Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Classical Wednesday IV: The Classical Era

One of the many confusions of classical music lingo is the distinction between classical music and, you know, Classical music. Specifically Classical music (that is, music composed in the style of the Classical era) is only a subset of classical music in the broader sense (in other words, music composed for the orchestra and other instrumental art music in the Western tradition). With me? Judging from the average orchestra’s programming, the average classical radio station, the average listener’s collection, I would say that at a very, very rough approximation, about 25% of classical music is Classical music.

That 25% is a huge proportion, though, when you realize that the Classical era is thoroughly dominated by just two and a half massively important composers: Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. There are plenty of other very capable Classical era composers, mind you, but it’s a long drop from the household names of Mozart and Haydn to, say, Hummel, Boccherini, Gluck, and Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach. And, considering the long shadow it casts over all subsequent music, the era didn’t really last all that long. It kicked off in the mid 1700s, and the scene was pretty much dead by 1820.

The Classical Sound

Remember how the Baroque style featured a lot of “polyphony” or “counterpoint” – independent melodies that bopped along at the same time? Well, the first thing to know about the Classical style is that counterpoint is largely swept under the rug. What you get instead, to a great extent, is melodic lines played over chords. The chords aren’t just single sustained notes, of course – there’s always some rhythm and variation going on down there – but this is definitely a style where there is a main melody and an accompaniment. Relative to the Baroque, this style can be described as cleaner and more elegant. Or, as dumbed-down. It all depends on who you ask.

The other important thing is that in the classical era, music becomes very structured. The best way to get a feel for this would be to pick any random selection of symphonies and concerti by Mozart. They will all sound different from each other, but the odds are very, very high that they will all start with a succession of four phrases. The first phrase will establish a catchy run of notes, the second phrase with repeat it with a twist, the third phrase will move a little away from the original idea, and the fourth phrase will sidle right back to it again in a way that gives a satisfying sense of completion. It’s hard to describe this pattern any more specifically without getting all music-theory on you, but you’ll definitely see what I’m talking about when you look for it.

On a larger scale, the classical era introduced the idea of Sonata form. Sonata form is a kind of musical blueprint, a set of rules for constructing a movement of music. Taken to its extreme, sonata form would dictate almost everything that happened in a piece after the composer wrote down the first theme – how that theme would be repeated, altered, and expanded; when a related second theme would be introduced and how it would be monkeyed with, and how and when you would have changes in key. Key changes are kind of a fetish in classical music, and composers of this era were big on going through a proscribed set of key changes over the course of a movement before returning to the one they started with. This return to the original key is always described as “triumphant” in the liner notes.

All of this structure might seem a little bit wooden and off-putting, and indeed there are people who see it that way. Some people claim to find Mozart a bit sing-songish, and although I don’t agree at all, I can tell why they think so. Hip jazz cats, in particular, like to complain that Classicism put Western music in a straightjacket and that real music was only rediscovered much later by, I don’t know, Duke Ellington or somebody. But the truth is, as soon as you had the scaffolding of sonata form, any composer with any talent at all was already subverting it, messing with the rules in order to surprise and, duh, entertain their audience. So, Classical music is not nearly as mechanical as its critics complain it is.

The Classical Orchestra

By the Classical era, most of the modern musical instruments were in place. You had good clarinets, so recorders drop unlamented out of the mix. The harpsichord is replaced in the parlor by the far more diverse piano (via the intermediate “pianoforte”), and is supplanted in the orchestra by the far deeper, fuller, more window-rattling double basses. Improvements in the complicated valve structures of wind and brass instruments improve their functionality, as well.

This allows Classical composers to do some things that Baroque composers couldn’t, or at least didn’t, do. They are going to put a LOT more emphasis on dynamics, continually contrasting loud and quiet bits and making generous use of crescendos and decrescendos. They are going to put a much greater emphasis on instrumental texture and contrast of textures, since they have a broader palette of sounds to work with and because they need to make sure that the melody line is distinct from the accompaniment. And, as an extension of the expanded use of dynamics and instrumental “color,” you’ll also see composers starting to change the mood of a piece within a single movement. In the case of Beethoven, you’ll often see the mood changing literally every few seconds.

Still, the orchestra used by these guys is relatively small. If you ever go to a concert with, say, Mahler and Haydn on the program, you will notice that more than half the orchestra leaves at intermission. It’s not that they’re slacking. It’s just that a “full orchestra” in Haydn’s time employed only a fraction of the staff of a modern outfit.

