Monday, 20 July 2015

The Complete and Utter Guide to Classical Music



Everything starts with Bach...

Before Bach, people produced some beautiful music (especially Purcell) but He is the father of Western classical music. He wrote lots and lots of music, much of it very serious and designed to be heard in church but all of it very complex. When music is as complex as this you can hear it many, many times and still hear something different in it every time. He was probably the greatest musical genius that ever lived, even greater than Mozart who might have bettered him but who died too young. For a long time he was known as a wonderful keyboard player rather than as a composer until the 19th century when Mendelssohn began to conduct and promote his music again to the public. Many of the melodies are very familiar and appear on TV commercials and are known by the 'Man in the Street'. It was Bach who first tuned a piano so that it sounds "tuned" to us. (If you tune a piano in exact steps it sounds out of tune to us.) Don't try to listen to all of Bach's output at once. It will take you weeks to get through it and you will find there's lots you don't like. If you like intelligent music with great tunes introduce yourself to Bach with the choruses from the St Matthew Passion, (he wrote five 'passions' but only two have survived) some movements from the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites and some of his organ music (The famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor are attributed to Bach but he didn't write them and what's more they weren't written for the organ! - We don't know who wrote them, possibly Buxtehude whose music Bach loved). Once you've got used to Bach's music explore the Oratorios, the Cello suites, the Goldberg Variations and the Well-Tempered Clavier to name but a few. Nietzsche, that most ungodly of men, said of Bach's music that when he listened to it he thought God might exist after all. Sadly, Bach went blind in old age. Both he and Handel were operated on, both unsuccessfully, by the same surgeon for their impending blindness.

Beethoven

For many people Beethoven is the greatest musical genius who ever lived. He spent most of his life a deeply unhappy man, writing music as a kind of musicaholic and living in scruffy, untidy rooms with dirty plates lying around on the floor. He wrote nine symphonies and as you listen to them, from 1 to 9 they get steadily bigger, more dramatic, more powerful and more exciting, finishing in the Ninth with a huge choir as well as orchestra. The symphony had been invented by Haydn and developed by Mozart but the symphonies by these composers were meant to be heard in a sitting room. They're well-behaved although clever and pretty. Beethoven's music was written for a bigger stage - The World. You can imagine Beethoven's symphonies blasting from the speakers at Bernabeu Stadium; Mozart's would sound ridiculous played like this. You have to know the symphonies, all the 38 movements, yes all of them. Beethoven's music came from the age of revolutions. It's BIG music designed to move you and inspire you. Before Beethoven it was said, "I think therefore I am." Beethoven changed this to "I feel therefore I am". Not naturally a happy person, he got steadily angrier over the years as he lost his hearing. I understand this anger. It's easy to understand it if you think about it. Most people were scared of his tempers. He kept composing even when he was totally deaf because he could hear the music in his head as he wrote the notes on the paper. He wrote not just powerful music but also the most delicate and emotional music which always tries to appeal to your feelings. Apart from the symphonies you should listen to his piano concertos and piano sonatas. There are some very famous tunes in these. He was conscious all his life of being compared to Mozart (whom he met once when he, Beethoven, was young). Although he became as fine a pianist as Mozart had been, he did not have Mozart's natural talent and had to work and practise more than Mozart did. His early symphonies sound like Mozart's late ones but much better. As you progress through the 3rd an onwards the music like the orchestra just gets bigger and bigger.

Mozart

Mozart was the greatest composer who ever lived. Yes, but you've already said that about Bach AND Beethoven. The truth is no one of them can claim the prize of the best and everyone rightly has their favourite. (Mine is Bach). A child prodigy he was pushed by his father to perform all over Europe and was brilliant from a young child onwards. The most important thing about Mozart is that he died much, much too young. Too young to become the undisputedly best composer ever. In his 34 years he produced everything - symphonies (41 but they all sound the same), masses for church, concertos, sonatas and operas. His music is immensely complex but not passionate. He was writing for a different age than Beethoven's. An age of tidy thoughts, well decorated palaces, pretty rooms, perfect balance and harmony. We are still living in the last stages of the Romantic Age and that began with Beethoven. Mozart wrote dozens of tunes you will recognize. He wrote and wrote and it seemed it would just go on getting better and better, until he caught suddenly a kidney disease and died, just as his popularity was coming back after some bad times. He had the almost perfect ability to compose and could hold whole symphonies in his head. He was able to go to musical concerts, come home and write down all the music he had heard from memory! There's much to listen to by Mozart and it's easier to listen to than Beethoven or Bach's music. Most of his 27 piano concertos sound similar but you should listen to number 21. Also, try the Clarinet Concerto, especially the adagio movement, the Horn Concertos, the violin concertos, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The tunes are light and pretty; they're there: then they're gone, but you will find yourself humming them later.

Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky spent most of his life a deeply unhappy man. Perhaps this was because he couldn't find true love (like Beethoven couldn't) and perhaps this was because he was a homosexual in an age when it wasn't fashionable to be one. This was also dangerous in Russia where homosexuality was punishable by death. After two unhappy love affairs with women to try to 'cure' his sexual feelings he eventually committed suicide. He was the one of the best composers of melodies ever and the best ever composer for the ballet with no other composer even coming near his ability. He wrote 6 symphonies and they're pleasant enough, nothing to really move you as Beethoven had. He wrote the most famous piano concerto ever, number 1 in B flat minor and a beautiful violin concerto. Violin concertos are just about the hardest things to write in music; Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn could only manage one each. Mozart wrote 5 but they're very repetitive. But it is his ballet music that makes him so important. The Nutcracker Suite, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty. The ballet tunes you know so well are those by Tchaikovsky. He also wrote the most exciting 15 minutes in the whole of classical music - the 1812 overture. His music sounds Russian so try to listen to Russian orchestras and conductors who do this so much better. Brahms A man with a beard like a bird's nest. He is unusual in classical music because he was quite a pleasant man to know and meet. He wrote 4 symphonies but they'll take some listening to until you begin to appreciate how good they are. They are like the continuation of Beethoven's symphonies.

Brahms 

was a traditional composer not like the radical new composers such as Wagner and Liszt. He wrote lovely piano concertos. My number one very favourite piece from the whole of classical music is the Adagio from Piano Concerto No 2. His music is never as violent as Beethoven's nor as soppy as Tchaikovsky's. He was a virtuoso pianist like so many of the great composers. He was pretty hopeless with girls but finally achieved happiness with one called Clara Schumann, a fine pianist herself and sister of the composer, Robert Schumann.

Chopin

One of the best composers for the piano who ever lived. He belongs to a romantic age; dreamy Sunday afternoons in the countryside, rain pattering against the windowpane, you sighing deeply about the one you love...His weakness was that he wrote well only for the piano. He never attempted any symphonies and his piano concertos are not very good. He lived for a time in Majorca with George Sand, a woman who enjoyed dressing as a man. They had a strange, troubled life together. It was he who wrote the 'Death March'. To introduce yourself to Chopin try listening to the Nocturnes or the Etudes.

Elgar

An English catholic gentleman who wrote stirring tunes that make you feel heroic. He's a sort of poor man's Beethoven. However, do not miss Nimrod from The Enigma Variations. Beethoven would have been proud to write it.

Handel

Now let's get two things straight. His name and nationality. He was born in Germany BUT became a British citizen. Someone once said to him "You're not really English because you were born in Germany." His reply was "I was made English by Act of Parliament: You were born here by accident." He dropped the umlaut from his name and wrote Handel but pronounced it "Hendle". If you're still not convinced about the nationality thing then, I'm afraid, you'll have to accept Bob Hope was English (born in London), John McEnroe is German (born in Wiesbaden) and Cliff Richard is Indian (born in Lucknow). So there you have it. He is the greatest English composer of all time with the possible exception of Purcell. He wrote music at the same time as Bach and his music sounds similar. While no one would argue that Bach wasn't the better composer overall, Handel wrote the best oratorio ever. Messiah - note no 'the' just one word. No other piece of religious music approaches this, not even Bach's B Minor Mass. Listen to Handel's Water Music and his Music for the Royal Fireworks for examples of Handel's talent.

Haydn

Not one of my favourite composers. I always feel I should like his music but frankly I can't. It's boring, repetitive and uninspiring. He wrote 104 symphonies. Yes 104. They all sound the same. He was Beethoven's tutor for a time but Beethoven said he learnt nothing from him. He was a friend of Mozart's and a much nicer man than Mozart.

