Beloved Christmas carols: Hark the herald angels sing




Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,500 hymns, most of which condense a deep understanding of Christian theology into simple poetic form. Many of them maintain an important place in modern hymnals. According to noted hymnologist John Julian, “Hark the herald angels sing” is one of the four most popular English-language hymns. Except, that’s not what Wesley wrote. Here’s the beginning of the original text, written for Christmas day 1739: Hark, how all the welkin rings, “Glory to the King of kings; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Joyful, all ye nations, rise, join the triumph of … Continue reading

A listener’s guide to the Minuet and Trio form




Once upon a time, music was music. There was no distinction between art music and popular music. Some people liked novelty and got tired of pieces after hearing them a few times. Others liked to listen over and over to discover the clever things composers did with melody, harmony, and form. But everyone pretty much listened to the same music. They really listened, too. Not everyone listens to music these days, even though many people carry radios and iPods and what not everywhere they go. Having something on as background doesn’t count. I”m not sure watching music videos does, either. … Continue reading

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 barbed wit behind the barber: Beaumarchais




Every opera buff knows and loves Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Perhaps even the most casual opera goers realize that they share many of the same characters. That’s because they were based on plays by the same person: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The one-time royal watchmaker had served time in prison over a failed business deal and developed intense hostility toward the French legal system by the time he wrote his satirical and somewhat autobiographical play The Barber of Seville (1775). In the character of Figaro, Beaumarchais portrayed himself–perhaps not quite how he had lived, but … Continue reading

The English headwaters of American hymn singing




I expect that hardly any of my readers have ever heard of William Tans’ur. That is partly because the history of church music in the eighteenth century has been written almost exclusively about music for various courts and major cities, to the exclusion of music for country churches. But Tans’ur appears to have had more influence on musical life in colonial America, including the important composer William Billings, than anyone else. The name William Tanzer appears in the baptismal register at Dunchurch in 1706, the son of a common laborer named Edward Tanzer. As an adult, William adopted the spelling … Continue reading

Three generations of Sitkovetsky’s: a historic reunion




I recently attended a concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra (April 1), not knowing that it would be a historical event. Music Director Dmitri Sitkovetsky conducted only one number. Otherwise he played violin. The other soloists were his daughter, soprano Julia Sitkovetsky, and his mother, renowned piano virtuosi Bella Davidovich. That much I knew before I arrived. Guest conductor Stuart Malina announced that the concert marked Ms Sitkovetsky’s first performance with a professional orchestra and very likely Mme Davidovich’s last. Julia Sitkovetsky Ms Sitkovetsky is a second-year student at Queen’s College, Oxford. She has a very pleasant voice, which is … Continue reading

Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 2




Op. 18 no. 4, in C minor As I wrote in the introduction to the first article in this series, sonata form is inherently dramatic, but where Haydn and Mozart conceived theirs in terms of comic opera, Beethoven, even in his early works, often sought a more melodramatic or even tragic effect. His music in C minor always displays great dramatic tension. The opening movement of this quartet is less stormy than many of Beethoven’s C minor movements. The dark but lyrical opening theme flows congenially enough, but Beethoven subjects his material to a number of new harmonies and textures. … Continue reading

Beethoven’s Early String Quartets. Part 1




The music Beethoven wrote during his first few years in Vienna shows a young man first learning the basics of the Viennese style and then trying to make his distinctive mark in it. He deliberately produced works in all of the genres current there, including six string quartets written between 1798 and 1800, published as op. 18. By that time, he had learned the basics of the style of Mozart and Haydn and had started the process of transforming it. In the sonata forms of the earlier masters, the recapitulation, as we call it now, presented all of the thematic … Continue reading

Benjamin Franklin on Handel




I have written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about how the distinction between classical and popular music arose. (See, for example, “Popular Music: the Birth of an Idea.”)  Years before it became apparent, Benjamin Franklin anticipated it when he advised his brother on how to write a popular ballad: don’t use Handel’s music for a model. Peter Franklin had written a ballad text disapproving of expensive foppery and encouraging hard work and thriftiness. Benjamin thought it very good, but pointed out that its poetic meter did not resemble that of any of the common and well-known tunes. That would … 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