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The Top 20 Classical Releases of 2011

By Jack Spearing; December 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM 


The Classical: An Introduction to Brahms

By Jack Spearing; November 18, 2011 at 2:00 PM 

All the music in this article can be found on this YouTube playlist or alternatively on this Spotify playlist, which also contains lots of further recommended listening.

Classical music is dying – you and I are going to save it through sheer listening power. Put down your copy of F♯ A♯ ∞ and listen to something a little bit older, but which uses exactly the same proportions. I’ve run out of convincing arguments to persuade you to listen to classical music, so this month I want to tell you about an amazing thing which happened in London a few weeks ago. At St. Pancras International station, the BBC symphony orchestra suddenly appeared and performed the last movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. People who looked like ordinary commuters suddenly produced sheet music from nowhere and started singing at the tops of their voices on the balconies above. The soloists were so close to the audience and sang so enthusiastically that they ended up spitting on people. But I was there, and I was happy to have been spat on. Because it was Beethoven talking to his God, and to the world, centuries after his death. How many people can say that?

#6 – Wonderbrahms

This month, we’re going to be dealing with a titan of High Romanticism, and I’m hoping that this is going to be an easy sell, because as I mentioned last time, you already know his music, and, let’s face it, the facial hair alone justifies writing an article about him:

Brahms is yet another name on my ever-growing list of underrated, underappreciated and sometimes wilfully misunderstood composers. Even relatively recently, Brahms’ music was maligned and neglected for being too traditional, too serious, too academic, too thick and impenetrable, and well, just too German. The prevailing attitude to Brahms for much of the twentieth century was summed up neatly by Jean-Luc Godard in his 1959 film, Breathless. A scene in the film shows a man being assailed by journalists at a press conference. One of them asks him if he enjoys Brahms, to which he replies, deadpan, “Like everyone, no!” Why was there so much contempt for someone who is now so well-regarded? There are several answers to that question, the most obvious being that orchestras just kept growing larger and larger after the composer’s death, making his music sound swollen and protracted. The root of the problem, however, goes back (rather appropriately) to an article in a music magazine…

Brahms came from a very modest background, the son of a freelance musician, and initially made his way by playing piano in the seedy bars and brothels of the north German city of Hamburg. The young and ambitious composer set out to make a name for himself by meeting the leading musical power couple of the time, Robert and Clara Schumann. Although Brahms was yet to have a single piece published, the Schumanns were hugely impressed by his virtuosity and compositional flair, and took him into their home as a musical protégé. In 1853, Robert, who was not always the most mentally balanced of people, suddenly decided to write an article in a journal he had co-founded years before, praising Brahms in these extravagant terms:

“[This man], called to give expression to his times in ideal fashion: a musician who would reveal his mastery not in gradual stages but like Minerva would spring fully armed from Kronos’s head. And he has come; a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch.”

This kind of hyperbole placed an immense burden on to the shoulders of young Johannes. After Beethoven’s death in 1827, very few people dared to write music in the forms which he had brought to a peak of perfection – namely the symphony, the piano sonata, and the string quartet. As much as Beethoven had opened up new creative possibilities, he also cast an intimidating shadow over everyone who followed him. But in his article, Schumann appeared to be announcing that this era was over, and Brahms would be the new saviour of Romanticism, the new Beethoven. What Schumann hadn’t counted on, however, was Brahms himself. Whether it was the pressure of expectation, or something innate in the composer’s personality, Brahms became a ruthless perfectionist, totally revising or even destroying his own works if he felt them to be sub-standard, purging them of the bizarre flourishes he was sometimes prone to, until they were streamlined, beautifully proportioned and correct in every way. Brahms was also notoriously self-deprecating and modest about his achievements – in a famous incident when he met the wife of his good friend Johann Strauss II, she asked him to sign her fan, which he did by penning the opening notes of the Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, and writing underneath “Alas, not by Brahms!” Brahms didn’t limit his criticism to his own works, however – his rather harsh critique of a symphony by Hans Rott actually drove its composer mad – he became convinced that Brahms had filled a train he was riding with dynamite and wrote down all his future compositions on toilet paper, from the comfort of an insane asylum. While incidents like this, and his rudeness towards society ladies, didn’t do Brahms’ public image much good, in private he quietly funded and supported his fellow composers so that they would not be reliant on commissions for their income.

A few articles ago I touched on the distinction between “absolute” and “programmatic” music, and the so-called “War of the Romantics.” “Programmatic” music drew inspiration from things outside of music itself, such as the sounds of nature – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony were early examples of this kind of aural storytelling. During the 19th century, composers like Liszt (pictured above, at the piano) and Wagner took the idea of programmatic music and pushed it much further, using episodes from history or literature as inspiration for long, continuous orchestral pieces called Tone Poems. Proponents of “absolute” music on the other hand regarded composition as a completely autonomous pursuit, which had its own internally generated set of rules, and therefore required no external sources. Brahms stood firmly in the “absolute” camp, which was connected to the city of Leipzig, where both J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn had lived and worked, while the “programmatic” New German School made its home in Weimar, a city associated with philosophers and poets like Goethe and Schiller.

Absolute music was often conflated with musical traditionalism and conservatism, while programmatic music was frequently regarded as more progressive, but these categories are rather arbitrary and misleading. To give just one example, the radical and iconoclastic 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg made orchestral arrangements of Brahms’ work and was deeply influenced by him, even though superficially it seemed like he owed more to people like Liszt and Wagner, thanks to their experiments with atonality. Furthermore, Brahms very rarely expressed an opinion on these aesthetic squabbles, letting his music do the talking instead, breaking with just as many traditions as he preserved. He also quietly admired many composers on the other side of the compositional divide, including Wagner and Berlioz, making the apparently simple picture of this so-called “War” rather more complicated. While it was easy for some to brand Brahms as a reactionary, all he really wanted to do was finish exploring areas of composition that others had abandoned or assumed to be outdated. Eventually, a new generation of Romantic Nationalist composers, including Brahms’ own pupil Dvorak, demonstrated how ridiculous these divisions had become, and that arguments about form stood in the way of sincere musical expression.

Brahms’ relationship to music of the past, particularly in the German tradition, was also complex. He worshipped Bach, loved Heinrich Schütz, cherished Haydn, revered Mozart, idolised Beethoven and revived Schubert, so his work represents a complex synthesis between the new possibilities of the expanded Romantic orchestra and the forms and methods of the past. He reintroduced firm classical discipline and structure into the increasingly bloated music of the day, bringing back movement, development and rhythm where there had been stasis and stagnation. He worked in every traditional genre (except opera, which he left to Wagner) but totally transformed the content of each one within his own idiom.

