Today, a guest lecturer came to give the class a lecture about the 19th century music. We revisited some content that we have actually already learnt in the previous weeks, which was about how the lieder song cycles, soirees, bon bons, which were played mostly by the females. We also found out that most pieces were influenced by vocal music and they usually contribute to melodies in much larger works, like orchestra pieces, which we touched on later. In the time period, we were also told that many revolutions had taken place, where the most prominent one was the industrial revolution that happened through the 19th century. The results of the revolution was also very impactful, which led to a meteoric rise in the middle class, which led to the increase of demand of the piano. As such, companies like Broadwood made a fortune in selling pianos, and even made it to the stock exchange. This was something I did not know, as I only thought that the stock market only existed in recent times, like during the early 20th century.
Another company, Mirrcourt, also produced violins in large numbers, which made music more accessible to people. I was quite surprised at this point as I had always thought that violins are fine-crafted instruments and needed a luthier to carefully make every piece of the instrument by himself. Another fact that I did not know was that the company Novello mass printed sheet music, and therefore made the music much cheaper. This then led to them also making a fortune during its day. I was glad that we finally touched on the sheet music, as we have learnt a lot about composers that created beautiful music, but we were not told about how the music was spread. However, in year 2, we had some discussion about Clementi was also printing music, but was faced with uprising, as the people and composers found out that he edited the music, without their permission. Following this discussion, we went on to listen to Mahler’s second symphony. Before we listened to it, we were told the history of Mahler and his meaning to the term “symphony”, which Mahler said that “a symphony must contain the world, be the world.” This was an eyeopener to me, as I have never thought about a simple term like this can have such meaning and depth, as I have always thought that the term “symphony” was just a name for a type of music. We then went on to listen to it, and I was taken aback. It was very powerful and rich, where the full orchestra was used to bring out the intensity of the music. Prof. Smith even went on to even tell us that this first symphony is so intensive, that there is a 6 min interval before the second movement is played. With such intensity, it is very easy to understand why Mahler said that the symphony should be world. Mahler also added in some surprises, like how Haydn did it in his surprise symphony. In this symphony, the composer holds back the drops before finally putting them out, which really makes the audience sit on the edge of their seats. This creates tension, which is the effect that the composers wants to achieve. We then discussed, how exactly did Mahler achieve such rich sounds with the orchestra. After some time, we came to a consensus that it was the massive use of the brass section and upper woodwinds section to create the effect of having a massive sound. I remembered, that this was only possible as these instruments that were used, were greatly improved upon during the industrial revolution. For example, the trumpet and French horn had better and more valves than before, and had larger tubes that allowed more air to flow through, which thus makes the instruments sound much louder. It was also the same for some woodwind instruments, like the clarinet and the piccolo.
For a brief moment, we also took a step back, to compare the differences of symphonies that were written by Mozart and Handel, and they were relatively “less exciting”, where I mean that the textures are slightly thinner as compared to the 19th Century. I feel that both kinds of symphonies have their own merits, as they are still from different time periods after all.
Another difference was that in the days of Mozart, he played the symphonies that he wrote on the harpsichord or piano, and faced the audience. It was the concertmaster that would have brought in the whole orchestra. However, the symphonies in the 19th Century see the composer standing in front of the orchestra, cue-ing them in. It was also during this time, where choirs and vocalists that were incorporated into these symphonies, and they added a very special effect. During my own research and listening, I also realized that Gustav Holst also used a choir in the piece “Neptune”, as the voice gave a very mystical effect to the end of the piece, as if you are floating out of the solar system.
Next up, we continued to discuss, what exactly is a “good” sound. To some people, the baroque instruments are better sounding, as the materials used in during the time was very soft and had a different texture. This was also propagated with the use of different techniques to create the instrument during the time. The people that like baroque instruments often like the sound created. However, to some of the performer, the modern flute is better, as there are more keys that can allow for more controlled playing, and can reach higher register, due to the lengthening of the instrument (tube length) and addition of more keys. To me, I feel that the both instruments have merit, and it really boils down to what kind of sound you want to create (the soundscape), and the nature of the piece. For example, if the piece is written for baroque instruments or by baroque composers, they should be played with the traverso. My gut feeling is that the correct instrument should be used for the piece in the correct time period, i.e. Baroque – Traverso, Romantic – Modern flute. Ultimately once again, it really depends on what sound you want to create. There is also a fallacy – where people feel that “better” music are the newer music. I feel that new music is not per se “better”, it is a recreation of the past music, but using the new methods, and due to that, they feel that the new music is better than classical music. It is also because that we are now different, as such, many people do not like classical music. In contrast, if pop music was introduced to the people in the 19th century, it may have even caused an uprising, as the people the were different than us now. However, it is not to say that classical music is not popular. For example, Beethoven is one of the most famous composers now, as his music is found almost everywhere nowadays, like in shopping malls, radio stations etc. I feel that classical music is not “dead”, and there is still hope to bring it to the public, in spite of the pop music “revolution”.
