Over his long lifetime, Spanish-born guitarist Andrés Segovia gave more than 5,400 concerts and performed for the recordings of some 50 LPs (all or most of them now available in digital format). He changed the landscape of classical music in the 20th century by turning his own dedication to his instrument into the living voice of its advocacy, bringing traditional and contemporary guitar music into homes, conservatories, and concert stages worldwide.
Here’s what you need to know about the musician and the man:
He Segovia was born in Andalusia in 1893, and he is still usually considered one of the greatest musicians who ever lived. He was an immensely skilled technician with a rare expressive flair that complemented his mastery of the guitar repertoire.
All this, combined with his exuberant love for his instrument, resulted in a monumental success in positioning the guitar as a concert instrument for the modern age. Segovia earned the sobriquet, “Father of the Classical Guitar,” with George Harrison calling him, “the daddy of us all.”
Segovia started playing guitar at age 6. It was his uncle, with whom he lived as a small child, who first showed him the magic of music by often strumming soothing melodies on an imaginary guitar. The young Segovia’s love for the guitar could not be quenched: His parents and his teachers tried to interest him in the piano and the cello, but he kept returning to his first love.
Early in the 20th century, most classically trained musicians looked down on the guitar, considering it an instrument fit for no more than popular parlor entertainment. Segovia basically taught himself, and he anchored his musical ideas in his own intuited understanding of the instrument and its wide range of capabilities.
The most well-known guitar-making dynasty in Madrid, which served as a locus of the art from the Renaissance into the present day, is the Ramirez family. José Ramírez I founded the business in 1890, and the guitar-makers he trained included his brother Manuel.
In 1912, Segovia, then still in his teens, came into the Ramirez shop one day in hopes of renting an instrument. His playing so impressed Manuel that the guitar-maker gave him a concert-quality instrument, telling him to take it with him around the globe and thus to pay him for it “without money.”
After studying at the Granada Musical Institute, Segovia began performing in Madrid and Barcelona, then went on a tour of South America. Well before he was 30, he had garnered acclaim in Paris and the world as one of the foremost musicians of his time.
Not only was Segovia one of the most technically accomplished guitarists the world has ever known, he also supported the growth and development of the musical repertoire for his instrument. In particular, he commissioned new works by 20th century composers who included the Brazilian master Heitor Villa-Lobos.
The History of Guitar
While music scholars haven’t reached consensus on the ultimate origins of the guitar, they have reached consensus on where guitar-making and guitar-playing reached its apogee: in Spain.
Early precursors of the guitar included instruments like the guitarra latina, the guitarra morisca, the Middle Eastern oud, the lute, the vihuela, and the baroque guitar, many of them made with four or five double-gutted strings. All were mostly played in small group settings in people’s homes, or simply used as accompaniment. The vihuela, which became widely used in Renaissance Spain and Italy, continues in today’s mariachi bands in the form of the vihuela mexicana.
In the late 18th and 19th century, Spanish makers crafted guitar-like instruments with six single-gut strings. In the mid-19th century, the master guitar-maker Antonio de Torres Jurado produced innovations that brought together characteristics from multiple previous types of lutes and other stringed instruments. The result was a model that is the direct ancestor of all the acoustic guitars we use today.
Torres enlarged the instrument’s body and thinned out the depth of the soundboard, resulting in a louder, more resonant, and more balanced tone. Musicians who played both flamenco and classical guitar music were quick to embrace his new instruments.
Nineteenth century composer-guitarists such as Julián Arcas and Francisco Tárrega popularized the classical guitar, although before Segovia it remained for many a niche interest. With Segovia’s overwhelming skill and example, the guitar for the first time gained worldwide credibility as an instrument for the concert stage, and it is now taught in academies devoted to classical music training around the world.
Transcription Work and Late Career
Segovia himself produced numerous transcriptions of masterpieces from centuries past. Spain during the Renaissance was the site of a vast production of compositions for the lute, and Segovia’s more than 150 transcriptions include music for that instrument, as well as for the harpsichord and the vihuela.
For his transcriptions of centuries-old music, Segovia drew on the works of composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Some of his most notable albums that collect these transcriptions include The Baroque Guitar, The Complete 1949 London Recordings, and The Genius of Andrés Segovia: Five Centuries of the Classical Guitar.
He himself began teaching master classes in his art in the 1950s. In his nineties, he taught in short programs at the University of Southern California Segovia Conference and in other programs.
Well past the age when most people--even many musicians--have retired, Segovia continued to perform live and in the recording studio. He died in 1987 at age 94, only months after teaching yet another master class at the Manhattan School of Music.
Lovers of jazz all have their favorites, but a certain number of classic albums keep topping critics’ and listeners’ lists through the decades. Here is a round-up of only 10 of the most diverse, sonically rich, and technically distinguished albums ever to come out of this most American of art forms.
You’ll likely have others you want to add, but chances are you won’t be able to dispute the originality and inherent greatness of each of the albums below.
John Coltrane - A Love Supreme
Coltrane’s artistry and passion on this consistent No. 1 critics’ choice is legendary. Recorded in 1964 and issued by Impulse! Records, A Love Supreme has earned numerous plaudits as a “perfect” jazz recording.
Arranged in four parts—"Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm"—the intellectually adventurous composition features the soaring, meditative playing of Coltrane’s sax set against his “Classic Quartet” line-up of master musicians. The result is jazz as a spiritual exploration, a focused devotion that Coltrane wrote in part as a way of thanking God for delivering him from addiction.
Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
This landmark album vies with Coltrane’s at the top of many critical lists. Issued by Columbia in 1959, its melancholy, atmospheric lyricism is complemented by Davis’ decision to employ a consistent modality that brings out the character of each instrument and musician.
Notably, Cannonball Adderley’s alto sax engages in fiery exchanges with Davis’ agile trumpet-playing, and Bill Evans’ light, dreamy piano juxtaposes beautifully with the voice of Davis’ trumpet. People who don’t even know much about jazz often include Kind of Blue in their music collections, and it continues to outsell new jazz recordings worldwide.
Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come
Coleman’s 1959 Atlantic Records album represents a high point of the alto saxophonist’s art. While Davis' and Coltrane’s albums have produced a more obviously enduring influence, Coleman’s work has also engrained itself in the jazz lexicon. It displays the early influences he drew from Texas R&B, and offers a musical statement stunning in its clarity and brightness, as well as in its deep jazz rhythms.
Chick Corea - Return to Forever
This 1972 jazz fusion release on the ECM label kicked Corea’s electric piano wizardry into high gear. It also represents an advance in his musical expressiveness, as his Latin-inflected vocabulary infuses the entire work. The long piece that concludes the album, "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta," continues as a major influence in the genre.
Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook
Recorded with the Buddy Bregman Orchestra and pressed in 1956 on the Verve label, this is one of the eight studio album “songbooks” of standards that Fitzgerald recorded. The pairing of Fitzgerald’s warm tones and flexible range with the greatest American popular composer of the century continues to serve as a major repository of definitive recordings.
Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um
This 1959 Columbia release gives us Mingus on bass in one of the defining moments of his career. As a bandleader, Mingus gathered loyal musicians together to interpret his tightly themed, evocative stylings. This album also gives us his tributes to legendary colleagues who had passed away, including Charlie Parker with “Birdcalls” and Lester Young with “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”
Bud Powell - The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1
The “Charlie Parker of Piano” shows what he can do on this sumptuous bebop 1952 Blue Note release. The album centers on Powell’s piano trio work and incorporates additional tracks featuring other greats like trumpeter Sonny Rollins. It’s also notable for bringing Afro-Cuban rhythms to the forefront of the jazz world through Powell’s composition “Un Poco Loco.”
Cannonball Adderley - Somethin’ Else
Blue Note issued Somethin’ Else in 1959, and it notably includes Miles Davis as a sideman for the standard “Autumn Leaves” and the great “One for Daddy-O.” The work effortlessly blends Adderley’s classic effervescent style with the emerging forms of modernism.
Duke Ellington - Ellington at Newport
The 1956 Columbia release gives us Ellington at his best as a pianist and bandleader in the live album format. He considered his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival a kind of musical rebirth, since the mid-50s saw the loss of influence of the big bands. Audiences went wild over the band’s performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the festival, particularly for Paul Gonsalves’ tenor sax solo.
Billie Holiday - Lady in Satin
Holiday’s instrument was her voice, and by the end of her life, its mythic power had diminished, while its fragility still held the essence of her talent. This album, produced in 1958 on the Columbia label, was her own personal favorite among her recordings. It was also the next-to-last album she recorded before her death, at age 44, the following year.
On Lady in Satin, she performs with a wistful edginess that barely conceals a torrent of emotion. Accompanied by Ray Ellis and a 40-piece orchestra, Holiday’s raspy voice--the reminder of her battle with addiction—lovingly interprets standards like “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and the especially poignant “I’m a Fool to Want You.”
At Expo 2020 in Dubai, the Polish Pavilion celebrated Poland’s national independence day on November 11, 2021, with the music of Fryderyk Chopin. The composer, who lived from 1810 to 1849, left the Polish people--and the world--a rich musical legacy. Many of his compositions have graced public events in Poland and at celebrations honoring Polish culture all over the world over the many decades since his death.
Romantic composer and patriot
It’s not too much to say that Chopin’s creative genius alone puts him in the ranks of the heroes of the Polish people. His extraordinary gifts led him to elaborate on native elements in Polish folk music to form richly textured, fiery, and lyrical compositions that express the essence of his heritage and his feelings of patriotism.
But this composer of powerful concertos, wistful nocturnes, and exuberant waltzes, mazurkas, and polonaises, was also a hero of the centuries-long Polish fight for independence.
A threat to tyrants
For Poles of all ages today, Chopin’s music stirs powerful feelings of pride, chiefly as the composer’s music has been used as a backdrop to Poland’s many efforts to resist tyranny over the decades and centuries. Under the Nazi occupation of Poland, it was forbidden to play or listen to his works. The edict was part of Hitler’s dedicated program of crushing any expressions of indigenous culture or national identity. The Nazi occupiers even dynamited a statue in Warsaw erected in Chopin’s memory.
The “Revolutionary Etude,” Op. 10, No. 12, is one of the signature Chopin works that continues to serve as an inspiration to all people who feel a hunger for democracy and freedom. Historians today point to this piece, along with works like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich’s Fifth and Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphonies, and Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” (both composed in 1942), as compositions that stirred millions of people amid the threat of totalitarianism in the Second World War.
“Cannons hidden among blossoms”
Chopin’s contemporary Robert Schumann remarked, after listening to the fiercely Romantic “Revolutionary Etude” and the thoroughly Polish mazurkas, that Chopin’s work made him think of “cannons hidden among blossoms.” Schuman also observed that if the tsar were to listen to and understand Chopin’s music, he would ban it immediately.
Indeed, Russia would later censure Chopin’s works. In 1863 Russian soldiers even hurled his childhood piano out of a second-story window as a demonstration of vengeance after the thwarted assassination of a Russian official on Polish soil. By that time, Chopin had been dead for 14 years.
Paean to the revolutionary spirit
From 1830 to 1831, there was a Polish uprising against Russia in protest of the 35-year-old third Partition of Poland that had split apart the country, giving pieces of it to Habsburg Austria, the German state of Prussia, and Russia. This final partition completely erased an independent Poland from the map of Europe. Chopin had left Poland for a musical tour that took him to France, the birthplace of his father, just before the uprising. It was in France that he composed the “Revolutionary Etude,” which scholars believe is the product of his patriotic emotions awakened by the Russian capture of Warsaw.
After this conflict, also called the Polish-Russian war, the tsar ordered that Poland would be entirely subsumed into Russia, leaving the formerly thriving city of Warsaw as nothing more than a military outpost. Poland would not regain any meaningful independence until after World War I.
