Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin has produced over 200 weeks of shows since its syndication in 2003. The new show this week is Music in 19th Century Paris: Waterloo to Bismarck. We interviewed Bill McGlaughlin to give you the inside scoop on how he formulated this week’s show. Enjoy the interview below and let us know your thoughts on this week’s theme in the comments!
How did you select the theme for this week’s programs: Music in 19th Century Paris: Waterloo to Bismarck?
You know, it was one of those ideas I found in my sock drawer. You don’t really know where these ideas come from; you kind of have all of this stuff rolling around in your head for a long time.
With Music in 19th Century Paris: Waterloo to Bismarck, I had just listened to a volume of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization and I finished the story with the history of Napoleon. I listen to these enormous, 1200 page audio books while I walk around the streets of New York. So, I had been thinking about Napoleon and this book gave me a different perspective on him. I didn’t realize some of the positive things he did. I knew he was a great conqueror, but I don’t particularly admire people who start wars and kill people. But, everywhere he went, he instituted the Napoleonic code, which threw out the old feudal system, took away a lot of the properties of the church, and set up a constitution.
Also, all the way from 1815 until the demise of Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, there was a new great nation state on the rise – Prussia – which was led by Otto von Bismarck. Pretty soon all of Germany was even bigger, more populated, wealthier, and finally unified after hundreds of years of being these little states.
So that’s the set-up. Of course, all the while, I have music in my head as I’m listening to these books. I’m thinking about the composers around during the time and the music that they wrote. But, Napoleon and Bismarck are fence posts on which to hang a string which I was going to put my laundry on.
Do you think Napoleon was a music lover and did he commission any music?
Napoleon did commission a number of pieces, but they were ceremonial. Sort of like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, his taste in music didn’t run to the most advance. He would go to performances, but he knew poets, philosophers, and scientists better.
How did you decide what music to include in this week?
I chose this music because if you were lucky, or maybe unlucky, enough to live in Paris at that time, this is the music you would hear every day. These were the composers who were there. It was such a tremendous cast of characters. A lot of Italians were in Paris during this time. Cherubini, who came to France in 1785, managed to get through the French Revolution and keep his head on his shoulders despite the fact that he was a close associate to Louis the 16th and Marie Antoinette. Then there was Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Paganini. It’s just an interesting period. You can really hear the almost infinite variety in the music.
What other composers will you feature in this week?
Two of the composers we’re doing this week are rarely played nowadays, Cherubini and Meyerbeer. They were so popular in their time; in fact Beethoven first thought that Cherubini was the greatest opera composer. Then, by 1818 he said, “Forget it, Cherubini is the greatest composer alive” (and this was by a man who had written 8 of his 9 symphonies and all of his piano concertos at this point). I mean think of the work that Beethoven had made and he thought Cherubini was the greatest composer alive. I wanted to try to get some sense of the importance of that music and why we should still care about it if a composer like Beethoven loved it as much as he did.
It’s the same thing with Meyerbeer. His works are rarely performed nowadays intact. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a couple of days ago and saw some paintings. One was by Courbet depicting a tenor who is playing the part of Robert le diable from the opera by Meyerbeer in 1831. I looked at this incredibly vivid and wonderful painting and thought, “that painting was done 30 years after Meyerbeer created his opera.” Then I found another painting that day by Degas of the same opera, painted about another 15 years later. Just think about the effect these people had, and not just for a year or two on Broadway. They colored French culture throughout the 19th century and yet, we barely know their names today.
How do you create a narrative around the music that you choose for a week of programs?
I’m a big walker. It started some years ago when I had some back problems and I found out that they went away when I started walking. So, I’ve got a lot of time to think and I listen to books on tape. I usually just try to imagine what it would be like to be in Paris during some of those years. I try to imagine the clothing they wore or what they ate. Rossini for example, when he turned thirty-eight, he had already written 38 operas. At that point, he said, “That’s it. I’m going to sit by and invent some nice dishes like Tournedos Rossini; maybe I’ll put a little foie gras on my steak.” He’s such a playful character and I love imagining the world around him. Like the salons with all of these poets, painters, philosophers, economists, and generals. I like to imagine the individual composers and how they struggle against people not understanding their works and challenges.
Has your process changed over the years?
When I first started doing this show, I used to spend a lot of time in the Lincoln Center library. It’s changed over the past 12-13 years because so much music is now available online. But there are a couple of great libraries where you can go and look at a Cherubini Requiem and actually see the full orchestral score. I spent thirty years mostly as a conductor, so I can read a score in the way a lot of other people can just read a novel or a poem. I actually learn faster from reading a score than I do from listening. Then I go to the piano, I’m not really an advanced pianist at all, but I play it so that people can hear what I’m thinking or talking about.
Why do you demonstrate what you heard in the music on the piano?
When Steve Robinson and I started talking about Exploring Music back in 2002, I was initially reluctant because I was doing a chamber music show for Minnesota Public Radio called “St. Paul Sunday Morning” and I thought that maybe that was enough. But Steve came up with a whole plan and he told me I could do it in New York City in a studio. I thought about it for a little while and I told him that I would need a piano because without one, without some way to play music, nobody would know what I was talking about. If I say that Brahms’s Second Symphony opens with a minor third in the horn, people might think “what the heck is a minor third?! Is it a third that didn’t quite grow up yet? What is it?” If I sing it, people kind of get the idea. But if I play it, and then put it in context and play it again, then they can start to get an idea of what I’m talking about. For someone who isn’t trained in music, they’ve just absorbed a tool to help them understand more music.
What is your favorite show that you have done so far?
My favorite show is the one that I’m most absorbed in at the moment. I think we’ve done 200-300 of these 5 hour weeks so I can’t really remember. From the beginning when I spoke with Steve Robinson, I told him I wanted one week a month to be a 5-part musical biography of a composer, because in 5 hours we can really get inside what makes a composer tick. So I like the composer shows a lot.
We often get blizzards of emails and have found so many ideas in those that have turned into radio shows. I’m so grateful for people writing in and suggesting themes. Thank you! Keep them coming!
How do you decide how much you’ll explain about a piece of music?
For me, it always starts and ends with the music. I’ve been doing this for a really long time. When I was 18 years old, I had a high school band in Philadelphia. I was put in front of them and they couldn’t sing or play and I couldn’t conduct very well. But, I was put in front of this bunch of high school kids, and I was barely older than they were, and we would give concerts in school. We would play in front of their classmates, who were kind of a tough audience to play for because they were a little cynical and sullen sometimes, and I would try to break them up a little by trying to relate directly to the music. I would ask them what they heard or I would make goofy jokes about the music. But, the point is that it starts with something I hear in the music and that’s almost always true in Exploring Music.