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A Beginner’s “Classical” Music primer November 16, 2011

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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For those who don’t know me, I am known — unofficially! — by family and friends alike as “The Music Professor,” and have been called upon from time to time to offer my consultations as to what sort of tunes would be appropriate for certain occasions, etc.  In any event, a little over a year ago, a friend of mine from a previous job got ahold me via Facebook and was looking to expand his musical library by getting into “classical” music, but he said he was intimidated by all the choices out there.  No doubt many an unsuspecting soul has been in his exact shoes, and given all the options out there for “classical” music, this is entirely understood.

What I therefore set out to do with this and other installments is to give you, the beginner to this mega-genre, the break-down of what’s out there, and also to share with you some examples of certain areas of composition, not to mention what I consider to be some of the choicest pieces ever written.

Let us start with a few basics:  what is considered “classical” is actually a hodgepodge of three genres, Baroque, Classical and Romantic.  Keep in mind that these periods are not necessarily just musical, but whole artistic periods encompassing architecture, painting, sculpture, and literature.  There are definite painting styles, for example, that can be discerned during these three periods of time.  Moreover, one thing that defined the Baroque period aside from its wonderful music was the Rococo architecture.

The Baroque period is considered from 1600-1750, though most Baroque stuff you’re likely to run across is usually no earlier than 1680 unless you’re listening to something composed by Henry Purcell or, even earlier, Claudio Monteverdi.  To be clear, most of the more recognized Baroque compositions are, with some notable exceptions, were written between 1700 and 1750.

Then there’s the Classical epoch, which is considered to start in 1750, though it’s end time is debated to be between 1800 and 1820 (I say about 1810).  The Romantic period takes up the rest of the 19th Century up until 1900.  Do the math, you have 300 years of composed music called “classical,” yet only about 60 years (give or take) of that are truly Classical.

What’s the difference between the three?  Basically, the Baroque music is very elaborate and cerebral:  it’s therefore my favorite of the three!  It’s also the most highly cultured of the three.  Put in some good Baroque music, and it’s instant ornate Rococo time — the very height of cultured erudition of modern man.

Classical’s aim is to strike the perfect balance between the cerebral and the emotional.  Still very highly cultured, hardly out of place in a Rococo setting, and always a pleasure to listen to.

Romantic is almost all emotional:  I find it boring, with some exceptions.  Others love it and pay little heed to the Baroque (i.e., the cerebral) side of the mega-genre.  But that is fine:  such is why there is a diversity of ice cream flavors — some prefer vanilla, others chocolate, others strawberry, and so on.  To each his own!

Johann Sebastian Bach is my favorite composer:  VERY Baroque.  He lived from 1685-1750, and though not the first composer by a long shot, he’s considered the “Father of Composers.”  There’s hardly an equal.  Other good Baroque composers include Georg Friedrich Handel (that’s pronouced “HEN-dle”), Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, the aforementioned Purcell, Johann Pachelbel (whose “Canon,” written in 1680, is universally recognized), and many others.

The two classical composers who stand out above anybody else are, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Josef Haydn.  I love both of them — can’t go wrong with either, particularly Mozart, the “Prodigy from Salzburg,” who is quite possibly the greatest composer of all time.

Ludwig Van Beethoven is considered to have started the Romantic period, though his early stuff is very Classical.  His later stuff is quite distinct from his early stuff — clearly early Romantic, but his Symphonies are still quite paletable.  I like his 6th Symphony the best, but his 7th isn’t bad, and his 5th and 9th are ever-famous.  When you get into composers like Tchaikovsky, you’re talking late Romantic (he wrote his Nutcracker Suite in 1892, fyi). Perhaps the best example of the middle part of the Romantic period would be the works of Richard Wagner.

The recommended compositions could fill a book, but for Baroque stuff, I like most things done by Trevor Pinnock’s English Concert ensemble (they use period instruments — can’t beat that!).  Meanwhile, Sir Neville Marriner does excellent Mozart renditions. For hard-core period instrument purists, one cannot do any better than compositions performed by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (don’t let the title fool you — Baroque and Classical are their specialities).

For Vivaldi, check out his “Four Seasons.”  His “Spring” concerto will no doubt be familiar.

Handel, of course, had his “Messiah” (first written in 1741 — late Baroque), but he’s got many other great compositions under his belt, namely his “Water Music.”

I’ve never heard a bad piece by Haydn — great stuff.  Try some of his later Symphonies, namely in the 80 thru 100 range.

With Mozart, again, where does one begin?  I LOVE his Symphonies, especially his 25th and 29th.  I’ve got all 41 that he composed on my Tunes.  Check out some of his overtures to his operas, namely the one to “Figaro” and to “The Magic Flute.”  Of course, don’t forget “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”  Sir Neville Marriner’s Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields does a fine rendition of it, as well as anything else Mozart.

If you have sampled any of this music already, the contrast between the Baroque and the true Classical should be immediately evident, what with the heavier polyphony (in Greek, that basically means “many sounds”) in the former and the lighter polyphony of the latter.  Another big thing worth noticing is that Baroque pieces usually used a harpsichord to provide that they called the “basso continuo,” but they gradually de-emphasized that during the Classical epoch.

Then there’s Bach (saving the best for last!).  Start with his Brandenburg Concertos (again, Trevor Pinnock does a solid job with these).  He wrote six of them.  My personal favorites are No’s 2 and 5, though the dear reader would no doubt find No. 3 to be familiar.

He the best music ever for the pipe organ.  Give a listen to his “Little” Organ fugue in G-minor, or his famous Toccata and Fugue in D-minor.  Once you hear a Bach organ fugue, you have heard the highest of high culture in musical form.

Also great is his Violin Concerto No. 2 in E (listen to the first and third movements — the latter was featured in “The Patriot”).  He wrote tons of concerti like that.  Needless to say, there is plenty more to be heard and discussed about the the wonderful music of J.S. Bach.

Subseqent primer installments in the weeks and months to come will look into more specialized areas of the music in a little more depth.  Until then, this should at least help you start to know and understand a few things.



1. Classical Music guide addendum « intellectualgridiron - January 10, 2012

[…] Telemann, Wilhelm Friedemann trackback          The biggest reason why I wrote my previous blog entry was to help guide beginners to “Classical” music on what is “safe,” if not […]

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