Book Review - What to Listen for in Music

July 27 2014

I happened to be in a Barnes and Noble one day when I discovered a copy of Aaron Copland’s What to Listen For in Music. This is a great example of why physical storefronts might still be useful - during random browsing sessions, sometimes we can find something useful. It’s amazing to me that over all my years as an amateur musician, I didn’t even know that this book existed. Copland originally wrote this in 1939 and then revised it in 1957. It’s a great introduction to classical music forms from a master musician. It’s well written, easy to understand, and informative. In addition, Copland’s own personality and thoughts come out, so the book doesn’t read like a dry textbook.

The book is generally organized by going over the four primary elements of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color), then going through musical structure and common forms (such as sonatas and theme and variations), and then going through various composition types (such as symphonies and operas). There’s a lot here that was educational for me, particularly on musical forms (for instance, I had no idea that a Passacaglia is actually a theme and variations based on the basso ostinato).

When reading on the Kindle, you can make highlights of passages and they get automatically saved on the device. Reading this book resulted in the most highlighting I’ve ever done. There are many good nuggets of information and some stories that would be really appreciated by classical musicians. Instead of putting down more thoughts on the book, I think it’s more useful to go through some of my notes with my thoughts added.


Some interesting thoughts on composers:

  • Mahler wanted desperately to make the symphony bigger than it was. He enlarged the size of the orchestra to gargantuan proportions, increased the number of movements, introduced the choral body in the Second and Eight, and in general took it upon himself to carry on the traditions of the Beethoven Symphony.
    [XQ: fairly obvious and straightforward observation on Mahler. I love the use of the word “desperately” here.]

  • Debussy, one of the most instinctive musicians who ever lived, was the first composer of our time who dared to make his ear the sole judge of what was good harmonically. With Debussy, analysts found chords that could no longer be explained according to the old harmony. If one had asked Debussy why he used such chords, I am sure he would have given the only possible answer: “I like it that way!” It is as if one composer finally had confidence in his ear.
    [XQ: really interesting and changes slightly how I listen to Debussy. I’ve always been aware that his music is unique, but this is a glowing comment from Copland on just how unique it is.]

  • Richard Wagner was the next great reformer in opera. It was his purpose, as it had been Gluck’s, to rationalize operatic form. He visualized the form as a union of all the arts - to include poetry, the drama, music, and the arts of the stage…He wished to give a new dignity to the operatic form by naming it music drama.
    [XQ: I really like the term “music drama”.]

  • One of the most extraordinary mistakes in music is the example supplied us by Scriabin, the Russian composer of amazing gifts, who died in 1915. The quality of his thematic material was truly individual, truly inspired. But Scriabin, who wrote ten piano sonatas, had the fantastic idea of attempting to put this really new body of feeling in the strait-jacket of the old classical sonata form, recapitulation and all.
    [XQ: I don’t know Scriabin’s music that well. Still, it’s interesting to see Copland call out another composer.]

On musical forms:

  • Three-part form (A-B-A), with slight adaptations, is the generic type form for innumerable pieces, variously named. Some of the most familiar are: nocturne, berceuse, ballade, elegy, waltz, etude, capriccio, impromptu, intermezzo, mazurka, polonaise, etc. These are not, of course, necessarily three-part in form, but they certainly are likely to be. Always watch for the contrasted middle part and some kind of return to the beginning. Those are the unmistakable earmarks of the three-part form.
    [XQ: very enlightening. I had generally been ignorant to the musical structure of elegies, capriccios, impromptus, etc. Interesting that almost all of them following A-B-A. That is probably the easiest way to deliver music - one theme, one alternative section, then restate the theme.]

  • Prelude is a generic name for any piece of not too specific formal structure. Many other pieces with different names belong in the same category - pieces that are called fantasy, elegy, impromptu, capriccio, aria, etude, and so forth. Pieces such as these may be in strict A-B-A form, or they be “freely” treated. The listener, therefore, must be on the alert if he expects to follow the composer’s structural idea.
    [XQ: this is a follow-on thought on the previous bullet. I think this must be why so many composers wrote collections of Preludes for the piano, including Chopin, Shostakovich, and Debussy. It’s the musical structure that gives them the most freedom.]