Due to the 20-year-old Chopin’s refusal to accept a Russian-issued passport after the war, he rendered himself forever an exile from his motherland. He would never return to Poland again.
A last wish fulfilled
Almost 20 years later, as he lay dying, Chopin expressed a last wish: for his heart, which he felt to be the repository of his living soul, to be cut from his body and returned to Poland. According to history, his sister smuggled the heart into Poland, where it reposes, preserved in alcohol, in a crystal urn in Warsaw’s Church of the Holy Cross. The rest of the composer’s body was interred in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
A legacy survives the flames of war and hatred
Fast-forward to September 23, 1939. The Nazis, who had invaded Poland three weeks earlier, were dropping bombs on Warsaw, including the radio station where the acclaimed Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman was in the middle of a live performance of Chopin. The piece was the Nocturne in C-sharp minor.
The shelling forced Szpilman to stop playing, and he was lucky to escape death, as the station was destroyed. He would go on to lead a harrowing existence in the Warsaw ghetto. His whole family died in the death camp Treblinka, located outside Warsaw.
In 1945 Szpilman returned to Warsaw. He had come back to a city pummeled into ruins, almost unrecognizable. As told in the Oscar-winning 2002 film The Pianist, he went back to Polish Radio to give his first performance after the war: Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor.
In 1958 the Poles rebuilt the statue of Chopin that the Nazis had destroyed, placing it in the same park where it once stood.
Africa, the second-largest continent, is home to some of the most beautiful and exciting traditional folk music in the world. This diverse heritage ranges from the polyrhythmic batuque tradition of the Cape Verde Islands in the west to the muheme drumming practiced by women in Tanzania; from the minimally accompanied vocals of the Tuareg peoples of the northern Sahel region to the polyphonic chants of South Africa’s Khoi and San people. And every style and voice in-between and beyond.
The main sources available to anyone who wants to study traditional African folk music encompass pictorial sources such as rock paintings and drawings; archeological finds; travelers’ notes and other written histories, as well as recorded oral histories and written musical notation. And in the 20th and 21st centuries, a still-growing wealth of analog and digital recordings preserves the original performers’ voices.
Swimming against the currents of history
One of the problems facing musicologists and listeners with an interest in any genre of traditional African music is based in the history that has shaped much of the continent. Sophisticated and highly distinctive musical traditions have developed in multiple regions, yet a lack of access to technology capable of recording and archiving them continues to be a problem, as elders skilled in these traditions leave us before their musical gifts can be preserved. Couple this with the history of brutal racism, apartheid, and slavery on the part of European colonial powers in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries that deliberately suppressed or sidelined indigenous cultural productions, and you have a recipe for oblivion.
The problem of definition
We can add the fact that music anywhere is constantly evolving at the speed of human creativity. With so many contemporary African musicians mixing traditional folk elements into contemporary music, it’s sometimes difficult to say precisely where the “traditional” ends and the “contemporary” begins.
And then there’s the question of what, exactly, is authentically African about any particular style of music, given that—like any other aspect of human creativity—it likely contains influences from other cultures beyond regional or ethnic borders. In the case of some African cultures, indigenous music can bear heavy influences from European settlers, the relative newcomers from the Islamic world, and other groups not originally African. And in many cases, any particular African musical form may not even be tied to one specific ethnic or cultural group within the continent.
In addition, much indigenous African music was created as a response to, or in protest of, the social systems that subordinated native African peoples to white colonialist governments. (Think here of the rich musical literature of mid-20th century South Africa, much of it derived from older forms but pointedly calling out the brutalities of apartheid.)
For our purposes here, we can arbitrarily say that “traditional African music” involves music of any style produced at the grassroots level by musicians who grew up within an indigenous culture and who produced vocal or instrumental work deeply rooted in that culture.
Keeping traditions alive
The quest for preservation of this heritage has come in fits and starts. Sometimes, an empathetic outsider with a passion for Africa’s music stepped in to bring technology to the task of recording and documentation. At other times, African-born musicians and musicologists steeped in local or regional traditions have found the tools they needed to keep those traditions alive for succeeding generations. In every case, humanity as a whole has benefited from this work.
Hugh Tracey, the best-known non-African in this field, was a mid-20th century Caucasian ethnomusicologist who started out as an amateur. Yet he managed to document and preserve an astonishing variety of traditional sub-Saharan musical forms that otherwise might have been lost forever. He gained his expertise simply based on his travels in the region, his ability to listen respectfully to local people, and his boundless capacity for note-taking. The International Library of African Music (ILAM) is the physical repository of his lifetime of work, while the recordings collected in The Sounds of Africa and other projects seal his reputation as one of the earliest and most dedicated recorders of African music.
A number of record labels began producing albums of African folk music collected by ethnomusicologists like Tracey as early as the 1920s and ‘30s.
As African performers and scholars have gained a greater ability to document their own history, new voices have emerged. Kofi Agawu is one of today’s preeminent Black musicologists from Africa. Born in Ghana, Agawu is the author of books that include The African Imagination in Music (Oxford University Press, 2016), already hailed as a major comprehensive work for general readers. In it, Agawu discusses traditional melodies, rhythms, and techniques while offering detailed information illustrating the depth and breadth of African sounds.
To give one example of African musicians working to preserve and highlight their heritage, consider the band Zokela, from the Central African Republic. For decades, the musicians and dancers of Zokela have focused on transmitting knowledge of their culture’s Motenguene singing and dance tradition, handed down from the indigenous forest-dwelling Pygmy people. “Motenguene” can be translated as, approximately, “caterpillar dance,” and it is one of four main traditional dances in the Central African Republic . Zokela performs using modern musical instruments, but their performances have brought a much-needed sense of pride and happiness to listeners in the Central African Republic.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s boundless creativity resulted in more than 600 works, now a permanent part of the classical canon. The composer, a native of Salzburg, Austria, was also an inveterate traveler.
His wanderings began when he was a child performer taken on tour by his overbearing father. In the last decade of his life, he frequently traveled to conduct his own compositions at their premieres. In fact, he spent a total of 10 years (close to one-third of his life) on the road, visiting some 200 cities and towns within the present-day borders of ten countries across central and western Europe.
