January 28

No. 5: Gershwin on Jazz and Rhapsody in Blue

MusicalCanadaCover                        GershwinPortrait

[Musical Canada vol. 6, no. 10 (October, 1925)]

The first jazz recording was made in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band playing “Livery Stable Blues” as you can hear here:

It was an immediate hit, bringing jazz to mainstream attention.  Within seven short years of this milestone recording, Gershwin composed his jazz-influenced Rhapsody in Blue. Paul Whiteman and his band organized the premiere concert of the Rhapsody, which took place at New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924 (92 years ago next month) with Gershwin as piano soloist. Over the next 10 years, Rhapsody in Blue would continue to be popular, earning Gershwin more than a quarter of a million dollars from performances, recordings, and rental fees.

The performances generated a debate about whether these uniquely American jazz elements were at home in a new mixture of popular music and that of the European concert tradition. After the Rhapsody’s London premiere, Gershwin was interviewed by Herbert S. Greenhalgh for the BBC’s Radio Times with the interview later reprinted in Musical Canada (October 1925, 13-14). In this interview Gershwin offers not only his views on jazz and the intermingling of musical genres, but also his opinion on syncopation in Bach, Stravinsky and the future of modern music, as well as personal insights about his night-owl working tendencies, his musical sketchbook, and his enthusiasm over the future of a new exciting technology: the “wireless” (i.e. radio).  See excerpts from this interview below:

InterviewPart1  InterviewPart2



InterviewPart3      InterviewPart4

[Musical Canada, vol. 5, no. 10 (October, 1925): 13-14]

One can see the popularity of Gershwin through illustrations in music journals; this caricature accompanied Virgil Thomson’s 1935 article in Modern Music (December 1935) dealing with Gershwin’s symphonic compositions:


[Modern Music XIII, no. 1, (November-December 1935): 15]

This video is the original 1924 recording of Rhapsody in Blue performed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra.

And in this interview, Paul Whiteman talks about George Gershwin.


RIPM Search Tip: To read the entire article, use the “browse” mode in the RIPM e-library for the periodical Musical Canada, specifically the October 1925 issue.

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December 10

No. 4: How Did Celebrated 19th-century Composers and Performers Spend the Holiday Season?

christmasPartywithCaption                 BatonChristmasCover

[The Baton III, no. 3 (December, 1923): 13]                [The Baton V, no. 3 (December, 1925): 1]

To celebrate the holiday season, we turn to the December 1925 issue of The Baton (New York, 1922-1932). The following article, “Glimpses of Christmas: From the Correspondence of Great Musicians” shows how some celebrated nineteenth-century musicians “of the past spent Christmas” as illustrated through their correspondence and diaries.

Read the article below to see how Robert Schumann, Jenny Lind, Hans von Bülow, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and others celebrated Christmas and the holiday season. (Click on each image to zoom in.)




[The Baton V no. 3, (December, 1925): 2-4]


The staff at the RIPM Center wishes all of you a happy and healthy holiday season and best wishes for the coming year!


RIPM Search Tip: For more interesting holiday stories, search RIPM’s Retrospective Index for “Christmas” within the periodical The Baton.


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November 6

No. 3: Remembering Edgard Varèse on the 50th Anniversary of his Death

JuilliardReviewCover                   VareseinStudy

                                  [The Juilliard Review I, no. 3 (Fall, 1954): 4/5]

50 years ago today, on November 6, 1965, French composer Edgard Varèse died in New York.  During his lifetime, Varèse was a lightning rod for controversy, particularly among American concertgoers after he founded the International Composers Guild, the first U.S. society dedicated to championing the music of contemporary composers. The first mention of Varèse in the RIPM databases occurs in 1916 with the following article in which the “ultra-modern music of the futurists” is discussed:


[New Music Review 15, no. 177 (August, 1916): 270]


On the composer’s 70th birthday, the following article appeared in The Juilliard Review in honor of Varèse, recalling how early performances of his works in New York and Philadelphia were received with catcalls, hisses, and applause.  In fact at the end of one concert, opinions were so divergent they led to a fistfight:



[The Juilliard Review I, no. 3 (Fall, 1954): 3-10]

And yet, the actions of Varèse were closely watched in the musical press, which tracked his professional activities (the progress of the International Composers’ Guild and his first appearance as conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra) as well as his personal life (his marriage, and even an auto accident).

VareseAutoAccident                          NewOrchDebut

[Musical America 24, no. 19 (September 9, 1916): 14]    [Musical America 24, no. 25 (April 19, 1919): 2]

VareseMarriage               IntlComposersGuild

[Musical America 35, no. 14 (January 28, 1922): 2]           [The Baton III, no. 4 (January, 1924): 12]


Varèse’s music also attracted the attention of fellow composers, as evidenced by this discussion of his music by Henry Cowell.


[Modern Music V, no. 2 (January-February 1928): 9-19]


When questioned whether it was necessary for people to understand his music to truly enjoy it, Varèse replied simply: “You have just to listen with unprejudiced ears.”


[Modern Music V, no. 2 (January-February 1928): 19]



The following two documentary films offer fascinating insights into Varèse’s music and life. The first (with English subtitles) contains an interview with the composer in which he recounts how he moved to New York with only $90 (around 1:42).  The documentary also contains interviews with Iannis Xenakis and Olivier Messaien, who was not surprised by the public’s intense reaction to modern music (around 8:00).


