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

5 great stories about great composers




It is quite possible to enjoy or appreciate music, or any other artform, without knowing anything about the person who created it. But in whatever form, art is a human creation. Real people composed classical music. Real people have personalities, and knowing something about those personalities can put a human face on the music and rescue it from being a mere object. Enjoy these glimpses into moments in the lives of the people whose music brings so much pleasure. Franz Schubert Between March 1811 and October 1828, Schubert wrote more than 600 songs, not to mention symphonies, church music, operas, … Continue reading

Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Gustav Mahler




Gustav Mahler wrote very long symphonies. Only the First and the Fourth can be played in less than an hour. The symphonies also call for far larger orchestras than those of other composers. Some even require vocal soloists and/or chorus. By Mahler’s time, the symphony had already come a long way from the first symphonic masterpieces. Haydn and Mozart wrote symphonies that established the expectation of a four-movement work Sonata form, fast with or without a slow introduction Slow movement Minuet Fast movement They made sure that the structure of each movement could be clearly heard. Their sonata forms had … Continue reading

Shared songs of the Civil War




Although at war, the Union and Confederacy shared a common history, language, and at least partly, cultural heritage. By 1863, they also shared war weariness and the grief of lost loved ones. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they shared at least two songs that year. A Northern and a Southern composer both set the poem that starts “All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight.” Northern and Southern publishers both issued “Who Will Care for Mother Now?” … Continue reading