Monday, February 18, 2013

Classical Music and Terminology: Boggling the Mind on a Whole New Level since 1600

Terminology is confusing.

Sometimes I think it’s because people “in-the-know” want to maintain their elitist standing and  create these terms to confuse the outsiders. Instead of a secret handshake, it’s like some kind of secret wink.

Just as computer geeks have their own language and people in the insurance or banking business insist on bamboozling me with terms about interest rates and investments, musicians have their own way of getting back at the world.

When I worked in the classical-music-on-the-radio field, there were those who felt we needed to explain everything in laymen’s terms, translating the foreign words so they made sense to an audience only half listening. It was considered “off-putting” to give a piece of music its original French title or describe a tempo or playing technique when a translation or short definition would be better.

So perhaps that’s why I never got into sports: no one on a TV broadcast was going to explain every single time what a birdie was, or why a quarterback looks just as big as a fullback or what RBI means. The argument, I’m told, is, “if you want to follow the sport, you learn the lingo.”


Anyway, I admit there are tons of terms – and concepts – not all of which are easy to figure out, especially since music (or rather, the classical music I’m talking about: Western Classical Music between, say, 1600 and 1900) originated in Italy. So we have lots of Italian words for tempo indications (in fact, even tempo might not be universally understood: from the Latin “tempus” meaning time but in reality how fast that time is flying, so to speak). The basic handful would be

Largo – very slow
Adagio – slow
Andante – not too slow, more of a walking tempo (from “andare, to walk”)
Allegro – usually considered “fast” but more like “lively”
Vivace – fast
Presto – real fast

Even Germans and Russians will use these Italian terms though the French, being French, will use their own language. Otherwise, the Italian basics are fairly universal. We might talk about American composer Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings but would it sound as good as if we called it the Slow for Strings?

The piano, for instance, was originally a pianoforte, advanced technology over the older keyboard instrument called the harpsichord because, unlike that instrument from the Baroque era, the piano could play both soft and loud at the same time, whereas the harpsichord was either one or the other until you switched some levers to engage more strings. You couldn’t play a crescendo – that is, going from one dynamic level to a louder one – on a harpsichord, but you could on a piano. But since piano means “soft” and forte means “loud,” should we say I’m playing the Softloud?

The Doric Quartet in an intense moment
On the other hand, plain old English is good enough for other things, like “string quartet” which means a group of four string players but not just any four strings players: a string quartet is made up of two violins, a viola and a cello. If you had one violin, a viola, a cello and a bass (or double bass), then it would be “a quartet of strings.”

So you’d think a “piano quartet” would be four pianos, right? Sorry – that’s an ensemble that consists of a piano and three stringed instruments, usually a violin, a viola and a cello. Just as a “piano trio” is a piano, a violin and a cello.

And just because a piano has strings in it, it's played by hitting keys which activate hammers which then strike those strings so it's classed as a percussion instrument - like a drum or a xylophone because it's something you hit. Or is played by means of hitting.

(The roof, alas, is not generally considered a percussion instrument.)

The Appalachian Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina
An orchestra is a larger group of instruments combining various woodwind, brass and stringed instruments along with percussion which could include the harp, but it’s not necessarily a specific list of instruments. You could have pairs of woodwinds – flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon – or maybe just oboes and bassoons, or maybe a pair of these and a single flute. In Mozart’s day, you might have trumpets but they didn’t use trombones in a “symphony orchestra” until the next generation, even though trombones were often found for special effects in the opera orchestra. Go figure...

(Let’s save the difference between a chamber orchestra, a symphony orchestra (or just a symphony) and a philharmonic for later…)

A Bach-sized Orchestra
Originally, in Johann Sebastian Bach’s day (the early-1700s), an “orchestra” could be just a handful of players – maybe six or seven or a dozen. Mozart, in the 1780s, probably had 20-some or more, but not much more. A large orchestra in Beethoven’s day (the next generation) might have 45. By the end of the 19th Century, orchestras could have 100 players. Today, unless you’re playing a piece that required more, a typical orchestra might have about 75 players. So the term is a little vague and dependent on lots of other… things.

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Another thing that can be confusing are these “eras” that we divide classical music into. First of all, these are approximations – the Classical Era did not begin on January 1st, 1750. The Romantic Era did not end on Dec. 31st, 1899.

And there’s a problem already – classical music and Classical music. The generic ‘lower-case’ classical refers to the “art music” side of music as opposed to what we consider the “popular music” side of it. Which becomes a problem because “art music” sounds so high-falutin’ and must mean, conversely, that “classical music is unpopular.” Granted, it has a smaller audience – call it elitist if you want, or a niche, in modern marketing terms – but it has its devoted followers.

And Classical music (upper-case) refers to the era of Mozart and Haydn, between 1750 and around 1800, give or take...

