Before Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Became a Cliche




Not too long ago, when an orchestra announced it would play a piece of new music, they had to program it carefully. They performed between two very well-known and popular pieces and right before intermission. The audience was stuck if it wanted to hear both favorites. New music was like medicine. It’s good for you, but no one expects you to like it. All of the favorites were once new. They never would have survived if audiences of their day behaved like modern audiences. What is classical music, anyway? Narrowly speaking “classical” music refers to the generation of Haydn, Mozart, … Continue reading

A Birthday Tribute to Benjamin Britten: The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra




Ordinarily when I write program notes, I focus on a single piece. Since this year marks Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday, it seems appropriate to widen the focus and look at The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra within the context of Britten’s life at the time he composed it. His opera Peter Grimes becomes a very important part of the story. Benjamin Britten started composing at the age of 5. When he was 11 he met Frank Bridge at the Norwich Music Festival and became his pupil. Beside excellent technical skill, he learned about musical developments in Europe. When he … Continue reading

Thomas Gschlatt, the Mozarts’ trombonist




Trombonists know the name Thomas Gschlatt because he worked in Salzburg at the same time the Mozart’s did. Besides playing the trombone solos in works by now-forgotten composers, he participated in works by both Mozarts, including Wolfgang’s youthful Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (KV 35, 1767). If that title isn’t familiar, the story of its composition is: Prince–Archbishop Sigmund Schrattenbach was not persuaded that an 11-year-old boy could write such excellent music as he in fact did. He suspected that the boy must have at least gotten considerable help from his father. So Wolfgang wrote that cantata locked up in … 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

Four tangos by classical composers




The tango, in a sense, is to 20th-century music what the waltz was in the 19th century. It originated from the lower social classes of Argentina. Polite society found it scandalous (as respectable people had scorned the waltz in Bohemia, Austria, and Bavaria a century earlier). But like the waltz it became insanely popular in Paris and eventually embraced at home. Paris has long served as the launching pad for dances that, whatever their origin, become internationally popular. Just as classical composers of the 19th century embraced the waltz, so those of the 20th century (and at least one who … Continue reading

Waisenhauskirche Mass: Tradition vs innovation in Mozart’s trombone parts




Mozart’s Requiem, the last piece he ever worked on, has a trombone solo in the Tuba mirum movement. So far as I know, there is nothing like it anywhere in the standard sacred music repertoire. The important word in that sentence is “standard.” People who wrote about musical performances in the nineteenth century were all too aware of the uniqueness of that solo. Throughout the century in every country from which I have seen magazine or newspaper articles, critics rarely mentioned the trombones in classical music except to complain that they were too loud. Along with more than one author … Continue reading

Music education and gun violence




Three interesting and important stories about music education have come to my attention over the last couple of months. Then came the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As it turns out, there is a connection. Just before Christmas, I heard an interesting interview on the radio, found it on line, and emailed it to myself. Somehow, I couldn’t find it the first time I looked for it, but it turned up the other day when I was looking for something else. It’s an interview between NPR’s Scott Simon and Marin Alsop, conductor of both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and … Continue reading

Unlikely greatness: Joseph Haydn as a child




In the middle of the eighteenth century, peasant boys born in villages tended to remain peasant villagers for the rest of their lives. Musicians of any social class usually came from musical families. Joseph Haydn, born to a wheelwright and a cook in the Austrian village of Rohrau, seems an unlikely candidate to become a musician at all, let alone become wealthy and internationally famous. His father, Mathias, could not read music, but learned to play the harp by ear. Singing songs while playing the harp, or playing harp while the family sang, was a favorite pastime. Visitors might also … Continue reading

Education at the Eastern Music Festival




Now in its 51st season, the Eastern Music Festival features world-renowned classical soloists and chamber musicians from around the world. Very often, musicians of their caliber are in a given city only long enough to rehearse and perform their scheduled concerts. Not so with the Eastern Music Festival. Everything revolves around educating students aged 14-22, and these guests come as much to teach as to perform. A diverse student body This year the student body comprises 177 students, 14 from the US other countries: Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Canada, Germany, and Mexico. In previous years, students have come from Japan, … Continue reading

A little classical music quiz




Let’s try something a bit more interactive today, classical music lovers. I have a little multiple-choice quiz for you. Don’t worry, it won’t be graded. You won’t have to wait for the answers, either. They’re just under the poll. 1. Hector Berlioz composed a piece about his love life! It is: a. Lelio b. Harold in Italy c. Symphonie fantastique d. Pathetique symphony. 2. Some pieces are known by nicknames, usually not assigned by the composer. Which of the following nicknames is the composer’s? a. Alpine Symphony, by Strauss b. Appassionata Sonata, by Beethoven c. Symphony of a Thousand, by … Continue reading