When classical music isn’t
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.
I don’t know whether
you’ve ever tried, but finding a meaningful definition of classical music is
like trying to wrestle with eels. Or so I am told, for I have never had the
opportunity - or the inclination - to wrestle with one. For a start, the
expression “classical music” has two distinct meanings. In casual
conversation we use it to describe a genre essentially different to jazz,
dance music, pop, rock and folk music. Among musicians and historians the
expression “classical music” has a more specific meaning and refers to the
styles of musical composition that prevailed in Europe roughly between 1730
and 1800. During those years, architecture and the arts began to move
toward lighter styles which sought to emulate the perceived ideals of
classical antiquity, especially those of Classical Greece. They were in
stark contrast to the seriousness and weighty magnificence of the Baroque,
which was being seen as increasingly old-fashioned.
Today, the two most
revered composers of the classical period are Haydn and Mozart who are now
considered middle and late classical composers respectively.
At the time, other top-league composers were Salieri, Gluck, Clementi,
Boccherini, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Dittersdorf. So according to the
musicians’ definition, Vivaldi (for example) didn’t write “classical” music
and neither did Brahms, Wagner nor Tchaikovsky.
The period of classical
music coincided roughly with Age of Enlightenment, sometimes known more
prosaically as the Age of Reason. It was partly inspired by the thinking of
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Francis Bacon and René Descartes. It was one of the
most extraordinary periods in Western cultural history and was partly
responsible for the French and American Revolutions. At the risk of being
over-simplistic, it boiled down to the notion that people should think and
reason for themselves. It challenged individuals to question accepted
norms, even the wisdom of the church and the ruling elite.
pervaded every aspect of society and led to the concepts of freedom,
democracy and human rights. It also brought about new approaches in
scientific reasoning. Interestingly, the seeds of the Enlightenment had
been partly sown in the field of science during the previous century with
the discoveries of Galileo and Kepler. Further momentum was provided in the
1680s when Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica and John
Locke published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke’s
work had a significant influence on Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration
The changes in the
social order had a profound influence on music too. The newer musical
styles that we now refer to as “classical” tended toward simplicity and
lightness of texture. Instead of interweaving instrumental parts, the music
relied more on attractive melodies supported by an unobtrusive harmonic
accompaniment. It also borrowed elements from the rather formal “gallant
style” which emphasized elegance, grace and symmetry.
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799): Harp Concerto in A major.
Rosa Díaz Cotán (hp), Neubrandenburger Philharmonie cond. Daniel Stratievsky
(Duration: 21:04; Video: 1080p HD)
Dittersdorf was a
prolific composer who wrote 120 symphonies and possibly a hundred more.
Most of the symphonies were never published during his lifetime and still
remain relatively unknown. This delightful work is a transcription of one
of his five keyboard concertos. Composed in 1779, it’s cast in the standard
three-movement concerto format; a lyrical slow movement sandwiched between
two more robust fast movements.
In his day, Dittersdorf
was considered a top-ranking composer and hearing this confident work it is
not difficult to see why. There are many beautiful moments, especially in
the charming slow movement (at 07:24) in which the oboe and harp exchange
fragments of melody. The last movement is typically light and playfully
folk-like and the work receives a splendid performance from both soloist and
Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816): Piano Concerto No. 5 in D major.
Francesco Nicolosi (pno) Orchestra Antonio Vivaldi cond. Lorenzo Passerini
(Duration: 14:29; Video: 1080p HD)
(jo-VAHN-nee pahee-zee-AYL-lo) was even more prolific than Dittersdorf
and wrote eight piano concertos, a vast number of choral works and a
staggering ninety-four operas. This work dates from 1788 but after
listening to the elegance of Dittersdorf, the exuberant and somewhat coarser
style of Paisiello might come as an uncomfortable surprise. Although his
piano concerti bear superficial similarities to those of Mozart, this work
is much less sophisticated and at times even a bit naive. Even so, in his
day Paisiello’s music was popular all over Europe.
The slow movement (at
06:16) is a finely honed melody, delicately supported by the orchestra. The
last movement (09:32) starts with a cheeky-sounding melody and the busy
piano part scurries around imitated by other instruments. It’s
light-hearted and frothy and jolly good fun. However, it also shows why
Mozart is now considered one of the “great” composers whereas Paisiello -
despite his ninety-four operas - is not.
