Would a university hire Mozart?

I have no idea where the following letter came from. Someone forwarded it to me on email years ago. Now that I’ve found it again, it’s too good not to share.

March 15
Dear Dean X:

I write in response to your suggestion of an appointment to our faculty for a Mr. W.A. Mozart, currently of Vienna, Austria. While the Music Department appreciates your interest, faculty are sensitive about their prerogatives in the selection of new colleagues.

While the list of works and performances that the candidate submitted is undoubtedly a full one, though not always accurate in the view of our musicologists, it reflects activity outside education. Mr. Mozart does not have an earned doctorate; indeed, very little in the way of formal training or teaching experience. There is a good deal of instability too evidenced in the resume. Would he really settle down in a large state university? And while we have no church connections, as chairman I must voice a concern over the incidents with the Archbishop of Salzburg. They hardly confirm his abilities to be a good team man.

I know that the strong supporting letter from Mr. Haydn, himself a successful composer, suggests that some of the candidate’s problems are not really to the heart of the matter. But Mr. Haydn is writing from a very special situation. Esterhaza is a well-funded private institution, rather a long way from our university, and better able than we are to accommodate a non-academic like Mr. Haydn. Our concern is not just with the most gifted — but because state funds are involved, with all who come to us seeking an education in music. I have drawn to your attention many times the budget and space problems in the department.

The musicology faculty did say after the interview that Mr. Mozart seemed to have too little knowledge of music before Bach and Handel. If he were only to teach composition, that might not be a serious impediment, but we expect everyone to be able to assume some of the burden of large undergraduate survey classes in music history.

The applied faculty were impressed by his piano playing, rather old-fashioned though some thought it to be. That he also performed on the violin and viola seemed for us to be stretching versatility dangerously thin.

The composition faculty were in the same way skeptical about his extensive output. They rightly warn us from their own experience that to receive many performances is no guarantee of quality, and the senior professor points out that Mr. Mozart promotes many of these performances himself. He has never won the support of a major foundation. One of my colleagues was present a year or two ago at the premiere of, I believe, a violin sonata, and he discovered afterwards that Mr. Mozart had indeed not fully written out the piano part before he played it. This may be all very well in that world, but it sets a poor example to students in their assignments, and one can only think with trepidation of a concerto performance by our student orchestra with Mr. Mozart. Naturally he proved to be an entertaining man at dinner and spoke amusingly of his travels. It was perhaps significant that he and our colleagues seemed to have few acquaintances in common. One lady colleague was offended by an anecdote our guest told and left early. We are glad as a faculty to have had the chance to meet the visitor but do not see our way to recommending an appointment, and least of all with tenure. Our first need, as I have emphasized in your office, is for a specialist in music education primary methods.

Please give my regards to Mr. Mozart when you write him. I am sure he will continue to do well in that very different world he has chosen and which suits him better, I believe than higher education.

Yours sincerely,

Y……. Z………
Chairman, Department of Music

P.S. Some good news. Our senior professor of composition tells me there is now a very good chance that a movement of his concerto will have its premiere next season. You will remember his work was commissioned by a foundation and won first prize nine years ago.

The Serpent (and I thought the trombone gets no respect)

The serpent was the bass of the old wooden cornett. As such, it predates the invention of keys and mechanics that make them work. It got its name from its  curvy shape. No one would have been able to hold it or finger it if it were straight. As it is, the tone holes are placed according to where the player’s fingers can reach them and the right size for the player’s fingers to cover them. They are neither large enough nor properly placed for either optimum tone or intonation according to the laws of acoustics.

As the quotations below amply demonstrate, it was a useful instrument for some purposes, but only because nothing was any better. Most musicians whose views have come down to us seem to have disliked it. And yet it is the grandfather of both the modern tuba and the modern saxophone. (If you play neither of those instruments, go ahead and smirk!)

Canon Edme Guillaume: “The instrument gave a fresh zest to Gregorian Plainsong.”

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621): “Most unlovely and bullocky.”

Georg F. Handel (1685-1759): (On hearing the Serpent for the first time) “Aye, but not the Serpent that seduced Eve.”

