A classical piece each day- that is my goal. I have been a music student for many years, and with that comes quite a bit of knowledge of classical music. This knowledge, however, may seem nigh unobtainable to the everyday music enthusiast. My goal is to share some of my favorite classical pieces with some basic analysis as food for thought, and perhaps readers will be able to learn some new, fun facts about their favorite pieces, find new pieces and composers they had never explored, or discover classical music for the first time and form a lifelong love with it. I will try to do so with some humor and wit, but I make no promises.
Now, this is a blog for beginners, so don’t expect too much in the ways of fancy analysis. We don’t need to discuss German sixths and deceptive cadences. Let’s leave that to the music students. What’s important is the music itself, when it was written, and why. This will give us not only a glimpse of different styles of classical music but the atmospheres that bore them. Politics, religion, geography, and time all play such important roles in the forming of music. What were these composers trying to express? What is the difference between Mozart and Shostakovich, and WHY are they different? And why on earth should we CARE?
It is my hope that any person visiting would be able to find at least one piece of music on this blog that resonates with them. That said, not every piece will resonate with every person. Great music is entirely subjective, and anyone who says differently is probably a music teacher. I have my own personal tastes and opinions, and that will certainly have an impact on which songs I choose to feature here. I will try to vary the selection as much as I can.
So, in favor of brevity later on, let me explain a few key terms-
Early Music: Okay, so you know how history is divided into BC and AD? Music is sort of like that too. AD is very well documented, and you can get a clear picture of what was happening during any specific century. BC, on the other hand, gets pretty fuzzy the further you go back, and you never can remember any of those dates… my brain doesn’t want to process thousands of years of history- no thank you! Well, music is similarly divided. Early music basically means everything before Baroque. This covers a wide spectrum of musical stuff, from minstrels to Gregorian chants to countless unknowable forms of music (darn that lack of written word). More importantly, it is, for the most part, considered not that important. Music is decidedly split into two separate, unequal groups: AB (After Bach) and EE (Everything Else).
Baroque: Wait, who the heck was Bach? Johannes Sebastian Bach might be a name you already know. He was born in during the Baroque age of classical music. Even though the Baroque period was well under way by the time he came along, he was the first to master it. Why is that important? The Baroque period is our first glimpse into music to come. During this time, music was FINALLY being written down and even mass produced (on a much smaller scale than what we would think of as mass produced today). Baroque music featured some crazy stuff, the most notable being polyphony. Polyphony, on a basic level, is when 3 or more completely different melodies are happening at the same time. It should sound like a muddled mess, but Bach is famous because he managed to make that sound good, REALLY GOOD. Scholars argue about where exactly the Baroque period started, but they agree that it ended the second Bach died.
Classical: So, there is classical music, and inside of classical music, there is a Classical period… Are they trying to confuse us? My best guess is yes, yes they are. However, the Classical period is pretty easy to figure out. Music became a pretty big deal, and suddenly everyone was fighting to become the next famous composer. Out of the smoke and rubble of these grand musical battles, three great composers emerged: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Classical music is all about them, what they did, why they did it, and trying desperately to master how. People spend their entire lives just trying to do justice to any one of these composers. The Classical period of classical music is where you find the greats, otherwise known as what you most often hear on the classical radio station. There are two reasons for this. 1) Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are super important to the evolution of music. 2) Classical music was pretty. It was about refinement and understated displays of ability. While it won’t always make the grandest statement, it is almost always aurally agreeable.
Romantic: Okay, so I lied a little bit back there. MOST Classical music was about being beautiful and understated. The stuff that wasn’t was by a guy named Ludwig van Beethoven. He had a whole lot of angst and an amazing ability to translate that angst into music. Let’s try a little experiment. If I say, “Ba ba ba BUM!” do you hear music? If so, you just might be a Beethoven fan. During the Classical period, emotions were pretty, but Beethoven didn’t agree with that. The older he got, the more surly and unfriendly he became, and Surprise Surprise, the better his music got! Thus began the Romantic period. It was a great time for music. Composers tried desperately to capture the emotions they had bottled up inside through music. As Wagner composed challenging 5 hour long operas, Schubert wrote simple songs for voice and piano. Pretty was no longer the most important thing for music to be. It had to mean something.
Contemporary: Finally we arrive at the good stuff. Everyone catches up to those crazy German composers, and we have the Contemporary period. For me, this is the most fun. A sudden move toward nationalism (fueled by hatred of the darn Germans pretty much OWNING music altogether) forces other countries to try to find their own voice. In France, Debussy decides that it is more important to figure out how a cloud sounds than to write about feelings. Meanwhile in Russia, Mussorgsky tried to capture the feel of the common people. This is how the Contemporary period begins. Composers begin to stretch the very fabric of music as we know it, and some try to build a whole new kind of music. We get a wide variety of music here, from Stravinsky’s jarring harmonies and rhythms to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ pleasing, grand melodies to Schoenberg’s complete lack of tonality altogether. Oops, did I lose some of you? Most Western music is made up of the solfege Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. (You, of course, learned this ages ago from Julie Andrews.) You know how you just can’t wait to get back to Do? That’s because Do is the tonic; it’s where home base is. Well, Schoenberg didn’t think so. He didn’t see the need for Do. In fact, he didn’t see the need for a home base at all. That’s right, during the Contemporary period, composers decided, if you can believe it, that all of music as we know it is WRONG. They made up their own rules. While all of the ideas from the Contemporary period aren’t gems, it’s a testament to an amazing amount of musical output. For the purposes of this blog, contemporary means anything after Romantic. Yep, that includes right now.