Posts Tagged ‘music’

Happy Birthday, Amy Beach!

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Today, as you likely know, is the 150th birthday of Amy Beach.

Amy Beach. You know, the best-known, most-performed and most-respected American composer of the earliest 20th century.

You don’t know? Well don’t blame yourself. Blame history, changing tastes, and good old fashioned sexism.

We posted about Amy Beach here on the PhLog last summer and since then we’ve become more surprised and dismayed about how quickly her fame has evaporated. Beach’s work is decidedly Victorian, and as a musical conservative, she doesn’t stand out as an innovator. But her work still ranks among the best of her era. A prodigy and exceptional pianist as well as composer, Beach rose to the top of the Second New England School of composers, accepted as “one of the boys” due to her remarkable talent. In a time when a woman having a career outside of the home was frowned upon, Beach toured Europe, performing to adoring crowds. Her “Gaelic” symphony (1894) was the first symphony written and published by an American woman, composed before she was 30. As an American composer, Beach made a point to integrate Native American and African American songs into her work. Besides her symphonic work, Beach was known for her songs, chamber music, and work for piano.

But time hasn’t been kind to Amy Beach. It was always going to be an uphill battle to get major orchestras to program music by a woman, and after Beach’s death, performances dropped off.

But Beach is slowly becoming more recognized. The New York Times covered her birthday and perhaps there may be some more performances sometime soon? Are any music programmers out there listening?

So take a moment today and listen to some Amy Beach. You can find several selections at


Summer Beaches: Beach Music

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

It’s Summertime! What better time of year to celebrate famous Beaches?

This week we remember Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944).


Amy Beach was the most-performed American composer of her generation – no mean feat when there were no professional female American composers of large-scale classical music before her.

Beach’s parents did everything they could to prevent her embarking on a career, but she was unstoppable! Amy Beach started out a child prodigy pianist and became a prodigy composer – the youngest member of the “Boston Six” (aka the Second New England School).

Her performing career ended at age 18 when she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a doctor 24 years her senior. As part of her marriage vows, Amy Beach agreed to live as a society matron. That meant she wasn’t allowed to teach piano, and she agreed to stop performing. So she decided to focus on composing.

Amy Beach’s husband didn’t approve of her studying with a teacher, so she taught herself to compose. When her husband died in 1910, Beach returned to performing, and became a critical hit in Europe, both as a performer and a composer. One German critic even hailed the “European quality of excellence” of her compositions.

Upon her triumphant return to America, Beach returned to teaching, and offered advice and support to young composers, especially to young women.

Beach’s work has fallen into neglect since her death, but her influence was profound in her lifetime. Her Mass in E-flat major made her “one of the boys” (in the somewhat tone-deaf words of composer George Whitefield Chadwick) as it moved Beach firmly from the world of female singers and performers into the male-dominated world of established composers. Beach was the first American woman to write and publish a symphony – the “Gaelic” Symphony, which drew on old Irish folk tunes – and her “Panama Hymn” was commissioned by the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition as the musical selection to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal.

Beach wrote more than 300 works, most of which were performed and published during her lifetime. Her songs in particular were quite popular.

Amy Beach’s legacy lives on today in this Spotify playlist. And you can listen to the Gaelic Symphony below.

Happy Ivesday

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Happy Birthday to Charles Ives, American avant-garde composer!

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an original, combining European art music with popular American tunes while integrating experimental rhythms, polytonality, and tone clusters. Ives was a man who loved his tone clusters. Ives’ music was heavily influenced by a childhood of listening to Yankee hymns and band music. His father was a bandleader, who did fairly eccentric things like having two bands play completely music at the same time or having his children sing in one key while he accompanied them on another. This playfulness and love for the off-kilter is evident in all of Ives’ music.

Charles Ives was one of those composers who was mostly unappreciated in his own lifetime. He never quit his day job in the insurance industry, and although he received accolades for his music towards the end of his life, he remained outside of the musical establishment. No doubt his maverick approach to composing played a part in that.

In honor of Ives’ birthday, why not take 5 minutes today and listen to Ives himself performing the third movement of the Concord Sonata? It’s really lovely.

Summer Romance: Music

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

This Summer we’re posting about the Romantic era. Today’s post is an introduction to Romantic music.

The Romantic era brought major developments to the world of what we now call “classical” music. The cliched image of the stormy, tempestuous composer comes from this time period, and our modern orchestra is in many ways still modeled on that of the Romantic era.

In a very small nutshell, Romantic era music was known for:


In the 19th century, concert performances moved out of the exclusive realm of the aristocracy, and audiences became larger and more diverse. And Romantic era composers and performers loved to show off in front of the crowd.

Programmatic music

Music was used to tell stories, and convey a narrative outside of the music. The above example, from Hector Berlioz’ classicly programmatic Symphonie Fantastique, presents an imagined Witches’ Sabbath in the mind of the “hero” of the symphony.

