Symphony no. 7 by Sergey Prokofiev




I never gave much thought to Prokofiev symphonies until my orchestra needed to hire a new conductor. We interviewed six semi-finalists and listened to them explain a sample program. Five of the six built their proposed program around Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony! We’re working on performing it now. Prokofiev as symphonist When Sergey Prokofiev first performed some of his piano music in public (in 1908) critics found it unintelligible. In response, he carefully maintained his reputation as an ultramodern radical.  … Continue reading

Baby It’s Cold Outside, by Frank Loesser




Hasn’t this winter been brutal? Ice storms in New Orleans, arctic temperatures in Chicago. Oh baby it’s cold outside. Hmm. That sounds like a good song title! And of course, it’s the title of a most unusual song. There haven’t been many pop songs taking the form of a dialog and requiring two singers. Frank Loesser wrote “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in 1944. He and his wife Lynn sang it for the first time at a housewarming party that year after they moved in to New York’s Navarro Hotel. After all, they were entertainers, and when entertainers held parties for … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten




Today’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra, but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols. Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it. At about the same … Continue reading

Songs against cities




Many songs, including some well-loved standards, celebrate various American cities. Of course, no place is perfect or without its detractors. I can’t think of any really negative song that has achieved the popularity of, say, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” or “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but quite a few of them exist. Chances are you have John Denver’s putdown of Toledo, Ohio. Chicago Speaking of Chicago, the very earliest published song I have found is based on a highly insulting satirical poem the composer/publisher found in a Pittsburgh newspaper. It compared Chicago unfavorably to Sodom and Gomorrah. Other … Continue reading

Songs about Cities from Tin Pan Alley




Can you name a song about New York? Chicago? San Francisco? Maybe you can name two or more about each. Maybe you can even sing one or more. How about New Orleans? Very possibly. Ypsilanti? Um. It’s in Michigan. Yes. There’s a song about it. Published in New York. From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, New York the hub of the popular music industry in the U.S. A handful of mostly Jewish songwriters congregated in a part of town called Tin Pan Alley and churned out songs week after week. Like the music industry today, … Continue reading

A Birthday Tribute to Benjamin Britten: The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra




Ordinarily when I write program notes, I focus on a single piece. Since this year marks Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday, it seems appropriate to widen the focus and look at The Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra within the context of Britten’s life at the time he composed it. His opera Peter Grimes becomes a very important part of the story. Benjamin Britten started composing at the age of 5. When he was 11 he met Frank Bridge at the Norwich Music Festival and became his pupil. Beside excellent technical skill, he learned about musical developments in Europe. When he … Continue reading

American booster songs




Everyone knows hit songs about cities, such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Wannabe commercial songwriters churned out thousands more that never became hits. I have also found a surprising number of songs about cities written with no apparent thought of commercial success. They exist only to promote the virtues of a particular town, almost like an advertisement or jingle. I call them booster songs … Continue reading

Summertime, by George Gershwin




Is it even conceivable that any series of outdoor orchestra or concert band concerts (at least in the US) has never presented someone singing “Summertime”? If a series has lasted more than five or ten years, its audiences have probably heard it sung multiple times—not to mention instrumental arrangements on those or a wide variety of other concerts. It’s one of George Gershwin’s best-loved works, and certainly his most recorded. Some people regard Gershwin as America’s greatest composer. Too many professional critics dismiss him, looking askance at the fact that he devoted most of his energy to (shudder) popular music. … Continue reading

Four tangos by classical composers




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




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