Special Birthday Edition

Happy birthday to me. And on my birthday, I will choose to be serenaded, by Mozart, through the magic of Jascha Heifetz.

If you are curious, this is the fourth movment of a much larger work, composed by the 20-year old Mozart in 1776 for the wedding of Marie Elisabeth Haffner (the same family commissioned one of Mozart’s best known symphonies, which is also dedicated to them). The Rondo of the Haffner Serenade was a staple encore piece for Heifetz, whose total control over every element of technique can be seen here. He makes the technically precise look routine.

Mozart played the violin and there are many accounts of the child prodigy being placed on a stool to play so he could be seen by everyone. While Mozart’s public performances shifted to the piano as he got older, this composition betrays his deep familiarity with the instrument. There are no uncomfortable fingerings here and the music lends itself to interesting coloration through bowing choices.

Here is the full verison of the work:

W.A. Mozart, Serenade for Orchestra in D Major “Haffner”:


The very first entry of this blog was devoted to how Pythagoras created the Western musical scale through the use of mathematical ratios. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most famous of all ratios–Euclid’s golden ratio–would find its way into the music. While interest in the golden ratio was common in the ancient world, artists renewed their interest in it through a sequence of numbers created by mathematician Leonardo Pisano: The Fibonacci Sequence. In the Fibonacci Sequence, each number is the result of the sum of the previous two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc. As the Fibonacci Sequence increases, the closer it gets to the golden ratio of 1.618.

When the Fibonacci Sequence is drawn, it looks like this:

Leonardo da Vinci, for example, used the Fibonacci Sequence in many of his works. For example:

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virtuous Man

Now, let’s layer the Fibonacci Sequence over it:

And that’s not the only famous Leonardo image based on Fibonacci:

Leonardo was hardly alone. Consider these famous images. All Fibonnaci inspired.

Just as the Fibonacci Sequence helps artists to create pleasing proportions in their paintings, the golden ratio helps composers create music that is intrinsically pleasing to the ear. While he wasn’t the first to do so, it is worth noting young Mozart was nearly as infatuated with math as he was with music. In his first piano sonata, Mozart based the overall structure of the first movement on the golden ratio. It is written in classic sonata form (exposition, development, and recapitulation). The exposition is 38 bars; the development and recapitulation are 62 bars combined.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, K. 279: I. Allegro

Erik Satie, composing a century later, used the golden ratio for the beat counts in each movement of his Trois sonneries de la Rose+Croix. Later scholarship found contemporary correspondence with Claude Debussy in which the composers had discussed utilizing the golden ratio in their music. This video, which annoates the score, is a great introduction to Satie’s remarkable music and his use of the golden ratio.

Erik Satie, Trois sonneries de la Rose+Croix:

Interest in the golden ratio transcends eras and genres of music. For example, the prog rock band Genesis incorporates the golden ratio into The Firth of Fifth, which features solos 55, 34, and 13 bars–all golden numbers. Unsurprisingly, The Firth of Fifth is often rated as the band’s best song.

Genesis, The Firth of Fifth:

Other bands have taken the golden ratio and Fibonacci Sequence to extremes. Dream Theater structured their eighth studio album, Octavarium, around the Fibonacci Sequence–even the title, which alludes to the number 8, has 5 syllables. Fives and eights feature all over the album and booklet, with the key being shown on page 5 of the booklet by dominoes showing a five and and 8. Radiohead is also famous for using the golden ratio to organize their music, most notably on the album In Rainbows. That album is 42 minutes, 34 seconds long. If you divide that by the golden ratio (1.618), you find yourself at 2 minutes and 49 seconds into Reckoner, where the background vocalist can be heard singing “In rainbows.”

Lest this entry go too far down the progressive rabbit hole, I’ll also mention a song written by a really talented NYC kid that some of you might have heard of. Although she was accepted into The Juilliard School to study piano, she decided instead to try her hand at pop music. That worked out pretty well for her. And in this song from 2016, the dramatic key change comes at the 111 second out of 179 seconds–bang on 1.618. Yeah, that’s right–Lady Gaga bringing math and classical music theory to the masses.

