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What IS Classical Music?


When I was a very young boy I often heard it said that my parents "loved classical music". This term, "classical" (applied to music), became imbedded in my sub-conscious to mean something rather better than other kinds of music. In those days (1940s) the implication was that if music wasn't classical it might be jazz. (What is jazz, do I hear someone ask?) The boundaries have become blurred since then.


Beethoven was "classical music" par excellence; and Chopin - a name most of my acquaintances at the time had difficulty in pronouncing - was also pretty "classical" (though to a lesser degree than Beethoven since he wrote accessable music mainly for the piano). In my youth I was labelled, likewise, a "classical music" enthusiast and a race apart from the rest of humanity. I resented this label for the reason that I enjoyed jazz and was considered in my youth something of a jazzy pianist. Jazz has now taken its rightful place in the history of music and is just as entitled to be called classical as is the other stuff.


There is the added problem in that the word classical gets confused with the word classic itself. There are classics in all walks of creative life both ancient and not so ancient. It is quite clear that when people use the phrase classical music, classical has nothing to do with a classic work of art. No, classical music is a term used by the masses to denote a species of music likely to be beyond their comrpehension. For most people, I fancy, music is associated with enjoyment at most and is a side issue (background or wallpaper) at worse.


I have struggled all my life to find a way of distinguishing between branches of music that could be designated under such headings as "pop" (for popular - as if classical music isn't popular!) and "serious" music. "Pop" may be defined through its appeal to a certain class of individual, its commercial outlets and its treatment by the media etc. Anything that isn't "pop" might be thought of by the public at large as classical music. But what name to give it? "Serious" will not do. Quite apart from the pomposity such a word engenders, would one, for example, regard the more frolicsome numbers of Brahms's Hungarian Dances as serious? That great general public would, if asked, categorize Albert Roussel as a "serious composer". But was Roussel any more serious about his craft than, say, Joplin?


What word, then? Imagine yourself going into a record shop in some large town where you hope to acquire a recording of a piece by, say, Benjamin Britten. You ask, "... do you stock recordings of music by Britten?" There's no need to say whether Britten is "serious" or "classical" or anything. It appears from this that one might do without the terminology all together. But there are circumstances in which this won't do, or will it? Somebody wants to know what kind of musician I am. I play (on the piano) all sorts, but for a living I play the likes of Haydn and Schubert - I am "serious" Then, for an encore, I put in one of those Hungarian Dances. I am no longer serious to some and still serious to others.


The dilemma is apparent. It is summed up in that little aphorism: "one person's quiet smoke is another's drinking water". So I find myself, at last, lunging for a name for this breed of music with which I am mostly associated - let us call it "musica-tolerabilis". If nothing else, it will introduce an element of stability into the argument - music that endures and is endurable! In that way I would get Scott Joplin and many others into my repertoire, which would satisfy me, but not that wretched "man in the street", I guess. Ultimately, I give up. But I still refuse to use the term "classical music".



What IS Pianoforte Tone?



JCV with a 6' 8" Bechstein grand circa 1895

Westness House, Rousay, Orkney


There is a curious notion held by many advocates for the modern concert grand pianoforte typified by Steinway, that this represents the acme of pianoforte manufacture implying that all instruments of the class, pianoforte, originating with the early fortepianos of the late 18th century were in some ways inferior or a compromise to an ideal. This explains why some argue that Beethoven, for example, would be delighted to have heard his pianoforte music performed on the modern instrument.

I cannot speak for Beethoven, of course, but what appears obvious to me is that had the modern pianoforte been accessible to Beethoven, and other composers of or around that time, the music they might have composed for the instrument would have been substantially different from the music they composed for the instruments of their day. The reasons for this will be found in the following discussion.

"The wonderful noble tone, its ideal pliability, together with the incomparable touch of the Bechstein Grand, always inspire me to enthusiasm; on these instruments the artist must be able to reach the height of perfection."


The above is attributed to Sergei Rachmaninoff as featured in a small booklet issued by the firm of BECHSTEIN in the 1970s.


We all know, I should think, that Rachmaninoff played almost exclusively on Steinway pianos. I have no doubt in my own mind that the Steinway piano of the time would have suited Rachmaninoff well, possibly to the exclusion of other makes then available. Rachmaninoff’s association at a personal level with the Steinway firm is also well known.