For audiences more accustomed to the elegance of Mendelssohn or the brutal power of Beethoven, Brahms’ music initially seemed cold, cerebral and inaccessible, but eventually people embraced his work, and he became popular and successful in spite of his overt seriousness. Even now it can still take a little while to really appreciate what Brahms achieved, because very often he buried the most exciting elements of his work deep inside huge musical structures, or nestled them beneath thick layers of orchestral texture. He often keeps you waiting until the very end before revealing some unexpected but transcendent resolution, while at other times he simply presents a lush orchestral theme and then proceeds to develop it into extraordinary new forms. It’s often tempting to draw simplistic parallels between the personality and the work of a musician, but in Brahms’ case it actually makes sense to do so – like the man himself, the music is often a little difficult and unwelcoming at first, but once you get to know it, you see how much warmth, humanity and generosity is contained within it. His work is robust and muscular, yet sweeping and graceful, dense and full-bodied, yet filled with passion, sometimes menacing and intense, at other times lively and boisterous. Brahms realised the potential of enlarged orchestras with a wider range of dynamics and instrumentation on offer – he could make a piece of music stand up on its hind legs and really roar, but also create shimmering moments of flow and drift. I’m not a musicologist, so it’s difficult to pin down precisely what makes Brahms’ music so distinctive in technical terms, but after thinking about it long and hard, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to describe his particular soundworld is this: Listening to Brahms is like eating a rich fruitcake while flying a stealth bomber through a lightning storm. The rest of Brahms’ life was largely uneventful (except for his possible affairs with Schumann’s widow, and her daughter…) so without further ado, let’s get on to the music…

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The Classical: An Introduction to Bach

By Jack Spearing; September 18, 2011 at 2:00 PM 

All of the pieces mentioned in this article can be found on this YouTube playlist or alternatively on this Spotify playlist, for easier navigation.

Welcome to the world of classical music, where Beethoven is not a dog, Biber is not a teenage heartthrob, Alkan is not a DJ, Sibelius is not a piece of software, Humperdinck is not a sixties crooner, and fingering is not a dirty word. Classical music is everywhere – we get married to Wagner, sleep with Brahms, and die with Chopin, but few of us realise it. Classical music has never been easier to obtain, but remains an intimidating prospect for many people. The need for a little guidance, a small prod in the direction of the masterworks, has never been more essential – and hopefully, that’s what I can provide, by introducing one composer and their key works each month. I don’t want to ramble on too much this time about why you should listen to classical music, because frankly, I’ve done enough of that already. But for those of you who still aren’t convinced, here’s a little something from one of the world’s largest, and oldest, music festivals that might help change your mind. Turn your speakers all the way up, then skip to about twelve minutes in:

This month, we’re going way back, deeper into the past than we’ve ever been before, all the way back to Nineteen, sorry, Sixteen Eighty Five! Great Scott! Counterpoint Circuits on, Fugue Capacitor… Fugueing! Johann, Johann, it’s Maria … your cousin, Maria Bach! You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well listen to this! Yeah, you can probably see where this is going…

#5 – Bach to the Future

“And on the eighth day God, becoming bored, created Johann Sebastian Bach. And behold, he was very good” – Genesis, Chapter One.

Boards of Canada had a point when they declared that Music is Math. I suspect that the likes of Autechre and Battles were more what they had in mind, but they could just as easily have been referring to Bach. I’m the sort of person who tends more towards art and history, but I know there are plenty of people out there with a very different mindset. These people are systematic, love patterns and interconnected sets of complicated rules. They tend to be good at learning languages, solving equations and playing instruments. Bach’s music was made for minds like these, and he provided an almost limitless supply of it. Calling him “prolific” is a bit like describing the universe as “fairly large” – his lifetime of diligence resulted in more than a thousand works, not counting the many pieces which have been lost or destroyed over time. While the total output of some composers could probably challenge him in terms of duration, the sheer number of notes. Bach set down is utterly astounding. His influence is pervasive, with everyone from The Beatles to Nina Simone to Busdriver (as well as other, ridiculous people) paying homage to him. His music can often seem bewilderingly intricate, arcane, dry, inaccessible, opaque, impenetrable and exhausting. In other words, it can be pretty hard-going, but don’t let that put you off, because a lot of it is still thoroughly entertaining in spite of its apparent complexity. In fact, if you listen enough the complexity becomes rewarding in itself.

I have to admit that even I wasn’t a great fan of his music until fairly recently, and I still have trouble with a lot of it. But all the pattern and rigidity begins to fall away with a little patience and careful listening. Gradually, the mathematical rigour of Bach’s work begins to unfold, revealing a world of surprising beauty and grandeur. He transformed what had once been technical exercises into brilliant new musical forms, and the endless flow of detail in his work could keep even the most fanatical listener occupied for several decades. Before we listen to the music though, we need to cover a little Bachground information. Yup, there are going to be a lot of excruciating puns in this article … but don’t blame me, Beethoven did it first.

It’s tempting to say that the closest thing to Bach in recent music is Prog, with its wilful difficulty and obsessive attention to detail, but there’s another genre which took its inspiration more directly from composers of Bach’s time. In 1964, Brian Wilson had a brainwave, and decided that it would a great idea to use a harpsichord in a pop song. Thus, Baroque Pop was born. I could cite dozens of examples of this genre which enjoyed popularity in the latter half of the sixties, but what’s of real concern to us here is the “Baroque” side of things. What exactly does “Baroque” mean in a musical context, besides complexity and ornament? Well, as it turns out, not that much.

During the Renaissance, aristocrats began collecting treasures brought back from newly discovered countries, fragments of history and oddities of the natural world, which would be placed in a Cabinet of Curiosities, the precursor to modern museums. Amongst the items displayed there were curiously misshapen pearls, which were often exploited for their unusual form and moulded into ornaments like those pictured above. These pearls were described as “barroca,” and later, during the 17th century, this term was applied as an insult to painting and sculpture which emphasised energy and dynamism instead of the calm geometry and restraint of previous generations. The musical style which came to be known as Baroque arrived quite a while after all of this occurred, so the name isn’t particularly accurate or useful, but it is convenient for describing a broad section of musical history. I won’t say too much more about Baroque style, because the music itself will make that clear, but it is worth keeping a few things in mind when listening. Firstly, composers of the time were regarded as skilled craftsmen rather than artists. They existed to serve their patrons, as well as God, so personal expression (in the sense we understand it today) was neither desirable nor necessary. Baroque music also follows a different set of aesthetic rules – balance, repetition and ornament were preferred over development and transformation. Other than that, there’s not much you really need to know.

