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This will be the first in an on-going series of diaries on the subject of the western tradition of Classical Music.  In my first diaries, I may duplicate much of what you would learn in a junior college or high school Music Appreciation 101-type class, with explanations of the various forms that classical music takes.  And we'll have fun posting a whole bunch of cribbed Youtubes back and forth!  

But first, let me ask, IS THIS YOU?

If you are new to all of this, and I actually hope you are, you're going to become literate in an art form that was closed to you, and you will have a blast exploring and enjoying and understanding the huge library of western civilization's music that you may have heard before only in the background without really "getting it."  Maybe you think music is music and you either instinctively enjoy it the first time you hear it or it's not your thang.

Thanks to John at Americablog for the video above of his Yorkie, Sasha, watching TV.

I could ask you if you feel like a dog watching TV, but hey, if you did, how would you know?  The whole metaphor depends on you not understanding how much you are missing.  To Sasha, it's a bunch of different images streaming, one after the other, some of them repeating randomly.  

I can think of lots of other metaphors.  Imagine staring out the window of a train going some place, you know not where.  You see trees flashing by, then a water tower, then more trees, then a cross roads with a clanging bell, then a brief view of Mount St. Helens erupting behind a supermarket shopping lot, then another cross roads with lots of cars piled up, more trees, another water tower, another crossroads, people screaming with a pyroclastic flow bearing down on them, then some cherry trees in bloom, then oak trees on fire.  So did you enjoy all those trees?

Trees!  Now there is another good metaphor.  "He can't see the forest for the trees!"  Especially if you don't know there is a forest.  Or what shape it is, or where the rivers are, where the grizzlies, the first aid station, the looming forest fire, etc.  

I had a good friend once that I played a symphony for.  She told me afterward that she enjoyed it, although she didn't really understand it all; that it was like being washed over by a beautiful mix of sounds and images.  I feel that way too, sometimes, when I listen to a piece of music I've never heard before or never really got into enough to grasp it.  That's normal.  Our goal is to learn to not listen to music as a series of disjointed albeit enjoyable sounds and images but to hear the coherent whole of it, the story and drama that carries it forward from beginning to end, that gives it a point.  If you're being washed over by the pretty sounds, you haven't heard the music yet.  Unexpected pleasures may await you.

So I want to start by talking about probably the single most important lesson in understanding and appreciating classical music from about 1750 up to today: Sonata-allegro form, also called just Sonata form.  I'm going to post an example of this soon enough.  Symphonies and piano sonatas and concertos and quartets and quintets and divertimenti are all examples of what are called sonatas.  They all follow a fairly typical format with three or four separate movements.  And the very first movement is almost always in a form called Sonata-allegro form.  

Excuse me for having to introduce musical jargon, but, if it's necessary, well, you know...  If you had grown up in Vienna, Austria in the nineteenth century, hearing Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on every street corner, you would have absorbed the whole lesson from an early age and not need the jargon; Sonata-allegro itself would be part of your inherent cultural baggage, whether you knew the term or not.

So here is a bird's eye view of Sonata-allegro form, the form that the first movement of almost everything takes:

  1. Introduction
  1. Exposition

2a. First theme
2b. Second contrasting theme in a different key.
2c. Codetta

  1. Repeat the whole friggin' Exposition.  (2a, 2b, and 2c).
  1. Development section
  1. Recapitulation

5a. First theme again, just the same as 2a.
5b. Second theme from 2b, changed, back in the home key.

  1. Coda

If you are like me, the first time you see this, you may feel a little surprised.  They are all like this???  That's a very complicated structure.  And a bit strict-looking as well, not allowing for much creativity.  Well, part of the fun of music is seeing how the composer tweaks the rules in this or that piece to give you a surprise.  So if you aren't familiar with the usual format, you may not understand the most dramatic moment of the work.  It might just wash over you.  Like a beautiful pyroclastic flow.

A real Music Appreciation class would now have the obligatory Beethoven's Fifth symphony, first movement, as its lesson model.  I decided not to exploit that poor ol' war horse.  We're going to do another fun piece of music that you may not have already heard beaten to death in so many movies and commercials and disco tunes:


Overture to the Magic Flute,
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.


"Oh, Dear Dumbo, What the flying donut is an overture, and what is a Magic Flute?" you ask.

The Magic Flute is a two hour opera by Mozart that we aren't going to listen to, some reasons being that I don't have space or time to analyze it or explain it, and I'm not enough of an opera buff to do it real justice.  An overture, in this case, is the opening movement that is played before the curtain opens as people are getting settled down and hitting their kids and telling them to shut up and doffing their top hats.  Mozart's overtures are always in Sonata-allegro form, just like the first movement of all his symphonies.  And this is a particularly magnificent example of the form, composed when Mozart was in his prime, in 1791, the same year as his death, in fact, at the ripe old age of thirty-five.  

Thirty-five years.  That's how long geniuses lived in eighteenth century Vienna, Austria.  Go rent the Academy Award winning flick, Amadeus.  We will have a lot more to say about Mozart, and other composers too, in future diaries, but since we are just getting our itsy-bitsy toesies wet, we'll try to stick with the lesson plan today.  

Let's listen to the Magic Flute Overture, all seven minutes of it, and dissect it, naming the parts.  We won't need to do this with every piece of music we listen to on here, but when this is all new, it can be eye opening.  The quality of Youtubes isn't quite what I would like it to be, so, if you want, you can snag a real mp3 somewhere (for instance, 99 cents on Amazon).  However, the timing sequences below will probably differ from that of the Youtube.  And maybe somebody below can link to a an even better quality youtube if they find one.


[Update: If you prefer Mp3 to youtube, you can download a free Mp3 of this and almost any other Mozart piece at Hat tip to Clyde in comments.]



(or direct link, here.)

  1. Introduction.  From 0:00 to 1:28.

The overture begins in E-flat major, unless my guitar here is out of tune.  What is E-flat major?  That doesn't matter, right now.  The introduction itself is slow and stately, stated by the brass and the drums.  It helps us get ready and set for the fast and complicated allegro (Italian for fast) exposition part to come.  

Without wanting to belabor Beethoven's poor lil' fifth, let me point out a difference you might notice right away.  Beethoven's fifth starts out with an eight note introduction: Da-Da-Da-DAAAH!  Da-da-da-DAAAAAAH!  Mozart's introduction to the Magic Flute Overture, on the other hand, is a whole minute and half long, almost a separate piece of music in itself, unconnected to the rest of the music.  In some symphonic pieces, the introduction really IS like a long separate movement of its own.

  1. Exposition begins!  (1:27)

2a. First theme. (1:27 to 2:26)

After a short, expectant lull, the meat of the movement begins, allegro (fast), with a softly spoken main theme that begins dede dede dede diddle-diddle.  This rest of the movement builds itself upon and around this.  The first statement of the theme at 1:28 is in the violins.  Mozart restates the theme again starting at 1:43, and notice how it is being complicated.  The theme is turning into a fugato, an interweaving of the same melody with different parts of itself.  And at 1:59 we finally hear the main theme restated again, this time with the full orchestra at full volume.

(2:26 to 2:35)

At 2:26, the music begins to change key, heading towards B-flat.  What is B-flat?  In true Music-for-Dummies style, let me say it doesn't matter right now, except that you know it sounds a little different from the E-flat we started with.  The second theme is coming up and it will be in B-flat.

And, by the way, if you are aware of this, in the future, when you hear a music piece without the blow-by-blow commentary, you might be better equipped now to notice that the changeover is coming to a second, distinct theme.

2b. Second theme (2:35 to 3:10)

The second theme comes in, now in B-flat major, led by the woodwinds.  Don't worry about dede dede dede diddlediddle though.  Pay attention and you can hear that it's still there, in the background, keeping the second theme company.  This isn't true of every Sonata-allegro movement, but in Sonata-allegro you will often hear little pieces of the first and second themes ripping each other off.  It's one of those wonderful Where is Waldo things about classical music.  You can listen to a piece over and over again on your car radio for years and suddenly notice, "Hey, I think I heard that before... Oh wait, now I get it!  Aha!  Mozart you bastard!"  

Notice also that the second theme is a little more mellow and lyrical (song-like) than the first.  This is VERY, VERY typical in Sonata-allegro movements.  As you will notice in diaries to come, second theme sections tend to be this way, in part, to create a feeling of contrast.  The most heart-rending melodies of a Sonata-allegro movement are often found in the second theme.  This one, however, is just lilting, different in texture, smooth where the first was choppy, pudding where the other was tortilla chips.

2c. Codetta (3:05 to 3:25)

And now we work towards the end of the exposition.  A codetta is a little coda, and coda is the word for tail, or end.  The codetta concludes the exposition, just as the coda, at the very end, will end the movement.  If it sounds like he's wrapping things up here, he is in a way; he is wrapping up the exposition.  It is now a complete part of its own.  

Where before we might have let this wash over us, just a few noisy chords played by the brass and drums, not sure if we should get up and leave or just let it wash us some more until everybody else gets up, we know better now, don't we?  There is more to come.  

  1. Repeat of the exposition.

What?  There is no repeat?  Nope.  Sorry.  I couldn't find a youtube with the repeat included, which is a shame, because a short but incredible Mozart piece like this really deserves it.  Take my word for it, please, that there is USUALLY a repeat of the whole exposition here.  

It became very common during the 20th century for recording labels to remove the repeats from pieces by Beethoven and Mozart as a way to save space on LPs and keep everything under 25 minutes.  To a certain extent, this has also become modern fashion, with repeats left out frequently even in live performances.  However, it's an awful shame to do this to Mozart.  Mozart, unlike other, more analytical composers like Beethoven, put his best work into the exposition and often had short development sections.

(3:30 to 4:05)

The exposition is over, but there is a curious lull.  Three chords are played by the brass, in B-flat, the key at the end of the exposition, expectantly, as if announcing something.  This is Mozart's choice to segue us into the coming development section, which will not be short.

