By Jacob Benson and Jonathan Wiersema
Ask any teen who Drake or Katy Perry is and they will surely think you are joking. Ask any teen who Debussy is and they will probably think you are making some lewd remark. But mention Mozart or Beethoven and the connection is immediately made. Yet this connection is, more likely than not, a negative one. Classical music? That’s the stuff old people listen to. Stigmatized as some antiquated art form, it is condemned to oblivion, drowned out by the monotony that permeates the radio. This unfortunate effect is based on flawed perception. Classical music might be old, but it has also transcended centuries. The same notes that echoed throughout the imperial courts of 18th century Europe make their way into the symphony halls of today. Moreover, the same notes that derive from the virtuosos of Carnegie Hall are pieced together by the young student struggling to tune his or her violin.
In light of National Classical Music month, we make a modest attempt at ridding the fallacious perception classical music holds in hopes of revealing its true beauty.
Below we have listed a small list of songs to kick start your dive into classical music. Further down we have offered some in-depth analysis of some of our favorites.
Yes, this is, in fact, a cover of Kanye’s “Stronger,” but just because the musicians don’t say anything doesn’t mean the music lacks meaning. While Kanye expresses his bravado and lust as he raps over techno beats, this composition’s take on “Stronger” has a more wholesome feel to it. The piece embodies strength and determination on a level untouched by Kanye. Time for Three’s rendition is about anyone who wishes to be stronger, whereas Kanye’s song is about Kanye. For most people, terms like tempo, dynamic, and pitch don’t mean much. But when it comes to classical music, those three elements are combined into an unspoken language of meaning. For example, a slow tempo and soft dynamic played in a flat key will make the music sound sad like in the beginning of the piece. But then the tempo picks up and Kanye’s “Stronger” theme comes out in the music. Even without words, the music is uplifting and one can feel the spirit rising. Throughout the piece there are different sections with various combinations of dynamic and tempo that set the mood of the piece and capture its message. But the ending most of all is what really portrays strength and determination. It starts out simple, slowly but surely building in speed, complexity, and dynamic until the piece ends with a climactic finish. Such music doesn’t need words to explain its meaning because the meaning is in the music. All you have to do is listen for it and it will be there.
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is considered by some to be one of the most boring pieces of classical music ever written. However, that belief can easily be dispelled when actually listening to the piece for its intricacies and patterns. Even though such intricacies and patterns aren’t part of modern music, it shouldn’t discourage any first time classical listener from trying to identify them. The first movement of the sonata has a very simple pattern: the piece is taken three notes at a time with an emphasis on the first and third note. When one listens for the three note pattern, the music is much easier to break down. The three note pattern, for the most part, is just the background to the true melody of the music. This melody might be one or two notes for every triplet of background notes, but it is still a melody nonetheless. Now that we’ve broken the piece into its two simpler parts, the intricacies are easier to identify. One of these intricacies can be found in the key changes that occur throughout the piece. Although the piece is mostly written in c# minor, meaning a sadder and more dissonant sound, it contains glimpses of major keys as well to break the sadness with a bit of playfulness. Besides that, one of my personal favorite aspects of the piece is its predictability. Being able to predict what will happen next in classical music is a very much plausible, but by no means small, feat. It is, for most, a skill acquired through practice and extensive musical knowledge. However, in the Moonlight Sonata, the three note background and overall feel of the piece allow the listener to easily identify the direction the music will take, be it faster or slower or a key change or maybe a leading chord. And also by attempting to predict the movement of the music the listener hears things, maybe without understanding them, that they wouldn’t hear and identify as a pattern otherwise. Because of that, the Moonlight Sonata is more than just a piece of music, but also a game that takes the player deep within themselves to a level of understanding that the player could never have achieved without playing the game.
Classical music is almost exclusively associated with the European greats. Yes, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and company reign supreme when it comes to the realm of classical music, but it is worth noting that our very own United States has produced some of the most acclaimed figures in the genre. There is no better example of the United States’ contribution to classical music than Aaron Copland. Copland grew up in Brooklyn, New York, but received his formal musical schooling in France. The 1940’s saw Copland’s most successful years, in which Appalachian Spring was written. In 1945, Copland was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for this piece. Over seventy years later, the beauty in the composition still remains evident. The piece begins quite slowly with the string and wind adagio, as if to represent the early morning sun waking up the world. Then suddenly a burst of strings breaks the sleepy feel of the beginning. The piece then continues to alternate between slow and swift sections, culminating with a distinct sound of quick and lively notes. Here the melody is borrowed from a traditional Shaker folk song, “Simple Gifts.” Overall Appalachian Spring creates an ideal image of America filled with hope and determination. If the settlers that made the trek across the Great Plains had a soundtrack, this would undoubtedly be the first song on the list. Even if you’re not on the Oregon Trail, this piece will prove a delight to listen to.
What starts off with an eerie, faintly heard, sound, gradually gets louder, transitioning to be louder but only slightly more uplifting, still with a strange feel to it. Right when things seem to be going so well, the idyllic image evoked by the blissful music is shattered by the abrupt thunder of the orchestra. In the second movement, a waltz-like structure creates a lively mood, making way for the dynamic march of the third movement. Yet this march seems to be taking the audience somewhere dark and dreary as the fourth movement is introduced. Here Tchaikovsky returns to the adagio tempo heard at the beginning of the piece. Towards the end, a solemn collection of strings is heard, almost like a cry for help with the last breath. Progressively the orchestra gets softer and softer; yet this time there is no booming intervention to bring the piece back to life. It is over. Silence. The very last piece Tchaikovsky ever composed is not only filled with passion (the piece’s Russian name is Патетическая, Pateticheskaya, meaning passionate) but also mystery. Several days after the first performance, Tchaikovsky fell ill and died. Many believe that he planned his death, knowing that this symphony would be his swansong. Tchaikovsky leads listeners across the whole gamut of human emotion. The uncertainty and joy of life in the first movement. Happiness and pleasure in the second. Confidence and pride in the third. But all of this ultimately comes crashing down in the fourth as desperation and sorrow manifest. The notes that linger into silence present a heartbeat, slowly coming to its eternal end. While not the most uplifting of pieces, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony will conjure emotions that you probably forget you had.