Bach was not particularly well-known while he was alive – local performances of his work were very frequent, but few pieces were published, and his fame was limited to a small area of Germany. For decades after his death he was remembered primarily as a skilled organist and teacher, rather than as a composer, and his works were soon considered old-fashioned. Meanwhile, the two other composers born in the exact same year as Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, were celebrated for their forward-looking compositions, and his sons J.C., C.P.E., W.F. and J.C.F. Bach had become more famous for their own music. Gradually, however, composers and connoisseurs began to investigate Bach again, and his extensive use of counterpoint became a huge influence for a whole new generation of composers. Early enthusiasts included a couple of obscure musicians named Mozart and Beethoven, who both recognised and imitated Bach’s genius. But it was another few decades before Bach’s return to popularity really began in earnest, thanks to another composer – Felix Mendelssohn, who restaged some of the composer’s choral works.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I’ve been telling a series of apparently unconnected stories. Well, the fact is, we know very little about Bach as a person. We do know that he was a deeply religious man who was committed to his family, and moved successfully through a number of prominent musical positions in various German cities, but to be honest, that’s about it, and you could say very similar things about of a lot of other people who were around at the time. However, I think it’s safe to say that for Bach, music was an all-consuming passion, defining every aspect of his life, which must have been a constant frenzy of teaching, composing and playing. He was music personified, and his work is the pure, distilled, essence of music. Speaking of which, it’s about time we heard some of it…

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The Classical: An Introduction to Schubert

By Jack Spearing; August 7, 2011 at 3:30 PM 

Pfft… Classical music? Really? Why on earth would anyone listen to that? I mean, all the pieces are so long, didn’t these composers realise that I’d have fifty thousand other songs vying for my attention? Besides, when it isn’t being far too loud and dramatic it’s so slow and boring that you fall asleep. Not to mention how insanely complicated it always is – there are so many key changes that you can’t keep up – how are you even supposed to listen to this stuff, never mind play it?! Not only that, but the dynamics are so ridiculous that you’re always either struggling to hear anything or covering your ears in pain. There aren’t even any lyrics! Maybe when I’m very old and very bored I’ll give it a try, but right now I’ve got better things to do than listen to this old drivel.

Of course, that’s not a fair assessment of classical music any more than it’s a fair reflection of your opinions. Nevertheless, people can be very sceptical and reluctant when it comes to this particular body of work. For the most part, however, people are just intimidated, which is reasonable enough when you consider that “classical” in its loosest sense covers just about everything in the nine hundred years from the advent of musical notation up to the emergence of jazz, and ultimately, that other, equally misnamed genre, “popular music.” Where do you even begin with a listening project like that? Well, with any luck, you’ll start here, with The Classical, and with one composer at a time. This month’s composer was a master of melody and melancholy, who wrote over six hundred songs (Stephin Merritt eat your heart out) and quite a few other masterpieces (despite having his life cut even shorter than Mozart). A plump and prolific man known to his friends as Schwammerl (the little mushroom), but better known today as Franz Peter Schubert.

If you don’t have time to read this whole article, you can find all of this month’s music on this YouTube playlist or on this Spotify playlist.

In case you were wondering, Schubert’s glasses still survive and put him in the running for the best bespectacled composer prize, alongside Mahler’s pince-nez and Shostakovich’s various looks, including the Elvis Costello, the Soviet Bond Villain, and yes, the Harry Potter.

#4 – Schubert Dip

Stanley Kubrick’s use of some of classical music’s more dramatic numbers is well known. But when he needed music fitted to a film which employed careful pacing, subtlety and intimacy, it was to Schubert that he turned:

“Every work Schubert left us is an early work” – Donald Tovey, musicologist.

Classical music doesn’t really have the 27 Club, but it does have something roughly one third as good – The Curse of The Ninth, and Franz Schubert was one its earliest inductees.

“Whobert?” Good question, to which the answer is, perhaps one of the most underrated of all famous composers. Unlike his predecessors Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert’s name is not one which has become a byword for musical genius, and his work has not always enjoyed the slavish following of better-known composers. This has also been compounded by the fact that he is frequently confused with the slightly younger but equally gifted composer Robert Schumann, who was himself a great champion of Schubert’s work, and coined the famous phrase “heavenly lengths” to describe his expansive style. While most classical music lovers would, I think, hesitate to say that they considered him the greatest composer ever, a large number would still say that he was their favourite. The main reason for this disparity is that Schubert simply didn’t live long enough to fulfil his potential and capitalise on his considerable talents, but still managed to produce a handful of formidable masterpieces which earned him a very high rank in the classical canon. As the inscription on his grave (next door to Beethoven’s in his native Vienna) put it – “Music hath here entombed a rich treasure, but even fairer hopes.” I could use any number of glib journalistic analogies to illustrate this point further, so I will: Schubert was the Ian Curtis, the Freddie Mercury, and the Buddy Holly of classical music. He is thought to have suffered from cyclothymia – a mild form of bipolar disorder, but in the last six years of his life Schubert also battled with syphilis, an illness which was rife in Europe during his lifetime, likely caught as the result of too many trips to the brothel under the influence of some of his more dubious friends.

That’s syphilis pictured on the far left, in case you were wondering.

Whether it was the neurological effect of the illness, the debilitating results of the only known treatment, which was to drink Mercury, or simply the knowledge that the disease was incurable and almost certainly going to kill him sooner or later, Schubert’s musical output was altered radically after his diagnosis with syphilis in 1822, and it is in this period that his music became gradually more substantial, acquiring qualities of seriousness and psychological depth, but also sublime lyrical beauty. In 1827, Schubert served as a torchbearer at Beethoven’s elaborate funeral, and a little over a year later, he too was dead, with most of his work, aside from a few songs, unknown to the Viennese public. Aside from these facts, details of Schubert’s life are fairly scarce.

“No relation can be established between Schubert’s life and work, or rather, properly speaking, because there is no life to establish a relation with” – George Grove, musical encyclopaedist and Schubert rescuer.

That said, it is worth mentioning a few details that we do know for certain. Schubert was, like Mozart and Beethoven before him, a child prodigy who grew up in a musical family. The family would all join in to perform young Franz’s many string quartets, which perhaps accounts for his intuitive grasp of chamber music later in life. As an adult, and in spite of his kindly appearance, Schubert was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, and by all accounts insensitive man, frustrated by his lack of mainstream success as a career composer, shy around women, frequently forced to take up dispiriting teaching posts and sleep on friends’ floors to make ends meet. As one of his friends later remarked: “Schubert was as undistinguished as a person as he was distinguished as a composer.” Like many artists before and since, it was only after his death that he gained real recognition, as something akin to a cult grew up around his music, and efforts were made by a number of later composers to collect and organise his works, preventing them from being lost amongst the ever-rising tide of musical banality that engulfed Vienna over the course of the nineteenth century.

And speaking of Vienna, it’s well worth considering the political and social context in which Schubert lived and worked, since we know so little about him as a person. In 1815, with Napoleon finally defeated, the great powers of Europe met in Vienna in an attempt to restore the continent to its pre-war state: dominated by absolute monarchs with a careful balancing of power to stop revolutions and dictatorships from occurring ever again. Despite everything that had happened in the previous decades, they more or less succeeded in their aims, at least as far as the map of Europe was concerned, but a great deal was beyond their control – revolutionary and nationalist ideals bubbled below the surface, while oppressive ministers like Klemens von Metternich struggled to keep a lid on what they perceived as subversive elements in society. Schubert was just one of the many dangerous Romantic renegades who ran into trouble with Metternich’s police, as the book group he attended was deemed a danger to society. Perhaps more significant on a practical level for composers and musicians however, were the social changes that had occurred in Austria and throughout Europe, with the gradual collapse of the old aristocratic order and the rise of a new and prosperous middle class who, crucially, owned pianos. This created a huge and constant demand for new amateur piano and chamber pieces which could be played easily by the well-brought-up children of well-to-do families, as well as simple dance numbers for social occasions. Composers could no longer rely on one-off commissions from the rich, but had instead to produce works regularly to compete on the open market. Beethoven’s solution to this problem had been to obstinately ignore it, but Schubert was able to produce works which were popular enough without having to make too many artistic compromises, while working on more ambitious pieces at the same time. Critics have sometimes accused him of pandering to this comfortable Biedermeier class with ingratiating tunes, but this misrepresents his work. Schubert was, in fact, frequently a victim of this fickle new audience, and had the misfortune of coming to maturity at the exact moment when a new musical craze was sweeping Vienna, namely, Rossini. It is a testament to the quality of Schubert’s music that he overcame all of these challenges, often through sheer hard work, and even managed to conquer death itself to gain his rightful place amongst the greatest of musical masters.

