Plenty of people have composed music as a hobby, but none more successfully than Alexander Borodin, a chemist by profession. As a hobbyist, he did not produce a lot of music, but his works include symphonies, chamber music, and an opera—some of the loveliest music in the repertoire. The opera, Prince Igor, includes the ever-popular “Polovtsian Dances,” which formed the tune of the Broadway hit “Stranger in Paradise.” Its success is remarkable, because he never finished the opera. Continue reading →
“Hail Columbia” is not a well-known song today, but it has a prominent place in American history. It became a hit immediately after its first performance and remained popular for more than a century.
Of all patriotic songs before the Civil War, only “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America” rivaled “Hail Columbia” in popularity. The former uses the old English drinking song “Anacreon in Heaven” and the latter the English national anthem “God Save the King.”
Oscar Sonneck, who examined these and many of the patriotic songs that never caught on with the public, noted, “”’Hail Columbia’ holds a position quite unique in the history of our national songs for both the words and the music were written in America.”
The word “Columbia” obviously comes from the name Christopher Columbus. The District of Columbia and Columbia University share the name. Columbia is a lady, by the way. Continue reading →
Many top American songs have become hits immediately. A fair number have made little impression at first but became hits later. These include Easter Parade, I’ll Be Seeing You, and My Funny Valentine.
But how many of those belated hits have been based on music of a British composer working in a completely different genre with words by someone who had never met him? Only “Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates comes to mind. Coates composed it in 1930. It only became a hit twelve years later, and first on the other side of the pond. Continue reading →
As World War II raged, Hollywood turned to nostalgia of a simpler, safer time. A common theme in movie musicals portrays young performers trying to find success in the entertainment business. A successful wartime example, Hello Frisco, Hello came loaded with dozens of songs that had been hits at the turn of the century. The team of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon provided one original song, “You’ll Never Know.” Introduced by Alice Faye, it immediately became a hit and won the 1943 Oscar for best original song.
Let’s look at the movie, the song, Warren, Gordon, and Faye. Continue reading →
The 19-year stretch between 1932 and 1951 gave us 19 top hit Christmas songs. “The Little Drummer Boy” was written in 1941. When I decided to write about it, I found that hardly anyone knew it existed for 10 years. It didn’t become a hit until even later.
Yet now, we can choose among hundreds of recordings. It started out as a choral piece, but many top vocal soloists have recorded it. Like it or not, it’s hard to avoid hearing “The Little Drummer Boy” throughout December every year. You might even hear it more than once in a day. Continue reading →
The American Civil War inspired more great songs than any other conflict. George Frederick Root composed a large share of them. Some of them are rousing patriotic tunes, such as Battle Cry of Freedom. But he also composed songs about the devastating impact of the war on American families.
“Just Before the Battle, Mother” is one of the earliest of these. It became such a great hit that it inspired many other songs. Root himself composed more than one of them, including the companion piece “Just After the Battle.”
It also inspired parodies that take a very different viewpoint. Continue reading →