Lady Gaga, Perfect Illusion

The Real Mozart

Mozart’s music can be heard to hover: between innocence and experience, ideality and sensuousness, comedy and tragedy, sympathy and mockery, intimacy and transcendence. It offers no blind faith yet no paralyzing doubt; it is not just a longingly imperfect reach for the infinite (Schiller’s sentimental art) nor just a comfortably perfect grasp of the finite (Schiller’s naïve art); it is childlike yet knowing.

Scott Burnham

When J.S. Bach died in 1750, you can imagine that many in the musical world might have said: “What a genius. We won’t see his like again.” They were right. For about 6 years.

Mozart was born into a musical family in 1756. His father, Leopold, was a noted violinist and teacher. Mozart’s maternal grandfather was also a gifted amateur musician. So he had the music gene on both sides of the family.

The first inkling that Leopold got that his son might be special was when Wolfgang was 5. Wolfgang the Toddler loved to watch Leopold instructing his older sister at the harpsichord. By 3, he was playing chord progressions. By 4, he was playing actual works. But when the 5-year old Wolfgang presented a “score” that he had scrawled out, his father and his friends initially just laughed at the toddler’s imitation of musical notation — just a bunch of random dots! They stopped laughing when Mozart seated himself at the harpsichord and started playing his composition. Yeah, that’s our Mozart!

W.A. Mozart, Minuet in G, K.1

By 6, Mozart had taught himself to play violin, in addition to whatever keyboard he was presented with. Viola soon followed. Mozart the Child began filling out the family trio and pretty soon settled right into the local orchestra in Salzburg. Fame and fortune were right around the corner.

For three years, Mozart traveled to European capitals with his father and sister, playing for the aristocracy who were singularly bemused by tiny prodigy. Stories of his escapades abound. Presented with a theme, he was asked to compose variations on the spot. Mozart sat down and played for half an hour. His first symphony dates from his time in London and reflects the influence of a composer he met there, one J.C. Bach, J.S.’s youngest son. Mozart was 8 at the time.

W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 1, K. 16

During an extended stay in Vienna, the 11-year old Mozart decided to try his hand at opera. He wrote two.

W.A. Mozart, La finta semplice

Later that year, he assumed the post of honorary Concertmaster at the Salzburg court. And that takes us through the pre-teen years.

At 13, Mozart and his father took another tour. This is the one that took him to Rome, where the pope gave him the honor of hearing Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel and which Mozart copied down from memory, ending the papacy’s monopoly on the most beautiful music ever composed. During his time in Italy, Mozart studied Italian opera, still the key calling card to the best court positions of the day. He composed several operas, along with assorted symphonies, quartets, and divertimentos. Here’s a personal favorite from this period, which I played in camp when I was about the same age as Mozart when he composed it. Unreal.

W.A. Mozart, Divertimento, K. 136

At 18, Mozart came into his maturity as a composer. Finding Salzburg too confining, and opportunities not sufficiently lucrative, Mozart hit the road again. This time, his mother accompanied him. The trip was a disaster. Turned away in Munich, Mozart headed to Paris, where he found some work. But this is where tragedy struck. His mother fell ill and, while waiting for a proper German doctor to treat her, died.

Mozart was now 21. Whether it was true loss, guilt, age, or a combination of all three that led Mozart to a different emotional place we will never know for sure. But for the first time, that dark minor coloration that characterizes his best works begins to creep into his compositions. And, here, from Paris, a first masterpiece.

W.A. Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K. 364: II. Andante

I love the Sinfonia Concertante so much, so much so that it will warrant its own entry in the coming weeks.

In the wake of his mother’s death, Mozart left Paris, stopping in both Munich and Mannheim on his way home. He arrived home in 1780. Mozart was now nearly 24. Over the next 11 years, he would compose works that form the backbone of the classical repertorie to this day. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was beyond the man’s abillity. Opera? Do you prefer seria or buffa? Maybe German singspiel? Or perhaps something new–a contemporary style of opera that pushes Gluck’s innovations further? Sure, want drama or comedy? How about both? Prefer oratorio? No problem. Symphonies? Check. Chamber works, concertos, sonatas? Mozart wrote them all, and wrote them all with such skill and craft that they remain as exemplars of their kind, right through to today. I will do my best to chronicle some of these in the coming weeks.

But what about the man? Well, Mozart was a bundle of contradictions. Like the great rock stars of today, Mozart was highly compensated. In his latter years, he was easily among the top wage earners in Vienna. But, also like a rock star, he spent more than he earned. Showing disdain for the life of a court composer (i.e., the hired help), Mozart lived as an aristocrat and used his fame to freelance as a composer. In so doing, Mozart created the business model for composers that endures to this day.