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The Classical: An Introduction to Tchaikovsky

By Jack Spearing; July 6, 2011 at 1:00 PM 

Have you ever felt an urge to bemoan the fact that no one seems to care about music from before they were born? That no one can be bothered to reach back just a little further in time to the originators? Ever been frustrated by someone’s reluctance to share your love of an unusual musical style? Ever despaired at the thought that future generations might never appreciate any of the music you like? If so, then you already know a little about my world of pain, in which I strive to justify and explain the centuries of astonishing creative output known collectively as classical music, focusing on one composer at a time. This month, instead of trying to succinctly overturn all your preconceptions about this music, I’m going to let comedic genius, towering intellect and all-round good egg Stephen Fry do it for me, in much more eloquent terms than I could ever manage:

Ask most people to make a list of the composers they can think of, and chances are this month’s artist will be in there somewhere, mainly because it’s so memorable – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one of the most popular and yet one of least understood composers who ever lived.

For easier listening, I’ve also condensed all the music in this article into one handy playlist, which you can find here on YouTube.

#3: Tch-Tch-Tch Tchanges

“It’s time to take all of the lives / Of the people who cannot see / The somnolent genius of Tarkovsky Tchaikovsky” – of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, who definitely wasn’t talking about the similarly-named and equally brilliant film director.

“Little by little my prejudices against classical music began to fade away … It came as a sheer revelation to me. It is impossible for me to describe the enthusiasm, the ecstasy, the intoxication which I was seized by.” – Tchaikovsky, 1889 – showing us that the divide between classical and popular music is really nothing new.

A lot had happened in music between Beethoven’s death in 1827 and Tchaikovsky’s graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1865. Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin had all lived, worked and died. Mendelssohn had also done a great deal to revive the fortunes of Bach, whose music had long been neglected, sparking a renewed interest in baroque compositional methods, especially fugue and counterpoint. Added to this was the fact that Romanticism, which had seemed unified and unbending in its commitment to personal expression, had split into two rival camps in Germany, with Brahms and Robert Schumann’s widow Clara on one side and Liszt and Wagner on the other, each claiming to be the rightful heirs to Beethoven’s legacy. While things never quite descended into violence, their arguments had become extremely heated. The dispute between them concerned the merits of “absolute” versus “programmatic” music – in other words: should music seek to evoke things outside of itself, or should it remain abstract, concerned only with its own form? There was also the question of tradition – should it be rejected in favour of progressive ideas about harmony and tonality, or should it be embraced more than ever, now that knowledge of the past had improved? Beethoven of course, had done all of these things, sometimes simultaneously, but as with all pointless musical arguments (now as much as then), no one was going to let anything as stupid as factual accuracy get in the way of their aesthetic chauvinism. Meanwhile, in opera, yet another schism was developing, this time between people (Italian people to be specific) who actually enjoyed listening to good tunes, and, er… everyone else, who had clearly gone out of their minds as part of the general cultural insanity of the time, prompted by widespread syphilis, the ready availability of mind-altering substances, and reading too many books.

But that was Germany – and the Germans took music a little bit too seriously for their own good. In Russia, however, the situation was very different, as before the 19th century, little home-grown music was produced, except for the Orthodox Church. Musical ideologies had grown up there according to principles which were largely divorced from debates elsewhere in Europe. In fact, Europe itself was the problem for Russian composers – should they try and keep up with developments there, or instead forge their own national style? Russia’s aloofness from the rest of Europe was an age-old problem – the classicised, refined city of St. Petersburg looks as though it could just as easily have been built in Denmark – but Moscow, from the Kremlin to the onion domes of its cathedral, was Russian to the core. And so it was with music. The St. Petersburg Conservatory where Tchaikovsky began his musical career, after a brief, unhappy stint in the civil service, looked westward for inspiration – to Austrian, French and German music. Under the leadership of the influential brothers Nikolai and Anton Rubinstein, both brilliant performers and minor composers in their own right, the conservatory maintained a conservative, but thorough system of teaching, based on the careful study of the old masters. But in Moscow, a new group of young, largely self-taught composers known as “The Five” (no prizes for guessing why) or sometimes by the rather more grandiose name “The Mighty Handful” was forming. From a modern perspective, the most important members of the group were Modest “Mouse” Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. They were more selective in their influences, regarding Mozart, Haydn and Bach as hopelessly out of date, drawing instead on Beethoven, but perhaps more significantly, on Russia’s first native composer of note, Mikhail Glinka, and the brand of Romantic nationalism that he represented. For The Five, it was the Russian-ness of the music which counted, not its ability to impress the rest of Europe.

Where exactly did Tchaikovsky fit into this musical landscape? The short answer is that he didn’t. To illustrate this point, I turn once more to Stephen Fry:

“There is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature” – Tchaikovsky, writing to his brother.

Tchaikovsky, like Oscar Wilde, was gay. This is a fact which still surprises some people, even those who are familiar with his music. For others, sadly, and shockingly, it is a fact which tarnishes his reputation and his music. Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895, not long after Tchaikovsky’s death, was a watershed moment in the history of sexuality, after which attitudes turned firmly against any relationship which was deemed “unnatural.” Although Tchaikovsky had a lifelong fear of his sexuality being exposed, and even went as far as going through with a catastrophic sham marriage to conceal it, attitudes in Russia were relatively tolerant, as several members of the imperial family were gay, and the structure of Russian society at the time allowed upper-class men to take their pick of the unquestioningly subservient serfs for whatever sexual cravings they needed to satisfy. But after Tchaikovsky’s death, many critics and musicologists gradually began to view his music purely in terms of his sexuality, basing their analyses on stereotypes, and producing offensive, distorted reviews. Tchaikovsky’s music was subjected to a barrage of criticisms, often no more than thinly veiled attacks on the man himself. Even today his music is sometimes accused of being overly sentimental or vulgar, but this is a grievous error. Tchaikovsky was one of the most profound and gifted composers of his, or any, generation, and his massive and continuing popularity is not due to a lack of integrity, but precisely the opposite – a lifelong resolve to carve out a uniquely personal, and highly emotional style, while never losing the ability to entertain and delight. Love permeates much of Tchaikovsky’s work, but whether the object of that love is male or female is entirely irrelevant, and focusing on that issue misses the point altogether. As with Beethoven, while it is tempting to read biographical information into the work, this can be a mistake, as it distracts from the universal appeal of the music, and it also ignores the fact that art is often just as much an escape from life as an expression of it. Regardless of all this, and whatever his posthumous reputation, Tchaikovsky opened the door for countless future Russian composers, as well as encouraging his colleagues across Europe to create their own national musical idioms.

