The Classical Era: Haydn go seek

The Classical Era in music spanned 1730 – 1820, although “Classical” has somehow also become the term to describe pretty much all orchestral music from the Baroque through to the modern era.

So it’s important to distinguish between the era and the music.

Music of the Classical Era is less complex than that of the Baroque before it, and it aimed for a lighter and airier tone. One significant development was that the piano replaced the harpsichord, and it changed the sound of the music enormously.

Although they look the same, a harpsichord and a piano are two entirely different instruments. They both have keys and strings, but when you hit a harpsichord key, the string is plucked. When you hit a piano key, the string is hit with a small felt hammer.

You can’t vary the volume of a harpsichord, but you can that of a piano through various means, such as striking the keys harder or softer, or using the various pedals. Generally, modern pianos have three.

As for the sound, a harpsichord is the more growly and ethereal of the two. One of its most famous modern appearances was in the theme song to the TV show The Addams Family, where it lends itself appropriately to the macabre tone of the franchise.

For comparison, here’s the theme played straight on a piano. It’s the same music, but it’s amazing how different the feel is.

That’s a pretty good encapsulation of the difference between Baroque and Classical, too.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was one of the more prominent composers of the era, and is even known as “The Father of Symphonies.” He built everything from simple melodies, creating larger structures from short motifs, and then created his variations by altering the order of those motifs rather than the structure.

He created the sonata form, integrated the fugue into larger works instead of just having it stand alone, and was a big proponent of the double variation form.

Before symphonies, the common form was a three movement concerto. This evolved, with Haydn’s help, into what we most commonly think of now, which is a piece with four movements and an overall structure that follows the same pattern.

Symphonies started out as three movement concertos, but soon evolved to a four movement structure that followed the same pattern: the first movement would be fast and lively, the second would be slow, the third would be a dance, frequently in triple meter, like a waltz, scherzo, or mazurka, and the fourth would be lively and driving, bringing it to a finale.

A typical example is Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G Major (“Surprise”), in which the movements are as follows:

I: Adagio — Vivace assai

II: Andante

III: Menuetto: Allegro molto

IV: Finale: Allegro molto

What’s interesting in this one is that the first movement starts slow (adagio) but then ends up very fast (vivace assai, literally “so lively.”) The second movement is “Andante,” which literally means “walking speed” in Italian, so I’d say moderate.

Next up is the third movement, a minuet, which is a form of delicate waltz in 3/4 time (which is three beats per measure), and is moderately fast. The finale is also moderately fast, and probably in 4/4 time — four beats per measure.

The opening movement trains the audience. It starts by playing in the chosen key, in this case G Major. The theme is established and repeated, then there’s a transition that migrates us to the second theme, which is usually always written in the relative to the main key.

That can be relative Major or minor, and each key has exactly one. Since we started in G Major, the relative would be E minor. If we had started in G minor, the relative would be B flat Major.

This relative theme plays two times, then we transition back to recap the original theme. After this, there’s another transition, and this is where the composer cuts loose and starts to play with the original themes.

This time, though, the secondary theme is transposed into the primary key, so that now both are being played in G Major in this example. It’s mix and match and play and explore  until finally coming back to another transition, ending with the original theme followed by a coda, which is often a repeat of a bar or short phrase from the original theme, teasing the audience up until the final chord.

This was one of Haydn’s signatures, too — drawing out that moment of finally getting to the end, which has become a trope of Classical Music. One great example of this is the end of Tchaikovsky ‘s 1812 Overture, which pulls the full-on endless ending.

Haydn also used humor in his work. The Surprise Symphony, above, is named that for a reason.

This happened largely because in the years when he was developing everything, he pretty much was the court composer for one prince. He didn’t have any contact with what was going on outside of that castle in Austria, and his job was to keep the prince amused. Hence… he changed the course of Western Music once his stuff got out.

Haydn is also the literal bridge from C.P.E. Bach to Mozart and Beethoven. He trained with the first one and mentored the other two.

