Classical Music: In The Beginning

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

If music be the food of love, play on. . . .

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


There are many quotes about music, arguably humanity’s first art form. Music has been a part of every culture since humanity became human, or perhaps before — chimpanzees are known to pound branches on the ground in rhythm, and the gibbons of southeastern Asia mark their territories with arias that are near operatic.

It seems that somewhere along the line, music split: all through history there has been the vernacular music, songs sung by the people at their festivals or in their taverns, but there has also been another strand, music composed and performed for select groups, what we can refer to as “art music.” Perhaps the earliest example we have of that is the music that accompanied aristocratic dinner parties in the Golden Age of Greece.

There’s yet another strand we need to consider, what I call as a general class “church music.” It started off as the plainsong and chant of monks in their monasteries, and gradually became an integral part of the mass: this was music composed for effect, to illustrate the glory of God — indeed, sometimes the music itself is otherworldly.

And then we get to what most of us think of as “classical music” — whatever we hear when we get dressed up and go to a concert by our local orchestra. Of course, on closer examination, like most things it’s not that simple: to those who live in it, “classical” refers to a specific period, encompassed by the time from middle Haydn to early Beethoven. Before that, we have the baroque of Bach, Vivaldi and Locatelli, and later comes the romantic period — you know, two of the “Three B’s” (Beethoven and Brahms), through Wagner and Liszt, all the way up to Mahler, which tapers off into that plethora of styles and schools that characterize the twentieth century — Stravinsky’s experiments in neo-classicism, the forays of Schoenberg, Berg, and others into atonalism, the modernism of later Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, and Bartók, and then the explosion that was music after World War II: further forays into atonalism, the serial minimalism of Riley, Glass, and Reich, what can only be termed the “contemporary avant-garde” of composers such as John Cage, Krysztof Penderecki, Morton Feldman, John Tavener, and a host of others, each of whom seems to have assimilated different influences in service of their own vision.

We’re going to explore some of those particular -isms today, just sort of poke around to see what the vernacular understanding of “classical music” encompasses.


It’s not all going to be music, though. We have some books to start with. First up is a double review of Michael Davidson’s The Classical Piano Sonata from Haydn to Prokofiev and, from Vlado Perlemuter and Hèléne Jourdan-Morhange, Ravel According to Ravel: ‘Music, among the forms of art, is a rather strange beast. It is ephemeral, subjective, almost completely dependent on interpretation, and, looked at logically, has no intrinsic meaning unless paired with a text (which does not keep us from responding as though it does). It relies heavily on tradition, which can be amplified, explained, and sometimes even changed by scholarship.’

It’s not only the names of composers that echo down the halls of time — who has not heard of “the Strad”? And with good reason, as Toby Faber makes clear in Stradivari’s Genius: ‘One of the most shamefully puzzling phenomena in the history of our continual technological “progress” is the simple fact that a violin maker of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries manufactured instruments that no one has since been able to match, much less exceed.’

One of the key elements in the pervasiveness of music in our contemporary world is the advent and development of sound recording. Colin Symes, in Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Classical Recording, delivers a high-powered view of the phenomenon: ‘This is “history” in a very thorough, deeply probing sense, not merely a recitation of names and dates, but a full-bore examination of the construction of “records” as a mode of information exchange and the attendant expansion of the social parameters of “entertainment” and “music.”’


Classical music, and its practitioners, make it into that other twentieth-century medium, film. Perhaps the best-known example of that is Milos Forman’s Amadeus: ‘The story of Amadeus is by now fairly well known. From a screenplay by Peter Shaffer based in turn on his original stage play, the film is told in flashback from the viewpoint of Italian composer Antonio Salieri, who lived and worked in Vienna as Court Composer to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. We meet Salieri in the film’s opening scenes, just after he has screamed “Mozart! I killed you!” into the Viennese night and attempted suicide.’


And yes, classical music — in this case, one of the great works of the romantic era, Der Ring des Nibelungen — has even made it into comics: ‘It never would have occurred to me to make a graphic novel out of Wagner’s Ring cycle, but on reflection, it’s a natural — I mean, who is more a superhero than Siegfried, the son of a god, running around slaying dragons with a magical sword and all?’


Although it predates the classical period, most listeners are happy to include Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in their list of “serious” music — perhaps because it is so ubiquitous: ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is arguably one of the most performed, and certainly among the most heard, of Baroque masterpieces, having made its way from musty libraries to concert halls to shopping malls.’

