What’s That Tune? No. 3. More Stories Behind Famous Pieces of Music

Title? “Entrance of the Gladiators” / AKA: “Thunder and Blazes!”
Who? Julius Fucik (“Foochick“)
When? 1897
What? Military March

Roll up! Roll up! See the bearded lady, the Fat Boy, the Incredible Hulk! Witness feats of daring do, of amazing acrobatics, stunt-riding and trick-shooting! Young and old, big and small, come him, and you, and them, and all!

If you’ve ever been to the circus, then you’ve probably heard this piece of music! Or even if you’ve NEVER been to the circus, the moment you hear this tune, it’ll conjour up images of juggling clowns, ponies, horses, fire-eaters and knife-throwers!

Entrance of the Gladiators” was written in the 1890s by Czech composer Julius Fucik. It was originally titled “Grande Marche Chromatique“, or the “Grand Chromatic March”, to reflect its rolling use of scales. It was retitled as ‘Gladiators’ due to Fucik’s fascination with the Ancient Roman Empire.

The piece was originally meant to be a triumphal military march. In 1910, Canadian composer Louis-Philippe Laurendeau rearranged the piece for a small, brass band, and retitled it “Thunder and Blazes“.

It was at the same time that it gained its now legendary status as the quintessential circus score, something that it has now held for over a hundred years!

Title? “The Sabre Dance”
Who? Aram Khachaturian
When? 1942
What? Ballet Music

Although not as frequently-used as the piece above, Khachaturian’s ‘Sabre Dance’ is one of the most recognisable pieces of music in the world, and has been used in circus-acts to comic effect, to indicate frantic activity, chaos and panic.

Written during the Second World War, the piece is meant to recall traditional Armenian sabre-dances, acted out with swords, and was produced to be part of the final act of the ballet “Gayane“, which premiered in Russia on the third of December the same year.

Title? “Also Sprach Zarathustra
Who? Richard Strauss
When? 1896
What? Symphonic Poem

Famous for its use in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey“, ‘Also Sprach’ was composed by Richard Strauss in 1896, after he was inspired by a work written by Fredrich Nietzsche.

The part which most people are familiar with is the movement called “Sunrise”, depicting the grand dawning of the sun. The whole piece actually runs for over half an hour!

Title?When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again
Who? Patrick Gilmore
When? 1863
What? Song. March.

In the early 1860s, the United States was hardly united. Feeling threatened by the election of new president Abraham Lincoln and his new policies, state after state of the Old South secedes from the Union, to form the Confederate States. To preserve the country which their fathers and grandfathers fought and died for, Lincoln prepares the nation for war.

The tune above is probably best known to most people as “The Ants go Marching”, but it was actually written back in the 1860s by Irish-American composer Patrick Gilmore, tentatively celbrating the end of the War and the return of the union soldiers to the safety of their homes.

Title? The Fountain in the Park
Who? Ed Haley
When? 1884
What? Popular Song.

Even though it is over 120 years old, ‘The Fountain in the Park‘, also called ‘While Strolling through the Park One Day‘, is one of the most famous popular songs ever written.

It’s famous for its countless appearances in popular TV shows, cartoons and feature films. To name but a few: The Simpsons, Disney cartoon shorts, Tom & Jerry Cartoons, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and even the Flinstones! It was even sung by astronauts on the moon!

The song recounts a young man’s saunter through the local park “in the merry month of May“, and his encounter with a young lady which he meets there.

Few other songs written during the Victorian era have remained as popular, as frequently used, and as well-recognised as this one.

Title? The Charleston
Who? J.P. Johnson
When? 1923
What? Dance Number

Ah, the Charleston! This is the song, and dance, which made the Twenties Roar. This fast-paced, bouncy jazz tune is synonymous with prohibition, Art Deco, flappers, and wild, drug-pumped parties, and of course – the famous dance.

Originally composed by African American musician James Price Johnson in 1923, this song came to define the carefree, wild reputation of the “Roaring Twenties”, when the restrictions and formalities of the Victorian era were thrown off and a new youthful excitement filled the air.

Title? The Flight of the Bumblebee
Who? Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
When? 1900
What? Orchestral Interlude

Did you ever master your scales while learning the piano?

Yeah, I never did, either…

You’d probably need to, for a piece like this.

Written for the opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan“, in the closing years of the 19th century, Rimsky-Korsakov’s epic, ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee‘, is world-famous for its frantic pace and wavering ‘buzzing’ sound, which mimics the buzzing of a flying bumblebee.

Used in countless cartoons and TV shows, and performed in talent shows around the world, this piece has remained popular for over a century and has had numerous reinventions.

Title? Miserlou
Who? Tetos Demetriades (first known recording)
When? 1927
What? Greek folk-song.

“Miserlou” (meaning “Egyptian”, in Turkish) is one of the most famous songs in the world. Most people are familiar with its pulsing, upbeat 1960s rendition by Dick Dale and the Deltones, which evokes visions of white sandy beaches, blazing summer sunshine and surfer-boys slicing through the waves…

But how many people have ever heard the original version?

A Greek folk-song of uncertain origin, it was first recorded for posterity by Greek singer Tetos Demetriades in 1927. The music was popular with belly-dancers and evoked back then, visions of the deserts of the Middle East and far-off Arabia, instead of the sands of Hawaii or California.

Additional recordings of the song were made throughout the 1930s and 40s, by Greek, and later, American musicians, rewriting it for jazz, the pop-music of the era. But it wouldn’t be until 1962 and the surf-rock version, that the song would attain the worldwide fame for which it is known today.


