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

Kid Ory, Trombonist, Businessman

Kid Ory by John E Reed

Portrait of Kid Ory by John E Reed

Music history has no shortage of musicians with no business sense.

In jazz, Jack Teagarden never led a successful band; he drank too much, was too generous with friends, and had no idea how to make contracts.

Fletcher Henderson failed so miserably financially that he had to sell all of his arrangements to Benny Goodman just to get money.

In contrast, Kid Ory, the legendary tailgate trombonist, displayed his business sense at the age of 8, the same time he started performing music. Continue reading

Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials

Scandinavia_regions_mapJean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865.

They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists.

For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both.

On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths.

Continue reading

Race relations, social change, and American music

Minstrel show poster. earliest jazz recordings
Minstrel show poster 1910

Minstrel show poster, 1910, showing two portraits of Billy Van

Race relations in the US are probably better than at any time in history.

The recent racially motivated mass murder at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina demonstrates that they are not good enough.

Many simmering misunderstandings and controversies rooted in racial tension likewise show that we have a long way to go achieve racial harmony.

Harmony. That’s a musical term.

The history of American music reflects the history of race relations. Music has also played a role in bridging the racial divide. Continue reading

Getting off the classical music merry-go-round

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall. How much of the music played inside as bold as the architecture?

Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true.

If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off.

The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts.

For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio.

Performing organizations always seek to enlarge the audience by attracting new people to classical music. That’s a vital task, but let’s not forget an equally important way: induce the people who currently listen to classical music to consume 10% more of it.

In principle, the classical music audience would grow by that much if everyone who’s already part of it would go to 10% more concerts every year, buy 10% more recordings, and listen to classical radio 10% more. The repertoire stands in the way.

Expand the canon, expand the audience

Berlioz caricatuare

A well-known caricature of Berlioz by Andreas Geiger, when his music was new and controversially bold.

Over-reliance on the same classical canon of mostly 18th– and 19th-century music steps away from modern life.

When the term “classical music” first appeared, it referred specifically to the Viennese triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Two of them were already dead. Classical music has always played the music of dead composers and always will.

Younger composers who aspired to write music like the revered classicists emerged soon enough. As they grew old and died, their music enriched the repertoire, but the percentage of concert music by living composers has steadily decreased.

That’s not only because the younger composers (beginning with the generation of Berlioz and Mendelssohn and continuing through the generation of Gorecki and Schnittke) have also died.

The generation of composers who emerged after the Second World War, including Stockhausen, Boulez, Babbitt, and others developed a strong contempt for concert-goers and, in some cases, any music composed earlier than their own efforts.

New music therefore became poison at the box office. If it appeared on concerts at all, it came after the first beloved classic, just before intermission. The piece most of the audience probably most wanted to hear came after intermission. They had to suffer through the new piece in order to hear anything they really liked.

modern composer John Adams

How much music by Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams have concert audiences had much chance to hear?

Since about the 1980s, “classical” composers have once again wanted to appeal to an audience. Likely as not, their music owes as great stylistic debt to rock music.

Orchestras never play any of it often enough for audiences to become familiar with it. One year I constantly heard The Infernal Machine by Christopher Rowse. Never since. A Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams was all the rage for a while, but a long time ago.

How many concert goers can even name more than one or two living composers?

Of course orchestras should play the music of Beethoven and other great masters. They shouldn’t play only the music of the great masters. People not already steeped in classical music don’t relate to it.

The classical music canon now consists largely of music written at a time when it was expected to be smooth, flowing, and sensuously beautiful. The music of our own time and most of the previous century, including not only modern “classical” music, but especially popular music, is not smooth, flowing, and sensuously beautiful.

Igor Stravinsky is a revered composer, but orchestras perform his music less and less. I can’t remember the last time I heard any of it on the radio. Has it ever occurred to our most prominent orchestras and choruses that audiences steeped in rock (and perhaps jazz) might find the music of composers who aren’t dead yet or died only within the past half century more accessible than Mozart?

Do audiences need permission?

Honneger on 1996 Swiss 20 franc note

Honneger on 1996 Swiss 20 franc note

Within living memory, orchestras expanded the repertoire by reviving the music of a composer who had been ignored for half a century. The concert going public at mid century did not hear much of Gustav Mahler’s music.

Then, famous conductors (Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, Dmitri Mitropoulos, John Barbirolli, Leonard Bernstein, and more) began to perform and record Mahler’s symphonies.

That much star power gave audiences permission to like Mahler after decades of neglect. By the 1970s the Mahler revival had become an irresistible force. Today Mahler is one of the most frequently performed composers of all.

Is Mahler’s music really vastly superior to that of dozens of his contemporaries, whose music rarely appears on concert programs? Where is the chance to hear and learn to like composers like Malcolm Arnold, Wilhelm Stenhammar, André Jolivet, Alan Hovhannes?

Or just to name composers who have been dead about as long as Mahler had been in the 1970s, Charles Koechlin, Arthur Honneger, John Alden Carpenter, Ernst Bloch, Bohuslav Martinu, George Antheil, and Hugo Alfvén?

If orchestras and other musical organizations would perform unfamiliar music (especially music by living composers, but also the more recently deceased) often enough and consistently enough to give the audience “permission” to like it, concerts would become more interesting and have a greater chance of getting people to attend more of them.

I play for a community orchestra that in recent years has played music like Stravinsky’s Firebird, Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony, Márquez’ Danzon 2, and Copland’s Rodeo and Red Pony.

I keep reading and hearing complaints about too much of the same old merry-go-round in classical programming. I, too, get tired of hearing nothing on classical radio but music from Bach to Debussy,with the masters supplemented mostly by their second- and third-rate contemporaries.

If a community orchestra can go beyond the same old same old, why not our major concert organizations and classical music radio? And it’s not enough to play some token newish pieces once in a while. Today’s audience needs to hear the same newer music often enough to appreciate it, just as the audience 40 years ago needed opportunity to learn Mahler.