Haydn is the Father of the String Quartet. He did not compose the first one, however. That honor likely goes to Alessandro Scarlatti, who composed six works called Sonata a Quattro per Due Violini, Violette e Violoncello, senza Cemballo (i.e., a quartet comprised of 2 violins, 1 viola and 1 cello, without keyboard). While Haydn may not have invented the format, he was the first to master the form. And he was prolific–his 68 quartets number more than Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert managed, combined.
The string quartet was a perfect vehicle for the emerging Classical homophonic style. Typically led by the first violin, which Haydn used to establish the tonal center of the composition, the other instruments, playing in lower registers, were used to provide harmonic support. While Haydn’s early quartets vested responsibility for melody with the first violin, Haydn soon began giving the other voices a crack at melodic development. This technique of passing the melody around the band would find its most dramatic home in symphonic works–the sharing of melody would become a hallmark of the Classical style, all thanks to Haydn.
Haydn relied increasingly on the sonata form in the first movement of his quartets. In short, the sonata form presents the theme in an exposition section, develops the theme by exploring its harmonic possibilities in a development section, before restating itself, more or less intact, in a final recapitulation section. As the sonata form was typically found in fast–or allegro–movements, the form is frequently referred to as “sonata-allegro”.
Following a slow movement and a movement based on dance forms (such as a minuet or scherzo), the final movement would recap the theme in a dramatic way. Haydn relied on a vast array of forms in his final movements, including fugue and rondo (a form of theme and variation). Invariably, these final movements are the ones that catch my ear.
Here are two of my favorites. First, the last movement of his Op. 20, No. 5, proving that the fugue was not completely dead in the classical period. Second, a later work, the finale of his “Rider” Quartet:
Franz Joseph Haydn, String Quartet Op. 20, No. 5 “Sun”, IV. Finale, Fugue:
Franz Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3, “The Rider”, IV. Finale, Allegro:
Haydn was not the first classical composer. As noted last week, Bach’s son, CPE Bach, Antonio Salieri, and Christoph Gluck, among many, many others, pioneered the slow movement away from the Baroque. Some of these efforts were well underway prior to 1750 and some of these early classical composers–Salieri in particular–continued to soldier on into the 19th century. Some (like Salieri) were important teachers, but there is a reason that their music is seldom performed: What came afterwards was just so much better.
Franz Joseph Haydn is not one of my favorite composers. But his contribution to music history is undeniable. Remembered as the Father of the Symphony is evidence enough. But he also pretty much did the same thing for the string quartet, the backbone of classical chamber music and the format that supercharged post-war jazz. His students also went on to great success–both Mozart and Beethoven studied (the first informally, the second formally) with Haydn. For these reasons, we remember this very prolific composers (108 symphonies, over 200 chamber music compositions, 20 operas, 14 masses, 6 oratorios and the list keeps going) as “Papa” Haydn.
There can be no denying that Papa Haydn was a man of his age–the Age of Enlightenment. His character comes down to us as a man of generous and kind spirt, a natural optimist. His music reflects this core Enlightenment balance between intellect and emotion. Haydn’s music only ever gets so dark; the emotional highs are similarly muted. If I could sum up Haydn’s soundcape in a picture, it would certainly be this:
Much like I do Fragonard, I find Haydn’s music altogether a bit too too. But there is no doubting Haydn’s skill–his development of themes, original modulations and carefully arranged orchestrations laid the foundation upon which the temples of Mozart and Beethoven would be built. And those temples still reside at the summit of muic history.
Let’s begin with my favorite Haydn work, the first movement of his Trumpet Concerto in E-Flat, which strongly recalls Handel’s Trumpet Concertos we heard earlier. Perhaps a minor Conversation here. Once again, we turn to the great Maurice Andre, who lends his golden tone to one of the classic melodic lines in music history.