Charles Burney (1726-1814): “In the French churches, there is an instrument on each side of the choir, called the Serpent, from its shape, I suppose, for it undulates like one. This gives the tone in chanting, and plays the bass when they sing in parts. It mixes with them better than the organ, (and) is less likely to overpower or destroy by bad temperament, that perfect tone of which only the voice is capable. The Serpent keeps the voices up to their pitch, and so is a kind of crutch for them to lean on.”

Marin Mersenne (1588-1648): “To accompany as many as twenty of the most powerful singers and yet play the softest chamber music with the most delicate grace notes.”

J. Viret: “A type of clumsy and unsightly cornett.”

Charles Burney (again): “The Serpent is not only overblown and detestably out of tune, but exactly resembling in tone that of a great hungry, or rather angry Essex calf.”

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): “The essentially barbaric timbre of this instrument would have been far more appropriate to the ceremonies of the bloody cult of the Druids than to those of the Catholic religion. There is only one exception to be made – the case where the Serpent is employed in the Masses for the Dead, to reinforce the terrible plainsong of the Dies Irae. Then, no doubt, its cold and abominable howling is in place.”

Abbe Beaugeois: “The (Serpent) student needs a good ear, because many of the notes are only given by the lips.”

Marin Mersenne (again): “But the true bass of the cornett is performed with the Serpent, so that one can say that one without the other is a body without a soul.”

There’s more where these came from: Serpent Anecdotes & Quotes.

What color is the Blue Danube?

Is the beautiful blue Danube blue? Slonimsky reports that someone in Vienna watched it for an hour every day for a year to note its color. It was green 255 days, gray 60 days, yellow 40 days, brown 10 days, and not once blue. According to a letter to the New York Times in 1945, it was, in fact, blue upstream from Vienna. Was it blue in Vienna when Strauss wrote the waltz? How far upstream do we  have to go to see it blue today?

Creole Band

The first jazz band to tour the vaudeville circuit, and therefore gain recognition outside of New Orleans, was the Creole Band (James Palao, violin; Fred Keppard, cornet; George Baquet, clarinet; Eddie Vincent, trombone; Ollie”Dink” Johnson, drums; Norwood Williams, guitar; and Bill Johnson, bass). They declined an offer to make commercial recordings, therefore giving the prestige and fame of making the first recorded jazz to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white band. The Creole Band virtually disappeared from jazz history until Lawrence Gushee published  his Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band in 2005.

An Earnest Request

Everybody knows not to leave cell phones on at a concert. Or at least everyone has heard reminders before concerts. What could have possibly created such a disturbance before the noisy things were invented? Here’s a note printed on the front of the Glyndebourne program of 1935:

“Patrons are earnestly requested not to flash TORCHES during the Performances. It is aggravating to the rest of the audience but intolerable to the Artists. It is much worse than ‘walking behind the bowler’s arm’ at cricket.”

Now that we know that, what annoyed audiences before the invention of the flashlight?

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.

How did you come to love music?

My father has always loved his record collection. Some of my earliest memories are the records he played whenever he had some leisure time. (I’ll date myself. The earliest were 78s, for whatever it’s worth.) He loves classical music and the popular music of  his generation–mostly big band jazz. Since I grew up with those sounds in the house–if not constantly, then very frequently–I suspect that’s why I grew up loving classical music and big band jazz.

What about other classical music lovers–and lovers of popular music from before your own generation? How did you come to love it? From hearing in throughout childhood, or some other way?

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)

When “classical”; music was “popular”–Part 1

Everyone knows that Rossini’s operas are part of “classical music,” but it hasn’t always been that way. During Rossini’s lifetime, he was widely reviled by lovers of “classical” music, as were many other operatic composers. One writer in a French journal proclaimed that there were only two kinds of musicians: classicists and Rossinists. Like nearly everyone else who wrote for the major journals, he was a Rossini-disdaining classicist. I have put “classical” in quotation marks, but when that French critic used it, it meant something very specific.

