Beethoven and musical invective




Perhaps not every classical music lover considers Beethoven the greatest composer in history, but I’m sure everyone puts  him among their top three or four. Yet in  his lifetime, he got some bad press. Here is a selection of German, French and English reviews written during his lifetime from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, which refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect. Beethoven, who is often bizarre and baroque, takes at times the majestic flight of an eagle, … Continue reading

When Beethoven’s Fifth was new: thoughts on newer new music




During my lifetime, American audiences have stayed away in droves if they know their orchestra is playing a new piece. For much of the twentieth century, a lot of new music was indeed hard to appreciate at first hearing. For about two and a half decades after the Second World War, the most “respectable” composers had such contempt for the general public that they seemed not to care whether anyone liked their music or not. Guess what: in a way, finding modern music difficult is nothing new. Beethoven’s symphonies struck many of their first hearers the same way. Nineteenth-century New … Continue reading

Louis Moreau Gottschalk and thirteen and a half pianists




American pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk grew up in New Orleans and made such an excellent reputation there that he decided to try his hand at a European tour. There, he joined the traveling virtuoso circuit and conquered France, Switzerland and Spain. Critics compared him as a pianist to Chopin. His compositions more nearly resemble what I have described in earlier posts as “high-status popular music”—brilliant displays of bravura playing coupled with the novelty of his Creole background. At the same time Gottschalk was in France, Pierre Musard and his various rivals put on “monster concerts,” which featured a … Continue reading

Johann Strauss, Jr.: Tales of his first orchestra tour




Johann Strauss, Sr., one of the most successful dance composers of his generation, famously did not want his son to follow in his footsteps. Johann Strauss, Jr. eventually eclipsed his father’s fame—despite the near disaster of the first of his  orchestra tours. When he was 19, Strauss Jr. enlisted 33 other young musicians and set out with high hopes and very little money. In Pancsova, a town in Lower Banat, they had run out completely. Strauss decided they would play an impromptu concert under the window of the town’s mayor. The mayor agreed to lend Strauss and his orchestra some … Continue reading

Building an audience for symphony orchestra concerts — with video games?




According to stereotype, classical music in general and symphony orchestra concerts in particular appeal to an aging elite. That perception justifies cutting orchestras from schools, booking orchestras for school assemblies or college arts series much less frequently than in the recent past, and changing classical music radio stations to other formats. Orchestras must develop strategies for building an audience in order to survive. Here is a video about the kind of orchestral music used as the sound tracks to video games. Someone on an email list I follow sent it along. Several orchestras have presented entire concerts devoted to video … Continue reading

Brass Bands of the American Civil War




I like to look around on YouTube from time to time. I recently typed “brass band” into the search engine, and a video called “Brass Bands of the Civil War” came up on the first page of results. I wondered how that subject could possibly work in a video. I have seen “videos” with a single photograph and music playing in the background. This one has a collage of wonderful photos and drawings while the Federal City Brass Band plays on period instruments. At the time of the Civil War, brass bands ruled. Few bands included woodwinds. As the photographs … Continue reading

Jullien in America




Before the Civil War, at a time when the United States boasted only one financially stable concert orchestra and few native composers and solo performers of “classical” music, what taste there was for it had to be supplied by foreign visitors. In 1853 the conductor Jullien brought forty members of his London orchestra to the United States and hired sixty Americans to supplement them. Jullien had come at the invitation of P. T. Barnum, who had talents for promotion and marketing rivaling Jullien’s own. During the year, his orchestra gave 214 concerts. At least some of them were the “monster … Continue reading

The beginnings of American concert music




The earliest American orchestras appear to have formed for a single concert. A little later, the larger cities saw the formation of rehearsal orchestras, where members got together to play through the symphonies of Haydn and similar music. Some of them presented occasional public performances. Beginning in the 1820s, musicians in several cities attempted to establish permanent concert orchestras. Every one of them failed until the founding of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1842. Shortly thereafter, Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Fry, and George Bristow attempted to establish a reputation as American composers of symphonic music and opera. They hoped … Continue reading

A good book gaudily bound: popular conductor Jullien




Nowadays, we are accustomed to entertainers who go by only one name, but in the nineteenth century, there was only Jullien (1812-1860). LIke Madonna and so many others today, he was born with more than one name. In fact, his father conducted a French orchestra and every member became the young son’s godfather: he had 37 Christian  names! With a start in life like that, no wonder he became eccentric. His concert dress included a shirt front with diamond studs. When he conducted  Beethoven, he had a page bring him a special jeweled baton on a silver salver. He kept … Continue reading

Second symphony, in D major, op. 73, by Johannes Brahms




Johannes Brahms composed his second symphony during the summer of 1877, only a year after finishing his first. Although close in time, the two symphonies differ greatly in character. The stormy and dramatic first symphony took Brahms an agonizing 15 years to complete. The warm and lyrical second symphony flowed easily from  his pen. As he wrote to Eduard Hanslick, “So many melodies fly about that one must be careful not to step on them.” Brahms enjoyed teasing friends about the progress of his works with misleading comments, such as the following. The new symphony, too, is merely a Sinfonie, … Continue reading