One of the major players in Classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a German composer and pianist. He was a crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in music, and is widely considered one of the greatest composers of all time.
Beethoven's musical talents were obvious at a young age. He was born in the small German city of Bonn, and recognized early as a child prodigy. His music studies were intense, vigorous, and harsh, often reducing him to tears. He studied violin, viola, and organ, with his primary instrument being the piano. At age 21, he moved to Vienna and began studying composition with the renowned Joseph Haydn. By the 1790s, he had gained significant notoriety for his compositions, improvisation abilities, and as a piano virtuoso. When he was just 26, he began noticing a buzzing in his ears. A few years later, he had about 60% loss of hearing, and by the age of 44, he was almost completely deaf. The cause is unknown, but theories range from typhus to auto-immune disorders, inner legions of the ear, and even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake.
In Beethoven's early works (also known as the Early Period, 1792-1802), when he could hear the full range of frequencies, he made use of higher notes in his compositions. Rooted in the Classical traditions of Joseph Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven uses the language of Viennese classicism, emphasizing clarity, restraint, and balance. As his hearing declined, he began to use the lower notes that he could hear more clearly. In his Middle "Heroic" Period of composition (1802-1812), he began to break out of the conventions of classicism and wrote with a bolder, more individual tone. He explores human themes such as struggle, assertion, or celebration in large works. In his Late Period, his compositions became much more private, more contemplative, more visionary. He began to embrace a freedom from earlier structure, but maintained his notable musical depth.
In the last ten or so years of his life, he began carrying conversation books so his friends could write in them and he could know what they were saying. These invaluable resources contain discussions about music and other topics, which give incredible insights into his thinking, his relationship to art, and how he intended his music to be performed. In his lifetime, he composed nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, 16 string quartets, five piano concertos, one violin concerto, two masses, and the opera Fidelio.
Check it out! Give these incredible works a listen: Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Waldstein Piano Sonata, Pathetique Sonata, Op. 13, and the well-known bagatelle, Fur Elise.
Most of us have seen an Opus number attached to a classical piece. But what does this actually mean? Are there other kinds of thematic catalogue numbers, and why?
Opus Number. An Opus number ("opus" being the Latin expression for "work" or "labor"), is typically a way to catalogue a Classical composer's works, most often in chronological order. This can help us to understand if a piece was composed early in a composer's career, or late in their career. Beethoven composed 32 piano sonatas, and they all have the same title. Instead of saying, "I'll be playing Beethoven's Sonata," you can say, "I'll be playing Beethoven's Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, Op. 110," which provides a lot more information!
Deutsch. Franz Schubert didn't only get Opus numbers for his compositions; he was so "extra", he got an additional catalogue for his publications. Deutsch, or D. numbers, are used to identify Schubert's compositions. Schubert helped by dating nearly all of his manuscripts, so putting them in chronological order wasn't quite as complicated as other composers.
K Numbers. Decades after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's death in 1791, there were several attempts to catalogue his compositions. It wasn't until Ludwig von Kochel succeeded in producing a comprehensive listing in 1862. Although many of Mozart's earliest works couldn't be put in exact order, only estimated -- Mozart's father, Leopold, had compiled a partial list of his son's earlier works. According to Kochel's counting, Requiem in D minor, K. 626, was the 626th piece that Mozart composed.
BWV. Also known as Bach-Werke Verzeichnis, or Bach Works Catalog in English. Assigned by Wolfgang Schmieder, J.S. Bach's 1,126 compositions were each assigned BWV numbers, grouped by genre: Contatas (BWV 1-224), Motets (BWV 225-231), Masses (BWV 232-243), Keyboard Works (BWV 772-994), and so on.
Longo & Kirkpatrick. For Domenico Scarlatti, the Longo catalogue (L numbers) was in use from 1906, although K numbers (Kirkpatrick, not to be confused with Mozart's Kochel numbers) have generally become a more accepted catalogue.
