Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Sound of Then

I enjoy listening to classical music, although I don't recognize many specific pieces by name. There are a few pieces I can hear and name (Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz, Mussorgsky's A Night on Bare Mountain, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, and a few others), but for the most part it just washes over me in a tide of pleasantly entertaining sound.

But is it the sound the composer actually heard at the time he wrote the music?

Yesterday I read this fascinating article in MSN Slate Magazine: "In Search of Lost Sounds: Why You've Never Really Heard the 'Moonlight' Sonata." Author Jan Swofford writes that "During the 19th century, Viennese pianos were noted for their lightness of touch and tone and British pianos for a more robust build, touch, and sound; French pianos lay somewhere between ... When composers wrote for these instruments they sometimes loved them and sometimes chafed at their limitations, but in any case they wrote for those sounds, that touch, those bells and whistles."

Mr Swafford notes that, for instance, a piano built today will have a tone very different from the pianos Beethoven and Strauss knew in their day. Construction techniques were different, the treatment of the materials used was different, and composers wrote their music based on the quality of sound they were used to hearing from the available instruments. In some cases, those sounds are not only quite different from those we hear and know today but, as Mr Swofford explains, some cannot even be accurately reproduced on modern instruments.

If you enjoy classical music - or even if you just enjoy a good tale of how things change over time - read the article and play the audio clips which are included. For a few minutes, you can hear music as audiences heard it in the past, and as the great composers imagined it as they wrote.

If you like rap or heavy metal "music," never mind. Your ears are probably a lost cause, anyhow.

Have a good day. Listen to some beautiful music.

More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

9 comments:

The Mistress of the Dark said...

Will check that article out. My favorite is Pictures At An Exhibition

Bandit said...

This is very interesting. All musical instruments have been perfected over the years. The older piano audio sounded more unrefined to me. You could hear overtones caused by reverberation of the intitial sound bouncing off something in the instrument.
The article stated that you may have not heard The Moonlight Sonata the way Beethoven intended it to sound. This goes beyond the difference in instruments. We are getting into human interpretation of the music itself. Although the composer would place markings to indicate interpretation such as allegro, legato, etc. these terms are not exact and that is where interpretation comes into play. I have 2 different recordings of Mozart's Symphony #40 in g Minor conducted by two different conductors. Their interpretations are completely different.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Bilbo, how glad I am that you wrote on this subject. As you know, I was raised in a cave by a wild pack of Eastern Liberals, who left me with one Good Thing, an abiding love of Classical Music. And an abiding hate of the "authentic instruments" fad. I salute the the previous commenter, Bandit, who notes interpretation is far more important than the instrument upon which the piece is played. That being said, hearing a piece played by any pianist that studied under Wanda Landowska means you are hearing the result of a direct line of students that go back straight to the Master, Beethoven, himself. Although the fidelity is not so good, there remain recordings by Wanda herself. So now you know why this particular Attila the Hun sends money to WETA every year.

And here's something you didn't want to know: The piece is more often referred to as "Night on Bald Mountain" and I think your rendition is a Freudian slip. On the other hand, there really is a Bear Mountain, a ski resort north of NYC, famed as a good place to meet ski bunnies, for anybody so inclined. Now talk your way out of that pun with Agnes!

Night on Bald Mountain was never performed during Moussorgsky's lifetime, which was very short. (He was a serious alcoholic.) He was also a lousy orchestrator, which was why Ravel, perhaps the greatest ever orchestrator (he wrote Bolero just to PROVE he was), arranged Pictures at an Exhibition, making it an all time classical Top 100 for Moussorgsky.

Eminence Grise, world class know it all.

Mike said...

When I saw bandit's post I thought he was going to tell you about St Louis's only classical music station being sold to a gospel organization. But I forgot he is a retired music teacher.

Bilbo said...

Andrea - Mine is Pachelbel's Canon in D, but we all have our preferences.

Bandit - interesting observations. I see from Mike's comment that you are a retired music teacher. I guess it shows!

Eminence - show-off! The Rimsky-Korsakov piece title has been translated as both "Bald" and "Bare" mountain...I chose "Bare" just to be different.

Mike - as a frustrated former radio DJ, don't get me started on sales of stations and bizarre format changes...

"Band" IT said...

It's one of the last classical stations left ing the nation.

Anonymous said...

I hate to praise Public Radio, but when Washington DC lost its commercial classical station, some genius at WETA talked the board into converting from talk/talk/talk to Classical, and they were on air in less than a week with most of the staff from the commercial station (and probably its CD collection, too!) A really impressive feat of decision-making, planning, and execution that impressed me so much I immediately became a regular member (oh such a hard decision for a raving conservative) but I've never regretted it once. A really impressive response by an NPR affiliate. By the way, the commercial classical station was making money when it was sold by the owner of Washington Redskins, who has proved his ability to run a football team--they win about as often as the old Washington Senators, who earned this motto: First in War, first in peace, and last in the American League!

Eminence Grise

SusieQ said...

I am a fan of classical music. I treasure the one and only classical music radio station in Chicago.

Amanda said...

That was a fascinating article. If only I knew about this when I had all my music exams.