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 Post subject: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 07, 2018 2:48 pm 
Sanno
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I know, I know. My previous attempt to do an intro to classical music was insanely long and pedantically detailed and nobody really cared and it never got anywhere.

The general intent, however, remains: perhaps people might listen to more great music if "classical music" weren't a colossal creature sprawling over 400 years filled with dozens of names that mean nothing to most people, and into which there are few easy entry points.

So this time, I've skipped ahead. What I intend to do here is just tell people about classical composers. What I'm going to do is organise composers into a rough hierachy of tiers, starting with the best and most essential, and working down into examples of less significant composers, with, accordingly fewer and fewer words as you go down the list. The idea is that people can get a sense of who the significant figures are, their relative level of significance, and what sort of music they wrote. If anybody's interested, they can then investigate in more detail on their own time.

So to start with, I'm going to talk about the Trinity. These are, by far, the most important composers, with large oeuvres of masterpieces spanning many genres, so I'm going to do a detailed post on each one of the three. After these, the word count will reduce exponentially with each 'tier'. I'll hopefully do at least four tiers, but after that I may just list some names.

Anyway, if this is of any interest to anyone, please do say, since otherwise I may just get bored and abandon it (again). Also, if anyone has any comment - on the posts or the music - or questions, please do contribute!

Now, to start:

------------

Tier 1: The Holy Trinity
There is no consensus on the identity of the greatest ever composer. However, in any list of, say, four or five of the greatest composers, from any vaguely reputable observer, three names will almost universally appear, fixed in the firmament for a century and a half or more, as their rivals have gradually fallen by the wayside with the fluctuations of fashion: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Classical music fans, in discussing these three, frequently stray into an almost (or even explicitly) religious vocabulary: they are not merely heroes, but demigods of supernatural ability. The idea of the three as a divine trinity is strengthened by the differences between them: they seem not only to represent the highest achievable human excellence, but to represent three different visions of the nature of excellence. As SF author Douglas Adams famously put it: “Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human; Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven; Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe.”

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 07, 2018 4:51 pm 
Smeric
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Salmoneus wrote:
I know, I know. My previous attempt to do an intro to classical music was insanely long and pedantically detailed and nobody really cared and it never got anywhere.

I don't think so - not only was it pretty good, but you also completed it!


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 07, 2018 7:06 pm 
Sumerul
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I really liked the previous classical music series, and I'm happy to see new content.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 07, 2018 7:17 pm 
Sanno
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Raphael wrote:
Salmoneus wrote:
I know, I know. My previous attempt to do an intro to classical music was insanely long and pedantically detailed and nobody really cared and it never got anywhere.

I don't think so - not only was it pretty good, but you also completed it!


Well, I completed the bit that was meant to just be a quick intro to the actual thing...

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 07, 2018 7:21 pm 
Sanno
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Johann Sebastian Bach
1685-1750 (Middle to Late Baroque)
From: Eisenach

The Man: Bach was born into an old family of musicians (and himself had 20 children, 4 of whom became famous composers themselves), isolated from much of the ‘modern’ world in rural Thuringia. He was not unusually talented as a child, and was primarily taught by his brother, who had in turn been taught by local composer Johann Pachelbel. However, Bach possessed intense curiosity and iron discipline – an obsessive student of music and a relentless perfectionist. On one occasion he irritated his employer by going absent without leave for four months: he’d decided he needed to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ, but due to the distances involved (and his lack of funds) that meant Bach had to walk 300 miles through Germany in the dead of winter, and 300 miles back, which made it impossible for him to show up to work. Bach worked throughout Germany, both for secular potentates (where he often organised chamber ensembles to entertain the wealthy) and for churches (where he played the organ and organised the choir). A deeply religious man, Bach’s longest and best-known employment was as the musical director at a church in Leipzig. In his lifetime, his reputation was primarily as a first-rate organ player, and in the later years of his life his music gained some respect for its technical value in musical education. Later composers, such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, studied Bach intensely later in their careers, but it was not until Mendelsohn in the early 19th century that Bach’s genius as a composer was generally recognised by the general public. Bach lived to an old age (for his time), before going blind, and dying (probably) from the complications of experimental eye surgery.


Style: Bach’s style was built upon his appreciation for older composers, and is essentially conservative for his era: most characteristic is his delight in polyphony, the characteristic style of the Renaissance. The union of old polyphony (multiple independent but related melodies) with new harmony (music driven by harmonic progressions supporting a single melodic line) is known as counterpoint, and Bach is the undisputed master of counterpoint. For the listener, this can yield intensely complicated musical textures, but without sacrificing the understandability of harmony: each note falls into its alloted place as though the composer is solving a sudoku. Incomprehensible chaos is made coherent and pleasant. But Bach was also experimental, leading the way in developing complex and unexpected harmonic progressions and modulations, and extended chords that today we associate much more closely with jazz. At the same time, Bach had a clear ear for melody, which is why some of his tunes are among the most famous melodies of modern Western culture – yet even there, it is notable how strange, prolonged and asymmetrical many of his melodies really are, in contrast to the far simpler patterns of later (Classical and popular) music.

The result is a musical style that is almost timeless: it has never captivated an era, yet it remains continually fascinating to new generations. More than any other composer, Bach’s music, conceptual and somehow abstract (sometimes not even written for specified instruments) has inspired listeners across cultures, generations and traditions, and has been heard in many variations and adaptations, from cautious experimentation with instruments, tempo and dynamics through to wholesale translations into other idioms. This, for example combines lines and phrases from various Bach pieces (most famously the Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 (itself most famous in late-19th century adaptation as ‘Air on the G String’)) to become one of the best-selling pop songs of all time, while this adaptation of the Prelude in F minor from the 2nd book of the Well-Tempered Clavier made it into the top 10 of the pop charts in the UK a decade ago. And here, have a pretty faithful jazz version of the Air on the G String. While works like this ‘Bach Suite’ from jazz legend Oscar Peterson are not direct reworkings of Bach, but are more broadly inspired by his style. That Bach has been reworked in this way so frequently, and almost without comment (even the most academic musical expert seems to have no problem with translating his harpsichord works to the piano, for instance, or orchestrating his choral music) reflects not only his enduring and widespread popularity, but also the purity of his writing: compared to most composers, less of the impact of his music comes from such secondary features such as timbre, tempo and dynamics, and more from the note relationships themselves, so that it is much easier to translate Bach without losing his spirit than it would be with, say, Beethoven.


Easy Listening: Bach’s most accessible music comes from his generally-cheery instrumental suites, and from his singable chorales and chorale-style sacred works. Most famous among the former are the Brandenburg Concertos, more complicated cousins of the popular works of Vivaldi or Handel; but the most popular single movement is the Air from the Orchestral Suite No.3. Plucking another piece at random (and one characteristic of Bach is that you pretty much can find genius at random), the Largo from the Keyboard Concerto in F Minor is a rather pleasant example of his popular style. Among the chorales, two famous examples (often heard in purely instrumental arrangements) are Zion hört die Wächter singen (from his chorale, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”, and known simply as ‘Sleepers awake’ in English) and, most of all, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring; Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe is, to pick another random piece, another appealing semi-famous example. Even several of Bach’s less immediately accessible works have become iconic: perhaps the best example is the best-known of his many organ works, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.


Masterworks: Well, almost everything Bach wrote is a masterpiece. But I think that if the world were allowed only one thing by Bach, it would be the “The Work of Works” (according to Schumann): the Well-Tempered Clavier. This is a pair of books, composed decades apart, each comprising 24 preludes (free-form short pieces) and fugues (contrapuntal exercises), one in each of the major and minor keys. It begins with the best-known, Prelude No. 1 in C Major, which in some ways encapsulates Bach’s musical sensibilities (if not his intellectual skills). It’s so simplistic as to be primitive – there is no tune, it’s just arpeggiated chords, little more than a warm-up exercise (and indeed it’s very easy to play). But even in this extreme simplicity, Bach is able to use his mastery of harmonic progression (and fondness for a driving rhythm) to produce music of surprising interest and (in the second half) genuine emotional impact (it’s also great fun to play). And because the music is so simple, it encourages every performer to play it just slightly differently. To pick a few more bits at random: Fugue No. 2, No.10 (perhaps my favourite!); 17; 20; 22; or, from WTC2, 12(mentioned above), 8, 4, 24, and so on.