Mozart and his Praguers
One of Mozart’s major journeys was the second time he went to Prague to debut his great opera Don Giovanni. It was late in the year 1787, and the 31-year-old composer had already visited the Bohemian city earlier that same year to conduct his Prague Symphony (No. 38) and his opera The Marriage of Figaro. During that second trip, he stood at the podium of the Estates Theatre in Prague’s Old Town to lead the new work, one of the most dramatically strong and magnificently scored operas of all time.
Mozart’s work usually found a warm reception in Prague, so he chose to favor the city with the premiere of the new piece. The reception was overwhelming, and Mozart is remembered observing, “My Praguers understand me.”
Outside the Estates Theatre today is a haunting statue of a cloaked figure with its face hidden in shadows. This work of Czech sculptor Anna Chromý (1940 - 2021), entitled “The Cloak of Conscience,” represents the ghost-statue of Il Commendatore, the character who arrives at Don Giovanni’s door with an ominous knock and hustles the unrepentant reprobate to the underworld.
A prodigy’s travels
Mozart’s crisscrossing of Europe began before he was six years old. He was already known as a prodigy who played the harpsichord and composed. His sister also showed unusual talent, and their father took the children first to the Bavarian court and then to the imperial court at Vienna. Leopold Mozart considered his son’s talent a “miracle” and was disposed to profit from it.
The year Wolfgang turned seven, the family took the children on an extended tour of the music capitals of Europe. In Germany, they visited Munich, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Mainz. One of Mozart’s father’s letters also documents a visit to Slovakia’s capital of Bratislava. The family also stopped in Brussels and wintered in Paris before going to London when Mozart was eight.
His time there is documented in British historian Lucy Worsley’s BBC documentary Mozart’s London Odyssey. Worsley describes the child musician’s life-changing experiences that led to the writing of his first symphony while there. His father lay in bed recovering from a near-fatal illness, and Mozart was unable to perform. So he sat down to write original music instead. Already in this first symphony’s lyricism and play of harmonies, we can hear the mature composer.
After more than a year in London, the Mozart family wound their way home through The Hague, Amsterdam, and Paris again, then passed through Lyon and Switzerland before reaching Salzburg more than three years after they had left.
During a 15-month trip to Vienna from 1767 to 1769, several of Mozart’s works flopped, but his setting of a festal mass, performed at Vienna’s Orphanage Church and the archbishop’s palace in Salzburg, led to his appointment in Salzburg as an honorary Konzertmeister.
Maturing during the Italian years
Mozart next made an extensive tour of Italy, again at his father’s behest. The now-teenaged composer set out in December 1769 and enjoyed a delightful 15 months there. His artistic ability grew along with his experiences of a new culture and language. He performed for Pope Clement XIV in Rome, who rewarded him with a knighthood.
Perhaps Mozart’s greatest feat while in Italy was his reproduction, completely from memory, of Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, which he had heard performed in the Sistine Chapel. Papal authority forbade any copying of the work on pain of excommunication, but Mozart didn’t need to copy: He carried all the music away in his head.
Mozart expanded his knowledge of counterpoint in Bologna, conducted his opera Mitridate at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan, and passed the entrance examination at the Accademia Filarmonica in Verona. He learned to master his own talent, becoming increasingly aware of how to create sonic texture.
In 1771, Mozart went to Milan to present a joyous opera, Ascanio di Alba, to the archduke on the occasion of his marriage. Again in Milan from 1772 to early 1773, he presented the opera Lucio Silla. The work’s high drama earned it 26 performances.
During the years of travel to and from Italy, Mozart continued to flex his musical talent. He composed new symphonies in a lively Italian style, along with six string quartets. A 1773 trip to Vienna honed his skills even further, producing string quartets heavily influenced by classical master Joseph Haydn and showing Mozart’s growing understanding of the form. New symphonies also emerged, as did his first piano concerto.
Love and loss in Germany and Paris
After toiling in the provincial court at Salzburg, Mozart at age 21 left to seek work in Munich, but was refused. After spending time in Augsburg, he traveled to Mannheim, where the court of the Elector Palatine was among the most musically sophisticated of its day. Mozart spent a successful four months in the city, producing several sonatas for piano and violin. He also fell in love, but his father thwarted the romance by forbidding him to travel to Italy with the young woman’s family.
Mozart followed his father’s wishes and went to Paris in 1778, accompanied by his mother. Their six-month stay resulted in the composition of a very well-received symphony in D Major. Mozart had learned to use dramatic Parisian techniques well, as stunningly exemplified in the opening movement of this “Paris” symphony (No. 31).
But the trip was tragic personally. In Paris, his mother fell ill and died just after the premiere.
Summoned to Salzburg by his father to take a job as court organist, Mozart dilly-dallied in Munich and Mannheim on the way home. His receipt of a commission in 1780 resulted in the Italian opera Idomeneo, another turning point in his style. This work, which he premiered in Munich just after his birthday in January 1781, was richly dramatic beyond the scope of his earlier operas.
Coming into his own in Vienna
After angrily breaking from his Salzburg position, Mozart relocated to Vienna, where he debuted his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, with lyrics in German, at the Burgtheater in 1782. The work is noted for its use of “exotic” tone colors and for containing more notes than any other opera in the German repertoire. The heroine of the piece, like his soon-to-be-wife, was named Constanze.
Inspired by both Haydn’s classicism and the Baroque tradition, Mozart’s work in the 1780s was now fully mature. Still in Vienna, he became furiously productive, and often performed piano pieces and conducted his own symphonies, which now included the “Linz,” written in honor of his stay in that city. His piano concertos and string quintets became especially individualistic, romantic, and grandiose. New commissions in 1789 led to travel to Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden.
A last love letter to Prague
In 1791, Mozart was working on his last great opera, La Clemenza di Tito, for the Prague opera, in honor of the imperial coronation of Leopold II. This more classically structured work, again debuted under his baton at the Estates Theatre, renewed the love of Prague audiences for his work. That December, when “his” Praguers learned of the composer’s death at 35 after his return to Vienna, they tolled the church bells throughout their city.
