Monday, December 21, 2009

Lesson 7: Classical Period

Ok, let's move on to my least favorite period of music: The Classical period.

The Classical period happened in all art forms, and is basically an attempt to emulate and go back to Classical Greek architecture, arts, and culture.  This is absolutely hilarious too, since Early music and Renaissance music both were attempts to emulate Classical antiquity, and the way the Classical Period went about it was to simplify everything and basically find giant sticks to keep in their bums.

Now we've heard Baroque music.  Baroque music was not what today any of us would call outrageously decadent or overly flowery.  However, the Classical period artists were the ones who named the Baroque period, and "Baroque", roughly speaking, means "Rough/Imperfect Pearl".  Naming the older style Baroque was intended to be derogatory, essentially calling Baroque music out for being overly elaborate.

So we're around the 18th century here, and I'm often a bit... disingenuous to the classical period.  Part of the reason they simplified things was to seek more of an emotional impact and to have more striking melodic structures, as opposed to sort of the jumbled mess that could happen with baroque music.  Really, considering what was going on in the Renaissance and Baroque period with emotional stuff a lot of this is like, super-emotional.  It's just compared to todays stuff it's a little... less so.

Probably the best transitional figure is Scarlatti, who wrote stuff kind of like this

There's still a lot of baroque-isms there, and Scarlatti was still pretty obviously Baroque, but he's clearly starting to lean more classical.

I often like to compare Classical-period music with rock music of today, and in a lot of ways they're very similar.  Classical music has a lot of melody over chords structure to it, and while the better musicians of the time would expand on the simple basic I-IV-V style chords, and even the compositional method was a lot closer to rock music today than romantic and post-romantic art music is.

The biggest changes we find happen not 'till around 1760ish, with two major developments.  The first is the creation of the Symphony.  We're not entirely sure about what happened, but C.P.E. Bach(different Bach than we're used to... they're related) is often attributed with essentially inventing the symphony and the style.  The first big name of the style though is Joseph Haydn.  Dude is like, the quintessential classicist.

Now, Haydn also worked for a prince for a while, so he pretty much could afford to sit on his ass all day, living in relative luxury and writing music for a bunch of people in frilly clothes to play for bunches of people in frilly clothes.  He basically refined the symphony and almost entirely created the string quartet as a standard thing.  He was pretty awesomely famous and like a super-cool dude for classicists, and basically living easy.

Then some stupid kid arrives on scene, thinking he's so cool because he's all "I wrote symphonies when I was 5" and shit.  Mozart was pretty much what every 14 year old with a guitar thinks they are.  Basically, he shopped at super-trendy stores to get all the fancy clothes, made poop jokes, and every once in a while would sit down and say "Man, let's just jam man, let's just make some music", except instead of that resulting in him totally getting some side-boob from Melissa after homeroom 'cause he was so emotional, he actually did get signed by a major label and spent all his time touring Europe with legions of fans throwing their panties at him.  Also hundreds of years later everyone still talks about how awesome he was, to the point where people make retarded claims about how he had magical music powers.  I have heard people say "if the legends are true" when talking about him.  Yeah, makes your childhood seem a little uneventful doesn't it?  Of course also I saw the program to a recital recently where the girl spelled his name as "Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart", so really, who was he.

Now the reason he was so famous is because the dude is maddeningly good at music, especially when you consider that this really was him basically just sitting down, jamming, and writing that shit down.  Examples you say?

 Yeah, I guess the dude had chops.  One fun game to play though is considering what he would've been like today.  You see, when I mention that Mozart's compositional process was pretty much sitting down and jamming, I'm not kidding.  It's fairly obvious from the manuscripts during all music pre-Beethoven that the compositional process changed drastically with Beethoven.  Mozart was not what today we would call a composer.  He was today what would be called a great Improviser.  His music was made up as he was composing, as opposed to the current art music way of composing which is a long drawn out process of editing and sketching and hard-wrought work.  So would Mozart today still be an art music genius?  Or would he super-refine and write crazy awesome pop music?  Or would he be on crappy early morning TV shows with the headline of shit like "PIANO PRODIGY AT AGE 6!" and then not really do too much else?  It's pretty hard to say.  Anyways, while that's a fun game, it's not really part of history, so let's move on.

Of course getting back to history we notice something....  Music eras are shrinking like crazy.  It's really hard to say much else as a general overview of Classical music.  It was a period of less than 100 years, and we're still talking about an era where we didn't exactly have instant communication.  The classical period was simpler and more emotional than the Baroque period, and had some pretty big names and general style... and then Beethoven comes along.  Next post will be pretty much all about Beethoven before moving on to the romantic proper, simply because Beethoven is pretty much the father of the way music works today.


  1. How could Mozart have "jammed" things like symphonies? Like was the overall form so ingrained in his mind that he could basically wing it for melodies, chord progressions and such? Was he famous enough that he just always had an orchestra at his disposal, even for jotting and trying ideas? Or was he that good at piano that he could jam all the voices he would need?

  2. Essentially, yes on the first two counts. It's not quite as ridiculous as actually just sitting down, playing, and a wild symphony appeared. He did have to write the stuff down. And he did have to actually get an orchestra for the performances, but it certainly wasn't that hard for him, since he was pretty crazy famous. Also in terms of the composition process what Mozart was doing was no different than all the artists of the time.

    I'm trying to think of a good metaphor for the difference and I can't quite come up with it, so I'll try explaining it another way.

    In the pre-Beethoven style of composition, the forms would basically be written down with the first draft being the final piece. The composer would know the forms, certainly not too challenging, with the simplified forms of the Baroque and Classical periods. The composer would have a melody, and/or a specific progression or two in their minds, and would basically plug the stuff into the forms and go. It's somewhat similar to how an untrained composer or singer/songwriter would work, writing the stuff down from when they think of it and just sort of going with it. Maybe making small changes but for the most part the way they think of it is the way it comes out.

    In essence, the earlier, pre-Beethoven style of composition is probably what most people would think of when writing anything artistic, be it music, or a book, or a sketch. Perhaps the easier way to think about it is to think of how strange what Beethoven did was compared to the others, and compared to what many do today. He turned composition from "Writing music" to "Making sure each note is exactly what is best for the piece".

    It's perhaps a difference between legends and lore, passed down and told off the cuff, and a work of fiction, drawn out over several drafts. Or the difference between a quick sketch in a notebook and a final work of art.

    And it's not a unique thing to music, either. I'm sure that there are many stories and writings from long ago that were first drafts left alone, or paintings that were simply from the mind of the artist straight to the canvas. And I'm sure that almost no authors these days turn in first drafts to be published.

    Or I guess it's the difference between captioning a picture of a cat and taking a funny picture. I'm not even sure anymore, but yes I was simplifying a little bit, but the classical and baroque composers were not composing in the same fashion that we would now consider composing, for art music.