Copernique on Classical Music

This series is dedicated to Caro E.


As I mentioned in the 2014 November third edition of Le Castor™, a student of mine, Suzanne, suggested that I write a series of articles on classical music.

"Sort of an introduction for people, like me, who don't know what it is or how to listen to it.

I'm aware, she added, like everybody that a symphony in C major is not a symphony in B minor, that a sonata is not a nocturne, that a string quartet consists of four musicians playing three types of chord instruments, but I have no idea why four (and three), nor why some symphonies have four movements, others two, sometimes three and even five.

Could you explain this in plain English so that people like me can start listening to what seems music made in heaven by angels."

Dear Suzanne,

First of all, thanks for the suggestion. I have been thinking about something of the sort for a while now, but not for publication. To brush up on my Greek, so to speak, because it has been a long time since I've opened up my partitions to see what, for example, Beethoven was trying to do in certain segment of his eleventh or fourteenth quartet.

I must add that, yes, it is much more pleasant to listen to, not only classical, but all kinds of music and pay attention to what's going on, as opposed to listening to it as, sort of, background pleasant sound which, occasionally, distracts one from one is doing ; reading, writing or simply washing dishes.

To not comply with your request, but to answer the urge I suddenly felt to look into my library and take out sheets of music to find out if I remembered anything from my horrible piano lessons (I was a terrible player and still am), I stumbled upon one of Chopin's mazurkas and, lo and behold, to my surprise, I discovered that I could still read and understand partitions. Like riding a bike, I suppose : one never forgets.

This lead to pulling out more partitions, books, old recordings and there we are.

On what follows, I must admit, I have been working for several weeks and hope it can be useful.

Thanks again for the suggestion. It brought me great joy.



My main goal, in this series of essays, is to answer Suzanne's suggestion by giving as many excerpts of music as possible either attaching them to various pages or pointing them out on sites like YouTube. It would be, after all, futile to write about music without, at least, playing some of it.

A secondary goal is to explain why such or such recordings are worth listening to, but like all endeavours of this kind, particularly in relations to painting, literature, sculpture, or any other forms of arts, it is always easy to say that such or such piece of music, painting, novel or statue are worth knowing and appreciated, but understanding what it all about is far more difficult, and explaining it to oneself and to others even more so.

In the realm of arts, there is one basic truth :

Whether one is a neophyte or an erudite, one is always bound to prefer Picasso over Van Gogh, Joyce over Proust, Michelangelo over Rodin... and this also applies to music. - For some people, Jazz will always be superior to Classical Music, the Beatles were much better than the Rolling Stones, Mozart was much more profound than Beethoven and Beethoven's quartets easily surpassed his symphonies. - That cannot be denied.

On the other hand, if one spend hours looking over a painting by Degas and only glance at a Pollock's, one cannot truly say that one has explored thoroughly not only both painters but oneself.

And there are underlying factors :

At first glance, knowledge of music does not appear as easy as having some knowledge of literature and some knowledge of literature doesn't appear to be as easy as having some knowledge of painting. Another layer of subjectivity.

Yet, something remains true :

If you don't spend the time to understand what a composer, a painter, a novel writer, a sculptor has tried to convey as a message to you, personally, you are wasting a good portion of his and your time and it is precisely that I'd like to address here.

Will my advices and recommendations be subjective ? Of course, they will. I only have a partial knowledge (and a very small one at that) of music, that is music as a whole. God knows lie behind certain forms I've never been able to digest and to which I've never paid attention.

Furthermore, I do wish to state that, in my opinion, it not because one can decipher words and sentences written in a book that one can fully understand its meaning nor the intention of the author and, even more so, when it comes to music. Just because we have ears, it doesn't mean that we can hear.

Music is an art form which requires, I believe, a bit more attention and study than other forms of art as it is written in a vocabulary that is not easy to understand. It is made up of nearly cabalistic signs and in forms to which, if one hasn't studied and paid attention, one is faced with nearly incomprehensible statements which have their source in an history dating back thousands of years and which has evolved considerably in the last centuries to give us sounds as different as :

No. 1 :

A 16th Century Gregorian Chant (Christus, natus est)
sung by the Monks of the Benedictine Abbey el Calcat : (click on the note) :

No. 2 :

A 17th Century Toccata by Claudio Monteverdi, at the beginning of the opera
played by L'ensemble Elymay : (click on the note) :

No. 3 :

An 18th Century Sonata (no. 19, opus 2) by Muzio Clementi,
played by Howard Shelly : (click on the note) :

No. 4 :

First movement of a trio with piano by Franz Schubert
played by Le trio Griffon : (click on the note) :

No. 5

John Cage's 2oth Century Sonata for prepared (sic) piano
as prepared and played by Huji Tagahasi : (click on the note)

For these and all musical works, one can only be surprised that they been written down, using the same language, the same written technique, passed on over the years, technique which uses rounds and little flags for notes, more signs for pauses and silences noted down on two sets of five lines to indicate heights, etc., etc. = Like assorted hieroglyphics , i.e. :

Bach - Prelude and fugue BWV 856 (manuscript)

Want to hear what it means ? - Be my guest : click on the following note :


My contention is that one cannot describe what is a symphony, as opposed to an Impromptu, let alone describing their beauty. without using some form of descriptions involving hieroglyphics of this kind, and words and expressions such as tempos, scales, modes, chords, staffs, keys and what-have-you.

At first, I wanted to write about specific pieces, explaining along the way, but in the language I was using popped up so many esoteric expressions that I abandoned that idea and started all over starting with an outline of musical annotation which lead to explanations as to scales, which lead to tempos, to modes before going on with types of musical pieces and, finally, to actual musical excerpts and, last but not least, composers.

So, you will have to bear with me for a while.

In the meantime, as I was told a long time ago, it might be romantic to think of Chopin or Schumann rushing into a music store in the middle of the afternoon and play what, suddenly, went through their heads, but if you look at their manuscript, you'll find out that not only did they have to write and annotate each and every note forming part of a sudden inspiration. .And that was hard work.


On to Part 1

Click here to return to Le Castor™