Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Return of Classical Wednesdays II

The Classical Era

When we first talked about the Classical era, I admitted that it's hard to offer listening recommendations outside of the works of Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven. Partially this is because these composers were all mad prolific and titans of human artistic achievement. They had plenty of contemporaries, of course, but from the perspective of a couple hundred years, anybody else working at the same times as them fades into relative insignificance.

Those three guys were also terrifically influential, both on their peers in the contemporary European music scene and on pretty much every musician who has lived since. Because of this, I think a sense has emerged of "why listen to Mozart's more obscure peers, when you could just listen to Mozart?" (The same syndrome occurs in other fields as well; one thinks of poor John Fletcher, forever in the shadow now of his somewhat better-known peer Christopher Marlowe. Oh, or William Shakespeare.) Add to this that the Classical style imposed an explicit model of how pieces should be structured and fairly tight norms of melodic and harmonic development, and you get an era of music that is frankly a bit formulaic. The very best of Mozart's contemporaries tend to sound more or less like Mozart. The others often sound like bad Mozart.

Listening Suggestions

Peter Joseph von Lindpainter's Bassoon Concerto, for instance, is an absolutely charming piece of Classical concert music. From its grand, sunny opening on, it maintains an upbeat and expansive mood. Like the best Classical era music, it innovates enough to fend off boredom, yet always keeps you comfortably within a cozy musical framework. If you have ears, you will like this piece.

But: I DEFY you to distinguish it from the music of Mozart. Unless you have made Mozart (or, less likely, Lindpainter) the object of your life's work, I bet you would not be able to tell that this is not Mozart. Yes: Lindpainter was, at least this once, THAT good. On the other hand, he might not have wanted to be remembered as "the guy who was so good that his best work could pass for Mozart."

Mauro Giuliani's Guitar Concerto, on the other hand, has a little more distance between it and the Vienese masters. Presumably an Italian -- not too much of a stretch, with that name -- Giuliani writes warm, lyric melodics that (whether or not they actually were) feel like they were borrowed directly from Medditeranian folk songs. This might not have seemed particularly sophisticated at the time, as it was still some decades before the cool kids would go out to mine their national folk traditions for musical ideas. It does, however, make Giuliani's concerto a distinctive and very enjoyable piece, definitely constructed within the Classical tradition but not enslaved to it.

You're not going to mistake Thomas Arne's Symphonies for Mozart, either. Arne, one of the rare species of British composers, is for one thing a few decades earlier than Mozart, coming during the transitional period from the Baroque to the Classical period. You can still hear a bit of Baroque in his Symphonies, most obviously in that he's still got the basso continuo harpsichord rattling around down there. More importantly, Arne has nothing like the melodic gift of Mozart. His strength is weaving together rhythms and maintaining forward momentum; the pleasure you're going to get from his music is more from its energy and bustle than any particular charm or elegance.

Clocking in at between 8 1/2 and 14 minutes, by the way, Arne's symphonies are a good example of what the form looked like before the Vienese big shots -- particularly Beethoven -- got their hands on it. In Arne, just when you're thinking that the big introduction is over, and the orchestra is about to settle in and play the main theme? That's when the movement is over. That intro was the whole deal.

Poor Carl Maria von Weber. Not only was he named "Carl Maria," which had to have been very confusing during adolescence, but he is also arguably the fourth most famous composer of the Classical Era. This is a tough gig, analogous to being the Fourth tenor, the Fifth horseman of the apocalypse, or the eighth Magnificent cowboy. Weber is a late Classical composer, and you hear quite a bit of Beethoven in him, but to my ear he never takes the plunge into full-blown Romanticism. So, like in early Beethoven, you've got music that still follows the Classical party line, but is infused with more drama and thunder then you get in anything but the very last works of Mozart and Haydn. I like his Piano Concertos and his Clarinet Concerto.

Happy listening!


Wednesday Weigh-In

+2 to 213, 3 lbs over plan
however, feeling good about development of new eating habits.

Diet Cola: Mission Accomplished. Will not post further updates for time being.


Jennifer said...

Yay, Fletcher!

(This is probably not the response most people would anticipate given that your subject was classical music, but you probably did. I have to admit that on the first reading there was a certain "blah blah blah Ginger"* effect going on for me.)

*referring to the Far Side cartoon http://www.ghostinthemachine.net/ginger.jpg

Michael5000 said...

I'm not afraid to pander.

Kritkrat said...

Is it wrong that I play in an orchestra and still can't tell you the names of more than five composers? I can, however, recall at least 50 of my favorite Far Side cartoons...

Chance said...

This is how I feel, in general, about 95% of modern singer-songwriters. Why would I listen to them, when Bob Dylan wrote their songs better, and sang them with a thousand times more feeling?