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

What becomes of new music for orchestra?

The most recent concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra featured the world premiere of Queen Anne’s Revenge by Mark O’Connor. It is named for the notorious pirate Blackbeard’s ship, which ran aground and sank in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1718. Like much of O’Connor’s music, the piece moves seamlessly from the sound of country fiddlin’ to more standard orchestral sounds and back again. I found it absolutely delightful and wonder what will become of it. One big reason why German composers dominated nineteenth-century orchestral music was that so many German towns had orchestras. That meant that a … Continue reading

Two British composers as trombonists: Holst and Elgar

Gustav Holst made his living for a while as a trombonist. Edward Elgar, for some reason, decided to learn to play trombone when he was 43. Holst, therefore, was a trombonist who later became a well-known composer. History has known several trombonist composers. If we include jazz trombonists who become noted arrangers, the number becomes legion. Elgar, on the other hand is an example of a well-known composer who later became a trombonist–of sorts. He is probably not unique, but there can’t be very many others. When Holst was a music student at the Royal College of Music, he was … Continue reading

Danzon no. 2, by Arturo Márquez

The orchestra I play in is working on Danzon no. 2, by Arturo Márquez. Since I have written quite a bit in this blog about building an audience for new “classical” music, I am very proud to present this fairly recent (1994) crowd pleaser by a Mexican conductor who is a little younger than I am. Who says composers have to be dead in order to write good music. (Well, my father has been known to say that, and I’m sure plenty of concert goers agree with him.) Márquez, son of a mariachi musician and grandson of a folk musician, … Continue reading

March forth! A brief look at American marches

March music has played a huge role in American popular culture. What’s a parade without marching bands? Or half time at a school football game? Would anyone want to listen to a Fourth of July concert, or a concert on any other patriotic occasion, without lots of marches? Is it even possible to imagine a band concert without at least one march? The modern wind band began at the time of the French Revolution. After that, European nations developed infantry bands and mounted cavalry bands. Some nations developed highly centralized policies for the instrumentation of these bands. In any case, … Continue reading

Schoenberg vs Stravinsky

Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky emerged between the two World Wars as leaders of two radically different approaches to writing modern music. Not only rivals, they personally despised each other. Interviewed by a Barcelona newspaper in 1936, Stravinsky called Schoenberg more of a musical chemist than artist. He acknowledged the importance of Schoenberg’s research. After all, they did expand possibilities of what people might enjoy hearing. But on the whole, he considered the twelve-tone method very much like Alois Haba’s experiments with quarter-tones. They exist only scientifically. Can anyone make genuine art with either method? Stravinsky thought not. Schoenberg vented … Continue reading

Johann Strauss, Jr.: Tales of his first orchestra tour

Johann Strauss, Sr., one of the most successful dance composers of his generation, famously did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. Johann Strauss, Jr. eventually eclipsed his father’s fame—despite the near disaster of the first of his  orchestra tours. When he was 19, Strauss Jr. enlisted 33 other young musicians and set out with high hopes and very little money. In Pancsova, a town in Lower Banat, they had run out completely. Strauss decided to play an impromptu concert under the window of the town’s mayor. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss and his orchestra some money. … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about Mozart

In 1764 his father was dangerously ill. No one was allowed to touch the piano. To keep himself occupied, young Wolfgang decided to compose his first symphony for full orchestra (K.16). Mozart’s habit of laying in bed to compose alarmed his doctor, who advised him to stand while composing and get as much bodily exercise as he could. Mozart loved billiards, bowling, and skittles, largely because they did not occupy his mind. He could get some exercise and compose at the same time. His Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola (K. 498) is known as the Kegelstatt Trio (skittles alley) … Continue reading