Classical music for machines




The attempt to create music mechanically, without human performance, has a long history, dating back to ancient Egyptians and Asians. Leonardo da Vinci and others in the late Renaissance designed sophisticated instruments. Only in the late eighteenth century did composers–including Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven venture to compose music especially for mechanical clocks. Museums hold least some of the original clocks with their music, but to my knowledge no recordings have been made. Most of the time, therefore, the only way we get to hear this music is through a transcription for human performance. Here’s a modern clock … Continue reading

The what? of Seville: animated opera




Not so long ago, quite a number of classical tunes were well known in popular culture. It has not entirely vanished. I have heard an aria from Carmen in a pizza commercial (wondering if the producers realized they were using French music as a background for their very Italian visuals) and an aria from Gianni Schicchi in a commercial for I don’t recall offhand just what. All the same, it seems that classical music has become less visible (audible?) lately. It has been a long time since I have paid any attention to Saturday morning cartoons. They’re all new, now. … Continue reading

Children and classical music




My parents–my father especially–love classical music. When I was growing up, Dad always had a record on whenever he had a chance to relax. It wasn’t always classical music. He had lots of Broadway musicals and big band jazz in his collection, too. I’ve always figured that’s why I grew up loving that music, although I never shared his enthusiasm for opera. I have a much younger sister, and I can remember her first record player. Her record collection mostly consisted of the horrible songs intended for children. I can hear some of the horrible, sloppy performances of them even … Continue reading

A cruel abuse of classical music




Life has begun to imitate life in the worst way. In Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange (written in 1962), authorities subject an unruly but music-loving youngster to “the Ludovico technique.” They force him to take nausea-inducing drugs and watch violent movies while listening to Beethoven. In the end, he is no longer able to enjoy Beethoven’s music. They stole his former love with that treatment. Lately it has come to my attention that certain British authorities have reinvented “the Ludovico technique.” Apparently having eliminated exposure to classical music from the curriculum, they assume that young people will automatically find … 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

Beethoven plays a new concerto




Nowadays, soloists in a concerto play from memory, especially pianists. Occasionally, players of other instruments will use written music, but I have only seen one pianist using music. He was on the faculty when I was in graduate school, and students discussed the oddity for days afterward. Since the piano requires the use of both hands, memorizing music for performances has the obvious benefit of not requiring a third hand to turn pages. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that pianists have not always performed from memory and audiences have not always expected them to. For a … 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

Girls and trombone: odder than I first thought?




I had just begun seventh grade the first time I met a girl trombonist, who was also in seventh grade. It didn’t take long to realize that she was better than any other trombonist in the band, and there were lots of them. When we got to ninth grade (freshman year of high school), she played better than any of the seniors. Her older sisters, recent graduates, had been just as outstanding on  horn and tuba. The best trumpet player was a girl, as were all of the hornists, and a euphonium player. It never occurred to me that there … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 4: the influence of German songs




German-speaking people began to emigrate to America in modest numbers as early as the late seventeenth century. Generally, they got on well with the Anglophone majority and willingly adopted American habits and viewpoints. Settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina by the Moravian Church featured musical practices inherited from Germany, but had little influence on the surrounding culture. Things began to change by about the 1830s. The rate of immigration from Germany increased rapidly. This new influx brought German culture not to isolated settlements, but to major cities. Simply examining census records over the course of several decades of the nineteenth … Continue reading

Franz Liszt at an artistic crossroads




In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a social division arose between two kinds of music. Some loved what they called classical music. They quarreled with people who preferred what William Weber has called high-status popular music. Classical music specifically meant the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and a few others. High-status popular music included popular operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, and others. It also included traveling virtuosos who performed largely in salons. That is, they performed before invited guests in the homes of aristocratic or upper-middle-class hosts. Robert Schumann began his career as a critic specifically to protest against … Continue reading