Jack Benny and the Violin

Here are a few of Jack Benny’s classic comedy routines featuring the violin. In his performances, Benny was know for his “bad” violin playing. In reality, he was a competent violinist and the owner of a Stradivarius. Through the years, Jack Benny’s guests included Isaac Stern and Jascha Heifetz. His show broke racial barriers in the United States with its human portrayal of the African-American butler, Rochester, as well as with guests such as Louis Armstrong and the Ink Spots.

This clip with Gisele MacKenzie offers a glimpse into the genius of Benny’s violin-centered comedy.

Here is a full episode, guest starring Isaac Stern:

Here is a clip with Toni Marcus:


[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]More Jack Benny Clips[/typography]

For more funny Jack Benny clips visit Jack Benny Shows Off His Strad.

Music on the Tarmac

A330 Beijing

Last week, musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra made news when they turned a three hour delay on the tarmac at the Beijing airport into an impromptu concert. You can watch the now viral video of their performance of the last movement of Antonin Dvorak’s “American” String Quartet.

Let’s listen to the Cleveland Quartet perform all four movements of this amazing piece. Pay attention to the way the four voices interact and trade around motives. Can you hear a musical conversation taking place between instruments? Listen to the rhythmic “motor” which propels the music forward. Notice subtle details that make the music sparkle, like the cello’s pizzicato line that begins at 0:14.

String Quartet No. 12 “American”, Op. 96…Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

[ordered_list style=”decimal”]

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (starts at beginning)
  2. Lento (starts at 9:05)
  3. Molto vivace (starts at 16:08)
  4. Finale: vivace ma non troppo (starts at 19:58)


Now, let’s go back and listen again to pick up a few more details in the music. The first movement is built on sonata form, a structure we explored a few months ago in my post, Baseball and the Symphony. Can you hear sonata form at work here? Listen to the second theme at 1:30. Does it feel different emotionally from what came before? Starting around 4:44, can you hear Dvorak shaking up the themes and motives from the exposition, turning them upside down and inside out and developing them in exciting ways? Consider how we slide back into the recapitulation at 6:28. It’s the same music we heard at the beginning, but this time Dvorak throws us a surprise before fully returning home. Can you tell what’s happening and how it’s different from the beginning of the piece? Listen carefully to the harmony at 6:28.

The third movement starts off simply enough with all four voices playing the same music in octaves, but listen to how quickly things get delightfully complicated. Pay attention to the increasingly complex interplay of rhythms that follows this simple opening. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the melody line popping up in the cello at 16:40.

As you listen to the final movement, consider what feelings the music evokes…wild, fun-loving, excited anticipation? Like a real person, this movement’s musical personality is a complex mix of emotions which can’t be fully put into words. Near the end of the movement, there is a brief moment where the “motor” stops and the music suddenly becomes more introspective (23:29). Consider the emotional significance of this moment of reflection. Why does it come at this moment in the piece? What happens next?

Dvorak wrote this quartet in the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, a prairie enclave settled by Bohemian immigrants. This was the same year that the “New World” Symphony was written as a commission for the New York Philharmonic. Did you hear any of the motives from the Symphony slipping into this quartet? (If you missed it, go back and listen to the cello at 8:49 for just one example). Learn more about Dvorak’s trip to Iowa here.

Between 1892 and 1895, Dvorak directed the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He was interested in helping a still comparatively young America develop an authentic musical tradition. Dvorak urged composers to draw inspiration from Native American and African American folk traditions. Some listeners hear these uniquely American influences in the “New World” Symphony and this quartet. Others only hear the influence of the Czech folk music which inspired Dvorak throughout his life. Which side do you take? Share your thoughts on this music and the Cleveland Quartet’s performance in the thread below. You can find this recording on Amazon.

Spillville, Iowa in 1893
Spillville, Iowa in 1893


Voices from Bulgaria

Young dancers, Pirin, Bulgaria, June 2006

If you haven’t heard the extraordinary and unique sound of the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir, take a moment and listen. This ensemble, made up of singers from villages across Bulgaria, keeps alive a distinctive style of singing which is centuries-old. What’s particularly striking are the rich, vibrant overtones of the voices. The chords ring and glow with perfect intonation and balance. Listening to this clip, it’s easy to lose yourself in the powerful, focused intensity of the sound. In a part of the world where East has traditionally met West, Middle Eastern influence can be heard in the vocal color and ornamentation.

Here is Stani Mi, Maytcho (Get Up, My Daughter), a Bulgarian folk song:

This excerpt is from Nonesuch’s 1988 recording, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, Volume 2. You can find it on iTunes and at Amazon. Listen to more excerpts from this set of recordings here. Share your thoughts on this music in the thread below. What are the qualities that make sound beautiful, expressive and moving? If you’re an instrumentalist, consider how the vibrant colors of the human voice inspire you to “sing” on your instrument.

Josef Gingold on Violin Playing and Teaching

Recently, I found a few interesting links relating to Josef Gingold, the legendary violinist and teacher who died in 1995. If you’re not familiar with Gingold’s legacy, this short video offers insights into his life, distinguished career and great humanity.

Having studied with the nineteenth century Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, Gingold was one of the last links to an elegant earlier style of violin playing. Here is an excerpt from his 1976 recording Josef Gingold Plays Fritz Kreisler, featuring Kreisler’s Aucassin et Nicolette. It showcases his golden tone and the warmth of his playing:

[quote]No matter what you do, always con amore, always with love. You never play dutifully, you play beautifully.[/quote]

Gingold has many interesting things to say in this interview, conducted in the last years of his life by Kim Markl. He talks about the importance of constantly learning and changing throughout life. Despite his age, he exudes a love of the violin and a joy of discovery that suggests an amazing youthful vitality. He discusses the way styles of violin playing have changed over time, demonstrating in the style of Ysaye. He believes that the most fundamental aspect of good tone production is good intonation, which allows rich overtones to ring. When asked about teaching, Gingold stresses the importance of a student’s first teacher in establishing the correct foundation. He says that a good teacher must have patience and must recognize that each student is unique.

It’s also fascinating to hear Gingold’s thoughts on violinists of the past. In this episode of Music for the Fingerboard Gingold takes us through recordings of significant violinists of the past including Joachim, Sarasate, Auer, Kreisler, Huberman, Ysaye and Heifetz. Students of Gingold, such as Joshua Bell say that listening to recordings and studying the way legendary violinists played was an important part of their lessons with Gingold. Indeed, it’s important for all violinists to know the playing of the great violinists of the past. (Here are Parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Music for the Fingerboard).

Here is a recording of Josef Gingold playing Henryk Wieniawski’s Capriccio Valse. Wieniawski was a Polish violinist and composer who lived from 1835-1880: