Another form of piano music that was just big stuff in 1900 was the so called
"descriptive piece". That is, it was written for the piano, perhaps
orchestrated later, but it was written for the piano, principally by a man
named E.T. Paul and another composer named Harry Lincoln, and in 1900 they had
a massive hit -- who knows how many they sold -- of a piece called "Midnight
Fire Alarm". And it was a descriptive piece about what would happen when the
fire bell rings and the horses are ready to go and they go and put out the fire
in a big city. And the cover has a wonderful -- it has to be stone ground
litho in multicolors -- of that fire engine with the horses and so forth going
to the fire. |
Descriptive pieces weren't really marches. They were taccatas or something,
ah, programmed pieces, I guess you could call them descriptive pieces about
spring or whatever. But they took them in a direction that was very much a
part of the time. Who's writing about fire engines in 1900 and seeing a
picture of them on the cover? Another big hit was the Ben Hur chariot race and
there are no words, but up above the staff with the music it says, "The
firebell rings. The horses get ready." Dah-dah-dah-dah. It's very fast.
Silent movie music, that's what it sounds like. It's sounds like the music
you'd hear played behind the chase scene in a silent movie. "Dawn of the
Century" was one of E.T. Paul's, compositions in 1900. It's not very good
musical, I gotta tell you, but the cover is so evocative and so representative
of what they were doing, in the first place, to sell music. Here's a beautiful
color cover. This is not block letters saying, "Dawn of the Century"; I guess
it's the Statue of Liberty or whoever -- it's someone we know -- and surrounded
by these artifices of that year, 1900. It had to sell pretty well. It's
turned up in an number of collections, as had a lot of his other things in
1900. But "Midnight Fire Alarm" was his big hit that year.
He always had some words and in his descriptive pieces, like "Midnight Fire
Alarm" and "Ben Hur", he described the events and then wrote the music
supposedly to go with that event. In this case he might very well have labeled
the sections, "telephone", "automobile", and so forth, but he didn't. And
here's his poem.
"The Dawn of the Century. Behold, a child is born unto this world, a man
child, sturdy, strong and beautiful and wonderful. He clasps a shining scroll
on which is writ 'the future of the race'. It tells of peace and justice, love
and truth, the end of wars, the death of enmity, and, best of all, this
universal law God's fatherhood, the brotherhood of man."
It's that inflated poetic language of the period and I don't think it means
much and, by the way, that's not what the 20th century brought us. It brought
us just the opposite. It brought us hate and war and chaos and disaster. And
it's very nice and it's a sweet sentiment, but I think the music itself and the
piece of sheet music is much more interesting with what it says rather than the
poem. The sheet music says technology. The sheet music says color and speed
The symbols of technology on the cover are placed in such a way that we are to
believe that they are going to be to our benefit. All of these are refinements
and this is typical of 1900. As the century turned, it was going to be
wonderful. Everything was for the benefit of mankind. Wars would end.
Technology would save us from ourselves, and, by the way, in many ways it has.
But certainly not in the romanticized, inflated way that that poem indicates.
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