Classical Music: Describing infinite emotions with finite words

Liszt was faster than Keanu Reeves. FACT.

The Great Composers, Part 1

As a huge classical music fan, I have often found myself struggling to express exactly what it is that makes a particular composer unique.  Ever since I first encountered Beethoven at the age of fourteen, this genre of music has redefined how I view the world as well as providing a much needed elixir for meditation in what can, at times, be a chaotic world. For what it’s worth, here is a little encyclopedia of  my observations:

Beethoven: The man who took that neat little book called classical orthodoxy, soaked it in paraffin, and set it alight. Beethoven had no time for regulations, he had no time for anyone else, in fact. Stories that he met Mozart are most probably untrue, but his ability to fill the monumental chasm left by the little Austrian’s untimely absence, is never in doubt. His output was prolific,and above all other composers, he had that special ability to capture monumental sounds, e.g. 5th Symphony, 3rd symphony, etc.

Rather unkindly, Beethoven can often be stereotyped as a loud and thundering composer, and I admit that sometimes I have drifted off with the itunes on, only to wake up with a heart-attack when Ludwig starts beating up those stringed instruments with his baton. But there is also much musical beauty and finesse in his work that makes you think, just sometimes, there’s not a better sound in the world.

Chopin: This is where words fail most of all to capture the artist and their art. Chopin, in an age of flourishing creativity, hit something so pure, so sublime, that he now occupies his own untouchable space in the history of music. While others played the piano, he made it sing, with a beating heart and breath to match. His nocturnes, preludes, etudes and other works all share a unique power: the ability of his right hand to drop the sweetest melody into a musical atmosphere conjured by his left hand. Chopin was also extraordinary in that he stayed romantically loyal to the upright piano. Where other composers branched out into opera, ballet and full blown orchestral works, Chopin was able to make enough money to remain loyal to his favourite instrument, famously shunning the necessity for large scale performances in favour of the intimate setting of the French salons, with their small private audiences.

Another side to Chopin, is of course the illness. There has been much debate as to the extent  this has been exaggerated by future generations looking to intensify the image of the romantic composer.In this respect, I suppose Chopin is very similar to Keats. Both strove for beauty in eloquence, both are depicted as somehow being too fragile for the harsh realities of the nineteenth century. This is probably most unfair. Keats was as politically sharp as the best satirists of his age, and Chopin, far from being the  shy romantic defined by his illness, achieved the status of a child prodigy as a very strong and confident young man in his native Poland.  He was a tough cookie, and his perseverance to capture the EXACT sound as he heard it and felt it is testament to an incredible inner resilience.

Liszt: Where to start? It would be possible to write an encyclopaedia just on a year of his life, let alone all of it. He’s a legend, a first class schmoozer who met just about everyone of note in the nineteenth century, from Salieri (one can almost see the fictional Amadeus version thinking “oh, not again” upon seeing a young Liszt perform) to the Impressionist Manet. Liszt also had flair. That portrait where he is standing, side on to the artist with his arms folded, brooding in a Keanu Reeves-esque outfit, says it all. This was a man of ambition, and phenomenal power. Capable of simply making the instrument sound like it had doubled in length, some of Liszt’s compositions sound as if he had sat down at the piano and his mind had literally exploded.  There’s an impatience lingering behind the melody, a burning hunger to storm onto the next musical discovery and unleash its capability. The story goes that as a young boy he heard the great Saint-Saens tearing up the piano in a public concert, and after seeing this practised over ten hours a day, determined to become the best. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes take some beating when it comes to complexity.

Another wonderful thing about Liszt is that, unlike his good friend Chopin who only left us with a single grainy image at best, he loved to have his picture taken! And who can blame him when you look that good. It’s one of those rare occasions where we are able to compare the accuracy of nineteenth century portraits to twentieth century realism. And even as he moves into old age, Liszt’s face grows ever more fascinating, the lines and wrinkles shaped by years of passionate devotion to music.

Rachmaninoff: In another time, Rachmaninoff would have been slam dunking basketballs and shooting three pointers for the USSR. But he was born in the nineteenth century, and thank goodness, because he added the finishing touches to the romantic period at a time when other composers had begun to run away in search of new pursuits. His prelude in C sharp minor, composed at the still tender age of 19, showed the world two things. One, that Rachmaninoff could find the beauty in the dark notes like no other, and two, that he had MASSIVE hands. Indeed, such was the popularity of this piece, that he came to despise it, for no sooner would he finish a recital of his more recent work, than the audience would beg for an encore of the prelude. That must have been incredibly frustrating, to wish to move creatively forward, but always be held ransom to one of the first things he had invented.

