What IS Classical?

Discussion in 'Classical Music' started by RDD, Oct 31, 2003.

  1. RDD

    michaelab desafinado

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    Well, I started with Romantic music and have gradually got more into 20th century and contemporary "classical" music. I went "back" as far as Beethoven and Mozart but I pretty much can't stand any baroque music with the notable exception of Vivaldi who IMO has a lot in common with post-modernists like Reich and Nyman (which is probably why I like it).

    I've always found the romantic period to be far the easiest classical to get into and I'd be surprised if people thought otherwise. It's so full of emotion you really don't need to understand it at all whereas Baroque music is well....boring :duck: ....or I just don't get it.

    When I had to play Bach in my school days my teacher would always complain that I was playing the notes very well but I wasn't playing the music. With Rachmaninov and Chopin I understood the music but (often being fiendishly difficult technically) it was the notes that sometimes were lacking :)

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Dec 2, 2003
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    TonyL Club Krautrock Plinque

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    There is method to my madness…

    Back in about 1980 I was seeing a girl who was a music student in Huddersfield, and she was studying the Second Viennese School serial stuff, i.e. Berg, Webern and Schoenberg. Initially I absolutely hated it, and then all of a sudden I didn't. I'm not sure quite what it was that finally clicked. I still only have a feeble grasp of the logic behind this music, but I have ended up loving much of it. Webern's string quartets are utterly amazing, and Berg's Wozzek remains pretty much the only opera (other than Glass's Einstein on the beach, which isn't really an opera) that I can deal with. I have actually listened to the whole of Wagner's Ring cycle, but not much of it stuck in my brain (I have the Furtwangler version on LP). I plan at some point to see The Ring live though, its just one of those things I reckon you need to do before dying.

    I went to see the film Koyaanisqatsi with the Glass soundtrack – this got me into the minimalists big time, I soon grabbed other stuff from Reich and Riley etc. Similarly the films of Peter Greenaway introduced me to the works of Michael Nyman.

    I've also been a Can (and other Krautrock) fan for ages, and both Holgar C and Irmin S from Can both studied under Stockhausen. This was sufficient incentive to investigate Stockhausen further. One of my friends back in school had a copy of Stimung (sp?) and I remember it being an ideal stoner album! I love Stockhausen's earlier works. I went to a few of the performances at the Barbican a couple of years ago and am now totally convinced that the man is a genius. I even got him to sign my program like a pathetic pop fan! The quadraphonic presentation of Hymnen in a darkened auditorium was astounding. I've since got into Edgar Varese which is superb stuff. I need to learn more about Cage next, I remember some of the early tape loop stuff from Huddersfield, and I have an exceptional percussive piece by him.

    Working backwards as ever I got into tonal orchestral music via Stravinsky and Mahler. Recently having had access to a shed load of absurdly cheap vinyl has seen me buying nearly everything I can get my hands on. I currently have about 4 foot of unplayed classical LPs to work through…

    I've always had a real thirst for new music, and I'll happily take a punt on something out of sheer curiosity. Classical is brilliant as the vinyl is often seriously undervalued and can be had for pence, so experimenting is usually free (especially with eBay to loose unwanted stuff on later, usually at a profit). I used a similar technique to get into jazz – I decided I liked the stuff playing in bars in good 50s film noir so went and bought a Blue Note sampler LP for 1.99 and went from there – I now have a great jazz collection!

    Tony.
     
    TonyL, Dec 2, 2003
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    tones compulsive cantater

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    An interesting comment, and one with which I would have at one time agreed! It does take time to get into baroque, but once there, it's magical. It may not be as overtly "emotional" as Romantic (and I suspect that Romantic is perceived that way because our current musical language, e.g., film scores and orchestrations, is basically Romantic), but it's not dry-as-dust musical mathematics either. The emotion and excitement is there, it's just in a more restrained form.