Claude Debussy in 1908. (Photo/Félix Nadar)
For many years, I lived in south-east England just outside a place called
London. You might have heard of it. One of the advantages of living in
that part of the country was that it’s quite a short drive to the coastal
town of Dover where you can take a car ferry across the English Channel to
France. The voyage - if such it can be called - lasts a mere ninety
minutes; sufficient time to enjoy a decent breakfast and a leisurely stroll
around the deck. These days there’s the added choice of the tunnel which
makes the trip a lot faster though far less pleasurable. I must have made
that journey dozens of times over the years, sometimes just for the day to
stock up on a few cases of cheap French wine and cheese. Eggs too, because
for reasons I have never discovered, they tasted a lot better than the eggs
available in England.
Le quatorze juillet (14th July)
is France’s National Day, known among English-speakers as Bastille Day,
referring to the storming of the medieval fortress by disgruntled Parisians
in 1789. The Bastille was an armory and state prison and a hated symbol of
royalty. At the time of the attack, there were only seven prisoners inside
but the fall of the fortress was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.
So this is as good an opportunity as
any to celebrate the work of two French composers, although there are dozens
of other distinguished names to choose from. Like Laurel and Hardy or
Batman and Robin, the names Debussy and Ravel are usually bundled together.
In some ways this isn’t too surprising for they were contemporaries who
shared similar backgrounds. They both lived in Paris and in some ways they
influenced each other. Although their music has superficial similarities
the composers have their own distinctive sound and had quite a different
attitudes and approaches to composing. However, in these two works, both
composers succeed in creating vivid images in the minds of the listeners.
Debussy (1862-1918): La Mer.
Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Paavo Järvi (Duration: 27:22; Video: 720p HD)
As a successful composer, Debussy’s
music was often described as “impressionist” and although the composer
disliked the description he’s been stuck with it ever since. Even so, you
only have to hear the opening bars of La Mer (“The Sea”) to sense a
similar diffuse and unfocused quality that so often characterizes the
paintings of impressionist painters such as Monet, Pissarro or Turner.
The composer was about forty when he
began this impressive work. He described it as “three symphonic sketches
for orchestra” and the movements are entitled From dawn to midday on the
sea, Play of the waves and Dialogue between the wind and the
waves. Despite the descriptive titles, the music has nothing to do with
sound effects. Debussy was more interested in evoking moods through
unexpected harmonies, unusual melodic lines, and surging orchestral
colours. It is a masterpiece of orchestration and has become one of the
most influential and popular orchestral works of the twentieth century.
He started writing the work in France
in 1903, completing the process while on holiday in English during the
fearsomely hot summer of 1905. He stayed in considerably luxury at the
palatial Grand Hotel at Eastbourne on England’s south coast. The hotel has
long been associated with music. Broadcasts of light classical music
started there in 1925 and were described as “music from the palm court”
although few people realised that the hotel didn’t actually have one. The
Grand Hotel still exists and the rooms in which Debussy stayed are now
called The Debussy Suite. You can book the suite for a mere Bt.
30,000 a night. Coincidentally, Eastbourne was the place where in 1911 the
English composer Frank Bridge completed a suite also entitled The Sea.
(1875-1937): La Valse. Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra cond.
Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 12.55; Video: 360p)
Ravel invariably did things differently
to everyone else and this dark and brooding waltz is a fine example of his
sophisticated use of musical ideas and brilliant orchestration. He called
it a “choreographic poem for orchestra” and began it in 1919. It was
conceived as a ballet but these days it’s usually performed as a concert
Although there are unmistakable echoes
of the nineteenth century, this powerful work couldn’t be more removed from
the innocent melodies of Johann Strauss that so charmed the Viennese thirty
years earlier. It seems more like a nightmare from a haunted ballroom. It
beings quietly with ominous rumbling of double basses and cellos but
gradually the tempo and intensity increase, fragments of tune appear then
swirling melodies begin to emerge. There is a kind of surreal quality to
the music and you might get an unsettling sense of foreboding organic growth
within the music, as it hurls itself towards an almost terrifying but
Quartet. (Photo/Carlin Ma)
One of the great joys
of playing the violin, the viola or the cello is that you have access to the
enormous amount of music written for string quartet. Almost every composer
you can think of from Haydn to the present day has written something for
When I was a music
student, every Sunday afternoon I’d drive up to North London in my creaking
and leaky Austin A40, the roof of which let in so much water that I kept
umbrellas inside the car. The trip was necessary because that’s where we
played quartets. One of the violinists had the luxury of a large if
somewhat drab lounge in her rented flat, big enough for a string quartet to
play in comfort. And so it came to pass that Sundays were quartet days.
