Classical music is pretty daunting and has a bad rap for being unapproachable and elitist. Most people who know a thing or two about classical music took private lessons at some point during their formative years, so they have an idea of what’s going on. If you’ve never been exposed to classical music, and are curious to learn more, I’ll be posting from time to time a “guide to …” series to introduce you to the world of this complex and long-standing art form.
Here are the Top 10 Classical Music Forms – meaning types of works – you’ll see in a concert program.
This is the moment in an opera where a lead character shows off his or her vocal chops. While it may serve to dramatically enhance the storyline, it’s really for the singer to milk the applause for all it’s worth. Any opera “hit” you’re familiar with is usually an aria, often lifted from an opera and presented in a symphony concert or a concert featuring several singers, each performing arias from various operas. They’re often filled with exciting high notes and the audience goes berserk afterwards.
The cadenza is a chance for the soloist to show off by him/herself during a concerto (see “concerto” definition below). At the end of one or more movements, there comes a dramatic moment where the orchestra stops playing and the soloist goes for it – technically, lyrically, or interpretively, strutting his or her stuff. With an understood musical cue or eye contact, the conductor cues the orchestra to join the soloist to finish off that movement. Most cadenzas are pre-written, but back in Mozart or Beethoven’s day, it was common to compose your own, or if the soloist was like Robin Williams, was improvised on the spot.
The concerto pits a soloist (usually pianist, violinist, or cellist) against the whole orchestra. A concerto highlights both soloist and orchestra, and it’s a chance to see what both can do independently and together. Almost every symphony concert will feature a concerto, and all symphony presenters try and get the most glamorous soloist for their opening night concerts in the fall.
4) Chamber music
Chamber music features a small group of instrumentalists, often three or four, but sometimes up to around eight, with one instrument to a part. There is no conductor for chamber music, as the players are expected to work it out themselves. If a pianist is involved, a page-turner is often required. Chamber music festivals, often held in the summer, are a lot of fun – the atmosphere tends to be more relaxed, the venues more intimate, and you’ll often hear established soloists together. It’s fun for them to play more chamber music than their usual concerto or solo recital gigs, and there’s a buzz in the air, seeing soloists come together like this. Usually an established chamber group is featured too, and you can tell they’re performed together for a while – they breathe together, they phrase together, and that’s a beautiful thing to hear, too. Like rock bands, sometimes a player leaves (and the usual gossip ensues as to why) and a new one is ushered in.
Most works of music are broken up into “movements”. They’re like chapters of a book. The common pace of each movement is fast-slow-fast, like in a sonata or a symphony. The break after each movement gives the players a moment to re-tune their instruments and the audience to clear their throats and quickly unwrap cough candies. The moment after a movement makes novice audience members nervous: “Do we clap?” Technically, no, and there are times where it’s definitely better to enjoy the silence in between movements. Purists dislike mid-piece applause. Sometimes, though, like at the end of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, it is so exciting, the pianist will wonder if it wasn’t exciting enough if the audience *doesn’t* clap. At the end of the day, most musicians will be grateful the audience bought tickets and came out, so they’ll take the appreciation regardless of timing.
A composition for solo instrument, and if it’s not for the piano, then it’s usually accompanied by the piano. It’s usually written in three or four moments. They take forever to memorize. So many notes.
Opera features performers enacting dramatic plots via their singing either big melodies (arias, defined above) or semi-sung/spoken moments of dialogue, called recitative. Costumes, sets, staging and a full orchestra are involved. They come in all varieties, from the light comic operas to the most epic and time-consuming that goes on for hours. The most theatrical license by far exists for opera – the voice ultimately decides the casting.
8) Opus (or Op.)
This is a “work number” assigned to a classical work, or a set of works, to group the chronological order of the composer’s works. It’s a cataloguing system especially for composers who wrote prolifically.
In the old days – like the 17th century – the overture served as the lobby “gong” to signal the audience to take their seats. Later on, it served like a musical “appetizer” – a short introduction before the main event. In opera, the overture was often written last, so it would include a few themes that you’re about to hear in the opera. (Mozart was known for handing out the pages of the overture to the musicians with the ink not yet dry.) Later on, in the 19th century, the overture was written as an independent piece unto itself, which could be programmed in any concert.
This is most confusing of them all. Very loosely, a “symphony” is a large group of string, brass, wind, and percussion players. A work written for this ensemble is usually called a Symphony. A symphony orchestra implies a really big group of players. (Sometimes you’ll hear of a “back-up orchestra” behind a jazz singer – they’re usually much smaller than a classical orchestra). “Philharmonic” is often used if there is more than one large group within one city, and it’s a way to tell them apart. “Orchestra” is always used to refer to the actual players. So you may read of “the orchestra members took several busses for the provincial tour” regardless of them being a “Symphony” or “Philharmonic” as part of the company title.
For fun – the ultimate aria performance:
Luciano singing the “Ah mes amis” aria from “La fille du régiment” by Donizetti. He has no fewer than nine high C’s (which is a scary-hard note for tenors to sing). This is a 1972 live recording at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and predictably, the audience goes wild.
Are there questions you have about classical music you’d like answered? Please email [email protected]