Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók

Bartók and his wife fled their native Hungary and moved to New York in 1940, shortly after he composed his last work in Europe, the Sixth String Quartet. He never felt comfortable in the United States and composed nothing at all for three years. The money he received from royalties, occasional performances, and a research fellowship at Columbia University hardly provided enough to live on. To make matters worse, he contracted leukemia. The first symptoms appeared in 1940, but he did not receive a definitive diagnosis until 1944. As he got sicker and less able to work, his friends became … Continue reading

How old is that trombone joke? Really?

When I was in fifth grade, just learning trombone, one of my friends, who was learning clarinet, asked me how I could play trombone. Doesn’t it go up into my mouth? I had to take the slide apart to show him how it looked. Some time after that, I started to hear jokes about some hayseed who watched a trombonist intently, and then declared to one and all, “He don’t really swaller that thing.” Since I actually knew someone who thought I did, I guess it should be no surprise how long the confusion has been around. For those who … Continue reading

Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 73

In December 1874 Tchaikovsky completed his first piano concerto, having worked on it for a month and dedicated it to Nikolai Rubinstein, the finest pianist in Moscow. As Tchaikovsky was not a pianist, he wanted to make sure that nothing in the solo part would be technically ineffective or ungrateful or impractical. Naturally, although as he recalled later, with some misgivings, he asked Rubinstein to listen to it and give a soloist’s opinion. On Christmas Eve, the two met in a classroom at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky played through the first movement and Rubinstein didn’t utter a word. Deeply troubled … Continue reading

Beethoven explains his deafness

Visiting Bangkok, Thailand, my father slipped off a curb and broke his wrist. It seemed to him that a fall in an exotic location deserved a better story than mere carelessness. He tried to make something up about falling off an elephant, but never learned to tell it with a straight face. Beethoven must have had similar thoughts about his deafness; the story about gradual loss of hearing lacked entertainment value. Beethoven told visiting English pianist Charles Neate that he had been working on an opera–not Fidelio–and had to deal with mean-tempered tenor. The tenor had already rejected two arias … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about Gustav Mahler

When he was a little boy, someone asked Mahler what he wanted to be when he grew up; he said, “a martyr.” One day, a friend noticed that Mahler looked sad; Mahler said he had just learned that his father was ill. The next day, the same friend saw a man running through the street sobbing. It was Mahler. Had something happened to his father? It was much worse than that; he learned that Richard Wagner had died. Conducting his first Ring Cycle, Mahler was furious when the timpanist missed an important cue in the final scene of Das Rheingold; … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about J. S. Bach

When Bach was a  hungry young man with no money to buy food at an inn, someone tossed two herrings’ heads to him. That seemed like a good deal, but not as good as the Danish ducats in each one, which enabled him to purchase a really good meal with some money left over. One of his students in Arnstadt called him a “dirty dog” and  hit him with a stick. The authorities determined Bach himself was as fault for having earlier called the student a “nanny goat bassoonist.” In response to this rebuke, he took a long and unauthorized … Continue reading

Trombone vs bull

This article, copied from the September 23, 1841 issue of the [Pittsfield, Massachusetts] Sun speaks for itself: Trombone vs. Bull.–The Lafayette (Louisiana) Chronicle, in enumerating the various definitions given to the word “gentleman,” relates the following anecdote: An intoxicated trombone player was returning from a country ball, and while crossing a field he was accosted by a bellowing bull. What with the darkness in the eyes of a man who could not have seen straght had it been daylight, the trombone player mistook the bull for a brother musician,and the bellow for a defiance to a trial of skill. Possessessed … Continue reading