    But not always. I thought of you, Michael, as I sat last night and listened to the Bach B Minor Mass and was thrilled to the core. Have you ever heard it? Nobody with even a bit of "classical" background could say that this is either boring or unemotional. It is said that this is Bach's choral equivalent of The Art of Fugue, basically strutting his stuff. And how he struts! The quiet, mournful "Crucifixus", followed by the great burst of joy in "Et resurrexit!" with its flaring triumphant trumpets and thundering drums. The glory of the Sanctus and the marvellous Hosanna! ended finally (one wishes it wouldn't) by the wonderful Donna nobis pacem. The one you need is Gardiner's, which beats the stuffing out of every other version I've ever heard. If "baroque"="boring", you really need to hear this!
     
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    tones, Dec 3, 2003
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    michaelab desafinado

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    I probably have heard the B minor mass but it was likely to have been under parental duress :) so I can't say for sure.

    I may look for a copy of the Gardiner version in the near future.

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Dec 3, 2003
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    tones compulsive cantater

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    tones, Dec 3, 2003
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    joel Shaman of Signals

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    Listened to two versions of the Monti: Pinnock and the Naxos, but any Arab influence was beyond my ability to discern. Maybe I'll have to get the Gardener (certainly looks interesting), but I'll have to save up for that.
    I could hear some echoes of the Ars Nova and particularly Perotin in places, though (or thought I could).
    The Vespers is a beautiful piece and I would take the Naxos over the Pinnock :eek: which is a little too sturm und drang for my liking (iffy sound doesn't help either).
    This may come as a surprise, but I actually have some albums of Janissary marches (on King records and the Kalan historical series for anyone who may be interested). Comparing these with some Euro romantic "marches" (Chop) was a pretty unrevealing, if interesting, evenings listening.
    Sousa style marching music is closest, but lacks the rhythmic complexity and attack of the Turkish versions - in fact strip away the darbuka type percussion from the Turkish music and the two become quite similar.
    Arab influence is very strong in early music, but seems by the Baroque to have waned, leaving only "oriental" traces and the odd Arabesque.
    That said, Bach's mathematical approach to music seems quite similar to the Arab approach (not just to music but to art in general).
     
    joel, Dec 6, 2003
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    tones compulsive cantater

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    Pinnock??? Never heard of one! Tell me more...
     
    tones, Dec 6, 2003
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    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    This is a very interesting remark. I'll split the romantic and the baroque music appeal issues.

    ROMANTIC MUSIC. It is true that the appeal is quite immediate. There is a lot of passion involved, it is extremely easy to understand it and the impact is often so brutal one wonders how can people not like it – take, as an example, the Scherzo of Bruckner's 8th Symphony: it is just impossible not to be haunted by the main theme. Or the beginning of Strauss' Zaratustra, the beginning of Brahms 1st Symphony, and many others. Even a Schumann lied – of the lyrical kind – is impossible not to move you. If you grow up with romantic music (as I did) it is impossible not to like it.

    But, on the other hand, romantic music tends to go on forever and to oppose very different moods. An acquaintance of mine who is hooked on Vivaldi, Corelli, and such music, once told me he didn't like the contrast between the fiery/ heroic and the candid innocence of most romantic music. I understand what he means. Most people brought up on pop/rock sneer on candidness and asexual innocence. And all the pomp leaves them indifference as they are used just to destructive rage. So, in a way, people brought up on rock-pop simply don't get it – romantic music just sounds corny.

    There is another factor here: modulation. I don't know much about rock, but it seems to me that it seldom modulates at all. Modulation tends to be confusing to people unused to it and complicated harmonies are simply heard as meaningless.

    And, finally, there is the rhythmic factor. Rock-pop are strongly isorhythmic, with very marked strong beats. With romantic music, the phrasing is often so long that there is just breathing and very seldom is there any pounding. Therefore, rockers just loose track.

    BAROQUE MUSIC. Well, it is true. A great deal of baroque music is very boring. I like some Vivaldi (the early works) but on the whole, early 18th Century music can be unsuferable. Corelli is very nice as background music, but I wouldn't listen intently to the concerti more than once or twice. But, as it is strongly isorhythmic, has strong beats and shorter phrasing and much less modulation, rockers find it understandable. It has swing, short tunes and simplicity on its side; the emotions are often not corny at all – sheer joy or melancholy. And Biber or Schmeltzer (17r«th century south German) can be listened to in the same mood: marvelous tunes, predictable rhythms and clear harmony.

