U.C.M. = Understanding Classical Music

I would like to guide all of you, especially those who begin the path of Classical Music, into the basics concepts such as Prelude, Opus, “C#m”, etc. So, while you enjoy this site, you will also learn something valuable and, perhaps, open your mind into exploration. The source I will be using is Wikipedia and my own personal words. Do not fear information!

#-1 Special Consideration

“Classical music”, what is the meaning of that? Music that is classical , like a car? Or “High art”? Or it’s the definition that present-day culture around the world give to the whole musical period from 1600 to 1900? Well, there is no one best qualified to answer this question than Lenny Bernstein. What is Classical Music? [PART 2] [PART 3] [PART 4] [PART 5] [PART 6] [PART 7]

#0 Prelude

As a prelude, I would like to give my own personal motif. Understanding classical music is a very wide concept, we are talking about centuries of music and revolutions we can’t even picture. As a matter of fact, there is no accurate way to actually understand classical music, we will require to a) be around at the time of the composer, and b) begin the deep and never-ending road of music composition itself. While b) is possible, a) is not. Of course, the very fundations and pillars are there to be analized (form, harmony, melody and rythm) and therefore try to grasp an idea about the composer’s piece. Listening Der Ring des Nibelungen by Wagner in 2010 is one thing, listening it in Bayreuth in 1876 is very different. That is why the “understanding” and “enjoyment” of classical music, as always, depends upon oneself; it will engage into your emotions, your feelings, and very deep into your mind, things that change between us. Nevertheless, if we choose to begin b), here is where we start.

Also, I would like to add a set of videos (masterclasses) by one of the greatest musicians of the last century, Leonard Bernstein.



#1 Decomposing Names

Example Nº1
Piano Concerto in C#m

In this example, we have a Piano Concerto (read Forms) in the key of C#m. What does it mean? Basically, speaking the phrase in key of C#m (C sharp minor) means that C# is the piece’s harmonic center or tonic. The terms “major” and “minor” further imply the use of a major scale or a minor scale, which first note (or tonic) in this case is C#. Of course, this description is very basic, and does not take into account the form (in this case, a Piano Concerto), where modulations can occur (going from a scale to another, and thus changing the harmonic center).

Example Nº2
In the Hall of the Mountain King

Here we have no hint about neither the form nor the key in which the composition has been written. But instead, the composer choose a particular name for the piece. This is another way of presenting a composition, and it’s Edvard Grieg opus 23. Opus? It denotes a work of musical composition, a practice and usage established in the seventeenth century when composers identified their works with an opus number. In the nineteenth century, publishers usually assigned opus numbers when publishing groups of like compositions, usually in sets of three-, six-, and twelve compositions. Consequently, opus numbers usually are not chronologic, unpublished compositions usually had no opus number, and numeration gaps and sequential duplications occurred when publishers issued contemporaneous editions of a composer’s works.

#2 Movements and Tempo

Cello Concerto in Em – First movement (Adagio – Moderato)

First of all, what is a movement? It is a self-contained part of a musical composition or musical form. While individual or selected movements from a composition are sometimes performed separately, a performance of the complete work requires all the movements to be performed in succession. Often a composer attempts to interrelate the movements thematically, or sometimes in more subtle ways, in order that the individual movements exert a cumulative effect. In some forms, composers sometimes link the movements, or ask for them to be played without a pause between them.

In this case, Elgar’s Cello concerto’s (which overall has four movements) first movement is an “Adagio – Moderato”. This two italian words indicates us the tempo, although not exactly how many BPM (Beats per minute), but giving us an aproximate idea. This means that a particular note value (for example, a quarter note or crotchet) is specified as the beat, and the marking indicates that a certain number of these beats must be played per minute. The greater the tempo, the larger the number of beats that must be played in a minute is, and, therefore, the faster a piece must be played.

So, what does “Adagio – Moderato” means? Adagio stands for “slow and stately” (literally, “at ease”), where Moderato is moderately in Italian (faster than Adagio). Having this in mind the movement goes from Adagio to a tempo uprising Moderato at the end.

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