Each week someone would bring along a set of parts and we’d scramble our way
through the music. We had a whole lot of fun and got to know a lot of music
at the same time.
During the early
eighteenth century it was common practice, for reasons of economy to perform
pieces for string orchestra with just four players. Oddly enough, few
composers seemed to show any interest in composing specifically for a string
quartet. That is, until the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn took the idea to
heart. He invested so much time and energy in developing the medium that he
eventually became known as the “father of the string quartet.”
With a few exceptions,
the instrumentation has always been two violins, one viola and one cello and
during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the musical structure
closely resembled that of the symphony. The usual format was a lively first
movement, sometimes preceded by a slow introduction; a second slow movement,
a third movement in the form of a minuet and a bright and breezy finale.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1803): Quartet in B flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4
Dover String Quartet (Duration: 24:53; Video: 1080p HD)
I have to admit that
this is one of my all-time favourite Haydn quartets. The nickname “Sunrise”
comes from the gentle ascending theme at the very beginning of the quartet,
played over quiet, sustained chords. The theme returns, sometimes in
modified form on several other occasions during the movement.
The quartet is the
fourth in a set of six quartets that Haydn wrote in the late 1790s. They’re
among Haydn’s most advanced and ambitious quartets. After the peaceful
“sunrise” opening, the music scurries off at an extraordinary tempo and the
various themes are developed in surprising and delightful ways. There’s a
lovely slow movement with a hymn-like opening and as usual, a minuet forms
the third movement. But this minuet is far removed from the courtly dance
of the same name. The music is full of quirky humour and in the middle
section Haydn takes the listener into a mysterious world in which the music
evokes the sound of rustic peasant bagpipes. The Finale starts in a stately
fashion but the music soon scampers away towards the satisfying conclusion.
This is wonderful music
and it’s superbly played too. The Chicago Tribune stated that the
Dover String Quartet has “expert musicianship, razor-sharp ensemble, deep
musical feeling and a palpable commitment to communication.”
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13 No. 2.
Varty Manouelian, Movses Pogossian (vlns), Paul Coletti (vla) Clive
Greensmith (vc) (Duration: 32:07; Video: 1080 HD)
By the time the teenage
Mendelssohn wrote this work, the string quartet was well-established. Haydn
had written seventy of them and Mozart had written between twenty and
thirty. Both Schubert and Beethoven made significant contributions to the
repertoire and dozens of other lesser composers had written for the medium.
When Mendelssohn wrote
this wonderful quartet in 1827 he was eighteen and pretty well experienced
as a composer. He was fascinated by Beethoven’s quartets and evidently
studied all the scores he could manage to obtain. This quartet was written
a few months after Beethoven’s death and not surprisingly contains
This is one of
Mendelssohn’s most passionate works, starting with a wonderfully moving and
intimate opening which breaks into a tumultuous faster section. The opening
of the second movement is breathtakingly beautiful and for the third
movement, Mendelssohn writes a light Intermezzo with a lilting theme
recalling his overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream which he’d composed
two years earlier. The last movement (at 32:07) has a frenetic opening that
leads into a movement of contrasting moods yet the pressing sense of urgency
never seems to leave. And yet, during all this tension, the composer gives
hints of the lyrical mood that prevailed earlier in the work. In the closing
bars of the quartet, after all the dramatic emotional events, Mendelssohn
takes us back to the quiet reflective mood at the start of the work where we
began our musical journey.