Alternatively, where the WTC is a personal work – relatively austere little miniatures for solo performer – the Mass in B Minor is a monumental work for the public, acclaimed by some as the greatest musical work of all time. In the last few years of his life, Bach appears to have decided to fill out an earlier mass setting (probably never performed) into a complete missa tota (a musical setting of the entire Ordinary), largely by compiling and heavily editing what he considered his ‘greatest hits’ of church music into a coherent whole. The result is virtually a guided tour not only of Bach’s own capabilities (the 27 movements being drawn, in their inspirations, from over three decades of his output), but of the diverse virtues of the previous two centuries of European musical styles, in addition to being, as often is the case with Bach, rich with symbolism. The pieces range from the renaissance polyphony of, say, the Credo (a seven-part fugue), through to the contemporary intimacy of Empfindsamkeit in the Benedictus (a duet for voice and flute), to the ecstatic grandeur of the Sanctus, to the uneasy (and, liturgically, perhaps unexpected) sorrow of Et incarnatus est (probably the last major thing Bach wrote). Fans of the Mass may want to listen any of his other masses, or his St Matthew’s and St John’s Passions (Easter oratorios). This, for example, is a song from the St Matthew’s Passion.

But Bach was also a master of more accessible instrumental music, in which he combined formal excellence and restraint with an ear for melody. Perhaps nothing better exemplifies this than his sublime Concerto for Two Violins, and particularly its gorgeous second movement.



Recondite works
: It’s hard to direct anyone to anything specific in Bach’s less-heard repertoire, simply because that repertoire is so vast (he was both prolific and long-lived), and so almost uniformly good.

One area he particularly made his mark was in unaccompanied, technical music suites for instrumentalists – this tends to be an austere, serene music, but one that has always attracted virtuoso performers, who relish the opportunity to put something of themselves into the works.
For the ‘cello, we have the Cello Suites, most famously beginning with the Prelude, from Suite No. 1, which has somehow (despite being from an obscure genre and lacking a tune) has become one of the most famous classical works today (since I prefer Bach in the minor, and since the suites are mostly dance music, here’s the Menuets from the 2nd Suite as well).
Equally renowned among fans are the Violin Sonatas and Partitas – most acclaimed is the final-movement Ciaconna from the 2nd Partita, a series of variations upon a simple theme in which, as Brahms put it, Bach squeezes onto one stave, for one small instrument, “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings”; it’s considered by many to be the ultimate violin piece, and has been called “one of the greatest achievements of any man in history”; in purely technical terms, Bach manages to explore many different emotions, while still somehow engaging in multi-voice counterpoint. It’s also insanely difficult, despite not being a fast piece – this version (‘lighter’ and faster than most, and on a weaker instrument, to be be more in keeping with the sound of Bach’s own era) helpfully shows the original score, and yes, the violinist is meant to regularly play two, three or even four notes at once. [For those who find the violin too piercing an instrument, here’s an interesting version arranged for nine saxophones instead, giving it a softer feel.

Meanwhile, back on the keyboard, here’s a less iconic but still intriguing piece for the keyboard: Partita No. 6 for keyboard.

Two of the better-known but not exactly populist works of Bach’s career come from late in his life, and are contrapuntal collections. The ‘Musical Offering’ was his gift to the King of Prussia, who invited him for a party and challenged him to improvise on the spot a fugue on a tune the King had written. This was his attempt... but, not satisfied, Bach returned home, and later posted back the full ‘Musical Offering’: that 3-part ricercar, ten canons (several presented only in the form of cryptic riddles for the reader to deduce themselves), a trio sonata, and a 6-part ricercar (littered with encoded Biblical references) all based upon the King’s small theme. It’s of particular historical interest as perhaps the first known piece composed specifically for the piano (the King had just bought one and wanted to show it off to Bach), but it’s often played in other transcriptions, like this version of the larger ricercar for orchestra.

Something similar happens with the Musical Offering’s big brother, ‘The Art of Fugue’. Again a compilation of fugues and canons based upon a single melody, the Art of Fugue is scored with one stave per voice and no indications as to performance instruments, tempo or dynamics, leading later performers to feel even freer than usual to orchestrate and interpret the music however they feel. In general, the compilation is particularly austere, even by the standards of Bach, and can be seen as in effect a practical textbook for the composition of counterpoint. This, for example, is the 8th contrapunctus (fugue), performed by a string quartet (an ensemble invented shortly after the composition of the work). Here, alternatively is a version of the work for saxophone quartet. Here is the first contrapunctus played on a guitar. The best-known part of the work is the 14th contrapunctus, played here by the legendary Glenn Gould (yes, he does hum tunelessly to himself throughout his performances in a highly annoying fashion; it’s His Thing). It’s notable particularly because of how it ends – or doesn’t. Shortly after Bach introduces a new theme – B.A.C.H. (‘H’ being the old German name for B-natural, with ‘B’ indicating B-flat) – the music abruptly... stop. According to his son, having written his name into his greatest work, he promptly died. Research suggests that’s not quite true – more likely, facing impending death, the old man set his academic exercises aside to write a few pieces of religious music. Nonetheless, the unique, fatal finality with which the music drops dead without warning has had a sombre and strange effect on fans ever since.

Bach’s back-catalogue is simply immense. There are over 1,100 surviving Bach works catalogued, and it seems likely that in some genres, particularly his secular music for solo instruments and small ensembles, the surviving works are only a fraction of his original output (it seems as though only the works of his final residence in Leipzig have survived mostly intact, with most of his earlier works lost probably during his own lifetime or shortly after). Listening to Bach could be a life-long project. For instance, let’s take a completely random, little-known piece from deep in his back-catalogue, the 3rd Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, which I have literally never heard before and just plucked from a list this moment. Here’s a version of the second movement – tender, melancholy, melodious but somewhat strange, a piece that doesn’t necessarily immediately hit you, but which provides many intriguing minutes of listening, and that personally I’m finding growing on me as I listen. Although I think that when it comes to the vibrant first movement, I’m preferring this version – it has overtones of the Brandenburgs, but it’s lively and busy and it’s own thing and really very pleasant. [yes, both these versions happen to have been modernised for viola and piano, a much easier pair of instruments to find and play].

I then tried picking another random piece, the Prelude in C-Minor for Lautenwerk BWV 999, only to realise that I’ve actually been playing that on keyboard for years without realising it was originally a piece for Lautenwerk.People tend not to realise that anything was originally a piece for lautenwerk. In playing the lautenwerk, the first steps are: first, find out what the lautenwerk is; and then build a lautenwerk. Anyway, that prelude is, despite its simplicity, great fun to play, but let’s skip somewhere else on that CD to something I really don’t know: the third movement of the C Minor Suite for Lautenwerk, BWV 997. Without exaggeration, this is a piece that most classical music fans – most Bach fans – have never heard of (it doesn’t even have a wikipedia entry!), for an instrument that most classical music fans have never known existed... and it’s pretty good, isn’t it? I mean, the lautenwerk is obviously a divisive sound, and it’s just a little courtly dance, but it’s still pretty interesting. (If you can’t cope with the... interesting... timbre of the lautenwerk, here’s a version played on guitar. Guitarists often steal Bach’s lautenwerk music. Lautenwerkists can’t really retaliate because... well, I’m guessing there aren’t that many of them, and they’re probably kind of weird. )

(speaking of guitarists and Bach, just for a bit of variety, here’s Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli with Eddie South recording a Bach concerto in 1937... to be fair, a lot of Baroque music was originally played with considerable ‘inégalité’ and improvisation.)

However, let’s end with something more immediately appealing, and marginally better known: the sicilienne from the Sonata for Flute and Hapsichord BWV 1031.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Wed Jan 10, 2018 12:13 am 
Smeric
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Just coming out of lurking to say that this is very interesting stuff. Thanks a lot!

I've always had an interest in classical music as it's something that so many people derive so much joy from, but I always found it to be quite an inaccessible world, not being raised in a musical family. Now that I'm learning piano (mostly improvisation on chords though, no classical music or note-reading) and getting some background in musical theory, this is even more interesting. I'll be following this thread.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Wed Jan 10, 2018 8:45 am 
Sanno
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Junes wrote:
Just coming out of lurking to say that this is very interesting stuff. Thanks a lot!

I've always had an interest in classical music as it's something that so many people derive so much joy from, but I always found it to be quite an inaccessible world, not being raised in a musical family. Now that I'm learning piano (mostly improvisation on chords though, no classical music or note-reading) and getting some background in musical theory, this is even more interesting. I'll be following this thread.


If you don't mind me asking, what do you find inaccessible about it? Is it the music itself, or the sheer scale of the repertoire, or something to do with the culture? Or the terminology?

