Classical Music Appreciation
How to understand and appreciate classical music. A brief guide to the history of classical music, and some ideas to enhance your listening pleasure. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and more.
Many people are scared of so-called “classical” music. Maybe this is because they don’t really know or understand what to listen for.
In this brief article, I’d like to take you on a journey through the Western music of the last thousand years or so, and give you some guidelines for effective and enjoyable listening.
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had its own “official” music: Gregorian chant or “plainchant”. Similar in concept to hymns sung in modern churches, Gregorian chants are simple tunes sung without accompaniment, repeated to the same melody over a number of verses, with a brief “Amen” at the end. There is not a fixed rhythm. Such music is primarily “monophonic”: there is only a single melody line sung by all the singers together, without any harmonies or variations.
If you’d like to listen to some Gregorian chant, try to enjoy the calmness and spiritual feeling in the music. You might find that it sounds a little strange at first; this is because it is composed using a different “modality” to what you are accustomed. You'll soon get used to it.
The later Middle Ages saw the development of polyphonic music, in other words, the beginnings of harmony. Monastery music began to introduce a second melodic line. At first, this line moved parallel with the first, but later, the second melody line moved independently of the first.
You might like to listen to the “Alleluia Nativitas”, composed by Perotin. The composer here has used three different voices: the bottom voice singing a slow chant, and the upper voices singing many more notes at the same time. In such music, we find the beginnings of the evolution towards modern harmony.
As the Renaissance approached, music became more homophonic. In other words, it began to sound more “chordal”. Secular music also gained ground, and the composer Guillaume Dufay created some beautifully rich secular and sacred songs, sometimes featuring a mixture of homophony and polyphony. One of his most beautiful pieces is the hymn “Ave Maris Stella”. The odd-numbered verses are chanted, while the even-numbered ones are in a lovely smooth homophonic style.
Renaissance music has a “fuller” sound than medieval music. The most important composer, perhaps, was Josquin des Prez. Listen to his Mass based on the same Gregorian hymn, “Ave Maris Stella”, and enjoy its charming sequential repeats and beautiful soprano melodies.
His motet “Ave Maria” is peaceful and delicate. Notice how some phrases are passed from voice to voice, producing a delightfully flowing effect.
Secular music in the Renaissance became more popular, and madrigals and instrumental music were composed. Renaissance madrigals feature “word painting”, whereby the meaning of the words is echoed in the melody. For example, upward moving scales to accompany the word “ascending”, long notes accompanying the word “long”, the full choir on the word “together”, and so on. Listen to Thomas Weelkes’ madrigal “As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending” for an example.
In the Baroque Period, the most prominent composers were Handel, Bach, and Vivaldi.
The Concerto Grosso genre features a contrast between a small group of soloists and the entire orchestra. Usually, there are three movements: a fast, a slow, and another fast. Listen to the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto number 5 and enjoy the brilliant harpsichord solo at the end.
Vivaldi’s Concerti are also worth hearing. Listen to his Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Opus 3, Number 8, and notice the contrast between the loud sections for the whole orchestra and the lighter solo bits.
Another Baroque favorite was the fugue, which was based on one main theme, heard clearly at the beginning, and then improvised in a number of ways. Listen to Bach’s Organ Fugue in G Minor, the “Little” Fugue. See if you can identify the main theme at the beginning, then hear how Bach has played around with it subsequently.
For some Baroque opera, try Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”, in particular the hauntingly beautiful “Dido’s Lament”, during which the heroine commits suicide.
Handel, of course, is best remembered for his oratorio “Messiah”, but there is much more to it than the Hallelujah chorus. There are over fifty movements in total, and the whole piece is over 2 hours long.
To hear Baroque music at its most splendid, however, listen to Bach’s Cantata number 140: “Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns die Stimme”. The orchestra begins with a piece that will return later (called a ritornello), and even once the vocal chorus begins, you can still hear fragments of this beautiful orchestral melody in between the singing.
