April in Paris, by Vernon Duke

April in Paris

April in Paris

Vernon Duke didn’t expect “April in Paris” to be a hit. He had written his first complete score for a Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster, in 1932. It did not include that song.

Walk a Little Faster was one of the few shows that opened in the early years of the Depression.

The producer got a hold of a second-hand Parisian set and wanted a song to go with it. Nothing Duke had written fit. Continue reading

Answers to a Civil War tearjerker: Weeping sad and lonely

weeping sad and lonely coverIn a nation torn and divided over slavery, everyone could unite in their fear and grief at the carnage.

“Weeping Sad and Lonely, or, When This Cruel War Is Over” became the most popular of the many songs that expressed it.

Families on both sides of the conflict sang it. So did the soldiers. The lyrics sounded such a note of despair that some commanders tried to forbid soldiers to sing it.

It was so successful commercially that it inspired more optimistic songs explicitly published as answers to it. Continue reading

Classical and pop music: 200 years of rivalry

classical music composers (vs pop music)Is classical music or pop music better? Perhaps you’ve seen conversations on sites like quora.com or debate.org. Did you know that these arguments have been going on for more than 200 years?

Typically, someone will ask if classical music is superior to pop music, or if classical music has to be elitist. Or perhaps someone will post a putdown of one, which will attract passionate defenses.

It amazes me how little people in these discussions actually know. Some of them, for example, contrast classical music and modern music. That’s on both sides.

They seem not to know that popular music existed before Elvis Presley, or even before Frank Sinatra. They apparently don’t know that plenty of modern music is written for symphony orchestras or other typically classical ensembles. Continue reading

9 odd wind instruments you have probably never seen

Over the last couple of centuries, inventors have brought out a remarkable number of odd wind instruments that somehow never became successful. Or if they did, their success didn’t last. In some cases, pieces in the standard orchestral repertoire call for one or more. There is a growing interest in restoring them for performance of this music.




At the beginning of the 19th century, as the orchestra began to expand, only two instruments existed that could serve as bass of the brass choir: the bass trombone and the serpent. Neither was satisfactory.

The serpent, a cornett-like bass instrument invented in the late 16th century, had its tone holes cut to fit players’ fingers. They were acoustically neither drilled in the right places nor large enough. Continue reading

Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 by George Enescu

Georges Enesco as a child

Enescu with his violin as a young child

George Enescu (1881-1955) was 3 when he heard some village fiddlers. The next day he tried to imitate the instruments.

He made a violin by attaching some thread to a piece of wood and a cimbalom from some wooden sticks. He imitated the reed pipe with his lips.

His parents noticed his growing preoccupation with music and gave him a toy violin with three strings when he was 4. Offended at not getting a real violin, he threw it in the fire.

Once they bought him a real one, he started picking out tunes by ear, using one finger on a single string.

Eduard Caudella, professor of composition at the Conservatory in Iași, noticed him when he was 5 and persuaded his parents to let him direct the boy’s musical studies. Young Jurjac (his family’s pet name for him) made his first attempts at composition when he was 6. Continue reading

Tricky Sam Nanton and the jungle trombone

Trio with Tricky Sam Nanton

A trio of Duke Ellington’s musicians, Hurricane Ballroom, April 1943. Left to right: Tricky Sam Nanton, Harry Carney, Wallace Jones

The trombone was once regarded as the voice of God and long considered grand and noble, but the early 20th century saw development of different, more raucous trombone sounds.

Duke Ellington and his first great trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton developed the “jungle sound.” In Nanton’s hands, the trombone learned to growl with a plunger and mute.

Ellington’s band had the reputation of having the “dirtiest” sound of any jazz band. Although many pioneers of jazz knew and loved “high class” music like opera, the early jazz audiences probably didn’t. While more “refined” audiences may have found the jungle sound repellant, jazz audiences loved it. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: We Three Kings

we three kings“We Three Kings” isn’t exactly a Christmas carol. The coming of the kings marks Epiphany, but that doesn’t keep people from singing it earlier.

Three men or boys have been selected to sing the solo parts the song assigns to each king in at least tens of thousands of Christmas pageants and Christmas parties over the years. Continue reading

Youth orchestras: killing two stereotypes at once

Berkeley Youth Orchestra

Berkeley Youth Orchestra beginning bass class

Young people these days can’t be pried away from their cell phones. They’re lazy and undisciplined. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype.

Classical music is just about dead according to obituaries that seem to appear in magazine articles and well-read blogs every year.

No one cares about such old-fashioned music except an increasingly aging population. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype.

Don’t be fooled. Youth orchestras all over the country (and all over the world, for that matter, in case the stereotypes cross international borders) work very hard to polish performances of the standard orchestral repertoire. They love the music, and they work hard to master it, taking lessons, practicing, and attending rehearsals (including sectional rehearsals).  Continue reading

Music Inspired by Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, Hayez

L’ultimo bacio dato a Giulietta da Romeo / Francesco Hayek (1823)

William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe.

No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music.

In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music.

This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet operas. Continue reading

Composers: quotations about other composers

composers quotationsAs a lover of classical music, you enjoy the music of many composers, but dislike others.

Composers are no different, except that they are required to study other composers’ music carefully whether they like it or not, both their contemporaries and generations of earlier composers.

Perhaps you have never heard of Brian Ferneyhough. Living composers are little known to today’s public, but he made the observation more eloquently than I can:

“Composers dialogue – and obsessively, bitterly argue – with other composers, often over the span of several centuries.” Continue reading