Mozart was a quick wit and flirtatious to a fault. He was also an intellectual, a Freemason, who exchanged views on a wide range of subjects with the most prominent men in Vienna. But he was also obscene, obsessed with with–how to put this delicately–scatalogoical subjects. His extremely inappropriate letters to his mother, cousin, and various other women reveal what we today would call a pretty serious kink. He even composed a six part canon about it (I will not translate the German):

W.A. Mozart, Canon in B Flat for Six Voices: Leck mich im Arsch, K. 231:

Mozart the Composer was hardly God’s transcriber, as he is so often portrayed. Yes, he carried around significant chunks of scores in his head. But the idea that he simply transcribed what was in his head to paper with no corrections? Ridiculous. The fact is that, like a great painter, Mozart did a lot of sketch work–bits of composition that he thought up and wrote down lest they be forgotten. He frequently started a composition, only to put it away for months if not for years. He constantly re-wrote his music until he got it exactly right. Few bits of these sketches or drafts remain. We likely have his wife, Constanze, to thank for this. Perhaps she didn’t like scraps of paper lying around all over the house; perhaps she didn’t want anything of Mozart’s to become public that wasn’t pristine and perfect. We will never know.

And that doesn’t even include the frequent editing that Mozart must have also been doing inside his head. Combined with the prodigous output over the last 11 years of his life, you have to agree with Constanze’s assessment: Mozart worked himself to death. Mozart may have been a genius, but he was also an incredibly hard and diligent worker, a perfectionist to the last. And that, in the end, is why his legacy is so formidable–Mozart was nothing less than the Michael Jordan of music.

The real Mozart died at 35. Not as a pauper, but as a very rich man with even richer debts. He was buried in a common grave in Vienna, as was customary for anyone not of the aristocracy. His funeral mass was held at St. Stephan’s Cathedral in the center of downtown Vienna. And yes, his Requiem debuted there, in his honor.

In closing, I will leave you with a bit of fantasy, courtesy of musicologist Alex Ross, who postulated about what modern critics might say about Mozart’s anniverisary programming, had he lived until 70.

Opera houses focus on the great works of Mozart’s maturity–“The Tempest,” “Hamlet,” the two-part “Faust”–but it would be a good thing if we occasionally heard that flawed yet lively work of his youth, “Don Giovanni.”

Alex Ross

If only.

Classical Music II: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Let’s get this out of the way—pretty much everything you know about Mozart from the movie Amadeus is a lie. Here’s what the movie gets right: There was a guy called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was a child prodigy and a remarkable composer. He lived most of his adult life in Vienna, where he composed for royalty and the people alike. He composed the music that is attributed to him in the film. He knew Salieri. He died young, with his grieving wife by his side. That’s pretty much it.

Mozart was not a supercilious man with a ridiculous laugh.  He was a very, very serious composer and member of a broader intellectual community in Vienna.  He was a Freemason—whose brothers paid for the monument at his gravesite:

And despite the fact that he began composing at such a young age, Mozart was first coming into his full mature voice in the years leading up to his death. More than any other composer, it is Mozart’s premature death (not caused in any way by Salieri, btw) that is the great “what if” in music history. Mozart died right as Beethoven was taking off—how would they have influenced each other had Mozart lived? How would our music have evolved differently? How would he have reacted to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony while still in the prime of his career? What about Berlioz? Mozart would have been 74 at the dawn of the Romantic Period.

It hurts too much to speculate; On to the music he did create.

Like Bach before him, it is impossible in this brief outline to come close to summarizing the genius of Mozart.  So, what makes Mozart such an enduring force in music?  It has to be his unrivaled ability to spin out a truly memorable tune.  It really didn’t matter what Mozart was composing for, solo instrument, orchestra, oratorio, or opera (or indeed any form of opera)—everything his touched was gold.  His father Leopold wrote:

Two opposing elements rule his nature, I mean, there is either too much or too little, never the golden mean.

