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

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

Why do some composers and works not survive in the repertoire?

I’m sure everyone knows that the amount of classical music performed and recorded today represents only a small fraction of what has been written. It seems a common assumption that these composers must have written inferior music that deserves to be forgotten. While that is certainly true in some cases it does not explain everything. Fashions change. A hundred years ago, music lovers thought Haydn hopelessly old-fashioned. They welcomed Rossini overtures on concert programs, but only The Barber of Seville of all of his operas maintained its place on stage. They regarded Telemann as one of Bach’s inferior contemporaries and … Continue reading

Composers on music: 10 quotations

Many musicians have observed that if everything could be expressed with words, music would be unnecessary. That doesn’t mean that musicians can’t use words. Composers have talked or written about music for centuries. They have had opinions about their own music and musical abilities, praise or disdain for other composers, and philosophical musings about the nature and importance of music in general. Here are some interesting quotations. Give me a laundry list and I’ll set it to music. — Gioacchino Antonio Rossini My music is best understood by children and animals. — Igor Stravinsky Truly there would be reason to … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about Gustav Mahler

When he was a little boy, someone asked Mahler what he wanted to be when he grew up; he said, “a martyr.” One day, a friend noticed that Mahler looked sad; Mahler said he had just learned that his father was ill. The next day, the same friend saw a man running through the street sobbing. It was Mahler. Had something happened to his father? It was much worse than that; he learned that Richard Wagner had died. Conducting his first Ring Cycle, Mahler was furious when the timpanist missed an important cue in the final scene of Das Rheingold; … Continue reading