Franz Liszt

(AKA Liszt Ferenc) Hungary's greatest composer couldn't speak Hungarian. He spoke, wrote and thought in German. He is at his best in the Preludes an orchestral suite that sounds like Beethoven and in some beautiful piano music like Liebestraum. He composed violent pieces for the piano as well and was a thunderous, brilliant pianist. (He was a mentor to Edvard Grieg and played Grieg's famous Piano Concerto at first sight.)

Mahler

Like Mendelssohn he was born a Jew but converted to Christianity. A conductor in Vienna he went to America where the Americans adopted him as one of their own. The Americans LOVE Mahler and some Americans idiotically place him up there with Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. He is nothing of the sort. He wrote 9 symphonies and got very sticky and panicky when he started writing his tenth because both Beethoven and Bruckner (and Dvorak) wrote nine and died before they could write the tenth... He died before he finished the tenth. There's lots of lovely music to listen to in Mahler's symphonies but it's always someone else's. At one moment he sounds like Tchaikovsky, then he sounds like Brahms, then he sounds like Wagner. The symphonies are great sprawling rambling, entertaining things but Mahler never has his own voice. He was obsessed with death and feared it all his life. Try the Adagietto from Symphony No 5.

Schubert

Music for a by-gone age. This is music for the parlour and little old ladies. It's clever, intricate and very old-fashioned. This is music for people who enjoy playing bridge and board games. His 'Unfinished' symphony is marvellous, as good as a symphony by Beethoven. You need to be very patient and old to enjoy his chamber music. For a famous (and boring) example of this try The Trout Quintet.

Purcell

One of the genuinely nice men of classical music and from a family of royal musicians. Some say he is England's greatest composer. He died tragically young like Mozart (at 36). His music sounds like a less complicated version of Bach's or Handel's but it has lots of simple charm. I am a big Purcell fan. Listen to The Funeral Music for Queen Mary II. It's tense and moving.

Richard Strauss

He wrote some thrilling music. Also Sprach Zarathustra was used by NASA as the theme tune for the missions to the Moon. (But it's completely boring apart from the first bit.) His operas are difficult to listen to at first because the melodies are so unusual but when you have listened a few times you will recognize the beauty of the tunes and strange harmonies. He was unusual in classical music because he made money from it. To introduce yourself to Strauss try some arias from Ariadne Auf Naxos.

Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn was Queen Victoria's favourite composer and he's a neat and tidy composer whose music has some lovely orchestration. His music will never thrill you. It isn't meant to. It's entertainment for after dinner when you want some pleasant sounds to relax to. Try The Hebrides Suite. Mendelssohn went there and felt inspired by the bleak islands. He also painted them. Like Victoria he was a very talented artist.Amongst other things he wrote "The Wedding March" (Not The Bridal March - 'Here comes the Bride' - that was Wagner).

Vivaldi

The Red priest. That is, a priest with red hair, which is what he was. Stravinsky described Vivaldi's music as the same concerto four hundred times. Vivaldi taught music at girls' schools and we think he had affairs with some of the young girls there. He was fascinated by the violin and developed the music that can be played on it. You'll recognise "The Four Seasons" if only from the car adverts on television that use it all the time. By the time of his death he had become, like Mozart, unpopular and was buried outside Vienna in a poor person's grave. (One of the choir boys at his funeral was Joseph Haydn). Vivaldi was liked very much by Bach who came later. Vivaldi was rediscovered in the 20th century having been forgotten for hundreds of years.

Dvorak

Pronounced De-vor-jark. A Czech nationalist composer. His masterpiece is the Ninth Symphony - From the New World (9 again) which has a beautiful brass melody spoiled only a little by being used to advertise bread on television.

Bartok

A Hungarian composer who loved folk tunes. His music is quite light and tuneful. Try his Hungarian Sketches.

Vaughan-Williams

An English Bartok. Do not miss the Tallis Fantasia. This was the very atmospheric music used in the recent film 'Master and Commander' where the warships were drifting menacingly towards each other.

