Saturday, January 08, 2005

A Little Bit of Beethoven in my Life, a Little Bit of Chopin by My Side...

Forewarning: This will only be of interest to those of you who like classical music, especially for the piano.

I love KUSC (FM 91.5, for those of you in the L.A. area). I really do. It's a great classical station, plays a great mix of what I call the "classical top 40" and a more interesting, slightly less played repertory. Nevertheless, today when I was driving home and heard the commentator remark, "Here's a Liszt concert etude that sounds like Chopin," I found myself muttering (yes, I do talk to the radio in the car), "Only to the extent that ALL Liszt sounds like Chopin - which he does and he doesn't." And, as the etude (which I once played, back in the day) unfurled, I found myself thinking, "It sounds more like Schubert, actually. Oh wait, that part sounds a bit like Chopin. Well, but Chopin does sound like Schubert sometimes, only better."

There are four composers from the Romantic period I tend to think of in conjunction with each other, having written some of the greatest piano music since - well, Beethoven: Schubert. Schumann. Chopin. Liszt. And they are flanked by two composers on either side of the 19th century who were also masters of the piano: on one side, Beethoven, of course, granddaddy of them all; on the other, Debussy, their strange and beautiful child. Before today, I'd mentally drawn "lines of influence" that look something like this:

--> Schubert ---> Chopin ---> Liszt
--> Schumann ---> Liszt ---> Debussy

Not to say there isn't a lot of cross-over, as today's experience proved. Still, I stick to my general rules of thumb, below, when I'm listening to something on the radio that sounds mid-19th century Romantic, in the Germanic tradition. (The Slavs have a quite different sound - and they're all late 19th century, anyway. Yes, I know Chopin was Polish, but he doesn't sound like those guys.)

So here are the rules. See how they work for you. (Assuming you don't know a lot more about these composers than I do, which, if you're actually reading this, you probably do.)

1. Sounds like Beethoven: You'll know when it is. Ok, so some early Beethoven sounds like Mozart, and some late Mozart sounds like Beethoven. But generally, Beethoven is Beethoven is Beethoven, a god among angels. (No blasphemy intended.)

2. Sounds like Beethoven, but duller and heavier: Probably Brahms. (Sorry, just not a big Brahms fan.)

3. Sounds like a cross between Beethoven & Chopin: Schubert.

4. Sounds light and sweet and un-tortured: Mendelssohn. He was supposed to have had a happy life, and it shows.

5. Sounds like Chopin: Probably is Chopin. Even more than Beethoven, he has a style you could almost trademark.

6. Sounds like Chopin, only more glittery, with shades of Debussy: Liszt.

7. Sounds, at different moments, like any and all of the above composers (and occasionally even like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, though maybe it's just my imagination): Probably Schumann. (Want an idea of his stylistic range? Listen to his Cello Concerto and his Fantasy for piano back to back: gorgeous pieces both, but unless you're a trained professional you wouldn't necessarily guess they were by the same composer.) Schumann is amazing: my latest obsession in the classical music department. (My last, not surprisingly, was Liszt.)

That's it. No doubt I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about. But hey, I can verify my rules have a pretty good track record, at least for me. I'm dopey enough to actually drive around the block - twice - or park & sit waiting for a classical piece to end on the radio, so I can hear who the composer is.

Ahem. Yes, I do have a life. Better go find it. Still, you could do far worse with your life than listen to these guys, to put it mildly.


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