Check the Lyrics #1 – Cultural References in Classic Songs

I’m a big fan of vintage jazz and classic pop. Everything from the rowdy days of Tin Pan Alley in the 1880s up to early rock and roll in the 1950s. I love listening to these songs and I love playing them on the piano, or even singing them in the shower.

What? Everyone sings in the shower.

These songs, written by greats such as Cole Porter, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller and Irving Berlin, are in most cases, approaching 80, 90, and 100 years old. The tunes are as enjoyable as ever. But the lyrics often make reference to cultural elements long-since obsolete or out of date. Ever wondered what something was, which was mentioned in an old jazz recording? Let’s find out together.

Song: “The Glow Worm” (1902)
“..You’ve got a cute vest-pocket Mazda,

which you can make glow slow, or faster…” 

Originally published in German, and then English, during the Edwardian era, this love-song about a glow-worm’s light enabling a man and his girl to spend time with each other, became wildly popular during the 1950s, when it was recorded by the famous vocal quartet, the Mills Brothers. Although more famous for their music recorded during the 1930s, ‘Glow Worm‘ was an unexpected hit, and was one of their later successes.

The original lyric was: “you’ve got a cute vest-pocket lighter“, referring to a pocket cigarette-lighter. But the Mills Brothers’ version of the song changes that to “pocket MAZDA”.

What is a ‘Mazda‘?

It has absolutely nothing to do with cars.

A ‘Madza‘ was a trademarked name for a type of lightbulb produced by the General-Electric company, starting in 1909. Produced until roughly the end of the Second World War, Mazda lightbulbs were supposed to be more energy-efficient and were meant to burn for longer than conventional lightbulbs of the era.

Song: “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1929)
Line: “…High hats and ‘Arrow’ collars,
White spats, and lots of dollars…”

Arrow‘-brand detachable collars were manufactured by Cluett, Peabody & Co. starting in 1905. This was in an era when shirts came with adjustable sleeves, and removable cuffs and collars for separate washing. Although still used for more formal dress such as Black or White Tie, by the 1920s and 30s when this song was written, ‘tunic-shirts’, without attached collars, were going out of fashion. Cluett, Peabody & Co. ceased manufacturing Arrow collars soon after, and expanded their lines of men’s shirts and garments to make up the loss from falling shirt-collar sales.

During the era when detached collars were popular, however, Arrow collars were advertised using the “Arrow Collar Man”, as recognisable in his day, as Rich Uncle Pennybags, or Colonel Sanders is, today. In the 1920s, Cluett, Peabody & Co. used the ‘Arrow Collar Man’ to increase sales when they made the transition from tunic-shirts to the more familiar collared shirts which we have today. The company is no-longer in business, and closed down in the 1980s.

Song: “From Here to Shanghai” (1917)
Line: “…And I’ll have Ching Ling Foo,
Doing all his magic tricks!…” 

This song from the era of the First World War is one of the lesser-known songs produced by the famous songwriter and composer, Irving Berlin. It celebrates the exoticism and cultural diversity of the Shanghai International Settlement (1843-1943), that existed in the heart of China for a hundred years, between the First Opium War, and the end of World War Two. This expatriate enclave hosted the high-life of China, boasting bars, casinos, brothels, race-courses, lavish hotels and grand department stores. Drugs, sex, gambling, corruption and vice reigned supreme.

Ching Ling Foo was a real person, and in his day, he was as famous a stage-illusionist as David Blaine, Penn & Teller, Harry Houdini, or Criss Angel. His act involved everything from conjuring up live babies from seemingly impossible places, to decapitations, to shock and amaze his audience.

A picture-postcard of Ching Ling Foo, from 1898.

Born Zhu Liangkui, Ching Ling Foo was his stage-name, and he gained international fame at the turn of the last century after he traveled to the United States with his acting-troupe, and toured the continent. He lived from 1854-1922, and was the first Chinese magician to gain widespread fame and acceptance in the West.

Although virtually unknown today, Ching Ling Foo’s one-time fame lives on in this Irving Berlin classic.

Song: “Anything Goes” (1934)
Lines: Numerous

Anything Goes” is one of Cole Porter’s most famous songs. Like another of his famous songs, “Let’s Misbehave“, “Anything Goes” was a commentary on the relaxed social and sexual attitudes and changes experienced around the western world in the 1920s and 30s, after the disaster of the Great War.

The song is full of references to many people who were as famous in their day as Donald Trump or Bill Gates would be, today. So, who were they? Some of them you may recognise. Others have faded into obscurity…

The people, terms or companies mentioned in this song (in order of appearance) include:

Mae West, the famous Hollywood star of the 1930s and 40s, who created scandal where-ever she went due to her risque, double-entendre movie-lines. “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” is one of them.

Mrs. Ned Mclean is Evalyn Walsh Mclean (1886-1947). She was a prominent socialite and mining-heiress of the early 20th century. She was also, incidentally – the last owner of the Hope Diamond, before it was put on public display. Although she maintained that the famous Hope Diamond Curse never affected her family, it still remains fact that her husband broke up with her, that her grandson died in Vietnam, she lost one son to a car-crash, a daughter to a drug-overdose, and the family-owned newspaper, the Washington Post, went belly-up!

Rockefeller is the famous billionaire, John D. Rockefeller. He once said that he had two aims in life: To earn $100,000, and to live to 100 years of age. He surpassed his first aim by leaps and bounds. And, dying at the age of 98, in 1937, came within two years of achieving his second!

Max Gordon was a New York theatre and film-producer, who lived from 1892-1978.  During the Depression, when a quarter of all Americans were out of work, Gordon still managed to put on theater-shows, something which was almost impossible to do without wealthy patrons…like Mr. Rockefeller!

