Part 1Up to this point, we have been using the term "Classical" in the popular sense, covering all Western art music; however in music history this term is more properly applied to the music composed between the Baroque and Romantic Periods (some scholars call the earlier part of this period the "Rococo" period, but that is a less common subdivision and will be ignored here). The Classical period stretches roughly from 1730 to shortly after 1800.
Classical music is defined by a number of forms which came to dominance during this period, especially sonata form. These new forms required a simpler texture than the older polyphonic music, and a new kind of sound emerges which we call "homophonic." Homophonic music is what you hear most of the time when you turn on your radio or TV: a melody played on top of harmonizing chords played by supporting instruments or voices underneath. Think of a singer strumming a guitar accompaniment. Whereas in polyphonic music harmony was produced by carefully designing musical themes so that when layered over each other they would produce pleasing sounds; in homophonic music one can write a much wider variety of melodies and add chords underneath, where they are wanted, without trying compose those chords themselves out of independently valid melodies.
It may seem odd that music did not continue to become more complex in structure, but in fact what the shift to homophony allowed were different kinds of complexity. The new style lent itself to creating pieces which had clearly demarcated sections within which all kinds of complications could be created without confusion. Whereas a typical Baroque movement is a unified whole, held together by a single melodic and rhythmic idea, a classical movement normally contains two different melodies and relies on contrast between sections for its form. Sonata form is dominated by contrasts rather than by uniformity.
Classical sonata form is extremely varied. Without some technical training, some of the terminology musicians use to describe it can be confusing; but we will attempt here to give a general sense of its shape for those without such training.
We should be clear from the outset that sonata form is not the same thing as a sonata, which is a kind of piece for one instrument or a small group of instruments made up of three or four related movements, some of which will be in sonata form. In what follows, we will be discussing the form, not the type of composition called a "sonata."
The over-all structure of a sonata movement is fairly simple. It is divided into three parts: exposition (introduction of the musical themes, usually two), development (treatments of those themes in various ways which transform them but still leave them recognizably related to the exposition), and recapitutlation (repetition of the musical themes).
However, this is too simple. In fact, the structure of a sonata movement depends heavily upon the ways in which musical keys relate to each other. In the exposition, the principal material, usually consisting of two different themes played in two related keys, is played twice. At the end of the exposition, the instruments move into a different, related key. The development begins in this new key and throughout this middle section the musical material is treated in various ways in various keys. In the development it is also common to combine pieces of the two themes of the exposition in various ways, in various keys. When the original material returns at the end of the piece, it has been given a new context. Sonata movements--especially those which conclude a composition--often add a coda, that a series of flourishes or thumps which emphatically punctuate the end of the music.
There are many variations on this basic scheme. There is no one orthodox model that everyone is supposed to follow. But the general shape of sonata form appealed to a enormous range of composers for most of the 19th century and produced many familiar masterpieces. Without becoming an expert in music theory, you can fairly easily train your ear to catch the basic elements of sonata form in a performance.
Having said all that, we must now admit that there are no really fully-developed examples of sonata form on your CD set. However, the elements that go to make up sonata form can be recognized, and once you have the idea you can try to listen for them in longer, more complex movements from music that you borrow from the library.
Franz Josef Haydn (Austrian, 1732-1809) produced a vast amount of music, the most popular or which remain the later symphonies. The first movement of this symphony starts very quitely and genteely, and then (at 0:29) BOOM! comes a loud chord (the "surprise" which gives the symphony its name), after which the opening statement of the theme continues quietly on its way. There are other abrupt transitions between loud and soft in the piece as well. Listen for a development section which begins about two minutes into the piece in which the theme both moves through various keys and undergoes various transformations. This sort of playing with a theme lies at the heart of what makes classical music classical. At about 4:52 the movement heads toward its conclusion in what is called a "coda" (Italian for "tail").
Recommended Recordings (Click on the link called "Recommended Recordings.")
