Guide to Enjoying Orchestral Music, Part 2, Baroque

I don’t have anything like expertise on these subjects, all I can share is my own insights and preferences. I see the knowledge of eras and composers as a tool to use to look for more music that you enjoy. I will start with the Baroque era. The only known written music prior to the Baroque era was chants or songs in monastic communities. You may want to look for some examples on youtube just to get an idea if you want to look into it more closely. It has not hit my listening list for decades.

As to the Baroque era, Bach towered over all others, in my opinion, and his music remains vital and powerful over 300 years later. I could characterize his music as the most prominent and early mastery of the system of melodies, harmonies, diatonic keys which represent the Common Practice era and continues to be the basis of popular music today. Within this framework, Bach did a lot with the harmonic relationship among two or more melodic lines, known as counterpoint.

Imagine you are a wealthy German in the 1700s and you attend a Lutheran church with cavernous dimensions that has a pipe organ three stories tall. One day you attend a service and hear Back perform Tocatta and Fugue in D minor on that pipe organ–musically it just doesn’t get any better than that. So, a list of my favorite Bach works.

Tocatta and Fugue in D minor. This work, or excepts from it, are well represented in cinema. I recall Captain Nemo liked to play this on his submarine pipe organ in an old movie I saw. You will likely recognize it. I is constructed in a series of parts which sound distinct to me, but fit in with the framework of the piece. It will doubtless make a good sub-woofer demo of you don’t have Supernatural with Santana… There are also fun performances of it on other instruments; I recall a surprisingly enjoyable harp performance.

Wachet Auf (Sleepers awake). This soothing organ piece was played often in the Lutheran church I attended as a child. Hearing it today reminds me of the peaceful and spiritual feeling I got listening to it back then. One of the videos of a performance show that there is a lot of bass pedal footwork in the performance.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. I really like this one. In 1971, a group called Apollo 100 covered this with a synthesizer performance that charted in 1972. It works with many instruments, mostly done on keyboards.

Two Part Invention number 1. The two and three-part inventions are thought to be written by Bach for his students. I haven’t listened to all of them very much, but for some reason I like the first one. Its not easy to play as written, and its both interesting and discouraging to see videos of 5 year old kids doing a reasonable rendition of it.

Minuet in G major. This would have been performed to support dancing. At one point, I was able to do a passable performance of it on piano. This piece formed the melody of a 1965 hit, Lover’s Concerto, by the Toys, selling over 2 million copies. I really like this song as well.

Moving on from Bach, another popular piece is Pachelbel’s Canon. I imagine most people will recognize having heard it. I think it works especially well with bell choirs.

One towering piece from this era is Handel’s Messiah. Its well loved by many, but I am not among them. It is often performed on a large scale with full symphonies and choirs. Handel is reported to have influenced the classical composers Mozart and Beethoven.

Most of Bach’s work and Pachelbel’s Canon can be well-delivered with performance on a single keyboard. After you have had a chance to digest these works a bit, and decide if you want to more fully explore Baroque music, we will move on to the Classical era where composers created textures with multiple instruments. See you soon…

Guide to Enjoying Orchestral Music. Part 1, The Eras

My son Anthony has expressed an interest in orchestral music and is wondering how one can find the sort of music they will like.

First of all, I used to refer to orchestral music as ‘classical’ music, but I learned that classical is the name of one time period and style of orchestral music. We all know what an orchestra is–a collection of physical instruments played by people. These instruments were available, to some degree, for hundreds of years and allowed audiences to listen to richly textured music.

I used to think this music was really complicated. It turns out, it is not complex from the perspective of music theory. The most complex chords are typically triads, major or minor, with melodic elements added on. The music used the same elements we are used to hearing in popular music. It is a system of scales, keys, and chords referred to as the Common Practice Period.

The common practice period is thought of as going from 1650 to 1900. After 1900, composers tried to break free of traditional concepts of harmony, the result being music that is intellectually interesting to some, but regrettably, very few want to listen to it. This shows that the harmonic and melodic norms of the common practice era still reflect what most people enjoy hearing in music.

The common practice period is divided into eras that reflected musical norms or styles common to that era. These eras or periods are:

Baroque 1600-1750. Famous composers include Pachelbel, Bach, and Handel.

Classical 1750-1820. Famous composers include Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Beethoven is considered a transitional composer as he started firmly in the classical tradition and evolved his style to the extent that later works strained the boundaries of the classical tradition and utilizing the freer form and passion of the Romantic era.

Romantic 1820-1900. Famous composers include Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Brahms, Debussy, Strauss, Berlioz (Wrote influential Treatise on Instrumentation), Bizet, Mahler, Mussogorsky, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. As I write this list, I see that the Romantic era provided most of the beloved orchestral works that are still popular today.

20th Century/Modern. As I said, I don’t generally like orchestral music of this era, but some of my favorite works fall in this era. So, I will mention Stravinsky, and Copeland.