But the scene has never been as clear as one would like. What I am saying is that for many years going back into the previous century, in fact, there have been jealousies between pianoforte manufacturers that have spilled over onto the concert platform. Artur Schnabel, during his first tour of the United States, found difficulties securing a piano that suited his purpose(2). Steinway insisted that were they to equip him with one of their pianos then he would be obliged to use their instruments thereafter in Europe (and, presumably, elsewhere). The upshot was that Bechstein sent out two concert grands to America complete with technician. Schnabel after the Second World War used Steinway, but by then the house of Bechstein in Berlin had been destroyed, as had the factories of other fine European makers of pianofortes.


Bechstein never recovered from the war to achieve the same high standard and consistency of manufacture that it had enjoyed for at least three generations up to then. Moreover, in the common lot of business take-overs, Bechstein lost its identity.

It has often been suggested to me that Bechstein would never have been the first choice of a pianist virtuoso. There may be something in that, but it is a fact that one of the post-Second World War's greatest exponents of Liszt, Jorge Bolet, preferred Bechstein, and later, as a result of amalgamation, Baldwin. And there are any number of pianists today who use Bösendorfer and Yamaha, for example, out of preference despite what may be assumed from the illustrated booklets accompanying the "Great PIANISTS of the 20 Century" recordings sponsored by Philips, Steinway and others.


I make a distinction between the pianos Rachmaninoff would have used and those available today. My own experience as a concert tuner, where I have encountered the full gamut of pianos likely to appear on the concert platform, is that things are not so straightforward as they may appear to the listening public. It would be futile to complain that commercial interests interpose themselves between the artist and his or her public simply because that has always been a fact of musical life. As a performer myself I had a certain amount of independence due to the fact that I had control over the instruments I used right down to the rebuilding, ownership and preparation of them for any occasion. But then I was never dependent for a living upon my playing, neither was I ever in the "first rank" of performers anyway. However, it interested me a great deal to have the listener's reaction when the artists themselves dictated the choice of instrument for a given work. For example, a number of singers and soloists commented favourably to me on the suitability of smaller grand pianos, with their less strident tone, for accompanying.


One of the problems we face in the case of recordings is the positioning of microphones. Where a microphone is placed in relation to any musical instrument is crucial for the outcome of the recording. I used to have severe disagreements with technicians when I insisted that the microphone should take up a similar position to the human ear, preferably the ears belonging to the audience! To demonstrate this I have used a microphone inside the open lid of my BECHSTEIN mod. "C" (7’ 3”) grand to produce "sounds" that could be confused with any number of other pianoforte manufacturer's instruments. With the microphone placed in the hall, or on the stage at some little distance from the piano, the BECHSTEIN was restored to its own voice.


I am sure I am not alone in finding a great number of modern pianos tonally unsatisfactory. I am not going to involve myself here with the arguments as to what might be used to render piano music from the previous two centuries, but shall limit myself to saying what it is that disturbs me most about such pianos.


Piano tone.


Musicians and critics alike

acclaim pianism and pianists

as if the instrument had no role to play;

It is assumed, instead, the pianos they use

have all the attributes modern technology affords,

whereas all I hear in these Modern grands is:

a thumping, verbose, voluminous heaving bass,

tenors that clank, jingle and jar,

trebles that spit, twinkle and crackle.


Are we being reasonable to suppose that works composed for the instruments of nearly 200 years ago can be rendered faithfully on the instruments of today? Take the well-known C major Sonata Op. 53 ("Waldstein") of Beethoven. The first movement is marked Allegro con brio. To articulate the quavers at this speed is not feasible on a modern instrument. Why? Simply because the tone does not have time to fade. The efficient damping on a modern piano should be second to none but this is not the point. (Also we exclude any consideration of the weight of hammers and double action with "fierce" hammer set-off and drop.) The point is that this fading, or die-away, is a dynamic that the ear and brain can discern when a modern instrument is compared to one of seventy or so years ago. The Bechsteins that Schnabel was using in the first half of the 20th century, for example, had a die-away curve more akin to that of a fortepiano than do the instruments of today.


There is a model "C" by a certain manufacturer, which in general shows these "faults" at their worst. This is limited almost exclusively to pianos manufactured over the past sixty years. We had one at the music department in Aberystwyth that was untamable no matter what we did to hammers, strings and so forth. An identical instrument from the 1890s at Hereford behaved quite differently and was a joy to play.