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Wed Jan 10, 2018 6:37 pm 
Smeric
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Salmoneus wrote:
If you don't mind me asking, what do you find inaccessible about it? Is it the music itself, or the sheer scale of the repertoire, or something to do with the culture? Or the terminology?


It's mostly the music itself, though I'm also a bit intimidated by the culture, which sometimes comes across to me as "you have to like this, otherwise you are an uncultured barbarian".

I think classical music is sometimes inaccessible to me because of the length of the many of the pieces (I simply don't have the patience), the lack of 'hooks' and refrains and the complex melodies. Basically, it's years of listening to pop music that make me expect short pieces and easy, catchy melodies. I have the same for some more free form jazz. It's probably just lack of exposure and getting used to. Generally, I find that orchestral works are the most difficult for me, because they are kind of a blur to my untrained ear. I like piano and vocal pieces.

I do love some of those pieces by Bach, e.g., the Toccata and fugue in D minor, some of the parts of the Matthew and John passions, e.g. Herr, unser Herscher, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, Buss und Reu, Erbarme dich, the Goldberg variations (though it's been a while since I listened to them). As for other composers, I generally like what I know of Beethoven (not much, greatest hits such as the Moonlight Sonata and the opening of the fifth) and Chopin and don't know much of the rest.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Thu Jan 11, 2018 5:46 pm 
Sanno
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Junes wrote:
I think classical music is sometimes inaccessible to me because of the length of the many of the pieces (I simply don't have the patience)

That's very fair. [conversely, I find pop music irritating because as soon as I start to like a song, it ends, and either I have to start the process all over again, or else I have to repeat the song, in which case why not just have it be longer to begin with. Pop music seems to require much more concentration than classical music - blink and you'll miss it!]

I think it's very useful, particularly with things like symphonies, to have classical music on in the background while reading (or whatever else you do that doesn't require your ears). That way, you can ingest the music without getting bored. This works better with some music than other music, of course (some things are too attention-seeking to make good background music). I tend to find that if I listen to something in the background first, I find it much more interesting and accessible when I hear it again.

That said, I think people can overestimate the length of classical pieces. There are a lot of short classical works, and the longest ones (ballets, operas, masses) are actually more like albums of short pieces. Even the big, cohesive works - symphonies, concertos, sonatas - are usually broken into movements, which generally run only 5-15 minutes depending on era and genre. Which is longer than most pop songs, but in the same area as quite a few popular pop music songs (songs like Inna-gadda-da-vida, Bohemian Rhapsody or American Pie are longer than most symphonic movements).

But yeah, maybe Mahler isn't for beginners.
Quote:
, the lack of 'hooks' and refrains and the complex melodies.

This is something I see the other way. One reason I find it hard to get into pop music is the lack of, as you say, 'hooks', and recognisable, hummable tunes. Indeed, I've been thinking recently that pop music seems to be becoming more and more like mediaeval chant - more reliant on flat, reciting contours, rather than on tunes. For this reason, a lot of the pop music I do like is the sort that still has catchy ostinato bass patterns ('riffs'?), which are very Baroque in feel.
Quote:

Basically, it's years of listening to pop music that make me expect short pieces and easy, catchy melodies. I have the same for some more free form jazz. It's probably just lack of exposure and getting used to. Generally, I find that orchestral works are the most difficult for me, because they are kind of a blur to my untrained ear. I like piano and vocal pieces.

Interesting! I tend to think of vocal music as being less accessible, compared to the richer timbres of the orchestra - and because I assume that the differences in style between amplified and unamplified singing would outweight the common presence of the voice. Maybe I'm wrong, then!
Quote:
I do love some of those pieces by Bach, e.g., the Toccata and fugue in D minor, some of the parts of the Matthew and John passions, e.g. Herr, unser Herscher, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, Buss und Reu, Erbarme dich, the Goldberg variations (though it's been a while since I listened to them).

Great! I think Bach both is and isn't good for newcomers - isn't, because a lot of his music is dry and... uncatchy... but is, because he does tend to have a lot of short pieces with recognisable "riffs".
Quote:
As for other composers, I generally like what I know of Beethoven (not much, greatest hits such as the Moonlight Sonata and the opening of the fifth) and Chopin and don't know much of the rest.


Then I hope I will be able to suggest some new areas of research for you!


[update: will do a post on Mozart shortly. Then it might be a while while I do Beethoven. After that, it should get a bit quicker.]

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Fri Jan 12, 2018 4:20 am 
Smeric
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Salmoneus wrote:
Interesting! I tend to think of vocal music as being less accessible, compared to the richer timbres of the orchestra - and because I assume that the differences in style between amplified and unamplified singing would outweight the common presence of the voice. Maybe I'm wrong, then!


Classical styles of singing do take a bit of getting used to if you're used to popular music, but it's something I've come to appreciate over the years. The vocal pieces often have clear, recognizable melodies. It helps that the St. Matthew's Passion is a Big Thing here around Easter, so it's hard to escape it if you travel in at least somewhat cultured circles.

Another piece I really love is Dido's Lament by Purcell, especially this interpretation by Simone Kermes. It's quite possibly the most beautiful song I know.

Salmoneus wrote:
Then I hope I will be able to suggest some new areas of research for you!


Great!


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Fri Jan 12, 2018 10:25 am 
Lebom
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Salmoneus wrote:
I know, I know. My previous attempt to do an intro to classical music was insanely long and pedantically detailed and nobody really cared

Hey, I cared. I enjoyed it very much, and learned a lot. I also didn't have the time to listen to all of your links, so I didn't comment on it. But it was very instructive.

Salmoneus wrote:
Pop music seems to require much more concentration than classical music - blink and you'll miss it!

Funny, the common stereotype goes in the exactly opposite direction. As does your impression on "hooks". Apparently our ears just aren't wired the same way.

Salmoneus wrote:
Indeed, I've been thinking recently that pop music seems to be becoming more and more like mediaeval chant - more reliant on flat, reciting contours, rather than on tunes.

Are you talking about post-2000 pop music? I tend to take it as a sign that pop music is getting worse and worse because people these days can't write a good melody anymore... but here I'm sounding like an old codger again.

Salmoneus wrote:
If you don't mind me asking, what do you find inaccessible about it? Is it the music itself, or the sheer scale of the repertoire, or something to do with the culture? Or the terminology?

I'm speaking only for myself here. There are external, cultural factors that make the music harder to approach. And there are more personal factors.

External reasons
  • I find that most people who write about classical music (thankfully, not you) do it in a very technical or even snobbish way. Most reviews I've read mention very technical stuff such as modulations, counterpoint, etc. Things I have absolutely no clue about. It's hard not to get the impression that "if you haven't studied this stuff at a music academy, there's no point in listening to classical music". By comparison, in rock and pop music, many reviewers have no technical training and focus more on general terms, or on emotions.
  • Why can't composers come up with actual names for their pieces? I don't care if the name Moonlight Sonata was invented after Beethoven's death: it's catchier than Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor Op 27 or whatever. Otherwise, I can't remember which piece is which.
  • As you mentioned, the repertoire is huge, with few obvious entry points. Rock critics talk all the time about the "greatest albums ever", about which is the best album by so-and-so: it makes it easy to find what to try first. Most classical writers seem to think everything is equally valuable, and anyway you already know all of Mozart's sonatas and operas, don't you? (I know it's an uncharitable impression, but it's the one I get from afar.)
  • Even with a particular piece, the choice is huge. Say, you want to try Mozart's Little Night Music. A critic will tell you that this version is flat and boring, while that one is soulful and passionate. But you can find neither on YouTube, iTunes or your local record store. So what should you do? Track the good one you've heard about? Or just listen to any random version you can find? Things are easier with rock and pop: if someone says you should listen to the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, there's only one Sticky Fingers around, and any decent record store has it. (OK, maybe there's the regular CD and the Deluxe one with tons of bonus tracks. In this case, just don't listen to the bonus tracks.)

