Term Paper: Music the Men Behind

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Music

The Men behind the Music:

How Environment Shaped the Work of the Great Composers

No man is an island" - so goes the old saying. It is equally true of music as of so many other aspects of the human experience. Just turn on the radio and listen. What you hear today is not likely to have been the same as what you heard ten or twenty years ago, or what you will be likely to hear ten or twenty years hence. The anti-war ballads of the 1960s were shaped by the effects of the Vietnam War. The electronic rhythms of the 1970s were musical reflections of a world of discos and lounge lizards.

By the same token, the harmonious and balanced compositions of the latter part of the Eighteenth Century gave audible form to the rational schemes of the philisophes. Each great change in musical tastes can be traced back to corresponding developments in society and civilization. The Classical Music of the West, therefore, breaks down into a handful of major periods. The Baroque found its expression in the polyphonic compositions of a Bach, the Classical in the mathematical precision of a Mozart, the Romantic in the highly-charged works of Tchaikovsky, and so on, and so on. The music of every composer is shaped by the world in which he lived.

The works of Bach and Handel belong firmly in the Baroque era. The late Seventeenth, and Early Eighteenth, Centuries were, in Europe, the heyday of the grand, absolute monarchies. Europe's kings and princes ruled mostly by Divine Right. J.S. Bach's Cantata No. 140, "Wachet Auf," encapsulates the importance of religion at the time. "Wake up," the listener is exhorted. It is as if to say that one merely need be alive to understand the eternal truths i.e. The power of God, and the power of princes, are inextricably linked. Georg Friedrich Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" is intimately associated with a particular tale - England's King stood when he first heard those words. It is all very appropriate, an Earthly king reverencing a composition that pays homage to the one-and-only Heavenly King. Baroque Music is the ultimate expression of the idea of a single, unified world, that is however, composed of many variant parts.

A music of constant change of harmonic reference is accommodated in baroque architecture, whose curved surfaces and disturbed symmetries are acoustically adapted to varying harmonies. We therefore discern a connection... [with] the spatial rhetoric of the great baroque palaces.

(Maconie, 1997, p. 177)

Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven belong to a rather different era. As the Eighteenth Century wore on, the excesses of the Baroque began to disappear in a quest for simplicity and naturalism. Artists and architects looked back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Much of the music of this period is mathematically extremely precise and orderly. Still, the Eighteenth Century notion of an order, well-regulated world is reflected in the increasing preference for all-encompassing works. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the music for Don Giovanni, an opera that combined within it virtually all of the known arts. The story's secular theme also speaks to an era that was no longer overly religious, and in fact given to some amount of frivolity. Yet, the careful melodies call to mind a still hierarchical, and unchanging, society. Haydn wrote many compositions for his princely patron. Among the most famous is his Surprise Symphony, the very name of which reveals the playfulness of life in the small German courts. Haydn wrote for an aristocratic audience, in a Europe that was still almost completely dominated by a centuries-old nobility. While the strongly cerebral quality of Beethoven's earlier works, such as the Fifth Symphony, demonstrates the often rarified tastes of this highly-stratified world. The custom of numbering instrumental compositions, rather than giving to them some sort of meaningfully descriptive title, reflects the absolute quality that was sought by composers of the period. Beethoven did not wish to hint at anything that might influence his listeners' appreciation of his music. Classical music stands on its own - a piece is only associated with other arts if it is the composer's wish that it should be so. Thus, Mozart can write instrumental pieces for operas, while Beethoven can compose works that are "complete worlds" in and of themselves.

Therefore, it is interesting that Hayden, Mozart, and Beethoven also represent the very beginnings of a new trend in music - the age of the Romantics.

Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who were universally regarded as the first musical Romantics by the generation (that of E.T.A. Hoffmann) who defined the Romantic aesthetic, the very same generation that first had the notion of "absolute" music.

(Taruskin, 1995, p. 224)

Romanticism differed from the earlier periods because of its appeal to raw emotion. This is not to say that the works of Bach and Hayden are devoid of human feeling. Rather, it is a different kind of emotional response that is being elicited. In a sense the compositions of the Romantic Era ask the listener to suspend reason, and to listen only with the heart. The Nineteenth Century was a time of great change in Europe. The early years of the century had seen the Old Order torn to bits, and a new, and much more completely secular order take its place. Governments now commanded loyalty not on the basis of their leaders' closeness to God, but on the extent to which these leaders tended to embody, or represent, the "national spirit." Wagner's Ring could never be fully understood outside the context of a rampant German nationalism. The newly unified German Empire wanted to demonstrate that it had arisen out of a proud and ancient past. The fact that the Ring is based on old Teutonic Legends is indicative of the extent to which Wagner himself had become enmeshed in the supposedly primal lore of his people - it is Wotan and not Jupiter who occupies center stage. The prominence given to non-Classical legend represents a major break with the Europe of the previous four centuries.

Hector Berlioz made much of the idee fixe. This particular technique allowed the composer to represent a figure, or idea, by means of a specific theme. This theme could then be transformed as needed throughout the course of the "story" that was being told by the piece. Tchaikovsky too, was powerfully impressed by the "story" of his own people. The power of the 1812 Overture is such that the listener actually feels as if he is present at the apocalyptic encounter between Napoleon and the Tsar. A clever use of themes identifies both French and Russian. The overall story of the work is patriotic, but with reference to much more recent events than those referenced by Wagner in his paean to the German people. The emotion and the sweep of both Wagner's and Tchaikovsky's work is impossible to ignore. Both composers make frequent use of cycle of a sort that serve as the foundation of an opera or ballet - a complete performance that engages all of the emotions.

Yet there was more to the Nineteenth Century than simply the patriotic stories of the past. The Industrial Revolution, the Train, and the Telegraph were creating a whole new world, one that was "smaller" and more "innovative" than ever before. Schubert composed for the piano, becoming one of its first virtuosi. The piano was a new instrument in the Nineteenth Century, a technical marvel that represented the marriage of art, music, and science. Stravinsky and Bartok continued the trend toward innovation. The two men led the way into the Twentieth Century - an age that would be more progressive - as well as destructive - than any other before it. The high rate of technological change, the Great War, and the expansion of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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