From Mozart to Mahler - A Listening Guide to Classical Music

Unlike today's grand rift between classical and popular music, in the 19th century classical music was popular music.

Nearly everyone with any breeding played an instrument, and frequent soirees - musical parties - provided ample opportunity for amateur musicmakers to have their bit of spotlight and composers to have their works performed again and again.

In modern times, however, classical music has become stereotyped as a rarified art form only for the elite and the highly knowledgeable. Those not knowing their Mozart from their Mahler are often too intimidated to venture into the concert hall, despite continuing efforts of orchestras and performers around the world to make the art form more accessible. Outreach programs range from family concerts and preconcert talks to special food and music-subscription packages designed with "singles" in mind.

But if you stop to think about it, classical music is all around us - as background for commercials, in films, on elevators - and is perhaps more accessible than we might think. Music of any style, after all, is a form of entertainment. And classical music especially has the power to move the soul and charge the spirit, to rouse as well as comfort. Like gourmet food, one can appreciate it without fully understanding the intricacies of its preparation.

But "a little knowledge can go a long way," and a basic foundation can help empower a listener to greater appreciation and understanding.

Scads of books have been written on the subject (see selected list, left), and with a little demystification, classical music can come to be seen as quite approachable, even (dare I say it) fun.

Here are some basics that may prove helpful as a guide into unfamiliar waters. Classical music's powerful adventure is as close as the nearest concert hall, classical radio station, or record store.

An 'exact' art form

First of all, the term "classical" music is used in two different ways.

Most specifically, it is an era of music defining the second half of the 18th century. But it is more commonly used to connote the music from the Western Hemisphere written within the past few hundred years that is generally found in the concert hall, sung or played by orchestral instruments, guitar, or keyboards.

Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein called it "exact" music, implying that is usually written by a composer and intended to be played in a very specific way, interpretive differences aside. One way to look at it is music that is "classic," a genre with enduring appeal throughout the ages despite changing musical tides.

Keys, chords, and harmony

The majority of classical music is written in a "key" (even if the key changes a lot in the course of a piece). This means that the music relates to a central pitch, often beginning and "cadencing" (ending, think of a period) with that sense of center.

The "melody" is the tune (not all music has one of these) and the "harmony" is the arrangement of the other notes, usually underneath the tune, creating a sense of dimension and fullness.

A "chord" creates harmony by outlining several notes played at once. The "theme" is an important musical phrase or idea (it's not always melodic), and "counterpoint" (Bach was famous for this) is when two or more themes set up shop all at once. A "fugue" is a kind of counterpoint in which a theme has sequential entrances, thereby creating counterpoint with itself.

In the majority of Western music, a theme is established near the beginning of a piece (think of the "short-short-short-long" sequence opening Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) and then developed.

Part of the fun of listening to classical music is recognizing how those themes come in and out of a musical texture, hearing the many ways composers play with variations in pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and instrumentation.

Musical movements

Classical music is divided into several generally accepted eras, which overlap considerably and often go side by side with demarcations in the culture at large. They often reflect a direct overreaction to the style of the music that preceded it.

The Renaissance era (ca. 1430-1600) is the first era in which music was written down in some form of standardized notation.

Then came the more florid Baroque era (ca. 1600-1750), named after the prevailing ornate architectural style.

The Classical era (ca. 1750-1800) ushered in the development of the symphony. Unlike the more florid, extravagant Baroque era, rules predominated in music in the Classical style, with clarity of form and structure high on everyone's list.

The Romantic era (ca. 1800-1900) contains the most familiar classical music - Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Chopin, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Wagner.

Twentieth-century music is by far the most difficult to peg, with its plethora of styles, ideologies, methodologies, and just plain free-form experimentation.

The most famous of all 20th-century composers, Igor Stravinsky, is a perfect case in point. He began his career writing ballet music of such powerful rhythmic complexity and dissonance that the premire of his landmark "Rite of Spring" in 1913 caused a near riot, with the audience trashing the theater in protest. (By the next year, they'd gotten more used to the idea, and a concert performance of the piece was given an ovation.)

After more experimentation with a number of styles, Stravinsky settled into something referred to as Neoclassical, which reverted back to the clarity and formalism of the Classical style but included the dissonance of the modern day.

Arnold Schnberg took rules to a new level with a group of composers called the Second Viennese School, who created music that wasn't just dissonant but was without any key at all (atonal), yet followed strict procedures to include all 12 notes of the diatonic scale.

