|About this Recording
NA236812 - HENLEY, D: Famous Composers (Alsop, USA) (Unabridged)
These six famous composers wrote ‘classical music’. But what is ‘classical music’?
Generally, the term today refers to older music, different from pop or jazz. Sometimes ‘classical music’ describes what is considered to be ‘serious music’, though that is often nonsense because some of the best-known pieces of classical music—like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Bach’s ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos, or Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik—are not ‘serious’ at all: they’re light-hearted and fun. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven did write a lot of serious music, but not all the time. They had a sense of humour too!
For the people who lived at the same time as these composers, this ‘classical music’ was simply music which was ‘composed’ in a careful and planned way, and written down. When Bach, Mozart and Beethoven lived, there were pop singers and entertainers who sang and played popular songs, just as we have pop bands now; sometimes these entertainers even took some of Mozart’s best opera tunes and made popular hits of them. But there was a difference even then between the popular music and the composed music.
The same is true of music in the 21st century. There is classical music, modern classical music, popular music, world music—and many other labels, including film music. In the end, the label on the box doesn’t matter: it is music.
As you listen to the music on this recording, from Vivaldi in the early 18th century to Shostakovich in the 20th, you will notice how much it changes in its sound and character. Music changes as the centuries change. Vivaldi’s concerto Spring from The Four Seasons sounds totally different from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, written some 200 years later. Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 has a completely different character from Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’.
You may say that this is hardly surprising: after all, times change. And you would be right, for music always reflects the time in which it is written and the people it is written for—and, of course, the person (the composer) who is writing it! These six composers had very different personalities.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) was clearly an extrovert, lively personality who simply wouldn’t allow himself to be limited by being a priest! Music poured out of him quite naturally, and he made the most of every opportunity he had to ensure that his music was played—even if he had to bend the rules a bit, or encourage all the girls in a school to play his latest compositions!
J.S. Bach (1685–1750). Music was clearly in the soul of J.S. Bach—but so was his acceptance of the ordered society in which he lived, meaning that everything, including him, had its proper place and rank. If you read the letters he wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg (for whom he wrote his excellent ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos) you might be surprised at their humble tone.
This is from one of the greatest composers who ever lived, to a man who, in history, was not important at all! The Margrave, in his turn, regarded Bach as a mere servant and would expect him to eat with servants in the kitchen, not in the dining room. And Bach himself would have accepted this, even though his unique genius poured out of him each day that he played his organ or sat writing his music at top speed—which was most days!
Mozart (1756–1791) was born only five years after Bach had died, but times were changing fast and his music is quite different. His talent shone out of him even when he was a little boy. He began learning at the age of four how to write music and play the keyboard, and he was so astonishing that he was soon taken by his father all over the world to show off what he could do. He wrote a huge amount of wonderful music in his life, but unfortunately he was a bit careless with his money and died not only very young (aged 35) but very poor as well.
Beethoven (1770–1827) was a totally different kind of man. He knew he was someone special. He demanded that important people—princes and dukes and counts—took him seriously as a creative musician, and they did. Beethoven was writing at a time when society was beginning to change: people were starting to question whether it was right that kings and princes should be at the top and ordinary working people below. The French Revolution in 1789 sparked changes all over Europe. An individual with talent started to be recognised as worthy in his or her own right, whether rich or poor. It didn’t matter who your father was: talent was enough to catapult you out of the servants’ quarters.
Listen to Beethoven’s music, remembering the music of Bach or Mozart: you can hear the difference. Bach’s and Mozart’s music is neat and orderly. But Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, his opera Fidelio and his Symphony No. 9 have a new boldness. Beethoven is saying: ‘Listen—you can make your own destiny’. And this is exactly what happened, from the 19th century onwards.
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) came from a simple butcher’s family in Bohemia, but his natural talent took him all the way to America. Music was becoming international: Dvořák might have been a simple Bohemian from Europe, but his music spoke (still speaks!) to millions on both sides of the Atlantic. The rapid changes in society helped the talented Dvořák to become successful.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) encountered very different problems because of huge changes in his native Russia in the 20th century. Communism turned Russia into the Soviet Union, where it was expected that even artists had to do what they were told. It was a backward step. Where was the freedom of the artist that Beethoven had fought for? Suddenly, Shostakovich and other Russians like him were told how to write music by men who only wanted to control society. Somehow, the genius of Shostakovich slipped past these controls—though it took courage! These difficult times are reflected in Shostakovich’s music: listening to it, you can gain some idea of the journey that he travelled to find his artistic freedom.
Through the music of these composers—this ‘classical music’—you can begin to get an idea of what it was like to live in the time of Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák and Shostakovich. It helps to build a complete picture, in which you can see what they wore, the kind of houses they lived in, the kind of lives they led: when they wore wigs and a frock coat; when the trains started criss-crossing Europe; when the sound of harpsichords was taken over by the sound of the piano; when small orchestras gave way to big orchestras.
The musical pieces by these composers are like snapshots in time, but they still seem as fresh and thrilling as when they were first played. That is the mystery of music and the genius of our ‘Famous Composers’.
Notes by Nicolas Soames
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