    As a matter of fact one can listen to the Brandenburgs in this way. It is only if you dig further, when counterpoint begins to be clear, that the concerti reveal their true interest. For instance, the 3rd movement of the 4th Concerto is a real fugue. But most people just follow the upper, soprano, line (even musicians: for instance, that is how Goebel plays it). If you do that and have a romantic background, of course it is boring. If you do that and have a pop-rock background, it will be lovely.

    Of course not all baroque music is simple, isorhythmic and short phrased. The early 17th Century is quite different: counterpoint still had prominence, harmonies were very complex (in a modal context) and unexpected rhythms were the rule – just think of Frescobaldi and Froberger; and I'll go further – you were intended to play *ignoring* the bars: just think of the French school Préludes non Mesurés which means that only the pitches were notated and the general flow of rhythm just suggested and not actually written down. Modulations do not exist in the romantic sense of the word – the tuning of keyboards prevented it (for musicians: when you have c, c#, d, e flat but NO d flat or d sharp you cannot modulate: music will be horribly out of tune) – but there are all sorts of dissonances. This kind of music if generally not understood either by romantic grounded or pop-rock grounded listeners. The conveyed emotions seem too weird, and one must really learn a new kind of language.

    And, finally, the finer points of baroque music – counterpoint – are unintelligible to most people, both romantic and pop grounded. A Bach fugue, when listened 'from the outside' is just a piece of music with many repetitions. But when looked at from the inside, is totally filled with emotion. Now, in a Bach fugue, emotions are just suggested – he uses a kind of minimum element of emotion that one has to learn to decode. When you actually do it, it can literally bring tears to your eyes, spine chills as powerful as the most impressive romantics. I often think Bruckner, great as he was, doesn't say, in pieces lasting for almost two hours, more than Bach does in 6 or 7 minutes.

    Bach is the most pure case of emotional abstraction I know. I often compare him to Piet Mondrian, the painter, who was forever in search of the minimum elements of emotional/esthetical meaning. His paintings are rarefied, cold, out of this world. *Not* so with Bach. Emotion *is* present (and emotional contrasts are huge), albeit in a very abstracted way. You just have to get used to the language.

    Finally, as a personal note. If I grew up in a romantic setting, how did I become so attached to Bach and all the rest? At my parents home there were many records by romantic and classical masters. I loved them to passion. But I also liked the one record of Bach music in the collection: the 2nd and 5th Brandeburg Concerti, played by Edwin Fisher. I especially liked the 5th. Once, when I was about 12, my eldest brother (there is a difference of about 12 years between us) called my attention to the counterpoint; it was not very clear because sound was very warm (old valves, of course) and not transparent at all. But I was hooked for life.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 6, 2003
    Rodrigo de Sá, Dec 6, 2003
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    joel Shaman of Signals

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    Oops. Pinnock was something else... The Monteverdi I didn't much like was Parrott's with the Taverner Consort.

    Nice Post RdS (I hope you are well BTW). Funnily enough I really like music with strange dissonances and loopy time signatures. Maybe this is why I can get along with a lot of Baroque music.
     
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    joel, Dec 6, 2003
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    TonyL Club Krautrock Plinque

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    Great post as ever from RdS.

    I just have for the first time – I found a copy of Karajan's DG box in my vinyl 'in tray' – its on the turntable now. I really like it on first impression.

    Is this what I as a humble rock punter would describe as 'those huge chords'? If so this is exactly what got me into Bruckner / Mahler etc. Side 4 of Mahler's 9th typifies exactly what I mean about 'huge chords' and is amazing – it was the first piece of this type of music that really 'clicked' for me.