Jitneys, ‘Bilts, and Whitneys. A ‘Jitney’ is another term for a jalopy, a cheap, battered old automobile. The ‘Bilts’ are the illustrious Vanderbilt family. The ‘Whitneys’ were another prominent, old-money family, on-par with the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, although they’re not as well-remembered today. They were famous for their philanthropy.

Sam Goldwyn, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame.

Anna Sten was a Russian-American actress (1908-1993), who was under contract to Sam Goldwyn during the 1930s. She was most active from the 1920s-1940s, and from the 50s until the 60s, only acted occasionally, retiring from acting entirely by 1965. She died in 1993 at the age of 84.

Mrs. R. and Franklin are of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. ‘Simmons‘, is a mattress manufacturer. Established in 1870, it’s still kicking today.

Song: “Hop, Skip, Jump” (1936)
Line: “…I don’t want to sail through the seven seas,
Even if the boat were Normandie…” 

The S.S. Normandie was the pride of the French Line back in the 1930s. A floating, Art Deco palace, it was sadly lost to fire, and capsized while being fitted out for military service in New York Harbor, during the Second World War.

The S.S. Normandie photographed at sea

Song: “Pack Up Your Troubles” (1915)
Line: “…As long as you’ve a Lucifer
To light your fag, smile boys, that’s the style…”

Anyone who’s ever studied the First World War will be familiar with this song. And anyone who’s ever had grandparents who lived through it will probably have heard them singing it. My grandmother was born in 1914, and she used to sing this song all the time.

‘Fag’ in this context refers to the British slang-word for a cigarette. Most people know that today. ‘Lucifer’ refers to a brand of friction-matches manufactured in the 1800s. By the time of the First World War, it had become rather generic. People asked for ‘Lucifers’, not matches. Like how you might ask for an ‘esky’, instead of an ice-chest.

Song: “Hooray for Hollywood” (1937)
Line/s: Numerous. 

If you’ve ever seen a film-industry awards ceremony on television, you’ve probably heard this song. Written for an obscure film (“Hollywood Hotel”) back in 1937, this song celebrated the golden age of Hollywood and the American filmmaking industry, that lasted from the 1920s up to the end of the 1960s. It’s packed with all kinds of obscure references to people and machines that have faded into history. On top of that, the lyrics have themselves, changed with the times. The original lyrics from 1937 said that, “…any shop-girl can be a top-girl, if she pleases a tired businessman…”, would get raised eyebrows even today! Forget the conservative 1930s! Let’s go through the lyrics…

A “good-looking pan” means a good complexion or a handsome appearance. ‘Pan’ was an old slang-word for your face!

The lyrics referenced many famous Hollywood actors or institutions of the 1930s. Among them, child star Shirley Temple, and evangelist Aimee Semple. Later versions also mentioned Donald Duck. More obscure references include Max Factor, who was a noted makeup-artist and cosmetics salesman of the 1930s, and Tyrone Power, the Hollywood pretty poster-boy of the 1930s, comparable to someone like Brad Pitt today.

One of the most obscure technological references in the song is “Rotos“. Obsolete today, the Rotoscope was a revolution in enhancing film-making back in the early 20th century.

In layman’s terms, rotoscoping was the process of tracing animated cartoons into film, so that cartoon characters would appear in live-action scenes. This was incredibly laborious work – it had to be done frame, by frame. But the results were amazing. The process was pioneered by the Fleischer Brothers (of “Betty Boop” fame). The process was also used to trace and draw out animated characters over the movements of an actor in a live-action film (to imitate running, or dance-moves, for example, in a realistic manner).

Rotoscoping survived into the late 20th century (the earliest Star Wars movies still used rotoscope technology to create the classic glow of the light-sabres), but it’s now mostly obsolete, with most of its work being done by computers.

Song: “Chicago” (1921)
Line: “…The town that Billy Sunday could not shut down!…”

William Ashley Sunday (1862-1935), was an American athlete and baseballer. But he’s most famous today for being an evangelical preacher, who spoke strongly in support of Prohibition in the United States during the 1920s.

Remember those guys who went around going on and on about the “evils of drink” and how whiskey was the “Devil’s Poison” and how it was “sacrilegious to drink on Sundays” (or any other day of the week)?

That was Billy Sunday. And needless to say, while some people supported his views, folks who were fighting Prohibition’s stranglehold on the United States, saw him as the Antichrist.

Chicago, being well in the grip of Al Capone and his fellow Mafia gangsters, was floating in booze, thanks to illegal rackets, speakeasies, moonshine and bootlegging. The Chicago Police Department was one of the most corrupt in the nation. Everyone from the mayor to the chief of police, the police commissioner, down to your friendly neighbourhood patrolman pounding his beat, was a bent as a broken fish-hook. It really was one of the towns in which Billy Sunday’s Fire and Brimstone preaching had no effect.

Song: “Doin’ the Raccoon” (1928)
Line/s: N/A

One of my favourite novelty jazz-songs of the 1920s, ‘Doin’ the Raccoon’ was all about college boys who were all into the latest fad fashion of the 1920s – wearing coats made of raccoon-fur. Raccoons, a huge pest-problem in big American cities, were hunted and trapped for their furs, which were sewn together into coats. Before the days of animal rights, this was considered the best scenario out of a bad situation.

The fad for raccoon coats lasted from about 1926-1930. Only about four years, five at most. But long enough for there to be a pop-song made about it. Could you imagine someone making a song about designer-stressed sagger jeans today? Urgh. The song captured the nature of college education in the United States in the 1920s, when a much smaller percentage of the population went to university. Granted, the song concentrates on the famous “Ivy League” universities such as Harvard and Yale.


