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

Trombone vs bumblebee

“Everyone knows” that the trombone can’t play fast. In the orchestra, trombones are likely to be playing long chords when everyone else has a moving part. Even in jazz, Stan Kenton assumed that bebop would spell the end of the slide trombone. So some trombonists try to prove that “everyone” is wrong. Bass trombone soloist and clinician Alan Raph has pointed out, “Trying to be the world’s fastest trombone player is like trying to be the world’s tallest midget,” but nothing seems to keep trombonists from trying. Here are three of many videos of trombonists playing “Flight of the Bumblebee.” … Continue reading

Shared songs of the Civil War

Although at war, the Union and Confederacy shared a common history, language, and at least partly, cultural heritage. By 1863, they also shared war weariness and the grief of lost loved ones. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they shared at least two songs that year. A Northern and a Southern composer both set the poem that starts “All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight.” Northern and Southern publishers both issued “Who Will Care for Mother Now?” … 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

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