JCV with a Steinway mod "C", Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall, Orkney. June 2013.


Clearly a number of critics would not understand what I am talking about. Two musicians for whom I have the highest regard, Gervase de Payer and Gwenneth Pryor, have a recording on Chandos of the two Clarinet Sonatas by Brahms. This recording holds a Penguin three star Guide Award. Whatever the merits of the performance, the recording is marred for me by the piano's splintered tone (what Bolet and I used to call the "glass chandelier effect"). To hear the sounds, as I would like to hear them, listen to George Pieterson and Hepzibah Menuhin on Philips.


Wading through the five-hundred or so pages of Ezra Pound and Music, The Complete Criticism (Pound wrote under the name of William Atherling), I was interested to find the author of much the same opinion as I am as to the "tone deafness" of some musicians. It is also interesting to note from, Appendix II, Glossary of important musical personalities, the omission of Schubert, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Frankel, but the inclusion of any number of other names from Peirol (circa 1180 - 1220) to Bartok including: Haydn, Mozart (who has heard of Mozart?), Beethoven and Barbirolli. I mention this since not many people appear to be aware of Pound's musical connections which were extensive and many faceted. 


*From a lecture series of the same title given in the Music Department, Aberystwyth (1987) for the Extra Mural Department of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.




1 Hans Von Bülow: Neue Briefe: Drei Masken Verlag A. G. München, 1927.


2 Artur Schnabel: My Life and Music: Colin Smythe, 1970.



John C Vetterlein

2001 February 26


The writer has reviewed performance and recordings for the Rachmaninoff Society.


Franz Joseph Haydn - a tribute John (C) Vetterlein



Joseph Haydn was born at Rohrau, a small hamlet in Lower Austria, in 1732. The great Johann Sebastian Bach was a mere forty-seven years old and his fifth son, Carl Phillip Emanuel (who was to have considerable influence on Haydn) and Gluck were just eighteen years of age. Remarkably two other highly important composers were also very active and were exactly the same age as the older Bach. They were George Frederick Handel and Dominico Scarlatti. Woolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with whom Haydn's name is often bracketed, was born twenty-four years later.
Haydn did not come from an immediate family background of music, as did Bach, Mozart; nor was there a dynasty of musical Haydns as there were Bachs or Scarlattis. Haydn's father was a wheelwright by trade but with musical interests and there was much musical activity in the background. Quite early on it was apparent that the young Haydn had strong musical tendencies so that by the age of eight he was entered into the cathedral school of St Peters in Vienna. Here for the next eight years Haydn acquired an all-round grounding in music. By the time he was sixteen, his voice breaking, the lad was in some danger of castration, which was not an uncommon practice in those days in order to retain the singing voice of a young gentleman to be. Haydn escaped this fate, as he had also escaped the prospect of becoming a member of the priesthood. Instead, his brother Michael took his place in the choir and Haydn was left to make his own way in the world.

For the next ten years, the life of one of this world's finest composers lay in the lap of the gods. Only through hard work in difficult circumstances, together with a strong sense of self-belief, did Haydn raise himself into a position to be regarded as a musician worthy of notice. Mozart was born in January 1956 at Salzburg, the son of a court musician of stature working for a local Archbishop. At that time Haydn, now twenty-four, was eking out a living in Vienna from teaching and a variety of other minor activities.
Three years later in 1759, Haydn entered the employment of Count Morzin. By then he had been composing for a number of years, mostly small pieces variously called serenades or divertimenti. His first symphony was written during his time with the Count and in 1760 he married the sister of his first love (who had entered a nunnery). It should be said at the outset that this marriage was unfortunate, if not a disaster, though the couple remained together until separated by the death of Anna Maria in the year 1800.

The great event in Haydn's career came in May of 1761 when he joined the staff of the House of Esterhazy as vice-Kapielmaster. The following year Prince Paul Anton died and brother Nicholas became Haydn's employer. Thus began a long and fruitful period of compositional and performance activity, at the heart of which were the untiring efforts of Haydn who was soon to become full Kapelmiester. By then, both his parents were dead.
The following eight years were to see Haydn composing in a number of genres including opera, religious choral works, symphonies, keyboard sonatas and trios. But Haydn's terms of contract were exacting and would have daunted a lesser man. It would appear that not only did Haydn possess a natural ability for hard work but also by nature he seemed capable of managing affairs within the Esterhazy palaces at the level of a diplomat.