What’s That Tune? The Stories Behind Famous Pieces of Music – No. 2

Title? “The Danse Macabre”
Who? Camille Saint-Saens.
When? 1874
What? Symphonic Poem

The Danse Macabre (the first word spelt with an ‘s’), is a medieval allegory; a representation of the universal nature of death. In the Middle Ages, when death was everywhere, and few people were expected to live beyond their mid-thirties, the theme of all-encompassing death was a grim comfort to the peasant classes. As dismal and short as their lives would be, they knew that sooner or later, even the great kings and lords would also follow them into their own graves, and that wealth, riches and power did not spare one from the scythe of the Grim Reaper of Death.

The actual ‘Danse Macabre’ or ‘Dance of Death’ is an ancient European superstition. It holds that every year, on the night of All Hallows’ Eve (“Halloween” in modern English), the Grim Reaper calls the souls and skeletons of the dead from their graves, to lead them in dance and merriment, from strike of midnight until break of dawn. This was another way of softening the harsh realities of life and death, and providing people with the belief that death, while universal, couldn’t possibly be so bad.

The Danse Macabre as written by French composer Camille Saint-Saens in 1874, is the most famous of the many musical representations of Death leading the spirits of the dead in dance on Halloween. Although this piece can be played on the piano, it was actually written for a full orchestra.

The piece starts with the twelve strokes of midnight. As the church-tower rings the last bell of midnight, Death enters a graveyard, tapping and knocking on all the gravestones, to rouse the dead from their slumber. The wavering, continuous melody throughout the majority of the piece (in orchestral arrangements, performed by a solo violin), represents the personification of Death dancing through the churchyard, playing his violin, with the ghosts and skeletons of the dead dancing around after him.

The piece ends several minutes later, with the gradual rising of the sun, the rooster’s crowing, and the souls and skeletons of the dead crawling back into their graves, to await the Halloween dance of the next year…

Title? “Omphale’s Spinning-Wheel”
Who? Camille Saint-Saens
When? 1872
What? Symphonic Poem

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Muahahahahaha!

The Shadow knows…

Composed in 1872, this is another of Saint-Saens’ most famous pieces. Another symphonic poem, it’s known to modern audiences mostly for the bridge in the middle of the piece, which was used in the 1930s radio program, “The Shadow”.

If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of that famous, slow, haunting theme, it came from here. In the video provided above, it starts at 3:22. It was performed on organ, for the radio-program by legendary organist Rosa Rio, who died in 2010…at the age of 107! 

Title? “Funeral March of a Marionette”
Who? Charles Gounod
When? 1872
What? Piano Solo

Fans of Alfred Hitchcock will probably recognise the slow, steady, rocking pace of this music as the theme to the 1950s TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…“.

Composed in 1872 by Frenchman Charles Gounod (“Gouno‘”), also famous for “Ave Maria“, it was originally written as a piano solo, but was rewritten in 1879 as an orchestral piece. Hitchcock selected it as one of the pieces of music he would have a recording of, if he were trapped on a desert island.

Title? “Powerhouse”
Who? Raymond Scott
When? 1937
What? Novelty

Anyone who grew up watching Warner Brothers cartoons on weekend television will be familiar with the 1930s novelty tune “Powerhouse“, by Raymond Scott and His Orchestra.

Scott was famous for his whacky, novelty tunes which were highly popular in the 1930s and 40s. He used a lot of early electronic instruments to produce the weird sounds for which his music is famous. “Powerhouse” is best known for the bridge in the middle, with the slow, methodic, “Assembly-line” theme. It starts about a minute and a quarter, into the original 1937 recording, which is shown above.

Title? “Song of the Volga Boatmen”
Who? Unknown. Compiled by Mily Balakirev.
When? Unknown. Published by M. Balakirev in 1866.
What? Traditional Russian Folk-Song

Anyone who grew up watching Disney cartoons of the 30s and 40s is probably familiar with this ancient Russian folk-song, ‘The Song of the Volga Boatmen‘. Its origins are lost to history, but it was saved for posterity by Russian pianist and composer Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), who added it to his published book of traditional Russian folk-songs in the 1860s.

Barge-Haulers on the Volga (1873), painted by Ilya Y. Repin

The original lyrics tell the story of the Volga Boatmen, teams of peasant labourers who dragged barges and boats along the Volga River in Russia during the time of the Russian Empire. This backbreaking, thankless task worked many poor Russian peasants into their graves, but the song (used to help keep time during barge-hauling) was inspirational for its depiction of hard work and determination, and remained popular, even through the communist era of the 20th century.

The Volga is the longest and largest river in all of Europe, and runs through the hearts of many famous Russian cities, such as Moscow, and Volgograd (what used to be known as ‘Stalingrad’ during the Second World War).


What’s that Tune? The stories behind famous pieces of music

You hear them all the time on television, in kids’ cartoons, in movies, in advertisements on the radio and in the ad-breaks between your favourite TV shows. But what are the stories behind these iconic pieces of music? Here’s a selection of some of the most famous pieces of music you might not know anything about, and the stories behind them.

Title? Ride of the Valkyries
Who? Richard Wagner
When? 1870
What? From the opera “Die Walkure

Commonly used in cartoons, and TV shows to symbolise impending doom, destruction or the coming of some great conflict, the Ride of the Valkyries dates back to 1870. It was originally written for the German opera “Die Walkure” (“The Valkyries“), by Richard Wagner. The Valkyries was one of a series of four operas written by Wagner at the time.

Ride” plays at the start of the third act in the opera. Its dramatic and triumphal melody is designed to accompany the arrival of the valkyries (characters of viking mythology), whose task it is to select which viking warriors will die in battle, and the souls of which, the valkyries deliver to the god, Odin, ruler of Valhalla, the Viking world of the dead, where warriors who have died in battle are honoured for their bravery and skill.