For one brief, shining moment in music history (the late eighteenth century), everyone at all levels of the social ladder (or at least the nobility, their servants, and the rising middle class) enjoyed the same music. The major world capitals of the time were London, Paris, and Vienna, and while each had their own local favorite composers, the instrumental music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was played and loved everywhere. It was built on sonata form, rondos, themes with variations, and a few other standard forms. Audiences delighted in hearing how cleverly they could manipulate these few structures and build fresh melodies and harmonies from a few simple motives. (Italian composers continued to dominate opera internationally as they had for more than a century.)

According to William Weber (in Music and the Middle Class), the French Revolution put an end to concert life in Paris for about twenty years. At about the same time, concert life also ceased in London. It did not cease in Vienna, but the quality of orchestral performance declined dramatically. By the time concert life revived in these capitals, audiences no longer remembered how to listen for clever handling of these forms. Haydn and Mozart were dead. There was no logical successor to Beethoven. Social and economic conditions in these three capitals had not been conducive to the development of a new generation of composers capable of writing music comparable to this triumvirate, now recognized as “classical” composers. No other cities in Europe had sufficient influence to put their resident composers on the international stage.

Meanwhile, the concept of music as a business developed. According to Charles Hamm (Yesterdays: or, Popular Song in America), the English conceived the idea of song writing and publishing as a business in the late eighteenth century. When music became a commodity more than an art form, when it was intended to appeal to mass taste rather than to connoisseurs, popular music in the modern sense was born. Mass taste demands both familiarity and novelty.  Making a profit from it demands a product with a short shelf-life: new music enough like last year’s to be comfortable, but enough different to make what was songs more than a year or two old seem faintly old-fashioned.

Once France recovered from the Revolution, Paris became the center for virtuoso pianists like Henri Herz, Frédéric Kalkbrenner, and Johann Peter Pixis, as well as the very successful teacher Franz Hünten, who did not perform publicly. Karl Czerny of Vienna was also a notable teacher, who performed but some but did not travel. As much businessmen as musicians, these pianists composed music prolifically, counting on their fame as performers and teachers to sell the sheet music. Their playing and their compositions showed more care for flash and dazzle of performance technique than for cleverness of form, melody, or harmony. Like the English composers and publishers, they constantly sought to produce something new,  but not different enough to scare away their audience.

At about the same time, Paris became the operatic capital of the world, not only for opera in French, but opera in Italian. No Italian composer could be counted as truly successful even in Italian theaters without first having achieved recognition in Paris. Opera had been a business since the first commercial opera  house opened in 1637, but it had always appealed to the aristocracy. In Paris, composers like Rossini and Meyerbeer quickly learned how to appeal to a mass audience, leading more old-fashioned opera lovers to lament that these new composers were plagiarizing themselves, that each new opera was nothing but new flash and dazzle clothing the same old same old.

Meanwhile, Johann Strauss, Sr., and Joseph Lanner discovered that the orchestra could be a business. First as partners, then as rivals, they developed two distinct seasons: one for balls and other dances, and the other for relaxed concerts called promenades (the latter idea borrowed by Strauss from the French conductor/composerof light music Philippe Musard). Strauss was the first conductor to take an orchestra on an international tour. In order to appeal to a mass audience, Strauss and Lanner both composed hundreds of dances, marches, and other short and light pieces over their short lifetimes.

Is it any wonder that lovers of classical music hated this new music? It emphasized quantity over quality. It was superficial in its effects, as there was hardly any novelty in the handling of form, motive, or harmonic structure.  It was business, not art. And is it any wonder that lovers of the new music could not understand why the classicists could barely tolerate anything written by living composers? They seemed to be living in the past, not the present. They seemed to be snobbish and to consider themselves superior in taste to everyone else.

Eventually, Rossini’s overtures became acceptable on symphonic concerts. Most of his operas disappeared from the repertoire for generations. In the 1950s and 1960s, the joke was that a highbrow was anyone who could listen to his William Tell overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger. But before the 1850s, no self-respecting highbrow would have listened to it enough to recognize just which Rossini piece it was.

(First published in The All-Purpose Guru on September 10, 2009)