Franz Joseph Haydn, Trumpet Concerto in E-Flat, Allegro:
From time to time, I’ve gone back to highlight the work of composers who have been (un)fairly (depending on your point of view) neglected in this history. Today, I am pausing to recognize the important work of a group of 18th century composers who between, roughly, the 1740s and 1770s were part of the so-called “rococo” movement. While rococo might be seen as late-Baroque in most artistic forms, in music, it is the revolutionary bridge that paved the way for the Classical Period.
Bach’s son, CPE Bach, was instrumental (if you will pardon the pun) in developing this new style in Germany, while Francois Couperin in France and Antonio Salieri (first in Italy, then in Vienna) quickly embraced this new “gallant” style. These composers, stretched across Europe, began rejecting polyphony and embracing a more homophonic structure that more or less would carry Western music through to the 20th century. This isn’t to say that counterpoint was dead–far from it. But Western music, going forward, would be vested in a melodic line supported by a harmony comprised of an underlying chordal structure.
Abandoning polyphonic texture in favor of a single melodic line with accompaniment allowed composers to focus more on coloration, dynamics and phrasing. Rhythms also became more defined during this period, as opening fanfares and funeral marches further helped to define tone and color in music. Nowhere are these changes more evident than in the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck. Gluck, one of the most successful composers of his age, created crowd-pleasing spectacles by cutting away polyphonic layers (so characteristic of Bach oratorios) and focusing instead on harmonic modulation to convey dramatic changes in, and the emotional content of, the story. And that, in fact, is Gluck’s most important contribution to the opera genre. In Baroque opera, the story was chosen to support the music. Gluck flipped this paradigm on its head: Gluck’s music supports and reflects the drama on stage. This emerging Germanic view of opera, which would reach its apex with Richard Wagner in the following century, would ultimately prevail.
Opening fanfare? Clean melodic lines supported by a chordal structure? Music written to support the drama?
Behold, the glory of the Classical.
Christoph Willibald Gluck, Iphigenie en Tauride
While I always like to present opera visually, I have to recommend this recent recording–available on all streaming services–which really brings Gluck’s music to life.
It is a gross simplification to say that Bach died, the Baroque Period ended, and the Classical Period was born. Some scholars place the start of the Classical Period some years before the death of Bach; some don’t start it until 1775 or so. For me (and I’d venture for most musicologists), the Classical Period begins in 1750. As with the Baroque, the Classical Period evolved out of a greater movement within the arts and culture generally—this was, after all, the Age of Enlightenment. As with the Renaissance, the arts again turned to the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. But there was a critical difference this time around: In the Renaissance, the Church had held dominion over the lives of all Europeans; since that time, the Reformation had taken permanent hold across most of Northern Europe, the Church had stopped being the major patron of the arts, and, accordingly, artists were now free to explore (as philosophers were) the humanist aspects of antiquity.
I am not going to tread on what is truly the Professor’s home ground here, but it is I think fair to say that Enlightenment scholars began to objectify the individual within the context of a universal ideal that connected everyone to the broader sense of what it means to be human. These universal ideals were expressed through objective truths and were discovered, not through religious texts, but through reason and logic. This is where the idea of “natural rights” was born.
Classical artists also strove to cast off the excesses of the Baroque, restoring order to their aesthetic and prizing balance and elegance. These ideas permeated the fine arts—I can think of no better examples than the Roman sculptor Antonio Canova:
Or the works of the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres:
The other important development, particularly for music, was the rise of an educated middle class, who wanted music in their homes and lives as much as they wanted revolutions in their streets. The public music festival began in the Classical Period. Children of the middle class were given music lessons (and the familiar refrain of “[insert child name], practice your damn [insert instrument]” therefore likely began here too). Concert halls arose in size and elegance previously afforded only to opera halls. And these new patrons didn’t want Bach’s “stuffy,” “old fashioned,” and “complex” music. They wanted their music to be simpler and more accessible. Today’s pop music is merely a continuation of classical composers’ efforts to move from polyphonic composition to composition based on the relationship between melody and an underlying chordal structure.