Today, the “Ride” is most famously remembered from the film “Apocalypse Now”, but its fame dates back over a hundred years to the grand opera-houses of Germany and Austria.

Title? Tocata & Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565
Who? Johanna Sebastian Bach
When? Ca. 1704
What? Organ piece

Although most people have never listened to the whole thing, the first eight notes of Bach’s Tocata & Fugue in D Minor are recognised around the world, for their haunting, eerie, creepiness. Used in cartoons and other TV shows for setting the scenes in scary old Victorian houses, isolated haunted mansions, spooky abandoned castles, and grandmother’s dusty basement, where the lightbulb never seems to work properly, the Tocata & Fugue in D minor has remained famous for over 300 years!

Exactly WHEN Bach wrote the Tocata & Fugue is unknown. The closest date that anyone can figure is ca. 1704/5. In fact, it’s not even established that he wrote it. See, the problem with Bach’s collection of work is that he never signed any of his compositions! So it’s almost impossible to say if he wrote anything at all. The only method of determining what works can be genuinely attributed to him, is by reading the diaries, letters and other accounts left by his contemporaries.

Indeed, almost no copies of Bach’s original compositions, penned by his own hand, survive. Nearly all of the oldest copies which we have today, were once copied out by Johannes Ringk. Ringk (1717-1778), was a German composer, organist and music-teacher. And its his copies of Bach’s works which are among the oldest known to survive. Ringk’s copy of Bach’s famous organ-piece is likely taken from another copy, by Ringk’s fellow organist, Johann Peter Kellner (1705-1772), who copied the original Bach composition, ca. 1725. The original composition, which Kellner likely copied, has been lost to history, and no copies of the Tocata & Fugue, as penned by Bach, survive today.

Title? In the Hall of the Mountain King
Who? Edvard Grieg
When? 1876
What? From the Norwegian opera “Peer Gynt

One of the most famous operatic orchestral pieces in history, ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ is recognised instantly from its tiptoe start, its gradual increase in volume, and the eardrum-busting crescendo! But what purpose does this piece of music serve?

Mountain King” comes from the 1873 opera, “Peer Gynt“, a fantastical theater play, or…fairytale!

Originally, the story was called “Per Gynt” (“Peter Gynt”), and was a traditional Norwegian fairy-tale. Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Ibsen used the fairy-tale as the basis for his grand masterpiece theater-production, and Edvard Grieg’s famous piece of music was written for one of the scenes.

In the play, the main character, Peter Gynt, is disgraced. After dashing the hopes that his mother had held, for him to marry the daughter of a wealthy local farmer, Peter is banished from his community.

During his travels, Peter meets a wide range of people, and finds himself inside an enormous mountain, ruled by a troll-king, hence the title of the piece.

Peter meets a girl who is daughter of the troll-king. When the courtiers find out, and realise that Peter might have made her pregnant, everything goes awry, shown by the dramatic change in the piece of music during its later stages.

Title? Overture – The Barber of Seville
Who? Giaochino Rossini
When? 1816
What? From the Italian comic opera “The Barber of Seville”

The overture to the Barber of Seville is one of the most famous pieces of music in the world. To most people, it’s the soundtrack to a certain Bugs Bunny cartoon that came out in 1950…

The overture (‘opening piece’) to the Barber of Seville has remained one of the most famous and iconic pieces of music ever written, and its various elements has been used in TV, movies and commercials for years.

Title? Overture – 1812
Who? Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 
When? 181…no. 1880
What? Commemoration

Jangling church-bells and the reports of cannon-blasts going off is the most famous part of the 1812 Overture, one of Peter Tchaikovsky’s most famous works. But what is it actually about?

Contrary to popular belief, the 1812 Overture has NOTHING to do with the War of 1812. That’s a sheer coincidence.

The 1812 Overture, written in 1880, commemorates the Russian defeat of Napoleon’s forces in 1812, driving back the French emperor from the Russian homeland. The cannonfire for which the piece is so famous, commemorates the Patriotic War of 1812, the Russian name for the failed French invasion of Russia, from June to December of that year.

Title? The Typewriter
Who? Leroy Anderson
When? 1950
What? Novelty orchestral piece

‘The Typewriter’, from 1950, is one of the most famous pieces of novelty orchestral music ever written. It is unique because of the one instrument that it uses which isn’t an instrument: a typewriter.

Anderson wrote this quirky little piece to immortalise one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind, the humble typewriter. It is the typewriter’s clacking keys, the famous ring of the warning-bell, and the grating sound of the carriage being pushed back at the end of each line that people remember in this piece of music. However, there’s more to this piece than that.

To actually perform this piece, you require the orchestra, a functional typewriter, and a call-bell. The call-bell is there to facilitate the extra bell-chimes which the typewriter itself, cannot provide. And when the piece was first performed and recorded, a modified typewriter with only two functional keys, was used to provide the sound-effects!

Title? Galop – Orpheus in the Underworld
Who? Jacques Offenbach
When? 1858
What? Dance

Today, most people just know this piece as the Can-Can. Written in 1858, the Galop from the opera ‘Orpheus in the Underworld‘, by Jacques Offenbach, is one of the most famous pieces of dance-music ever produced.

A ‘galop’ is a French term, and the title of a type of dance. It comes from the word ‘gallop’, as in a galloping horse. The title reflects the lively, quick pace of a style of dance which became popular in the 1820s, which was full of speed and activity.

