Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day




The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied. His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he … 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

Kingdom Coming by Henry C. Work: abolitionist minstrel song




Popular songs usually don’t have a very long shelf life, but sometimes they’re more than just songs. Some of them affect the course of social and political events. Even after no one sings them or recognizes them any more, these are worth studying for their historical significance. I thought “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work was such a song. In form it’s a minstrel song, with a text in the slave dialect. Unlike almost any other minstrel song, it conveys a strong abolitionist sentiment. Poets who disdained the minstrel song tradition wrote abolitionist texts in dialect, which also became popular … 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

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

You can’t play that on trombones!




According to an anecdote I read long ago and now can’t find, Theobald Boehm, inventor of modern flute fingering, spent a night at Rossini’s house. In the morning, he began a warmup, playing low trills. Rossini burst into the room and said, “You can’t play that on a flute.” Boehm said, “But I just did.” Rossini responded, “I don’t care. You can’t play that on a flute.” The same sentiment has followed performances on trombone, too. A European orchestra actually took Arthur Pryor’s trombone apart looking for the trickery. They knew what they had just heard was impossible. “You can’t … 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