Quite apart from Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, there is the more important question of his musical style and influences. Tchaikovsky was clearly influenced by his teachers at the Conservatory, but was nonetheless extremely opinionated and independently-minded when it came to the composers he admired. He was largely indifferent to most of Wagner’s work (with a couple of exceptions) and yet used some of his techniques. Then again, he also disliked the music of Brahms, and indeed most other German composers, preferring the lighter, less severe style of French composers like Bizet and Delibes. His admiration for Mozart knew no bounds, as he had been obsessed with Don Giovanni since childhood – he even referred to Mozart as a “musical Christ,” simultaneously human and divine. Yet he cared little for Haydn, and while he admired Beethoven, Tchaikovsky was generally too intimidated or upset by his symphonies to really imitate him. He was also either unable or unwilling to work with the strictures of Western European sonata form, preferring instead to take an innovative, meandering approach to structure, which mirrored his own frequent wandering throughout Europe. He kept his distance from The Five, and yet shared their love of Glinka and of Russian folk music, and collaborated with their leader Balakirev on some musical projects. Tchaikovsky looked primarily for warmth and feeling in music, rather than adhering dogmatically to any particular school, and his youthful obsession with Italian opera, particularly Rossini and Bellini, left him with an enduring ability to produce ravishingly beautiful melodies. His music almost always possesses an incredibly high degree of drama and emotional intensity, which never slavishly mimics the “heroic” quality of Beethoven. His style runs the gamut from saccharine sweetness to bleak and poignant grandeur, from rococo ornament to patriotic simplicity. Although his life was, like so many other composers, cut relatively short (in his case by cholera – anyone who tells you it was suicide is lying), his dedication to hard work rather than just lying around waiting for inspiration meant that he produced a huge amount of orchestral music. Tchaikovsky’s instrumentation is always interesting – his assignment of large roles to almost every part of the orchestra gives his music an almost unrivalled balance and variety.

Tchaikovsky’s compositions weren’t always hugely well-received in his own lifetime, especially at the start of his career, and were often greeted with hostility outside Russia, where their eastern flavour was all the more apparent. For much of his life, the highly sensitive and intensely self-critical Tchaikovsky had to make do with a mixed reception and begrudging approval for his work. The German critic Eduard Hanslick infamously described the violin concerto as “stinking music,” and even Tchaikovsky’s good friend Nikolai Rubinstein became notorious for having rubbished the first piano concerto and demanding it be rewritten, something which Tchaikovsky characteristically refused to do. The Five were also highly critical of pretty much everything Tchaikovsky produced that they weren’t involved with. Today, this reluctance to embrace such melodically rich, accessible and explosively brilliant works seems puzzling at best, but Tchaikovsky’s exuberant writing took time to be accepted. Towards the end of his life, Tchaikovsky began touring and conducting his music extensively, making it as far as the opening concert of Carnegie Hall in New York, and even to Baltimore. It was this touring, as well as official approval from Tsar Alexander III, which caused an explosion in his popularity, to the point where he became a victim of his own success. He was a man who was unafraid of making huge and anguished musical statements, who never shied away from doing something vaguely ludicrous if it achieved the right effect, and who succeeded in capturing the extremes of total love and utter despair through music in a manner that was entirely his own.

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The Classical: An Introduction to Mozart

By Jack Spearing; May 31, 2011 at 12:00 PM 

Warning: This article contains obscene quantities of music, because this month’s composer wrote far too many masterpieces. Trying to condense his work to a few greatest hits would be like using a single track to summarise the entire career of a prolific band. In other words, it would be a crime against music. So please, don’t attempt to tackle everything here in one go, because your ears will break. This is an introduction, but hopefully it’s also comprehensive enough to merit more than one visit. I’ve made a convenient playlist of all the pieces mentioned, which you can find here on YouTube or here on Spotify for more comfortable browsing. And with that out of the way, let’s start…

Don’t know the difference between an Andantino and an Adagietto? Can’t distinguish between the Borodin Quartet and the Borodin Quartet? Confuse Schubert with Schumann? Baffled by Viola Jokes? Have no idea what a conductor actually does? Slightly irritated by this long list of gently patronising rhetorical questions? Then look no further, as The Classical is here to dispel the confusion and sweep away the pomposity frequently (but erroneously) associated with classical music. As I hopefully made clear in last month’s article, although this music might often have been produced at the behest of aristocrats and enjoyed by the rich, it is in fact one of the most universal of all art forms, and readily available to anyone who is interested. Whether it’s virtuosity, drama, pattern, emotion or beauty that you enjoy, classical music can provide them all in abundance. Oh, and there’s also the enjoyable sensation of total and utter smugness that comes with being able to answer questions on certain quiz shows and having an ever-more eclectic profile. This month, I’m going to be attempting an introduction to one of the most prolific, significant and perennially adorable composers ever to have donned a powdered periwig – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – or to give him his full title, Wolfgangus Johannes Chrysostomus Theophilus Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Mozart:

#2: Rock Me Amadeus

OK, so maybe that isn’t exactly what Mozart looked like, and maybe it’s a bit more 1984 than 1784, but as director Miloš Forman has pointed out, Mozart looks different in every one of the portraits of him which survives, which led him to reason that in reality Wolfy must have been a rather unprepossessing, non-descript figure. And while Amadeus might be a travesty of history in terms of its main story (there was no real rivalry between Salieri and Mozart – the idea was largely cooked up by Pushkin years later and then turned into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov) it is surprisingly accurate in almost every other respect, and is in fact a brilliant introduction to almost every aspect of his musical career. To give just one example, Mozart really did have the scatological sense of humour shown in the film – and this didn’t just manifest itself in his private life, he actually wrote a vocal piece entitled “Leck mich im Arsch” (use your imagination on that one) and wrote instructions to the soloist in the score of one of his horn concertos which included: “pain in the balls … but do play at least one note, you prick!”. Given that he was also known as a keen dancer, billiards player and practical joker, I personally don’t have trouble believing in Tom Hulce’s brilliant portrayal of the composer. Mozart’s good-humoured nature shines through in his music, and like the work of his friend and some-time mentor Haydn, gives the lie to the idea that classical music is always deeply serious.

