This week I finished listening to all of the Mozart symphonies in Trevor Pinnock's excellent recording--despite the numbering, which ends with #41, he wrote around fifty symphonies--and this, combined with listening to some Haydn ones as well, makes me think that they, and a vast number of other composers before 1800, would not have thought of themselves as writing "serious" music. But now we think of most of what they wrote, including all of those symphonies, as "serious" music. What changed?
I think we can start to hear the change with Mozart. The trio of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven have always fascinated me, not just because of the quality of their music, but also because of their close geographic and temporal proximity. Haydn was born in 1732 and Beethoven died in 1827 (Mozart's life was within those dates) so the great flourishing of Western music took place in less than 100 years and largely in one city: Vienna. To return to my point, in the music of Haydn, which is all of it superbly crafted and delightful to hear, we only hear in a few pieces, typically those with the "Sturm und Drang" label, the tragic glint that comes to dominate 19th century music. Here is an example:
This symphony carries the nickname "Trauer" or "Mourning" and it is in the key of E minor. By later standards it doesn't sound too mournful, but at the time of composition (1772) the use of a minor key was itself unusual. The majority of Haydn's symphonies and all but two of Mozart's are in major keys. What Haydn really excelled at was effervescent delight as exemplified in the last movement of the Symphony No. 92 "Oxford":
But with Mozart that tragic cast comes a bit more to the fore as we see in the first movement of his Symphony No. 40 in G minor:
It was precisely this element of tragedy that Beethoven--who was far more influenced by Mozart than Haydn--picked up and amplified in his own symphonies (the odd-numbered ones, at least). Here is the first movement of his Symphony No. 9:
After that, the whole 19th century wrote nothing but very serious symphonies!
Now here is why I titled this post "The Bane of the Serious": I don't want to write music that is serious in that sense. Nothing wrong with it when Beethoven did it, but after Bruckner re-wrote Beethoven's 9th nine more times and Mahler added his version of serious music followed by Richard Strauss and even Schoenberg in his early years, I think that well is pretty dry.
To me, what I hear more and more is that the effervescent joy of Haydn, Mozart and even some Beethoven has been replaced by dreary, depressing dirges. It is the rhythm that has suffered the most. The crisp incisive rhythms of the 18th century were slowly replaced by plodding dullness and, in the 20th century, by jagged rhythms of pain.
But still people want to, or in composition schools are told they want to, write "serious" music. Depends on how you define "serious" doesn't it? I want people to listen closely to my music and perhaps, occasionally, chuckle, but certainly smile. I don't want to write music that sends people into anxiety attacks and deep depression. That's what the news is for.
Here is Leonard Bernstein listening to the Vienna Philharmonic play the last movement of Haydn's Symphony No 88 and pointedly not bothering to conduct them. Serious? Hardly, but great music nonetheless: