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

The Bonnie Blue Flag, by Harry Macarthy




In its short existence, the Confederate States of America adopted two official flags. The Southern Cross flag so familiar today was adopted only in 1863 after it became apparent that the original Stars and Bars looked enough like the American Stars and Stripes to confuse soldiers in battle. No song about either flag ever approached the popularity of Harry Macarthy’s tribute to the Bonnie Blue Flag, which was never an official Confederate flag at all. The flag Search for “Confederate Flag” on Google, and you might find one or two references to the Bonnie Blue Flag, but it’s not the … Continue reading

From the New World: 9th symphony by Antonin Dvořák




Antonin Dvořák came to America because of a woman who was used to getting her own way. In 1884, a wealthy arts patroness in New York, Jeanette Thurber, established the National Conservatory of Music and hired a Belgian singer as its first director. The Conservatory was unusual for a number of reasons: She conceived and ran it as a philanthropic, not commercial venture. Therefore, it admitted students who otherwise could not have gotten a musical education. Women as well as men comprised the student body. The student body was not limited to white students. Some Native American and African American … Continue reading

John Williams at 80




This year marks the 80th birthday of one of the most successful, honored, and loved American composer in history. John Towner Williams was born on Long Island, New York on February 8, 1932. Probably no one ever sees the middle name unless they’re looking up biographical information, but it’s good to know. John Williams is a very common name, one he shares with other musicians. John Williams is also the name of an Australian classical guitarist. There is another American conductor named John McLauglin Williams. No longer with us are a Chicago blues guitarist and a notable jazz drummer both … Continue reading

Olympic fanfare(s): John Williams and Leo Arnaud




With the Olympics in progress, and snippets of John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme heard constantly, it seems good to take a closer look at this piece–especially since Williams’ 80th birthday is this month. One of Williams’ challenges in composing Olympic Fanfare and Theme was writing music that could bear comparison with a 20-year-old theme that was already synonymous with the Olympics. Another favorite Olympic theme Ever since the modern Olympics began in 1896, music has been composed especially for various Olympiads. Most of it seems to have been forgotten soon afterward. Ironically, the best known music associated with the … Continue reading

George Frederick Root’s Civil War Songs




Chicago was the musical capital of the North when it came to production of great Civil War songs. The firm of Root & Cady employed two composers (the founder’s younger brother George Frederick Root and Henry Clay Work). Between the two of them, they composed all of the best-selling songs in the firm’s catalog and probably more big hits than any other Northern composer. George Frederick Root was born in 1820 in Sheffield, Massachusetts to a musical family. He studied piano with George J. Webb and, in 1845, moved to New York to establish a career as church organist and … Continue reading

Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies




Peter Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies have such a firm place in the repertoire that perhaps no one misses the first three. They appear on concerts much less frequently and certainly get less air time on the radio. Some music does not receive many performances because it is mediocre music, or perhaps because it is unreasonably difficult to perform. Neither is the case with Tchaikovsky’s early symphonies. Early in his career, Tchaikovsky struggled with the absolute disconnect between western European musical forms, especially sonata form, and traditional Russian culture. Russian culture created static forms, unlike the goal-oriented sonata form. Tchaikovsky himself … Continue reading

Fun classical music trivia: a tabloid view of famous composers




How can I prove that we call classical music isn’t stuffy and highbrow? Composers and performers of earlier generations were every bit as nutty as anyone the tabloids write about today. George Frederick Handel The composer of Messiah loved to eat. At one tavern he ordered way more food than any one person would normally eat–that is, at least before today’s super-sized restaurant portions. Then he waited. And waited. After a very long time, he demanded to know why he had to wait so long. The host told him the cook was waiting until his company arrived. Handel responded, “Then … Continue reading

Theodore von La Hache: a leading composer of Confederate songs




I had never heard of Theodore von La Hache until recently, but he is a fascinating figure in American musical history who deserves to be better known. One of the many German musicians who moved to the United States, he settled in New Orleans in about 1842. There he served as organist and choirmaster at St. Theresa of Avila Church, co-founded the New Orleans Philharmonic Society, and composed prolifically. During the Civil War, La Hache wrote his Missa Pro Pache (op. 644) in response to its horrors. He also wrote many songs and piano pieces related to the war. Having … Continue reading

The first woman to compose operas: Francesca Caccini




Until very recently, music was a man’s career. Women could be singers, but rarely anything more. Francesca Caccini became well known as an operatic composer early in the history of opera. That fact testifies not only to her talent, but also the fame of her father and the untimely death of a Grand Duke of Tuscany, leaving his wife and his mother as co-regents. Francesca’s father Giulio practically invented opera. At least, that was his version. He and some like-minded friends in Florence (seat of the Medici family ruling as Grand Dukes of Tuscany) invented a new, declamatory style of … Continue reading