July 21, 2003
Great Minds Think Alike

Lynn Sislo (Reflections in d minor) asks: "Why don't serious classical composers write music for the banjo or steel guitar?" I think I know the answer. Because the banjo and steel guitar are totally uncool instruments, and no one interested in classical music can confess an interest in them without losing well over half his or her reputation for sophistication. This isn't a scholarly article, so one piece of evidence should suffice to prove my case. On one season of Frasier, Martin Crane has a vulgar but lovable girlfriend who always rubs Frasier and Niles the wrong way. Their most painful moment comes when she whips out her banjo and plays it for them. (A steel guitar would have been just as tacky, but less portable.)

Even before reading Sislo, I had sometimes thought of writing up a spoof post about the discovery of a trove of lost works of Paul Hindemith. Here's the short version. It is well known that Hindemith wrote pieces for just about every instrument in the standard orchestra and quite a few more (what the heckel is a heckelphone?). My idea was to write a fictional review of the first recording of the bundle of long-lost works, suppressed by his executors at Yale out of shame and embarrassment. It seems that the stuffy German professor had a secret passion for country and bluegrass and also wrote:

  1. Sonata for banjo and pedal steel guitar
  2. Sonata for recorder and mountain dulcimer
  3. Sextet for dobro, guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and string bass
  4. Double Concerto for dobro, guitar, and bluegrass band
  5. Double Concerto for twin fiddles and orchestra
  6. Sonata for trombone and steel guitar

I'd pay to hear any of these, especially the last: who could resist multiple crisscrossing glissandos?

The whole cool/uncool thing is fascinatingly irrational. Quite a few modern serious or classical (postclassical?) composers have written works for jazz band or included saxophones and exotic third-world instruments. Why not banjos and steel guitars?

Besides the class and regional biases involved in this omission, there may also be some racial stereotyping. When I was in college (St. John's College, Annapolis, early 1970s), the records most students owned, besides the obvious rock/pop stuff, tended to fall into two broad categories. One was classical: Bach above all, plus Mozart, Beethoven, Palestrina, Stravinsky, among others. (Not much Wagner or Verdi or Puccini, though.) The other semi-required category was jazz and especially blues: Robert Johnson (of course), Bessie Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, John Coltrane (the rawer, honkinger, stuff), Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker.

I don't recall much, if any, Duke Ellington or Count Basie in circulation, and no one I knew admitted to owning any Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, or George Jones. The pattern is obvious: raw, primitive, elemental black music versus elegant, sophisticated white music. Duke Ellington and Hank Williams were devalued, or unvalued, or unknown, because they didn't fit the pattern.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at July 21, 2003 12:28 AM

Of course, it could be the sheer alien character of those instruments to the education and expertise of the standard conservatory-trained musician.

Even if you wanted to, how exactly would you go about juxtaposing banjo (melodic but percussive) with, say, a classical string section? Closest thing to it I can think of to it would be Harpsicord. There's just no precedent for fitting a banjo in anywhere -- nor pedal steel!! Maybe it took an adventurous soul like Hindemith to make the leap.

Further, except for the trombone ("fiddle" ain't "violin"), he didn't pair banjo with any instruments in the standard "legit" arsenal. He had to go outside the tradition.

Most of the accepted instruments in the classical canon have been around in their basic form for several hundred years -- instruments creep in slowly. Andres Segovia, for instance, is largely responsible for there being as large a body of "classical" guitar music as there is now. Before it was commonly thought of as an ethnic or folk instrument rather than classical. Saxophone was invented (by Adophe Sax, a Belgian) around 1845 as a intended substitute for oboes in marching and military bands. Though a few composers were writing for it by the late 19th century, it didn't really become broadly accepted as a legit classical instrument until the 20th century (and the tireless efforts by Sigurd Rascher, classical saxophone master).

In other words, it takes a while for instruments to become part of the accepted tonal pallete for the composer to employ. How well the various instruments work together is part of that process -- and it may be that banjo will never work well with some instruments!!

Btw, the Heckelphone was kind like an oboe:


Posted by: Whaq on July 21, 2003 01:54 PM

Whaq has the heckelphone right — it's sometimes called "bass oboe," and it appears in a few other places besides Hindemith; there's one in Holst's Planets, and I think in a couple of the earlier Strauss operas. Think somewhere between English horn & bassoon. (Hindemith gives tenor sax as an alternative in his heckelphone/viola/piano trio.)

