Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary: without the opera hype

The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death. By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history. Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form. … Continue reading

Opera: when did it become highbrow culture?

“I’d hate this to get out, but I really like opera,” said former Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick. What is it about opera that would make anyone hesitant to admit that they like it? It seems to have this reputation as highbrow culture, an entertainment only for the rich, the old, the white, and the snobbish. Two hundred years ago Italian opera had a reputation as mindless entertainment for lowbrows who didn’t appreciate good music. What happened? … Continue reading

10 odd facts about trombonists you’d never guess

Trombonists, who have been mostly human, have always had lives. Some of them have commanded great personal and professional respect, but not others. The trombone itself has had its ups and downs. In fact, the high points in the reputations of the trombone and trombonists have not necessarily coincided. Sometimes playing trombone has been their principal profession, more often, though, not. In fact, most musicians throughout history have had to earn money from something besides music in order to survive. … Continue reading

Women trombonists of the late Renaissance

Professional women musicians in the Renaissance were usually singers, not instrumentalists. Usually. Women who learned to play instruments—especially aristocratic woman—usually didn’t take up trombone. Not usually. Here and there, fascinating exceptions turn up. Including perhaps the Queen of England? The illustration, by the way, is a detail from a 19th-century engraving made from an embroidered tablecloth, which was made in the 1560s. Portraits of a German count and his wife occupy the center of the tablecloth (no longer extant, but a photograph exists). This woman is among 9 very aristocratic-looking men and women depicted with various instruments encircling the count … Continue reading

Trombones on five continents during the Renaissance

A recent book by Stewart Carter The Trombone in the Renaissance: a History in Pictures and Documents, sheds light in some previously dark corners of the history of the trombone. Among other things, it documents the use of the trombone on five different continents in the sixteenth century. For the record, here are the numbers of items the book contains from various geographic areas, from most to least: Italy, 178 Germany, 130 France and the Low Countries, 78 Spain, 45 England, 39 Asia, Africa, and the New World, 20 Portugal, 12 Scandinavia, 4 Eastern Europe, 4 Asia, Africa, and the … Continue reading

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

Tielman Susato: trombonist and music publisher

You can’t find very many trombonists in basic music history textbooks, but some like Gustav Holst and Tielman Susato (ca.1510-after 1570) belong there for their other achievements. As a member of the town band in the Flemish city of Antwerp, Susato played a variety of instruments. He was also a composer of some merit, but his reputation rests on the publishing company he founded and ran for 18 years. It used to be thought that he died about the time his publishing company ceased operations, but as it turns out, he moved to Sweden and, among other things, dabbled in … Continue reading

How old is that trombone joke? Really?

When I was in fifth grade, just learning trombone, one of my friends, who was learning clarinet, asked me how I could play trombone. Doesn’t it go up into my mouth? I had to take the slide apart to show him how it looked. Some time after that, I started to hear jokes about some hayseed who watched a trombonist intently, and then declared to one and all, “He don’t really swaller that thing.” Since I actually knew someone who thought I did, I guess it should be no surprise how long the confusion has been around. For those who … Continue reading