Beethoven would be present, and returned to Paris vowing never to return to Vienna as long as Beethoven lived there.

Years later, Rossini made Vienna forget all about Beethoven just by showing up, and he was properly upset about it. Steibelt’s main claim to our attention is that he tried deliberately to make Vienna forget all about Beethoven and failed miserably.

A Dog’s Taste for Bruckner

Some of Anton Bruckner’s students decided to play a trick on him. While he was out to  lunch, they played music on the piano for Bruckner’s dog. As one of them played a motive from Richard Wagner’s music, the others chased the dog around the room and slapped him. But when they played from Bruckner’s own Te Deum, they gave the dog treats.

Once the dog started running away every time he heard Wagner’s music and came bounding toward the piano with his tail wagging every time he heard Bruckner’s, the students prepared the next part of their plan.

When Bruckner returned from lunch, the student’s hailed him as the greatest living composer. Bruckner, of course, always insisted that Wagner was the greatest. He became incensed when someone elevated even his own music above Wagner’s.

The students then informed him that even the dog knew that Bruckner was greater than Wagner. Intrigued, he asked for proof. Sure enough, at the sound of Wagner’s music, the dog howled and ran out of the room, but at the sound of Bruckner’s Te Deum, he returned with his tail wagging and pawed expectantly at the students’ sleeves. Surely it didn’t take Bruckner long to figure out the explanation, but he was  pleased at the demonstration nonetheless.

Suite(s) from Swan Lake

The community orchestra I play in just played the suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake–at least that’s what I thought it was when we first started rehearsing. I certainly didn’t know anything unusual about the piece. I’d heard the waltz many times, and it was nice to have a chance to play it. Some of the other movements have fun trombone parts, too.

Trombone parts in orchestral music always have lots of long rests and seldom have good cues. If I don’t already have a recording of the pieces we perform, I try to get one. So I went online and looked for the Swan Lake Suite. Since I already have multiple recordings of the Nutcracker Suite, I made my choice from recordings paired with something else.

The recording came, and it had six movements. Our version has eight. But where our “Dance of the Swans” is less than 40 measures long (with trombones playing only in the last measure), the recording had 12 minutes worth of “Dance of the Swans,” including four of at least six parts. In short, the recording maybe half of the music we were preparing and a bunch of other stuff.

Back to the Internet. This time, I added a keyword to my search to find a recording that has the “Spanish Dance.” That’s the movement where the trombones have 34 measures rest, no cue, and a very important entrance, where for the first two notes the first trombone is the only instrument in the orchestra that plays anything.

I picked one of the recordings, and when it arrived, got out my part. This version likewise had lots of music that our edition didn’t have, but it lacked the “Neapolitan Dance.” Oh well, that one has a dull trombone part and no counting issues. Murphy’s Law was still hard at work. This recording has a cut in the “Spanish Dance”–including the entire passage that I especially wanted to hear.

The guest conductor arrived last Thursday. She had been preparing from a different Swan Lake Suite score than what we were using. She seemed uncomfortable with the “Spanish Dance,” skipped over the “Neapolitan Dance,” and confessed she was sight-reading the “Mazurka.”

So, then, it appears that there are at least three versions of Swan Lake Suite! How can that be? It turns out that Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky’s very first ballet, was a dismal failure at its first performance, largely because neither the conductor nor the choreographer had any idea what to do with anything more than light background music. The Bolshoi Ballet company sort of kept it in it’s repertoire for a few years, but replaced at least half of Tchaikovsky’s music with then-familiar music by now-forgotten composers.

When Tchaikovsky died, a great interest in his lesser known pieces arose. In the hands of the team that had helped Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker achieve their success, the revival of Swan Lake created a sensation. It has remained popular as a full-length ballet ever since. All those different suites must have come later.

In rehearsal, we only played through the “Neapolitan Dance” once. I think it had a cornet solo in it. At least, the whole trumpet section looked heartbroken when they heard we weren’t playing it. Maybe some time I’ll get to hear it, but I’m not buying any more Swan Lake recordings.

Welcome to Musicology for Everyone

I’m not sure when I first heard the word musicology, but it must have been some time before I had any interest in pursuing it seriously. I majored in composition and trombone performance as an undergraduate. I have a masters in musicology, but started to work on a doctorate in performance before I decided musicology was a better fit.

When I started college, I had a double major in music and history. (And yes, my music major was a double major, too. Kids! Think they can do it all! What a glutton for punishment!) The history major did not survive long, but I took enough intellectual and social history classes to notice that music was pretty much ignored in most of the voluminous reading I had to do. And I noticed in my music history classes that the textbook and other readings barely made a stab at describing the cultural context in which the music was created.