Archeologists tell us that the act of making music dates back at least 35,000 to 40,000 years. That’s when most of the available evidence points to the creation of the first musical instruments.
Some scholars point to a period beginning about this time as an explosion of cultural creativity. The early human beings of the Upper Paleolithic period began producing extraordinary examples of cave paintings, jewelry, and sculptural carvings from stone and bone. Their growing sense of spiritual and ethical awareness is evident in their carrying out complex rituals such as burying their dead.
One of the oldest examples we have of an object deliberately fashioned to produce music is a flute discovered in 2004 in Germany. Thought to be about 35,000 years old, the instrument is made from two pieces of hollowed-out mammoth ivory. With these two pieces fastened together, and with three finger-holes carved into the tube, a musician could produce five distinct musical tones. The flute as an instrument evolved into ever more complex and melodious forms, as evidenced by a remarkable example made during the Neolithic period in China.
The Jiahu flutes
Chinese myths dating back thousands of years tell of the mystical connections between flutes and the long-legged birds known as cranes.
In the 1980s, archeologists working at an ancient settlement in the central plains of China discovered objects they called the Jiahu flutes, dating from about 7,000 BCE. Over time, they discovered dozens of these flutes, all carved from the wing bones of the red-crowned crane. Many were made with seven or eight holes, giving them a remarkably sophisticated range of tones similar to the eight-tone scale familiar to us today.
This find represents the oldest musical instruments found in China and one of the oldest still-playable caches of instruments in the world. Careful replicas constructed by musicians in Henan show us that the flutes’ tone sounds remarkably like the flutes manufactured today.
The Lyres of Ur
Humans made and played the lyre and other stringed instruments from the time of the earliest civilizations in the Mideast and the ancient Mediterranean world. The lyre reached its high point in ancient Greece, when it was known as a sacred instrument to Apollo, god of music, poetry, and the arts. For the Greeks, the lyre served as a symbol of wisdom, enlightenment, and moderation.
The classical lyre typically consisted of a yoked body with two upright or curved arms supported by a crossbar and a set of tuning pegs. These pegs might be fashioned of bone, ivory, or bronze. Between the crossbar and the bottom portion of the instrument were seven strings, commonly made from sheep gut, that varied in thickness. The musician would hold the lyre in their hands or lap and pluck or strum it by hand or with a plectrum. Some lyres were played with a bow, much like a violin. Others had bowl-shaped bodies, often made of tortoiseshell.
Ancient art is filled with depictions of various forms of the lyre, from Minoan clay pieces of the 15th century BCE to statues of Apollo dating from the third century CE and beyond.
Archeologists have discovered lyres in their excavations of numerous ancient cultures. Among the most famous of these finds are the Lyres of Ur, products of the ancient Sumerian civilization. In 1929 archeologist Leonard Woolley found these 4,500-year-old pieces, with their carved bulls’ heads and inlaid lapis lazuli ornamentation, in present-day Iraq. Expert consensus designates them as the oldest-known surviving stringed instruments in the world.
After extensive restorations, the three lyres were distributed to museums in Pennsylvania, London, and Iraq. The Golden Lyre of Ur, the most magnificent of the three, was reposed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad until 2003, when rioters partially destroyed it and left pieces in various locations in the city. Much of the original jewels and gold were never recovered (although the gold bull’s head was found in the National Bank of Iraq five years later). Dedicated experts eventually reassembled the broken pieces. Andy Lowings, a British musician and civil engineer, also created a remarkable replica using Woolley’s notes and the help of colleagues around the world to source cedarwood, stones, gems, and mother-of-pearl.
Other musicians have built and played replicas of numerous other types, with recordings widely available.
A pair of wind instruments called Tutankhamun’s Trumpets, found in the Egyptian ruler’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, is part of what the archeologist dubbed the treasure trove of “wonderful things” he saw there. One bronze and one silver, the long, slender trumpets feature decorative motifs depicting gods associated with war. They are among the oldest surviving playable musical instruments in existence. A 1939 BBC recording, accessible on YouTube today, preserved their haunting sound, easily recognizable as similar to today’s trumpets.
The instruments found a home in the Cairo Museum until 2011, when the bronze trumpet disappeared during the chaos of the political uprising. The silver trumpet was already abroad as part of a museum tour. Not long after its disappearance, the bronze instrument turned up, just as mysteriously as it had vanished, tucked into a bag filled with antiquities on the Cairo Metro.
Mapping ancient music
The European Music Archeology Project (EMAP), launched in 2013, aims to recreate several ancient instruments. Organizers of this still-ongoing $4.6 million effort set out to construct musical instruments that would resemble—and sound like—those that were developed thousands of years ago in the region.
The project’s playable instruments include a set of Numantian trumpets, ultracircular clay aerophones used in the second century BCE by the Arevaci, a group of Celtiberian peoples living in the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. The Arevaci maintained their central settlement in the city of Numantia, Spain. From the remnants of multiple instruments, the EMAP team worked to create replicas, even down to the ornate decorative carvings on the pieces.
Other experts rebuilt functioning examples of the ancient carnyx, a horn dating from the Iron Age; the lur, a 4-foot-long war horn used in Scandinavia three millennia ago; the bullroarer, a small, thin-layered plank typically made of wood or bone and whirled in a horizontal or vertical circle to create sound waves of various pitch. Researchers have unearthed originals of the bullroarer in Paleolithic-era archeological sites throughout the world.
EMAP exhibitions have allowed people from across Europe to examine and enjoy these instruments, and the organization has even made recordings featuring accomplished contemporary musicians playing them.
In 1967, 1968, and 1976, two of the world’s greatest musicians blended their talents for three groundbreaking albums in succession, all called “West Meets East.” Ravi Shankar, a maestro of the Indian sitar (a long-necked, lute-like instrument), joined forces with American violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin to create sound that music lovers have called “hypnotic,” featuring long, lyrical conversations between their two instruments. The first of these collaborations between the musicians would go on to win a Grammy award.
