Classical music formed much of our society. Without what most people think of as classical, the music scene wouldn’t exist as we know it. In many worlds, music gives society an idea of what it should be, and in return, society shapes music. There are so many varieties of music now, from jazz to pop, rock to rap, hip-hop to gospel, classical to country, and many more. In every single genre, there are multiple sub-genres included. The same goes for classical music. A major difference between classical music and the rest is that this tradition goes back for centuries. Even though it is an older style of music, it remains quite popular today among certain circles. Engrained into society are the names Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and nearly every person has heard these names, even if they have not heard their music. From their manuscripts we can get a primary source of who they were and how they wanted their music to be played. From scholars, we can get secondary sources. Today, performances of classical pieces are many, and each concert has a different interpretation that is received differently by different audiences. In all cases, to begin a concert you must have a musical source.
Jean Sibelius, Maurice Ravel, and Ralph Vaughn Williams were all composers from roughly the same era, around 1900, making them fairly recent in terms of the large spectrum. We possess original scores of their works, making it easier to interpret them accurately. The Oceanides is a work by Sibelius, and while it is lesser known, is considered by many to be quite beautiful. Originally commissioned by a music festival as a choral work, it evolved more and more, eventually becoming an orchestral tone poem. In Ravel’s piano concerto in G major, there is evidence that George Gershwin influenced Ravel strongly, and so it should be. Ravel met Gershwin on a tour of the United States, visiting Minnesota, Chicago, Denver, and several other cities. Sadly, he didn’t enjoy his stay, having visited during mid-winter and suffering through the bleak temperatures. Vaughn Williams originally wrote his piece as Songs of the Sea. He eventually changed the title to A Sea Symphony, because of the symphonic form of the work. Both he and his lyricist believed that the ocean is a metaphor for the infinite, so in reality, this work is not really about the sea, but about the big picture of life.
All three of these composers are considered classical composers, but what does that mean? Classical music is a broad category, going back a long ways. The major periods of this genre are Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Contemporary. Each spans roughly 50-100 years, beginning in the 1600s. During the Baroque period, Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti were primary composers, using a delicate style, composing for harpsichord and mostly smaller ensembles. Developing keyboard works with multiple themes, Bach changed the face of the keyboard sonata. The symphony began to be explored, but was reasonably short and light, only to be expanded in later centuries. When the Classical music period began in the 1700s, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven were prominent composers. Oftentimes considered light and fluffy works, there were quite a few pieces that delved deeper into a musical world. Considered by some to be satisfying, but not fulfilling, this period ultimately led to the Romantic period.
Late Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin characterized this era. During this time, the piano sonata was majorly revised. With darker sounds, intensity of enormous proportions, and a variety of emotions displayed, the symphony was extended, made more dramatic, and hugely successful! Beethoven composed 9 symphonies, each of which were well-received by the public, and created a larger interest in that particular field. Once the Contemporary period began, a shift in styles occurred once more. Copland, Bernstein, and Williams were considered to be pioneers at this time. There was a lot of neo-period music being written, and a significant amount of musical theft. Personalizing American classical music and giving it a place in the classical world, these composers brought elements of dance, new instruments, and new sounds into the spectrum. Not always harmonious, the music often was very disturbing to listen to, but if you listen to todays popular music, you can hear much of the influence being carried out in the structure of the music. While there are just a few well-known composers from this era, hundreds and thousands lived and composed.
Sibelius lived from 1865-1957, grew up in Finland, studying law, and later moving on to music. Primarily influenced by Tchaikovsky and Bruckner, he composed 7 symphonies, and hundreds of other works. Ravel was born in 1875 and died in 1937 in France. Also a concert pianist, he is considered one of two Impressionistic composers, the other being Debussy. Schubert was a huge influence in his life. Vaughn Williams lived from 1872-1958, and spent most of his life in England. Ravel was one of his teachers, and Bruch taught him as well. Vaughn Williams was heavily influenced by Purcell, and made it a point to lecture about him when he got the chance. Writing 9 symphonies, a tuba concerto, and other works, he was quite prolific, but underappreciated. Some orchestras make an effort to program lesser-known composers into their concert series, and the Minnesota Orchestra (MO) is among them.
