Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials

Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865. They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists. For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both. On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths. … Continue reading

Race relations, social change, and American music

Race relations in the US are probably better than at any time in history. The recent racially motivated mass murder at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina demonstrates that they are not good enough. Many simmering misunderstandings and controversies rooted in racial tension likewise show that we have a long way to go achieve racial harmony. Harmony. That’s a musical term. The history of American music reflects the history of race relations. Music has also played a role in bridging the racial divide. … Continue reading

Getting off the classical music merry-go-round

Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true. If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off. The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts. For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio. Performing organizations always seek to … Continue reading

Sacred Choral Music from the Former Soviet Bloc

As an undergraduate composition student in the 1970s, I tried to like the music that my teachers thought important, including Webern, Stockhausen, Cage, et al. General audiences have never liked it, and I never did manage to like the music only an academic can love. Inevitably a new generation of composers arose, but it was only after one of my graduate students invited me to a concert of mostly sacred choral music by Henryk Górecki in 1994 that I heard any European post-avant-garde music. A surprising number of devoutly Christian composers lived and worked in countries of the former Soviet … Continue reading

How Original Band Music Marginalized the Concert Band

When Patrick S. Gilmore took over leadership of the New York 22nd Regiment Band, he took it on a coast-to-coast tour. The age of the professional touring band had begun. Like all bands before or contemporaneous with the Gilmore Band, as it soon became known, it performed a mix of music for popular entertainment and serious orchestral and operatic repertoire. Music composed originally for concert band was limited to marches, music Gilmore’s soloists wrote for themselves, and other lighter fare by Gilmore himself. Gilmore’s great successor John Philip Sousa and all their notable contemporaries constructed comparable concert programs. Not until … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: In the Bleak Midwinter

“In the Bleak Midwinter,” text by Christina Rosetti, is just about the only well known Christmas carol that I can think of with a text by a woman. She also wrote “Love Came Down at Christmas.” No combination of keywords I could think of yielded any other titles. Christina (1830-1894) Rosetti was part of an artistic family. One brother, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; another William Michael Rosetti, soon joined the movement, but mostly as editor and critic. Their sister Maria Francesca Rosetti published at least one important essay. Their father, … Continue reading

Fiddler on the Roof: Celebrating 50 Years

The year 1964 saw the premieres of some of our most outstanding Broadway musicals, including Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler on the Roof is based on eight stories about Tevye the milkman by Sholem Aleichem written between 1894 and 1914. Tevye has extended conversations with a character named Sholem Aleichem. To what extent does this Sholem Aleichem speak with the author’s voice, and to what extent is he as fictitious as Tevye? Even his contemporaries couldn’t figure it out. Likewise, it is not clear how faithful the stories are to real historical conditions. Aleichem’s stories … Continue reading

Songs of September

September sees the beginning of the harvest of nature’s abundance, but then the fields stop growing. It displays flamboyant color, as the leaves turn from uniform green to variegated reds, oranges, and yellows. But then autumn turns a dull brown. Relief from the heat of summer invigorates for a while, but gives way to melancholy. September melancholy has inspired some wonderful songs. … Continue reading

The versatility of Lawrence Brown, Ellington’s lead trombonist

The self-deprecating Lawrence Brown is best known as one the great players in Duke Ellington’s trombone section. In fact, when Brown joined, the Ellington band became the first jazz band to have three trombones. He is, of course, more than just a number. He became the band’s lead trombonist and a very versatile soloist. How versatile? In addition to his incredible displays of virtuosity, he is probably the first of the great jazz ballad trombonists. But I described him as self-deprecating. He frequently spoke poorly of his own ability. It must have been an attempt to appear humble. If he … Continue reading

Hello Dolly! Celebrating 50 Years

Hello Dolly! opened January 16, 1964 and closed after 2844 performances on December 27, 1970. No previous Broadway musical had such a long run. Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi led the cast. It also ran for 794 performances at London’s West End. The Broadway show won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and for Channing, Best Actress in a Musical. Not till 35 years later did another musical surpass Hello Dolly! … Continue reading