Ba Ba Ba Baaaaah – almost everybody will recognize this famous classical music piece, but fewer know that it is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and an even smaller number of people understands the structure of it.
Being the first article on music, I would like to introduce you to three famous classical masterpieces:
- Beethoven’s 5th Symphony
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Just these three pieces are used for everything from feature films to television commercials. Some even become shorthand for things like triumph, grandeur, or serenity. But surely these works offer so much more, if only we can leave all previous hearings of the works at the mental door.
The popularity of the works means they are included in numerous orchestra repertories and even more albums. Sometimes these recordings are jewels to behold, and other times they aren’t worth the mass-produced packaging they’re stored in.
Chosen works and omissions
The list of well-known classics is potentially endless. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Fur Elise, Chopin’s Minuet Waltz, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier or St Matthew Passion, the Ride of the Valkyrie’s from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Handle’s Messiah, Mozart’s Magic Flute or Marriage of Figaro, Debussy’s Claire de Lune, and so on and so on.
Each of these works possesses a beauty that preserves its reputation as one of the most recognized compositions of the last 300 years (well all except for the Moonlight Sonata, even Beethoven found people’s constant reference to that work tiresome). I have thus had to limit the article to works I consider to be best known (either due to use or to reference in popular culture) and thus have some merit in being listed here.
The Playful Classicist: Mozart
Works by Mozart such as the first movement of Eine Kliene Nachtmusik, the overture from the Marriage of Figaro and the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, are recognized, but often only the initiated know that the piece is by Mozart. The grace, poise, and delightfulness of the pieces are appreciated for their aural quality, or at least, were. Now, like the other works listed in this article, they are often caricatures, stereotypes, shorthand. Mozart’s works are used very often in advertisements, usually if a product is being marketed as ‘sophisticated’ or ‘prestigious’ and in films to indicate grace or affluence. I had to debate which of the three works by Mozart to discuss, and eventually chose Eine Kliene Nachtmusik, largely due to a roll of the die.
Something of a confession is needed: like some with a fondness for classical music, I do not have a particular fondness for Mozart. I acknowledge the genius of his work and the talent of the individual, but find it altogether too delightful. Whereas one would describe Beethoven as powerful and sublime, or Bach as masterful and majestic, Mozart is best described as delightful.
What Eine Kliene Nachtmusik best illustrates is the sonata-allegro form that is so vital to classical music. It may get a little technical here. The first movement of symphonies, concertos, string quartets and the similarly named sonatas are all in sonata-allegro from. Allegro, simply meaning a fast movement and sonata, which outlines the order in which themes are placed and how the composer can rework the material. The basic structure is as follows:
|Theme One||Reworking of themes, usually in other keys||Theme One|
|(Tonic Key)||(Tonic Key)|
|Theme Two||Theme Two|
|(Modulated, most commonly to the Dominant)||(Reworked to end in Tonic Key)|
This structure is followed to the letter in Nachtmusik. In the exposition, the first theme, the famous passage, is in G Major, the tonic key (00:06-00:55). There is then a modulation to D major, the dominant key, for the second theme (00:55-01.49). The exposition is then repeated (01:49-03:34) after which the development (03:34-04:13), beginning with a modulated playing of the first theme, moves through D minor and C major with a repeated motif from the second theme. The work then returns to G major during the recapitulation (04.13-08.50). However in this instance the second theme, although originally in D major, the dominant, is now in G major to bring the movement to a close.
This is a textbook use of the sonata-allegro form, and the development, although relatively short, is enchanting in its use of a simple phrase in numerous keys. The development is one of the most important parts of the sonata-allegro form, as it allows the composer to show off his mastery of the themes, bending them to his will. Beethoven, having had a large artistic ego, especially loved this part, and later composers in the Romanticist period likewise exploited it. Mozart however used it in a more restrained form, preferring to highlight well constructed phrases, and using the development as a way of creating a little bit of interest in the middle of the work.
A major difference between Mozart and Beethoven is the way listeners in their time would have approached the works. Mozart, coming from and highlighting the court listening period, expected that his music would be listened to in a light fashion, people having conversations in between, playing cards, indulging in courtly romances and so forth. The music was largely to fill silences in conversation. For Beethoven this was unacceptable. The egoist demanded utmost attention be given his works. This can be seen, for example, in the strong, repeated phrase opening of his Symphony No.5 in C Minor, which will be discussed at later.
The 1812 Overture
Frasier: Remember when you used to think the 1812 Overture was a great piece of classical music?
Niles: Was I ever that young?