To that end, classical composers abandoned the use of the basso continuo, the basic, continuous bass line that had served as both the rhythmic and harmonic foundation of all Baroque music, replacing specific bass lines that worked in harmony with the melody. Exploiting Equal Temperament, later Classical composers changed keys within works with increasing frequency, matched only by increased variation in tempo and dynamics.
Music composed during the Classical Period is notable for its simplicity, consciously rejecting the complex machinations of Bach. The harmonic structure of music therefore was limited to a smaller set of chords, with the vast majority of music being composed with the familiar 1-4-5 chord structure that continues to animate rock music today. How to identify those harmonics? Let’s look at a much more recent, and basic, example:
The Troggs, Wild Thing
And before The Professor can wave his hand dismissively at the use of only three chords, let’s see what the old 1-4-5 can do in the hands of a real master—Beethoven. Check out the beginning of the final movement of his Fifth Symphony. That our Beethoven: Ludwig van Ramone.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67: IV. Allegro:
Classical composers were also obsessed with musical balance in all aspects of their works and it was this sense of balance that allowed listeners to anticipate exactly where the composer was going. That isn’t to say that that the Classical Period was a retreat from the high water mark set by Bach. To the contrary, the Classical Period gave birth to the most important vehicle for the exploration of music theory—the symphony. While the modern symphony grew out of the Baroque concerto grosso, it was the composer Carl Stamitz, who created the first true symphonic compositions. They weren’t very good, but the idea caught fire. The symphony presented composers with the opportunity of playing around with a very basic tune—not unlike what John Colatrane or the Greatful Dead would become renowned for two centuries later. Religion had dominated and driven the development of music right through to the last final glorious chord of the B-Minor Mass. Going forward, the composer’s intellect would be king and the symphony provided the grandest of all pallets upon which to allow his thoughts to develop. The symphony is abstract art at its highest form—something that would remain untested in the other arts for more than 100 years.
Changes in technology also had a profound effect on the Classical sound. The harpsichord began its slow decline into obscurity, replaced by the piano, which was to become the dominant instrument for composition. Woodwinds took on greater prominence, joining the large string sections and horns to form the true prototype for the modern orchestra.
The roll call of Classical Period composers remains the backbone of most concert halls and ensembles today: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, the members of the so-called First Viennese School. The music produced by these four composers, especially Beethoven, were the first to achieve enduring popularity, so much so that the entire genre of formal music is now colloquially called “classical”.
I love Baroque music. So too do many great musicians of our age. Jimmy Hendrix once talked about being visited by Handel in a dream. (Oh to have been a fly on the wall for that Conversation!) Prog rock artists from ELP to Jethro Tull, Genesis and others take inspiration (and, at times, license) from Baroque compositions. But no band so fully embodied the aesthetics of the Baroque as Yes, ground zero for where my taste in popular music intersects with The Professor’s. Admittedly, it might be a stretch to call Yes’ musical output “popular”, but for ease of categorization I use only three musical genres: formal, popular and jazz, which remains, unfortunately, neither formal nor popular.
But I digress. Yes’ music is so interesting because they draw from such a wide range of influences. Jon Anderson (Sibelius, Stravinsky, Greig) and Steve Howe (Dowland, Vivaldi, Bach) are responsible for many of my favorite Yes compositions. Bill Bruford was influenced by the complex rhythms in Bartok’s music, while Rick Wakeman incorporates dozens of composers, from the Renaissance through to the present day into his compositions (Bach, Brahms and Prokofiev being notable presences in his music). But in the end, their music is decidedly Baroque in character: big, loud and over the top.
