To Symphony, or Not to Symphony?
Hello world! My name is Thomas, I am a musician, and I have always been astounded that there seems to be such a prevailing prejudice against classical music, even though most of the people who hold such prejudice have never really listened to it. I aim to introduce some of you to this wonderful world where imagination is boundless and emotions are overwhelming. No matter what your taste, you are bound to find something you like. In fact, all popular music has its roots in classical music. It is the classics of any good art (be it paintings, literature, or music) that serve as the greatest inspiration for the majority of the inspired. So if you have some time to kill, or if you're stressed with school and need to listen to something while you do your homework, or are simply curious what this new world has to offer, join me for a really quick tour!
Before I send you off to YouTube to find some music, there's an important statement that must be made. There are many different eras of classical music, just as there are popular music. Each has its own distinct feel and defining characteristics. Some may appeal to you more than others. I plan to create future journal entries describing in greater detail each of the various eras of classical music, but for now I will just give an introduction to the three main eras - the ones that really started it all.
Baroque Period: 1600-1750
The first era that really made an impact on the world and started defining what music would eventually become was the Baroque Period
. It's compositions are generally contrapuntal
, meaning there's usually more than one melody line playing at the same time, and they work together to create the harmony. Composing like this is tedious and comes with a lot of rules, but knowledge of them is not necessary to get something out of the piece - but it can help you follow the different lines. I will not be covering boring things like rules because that's what music theory classes and/or lessons are for (I'm half kidding; I personally enjoy learning about it, so it's not necessarily boring).
You might already know some music from the Baroque era, and have probably heard of one or two of its greatest composers. A lot of hymns originated here, championed by Johann Sebastian Bach
. He also wrote a lot of works for various groups of instruments (the modern orchestra hadn't been invented yet), such as the first Brandenburg Concerto
. Interesting story about his six Brandenburg concertos:
They were never performed during his lifetime, and were first found in 1849. His second Suite for Orchestra is pretty great too, and there's some really fancy flutework in the Badinerie
. Also, I'm almost sure you have heard the Hallelujah Chorus
from George Frideric Handel's
Messiah. It is customary to stand while this piece is being performed (you don't have to now, but it has an interesting history you could read about). And I'm pretty sure everyone in the world has heard Antonio Vivaldi's
Spring concerto for violin - at least the first movement. Why not give the whole of his Four Seasons
a go too?
Baroque music tends to be quite embellished, meaning the composer would usually write melody lines, and then the performers would add little flourishes as they kind of improvised on the melody. It is also very emotional and expressive, but unlike some later music, a Baroque piece typically focuses on a single emotion throughout its length.
Classical Period: 1730-1820
To be perfectly honest, the Classical Era
is the one that I'm least familiar with... I know, I know. I'm ashamed. This was a time when music was primarily written for royalty, so some of it sounds quite regal. Another large source of music commissions was background music for parties. Things like serenades originated for that purpose - one of the most famous is probably Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Classical classical music (as some members of the classical world like to call music from this era) is relatively straightforward. Structurally, there's a lot more homophony - meaning, unlike the Baroque Era and its counterpoint, music from this era used melodies with accompanimental patterns. Granted, there's more than just that, but that was one of the huge shifts that the Classical Era ushered in. For any of you who like any of the multitude of popular genres of music, you owe a lot to the Classical Era for that reason. In addition, the Classical Era shifted its focus from the religious side of things to the secular. It is also relatively symmetrical; even though it introduced the concept of developing a theme, which became fundamental to the concept of sonata form,
these developmental sections were generally quite short to keep everything lined up nicely. Even the melodies were symmetrical to some degree - sometimes the composer would take sections and flip them upside down, play them backwards, or even do both at the same time!
Music from this era is largely diatonic,
meaning that it has a definite key, and generally didn't stray outside it - though some might consider modulation the exception. Modulation is when the composer shifts the key to a related key, so from C Major to G Major (modulating to the dominant), or for a darker feel, C Major to A Minor (modulating to the relative minor). Even though it modulated from one key to another, it's still diatonic because now all the chords that are used still come from that key. However, the farther you go into the Classical Era, the more composers like Mozart, Haydn, and eventually Beethoven would push the boundaries of diatonic and pull notes and chords from other keys, called chromaticism,
a concept that the later Romantics would take to a whole new level.
You've heard of Mozart. He's pretty much the definition of Classical Era music, but he's not the only important one from the era. Unfortunately, he's the only one I've had a chance to listen to much. He's written pretty much anything you can imagine - chamber music, songs, symphonies, concertos, and opera, to name a few. My favorite of his concertos (that I've heard so far) is his Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor.
A great symphony is No. 40 in G Minor
- one of only two symphonies he wrote in a minor key.
Another important composer from the era is Joseph Haydn, affectionately known by the classical music community as "Papa Haydn," because he invented both the symphony and the string quartet, two important sub-genres of both orchestral and chamber music, respectively. Other forms of chamber music would include the divertimento - quite like a serenade, the divertimento is often light-spirited and meant to be played outdoors at social functions. I quite enjoy this one in C Major
by Haydn. Another great piece he wrote is the Farewell Symphony
Romantic Period: 1815-1910
The Romantic Era is by far my favorite period of classical music. This is when music ceased to exist for its own sake, and really started to mean something. Romantic music is characterized by two main things: emotion and nature. You'll find pieces that are rich with emotions so complex that you can't define them. There's pieces that are so simplistically beautiful they make you cry. And there's a number of works that were inspired by and invoke scenes of nature.
Technically speaking, Romantic composers started to veer away from the Classical tradition of keeping themes and pieces symmetrical. They really brought the developmental sections to their full potential. By doing so, they had a tendency to make those sections quite long. This is also the era that threw the rules of the previous two to the wayside in favor of ingenuity. That's not to say that they didn't still follow rules, though...
As cliche as it may be, you can't write about the Romantic Era without mentioning Ludwig van Beethoven
. Some say he's the one who ushered in the period. True or not, he was instrumental in its development. Beethoven had a tragic life for a musician - he started to go deaf. Knowing this, he started to weave his tumultuous emotions into his music, and eventually, when he finally couldn't hear anything, he still composed, knowing in his head what it should sound like. Also, Beethoven was important in developing the concept that every piece should say something unique, which differed from the previous eras that all sounded alike. Each of his nine symphonies focused on a different idea - but that's much too complex to describe in an introduction.
Instead, I'll just point out the most obvious. Da-da-da-DAAAAA! That's right, every person recognizes this one, even if they don't know what it is. Beethoven's Fifth
! In the first movement, Beethoven takes a short melodic and rhythmic idea (three eighth notes followed by a half note) and develops it farther than anyone would imagine. How many times can you hear it throughout the piece?
For those of you interested in chamber music, my favorites so far of Beethoven's include his Romance Cantabile
and Piano Sonata No. 3
Hmm... Classical music pays homage to the three B's. We've covered two of them already: J.S. Bach and L.v. Beethoven. Do you know the third? Johannes Brahms
This article is still in development. Stay tuned for the finished version and future editions!