Before television, movies, radio, or sound recordings, people either had to learn to play musical instruments or attend concerts to experience music. Wind bands provided the majority of concerts. In the golden age of American wind bands, none was as successful and well known as Sousa’s Band.
John Philip Sousa gained the experience and reputation needed to start a successful touring band as leader of the U.S. Marine Corps Band, America’s oldest professional musical ensemble. Before Sousa, it functioned as little more than Washington, DC’s town band. In his twelve years of service, Sousa transformed it to a nationally recognized band.
Under his leadership, the Marine Band started recording for the Columbia Record company. Sousa’s marches became some of the earliest hit records.
After years of trying, Sousa obtained permission to take it on tour. He hired David Blaikley, the former manager of the Gilmore Band, to organize the first tour throughout the Midwest. Its success encouraged a second tour that took the band as far as San Francisco. The success of that tour directly led to the end of Sousa’s leadership of the Marine Band and the formation of Sousa’s Band. Continue reading →
Day and Night (1938) by M.C. Escher / Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões via Flickr
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber ranks among the most popular orchestral pieces by Paul Hindemith. The dry, academic, and perhaps even pretentious title belongs to an entertaining piece with unfailing good cheer.
As popular as it is, critics and scholars appear not to consider it a great work. For example, the biography of Hindemith in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians does not mention the piece. Nor does it appear in Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise.
Hindemith himself seems to be regarded among a multitude of composers who wrote some wonderful music but did not achieve greatness. Continue reading →
Interior of the Gewandhaus concert hall, 1845, location of the premiere of the Great C Major Symphony / Illustrirte Zeitung, 19. April 1845, p. 253
Franz Schubert started at least ten symphonies and completed seven of them. The last completed symphony is known as the Great C Major Symphony to distinguish it from the shorter Sixth Symphony, also in C Major. It has been variously numbered 7, 8, and 9.
None of his symphonies were known in his lifetime. Why? Did the Viennese musical establishment callously neglect the young composer?
Generations of critics leveled that charge. But it seems that Schubert’s own insecurities kept him from even trying to gain an audience for his symphonies until very close to his death. Continue reading →
Francis Johnson, also known as Frank Johnson, was among the first noteworthy American composers of instrumental music. He was the first black composer to have his music published. His band was among the first to achieve a nationwide reputation and tour extensively. And it was the first to go on a foreign tour. Johnson was also among the first musicians to participate in interracial performances.
Although there was some speculation that Johnson was born in Martinique, historians have determined that he was born in Philadelphia as a free black on June 16, 1792. And it’s certainly in Philadelphia where he made his first mark.
Johnson’s childhood, early musical training, and personal life are little known, but he was playing music professionally in Philadelphia by 1812. He probably first gained attention as a fiddler for dances. He later became known for performances on multiple instruments, especially violin and keyed bugle. Continue reading →
Noël Léon Marius Arnaud, also known as Leo Vauchant, was born near Lyons, France, in 1904. His parents soon divorced and nothing much is known of his mother. His father, Noël Léon Arnaud, was a trombonist, among other musical accomplishments. Another family member also had the name Noël, so they always called the boy Léon.
The elder Noël deserted the French military. To avoid arrest, he changed his name to Jean Vauchant. Léon became Leo Vauchant, and it is by that name that he first became well known. In fact, he called himself Leo Arnaud only when he moved to the US in 1931. Continue reading →
It’s easy to see Antonin Dvořák as a symphonist and a composer of absolute music in the Johannes Brahms camp. It’s easy to see his contemporary Czech composer Bedrich Smetana as a champion of Czech culture, allied with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. On this view, Smetana represents Czech nationalism and Dvořák internationalism. In that case, why did Dvořák write program music, Lisztian tone poems?
His last five symphonic works are all tone poems. His turning to program music irritated the critics who had supported him as a symphonist and composer of absolute music. The only thing more unwelcome would have been if Brahms himself had started writing Wagnerian operas. Continue reading →