Quotations about music: unspeakable until recently.




Plato wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Other people have made similar comments in the millennia since then. Nowadays, people well versed in intellectual and social history can read comments about music and, without knowing who said them first, can discern approximately when they were made. Most of us can’t do that, but here are some quotations about music that probably wouldn’t puzzle anyone. Even if I had left out who said what, could anyone have made … Continue reading

The glissando: from bad trombone technique to a common performance idiom




Perhaps no technique more perfectly characterizes the idiom of the slide trombone as the glissando. Its first deliberate use in performance is fairly recent in the long history of the trombone, and its acceptance as a legitimate technique came somewhat later. Nowadays, we tend to think of glissando and portamento as synonyms. They are, indeed, played exactly the same way, so it seems odd that the portamento enjoyed early approval and that all manner of musicians, including trombonists, strongly disapproved of the glissando within living memory. Daniel Speer provides the earliest reference to the glissando I have found (1687), when … Continue reading

March forth! A brief look at American marches




March music has played a huge role in American popular culture. What’s a parade without marching bands? Or half time at a school football game? Would anyone want to listen to a Fourth of July concert, or a concert on any other patriotic occasion, without lots of marches? Is it even possible to imagine a band concert without at least one march? The modern wind band began at the time of the French Revolution. After that, European nations developed infantry bands and mounted cavalry bands. Some nations developed highly centralized policies for the instrumentation of these bands. In any case, … Continue reading

Willie Colón and salsa music




According to Gerald Sloan, Willie Colón “has done more than anyone since Tommy Dorsey to keep [the] trombone before the public eye.” Yet in comparison to jazz trombonists he seems little known in this country. He has been closely associated with a style of Latin music known as salsa. Some Latinos object to the term salsa, which means “sauce,” applied to a musical style. Colón embraces it. After all, it had plenty of idiomatic meanings before it was applied to music. Different Latin music traditions developed in various Latin American countries. They have certain things in common including a Spanish … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Silver Bells




Silver Bells, which appeared in 1951, comes at the end of an amazing 19-year run that witnessed 19 Christmas songs that have have enjoyed continued popularity for more than half a century: • Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1932) • I Wonder As I Wander (1933) • Winter Wonderland (1934) • Carol of the Bells (1936) • The Little Drummer Boy (1941) • Happy Holiday (1942) • White Christmas (1942) • I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1943) • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944) • Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945) • All I … Continue reading

The raucous premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring




By the time Stravinsky mounted  Rite of Spring in 1913, history had already seen many premieres of operas and other theatrical works where audiences loudly disliked what they saw. In some cases, such as the premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, the noise came from a paid claque. In Rossini’s case, he dared to use the same story as an already successful opera by Giovanni Paisiello, who sent his friends to shout it down. But what happened to Rite of Spring (original title Sacre du Printemps) topped anything that had happened before. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets for the same company, Firebird … Continue reading

Schoenberg vs Stravinsky




Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky emerged between the two World Wars as leaders of two radically different approaches to writing modern music. Not only rivals, they personally despised each other. Interviewed by a Barcelona newspaper in 1936, Stravinsky called Schoenberg more of a musical chemist than artist. He acknowledged the importance of Schoenberg’s research. After all, they did expand possibilities of what people might enjoy hearing. But on the whole, he considered the twelve-tone method very much like Alois Haba’s experiments with quarter-tones. They exist only scientifically. Can anyone make genuine art with either method? Stravinsky thought not. Schoenberg vented … Continue reading

Slonimsky scorecard: Aaron Copland




Little by little, I plan to look at composers who were still living at the time Nicolas Slonimsky published bad reviews of their music in his Lexicon of Musical Invective. He compiled this most unusual and entertaining book because he believed in the idea of musical progress. The bad reviews, he said, from “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar,” and the subsequent popularity of these same composers proved that the critics were bad prophets. It should, of course, be child’s play to find bad reviews of bad and now-forgotten composers. Slonimsky picked good composers. If he was a better prophet than the … Continue reading

Carl Stalling: cartoon music pioneer




Soon after his first cartoon with music (Steamboat Willie, 1928), Walt Disney hired Carl Stalling as his music director.  Stalling provided music for many more cartoons over the next few years, including the earliest Silly Symphonies. Beginning in 1936, he worked for Warner Bros. and wrote all of the cartoon music there (including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, Porky Pig, and Sylvester) for 22 years until his retirement in 1958. Stalling saw his first movie at age 12 in1903 and vowed to be involved in movies in some way. Seven years later, he got his first job, playing in … Continue reading

Miserere, by Henryk Górecki




In 1994, when I was living and teaching in the Chicago area, one of my graduate students, a member of the Lira Chamber Chorus, invited me to one of the group’s concerts at St. Mary of the Angels Church on the northwest side of Chicago. The entire concert would be devoted to new choral works by Henryk Górecki. I had never heard of him and found it intriguing that an entire concert would consist of the works of one living foreign composer. For most of the program, the Lira Chamber Chorus made up only part of a massed choir, collaborating … Continue reading