I don't think incompatibility of timbre can have much to do with the lack of classical banjo/pedal steel music. Weird combinations of timbres don't repel contemporary composers; quite the contrary. There is a rather large body of recent chamber music involving koto, for example. Why not? And the mandolin found its way into classical music rather early. Obviously the mandolin in Respighi's Feste romane is there as local color. But in Mahler? Schoenberg?

But Hindemith would certainly have been the man for the job. A man who can write a Konzertstueck for trautonium and strings would do anything. (A trautonium is apparently a primitive electronic instrument invented by one Trautwein; I've never seen nor heard one, sorry, but it doesn't seem to have caught on even as a fringe phenomenon as the theremin did.)

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on July 21, 2003 02:49 PM

Weird combinations of timbres don't repel contemporary composers; quite the contrary.

That's true. Mostly it repels listeners!!

Posted by: Whaq on July 21, 2003 05:13 PM

The 19th Century American composer Gottschalk wrote a piece for piano called "The Banjo". It allowed pianists and listeners to get an idea of the instrument without actually having to see or be around the real thing.

How about the ukelele? It was popular in the 1920s, and I've heard recordings made by a fellow who was a ukelele virtuoso who played transcriptions of pieces like "Kitten on the Keys". Why did it appear and disappear in American culture so quickly?

Give some props to Vaughn Williams, who wrote a Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra for the performer Larry Adler.

Posted by: Dark Avenger on July 22, 2003 01:26 PM

In Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic", he imagines Leonard Bernstein picking up a guitar:

"A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordian, that are made for the Lear-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ fourteen-year-olds of Levittown>"

But it's all right with Bernstein because he "has an antiwar message". Read it all, if you haven't already.

Posted by: Jim Miller on July 22, 2003 02:11 PM

Poor choice of example, Michelle! [Correction: No it's not: see next two comments.] Schoenberg's Opus 24 is the Serenade for clarinet, bass clarinet, mandolin, guitar, violin, viola, 'cello and baritone voice. (The 4th Movement includes a Petrarch sonnet.) I think I've read that Opus 25 was his first fully twelve-tone work, and he himself said that Opus 24 came quite close to the method in many respects. Of course, a mandolin is not a banjo or steel guitar, and other composers had used it. Somewhere I have seen a Hungaraton recording of Beethoven rarities that included works ('ohne Opus', of course) for mandolin and piano -- a far-from-obvious combination. Some quick Googling shows that Vivaldi wrote concerti for one or two mandolins as well as lutes and guitars and just about everything else, and Hummel wrote at least one mandolin concerto. I suspect Telemann did, too, since he seems to have been as fond of variety of instrumentation as Vivaldi and Hindemith.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on July 22, 2003 03:51 PM

Dr. Weevil,

I mentioned Mahler and Schoenberg because they did use the mandolin, obviously. I was thinking of the Schoenberg Serenade and of Mahler's 7th Symphony. Do give me some credit here.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on July 22, 2003 04:05 PM

Oops! Sorry, I thought you were saying that composers looking for local color would use a mandolin, but the Mahlers and Schoenbergs wouldn't be caught dead doing such a thing. I've never liked Mahler much, and have never gotten around to listening to the 7th symphony.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on July 22, 2003 04:10 PM

And as for the prior use of the mandolin in classical music: Yes, there are Vivaldi concerti; to be precise, I think there's one for mandolin and strings, and one involving a veritable stew of instruments that has two mandolins in it. (Two theorbos, too.) Nothing in Telemann, I think: I have the three instrumental volumes of the Telemann Werkverzeichnis here in my office and I don't see anything. There is, as you say, some Beethoven — four pieces all apparently written in 1796 for the same patron and all published posthumously. Mandolin and piano, incidentally, is not so outlandish a combination if you bear in mind the softer tone and more rapid decay time of an 18th-century instrument.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on July 22, 2003 04:20 PM

Dr. Weevil,

Thanks for the prompt & gracious correction. I am sorry that I wasn't clearer.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak on July 22, 2003 04:25 PM

I'm not a classical music savant, but I know what I like. And if you want to hear some banjo that's outside traditional bounds check out Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

Posted by: J Bowen on July 22, 2003 06:46 PM

Okay.  I need a break from studying.  And I don't have my own blog.   So brace yourselves for a somewhat on-point mini-essay about a favorite pursuit:  Saxophone.

