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Feb. 15 2012

It’s got a good tune!

By Reed Hessler | Posted in Host Blogs | 4 Comments

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has told me “I don’t know much about classical music, but…” I want to give them a hug and say “That’s okay! That’s okay! Nobody minds!” Mozart famously wrote about his piano concertos, “There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why. .” Even in Mozart’s day, not to mention Bach’s or Beethoven’s, most listeners “did not know much about classical music.”

When I first became passionate about studying classical music in the 1970’s, the mother of one of my college friends said it seemed to her that the great composers were only great now and then. From time to time they would give you a great melody, but the rest of the time they were just noodling around. I silently chuckled at her ignorance, the same middle brow taste that promulgated collections of “101 Great Classical Melodies” in my childhood, three minute snippets from the great masterworks, each containing the “good tune”. Of course, it was the “noodling around” that made these composers great, as my exploration of sonata form and thematic development had revealed to me.

Just recently I received a communication from a listener through one of our social networks (I forget which one) who conjectured, with evident embarrassment at the possibility of sounding stupid (“Please don’t cancel my membership”, she endearingly joked), whether we would consider David Bowie and the Rolling Stones classical music today if their songs had been written for an orchestra.

Now, I am a diehard populist. The Beatles are among my favorite composers. I honestly believe the popular music of the twentieth century will still be remembered a century from now. But there really is a difference between a pop song and classical music. Yes, all classical music has roots in popular song. And some popular songs are high art. (Brian Wilson’s “Smile” album, anyone?) This discussion could go on for pages, pitting the simplicity of a Strauss polka (ostensibly classical) against the complex layering of sound in modern production studio techniques beginning with the Beatles, or the sophisticated harmonies and shifting meters in the songs of Joni Mitchell. And I still think that song lyrics from Bob Dylan and his followers are greater poetry than the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century (Sorry, but I still don’t get Goethe. Wasn’t the Faust legend already dated by 1800?).

But classical music is, by the rules of its game, more ambitious music than most popular songs. The goal is to capture your interest with a memorable melody, and then carry you through sequences, carefully structured, that expand upon that melody and its emotional and intellectual potential. Ten minutes later, when the movement concludes, you have been on a journey, which may continue for four movements. This is as great as music ever gets.

And let me expand the playing field before I continue. I would include in my definition of “classical” all the other “classical music” of the world, including American jazz, Indian raga, Balanese gamelan, Chinese opera, and any other musical form that expands its thoughts beyond the three minute popular song.

All of this brings me back to the “101 Great Classical Melodies”, however. As years go by, I have heard countless minor classical composers. Some of them are amazing (Kalinnikov’s Symphony No. 1, in my view, should be a standard). Some are engaging if not great (I still can’t hum any tunes by Niels Gade). Max Reger was harmonically adventurous, but his music remains a sidebar to the classical repertoire. So what is it that makes the great composers great? I find  I cannot deny that, in addition to their many other marks of genius, the great composers all could write a good tune. Perhaps my college friend’s mother was not so far off the mark after all.

Brahms is a great example. He was regarded as the greatest expert on classical music theory (harmony, counterpoint, and form) in the late nineteenth century.  He was the first composer to apply his study of all music history to his own compositions; not only the classical and Baroque styles, but the choral polyphony of the Renaissance. Arnold Schoenberg argues that he was also an experimental modernist. There’s a reason Brahms is one of the “Three B’s”. But his greatest works are still the ones with the best tunes. Take for example his Piano Quintet in F minor, which opens with an incredibly gripping melody. Of course, Brahms expands on that melody with a rhythmic outburst before repeating it in a louder, even more gripping setting. Then the rest of the movement displays his harmonic, countrapuntal, and formal genius, and no it is not just “noodling around”, but the exploration of the potential, and expansion of the power of that remarkable opening theme. In contrast, Brahms three string quartets, while complex and fascinating works, never quite achieve the power of the Piano Quintet because of their lackluster thematic material.

For years conventional wisdom has had it that Beethoven could not write a good tune, but achieved greatness through the way he developed his mundane motifs. I might argue that Beethoven’s output is full of unforgettable melodies, from his early “Fur Elise”, and the second movement of his Piano Sonata No. 8 “Pathetique” (well known to classical radio listeners as the theme to “Adventures in Good Music”,  hosted by the late Karl Haas), to the “Benedictus” movement of his “Missa Solemnis”. But there is some truth to the view that Beethoven’s genius was one of developing ideas instead of writing beautiful tunes. The world famous four note motif that begins the Fifth Symphony was actually used by earlier composers. Mozart uses it quite effectively in his Piano Concerto No. 25. The power of Beethoven’s setting of those four notes is such that just hearing them alone can be enough to set the heart racing (in World War II, they were used to represent the morse code letter “V” for victory). But it is what comes after these four notes that makes them part of perhaps the most famous piece of classical music in history. The “tune” in this case becomes the entire movement, bound together by the four notes. Even the popular disco version from the 1970’s, “A Fifth of Beethoven” quotes more than just the four notes before settling into a repetitious rhythmic groove.

And then there’s Tchaikovsky. His melodies are so beautiful that many listeners, unless ravished by their loveliness, have viewed them as an artistic failing, especially when they were adapted into popular songs in the twentieth century. How can you “develop” a theme that is already perfect? Isn’t such prettiness somehow unbecoming a true artist. One scholar, a couple of decades back, actually dared to suggest that Tchaikovsky had innovated a new classical form in which a theme need not be developed but can stand on its own through its melodic beauty and the colors of its orchestration. The fact is, Tchaikovsky was still writing in sonata form, using the same harmonic and contrapuntal techniques that Brahms had studied, but, yes, putting a greater emphasis on melody and orchestration. And he still manages to write a symphony that clocks in at three quarters of an hour without boring us or insulting our intelligence. I do not tire of the musical journey he takes me on. I think that’s a great composer.

Reed Hessler


Reed is WBJC's evening host. His full bio can be read here.

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