Monday 24 July 2017

Classical: How we got here - the rich history of classical music

Early rock star: Franz Liszt
Early rock star: Franz Liszt

George Hamilton

What exactly is classical music? The easy answer would be that branch of melodic entertainment that's a bit high brow, a bit too demanding, not the kind of thing that you'd necessarily associate with having a good time. But is it?

Taking that view, I think, does it a huge disservice, for it is first and foremost music. Even if it's Bublé or Streisand, Ed Sheeran or U2 that tops your list for listening pleasure, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn't be able to enjoy Beethoven or Stravinsky, Schumann or Janácek too (well, maybe not Janácek - his stuff can be dense and somewhat inaccessible).

Strictly speaking, Classical music (with a capital "C"), is what came out of Vienna in the latter years of the 18th century, when Haydn was inventing the symphony, and Mozart was inventing just about everything else.

These days, classical music (with the small "c") takes in the whole gamut of serious western music, which has its roots in folk and religion.

So you have Early Music, basically anything that came before 1600 and the Baroque period of Bach and Handel, Monteverdi and Vivaldi. Then Classical, which evolved into Romantic in the early 19th century, and took us into the 20th century, and on to the avant-garde.

But of course there were no lines in the sand, so you get composers like Beethoven and Schubert who spanned the two eras of Classical and Romantic.

Basically, classical music is what you might call "art music", though even that term is misleading, implying, as it does, the serious as opposed to the popular. Of course it's serious. But once it left the big houses and entered the mainstream, it was very popular indeed.

Right across Europe, the big names were stars, and this was in the age of the stage coach. Haydn, for instance, from landlocked Austria, had never seen the sea when, nearly 60, his marketability took him to London.

Premières were big occasions, and it wasn't all high society. The morning after the first performance of Verdi's opera, Rigoletto, they were singing 'La Donna è Mobile' in the streets. Classical music, the popular music of its time.

Franz Liszt, who lived from 1811 to 1886, wrote classical too, but he played like the very first rock star that he undoubtedly was, coming on stage wearing green silk gloves, and turning his piano side on to the audience so they could see him better.

Liszt's piano wasn't that much different to the concert grand of today, and the story of how the instrument developed illustrates one aspect of the changing sound of classical music.

Composers could only write for what was available. So it was harpsichords - keyboards where the strings were plucked - in Bach's time, and the sound was pretty constant throughout the piece. When Beethoven was writing, things had moved on. Pressing the keys activated little hammers which struck the strings. This wasn't a harpsichord any more. There was now the freedom to play fast, to be more expressive, to be loud or soft - "forte" or "piano" in Italian, the working language of classical music. That's how the piano (short for "pianoforte") got its name.

Over the coming weeks, we'll explore some more, and get to know just how we've come by some of the most wonderful listening pleasure around.

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