I know I’m supposed to be back onto War and Peace posts, but the weekend has whizzed by and I haven’t had a chance to write any.
But I’ve been giving some thought to the classical music situation over the last few weeks. (Actually, it’s more like the last few years – but that’s a different matter.)
It’s not a secret to say that the classical music industry is struggling a bit. There are a wide variety of reasons for it, but my own personal theory is that since the 60s, it has been socially unacceptable to really like the music of the past. It’s getting better now, in this day and age of playlists, but when I was a kid growing up, the fact that I liked listening to classical music made me a bit of a freak.
So you combine that kind of peer pressure with stereotypes of classical music being performed by men in black suits for an audience of old people with suits on, and before you’ve even really listened to a note of the music, you have a negative perception that keeps people away.
Then we have problem number 2. Even if we get you to change your perceptions and say, “Hey, maybe this music isn’t so bad . . . I’ll give it a try,” when people come to listen to it, I think they’re often underwhelmed.
And I think that’s because it’s the kind of music that needs some explanation. There was a time when society used to teach people about music. You’d learn about it at school, mum and dad would make you have piano lessons which included classical music, and so when you went to a concert or listened to a classical recording, you sort of knew what to expect.
But that’s not the case now. In fact, one of the things that saddens me is seeing people who are new to classical music at classical concerts. The music is playing, everyone around them goes into raptures, and they’re kind of politely enjoying the general sound, while thinking to themselves, Well, wouldn’t want to listen to this stuff all day . . .
Anyway, this is a long and quite varied topic, but as someone who had to work the hard way to figure out classical music, I found one of the most helpful things was to understand how classical music is structured and what the composer is trying to do in the music.
Liner notes in CDs and concert programmes sometimes help, but then I find that they can be describing something in the music, but I can’t work out exactly where in the 30-45 minutes running time that the piece lasts, exactly where is the moment they are talking about?
And it occurred to me, that what would be nice is some way of explaining the music as it is playing so you can see exactly what things are being pointed out.
So I tried a little experiment on Friday night. I took a YouTube video of Toscanini conducting the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and added explanatory subtitles to it.
Beethoven’s Fifth (at least the first movement) is probably one of my least favourite pieces of classical music, because it gets played to death, but it’s nice and simple to explain and everyone’s heard of it, so I used it as a test case.
The subtitles alone don’t tell the story, so there’s still a need for some explanatory notes, but I like the concept that I can point out the moments as they occur.
So what I’ll do is explain briefly what to listen out for in Beethoven’s Fifth and then you can check the video and see what you think.
First off, you need to know that classical music pieces often come in sections called movements. I won’t go into all the details, but the first movement is usually a fast one.
The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (a symphony is a piece for orchestra) is probably one of the most instantly recognisable classical music pieces in the world, and it’s definitely fast.
Beethoven also wrote it in a very common format called sonata form. In the same way that we get used to verse-chorus-verse-chorus as a pattern for songs, sonata form was a pattern often used for first movements.
Sonata form has roughly four sections.
The first section is called the Exposition. This is where the main themes of the symphony are laid out. Then we move into the Development, where the themes are broken down and played around with (a bit like improvisation). Then we come to the Recapitulation where the main themes return again (slightly different, but mostly the same). Finally, there is a Coda, which is the ending where the whole movement is wrapped up.
This may sound quite academic and boring, but when you know the structure, it adds a lot of drama to the music. First off, in the Exposition, you’re waiting to hear what types of themes the composer is going to give you. A good piece of music will usually vary the types of music in the themes, so you can often have complete contrasts of mood, speed and style in the exposition.
Then in the Development, the drama is to see what the composer does with those themes. Beethoven, especially, likes to go all mysterious and often he heads off into a strange twilight zone in his development sections.
Then there’s the drama of the Recapitulation, where we get a little thrill of recognition as the movement goes full cirle and comes back to the opening themes (assuming you were paying attention to them the first time around). But even though the music is back on familiar ground, we know the Coda is coming up, and so the audience can start to wonder how the piece is going to end.
The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, while fairly short by classical standards, uses this structure to great effect. First off, there are two wildly different themes in the Exposition. But what’s really amazing is that in between these two themes, the French horns play Three Big Notes (as I call them). They’d be just a throwaway moment (they’re played kind of slowly, the second is higher than the first one, and then the third note drops and is lower than the first two), but Beethoven makes those three notes the highlight of his development and breaks them down to two notes, and then one note.
Then there’s the Recapitulation. We expect to hear the first them repeated again as per normal, but instead, Beethoven interrupts everything (for no particular reason) to give the oboe a beautiful solo moment. But all of this is nothing, compared with the Coda. Codas often just finish movements off, but Beethoven writes music describing a titanic struggle in the Coda, and the music is so dramatic, it eclipses everything that comes before it.
Even though this movement is laid out in a pretty strict structure, the music was so wild and passionate, that audiences back in the day thought they were listening to random sounds strung together. It was just too over-the-top and emotional for them. For us, now, it sums up everything that’s great about classical music.
So here’s the video. I was hoping to embed it on the blog, but when I do that, the subtitles disappear, so for now you’ll have to go visit it on the DotSub website.