Friday, April 24, 2009

Classical Gas

You can't possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven's Seventh and go slow. ~ Oscar Levant, explaining his way out of a speeding ticket

And now, for something completely different.

My mind works in mysterious ways, when it works at all. The other night, as usual, there was nothing worth watching on Discovery, Science Channel, or the History Channels. I mean, seriously now, gangs, explosions, Armageddon, and phony survivor shows are simply not science or history. So I sallied down to PBS and tried to watch an opera, Lucia di Lammamor. Now, the thing is, I don't really care for opera or ballet, which is strange because I really enjoy serious music. The main reason I don't like opera is that I'm not particularly fond of solo voice. Even though I can admire the voices of Beverly Sills or Luciano Pavarotti, I really prefer orchestral pieces.

In case you're curious, my gripe with ballet is that a theme will get repeated endlessly. If you've ever heard Copland's Appalachian Suite, imagine it extended to three times its length. To me, it becomes too much of a good thing. At any rate, as I struggled through Lucia's anguish, it occurred to me, as it often does, that most people these days simply don't listen to serious music.

Part of the problem is that many pieces are long, and folks these days have grown up listening to three minute pop tunes. Another thing is that you really need to listen to serious music, not boogie to the beat, go jogging, or carry on a conversation. Modern attention spans have grown so short that the contemplative nature of serious music seems to interfere with those "busy schedules" everyone seems to have.

The funny thing is that when I have serious music playing on my MP3 player at work (connected to some speakers), everyone who comes into the office comments on what beautiful music I always have on. People would listen to the stuff if it was actually available to them. But, aside from the very rare "classical" music radio station or the even rarer televised concert, people just aren't exposed to the music much any more.

Which is a shame. They just don't know what they're missing. They also don't know what "classical" music is. So I did a little Internet searching (some links are below).

The proper term for what most folks call "classical" music is "serious" music, as opposed to popular or "pop" music. "Classical" actually refers to a particular period of music. So, I'd like to take a moment to set the record straight.

There are several recognized eras or periods of serious music: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic. Then there is the 20th Century serious music which is variously labeled as Modern, Neoclassical, and Postmodern, periods which overlap and are argued over by musicologists. Let's go with the easy ones first.

Medieval music is pre-15th century stuff. Gregorian chants are typical of the period. "Chant" is the operative word here. There is little rhythmic variation or harmony in this music; this was primarily sacred music, sung in unison. A lot of what you hear called Gregorian Chants is actually modernized versions, updated to appeal to our more musically sophisticated ears.

Renaissance music is where instrumentation becomes more important, although the voice is still predominant. Madrigals and folk tunes appear in this era, which runs approximately from 1400-1600.

The Baroque period, from 1600-1750, introduces structured pieces of music that were much more elaborate and orchestral. Think Vivaldi's Four Season's. Bach and Handel are the biggest and most prolific composers of the period, but Telemann, Purcell and others are still staples of chamber orchestras today.

Now comes the Classical period (1750-1820). It's only 70 years, and today only three composers from this period would be considered well-known: Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. That's pretty impressive company, but a relative handful considering that the period has given its name to virtually all non-pop music. I really can't imagine how that has come to be, but there it is.

If you're looking for the period where all that music you've heard over the years happens, you've arrived. It's the Romantic period, running from 1820-1900. You've got Brahams, Berlioz, Debussey, Dukas, Dvorak, Grieg, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, and most everyone else who wrote what you've been calling "classical" music all your life. It was an incredible explosion of much of the greatest music of all time.

The we get to the 20th century. It's not that there hasn't been great music; there's been plenty. In our time, you can find Gershwin, Stravinsky, Prokoviev, Copland, Shostakovich, Berlioz, Bartok, and bunches more. You can also find Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage.

The music of the last century started out as a continuation of the Romantic period, but you start to see complex rhythms and all manner of polytonality. Some of these composers were influenced by jazz, some by folk tunes, and some just went off the deep end. "Modern" music was used to describe the rougher edge that could be ascribed to the music of the early 20th. This was music with attitude, but the influences of the masters were still visible. It was also called Neoclassical, depending on who you ask, although I recall a music professor separating the pre-World War I period as Modern and everything after that as Neoclassical.

Then there was Postmodern. Again, depending on who you ask, Modern and Postmodern get lumped together and Neoclassical gets lost, or they become fuzzily overlapping periods. All I know is that when someone says Postmodern, I think of Schoenberg and John Cage. Schoenberg invented a 12-tone scale with rigid rules that involved not repeating any of the 12 tones in a sequence. Aside from being hard to write, it can be hard to listen to. John Cage just went weird. Among his pieces are one that is 15 minutes of silence. At least it's easy to play.

The Postmoderns (or Moderns, if you don't like all the subdivisions) also introduced highly polytonal pieces that frequently sound like everyone in the orchestra is making it up as they go along. There are those who love this sort of thing; I can't say I've ever gotten into it, although I did hear a piece once that consisted of musical bird calls which actually sounded sort of nice.

So, there you have it: 600 years of music in a nutshell. With that much music to chose from, how can you limit yourself to the music of one generation? There's no reason to give up pop music, but there's a world of sounds that you're missing if you don't investigate serious music.

Heck, you can even call it "classical" if that's what it'll take to get you to listen to some.

Some resources:

Intro to Classical Music

20th Century Classical Music


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