A meeting of minds and music
These albums were critical and popular successes when they appeared, and many of the best-known tracks were later gathered together on “West Meets East: The Historic Shankar/Menuhin Sessions.” The favorites in this compilation include “Prabhati,” “Raga Piloo,” “Twilight Mood,” and more. “Prabhati” was composed by Shankar especially for Menuhin.
Menuhin and Shankar were instrumental in introducing the West to classical Indian compositions. Menuhin happened to meet Shankar by chance, and the two went on to develop a firm friendship, based on their mutual respect for one another’s cultures and one another’s mastery of respective arts. “West Meets East” assembled their joint performances of Indian ragas in ways that highlighted the distinctive voices of each man’s instrument and musical personality. The violin and the sitar seem to dance together as Menuhin’s instrument adds notes of sweet melancholy to the leaps and cavortings of Shankar’s sitar.
The ancient beauty of the ragas
Traditional music theory in India centers on the creative use of ragas. Theoretically, thousands of different ragas are available for performers to draw on, although only a few hundred are in regular use.
The root word of “raga” in Sanskrit means “color” or “passion.” This classical form developed not only in India, but also in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. A raga is a type of melodic schematic in which a musician can improvise across various types of compositions. Ragas are complex forms that allow for extensive variation and the exhibition of individual artistic talents.
A raga offers a specified set of ordered pitches in a scale, with each raga being defined by not only the pitches characteristic of it, but by formulas for arranging them as well. A musician can work within these pitches to put emphasis on certain degrees of the ascending or descending scale. By doing this, and by hopping from one note to another in ways that are distinct to the raga form, the musician can establish the atmosphere he or she wishes to create.
What Shankar and Menuhin did in “West Meets East” was to take the ancient raga tradition and spin it into new music that was at the same time respectful of its heritage and open to creative new interpretations, based on the sensibilities of the two artists.
Ravi Shankar – ambassador for global understanding
Ravi Shankar was not only a performer; he was also a composer of music in the North Indian and other traditions. Born in 1920 in Varanasi into a high-caste Brahman family, he spent his youth studying music and dance and toured India and Europe with his brother’s dance group.
From the ages of 18 to 25, Shankar devoted himself to the intense study of the sitar. He later served as All-India Radio’s music director, established the National Orchestra of India, founded music schools in Mumbai and Los Angeles, and composed for films. His scores for the films in director Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (1955 - 1959) are among his best-known and most acclaimed works.
In the 1960s, Shankar performed at the Monterey Pop Festival and at Woodstock. In 1971, he teamed up with George Harrison of the Beatles to organize the first modern benefit concert, the Concert for Bangladesh, designed to aid refugees fleeing hunger, natural disasters, and persecution. The concert album won a 1973 Grammy Award.
Shankar’s later compositions reflected his long-standing familiarity with Western musical forms, which he seamlessly mingled with classical Indian motifs. His daughter Norah Jones is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, and his daughter Anoushka Shankar has become a respected sitar player and composer in her own right.
Ravi Shankar died in 2012, at age 92, in Southern California.
Yehudi Menuhin – champion of humanity
Also a composer as well as a performer, Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York City in 1916, the child of Lithuanian Jewish parents. He grew up in San Francisco, where at age 7 he enthralled an audience of adult connoisseurs with his performance of the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn. As a teenage performer, he toured widely, winning acclaim for his technical fluency, the depth of his emotional range, and his individual style of interpretation.
Menuhin performed and recorded with some of the world’s finest conductors. He spent World War II appearing in some 500 concerts for Allied troops, and performed with composer Benjamin Britten for the recently freed survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
In addition to his collaborations with Shankar, Menuhin also ventured into jazz and cut notable recordings with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
Over the course of his career, Menuhin became known for championing lesser-known composers in his performances. Like Shankar, he was a dedicated humanitarian and music educator. He founded the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, England, in 1963, focusing on teaching musically gifted youth. In the 1960s, he appeared as a conductor with noted world orchestras, and by the 1990s was focused exclusively on conducting.
Menuhin, who had become a British citizen in 1985, remained a life-long crusader for human rights, social justice, and environmental causes. He died in 1999 in Berlin, Germany.
Every year, May is designated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It’s a time to celebrate the journeys and contributions of members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and a moment for everyone to focus on learning more about the rich tapestry of Asian American cultures.
In 2020 and 2021, a sharp spike in incidents of hate crimes directed against people of Asian heritage made it more meaningful than ever to shine a light on the prejudices against Asian Americans, and on the many gifts that performers who blend Asian and American cultures have given to the United States.
Here are just three of the many gifted Asian American musical performers who have graced orchestras, bandstands, and virtual stages across decades of American history.
The Kim Sisters: Singing for Their Lives
Long before there was K-pop, there were the Kim Sisters.
In the 1960s, when “girl groups” were popular around the world, sisters Sue (Sook-ja) and Ai-ja Kim, with their cousin and adopted sister, Mia (Min-ja), landed in the United States and became almost an overnight sensation. With an enormous fan base in their native South Korea, the Kim Sisters took Las Vegas by storm, belting out pop rock lyrics in English, although they had not even learned to speak the language.
They were the first Asian group to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, with the impresario actively promoting them through regular guest appearances. Immensely appealing to American audiences, they could sing, dance, and play multiple musical instruments, and were soon selling out theaters on a par with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
The Kim Sisters came from a family of seven children. Their father was a revered composer who was executed by Communist forces from North Korea. Their mother, a famed singer, put the three girls together as a musical act in order to earn enough money to keep the family from starvation. They performed on American military installations before they were even in their teens.
In the United States, they became “the face of Korea” as cultural goodwill ambassadors at a time when the U.S.-South Korean alliance was critical to American foreign policy. Their upbeat bubblegum-pop style and covers of standard American classics, along with what audiences of the time saw as their “exotic” origins, fueled their rise as a national phenomenon.