    This certainly proved an initial hurdle for me, and probably explains why I entered the world of classical via modern minimalists like Glass / Reich etc. I instinctively like something to count (I used to play bass in a rock band), and I love the fact that people like Glass and Reich keep shifting time signature and moving the downbeat around. Glass's Music in 12 parts is amazing for this, its like playing 'Where's Waldo' with the downbeat…

    Vivaldi is on my to do list – I have a 10 LP box (Academy of St Martin-in-the-fields / Argo) currently residing in my previously mentioned in tray.

    It is the counterpoint that interests me with Bach – it is the distance between the various strands and how they interlink with one another that contains the magic. I'd probably hoof the stuff out the window out of boredom if I could only follow one strand. In a way it works like really good electronica such as Plaid or LSG for me.

    Sounds like I came from a similar background, my dad has a strong interest in classical music and at the stage when I was growing up he even had a grand piano in the front room (a room that was barely bigger than a grand piano). He played the organ at the local church. My reaction was to become a punk, an atheist and a bass player in a rock band….

    Tony.
     
    TonyL, Dec 7, 2003
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    michaelab desafinado

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    Absolutely :)

    "Those huge chords" might well be involved but modulation is basically when the music changes key, in Romantic music this is often done for dramatic effect eg by raising the key one semitone (a "chromatic" modulation). Puccini was an absolute master at this and used it to great effect in many of his famous arias. It rarely fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and often nearly brings me to tears even though I've heard them dozens of times.

    Much pop music on the, shall we say, cheesier end of the spectrum has copied this basic chromatic modulation for similar effect. There are hundreds of pop love songs and "power ballads" where the chorus is repeated a semitone higher to give it more emphasis or a more "tragic" feel.

    Of course there are many other types of modulation like changes from major to minor which can also be very dramatic.

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Dec 7, 2003
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    TonyL Club Krautrock Plinque

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    Aha, in other words what us humble rock punters would call 'moving it all up one fret' ;)

    Tony.
     
    TonyL, Dec 7, 2003
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    GrahamN

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    and

    Well....sort of. Modulation actually means "the process of changing key", and normally such that when you get there it "feels right". So this is something much more significant than just playing a different chord (even though the principal relationships are those exploited to 'great' effect by Status Quo!).

    In the early days of "Classical" (using the strict definition of later 18th cent music), the principal modulations were between tonic and dominant, sub-dominant or relative minor (e.g. C, G, F and Am respectively), where the shift involves changing only one note (i.e. sharpen the 4th, flatten the 7th, or sharpened 5th for the minor..ish). Shifting by one semitone is about as remote a key relationship as you can get (pretty much no notes are shared between the two keys) - and would have been a complete no-no until the latter 19th cent. In the standard first movement (sonata) form, the first theme would be in the tonic, the second in the dominant, the development would investigate a few more keys, and the reprise would be pretty much all in the tonic.

    Beethoven basically stuck with this plan, but pushed things pretty seriously in the development sections, and would frequently just lurch into something he fancied for dramatic effect (e.g. in the finale of the 8th symphony). Schubert also had a few interesting takes on this process. This was developed throughout the 19th cent with modulations getting more and more ingenious and remote. One of the distinctive things about Wagner was his use of chromatic and "enharmonic" modulations, where he just picks one note (or chord) from the current key that is shared with a completely different key (often by relabelling eg G#=Ab), then constructs a chord in the new key sharing that note, then slides off into the new direction. This gives the constantly shifting and disturbing nature to his sound that so enlivens the extremely simple themes he uses (generally based on simple scales or triads).

    The "big chords" in Bruckner are his take on the contrasting natures of themes using in sonata form, which are generally characteristed as a muscular first theme/group and a more reflective 2nd theme/group. Bruckner sort of made up his own rules for form, but took this character split to extremes, using the self-explanatory names for first group "Urthema" and the second "gesangsperiode". The "Ur" nature of his themes is pretty obvious, rising in most cases from virtually nothing to good wall-shaking stuff (all inspired by the opening of Beethoven's Ninth). Absolutely useless as background music though!
     