In 1770 Beethoven was born. By then Haydn had completed his set of six quartets, Opus 17. Just a year later Haydn brought out another set of six quartets known as Opus 20, and which should be regarded as the threshold of his emerging genius. Thereafter his progress can only be described as phenomenal.

I have focused at this stage on the string quartets, rather than the symphonies, for a number of reasons, the chief of which has to do with form. As early as Op. 1 Haydn had more or less decided upon a four movement work. A similar resolution was not apparent with the symphonies. In general four movements would be adopted for both quartets and symphonies but even as late as 1778, or thereabouts, we have a hybrid symphony in No. 63. On the other hand, although the quartets have four movements, there is no conformity in respect of the order of movements (quick - slow) or in the structure of individual movements (variations etc.). Both Haydn and Mozart (why not include Beethoven?) appear to have caused problems for some musicologists when it comes to the ordering of movements in a string quartet. (See Haydn: The Eternal Experimenter - JCV.)

Haydn had reached a level of maturity in respect of the string quartet much earlier than with any other genre. There is nothing in the symphonies of the period to compare with Op 9/4, for example. The reasons for this approach have been discussed by Robbins Landon and others. Landon states: "after Opus 9, composed towards the end of the 'sixties [1760s] Haydn's quartets seldom reflect the fluctuations of style and inspiration in all other branches of his art. It is significant that the long period of commercial writing, beginning in the year 1774 and ending shortly before The Seven Words in 1785, had comparatively little effect on the six quartets Opus 33, published in 1781. It is, indeed, possible to construe this as a deliberate result of the high regard in which the composer held the form:" Landon then continues his argument to hold for the late-period vocal works, and "it seems quite obvious Haydn regarded both the mass and the quartet as too sacred (the one for religious and the other for personal reasons) to be submitted to the changing demands of his daily artistic life".
This is an interesting theory, and may well hold up under scrutiny, but the important fact is that in both genres Haydn achieved consistently high standards. Of course the early masses do not represent the maturity of the later works, notably the last six masses, in the way that his quartets from Opus 20 stand comparison with Opus 76. Looked at from this point of view, Haydn's output up to at least 1788 (with the appearance of the "Oxford" Symphony, No 92) may be seen as somewhat split between the quartets and the other works. For example, the fine Symphony No. 86 is followed by works of lesser calibre, Symphonies 89 and 91. Such an uneven progression is never apparent in the quartets from long before 1788.

The consistency to be found at one level in Haydn's quartets should not be misconstrued. Within this framework the composer was continually improvising. [Experimenting in the artistic sense is not quite the same thing as when applied to other human activities in which the result might be uncertain. In science the parameters are set by nature - with the creative artist aspirations are driven by the individual.]

It is particularly interesting to compare the late quartets with Haydn's activity in the medium of the keyboard trio. Landen's suggestion that Haydn would not compromise his personal integrity in the case of the quartet does not hold where the trios were concerned - these works were deliberately written for others to play and enjoy with commercial objectives very much in view. Nor did this inhibit Haydn's inventive powers; on the contrary, it could be said that many of the late trios demonstrate a level of forward thinking only equalled by the quartets themselves. [It is extraordinary, therefore, that Schumann (of all people) should have suggested that Haydn had little to offer composers of his era. Schumann's protégé, Brahms, in contrast, held a more enlightened view of Haydn.]

The diversity of Haydn’s approach to the quartet is well illustrated in Opus 64 (published 1790) and the late keyboard trios. Haydn was to become renowned for his monothematic approach. Yet in the Quartet Op. 64/3, and the late E flat Trio Hob. XV. 30, we find a wealth of thematic material within the first movement of each more typical of Mozart and Brahms. (The comparison with Brahms is interesting. Both Haydn and Brahms were addicted to variations but in the main Brahms tended to use less obviously related material within the context of a single sonata form movement. This is well shown in the first movement of the Trio Op. 87 where five main ideas are laid before the listener. In contrast Op. 101’s first movement is built upon a single, short motif much more in the manner of Haydn.)

Continued . . .

Double Act: Johannes Brahms & John C Vetterlein. PDF


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