Rachmaninov

Completely different from all the other composers here because you can actually hear him playing things. There are CDs in MediaMarkt of Rachmaninov playing his own and other people's works (though the recordings are old and not very good). He was one of the last of the great classical composers and made beautiful romantic music. He was also probably one of the best pianists in history and had...enormous hands. You simply must listen to Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini and his piano concertos. The first was so badly received by the critics he nearly gave up composing. The third is notoriously difficult to play. Music for you to close your eyes and float away by.

Ravel

One of a few French composers to become famous. Late 19th century and fascinated by the use of the orchestra. Try his Bolero.

Debussy

French. Again late 19th century. Sleepy drifting music but you have to be in the mood for it. He loved inventing strange chords and produced music to mirror impressionist art. Try La Mer, written in England (in Eastbourne in fact) while he was hiding there from his wife, with his mistress.

Offenbach

He wrote light operas in France in the mid-19th century and composed the famous Can-can dance. Dar dar da-da da-da dar-dar da-da da-da...Yes that's the one.

Prokofiev

A Ukrainian who wrote 7 (not nine this time) symphonies. Lots of inventive music that gets on your nerves after a time. Try listening to Lieutenant Kije a few times to experience this effect. However, Peter and the Wolf is lots of fun and the music for his ballet Romeo and Juliet is dramatic indeed.

Puccini

Puccini is the darling of opera lovers and many of the most popular arias and choruses are by him. On the plus side some of his arias are truly melodic and lovely. On the minus side his orchestration sounds very old-fashioned and melodramatic. We've had bucketfulls of dramatic film music since his time and we've got used to high quality here. The 'dramatic' brassy chords in Tosca are hilarious. It is bad form to laugh at the 'mock' execution scene. His best and most tuneful opera is Manon Lescaut. His worst is Madama Butterfly which meanders and is very boring. To T or not to T. Incredibly the debate on whether to pronounce the final T in Turandot continues. In the red corner, saying 'no' you have Puccini himself amongst others (e.g. generations of adults who remember a little French from school and remember something about not pronouncing the final T in foreign words.) In the blue corner saying 'yes' you have some performers who say the rhythm of the singing means you should sound the T and those who say Puccini didn't have a clue about pronunciation of foreign words and didn't write the story anyway. They have a point here as the English/American surname 'Sharples' in Madama Butterfly became Sharpless according to Puccini's mangled mispronunciation.

Rossini

You can't help liking Rossini. He was quite lazy and on several occasions left the writing of his famous overtures until the very last minute when they were wildly overdue. (At one opera house the impresario imprisoned Rossini in a room and on the day of the premiere of the opera Rossini was handing manuscripts of the overture out of the window to copyists for them to take to the waiting orchestra to practise.) Amazingly this approach produced some of the best opera music ever. The Barber of Seville is full of melodies, (Feeegaro, Feeegaro, Feeeeeegaro) much more than Puccini could ever manage. But for the best representation of his art listen to the opening of William Tell. The most delicate cello melody gives way to the exciting overture ever and one recognised by everyone over the age of seven.

Rodrigo

Warrants a listen if only for his guitar concerto, Concierto de Aranjuez. It reminds you of the sweeping plains of Andalusia (if you've seen them). It was written by Rodrigo (on the piano because Rodrigo couldn't play the guitar) for the famous guitarist Andres Segovia. 

Wagner 

for some people is not a composer but more a way of life. His fans are more fanatical than anyone else's. Some people listen to Wagner and nothing else. He wrote very, very, very long operas. A short opera by Wagner lasts 4 hours. His operas have no episodes. One scene smoothly becomes the next. His longest opera lasts 16 hours and is usually performed on 4 consecutive evenings. Wagner wrote the biggest epic themes you can remember (E.g. 'The Ride of the Valkyries') and the most beautiful and delicate tunes you can imagine, all joined up together in a big line. Much of the 20th century's film music derived from Wagner's influence. He was the last of the "Great" composers. Some people put him on a level with the big three, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Lovers of Wagner's music are basically mad. I love Wagner's music. In 'real life' he was a completely selfish, arrogant and unpleasant man without any sense of humour. At one time he wanted to flatten half of medieval Munich (pretty little antique houses and all) to build a huge road leading people to his great opera house (he planned to make it the biggest in the world and it would show nothing but HIS operas one after another). It was never built.


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