To put it more simply, think of playing middle C on the piano followed by the next seven white notes. That's a major scale in the key of C. The 12-tone scale is all the white and black notes in between arranged into a different order to create a new scale on which a piece is based. It's also called serial music.

Other composers of the time developed their own musical languages. Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich demonstrated the military influence of the Russian School.

Aaron Copland's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Appalachian Spring" is the best-known work of American classical music. He favored highly tonal, open harmonies reminiscent of the Western plains.

George Gershwin, whose "Rhapsody in Blue" is a close second in popularity to Copland's work, brought jazz into the world of classical music. Hungarian composer Bla Bartk, whose "Concerto for Orchestra" is an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece, brilliantly brought the elements of mid-European folk music into the classical tradition.

In the current realm of classical music, anything goes - improvisation (making music up on the spot, usually with a set of variables in mind); minimalism (the repetition of a small number of elements); pan-tonalism (using lots of different scales at once); and world music (drawing musical material from other cultures).

It's a brave new world, and nobody likes it all, but there's usually something for everyone. Don't be afraid to open your ears and enjoy.

With a little demystification, classical music can come to be seen as quite approachable, even (dare I say it) fun.

The Big Five Orchestras




New York


If You Want To Read More

Classical Music (Reader's Digest), John Stanley (with CD)

Classical Music for Dummies (IDG Books), David Pogue and Scott Speck (with CD)

Classical Music Top 40 (Fireside), Anthony J. Rudel

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Music (Alpha Books), Robert Sherman and Philip Seldon

Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide (Gramophone Publications)

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts (Anchor Books) Leonard Bernstein

The NPR Classical Music Companion: Terms & Concepts From A-Z (Mariner Books), Miles Hoffman

The Popular Guide to Classical Music (Birch Lane Press), Anne Gray

Who's Afraid of Classical Music? (Fireside), Michael Walsh

A Top 10 for Classical Music

Listed in chronological order. "Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide" contains recording recommendations.

Bach: "Brandenburg Concertos"

Handel: "Messiah"

Mozart: Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter"

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

Mahler: Symphony No. 1

Debussy: "Afternoon of a Faun"

Stravinsky: "Rite of Spring"

Bartk: Concerto for Orchestra

Copland: "Appalachian Spring"

Adams: "Harmonielehre"

Musical Building Blocks

Dynamics Loud or soft.

Pitch The specific note, how high or low it sounds.

Rhythm The pattern of lengths of notes over time.

Tempo Fast or slow, also called the "beat."

Timbre Sound quality or color; the difference between the sound of a flute and the sound of a violin.

Chamber music Works written for small groups of mixed instruments, some with voice.

Symphony Both a compositional form (usually four contrasting movements) and the "symphony" orchestra that plays it.

Concerto A work for orchestra with an instrumental soloist.

Sonata Usually a three-part work (as well as a compositional form), usually for a solo instrument with piano or piano alone. (By the way, the tradition is not to applaud between movements in these multipart works.)

A Brief Chronological History

Renaissance Era

(ca. 1430-1600)

The first era in which music was written down in some form of standardized notation. The first written music was the simple vocal lines of the medieval monks (plainchant), and the most influential composer of the era was Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina.

Baroque Era

(ca. 1600-1750)

Named after the prevailing ornate architectural style. The single most important musical development during this era was the opera (Claudio Monteverdi's "La Favola d'Orfeo" is generally considered the first true opera), in which a story is told through the combination of instrumental music, singing, and theatrical setup. Music up to this point had been dominated by the church; opera opened the way for secular music to flourish. Handel and Bach were the two titans of the era.

Classical Era

(ca. 1750-1800)

Ushered in the development of the symphony. Unlike the more florid, extravagant Baroque era, rules predominated in music in the Classical style, with clarity of form and structure high on everyone's list. Haydn and Mozart reigned supreme. Then came Beethoven, with one foot in the Classical era and the rest of him striding brazenly into a new world, pulling everyone with him. Beethoven used all the rules and then broke them as music began to embrace emotion.

Romantic Era

(ca. 1800-1900)

Contains the most familiar classical music - Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Chopin, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Wagner. In the Romantic era, music became a venting of the soul - emotional, often tempestuous, and thickly, lushly textured, unlike the transparent formalism of the Classical style.

20th Century

Debussy and Ravel helped usher in the 20th century with a trend called "Impressionism," which was based less on feelings than impressions and images. Debussy created a new musical language based on an open-sounding whole-tone scale that stood the previous 300 years of major (happy) and minor (sad) harmonies on their ear.

This opened the way for a new approach to composing, with composers creating their own rules as they went along to make their music coherent.

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