First in a series. Videographer: Paul Harkins.
First in a series. Videographer: Paul Harkins.
In our ongoing efforts aimed at improving the listening skills of people new to classical music, we come to instrumentation. It is helpful in learning to understand a particular piece to be able to identify, just with your ears, which instruments are playing when and what. Putting mental labels on sounds is an aid to our brains in sorting things out.
There are two melodies in Ravel’s “Bolero,” each played twice before alternating with the other. The piece is basically one long crescendo in C, and Ravel sets the melodies in a variety of solo instruments, and then groups of instruments.
For the sound file below (which features a performance of “Bolero” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado), we have added the timings for the entrance of every appearance of the melodies, and the instrument(s) that Ravel has decided will play them. (Later in the piece, when Ravel has large groups of instruments play the melodies, it is difficult to aurally distinguish every single instrument, but you can hear changes in the overall tone color.)
It has come to my attention that some people – friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, folks met at parties – don’t know how to listen to classical music. They are interested in getting into it (some of them), and they would like to try, but they don’t seem to have the slightest idea about where to begin. Maybe their intention to listen to classical music is along the lines of eating more broccoli (i.e. they’ll never do it), but the intention is there. They are usually a little intimidated by the prospect.
I’d like to help. And so, with no small trepidation, I offer the following hints. Call them common sense. Those who already know how to listen to classical music are dismissed.
The first thing you have to know about listening to classical music, and probably the single most important, is that it demands your full attention, like reading a book or watching a movie. People aren’t used to listening to music this way anymore; our lives are busy, fractured and portable. We listen in the car, at the gym, on a walk, at work (while doing something else), as we wash the dishes or talk to someone. That is, we don’t really listen; we use music as soundtrack, or as background to multitasking, or as motivational beat to exercise.
But classical music, to be understood and appreciated, must be foreground. (Some people even find it irritating as background.) It is a narrative in notes. You must follow it, to hear what happens; you must participate in the experience. The best way to listen to it, therefore, is live (when you are more or less forced to), or in a quiet room, alone or with someone who knows not to talk. Turning out the lights doesn’t hurt. Your brain will do most of the rest, whether you know a lot about classical music or nothing at all.
As we discussed in a previous post on the Minuet, classical music doesn’t always have to be as hard as it seems to be. With some simple listening tips, the arcane (seeming) can often become clear.
Let’s take a look at the “rondo.” It is defined as a “musical form in which the first section comes back to frame episodes” (in “The Penguin Companion to Classical Music”). It’s sort of like a pop song, in which the chorus keeps coming back. The word “episodes” in this case just refers to the material in between the returns of the rondo main theme; the episodes are sections where the composers go on little musical adventures.
Rondos end up having forms like this: ABACABA, the “A” being the returning main theme and the other letters being episodes.
Let’s say no more, and listen to a rondo, the last movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Here’s a map, with timings to the video above.
Section A: The main theme of this rondo is heard right at the beginning.
Section B: The first episode starts at 34″.
Section A returns at 2’06”. Notice the pre-echo of the theme before the return.
Section C (second episode) starts at 2’39”.
Section A returns at 4’18”.
Section B (the first episode varied) returns at 4’51”. It leads to solo piano cadenza at 6’23”.
Section A returns in the orchestra at 7:07. The rest is coda, or epilogue.
We sometimes make listening to classical music seem like a more complicated thing than it really needs to be. True, you can always know more about such a rich subject as classical music; but some simple listening tips can go a long way in aiding the novice. For instance, just knowing the names and sounds of the various instruments in a symphony orchestra can help a listener make better sense of what he’s hearing.
So, too, with the form, or structure, of a piece. This is just the way a piece of music is laid out, it’s overall architecture. This, too, can get very complicated fast, but often it isn’t. As with the basic structure of a Minuet, or its descendent, the Scherzo.
The basic structure of a Minuet is A, B, C, A, B, with the letters corresponding to the various sections of the piece. Sections A and B, both repeated the first time around, contain related musical material. Section C, also known as the Trio, has contrasting material and instrumentation, and usually two sections that are repeated as well. Then, it’s back to the top for another run-through of A and B.
It’s all easy to hear, especially once you have some signposts. So here are the timings for the various sections in the minuet above, from Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, “London.”
Section A starts at the top and the repeat starts at 11”.
Section B starts at 20”. The repeat of same starts at 59”.
Section C starts at 1’38”. This section has two parts, both of which are repeated, as you can hear. Section C ends at 3’12”, at which time there is a short transitional section to take us back to the beginning …
The return of Section A begins at 3’27”. It is repeated.
Section B returns at 3’45”. It is not repeated.
(Different conductors make different decisions about repeats when Sections A and B return.)
There you have it. This structure holds true for almost all minuets and scherzos even into the 20th century, though A and B sections are often longer and sometimes there are two Trios.