A true artistic temperament. But what Mozart could not achieve in life, he poured into his music.  One critic observed:

Other great composers have expressed the extremes in life: affirmation, despair, sensual pleasure, bleak emptiness, but only in Mozart can all these emotions coexist within the space of a short phrase

The critic Alex Ross concurs:

Mozart inhabits a middle world where beauty surges in and ebbs away, where everything is contingent and nothing pure . . . ‘it is a place where genres meld, where concertos become operatic and arias symphonic; where comedy and tragedy, the sensual and the sacred, are one.’

Mozart composed both for the cognoscenti and the general public alike, in the same piece—all received to popular and critical acclaim.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to convey that sense of Mozart’s Golden Mean, of the musical genius lurking below the melodic pop star. I’ve also attempted to group the works by style. We have Mozart the Pure Classicist—light, breezy tunes with a clear musical progression. Then we have Mozart the Virtuoso—the composer who seemingly within the confines of contemporary forms, rises above them, the complexity masked entirely by melody and sensuous harmony. Finally, we come to Mozart the Visionary, through a set of compositions dominated by his late works in the second half of the 1780s to 1791 when he died at the age of only 35. Was this a phase or was this merely a glimpse of what was to come? Sadly, pathetically, tragically, I firmly believe it was the latter. Mozart was unlocking musical doors that would have propelled music in new directions. Beethoven would unlock some of those doors a decade or two later, but Mozart of course would have done things differently—he would never abandon his Golden Mean. And who knows how music history would have been different had he lived. Thinking about this is literally painful for me.

For me, it is Mozart, even more than Haydn, who is the artistic embodiment of the Age of Enlightenment. Mozart’s remarkable achievement was to propel music to the forefront of art, lighting the path for the other disciplines. Just like Leonardi da Vinci was the embodiment of the Renaissance, Mozart was the singular genius of his age. Let’s put it this way, the Classical Period, as blogged here, in some sense can be represented visually by Fragonard’s The Swing. But Enlightenment scholars hated that painting. What they wanted was this:

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat

This, for me, is the singular painting of the period—even if it did cause a scandal and forced David to flee France to save his life.  Remember this image when we get to Don Giovanni and the Requiem.  Much is made of the sensuality of Classical art—Goodall calls it the “pleasure principle.”  But Handel was composing music for the pleasure gardens back in the Baroque.  No—the Age of Enlightenment was about the nobility of man, as evoked in the writing of Rousseau.  Mozart was a man of his time and place to the core—he would ennoble all who heard his music, even if they didn’t know it.  

So, where to begin?  Let’s start with two selections from Mozart’s works for solo piano.  These are familiar tunes, but in the hands of Kristian Bezuidenhout, playing a historically accurate fortepiano, it’s like discovering them for the first time.  I’ve included a Spotify link to some of the best of his recordings. Otherwise, we have Mitsuko Uchida is also a brilliant interpreter of Mozart, as this selection from Mozart’s Turkish Sonata and Rondo in A Minor demonstrate.  I can think of no other music that so easily demonstrates Mozart’s “golden mean.”

W.A. Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, III. Allegretto:

W.A. Mozart, Rondo in A Minor, K. 511:

Interlude: The Other Haydn at the Side of the Road

In 1783, Mozart visited Salzburg with his wife Constanze. While there, he dropped in to see his good friend, Haydn, who was in trouble. Haydn had a commission due for the Archbishop–a set of six duos for violin and viola. Four were already completed, but Haydn had taken ill and was unable to complete the set. Picking up his friend’s quill, Mozart wrote the final two duos for him (taking no credit on the autograph score for his work). This was not Joseph Haydn, safe and healthy back home in Vienna. This composer was Michael Haydn, Joseph’s younger brother.

Today, the music of Joseph Haydn remains extremely popular across the Western world. I would venture to guess that not a single season passes at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall without dozens of Joseph’s works being presented. And yet Michael Haydn’s music–held in near equal esteem during their lifetimes–has fallen into neglect and obscurity.

Why is this? For one, while Joseph readily published his compositions–his oratorio, The Creation was a particular hit–Michael refused to publish his works. So while Mozart frequently wrote to his father requesting copies of Michael’s latest compositions (more on that Conversation to come), the lack of available scores led unsurprisingly to his music being forgotten after his death. It also didn’t help that while Joseph was in Vienna, teaching Beethoven and mentoring Mozart, Michael remained in Salzburg, a relative backwater.

