The Classical Style

Posted on May 30, 2016 by psu

As long time readers may or may not know, in my misguided youth I worked for and received a PhD in Computer Science. In retrospect I didn’t really mean to do this. I had just neglected some aspects of my studies in this area as an undergraduate and felt like I wanted to take a second pass at it. In the end it worked out, but these things are never without unintended side effects.

One unfortunate result of getting a PhD in anything is that you are taught to believe that you can, in general, learn enough about any subject to pretend that you know something about it. After all, that’s how you got the PhD in the first place. This is why many academics are such insufferable people.

So fair warning: I’m about to say something about musical style and theory that I am truly unqualified to say. I really don’t know anything about how music is constructed. I have just listened to a lot of CDs. But, the points I’m interested in came up in some lectures I watched on youtube, so they must be right.

Anyway here it is: at least until the modern era, classical music, in contrast to folk or popular forms, is distinguished by the development of ever longer forms, primarily through the manipulation of harmonic devices. The simplest way to put this would be to say that classical pieces spend a lot of time teasing you with hints about how the music is going to end, but then they put off that resolution until later to give you more to listen to in the mean time. This a large part of what gives long form classical pieces their sense of flow and coherence.

Digression: This style of development is, of course, not the only way you can give a piece of music a sense of flow and movement. Repetition, lyrical and textual themes, improvisation and rhythmic variation all come to mind as other ways that music keeps itself interesting. But I’m even more unqualified to talk about these things.

This is surely not a deep or original thought. As I said above, I have stolen it from youtube. Here are some modest examples.

First a scene from my favorite classical music movie: Amadeus. Yes the whole story is nonsense. Even the scene I’m about to show you is in retrospect preposterous as Mozart improvises part of the overture to Figaro on top of some court composer ditty march. But it illustrates the point. The fictitious Mozart takes that march and blows it up like a balloon, musically speaking, making it go on and on and on…

Next an example from near the end of the evolution of these techniques. The Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde is a four hour tease. Wagner opens the piece with a chord progression that your ears just know should move a certain way, and then spends the entire show suspending it in space and not giving you the, er, satisfaction of hearing it resolve. At the very very end it finally happens. Phew. Here is a short video with the always overly enthusiastic Stephen Fry talking about it:

That’s part of a very good film about Wagner. Recommend you watch it on Netflix.

Finally, for some deep dives, I bring you to an excellent series of lectures about chamber music given by one Bruce Adolphe at Lincoln Center. He has the luxury of a live band at his beck and call to actually play all the examples that he discusses.

Here he is talking about Mozart. The piece is one of my all-time favorites, a late string quintet. Note how the idea of “the tune not ending” comes up over and over again.

We should give a shout-out to the Amphion Quartet for their heroic work in these videos. Adolphe’s talks are on the technical side. He is always going on and on about modulations and diminished 7th chords. But you can let that wash over you because when he gets the players to actually play what he’s talking about it usually becomes pretty clear.

I’ll leave you with one more of his talks, this time about Haydn.

Again the main theme of the talk, if you will, is not about how Haydn’s music perfectly illustrates the clear symmetry and crystalline structures of the classical style (as he says in every talk, "it’s so. not. a. form. Get it?). Rather, it’s about how he works against those constraints to expand the sphere of what he is able to talk about musically and keep the interesting narrative moving. It’s hard to hear this in the music with our modern ears, so I find it gratifying that someone like Adolphe is around to show it to me.

Of course our modern ears know the result of this tradition. The use of ever more adventurous harmony eventually ended in the early 20th century by throwing tonal harmony away completely. The result was music that while sometimes intellectually interesting was ultimately too abstract and emotionally distant to capture the imagination of most listeners. Classical music retrenched into academia. More popular forms grew up from mere ephemera to music that you had to pay attention to and poof we’re here in the modern world where we are told that classical music is in constant “crisis”. But, I am neither enough of a writer or enough of a musicologist to cover this subject well. So go watch more of the Adolphe lectures. And also go read both of Alex Ross’ books on 20th and 21st century music. You can get them on Amazon or whatever: The Rest is Noise and Listen to This.

Have fun.