And of course, we can’t start a discussion of “classical” music without reference to the first the the “Three B’s”, Johann Sebastian Bach. We’re including a legendary performance here, Glenn Gould’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations: ‘Bach’s Goldberg Variations occupy a somewhat anomalous place in his oeuvre: he wasn’t big on theme-and-variations compositions, having produced only one other such work in his long and fecund career. Unfortunately, his feelings toward this form are forever lost in the mists of time — he left no record of his opinion on this matter.’ Theme and variations, however, became a very important element in the growth of the classical/romantic repertoire.

Opera is an integral part of classical music as most people see it — in fact, it’s the highest of high-brow forms: it’s no mistake that the Victor Company, in its efforts to sell its gramophones, enlisted the likes of Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar to record arias from famous operas: instant status. One of the most delightful efforts in this area was Joseph Haydn’s Orlando Paladino: ‘Joseph Haydn, the composer who did as much as anyone, and more than most, to create the style we know as “classical,” was also one of the wittiest artists of a witty era. He also created some of the most profound music of the time, reaching through a highly artificial style to reach emotional truth. In Orlando Paladino we get both the wit and the emotion.’

We can’t discuss classical music sensibly without talking about Mozart — probably the first name that comes to mind when someone says “prodigy.” He’s another one who wrote operas (as well as symphonies, concertos, sonatas — you name it). One of his most popular works in this vein is Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which today we might call a “crossover” piece: ‘I should point out that calling it an “opera” is not entirely accurate. It’s really a Singspiel, somewhat allied to the ballad opera also popular in the eighteenth century, but more closely akin to the later operetta and even the American musical. . . . It was really a popular entertainment (those who have seen the film Amadeus may remember the ambience of the scenes of the rehearsal and performance of this work — somewhere between a rock concert and a Saturday matinee, with beer).’

And then, Beethoven, naturally. He’s the guy who pretty much singlehandedly created the Romantic movement, and I suspect that anyone who’s paid much attention to classical music has heard a Beethoven symphony or two. What we tend to forget is that they didn’t sound like that when Beethoven wrote them, as demonstrated by Roger Norrington’s “original instruments” recording: ‘These recordings, however, have been more than entertaining — they’ve also given me some insights into Beethoven’s music that I don’t think I would ever have found any other way. Keep in mind that this music was written during the Napoleonic era, when the conventions of musical creation and performance were much different than they are now, and that, like everyone else, I come to Beethoven through the symphony orchestra as it exists today — which is to say, post-Brahms, post-Wagner, post-Mahler.’

Beethoven was, in fact, such a dominating figure in nineteenth-century music that everyone claimed direct descent, no matter their differing approaches. I think my vote would go to Johannes Brahms, whose music seems the closest to the line of Beethoven and Schubert. Brahms added a dimension that he actually shares with one of his chief rivals, Richard Wagner, as evidenced in his piano concertos as performed by Emanuel Ax: ‘If there is one characteristic of the works of Johannes Brahms that can be called definitive, it is scale. I don’t mean length or number of performers — in those areas he was far outstripped by Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler and Busoni, to name a few. I’m really referring to conceptual size as reflected in the architecture of each work. I’ve remarked before that even in his works for solo piano and his chamber music, one has the sense of a full symphony orchestra hovering in the background, just waiting to get into the act.’

We musn’t forget that the Romantic movement was not limited to Germany — the Russians got involved, and managed to create their own strand of romanticism in music. The major figure, of course, was Tchaikovsky, but lest you go away from here still clinging to him as the composer of “Sugar Plum Fairies” and the like, take a look at our reaction to his piano concertos: ‘Piotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky seems to have made a habit of writing concertos that were condemned as “unplayable” and then took their places near the top of the roster in the romantic canon. Like his Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Major, composed for his mentor and sponsor Nikolai Rubenstein, brother of the great Anton Rubenstein, was condemned by the intended soloist, using the “U” word.’

Of course, “scale” and Richard Wagner are almost synonymous: his great epic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is about sixteen hours of opera: ‘Wagner’s operas made great use of stories from legend and medieval romance — Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and the like. Wagner decided to write an opera about the great medieval Emperor Frederick Barbarossa that eventually turned into the Ring, and he wrote the cycle backwards.’

And as the nineteenth century draws to a close and the Romantic movement has grown to dominate European music, we come to Gustav Mahler, whose complete symphonies as recorded by Leonard Bernstein are illuminating, to say the least: ‘The thing about Mahler that strikes me on listening to Bernstein’s recordings is that the man caught the soul of a time that was, like the century that followed, poised on the edge, and it’s a soul that Bernstein understands very well. Even though Mahler is often considered the highest of the “high Romantics,” there is something essentially modern in his outlook.’


And as a coda for today’s edition, we turn to one of the best-known pieces of music in the Western tradition, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from his monumental Ninth Symphony — in a rather unusual, but very contemporary performance.

That was fun. Maybe we’ll do “classical” music in the twentieth century sometime.

About Robert

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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