Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven; turgid, trite and clumsy - On learning about classical music

When I was a child, it seemed to me that classical music was all the same. It also seemed that adults who liked classical music liked it all.

So when I decided to try and appreciate classical music, in one sense I did not know where to start; in another sense I thought it did not matter.

But when I did start, I began with tackling The Great Composers. Luckily, the nearby city of Bristol had an LP library; so I began borrowing a couple of discs a week - also listening to the classical music channel on the radio (BBC Radio 3).

I soon found that I had strong preferences - not just between musical eras (I liked best the baroque and classical) but between the works of a specific composer. Indeed, I found that even the Great composers, the ones whom I fully agreed were Great, wrote a lot of dud and dull music... some more than others.

But when they wrote 'bad' stuff, the Great Composers exhibited different kinds of badness.


When JS Bach is bad, and because he wrote such a lot - a lot of it is bad, especially the vocal music for church performance; he is worthy, dull and constipated. He desperately needs an enema. When inspiration flags in the day-to-day chore of composition, Bach grinds-out the music with technical correctness and zero inspiration.

(A friend, who was one of the most musical people I have ever met - and who later worked as a BBC Radio 3 producer, used to opine that most of Bach needed 'a drum kit' to enliven it - and would start miming a driving rhythm during what he termed the 'turgid' passages.)

But genius is all of-a-piece; and the greatness of Bach (in strictly musical terms, the supreme greatness) is a product of that same earnestness and attention to detail which leads to the turgidity of many uninspired cantatas and fugues.  


Mozart is never as dull as Bach at his most constipated; but much or Mozart, indeed most of Mozart - essentially everything he wrote in his childhood, youth and early years - is trite: merely decorative patterning, which because it lacks the complexity of Bach, sometimes seem like be a maddening waste of time.

Bach may be crushingly boring; Mozart is always superficially-charming but often feels like being stuffed with chocolates.

But the very greatest works of Mozart have exactly that easy-listening simplicity which makes his lesser output seem such a trivial timewaste - when Mozart touches the heights (and nobody touches higher) the effects come from something indefinable but transcendentally beautiful that is added to, or infuses, something close to bathos...

...Well, I don't need to say more, because the essence of the genius of Mozart was perfectly captured in this scene from the movie Amadeus, written by Peter Shaffer:


By the way, this piece excerpted is the Serenade for 13 wind instruments in B flat major K 361 - and is one of the very best - and most Mozartian - things Mozart ever did.


Beethoven was a man at his best when striving; a composer of strength, energy; we seem to feel him grappling the material into shape, and triumph at his triumphs against the odds.

There are a few places where Beethoven successfully produces relaxed, unstressed music (such as the really lovely, but uncharacteristic, Pastoral Symphony); but it is part of Beethoven's struggle that on the one hand he sometimes fails to win.

And then Beethoven just comes across as clumsy - and exhibits technical failures, ugliness, clunkiness in a way never seen in Bach or Mozart.

This is the case in many of Beethoven's attempts at writing fugues; and most obviously in much of the Ninth 'Choral' symphony, where there or examples of horribly big holes in the orchestration, abrupt gear changes, and sustained howling required from the chorus which is extremely wearing. The Hammerklavier piano sonata is similar. He was trying so very hard to be great, that it shows.

And some of Beethoven's 'light music', done as commissions and not from inner need - are like an elephant trying to dance a ballet.

His variations on God save the Queen I recall as excruciating (and never listened again) - it was a task (probably not worth doing) calling for lightness of touch and fluency - Mozartian charm - but in trying to make something significant out of fluff, Beethoven becomes embarrassing - something Bach and Mozart never are.

But then, Beethoven's courage in over-reaching and trying so obviously hard, made his work the main fulcrum of the classical tradition - his work changed the direction of  music and created wholly new possibilities and range in the symphony, the concerto, the sonata, even in opera. Composers lived-off Beethoven for a century, and when this impulse became exhausted, the classical tradition declined and (all but) died.

For this reason, many would regard Beethoven - for all his adolescent oafishness and buffoonery, indeed because of it - as the greatest of them all.