Personal reasons
  • What I've said about technique also applies when I listen to a track. I mean, I genuinely enjoy Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The main themes are just genius. But even then, I tend to get lost after a point. The same themes pop up again with slight variations... but what do these variations mean? I'm sure that ol' Ludwig put a lot of thought into them, and I'm sure the pianist is really invested too. A specialist can say "hey, here he's making a counter-modulation in the Myxomatosian scale! genius!", and he'll probably be right. But, without technical knowledge, I'm not really sure what's happening here. I end up getting confused, or even bored, until the next movement comes.
  • Even worse: when I listen to a piece of classical music, most of the time, I have no clue about what I'm supposed to feel. Like, is it supposed to be sad? Should I be elated? Awed? Moved? Excited? I don't know. Should I just admire this on a purely intellectual level? But I can't, because I don't know the rules of the game. In most cases, I may find a piece pretty, but it fails to trigger any emotion.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Fri Jan 12, 2018 12:15 pm 
Smeric
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This discussion feels a bit weird for me as someone who likes and enjoys both classical (or, more generally, orchestral) music and stuff from modern genres - although there isn't really anything, in either music or the world in general, into which I'm so much that I could call myself a fan without looking like a poser to real fans. My approach to music, and art in general, is basically "I don't know art, but I know what I like."

For the record, I usually find it a bit difficult to listen to music and do something else at the same time. Either I focus entirely on the music, so that I can't really do anything else, or I focus so much on something else that I don't really notice the music.

Oh, and by the way, I think fans of modern genres can sometimes be as snotty as the snottiest classical music fans. A few times, I made the mistake of answering "rock" when people asked me what music I like. They then usually proceeded to ask me about my rock fan credentials, which (as you've probably guessed if you've read the first paragraph of this post) I don't have.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Fri Jan 12, 2018 4:16 pm 
Smeric
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Ryusenshi wrote:
Even with a particular piece, the choice is huge. Say, you want to try Mozart's Little Night Music. A critic will tell you that this version is flat and boring, while that one is soulful and passionate. But you can find neither on YouTube, iTunes or your local record store. So what should you do? Track the good one you've heard about? Or just listen to any random version you can find? Things are easier with rock and pop: if someone says you should listen to the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, there's only one Sticky Fingers around, and any decent record store has it. (OK, maybe there's the regular CD and the Deluxe one with tons of bonus tracks. In this case, just don't listen to the bonus tracks.)


This is indeed quite a barrier for beginners. For example, I quite liked the Siciliano piece with the flute that Salmoneus posted. But I was unable to find it on Spotify (though I could find tons of variations, different performers, different arrangements with other instruments). People that know classical music tell me that Spotify is shit for classical music anyway, because of its inconsistent way of listing composers, performers, versions, etc. Which is a pity because I consume 99% of my music via Spotify.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Fri Jan 12, 2018 8:28 pm 
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Quote:
I find that most people who write about classical music (thankfully, not you) do it in a very technical or even snobbish way. Most reviews I've read mention very technical stuff such as modulations, counterpoint, etc. Things I have absolutely no clue about. It's hard not to get the impression that "if you haven't studied this stuff at a music academy, there's no point in listening to classical music". By comparison, in rock and pop music, many reviewers have no technical training and focus more on general terms, or on emotions.


I think you may be looking at analysis, rather than reviews. You can get analysis of any genre (yes, even pop music), but of course most fans don't follow any of it.

FWIW, though:
modulation - when a piece of music that begins in one key moves into a different key for a while - that is, it starts using notes that aren't in the original key (so, for example, a II chord is impossible normally, but can be stolen from the dominant key; if you use lots of II chord resolving to V chords for part of your tune, you've modulated into the dominant for a bit). This is common in classical music, but also in a lot of pop music, particularly in classic rock and roll, where the performers would have grown up with classical. The Beatles, The Who, The Beach Boys, etc all use modulation intensively. Common approaches in pop music are the modulation upward in the final chorus, and the modulation into a contrastive bridge section. Modulation can be done very subtly, so it's hard to notice, or it can stick out like a sore thumb. A really striking example would be My Generation, which sustains its edgy, tense tone by markedly modulating upward several times, and never really resolving it. Actually, You Really Got Me is even more striking, as it's basically just the same tune repeated in different keys[/url].

Modulations build tension, make resolutions more powerful, and allow for variation (otherwise you're stuck with only ever using seven chords, only three of which you'll actually use all that much). Modulating between major and minor can also have a big effect on the mood of a piece. In classical music, though, they're more important: a lot of music is basically built upon shifting from the tonic to the dominant and then (eventually) back. More generally, modulations provide richness and unpredictability, drawing out resolutions and allowing more complicated emotions than just BOO! and YAY!.

Of course, if you modulate enough, quickly enough, you can lose track of where your 'home' key was meant to be in the first place. This becomes A Thing in a lot of music from the early 20th century, both classical and jazz, though Bach joked around with it a few times.

Counterpoint: when you create harmony by giving all your instruments a tune to play (often the same tune starting at different times), rather than having them just play chords. This was big in the Baroque, but also used in exceptional circumstances by later composers - it tends to be found at climaxes, as it overstimulates the listener creating stress - it often resolves into more straightforward music for the conclusion. Good counterpoint is notoriously hard: it needs good harmony, good melody, AND the ability to slot them together, which requires either a lot of trial and error or a brilliant mind. Here is an example, with score, of Mozart doing it for an entire piece (it's more common for people like Mozart and Beethoven to just do it for brief passages) - the whole piece is made out of two different melodies interweaving, extended and complemented by other melodic material that's largely derived from them - until everybody comes together for the final line.
Quote:
Why can't composers come up with actual names for their pieces? I don't care if the name Moonlight Sonata was invented after Beethoven's death: it's catchier than Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor Op 27 or whatever. Otherwise, I can't remember which piece is which.

Op. 27 no 2, actually! There are two sonatas in that opus, both subtitled 'quasi una fantasia'.
Historically, this is because this was an abstract and largely ephemeral art form - people would go see Mozart play his latest concerto, but without recording and with few being able to play from a score at home, it wasn't really important to know which was which, unless you were a major fan or a professional, in which case you remembered. Even things like opus numbers and piece numbers weren't widely used at first. As an analogy: say you want to buy a coat from a noted designer. Fine, you go and ask for their latest coat, or whatever. But the coat is probably not "named" something like "the impression of beams of moonlight upon the waves upon Lake Lucerne" or the like. It's just so-and-so's latest design. If you're really into them, you might call it the such-and-such jacket from so-and-so's 2017 Fall Collection (like it being the A-minor prelude from the opus such-and-such).

But these days, yes, I agree, this is an unfortunate obstacle. That's why the Victorians went around naming everything - but of course, 'everything' is much bigger than they could get around to...

Quote:
As you mentioned, the repertoire is huge, with few obvious entry points. Rock critics talk all the time about the "greatest albums ever", about which is the best album by so-and-so: it makes it easy to find what to try first. Most classical writers seem to think everything is equally valuable, and anyway you already know all of Mozart's sonatas and operas, don't you? (I know it's an uncharitable impression, but it's the one I get from afar.)

Oh, classical writers know that things aren't equally valuable! Although sometimes it goes without saying: if there's a CD of Mozart and Salieri, and the liner notes say how surprisingly good the Salieri is, it goes without saying they don't mean to suggest it's the equal of Mozart (unless they're being REALLY provocative).

I'm surprised you don't think there are entry points, though. There are a lot of classical greatest hits compilations out there, and there are general-listening classical radio stations, with pop charts. ClassicFM, for instance, has its annual, voted-by-listeners "Hall of Fame" - it's not what an academic would list, but it's an intro to the most popular pieces. From there you could move on to greatest hits albums for composers you liked. Then you could find one of the many 'build a classical library', 'essential classical repertoire' etc lists. And go from there.

I think it's much harder to get into pop music. There's pop charts, but that's just what's popular now - and historical charts are what was popular then, but how do you find what's popular now among things that were written then? Without delving deep into critical magazines, I mean. And in classical - well, a Bach fan may not love Wagner, but they've heard of Wagner, at least, and can name some of Wagner's most notable pieces. It seems that pop music is much more siloed.

Quote:
Even with a particular piece, the choice is huge. Say, you want to try Mozart's Little Night Music. A critic will tell you that this version is flat and boring, while that one is soulful and passionate. But you can find neither on YouTube, iTunes or your local record store. So what should you do? Track the good one you've heard about? Or just listen to any random version you can find? Things are easier with rock and pop: if someone says you should listen to the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, there's only one Sticky Fingers around, and any decent record store has it. (OK, maybe there's the regular CD and the Deluxe one with tons of bonus tracks. In this case, just don't listen to the bonus tracks.)