WoO. Most of Beethoven's works appear with an opus number, but occasionally, you'll see a WoO number. Thank goodness, because it's really just a lot of fun to say out loud like Rick Flair. (Woooo!) Beethoven's WoO numbers (also known as the Kinsky Catalogue) are compiled of his compositions that were not given opus numbers prior to 1955.
There you have it! Of course, many other catalogues exist, but the list above covers many of the heavy hitters and catalogues you should know.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) transformed music. "The Father of Music," he brought us The Well Tempered Clavier, The Brandenburg Concertos, English and French Suites, Cantatas, The Goldberg Variations, and many more. Over one thousand more, to be exact. There are many stories behind several of his famous works, but the one we'll explore today is that of The Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.
Anna Magdalena Wilcke was a young, highly-gifted soprano 16 years his junior. While little was known about her early musical education, she was brought up in a musical family. In 1721, she was hired by the court of Anhalt-Kothen as a singer. At this time, J.S. Bach was also hired by Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Kothen, to serve as Kapellmeister (director of music), likely how they met. Anna Magdalena continued to sing professionally into their marriage, while also working regularly as a copyist, transcribing her husband's music, providing additional family income. J.S. Bach had four surviving children from his first marriage (three died in infancy). Together they raised these children and had 13 children of their own (seven of whom died at a young age). Often, during their time in Leipzig, Anna Magdalena organized musical evenings featuring the whole family playing and singing together with visiting friends. The Bach house became a musical center in Leipzig.
It was a common trend among artistic families of creating their own house albums of composed music. A total of three notebooks were discovered in the Bach household. The first was dated 1720 and dedicated to Bach's first son, Wilhelm Friedemann. The second and third notebooks (dated 1722 and 1725), had a gilt-edged binding of vellum, and was laid out lavishly. It looked like a gift that was created to celebrate a very special occasion. Most are short pieces, (including dances, arias, marches, chorales, etc.) in no particular order, and likely crafted to satisfy Anna Magdalena and her vocal talents. Some items were intended as educational musical instruction for the children. Most pieces are quite technically accessible. Johann Sebastian likely composed these works to provide a simpler and easier introduction to playing keyboard works -- especially when compared to many of his other compositions with many more layers. Most widely recognized from Anna Magdalena's Little Notebook are Minuet in G, Musette in D Major, and Minuet in G Minor.
The word "sonata" comes from the Latin verb, sonare, "to sound." Originally, the word "sonata" was used as a general term for instrumental works, as opposed to a "contata", which was for voices. This has long since evolved and become something much more complex and interesting, which we will be exploring in this month's blog post.
A sonata is simply a piece, with 2-4 movements in related keys, each with their own unique style or characteristics. When that form is used for a solo instrument, like a piano, a cello, or a clarinet (or a solo instrument with piano accompaniment), the piece is called a sonata. When that same form is used for three instruments (i.e., a violin, a viola, and cello), it is now a trio. If you have four instruments playing together, you have a quartet, and so on. If you have a full orchestra playing in that form, you have a symphony.
Sonatas can have 2-4 movements. You may have noticed in music programs that movements are indicated with numbers and tempo markings instead of titles. You may have also noticed in performances that audiences do not clap between movements. This is because the piece is not over! The most common layout for a 3-movement sonata is:
A 4-movement sonata might have this layout (symphonies and string quartets most often use this):
When talking about the musical form, we are referring to the structure, or shape, within a piece or single movement. Sonata form is a three-part design of a movement, much like how a bridge has a strong, secure structure to hold it down on one side, a big sweeping bridge over a body of water, and another strong structure securing it to the other side. This is like Sonata Form: A-B-A, also known as the exposition, development, and recapitulation. it creates balance, stability, and contrast.
A Section. This takes place at the beginning of a piece, where the composer first states the themes of the movement. This is where the theme is exposed for the first time: the Exposition.
