Street music from antiquity to now




In many places in many cities all over the world, pedestrians are treated to live music. Pop singers, jazz musicians, gospel singers, even classical musicians perform for whomever passes by, most often with instrument cases or some other container open in order to solicit donations. Collectively, these entertainers are known as buskers. They represent an ancient tradition. I say all over the world, and I’m sure that’s no exaggeration, but this post concerns only street entertainments that can be traced back to the Roman Empire. … Continue reading

Children and the Eastern Music Festival




What picture do you suppose many people associate with “string quartet”? A bunch of old white men dressed like penguins playing stodgy old music for a few people who have learned to hold it in awe? Children don’t know that. When they hear a string quartet, or any kind of classical music, they love it. I got a chance to witness it in person at one of the Eastern Music Festival’s “EMF Encircling the City” concerts. Greensboro violist and EMF faculty member Diane Phoenix-Neal conceived and started the series three years ago as part of the celebration of the festival’s … Continue reading

Musical predictions for the new year




No, I’m not going to try to make predictions for musical happenings in 2011. It’s much more fun to look at someone else’s predictions from years past and see how they turned out. I just got back from Christmas vacation, and I confess to hunting for something I could type out quickly. This gem of a prediction appears in the January 1, 1895 issue of The Musical Times. One Arthur E. Grimshaw wrote a letter to the editor in response to a concert review the previous month. It seems that the critic had complained that the loud trombones spoiled an … Continue reading

The raucous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring




By the time Stravinsky mounted  Rite of Spring in 1913, history had already seen many premieres of operas and other theatrical works where audiences loudly disliked what they saw. In some cases, such as the premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the noise came from a paid claque. In Rossini’s case, he dared to use the same story as an already successful opera by Giovanni Paisiello, who sent his friends to shout it down. But what happened to Rite of Spring (original title Sacre du Printemps) topped anything that had happened before. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets for the same company, Firebird … Continue reading

Making sense of sonata form




People today with little or no musical training somehow “get” a 12-measure blues chorus or the standard song forms of various modern styles. Even music majors taking theory classes have a hard time with sonata form. How is anyone else to understand it? Sonata form did not always cause confusion or seem to set up a barrier to understanding music. It actual started off as an attempt to simplify music. I have written several posts about the rise of the middle class, the popularity of what we call “classical” music, and the aftermath of the French Revolution, which destroyed public … Continue reading

Joshua Bell in the subway: what does it mean?




On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell took his Stradivarius violin to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, D.C. and played great classical music for 43 minutes. According to the subsequent article in the Washington Post, more than one thousand people passed by. Only one person recognized him; only seven stopped to listen for even as much as a minute, but some people tossed money into his case as they hurried by. Bell collected just over $32. The incident probably says a lot about American culture, but apparently no one agrees just what. Just the other day, it was retold … Continue reading

A historical perspective on orchestra concerts: programing and ritual




Today, American orchestra concerts usually have three or four pieces. In one very typical formula, they have some kind of overture, a concerto, and a symphony. If the program should happen to include music by a living composer–or even by one who died some time after, say, 1945–it typically comes right before intermission, sandwiched between two popular standards. That way the audience will come on time to hear the opening piece and be forced to stay in their seats through the new piece in order to hear whatever delight awaits after the intermission. Certain unwritten laws dictate concert ritual, including … Continue reading

An Earnest Request




Everybody knows not to leave cell phones on at a concert. Or at least everyone has heard reminders before concerts. What could have possibly created such a disturbance before the noisy things were invented? Here’s a note printed on the front of the Glyndebourne program of 1935: “Patrons are earnestly requested not to flash TORCHES during the Performances. It is aggravating to the rest of the audience but intolerable to the Artists. It is much worse than ‘walking behind the bowler’s arm’ at cricket.” Now that we know that, what annoyed audiences before the invention of the flashlight?