Both of those omissions bothered me a great deal. I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually turn to musicology. Not many people have any idea what that means. It can be a lot of things, but for me it is the historical study of music. Of course, there’s too much of it for any one person to become familiar with everything.

Some musicologists devote their careers to a narrow specialty, like establishing the provenance of Medieval manuscripts. Others like to step back and look at how music intersects with some other broad discipline, such as sociology or psychology. I have devoted most of my research to the history of the trombone. That’s narrow enough, but I have tried to view it in its social, political, economic, cultural (etc.) context, which seems broad enough.

Anyway, that’s musicology, and that’s me. Now that I have separated music from my original all-purpose blog, I expect that more  people will visit and stick around here. Be sure to leave comments so I’ll know what you find interesting and informative.

I have moved all of the musical posts originally published to The All-Purpose Guru to Musicology for Everyone. In case anyone cares, I have added the original publication dates at the end.

When "classical" music was "popular"–Part 2

My first article on this topic explored how Rossini’s music was considered “popular” music in the sense of being somehow inferior to “classical” music, although it is now regarded as “classical” music. This one will explore the narrowing of gaps between social strata that resulted in a new style of music, which music history has come to regard as the Classical period. It was among the most truly popular music of all times, in the sense of appealing to audiences that crossed geographical and social boundaries (not to mention time!)

At least from the late Middle Ages through the end of the seventeenth century, the musical households of the European nobility produced music that was heard by the family and shared among other noble families, but never heard by most of the population. New music for the church was heard almost exclusively in churches attended by the nobility. Townspeople in the capital cities may have had opportunity to hear it, but the majority of the population, living in rural areas, did not.

By the Renaissance, nobles were expected to be knowledgeable about the arts. Regarding music, it was not enough for them to listen to music. Social pressure demanded that they be able to sing and or play musical instruments such as keyboard instruments or lute. Besides the nobility, the only other people who had time to study music at that level were the professionals. No one else had the leisure time for such pursuits.

The music intended for the nobility survives as the musical treasures of the great composers over that span of time. The music of the people survives, if at all, as folk music. There were some tunes that were known and loved by a wide cross-section of society, but the performance practice heard by the nobility and the rest of the people differed greatly.

During this entire time, there was a small but growing middle class–merchants, artisans, bankers, etc.–with a social status between the nobility and the peasantry. Sometimes they took over musical fashions after the nobility tired of them, much like younger siblings get hand-me-down clothes outgrown by older siblings. But this middle class aspired to the same status as the nobility. There were even sumptuary laws in many locations (forbidding commoners from wearing clothes made of the same fabric worn by the nobility or used for the livery of their servants, among other things) to keep them in their place.

This middle class gradually grew to a size and influence that a tipping point was reached by the middle of the eighteenth century. By the 1850s, the upper reaches of the middle class and the aristocracy had essentially merged in most of Western Europe.

The middle class at the opening of the eighteenth century, still aspiring to the social standing of the nobility, had enough leisure time to learn music, but not music as complex as that of the late Baroque. They wanted a music that was simpler in structure, easier to listen to and to perform. By the 1780s, this newer music became so well established that the nobility took to is as if it were their own. (In this and other ways about this time, the middle class stopped copying the nobility and the nobility began to copy the middle class!) The eighteenth century was also a very cosmopolitan time, which saw a blending of Italian, French,  and German styles.

Joseph Haydn’s career exemplifies these changes. He did not invent any aspect of the new style; he did not invent sonata form or the any of the genres (such as the symphony, keyboard sonata,  and string quartet) that rely on it, but they reached their first peak of perfection in his music. More remarkable than the greatness of his music is way he achieved worldwide fame.

When he signed his contract with Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, it specified among other things, that he was to compose whatever music the prince asked for, not allow any of his pieces to be copied for anything but the prince’s exclusive use, and not to compose for anyone else. Paul Anton died the following year, and his brother Nikolaus the Magnificent succeeded him as prince. Haydn’s contract remained unchanged until 1779, but the prohibition of composing for others or giving others copies of his music was honored more in breech than observance: Nikolaus knew the public relations advantages of having a well known composer on  his staff.

While Nikolaus still lived, Haydn accepted commissions for twelve symphonies from Paris and for the Seven Last Words from a Spanish cathedral. Although music circulated freely in manuscript, he arranged to have  his music published by Viennese publishers. Later, he traveled twice to England, where he was already famous.

Without his knowledge, publishers in Amsterdam, Berlin, Leipzig, London, Naples, and especially Paris issued his music–or music they said was his. In one notorious case, a publisher scraped the name Roman Hoffstetter off the title page of a set of string quartets and substituted Haydn’s name, expecting that he could sell more copies if people thought Haydn had written them. It was not until the late twentieth century that anyone learned that Haydn did not write the quartets known as his opus 3!