  • The passacaglia is the second type of variation form. Here, again, as in the basso ostinato, an entire composition is founded upon a repeated bass part. But this time, the ground bass is invariably a melodic phrase, never a mere figure…A passsacaglia invariably begins wih a statement of the theme unaccompanied, in the bass. Since it is this theme that is to form the foundation for all further variation, it is of paramount importance that the theme itself be well established in the mind of the listener. Therefore, as a rule, for the first few variations the theme is literally repeated in the bass, while the upper part begins a gentle forward movement.
    [XQ: my favorite passacaglia is the third movement of the Shostakovich’s first violin concerto. Now it totally makes sense to me that the movement starts with the low brass.]

  • All fugues are polyphonic or contrapuntal (the terms are identical in meaning).
    [XQ: this was a “duh” moment for me. Just generally good info to know for a musician like me that never studied musical theory.]

  • For anyone can whistle tunes. But you really have to be a composer, with a composer’s craft and technique, in order to be able to write a really fine development of those tunes.
    [XQ: Copland wrote this about the development section of the sonata form.]

On the romantic era and programmatic music:

  • It wasn’t enough for a romantic composer to write a sad piece; he wanted you to know who it was that felt sad and the particular circumstances of his sadness. That is why Tchaikovsky was not satisfied to write an untitled overture with a beautiful second theme but called it Romeo and Juliet, thereby labeling the theme as the “Romeo’s-love-for-Juliet” motif.
    [XQ: comical take on the melodrama of the Romantic composers.]

  • What Beethoven began in his Sixth Symphony, as an exception work, Berlioz made the basis for an entire career. The Fantastic Symphony is an amazing example of the progress composers had made in the nineteenth century in the ability to describe graphically not only pastoral or warlike scenes but any event or idea that they chose to depict.
    [XQ: I already covered Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in my previous post. It’s still amazing to me that only six years separate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Symphonie Fantastique.]

On modern music:

  • Two things make music easy to listen to: a melody that is straightforward and plenty of repetition. New music often contains rather recondite melodies and avoids repetition.
    [XQ: this is so true. It’s why multiple listenings of modern music is required before really making some judgement on it. Unfortunately, I’m at fault on this - I rarely make it to multiple listenings for some newer pieces before giving up. One successful example for me (and the piece can’t even really be considered “modern”) is Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht. After repeated listenings, it’s easier to appreciate the huge leaps in tonal structure and the thickness of tone color in the piece.]

  • (On the relative degree of difficulty of listening to modern music)
    Very easy: Shostakovich and Khachaturian, Francis Poulenc and Erik Satie, early Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Virgil Thomson.
    Quite approachable: Prokofiev, Villa-Lobos, Ernest Bloch, Roy Harris, William Walton, Malipiero, Britten.
    Fairly Difficult: Late Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Milhaud, Chavez, William Schuman, Honegger, Hindemith, Walter Piston.
    Very tough: Middle and late Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Varese, Dallapiccola, Krenek, Roger Sessions, sometimes Charles Ives.
    [XQ: This is an interesting scale, and keep in mind that this part of the book was written in 1957. One interesting observation I have is that Copland uses the full name for some composers (Francis Poulenc) but just uses the last name for others (Milhaud). I’m not reading too much into it - I think this is just an oversight. My scattered thoughts on this scale: even early Schoenberg is not that approachable, late Shostakovich can be very difficult (see Symphony No. 15), Bloch is not that approachable, Bartok is more approachable, and Hindemith probably belongs in that last category.]

Finally, just a nice, random, observation from Copland. Too bad he wasn’t this glowing about violins:

  • If there exists a more noble sound than eight [french] horns singing a melody fortissimo in unison, I have never heard it.

And to end it, here’s my favorite french horn passage. It’s only seven french horns, but I think it will do. At 1:26, the horns actually stand up!

Topics: book reviews and music

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