Classical (1730-1820)

Mozart, Clarinet Concerto, Second Movement (1791)

This clarinet concerto was the last significant work Mozart finished before his death in December 1791. London’s Classic FM audience recently ranked the concerto at #8 in it’s 2018 Hall of Fame poll for favorite pieces of classical music.

Martin Fröst, clarinet

Mozart Breaks a Rule

"People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times." –Wolfgang Mozart, in a letter to a friend (attributed)

In 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a fourteen-year-old prodigy who had been touring Europe as a performer since the age of six. While traveling through Italy with his father, he found himself at the Vatican during the days preceding Easter, and he heard a performance of the legendary work of vocal music titled
Miserere. The Catholic church had printed only three copies of the piece and had restricted performances to Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel. Within hours after hearing the piece, Mozart created a manuscript of Miserere from memory. He created the manuscript without the pope’s permission and then returned to the Sistine Chapel two days later on Good Friday — Friday the 13th — to hear the piece again and make corrections to his manuscript.

Miserere was one of the most safely guarded works of art in Europe, and performers were prohibited from taking the music outside the Vatican. By creating a manuscript of the music, Mozart violated a papal edict protecting it. His transcription may have even contributed to the published versions appearing all over Europe the next year. No one is certain. Historians do know, however that Mozart’s father seemed determined to abide by the pope's decree.

"You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter, if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands." – Leopold Mozart, in a letter to his wife, April 14, 1770

When Pope Clement XIV heard about Mozart's transcription of Miserere he did not condemn the boy for violating his decree. Instead, he recognized Mozart’s musical genius with a papal knighthood, making Mozart a Knight of the Order of the Golden Spur.

Allegri, Miserere – King's College Chapel Choir


***
Many thanks to
The Greatest Music Stories Never Told by Rick Beyer for introducing me to this story.

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, First Movement (1804)

With the two E-flat major chords that begin this symphony Beethoven started a revolution in music. This first movement alone was almost as long as entire symphonies of the time.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker

Paganini, Caprice No. 24 (1809)

The legend of Niccolò Paganini includes a story that his mother made a pact with the devil and traded his soul for musical virtuosity. Not true, of course. Like most great musicians, Paganini was probably just born with some natural talent and then worked like a dog to develop that talent.

Alexander Markov, violin

Beethoven, "Ode to Joy" (1824)

Here it is, a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with a choir of 10,000. (That’s not a typo.)

According to
CBS News, the Japanese affection for Beethoven’s Ninth began during World War I when German POWs performed it for the first time in Japan. The piece then evolved into an end-of-year tradition for the Japanese. What I’ve posted below is a performance from December 2011 when the Japanese were recovering from the earthquakes and tsunami that had hit their nation nine months earlier. My recommendation: Jump forward to about 6:30 and crank up the volume.

"If you want to end war and stuff you gotta sing loud.” – Arlo Guthrie

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and a Utopian Vision of the Future

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of the most influential pieces of music ever composed, and the “Ode to Joy” of the last movement is certainly one of the most recognizable melodies in music history. A complete deconstruction of the symphony would require more than I can provide in a single posting on this site. In any case, I would like to say a few words about the power of the "Ode to Joy,"

First, let me provide a little information about symphonies.

When you listen to a Classical era symphony — a symphony composed between the mid-1700s and the 1820s — you are expecting to hear instrumental music composed for an orchestra. You are also expecting to hear music that takes you through a variety of "emotions" developed in four movements. If you are new to classical music, I would ask you to think of a Classical era symphony as a “story” told in four “chapters.”

The first movement (or chapter) is normally the most challenging of the four, and when the movement is finished you might want to turn to someone and say, “Wasn’t that interesting?” The second movement is generally slower and more peaceful than the first, which might prompt you to ask, “Is it time to wake up yet?” The third movement is a faster movement in triple time, and you might want to ask, “Do you want to dance?” The last movement is generally fast and upbeat, designed to leave you wanting more. If the composer ends the symphony on the right note (no pun intended), you should be saying, “Wasn’t that fun?”