I am not really a fan of Joseph Haydn’s music, but I do have a soft spot for Michael’s. As did Mozart–perhaps to an unseemly degree. Mozart’s “37th” symphony, K. 444, turns out to be little more than Micahel Haydn’s 25th (Mozart wrote the brief opening Adagio and tinkered a bit with the score). There is no better complement I can think of than to say that one of Michael Haydn’s compositions was, for more than a century, believed to be the work of one of the greatest composers of all time.

The history, such as it is, of “Mozart’s 37th Symphony” is somewhat unsatisfying. It appears that Mozart had studied the score of Haydn’s 25th Symphony during his stay in Salzburg, tinkering, as was his wont, with the instrumentation and orchestration. It appears that he carried this study back with him to Vienna. On the way, the Mozarts stoped in the town of Linz, where he was received by the local aristocracy and commanded to give a symphonic performance. Mozart, however, had no scores with him, save the odd studies he had made during his time in Salzburg. From these, he–in four days, thank you very much–created his 36th Symphony (the “Linz” Symphony) and appears to have composed a short intro for his study of Haydn’s 25th and passed it off as his 37th. Needs must and all.

Here, both are presented for your consideration. First, Haydn’s original version; then, second, the “Mozart” version, which has a bit over a minute of original Mozart composition at the start, which is followed (starting at 1:24 in the below) with a slightly edited version of Haydn’s original.

The other Haydn deserves his day in the sun.

Michael Haydn, Symphony No. 25 in G Major

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 37 in G Major

Haydn: The Symphonies and The Creation

“Papa” Haydn earned his sobriquet for his generousity with his students. But it could equally refer to his status as the Father of the Symphony and the Father of the String Quartet.

Haydn was already well-established when Mozart came on the scene; he died six decades later during his student Beethoven’s second period.  In between, he wrote more than 100 symphonies–again, more than Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, combined.  And yes, some poor soul has ranked all of them:


It is important to recall that Haydn’s orchestras were much closer to the proto-orchestras of the Baroque than the massive bands unleashed by Mahler at the dawn of the 20th century. Through these smaller orchestras, Haydn weaved compositions that became among the most sought after of the age. His fame oustripped Mozart’s. Schumann, Wagner and Brahms all held Haydn in great regard–perhaps more so than his now more celebrated contemporaries. I will confess: I don’t get it. Yes, we can hear the first strains of romantic sturm und drang in some of Haydn’s work. And his development of musical forms opened doors for his students to march through. He’s important–no question–but, in the end, not really for me.

Let his music provide the counterargument. Here are two of his best: the finale of his 49th (“The Passion”) and first movement of his 104th (“The London”).

Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 49 in F. Minor, “Passion”, IV. Finale, Presto:

Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 104 in D Major “The London”, I. Adagio-Allegro:

In 1795, Haydn abruptly stopped composing symphonies. Instead, he turned his larger scale ambitions to choral works–two massive oratorios and six masses would be completed before his death in 1809. It is entirely likely that Haydn’s late turn to choral music was inspired by his trip to London, one of his few foreign adventures, where he attended multiple performances of Handel’s works.

The first of these works was The Creation, a massive oratorio that reveived its first public performance in 1799. It is widely considered to be Haydn’s crowning achievement. Starting in Chaos, Haydn’s score works its way through the six days of Creation, followed by the emergence of Adam and Eve. Ever the happy optimist, Haydn ends the story there, with a chorus of praise for God–leaving Satan’s corruption, the explusion from Eden, and Abel’s murder for another day.

There is a lot to like here. Haydn amplifies the drama, especially with a massive C-major chord, delivered at maximum volume, to signifiy the creation of light (at 7:15 in the below). Haydn also uses unsettling harmonics to evoke emotional responses in his audience. But, perhaps the most important development here is how Haydn effectively uses music to convey through sound a world that is visual. Beethoven would attempt something similar in his Pastoral Symphony; Mendelssohn would master this technique some decades on.

Mozart remarked: “Haydn alone has the secret both of making me smile and touching my innermost soul.” Who am I to argue?

Franz Joseph Haydn, The Creation

Haydn: Chamber Music

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:

Classical Period I: Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

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:

Fragonard, The Swing

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:

Interlude: Transitional Figures at the Side of the Road

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.

Introduction to the Classical Period

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:

Antonio Canova, Reclining Naiad
Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche

Or the works of the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres:

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Grande Baigneuse

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”.