"A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordian, that
are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ fourteen-year-olds
of Levittown."

Saxophone went through a period like this, too.  

There was a huge saxophone craze in the U.S. during the 1920's (the jazz age, y'know).  The saxophone was to '20s youth what an acoustic or electric guitar was to late 60's & early 70's college students:  everybody had one.  The tunes popular with young folks were written for it, and merely owning a saxophone carried along with it a bit of boho edge.

The attics & basements of America are still packed with saxophones from that era.  Granddad thought it would be swell, but never played after college, and it ended up under the bed. 

Saxophone makers like the Buescher Band Instrument Co. & C.G. Conn (scroll down & note the reference to Heckelphone in the "Conn-O-Sax" ad) capitalized
on the craze by making as many saxophones as possible in tandem with aggressive advertising campaigns that promised the buyer that (a) they would be the life of the party and (b) they could learn how to play all their favorite popular tunes in just ten easy days!!  Layaway schemes & pay-per-lesson plans were set up to lure kids in to buy what was in its day a fairly expensive instrument.

Makers pushed the C-melody
, which became enormously popular.  Standard saxophones were normally pitched in either E-flat (alto & baritone) or B-flat (tenor & soprano).  If you didn't have sheet music written for an instrument
in that pitch, you would have to transpose the music to your instrument's pitch as you played -- not necessarily an easy task, even for accomplishe
musicians.  Further, most music available to amatuer musicians was written for piano in concert C.  The C-melody solved the problem -- you could play the sax without having to transpose as you went.  

All this fervent commercial boosterism didn't do wonders for the saxophone's reputation.  As it was, the instrument was primarily associated with military bands and novelty vaudeville acts.  Though sax was prominently featured in dance bands as a substitute for string sections, it didn't even have much of a reputation in early "jass" -- clarinet and cornet were the
prime improvisers' instruments.  It took a while for jazz players to develop the saxophone as a powerful improviser's instrument.  On the
legit front, Sigurd Rascher brought new respect for the instrument, debuting as a soloist at Carnegie Hall in 1939.

Meanwhile, the saxophones of the 1920's are still around.  eBay has brought many of them back into circulation, as people clear out their parents & grandparents attics & basements.  At any given time there are several auctions on eBay featuring horns from that era like Buescher's "True-Tone" or Conn's "New Wonder".  These horns are considered old-fashioned in their keywork, but properly re-conditioned & set up they can still be wonderful horns.
 Though mass produced, they were largely hand-made, built like tanks, and milled to exacting specifications.  Further, makers would make deluxe models featuring extra
fancy engraving
and plating options.

Though American saxophone production didn't really start to cave in until the late '50's, the depression ended the most expansive era of U.S. sax production, and it's a pretty sure bet nothing exactly like that instrument and music craze will be seen again.  

Geez. That was long. Thanks for bearing with me!

Posted by: Whaq on July 22, 2003 11:11 PM

While I haven't yet come across any concertos for banjo and orchestra, I have heard compositions for banjo and percussion ensemble that were not intended as jokes. (I've also heard bowed styrofoam coolers, a jackhammer on an I-beam and velcro tap-dancing, not to mention a rolling pin on the piano strings.)

One of my most vivid memories of one music festival is the bluegrass band Spontaneous Combustion playing "Eine Kleine Nachtmusic" while I searched for breakfast.

Posted by: Don on July 23, 2003 02:20 PM

I was listening to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in Denver and noticed that Bela was playing part of some classical piece on the banjo as accompaniment to the rest of the band during at least one song. He's worth a listen.

Posted by: David Perron on July 23, 2003 07:22 PM

Well... I still say the steel guitar is cooler than the cow bell, which Stockhausen has used in at least one composition. ;-)

Posted by: Lynn S on July 23, 2003 08:02 PM

Coltrane, Monk, and Charlie "Bird" Parker "raw and primitive"? Hmmm... you must be joking, Dr. Weevil; they are anything but primitive. I'd say their improvisations were extremely sophisticated, and, in general, bebopers transformed jazz from a form of entertainment into serious music on par with the classics. Perhaps you meant "natural/elemental" by primitive? Sure enough, jazz almost always has a bit of a raw edge, but it would be unfair to reduce it to just that.

