Classical Music Without Pain

If you know more than a smidgin about classical music then please stop reading immediately. This article is a basic introduction. To get the boring part over with, what is classical music?

Some say that it is the music that endures. Yet Neapolitan songs and Edith Piaf have endured and will continue to, but are certainly not classical. A better division is into art versus folk and popular music. This is not quite right either, since there is great artistry in Ella Fitzgerald singing "I Love Paris". Another factor is that a piece of classical music does not bore us if we hear it again and again. Finally, a classical work usually has a well-defined form, such as symphony, concerto or suite. Perhaps the essential difference is that due to its seriousness, classical music has something that popular music lacks: depth.

Classical music is divided into four main periods: Baroque, Classical (this is confusing, I know), Romantic and 20th century.

The main composers of the Baroque (baroque = ornamented) period were JS Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Handel and Vivaldi. The first three of these were conveniently born in music's greatest vintage year: 1685. Baroque music is decorous and pleasant, with restrained emotion.

Bach is the greatest. In one sense his music is that of the late Baroque period and was becoming obsolete even as his ink was drying. In another sense his music is utterly timeless. Bach's music has been made to swing countless times, whether by jazz, pop, Swingle Singers or synthesizers. No other composer's work has proved so malleable. G Hindley wrote, "There can be few lovers of music insensitive to the works of a man who perhaps more than any other before or since, united the intellectual and emotional drives of the human spirit."

The Classical period has 2 1/2 outstanding figures: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, whom it shares with the Romantic period. The typical form was the symphony, with its emphasis on structure. Music of this period is more emotional and dramatic than Baroque.

Mozart was one of these insufferable people who, though he was established as a genius before the age of nine, spent the rest of his tragically short life getting steadily better. His death at age 35 was the greatest tragedy in the history of Western music. Divine music seemed to pour out of him without effort. Little wonder that his rival Salieri despaired. Mozart once remarked to Haydn, "For you sir, I will make an exception, but the other composers are all asses."

The Romantic period featured Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovski, Dvorak and many others. The typical form was the piano concerto, with its ample scope for drama. Compared to earlier music, Romantic music is emotionally unrestrained.

This period introduced the notion of the artist as hero, of which Beethoven is the prototype. All subsequent composers of symphonies struggled to live up to his towering legacy. Beethoven is the third of the trio of supreme geniuses of Western music. Like Bach and Mozart before him, he too was a German-speaker. This has prompted one wag to quip that there are two kinds of music: German and bad. Dinu Lipatti said of Beethoven, "It is not enough to be a great composer; to write music like this you must be a chosen instrument of God."

The twentieth century has given rise to a diversity of styles. Some of its major lights are Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Stravinski, Ravel, Rodrigo, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. As the (late) Paul Hindemith observed, the public's main requirement of a composer is that he be dead. The reason for this is not far to seek. From about 1920 onwards, Western classical music became increasingly difficult and inaccessible, if not downright unpleasant. Much of it is "music to frighten the cat". Most modern composers (but not the ones just mentioned) have lost touch with the audience. The rule is: the later they are, the worse their music. However, there are hold-overs such as our own Ross Edwards and Grant Foster, who are writing melodic and accessible music even as you read this.

This time-line shows the most important composers from 1400 to 2000.


The classical repertoire is vast and daunting. "Where are the best bits?" you ask. My choices are based on: 1) outstanding enjoyability, 2) accessibility, and 3) no singing. These selections are the pearls of greatest price. They should thrill and delight anyone who is not congenitally indifferent to music.

Bach - Toccata & Fugue in D minor BWV 565 (pyrotechnic), Italian Concerto BWV 971, Concerto for Four Pianos BWV 1065; Soler - Fandango (exciting); Vivaldi - The Four Seasons; Mozart - Piano Concertos #20 (Mozart's favourite, mine too) & #21 (sheer pleasure), Piano Sonata #8, Symphony #40; Beethoven - Symphony #5 (Beethoven at full throttle), Piano Concerto #5, Piano Sonatas #17 & #23 (Beethoven's favourite), Bagatelles.

Brahms - Piano Concerto #2 (dramatic); Schubert - Piano Sonatas #21-23, Symphony #8; Mendelssohn - Midsummer Night's Dream, Violin Concerto (romantic); Liszt - Piano Concerto #2 (dramatic); Chopin - Polonaises; Dvorak - New World Symphony (#9); Tchaikovski - Nutcracker Suite, Piano Concerto #1 (flamboyant); Rossini - String Sonatas #1-6 (charming); Rimsky-Korsakov - Scheherazade (seductively beautiful); Rachmaninov - Piano Concerto #3 (romantic); Albeniz - Suite Espagnola; Sibelius - Sonatines #1-3; Glass - Violin Concerto (haunting).

Classical music is the 'high culture' end of music, the equivalent of Shakespeare, Dostoievski and Hemingway. Hence some of it is an acquired taste: initially you may find Mozart boring. People tend to start out liking Tchaikovski and proceed to weightier composers. Since classical music requires more involvement from the listener than does the popular variety, you may find that a work that initially appears boring or difficult becomes beautiful with repeated hearings.

All the above works are by males. Unfortunately, there have been no female composers of any note until recent times.

One of the best aspects of living in the 20th century is that the creations of the greatest musicians that ever lived are available to us. Not many of us can buy a painting by Da Vinci or a bust by Rodin, but everyone can afford Mozart and Beethoven. Funnily enough, it costs no more to buy a masterpiece than something banal.

Music is far more powerful than any of the visual arts because it touches our emotions directly. Though a book has more power to move us to tears than does a piece of music, it is music, above all the other arts, that has the capacity to make us directly experience sheer beauty.

Classical music is more dramatic than rock music because the latter has no light and shade, since the volume does not vary. In classical music there are both shouts and whispers. The essential attraction of classical music and, in my opinion, its superiority over folk, popular and rock music, can be summed up in one word: beauty.

Tad Boniecki

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