In short, think of a Classical era symphony in these terms:
  • The first movement challenges the intellect.
  • The second movement provides relaxation and time for reflection.
  • The third movement is dance-like and "physical."
  • The fourth movement provides pleasure.
Although Beethoven's Ninth has as many interpretations as it has members in its audience, let me give you one interpretation to get you started. To understand the Ninth, think of it as an epic story of human suffering that ends with a utopian vision of the future. Remember, it's a symphony, and the story is traditionally told in four movements.
  • First Movement: This movement can be heard as an exploration of the suffering and turmoil that humans must endure. The movement moves back and forth between minor and major tonalities. If you think of a minor tonality as “darkness” and a major tonality as “light,” you should begin to hear the movement as a metaphor for the contradictions and uncertainties of our lives. The movement ends with a statement of darkness and terror.
  • Second Movement: Instead of the slow, quiet music that we are expecting in a second movement, Beethoven gives us a violent introduction that is followed by music played in a fast triple time beat. Although the movement may make us want to get up and start dancing, we should notice that the music is often in a minor key, and we just might be dancing with death. (Serious guy, this Beethoven!) Fortunately, the movement ends in a major key, giving as a glimmer of hope before we move to the third movement.
  • Third Movement: In this movement we finally get the slow and quiet music we had wanted to hear after the first movement. The movement is long and achingly beautiful. We might even sense a little peace of mind in the third movement. Beethoven might be telling us that even though the world is full of darkness, terror, and uncertainty, humanity will endure and prevail.
  • Fourth Movement: This is a long and complicated movement that begins with a terrifying chord of darkness and despair. The frightening chord that opens the movement then leads to a “conversation” between different parts of the orchestra providing quotes from the first three movements. Then comes the “Ode to Joy,” and we should immediately realize that the symphony had been moving toward this melody all along. Beethoven ends the instrumental introduction of the "Ode to Joy" with vocal soloists and a full choir singing the melody. (Before Beethoven's Ninth, symphonies had been defined as music composed for an orchestra — no voices.) The words sung in the fourth movement come from a poem by Friedrich Schiller titled “Ode to Joy.” All told, the poem — and Beethoven's use of it in the Ninth Symphony — describe a utopian view of the future, a world built upon brotherhood, peace, and joy. If you are not inspired to try to make this a better world after listening to this final movement, you're not really listening.
The elegant tune that Beethoven gave us for the “Ode to Joy” has become one of humanity's most enduring and recognizable melodies. Today, the “Ode to Joy has become the European Anthem of the Council of Europe and the European Union, and we would be hard pressed to find a better anthem than the "Ode to Joy" to inspire the cooperation of European nations.

I spent time at the beginning of this blog describing the basic elements of a Classical era symphony so that the power of the "Ode to Joy" can be understood in context. On its own, the "Ode to Joy" is a beautiful melody that will remain in your memory long after you first hear it. In the context of a symphony that explores issues of human suffering, uncertainty, and terror, the melody has tremendous power to lift your spirit and elevate your soul.



Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”(1785)
O friends, no more these sounds?
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise;
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.

All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s beast.
Just and junjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God?

Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.

You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, abobe the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek Him in the heavens!
Above the stars must he dwell.

Flash Mob – Beethoven, "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9 in D Minor



Franz Xaver Gruber, “Silent Night” (1818)

With high hopes that the spirit of peace and joy of the holiday season continues beyond the beginning of the year, I'm posting this video of the great Plácido Domingo singing "Silent Night." May love and kindness bless us all.

Placido Domingo with the Children's Choirs of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

The Convalescent's Soul: Beethoven's Opus 132 (1825)

"[Beethoven's] last quartets testify to a veritable growth of consciousness, to a higher degree of consciousness, probably than is manifested anywhere else in art."

J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Journey


"You never get to the bottom of [Beethoven’s quartets]; they may be the most single profound statement that any human being ever contributed to the world of art."

– Peter Oundjian, violinist and conductor (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)


Take the quotes above as an example of the well-deserved and universal praise for Beethoven’s late string quartets. The maestro’s last five quartets (Nos. 12-16) plus the
Grosse Fuge, which was originally composed as a finale for No. 13, have received almost universal recognition as some of the greatest music ever composed.

