Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven; turgid, trite and clumsy - On learning about classical music

When I was a child, it seemed to me that classical music was all the same. It also seemed that adults who liked classical music liked it all.

So when I decided to try and appreciate classical music, in one sense I did not know where to start; in another sense I thought it did not matter.

But when I did start, I began with tackling The Great Composers. Luckily, the nearby city of Bristol had an LP library; so I began borrowing a couple of discs a week - also listening to the classical music channel on the radio (BBC Radio 3).

I soon found that I had strong preferences - not just between musical eras (I liked best the baroque and classical) but between the works of a specific composer. Indeed, I found that even the Great composers, the ones whom I fully agreed were Great, wrote a lot of dud and dull music... some more than others.

But when they wrote 'bad' stuff, the Great Composers exhibited different kinds of badness.

When JS Bach is bad, and because he wrote such a lot - a lot of it is bad, especially the vocal music for church performance; he is worthy, dull and constipated. He desperately needs an enema. When inspiration flags in the day-to-day chore of composition, Bach grinds-out the music with technical correctness and zero inspiration.

(A friend, who was one of the most musical people I have ever met - and who later worked as a BBC Radio 3 producer, used to opine that most of Bach needed 'a drum kit' to enliven it - and would start miming a driving rhythm during what he termed the 'turgid' passages.)

But genius is all of-a-piece; and the greatness of Bach (in strictly musical terms, the supreme greatness) is a product of that same earnestness and attention to detail which leads to the turgidity of many uninspired cantatas and fugues.  

Mozart is never as dull as Bach at his most constipated; but much or Mozart, indeed most of Mozart - essentially everything he wrote in his childhood, youth and early years - is trite: merely decorative patterning, which because it lacks the complexity of Bach, sometimes seem like be a maddening waste of time.

Bach may be crushingly boring; Mozart is always superficially-charming but often feels like being stuffed with chocolates.

But the very greatest works of Mozart have exactly that easy-listening simplicity which makes his lesser output seem such a trivial timewaste - when Mozart touches the heights (and nobody touches higher) the effects come from something indefinable but transcendentally beautiful that is added to, or infuses, something close to bathos...

...Well, I don't need to say more, because the essence of the genius of Mozart was perfectly captured in this scene from the movie Amadeus, written by Peter Shaffer:

By the way, this piece excerpted is the Serenade for 13 wind instruments in B flat major K 361 - and is one of the very best - and most Mozartian - things Mozart ever did.

Beethoven was a man at his best when striving; a composer of strength, energy; we seem to feel him grappling the material into shape, and triumph at his triumphs against the odds.

There are a few places where Beethoven successfully produces relaxed, unstressed music (such as the really lovely, but uncharacteristic, Pastoral Symphony); but it is part of Beethoven's struggle that on the one hand he sometimes fails to win.

And then Beethoven just comes across as clumsy - and exhibits technical failures, ugliness, clunkiness in a way never seen in Bach or Mozart.

This is the case in many of Beethoven's attempts at writing fugues; and most obviously in much of the Ninth 'Choral' symphony, where there or examples of horribly big holes in the orchestration, abrupt gear changes, and sustained howling required from the chorus which is extremely wearing. The Hammerklavier piano sonata is similar. He was trying so very hard to be great, that it shows.

And some of Beethoven's 'light music', done as commissions and not from inner need - are like an elephant trying to dance a ballet.

His variations on God save the Queen I recall as excruciating (and never listened again) - it was a task (probably not worth doing) calling for lightness of touch and fluency - Mozartian charm - but in trying to make something significant out of fluff, Beethoven becomes embarrassing - something Bach and Mozart never are.

But then, Beethoven's courage in over-reaching and trying so obviously hard, made his work the main fulcrum of the classical tradition - his work changed the direction of  music and created wholly new possibilities and range in the symphony, the concerto, the sonata, even in opera. Composers lived-off Beethoven for a century, and when this impulse became exhausted, the classical tradition declined and (all but) died.

For this reason, many would regard Beethoven - for all his adolescent oafishness and buffoonery, indeed because of it - as the greatest of them all.


  1. For years, this is how I have often described the music of the three great composers to myself:

    1. Bach's music can sound like it was composed by a computer.

    2. Mozart's music is like a dumb blonde, beautiful enough to make you gasp, but also rather empty pated.

    3. Beethoven's music huffs and puffs and often shows its strain.

    But, of course, at their frequent best they completely transcended all this.

    Quite a bit of agreement with you, I think.

  2. @Thu - One of the problems with Mozart is that he is 'sold' to the general public as a child prodigy, when all his compositions as a child are... I was going to say 'worthless' but at any rate they are non-canonical/ virtually never performed (except on disc for the sake of completeness).

    His best known piece is (probably) Eine Kleine Nachtmusic which is pleasing but not at all deep - and all his best works are in the context of longish operas, piano concerti, and chamber music - especially for wind band; which are a bit inaccessible to the man in the street. Maybe his best known work of the first rank is therefore the slow movement of the clarinet concerto - detached from the outer movements. I'm not sure whether many people (outside of the Germanosphere) would be able to hum any of the great arias... most likely would be yelping a few bars of Der Holle Rache...

