Friday, December 15, 2017

Name That Composer

Back when I lived in an area served by a classical music radio station, I became a power-player in the game of Name That Composer. To help you achieve a similar level of success, here are some of the cheats, I mean rules, I played by. These are only some of the mental shortcuts that helped me maintain a high score. For many composers, however, there is no substitute for simply listening to a lot of their music.

Rule 1. When you tune in and you find what sounds like a symphony in progress, if it sounds like Haydn...
  • 1a. ...but its slow movement drags, it's by Mozart.
  • 1b. ...but it takes unexpectedly daring harmonic risks that totally pay off, it's early Beethoven.
  • 1c. ...but it takes unexpectedly daring harmonic risks that don't entirely pay off, it's early Schubert.
  • 1d. ...but it's scored entirely for strings, it's early Mendelssohn.
  • 1e. ...but nothing, it's Haydn.
Rule 2. If it sounds like Schumann, it's Schumann. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Schumann's.
Exception: Max Bruch.

Rule 3. If it sounds like Berlioz, it's Berlioz. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Berlioz's.

Rule 4. If it sounds like Bruckner, it's Bruckner. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Bruckner's.

Rule 5. If it sounds like Sibelius, it's Sibelius. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Sibelius.
Exceptions: Early Lars-Erik Larsson and Luís de Freitas Branco.

Rule 6. If it drips with Central Asian exoticism, it is probably by one of a handful of Russian romantic composers. But no matter who is credited with writing it, Rimsky-Korsakov most likely meddled with it.

Rule 7. If it turns out to be an early symphony or orchestral suite by Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, or Holst, your classical radio station sucks. Someone should tell its programming director to play significant music.

Rule 8. If it fills you with an urge to dance,
  • 8a. ...with satyrs and unicorns, it's Beethoven's Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony.
  • 8b. ...with hobnailed boots on, it's Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
  • 8c. ...while wearing lederhosen, it's the scherzo of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony.
  • 8d. ...with tutu-clad hippos, elephants, crocodiles, and ostriches, it's a ballet by Ponchielli.
  • 8e. ...with anthropomorphic flowers, sugarplum fairies, nutcrackers, or fairy-tale characters, it's a ballet by Tchaikovsky.
  • 8f. ...with a fur coat on, because at the same time the music chills you like a wind off the Siberian steppe, it's a ballet by Stravinsky.
  • 8g. ...because the moment you stop dancing, a Red Army firing squad will open fire on you, it's either Prokofiev (if you feel like you learned your steps at the dacha of your wealthy, upper-class family) or Shostakovich (if you feel like your vodka-merchant father sent you to a dancing school).
Rule 9. If it bores the daylights out of you,
  • 9a. a stuffy, British way, it's Elgar.
  • 9b. a blue-collar, British way, it's Vaughan Williams.
  • 9c. an bourgeois, German way, it's Richard Straus.
  • 9d. a proletarian, German way, it's Hindemith.
  • 9e. a lush, French way, it's Saint-Saëns.
  • 9f. an austere, French way, it's Milhaud or possibly Honegger.
  • 9g. a next-to-banal, French way, it's Poulenc.
  • 9h. the manner of a prosperous Russian émigré, it's Rachmaninoff.
  • 9i. the manner of a starving Russian nobleman, it's Medtner.*
  • 9j. the manner of an obedient member of the Soviet Composers' Union, it's Kabalevsky.
Rule 10. If it sounds like the aural equivalent of an impressionist painting,
  • 10a. ...but with a touch of English folk melody, it's Delius.
  • 10b. ...but with a certain Slavic twinge, it's Scriabin.
  • 10c. ...but with a French or Spanish warmth, it's Debussy.
  • 10d. ...but with French or Spanish coldness, it's Ravel.
I might add more rules in a later post, to deal with genres other than "what sounds like a symphony."

*...although, I suppose, he didn't write much that sounds like a symphony - unless you count Piano Concertos.

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