Just ignore all that. Sure, if you really like a piece, it can be fun finding a version you like the most. But for the most part, it doesn't really matter. Indeed, many of the 'best' recordings are so old that their recording quality is so bad (thin sounds, vinyl static) that I'd rather listen to an ordinary modern version. You will occasionally find a version where they've done something weird, but not normally. The casual listener won't be able to tell the difference on a first listening (it's not like it's filled with improvisation!)
[ok, concerti can have improvised 'cadenza' sections, but the point still stands]

Two caveats: do be aware that with older, particularly pre-1800, music, there can be a distinct difference between traditional performances and historically-informed performances (i.e. period instruments and smaller ensembles). In particular, old keyboard pieces do sound quite different on the harpsichord vs the piano. Also, be aware that some solo vocal recordings will be in a thundering, Wagnerian vocal style (i.e. pitched to deafen everyone in a three mile radius) even when it's completely inappropriate, so sometimes recordings by the 'best' singers aren't the best recordings.

But in general: it doesn't matter which version you listen to.
Quote:
What I've said about technique also applies when I listen to a track. I mean, I genuinely enjoy Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The main themes are just genius. But even then, I tend to get lost after a point. The same themes pop up again with slight variations... but what do these variations mean? I'm sure that ol' Ludwig put a lot of thought into them, and I'm sure the pianist is really invested too. A specialist can say "hey, here he's making a counter-modulation in the Myxomatosian scale! genius!", and he'll probably be right. But, without technical knowledge, I'm not really sure what's happening here. I end up getting confused, or even bored, until the next movement comes.

I think you have to bear in mind that classical music isn't really very intellectual - it's much more to do with raw emotion. You don't have to analyse "what things mean" or where the modulations are - you don't have to be "confused". You just listen, and feel.

The general framework: start at home, go far away (making audience tense), come home again (making audience relieved).

But if you want to know, basically what happens here is: he introduces the Tune (in the tonic); he uses a bit of the tune modulated to another key to bridge himself over to a more distant key where he plays the Other Tune, and that's the A section; he appears to come back to the Tune, but it's just a little bit, and it breaks off into something inspired by the Other Tune instead - this section works as a sort of liberating escape from what's otherwise a restrictive, claustrophobic movement - and that's the B section; then he's back with the Tune in the Tonic; again he uses a bit of the tune while modulating, but this time he's actually not modulating, he's just teasing, and he stays in the Tonic, where he plays the Other Tune again, and that's the second A section. Then he caps it off with a pretty little coda of broken chords. So, ABA. Or if we want to zoom in: XY'-C-XY, where the ' indicates that the first Y section is not in the tonic - but the second is, because that's the Ending. Between each X and Y there's a little bridge made out of an echo of X, and 'C' is made up of material that echoes X, followed by material that echoes Y. The movement is therefore in between "ternary form" (strict ABA, where B has nothing to do with A) and "sonata form" (where B is much longer and substantially breaks up and recombines elements of A - which this gestures toward but doesn't really bother doing at any length). It's actually a pretty good example of how the Classical era worked, actually. On the structural level, at least!
On the more zoomed-in level, of course, it's far, far more complicated, because, with his arpeggios and his rapid harmonic rhythm, he's actually channelling Bach and the Baroque at the chord-by-chord level. Here is a recording with the score, which someone has helpfully annotated to show the actual chord, and which key we're in and what function each chord has in that key at that point - as you can see, he changes really rapidly, which is actually unusual for Beethoven.

What he does that Bach wouldn't be likely to do, though - aside from the large-scale proto-sonata-form, and aside from the fact he uses simpler but more striking key changes - is that over the arpeggios he puts a melody totally at odds with the arpeggios. The arpeggios suggest stasis and calmness, but Beethoven adds that pained/distressed/angry outcry at the top, with a striking cross-rhythm against the triplet, and that sublacustrine, surging/falling motif underneath in the second melody. The combination gives us the strange emotional world of the movement: constrained yet yearning, calm yet under pressure, and the rapid harmonic progression and the adventurous key modulations add to this sense of, as it were, striving to find an escape that cannot be found (Beethoven was going deaf at the time, and the movement is inspired by a murder scene by Mozart, so his thoughts were probably rather morbid). [In place of escape, the brief dance in the second movement offers an attempt at finding happiness where he is, and then the righteous fury of the third movement attempts to tear everything apart].

As I say, both the harmonic rhythm and the specific modulations are unusual here - the Other Tune is normally "meant" to be in the dominant, but here is in B minor (to the tonic C-sharp minor), which is way out there, which is why he needs such prolonged and striking modulation to get there. It's worth bearing in mind that the sonata is subtitled "quasi una fantasia" - "almost a fantasy" (i.e. a formless, improvised piece), reflecting the somewhat improvised feel and the strangeness of harmony, and indeed overall structure (sonatas are typically fast-slow-fast, with the first movement being the 'heavier' one; the Moonlight is slow-medium-fast, and it's the final movement that's the 'heavy' one in full sonata form). This shows Beethoven's experimental inclinations, but even he would only do this in a sonata (a solo piece with an intimate feel), not in something like a symphony (a big public work). Beethoven is usually much simpler than this.

But none of that really matters.
Quote:
Even worse: when I listen to a piece of classical music, most of the time, I have no clue about what I'm supposed to feel. Like, is it supposed to be sad? Should I be elated? Awed? Moved? Excited? I don't know. Should I just admire this on a purely intellectual level? But I can't, because I don't know the rules of the game. In most cases, I may find a piece pretty, but it fails to trigger any emotion.

This really surprises me - as I say, I think the big thing about classical music is how heart-on-sleeve most of it is (after the Baroque, at least). Of course, the best music doesn't set out to be Sad or Exciting or whatever - it expresses the complicated, conflicted, human, constantly evolving feelings of its maker. [most long pieces are emotional journeys, not emotional snapshots]. Some of the best music makes you want to smile and cry at the same time.

But, you can still usually simplify if you need to. For instance, take Junes' link before: can you really not hear whether this is a 'sad' piece or a 'happy' piece?. The Baroque tends to go in more for these when-its-sad-its-sad-when-its-happy-its-happy black-and-white things; later eras prefered more complicated, conflicting and evolving emotions. But I'm surprised you can't get at least the general gist!

Since i've been writing a post on mozart, here's a juxtaposition. This clip (from 'Amadeus') begins and ends with the 'Rex Tremendae' from the Reqiuem: the dreadful face of the divine king of majesty, without weakness or (perhaps) mercy, grinding the listener down on their knees - the harshness of Mozart toward his wife, and Mozart's own inability to escape the disapproving ghost of his father, the confining, obsessive, pacing thoughts that are driving him to his grave and from which he is desparate to find some temporary distraction... and then we pivot straight into a medly of show tunes* from his popular fantasy-comedy, The Magic Flute - jolly, fun, light-hearted, trivial, but also, the film suggests, unhealthily wired, manic, drunken... and then boom, back to the Requiem, because getting drunk doesn't make his problems go away.

*specifically, Das Klinget (the villains are distracted by the magical glockenspiel), Ein Maedchen oder Weibchen (Papageno wishes for a wife upon his magical glockenspiel), and a snippet from the climax of Papageno/Papagena, which does not directly involve a magical glockenspiel but I'm sure it can't be far away.

Can you hear the emotional difference between the Rex tremendae and the Magic Flute songs? Or, staying with Mozart, here's a piece with a big shift inside it: the Confutatis, also from the Requiem. Compare the opening 'confutatis' section, with its ominous trumpets, heart-attack racing string arpeggios, rapid syncopations, and voices that tread on each other's tails, all in the bass... and then the 'voca me', soft, calm, imploring, resolving into the almost mediaeval 'oro supplex'. Do you not hear the agitation, the fear, in the confutatis ("when the damned are confounded and consigned to fierce flames..."), the echo of the damnation he fears, and then some evocation, albeit passing and tremulous, doubting, weak, of the beatitude ("...number me among the blessed") for which he hopes?





Quote:
I also didn't have the time to listen to all of your links, so I didn't comment on it.

Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to give out homework - the idea wasn't that you had to listen to all of each piece before you could comment. The links were just there for the interested reader, and even if you clicked on them I didn't expect you to listen all the way through to each one!
Quote:
Salmoneus wrote:
Pop music seems to require much more concentration than classical music - blink and you'll miss it!

Funny, the common stereotype goes in the exactly opposite direction. As does your impression on "hooks". Apparently our ears just aren't wired the same way.

Well, objectively speaking, with a longer piece you don't have to concentrate in the same way - it'll still be there when you turn back to it. Whereas if you're not concentrating 100% on a pop song, if you get distracted, it's over by the time you remember you're listening to it!
Quote:
Salmoneus wrote:
Indeed, I've been thinking recently that pop music seems to be becoming more and more like mediaeval chant - more reliant on flat, reciting contours, rather than on tunes.