    You probably know, but not many do, that Mozart's high modern reputation was substantially the work of George Bernard Shaw during his years as a music critic (before becoming the second best playwright in the English language) - until then Mozart was considered to be a kind of sub-Haydn: a technically masterful maker of pleasing, decorative patterns.

    (I should confess that for all his historic and technical importance and many excellences, and the fact I have listened to many hundreds of hours of his music, I have never experienced a single moment when Haydn's music rose to Greatness - nothing to compare with that moment in Amadeus above.)

    With Bach there is only 'Air on a G string" and some re-orchestrated things like 'Ave Maria' or 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring'.

    Only Beethoven is well served by his public image - with say the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and 'Moonlight' sonata being among his best work, and also his best known pieces.

  3. Bach's music can sound like it was composed by a computer.

    My first exposure to Bach was through Walter Carlos Switched-On Bach, which as you may be aware, he did in 1968 with a Moog synthesizer (relatively unknown at the time). And of course he also did the electronic "classical" pieces for A Clockwork Orange.

  4. @JP - Indeed; but it should be pointed out that Carlos's Bach realizations are extremely musicial and beautifully phrased and structured - as was noted by no less than Glenn Gould, who also interviewed Carlos for a radio documentary

  5. I first went to University to study music theory and composition, and was a 'cellist for 20 years (seven of them professionally), so I suppose my criticism comes from that perspective. But after a long time with Classical music, I came to feel that even the things I thought were boring at first, often revealed inner depths and profundities that made them intensely engrossing, once I got better at understanding the music and what was being done. I'd ask for an example of a "bad" piece of Bach's music, because in my opinion he's never bad (neither is Mozart, in my opinion, though certainly there is some Mozartian fluff; Beethoven, however, was at times bad), though a bad performance can blunt what is going on.

    My grandmother bought me two classical cd's when I had played 'cello for about three years. Up to that point I had minimal exposure to light classics only. One cd was of the Brandenburg Concertos, and the first time I played it, I thought the mother ship had landed! It almost didn't even register as music; seriously, go and listen to Brandenburg 2 (the one I started with), and imagine you're listening to it as a twelve year old who has really only ever heard pop and country music. There seemed to be no direction; they were just diddling on instruments and going nowhere, a bunch of instrumental navel-gazing. I tried the other cd, Dvorak's 'cello concerto played by Yo Yo Ma; this was more accessible, and I found that the Bach immediately made more sense after a bit of experience with romantic stuff. A year later, I was addicted to classical music and had devoured enormous amounts of it. Long story short, I found that many things I would have considered dull or "bad" as an amateur, the more I came to understand music, the more I could appreciate as actually being rather good. Can you say what, specifically, you find to be bad in Bach and Mozart? Beethoven, I'll hand it to you - his second symphony and "Wellington's Victory" come immediately to mind as second-rate music.

    I'll admit that some composers wrote throw-away music - stuff required for dinner parties and the like - and I don't at all judge them on this. Mozart tells us exactly what he thought of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by giving it that title. And along those lines, I'll say that "Eine Kleine" is his "best known piece" only if we're talking about people knowing the first few bars from movies or commercials without really knowing the whole piece or even the composer. Amongst musicians and Classical music buffs, his best known pieces would be his 40th Symphony, his clarinet concerto, his 21st and 23rd piano concertos, his dissonant quartet, and his fine operas (especially Zauberflote and Nozze di Figaro). Beethoven's greats are his 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies, some of his string quartets (esp. op. 59 and 132) and, yes, some of his piano sonatas. Amongst Bach's best-known (and loved) works, I would put his Brandenburgs and Orchestral suites, his violin partitas and cello suites, many of his cantatas, the seminal Wohltemperierte Klavier and, yes, the Toccata and Fugue in d minor. I personally like "Art of the Fugue," though some people think it too technical. I actually find Bach's music to be stunningly moving; I think most people find it too "mechanical" or "computerized" because they are not used to processing music at that level of technical brilliance and complexity, and its emotional content remains somewhat inaccessible to them. Precisely because the passions are controlled in Bach, the sentiments run much deeper.

  6. With Beethoven came the myth of "progress": that by adding complexity or novelty to the form alone, music could be advanced. He was healthier when he wrote within a zone of familiarity, but his Promethean drive toward innovation also spurred on many more developments. The problem was that the farther music got into these developments, the more it lost its role as finding beauty in life, and the more it focused on the music alone, which like solipsistic thought becomes a closed-circuit feedback loop, culminating in the "theory" composers of the 20th.

  7. @Brett - The same for modern art, eh?

  8. I agree with your observation that listening experience plays a role in one's ability to appreciate music. I remember that when I was very young someone introduced me to orchestral excerpts from Wagner. I immediately liked most of it but found the Tristan prelude incomprehensible and boring. After experience listening to more Wagner, and other composers from that period, I began to really enjoy it. At first it was composers from the Romantic period that I listened to most often, but over the years I expanded my listening and developed a greater appreciation for composers from earlier periods, especially the Renaissance and Baroque periods.