Speaking of witches… Romantic-era music was also known for its

Focus on the supernatural, gothic, and terrifying

It was the age of gothic literature, and this brand of horror found its way into music as well. The above clip is from Carl Maria von Weber’s classic horror opera Der Freischütz.

Preoccupation with nature

As written in a previous post, the Romantic era saw nature as wild and threatening, and felt that by facing the horrifying wilderness, man could come face to face with the sublime. The above clip is a piece of music Felix Mendelssohn wrote, inspired by his visit to Fingal’s cave in Scotland. The music attempts to convey the power and beauty of the cave as well as the wild, rolling sea outside.

Preoccupation with emotions

Romantic music was full of intense emotion, the more tragic or tormented the better. The above clip is from Schubert’s Winterreise, a song cycle about a young man tormented by a failed love affair. In this video the singer is lying on the ground, the type of extreme posture the Romantic era seemed to celebrate.

Interest in myth

Nearly all of the operas of Richard Wagner are based on ancient Germanic myths. Many other composers looked back on the past of their cultures for inspiration. This included an

Interest in folklore

Composers brought common folk music to the orchestra. Chopin made the Polish mazurka a standard piano form, and the polka and other dances made their way into “highbrow” music.

Nationalistic music

The Romantic era saw the birth of modern European nationalism, and with that, “national” composers began to write the music of their people. This era saw the rise of Russian composers drawing on Russian themes, English composers inspired by English folk music, and Polish composers bringing Polish dance music to the concert hall, just to name a few examples. The above clip, Vltava, from Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast (My Homeland), describes the path of the mighty Vltava river from a small spring through the city of Prague. This piece combines many elements of Romantic music: nationalist feelings, a programmatic structure, and the musical description of nature.


The (NSFW) Life of Jelly Roll Morton

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

On June 9, 1924, Jelly Roll Morton recorded the song he copyrighted as “Original Jelly-Roll Blues” – soon after and better known as “Jelly Roll Blues,” the first jazz composition ever published.

Jelly Roll was one of those geniuses whose accomplishments live in a bawdy and ambidextrous thicket of quotation marks.

Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe Mouton was known as “Ferd” before he was known as “Jelly Roll.”

At first, he didn’t play the piano, but learned other, more masculine instruments – guitar, the trombone – as he was afraid he would be “misunderstood.”

After the death of his mother, Ferd moved in with his great-grandmother and got a job. However, she threw him out of the house when she discovered his “job at a barrel factory” was actually a slew of gigs as a piano “professor” at Mahogany Hall and other “questionable little frame houses on the streets down by the railroad station” and “various dives in the restricted Storyville part of town” and “sporting houses.”

He changed his last name from Mouton to “Morton” and started going by “Jelly Roll.”

As for his nickname… let’s just say it’s “gynecological slang” and your little old grandpa would not approve of it and the network censors would bleep you right out if you nicknamed yourself its contemporary equivalent.

However, “Jelly Roll” was appropriate for a jazz musician, as “jazz” is thought to owe its derivation to the vulgar and energetic “jass” – a slang word as spunky as “spunk.”

Jelly Roll was a gambler and pool player, a producer and promoter, a fierce professional competitor in “cutting contests” with other musicians, and – in lean times – a “procurer.”

His music inspired luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and generations of musicians that followed.

Ferd played ragtime, the blues, and barrelhouse, with its flights of improvisation that became his and jazz’s trademarks. He challenged W.C. Handy’s claim to the title “Father of the Blues.” He decried Paul Whiteman’s billing as the “King of Jazz.”

He was indisputably among the progenitors of jazz. He defined the form and paved the way for swing. Jelly Roll Morton was the first to make musical notations of his arrangements. On many occasions he made the claim: “I invented jazz.” But that wasn’t so.

Jelly Roll Morton “invented” jazz.



Shared Birthdays: Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Thursday, May 7th, 2015
Brahms and Tchaikovsky

Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Tchaikovsky: drinking buddies.

By all accounts Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky should have been allies. They stood on the same side of a musical divide between conservatives and a more avant-garde approach to music, championed by popular contemporaries such as Wagner and Liszt. And, for what it’s worth, they were born seven years apart to the day — May 7th. (Although due to the Russians not yet adopting the Gregorian calendar, in Russia, the date was April 25th.)

But Tchaikovsky hated Brahms. He hated his music, and he hated what he stood for. He saw Brahms as a wildly overrated poor imitator of Beethoven. Here’s an example of what he said about Brahms, via a letter:

“The other day I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It irritates me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius…. Brahms is a chaos of utterly empty dried-up tripe.”

Come on, Pyotr, tell us what you really think about him. But Tchaikovsky had grounds for his animosity to Brahms — jealousy. Tchaikovsky, living in Russia, far away from the central European music scene, felt irritated that he had to live in the shadow of Great European Composers, and Brahms was one of the Greatest.

Tchaikovsky wrote: “Brahms is a celebrity; I’m a nobody. And yet, without false modesty, I tell you that I consider myself superior to Brahms.”

