Is it Classical or Baroque?

I’m wrapping up Beethoven #2 at the moment. The “Choral Fantasy” was round one, and the Missa Solemnis is round three. I’m still not a Beethoven fan in terms of his vocal compositions, although some of his earlier masses are nice. He tends to park vocalists up at the top of our range and then come back later. Even the tenors have been muttering darkly about “was he writing for castrati?”

One of the other challenges with Beethoven, for vocalist and instrumentalist, is that we think of him as Romantic but he’s not. In some ways he prefigures the Romantic movement (Brahms) but he’s actually a classical composer, and has to be treated in that way to get an accurate sound. If you sing his music as Romantic, it’s not being true to what he intended.

This is why his volume changes are… abrupt. You get eight or ten fast beats to go from very, very quiet to top of the dial loud. Classical music (Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn) tends to do that. The long, slow building tension and passion of Romantic isn’t there yet, even though modern performers sometimes default to that style. As someone said, Beethoven didn’t have a modern piano. Mozart certainly didn’t. The piano really “makes” Romantic style in some ways.

So singers, and instrumentalists, have to change volume and intonation almost instantly. This is a very good way to hurt yourself. Beethoven seems to inspire choirs to scream or bark rather than singing. You need to be loud and to cut over the orchestra. The temptation is to let your voice slide back in your throat, and to force loud sounds. That way leads to disaster, and actually makes your voice fade into the orchestra. Only proper, forward technique and good tone quality gets through.

What was interesting was the looks of comprehension vs. confusion when the orchestra conductor said, “Remember, Beethoven is a Classical composer, not Romantic. We have to perform him as Classical or it doesn’t work properly.” Those of us who grew up with some music history knew what was meant. The younger folks looked puzzled.

Classical today is not used to refer to a specific time period and style. It means orchestral and choral music that’s not rock, jazz, New Age, R&B, hip-hop, country, or gospel. So we have modern classical composers (John Williams could be considered one, and is) and 18th-19th century Classical composers, who come before the Romantics and after baroque.

Classical music is not as linear as Baroque, and has more variation in tempo and intensity written into each part. However, it is also not focused on emotion and “sound painting” the way the Romantics would be. Again, this has in part to do with who was paying for the music, and what instruments were available. The harpsichord has one volume setting. Other instruments, and human voices, could do more, but not all the instruments were the same then as now. In 1750, trumpets did not have valves, and were more limited in what they could do. By 1820, we have close to modern trumpets. Likewise violins and some of the other stringed instruments. Technology contributed to the options available. However, style takes longer to change than does technology.

So, back to Beethoven. He straddles two compositional eras. He began as very much Classical, like Mozart and Haydn. His early masses and compositions are Classical. Then he went his own way, and became Beethoven. In some ways he just “was,” a musical odd-ball.


11 thoughts on “Is it Classical or Baroque?

  1. “… and if it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it.”

    Just shoot the carp now. Taking one for the team 🙂

    I’ve seen and heard a lot of Beethoven, including a tier 1 orchestra and chorus have fits with “Missa Solemnis”, conducted by Sir Jeffrey Tate. The performance was really good, but you could see some of the tension from coming in/going out at full power. That was 16 or so rows back. More power to your group for taking it on.

  2. “Classical today is not used to refer to a specific time period and style” OK, some people may buy that, but not those of us who like Music.
    One of my definitions of “classical music” is “music performed on instruments that don’t plug in”.
    But baroque, classical, romantic, modern are still pretty well defined.

    My co-worker friend, who grew up Down South, said of Beethoven that he’d be going along all nice and quiet, then, when you weren’t looking, the whole orchestra would blare out. But then Haydn did that somewhat before, with the “Surprise” symphony.
    The “Pastoral” is certainly one of anybody’s best – especially if you’re hearing it while watching “Fantasia”.
    Choirs – and soloists – never “scream”. Anybody who did that would be sent back to the minors.
    I just realized, on reading you post again, that you must be a singer – so I’ll defer to your judgement on those matters.

    • Singer and organist. I should have been clearer that I was referring to popular understandings and categorizations. There are some rather odd things that Amazon and others list as “classical” music, including albums by Audiomachine and Thomas Bergerson. Bergerson’s is a short symphony, but Audiomachine’s is Epic Music and includes electronic instruments.

      Alas, it is far too easy to drop out of proper “head tone,” when you feel your voice resonating toward the front of the soft palate, and to try to get volume by forcing sound through the back of the throat. That’s “screaming” in the choral sense, and it sounds as bad as it feels. But it is easy if the singer is not 1. properly trained and/or 2. not paying attention. (Head tone is different from men’s falsetto.)

      • Singing is one of the mysteries I can’t fathom. People with perfectly ordinary voices sing beautifully: Pavarotti, Renee Fleming &c. Not exactly ‘ordinary’, but not significantly different, and when I hear them in interviews, I wouldn’t think they’re a singer. All I can figure out is that it’s a different set of muscles &c that go into singing.
        Then there’s the counter-tenor (and Peter Schickele’s ‘bargain counter tenor’). I have to ask “Yeah, but why?” Maybe it’s a carryover from the castrati.

        • Yes, you’re totally using a different voice when you sing, particularly when you’re going into the higher notes. A person’s speaking voice in no way indicates the extent of their range or even what part they sing. I have a deeper female speaking voice (getting into Lauren Bacall/Kathleen Turner territory) and my range can go from higher tenor to mezzo-soprano.

          However, I have yet to hear a person with a grating, annoying speaking voice (particularly tinny, high-pitched ones) who have a nice singing voice. The joke about Jim Nabors talking like a hick but singing like a wonderful opera singer is a bit of a joke–his regular speaking voice wasn’t really like that.

    • Switched-on Bach bent the no-plugs definition, though Walter/Wendy Carlos admitted the early efforts were lacking a lot. FWIW, his/her Digital Moonscapes seems to be in the serious music category. Taking a very wild guess, I’d place the style of the pieces as very late Romantic.

      Full modern might be Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air”. My computer’s optical drive refuses to recognize my Einstein on the Beach CD. Full points to Dell for taste. I wasn’t familiar with the piece, tried it years ago and half forgot about it. Didn’t quite wall the set but I’m not heartbroken about it not playing. 🙂

      • I still have the ‘Switched-on Bach’ records. You can play Bach on just about anything – I heard some played on Peruvian flutes.

        I like Glass’ Koyannisqatsi (with the Russian basses at the beginning). I remember reading a while back that somebody asked him if his music was done on a computer – he was severely offended. But most of the rest of it – like the “operas” – doesn’t appeal to me

  3. Ah, recall that the musical lineage is Papa Haydn – Beethoven – Brahms. The inheritance began with the Mannheim Steamroller’s wall of sound, to almost percussion- based, explosive Classical, to rhythmic and changing tone of Romantic. All three have left me wanting to cheer and cry simultaneously.

    This is where the old joke of Brahms’ First = Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony arises.

Comments are closed.