In this episode I give you a brief introduction to classical music, its definition and some of its history, and I share some of my favourite pieces. This is a transcript of the episode, which can hopefully be found on Spotify by clicking here.
(please note that full music tracks will only be available for spotify premium subscribers, so I have included youtube links to full performances in this post):
I take it you’ve come here to learn more about classical music, and as I love classical music, I’m very excited to share some with you today.
My name is Judith, and this is Classical Declassified. Let’s jump into it!
Classical music has been around for a very long time. How long? That depends on how you define classical music.
You may have noticed that sometimes classical music gets used as a kind of catch-all term for all kinds of music that is instrumental, or operatic, or old and fancy sounding… sometimes it even includes film and video game soundtracks. Other people seem to use the term to refer to music written in a very specific period of time, from about 1750 to 1820. Both of them are right. When I use the term ‘classical music’ here, for now I’m using it as that umbrella term for lots of different kinds of music from a largespan of time, but when scholars look at music history, they like to split it into different eras, or periods of time, for study purposes. Generally they talk about six eras: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th/21st century. That last one is a little awkward, and some people used to call it ‘modern’, but I suspect that in another hundred years, scholars will have given it a different name entirely.
That’s because people came up with the names of these eras after they happened, and the same goes for the term ‘classical music’. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven didn’t think of themselves as classical composers who wrote sophisticated high-brow music. (Well, ok, maybe Beethoven did a little bit, but that’s a whole other story.) Often they just had to do their jobs and write what people asked for or wanted them to write – after all, they needed to make a living too.
So the term ‘classical music’ is not as old as classical music itself. And actually the term is kind of problematic and hard to define.
And to be clear, we’re just talking about western classical music here. There are sophisticated historical traditions, like Ottoman music from what used to be the Ottoman empire, and Hindustani and Carnatic music in India, that are sometimes also referred to as ‘classical’ within those musical contexts. So really, I should be using the term ‘Western Classical Music’.
Alright, so what makes western classical music classical, if it covers everything from medieval troubadour songs to Mozart to video game soundtracks?
Some people like to use the word ‘Art Music’ in relation to classical music. Of course ‘art’ is about as hard to define as ‘music’, or ‘classical’, but people generally understand ‘Art Music’ to be a term that considers some music to have more aesthetic value, to be more serious or cultivated, than others. I actually don’t like term at all, and definitely not applied to classical music: it’s elitist, and it reinforces stereotypes and traditions that aren’t necessarily helpful. Both Mozart and Haydn wrote music that wasn’t meant to be entirely serious, and there’s a large tradition of comic operas that were really just written to be comedic musical entertainment, not high art. Even Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a cantata about a girl who’s addicted to coffee and sings about how if she couldn’t have her coffee three times a day, she would turn into a shriveled-up roast goat. Very serious stuff.
Okay, so even if it doesn’t have to be serious, some people say that art music is music that takes more work on the part of the listener to truly appreciate, but can also be more rewarding. The thing is that this can also be true about jazz and rock music, so that won’t do. How about ‘canonic’ music, meaning music that’s been around so long it’s stood the test of time and is a classic? Well, give it a few more decades and we’ll again have jazz and rock in that definition too. And besides, that excludes a lot of composers today who are considered ‘classical’ composers, but who haven’t been around long enough yet to see if their music will last.
Some people point out that one of the central things to classical music is that it’s written down. If you look at a symphony by Gustav Mahler, he is very specific about which instruments play which notes when, how fast, how long, how loud, with what emotion, and after which meal. Well, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea – it’s very specific, compared to most pop songs which will give you the basic melody and the chords, and the performers are free to add rhythmic variety and to decide instrumentation for themselves.
And while that may be true when we’re talking about Mahler, the further back in time we go the less true it is. In fact, in the 16 and 1700s, a lot of composers gave you much less information than Mahler would. For one, composers often used something called ‘figured bass’, which would only give the accompaniment instrument the bass note of the chord and some numbers to tell you what other notes you needed, and the players would add in those notes in whatever way they wanted. And the melodies were often written quite plainly, and the performers were expected to add their own embellishments and musical ideas, much like pop, rock, and jazz musicians do today.
Alright, so I guess I don’t really know how to define classical music, and most other people haven’t really figured it out either. But we all have a concept in our head of what classical music is.
And since I’ve been doing plenty of talking, let’s do a little listening: in a minute, I’m going to play you a piece you will probably recognize, and definitely know as classical. It’s a piece written by Johan Sebastian Bach called ‘Toccata and Fugue in d minor’. We don’t really know when he wrote it, but presumably it was sometime before he died in 1750. But we aren’t even sure that he wrote it, it might have been written by someone else. But it’s widely thought to have been written by Bach, so we’re going to roll with that. The piece was probably not that well-known during his life, or for a while after, but became very popular in the 20th century when it became a popular piece to use in spooky films.