Awaken, from their 1977 album Going for the One, is one of Yes’ very best compositions and the one that shows their debt to Baroque composers most clearly. Wakeman played a church organ on the track, which was recorded live in a small church in Switzerland near where the band was recording the album. There is a full choral part, as well as a harp. But this is just window dressing. The Baroque DNA comes out in the composition: The band cycles through the circle of fifths twice and the climaxes and modulations are straight out of the Handel playbook.
I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.
Bach is a colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.
As difficult as it was to do justice to the works of J.S. Bach in these pages, so too is it difficult to even scratch the surface of his monumental legacy. Bach did more than take the Baroque Period to the grave with him; his influence is ubiquitous in all music that follows. His legacy is everywhere, omnipresent, even if we don’t always recognize it. Mozart studied his scores; so too did Beethoven (a MAJOR Conversation to come). His music was a profound influence on Debussy and Schoenberg and, through them, his influence was amplified through jazz, pop, and the formal music of today.
This blog cannot begin to reckon with such a legacy. Instead, I have compiled a playlist that tries to show, in a limited and incomplete way, how Bach’s music remains with us, right up to that hit song from the other day.
The gnawing fear I have about trying to sum up the life’s work of history’s most important composers is the certainty that I have left something very important out. But, at least with Bach, I have no such concerns because up today is Bach’s titanic Massin B minor. I am not even going to attempt to analyze this music (or the numerology puzzles hidden in the Credo section). If you are interested in learning more, this is a great place to start your study: https://ahistoryofmusic.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/6c560-bachmassinbminorguide.pdf.
Bach wrote a lot of spiritual music for the church and every one of the great oratorios presented previously was done so on commission from a church (or church leader) or otherwise in hopes of securing a position with a church (or church leader). In contrast, the Massin B minor was written for posterity, that is, for us. Largely unknown to audiences for generations, the B Minor Mass was finally published in 1845. Until then, it existed only as rumor–the greatest work by the greatest composer ever to live. Beethoven searched in vain for a copy, dying long before its eventual publication. Part of the reason for it remaining in obscurity for nearly 100 years after its completion is likely the monumental length, which makes the B Minor Mass makes it unsuitable for actual liturgical use, either in a Lutheran or Roman Catholic setting.
So why would such a deeply religious man like Bach write a mass that was unsuited for liturgical purposes? Bach was, I think, getting at something deeper here–the unification of his religious and musical creeds. In the B Minor Mass, Bach sums up music history to date, seamlessly combining forms, techniques and musical sensibilities from across the ages, all wrapped up in the absolute apex of Baroque sound. Bach also recycles many of his best known themes here, reworking them in new ways. For example, the opening of the Kyrie section recalls the opening of the St. John Passion, discussed here a few weeks ago, while the final Kyrie harkens back to Renaissance polyphony. Bach studied Palestrina’s scores and you can hear the old Roman master’s voice echoing through Bach at various points in the B Minor Mass, distilled and amplified through Baroque instrumental counterpoint. But the source material is largely Bach himself. Much of the Sanctus comes from the Christmas Oratorio, while the Agnus Dei recalls part of the Ascention Oratorio. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor and the Contrapunctus X from The Art of the Fugue also make appearances here. I’m sure there are many others.
In the B Minor Mass, Bach fuses academic musicology, devoute Lutheran faith, and glorious sound. You might say that we really didn’t need to listen to anything that came before—ab uno disce omnes. This is the ultimate Conversation–Bach, having a conversation with himself and so many of the great composers that predated him. For me, the B Minor Mass is the greatest single work of music ever composed. It is more that simply one of my Desert Island Discs: It is the whole Island.
I can think of no better way to spend the better part of two hours than listening to Bach’s ultimate summation work. The finale of the mass, a prayer for peace—Dona nobis pacem—was among the last things Bach ever composed. It is so absolutely and completely perfect—I like to imagine that Bach simply laid down is quill and called it a day on this Earth. And, in fact, that’s exactly where I will leave Bach after 12 weeks here, taking his body, mind, and the entire Baroque Period to the grave.
We have many ways of expressing our feelings about life and death, loss and loneliness. The brevity and often sadness of existence weighs uniquely on the human experience. We see these themes depicted in art, expoused in poetry, and examined on the stage. Novels have been dedicated to these topics; films create melodrama by playing on our sympathies for those who are suffering. But, for me, music, that most abstract of the arts, gets to the essential truth.
Arvo Pärt is a compemporary composer from Estonia. In 1977, he composed a brief work following the news of the death of the great English composer Benjamin Britten, a man he had never met but whose music he had come to greatly admire. Both Pärt and Britten will feature much later in this blog, but I thought that Pärt’s work had something to say about the enduring legacy of JS Bach. And, frankly, this work provides me with something I want to say to my daughter, who is in pain and suffering today.
The Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten opens and ends with silence. These silent beats are written directly into the music and are an important part of the score. Breaking the silence is a bell, which is struck nearly silently. Lines of music begin to weave their magic. As more instruments enter, the texture becomes thick with descending tones. The dynamics swell and then retreat, finally resolving at a low chord. The bell reenters. And then silence. In total, about 8 minutes.
Let’s unpack what Pärt is doing here. The work is scored for stringed orchestra (2 sections of violins, violas, cellos, double basses) and bell. The bell has a solitary tone: an A, which is struck four times at the start at pianissimo. The violins enter, playing partial descending A minor scales, first A-G, then A-F, A-E, etc. Subsequent instruments enter, playing the same descending scales at progressively slower paces (ratios are 1:2:4:8:16, so the basses are playing at 1/16th speed of the first violins). This is, technically speaking, a prolation or mensuration canon, a compositional technique that Pärt plucked from the Renaissance.
The violins start in the upper registers and, as more instruments enter, the music trends down into the lower registers, adding layers of complexity and depth to the music. The various voices split into multiple parts, all descending like tears and searching for chordal and emotional resolution. In fact, they are all seeking notes that will form a final A minor chord. In bar 65, the first violins play middle C, a tone they will hold right through to the end of the piece. One by one, the canon is decronstructed as more voices find their final tone and hold it. The second violins are next with the bottom A to middle C and so on. The dynamics of the music swell to fortissimo, before retreating. At last, the double basses find the low A, completing the puzzle and the orchestra holds the final chord of A minor for 30 beats (5 bars plus 2). A final strike of the bell is made just as the strings stop playing, its tone seems to emerge from the orchestra like a last shimmering light before the darkness of the final silences take hold.
And it is this moment that is pure magic and, I think, the key to the work. As I noted above, that the tone of the bell is an A. But, like all instruments, it has overtones, those additional tones that are produced by subsequent vibrations of the instrument. And the overtone that is clearest is a C#. This final overtone from the bell transforms the final chord from A minor (A-C-E) to A major (A-C#-E). This is not a new technique, although I am not aware of a composer using an overtone to create this effect. Baroque composers used what is called either a picardy or happy third to creates harmonic resolution to a major key from the expected tonic minor. Bach used these picardy chords frequently, bringing in shades of light into darkness, snatching a ray of hope from the pit of despair.
And that is what I think that Pärt is saying here: Listen for the bell, in music as in life.
The Art of the Fugue closes in spectacular fashion, with two mirror fugues. As one musicologist explained:
A mirror fugue is a pair of fugues in which each voice (or line) in the second fugue is a mirror image of the first – where the first goes up, the other goes down. In the previous movements only the theme was inverted; in the mirror fugues the entire piece is inverted. This requires Bach to play even more difficult games with his themes, since everything must be designed with its inversion in mind. Bach actually manages to achieve six different types of mirrors in these two pairs of fugues – a particularly stunning feat in that no matter how much Bach is bound up by the mirror fugue’s strict techniques, he still manages to make the music dance.