Are you talking about post-2000 pop music? I tend to take it as a sign that pop music is getting worse and worse because people these days can't write a good melody anymore... but here I'm sounding like an old codger again.
I don't know enough to put a date on it, but yes, recent stuff. Part of it probably is the lack of musical ability (because, imo, people don't grow up with classical music the way the pioneers of pop music did - each generation emulates the last, losing a little in the process). But also I think it's a legitimate stylistic shift, away from common practice traditions and more toward minimalism. Whethere that's the future of music, or just a passing trend, it's too early to say.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sat Jan 13, 2018 8:46 am 
Smeric
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Salmoneus wrote:
Quote:
Even with a particular piece, the choice is huge. Say, you want to try Mozart's Little Night Music. A critic will tell you that this version is flat and boring, while that one is soulful and passionate. But you can find neither on YouTube, iTunes or your local record store. So what should you do? Track the good one you've heard about? Or just listen to any random version you can find? Things are easier with rock and pop: if someone says you should listen to the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, there's only one Sticky Fingers around, and any decent record store has it. (OK, maybe there's the regular CD and the Deluxe one with tons of bonus tracks. In this case, just don't listen to the bonus tracks.)

Just ignore all that. Sure, if you really like a piece, it can be fun finding a version you like the most. But for the most part, it doesn't really matter. Indeed, many of the 'best' recordings are so old that their recording quality is so bad (thin sounds, vinyl static) that I'd rather listen to an ordinary modern version. You will occasionally find a version where they've done something weird, but not normally. The casual listener won't be able to tell the difference on a first listening (it's not like it's filled with improvisation!)
[ok, concerti can have improvised 'cadenza' sections, but the point still stands]

Two caveats: do be aware that with older, particularly pre-1800, music, there can be a distinct difference between traditional performances and historically-informed performances (i.e. period instruments and smaller ensembles). In particular, old keyboard pieces do sound quite different on the harpsichord vs the piano. Also, be aware that some solo vocal recordings will be in a thundering, Wagnerian vocal style (i.e. pitched to deafen everyone in a three mile radius) even when it's completely inappropriate, so sometimes recordings by the 'best' singers aren't the best recordings.

But in general: it doesn't matter which version you listen to.


Another caveat: Sometimes, with more modern recordings, they completely reorchestrate a piece, or use vocals only, or vocals plus minimal instrumentation, on a piece that originally had a rich orchestration. If you don't want a recording like that, you might sometimes have to be careful to avoid it.


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sat Jan 13, 2018 11:52 am 
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Yeah, every time Sal posts on Classical music, my "Watch Later" list on YouTube triples in size. But it's worth it. I really love your explanations! It's much more than I've ever learned in a music class!

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sat Jan 13, 2018 12:30 pm 
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Salmoneus wrote:
I think you may be looking at analysis, rather than reviews. You can get analysis of any genre (yes, even pop music), but of course most fans don't follow any of it.


This may well be so, but is there anyone out there who genuinely does reviews of classical music? As in, I'm going to sit down and give all of Mozart's work how-many-ever stars out of 5, or something like that? That seems like the sort of thing that is Not Done.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sat Jan 13, 2018 1:09 pm 
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BTW as a cellist I'm all for the solo suites, and while I'm like you Sal in usually preferring minor key Bach I've got to admit that I have a soft spot suite 1 and the prelude and gigue of suite 3 (and I can play all those too).

alynnidalar wrote:
Salmoneus wrote:
I think you may be looking at analysis, rather than reviews. You can get analysis of any genre (yes, even pop music), but of course most fans don't follow any of it.


This may well be so, but is there anyone out there who genuinely does reviews of classical music? As in, I'm going to sit down and give all of Mozart's work how-many-ever stars out of 5, or something like that? That seems like the sort of thing that is Not Done.


Not like you describe it. There is however a strong current of reviewing different recordings of works (because these can vary immensely, in the same way a pop song can sound completely different when another artist covers it), and BBC Radio 3 has an entire program devoted to that on Saturday mornings.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 14, 2018 6:41 am 
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I don't listen to classical music because I don't like violins.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 14, 2018 12:32 pm 
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Nortaneous wrote:
I don't listen to classical music because I don't like violins.


Firstly, a lot if not most classical music does not involve violins (I mean in Bach's output the number of pieces with any kind of string parts are in a minority, most of his stuff is keyboard like harpsichord and organ). Secondly, I'm a cellist, and I don't know whether I'm meant to agree with you in not being a fan of violins or to maybe take this as a comment disliking bowed string instruments in general.

All-in-all it's not a sufficient reason to say you don't like classical music just because the stereotypical classical pieces have violins in them.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 14, 2018 12:55 pm 
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Put post in wrong thread.

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 14, 2018 1:19 pm 
Sanno
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To be fair, orchestral music is a big part of classical music, and that would also disqualify string quartets. Which are, admittedly, potentially an aquired taste in terms of timbre. But yes, there's still plenty left, particularly of piano music.

Of course, even with string ensemble, it's still possible to avoid violins! Behold, possibly the most important completely obscure genre in classical music!

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 14, 2018 3:05 pm 
Smeric
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Maybe it's just me, but Nort's post reminds me of a pun where some parents choose not to send their child to some specific concert because it has "too much sax and violins."

(Pun on "sex and violence")


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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 14, 2018 5:29 pm 
Sanno
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J.C. Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
1756-1791 (Classical)
From: Salzburg

The man: Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Theophilus Mozart was the son of a music teacher and minor composer from Augsburg; he and his elder sister, Nannerl, were both musical prodigies. By the time Wolfgang was turned 5, he’d learnt the piano, taught himself the violin, and composed his first few works. When he was six, the famous young performers began their first international tour, playing to sell-out crowds and fascinated royalty across the continent; the four-year tour, during which the young boy amused himself by mapping and describing imaginary countries and their people and histories, was only the beginning of more than a decade of touring. Along the way, he wrote his first symphonies (beginning at the age of 8) and operas (beginning at 12). He was not a particularly serious-minded or studious child, but he did love music, and was aided by a near-perfect aural memory: hearing Allegri’s Miserere at the Vatican, a piece so carefully guarded by the Pope that to sneak out a performance copy was regarded as a heresy, the young boy transcribed the entire quarter-hour, nine-voice work from memory – though he did come back again two days later to double-check some of the trickier passages. However, despite his reputation as a prodigy, none of his real masterpieces were written before the age of about 17.

If he was a somewhat precocious child, Mozart was thoroughly childish man, notorious among his friends for his lack of seriousness. Our window into his character – his surviving letters – shows a man obsessed with scatological obscenities and word games (the former can be seen in such works as K.233/382d, “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber”). In his adult life, having moved to Vienna (cultural capital of Europe at the time), the former child star struggled continually for money. He was a noted pianist, who would improvise half-hour encores, but performing tired him; he attempted to work as a piano teacher, but his pupils mostly irritated him; he attained fame and popularity as a composer, but was best loved in the provinces, and never made much money – not enough to pay for his drinking and his taste in expensive clothes, not to mention his opera-singer wife and their two children. By his mid-thirties, he seems to have stabilised (some have suggested he recovered from long-term depression), and set up some sort of Patreon subscription scheme – instead of relying on one employer, he had a circle of interested rich people each pay a small monthly fee for early access to his works.

Then he died, at the age of 35. It’s hard not to regard this as one of the greatest catastrophes in Western culture. Not only was Mozart only beginning to come into his prime – he composed masterpieces and died at an age when most composers had not yet reached musical maturity, he had recently engaged in a prolonged study of Bach, and several of his greatest works were written shortly before his death – but his death in 1791 almost eerily deprived the world of a meeting with Beethoven, who came to Vienna in 1792. Beethoven and Mozart, both difficult characters, likely would not have collaborated directly, but their coexistence would surely have spurred both to greater heights (Mozart would still have been in his Prime when he heard the Eroica). In any case, Mozart’s untimely death spurred an outpouring of belated national grief, and it is in this immediately posthumous period that both the works, and the legend, of Mozart spread across Europe.



