Four tangos by classical composers

Tango dancers

The tango, in a sense, is to 20th-century music what the waltz was in the 19th century. It originated from the lower social classes of Argentina. Polite society found it scandalous (as respectable people had scorned the waltz in Bohemia, Austria, and Bavaria a century earlier). But like the waltz it became insanely popular in Paris and eventually embraced at home. Paris has long served as the launching pad for dances that, whatever their origin, become internationally popular. Just as classical composers of the 19th century embraced the waltz, so those of the 20th century (and at least one who … Continue reading

Classic cartoons: they don’t make ‘em that way any more

Bugs Bunny at piano

Since this is a music blog, “classic cartoons” means something more specific than just the old ones. Many cartoons used to feature classical music, which is the only reason why they belong in this blog. I never had any kids, so haven’t paid much attention to the Saturday morning cartoons since I was a kid myself. Every once in a while I see one, though. I’m not qualified to say that they don’t use classical music, but I think I’d remember noticing if I’d heard any. I am principally struck by the lack of richness in the drawing. … Continue reading

Up from disgrace: two and a half beloved dances that no longer shock


Have you ever noticed how many of our cherished cultural traditions were considered disreputable and shocking when they were first introduced? Here are three dance forms from three different countries that had to overcome strong objections before they became respectable. Two of them remain as staples of ballroom dancing. Waltz The German verb waltzen appeared long before the waltz as a specific dance. It refers to the whirling movements of various dances that arose among the peasants of the German-speaking regions of Bavaria, Austria, and Bohemia. These dances were known in Vienna and throughout Europe simply as German dances. Besides … Continue reading

Firebird, by Igor Stravinsky


In 1909, Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russe, had a ballet based on two Russian legends in mind. Neither his resident composer Nikolai Tcherepnin nor Anatoly Lyadov accepted his request to compose the music. Therefore he turned to the virtually unknown Igor Stravinsky. The resulting ballet, Firebird, turned out to be a turning point in the careers of both men and one of the most successful pieces of twentieth-century music. Diaghilev had encountered Stravinsky’s music before, having asked him to orchestrate some Chopin pieces for an earlier ballet. But Stravinsky’s teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had only recently … Continue reading

Beautiful Ohio: from pop song to official state song

Beautiful Ohio cover

Ohio’s state song, “Beautiful Ohio,” began life as a popular song. It’s not one of the songs whose popularity has lasted for several generations. It is now as obscure as most state songs. It has a strange story, but where did the idea of an official state song come from, anyway? American song writers have chosen cities as subject matter at least since 1831, when J. A. Gairdner composed and published “New York, O! What a Charming City.” I have no idea what might be the first song about a state, but Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” appeared well … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Carol of the Bells

Christmas carols

Peter Wilhousky, a distinguished American choral conductor, music educator, and arranger, wrote the words to “Carol of the Bells” and published his arrangement of the piece in 1936. The tune has a much longer history. It was originally a Ukrainian folksong. And it had nothing to do with Christmas. In 1916, a Ukrainian choral director named Oleksander Koshetz commissioned local composer Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych to provide a new choral piece based on folk music. Leontovych looked through an anthology of Ukrainian folk music and selected a four-note tune with lyrics to a song of well-wishing, traditionally sung at New Year’s. … Continue reading

Rodeo, by Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland, Agnes de Mille, Rodeo

Rodeo: The Courting at Burnt Ranch launched the ballet career of Agnes de Mille in 1942. It remains one of only three of de Mille’s ballets that remain in the repertoire. The greatness and popularity of Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet deserves at least some of the credit, but it almost didn’t get written at all. When de Mille spoke to Copland about the basic theme of the ballet, he responded that he had already written a western ballet (Billy the Kid, 1938). Why should he write another one? Why couldn’t she provide him with something about Ellis Island? … Continue reading

Juan Tizol, Ellington’s valve trombonist

Juan Tizol, Ellington valve trombone

Of all the people who populated the trombone sections of professional big bands in the swing era, not many played valve trombone. Not many became famous, either, unless they became known as soloists or band leaders. Puerto Rican Juan Tizol was one of the few in both categories. Most municipalities in Puerto Rico offered musical instruction, and produced many excellent musicians in the process. Jazz bands and theater bands that catered primarily to African American audiences began to recruit them in large numbers beginning before World War I. Tizol first arrived in New York in 1917, but returned home, overwhelmed … Continue reading

Olympic fanfare(s): John Williams and Leo Arnaud

John Williams

With the Olympics in progress, and snippets of John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme heard constantly, it seems good to take a closer look at this piece–especially since Williams’ 80th birthday is this month. I had intended to say something about Williams’ life and career in this post, but that will have to wait for another time. One of Williams’ challenges in composing Olympic Fanfare and Theme was writing music that could bear comparison with a 20-year-old theme that was already synonymous with the Olympics. Another favorite Olympic theme Ever since the modern Olympics began in 1896, music has been … Continue reading

Summer concerts with movie music

movie music, orchestra concerts

Summer time, and orchestra concerts become less formal. Band concerts, too. Here in Greensboro, City Arts sponsors a series called Music for a Sunday Evening in the Park (MUSEP). Even though the Fourth of July was on Wednesday this year, music by the Greensboro Concert Band at the fireworks was part of the MUSEP series. That, my own orchestra’s upcoming concert, and the outdoor concert by the Eastern Music Festival’s student orchestras got me thinking about movie music. A brief glance at history The concept of “classical” music didn’t exist until the nineteenth century. Neither did the concept of a … Continue reading