Intro to Classical Music
Amidst the maelstrom of new music that is released on any number of online platforms on a daily basis, I have maintained a deeply personal and vested interest in classical music. The genre, while broad and not easily defined, has been largely eschewed by recent generations. Still, interest is out there, and symphonies and sonatas will always have an important place in our culture. I believe that people simply need some handholding when approaching the vastness of a 45 minute concerto. Although the complexity of such compositions may not be readily appealing, it is hard not to be amazed by the cerebral beauty produced by a single cello, or the chill-inducing fury of a 70-piece orchestra, even if one “doesn’t really get it.” To facilitate readers’ engagement in classical music, I have selected some historically significant pieces (and some personal favorites), and offer some comments on them below. Listen for the intricacies and think about what the composer must have been considering at the time. Or, use these selections as background music. Regardless, hopefully this list gives you a sense of order and purpose in a genre that is typically regarded as too esoteric to understand.
Symphony No. 5 in c minor (“Beethoven’s 5th”), all movements
By Ludwig Van Beethoven
Everyone knows the opening of Beethoven’s 5th. But did you know that the opening motif (duh, duh, duh, duhhhh) appears in all four movements? Go ahead and listen to the whole thing, it’s only half an hour. If you listen closely you will hear samples of similar “short, short, short, long” patterns repeated throughout the symphony.
A symphony, by the way, usually refers to an orchestral work divided into four sections (movements). The first movement is usually the longest and the most serious. The second movement is typically slow and lyrical. The third is in a triple meter (the notes are in groups of 3’s), and the fourth is usually “fun,” meant to create a satisfying conclusion to the work. Most of that is true here. Some interesting characteristics of Beethoven’s 5th include the tense and elongated transition from movement III to movement IV, and the contrast between the angst of movement I and the joy of movement IV.
La Folia is not a composition per se, but a theme used in compositions. It is a simple melody that dates back hundreds of years, probably to the Renaissance. It was commonly used in folk dances. Most commonly in classical music, it is used in the Theme and Variations form, meaning a composer will first use the untouched melody, and then alter it in many ways.
The most famous is probably Arcangelo Corelli’s for violin from the year 1700. However, I am partial to Antonio Salieri’s orchestral version of La Folia. You might recognize that name as the antagonist in the movie Amadeus, but he wasn’t such a bad guy. Also, Beethoven used this theme briefly in movement II of his 5th (go back and check!) Check out Salieri’s 26 variations and try not to get the La Folia melody stuck in your head.
And just for fun, here is Corelli’s version (written about 115 years earlier)
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major (“Elvira Madigan”), 2nd movement
By W.A. Mozart
A concerto is a piece for a solo instrument that is accompanied by an orchestra. In this case—a piano concerto—the piano is the soloist and plays off of the orchestra. Unlike a symphony, concerti usually only have three movements (they skip the movement in triple meter). Mozart’s Piano Concert No. 21 is very famous, especially for the sublime second movement that I have included here. Its nickname comes from the use of the second movement in a Swedish movie called Elvira Madigan. Thus, the beauty of the second movement earned it the name “The Elvira Madigan.”
Partita No. 2 in d Minor, Ciaccona (“Chaconne in d minor”)
By J.S. Bach
Bach has an interesting history. He never went far from his birthplace, no more than a few hundred kilometers, and rarely more than 50. His music wasn’t very popular in his time. The “Bach revival,” about 80 years after his death, saw a celebration of his genius as an intellectual, artistic, and masterful composer. It’s hard to pick one Bach piece, so I selected two. The first showcases my instrument: the violin. The violin Chaconne in d minor comes from a collection of unaccompanied violin pieces (meaning the violin plays totally alone, which is uncommon). It is heralded as a milestone in a violinist’s repertoire, and for good reason. The technical and emotional difficulties are astounding, but the results are equally stunning. (A chaconne, by the way, is characterized by a repeated, descending baseline. If you can pick out the lowest notes, you’ll notice that they repeat.)
Fugue in g Minor (“The Little”)
By J.S. Bach
Bach also gave us many organ fugues. A fugue starts with a simple theme, called the “subject.” The subject is interrupted by a repetition of itself in a different pitch range, and pretty soon the complexity builds to a wall of organized sound. But, in a good fugue, you can always pick out the subject when it sneaks back in. A good example is Bach’s “Fugue in g Minor”, popularly called “The Little Fugue” to distinguish it from the “Great,” another fugue in g minor.
Cello Concerto in e Minor, 1st movement
By Edward Elgar
Pop quiz: what’s a concerto? Here we have another one, this time for cello, and it sure is tragic. Elgar wrote it after WWI, possibly to express sorrow regarding the recent death and destruction. But, as beautifully tragic as it is, his music was going out of style so it didn’t catch on. Cellist Jacqueline Du Pré recorded this concerto in the 60’s, and that caught people’s attention. Now it’s a standard in the cello repertoire.
Two Brahms piano pieces
I will end this with two piano pieces by Johannes Brahms. Brahms was a large bearded man, known for writing beautiful lullabies. He was also regarded a successor to the genius of Beethoven, a role that he feared, believing Beethoven to be incomparably divine. The first piece here, “Piano Sonata No. 3 in f Minor”, shows his more bombastic side. The second, “Intermezzo in A major”, is a beloved example of his gentle, singable melodies that made him famous for lullabies.
Piano sonata in f Minor:
Piano intermezzo in A Major: