The Masculine Geek and Classical Music, Part 2: Form-ation

In my first post, I briefly mentioned that forms are important to classical music.  Not only so that you won’t look like a doofus by referring to every piece as a “song,” but, as you go down the path of becoming literate in classical music, you can identify what is what and why that particular composer chose to write in that form.

First, here’s a short list of some main forms, with definitions:

  1. Song/chanson/Lied. This one is the most obvious.  A song is a sung piece with instrumental accompaniment.  That accompaniment could be the piano (very common), another solo instrument, or even an entire orchestra.  The soloist could be male or female, but there are a sizeable number of songs that are for male voice only (tenor, baritone).  Usually, the composer chose a pre-written text for the song.  Often, it’s something from a well-known poem.  For example, both Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert chose Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poems as text for their songs.  The text could be in any language, though the custom was for the composer to choose something from his own national heritage.  Finally, in the history of classical music, some of the best-known songs come from the German-speaking lands.  Schubert, whom I just mentioned, is the most famous.  His songs are the “Lieder,” which is German for “art song.”
  2. Sonata.  An instrumental work in a handful of movements.  Sonata comes from the Italian verb sonare, which means “to sound.”  A movement is one part of the sonata, with a different tempo (i.e., the speed of the music).  Typically, the Classical (i.e., from the 18th century) sonata has three movements: one fast, one slow, and one fast again.  The sonata came into being in the Baroque period (late 17th and early 18th centuries) and then was refined in the Classical period.  The sonata originally started out as a piece of a few instruments, until it then morphed into just a solo instrument.  Piano sonatas are the most common, and can stand by themselves because the piano stands by itself.  There are also sonatas with other instruments, and these can be with or without piano accompaniment.  Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are the pinnacle of the repertory.
  3. Symphony.  An orchestral work in a handful of movements.  Much like the sonata, the symphony emerged in the Baroque period, but reached its standard form in the Classical period.  Typically, the symphony has three movements (fast, slow, fast), but there are many symphonies with four or more movements.  Four movements were common in the Classical and Romantic periods.  Five or more movements are rare.  Also, over the centuries, the orchestra grew in size to include newer instruments seen only within the orchestra, like the glockenspiel and the triangle.  With the increasing size of the orchestra, composers took advantage and created more robust symphonic pieces.  Some, like Beethoven and Mahler, also included choruses.
  4. Chamber music.  Called “chamber” because the music is composer to be played in a small room setting, instead of in a concert hall.  The name of the piece reflects how many instruments are in it: trio (3), quartet (4), quintet (5), sextet (6), septet (7), octet (8).  The quartet is the most common; octets are very rare.  The string quartet is also the most common and, like the symphony, is one of the hallmarks of a very accomplished composer.  Wolfgang Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Beethoven are well-known for their quartets.  Trios are also fairly common, and can be string or usually with one solo instrument like the piano or violin.  Lastly, the larger the ensemble, the more diverse the chamber music could be, incorporating the piano, string instruments, and wind instruments.
  5. Opera.  Classical music on a grand scale, and probably one of the more intimidating to the newbie because of all that’s involved.  Rest assured, if you’ve heard at least one musical in your life, then you’re somewhat familiar with opera.  Opera is both a musical and stage/theater production, incorporating solo and orchestral instruments, vocal soloists, choruses, and various non-singing or non-speaking roles.  Unlike with musicals, however, opera “stars” often are more common, each one of them having their own periods in which they flourish and their own signature roles.  Opera, as an art form, has been around since the early 17th century, and reached a grand scale with the works of Richard Wagner in the late 19th century.  What makes opera intimidating, usually, is its length (at least three hours for many productions), the music, and the story.  Early operas used classical themes (e.g., Greek gods and goddesses) as the subject, while later operas focused more on secular, every-day themes (e.g., Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro) or on religious themes (e.g., Wagner’s Parsifal).  Remember, though, that it’s about the music in the end, and you can listen to opera without seeing it performed live on the stage.
  6. Oratorio.  Similar to opera, the oratorio is a sung piece with soloists and choruses, but the subject is usually religious (Biblical themes) and there’s no stage production.  Oratorios were fairly common in the Baroque period, but less so in the following centuries.
  7. Names of solo pieces. Examples include fantasy, prelude, capriccio, étude, rhapsody, polonaise, mazurka, etc.  These were more common in the 19th century, and apply more to solo instruments.

So, there you have the list.  It’s by no means exhaustive, but this covers the vast majority of pieces that are out there in the classical music world.

Next time, we get to look at periods such as Baroque and Classical.  In the meantime, go out and find the pieces that I’ve mentioned and start listening.  You don’t have to wait for my permission . . .truly.





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