Niccolò Paganini: The devil’s violinist?




Niccolò Paganini became the world’s first international superstar of the violin beginning when he was 22. He could perform technical feats no other violinist could match. If anything, his showmanship was even more marvelous than his technique. The first virtuoso to perform from memory, he could  move around the stage and interact with the audience. People wondered, could his brilliance possibly be natural? Or did he have diabolical help? In part, he could outdo other violinists because he invented new techniques such as left-hand pizzicato and various new kinds of bowing and tuning. Later violinists have learned them all. But … Continue reading

An early song about Chicago




Probably everyone knows, or at least knows about, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” and “My Kind of Town.” Frank Sinatra sang both with great success. Surely no one will be surprised to learn that nearly 200 more songs about Chicago exist that no one is ever likely to sing again. But could anyone expect that the earliest published song about Chicago takes such a dim view of the place? In 1868, Chicago music publisher H. M. Higgins found a very insulting poem about Chicago in a Pittsburgh newspaper and decided to set it to music. Musically, the piece has little interest, … Continue reading

Beethoven plays a new concerto




Nowadays, soloists in a concerto play from memory, especially pianists. Occasionally, players of other instruments will use written music, but I have only seen one pianist using music. He was on the faculty when I was in graduate school, and students discussed the oddity for days afterward. Since the piano requires the use of both hands, memorizing music for performances has the obvious benefit of not requiring a third hand to turn pages. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that pianists have not always performed from memory and audiences have not always expected them to. For a … Continue reading

An experimental brass band in 1832




At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the only possible all-brass ensemble was the cavalry band, which could only play military signals. Once keyed bugles and valved trumpets and horns became available, massed brass could play real music. The movie Brassed Off provides a glimpse of the British brass band tradition. The band in that movie, where all the members worked for a coal mining company, reflects the working class origins of that institution. No one can identify the first British brass band with certainty, but several existed before the end of the 1830s. I found an interesting article in … 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

Popular song in America, part 9: Tin Pan Alley




Tin Pan Alley started during a time of transition in American musical theater. Late in the nineteenth century, the variety show began to supplant the minstrel show as America’s chief form of entertainment. Both consisted of sequences of various acts with no plot, but in the minstrel show, the entire cast stayed on stage from beginning to end and sometimes performed as an ensemble. Variety shows had a wider range of acts, and performers took the stage only for their own. Songs continued to follow the traditional verse/chorus form, but the change in theatrical practice eliminated four-part harmony from the … Continue reading

Who wrote the first opera in the United States?




The usual answer to that question, William Henry Fry, produced Leonora in Philadelphia in 1845. A skillful imitation of Bellini and Donizetti it ran for twelve performances, successful enough to justify publication of a piano-vocal score. Fry’s brother Joseph adapted the libretto from a novel by Bulwer-Lytton. In the November 23, 1843 issue of the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, appears notice of a new opera: “The idea of a Native American Opera is something so new and unexpected that our musical amateurs and connoisseurs were not a little taken aback by the announcement of Andre at the American … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 8: After the Civil War




It takes a long time to recover from a trauma. The United States did not begin to recover from the Civil War for at least two decades after it ended. The healing of mutual hatred between North and South did not begin until much later than that. Perhaps because of the continuing bitterness and recrimination in business and politics, popular music of the postwar period did not witness any important innovations or new song writers. Many composers who made their reputations before and during the war continued to produce new songs, but without any reference to current events or social … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 7: Civil War Songs




Issues of slavery and states rights so divided the nation that the American Civil War broke out as soon as Abraham Lincoln was proclaimed President-elect. It lasted four years, but strangely music unified the opposing armies at times.   Two publishers, the Chicago’s Root & Cady and Boston’s Oliver Ditson, account for the bulk of the North’s best war songs. George Frederick Root, brother of one of the Root & Cady’s founders, wrote “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Vacant Chair,” “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” and Brother, Tell Me of the Battle.” Henry Clay Work, who also published with … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 6: Stephen Collins Foster




I can remember as a child reading of Stephen Foster as the “American Schubert.” That is absurd. His knowledge of musical composition was too scanty to deserve that comparison. But during his lifetime he was regarded as the best American songwriter ever. Not until the twentieth century did anyone surpass him. He was the first full-time professional songwriter in American history. His predecessors had all earned most of their living from performing, publishing, or some other activity and could not have survived on their songs alone. Publishers usually bought songs outright, and if they sold well over a period of … Continue reading