The Surprising Classical Groove

Tue 22 September 2015 by psu

Classical music tends to be perceived in the larger culture as a monolithic entity. In a world where some geek on Pitchfork will argue with you incessantly about the difference between Art Punk, Dance Punk, and Pop Punk you might have noticed that when you go to the online music service or offline music store the only genre you find for European art music, a music tradition that covers more than 400 years of recent history, is "Classical". That's it.

So it's important to point out that when I use the word "Classical" in the title of this piece I do not mean that general box. Rather, I mean the specific historical period between (say) the late 1700s and the early to mid 1800s. Music historians label this time interval as the "Classical" period. You will probably know it from many of the names I throw out here:

  1. Haydn

  2. Mozart

  3. Beethoven

  4. Schubert

  5. A lot of more obscure names that you've never heard of.

Of the four big names it is my observation that in general Beethoven is perceived as a towering and serious figure, the cultural token for Classical music in the general sense. Schubert is a bit more obscure and tragic genius having died young and not left a lot of traditional "big band" repertoire behind him. Chamber music and Leider are on the niche side.

Haydn and Mozart, I think, get the least amount of respect from the "culture" at large. Even among classical music hobbyists their music tends to be perceived as, for lack of a better way to put it, "light". I know I thought this when I was younger. I had much more interest in the intricate complexity of the Baroque period, or the over the top melodrama of the Romantics. Haydn and Mozart seemed like mostly formal fluff that didn't have much to offer intellectually.

What I have learned over the years is that I was a stupid young man.

I came around on Mozart first. While Mozart's early work is, and often sounds like, small trifles tossed off by a precocious 10 year old, when he hits his stride the only word you can use to describe the music is "perfect". The music has a formal perfection that is just astounding. Every phrase, every chord, every modulation goes exactly where you would want it to go in a perfect world. This is probably why people tend to write off Mozart as predictable and shallow: it always tends to go exactly where you expect it to. Still, life is too short not to appreciate a little perfection.

There was a popular and somewhat silly play/movie about this in the 80s called Amadeus, where Mozart is portrayed as a ludicrous oaf, but every time the soundtrack starts playing his music it's as if it came from heaven itself. What most surprised me at the time was how well the opera excerpts came off. It was the first clue that there might be something interesting to explore there. And we all know where that leads.

I particularly enjoyed the last scene from Don Giovanni where the main character in the opera gets dragged down to hell by Satan's minions. Or was it Satan himself? I don't remember. Anyway, this is no formal fluff. There is a dark energy in the music that people usually do not associate with Mozart because it doesn't appear on those "100 greatest classical tunes to relax to" CDs. Sigh.

The Requiem also has the minor keyed dark tinge to it. It's great. Finally, for a mix of perfection and emotional depth, you should listen to his string quintets. Just perfect.

I have a few more more small points to make about Mozart. First, you should explore the symphonies. Along with Haydn, Mozart created and codified what would become the standard symphonic forms until the 20th century. So that's a thing. Second, you should concentrate on the later works, from around 25 on. The early stuff really was written by a child. A genius child, but still. Look at it later on if you are interested. Finally, give the "big band" interpretations a fair shake. I've already pontificated about my general distaste for the modern emasculation of baroque and classical music. But really, why would you want to listen to a tiny band of scratchy violins (like this) when you can hear the glorious sound of the full orchestra (like this)? Poke around iTunes or Spotify to see what I mean. You should not deprive yourself of fantastic performances from Bohm, Beecham, Klemperer, Walter, and more recently, Jane Glover in the name of some mythical historical "accuracy".

On to Haydn. Haydn was more of a puzzle for me, and I've only recently really come around. Haydn, if nothing else, was prolific. More than 100 symphonies, around 70 or 80 string quartets, any number of other pieces. Even after realizing I was wrong about Mozart I still never really connected with the guy. Finally the economics of the modern music scene intervened and now multiple complete sets of all of his major work are pretty easily (and cheaply) available for me to explore.

When I could play everything I discovered the surprising thing, for me, about Haydn: even the early stuff is good. Especially the string quartets. I have a soft spot for string quartets anyway. I think in many ways it is deeper and more important than the pieces for larger ensembles (see Schubert). I like it the same way I like the trio forms in Jazz. It's a distillation of everything that is enjoyable about the style.

So if you want to understand the string quartet you really have to start with Haydn, because the form did not exist before him. The early pieces are a fascinating look into the creation of something that still survives (and to a large extent thrives) to this day, more than 300 years later. There are three sets that I would recommend exploring:

  1. Kodaly on Naxos

  2. Angeles on Decca

  3. Schneider Quartet on Music and Arts

I've had various recordings by the Kodaly quartet for a long time and loved them. The only issue with their complete set is that on some of the recordings the interval between the movements is way too short, which I find annoying. Luckily the Angeles set is just as good and does not have this issue. Of course, you have to rip those CDs yourself. The Schneider is an old recording from the 50s. It's an interesting reference point.

Again the thing to love in the Haydn quartets is the same balance of formal and emotional concerns that makes the Mozart so great. Haydn is not quite as perfect, but for as much as he wrote he is almost never perfunctory and almost never fails to delight.

We live in a time where there has never been more of this music more easily available for people to explore and discover. So you should go to it. Maybe you'll find the same surprising grooves that I did.

Category: Things