Mozart’s name is almost synonymous with genius and prodigious talent – a cursory glance at YouTube quickly turns up any number of fawning journalists gasping in awe as the latest seven year old child plonks out the Mario theme on a casiotone keyboard, and is swiftly hailed as “the next Mozart.” But contrary to the mythology which sprang up after his untimely death in 1791, Mozart was not born a genius, nor was he simply transcribing music directly from the mouth of God. Such ideas, along with the notion that he never made any sketches, but simply wrote complete works in a single draft, were propagated by his widow Constanze, who was an excellent singer in her own right, but elevated her husband to saint-like status in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Instead, Mozart’s talent developed consistently over the course of his career, reaching a peak in his last years. His music was the result of hard work, not luck. He was also nurtured by his father Leopold, one of history’s greatest pushy parents, and his elder sister Nannerl, the original wunderkind of the Mozart family. Like many more recent showbiz children, Mozart spent a lot of his childhood on the road, learning the family trade and performing blindfolded for the crowned heads of Europe. This experience gave him the ability to produce crowd-pleasing, but nonetheless rigorous works, and fostered his remarkable abilities in improvisation around a theme which served him well later in life, composing on the spot for enraptured audiences, or sometimes just because a piece hadn’t been finished in time. Mozart also continued to travel in search of sympathetic audiences into his adult life, escaping provincial Salzburg and moving to imperial Vienna during his twenties, as well as finding success in Prague.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that before the Romantics showed up and started renegotiating their status and conditions of patronage, musicians were generally classed as servants, and relied for the most part on permanent positions in the courts of the wealthy and powerful. Mozart’s talent and popularity, however, allowed him a certain degree of creative freedom, but never a secure income. Musicians also had no means of claiming royalties on their compositions, receiving only one-off payments from publishers who were often engaged in a desperate free-for-all to get their editions out first and make a quick profit before the market was saturated by pirated copies of the latest popular tune. Mozart, much like independent artists today in an increasingly uncertain marketplace, had to supplement his income through live performances. Although extremely popular, his work never achieved the overwhelming acceptance enjoyed by figures like Haydn. Despite the easy-listening status it now enjoys, Mozart’s music was seen in his own time as being unusually complex. In fact, the last symphony he completed was nicknamed the “Jupiter,” not because of any celestial connotations, but because audiences of the time felt that only the gods could understand it. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, who on the whole produced pleasing, but conventional music, Mozart’s investment in more progressive ideas paid off in the long term, providing a wellspring of inspiration to countless other composers and enjoying a level of popularity which today is rivalled only by Bach. Saying much more about Mozart’s life would be superfluous, so on to the music itself.


“For one of your works a poet could only write one poem; while to a Mozart work he could write three or four analogous ones” – Karl Holz, writing to Beethoven in one of his conversation books, marking the beginning of a tedious debate about who was the better composer.

Having started composing from his early childhood, Mozart managed to produce over 600 works during his short life and mastered every genre with apparent ease. Whereas Beethoven was not averse to churning out pot-boilers like the bombastic “Battle Symphony,” and was sometimes a little bit intense or rough around the edges, Mozart’s works almost always exhibit an incredible degree of finish – resolved, polished and perfect in every detail, with little left to chance. Even when faced with commissions for instruments he hated, Mozart always displayed the utmost professionalism, working conscientiously to produce whatever was needed. This diligence also extended to orchestras, as instrumentalists became increasingly well-organised during his lifetime, and Mozart was constantly pushing his musicians in order to properly realise what he intended for the music, without stretching them to breaking point, as Beethoven would later do. Mozart’s work displays a consummate craftsmanship and represents the zenith of classical music in its strictest sense – that which was written after the baroque, but before romanticism. Classicism was certainly more restrained than later eras – it still adhered strictly to sonata form and had a kind of horror vacui which resulted in a very full, busy sound, but it was by no means inexpressive. Listening to Mozart is like travelling back to witness the unbridled optimism of the Enlightenment and the frivolity and frills of the rococo.

While never inventing any new forms as Haydn and others had done before him, Mozart concentrated instead on expanding, and often perfecting, every musical form then available, as well as using unusual instrumentation. The emotional range of his work is perhaps not as wide as Beethoven’s, but was certainly more subtle and less iconoclastic – from dramatic minor key symphonies inspired by Haydn’s earlier contributions to the proto-Romantic movement known as “Sturm und Drang,” to refined and stylish concertos, he mastered everything. While generally light and graceful, his output was rarely insubstantial or simplistic. He was entirely capable of creating dark and turbulent pieces, but also valued entertainment and virtuosity, intimacy and tenderness. Mozart was also a phenomenally gifted writer of melodies – his phrasing and style are instantly likeable and recognisable, and his insistent tunes have a way of lodging in the mind that can make Beethoven’s themes seem overwrought. His writing is sometimes lyrical, and at other times possesses an ethereal, almost transcendental beauty, but is always hugely satisfying.

While Beethoven struggled to complete one opera, Mozart wrote more than twenty. In fact, the sheer volume of his work in all areas in nothing short of astounding – 23 string quartets, 27 concertos for piano alone, 41 symphonies, 17 masses, 36 violin sonatas, and so on. In purely numerical terms, the classical era beats the romantics hands down. However, these figures also show the folly of comparing giants of different eras. The relative achievements and different contexts of composers like Mozart and Beethoven makes any debate about superiority irrelevant – after all, Beethoven himself felt inferior to his great musical forerunner, even late on in life. Mozart’s penchant for improvisation also left room for dialogue with later composers, as most of his concertos allow the soloist to improvise a whole section of the music, in a manner which is perhaps more familiar to modern audiences via jazz, or even guitar solos.

With such a wealth of material on offer, the only question remaining is where to start. Curiously, one of the best places to begin exploring is at the very end, with a work which Mozart died before completing. This is the famous Requiem – an almost unbearably poignant musical setting of a Latin text used in Catholic services to commemorate the dead. The only other composer who could ever compete with Mozart in this field was Verdi, whose own Requiem is a work, which alongside Car Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” has become a favourite of lazy television researchers looking for evil-sounding music. Mozart, fortunately, has avoided this kind of pigeonholing.

Here’s a handy playlist for the entire Requiem, because it would be a crime just to give you extracts.

Listen out especially for the start of the “Dies Irae” – the text of which comes from a thirteenth century hymn about judgment and the end of the world – hence the ever-so-slightly dramatic tone. From the same section comes the mournful and achingly beautiful “Lacrimosa,” an English translation of which also features in Regina Spektor’s song of the same name. “The Kyrie,” “Confutatis” and “Rex Tremendae” sections are also particular highlights. For those of who don’t happen to speak Latin, this translation is also helpful. You may also notice that the piece is in D minor, the saddest of all keys.