Now, you’ll recognize the first couple lines, and that’s about it. But we are going to listen to the whole thing, which is about 9 minutes long. So here’s a few pointers to help you listen to it. First off, it’s easily the most famous piece written for the organ. And organs were found mostly in large churches, so even though you might not be able to find a large church with a real organ to go listen to this right now, if you can put on some headphones and imagine all the sounds physically rumbling through an old stone church, that might help set the mood. And keep in mind, this was probably the loudest kind of music, perhaps even some of the loudest sounds generally, that people in Bach’s day experienced. They didn’t have amplifiers or sound systems, but they did have these organs in very resonant churches.
The title of this piece is ‘toccata and fugue in d minor’. D minor is simply the key that it’s in, which we won’t go into too much now. ‘Toccata’ is a type of piece that’s virtuosic and shows off a player’s skill. It’s often in a ‘free style’, meaning there’s not really a particular structure that it follows, it almost feels like an improvisation. A fugue, on the other hand, is a very specifically structured piece of music.
Here’s a little caveat: I will discuss the form and structure of this piece, but to be honest, when I listen to classical music, I don’t really listen for form that much. Everyone listens differently, but when I listen I just like to get caught up in what’s happening in the music at the moment. It’s like when you read a book –you know theoretically that usually there’s an exposition in the plot where the characters are introduced, then there’s a part where a problem comes up, there’s rising action, a climax, falling action, and a conclusion. But when I read, I don’t think ‘ah yes, we have now reached the rising action portion of the plot’ – I just enjoy watching the story unfold. And I do much the same thing with music. And this piece, which some people say is overplayed, is still one of my favourites to listen to because I just find it really vivid when I listen to it that way.
But if the idea of a ‘fugue’ does sound intimidating, you can remember that a fugue starts with a main theme, called a ‘fugue subject’, which in this piece sounds like this [link to audio clip in new tab].
And then after a few bars that fugue subject comes in again but higher than the first time, while the first line continues underneath, sounding like this.
And this can happen again, like this…
In between all these entrances where you’ll hear the theme clearly, there’s all kinds of stuff going on, sometimes with bits of the theme there, though sometimes it’s chopped up or even upside down. We also get sections called ‘episodes’ where we don’t hear the theme at all for a while, it’s just the composer playing around before he brings the theme back at the end of the section, like over here.
This can all go on for a while, and as the fugue gets to the end we’ll hear the subject coming in more often, with the entrances closer together. This all leads to a long note before he brings back bits of the toccata, that freeer opening section we started with, as a coda to the piece (A coda is a term for a conclusion of a piece).
Alright, let’s give this thing a listen:
I don’t know about you, but I still enjoy that every time I listen to it!
But if all of that talk about fugues and subjects and episodes seems intimidating and a bit beyond what you can keep track of, there’s also the flip side of classical music where we get the most beautiful melodies that often get put on playlists with titles like ‘relaxing classical’ or ‘calming piano music’. Again, a lot of these get accused of being overplayed, but they still have some of my favourites, like the second movement of Mozart’s piano concerto no. 21 in C major, K. 467.
That title probably tells you nothing until I play the piece for you, which I will in just a minute, but let’s break down that title for a second.
See that’s the thing with classical music: those titles don’t really help. There’s no catchy song titles, and good luck trying to find that piece you heard if you’re trying to google ‘classical music piece with pretty piano’.
Hundreds of years ago, composers didn’t usually expect their music to be played hundreds of years after they were dead, so they weren’t that concerned with catchy titles that people could remember. The composer Joseph Haydn wrote over a symphonies, not because everyone wanted a hundred different symphonies to choose from, but because they always wanted something new, which meant the old stuff was usually forgotten pretty quickly.
When you look at this Mozart concerto’s autograph manuscript, meaning the original copy he wrote, it basically just says it’s a concerto for piano by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart written in February of 1785.
A concerto is a term for a piece of music that has a featured instrument, in this case the piano, that gets most of the attention and is accompanied by an orchestra.
So after Mozart died, people counted his piano concertos, called this one number 21, and gave it a number in his entire output of work. In this case a guy called Ludwig von Kochel did this cataloguing of all Mozart’s works, with this one being number 467, or Kochel 467, or since my German is terrible, K. 467.
So what does ‘2nd movement’ mean? Many pieces are written with multiple movements, or parts. Concertos usually are in three parts: basically, a dramatic, often fast first part, then slow, lyrical second part, and then a fast, upbeat third part. So when you hear someone talking about a second movement of a concerto, you know that it’s probably a slow piece, like this one. In fact, this movement is labelled ‘Andante’, which is an Italian word that indicates that it’s to be played at a moderately slow tempo.
That’s probably more than you want or need to know, so I’ll just tell you that in this piece, you’ll hear the main melody first in the violins, and then the piano will come in with the same melody, though it changes things up after a few lines. Still, most of the material in the movement is based on the things you hear in the first minute and a half orchestral introduction.
So, here is the andante, or 2nd movement, of Mozart’s concerto no. 21 in C major.
