Saturday, August 29, 2009

Classical, Romantic; Left Brain, Right Brain

It's a little confusing, but when we talk about “Classical Music,” we're usually referring to art music as opposed to popular music. Few people like the term because it means that popular music can't be 'art' and classical music can't be 'popular.' People tried calling it “Serious Music” but aren't most musicians serious about what they do, no matter what kind of music they write or play? So we're stuck with “Classical.”

But there are different historical periods of “Classical Music” - one of which is called “Classical.” So it just makes it more confusing. When we're talking about the major historical periods, the basic ones are

Baroque (1600-1750)
Classical (1750-1800)
Romantic (1800-1900)
Modern (1900- )

The dates are only approximate but the important thing is to realize the stylistic differences between what we call these “Classical” and “Romantic” periods. Just to make it more confusing, they can also co-exist at the same time in almost any period, no matter what the period's called.

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The two different halves of the brain control different aspects of the way we think. It turns out that some peoples' personalities are dominated by one over the other; and other people can be a little of both, like a compromise.

The Left Brain examines things in a logical, rational, sequential nature. A Left-brained person is usually more analytical and objective, looking at the parts to understand the whole.

The Right Brain examines things in a more random, intuitive way and rather than analyzing everything, tends to be more subjective, looking at the whole thing first before understanding the component parts.

In the past, scientists described these Left Brain characteristics as being either Apollonian after the Greek god Apollo who was the god of the sun and also of things like logic. The Right Brain characteristics were called Dionysian, after Dionysus or Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. And since drinking wine led to irrational acting and thinking, it seemed appropriate.

So essentially, we could say that “Classical Music” is more Apollonian or Left-Brained – logical, sequential, very structured, leaner textures in the sound of the music, clearer in its form and content. The form is more obvious - you can usually tell where you are in the structure of the piece. Harmony and Form are more important than Melody and Rhythm.

It's also usually abstract - music about music. You might think it suggests something, some other kind of image in your mind, but that's you interpreting it, not necessarily what the composer is implying.

What we call “Romantic Music” is more Dionysian or Right-Brained, tending to be more emotional, not really concerned with following the rules, moving forward intuitively rather than pre-planned (if something unexpected happens, maybe the composer might be thinking "oh, that's cool - wonder where this is going? Let's find out"). The texture of the music might be denser, maybe even “messy” without clear lines where the harmony is going or what is actually the melody. The music can be more dramatic with more contrast or conflict in the over-all sound. Melody may be more important and rhythm is used to propel the music and to create an emotional response. Harmony and Form, two very “structured” elements of music are less rigid. A “Romantic” composer is less concerned about breaking the rules.

It's more subjective and may be inspired by something else - a literary idea or an image of some kind. Basically, we think it might “tell a story” or paint a picture.

Schools generally want you to think “Left Brained” when you're a student because it helps to understand the rules before you break them. Unfortunately, sometimes students don't really learn they CAN be “Right Brained.” Part of that becomes a mature personality, whether it's in music or how you approach your life in general.

People who dress neatly and follow a schedule, who are good at math or science might be Left-Brained people. People who are sloppy in their dress or are usually late might be more creative and good at story-telling (it comes in handy when making excuses) - they are more likely to be Right-Brained.

But it's not unusual for people to be a little of both. After all, if we were supposed to be only one or the other, we'd only need half a brain, right? Wait... let me rephrase that...


Everybody's "wired differently," as they say today.

Mendelssohn was primarily a “classical” person who lived in a “romantic” age. His music sounds different than many of his contemporaries (which I'll get to, later), not as emotional with cleaner textures and simpler sense of harmony and structure. But there was still a sense of emotion, just not as “out there” as some of his contemporaries.

Even though he was writing string quartets while Beethoven was still alive, Mendelssohn's earliest works were influenced by composers of the past – Carl Philip Emanuel Bach who died in 1788 and Mozart who'd died in Vienna in 1791. They were "Classical" composers. Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach was almost forgotten not long after he died in 1750, but Mendelssohn played several of his keyboard pieces like the Preludes and Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier and liked them very much. There were certain old-fashioned compositional techniques that he found very helpful and he incorporated them in his own music. Other composers writing at the same time didn't find these techniques very important. Today, we don't really think much about it when we listen to all this music from the past – whether it's Mendelssohn's music or Mozart's or Bach's or any of the other composers writing in the 1820s and '30s. But at the time, it sounded different to those listeners.