Don’t knock the Baroque
It’s not much, but it’s
home. The baroque Upper Belvedere Palace, Vienna (Photo/Martin Falbisoner)
The chapter in history known as the
Baroque lasted about a hundred and fifty years, give or take. Music
historians tend to divide the period into the early Baroque (about 1600 to
1650), the middle Baroque (about 1650 to 1700) and the late Baroque (about
1700 to 1750). Now I have to admit that these years are somewhat arbitrary,
but at least they’re round figures. Wikipedia differs on this matter and so
does one of my favourite reference books but of course, it all depends on
what criteria you use. In any case, it’s a bit misleading to state specific
years because the Baroque movement gradually crept in over a period of
time. The first signs appeared in Italy and the movement gradually spread
across Europe. You can find Baroque elements in painting, sculpture,
theatre, literature and architecture.
So what was the Baroque? Let’s allow a
few generalisations. Baroque painting for example, was characterized by
three things: a sense of grandeur, sensuous richness and powerful dramatic
content. Baroque architecture used grandiose designs and elaborate detail
and was intended to impress. Palaces, such as Prince Eugene’s stately
Belvedere palace in Vienna, were invariably built around an imposing
entrance with a grand and symmetrical façade of breath-taking opulence.
The three greatest composers of Baroque
music were Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and their music reflected some of these
characteristics. Contrast and detail were two of the most important
elements. Melodies were made increasingly complex with the addition of
trills and various other ornaments. Rich and sonorous textures were used
and the music was given a sense of urgency through the use of energetic
rhythms. It also had to be dramatic. Just think of the electrifying start
to Bach’s famous Toccata in D minor for organ.
The violin and trumpet became
increasingly popular as solo instruments. Baroque music used the so-called
basso continuo, which was an accompaniment improvised by a keyboard
instrument over a given bass line and harmonic pattern, supported by a bass
instrument, usually the cello. It was used extensively throughout the
Baroque because it provided the fundamental rhythm and harmony, thus freeing
up the other instruments or voices to weave elaborate contrapuntal patterns.
George Frederic Handel (1685-1759): Let the Bright
Battle (sop), Wynton Marsalis (tpt), Orchestra of St. Luke’s cond. John
Nelson (Duration: 05:14; Video: 480p)
Here’s a delightful musical treat,
despite the fact that it was recorded twenty five years ago in 1991. Handel
was rather ahead of his time in that he spent most of his career as a
freelance composer – and a successful one too, receiving living expenses
from a succession of monarchs.
Samson is a three-act oratorio
dating from 1741. The aria Let the bright Seraphim has remained
especially popular and appears towards the end of the work. The premiere at
Covent Garden in London in 1743 was so successful that a further six
performances were hastily arranged.
But just listen to all those hallmarks
of the late Baroque! There are bright lively rhythms, a prominent part for
the trumpet (in this case the piccolo trumpet) which responds to the
singer’s phrases and creates an impression of grandeur and celebration. The
soprano sings an elaborate and virtuosic baroque-style melody using
melismata – the word used to describe singing a long succession of
different notes on a single syllable. There’s a typical contrasting section
in the middle of the aria and you can see the continuo harpsichord behind
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): Gloria, RV 589.
National Chamber Choir and Chamber Orchestra of Armenia cond. Robert Mlkeyan
(Duration: 30:12; Video 480p)
When Vivaldi was aged about twenty-six,
he began his long association with the Ospedale della Pietà in
Venice. In reality, this institution was not a hospital but a home for the
illegitimate daughters of Venetian noblemen who discretely helped to provide
the necessary funding.
The Pietà had an excellent
reputation for music and the students were considered the most accomplished
young performers of their time. Because they needed a constant supply of
new music, it was expedient that Vivaldi should write it himself. The
Gloria was one such work, composed around 1715. There are twelve
separate movements, some of them quite short and yet they display all the
hallmarks of the late Baroque such as the insistent chugging D’s played at
the start and later, the melismatic vocal lines, the surprisingly chromatic
harmony, the lively rhythms, contrasting textures, trumpet fanfares and the
ever-present continuo played on the organ.
Even more than the four violin
concertos known collectively as The Four Seasons, this vibrant music
reveals Vivaldi’s extraordinary sense of invention and imagination. If you
want to get a real sense of what the late Baroque was all about, you can’t
do much better than to listen to this splendid music, especially its