When sixteen, my dad gave me a CD that had a selection of Rachmaninoff’s performance pieces that had been digitally remastered. His rendition of Korsakov’s flight of the bumblebee confirmed a reputation that had long preceded the composer – that he was a PHENOMENAL piano player. Sadly, the other well documented aspect to the great man was his battles with depression. By all accounts, he lived through a difficult time in world history, encountering the Russian revolution as well as two world wars. After moving to America, he never quite got over his sense of home sickness, and his creative output dried up massively, producing only six compositions between 1918 and his death in 1943. When he did go, however, he did it in style. In his last ever concert, he signed off with an unscheduled rendition of Chopin’s Piano Sonato No. 2, his funeral march.

Tchaikovsky: One of perhaps two composers, Saint-Saens being the other, that strayed off the beaten track into the dark, magical forests of musical composition. Tchaikovsky is probably the most easily recognised of all the composers and their repertoire, because his music is filled with the kind of iconicity that makes you think the pieces just wrote themselves. Swan lake, the nutcracker, his piano concerto’s, Romeo and Juliet, 1812 overture – they are all defined in every stroke of every bar as well as any literary character on a page. It is perhaps because of this recognisable trait, that we often see his music set as the backdrop visual events, whether it is the original ballet or a TV car advert.

Mozart: How does one follow Haydn and Bach? They become Mozart, that’s how. The little master has attained a mythical status in the modern age, so much so that to be known as a “Mozart” in any discipline tends to be the highest praise possible to bestow on an individual. So what did Mozart do that was so special? Well he was twenty years ahead of everyone else, which might not seem that much, but when you’re four and smashing established composers out of the concert hall, it sure counts.

How great was he really as a child? Everyone knows that his father, Leopold, was a little on the pushy side. But if one were to merely stroke the primary source evidence, one would unleash a deluge of astonished eye-witnesses who had encountered the Mozarts. He was undoubtedly gifted and far exceeded the cognitive capabilities of someone his age. There is a reason why five year olds do not write symphonies, and it is simply because their brain is still on a journey from the sensory muscle of a baby to the conscious muscle of an adult. It’s not ready for the types of abstract thought required to juggle and organise advanced pieces of music.Yet somehow this boy had the gift.

Perhaps my favorite demonstration of this god-like power comes when Mozart visits the Vatican. The story goes, upon hearing a choral piece sacred to the Church, Mozart was so impressed he quietly went away and wrote it all down. Note for note. After just one sitting. All forty-five minutes of it. Just another day’s work I guess…the Pope wasn’t too happy though…

Mozart may have been unwise with money, but he was also a man, I think, of great compassion. If one were to read his letters, they would discover a sensitive mind attuned very much to the particulars of the world around him. After his mother died, Mozart sent a letter to his father, but delayed delivering the tragic news so as to give Leopold time to adjust.

Holst: In terms of classical musical brilliance, the early twentieth century was a little sparse compared to the latter 19th century. No doubt the other composers were put off by the fact that there weren’t many seats left in the classical pantheon of the greats, and there were two world wars to contend with as well. However, one gem is certainly worst mentioning here, Gustav Holst. He battled great adversity in his illnesses, from a nerve condition that forced him to give up the piano due to limitations of his right hand, to persistent stomach problems, and later on in life a severe concussion from which he never fully recovered. Despite this, he absolutely nailed something spectacular with the Planet’s suite. The first movement, Mars is breathless stuff, capturing in its thunderous beats the nature of the red planet that was named after the bringer of war, as well as the mystery of the surrounding universe. His fourth movement, Jupiter, is completely different, bouncing with enthusiasm and colour. That is until suddenly it hits the sublime, three minutes in, moving with grace, dignity and pure majesty across the strings. We hear not the sound of an orchestra, but the sound of everything that is warm and good in mankind – an extraordinary compositional achievement.

TBA in next edition:








  1. Can’t wait for the next lot. A superb summary which brought the great men back to life. I didn’t know about Saint-Saens inspiring Liszt, who pissed off Salieri. Will you be Promming this year?

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