The style: Mozart wrote in, and brought to its most perfect state, the Classical style. In its more primitive expressions (the early Galant), this was a style simple to a fault, in reaction to the excesses of the Baroque: a reliance on only three chords; simple, short, symmetrical melodies that the man on the street could hum at work the next day; a light, frothy, unchallenging quality and a reluctance to venture into minor keys or entertain even the mildest discord; a mania for satisfying climactic cadences. Mozart took that style, and the structural complexities developed by his elder colleague, Haydn, and found ways to express the depths of the human soul. The result is still by default... well, pleasant... with an insoucient jollity that comforts or irritates depending on the listener. Mozart wrote a lot of inconsequential music in that vein. But his greater works are able to juxtapose that jollity with pain – with grief, suffering, sometimes even awe and terror – in a way that transforms the pleasant matrix from frivolity into something approaching a noble resilience - and all accomplished with an air of total effortlessness. His most distinctive, irreplicable mood is found in some of his slow movements, and has variously been described as unrequitable longing, a gentle regret, or resigned forgiveness – a beauty that has led to the composer being regarded as “the Voice of God”. In technical terms, late in his career he increasingly reintroduced Baroque complications – harmonic variety, and understated counterpoint – while experimenting with more chromatic harmonies and more diverse textures of timbre. His greatest talent, and perhaps curse, was his ability to make everything – whether passionate outbursts or intellectual fugues, whether conservative or experimental – sound natural, simple, and easy, which has ever since resulted in his music being underestimated by casual music fans. To his contemporaries, he was a master both of restrained good taste, but also of an unprecedently emotional musical language. To later generations, he became a symbol of divine perfection – “there is nothing perfect in the world,” wrote one Victorian intellectual, “except Mozart”.

Unusually, due to his mercenary nature and poor time-management, much of his work was written in a hurry for a quick buck – though it’s a myth that he never needed to draft, it’s true that he was able to write at breathtaking speed, aided in his piano works by a talent for improvising on the spot. For one of his violin sonatas, for example, composed in about an hour the night before performance, Mozart had to play the entire piano accompaniment off the top of his head, not having had time to write it down. For his great opera, Don Giovanni, Mozart was out drinking with friends the night before opening night when he realised he still hadn’t written an overture: rushing back, he worked through the early hours of the morning, while his wife served him more alcohol and read from The Arabian Nights to keep him awake; the opera was finished at 7am the day of the performance, too late to be practiced, so the overture had to be played from sight on opening night.


Easy Listening: Mozart critics might contend that all Mozart is ‘easy listening’ – certainly, his career was spent proving that even great art could be easy to listen to – and as a result a huge number of his works are well-known to the public, both directly and through their extensive use in film. We might begin with some of his most famous tunes, perhaps the most popular of which the Allegro from Eine kleine Nachtmusik – disposable froth, almost certainly written in a hurry on commission, and yet froth of highest order – once heard, impossible to forget. Similarly, there’s the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Or how about the Horn Concerto No. 4, which concludes with this memorable little Rondo? (or ‘the music from the cassette tape reading of Fantastic Mr Fox’ in my mind...).

Transitioning to a more serious side, we might take in the Adagio from the Serenade No. 10, or the Andantino from the Concerto for Flute and Harp (the only piece of harp music Mozart ever wrote, as he despised the instrument – and the guy who commissioned the piece never even paid up). Or the Romance from the Piano Concerto No. 21. Or the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto (one of his last works)? Or perhaps Sull’aria[/quote], or [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WNvbEUZZXo]Dove sono, from The Marriage of Figaro.

Or, turning to lighthearted, catchy, semi-comic songs, there’s Non piu andrai from the The Marriage of Figaro, or Se vuol ballare, from The Marriage of Figaro. Or Papagena/Papageno or Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from The Magic Flute. A similar light-hearted quality, with some Orientalist spice, can be found in his well-known Meanwhile, also from The Magic Flute, [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpVV9jShEzU]Der Hölle Rache displays a darker, albeit still melodious, side, in addition to being one of opera’s legendarily difficult arias, with sustained flageolet singing. A much quieter and more complex – both progressive and traditional – sound can be found in his late motet for choir, Ave Verum Corpus. But if that work, one of his last, demonstrates his maturity in his final year, there is something just as uniquely Mozartian in his first great work as a teenager, the flamboyantly joyous motet Exsultate, jubilate, of which the opening movement is particularly famous.


Masterworks: It’s difficult to divide Mozart’s “masterworks” from his “easy listening repertoire”, because when he’s at his best he’s usually very easy to listen to. There is also, as with Bach, a problem of volume. Mozart turned out more lazy work than Bach did – though even that tends to be perfectly pleasant – but he was also a prolific composer able to turn his genius to any genre. He is sometimes considered music’s greatest “universal genius” – because not only did he compose in almost genre that existed in his day, but for every genre he composed pieces that are at least arguably the best, or among the best, in that genre.

In opera, I’ve already extensively linked to The Marriage of Figaro, his comic opera that flits effortlessly between humour and emotional power – it’s the rare comic opera that’s actually funny if you find a version in a language you understand; his other comedies – The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni (the aria Là ci darem la mano was the pop hit of its day and the basis of many homages over the following century) and to a lesser extent Così fan tutte (the reputation of which suffered in the Victorian era due to its perceived immorality; most of Mozart’s operas are in some way sexually or politically risque) – are also considered among the pinnacles of opera. [in the period 2012-2016, Figaro, Flute and Giovanni were three of the top ten most performed operas, Flute being #2, with Così fan tutte at #15]. His serious operas were less succesfull, musically and commercially, but three of them (the Die Entführung aus dem Serail, La clemenza di Tito, and Idomeneo) are still in the top 100 most performed operas. Mozart’s many concert arias and motets further establish him as one of the leading singers for the voice.

Similarly, while most of Mozarts symphonies are fluffy little pieces (the best known is the ‘Paris’), he began to draw up to the leve of Haydn with his later ‘Haffner’, ‘Linz’ and ‘Prague’ symphonies, before hitting a peak with his final three symphonies, #39-#41. The most popular is the ‘Great G Minor’, no. 40, unusual at the time for his its darkness (few previous symphonies had ended in a minor key) and its intensity. The best, however, is generally considered to be the magisterial no.41, known as the ‘Jupiter’, for which Mozart combines his genius for melody and balance with extreme technical skill and diverse musical style – most notorious is the final movement, with its five major themes and its multiple fugato sections, culminating in a stunning fugato that incorporates all five themes. A recent poll of conductors saw the Jupiter voted the 3rd greatest symphony of all time (no. 40 was in the top twenty).

In the field of the concerto, Mozart more or less established the importance of the piano concerto as a genre, and concertos no. 20 (dark and stormy) and no. 21 (‘Elvira Madigan’) (light and sunny; amazingly, the two concertos were written in the same month) are among his best-known major works, and no. 23 is pretty famous too, although many connoisseurs believe no. 24 may be the best – really, of the 27, any of the last dozen or so will have supporters. Most of his concertos for other instruments are less heavy works – the horn concertos in particular are dashing frivolities – but the Clarinet Concerto is by far the best and best-known in that genre. Mozart’s five violin concertos were all composed as a teenager, yet are delightful perfections – the No. 3 in particular, is often rated one of the greatest of violin concertos, with its dazzling (and surprisingly racy in portions, including an unexpected dance suddenly popping up in the middle of the finale) outer movements and tender slow movement.

Beyond the assorted motets and other short works, Mozart’s religious and choral music is found in his long series of masses, composed in his youth and his time employed by the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Perhaps in part due to the Archbishop’s skeptical attitude to music – only abbreviated musical masses were permitted – these tend not to be particularly memorable, although the final two, the Coronation Mass (used frequently in European royal ceremonies in the 19th century) and in particular the jubilant Missa solemnis have remained popular. His reputation in the genre, however, ironically rests upon two sets of sketches he never completed: the wonderful Great Mass in C Minor, which the composer abandoned partway through (yet somehow staged a performance of), and the Requiem, which he was composing when he died. The C Minor is best known for its stunning Kyrie, in which an ominous and restless ‘Kyrie eleison’ dissolves temporarily into one of music’s most agonisingly sublime (and at the time controversially operative) arias in the ‘Christe eleison’ section; the current Pope’s favourite, however, is the less sensationalist but more vocally impressive Et incarnatus est, originally performed by Mozart’s wife. The following Sanctus and Hosanna are an appropriately triumphant response.
But it’s the Requiem, inevitably, with its associated mythology (the piece was commissioned anonymously, and legend has it that Mozart believed he might be composing his own Requiem; he did indeed die in the process) that attracts the most attention. It is a striking departure from previous reqiuems, injecting a decided note of brimstone and terror into the sad gentleness of previous ceremonies, and, along with its sister work by Cherubini (which scandalously introduced a giant gong into the solemn occasion) it laid the ground for a century of fiery Romantic death-masses.

