Trombones in dramatic music before opera




Opera arose from several different sources, among them the revival of Roman comedy in the late 1400s, mostly intended for entertainment at various ruling courts in Italy. It didn’t take long for rulers to see political and diplomatic advantages in mounting spectacular performances of them, and by the middle of the 1500s, they routinely mounted comedies with musical interludes between the acts. These interludes, intermedii in Italian, grew to become dramatic spectacles in their own right, involving the musical talents of the entire court establishment. Most Italian courts of the time boasted excellent trombonists. The music-loving Medici family managed to … Continue reading

Clara Louise Kellogg: the soprano vs the Civil War




This month marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, which had tremendous impact on American music. Clara Louise Kellogg, the first American-born singer to achieve success in Europe, began her career shortly before the war broke out. Before she could have any hope of success abroad, she had to be successful at home. Of course, the war made that difficult. Kellogg was born in Sumterville, South Carolina in 1842, but her parents moved to Derby, Connecticut later that year. Once her musical talent became evident, the family moved to New York City so she could receive a proper … Continue reading

Why do some composers and works not survive in the repertoire?




I’m sure everyone knows that the amount of classical music performed and recorded today represents only a small fraction of what has been written. It seems a common assumption that these composers must have written inferior music that deserves to be forgotten. While that is certainly true in some cases it does not explain everything. Fashions change. A hundred years ago, music lovers thought Haydn hopelessly old-fashioned. They welcomed Rossini overtures on concert programs, but only The Barber of Seville of all of his operas maintained its place on stage. They regarded Telemann as one of Bach’s inferior contemporaries and … Continue reading

An unexpected crossover: a rock guitarist plays opera




I will confess that I have never liked very much of the popular music of my lifetime. Once I got out of college, I stopped paying attention entirely. As I have studied the history of popular music, I noticed that from its beginnings at the end of the eighteenth century through the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, it was marketed to adults. Beginning with the rock music, marketers have sought to appeal to teenagers or even younger children. It appears that the audiences age along with the performers. Many people in their thirties and forties consider the Rolling Stones to … Continue reading

Rossini on Wagner




Some scholars have theorized that Rossini retired from composing operas after Guillaume Tell because he disliked the direction opera was going and the kinds of things he had to write in order to maintain  his popularity. He became really upset with Wagner’s music. Two of his comments are very well known: Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour. One cannot judge ‘Lohengrin’ from a first hearing, and I certainly do not intend to hear it a second time. Those were his polite comments. Once he was talking with a singer about Wagner’s music when he decided to … Continue reading

Past the last minute: a Mozart overture barely finished on time




When an opera performance starts, the overture is the first thing the audience hears, but it is the last thing the composer writes. Rossini disliked writing overtures, and the various impresarios he worked for had legendary difficulties keeping him on track. I haven’t found why Mozart waited so long to compose the overture to Don Giovanni, but for whatever reason, it produced a drama equal to anything Rossini did. Don Giovanni received its first performance in Prague, and Mozart had to travel there for the rehearsals. After the dress rehearsal, that is, the night before the opening performance, Mozart decided … Continue reading

Who wrote the first opera in the United States?




The usual answer to that question, William Henry Fry, produced Leonora in Philadelphia in 1845. A skillful imitation of Bellini and Donizetti it ran for twelve performances, successful enough to justify publication of a piano-vocal score. Fry’s brother Joseph adapted the libretto from a novel by Bulwer-Lytton. In the November 23, 1843 issue of the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper, appears notice of a new opera: “The idea of a Native American Opera is something so new and unexpected that our musical amateurs and connoisseurs were not a little taken aback by the announcement of Andre at the American … Continue reading

Francesca Caccini, the first woman operatic composer




Today we find nothing unusual about women becoming professional musicians. Women play every imaginable instrument. They conduct orchestras, choruses, and opera companies. They are well represented on anyone’s list of leading living composers. It can be hard to remember that until recently women were discouraged from playing certain instruments, and certainly from ever thinking about becoming composers. Francesca Caccini’s career is, then, something of an anomaly. She composed songs and operas for court entertainments in the early seventeenth century. Her father, Giulio Caccini, was a highly regarded singer, composer, and music teacher in Florence. Francesca, his foremost pupil first sang … Continue reading