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

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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.
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Armies have used trumpet calls as signals to the troops for centuries. Because early trumpets had no valves and early trumpeters played only the lowest notes in the overtone series, only four or five notes are available. When trumpets became fully chromatic in the early nineteenth century with the invention of valves, military calls did not take advantage of the easy availability of extra notes. In fact, the military soon gave up trumpets in favor of bugles for their basic calls.

As simple as these calls must be, someone had to compose them. In recent history, the task has usually fallen to military band masters: capable, thoroughly trained musicians. For example, David Buhl, the leader of Napoleon’s cavalry band, composed not only the signals used to regulate soldiers’ activities, but also a number off ceremonial fanfares for an ensemble of trumpets, horns, and trombones. These compositions, including  not only battle signals, but signals to extinguish lights for the night and to wake up in the morning, were issued in army drill manuals.

The best known American military tune, Taps, is an interesting exception, the work of the musically illiterate Gen. Daniel Butterworth in 1862 with the help of his musically literate bugler Oliver Norton.

As a colonel in the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia, Butterfield had issued an order in 1859 that all officers and non-commissioned officers be thoroughly familiar with the first thirty pages of the first volume of Winfield Scott’s manual on tactics. He apparently considered thorough familiarity to include the ability to sound all the bugles calls, as he mentioned in a letter to the magazine Century in 1898. He also mentioned that he had devised a short call to precede all other calls that were intended for his brigade alone.

Scott’s manual included a lights-out call known as “Scott’s Tattoo,” but shortly before the war started, another signal replaced it. Butterfield disliked it. It seemed to formal to signal the end of day. Taps, as we know it, greatly resembles the last line of “Scott’s Tattoo.” Butterfield’s and Norton’s recollections differ somewhat, but it appears that Butterfield worked out some changes in rhythm to make the piece smoother and more melodic, found someone to write his version on paper, and then went to Norton to polish it further.

Norton (also writing in 1898) recalled that after he started sounding Taps, buglers of other brigades asked him for copies of the music, and thereafter, it rapidly spread throughout the union army.

How did a signal to return to camp and extinguish lights for the night become so famous as a call for military funerals? Later in 1862, a cannoneer of Battery A, 2nd (or 3rd) Artillery, was killed in action. Traditionally, his regiment would have honored his burial by firing three volleys, but Captain John S. Tidball realized that it would cause renewed fighting with the enemy so close. He ordered the sounding of Taps as a substitute. Again, the practice spread throughout the army until it eventually became mandatory.

I am indebted to a friend who alerted me to the research of Jari A.Villanueva: “24 notes that tap deep emotion” and “History of Taps.”

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.