He composed 106 symphonies, which is a lot. As for the surprise mentioned previously, as my music history teacher told the story, Haydn wanted to write the piece so that the second movement would get very quiet, making all the old folk in the audience lean forward to hear it. And then, bam! There’s a sudden loud orchestral sting that was meant to knock them back in their seats.

Okay, not a huge joke, but that was the trick he pulled off multiple times. You can hear the first one at about 1:15 in this video. Of course, that surprise isn’t as much of a surprise as it originally was, which is probably why modern conductors don’t vary the dynamics as much anymore — that is, the quiet part isn’t as quiet as originally played, nor is the loud part as loud.

And I had intended to get to Mozart and Beethoven in this edition, but I’ve run long, so I’ll save them for next week.

The Baroque Era: It’s all about the rules

The first musical style of the modern era was Renaissance, and you’ve heard imitations of it if you’ve ever seen a movie set between 1400 and 1600 — lots of lutes, pipes, and very dry-sounding drums, with the melodies usually in a minor key and odd lyrics that don’t really rhyme.

It did represent the beginnings of music moving further away from strictly religious use, although there had certainly been secular music at the time.

I’ll get to it in the section on Modern Classical music, but Carl Orff did write several suites based on 13th Century secular music, and one of the most famous bits of them, O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, gets used over and over in film and TV, often for dramatic effect, but just as often for satire.

While there were a number of Renaissance composers, I’ll be skipping over them and heading to the next musical period, which was Baroque, spanning the years 1600 to 1750. But “baroque,” which comes from a Portuguese word meaning oddly-shaped pearl, also applies to architecture and art.

The common factor to all three, though, is a certain degree of intricacy combined with regularity.

When it came to the music, the regularity was particularly strict, which is one of the reasons that I’m not a huge fan of the style. It can get repetitive and boring fast.

Symphonies did not yet exist, so composers created things like concertos, cantatas (song cycles), and operas and oratorios. But each of these was created from a collection of movements, and each movement followed very specific rules.

The composer would begin by introducing a simple melody. This would repeat twice, the second time leading to a brief transitional melody. Then, it was time for the second melody, or theme, which would be related to but contrast the first.

For example, if a piece is in a particular Major key, then the B theme might be in the relative minor. So, for a piece in G Major, the B theme might be in E minor. It repeats twice and then does its own transition back to the first theme.

Lather, rinse, repeat for both A and B.

Okay, that’s your audience ear-training. Next up: the variations, but, again the rules are strict. This isn’t jazz, so your performers can’t just start riffing. Rather, you can provide one of a few rigid transformations on the original melody.

For example, you can invert it. What this means is that you reverse the direction the notes move, starting from the first one. If you’re writing in G Major and your first measure was originally G-B-D-C-E, which is two steps up, two steps up, one step down, and two steps up, then you just change up to down.

The inverted version would be G-E-C-D-F#. And so on.

You can also reverse the theme, in which case you basically write the notes out in the reverse order. In that variation, the theme above would end with E-C-D-B-G.

You can transpose, which means moving the notes up or down. Moving the notes of a melody up or down a third often works well. In the case of our example, G-B-D-C-E would become either B-D-F#-E-G or E-G-B-A-C.

It’s not just note order, either. You can vary the tempo — for example, make the melody twice as fast or half as fast by altering the value of the notes. You can even do a rondo, which you already know if you’ve ever sung “Row, row, row your boat” with each group of singers beginning after the first refrain is sung.

Introduce variation, repeat, transition, do likewise for the B theme, and then… stack ‘em on top of each other and if you’ve done it right, you should get a very intricate layering that all manages to work together, mainly because it was created from the same two melodies and following a few specific rules.

Finally, bring it back into the station by repeating your original unadorned themes and adding a finale, quite often of the “repeat that riff eight times until it lands” type that has become a trope all its own.

This all works because music is just math, and the formulas for doing Baroque were well thought out. But, again, it makes the music formulaic. In fact, you could create an entire Baroque symphonic movement by computer by just writing the first two melodies and then letting the rules do the rest.

