Benjamin Franklin on Handel




I have written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about how the distinction between classical and popular music arose. (See, for example, “Popular Music: the Birth of an Idea.”)  Years before it became apparent, Benjamin Franklin anticipated it when he advised his brother on how to write a popular ballad: don’t use Handel’s music for a model. Peter Franklin had written a ballad text disapproving of expensive foppery and encouraging hard work and thriftiness. Benjamin thought it very good, but pointed out that its poetic meter did not resemble that of any of the common and well-known tunes. That would … Continue reading

On the many, many songs of Franz Schubert




In 1827 the composer Hummel visited Vienna and brought his sixteen-year-old student Ferdinand Hiller with him. After seeing Hummel deeply moved by hearing Schubert and singer Michael Vogl performing several of the songs, Hiller dropped in on Schubert’s home the next morning. There he saw piles of finished manuscripts laying around, with another in progress on Schubert’s desk. He exclaimed, “You compose a great deal!” Schubert answered simply and seriously, “I compose every morning. When I finish one piece I start on another” He wrote his first song, “Hagars Klage,” in March 1811 and his last, “Der Hirt auf Felsen,” … Continue reading

"Easter Parade," by Irving Berlin




Perhaps the most popular Easter song in the English language, “Easter Parade” started out with completely different words. In 1917, Berlin wrote “Smile and Show Your Dimple” to cheer up women whose men had just been deployed to fight in the First World War. No one remembered it very long except Berlin himself. In 1933, Berlin and playwright Moss Hart decided to collaborate on a satiric review with sketches taken from the daily newspaper. They called it As Thousands Cheer. It had sketches not only from the news sections, but also the society column, advice column, weather report, and comics. … Continue reading

An early song about Chicago




Probably everyone knows, or at least knows about, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” and “My Kind of Town.” Frank Sinatra sang both with great success. Surely no one will be surprised to learn that nearly 200 more songs about Chicago exist that no one is ever likely to sing again. But could anyone expect that the earliest published song about Chicago takes such a dim view of the place? In 1868, Chicago music publisher H. M. Higgins found a very insulting poem about Chicago in a Pittsburgh newspaper and decided to set it to music. Musically, the piece has little interest, … Continue reading