Entertainment Music

Sunday 18 March 2018

Classical: How the Industrial Revolution helped shape our music

Felix Mendelssohn: sparkling symphony
Felix Mendelssohn: sparkling symphony

When you think of classical music, the name of Ludwig van Beethoven is never very far away. A giant whose work straddled the evolution of the Classical style into the Romantic, his life points up another aspect of developments in music at the time - the first half of the 19th Century, the age of the Industrial Revolution.

The "van" with the Beethoven is no indication of blue blood, it's simply an aspect of his surname that he shares with the Dutch manager of Manchester United, Louis van Gaal, for though born in Bonn in Germany, the great composer's roots were in the Netherlands (present-day Belgium, as it happens).

There was no silver spoon involved, and Beethoven learned the value of money at an early age. His father, who was a singer, had a tendency to drink his wages. Ludwig played the organ to help keep the family afloat.

So, in a sense, Beethoven was one of the first professional musicians, earning a living as opposed to being supported by a sponsor, be it church or landed gentry. He had to make his money. He moved to Vienna, and carved out a reputation as a pianist. And of course his career as a composer would become the most significant in the whole sphere of classical music.

This was at a time when the middle class was expanding, when music was moving out of the narrow confines of private, subsidised entertainment and into the public, paid-for arena.

Some 600 kilometres north of Vienna, we can see this in action. The principal ensemble of the city of Leipzig is the Gewandhausorchester, a name that points to its roots. Originally funded by a group of businessmen in a variation on the sponsorship theme, it became so popular it needed somewhere bigger to play. The local trade association put their main assembly room at the orchestra's disposal, and when it moved in, it took the name of its new home - the Gewandhaus, or Drapers' Hall.

The demographic was changing. The Industrial Revolution meant there were more people with disposable income, more enjoying increased leisure time. There were new opportunities for music makers. The era of the public concert had arrived.

Back in Vienna, Beethoven turned impresario, hiring a theatre to promote his own music. The economic imperative. He had to make a living.

The music was changing, too, its scale growing to fit the occasion. Ambitious scores for bigger orchestras, for the size of the venues meant a bigger sound was required.

The strings were tweaked to beef up their output. More of them were deployed. Other instruments evolved to meet the demands. Clarinets and flutes, oboes and bassoons were remodelled. Trumpets and horns were given valves to expand their range.

The Romantics, pushing back the frontiers of form and expression, had the means at their disposal to make this happen.

Music that brings all of this together is the sparkling Italian symphony by Felix Mendelssohn, his Fourth. It's the one that announces itself with the brightest of fanfares, and it's full of richness and light. It's not a music in a framework, it's music to set the mood, typical of the early Romantics.

It was commercial, too, for it was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London which staged its premiere in 1833. Enjoy it, teamed with his Third Symphony, on a Deutsche Grammophon recording (449 743-2) by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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