Hell, you could probably even get a computer to write the first two themes as well.

The formulaic nature also must have made it easy to write Baroque music, because the composers of the time were ridiculously prolific.

Georg Frideric Handel wrote a ton of works — nearly 200 compositions in total, and yes, you probably know one of them. That would be his oratorio Messiah, and if you don’t know the whole work, you definitely know the Hallelujah Chorus.

Vivaldi topped Handel with at least 820 catalogued works in his lifetime. He’s best known for his Four Seasons, and if you were to hear a snippet of any one of the four movements right now, you would recognize it instantly.

But J.S. Bach put them all to shame, composing 1,128 pieces in the 65 years of his life — although the actual catalog may go higher than that, with up to 1,175 entries.

So yes, all very prolific, but you have to remember one thing: live music of that era was basically the social media of the day. Other than books and live theatre, there wasn’t much else going on. The composers sponsored by the royalty of the day were the influencers, and they set the tone and style.

So if you think about it, it’s not that weird that Bach or any other composer could write that many things in their lifetime because, a) what else was there to do? And b) how many YouTube, Insta, or TikTok videos does the average influencer post in a typical year?

It adds up. And when you’ve been given musical rules that make it pretty much as easy as making and uploading a video to social media (and you have interns who can follow your instructions and write out those variations and create the written scores), then the job is probably a lot easier than it looks.

There were hundreds of Baroque-era composers, if not thousands. Very few are remembered now. And that’s probably an object lesson for today’s influencers. Many of you exist, few will be long remembered.

As for the rigidity of Baroque music, that lives with us to this day. It’s the secret behind every pop song that’s been on the radio since at least the 1950s. But that’s a tune for another day.

Image source: Johann Sebastian Bach in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, second version of his 1746 canvas. Public domain work.

Friday Free for all #38: Words, music, and magic

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the most disgusting sounding word in the English language?

I know that a lot of people don’t like the word “moist,” but I don’t see what the problem with it is. And it’s still a toss-up whether the disgust people feel for words in whatever language have more to do with the sound than with the concept or thing it’s describing.

One web poll, for example, ranked “lugubrious” as a disgusting sounding word, but its meaning is decidedly not. It just refers to something that looks or sounds sad or dismal.

I don’t think I have one word in particular, but I do have some nominees: phlegm, smegma, and clitoris. And no, it has nothing to do with two of them being really gross bodily secretions and one being a very important part of the female anatomy.

It’s just that the first two sound a lot like they smell, as it were, and when you can smell a word, that’s bad. Also, it wouldn’t be at all inappropriate to pronounce either one like you’re about to hock up a giant loogie. And both “hock” and “loogie” aren’t far from round out a top five list for me here.

As for “clitoris,” no matter which syllable you emphasize (c-LIT-oris? Cli-TOR-is?) it’s just got too many clicks and weak vowels in it.

Do you like classical music?

No, I don’t like classical music. I FUCKING LOVE IT! Then again, I had a rather unusual musical upbringing as a child, starting with me beginning musical lessons when I was seven years old. And, fortunately, a hell of a lot of that learning was based on music theory — i.e., the Circle of Fifths, and the relationships of chords and keys to each other.

End result: while I’ve always been okay at reading sheet music, I’ve been demon motherfucking at improvising and composing. That’s part one.

Part two: My paternal grandfather — actually, step-grandfather, but I never met my bio one, so he counts as my only real one — was a big-time audiophile, and he was constantly going off to buy lots of records. Um… “lots” in the “sold in bulk” sense, and not in the “numerous sense.”

He would get these from estate sales or thrift shops or wherever. He’d bring them home, and remove what interested him — which was anything jazz, blues, big band, etc., before the era of rock and roll.

So… he would cull his collection, and leave behind endless milk crates with tons of classic rock albums, along with anything spoken voice and anything classical. Whenever I or any of my three same-age (second) cousins (long story) would visit, we got to go through the crates and take what we wanted.

