Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary: without the opera hype




The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death. By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history. Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form. … Continue reading

Fake histories of the trombone, or, where was Snopes?




Widely copied misinformation did not begin with the Internet. Reliable historical writings about the trombone in English begin with a 1906 article by Francis Galpin. Before that? Fake histories abounded. Likely as not, they appeared in encyclopedia articles. They frequently name sources, but except for the Bible, not with enough precision that interested readers could actually find them. Or else they name current secondary sources that refer only to bibliographic fog. … Continue reading

1812 Overture and 4th of July fireworks: why?




The U.S. and Great Britain fought the War of 1812. Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture, but it commemorates a different war. The 4th of July celebration has nothing to do with the War of 1812, either. So why does the 1812 Overture so often accompany the 4th of July fireworks display? Not many worthwhile pieces include cannon fire, which it makes such an excellent companion to fireworks. Music history is littered with justly forgotten battle music. Such pieces are difficult to write effectively. Even Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory did not succeed as well as the 1812 Overture. It had to jump through … Continue reading

Classical and pop music: 200 years of rivalry




Is classical music or pop music better? Perhaps you’ve seen conversations on sites like quora.com or debate.org. Did you know that these arguments have been going on for more than 200 years? Typically, someone will ask if classical music is superior to pop music, or if classical music has to be elitist. Or perhaps someone will post a putdown of one, which will attract passionate defenses. It amazes me how little people in these discussions actually know. Some of them, for example, contrast classical music and modern music. That’s on both sides. They seem not to know that popular music … Continue reading

Race relations, social change, and American music




Race relations in the US are probably better than at any time in history. The recent racially motivated mass murder at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina demonstrates that they are not good enough. Many simmering misunderstandings and controversies rooted in racial tension likewise show that we have a long way to go achieve racial harmony. Harmony. That’s a musical term. The history of American music reflects the history of race relations. Music has also played a role in bridging the racial divide. … Continue reading

The Civil War and Musical Institutions in the South




Last week’s post examined how the Civil War affected performance of music in three Northern cities: Boston, New York, and Chicago. This week’s is devoted to musical institutions in the South, looking at New Orleans, the state of Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia. Disruptions to Northern musical institutions came as a result of citizens’ preoccupation with war news, the number of musicians called to military service, and in New York, the exodus of foreign opera stars. These same concerns also disrupted musical life in the South, but the South knew at least one major disruption that the North did not suffer. … Continue reading

The Civil War and Musical Institutions in the North




As young men fought and died on Civil War battlefields, most of the population of both the Union and the Confederacy remained on farms or in towns and cities. Life went on, and in some cities, life included attendance at concerts, the opera, or other musical theater. But life went on in wartime conditions, though not as normal. How did the war affect the institutions that provided this entertainment? This post looks at some of the ones in Boston, New York, and Chicago as representative of Northern cities. Boston In his history of the Handel and Haydn Society, John S. … Continue reading

Medieval Night Watchmen and the Modern Wind Band




What do a night watchman and a professional musician have in common? The first professional wind musicians were night watchmen. Many modern wind instruments can find their ancestors being played from towers to keep the city safe at night and entertain citizens by day. Protective walls surrounded every European town of any significance until the 18th century. Many cities had hundreds of towers. … Continue reading

A prehistory of the trombone




The familiar shape of the slide trombone has been around at least since 1490. That’s when Filippino Lippi included an image of it in frescos he painted at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. It hasn’t been around as long as the word “trombone,” which first appeared in 1439 in court records in Ferrara. The court at Ferrara had a three-piece wind band for most of the century. Pietro Agostino played played trombone in that band from at least 1456 to at least 1503. … Continue reading

Street music from antiquity to now




In many places in many cities all over the world, pedestrians are treated to live music. Pop singers, jazz musicians, gospel singers, even classical musicians perform for whomever passes by, most often with instrument cases or some other container open in order to solicit donations. Collectively, these entertainers are known as buskers. They represent an ancient tradition. I say all over the world, and I’m sure that’s no exaggeration, but this post concerns only street entertainments that can be traced back to the Roman Empire. … Continue reading