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 →
Euphonium players might object to the title of this post. After all, Simone Mantia was the leading euphonium soloist of his generation. He played euphonium on most of his best-known performances. On the other hand, he never wrote a book called The Euphonium Virtuoso.
Simone Mantia was born in 1873 in Palermo, Italy. Some sources say that he and his family immigrated to New York when he was 17. However, the only biographical sketch I have found that appeared during his lifetime implies that he arrived in New York when he was 8. In either case, his Italian heritage shaped his first experiences in music.
Italians’ love of opera in the 19th century is well known. Less well known are its numerous wind bands, both military and amateur. At the time of Italian unification, there were about 1,700 of them, with thousands of enthusiastic participants.
Italians adopted the valve trombone as soon as it became available. A few valve trombonists became nationally known as soloists, playing mainly transcriptions and variations on operatic arias. Only near the end of the century did Italian trombonists begin to switch to playing slide trombones.
In the US, therefore, most bands and orchestras used slide trombones, but opera companies that specialized in Italian opera used valve trombones as long as Italians did. When Italian opera companies began to favor slide trombones, American companies began to switch as well.
As a child, Mantia started to play alto horn, an important voice in 19th-century wind bands. He later switched to euphonium and valve trombone, likewise important band instruments. Slide trombone came later under harrowing circumstances. 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 →