When the two men met in 1888, odds were not great that they would get along. To add to Tchaikovsky’s hate for Brahms and his music, their personalities weren’t naturally good matches. Tchaikovsky was formal and aristocratic, while Brahms disliked pretense and had a strong taste for sarcasm.

But Brahms was not at all the conceited celebrity Tchaikovsky expected him to be, and when they met, he showed kindness to his Russian colleague.

As Tchaikovsky described the drink-filled meeting of the minds: “I’ve been on the booze with Brahms. He is tremendously nice — not at all proud as I’d expected, but remarkably straightforward and entirely without arrogance. He has a very cheerful disposition, and I must say that the hours I spent in his company have left me with nothing but the pleasantest memories.”

But he still didn’t like his music at all and wasn’t shy of telling Brahms so. And the feeling was mutual. The two met again a year later, when Brahms may or may not have fallen asleep during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Regardless of whether or not he fell asleep, it’s certain that Brahms was no fan of Tchaikovsky’s music. He harshly critiqued Tchaikovsky’s symphony to his face during a post-rehearsal meal. Tchaikovsky wasn’t put off by this. In fact, it gave him more respect for Brahms. Tchaikovsky responded by lambasting Brahms’ musical style and after more drinking, the two parted as friends.

So this May 7th, raise a glass (or perhaps a couple of bottles of wine) to Tchaikovsky and Brahms!

It’s Suffer-By-Comparison Day!

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Ludwig von Beethoven’s 4th Symphony was performed for the very first time this week in 1807.

The 4th Symphony occupies an unfortunate place between Beethoven’s 3rd and Beethoven’s 5th.

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (the “Eroica”), is legendary and groundbreaking. It’s a milestone in the development of the Symphony, and is regarded as the beginning of the Romantic era. As for Beethoven’s 5th, it is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music ever written, as well as one of the most lasting and influential works of Western Civilization.

Beethoven’s 4th Symphony is perfectly fine. In another time or from another composer it might even be better than fine. But it doesn’t have the oomph of its 3rd and 5th siblings.

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was famously dedicated (and then undedicated) to Napoleon Bonaparte. The 4th was dedicated to Count Franz von Oppensdorff.

Beethoven’s 5th revolves around one of the most recognizable themes in classical music. The 4th? Who can hum a bar?

And let’s not go into the 6th, 7th and 9th: they’re all masterpieces.

As for Beethoven’s first two symphonies, while they may not be so famous today, they were influential in their time and constituted major developments in Beethoven’s voice. Even Beethoven’s little 8th Symphony stands apart for its brevity and for Beethoven’s personal fondness for it.

In Beethoven’s time, people tended to like the 4th well enough. “On the whole,” one critic wrote, “the work is cheerful, understandable and engaging.” Others liked how it took a step back from the Romantic urgings of the 3rd — listeners appreciated how it reminded them of Beethoven’s earlier, lighter work. But that’s about it. Beethoven’s 4th was, and remains, the least-performed and least-discussed of all of his Symphonies. Not that it’s bad. It’s perfectly fine. It’s just not Great.

Sometimes you have to do the minor things when you’re between the major things. Here’s to unsung (or rarely played) work that makes the major work that much more major!

National Black Finger Puppet Month: Louis Armstrong

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

February is Black History Month, so we have decided to honor the occasion by posting about great African Americans we have immortalized as finger puppets.

Today we highlight groundbreaking musician LOUIS ARMSTRONG (1901-1971).


Here are some facts about Louis Armstrong and about UPG’s Louis Armstrong Finger Puppet:

Louis Armstrong was nicknamed “Satchmo,” “Pops” and “Ambassador Satch.”

Louis Armstrong was born in a section of New Orleans so poor that it was called “The Battlefield.”

The Louis Armstrong finger puppet is also a magnet.

Louis Armstrong appeared in more than 30 films.

By the age of seven, Armstrong was working, selling papers and singing in the street for money.

In 1912, Armstrong was arrested for firing a pistol into the air while celebrating New Year’s Eve. He was sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he received his first music instruction.

The Louis Armstrong puppet includes a (non-working) trumpet.

The recordings Louis Armstrong made with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands are some of the most important of all the jazz classics. His vocal style has influenced generations of singers.

The Louis Armstrong finger puppet is approximately 4″ tall.

Louis Armstrong regularly smoked marijuana and considered it to be beneficial to his health.

Armstrong was an elegantly-dressed performer, so our Louis Armstrong finger puppet sports a tuxedo.

Monday Morning Music: Song by Sekilos

Monday, November 11th, 2013

Music was an essential part of ancient Greek culture. The philosophers wrote about it, the poets sang to it, and ancient Greek theater was driven by it.

But what did that music sound like? A scholar at Oxford has reconstructed the Sekilos epitaph – the only piece of ancient Greek music to survive with complete notation.

Here it is, played through in a few different variations.

You can read about the reconstruction via the BBC here.

Monday Morning Music: Friedrich Nietzsche

Monday, October 15th, 2012

In honor of Friedrich Nietzsche’s 168th birthday, here’s a lovely mazurka composed by the great philosopher.