“Moonlight Sonata” (1941) Glenn Miller / (1971) Enoch Light

“Moonlight Sonata”

Composed by Ludwig von Beethoven; arranged by Bill Finegan.

Recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra for RCA Bluebird on November 24,1941 in New York.

Glenn Miller, first trombone; directing: R.D. McMickle, first trumpet; Rubin “Zeke” Zarchy, John Best, and Billy May, trumpets; Paul Tanner, Jimmy Priddy and Frankie D’Annolfo, trombones; Lloyd “Skip” Martin, first alto saxophone; Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophone and clarinet; Al Klink and Gordon “Tex” Beneke, tenor saxophones; Ernesto “Ernie” Caceres, baritone saxophone; John Chalmers “Chummy” MacGregor, piano; Bobby Hackett, guitar; Doc Goldberg, bass; Maurice “Moe” Purtill, drums.

The story:

Don’t get me wrong, I have no beef with Beethoven, or Mozart or Bach. Their permanent place in the world of music was assured long before I was born. But as someone who listens to a lot of so-called “classical” music, I find that for whatever reasons, my tastes run more in the direction of composers who lived and worked after 1850. That does not mean that a lot of sublimely beautiful music was not composed before 1850, because it most certainly was. Musically speaking, we all have our likes and dislikes. (Above right: Beethoven, looking grim.)

This leads us to the inevitable question of: why does a given person like, or dislike, a given piece of music? (I will save the discussion of what music is (or what is music) for another day.) As this question applies to me, I can say that as a person who came to music over the last half of the Twentieth Century and the early decades of the Twenty-first Century (it is an ongoing process), I have had my tastes shaped by what I was able to listen to at various points during that span of time. Indeed, my tastes are continuing to be shaped by what I am listening to now. In the 1960s and 1970s, I had heard very little European concert music. My first real exposure to it came while I was in college. I was fortunate to have a professor then who was an absolutely lovely person who related beautifully with her students. Her passion and enthusiasm for music and for teaching music was boundless. She never burdened her students with her personal musical likes and dislikes. As far as I could tell, she loved all music, at least all European concert music. The music of Vivaldi and Bach was presented with the same analysis and joy as the music of Stravinsky and Bartok. That salutary experience whetted my appetite for more music. Slowly, I began to acquire recordings of music I thought I might like. It was a hit and miss process. I liked some of those recordings; others were listened to a couple of times, and then set aside. I began to listen to the local FM radio station that played European concert music.

When I went to law school, I found myself in a cultural desert. Nevertheless, a few oases existed there. To briefly escape the drudgery of learning about contracts, torts and civil procedure, I would go to the music building, and talk with students who were there. They spent a lot of time practicing, and on occasion, I would be allowed to listen. I noticed that much of the music they played was the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). When I asked one of the students about this, he said that Bach’s music was ideal for developing a musical foundation. As he grinned, he said “they don’t call him the father of Western music for nothing.” Nevertheless, that experience caused the idea to take root in my mind that much of Bach’s keyboard music sounds like musical exercises, especially the pieces that call for faster tempi. Nevertheless, Bach’s composition “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” among many others, is music of great beauty. (Above left: the interior of the concert hall portion of Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. I have learned a lot in that space, and have had fun doing it.)

I got on a Mozart kick a bit later. I acquired an enormous amount of Mozart’s music, and listened to it. As I did this, I began to realize that because of the limits that existed in the musical world of Mozart (his music was all written between 1764 and 1791), there is often a harmonic, rhythmic and especially formal sameness in his music, no matter how brilliantly or cleverly it was written. Also, we know that Mozart was sometimes impelled to create music quickly under less than ideal circumstances. Although haste is never apparent in Mozart’s music, varying degrees of inspiration are apparent. But Mozart was a man, a human being, and like all human beings, he had his good, better and best days. Mozart taught me that not all of his music, indeed, not all of any musician’s music, is a masterpiece. Nevertheless, many masterworks are to be found among Mozart’s compositions.