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Austrian, 1756-1791) wrote an astonishing number of great compositions by any standard; but his achievement is particularly impressive because he died so young, at the age of 35. His music has always been popular, but the public appetite for it increased and his image was rather altered by the sensational 1979 Peter Shaffer play and the 1984 film based on it, entitled Amadeus, in which he engages in a doomed struggle with the much less talented Antonio Salieri. Experts often deride this drama for distorting Mozart's image, but it is not a bad introduction to his music; and the net result was probably that the general public responded to his works even more intensely than they had before.
Mozart wrote some of the most successful operas ever composed, as well as a great deal of music for keyboard and small ensembles (what is called "chamber music," i.e. music which can be performed in a "chamber" or "room" rather than in a large symphony hall). The Serenade for String Quartet & Bass in G major, usually played today by a full string orchestra, is perhaps the most familiar of all his works, filled with delightful melodies. Its title, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" means simply "A Little Night Music," indicating its intention to entertain.
More information about Mozart
Let's pause for a minute and use the heading above as an opportunity to talk about how to read the title of a classical work. "Sonata" here refers not to sonata form, but to a piece for one or more instruments in three or four movements which contrast with each other in their mood and rhythm, but which are related to each other by their tonality, being written in keys which traditionally "go together." Some, but not necessarily all of the movements of a sonata, will be in sonata form as discussed above. This is the fourteenth sonata written by Beethoven. It is written in the key of C sharp minor. It was included in the twenty-seventh publication of his works, and is the second work in that publication ("opus," abbreviated "Op."). Because its gently undulating melody reminded someone (not Beethoven) of moonlight shining on water it was given the nickname "The Moonlight Sonata." "Adagio" is a tempo marking meaning "at a steady walking pace" and "sostenuto" means "sustained" or "steady."
Ludwig van Beethoven (German, 1770-1827) continues to inspire us through his inventiveness and originality, his struggle with deafness, and his independent spirit. He was the first composer to make his living purely as a commercial enterprise, performing in concerts to which the public bought tickets and selling his compositions to composers. Previous composers generally received their livelihood by holding official positions in noble households or churches and were very much under the authority of their employers. Beethoven's rebelliousness made such a live unacceptable, and he paved the way for many musicians who followed him. In this way he also reflects the early 19th-century shift of power and taste from the old aristocracy to the new middle classes.
When we think of Beethoven, we probably think of large-scale stormy pieces, like the famous 9th Symphony; but he is here represented by a quiet, lyrical movement from one of his thirty-two piano sonatas. The famous opening movement represents sonata form better than either of the other two classical works on this disc. The same steady, rippling rhythm runs through the entire work. At 1:08, the second theme enters. At 1:48 begins a development section in a related key; and at 3:05 the recapitulation (which as is often the case is not an exact repetition of the exposition, but is in the initial key). Listen for an interesting transition away from this key at 4:07 and back again at 4:25.
Listeners sometimes object that analyses like this interfere with simple enjoyment of the music; and in fact you are not expected to be noting "Ah, here comes the development section" every time you listen to a classical work; but some knowledge of what makes such a piece work can increase your enjoyment even if you aren't engaged in conscious analysis. A complaint of most listeners to any unfamiliar kind of music is that "it all sounds alike." Yet when one understands the individual characteristics of any kind of music, whether it is Balinese gamelan, New Orleans jazz, or heavy metal, is the first step toward appreciating it. The simple, sensuous appeal of a work like the Moonlight Sonata is obvious to almost any listener, but the charms of less immediately appealing music take a bit of knowledge to be enjoyed.
Information about Beethoven
For part 2 of this assignment, you must choose one of the recordings below following the same procedures you followed for the Baroque Music Assignment #2 and call Kris McBride at (800) 435-5832 to request your CD.
Created by Paul Brians, June 23, 1998
Last revised October 12, 2000.
This page has been accessed times since December 17, 1998.
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