    GrahamN, Dec 7, 2003
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    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Thank you all for the feedback.

    Regarding modulation i have little to add to what has already been said but perhaps metaphors can be illuminating. Usually a piece begins on a given tone – C major, A minor, F major, D minor, and so on. Let's think of C major for simplicity. The nature of the tone is given by its modality which is (mainly) defined by C-E-G, the major triad. That is a very stable chord; but when you begin to modulate, you move to another bases and you get a sense of unbalance. Usually, the piece may modulate as far as the composer wants it to modulate, but every time you modulate further from C major (ceg) you feel further unbalance. Usually, music then resolves into the main tone, and it ends again in C major.

    Metaphorically, I think one can imagine a straight, horizontal line as the main tone; modulation makes it less straight (as when you are in a ship and the sea is agitated), and further agitation gets you further away from the resting point. Of course it is much more complex as this, because there are unbalanced positions which seem more balanced than others (that has to do with tonality: the dominant and the subdominant are rather balanced perturbations to the equilibrium point. Usually, modulation is progressive: the new tone will have many notes in common with the preceding one, and that is why you sense it as a disequilibrium. But if you modulate from C major to C sharp major you will get a sense of non continuity, of rupture, because there are no notes shared between the two tonalities.

    Enharmonical modulation I can only explain by using language as a metaphor. Tones motto is 'The man you a golden ear trumpet'. This is funny because you read it as 'the man with a golden ear' – that has a certain meaning, his keen hearing capabilities; but then he goes on and adds 'trumpet'. Now, 'ear trumpet' has another meaning altogether, it means he is half deaf. So you have a pun built upon the word 'ear': 'Golden ear' and 'Ear trumpet'. Therefore, the phrase could be conceptualized as [the man with golden (ear] trumpet).

    What as that to do with music? That is because due to equal temperament, G sharp and A flat are actually the same note, but in different contexts. So you can use G sharp as both the ending of a phrase and A flat as the beginning of another one. Because there are enharmonical chords, this functions in a much more complex way. And, as Graham as pointed out, that is what makes Wagner's music so oppressive: it seems you can never get to the equilibrium point again. That is called perpetual modulation (or continual modulation).

    Both Bruckner and Mahler made use of this device, but Mahler actually went a bit further and lay the grounding for Schoenberg – if major and minor tones are continually intermingling there is no real sense in keeping them. Hence dodecaphonism. But that is another story.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Dec 7, 2003
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    TonyL Club Krautrock Plinque

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    Thanks for the above, I understand what you mean, I just lack the terminology as my limited musical knowledge is entirely self taught (I play by ear and rarely know what note I'm playing – I just figure it out if anyone asks!).

    That other story is actually really interesting, so I'll pick your brains… My understanding of serial or tone row music is that:

    a) You have to play all 12 notes before you can use the same one again.

    b) You can stack the notes into chords, thus getting through the 12 a bit quicker.

    c) You can invert them.

    I understand a) and b) but don't get what c) is, unless that just means you can play them in any octave you want. Am I on the right track here? I'd love to grasp the theory of this music as I really like much of the music it has created.

    Tony.
     
    TonyL, Dec 7, 2003
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    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    I don't really know a lot about serialism, so perhaps other members could explain it better.

    But the question is that notes, by themselves, are not fixed: *intervals* are. So if you have a series of 12 tones (dodecaphonism) you may invert it (like in a mirror: what went up now goes down) or retrograde it (play it from the end to the beginning). Also, you can transpose the whole series to any of the 12 degrees, which gives you 48 possibilities of different 'melodies' with a single series.

    Not all serial music is so strict. Webern was, and his music is a joy to analyze; Alban Berg took many exceptions to the constructive rules and that is why his music (his late music) is that much more approachable.

    Also, your series must not necessarily have 12 tones – that's dodecaphonism. It may have fewer tones, in which case it is called serialism.

    In my opinion, Berg and Webern made impressive music *in spite of* serialism. The principle in itself seems rather bogus to me; also, you can make quite listenable music using serialism if only you avoid dissonances – Schönberg avoided consonances, you see.

