Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofé




Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite remains one of the most popular of American orchestral pieces. He first wrote it for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and devoted his entire career to popular music. Classical music critics long scorned popular music. Throughout the 20th century, most standard classical music reference works ignored popular music figures as much as possible. The 1980 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, has no article on Grofé, although it devotes ample space to some of his contemporaries who never composed anything as successful as the Grand Canyon Suite. The few available … Continue reading

How Original Band Music Marginalized the Concert Band




When Patrick S. Gilmore took over leadership of the New York 22nd Regiment Band, he took it on a coast-to-coast tour. The age of the professional touring band had begun. Like all bands before or contemporaneous with the Gilmore Band, as it soon became known, it performed a mix of music for popular entertainment and serious orchestral and operatic repertoire. Music composed originally for concert band was limited to marches, music Gilmore’s soloists wrote for themselves, and other lighter fare by Gilmore himself. Gilmore’s great successor John Philip Sousa and all their notable contemporaries constructed comparable concert programs. Not until … Continue reading

Rodeo, by Aaron Copland




Rodeo: The Courting at Burnt Ranch launched the ballet career of Agnes de Mille in 1942. It remains one of only three of de Mille’s ballets that remain in the repertoire. The greatness and popularity of Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet deserves at least some of the credit, but it almost didn’t get written at all. When de Mille spoke to Copland about the basic theme of the ballet, he responded that he had already written a western ballet (Billy the Kid, 1938). Why should he write another one? Why couldn’t she provide him with something about Ellis Island? … Continue reading

From the New World: 9th symphony by Antonin Dvořák




Antonin Dvořák came to America because of a woman who was used to getting her own way. In 1884, a wealthy arts patroness in New York, Jeanette Thurber, established the National Conservatory of Music and hired a Belgian singer as its first director. The Conservatory was unusual for a number of reasons: She conceived and ran it as a philanthropic, not commercial venture. Therefore, it admitted students who otherwise could not have gotten a musical education. Women as well as men comprised the student body. The student body was not limited to white students. Some Native American and African American … Continue reading

Olympic fanfare(s): John Williams and Leo Arnaud




With the Olympics in progress, and snippets of John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme heard constantly, it seems good to take a closer look at this piece–especially since Williams’ 80th birthday is this month. One of Williams’ challenges in composing Olympic Fanfare and Theme was writing music that could bear comparison with a 20-year-old theme that was already synonymous with the Olympics. Another favorite Olympic theme Ever since the modern Olympics began in 1896, music has been composed especially for various Olympiads. Most of it seems to have been forgotten soon afterward. Ironically, the best known music associated with the … Continue reading

America’s top ten musical Presidents




The current presidential election has already outstayed its welcome well before the primaries are even over. Perhaps I can offer some musical diversion. President Obama has broken into song on a couple of recent occasions, and Billboard ran a list of five other Presidents with varying levels of musical accomplishment. Some references to it say that Billboard put Obama at the top of the list. The list is in reverse chronological order, with the very musical but very early President Thomas Jefferson at the bottom. Still, at worst Obama fared better with his foray into music than Jimmy Carter did. … Continue reading

Moses Asch, Harry Smith, and the Anthology of American Folk Music




A dreamer and an eccentric, working together, turned the American music industry on its ear. They issued a revolutionary recorded anthology. In the first half of the twentieth century, so-called Tin Pan Alley composers, who mostly lived in New York, produced the bulk of America’s popular music. Their sophisticated, urban music did not satisfy all the musical needs of the entire country. The singing and fiddling of rural musicians made no impression on the country’s city and town dwellers until the appearance of the Anthology of American Folk Music. Moses Asch, the dreamer, had made it his life’s goal to … Continue reading

Duke Ellington’s music: how did he do it?




Duke Ellington was hardly a composer at all in the traditional sense. For centuries, both “classical” and “popular” composers had worked in solitude. They often collaborated with other people in the process, but they worked out their ideas by themselves. Ellington composition didn’t usually come about that way. He didn’t compose for instruments. He composed for people, and he needed those people around him. Composers rarely share their procedures with the public, but Ellington briefly described his in a magazine article. Sometimes he wrote out a melody, worked out the arrangement, and presented it to the band. That’s traditional composition, … Continue reading

What becomes of new music for orchestra?




The most recent concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra featured the world premiere of Queen Anne’s Revenge by Mark O’Connor. It is named for the notorious pirate Blackbeard’s ship, which ran aground and sank in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1718. Like much of O’Connor’s music, the piece moves seamlessly from the sound of country fiddlin’ to more standard orchestral sounds and back again. I found it absolutely delightful and wonder what will become of it. One big reason why German composers dominated nineteenth-century orchestral music was that so many German towns had orchestras. That meant that a … Continue reading

The English headwaters of American hymn singing




I expect that hardly any of my readers have ever heard of William Tans’ur. That is partly because the history of church music in the eighteenth century has been written almost exclusively about music for various courts and major cities, to the exclusion of music for country churches. But Tans’ur appears to have had more influence on musical life in colonial America, including the important composer William Billings, than anyone else. The name William Tanzer appears in the baptismal register at Dunchurch in 1706, the son of a common laborer named Edward Tanzer. As an adult, William adopted the spelling … Continue reading