As for the good old banjo, it must be uncool because it's associated with bluegrass and old country, but early jazz bands used it, too. The piano initially served the same rhythm-section purpose in jazz bands as the banjo. It is even said that piano ragtime was partly an attempt to imitate the banjo.

Posted by: Alex(ei) on July 24, 2003 02:49 AM

Well, he did qualify Trane with "the rawer, honkinger, stuff," but yeah, I too was taken aback by the inclusion of Monk and Bird in that list. Two less "raw" and "primitive" musicians have rarely been heard. Basie is much "rawer," if you insist on those terms. (Note: This is not a putdown! I love Kansas City jazz with a passion.)

Posted by: language hat on July 24, 2003 12:19 PM

I'd say their improvisations were extremely sophisticated, and, in general, bebopers transformed jazz from a form of entertainment into serious music on par with the classics.

Alas, the notion that "entertainment" and "serious music" are mutually exclusive. . . .;}

Posted by: Whaq on July 24, 2003 04:24 PM

Sorry about the Monk and Parker: in thinking back to what people had or didn't have in their record collections, I neglected my argument and put in some things that didn't fit quite as well. Loretta Lynn and George Jones are not the best examples of raw, earthy, primitive white music, either.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on July 24, 2003 06:04 PM

Indeed, "raw" is not a putdown at all. But compare Basie's and Oscar Peterson's piano styles on their joint record(s), and you can't help noticing how much jazz evolved over just 15-20 years (say, 1940-1960).

Sure enough the type of entertainment I had in mind is its lowest form, something on a level with food and drink. :-)

Posted by: Alex(ei) on July 25, 2003 07:51 AM

I'm going to jump on the Bela Fleck bandwagon. In 1997, he did an album with the eminently enjoyable Edgar Meyer (love his Violin Concerto) and Mike Marshall called Uncommon Ritual and the uses to which the banjo was put were many and delightful. Well worth a listen but you'll have to check elitist notions about the banjo if you want to enjoy in full measure. A first listen should assist in that effort.

Posted by: Geoffrey Barto on July 25, 2003 08:40 AM

A number of contemporary composers have used any number of pop instruments. Consider George Crumb, Lukas Foss, Leonard Bernstein (in the Mass), and many, many others.

To suggest that the guitar or similar stringed instruments are primarily pop instruments strikes me as bizarre, considering the huge repertoire for guitar in the Baroque, classical, and contemporary art traditions. Consider the music of Soler, Boccherini, and Rodrigo, if only for starters.

Further, true pop/folk instrumental combinations occasionally get full-onslaught treatment by composers who know something more than three chords, or can write for a larger ensemble than can be found in a back-porch jug band. My favorite is the Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra by William Russo, which had a great recording on Deutsche Grammaphon years and years ago. The harmonica really kicks as played by Corky Siegal of the Siegal-Schwall Band, and the orchestra does amazing stuff, too, making this LP my favorite - at least from conductor Seiji Ozawa.

Posted by: Wirkman Virkkala on July 29, 2003 08:59 PM

Well, I can't match the erudition expressed above, but I did come across a guy who played Bach on a 5-string banjo. As a solo, it was interesting and enjoyable, but I'm not sure how it would work with orchestration. For my favorite fusion of two worlds, however, I've always liked the work of John Lewis and "The Modern Jazz Quartet." For one of their more interesting works, try the following:


Scroll down and listen to the samples. "La Cantatrice" features a very young Diahnn Carrol.

Posted by: CGeib on July 30, 2003 10:41 PM

Yah - where do you gentlemen come up with itinerrant twottle - ever listen to any Ellington - cause he did it all - and yes Bela Fleck has done for the Banjo what Segovia did for the Guitar - played it like an Angel - and I recall hearing John Hartford do some kind of short symphonic work featuring the banjo on one of his early recordings - be-bop - though rooted in Jazz is kind of its own thing like the 12 tone stuff is its own thing in the classical genre and I'm not sure when the worls will be ready for a Cow-bell Concerto !!!

Posted by: snoggrass worthington thu3rd on October 15, 2004 04:50 AM