Listening List: Conventional Choices

Mozart, Concertos: Mozart wrote five violin concerti and twenty-some piano concerti, but it is the handful for French horn, for clarinet, and for bassoon that are my favorite. They are not his most serious or sophisticated pieces, but they make excellent illustration of all the above concepts about the Classical era. In fact, they make an excellent introduction to classical music in general. They are unchallenging, they show off the expressive possibilities of cool instruments (I think Nichim will agree with me on this point), and their formal Classical structure gives them an immediate familiarity – as they move along, you always have a intuitive sense of where you are in the flow of the piece. Also, they are among the most charming little gems ever written. If you do not like them, you are probably dead.

[Right: Mozart]

Mozart, Symphony #40: For more sophisticated Mozart, you can turn to either of his last two symphonies, the 41st – the “Jupiter” – or the 40th, which sadly does not have a cool nickname. I have always liked the latter for its minor-key melancholy; it has a darkness and emotional depth that I find both pleasingly wistful and comforting. And when I say “I have always liked” it, I mean that I listed in as my “favorite song” on a handout at the beginning of 7th Grade English, not realizing that this intel would shortly be made public to the entire class. As you might imagine, I had a bit of a rocky ride through dear old Hometown5000 Junior High School. Eh, Mozart had a rough childhood too.

Haydn, Symphonies #94 (“Surprise”) & 104 (“London”): Since Becky made the unintentionally malicious suggestion that I blog “104 days of Haydn” a while back, I’ve been listening to a lot of his more obscure early symphonies. My report from the field: They’re all good! It’s crazy. The dude wrote a TON of music. The most famous ones are from late in his career, at which point he was an international celebrity fielding competing offers to spend a year or two in this city or that city, writing some symphonies for the local band. They are also the ones that have the most dynamic contrast and dramatic content, as old Papa Haydn was flexible enough to be absorbing ideas from Mozart and Beethoven and the other hepcats of the younger generation. These two symphonies are the most famous, and if you’ve been around classical music at all in your life they will sound immediately familiar and likeable. A warning about Haydn, though, and perhaps the Classical era as a whole: I’ve never met a Haydn piece I didn’t like. But, I’ve never met a Haydn piece that I really, really, really loved, either. It’s all good, but it is rarely sublime.

Listening List: Off the Beaten Path

Haydn, Symphony #82 (“The Bear”): One of the middling-famous Haydn Symphonies. It’s called “The Bear” for a big, goofy, loveable “dancing bear” theme in the final movement. It’s pure bubblegum, really, but pretty charming for all that.

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, anything really:
If you love Mozart, you’ll like Ditters von Dittersdorf. Plus, you’ll cherish the times when someone asks you what you are listening to. “Oh, just some Ditters von Dittersdorf,” you’ll say, nonchalantly.

[Right: Ditters von Dittersdorf]

Boccarini, Guitar Quintets:
Buoyant, elegant, energetic, this is great chamber music for Sunday morning chores. One of the last pieces to put a guitar with a string quartet, a common Baroque arrangement that pretty much died out in the Classical Era. Plus, there’s one movement that has castanets. How cool is that?

Benda, Symphonies:
A solid early-Classical composer, Benda is one who cleaves pretty tightly to the sonata-form party line. He doesn’t have Haydn’s consummate elegance, Mozart’s pure sonic brilliance, or Beethoven’s dramatic genius, but he makes reliably pleasant music. Whenever I have decided to listen to his work, I like to tell Mrs.5000 that I am “going on a Benda.” I’ll understand if you don’t want to join me in that, though.


Becky said...


listening: Haydn Symphony #88. This one needs a nickname too. I bet it feel inadequate when it hangs with all the other symphonies...

Elizabeth said...

"You had good clarinets, so recorders drop unlamented out of the mix."


As a recorder player, I deeply resent that remark. Reed instruments have nothing on the purity of tone and essential angelic quality of good recorder music. In my opinion.

Of course, that could be because I never learned to play a reed instrument successfully, because the buzzy-lip syndrome always made me laugh, which is a disadvantage when playing a wind instrument.

Nichim said...

Maybe a better way to think of it is that recorder players were then saved from the indignity of having their gorgeous sound attacked from all sides by braying horns and screeching strings. An exclusive focus on recorder ensembles and choirs, with the occasional harp or harpsichord in the background, is hardly a bad thing.

Rex Parker said...

No matter how many times I hear the recorder, even at its most professional level, I can't help but wish I were listening to an actual instrument.

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto is rock 'n' roll fun. I'm gonna listen to it now. Keep up the Classical exposition, home boy.


Rex Parker said...

Man, I meant Clarinet Quintet. Ugh. I suck at things.


Michael5000 said...

@Rex: Details, details. If you just applied a Sleater-Kinney reference while discussing Mozart, and I think you did, please move directly to the head of the class.