Naturally, my cousins went for the classic rock, but I really didn’t have much interest in that. Instead, I went for the spoken word, and so discovered many a comedian I otherwise might not have because they came before my time. But I also grabbed anything classical I could get my hands on.

This all happened when I was in elementary and middle school, and I had already found Beethoven and Mozart, while my music lessons had introduced me to Chopin and Debussy. And then I got to high school, and had the most wonderful music teach of all.

His name was Ken Kamp, now deceased, and he was mostly a jazzman, but I wound up in marching band, orchestra, and the jazz ensemble with him throughout my high school years. Since I was a keyboardist, I only played piano in the latter. In the first two, I was the bass drummer and percussionist, particularly timpanist.

But the most amazing thing was the music history class I took with him my first year, and he made everything come alive, because he had a knack for turning it into stories. He would cover a couple of composers with dramatized bits, play some of their stuff, and I would add “Artists to check out” to me brain list.

One class I remember in particular was when he covered Hector Berlioz, mostly known for the Symphonie fantastique, but who actually wrote the definitive book on orchestration, and he did it by picking the minds of students at a particular music academy.

To this day, I remember him acting out the supposed scenario in the school cafeteria. “So he found the best player of a particular instrument, like, say, the oboe. And he sat them down and said, ‘Okay… what are your high and low notes, and what keys work for you, and if you finger it like this, is that easier than that?’”

Anyway… that march through the classics really influenced me as a composer, and gave me tons of favorites. My top ten? Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Orff, Holst, Williams, Elfman. (Yes, the last two do write classical music.)

If you ever want to have the most emotional experience of your life, go see (when it’s possible again) a full orchestral and choral performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Stay for it all, then strap in for the fourth movement.

When it hits the finale, if you don’t explode into tears of pure joy, then you have no soul.

What’s the closest thing to magic that actually exists?

I subscribe to Clarke’s Third Law, named for science fiction Arthur C. Clarke, which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So… that thing in your pocket that you can surf the internet on, send messages to people around the world, watch videos, make phone calls, and so on? Yeah, take that back to 1970 with some sort of time-link still connected to now, and you would make people’s heads explode with your witchcraft.

Of course, nowadays, a lot of people take the magic for granted and don’t even realize that without Einstein, their GPS would not work. Why? Because, relativity. Meaning that the GPS satellite up above the Earth experiencing slightly less gravity also experiences time in a slightly different way.

Meaning that in order to do the very precise calculations that won’t dump your ass in a canyon whenever you try to drive to CostCo require very refined adjustments to account for the different inertial frames of reference experienced by the satellite, your cell phone, and the nearest transmission towers.

Sure, the differences are in milliseconds or less, but they can translate into huge differences in spatial difference on Earth. If you’re off by one degree, depending on latitude, you could be off by tens of miles. Even an error of a second of latitude or longitude could put you off by dozens of feet.

But if you want real magic, then you have to dive into the big and the small — astrophysics and quantum physics.

Caveat: this is only magic if you don’t understand it. I’ve kind of been a fan forever, so I guess that makes me amateur wizard.

Anyway… astrophysics has taken us to the Moon and all of the planets in our Solar System, even sending two probes out. Meanwhile, it has also sent our eyes across the local group and the universe, with which we have learned so much — like discovering thousands of exoplanets, learning tons about black holes, gauging the true age of the universe, and even possibly discovering evidence of universes before it.

Quantum physics has run in the other direction, and proven that it does not get along with large-scale classical physics — yet. But it has taught us a bit about what everything is made of, and how weird reality gets at very tiny scales — and how tiny those scales are compared to everything else.

Just take a look at this amazing video from Morn1415, whom I encourage all of you to follow, because he does amazing stuff, indistinguishable from magic.

But, honestly, to me, the real magic was (and someday again may be) the look of love and admiration given to me by any of the dogs who I’ve ever been lucky enough to have as a companion.  Note that I will never say “dogs I’ve owned,” because I never owned them. They just decided to let me share my life with them.

And that was always the real magic.