That brings us to Beethoven (1770-1827). In addition to composing much great, timeless music, Beethoven moved western music forward in many significant ways. Much has been made of his role bridging the “classical” period music of Mozart and Haydn with the “romantic” period music that was written by many notable composers after Beethoven’s death and through much of the Nineteenth Century. But I think his greatest contribution to the development of Western music was his setting aside of many traditional musical rules, and being guided in the composition of his music by his own highly developed aesthetic orientation. Many of Beethoven’s later works use little or no traditional musical form and seem to evolve in almost a stream of consciousness manner. This development later found its most revolutionary expression in the music of Claude Debussy in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

But how do we answer the question: why does a given person like, or dislike, a given piece of music?  I will offer some theories that lead to an answer to this question, and then a startlingly simple answer. First, it is abundantly clear to me that not all people have a musical sense, and among those who do have such a sense, the amount of it any given person may have varies widely. This musical sense has nothing to do with intelligence or with cultivation in other areas. I know many people who are very intelligent and who have developed themselves greatly in non-musical areas, including areas that are generally considered artistic, who have little or no musical sense. The inverse of this is equally true, and leads directly to my second theory, that if a person has a musical sense, it is usually apparent at an early age. Most great musicians gravitated to learning about music and first performing it as children. How people who have a musical sense develop themselves musically also varies widely, and leads to situations that are perplexing. I know many accomplished jazz musicians, for example, who seemingly have little or no interest in European concert music, and several musicians who play European concert music brilliantly who have little or no interest in jazz.

Now, my final theory, which is borrowed from Debussy. As I mentioned above, Debussy was a musical revolutionary. He learned, employed and mastered all of the traditional musical practices, procedures and ideas. Then he systematically rejected most of them, and became himself musically. Once, when discussing his ideas about music with a colleague, he explained why he wanted to go in a new musical direction. He dissected many of the traditional  fundamentals of music, which he challenged, and finally said: “You just have to listen. Pleasure is the rule.” (1) That is my answer to the question.

The music:

The Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, marked quasi una fantasia, Opus 27, No.2 by Beethoven is timeless and beautiful music. It was completed in 1801 and dedicated in 1802 to his pupil Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. The popular name “Moonlight Sonata” was applied to the work by a critic after Beethoven’s death, and it stuck. This piece is one of Beethoven’s most popular compositions for piano, and it was a favorite of audiences even in his own day. Beethoven wrote the “Moonlight Sonata” when he was just past thirty years old. There is no evidence that he was commissioned to write it.(2)

Glenn Miller’s involvement with “Moonlight Sonata” came about as a part of his series of swing versions of classical themes that included the beautiful melody of Dvorak’s Largo from his “Symphony No. 9 – From the New World”; Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from his opera Il Trovatore; and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor, Op. 23, among others. Also, its title had a tie-in with the title of Miller’s theme song, “Moonlight Serenade,” and that appealed to Miller the master marketer. The Tchaikovsky and Beethoven compositions in their original forms were works that were built around virtuoso level piano playing. Glenn’s arranger Bill Finegan was tasked with making arrangements on them for the Miller band. His chart on the Tchaikovsky theme minimized the role of solo piano, and spotlighted the virtuosity of the Miller band.

At some point, the decision was made, undoubtedly by Miller himself, to have Finegan weave his arrangement on “Moonlight Sonata” around the piano playing of Chummy MacGregor. Here is how Chummy recalled that assignment: “‘Moonlight Sonata’ gave me fits! That was really a tough one. Bill Finegan made a beautiful arrangement, and naturally it had a lot of piano in it and all in tough keys ..B and E pretty much throughout. A couple of days before the (recording) date, Glenn gave me the Paderwski Red Seal record of it and said, ‘try, as nearly as possible, to give it the same interpretation as he did.’ So I listened to that at home one whole Sunday afternoon. All OK. What I didn’t expect however was to come on the recording date the next morning to find it written in those murderous keys. Between takes of other tunes however, I practiced the thing like mad and somehow managed to get through it. But I aged twenty years in the process, and even the fat bonus I received didn’t offset the strain of the ordeal.” (3)

MacGregor was not a virtuoso pianist. Among the hundreds of recordings made by the Glenn Miller civilian band, he rarely took a solo. But he was Miller’s friend, and he had been very supportive of and loyal to Miller before and after the Miller band achieved great success. MacGregor was a trusted confidante who handled many non-musical details for Miller. And as anyone who knows anything about Glenn Miller knows, he was loyal to his friends. (Above left: Glenn Miller; at right: Chummy MacGregor and Miller’s band manager Don Haynes working the door at the Cafe’ Rouge.)(4)

