Classical music that used to be popular music




You don’t have to be a classical music lover to recognize names of important classical composers. Bach Beethoven Brahms Wagner Liszt Rossini Except that the music of Rossini and others was considered popular music when it was first heard. And people who liked classical music scorned it. One French writer divided musicians into two kinds: classicists and Rossinists. So what else that we think of as classical music used to be considered popular? And what changed? … 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

The Garcìa family and a century of great singing




Spanish tenor Manuel Garcìa was the patriarch of four generations of singers. He and his children greatly influenced opera and singing in four countries for more than a century. In fact, his son lived for more than a century! Manuel Garcìa (1775-1832) Manuel Garcìa was born in Seville, Spain and educated in music in the choir school of the cathedral. He was a well-known singer, composer, and operatic conductor in Spain before his 18th birthday. His operetta El poeta calculista(1805) was successful not only in Spain, but in other countries as well. At the time, Spain was not a musically … Continue reading

Ironies in Rossini’s life and works: humorous anecdotes




The ironies in Rossini’s life and career are many: By the time he composed his last opera, William Tell, in 1829, he had long been the most popular operatic composer all over Europe. Then he stopped writing operas entirely. He composed 38 operas by the time he retired–at age 38–and yet he has an abiding reputation for laziness. While today we think of opera as a part of “classical” music, during his lifetime lovers of classical music uniformly despised Rossini. Although he had some formal study, he did not complete it, and his part-writing and counterpoint were full of errors. … Continue reading

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

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

The what? of Seville: animated opera




Not so long ago, quite a number of classical tunes were well known in popular culture. It has not entirely vanished. I have heard an aria from Carmen in a pizza commercial (wondering if the producers realized they were using French music as a background for their very Italian visuals) and an aria from Gianni Schicchi in a commercial for I don’t recall offhand just what. All the same, it seems that classical music has become less visible (audible?) lately. It has been a long time since I have paid any attention to Saturday morning cartoons. They’re all new, now. … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 2: the influence of Italian opera




At first glance, the performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in New York on November 29, 1825, seems to have little to do with popular music. It marks the first American production of any opera in Italian, or indeed any other foreign language. (New Orleans had a long tradition of presenting opera in French, but then it was originally a French city and remained largely French in culture long after the United States acquired it. Opera in French there hardly counted as a foreign language.) Actually, it affected American popular music almost as much as … Continue reading

Vienna, 1800: the divergence of classical and popular music




Revised February 27, 2017 What kind of music do you think of when you think of Vienna? Classical music, of course. Extra credit if you thought of Johann Strauss and realize that his waltzes aren’t classical music. But did you know classical music was hard to find in Vienna in 1800? Mozart had been dead for nine years. Haydn was an old man close to retirement from composing. The young Beethoven had made a strong start in establishing his reputation. Schubert was only three years old. And most of the public idolized musicians you’ve probably never heard of. In fact, … Continue reading

An ear for music




Lest anyone doubts that Rossini’s music was once deemed contemptible by lovers of classical music, English publisher Vincent Novello visited Europe in 1829 with the hope of hearing good music (specifically Mozart) in the land of its birth. He was disappointed. In Mannheim, he noted in  his  journal, “Heard Rossini’s Overture to “Barbiere de Siviglia” on the Piano Forte. . . I should have preferred hearing something by their celebrated townsman John Cramer, but sterling music appears to be at a very low ebb here, . . .” In Vienna, he wanted to find Beethoven’s last residence, and was upset … Continue reading