    Hope it helps.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Dec 7, 2003
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    GrahamN

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    I have to confess I find TonyL's musical journey quite mystifying, but all power to you. I agree with RdS that Berg did manage to write some fine stuff (e.g. Lulu and the Lyric Suite) despite the tutelage of Schoenberg - primarily by breaking all the rules, I find him most enjoyable when he sounds like overheated (if that's possible) Mahler. Anyway, I found this brief introduction to dodecaphonic serialism, which seems to have a few other references if you want to take it further.

    [rant mode]
    I find Schoenberg's cardinal sin, explained in that into, his methodical excision of the principal features that everything that makes music natural (recognisably consonant intervals must be avoided at all costs, rhythms must be irregular etc). To my mind dodecaphonic serialism is a complete dead end and the prime reason that contemporary classical music has so lost touch with the general public and languishes so badly in the doldrums, kept alive only in the dubious waters of film and TV music, and only now being resuscitated by the minimalists (although for how long I'm not sure). His pre-serial stuff is lovely though - Verklaerte Nacht is just sublime. Maybe I'll conceed that it was a necessary step to clear the palette after the hot-house of late-romanticism, but we should never confuse the sorbet course(s) in a substantial meal as anything other than interludes between the real delights
    [/rant mode]

    There are instances of 12-tone sequences in various pre-20th cent works, e.g. IIRC when Mozart shows the Commendatore in to Don Giovanni, the main Faust theme in Liszt's eponymous symphony, also pilfered by Wagner for Walkure, and I even remember something about Bach writing a fugue or two with all 12 semintones in the subject - RdS will no doubt expand on or correct this. The difference is that these sequences are just themes about which more or less conventional developments and harmonies are woven, rather than according to the (rather sterile ;) ) serial theory.

    The Inversion and Retrograde types of variation are nothing new, being of course crucial to fugal writing (and probably why RdS has a higher opinion of Webern than do I) Probably the most famous instance of inversion variation (coupled with augmentation, playing everything at half speed or slower) is the "Brief encounter" variation of Rachmaninov's Paganini Vars - where the perky, upwardly tending Paganini theme is turned into that grand lush downwardly tending tune.
     
    GrahamN, Dec 7, 2003
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    titian

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    I find TonyL's musical journey very abnormal but so much interesting. I came instead from romantic music and went to baroque and so on. After RdS brilliant post I see the reason why it was so easy. Also it was easier for me than other people because I got at the beginning the music very cheaply: stealing MCs from the shop and listening at home.:rolleyes: :(
    Well that was the time when we didn't have any money at all. Anyway good that they caught me quick enough before it came an habit. :SWMBO:
    Then I changed to recording everything possible from the radio to the MC...
    But actually it is not for writing this that I am posting..

    In this forum I never ever hear about Debussy, Ravel and then going to de Falla... It seems that the "impressionisme" (different than post romantic) is banded over here. I am sure RdS knows much about it and can maybe put some few thoughts about it in the same context as his brilliant posting in this thread.
    thanks
     
    titian, Dec 7, 2003
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    michaelab desafinado

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    Certainly not! I'm a huge fan ot the "impressioninsts". Ravel, Debussy are two of my favourite composers but I tend to lump them in either with "Romantic" or "early 20th century" (which they are). From the same (roughly) period I also really like Scriabin, Sibelius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst and of course my favourite of all, Rachmaninov.

    Michael.
     
    michaelab, Dec 7, 2003
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    titian

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    Maybe Ravel and Debussy are your favourite composers but still they aren't mentioned vey often here (well now once more:D ).
    Debussy mostly, I cannot compare it with any of the other composers you mentioned except for maybe Vaughan Williams or Sibelius. And to put them under "Romantic".. :JPS: :JOEL: :inferno:
    Well you're also right, but nevertheless.

    And talking about coposers which are not mentioned: I am actually listening to Granados's Goyescas with Alicia de Larrocha.
     
    titian, Dec 7, 2003
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