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

Classical music for machines




The attempt to create music mechanically, without human performance, has a long history, dating back to ancient Egyptians and Asians. Leonardo da Vinci and others in the late Renaissance designed sophisticated instruments. Only in the late eighteenth century did composers–including Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven venture to compose music especially for mechanical clocks. Museums hold least some of the original clocks with their music, but to my knowledge no recordings have been made. Most of the time, therefore, the only way we get to hear this music is through a transcription for human performance. Here’s a modern clock … Continue reading

Past the last minute: a Mozart overture barely finished on time




When an opera performance starts, the overture is the first thing the audience hears, but it is the last thing the composer writes. Rossini disliked writing overtures, and the various impresarios he worked for had legendary difficulties keeping him on track. I haven’t found why Mozart waited so long to compose the overture to Don Giovanni, but for whatever reason, it produced a drama equal to anything Rossini did. Don Giovanni received its first performance in Prague, and Mozart had to travel there for the rehearsals. After the dress rehearsal, that is, the night before the opening performance, Mozart decided … Continue reading

Five things you probably didn’t know about J. S. Bach




When Bach was a  hungry young man with no money to buy food at an inn, someone tossed two herrings’ heads to him. That seemed like a good deal, but not as good as the Danish ducats in each one, which enabled him to purchase a really good meal with some money left over. One of his students in Arnstadt called him a “dirty dog” and  hit him with a stick. The authorities determined Bach himself was as fault for having earlier called the student a “nanny goat bassoonist.” In response to this rebuke, he took a long and unauthorized … Continue reading

Gate crashers: trombones in Handel’s Messiah




Merry Christmas! Although Messiah is, strictly speaking, not Christmas music, having been composed for Lenten performances, today we most often hear it at Christmas. Handel used trombones to great effect in two of his oratorios, Saul and Israel in Egypt, both first performed in 1738. Apparently he did not have access to trombones in any later year; he considered adding trombones to two later oratorios, not including Messiah, but soon abandoned the effort. Unlike most other music of his time and earlier, Handel’s did not suffer posthumous neglect. The Concert of Ancient Music, founded in 1776, actually had a rule … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 2: the influence of Italian opera




At first glance, the performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in New York on November 29, 1825, seems to have little to do with popular music. It marks the first American production of any opera in Italian, or indeed any other foreign language. (New Orleans had a long tradition of presenting opera in French, but then it was originally a French city and remained largely French in culture long after the United States acquired it. Opera in French there hardly counted as a foreign language.) Actually, it affected American popular music almost as much as … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 1: from colonial times to ca. 1825




It never ceases to amaze me how many books on American popular song begin their coverage somewhere in the twentieth century, as if nothing of interest came before. Popular music is essentially a business that requires constantly updated products. It is an older business than perhaps many people imagine. The first ballad operas heard in Britain’s American colonies were performed as early as the 1730s. American cities began to establish pleasure gardens, likely as not named for one of the major gardens in London, as early as the 1760. For most of the rest of the eighteenth century, the colonies … Continue reading

The birth of the popular music industry




In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, a rigid social stratification arose when the ruling classes began to patronize music for their own entertainment that none but their peers ever heard. The nobles usually maintained wind bands for ceremonial purposes and keeping common people entertained. These bands played tunes that everyone knew. I have described this social stratification in some detail in an earlier post. As I tried to demonstrate there, “classical” music started in the eighteenth century when the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie started liking the same music. By that time, everyone had forgotten most of the music formerly … Continue reading

Beethoven rises to a challenge!!




Everyone knows about Ludwig van Beethoven. He is a towering figure in Classical music, renowned for his contributions to the symphony, the string quartet, the piano sonata, and much more. No one but musicologists know much about Daniel Steibelt. They mostly remember him for using the tambourine in so many of  his piano sonatas (his wife played tambourine), for introducing the Chinese gong into his opera Romeo et Juliette (although later musicologists have determined it was some kind of tuned bell instead), and for coming out the loser in a brash challenge to Beethoven. Steibelt was born in Berlin. He … Continue reading

When "classical" music was "popular"–Part 2




My first article on this topic explored how Rossini’s music was considered “popular” music in the sense of being somehow inferior to “classical” music, although it is now regarded as “classical” music. This one will explore the narrowing of gaps between social strata that resulted in a new style of music, which music history has come to regard as the Classical period. It was among the most truly popular music of all times, in the sense of appealing to audiences that crossed geographical and social boundaries (not to mention time!) At least from the late Middle Ages through the end … Continue reading