Now of course there’s also the added conundrum that, in the 1800s, popular music was being written by composers who wrote what we consider “art music” today. We think of Johann Strauss as “classical” but in his day, he was the equivalent of (pick a popular band of the day). If you consider the impact each had on their respective audiences as well as on their fellow musicians, Nicolo Paganini, a wizard of the violin in the early-1800s, could be described as the Michael Jackson of his day. Not only did both do amazing new things technically (Jackson as a dancer, Paganini as a violinist), they both knew how to put on a good show, toured all over the place, brought in huge sums of money, and had unfortunate ends.

Michael Jackson
Remember Michael Jackson’s thing about wearing one glove? Franz Liszt, as a handsome young man with long hair, played the piano with his profile to the audience (before that, the piano was placed so the pianist's back was to the audience) and would come out to the piano, sit down and peel his gloves off his hands before playing: it is said women used to swoon when he did this.

So let’s think of “art music” as music that requires you to “listen actively” to it – emotionally and intellectually engaged in it (right brain and left brain – check) where as “popular music” only requires that you enjoy it, meaning “passive listening” is sufficient to your enjoyment. You can listen to “art music” passively and still enjoy it, but there’s more to it than just that. If a pop song today gets you moving, that’s really all it needs to do (not that you can’t use your left-brain to analyze it but that’s not its intent).

The other thing is that we can talk about “classical” elements in music and we can talk about “romantic” elements in music – going back to the right brain and left brain idea: that the logical, literal left-brain personality is (like Apollo) “classical” and that the irrational, emotional, spontaneous right-side of the brain is (like Dionysus) “romantic.”

Let the confusion begin!

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So, most text books will say the Baroque Era is from 1600 to 1750 and the Classical Era is from 1750 to 1800. Some say 1820, others may say 1825 – give or take. (For anyone concerned about what’s correct on a test, any of these three end-dates would be deemed acceptable, as difficult as the concept of vagueness might be for those of you more literal and left-brained.)

J. S. Bach
If the Baroque began as a simplifying reaction to the complexity of the Renaissance around 1600, Baroque music had become more complicated around 1700 so that by the time of Bach’s death in 1750 – the arbitrary end-point for the age – it was just as complex in its own way as the Renaissance had become before 1600.

Then the Classical Era began as a simplifying reaction to the complexity of the Baroque, but it had already started before the death of Bach in 1750. In fact, some of the leading exponents of this “new simplicity” were sons of Bach himself – especially #2 Son, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach and his last son, Johann Christian Bach (there were, in all 20 children and every son became a composer – even the one who today would be called a ‘special needs child’ – and it’s quite possible several of the daughters were, too). The Bach Boys would refer to their dad as “The Old Pigtail” (behind his back).

Another great Baroque composer – George Frederic Handel (of “Hallelujah Chorus” fame) – lived past 1750 and was still composing in a Baroque style. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the leading “Classical” composers, was born in 1756 but Handel died three years later, still composing Baroque-style music (I guess he didn’t get the memo).

Mozart died in 1791, Haydn in 1809 – but by 1800, Beethoven was well on his way to becoming the Next Big Name with his first symphony and his first set of string quartets, all published or first heard in 1800. While to us, these still sound very much like the music of his teacher Haydn and his favorite composer Mozart, to listeners at the time, they were modern and innovative and, in some cases, “way out.” By 1803, when Beethoven wrote his 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” he was on to something quite new. And with that, Beethoven introduced what we consider “Romantic” Music for the 19th Century.

The problem is, until the 1820s, most of the other composers from this period were still writing in the Classical Style – Beethoven was kind of a one-man phenomenon, so it’s not entirely accurate to say he was the leader of the Romantic Era – he was it! At least for a while.

But more on that, later.

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Before 1600, we could divide “classical music” into two types –

sacred: since the church was the employer of most professional musicians and it was the church who felt the need to write down and eventually print the music written for the church service…


secular: music for everyday use, usually the entertainment music or – gosh – what we’d consider “popular” music today and which didn’t need to be written down since it was played by itinerant or “free-lance” musicians who, we might say, “will play hit tunes for food,” and who passed it on to future generations the same way folk songs and the ancient epics of Homer survived – through the “oral tradition” (as opposed to the “printed edition”).

But composers could write music for the church and they could write “love songs” for popular consumption. Josquin de Prez (or des Pres) could be famous for his masses but he might be more popular for that little “Cricket” song which was wildly popular in his day. (You can hear a not great performance here,but it gives you the translation of the text and a little story about it.)

In the Baroque Era, Bach was a Lutheran and a church composer who wrote mostly cantatas for the weekly church services. (Cantatas were the Protestant equivalent of the Catholic Mass. Even though one of the greatest Masses in the repertoire is by Johann Sebastian Bach, it was not written for a Catholic service, but was a compendium of different parts of the traditional mass texts that Bach could have used for various parts of the Lutheran service, over the years – or had been written upon request for use in a Catholic service by a Catholic king in Dresden.)