  1. Development section (4:05 to 5:01)

The development begins with our old friend back, dede dede dede diddle diddle.  But there is a feeling of suspense in the air, created by a modulation to a new key.  One of the great distinctions between classical music and modern pop music is the way classical music uses modulations to create drama, tension, a sense of forward movement, and structure.  I quit trying to count how many modulations there are in this development.  We could analyze it bar by bar to see the devices that he used here, but that's not for today's lesson.  We are about forests, not trees, today.  Just revel in it.  

And appreciate how, towards the end of the development, he creates a sense of coming home after a long journey as he finally heads back to the home key and the restatement of the hero of our movement, Sir Dede Dede Dede Diddle Diddle, arriving home in E-flat on his magnificent steed.

  1. Recapitulation begins! (5:01)

5a. First theme again.  (5:01 to 6:01)

And our lovely main theme is back, although it seems a little bit changed from how it began.  Sometimes that is the case in Sonata-allegros.  In many works, maybe even most, especially very early ones, the first theme returns unchanged from its adventures in the development section.  But in the Magic Flute Overture, it returns a little bit jumbled up at first, with the strings trying to state it, and then giving it up to the woodwinds, and from them to the brass, all rather tentatively, before it is taken up loudly and grandly by the full orchestra at 5:17.  

And please note, for future reference, we are back in the home key of the work, E-flat.  No, it doesn't matter right now.  It will in later lessons.  But I hope you are getting the idea -- that the whole work is a movement from a home key, to a different key, and then to a whole bunch of different keys, before returning back in resolution to a home key.  And if you say, "Aw hell, I can't tell one key from another, this is esoteric bullshit," hey, I know where you're coming from because it does sound that way at first; maybe even at second and third.  So we'll skip that debate for now.  

5b. Second theme again.  (6:01 to 6:31)

The lilting second theme repeats, but it, too has changed a little along the way.  Where before it was in the foreign key of B-flat, this time it's in the home key of E-flat, and the bridge connecting the two themes has changed.

  1. Coda (6:31 to 7:00)

And now the end is upon us.  The codetta from the exposition is now the coda.  Some codas are very different or expanded versions of the codetta, but not in this case.  This coda is very similar to the codetta, although the last kettle drum bangs have a more final sound to them, and that's probably a matter of the conductor's taste rather than the composer's.

And because we all understand Sonata-allegro form, we know before the final beat that the movement is over, that we can stretch our legs.  What a difference it makes!  Imagine poor Sasha, wondering whether the tiger is going to come back and get her after the commercial.  Knowing the size and shape of the movement as a whole changes us in our listening.  We know that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and what those sound like.


I should exercise some personal discipline and end here, but nooo...  If you are interested in what happens next in the Magic Flute, you can check out the opening which follows the overture in this youtube of the Magic Flute filmed by Ingmar Bergman.  Yes, that is a singing man running from somebody in what looks like a Barney costume but is probably supposed to be a dragon.

And if you want to hear one of the most famous arias from the Magic Flute, you can listen to the Aria of the Queen of the Night here.  Quite trippy, not the least so because it's supposed to be dramatic and scary and yet it makes you (well, me) feel tickled.  

It occurs to me that of the many adjectives that you can use to describe Mozart's music, (elegant, perfection, rational) that there is a word I would use today that would have made me laugh twenty years ago if I had heard somebody say it.  Mozart is SEXY.  I know, it has a kind of childlike purity in the way it embraces and finds joy in the simplicity of major key chords.  But Mozart makes it sensuous in a way that other composers do not.  His music lingers and toys with the details of tonal beauty.  It can slip by you at times, but he revels in the accidental notes, notes just a half-note too high or too low, that slip down to the correct note immediately afterward in a teasing manner.  Other composers used chromaticism to explore the boundaries of tonality, but Mozart used it to heighten it.  If the music of Wagner is all boots and blood and incest, Mozart's music is sex in a pile of loose feathers.


Final note:  Please correct me when I'm wrong about something.  PLEASE!  I like being corrected, as long as you're not abusive about it and bring my mother into it.  I would love it if this turned into a group exercise.  Also, note that I'm deliberately trying to keep things simple, more simple than they should be, perhaps, in order to help people for whom this is all new.  But that doesn't keep you from elaborating to your heart's content about something  in comments if you so desire.  And feel free to post your own youtubes.  


And a question:  The quality of the youtubes is variable, although I'm content to do things this way.  It would be oh so much nicer, however, if we could legally use mp3 files on a server.  If anybody has dealt with the fair use issues involved (and I'm very certain this qualifies as educational use) perhaps they can make some suggestions that would get us past that obstacle and also past the DailyKos rules obstacle as well.  If/when we get to pieces by composers that really do need high quality audio, like late romantic Mahler or Strauss, it would be a sin to have to resort to youtubes only.  But if that's the case...

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Jul 01, 2010 at 08:25 PM PDT.


Mozart's greatest work is

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