Next on, we started to go into more technical details of the music. We went back to a piece that we have analyzed before Petzold’s Minuet in G. Baroque music follows very strict laws, where composers will only modulate to the first 6 scale degrees, which means that you are limited to a few keys, like the 4th and 5th scale degrees. In the case of the piece, the keys that you can modulate to are limited, which are the parallel minor, D major and C major. These are the only keys that you can “correctly” modulate to, at least in the baroque period. This means that there was absolutely no way to modulate to other keys like Ab major or Bb major – just to make an example. The “legal” way of doing such will be to work around the circle of fifths, and go to the “unconventional” key, like Ab major. However, in later works in the 19th century, composers are able to do so, as there is wider usage of chromatic harmony to get to the “unconventional” keys that were previously not possible. I was amazed at this point, as it did not cross my mind that Baroque composers cannot change to other keys outside the main chords.
This was surprising to me as well, as Romantic music flowed very nicely, till the point that I did not notice that these technical ideas and skill were working behind the scenes to make the music possible. We also discussed about how the people in Germany wrote books, to teach the people on how to write a symphony. These were usually the people that could not afford a teacher. I was intrigued at this as I was actually thinking “How does one learn how to write a symphony with a book, where no one can correct their mistakes?”. I felt that without a teacher, the books do not serve too much of a use, as the book cannot answer every single question or problem that the reader had, and it still requires a physical teacher to teach the students. I felt that the book would have served better, if it was used as supplementary material outside class. Subsequently, we learned how composer needed to follow to very strict rules when composing, like how the 2nd subject of the symphony or the sonata must be in the dominant key. However, Beethoven broke these rules, and experimented with more bold chord and key changes, like going to the mediant. Other composers like Liszt and Wagner also did the same, and used mediant relationships between keys to move from one key to another.
Another improvement or advancement on music was to include and illustrate stories into the symphony, like how R. Strauss composed his alpine symphony. He took inspiration from a hike when he was 14, going up the alps. The famous entry of the piece depicted the sunrise, and the whole piece portrayed the view and pictures of the alps. For example, during the climb, he met/saw cows as such, he added cowbells into piece to represent it. When at the top of the alps, the thunderstorm in the distance was also represented by the thunder maker, which was a large metal sheet that was shook, to create the thunder’s “boom” sound. This was later known as “program music”, or “tone poem”.
Finally we, went back to the question of “what is the purpose music”, which we managed to come up with some answers. For example, music is a way of expressing themselves, and also to have an identity. In Australia, people became increasingly more patriotic, and wanted their own identity and voice, thus many composers rose from the country and created pieces that depicted their lives, or sang about their country. We did a little experiment, which I found was very informative. It was about how the music that paints a picture needed context to make sense. For example, 2 of my classmates went out of the room, not knowing the piece or anything about it. Thereafter, Prof. Smith told the rest of the class what the background of the piece were, and how it sounded like. With the background knowledge, I was able to quickly identify how the story was conveyed in the piece. Then, my classmates returned, and they listened to the piece. However, they were not able to say what was the piece about, but only the details that they heard. Therefore, context is very important to music, as without it, music will only sound like many different frequencies accurately placed at the time and played. I feel that the background context allows the listener to fully immerse themselves in the music, and thoroughly enjoy it.
All in all, I really enjoyed the lecture given by Prof. Smith, as it gave me valuable insight to how the 19th century revolutions shape the music created, and how the advancement in technology also benefited the music scene back then. I was able to reflect on the overarching questions, as to how we understand music, which was covered near the end of the lesson. I really hope that I will have another opportunity to attend his class in the near future, as he really inspires me to understand even more about music!