The recording the Miller band made of Bill Finegan’s superb arrangement of “Moonlight Sonata” is notable for several reasons. First, MacGregor’s piano solo: although it is not a perfect rendering, it is surely acceptable, and less stiff than his ensemble playing often was. In addition, we hear what a tremendous band Glenn Miller was leading at the end of 1941. Every aspect of their playing is excellent. Listen for example to the long phrases the famous reed section plays (without taking a breath) in the first chorus. Finegan’s inspired use of the open trombones as a warming sonority at the bottom of the music behind the initial piano solo is highly rewarding, as is  Doc Goldberg’s arco (bowed) bass.

Finegan’s deployment of various groups of instruments as the ensemble swells is masterful. Unfortunately, Victor’s engineers buried Tex Beneke’s tenor saxophone solo as it emerged from the mass of instruments under MacGregor’s piano, which is doing nothing special at that point. We finally hear Tex playing warmly backed by the other reeds, with the signature Miller sound, Willie Schwartz’s clarinet and Al Klink’s tenor saxophone, at first playing in unison, then receding into a warm mix of five reeds. There follows a very musical round-robin with the open trombones, the reeds and the Harmon-muted trumpets, which gives way to another swelling of sound, with some contrary motion – some reeds going down, brass up, now with mutes removed – and a return of MacGregor’s piano as the ensemble falls away. (Above left: Chummy MacGregor.)

With MacGregor’s simple piano lines on top, Finegan gradually layers the sounds behind him: first Schwartz and Klink, then another clarinet, then the brooding open, low  trombones, then the stepwise straight muted trumpets and Willie Schwartz’s fluttering clarinet. After this, MacGregor plays chords in a sotto voce dialog with the softly played reeds, then in a double-time polyphony with the reeds and the unison guitar and bass. (Above right: the Miller band in the autumn of 1941: Note guitarist Bobby Hackett and bassist Doc Goldberg huddled around the microphone. I suspect they were playing one of the guitar-bass unisons devised for them by Bill Finegan.)

This arrangement is a wonderful example of the great musical talent of the 24 year old Bill Finegan. Despite Finegan’s occasional rebellious behavior while he was employed by Glenn Miller (1939-1942), and Miller’s sometime sarcastic manner of dealing with that, they were able to transcend their differences and make marvelous music together.

“Moonlight Sonata”

Composed by Ludwig von Beethoven; arranged by Bill Finegan.

Recorded by Enoch Light and the Light Brigade for Project One Records in New York in early 1971.

Enoch Light, directing: Bernie Glow (Bernard Glotzer), first trumpet; Lyle F. “Rusty” Dedrick, Mel Davis and Marvin Stamm, trumpets; Urbie Green, Robert Louis “Lou” McGarity, and Buddy Morrow (Muni Zudekoff), tenor trombones; Paul Faulise, bass trombone; Walt Levinsky, first alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Phil Bodner, B-flat clarinet; Al Klink and Abraham “Boomie” Richman, tenor saxophones; Romeo Penque, baritone saxophone; Dick Hyman, piano; Tony Mottola, guitar; George Duvivier, bass; Bob Rosengarden, drums.

The story: Violinist Enoch Henry Light (1907-1978) was a well-trained musician who formed his first band in the late 1920s while he was a student at Johns-Hopkins University in Baltimore. He took that band on tours of Europe in 1928 and 1929, and also studied classical conducting at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria and at Opera Comique in Paris. When he returned to the U.S. he led various hotel-style dance bands through the 1930s and into the 1940s, centering his work in Manhattan, appearing on radio often from Hotel Taft. An auto collision which occurred in the mid-1940s caused him to be seriously injured, and interrupted his career.

After that, he became increasingly involved in the production of recorded music, and in utilizing and the various technical advances in recorded sound that were being developed from the late 1940s through the mid 1960s. Light is credited with being one of the first musicians to go to extreme lengths to create high-quality recordings that took full advantage of the technical capabilities of home audio equipment of the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly stereophonic effects that bounced the sounds between the right and left channels (often described as “ping-pong recording”), which had huge influence on the concept of multi-track recording that would become commonplace in the recording industry in ensuing years. Light founded Command Records in 1959, and operated that business successfully for several years

The first long-playing record he produced on the Command label, Persuasive Percussion, was a novelty in its dramatic use of stereophonic sound, and became one of the first big-hit LP discs based solely on retail sales. This recording received little or no radio airplay because AM radio, which was the standard of the day, was monaural (mono) and had relatively poor fidelity. Light went on to release several albums in the Persuasive Percussion series, as well as a Command Test Record. These recordings were popular among audiophiles who were purchasing ever more sophisticated audio playback equipment, and experimenting with high-fidelity stereophonic sound.