Beethoven began composing the quartets at the request of Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, an amateur cellist from the Russian aristocracy. Galitzin loved Beethoven’s music and offered fifty ducats for each of three quartets. Two years after Galitzin made his offer Beethoven delivered what the prince had requested — three quartets — and was only paid for one. Even so, Beethoven wrote two more quartets and a different finale for No. 13. No one had asked him to write the new music, and he composed it with no commission. One can’t help but feel that Beethoven had discovered something to say with the first three quartets and felt compelled to get the rest of his ideas written down. Whether or not he was paid seems to have made no difference, and the quartets serve as one of history’s greatest examples of art that was created for the sake of art.

As with any music containing as much content as Beethoven’s late quartets, listeners must do some research and expose themselves to repeated hearings. Rest assured, however, that the time invested in Beethoven’s late quartets will provide tremendous rewards.

If you are new to the quartets, I recommend beginning with the
Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. Although Beethoven composed it as the second of his late quartets, it was published as the fourth and is therefore labeled No. 15.

Listen to
Opus 132 and think of it as an exploration of the universal human struggle against both physical and spiritual pain. The first, third, and fifth movements provide the greatest intellectual and emotional challenges, while the second and fourth movements provide a respite from those challenges. If you have never heard the quartet, the third movement is the one that is most likely to catch your attention. The movement shows a spiritual side to Beethoven that allowed him to create one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.

Beethoven titled the third movement, “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity in the Lydian Mode.” The title speaks volumes about what is in the music.

First, the Lydian mode heard in much of the movement was used in medieval church music to represent healing and recovery. If you are a musician, think of the Lydian mode as a major scale with a raised fourth. If you are not a musician, think of the Lydian mode as sounding “bright,” somewhat like music in a major key.

Second, the movement is a hymn of Thanksgiving that Beethoven composed after surviving an illness in April 1825 that almost killed him (possibly Crohn’s disease). The movement was a product of Beethoven's premonitions of death.

Third, take note that Beethoven describes himself in the title as a “convalescent.” He had suffered for years from health problems associated with lead poisoning. And, as almost everyone knows, Beethoven was deaf, an affliction that caused him also to suffer from the pain of loneliness.

As Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon writes in
Late Beethoven, “He was a deaf composer, painfully confined within an ever-darkening inner space.” In reference to Beethoven describing himself as a "convalescent soul," Solomon states, “the invalid is another kind of prisoner, afflicted and weary, in whom there is need to cross a threshold, or to awaken from a frightening dream. The invalid, too, yearns for an open space, looks upward to the presumed realm of the deity. Beethoven’s sufferer — later convalescent — prays for deliverance more from a sickness of the soul than of the body.”

Watch the animated recording I’ve embedded below and notice how the music moves back and forth from a hymn of thanksgiving to an expression of joy for being alive. Use the following outline to guide yourself through the piece.

0:00 — Hymn of Thanksgiving
This section explores the world of the spirit. It is composed in the Lydian mode and employs few flats and sharps.

3:18 — Interlude
This section explores the world of the flesh. The music in this section is highly chromatic.

5:38 — Hymn of Thanksgiving

8:16 — Interlude

10:44 – Hymn of Thanksgiving

15:07 – Coda



If you have not yet heard all of Beethoven’s late quartets, I urge you to do so and wish you the very best on your journey.

Happy Holidays!

Haydn, Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major, Third Movement (1796)

Musicians playing the valveless trumpets of the eighteenth century were limited to playing notes from a harmonic series and were generally unable to provide satisfying melodic lines. However, new developments in the construction of trumpets during the late 1700s allowed the instruments to deliver satisfying melodies in all registers. Anton Weidinger, a trumpet virtuoso in the Vienna Court Orchestra, played a significant role in developing a five-keyed trumpet and then asked Joseph Haydn to compose a concerto for the new instrument. The Concerto in E-flat Major came from that request.

A lesson for tyros: a “concerto” provides audiences with a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra. In the video below Haydn’s orchestral accompaniment has been scored for piano.

Markus Würsch, keyed trumpet; Peter Solomon, fortepiano