Sandy Burnett on why knowing a bit of classical music history increases the listening pleasure
Although I’ve been a professional musician and broadcaster for all of my adult life, most of my friends are Normal People who live in the Real World. It was after having several conversations with them that I decided I had to put together my Introduction to Classical Music course for the Idler Academy. The objective here is to present the history of classical music in a way which would resonate with people who are engaged with the other art forms – reading novels, discussing architecture, lockdown-bingeing on box sets – but for whom classical music is terra incognita. As someone who’s always up for a challenge, I’ve set my sights on 1,000 years of classical music, taking us from the Medieval and Renaissance periods through Baroque, Classical, Romantic and the 20th century, right up to what’s happening in classical music today.
People quite often say to me: “I listen to classical music to switch off; I don’t need to know anything about it.” That’s fair enough, and in a way I don’t blame them. But great classical music engages the head as much as the heart, and a little knowledge of context or makeup can greatly add to the emotional understanding of a piece. The Sanctus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s B minor Mass (1749) is a great example of this. At first hearing it’s a thrilling and majestic experience. But if we dig a little deeper, and find out that the number three permeates so much of the makeup of the music – it’s scored for three trumpets, three oboes, six voices and so on, and the number three dances around endlessly in the figurations of the voice parts – and realising that the threes are intimately connected with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, then our response to the music is so much deeper and richer. Listen to it here.
Another example is the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Klavier (1722), also by JS Bach. It shows the opposite side of the composer: someone who loved the simple craft of composition, and had an almost geeky obsession with placing one note against another to create a wonderful piece of music out of limited means. This piece is entirely built on one repeated pattern: a spread-out chord, or arpeggio. There’s no melody, or rhythm, or even notated speed markings or indications of how loud or soft the music should be; all we have is that pattern, which gradually shifts across the tonal spectrum – creating tensions, resolving them, moving away from the home key and eventually returning to it. Two minutes later, Bach has exhausted all of the possibilities of this kernel of an idea. Musically, there’s nothing more to be said – which makes it for me a perfect little piece of music. Listen to it here.
Perfection though isn’t always the point of music; sometimes rough edges, violence and fragmentation are important too – the anti-classical side of classical music. Take Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps – the Rite of Spring (1913). It’s full of disorientating twists and turns, newly minted chords and cliff-hanger endings. The aesthetic might be different, but Stravinsky still puts the music together with incredible care and precision. It’s just a different kind of masterpiece. Listen to it here.