During this time, Light pioneered many recording techniques such as the use of 35 millimeter magnetic film instead of magnetic tape to reduce wow and flutter. The film was driven by sprockets rather than rubber pinch wheels.

In 1965, Light sold Command Records to ABC Records, which then was then purchased by MCA Records. In 1966, he formed Project 3 Records and began recording various kinds of popular music, including a substantial series of recreations of classic swing era performances in excellent high-fidelity stereophonic sound. To make these recordings, he used a cadre of the top Manhattan studio musicians who were alumni of swing era bands.(5)

The music: It is fascinating to compare and contrast the recordings of Bill Finegan’s great arrangement of “Moonlight Sonata” made by Glenn Miller in 1941 with Enoch Light’s, made in 1971. The advances in sound recording are immediately apparent. But the interpretation of the music by the two conductors and the two orchestras is also intriguing. Miller’s performance, which runs 3:37, seems to be slightly rushed, undoubtedly because Miller was mindful that he had to fit all of Beethoven’s and Finegan’s beautiful music into an approximately 3:43 time limit so it would fit on one side of a ten-inch Bluebird 78 rpm record. Light’s performance, which runs 3:58, is more languid. Tempo, as always in music, is an important determinant of the character of the performance.

The piano solos in the Light performance were played by Dick Hyman, a true virtuoso on the instrument. In addition to his great technical proficiency at the keyboard, Hyman plays his solos with impeccable phrasing and touch. (Above left: Dick Hyman at the keyboard.) The tenor saxophone solos in the Light performance were played by Al Klink, who had actually played on the Miller recording in 1941. But on the Miller recording, Klink was kept busy playing the various lead parts together with clarinetist Willie Schwatrz, while Tex Beneke played the solo parts beautifully. Klink’s solos here are perfection. I think that he overdubbed them, because I hear his very strong lead in the Miller-sound reed passages, played with his colleague from the Tonight Show orchestra, clarinetist Walt Levinsky. However, knowing Klink’s skill-level, which was incredibly high, he could have played both the ensemble passages and the solos in the same performance. (Above right: tenor saxophone master Al Klink.)

This performance is a great example of how vital music in the swing idiom is, and how that music will always be attractive to musicians who play at a high level.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Debussy …A Painter in Sound, by Stephen Walsh (2018) 69.

(2) The basic information about the creation of “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven comes from the Wikipedia post on that subject.

(3) I have in my library a copy of MacGregor’s unpublished manuscript, wherein he discusses many aspects of his involvement with Glenn Miller’s civilian band (courtesy of Miller expert Rob Ronzello). He discussed his preparation for and recording of “Moonlight Sonata” on page 122.

(4) I am puzzled by MacGregor’s presence in this picture. Why, I wonder, would he be working the door at the Cafe’ Rouge? Can anyone imagine Jess Stacy working the door at the Madhattan Room for Benny Goodman, or Sweets Edison doing it at the Famous Door for Basie?

(5) Much of the information about Enoch Light’s career came from the Wikipedia post on him.

Related Post

1 Comment

  1. Like many Glenn Miller fans I have read George Simon’s biography of Miller. Chummy MacGregor’s musical skills seems to not to have been viewed very highly by his fellow bandmates. I’ve listened to a lot of Miller recordings over the years. I may not have the best set of musical ears but I don’t hear any basic problems with Chummy’s playing. He is not Basie. He is not Jess Stacy. He is not Earl Hines. He is no Mel Powell. He doesn’t contribute to the recordings like Duke Ellington did with all those great piano fills. Perhaps he was to Miller what Harry Goodman was to Benny.
    Here he is playing a chorus of boogie woogie on what I think is a live performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83uvUNIz6RM

    Chummy lived on in the bebop era as the composer of “Moondreams” which was recorded by Miles Davis and the “Birth of the Cool” band

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.