The MO is a well-respected ensemble. They recently completed recording a set of Beethoven’s symphonies, which are becoming world-recognized as the set to own. Osmo Vanska, Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is a Finnish conductor, whose talent is acknowledged throughout the world. He has traveled extensively, conducting famous orchestras, in his favorite concert halls. The Orchestra employs dozens of soloists every season, and the 08-09 season was no exception. Among these performers were the following.
Lise de la Salle is French, and is making her international debuts quite often. She has performed in some of the largest concert halls in the world, from Turkey to Poland, and Minnesota to France. Measha Brueggergosman is a Canadian soprano who has won many a competition, and even a Juno award, which is the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. Christopher Maltman is an English baritone. He has sung at the Met and Royal Opera House, appearing with many a distinguished artist. The Minnesota Chorale, with Kathy Saltzman Romey as it’s artistic director, is Minnesota’s leading vocal ensemble, performing with the Minnesota Orchestra quite often. They are quite respectable, touring all over, appearing with many well-known ensembles, and in many venues. With great soloists, there is potential for great performances, but there is still much to be considered in the music.
Aspects of the music are communicated through the texts and the recordings. When a composer wants a specific sound, they will generally mark it somehow. Using phrasing, dynamics, markings, and more, they show the conductor what they expect. A well-documented score helps deliver an accurate performance. A basic score can have hundreds of interpretations. Oral traditions are quite important as well. While we don’t always know the stylisitic instruments, we can do our best to come up with something that is accurate for the time. Different timbres and tones are common from early eras. Skill is demonstrated differently now than before, because different skills are required to play the new instruments. All musicians must practice a lot individually, and quite a bit as an ensemble. Then they can put on a wonderful show!
Combining great soloists and a great ensemble gives great possibilities, but a composer is still needed to compose a classic to perform. Vaughn Williams was reasonably well off, able to study piano at an early age. However, his favorite instrument was the violin, he considered it to be his musical salvation. Studying with well-known instructors, he was obviously well-resourced. Ravel had a similar experience, studying at the Conservatoire de Paris, commissioning works, and obtaining many important friends. Being white and middle class, he was among the majority where he lived. Sibelius was quite well-off, he was sent away to school, and studied law at first, but eventually switched over to music, his passion. He was married, and had several children. All 3 of these men were white middle-upper class, however composers do come from many demographics.
Performers also can start anywhere. Even poor children randomly discover talents, and are often exploited to their fullest potential. The wealthy and educated are usually bred to be the best at what they’re gifted at, getting a lot of money to support their endeavors, touring internationally, and gaining fame and fortune along the way. The Minnesota Orchestra employs people from all schools, they just need to win the audition to get in. From Juilliard to Curtis, the University of Minnesota to St. Olaf, there are international musicians and locals in this ensemble. Osmo is Finnish, but is rapidly becoming a Minnesotan. White, Asian, Black, and Hispanic, there are all ages, colors, and creeds represented.
In the audience however, there is mostly white middle class attendees, with a lot of upper class people mixed in. There are a few black people, a lot of Asians, but very little Indians or Arabs. Europeans are prominent, being from quite musical countries, and being trained in this style. Sadly, the demographic looks the same, mostly white. The style of music appeals to this demographic, and so they attend. Sometimes other people don’t want to get involved in it, and sometimes other people don’t have the chance. Styles interest people differently, and money is a huge factor. Without money, you can’t get a ticket to a performance, an instrument to practice on, a teacher to learn from. Wealth is a huge advantage, with it you can shape future generations.
Classical music forms our culture. Many genres are alive and well from years gone by. Shaping our music, the culture displays what it is like, whether it’s corrupt or intact. Keeping out society together, people often tend to think of music as a pleasure, and unnecessary. But without it, our society will crumble. Music is one of the few things that brings people together. It is a universal language that all and understand. Scores survive for years, interpretations do not, but it is all worth something. Music will affect the world forever.
-Myers, Rollo H. 1960. Ravel, Life and Works. G. Duckworth.
-Pakenham, Simona. 1957. Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Discovery of His Music. St. Martin’s Press.
-Ekman, Karl. 2007. Jean Sibelius: His Life and Personality. READ BOOKS.