If you’d rather start off with something a bit less morbid, but equally accessible, then the concertos are an excellent place to begin. I’ll save you the trouble of dredging through all 42 of them by picking out a few of the best. The clarinet concerto is an enduring favourite, and the last concerto Mozart wrote. The clarinet itself was only a relatively recent invention at the time of composition, and Mozart explored the potential of the instrument, exploiting its autumnal timbre and ability to produce low, burbling rhythms. The first movement, with its famous opening, shifts back and forth between fluttering orchestral parts and the slightly melancholy clarinet:

Clarinet Concerto, 1st Movement – Allegro:

The second, and most famous movement, is a sumptuous and luxuriously paced combination of rich orchestral textures and sinuous clarinet lines:

Clarinet Concerto, 2nd Movement – Adagio:

Clarinet Concerto, 3rd Movement – Rondo, Allegro:

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The Classical: An Introduction to Beethoven

By Jack Spearing; April 30, 2011 at 9:14 PM 

In this monthly feature I’m going to try and provide a small insight into the world of classical music – you know, that long, grandiose stuff that retired people and school children learning the clarinet listen to. The snobby, expensive music that you would get around to listening to if you weren’t so busy tracking down rare Throbbing Gristle bootlegs and listening to that compilation of every good song ever done by anybody. Except none of that is really true – classical music is for everyone, not just an elite few who can afford to see it live, and it’s never been easier to get hold of vast quantities of it for free. You’re only ever a short google away from getting hold of the complete works of the greatest composers who ever lived. Not only that, but if you’re willing to cast aside any preconceptions you might have about this much maligned but spectacular music, then you can free yourself (to an extent) from the tyranny of contemporary music, the need to always be listening to the right thing, and to always be ahead of everyone else. In classical music, there are no obscure new artists, no need to pretend to like things – all the major practitioners are very much on the dead side of things – the whole canon is pretty much decided, all you have to do is listen. Which is where I come in, providing you with a brief introduction to a different composer each time, starting with this rather moody character:

#1: Roll Over Beethoven

Walter Murphy – “A Fifth of Beethoven”

Mozart: “But Haydn, how will you live in London, you barely speak the language!”
Haydn: “Don’t worry – the language I speak is understood everywhere.”

Or so the anecdote goes.

A recent review conducted by the long-running BBC Radio Four programme Desert Island Discs of its decades of archives revealed that, of the eight most popular choices ever made, all were classical pieces, and half were by a single composer. Mozart, although the most popular composer overall, was curiously absent from this particular leaderboard. Bach, too, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, it was one Ludwig van Beethoven who had pipped both of his illustrious forebears to the musical post. And the most popular choice of all? Which work, like more recent efforts The Godfather, Citizen Kane, OK Computer or “Like a Rolling Stone,” has become burdened with the title “greatest ever”? This honour fell upon the so-called “Choral Symphony, the Ninth,” and the last such work Beethoven was to compose. Here, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein eloquently describes this life-affirming work:

Leonard Bernstein performs Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”

This towering orchestral monolith, over an hour in length, stands as Beethoven’s most enduring and powerful statement – of belief in the human spirit, visceral joy, universal brotherhood, personal faith, and redemption. It was the final flowering of a set of beliefs he had carried all his life, even when facing suicidal despair. In the comfortable, if conservative, world of Biedermeier Vienna, these themes probably seemed less remote and idealistic than they do today, when we are as likely to praise music which revels in alienation and angst as the feeling of sincere enjoyment.

But enough about best-of lists and greatest-evers – Beck and Tom Waits deliver the last word on that subject. Classical music is frequently accused of elitism and inaccessibility, yet these same criticisms could just as easily be levelled at serious music today. Don’t get me wrong, I love pretty much any organised sound I can lay my hands on, but exposure to classical music can fundamentally change the way you listen, hopefully for the better. It can also seriously test your relativism, as even within its seemingly narrow confines, classical music accommodates everything from Gregorian chant to atonal mess. It requires a different set of skills, a different means of evaluation, stretches you in different directions – yet the essential elements are the same as any other music – what is the style? Do I enjoy it? What do I invest in it? How can I defend it? How does it make me feel? It’s almost like discovering a whole new country, which can make the one you came from occasionally seem drab by comparison, although it will always be your home.

It is hard to imagine music which speaks more directly, or more powerfully, to basic human emotions than Beethoven’s. His work, therefore, seemed like a logical place to start in my meagre attempt to justify centuries of human endeavour in music to an audience which has become increasingly estranged from it, and seems to regard classical music as useful only for relaxation. While it can be a source of comfort, I think limiting any music to so narrow a scope would be a terrible act of cultural vandalism. Beethoven’s body of work spans everything from anxiety to unadulterated euphoria – if you want something gentle, look elsewhere.

Beethoven is, for my money, the greatest composer, and perhaps the greatest musician, who ever lived. He is one of the few people who lives up to the kind of endless hyperbole that is usually spent describing less interesting people. In a musical career of around thirty years, which spanned tumultuous periods of revolution, the rise and fall of dictators, and the conflict between liberal and conservative factions in a repressive post-war environment (Now, where have I heard this before?), Beethoven wrote over 150 works. But don’t worry, I’m not going argue that Beethoven’s music “has a new relevance for modern listeners” or try to paint him either as the artist-hero of 19th century historiography, or as an antecedent of modern liberalism. His work should be considered on its own merits, and is intended to inspire a deeply personal, and profoundly subjective experience in each listener. Although his life is fascinating in its own right, it would be a mistake to draw too much upon it in interpreting his work.

Beethoven, like his idol Mozart before him, wrote for, and in the process revolutionised, almost every genre of music which then existed. How many musicians could make such a claim today, where musical genres, their dogmatic value systems and attendant subcultures divide along strict tribal lines? Beethoven undoubtedly felt that he was writing music for the ages, and for all humanity, and the implicit narrative of much of his work – that of the suffering and eventual triumph over adversity, be it personal or political – is something that almost everyone can understand, regardless of petty quibbles about taste. It is also worth bearing in mind that Beethoven achieved all this, for the most part, through instrumental music alone, without the benefit of words to carry meaning – there’s a reason no one says “Here’s three chords, now write a symphony” – unless they’re Philip Glass, of course, but that’s another story.


Whether it was orchestral, chamber, vocal or solo instrumental music, Beethoven’s output was extremely wide-ranging and almost always meticulously constructed, a fact that is all the more remarkable given the deafness (amongst many other physical and mental ailments, not to mention alcoholism) which afflicted him for much of his life. The character of his music is clearly apparent in his most well-known works – the symphonies. They contain some of his powerful and intense writing, at times violent and frenzied, at other moments brooding and reflective, and occasionally sounding a bit like the theme from Blackadder – doing justice to his style in words is a near impossible feat – as the man himself is reputed to have remarked: “I would rather write a thousand notes than a single letter of the alphabet.”

The symphonies also neatly illustrate the conventional way in which his works have been divided into three distinct, but inter-related periods – the first and second symphonies, while definitely worth hearing, are of the early period, and as such are regarded as a kind of musical apprenticeship in which he drew heavily from his predecessors Mozart and Haydn. From the third symphony until the eighth, we encounter Beethoven’s so-called heroic phase, which contains some of his most characteristic work, while the ninth is a classic example of his late style, in which he looked back further into musical history to the example set by Bach and Handel, and attempted to recreate their dense contrapuntal style in a New Romantic context. As such, Beethoven (along with contemporaries such as Cherubini, Weber and Hummel) bridged the gap between the beautiful, but formally restrained classicism of the late 1700s, and laid the foundation for future generations of Romantics, who interpreted his work in hugely divergent ways.