Title? “Music for Royal Fireworks”; ‘La Rejouissance’
Who? George Frederic Handel
When? 1749
What? Fireworks Accompaniment

George Handel’s ‘Music for Royal Fireworks‘, was written in 1749, to accompany a fireworks display being put on by King George II of England. This huge public spectacle was to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, the year before. Sadly, the fireworks were not as spectacular as the music, which remains popular even to this day, nearly 300 years later. It’s well-known for its use in triumphal, royal scenes depicting splendor, pomp and ceremony.

Title? Symphony No. 40., in G Minor (1st Mvt)
Who? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
When? 1788
What? Nokia ringtone…?

Anyone who’s ever had to answer their mobile or cellphone will probably be familiar with this tune. Written by child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in 1788 (by which time he was in his 30s), this tune remains one of Mozart’s most famous compositions. It was also one of his last; Mozart died in 1791, at the age of 35.


It Sounds Like…History!: Obscure Musical Instruments

Over the centuries, mankind has invented all kinds of musical instruments, and some have stood the test of time better than others. Ever since we discovered that whacking a stick against another stick sounded awesome, we’ve created newer, better, stranger, more unique-sounding or just plain crazy instruments! Here are a few instruments that you might never have heard of. Or if you have, then might never see in a modern music-shop!

The Calliope

The Calliope (pronounced ‘kally-ope’) was a popular musical instrument which was invented in the mid 19th century; in 1855, to be precise. In October of that year, Joshua C. Stoddard patented an instrument that he’d invented, guaranteed to be heard for miles around, deafen anyone within that range, and produce warbly, wavy music for everyone to enjoy…or not.

The calliope is basically a steam-powered pipe-organ. Like a conventional organ, it works by opening and closing valved pipes, letting air rush out of the pipes to create audiable sounds. However, instead of air, the calliope used much more powerful steam instead! The result was a significantly louder instrument which took a bit of skill to play, since you had to control the steam-pressure as well as know how to operate a keyboard instrument.

Calliopes were popular throughout the second half of the 19th century and well into the early 20th century, where they became fixtures on Mississippi-style paddlesteamers. Onboard riverboats, the calliopes had a ready supply of steam from the steam-engines used to power the ship’s paddlewheels; the large size of many riverboats meant that calliopes were easily installed on these craft to provide music for passengers.

Calliopes could also be found in funfairs and carnivals, playing music and announcing the arrival of the funfair to everyone in town. They were often towed on their own trailers by steam-powered vehicles; their size and the necessity for steam-power meant that calliopes were not very portable or easy to use. The calliope died out in the 1950s as electrical power and compressed air replaced superheated water and steam-power to produce the necessary pressure to work the instrument. These days, you can still find calliopes on Mississippi paddlesteamers, where compeitions between different boats are often held to see which boat has the best calliope-player.

Here, you can see the calliopist on the P.S. Delta Queen performing a medly of songs on the boat’s calliope in a calliope-contest.

The Jew’s Harp

The Jew’s Harp is a weird little instrument. To begin with, it looks nothing like a harp!


The Jew’s Harp is a small, all-metal instrument which is played with the mouth and tongue. The rounded bit at the end is held with the hand while the straight part is placed between the lips. The long, flexible metal plate (called the ‘reed’) vibrates as it is flicked with the tongue, producing a distinct metallic twangy sound. It’s not that hard to get a sound out of one of these (I tried it myself once, when I was younger), but to make anything called ‘music’ takes considerable practice. The Jew’s Harp is one of the oldest instruments still around today. While its origins are not precisely known, it is believed to date several thousand years back into history.

Deagan Shaker Chimes

Deagan Shaker Chimes, also called Deagan Organ Chimes, are one of the most unique musical instruments that man ever thought fit to create.

Manufactured by the J.C. Deagan Company of Chicago, Illinois (a manufactury of chimes, bells and various novelty instruments) for the first 20-30 years of the 20th century, Deagan Shaker Chimes are among the rarest musical instruments around today. As their name suggests, the chimes are handheld and work by being shaken back and forth by the performer. As the chimes are shaken, they emit bright, metallic tones, similar to those made by tubular bells. The Dapper Dans, the famous Disneyland Barbershop Quartet, regularly use an antique set of Deagan shaker chimes (manufactured ca. 1901) in their performances. If you’re fortunate enough to see a performance of “Mr. Sandman” by the Dans, then you’ll be able to see the chimes at work:

The Dapper Dans. The triangular-shaped instruments in their hands are antique Deagan shaker chimes

John Calhoun Deagan (born 1853), the owner of the J.C. Deagan Company, died in 1934 at the age of 81, which may account for the rarity of Deagan shaker chimes today.

The Hurdy Gurdy

Even though it sounds like one of those crazy old jazz dances your grandparents might have done, like the Charleston or the Lindyhop, the Hurdy Gurdy is actually an instrument which has somehow survived some five, six or seven hundred years (or more!) from when it was first invented, waaaaaaaay back in the Middle Ages!

The Hurdy Gurdy is best described as a cross between an accordian and a violin, in my opinion. It’s like a violin in that it’s shaped roughly like a violin, it has strings, a bridge, tuning-pegs and sound-holes, but it’s like an accordian in that it has a small keyboard which you press on to play the melody.

A Hurdy Gurdy. Cute, isn’t it?

