Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day




The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied. His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he … Continue reading

Marching through Georgia, by Henry Clay Work




Whenever the name of a state appears in the title of a well-know song, it usually celebrates the state. It usually lends civic pride to its citizens. Usually. Georgia citizens do not like “Marching through Georgia.” It celebrates the success of an invading enemy. It celebrates Sherman’s march to the sea, one of the most destructive and terrorizing events in the state’s history. But nearly 150 years later, it’s still internationally popular. … Continue reading

Night on Bald Mountain, by Modest Mussorgsky




Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a brilliant, but undisciplined composer who left many unfinished works at his death. His colleague Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov finished many of them and had them published. Oddly enough, Mussorgsky finished Night on Bald Mountain three times. Rimsky-Korsakov finished it again, and it’s his version we most often hear. Mussorgsky’s original version was never performed until 1968. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain Mussorgsky may have considered writing an opera based on Gogol’s story “St. John’s Eve” as early as 1860. A friend of Mussorgsky’s wrote a play called “The Witch,” which included a witch’s sabbath scene on a bare … Continue reading

When the trombone was almost cool




There have been two periods in history where solo trombone captured the popular imagination. Most recently, jazz made stars of Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Leonard Brown, Tommy Dorsey, J. J. Johnson and too many others to mention. Jazz no longer defines popular music in America. No living trombonist has the same standing in public esteem. The other period began in Germany early in the 19th century and quickly spread worldwide, even to the US, then struggling to establish its own musical life. English musical life included many trombone soloists, all but one of them human. France also produced very successful … Continue reading

Kingdom Coming by Henry C. Work: abolitionist minstrel song




Popular songs usually don’t have a very long shelf life, but sometimes they’re more than just songs. Some of them affect the course of social and political events. Even after no one sings them or recognizes them any more, these are worth studying for their historical significance. I thought “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work was such a song. In form it’s a minstrel song, with a text in the slave dialect. Unlike almost any other minstrel song, it conveys a strong abolitionist sentiment. Poets who disdained the minstrel song tradition wrote abolitionist texts in dialect, which also became popular … Continue reading

Before Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Became a Cliche




Not too long ago, when an orchestra announced it would play a piece of new music, they had to program it carefully. They performed between two very well-known and popular pieces and right before intermission. The audience was stuck if it wanted to hear both favorites. New music was like medicine. It’s good for you, but no one expects you to like it. All of the favorites were once new. They never would have survived if audiences of their day behaved like modern audiences. What is classical music, anyway? Narrowly speaking “classical” music refers to the generation of Haydn, Mozart, … Continue reading

The most song-inspiring Northern general: McClellan?




Of all the songs published during the American Civil War, many are dedicated to individuals. They are mostly about generals, although Union publishers issued two tributes to captains. It’s no surprise that the greatest number of these songs concern the best-known leaders. But who would have thought there would be more about Gen. George B. McClellan than any other general? … Continue reading

Music in Letters Home from Civil War Soldiers




In this series of posts on Civil War music I have occasionally cited Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music. Author Christian McWhirter commented twice about letters. On the very first page he noted, ” Almost any war diary, letter collection, or memoir contains at least a passing reference to music.” Later, in the chapter on soldiers, he wrote, “Music became intrinsically linked to the soldiers’ Civil War experiences—even combat performance—and is mentioned in almost every wartime diary, letter collection, or reminiscence.” My sister-in-law, the family genealogist, presented us with a 100-page treatise at Christmas that fleshed out not only … Continue reading

I like that symphony. Who wrote it?




If you attend a lot of live classical music concerts (especially orchestra concerts), chances are you hear music by the same composers over and over. If you listen to classical music radio, you hear music by unfamiliar composers, but chances are it’s very nice music. Have you ever wondered who these composers are and why they’re not well known? Anton Bruckner Wait, you may say. Bruckner is hardly an unknown composer. He was one of the great symphonists of the late 19th century. Oh, and he also wrote some lovely choral music. But did it occur to you that probably … Continue reading

Civil War regimental bands: banned and disbanded?




At the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States had a standing army and many states had their own militia. Volunteer regiments formed on both sides of the war. No matter when or how they were organized, nearly every regiment had a band. After the war raged for a little over a year, the Union decided to abolish all its regimental bands. Does that mean that Union regiments had no bands for the rest of the war? Hardly. … Continue reading