Fiddler on the Roof: Celebrating 50 Years

Fiddler on the Roof scene
Fiddler on the Roof scene

Scene from a production at Notre Dame De Namur University Theatre, April 2006

The year 1964 saw the premieres of some of our most outstanding Broadway musicals, including Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof is based on eight stories about Tevye the milkman by Sholem Aleichem written between 1894 and 1914. Tevye has extended conversations with a character named Sholem Aleichem.

To what extent does this Sholem Aleichem speak with the author’s voice, and to what extent is he as fictitious as Tevye? Even his contemporaries couldn’t figure it out. Likewise, it is not clear how faithful the stories are to real historical conditions.

Aleichem’s stories have no fiddler. The show’s name came from a painting by Marc Chagall, which also inspired the original set. Continue reading

Songs of September

September, rain

September, rainSeptember sees the beginning of the harvest of nature’s abundance, but then the fields stop growing.

It displays flamboyant color, as the leaves turn from uniform green to variegated reds, oranges, and yellows. But then autumn turns a dull brown.

Relief from the heat of summer invigorates for a while, but gives way to melancholy.

September melancholy has inspired some wonderful songs. Continue reading

When the trombone was almost cool

trombonist contest winner

Winning trombonist of the 1849 Paris Conservatory contest

There have been two periods in history where solo trombone captured the popular imagination. Most recently, jazz made stars of Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Leonard Brown, Tommy Dorsey, J. J. Johnson and too many others to mention.

Jazz no longer defines popular music in America. No living trombonist has the same standing in public esteem.

The other period began in Germany early in the 19th century and quickly spread worldwide, even to the US, then struggling to establish its own musical life. English musical life included many trombone soloists, all but one of them human.

France also produced very successful trombone soloists. And a wannabe who published an angry notice over his failure to persuade the rest of French society how cool the trombone was. Continue reading

Kingdom Coming by Henry C. Work: abolitionist minstrel song

Kingdom Coming / Henry Clay Work, 14th thousand, 1862
Kingdom Coming, by Henry Clay Work, 1863 cover

Kingdom Coming, 1863 cover

Popular songs usually don’t have a very long shelf life, but sometimes they’re more than just songs. Some of them affect the course of social and political events. Even after no one sings them or recognizes them any more, these are worth studying for their historical significance.

I thought “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work was such a song. In form it’s a minstrel song, with a text in the slave dialect. Unlike almost any other minstrel song, it conveys a strong abolitionist sentiment.

Poets who disdained the minstrel song tradition wrote abolitionist texts in dialect, which also became popular songs, but they managed to offend the many who did not share their abolitionist viewpoints. That same audience embraced “Kingdom Coming” without hesitation.

So I assumed I’d be writing about forgotten historical relic. And then when I looked it up online, I found it has its own Wikipedia page! It made sense when I picked a video and listened. Continue reading

The versatility of Lawrence Brown, Ellington’s lead trombonist

Lawrence_Brown_1943The self-deprecating Lawrence Brown is best known as one the great players in Duke Ellington’s trombone section. In fact, when Brown joined, the Ellington band became the first jazz band to have three trombones. He is, of course, more than just a number.

He became the band’s lead trombonist and a very versatile soloist. How versatile? In addition to his incredible displays of virtuosity, he is probably the first of the great jazz ballad trombonists.

But I described him as self-deprecating. He frequently spoke poorly of his own ability. It must have been an attempt to appear humble. If he believed his comments, it’s hard to see how anyone with so little self-confidence could succeed in anything! Continue reading

Before Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Became a Cliche

Beethoven. popular music,classical music Vienna
Beethoven in 1804 when he composed the Fifth Symphony

Beethoven in 1804, the year he composed his Fifth Symphony / Detail of a portrait by W. J. Mähler

Not too long ago, when an orchestra announced it would play a piece of new music, they had to program it carefully. They performed between two very well-known and popular pieces and right before intermission.

The audience was stuck if it wanted to hear both favorites. New music was like medicine. It’s good for you, but no one expects you to like it. All of the favorites were once new. They never would have survived if audiences of their day behaved like modern audiences.

What is classical music, anyway?

Narrowly speaking “classical” music refers to the generation of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, although only Beethoven was still living by the time anyone started to call it classical in order to distinguish it from popular music.

Basically the audience for popular music valued novelty and virtuosity above all else. They expected to be able to grasp it at first hearing and had no patience with music they had to study and hear over and over. That was for classical audiences, who wanted music that revealed something new and delightful on repeated listening. Continue reading

Medieval Night Watchmen and the Modern Wind Band

medieval wall and towers
medieval wall and towers

Duke Louis II of Anjou’s entrance to Paris / Froissart chronicles, 14th century

What do a night watchman and a professional musician have in common? The first professional wind musicians were night watchmen.

Many modern wind instruments can find their ancestors being played from towers to keep the city safe at night and entertain citizens by day.

Protective walls surrounded every European town of any significance until the 18th century. Many cities had hundreds of towers. Continue reading

Hello Dolly! Celebrating 50 Years

Hello Dolly!
Hello Dolly!

Trailer screen shot from the movie (1969) with Barbra Streisand

Hello Dolly! opened January 16, 1964 and closed after 2844 performances on December 27, 1970. No previous Broadway musical had such a long run. Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi led the cast. It also ran for 794 performances at London’s West End.

The Broadway show won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and for Channing, Best Actress in a Musical. Not till 35 years later did another musical surpass Hello Dolly! Continue reading

The most song-inspiring Northern general: McClellan?

Parade march (McClellan)Of all the songs published during the American Civil War, many are dedicated to individuals. They are mostly about generals, although Union publishers issued two tributes to captains.

It’s no surprise that the greatest number of these songs concern the best-known leaders. But who would have thought there would be more about Gen. George B. McClellan than any other general? Continue reading

Symphony no. 7 by Sergey Prokofiev

prokofiev portrait

I never gave much thought to Prokofiev symphonies until my orchestra needed to hire a new conductor. We interviewed six semi-finalists and listened to them explain a sample program. Five of the six built their proposed program around Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony! We’re working on performing it now.

Prokofiev as symphonist

prokofiev portrait

Prokofiev in New York, 1918

When Sergey Prokofiev first performed some of his piano music in public (in 1908) critics found it unintelligible. In response, he carefully maintained his reputation as an ultramodern radical.  Continue reading