Ai-ja died in 1987. Mia married a Hungarian musician and moved to Hungary, where she continues to be active in the performing arts world. After a long performing career, Sue Kim built a successful real estate career in Las Vegas, where she remains, now in her 80s, a pillar of a thriving Korean American community.
Yo-Yo Ma: Comforting the World with the World’s Music
Yo-Yo Ma, born in 1955 in Paris to Chinese parents, is perhaps the world’s best-known and most beloved cellist, renowned for his ability to coax an extraordinary range of emotional tones from his instrument. His performances and many cross-genre collaborations have helped to educate the public about classical music and to open up the genre to new generations of fans.
Ma has received an unusual number of commissioned works from contemporary composers, and frequently performs in ensembles with other noted performers. Ma’s recordings span a range of classical and pop genres, and include the unaccompanied cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, the tangos of Astor Piazzolla, and the soundtrack for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His 1984 recordings of the Bach pieces earned him the first of 18 Grammy Awards.
In 1998, Ma founded the Silk Road Project, now called Silkroad, to assemble musicians from a variety of backgrounds to bridge cultural traditions. In 2011, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
In 2020, Ma continued his emphasis on using culture to bring people together by presenting “Songs of Comfort,” a series of socially distanced mini-concerts, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The videos of Ma playing solo versions of beloved classics, recorded on his phone, have given solace to millions around the world.
Mitski: A Musical Poet Laureate for a New Generation
Mitski Miyawaki performs as “Mitski.” The biracial Japanese American singer-songwriter was born in 1990 and grew up all over the world, trying to fit in as her family traveled for her father’s State Department job. She has become known worldwide for her forthright, psychologically and socially aware lyrics and distinctive style within the genre of indie rock.
Mitski recorded her first two albums while still a student at SUNY Purchase. Since then, she has garnered critical praise, including a comment from the legendary Iggy Pop that she is “probably the most advanced” of any American songwriter he knows.
Mitski’s first album for a major label was Bury Me at Makeout Creek. It centered themes of personal identity and finding an emotional home, set against a raw guitar background in place of the classical piano that had previously been her main means of musical expression. Her later albums, Puberty 2 and Be the Cowboy, continued her production of music that is, as an interviewer for The Fader wrote in 2018, “easy to lose yourself in.” That same year, NPR called her this century’s “Poet Laureate of Young Adulthood.”
Mitski’s self-reflective chords and words reflect her generation’s grappling with building their lives in a world that often doesn’t make sense. Her song “Your Best American Girl” has become particularly meaningful to a generation of youth of color and Indigenous youth, who often see themselves reflected in its lyrics. The song hints at the demise of a going-nowhere relationship even as it deconstructs the longing to be fully accepted by the majority culture, while also affirming the validation and comfort found in one’s own heritage.
Looking through the history of American music, it’s easy to see African American influences in art forms that include the traditional spiritual and gospel music, the syncopating rhythms of jazz, and numerous other sound innovations through the generations: ragtime, blues, boogie-woogie, R&B, rock and roll, hip hop, rap, and many more. It’s not too much to say that American music is African American music.
The uniquely American form of the popular stage and film musical has also given us works by or about African Americans that are extraordinary in terms of their historical value, artistic quality, or both. Here are summaries of a few of the most outstanding ones from the first half of the 20th century:
Treemonisha (1911) was ragtime composer and lyricist Scott Joplin’s third (and final) work for the stage. The story focuses on the character of Treemonisha, who was found beneath a tree as an infant and adopted as the daughter of a formerly enslaved couple. Joplin’s score blends traditional European opera with his signature ragtime rhythms.
Treemonisha also highlights the struggles of the Black culture of its time, including the desire to assimilate into white society while still feeling the pull of African American traditions. The opera was also pioneering for its time in underlining the importance of education.
Joplin was never able to stage a full production of Treemonisha. In 1972, an ensemble at Atlanta’s Morehouse College presented Treemonisha, and it received a true full premiere for the general public in 1975 at the Houston Grand Opera.
2. Shuffle Along
Shuffle Along (1921) was Broadway’s first full-fledged musical by a Black librettist (the duo of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles), composer (Eubie Blake), and lyricist (Noble Sissle), featuring an all-Black cast. The production broke records by running for some 500 nights on Broadway, and its “I’m Just Wild About Harry” remains a well-known song today. Poet and historian James Weldon Johnson commented that the show offered a sophisticated portrayal of the love story between the African American leads.
The show was revived in 2016 in a completely fresh way. Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed offered new choreography by Savion Glover, a new wrap-around book by George C. Wolfe and Audra McDonald in the starring roles. The new work honored the value of the original’s status as a groundbreaking moment in African American cultural history and tackled its complex aspects head-on.
3. Cabin in the Sky
Cabin in the Sky (1943), featuring the legendary Lena Horne in her only starring role for MGM, was the first film produced by a major studio with an entirely African American cast. The movie also starred renowned performers like Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Directed by Vincente Minelli, it was based on the 1940 Broadway show of the same title with music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John Latouche, and book by Lynn Root. The creators gave voice to a rare work of fantasy and imagination centered on the rich African American folkloric tradition and portrayed by an all-Black cast.
“Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” as sung by Waters, is among the most memorable and lyrically beautiful songs in Cabin in the Sky. “Taking a Chance on Love” is one of the other still-beloved songs from this classic musical.
4. Carmen Jones
Carmen Jones (1954), based on Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen and with new lyrics in colloquial American speech by Oscar Hammerstein II to Bizet’s music, gave a Technicolor folk operatic treatment to the French classic. While the composer and lyricist were not African American, the entire cast was, including iconic movie star Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, who works in a parachute factory during World War II in an update of Bizet’s Seville cigarette factory setting.
Carmen charms soldier Joe (portrayed by the equally iconic singer Harry Belafonte), with this role also modernized from Bizet’s character of Don José. Dandridge earned the first Oscar nomination ever for an African American performer in the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role. Otto Preminger directed, with Pearl Bailey in another strong performance as factory worker Frankie.