George Frederic Handel without his wig
Handel, meanwhile, was a “court musician” who was more or less employed by the King of England at various times in his career but also depended on the patronage of aristocrats who paid him to compose for them (“will write for money”). He also made (and lost) fortunes in the opera business, writing numerous operas for the London audiences, not all of which were successful. The only reason he’d write an oratorio – a work for chorus and vocal soloists with orchestra on a Biblical or sacred story as opposed to a typical opera with its story about love, intrigue and murder often based on Greek mythology or ancient history – was because the opera houses were closed during Lent and so for those forty days when he and his singers still needed to make money, he wrote these oratorios which were described as “sacred operas without staging or costumes” because, being based on religious subjects, that was okay. However, God-fearing (or at least Church-fearing) people stayed away because they saw the combination of sacred stories and profane opera as something sacrilegious.

During the times Bach had been employed by aristocrats (before he got the church gig in Leipzig), he would write instrumental music to perform for his patrons and their guests, back in the day before TV. There would be concertos and solo instrumental works and suites. One of his responsibilities in Leipzig, though, involved a secular hat and he would present concertos and suites for the public who – lacking a concert hall – would gather at Zimmermann’s Coffee Shop (apparently bigger than your average Starbucks today) where they would have public concerts.

Handel also composed concertos and sonatas and suites for secular audiences, most famously his “Water Music” which consisted of several suites of dances meant to be played by musicians floating along behind the King’s barge while out on the River Thames. If you saw any of the celebrations of the Queen’s Jubilee before last summer’s Olympics, you heard them playing some of Handel’s “Water Music” on their Thames outing.

(Incidentally, I mean the musicians had their own smaller, less ornate barges that trailed behind the Royal Barge. I realize that sounded like they might be being dragged along in inner tubes...)

A suite, by the way, was a collection of “dance movements” of different tempos and contrasting moods – at times lyrical or lively but originating in music to dance to – that were now meant to be listened to while you were sitting down (especially if you were on a barge in the river). They were now “stylized” dances – dances no longer meant to be danced to.

This didn’t change much in the latter part of the 18th Century. Haydn spent most of his life employed by Prince Esterhazy who owned a palace in a rural area not far from Vienna but, basically, in the middle of nowhere. For his own entertainment, he maintained an orchestra and an opera theater – also a marionette theater – and employed the musicians and singers to maintain a steady schedule of performances. He often had guests from Vienna who would spend weeks during the summer at his palace, and a new symphony or opera by his composer-in-residence Franz Josef Haydn was very much looked forward to.

(Here is a post from 2009 for another class I had offered relating to a concert that season with the Harrisburg Symphony. It contains pictures of Haydn and the place he worked. Ignore the video clips: as luck would have it, those have been removed and are no longer available.)

In this picture (see right), Haydn (with reddish hair) is playing the violin while rehearsing a string quartet with some friends, including Mozart (in the light blue coat) playing viola.

Mozart didn’t fare so well. He began being employed by the narrow-minded Archbishop of Salzburg who also maintained an orchestra of which one violinist was Mozart’s father, Leopold. But he quickly tired of the situation there and went to Vienna hoping to get a job at the Imperial Court.

The Mozarts on Tour: Leopold & Kids
Now, when he was a boy, Mozart’s father Leopold took him and his sister "Nannerl" around Europe like a traveling music act, showing off his children and earning a good bit of money but mostly in hopes he could find a new and better (or at least better-paying) job for the family in some other aristocratic court – preferably the Empress in Vienna. But that didn’t materialize.

So eventually Mozart, then 25, left Salzburg for Vienna where he ended up writing operas, some for the Imperial Court, others for public theaters, but also piano concertos for his own concerts (or those by friends or students of his), lots of chamber music, some of which was sold to publishers for the “amateur market” because amateur musicians who had no TV or stereo sound systems made their own music for each other’s enjoyment and, if something was popular, they wanted to play it themselves.

But Mozart had a higher sense of life-style than he had an income to support it and was always dealing with financial issues no matter how much (or little) money he brought in from all this. It wasn’t what killed him, but the fact that he died at the age of 35 is often blamed on the stress of trying to compete in a “free-lance market” that didn’t really exist yet (more on that, later).

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So between the monks of the Middle Ages and the appearance of Beethoven around 1800, we have two points to make about the finances of music:

In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the primary employer of “art” musicians was The Church (either Catholic or, after the Reformation, Protestant).

In the Baroque and Classical periods, while the Church was still a frequent employer of musicians, more of them were now employed by the aristocratic courts who maintained private orchestras, opera theaters and resident composers who were kept on the payroll like one hired cooks, gardeners and cleaning staff. Haydn and his musicians, for instance, dined with the servants. Only in major cities like Vienna or London was it possible to make a living as a free-lance musician and this still depended largely on patron support whether from aristocrats or the “new rich” of the upper middle class, those successful merchants and entrepreneurs who could afford to imitate the aristocratic life-style but who lacked the heritage of being born to it.

Things would change in the 19th Century.

But (and sing along with me, here) more on that, later…

- Dick Strawser

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