While some consider these fugues to be too mathematical to be truly musical, they are marvels of composition—among the most difficult ever produced. In the Twelfth, you get the main theme and then its mirror; in the Thirteenth, you get the main theme, which returns inverted, and then in its mirror. The following graphical videos help to make sense of what is going on in the music.
J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue
Contrapunctus XII (piano with graphic):
Contrapunctus XII (two harpsichords—use the links in the comments to skip to 1:09:21):
Contrapunctus XIII (piano with graphic):
Contrapunctus XIII (two harpsichords—use the links in the comments to skip to 1:14:44):
Bach left the final Fourteenth fugue unfinished—four themes, both upright and inverted, and then, presumably in mirror form. Only three themes were completed before Bach died. I like to think that he left this unfinished on purpose—as a challenge for every composer who followed him.
In the Art of the Fugue, a central mathematics is clearly at work. Figure that out and you can compose mirror fugues for as many subjects as you choose. Many composers have tried to finish it; all have failed, choosing to simplify rather than truly engage. Bach’s core sequence remains a mystery: It is the great unsolved puzzle in music history. At least that’s how I like to think of it (please don’t tell me I’m wrong and some stupid computer figured it out).
Fellow blogger BigMikeHouston of Classical Music with Big Mike (https://classicalmusicwithbigmike.com/) wrote this week about the singificant differences a conductor’s interpretation can make on how the music sounds. He’s absolutely right. And his observation gave me the idea of talking about the Period Instruments Movement, derided in some circles as being too egg-headed. Let’s see if I can make the case that period instruments and contextual interpretation can improve the music. And since we are still on Bach, this short entry gives me a perfect opportinity to look at yet another of my favorite Bach works: The Magnificat. No need to watch all of these vidoes, the first five minutes or so of each will be enough.
Let’s set a baseline, and this performance under the baton of Herbert von Karajan will do nicely. To my eyes, this is likely a late 70s performance (he did record the Magnificat in 1979 with the Berliner Philharmonic, but I can’t tell if this is a video of that recording or not). Regardless, this video presents one of the best, if not the best, conductor of the mid-20th century leading what was (and remains) one of the five best orchestras in the world, all playing on modern instruments and sounding very much like a work composed in the mid-Romantic period.
J.S. Bach, Magnificatin D Major
This next video presents one of my favorite conductors, Emmanuelle Haïm leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. This is better, bringing in a historically-inforrmed chorus, but paired with modern instruments. True to form, Haïm’s interpreation is spot on. Her Magnificat is taken a much better tempo and the singing is truly magnificent.
J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major
Moving on, let’s listen to Nikolaus Harnocurt, one of the high priests of the movement for period insturments, leading the Concentus Musicus ViennaWein and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Listen the difference that, in particular, the period-appropriate brass makes to the opening. That said, this performance is taken at far too slow at tempo and, to my eyes, the strings are modern–I think I can spy some tuning pegs behind the bridges on the violins and the bows also appear to be modern.
J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major
Finally, we have a more recent recording of the Netherlands Bach Society under Van Veldoven. This, in my view, is the real McCoy. Period insturments down to those great Baroque bows, historically-informed singing, and a proper (fast) Baroque tempo. And recording this in a church certainly helps–Bach would have considered church acoustics when considering the harmony. This is the one to listen to in its entirety–absolutely thrilling.
Going back to Berg’s maxim, which I quoted in the very first entry in this blog–“music is music”. There are no wrong choices. Miles Davis stopped his sextet from rehearsing at some point, declaring that there is no such thing as a mistake, just an opportunity to explore other choices. And that’s fair. But for me, personally, I don’t Bach to sound like Mahler; Mahler is much better at that. And for that same reason, I don’t want Beethoven or Mozart to sound like Mahler either. That’s why I am drawn to historically informed performances. Communicating through music, across time and space, is a sufficiently difficult task without distrorting the artistic choices taken by composers hundreds of years ago. All four performances are beautiful, but I hear Bach most clearly in the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society. And for me, that’s what matters.