Not necessarily better. Not worse, either (though some people may have thought that). Just different. It sounded old-fashioned to a lot of people but it was well written and fit in with the whole “comfortable” idea that people in this Biedermeier Age liked. It had elegance and beauty, was based on the old-fashioned traditional forms (none of this new-fangled stuff people couldn't understand on first hearing) and he knew how to add some brilliance to it to make it exciting. That's all part of the “Left-Brain” side.

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But it was also an age of great literature and of pleasant paintings, so he often found himself inspired by literary ideas and with creating musical images of things he'd seen. When he went to Scotland when he was 20, he saw this great cave on one of the Hebrides Islands just off the coast called “Fingal's Cave.” Watching the tide come in, he watched the water flowing into the cave and wrote down a musical figure that represented the waves. Later on, he turned those visual images and that musical depiction of waves into a piece of music he called “Fingal's Cave” or “The Hebrides.”

This, however, is something more “Right-Brained” – more of a “Romantic” idea. And it's something that Mendelssohn did quite a lot: his trip to Scotland gave us this orchestral work called “Fingal's Cave” but also a whole symphony inspired by the landscapes and atmosphere of Scotland which he called (logically) his “Scottish” Symphony. Most people take pictures or buy post-cards: Mendelssohn wrote two musical compositions as souvenirs!

Here are two videos for you – this first one was filmed by someone visiting the Island of Staffa and seeing the cave. It's a cloudy, rainy day (making it more mysterious) and he sweeps the camera around a bit. It's also a little dark looking into the cave but you get to hear someone playing real Scottish bag-pipes inside the cave. Then around 3:00 into the clip, the tide starts to come in: watch the waves but listen to them, too. You only need to watch about a minute of it here, just to get the idea. It's really cool at 5:07, though, where the cameraman is inside the cave, looking out at the sea. Listen to the waves!
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The cave probably hasn't changed much in the 180 years since Mendelssohn saw it and jotted down the thematic idea that eventually became this piece of music. Listen how the music swells, rising and falling like waves.

This video is just the opening 4 minutes, not the whole piece, and it's played by a student orchestra in Belgium. Maybe you can run both of the videos at the same time (starting the first clip around 2:00 in and then starting Mendelssohn's music - you might need to turn the volume down or off on the Cave Video, though)?
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It may not accompany the first video like a film-score, but once you've seen the actual cave and heard the sound of the waves, listen just to the music in the 2nd video and imagine what it is you're hearing the music describe.

This is what we call “program music” - music that tells a story or paints a scene. And this is something that is a “Romantic” (as opposed to a “Classical”) idea.

Now, when Mendelssohn writes an octet for strings – one of the works we'll hear on September 16th – we'll hear an “abstract” work – music that's only about music, not really telling a story. That's a very “Classical” idea.

But when we get to the 3rd movement, the “scherzo” (SKAIR-tzoh), there's a slight change. Scherzo is the Italian word for “joke” - in music, it's something fast, lively, sometimes funny but at least not always so serious.

Mendelssohn told his older sister that this section of the music was inspired by the fairy spirits associated with the old German equivalent of Halloween. It was these lines by the great German poet Goethe (GER-teh) who was also a personal friend of Mendelssohn's: they describe the shadows of elves (or some kind of sprites) barely visible, who then suddenly disappear, as if blown away like leaves in a breeze.

Floating cloud and trailing mist
Are illuminated from above.
Breeze in the foliage and wind in the reeds –
And all is turned to dust.

This music goes up to 4:22 - the rest of the clip is the last movement of the octet.
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The fact it's inspired by a visual or literary image makes this “Romantic” (a typical Classical composer from the 18th Century wouldn't have done that) but the fact the sound and texture is so clean and the harmony so clear makes it very “Classical.”

You could say this is Mendelssohn using BOTH sides of his brain.

Oh, and did I mention Mendelssohn was 16 when he composed the Octet?

- Dr. Dick