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.


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.

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.