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

9 odd wind instruments you have probably never seen




Over the last couple of centuries, inventors have brought out a remarkable number of odd wind instruments that somehow never became successful. Or if they did, their success didn’t last. In some cases, pieces in the standard orchestral repertoire call for one or more. There is a growing interest in restoring them for performance of this music. Ophicleide At the beginning of the 19th century, as the orchestra began to expand, only two instruments existed that could serve as bass of the brass choir: the bass trombone and the serpent. Neither was satisfactory. The serpent, a cornett-like bass instrument invented … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: We Three Kings




“We Three Kings” isn’t exactly a Christmas carol. The coming of the kings marks Epiphany, but that doesn’t keep people from singing it earlier. Three men or boys have been selected to sing the solo parts the song assigns to each king in at least tens of thousands of Christmas pageants and Christmas parties over the years. … Continue reading

Music Inspired by Romeo and Juliet




William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe. No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music. In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music. This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet … Continue reading

Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials




Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865. They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists. For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both. On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths. … 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

Music in the Civil War Letters of Seneca B. Thrall

Music played a key role in the American Civil War on the home front and on the battlefield. Letters home from Civil War soldiers record much of what we know of music in camps and on battlefields. An officer of the 13th Iowa Infantry, Seneca B. Thrall, wrote 44 letters, mostly to his wife, that provide an officer’s-eye view of part of the Union army’s successful campaign in Mississippi.   It seems to be a fairly well-known collection. A Google search of Thrall’s name turns up several hits. Several of the letters describe music within the regiment. … Continue reading

How Original Band Music Marginalized the Concert Band




When Patrick S. Gilmore took over leadership of the New York 22nd Regiment Band, he took it on a coast-to-coast tour. The age of the professional touring band had begun. Like all bands before or contemporaneous with the Gilmore Band, as it soon became known, it performed a mix of music for popular entertainment and serious orchestral and operatic repertoire. Music composed originally for concert band was limited to marches, music Gilmore’s soloists wrote for themselves, and other lighter fare by Gilmore himself. Gilmore’s great successor John Philip Sousa and all their notable contemporaries constructed comparable concert programs. Not until … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: In the Bleak Midwinter




“In the Bleak Midwinter,” text by Christina Rosetti, is just about the only well known Christmas carol that I can think of with a text by a woman. She also wrote “Love Came Down at Christmas.” No combination of keywords I could think of yielded any other titles. Christina (1830-1894) Rosetti was part of an artistic family. One brother, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; another William Michael Rosetti, soon joined the movement, but mostly as editor and critic. Their sister Maria Francesca Rosetti published at least one important essay. Their father, … Continue reading