Through these nine colossal works, Beethoven utterly transformed the symphony as a means of expression, taking what had been, in the hands of his teacher, Haydn, a somewhat formal classical model, and recasting it as a truly gargantuan means of personal expression. He took Haydn’s rollicking ‘galante’ style, and then proceeded to turbocharge it. He increased the size of orchestras and vastly expanded the possibilities of this kind of music, leaving an indelible impression on the rest of the nineteenth century, and beyond. Beethoven, for the most part, put drama ahead of beauty, and breathtaking thematic development before the polish and ornament of earlier composers. He redefined the relationship between different sections of the orchestra, adding new colour and depth to instrumentation, and making greater use of what music producers might today call “the low end.” As a result, his works have an unmatched energy, drama and emotional intensity, yet avoid bombast and unnecessary showmanship.

While all of this might seem slightly intimidating, getting to know the works is very easy – they pull off the incredible trick of having both clarity and depth, so that the first listen can be as rewarding as the hundredth. Besides – you probably already know some of them already, even if you don’t realise it – films as diverse as Fantasia, A Clockwork Orange and even The King’s Speech have all used extracts from some of the most well-known symphonies, and the famous opening of the fifth is virtually synonymous with dramatic events – as Beethoven’s secretary described it, “Thus fate knocks at the door!”:

Beethoven – “5th Symphony”

Another problem people often seem to encounter with the world of classical music is the struggle to find a suitable place to begin. If you’re new to classical music in general, there is perhaps no better introduction than these symphonies, particularly the third “Eroica” (inspired by Napoleon), fifth, sixth (the “Pastoral” – one his few explicitly programmatic works), seventh (an exercise in rhythm which Wagner later christened “The Apotheosis of Dance”) and of course, the ninth. They are amongst the greatest works of the entire symphonic repertoire, and of European art music in general. I’ll avoid any long-winded musical ekphrasis and just let you listen. Each symphony is in four separate movements, but I’ve picked out the highlights:

Beethoven – “Symphony No. 7”

Beethoven – “Symphony No. 6”

Beethoven – “Symphony No. 3” (1st Movement)

Beethoven – “Symphony No. 5” (4th Movement)

Beethoven also wrote a stunning series of concertos (pieces for orchestra with a prominent solo part for a virtuoso instrumentalist) including five for piano, which range from Mozartean high classicism to full-blown, explosive Romanticism, and one for violin, as well as a number of orchestral overtures. The concertos (or concerti, it really doesn’t matter) span a relatively short period in Beethoven’s oeuvre, and show his development as a composer beginning to find his own inimitable voice. Beethoven was also an extremely accomplished pianist, and would frequently give the premieres of each concerto personally, until his deafness prevented him from doing so:

Beethoven – “Piano Concerto No. 5”

Beethoven – “Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major”

Beethoven – “Piano Concerto No. 5, Rondo”

Beethoven – “Violin Concerto” (Movement 3)

Beethoven – “Egmont” Overture

However, if you prefer music on a slightly smaller scale, Beethoven also contributed his genius to the field of chamber music – which, as the name suggests, is played by a number of people small enough to fit into an ordinary room. Here too, he expanded the expressive range of the genre, stretching it almost to breaking point in his later works. One of the most accessible of these works is the “Archduke” Piano Trio, written for his patron Archduke Rudolph of Austria:

Beethoven – “Archduke Trio” (1st Movement)

Beethoven also excelled at writing haunting pieces in this form, most notably the slow movement from the aptly named “Ghost” Trio:

Beethoven – “Piano Trio no. 5”

Also of particular note are the Violin Sonatas “Spring,” Number 5 (as played by Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Love and Death) and the “Kreutzer,” Number 9:

Beethoven – “Spring Sonata”

Beethoven – “Kreutzer Sonata” (1st Movement)

Or if you prefer woodwinds to strings, try the Octet:

Beethoven – “Octet in E Flat for Winds”

However, it was in the string quartet that Beethoven truly excelled, and while all his sixteen efforts in this area are brilliant, it is his staggering late quartets that have come to be regarded as some of his greatest works, and indeed some of the finest pieces composed in any genre. Most notable are the “Heiliger Dankgesang” or “Holy song of Thanksgiving,” which Beethoven wrote after recovery from a period of illness, and the “Great Fugue,” which is his most thoroughgoing exploration of the fugal forms he developed after studying the work of baroque composers. It remains amongst the most technically demanding pieces to play in the entire repertoire, and although greeted with bemusement at the time of its composition, it is now recognised as one of his most accomplished and complex pieces:

Beethoven – “Heiliger Dankgesang”

Beethoven – “Große Fuge”

Also worth mentioning is “La Malinconia,” the final movement of the last of Beethoven’s early quartets, and a work which has been interpreted by some as possible evidence of the composer having suffered from bipolar disorder, veering wildly as it does between slow, foreboding passages which are the aural equivalent of depression, and excitable, dance-like moments which give musical form to the symptoms of mania:

Beethoven – “String Quartet No. 6 in B Sharp”

The piano sonata was another form Beethoven took up from his main inspirations, Haydn and Mozart, and expanded its vocabulary enormously, writing some thirty one sonatas altogether. As with the other works I’ve mentioned, it tends to be the ones with nicknames that are most interesting, particularly the incredibly famous “Moonlight’ sonata” (the chord structure of which also underpins The Beatles’ “Because”), but also the “Pathetique,” “Waldstein,” “Appassionata” and, most of all, the spectacular “Hammerklavier,” another classic example of the late style:

Beethoven – “Moonlight Sonata” (1st Movement)

Beethoven – “Hammerklavier”

Aside from this, there is also a wealth of other piano material, such as the almost universally recognised “Für Elise” and the vast set of variations on a theme by Diabelli, in which Beethoven ripped up the rulebook on how variations were composed, taking tiny fragments of the original theme and expanding them into intricate studies of incredibly refined technique, to create a work which was only rivalled by Bach’s landmark Goldberg variations of some eighty years before:

Beethoven – “Für Elise”

Anton Diabelli – “33 Variations on a Waltz”

And for the more adventurous amongst you who think you can stomach some German opera, Beethoven’s single contribution in the genre – “Fidelio”; a tale which celebrates the theme of political liberty, is hugely underrated:

Beethoven – “Fidelio”

Beethoven – “Fidelio Marzelline Aria”

Beethoven – “Fidelio (Chorus of Prisoners)”

And if you’re feeling especially patient, the huge “Missa Solemnis” is well worth the effort it requires:

Beethoven – “Kyrie (Missa Solemnis)”

Beethoven’s back catalogue, like more recent prolific musicians, is somewhat disorganised, and once you’re better acquainted with the most famous works (and if you like them enough), you can dig deeper. However, unlike modern artists, the work of classical composers is not only more consistent in quality, but also improves towards the end of their lives, and Beethoven is no exception to this rule. With occasional exception, almost all of his work is worth listening to – I’ve personally narrowed it down to about three solid days of material, and even after a couple of years of obsessive listening, I still only feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg. If you’re looking for a new musical world to explore, try searching out this old one first.

Other Classicals:

#2 – Rock Me Amadeus: An Introduction to Mozart
#3 – Tch-Tch-Tch Tchanges: An Introduction to Tchaikovsky
#4 – Schubert Dip: An Introduction to Schubert
#5: Bach To The Future: An Introudction to Bach


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