Johann Strauss, Jr.: Tales of his first orchestra tour




Johann Strauss, Sr., one of the most successful dance composers of his generation, famously did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. Johann Strauss, Jr. eventually eclipsed his father’s fame—despite the near disaster of the first of his  orchestra tours. When he was 19, Strauss Jr. enlisted 33 other young musicians and set out with high hopes and very little money. In Pancsova, a town in Lower Banat, they had run out completely. Strauss decided they would play an impromptu concert under the window of the town’s mayor. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss and his orchestra some … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about Mozart




In 1764 his father was dangerously ill. No one was allowed to touch the piano. To keep himself occupied, young Wolfgang decided to compose his first symphony for full orchestra (K.16). Mozart’s habit of laying in bed to compose alarmed his doctor, who advised him to stand while composing and get as much bodily exercise as he could. Mozart loved billiards, bowling, and skittles, largely because they did not occupy his mind. He could get some exercise and compose at the same time. His Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola (K. 498) is known as the Kegelstatt Trio (skittles alley) … Continue reading

Why do some composers and works not survive in the repertoire?




I’m sure everyone knows that the amount of classical music performed and recorded today represents only a small fraction of what has been written. It seems a common assumption that these composers must have written inferior music that deserves to be forgotten. While that is certainly true in some cases it does not explain everything. Fashions change. A hundred years ago, music lovers thought Haydn hopelessly old-fashioned. They welcomed Rossini overtures on concert programs, but only The Barber of Seville of all of his operas maintained its place on stage. They regarded Telemann as one of Bach’s inferior contemporaries and … Continue reading

The Ferris Wheel: (what does that have to do with music?)




Ferris Wheels are a staple of every amusement park that ever set up for a week in a parking lot, and usually among the tamest rides. They resemble the original Ferris Wheel, the landmark attraction of the Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago 1893), in name only. At a height of 264 feet, the Ferris Wheel towered over the rest of the fair. The 45-foot-long axle alone weighed 71 tons. No one had ever built or seen anything remotely similar. A popular and financially successful ride, it must have nonetheless invited awe and dread. In one way, however, the … Continue reading

Rossini on Wagner




Some scholars have theorized that Rossini retired from composing operas after Guillaume Tell because he disliked the direction opera was going and the kinds of things he had to write in order to maintain  his popularity. He became really upset with Wagner’s music. Two of his comments are very well known: Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour. One cannot judge ‘Lohengrin’ from a first hearing, and I certainly do not intend to hear it a second time. Those were his polite comments. Once he was talking with a singer about Wagner’s music when he decided to … Continue reading

On the many, many songs of Franz Schubert




In 1827 the composer Hummel visited Vienna and brought his sixteen-year-old student Ferdinand Hiller with him. After seeing Hummel deeply moved by hearing Schubert and singer Michael Vogl performing several of the songs, Hiller dropped in on Schubert’s home the next morning. There he saw piles of finished manuscripts laying around, with another in progress on Schubert’s desk. He exclaimed, “You compose a great deal!” Schubert answered simply and seriously, “I compose every morning. When I finish one piece I start on another” He wrote his first song, “Hagars Klage,” in March 1811 and his last, “Der Hirt auf Felsen,” … Continue reading

Niccolò Paganini: The devil’s violinist?




Niccolò Paganini became the world’s first international superstar of the violin beginning when he was 22. He could perform technical feats no other violinist could match. If anything, his showmanship was even more marvelous than his technique. The first virtuoso to perform from memory, he could  move around the stage and interact with the audience. People wondered, could his brilliance possibly be natural? Or did he have diabolical help? In part, he could outdo other violinists because he invented new techniques such as left-hand pizzicato and various new kinds of bowing and tuning. Later violinists have learned them all. But … Continue reading

Past the last minute: a Mozart overture barely finished on time




When an opera performance starts, the overture is the first thing the audience hears, but it is the last thing the composer writes. Rossini disliked writing overtures, and the various impresarios he worked for had legendary difficulties keeping him on track. I haven’t found why Mozart waited so long to compose the overture to Don Giovanni, but for whatever reason, it produced a drama equal to anything Rossini did. Don Giovanni received its first performance in Prague, and Mozart had to travel there for the rehearsals. After the dress rehearsal, that is, the night before the opening performance, Mozart decided … Continue reading

Menuhin on Toscanini




As a teenager, violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto under the baton of the volatile Arturo Toscanini. While they rehearsed in Toscanini’s apartment, the young soloist was treated to perhaps the calmest, quietest temper tantrum of Toscanini’s life. As he described it later: It was during the preparation for this performance that Toscanini showed me what it meant to be sure of oneself. In his apartment at the Hotel Astor on Times Square–which had an Italian proprietor and no doubt reliable pasta–we had reached the middle of the slow movement where, after the second tutti, the sound marked … Continue reading

But cell phones hadn’t been invented yet! (A Beethoven eccentricity)




As recently as ten years ago, it seemed strange to see someone walking down the street talking to no one visible and gesturing. Everyone wondered about whether that person was really all there. Since then, of course, we have gotten used to cell phones. Nowadays, we still might meet people who talk out loud and make gestures and don’t have a cell phone. We can still wonder about them. Are they crazy? Or maybe just an eccentric genius? Here’s how Gerhard von Breuning described Beethoven in 1825: Beethoven’s outward appearance, owing to that indifference to dress peculiar to him, made … Continue reading