The most classic: Mozart and Beethoven

UPDATE: When I wrote and scheduled this article to post on Tuesday, January 26, I hadn’t even realized that the next day, January 27th, was Mozart’s birthday, so my timing was very appropriate. 

Last week, I wrote about Franz Joseph Haydn, considered the father of the symphony. He was the composer largely responsible for taking us from the stair world of the Baroque to the soaring world of Classical music.

Haydn lived from 1732 to 1809, so he came long before today’s subjects, Mozart and Beethoven.

Commonly known as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the boy baptized as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born in Salzburg Austria, although at the time it was still part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was born twenty-four years after Haydn, in 1756. A child prodigy, he would have grown up on the forms that Haydn created and perfected.

Although the film Amadeus is now almost thirty-seven years old, it was enough of a hit and Award-winner at the time that it’s still in circulation, and it’s probably the one source for everything that most people thing they know about Mozart.

The film is accurate… and not. When it comes to Mozart’s personality, it pretty much nails it. When it comes to the whole Salieri thing, that’s all made up.

If you’re not familiar with the film, our narrator and villain is the composer Antonio Salieri, and in the film’s version of history, while Salieri has a little success as a court composer, Mozart is a superstar, and the fact that he’s also an immature and foul-mouthed little shit drives Salieri crazy, so he conspires to drive Mozart to an early grave.

Yeah, that never happened. But it’s definitely true that Mozart put the “ass” in Classical Music. I mean, this is the guy who wrote a Canon for six voices called Leck mich im Arsch. In case your German is rusty, that title literally translates to “lick my asshole,” although it’s colloquially translated to “kiss my ass.”

The former is funnier, though.

Of course, when it was finally published, the lyrics were bastardized as Laßt froh uns sein, or “let us be glad,” which just doesn’t have the same ring to it, pun intended.

Although he died at only 35, Mozart was a composer admired by other composers, and studying his scores became a standard part of musical education. All of his works, from symphonies to operas, were wildly popular in his lifetime. He certainly knew how to write a catchy melody, play with it joyously, and create rich and complex orchestrations unlike anything else being done at the time.

He also broke with the “rule” of the era: Operas were only written in Italian. While he did compose many of them with Italian librettos (Le nozze di Figaro, or The Marriage of Figaro, being the most famous example) he also composed them in German, which was a scandal at the time. The most famous of his German operas is arguably Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute.

Meanwhile, while Mozart was at the height of his fame and approaching his early demise, a teenage boy who himself was born when Mozart was fourteen was listening to his music and was a huge fan.

His name was Ludwig van Beethoven. A German composer, he was born in 1770 and died in 1827. Mozart was a huge influence on his music, and Ludwig van went on to become a bridge from Classical music — which was still about form and style — and bring on the Romantic era, which was all about emotion.

Although he only wrote nine symphonies (Mozart composed 50), Beethoven was basically doing the concept albums of his time, and almost all of his symphonies had a theme. One of the more controversial in that regard was his Third Symphony in E-flat Major, titled Eroica, or “Heroic.”

He originally dedicated it “to Bonaparte,” as in Napoleon, in 1804, when he was still First Consul. The composer later withdrew that dedication when Napoleon declared himself Emperor and Beethoven’s lofty opinion of him changed quickly.

But one of his more controversial moves, style-wise, was in his Sixth Symphony in F Major, dubbed Pastoral Symphony. Now what was the big deal about this one?

He had the sheer audacity to write it with five movements instead of the standard four, and each movement had its own scene-setting.

It was clear by this point that he was writing his music with the intention of creating specific images and feelings in his audience’s minds and hearts.

Interesting fact: He only wrote two of his symphonies in minor keys, but the happen to be two of his most well-known. These are his Fifth Symphony in C minor, which is famous for its “da da da DUM” phrase, and his Ninth Symphony in D minor, titled The Choral Symphony.

There’s a further little detail about the Fifth Symphony as well: later on, when Samuel F.B. Morse created his Morse Code, the pattern for V was dot dot dot dash, which exactly matched the rhythm of the main theme in this symphony. Timing-wise, the first three notes collectively play out in half the length of the second note.

But… this came back with ironic effect in WWII, because the letter V, for the allies, became associated with Victory. Churchill was flashing the V sign long before it came to mean “peace” in the 60s. So, this musical motif that spelled out V in Morse Code became a very popular symbol for the allies, who were fighting the Germans.

You know — the folk from the same country as Ludwig van.

My music history teacher in high school did tell us a story about the Ninth that, thanks to the internet, I can’t confirm, which is a bit of a disappointment. In his version, the original performance bombed because the copyists rushed to prepare the scores and Beethoven was too hearing-impaired by that point to hear the mistakes, so the piece was not performed for years.

Then, at the end of WWII, a young American soldier was in Berlin, doing a house-to-house sweep to find any hiding Nazis, and in one attic he ran across a musical manuscript he immediately recognized as the score of the Ninth, but as he looked at it, he realized it was different than the version he knew because it was the correct one.

This was how the symphony was saved, and that young soldier was Leonard Bernstein.

Except that story was total bullshit. Dammit. Because it’s one I wanted to like. The simple truth is that the piece was a hit from the beginning, although some fuddy-duddies thought it was too loud and complex.

It’s big innovation — and hence the name of Choral Symphony — was that it did, indeed, involve a group of soloists and a choir, something that hadn’t been done before in a symphony.

The fourth movement incorporates a poem by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, An die Freude or Ode to Joy, and the entire movement builds on that theme remarkably.

Honestly, Beethoven’s Ninth is my favorite piece of classical music ever, period, and especially that fourth movement. If you ever have a chance to see it performed live by a reputable professional orchestra under a name conductor, do it.

You will not be disappointed. One of my favorite concert experiences of all times was years ago, when we still had live concerts, and I went with friends to a Hollywood Bowl classical marathon.

I don’t remember now whether the show ran from noon to midnight or if it started later, like at two or four. I just remember that they wisely programmed about half an hour of original compositions by the conductor (who was not known as a composer) around six thirty in the evening, which gave people a convenient excuse to sneak off and grab food and take a bathroom break.

But at the end of the evening came the Ninth, and at the end of the Ninth came the fourth movement, and by the end of it, everyone was on their feet, cheering and jumping up and down and clapping and crying tears of joy.

It’s that powerful of a piece, really. And by the time it rolled out in 1824, Beethoven had changed the face of Western music forever.

I’ll leave you with just the finale of the movement, conducted by the great Dudamel himself.

Image source: Mozart, Barbara Krafft, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Beethoven, also public domain.

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.

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