Perhaps more striking than the geographical extent of his fame is the way it crossed class lines. He was a servant in a nobleman’s household, but much of his output seems to have been intended for “export.” Its intended market was  not so much other  noble households as the burgeoning middle class. Besides attending concerts, the upper middle class bought chamber music and keyboard music to play in their  homes. The lower middle class and, at least in Austria and Bohemia, the servant classes had plenty of opportunity to hear Haydn’s dance music played in taverns or during Carnival.

There was as yet no distinction between “classical” music and “popular” music, yet Haydn’s music appealed to such a broad public, both geographically and socially, that we must recognize it as truly popular. Although Haydn was probably the most widely famous composer of his lifetime and, with Mozart, the best known of his generation today, he was hardly unique. Publishers in London and Paris printed music from all over Europe and sold it not only all over Europe, but also in the Americas.

Many composers forgotten today were also popular in the same sense Haydn was. And why not? Composers of this generation desired more than any before or since to delight and cater to the tastes of the broadest public they could reach. It was intended to be the most listener friendly music they could possibly compose. The music of most previous composers was forgotten within a generation of their death, no matter how famous and esteemed they were in their lifetimes. The generation following the Classical composers thought so highly of their music that they took active steps to make sure it would never die so their and future generations could continue to love it.

(First published on The All-Purpose Guru on September 24, 2009)

Trombone in the (old) news–part two

Here are some more gems from the Times of London:

Dec 25, 1863. In the midst of the American Civil War, the Christy Minstrels, among the most important American entertainers of the time, went on an international tour and presented ten concerts in London during the week following Christmas 1863. The advertisement lists all of the music to be played on the two concerts on Saturday, the 26th, including a trombone solo performed by J. Randall.

1866. Two different horses named Trombone appear in the “Sporting Intelligence” column. One owned by Mr. Machell is mentioned on Sept. 29, and Oct. 27, and one owned by Mr. Chaplin on Oct. 20 and Oct. 29. Both men owed several other horses named in the same columns. On Oct. 29, there was a match between two two-year-olds: Mr. Chaplin’s Trombone, by Trumpeter, and Admiral Rous’s Lady Bugle Eye [no parent named], with the betting 3 to 1 on Lady Bugle Eye. “They left the post in close company, and ran so to the bushes, where Trombone took a clear lead, which he retained to the end, and won in a canter by two lengths.”

Sept 28, 1870. From a classified advertisement: “Papeta, the largest and most wonderful Performing Indian Elephant, accompanied by her two Infant Prodigies. Plays the organ, harmonicon, and trombone; blows a horn, dances to music, picks up a coin and answers any question that may be put to her.”

July 7, 1885. The International Inventions Exhibition included a “Recital upon some of Rudall, Carte, and Co.’s instruments. . . Mr. Millar on the double-slide trombones.”

Feb 23, 1887. Throughout the nineteenth century various experts expressed doubt about genuineness of some of Mozart’s parts for trombone. And legitimately so. Many nineteenth-century conductors did not hesitate to reorchestrate the music of the masters in hopes of making a better effect! The 100th anniversary of the premiere of Don Giovanni called special attention to that work. In a long article in the Berlin journal Vossische Zeitung, Gustav Engle pointed out, among other things, that the autograph score did not include trombone parts in the finale from the appearance of the statue in the supper scene to the end of the opera. Mozart had written these parts on a separate page while in Prague making final preparations for the performance. The conductor Julius Rietz insisted that he had seen it, but no one knew where it was. The Times reported Engels misgivings and noted, “Professor Engel proposes that a mixed jury of musicians and accomplished amateurs should decide whether the trombones should be retained or discarded.”

April 15, 1887. The passenger liner Victoria Nyanza ran aground off the coast of France in foul weather, with high winds, heavy rain, and a dense fog, on April 4, 1874. The Times carried several articles about it. According to the April 15 article, the wreck happened because the foghorn was out of order and did not sound. Apparently the reporter either did not know what a foghorn was or thought that would be an unfamiliar term to his readers, so he wrote, “I have visited the station and inspected the horn. It is a huge trombone, blown by steam.”

August 1, 1895. “Eisteddfod” is the name of a Welsh competition in literature and music, erroneously thought in the nineteenth century to date back to the time of the ancient Druids. I wrote an article some years ago about one held at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. That one was the largest and richest eisteddfod held in the entire nineteenth century. As the musical competition was limited to vocal music and harp music, I was surprised to learn that at least one other eisteddfod included a trombone competition, won by Mr. Hanney Morriston.

(Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on August 25, 2009)