If classical music remains an intriguing enigma to you, you might be interested in musician and broadcaster Sandy Burnett‘s online course
Although I’ve been a professional musician and broadcaster for all of my adult life, and have therefore existed in a delightful bubble, most of my friends are normal people who live in the real world. It was after having several conversations with them that I put together my online Introduction to Classical Music course for the Idler Academy. My idea was 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, going to films, discussing architecture, and so on, but for whom classical music remains an intriguing enigma. Rather than moving from great composer to great composer, I go from era to era – this six-part course covers a thousand years of classical music, taking us from the Medieval and Renaissance periods through Baroque, Classical, Romantic and the twentieth-century, right up to what’s happening in classical music today. I talk about the main developments and roles of music in each case, before homing in on one particular work and discussing it in detail.
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 of music. 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 become so much deeper and richer.
Another Bach example is the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Klavier (1722). 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.
Perfection though isn’t always the point of music; sometimes it’s full of rough edges, violence and fragmentation, with disorder instead of order – this is 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 is different, but Stravinsky still puts the music together with incredible care and precision. It’s just a different kind of masterpiece.