Monday 24 October 2016

Classical: From Mozart to the Unfinished - the classical Romantics

George Hamilton

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30


There's a paradox at the heart of the broad swathe of the half millennium that gave us what we've come to know as classical music. The one constant in the landscape is that it's forever changing. So just as Early Music evolved into the Baroque, and it in its turn mutated into the Classical, the signature style of Mozart and Haydn moved on.

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Beethoven and Schubert led the way, bursting free of the straitjacket of structure and form to produce compositions that were both passionate and personal. Like a carpet of bluebells announcing the arrival of spring, these were the first green shoots of the Romantic movement.

The beauty and the simplicity of Classical's four-movement structure gave plenty of scope for the development of musical ideas. Mozart's 39th and 40th symphonies stand out for me as the epitome of what could be achieved.

But Beethoven introduced new ideas, investing much more in the way of emotion and ideas. Take his third symphony, the 'Eroica' or Heroic. He'd admired the French Revolution from afar, even intending to dedicate this piece to Napoleon. But he buried that idea before the symphony had even been performed when he heard that Napoleon had declared himself the Emperor of France. He's no different to the rest, Beethoven thundered, he'll trample on everybody's rights; he's only interested in himself.

Whether or not you hear a musical portrait of the pre-imperial Bonaparte, which is how it's been interpreted down the years by many a critic, there can be no question that Beethoven was trying something here that hadn't been done like this before.

In his 6th symphony - the one known as the Pastoral - he even built a new framework (five movements), and set out in detail what he was seeking to achieve to giving those movements titles.

So we open with 'Feeling Cheerful on Arriving in the Country', then move on to the 'Scene by the Brook'. Next there's the 'Jovial Group of Countryfolk', followed by the 'Thunderstorm', and finally the 'Shepherd's Song, Happy and Grateful after the Storm'.

The Pastoral Symphony had its first outing in an ambitious four-hour concert in Vienna just before Christmas in 1808 that also featured the one numerically before it in the Beethoven catalogue - the famous Fifth with its "da-da-da-dah" C-minor introduction.

Revolutionary would be an entirely appropriate word to describe the Fifth (never mind the Sixth), for this one seems to be a musical outpouring of his politics at the time. Here the sleuths have detected direct connections with the musical themes of the French Revolution.

If Beethoven was the king of the symphony, Schubert was pushing the envelope as well. He was principally known in his day as a writer of songs - the most poetic of composers, as Franz Liszt described him - and shorter pieces for piano. But it turned out there was much more to him than that.

His earlier symphonies were full of hints of what inspired him - Haydn, Beethoven and in particular Mozart, whose 40th is reflected in Schubert's Fifth - but he was developing a distinctive voice. His Eighth, the one we know as the Unfinished, offers just two movements of music unlike any symphony that had gone before.

A pairing of Beethoven's Fifth and Schubert's Unfinished paints the picture perfectly. There's a 1985 recording by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein that combines the two (CBS Masterworks 36719). If you can track it down, you'll have found one of the best.

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