by Rachel Steenson
Before starting as an intern for Hear Nebraska, I was unsure of HN’s daily operations. I had seen the articles, the statewide music calendar of events and the forums, but I was looking to contribute in a way that related to my training as a classical bassist. As I scoured the website for familiar territory, I noticed a shortage of classical music-related material in the website archives. I managed to find some concert reviews and articles, but the obvious majority of HN’s content focused upon the more comfortable spheres of indie, folk and rock.
Though I grew up playing in various Nebraskan youth orchestras, I cannot pretend to know everything about the local classical scene. What I can do is to provide the HN community with a starting place of a few terms and definitions (a prelude if you will) to get you started on a path toward understanding the classical music world.
1. Symphony: A symphony is a type of an orchestra, or a large group of musicians with typically several players of the same instrument on each part. A modern symphony as we know it today incorporates strings (first and second violin, viola, cello, and bass), woodwinds (flute, piccolo, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon), brass (trumpet, trombone, French horn, and tuba), and percussion (timpani, drums, chimes, marimba, garbage lids, metal wheels, triangles, and anything else that makes a sound when struck).
A symphony has a conductor, whose job entails controlling the tempo, cuing entrances and shaping the music. A symphony is also a type of composition, typically with four related movements with varying meters and tempos. (By tradition, audience members do not clap between movements of a classical performance. When in doubt, wait to clap until the conductor turns around and faces the audience.)
A symphony’s standard fare includes both "classical" and "pops" pieces. (Note: Pop singers sing songs, classical musicians perform pieces). Today, the term "classical" is used to describe all traditional music, when in actuality classical is only one era of music’s history. All music ensembles play music from the following eras (with a respected composer from each):
— Medieval (500-1400)* (Hildegard of Bingen)
— Renaissance (1400-1600) (Thomas Tallis)
— Baroque (1600-1760) (J.S. Bach) "Contrapunctus I" from Art of the Fugue
— Classical (1730-1820) (W. A. Mozart) "Overture" from The Marriage of Figaro
— Romantic (1815-1910) (L. van Beethoven) "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9 in D minor
— 20th century (1900-2000) (Claude Debussy) Prelude from The Afternoon of a Faun
— Contemporary (1975-present) (Philip Glass) "Company"
— 21st Century (2000-present) (Joan Tower)
(*Note: the given dates are still highly debated and up for interpretation.)
Pops music is more akin to movie scores and Broadway hits. Put simply, it is commercial music. Within the genre of pops exists a wide variety of music, from the “Theme from Indiana Jones” to sambas, from a Cats medley to Irving Berlin.
2. Chamber orchestra: a small orchestra, much smaller than a full symphony. Chamber orchestras were especially common in the 16th and 17th centuries, with generally only strings and continuo (type of accompaniment, usually harpsichord — an early piano — and/or cello and bass viol (an early string bass). They have continued to develop, growing in size and diversity of instruments, but their purpose remains about the same: to provide music in an intimate space.
3. Chamber music: Music that is written specifically for small groups, called chamber ensembles. Chamber ensembles (translated: small groups) play chamber music. The most common type of chamber ensemble is a string quartet composed of a first violin, a second violin, a viola, and a cello. (While we are on the subject, first and second violins have no physical difference, but play different parts for the sake of harmony and balance.) Instead of relying on a conductor, chamber ensembles use movement and eye contact to communicate within a piece.
I know that at times classical music can seem like an exclusive club of people using unfamiliar code words that make their conversation completely inaccessible. I hope this guide will have made you feel prepared enough to go out and give a local concert a try. No matter the ensemble, a recording cannot compare to a live concert. Finally, know that it may take a few listens in order to decide if you like the piece or not. Classical music can be like cocktails: you may have to sample many to find one you like. Do not be dismayed if you don’t like the taste at first — some varieties can take several samplings for your palate to appreciate it.
Best of luck, and happy tasting.
Rachel Steenson is a Hear Nebraska intern. She wonders who started cutting onions while she was watching that "Ode to Joy" video. You can contact her at email@example.com.