Niles and Frasier Crane, Frasier (1993)
I debated with myself a great deal about the inclusion of this piece. Earlier I said that I chose works which are commonly thought of when classical music is discussed and which are not often given due credit. With Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture it is something of a mixed bag. There are those of the initiated stock that consider it a mundane, trivial piece that deserves its caricature reputation. For most people under 30 it’s the tune V used when blowing up parliament in V for Vendetta. For those between 30 and 60 it may arise reminiscences of the Hooked on Classics Vinyl’s they owned, or in the case of my mother, still own. In addition to that it’s been used, at least the dramatic ending, as a leitmotif for triumph, for success in a number of films, cartoons and advertisements.
Narratively the piece is not without merit. It essentially portrays and commemorates the victory of Russian forces over Napoleon’s French forces. The opening is essentially a call to God for help utilizing an old Orthodox hymn played on strings (Part 1 00:00-01:15). Worry is added to this section with a descending melody played by flutes, counter-pointed by violins, trombones and tubas (01:48-03:28). The army then prepares for battle with a fanfare cheering them on (03:28-04:23). The battle starts (04:23) and the French invade, playing La Marseillaise, their national anthem (05.04). Hope arises (06.22) and the Russian people, represented by the folk tune “At the gates, at my grandfather’s gates” (07.48), gain the courage and will to fight back in a second battle (Part 2 00:00). The second battle section works as a development for the piece, where Tchaikovsky reworks many of the previously introduced themes. At one point the French appear to be winning, indicated with a clear rendition of La Marseillaise (01.10) and the cannons start firing in a last push for victory. Russia ultimately wins through praise of God with the old Russian hymn from earlier in the composition (03.58) and the triumph is celebrated with an exaltation of “God Save the Tsar” accompanied by fireworks, celebratory canons and church Bells.
The success of the work is partly as an early exercise in pastiche, the composer using numerous well know melodies to paint a picture for the listeners, with the composers original material constructing the narrative around those pre-existing tunes. I can mentally appreciate this story telling element of the work, and while I do not share the Crane boys’ completely dismissive view of the 1812, I equally do not find myself reaching for a recording of it on a regular basis. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I hear the “dramatic” part every few months in one setting or another, or it could simply be that when it comes to a piece of music one desires to listen to, it fails to gain any significant interest.
The Big Daddy: Beethoven’s Fifth
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. E.M. Foster
Say to someone classical music, and they will do that single memorable motif: Ba ba ba baaaah! This is essentially to music what Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet is to poetry. (That’s the one that starts “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” although ask anyone, even literature students to recite the second or third lines and they get stumped.) We can at the very least be grateful for the fact that the piece is famous for one of its greatest features, the ever-present motif, the short, short, short, long.
The entire first movement (00:57-08:18) is Beethoven, the great craftsman, reworking the motif. Ok, some more technical stuff. The heart of great compositions is melody, the tune. It’s what we hum to ourselves. Successful melodies are generally 4 to 8 bars long. Any longer and they become difficult to follow and lose their impact. As you can imagine, for a composer to write a work that lasts for more than two minutes or so it is required that there is some reworking of that basic motif, otherwise it could become incredibly boring. With his Symphony No.5, Beethoven explores one of these techniques over the course of an entire movement.
Think about the first few minutes. It is with the same single rhythm, the short, short, short, long. Start playing the clip, or better yet, if you are familiar with the piece, sing it from memory, using the “ba ba ba baaah” the whole way through. This is especially the case with the first theme (00:57-01:44), where the motif is given to various instruments in a series of imitations and sequences that chase after each other, concluding with a firm repetition of the motif by the horns. The second theme (01:44-02:22) is far more lyrical, but likewise utilizes the motif, gradually becoming clearer before the first and second themes are repeated (02:22-03:48). Then comes the lengthy development section (03:49-05:11), where Beethoven uses key changes, sequencing and imitation to transform the theme in as many ways as his imagination allows. There is a deceptively vigorous return to the original motif (05:11), but this is short lived as although the first and second themes will now be played again in the recapitulation, they have been altered by the experience of the development. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven does not feel obliged to return as before with a simple modulation to the tonic. He demands greater attention from his listeners.
This reworking is not really what I would call subtle. Lets face it; we don’t really think Beethoven when we think subtlety. But there is subtlety within the working, in the way he moves through different keys, in the way he expands and reduces the motif momentarily. The attention Beethoven expects from his listeners is rewarded with the varying levels of interest, from the grand pronouncements of the opening bars to the fine reworking of the themes he presents.
Now start (and then keep on) listening!
The aim of this article was to help you get through and really appreciate some of the better-known classical pieces. To give you an idea of some of the things to look out for while listening. Now go and start listening. YouTube has many full performances of various pieces, the i-Tunes store likewise has many albums available, and if you’re an old fashioned gent, go to your nearest record store and start listening. Yes some are problematic, but as long as you avoid the extremes of sentimental or boisterous images on the covers of albums you should be safe.
What piece of classical music stays most in your mind?