B Section. The development is where some of the themes from the A section are developed and explored. The development will usually move to a related key signature, and may feel unconventional or unstable in many respects.
A Section. Finally, we come back to a restatement of the A section. It might be presented slightly differently, or a little shorter. Overall, you'll recognize the same familiar themes from the beginning of the piece and might not notice any changes at all at first listen!
You can find sonata form in all sorts of music, not just a traditional sonata or Symphony. Many other forms exist in music, as well! Rondo, theme and variations, binary, and ternary, to name a few. Feel free to read about these on your own, or look for the topic in future blog posts.
“I’d like you to perform your music from memory.” Oftentimes, these words tend to trigger anxiety and weeks of stress to music students of all ages and abilities. In this post, we'll dig into a brief history of memorization, and ways to make this challenge easier and more fun.
What is memorization in music?
Memorization in music simply means being able to play a piece without looking at the music.
Who needs to memorize music?
Generally, all musicians playing as a soloist will perform from memory. If a musician is playing with an accompanist (i.e. vocalist, violinist, clarinetist, etc.), the soloist will typically have their music memorized, but the accompanist will not. If an individual is playing in front of an orchestra - like in the case of a concerto, the featured performer should have their music memorized, as well. Not everyone needs to memorize music for performance, however. Ensembles like duets, quartets, or symphony orchestras, traditionally do not memorize their music.
Why do we do this in the first place?
We didn’t always memorize music. Beginning in the Romantic Era, composers began writing “art for art’s sake”, and took more time to produce and finesse their work. This gave touring performers like Nicolo Paganini, Franz Liszt, and Clara Schumann more time with their repertoire, and established memorizing music as a customary practice. These artists changed the way music was performed.
What are the benefits of memorizing music?
I've never memorized anything. How do I do it?
There is not one fail-proof method that works for everyone. The best way to memorize your music is to spend time with it. Here are some ways to make memorizing more of a game and less of a chore:
What superstitions do you believe in? You may say you don't buy into that, but do you walk around an open ladder instead of walking underneath? If so, you're not alone. Musicians can be very superstitious, too! The Rolling Stones cannot begin a show until they've shared a shepherd’s pie. The 27 Club is a well-known curse claiming the lives of a wealth of musical giants at their prime -- like Hendrix, Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. John Lennon was followed by the number 9 from his birth to his death.
Which brings me to my next point: The Curse of the Ninth.
Compose a 9th symphony if you dare, and you will die before ever composing a 10th. This superstition dates back to the 19th Century, claiming composers like Beethoven, Mahler, Schubert, Dvorak, Bruckner, and many more to follow.
In 1827, three years after finishing his Symphony No. 9, Ludwig von Beethoven passed away one thunderous night at 56 years old. He left behind an unfinished Symphony No. 10. Franz Schubert, an Austrian composer in his late-20s, was greatly influenced by Beethoven's work and deeply affected by the composer’s death. Schubert struggled with his deteriorating health for a few years, while also flourishing with creativity. In the last weeks of his life, he began to sketch three movements for a new Symphony in D major (Symphony No. 10), better known as Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. When he died, he was only 31 years old. In 1896, Anton Bruckner was the next to follow before he was able to finish composing his 9th symphony. Antonin Dvorak died in 1904 after completing his 9th symphony.
Concerned that this was much more than coincidence, Gustav Mahler decided he wasn't about to suffer the same fate as his predecessors. After completing his 8th symphony, he wrote a piece of music, Das Lied von der Erde, that was, in essence, a symphony – but he refused to call it one. He then finished his 9th symphony, contracted pneumonia, and died in 1911 at age 51. So close!
Is The Curse of the Ninth real, or merely coincidence? You be the judge.
Why do we memorize music? Why was Mozart so important? How does a piano work? Look for answers to these questions and more in my monthly blog. Interested in learning more about something you don't see here? Let me know: Contact