Due to its size (something like a small guitar) and the necessity to have both of your hands free to play the instrument, the hurdy gurdy was played by the instrumentalist in a seated position, with the hurdy gurdy on his lap, like a guitar, with the neck sticking out to the player’s left. On the right side of the hurdy gurdy is a crank-handle. Turning the handle turned a wooden wheel or disc inside the hurdy gurdy (which is hidden under the curved cover on the left). As the wheel turned, it rubbed against the strings inside the hurdy gurdy, much like how a violin-bow rubs against a set of violin-strings. As the wheel was turned, the friction and rubbing caused the strings to vibrate and produce sound. By turning the crank (and thus, the wheel) faster or slower, the instrumentalist could make the music louder or softer. On the underside of the hurdy gurdy was a keyboard which the player pressed with his left hand, while his right hand cranked the handle. Pressing on the keys pressed down on the various strings inside the hurdy gurdy, changing each of the strings’ tone and pitch. Once you were good enough at both cranking and using the keyboard, you could produce some pretty nice-sounding music.

The hurdy gurdy is still around today and while it’s a little different from its medieval grandparent in terms of shape, the modern hurdy gurdy still works the same way as it did back in the Medieval Era and is still played today in performances of European folk-music.

The Zither

Another somewhat well-known instrument, the zither, like the hurdy gurdy, is a European folk-instrument, characterised by having a large board, lots of strings, tuning pegs and a sound-hole to amplify the vibrations of the strings. The zither is played in a seated position, or at a table and, like the guitar, it’s played by plucking and strumming the strings. Most people might remember the zither because it became famous in the 1950s for playing the theme-music to the film-adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel “The Third Man”, as seen here; played by Anton Karas, the zitherist who both composed and performed this famous piece of music for the film.

The Theremin

Invented by Prof. Leon Theremin in the mid 1920s, the theremin holds the distinction of being the world’s first electronic instrument! Forget electronic keyboards, guitars and violins, this one trumps them all! And unlike the guitar, piano and violin, this instrument has no accoustic cousin; it works entirely on electricity.

Prof. L. Theremin, with his invention that bears his name

The theremin consists of a control-panel in the middle, from which two antennae extend outwards. The curved antenna on one side controls the frequency or pitch while the vertical antenna controls the volume. By moving his hands up or down, left and right in the space between these two antennae (when the instrument is turned on), the thereminist can produce music by interrupting the electronic signals which pass between the two antennas. The resultant sound-waves are sent through an amplifier and projected through speakers nearby.

Without the thereminist actually having to touch, hold or move anything at all, apart from his or her hands, the theremin is, rather obviously, a notoriously difficult instrument to play, and very few people in the world have been able to master this very unique instrument. One of the most famous thereminist is Celia Sheen. She uses a theremin to perform the famous, eerie, wavering theme-music that opens each episode of the British detective drama “Midsomer Murders”.


Ebony and Ivory: The History of the Piano.

One of the most beloved, one of the most expensive and one of the most versatile and influential instruments in the world, the piano has been part of our lives for the past three hundred years. It has shaped Western music in innumerable ways and has influenced endless genres of music from classical to jazz to rock and roll, filmscore music and classic pop. But what is the history of the piano? Where did it come from? Who made it? And what does the name ‘piano’ actually mean? This article will cover the history and influence that one of the most famous musical instruments in the world, has had on Western civilisation from the start of the Stuart Period, up to the modern day.

Before the Piano.

Keyboard instruments have existed for centuries. Before the piano, there was the harpsichord and clavichord. Before the harpsichord, there was the hurdy-gurdy. Of these three instruments, the piano most closely resembled the harpsichord, which could be considered the modern piano’s birth-instrument. Before the piano came along, keyboard instruments worked by pressing on the keys, which moved a series of wooden pegs (called ‘jacks’) which sprung upwards, pluckng strings inside the instrument-case. Clavichords and harpsichords worked like this. There was one jack for each key, and each jack had a small spike or ‘quill’ in it, which plucked (and vibrated) the string as it went up, and which dampened (or dulled) the string as it came down again. Instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord produced very twangy, metallic-sounding music, a cross between a piano and a guitar, lute or a harp. The sound of harpsichords is commonly associated with grand, European royal courts in the 17th and 18th centuries.

An 18th century harpsichord. Note the lack of pedals underneath the keyboard.

While such instruments as harpsichords and clavichords looked very much like pianos, and while they worked similarly to a piano, they differed greatly in the sounds they produced. Harpsichords, as I said, produce sound by plucking the strings, not striking them, like a modern piano. This plucking sound creates a sharp, metallic ‘twang!’, a bit like a guitar-string. Furthermore, as the harpsichord-jack fell the moment you removed your finger from the key, the damper in the jack immediately dulled the the string, preventing harpsichordists from holding notes for very long. This limited the kind of music which people could produce on these instruments. Sooner or later, someone was going to get fed up with all this stuff, and do something about it…and that someone was an Italian instrument-maker…

The Birth of the Pianoforte.

As we’ve seen, while keyboard instruments existed before the piano, they had deficiencies in how they produced sound and how well that sound could be manipulated and used by the musician, to create music. Something better and more conducive to musical creativity was needed. Something with more variety and possibilities. Something that could allow the instrumentalist to control every facet of how he played the instrument and that would allow him to get the most out of his playing. That something, was a newfangled invention, called, in its native Italian, the clavicembalo col piano e forte. Literally: Clavichord with soft and loud (capabilities). It was called this because it was the first keyboard instrument (a clavichord), which allowed the instrumentalist to control how hard or how softly he desired to strike the keys and how loud, or how soft the resultant notes would sound. It was an incredible invention!

So…who invented the piano?

Thorough musical historical research has attributed the invention of the fortepiano (later changed to the pianoforte and later still, to just ‘piano’) to one man. This one man was an Italian instrument-maker who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. His name was Bartolomeo Cristofori. Signor Cristofori was born in the Republic of Venice (modern day Venice, Italy), in 1655. By the time of his death in 1731, he had created one of the most legendary instruments ever known.

