4 interesting facts about music history, and one questionable anecdote!




History means more than dates and battles. Classical music history means more than lists of compositions. It’s personalities that make it interesting. Sometimes, for example, composers and their associates go to desperate means to solve a problem. People have loved classical music anecdotes as long as classical music has existed. Writers have long supplied trivia about musical personalities, including themselves, to an eager readership. Most have stuck to the facts, but occasionally a story has broken into print with no corroborating evidence. But hey, that just makes it fiction. It’s still a good read. … Continue reading

Vltava (The Moldau) by Bedřich Smetana




Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) is remembered chiefly as a Czech nationalistic composer. His nationalism expressed itself above all in his operas, but he also wrote symphonic tone poems after the example of Franz Liszt. One of them, The Moldau, has become a beloved part of the international orchestral repertoire. He would probably not be happy that it’s known by that name. He called it Vltava … Continue reading

Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary: without the opera hype




The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death. By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history. Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form. … Continue reading

What is music? Classical composer quotes




You know what music is when you hear it. Then again, someone else might have a completely different idea. One person’s music is another person’s noise. So what is music? And where does it come from? It’s not as if anyone can actually define it, but composers have expressed their opinions. What did they think they were doing? Here are some famous composers’ quotes … Continue reading

Dueling melodies: Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs




Lovers of Irving Berlin’s music know that he wrote double songs. Two characters on stage sing different songs in succession. Then they sing them together in counterpoint. Most may not be aware that Berlin published 15 of them between 1914 and 1966. … Continue reading

Classical music that used to be popular music




You don’t have to be a classical music lover to recognize names of important classical composers. Bach Beethoven Brahms Wagner Liszt Rossini Except that the music of Rossini and others was considered popular music when it was first heard. And people who liked classical music scorned it. One French writer divided musicians into two kinds: classicists and Rossinists. So what else that we think of as classical music used to be considered popular? And what changed? … Continue reading

Romanian Rhapsody no. 1 by George Enescu




George Enescu (1881-1955) was 3 when he heard some village fiddlers. The next day he tried to imitate the instruments. He made a violin by attaching some thread to a piece of wood and a cimbalom from some wooden sticks. He imitated the reed pipe with his lips. His parents noticed his growing preoccupation with music and gave him a toy violin with three strings when he was 4. Offended at not getting a real violin, he threw it in the fire. Once they bought him a real one, he started picking out tunes by ear, using one finger on … Continue reading

Composers: quotations about other composers




As a lover of classical music, you enjoy the music of many composers, but dislike others. Composers are no different, except that they are required to study other composers’ music carefully whether they like it or not, both their contemporaries and generations of earlier composers. Perhaps you have never heard of Brian Ferneyhough. Living composers are little known to today’s public, but he made the observation more eloquently than I can: “Composers dialogue – and obsessively, bitterly argue – with other composers, often over the span of several centuries.” … Continue reading

Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials




Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865. They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists. For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both. On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths. … Continue reading