And in the second documentary film, also with English subtitles, one can see the house in Eindhoven, the Netherlands in which Varèse lived from 1957-1958 (around 1:58) and his residence in New York, now occupied by one of his students, Chou Wen-Chung (around 14:35).  The video also displays historic footage of interviews with Varèse, sprinkled throughout, and the composer Iannis Xenakis’ sharing his memories of collaborating with Varèse (around 6:25).


RIPM Search Tip: For the articles cited above and related articles, simply search the RIPM Retrospective Index for “Varèse” and/or “International Composer’s Guild.”

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October 22

No. 2: Tristan und Isolde in London (1882) – a Shaky Reception

MusicalWorldCoverJune101876                          WagneratTimeofPerformance

                                [Il Teatro illustrato I, no. 3 (March 1881): 5]

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first performance of Tristan und Isolde (1865).  While now accepted as a masterpiece, critics at first performances were not always complimentary. On September 16, 1876, a letter to the editor of The Musical World gave a scathing and strident condemnation of Wagner’s work, deploring the discordant harmonies and lack of melody in a review titled “The Wagner Epidemic” (excerpts below):



[The Musical World 54, no. 38 (September 16, 1876): 623]


Six years later, on June 24, 1882, four days after the London premiere of Tristan und Isolde,  The Musical World published this caricature, supporting the opinion initially expressed.  It depicts James William Davison, editor of The Musical World, reacting to the “Tristan chord.” WagnerListenerOpening

[The Musical World 60, no. 25 (June 24, 1882): 385]


One month later on July 1, 1882, a much more nuanced and somewhat favorable view emerges.PositiveTristanReviewExcerpt







[The Musical World 60, no. 26 (July 1, 1882): 395-96]


However, the journal also underscored the difficulties in performing this work.  One week later The Musical World published on July 8, 1882 these two caricatures by Charles Lyall — the first depicting the conductor Hans Richter during a rehearsal of Tristan and the second, his appearance after the first performance.


[The Musical World 60, no. 27 (July 8, 1882): 415]


The following two French caricatures were reproduced in Musical America on February 12, 1910.  The first one (bottom left), an 1869 caricature by Andre Gill, expresses a similar view as Wagner ‘worked’ “on the eardrum of his contemporaries.”  The second (bottom right) illustrates the effect of a performance of a Wagner opera.

WagnerEarCaricature                            RunningoutofTheatre

[Musical America XI, no. 14 (February 12, 1910): 18]


The past was not always kind to Music of the Future.


In honor of the 150th anniversary of Tristan und Isolde, here is an arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in a style we think you will recognize.

And finally, one of the earliest recordings of the Prelude (1932), conducted by Arturo Toscanini two years after he conducted a performance at Bayreuth, the first by a non-German musician.

RIPM Search Tip: For the articles cited above and others related, search the RIPM Retrospective Index  for “Wagner” or “Tristan” in The Musical World from 1876-1882. The full text of the journal’s complete run (1836-1891) is available.

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September 14

No. 1: Does Ragtime Cause Insanity?



In the first of RIPM’s Curios, News, and Chronicles, we are highlighting articles from Musical America presenting conflicting views of the value and dangers of ragtime. As this new genre’s popularity increased in the early 1900s, it became a hotbed of controversy. Was ragtime “the limit of musical idiocy and degeneracy” or does it “put a pleasing effect upon the listener”? Please scroll down to the bottom of the page for the full story. 



The debate began in October of 1911 when  Dr. Ludwig Brunner, professor at the Imperial Academy of Medical Research in Berlin, proclaimed that ragtime could ruin both health and sanity.

BerlinDoctor                RagtimeDanceJoplinCover[Musical America, XIV, no. 23 (October 14, 1911): 127]

Within a week, on October 21, 1911, Harvard Professor Phillip Clapp apparently taking to heart Dr. Brunner’s disparaging comments, responded with a defense of ragtime.

HarvardProfessor             ragtime_review

[Musical America, XIV no. 24 (October 21, 1911): 6]




The following year, on March 16, 1912, the Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto jumped into the fray, siding caustically with ragtime’s critics.





[Musical America, XV no. 19 (March 16, 1912): 19]

The debate raged on for several years, so much so in fact that this poem published on August 14, 1915 opens with a reference to Dr. Brunner’s 1911 comments.









[Musical America, Vol 22 No. 15 (August 14, 1915): 17.]

Supporters and critics of ragtime continued to argue over its relative merits, eventually leading the public to enter the debate the following month, September 1915.




[Christensen’s Ragtime Review I, no. 9 (September, 1915): 24.]

Here is historic footage of the Cakewalk, one of the first forms of ragtime, performed in 1903 (media adapted from Library of Congress). Both this and the poem above carry with them the racial bias of their time.  A cautionary note: determine your views of ragtime’s dangers before viewing. Our dear Finnish colleagues should particularly take this warning to heart.

The following is an excerpt of “Smoky Mokes” played by famous banjoists Fred Van Eps & Vess L. Ossman (1900).

In closing, here is a video of the ragtime finale of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.

RIPM search tip: for the articles cited above and other related articles, search the RIPM e-library for “ragtime” and “insanity” (or “morality”) in Musical America from 1911-1915. The full text of this journal is available from 1898-1922.


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