The barbed wit behind the barber: Beaumarchais

Every opera buff knows and loves Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Perhaps even the most casual opera goers realize that they share many of the same characters. That’s because they were based on plays by the same person: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The one-time royal watchmaker had served time in prison over a failed business deal and developed intense hostility toward the French legal system by the time he wrote his satirical and somewhat autobiographical play The Barber of Seville (1775). In the character of Figaro, Beaumarchais portrayed himself–perhaps not quite how he had lived, but … Continue reading

Root & Cady: leading publisher of Civil War songs

Soon after Ebenezer T. Root and Chauncey M. Cady founded their music store and publishing house (Chicago, 1858), they became the city’s leading music dealer. Content at first to be, like other Chicago music companies, a general music dealer and publisher of songs for the local market, the partners could not have imagined that they would be best remembered for the songs they sold nationwide during the Civil War. During that time, most American music publishers catered to the local market. They made no particular attempt to promote their songs; the songwriters themselves did that. In fact, publishing was usually … Continue reading

The oddest-looking trombones ever, by Adolphe Sax

Everyone knows what a trombone looks like. Even modern valve trombones maintain the familiar shape of the slide trombone. In the nineteenth-century, however, when instrument designers competed with each others’ various valve configurations, there seemed no reason to keep their creations looking like a slide trombone. The shape of the bore, not the shape into which the tubing is bent, determines what will sound like a trombone. Adolphe Sax introduced many odd-looking valve trombones, none odder than his six independent valve invention.   The very earliest valves did not work especially well, and it took a while to find the … Continue reading

Five trombone soloists we hardly remember

The idea of the trombone as a solo instrument seems to appeal mostly to trombonists. Trombone soloists who tour or record extensively can develop quite a following. Nowadays, many can be found on You Tube, where people can not only hear, but watch performances. As long as they remain freely on line, people will be able to find them and enjoy them indefinitely. It’s easy for us to forget earlier generations of trombone soloists. A trombonist’s reputation does not necessarily vanish after his or her death or retirement simply for lack of recordings. It is easy to find information about … Continue reading

After the Ball, by Charles K. Harris

“After the Ball,” by Charles K. Harris kicked American popular music into a higher gear. I have even encountered the claim that it marks the birth of American popular music! Certainly, publishers and performers had long attempted to make as much money as they could by appealing to the tastes of a mass audience. Songwriters too often had to sell the rights for a song to a publisher for very little money. In fact, it was because Harris was offended by low payment for another song that he decided to publish “After the Ball” himself. It became the first sheet … Continue reading

The glissando: from bad trombone technique to a common performance idiom

Perhaps no technique more perfectly characterizes the idiom of the slide trombone as the glissando. Its first deliberate use in performance is fairly recent in the long history of the trombone, and its acceptance as a legitimate technique came somewhat later. Nowadays, we tend to think of glissando and portamento as synonyms. They are, indeed, played exactly the same way, so it seems odd that the portamento enjoyed early approval and that all manner of musicians, including trombonists, strongly disapproved of the glissando within living memory. Daniel Speer provides the earliest reference to the glissando I have found (1687), when … Continue reading

March forth! A brief look at American marches

March music has played a huge role in American popular culture. What’s a parade without marching bands? Or half time at a school football game? Would anyone want to listen to a Fourth of July concert, or a concert on any other patriotic occasion, without lots of marches? Is it even possible to imagine a band concert without at least one march? The modern wind band began at the time of the French Revolution. After that, European nations developed infantry bands and mounted cavalry bands. Some nations developed highly centralized policies for the instrumentation of these bands. In any case, … Continue reading

Beethoven’s Middle String Quartets. op. 59 no.1 in F major

The three quartets of Beethoven’s op. 59 are known as the Razumovsky string quartets, because they were commissioned by Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Austrian emperor. The first two of them quote Russian themes, and the third has a theme that seems to have a Russian flavor. These quartets are also the first three of the five string quartets from Beethoven’s middle period. Six of Beethoven’s nine symphonies (no. 3-8) dominate the works of the middle period. As radically different as they are from any earlier symphonies, his string quartets and piano sonatas are more radical still. They … Continue reading

Carl Traugott Queisser: Being a musician in the first half of the nineteenth century

Trombonists know the name Carl Traugott Queisser (1800-1846) as one of the first internationally famous trombone soloists. A Concertino for Trombone by Ferdinand David that probably every trombone major in college plays at one time or another was composed for Queisser. A famous virtuoso is certainly not a typical musician, but in many ways Queisser is representative of how many different roles a professional musician of his time had to perform in order to make a living. Like most German instrumentalists, Queisser received his first musical training as a Stadtpfeifer, or town musician. He began his apprenticeship at age 11 … Continue reading

Nutcracker: Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet

For some reason, Americans turn to Tchaikovsky for special holiday celebrations: 1812 Overture for the Fourth of July and The Nutcracker at Christmas. The story of The Nutcracker, based very loosely on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann, takes place during and after a Christmas Eve party. In Hoffmann’s original story, the Stahlbaum family receives a nutcracker doll as a Christmas gift from the childrens’ godfather Drosselmayer. Marie especially loves it. Unfortunately, Fritz accidentally breaks it trying to crack too hard a nut. Marie bandages it with a ribbon from her dress and waits for Drosselmayer to … Continue reading