Reliable historical documents date the first mention of Sig. Cristofori’s new instrument to the year 1700. By that stage, he had invented a keyboard instrument which worked by having hammers strike the strings, instead of having jacks which plucked them. The inclusion of pedals allowed musicians who tried out Sig. Cristofori’s new toy, to regulate how long a note hung in the air for, before releasing their foot (and lowering the damper), to muffle the vibrating piano-strings.

The piano was an incredible success. By the time a young man named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart appeared on the scene, Europe had been living with the piano for some fifty-six years. Indeed, by 1728, the first commercial piano-manufacturer had set itself up in business. John Broadwood & Sons is the oldest piano-manufacturer in the world…and nearly 300 years later…it’s still making pianos!

Piano made by John Broadwood & Sons, dated 1799. Note the two pedals jutting out of the two front legs.

Such was the piano’s popularity that by the 1790s, Mr. Broadwood and his sons had given up making harpsichords entirely. Prior to that date, they manufactured both pianos and harpsichords, but the Broadwood family must’ve been pretty brainy, for they saw rather quickly that the piano was the new thing that everyone wanted. The harpsichord’s days were now numbered and in 1793, the firm stopped making harpsichords altogether and concentrated on creating the best pianos that they possibly could. As of the year 2000, J. Broadwood & Sons holds a Royal Warrant from the British Royal Family, as official supplier (and tuner) of pianos provided to the Queen’s court and household.

The Rise of the Piano.

Such was the popularity of Sig. Cristofori’s new invention that by the early 1800s, the harpsichord was more-or-less obsolete. Nobody wanted them, and new piano-manufacturers were popping up almost overnight. While Mr. Broadwood and his family paved the way, being the first commercial manufacturer of pianos, they would not be alone for very long. Following closely behind the Broadwoods were the manufacturies of Erard (France, 1777), Challen (England, 1804), Chappell (England, 1811) and eventually, one of the most famous piano-manufacturers of all…Steinway & Sons, in 1853.

The impact of the piano on society was immense. Once the toys of only the rich, famous and powerful, towards the middle and end of the 19th century, the piano, now produced in significant quantities in factories and workshops around the world, started being made available to the upper and middle-classes of society, which were formed with the rise of the Industrial Revolution.

By the early 19th century, piano had firmly cemented its place in Western music. By this time, there were three distinct styles of pianos…

The Upright Piano. The most common, domestic piano today, the upright piano is characterised by having the soundboard and strings placed vertically, perpendicular to the keyboard.

The Grand Piano. This style of piano had its origins in the 17th and 18th centuries. Early pianos copied the case-styles of pre-existing harpsichords which were similarly shaped. Grand pianos are generally associated with larger homes or with institutions such as concert halls, schools and musical academies.

The Square Piano. Also called a square grand. The square piano was a style of piano manufactured in the earlier days of the piano’s existence and this case-style was made from the 1700s until the first half of the 1800s, when it finally died out. Very few, if any people, still make square pianos, and the majority you see today would all be antiques at least 150 years old.

The Influence of the Piano.

The rise of the piano was fast and phenomenal, and its influence on Western popular culture and the musical scene was just as intense. For the first time, an instrument with almost endless musical possibilities, was placed within the reach of ordinary men and women. Prior to the 19th century, pianos were expensive and carefully made, meant only for the wealthy and powerful. The rise of the Industrial Revolution, however, allowed pianos to be made more rapidly and more cheaply, and people started buying them and putting them in their homes, their schools, community halls and other places of social gathering. The range of notes on the piano allowed for endless musical possibilities and this saw the rise of the popular song during the last quarter of the 19th century.

The Rise of Popular Music.

With pianos now becoming more abundant and more accessible to the average man and woman, people began to see that there could be a booming music industry just over the horizon, that clever composers could make millions out of. And so, the first mass-produced, popular songs started coming onto the market.

The center for popular piano sheet-music in the United States (at least), from around 1880 until the 1950s, was a small section of Manhattan on West 28th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues…colloqually called…Tin Pan Alley.

The name was originally a derrogatory one, and reflected the sounds of dozens of pianos being played on, all at once, which supposedly sounded like a bunch of idiots beating away at a heap of tin pans. Despite the fact that people passing through Tin Pan Alley might not have liked the din of all the clashing pianos, Tin Pan Alley produced and published some of the most famous songs of late 19th century and early 20th century popular music. These are all Tin Pan Alley songs…how many do you know?

In the Good Old Summertime.
Give My Regards to Broadway.
There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.
Danny Boy.
Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Hello Ma Baby.
Come Josephine in my Flying Machine.
Yes! We have no Bananas.
Under the Bamboo Tree.
Chinatown, My Chinatown.
Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two).
Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

You may recognise a few of them. These were all popular songs of the late 19th and early 20th century, and they all came from Tin Pan Alley. None of this would have been possible without the invention of the piano. Without the piano, popular music as we know it today, simply could not, and never would have existed. Tin Pan Alley’s popularity was assured in the turn of the century because the middle-class people of New York, who had pianos in their apartments, were always on the lookout for new and better and more interesting songs to play. Broadway musicals and vaudeville shows, together with popular ragtime music (which was the mainstay of American popular music from the 1880s until the 1910s), kept Tin Pan Alley in business for years. It wasn’t until the rise of Rock and Roll in the early 50s that classical popular music began to gradually slide away, out of the public consciousness.

The Piano Today.

But, none of this stuff. Not the jazz, the ragtime, the pop music, rock and roll, classical, classic pop, classic rock or showtunes would be possible today, if not for that one instrument…the piano, which was invented over 300 years ago, by an Italian keyboard-manufacturer known as Bartolomeo Cristofori. The piano remains an immensely popular instrument today, both for commercial and private residential musical enjoyment.