Actually, the term “classical music” is something of a misnomer, as it’s really only the music of the next period that can really be called “classical”. Some people prefer to call the music composed between about 1750 and 1820 “Viennese” music, and its most important composers were Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.
Viennese composers were fond of a type of composition called “sonata form”. Once you understand this form, many familiar pieces of music become infinitely more interesting. Pieces composed in this form begin with a section called the exposition, during which two main musical themes are introduced, with a bridge or transition section between them. The two themes are in different keys.
In the second section, the development, the composer changes, adapts, combines, and improvises the two themes, building up tension.
Finally, in the recapitulation section, we hear the two themes in their original form again, and we are meant to experience a sensation of stability and solidity.
The first movements of Haydn’s Symphony Number 88, Mozart’s Symphony Number 40, and Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 are all written in sonata form.
Viennese symphonies are usually written in four movements: a fast, a slow, a dance, and another fast. There are sometimes, then, considerable varieties in the mood of a single symphony. To experience the culmination of the art of Viennese composers, and for a taste of the next period, listen to Beethoven’s final symphony, Number 9, and enjoy its spectacular final chorale movement.
The rest of the nineteenth century saw the flowering of the so-called Romantic period, during which individualism, nostalgia, and reverence for nature became the pervading ideas. Composers worked to achieve individual styles. The Romantic composers expanded the orchestra and tried to stretch musical forms almost to breaking point. The most important composers were Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner, Puccini, Wagner, and Verdi.
The “lied” or “art song” became an important genre, and Schubert’s “Erlkonig” (based on Goethe’s ballad) is a wonderful example. It tells the story of a sick boy, riding with his father through a storm. He has a vision of the “Erlkonig”, or king of the elves, who tells him of his kingdom, and when they arrive at home, the boy is dead. The piano accompaniment suggests the gallop of the horse, and the elf-king’s descriptions of his realm are sinister and enticing.
Chopin’s piano pieces are technically brilliant, and sometimes hauntingly melancholy; Liszt found novel ways to use the piano; and Mendelssohn’s music is elegant and poised. You might also like to listen to the longer symphonies of Mahler, and imagine yourself driving through the countryside, a new panoramic vista at every bend. Verdi and Puccini’s operas are also worth a listen.
Wagner preferred to call his pieces “music-dramas”, and they are titanic in execution. He does not break his works into separate arias and recitatives; the music keeps flowing, seemingly unendingly. He pioneered the use of the "leitmotif", a short musical phrase associated with a character.
Twentieth century composers strived to create new underlying musical principles, which broke away from the traditions and “rules” of composition. Composers “deconstructed” music, and were no longer bound by convention.
John Cage was perhaps one of the more extreme examples. His composition “3 minutes, 33 seconds” is exactly as long as its title suggests, with absolutely no music played at all. Perhaps his point is that the noises we hear in the world around us are a kind of music on their own.
Early twentieth century music tended to play around with sounds, sometimes distorting them. Composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote the song cycle “Pierrot Lunaire”, which is filled with tuneless, somewhat dissociated surges of sound; and his vocalist was expected to perform in a mixture of speech and singing called “Sprechstimme”.
The music of Claude Debussy experimented with sounds and harmonies to create some interesting “mood pictures”. Listen to his three “Nocturnes”, and notice how he has used sound to express the ideas of clouds, festivals and sirens. His music sometimes conveys the idea of ethereal wispiness, the feeling of dissolving.
Bartok, Copland, Ives, Milhaud, Stockhausen: each of these twentieth century composers has bent the rules in one way or the other. You’ll have to experiment a bit to find one who appeals to you.
Then, of course, there’s Stravinsky. The dissonances in his “Rite of Spring” caused protests and controversy when it was first performed.
This has been an extremely brief “cook’s tour” through musical history. I hope, though, that it has inspired you to take a chance and put aside your preconceptions. Go ahead and listen to something adventurous. Close your eyes and imagine that you’re riding the music like a roller coaster. Above all, enjoy!