Songs of September




September 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

5 great stories about great composers




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, … 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

Fun classical music trivia: a tabloid view of famous composers




How can I prove that we call classical music isn’t stuffy and highbrow? Composers and performers of earlier generations were every bit as nutty as anyone the tabloids write about today. George Frederick Handel The composer of Messiah loved to eat. At one tavern he ordered way more food than any one person would normally eat–that is, at least before today’s super-sized restaurant portions. Then he waited. And waited. After a very long time, he demanded to know why he had to wait so long. The host told him the cook was waiting until his company arrived. Handel responded, “Then … Continue reading

Christmas posts on Musicology for Everyone




Now that we have finished observing Thanksgiving, it’s the right time to start thinking forward to Christmas. I have some more posts planned for the coming month, but here are things I have published over the last two years. I switched from Blogger to WordPress in the mean time, so chances are that bookmarks and any existing links to these posts won’t work. The following, of course, are up to date. Beloved Christmas Carols Chanticleer sings “In the bleak midwinter” The Christmas song  Good Christian men rejoice  O come all ye faithful  O come o come Emmanuel O holy night  … Continue reading

Tommy Dorsey, Thomas A. Dorsey: two different great musicians




Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956) had a rare blend of musical ability and business sense that enabled him to lead one of the most successful dance bands of his era. Famously hard to get along with, he started out with his brother Jimmy, broke with him, and then reconciled later in his life. Tommy Dorsey’s sumptuous cantabile on the trombone is one of the most recognizable sounds of the swing era. He was white, by the way. Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) is considered the father of (black) gospel music. He started his musical career as a blues and jazz band leader, much … Continue reading

Two British composers as trombonists: Holst and Elgar




Gustav Holst made his living for a while as a trombonist. Edward Elgar, for some reason, decided to learn to play trombone when he was 43. Holst, therefore, was a trombonist who later became a well-known composer. History has known several trombonist composers. If we include jazz trombonists who become noted arrangers, the number becomes legion. Elgar, on the other hand is an example of a well-known composer who later became a trombonist–of sorts. He is probably not unique, but there can’t be very many others. When Holst was a music student at the Royal College of Music, he was … Continue reading

The selling of Gounod’s Faust




Who can think of Charles Gounod without thinking of Faust, one of the most successful operas of the entire nineteenth century? And yet it looked for a while like its London premiere would be a dismal failure. Impresario James Henry Mapleson learned a few days before it was scheduled that only 30 pounds worth of seats had been sold. The cashier told him that there was no sense in performing it four successive nights as scheduled, because it had attracted no interest from the public. Mapleson had another idea. No tickets to the first three performances would be offered for … Continue reading

Schnabel the mathematician




Have you ever heard people at a restaurant trying to figure out how much each owes when they couldn’t get separate checks? Opinions can become quite heated. The same thing might very well happen to a group of musicians trying to decide how to split a single fee for a concert among themselves. It helps to have someone  very good at math and very persuasive that his or her solution is fair to everyone. Pianist Artur Schnabel, violinist Bronislaw Hubermann, violist Paul Hindemith, and cellist Gregor Piatagorsky faced just that situation in 1933. Johannes Brahms would have been 100 years … Continue reading

Louis Moreau Gottschalk and thirteen and a half pianists




American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk grew up in New Orleans and made such an excellent reputation there that he decided to try his hand at a European tour. There, he joined the traveling virtuoso circuit and conquered France, Switzerland and Spain. Critics compared him as a pianist to Chopin. His compositions more nearly resemble what I have described in earlier posts as “high-status popular music”—brilliant displays of bravura playing coupled with the novelty of his Creole background. At the same time Gottschalk was in France, Pierre Musard and his various rivals put on “monster concerts,” which featured a … Continue reading