Hammerstein’s original 1943 Broadway version of the show was notably revived off-Broadway in 2018 with Anika Noni Rose in the title role.
5. Porgy and Bess
The 1935 opera by George Gershwin, Dubose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin was based on a novel by Dubose Heyward, and was revolutionary for its time, not only for being the first Broadway production with an all-Black cast, but for the incandescent blues-meets-jazz lyricism of George Gershwin’s score. The hits from the musical, and the movie, remain among the most frequently performed in the American musical repertoire: “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” are among the most well-remembered.
The poignant story focuses on Bess’ conflicted love for her man, the suffering but proud Porgy, whose disability has driven him to survive by panhandling among the other downtrodden residents of Charleston’s Catfish Row. Porgy’s disability likely reflects that of the author, DuBose Heyward. Bess is also involved with Sportin’ Life and with the possessive Crown. Ultimately, Bess finds sanctuary with Porgy before the two are separated by the connivance of Sportin’ Life and the whims of character and fate.
James Robinson directed a notable production of Porgy and Bess as the opening show of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019-2020 season, with acclaimed operatic performers Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the leading roles.
4 of 2020’s Best World Music Albums
The year 2020 was one of economic and social upheaval, principled protest, and deep loss. But 2020 also brought new music that has uplifted the spirits of people all over the world. New masterpieces of world music, although derived from cultures that may have intriguing superficial differences, serve to remind us of the bonds that unite all of humanity.
As critics have pointed out, the term world music can be misinterpreted as simply referring to some “exotic” quality in music that comes from outside Anglophone regions. A better definition might be that world music indicates that a work is the result of creative collaboration and thoughtful artistic choices born in the intimacy of one particular place and culture but resonates with all people, everywhere.
Here is a glimpse at just a few of the world music albums that brought a greater sense of connection amid the challenges and triumphs of 2020:
Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time) by Keleketla!
Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time) is a South African album whose title derives from the storytelling tradition in the Sepedi language. “Keleketla” is the standard response to a storyteller’s opening question (“E Ileng Nonwane?”) at the beginning of a story. Keleketla! as an album brings the same type of craftsmanship inherent in storytelling to depict the conflicts and struggles in our changing contemporary world.
The album is the first collaboration between Keleketla! Library, a community media project based in Johannesburg, and the nonprofit organization In Place of War, based in the United Kingdom. Founded in 2008, Keleketla! Library has created a wealth of multi-artist, multimedia music and arts projects all over Johannesburg.
The album brings together an array of South African musicians with the British electronic duo Coldcut, and includes contributions from other artists such as Yugen Blakrok, Tony Allen, Shabaka Hutchings, and many more.
As an album, Keleketla! has received praise from critics for the dynamism of its beats and its rich fusion of jazz-funk, hip-hop, and electronic music. The opening song, “Future Toyi-Toyi,” offering the stomp-based rhythms of a dance performed in protest of the former system of apartheid, instantly draws listeners in. Other songs go in completely different musical directions, but the overarching themes are those of personal and societal transformation.
Lindé, Afel Bocoum
In his album Lindé, legendary Malian artist Afel Bocoum continues his explorations in the blues tradition. He is known to fans as one of the last of the great late-20th century generation of African composers and performers who blended their culture’s sound with new ones from throughout the world. And as a native of Niafunké in Mali, Bocoum comes from a region positioned to draw on the sounds and traditions of both the northern and southern parts of the country.
Lindé draws its title from the name of the wilderness lands near Bocoum’s childhood home that he loved exploring. The music seamlessly mixes in guitars and traditional instruments while making use of stunning innovative techniques and bringing in texturally enriching contributions from noted guest performers.
The album opens with a gentle percussion-and-strings piece in which the voice of the artist walks us through the landscapes that shaped his early years. Afel Bocoum’s lyrics acknowledge but look beyond Mali’s civil wars and political strife, speaking of unity and common purpose among the world’s peoples.
Famous Fados on Portuguese Guitar by Custódio Castelo
On Famous Fados, Castelo, one of the most distinguished performers of the traditional art of Portuguese fado guitar, plays classic Portuguese fados of his own arrangement.
The fado musical genre is a part of UNESCO’s list of World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Castelo is one of its leading proponents. Alongside other masters such as Carlos Paredes, he has given new depth and flexibility to the traditional fado guitar, making it an instrument capable of a range of concert and solo performances. This particular collection offers us some of history’s best-known and best-loved fados.
The fado genre’s rich history dates back to the 1820s, although music historians believe that its ultimate origins go back much farther. The word fado refers to a melancholy style filled with a sense of “fate,” destiny, and moody reflectiveness amid a sense of loss. Fado songs typically feature a solo vocalist accompanied by guitar, and they are traditionally performed in coffee houses and other intimate venues.
Castelo’s reinterpretations of these classic pieces are amplified by his instrument—he uses his own specially made guitar, fashioned from an oak tree root by Oscar Cardoso, as respected an instrument-maker as Castelo is an artist. From this 12-string, tear-shaped guitar, Castelo is able to evoke all the beauty, sadness, and power of the highly expressive fado form.
Sketches of China by Xuefei Yang
Sketches of China features Yang, a well-known classical guitarist, in pieces that paint a picture of her homeland. The double album incorporates Chinese folk songs whose original motifs date back as far as the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), as well as many contemporary pieces. Yang’s goal is to highlight the entire tapestry of Chinese music through ages, traditions, and styles.
Yang uses several of her own arrangements, notably on “Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon” and “Flower Drum,” as well as work from noted contemporary composers such as the world-renowned Tan Dun. In his “Seven Desires for Guitar,” she masters a challenging modernist piece into which Dun incorporated rhythms of traditional Spanish flamenco and the notes of the lute-like ancient Chinese instrument known as the pipa.
Yang’s range and versatility as a soloist are highlighted by a rich orchestral background as well as a minimal accompaniment. It is her artistry that sets this album apart, delivering one crystalline moment of sound after another.
Photo used under Creative Commons from Marina K Caprara