That’s a bit of a contrast to the Bach, isn’t it? If you liked it, I would encourage you to listen to the whole concerto, since it was written to be in between the other movements. But it works on its own too. After all, the way we listen to music and the context in which we listen to music now is different than it was in Mozart’s day, so there’s not really a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to listen to classical music, just whatever way works for you.
There are also no right or wrong composers to listen to. If you come across a classical piece you like, try looking up more music by that composer to find more music you might like! But the composer doesn’t have to be well-known for the music to be good. There are many factors that go into why some composers become famous and others don’t. So while a lot of the famous composers did write very good music, there’s also a lot of good music by composers who aren’t famous. And what is ‘good’ music, anyway? Music theorists might give you a different answer to that than musicians, or music critics, and you might not enjoy what any of them consider ‘good’ music. So never feel ashamed of the music you enjoy – if you enjoy it, then for you, it’s good music, and as far as I’m concerned that’s enough.
Alright, here are three short pieces by a lesser-known composer, Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger was a composer, performer, conductor, and teacher, but she is best known for having taught a lot of the 20th century’s greatest composers than for being a composer herself. In fact, she had a very low opinion of her own compositions later in life, and stopped composing, concentrating on teaching instead. She started teaching music when she was seventeen years old, and continued until her death at 92, and by all accounts she was an extraordinary musician and human being. And she didn’t really believe that musical geniuses had to be trained from a young age to be great. She thought that the important thing was to want to learn, to be better – and to put in the work. According to Aaron Copland,
Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music; she knew the oldest and the latest music, pre-Bach and post-Stravinsky. All technical know-how was at her fingertips: harmonic transposition, the figured bass, score reading, organ registration, instrumental techniques, structural analyses, the school fugue and the free fugue, the Greek modes and Gregorian chant.
I first came across Nadia Boulanger when I was browsing my mother’s extensive CD collection and my interest was piqued by a disc of French women composers. I don’t recall the other pieces on the CD, but this set of three pieces for cello and piano caught my interest, and I listened to them quite often over the next years.
The first movement is marked ‘modere’, or ‘moderate’. What strikes me about this piece is the colours that she gets without ever really pulling out all the stops. Apparently her playing and conducting was like that too – she liked to explore expressiveness in the quieter dynamics. In this piece, the piano stays for the most part quite high in its register, and the texture is pretty thin – you can hear all the parts going on very clearly. And while the cello does get more and more intense towards the middle section, the piano part doesn’t underscore that with big chords. To me, this gives the piece a kind of complex emotion of never quite reaching what it’s yearning for.
The second movement is in a famous form called a canon. The cello starts with a melody, and a few notes later the piano plays exactly the same melody, following behind the cello line for the whole piece. You probably know some canons yourself – the songs ‘Row row row your boat’, ‘frere Jacques’, and ‘three blind mice’ can be sung as a canon. This melody starts a little bit like a slow folk tune, and then in the middle it goes higher and throws in more chromatic, or surprising notes. Then in the end it returns to the slow melody from the beginning. This is sometimes called a ‘rounded binary form’, because we have three sections with the last one being the same as the first: so an A section, a B section, and then a repeat of the A section. Though, some people would call that ternary form – it’s one of the heated debates in music theory, which says something about music theory, I suppose. Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve taken music theory, so let’s play it safe, and you can forget I mentioned anything about ternary and rounded binary form… we’ll just say that the form is A section, B section, A section.
And then there’s the third movement, marked as ‘quick and nervously rhythmic.’ And it’s a good fun one to round out our three pieces, so I’m going to just let you listen to it yourself and enjoy!
Well, I hope you enjoyed all that, or at least some of it. I talked about a lot of different things today, from form and fugues and canons, to how musical pieces are labelled and who does the labelling, and all of that without even being able to define classical music properly! I hope you found something you liked or learned something new today, and I’d love to hear which piece was your favourite, or what you’d like to know more about. If you’re here from the habitica challenge, you can leave a comment in the Classical Music guild, or you can find me on facebook at ‘classical declassified’. I’d love to hear from you!
I’m going to leave you with one last piece – and it’s a long one, so you can save it for later if you feel a little over-saturated right now. But this is a movement from one of my absolute favourite pieces when I was growing up – in fact, it’s the piece that made me fall in love with classical music. When I was a kid, I thought classical music was nice, but not necessarily that exciting, until, when I was about nine or ten years old my mother handed me a CD of this piece to listen to (yes, I grew up back when CDs were still a big thing). I didn’t know anything about form, or the names of instruments, or even about who the composer was or when they lived, but the music was so vivid, it fired my imagination and I dreamed up whole stories about knights and adventures and heroic tales to this music. And I invite you to do the same – imagine the music is telling a story. And you don’t have to force it if you don’t want to make up a story, but see if there are any images or scenes that arise when you listen to this music.
To me, music is about telling a story, about being human, about sharing emotions. If the music touches you in any way, then you’re listening to it correctly.
So without further ado, I’m going to leave you with Antonin Dvorak’s 9th symphony: