Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Art of Listening: Classical Music

I got some nice encouragement for this project from a music teacher who wrote: "Whatever you call it, it will be required reading for my music history students!"

I will start with a general look at what we usually call "classical music" but is sometimes called "concert music" or "art music" or, in a slightly insulting phrase, "serious music". Hey, "Hellhound on My Trail" by Robert Johnson is about as serious as you can get, and it is the blues!

The basic fact about classical music (I will continue to call it that, simply because it is a familiar name) is that it is music written down by a composer and, usually, intended to be performed in concert. It is designed, first and foremost, to be listened to rather than danced to or to be in the background at banquets or parties. Mind you, there are cassations and divertimenti that were intended to be mostly in the background, but they are the exception.

Given this context, it is reasonable to expect that classical music will provide us with the most intense, fulfilling and moving listening experience. Of course, this is often not the case. Classical composers are likely to write a few (or many) duds that are boring, pretentious messes. But that counts as a failure! A successful classical piece is well worth listening to, usually many, many times.

Classical pieces can be of any length from a minute (or less) to three or more hours. Here is a very brief piece by one of our stars, the Saxon organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) that is no more than two minutes long (though it is paired with a following fugue), but is an absolute masterpiece of harmony:

The pianist is the Canadian Glenn Gould, particularly known for his crisp playing of Bach.

Classical music has a long history, mostly developing in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to now. Its origins are in the plainchant dating from the 6th century, which is unaccompanied singing of liturgical texts. Here is an Improperia, a kind of chant used at Easter and possibly originating in the 9th century:

From these simple origins, the tradition developed and developed, constantly discovering new resources in harmony, the combining of single notes into chords with several notes. The Bach prelude is a good example. Bach is also famous for his mastery of the technique of combining melodies, called counterpoint. Here is an example, the Fugue in B flat minor from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach:

That is an extremely complicated and busy piece, isn't it? It would help to notice that, at least in the first part, each one of those four "voices" that come in (two in each hand) is exactly (or nearly) the same melody. This tune is called the "subject" of the fugue. You may have to listen a few times to pick out each entrance. It's worth it, though, as it rather expands your consciousness when you realize that you are listening to four different "voices" simultaneously--without going mad!

I don't want to overload any particular post, so this will do for today.


Ken Fasano said...

Thank you!

Marc Puckett said...

A happy beginning to what I'm sure will be a valuable series!

But I will quibble with "a kind of chant used at Easter". The Improperia are used on Good Friday in the West (and also on Holy Saturday in the East, evidently), so "used at Easter" is like saying Veni, veni Emmanuel, which is proper in the Advent season, 'is a Christmas song', as indeed it has become popularly, I guess. But.... :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the correction, Marc.