Music in Letters Home from Civil War Soldiers

civil war soldier

civil war soldierIn this series of posts on Civil War music I have occasionally cited Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music. Author Christian McWhirter commented twice about letters.

On the very first page he noted, ” Almost any war diary, letter collection, or memoir contains at least a passing reference to music.”

Later, in the chapter on soldiers, he wrote, “Music became intrinsically linked to the soldiers’ Civil War experiences—even combat performance—and is mentioned in almost every wartime diary, letter collection, or reminiscence.”

My sister-in-law, the family genealogist, presented us with a 100-page treatise at Christmas that fleshed out not only direct ancestors on my father’s side of the family, but their siblings and in-laws. She transcribed four extant letters from a Civil War soldier. When I noticed Civil War era letters, I expected to find reference to music. Here is is: Continue reading

I like that symphony. Who wrote it?


musicIf you attend a lot of live classical music concerts (especially orchestra concerts), chances are you hear music by the same composers over and over.

If you listen to classical music radio, you hear music by unfamiliar composers, but chances are it’s very nice music. Have you ever wondered who these composers are and why they’re not well known?

Anton Bruckner

Wait, you may say. Bruckner is hardly an unknown composer. He was one of the great symphonists of the late 19th century. Oh, and he also wrote some lovely choral music. But did it occur to you that probably no one would know about the choral music if he hadn’t become famous as a symphonist? Continue reading

Baby It’s Cold Outside, by Frank Loesser

Taxi in snow storm--baby it's cold outside

Taxi in snow storm--baby it's cold outsideHasn’t this winter been brutal? Ice storms in New Orleans, arctic temperatures in Chicago. Oh baby it’s cold outside. Hmm. That sounds like a good song title!

And of course, it’s the title of a most unusual song. There haven’t been many pop songs taking the form of a dialog and requiring two singers.

Frank Loesser wrote “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in 1944. He and his wife Lynn sang it for the first time at a housewarming party that year after they moved in to New York’s Navarro Hotel. After all, they were entertainers, and when entertainers held parties for other entertainers, everyone performed. Continue reading

You can’t play that on trombones!

Trombone Quartet
Trombone Quartet

Indiana University Trombone Quartet

According to an anecdote I read long ago and now can’t find, Theobald Boehm, inventor of modern flute fingering, spent a night at Rossini’s house. In the morning, he began a warmup, playing low trills.

Rossini burst into the room and said, “You can’t play that on a flute.” Boehm said, “But I just did.” Rossini responded, “I don’t care. You can’t play that on a flute.”

The same sentiment has followed performances on trombone, too. A European orchestra actually took Arthur Pryor’s trombone apart looking for the trickery. They knew what they had just heard was impossible. “You can’t play that on a trombone!”

But I’m not writing about soloists this time. A quartet of trombones can also astound audiences with what seems to be impossible. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Harpist's handsToday’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra, but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols.

Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it.

At about the same time, he decided to return to England, which required a sea voyage made especially dangerous by German submarine warfare. He composed music, including A Ceremony of Carols, on the voyage, finished the opera Peter Grimes once back in England, became internationally famous, and composed The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra shortly thereafter. Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

God rest ye merry, gentlemen

God rest ye merry, gentlemen“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” one of the favorite Christmas carols in the English-speaking world, may also be one of the least understood. William Sandys included it in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833. That marks its first publication, but the carol itself may have already four centuries old.

It is not at all clear whether any oral tradition of singing the carol survived until Sandys’ publication, but it certainly became immediately popular. Ten years later, Charles Dickens referred to it in A Christmas Carol: “…at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’, Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.” Continue reading

Civil War regimental bands: banned and disbanded?

regimental band portrait
regimental band portrait

8th New York State Militia Band, June 1861, in Arlington, Va., clearly showing their pre-war civilian identity on the drum.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States had a standing army and many states had their own militia. Volunteer regiments formed on both sides of the war.

No matter when or how they were organized, nearly every regiment had a band. After the war raged for a little over a year, the Union decided to abolish all its regimental bands. Does that mean that Union regiments had no bands for the rest of the war? Hardly. Continue reading

Songs against cities

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Bridge Crush March

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Bridge Crush MarchMany songs, including some well-loved standards, celebrate various American cities. Of course, no place is perfect or without its detractors. I can’t think of any really negative song that has achieved the popularity of, say, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” or “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but quite a few of them exist. Chances are you have John Denver’s putdown of Toledo, Ohio.


Speaking of Chicago, the very earliest published song I have found is based on a highly insulting satirical poem the composer/publisher found in a Pittsburgh newspaper. It compared Chicago unfavorably to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Other negative songs about Chicago include “Chicago Gouge,” W.C. Handy’s blues lament about high rents and slum conditions; “Chicago Damn;” and quirky song called “Loyalty Day ’69.” The latter, referring to the medieval practice of courtiers kissing the king’s ring, goes on for more than 20 verses about various political heavyweights lining up to kiss a more intimate part of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Continue reading

5 great stories about great composers

Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert. Detail from a watercolor portrait (1825) by Wilhelm August Rieder. Public domain.

It is quite possible to enjoy or appreciate music, or any other artform, without knowing anything about the person who created it. But in whatever form, art is a human creation.

Real people composed classical music. Real people have personalities, and knowing something about those personalities can put a human face on the music and rescue it from being a mere object.

Enjoy these glimpses into moments in the lives of the people whose music brings so much pleasure.

Franz Schubert

Between March 1811 and October 1828, Schubert wrote more than 600 songs, not to mention symphonies, church music, operas, chamber music, and piano pieces. He averaged 35 songs every year, which amounts to two or three every month. How could he keep track of all that music? He didn’t. Continue reading

Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler / photograph by Leonhard Berlin-Bieber (1892)

Gustav Mahler wrote very long symphonies. Only the First and the Fourth can be played in less than an hour. The symphonies also call for far larger orchestras than those of other composers. Some even require vocal soloists and/or chorus.

By Mahler’s time, the symphony had already come a long way from the first symphonic masterpieces. Haydn and Mozart wrote symphonies that established the expectation of a four-movement work

  • Sonata form, fast with or without a slow introduction
  • Slow movement
  • Minuet
  • Fast movement

They made sure that the structure of each movement could be clearly heard. Their sonata forms had a brief but noticeable pause before the second key area, before the development, and again before the recapitulation.

Beethoven destroyed those expectations. Continue reading