In past seasons the SummerFest programs aired on UCSD-TV tended to the eclectic, mixing different styles, eras and composers broadly representative of the chamber music genre. This year, we’re focusing on four great masters of the Classical style: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Johannes Brahms.
Some definitions are useful here. We use the term classical music (note the small “c”) colloquially to include all Western “art music” (or “serious music”) from roughly the ninth century to the present, and especially the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. In fact, the loose term classical music encompasses a broad variety of forms, styles, genres, schools, movements, historical periods, and composers. The Classical period (note the capital “C”) highlighted in our programs was predominant from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, and was largely developed in Germany and Austria. It derived from the Baroque period and lead to the Romantic period. The hallmarks of the Classical style include a rejection of the ornamentation of the Baroque in favor of a cleaner, simpler style, one with a lighter texture and concerned with logical development, structural balance, adherence to form, proportion, and “rightness” of phrasing. It was highly organized and melodic music, well suited to the Age of Reason. As is always the case when attempting to strictly define historical periods there was considerable overlap between the different styles, and several well-known composers are considered transitional figures – Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, for example (though it’s been argued that Beethoven is a genre unto himself).
Each of the four composers whose works are performed in our programs made contributions to the development of Classical style. Haydn is considered the key transitional figure from Baroque to Classical; indeed, more than any other composer he may be said to have invented Classical style, and has been called the “Father of Sonata Form.” Mozart, who was a contemporary of Haydn and greatly admired the older man, worked within Classical forms and brought them to an unsurpassed degree of perfection. Schubert, an admirer of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, brought his own innovations to the style and paved the way for the Romantic era that followed. Brahms was a late Classical composer, a Keeper of the Faith who resisted the siren call of Romanticism, fighting a rearguard action against the onslaught of Richard Wagner and his acolytes.
Alas for Brahms, history was on the side of Wagner. Romanticism was followed by modernism, serialism, minimalism, aleatroricism, primitivism, Neoclassicism, New Romanticism, post-modernism, etc., etc. ad nauseam. For a time Classical style fell out of favor – with composers, that is; it never lost its allure for audiences, and by the 1970s younger composers and performers were re-discovering its charms, once again immersing themselves in study of the period and its leading figures. Perhaps they were looking for order amidst the chaos of seventy-plus years of experimentation; or perhaps the older forms were seen as a tonic against the extremely subjective and drily academic nature of much modern music, and a way to reconnect with audiences.
Or perhaps, as SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang (Jimmy) Lin notes, it’s as simple as “a good tune is always a good tune – there’s no substitute,” and the Classical masters offered good tunes in abundance.