How much of it is really by Mozart, however, is subject to debate. Mozart is believed to have written the opening movement fully, and to have made unorchestrated sketches in varying levels of detail of most of the first half of the mass. These were completed by his former student, Franz Süssmayr. In the view of Mozart’s widow, eager to publicise her husband’s last work and lay claim to the royalties to feed her orphaned children, Süssmayr’s filling out of the early movements was simply following the various instructions and sketches left by Mozart on various scraps of paper long since lost, and Süssmayr’s completion of the later movements (the final movement reworks Mozart’s own music from the opening) was at least guided by general ideas passed on by Mozart before his death, which do not survive in documentary form. In the view of skeptics, the decidedly less inspired second half must be entirely the work of Süssmayr, while the ‘completion’ of the first half may likewise be mostly Süssmayr. The difficulty arises because, on the one hand, it is easy to doubt Constanze’s highly questionable account of the process; but, on the other, there is reluctance to admit that Süssmayr, an extremely minor composer, could have written even the less brilliant bits of the work himself, let alone the great bits. Various modern composers have attempted their own reconstructions, but the version performed today is almost invariably the Mozart/Süssmayr version – other composers may be able to write better music than Süssmayr, but none have been able to do a more convincing Mozart impression than Mozart’s own pupil. Notable moments include the oft-quoted Dies Irase and the remarkably-agitated Confutatis; but perhaps the most impressive is the second movement Kyrie; unlike in the Great C Minor, where Mozart sets the Kyrie and the Christe as contrasting sections, in the Requiem he combines both lines to create a thrilling double fugue that shows Mozart posed at a crux of musical history – combining the technical contrapuntal virtuosity of a Bach or a Handel, with the first dark stirrings of the passion and fear of a Beethoven.



Recondite Works: As with Bach, almost everything Mozart wrote (after the age of 15 or so) is technically very good; unlike Bach, much of it is, by design, not specifically interesting. He wrote an awful lot of perfectly enjoyable but rather interchangeable music: dozens of symphonies, two dozen divertimenti, a dozen serenades, dozens and dozens of individual dances, and works for everything from the clockwork organ to the glass harmonica. Almost all of it is nice to listen to, if you like Mozart – the man’s ability to devise appealing tunes for even his least important works is almost without parallel. There are, doubtless, hidden gems in his lesser-known pieces... but I don’t know him will enough to really direct anyone in that regard, except through trial and error.

Of all his music that has avoided mass public adoration, the most critically acclaimed work is in the realm of chamber music, where, with more humble resources, his style finds it easier to hit ‘charming’, rather than ‘irritating’. His last ten string quartets are all considered masterpieces, and the six “Haydn Quartets” (no.s 14-19) in particular are at the peak of their genre, and perhaps of Mozart’s entire oeuvre – being some of his few major works written for his own pleasure and dedicated to a friend and fellow composers (Haydn acknowledge Mozart as his superior; in turn, Mozart addressed Haydn as “Papa”, and called him his dearest friend; the two collaborated as performers in private quartet recitals), these works show Mozart in a more adventurous vein – still sublime in his elegance, and still generally good-humoured, but willing to explore harmonic, structural and melodic areas that would have been most unusual for their time, with all four pushing the boundaries of contemporary acceptibility in various ways. Here is the second of them. Of the Haydn Quartets, Beethoven once commented that here, Mozart declared to the world: see what music I would be capable of producing, if only you were ready for it. Beethoven, of course, would go on to attempt to fulfill that prophecy himself.

Likewise, Mozart’s writing for quintet is as good as anyone’s – the Clarinet Quintet is the best known, but many believe his best music of all is found in the String Quintets (probably the best string quintets ever, but in part because they have very little serious competition). Here he continues the exploration of sonorities, structures and emotions seen in the Haydn Quartets; best known are the bright K515 and the sombre K516. The finale of the latter has perplexed scholars ever since – following on from a pained slow movement, it begins with almost another movement in its own right, a beautiful but sad little aria, before suddenly turning on the spot into nonchalant charm. Whether this is a trite failure to confront human suffering, or a surpreme overcoming of that suffering, is subject to some debate. The final two quintets, meanwhile, are written in a more austere style, in which counterpoint is frequent and Mozart attempts to thoroughly extract as much content from as few distinct ideas as possible; the second movement typifies this in its theme-and-variations structure (which nevertheless Mozart shapes into something heavier, more coherent and more consequential than the typical set of variations).

At the other end of his spectrum, Mozart’s piano sonatas were mostly composed in his youth (later examples were probably for his piano students), and tend toward a more brilliant and accessible style. The best known is probably the sweet, charming, 16th, the so-called ”sonata facile”, intentionally simple for beginners to play, and consequently a mainstay of piano teachers ever since (the first movement is the famous one, but the delicate Andante is my favourite). Close behind is the 11th – I’ve already linked to the famous Rondo alla Turca final movement (how about a version for “gypsy jazz style”guitar? Or if you prefer, here’s the trumpet and orchestra version)... but the first movement, a series of variations on a siciliana, is almost as well-known – the theme-and-variations format always suited Mozart, an invitation to his boundless imagination and impeccable grasp of style and mood. The most acclaimed of the sonatas, however, may be the 14th, one of only two written in a minor key; unusually passionate and confrontational for Mozart, particularly in its third movement, which swerves repeatedly between anger and despair, the sonata seems to prefigure Beethoven (indeed, it shares melodic fragments with Beethoven’s more famous ‘Pathetique’ sonata].
The 14th sonata displays at times a less common side of Mozart: his potential for overt passion, which typically shows only in flashes beneath his façade of gentility. It can also be seen in, for example, in the demonic climax of Don Giovanni, in which the unrepentent nobleman is dragged into hell, and at moments of the Requiem and The Magic Flute. Nowhere, though, is this side of Mozart more clearly seen than in his 8th piano sonata (the A minor). The sonata was written shortly after the death of his mother, and his pain is heard clearly from the distraught, distracted first movement, through the tender, nostalgic second, through to the Presto third movement, in which anger and agitation seem continually – beat to beat at times – at war with acceptance.

Mozart could also be an experimental, controversial composer at times – best seen in his chamber music. The most flagrant, and notorious, example of this is found in the introduction to the [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spd7SfCeLOs[/url]“Dissonance”[/url] quartet, which several early publishers either refused to publish or unilaterally “corrected”, such was its revolutionary (or plain revolting) disregard for the laws of harmony.

But of course, serious, dissonant experimentation isn’t the essence of Mozart – even when he was being curious. For something more essentially Mozart, we can try the Musical Joke. Possibly written in response to the death of his pet starling, the Musical Joke (or “Divertimento for Two Horns and a String Quartet”) is stunning in its apparent complete fatuousness. The music endlessly repeats near-contentless phrases, blunders from key to key and back again with no apparent grasp of how to progress elegantly or shape a larger structure. Instruments hold trills for far too long, and different instruments seem to have no idea of each others’ existence; repeat signs are put in the wrong place (leading to blaring shifts in key), the dance measures in the second movement are impossible to dance to, harmonies follow weird parallel sevenths, a violinist appears to break a string and can’t hit the right high notes, the violist repeatedly enters late, the strings in general are often out of tune, and the horn players just play the wrong notes. Other times, they are given plain impractical (and weird) sounds... and these are the final notes. It is, in other words, exactly what a third-rate, unimaginative contemporary of Mozart would have composed, as played by really terrible performers. And yet not only has it been an inspiration for 20th century composers (aside from its frequent dissonances, it displays among the first Western examples of whole tone scales and polytonality), but it’s also become a firm, unironic audience favourite, particularly the third movement with its catchy though vacuous theme.

And speaking of catchy but vacuous tunes, let’s end with one of the best known of all: Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star, also known as Ah, vous dirai-je Maman, upon which Mozart composed one of his many variation sets. It’s elegant but disposable music, as you’d expect from Twinkle Twinkle... but because this is Mozart, we get the beautiful 11th variation along the way...

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 Post subject: Re: Classical Composers
PostPosted: Sun Jan 14, 2018 5:57 pm 
Osän
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Frislander wrote:
Nortaneous wrote:
I don't listen to classical music because I don't like violins.


Firstly, a lot if not most classical music does not involve violins (I mean in Bach's output the number of pieces with any kind of string parts are in a minority, most of his stuff is keyboard like harpsichord and organ). Secondly, I'm a cellist, and I don't know whether I'm meant to agree with you in not being a fan of violins or to maybe take this as a comment disliking bowed string instruments in general.

All-in-all it's not a sufficient reason to say you don't like classical music just because the stereotypical classical pieces have violins in them.

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