Why does classical music have to last so long?

This is Lady Effingham’s rant from Classics from Scratch, series 2 episode 1 on Secklow Sounds.  It was broadcast live on Thursday 1st August and will be repeated on Sunday 4th August. It is also available to listen again on the Secklow Sounds site and on Catherine Rose’s page on Spreaker.

A lot of people say they can’t be bothered to sit through classical music because it goes on for too long. Well, Classics from Scratch is of course living proof that it’s possible to find lots of lovely short pieces of classical music. Also there are hundreds of compilation albums of short pieces which are exactly like the old three-minute pop-song or five-minute dance number formats. But it’s about form as much as anything – composers like to give themselves space to explore.

After all, pop music isn’t always short. For those of you who are old enough to remember the Eighties, the mega-edit of the Donna Summer classic ‘I Feel Love’ lasts nearly nine minutes – that’s two minutes longer than the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

It’s also a least a minute shorter than most of Johann Strauss’s waltzes – like the famous Blue Danube – they tend to go on for about 10 minutes or more. Perhaps our ancestors had a lot more stamina on the dance floor than we have – even without the support of recreational drugs. But these pieces really were dance music – they were the rave classics of the 19th century. We only call them classical music now because they are played by the classical symphony orchestra.

Looking on the long side, operas by Richard Strauss (no relation) and Wagner last anywhere from three to five and a half hours (though you do get intervals for ice-cream). The English pianist Sorabji wrote a piano piece called Symphonic Variations which lasts about 9 hours – with no ice-cream allowed. The truth is, it’s like the difference between Twenty-20 cricket and a Test Match, or between the individual sprint cycle race and the Tour de France. You have to work your way up to it, and liking one doesn’t mean you have to like the other.

It’s not about the level of seriousness, either. There are a lot of very, very serious works which are very, very short. Anton Webern wrote a set of Five Pieces for Orchestra which add up to barely five minutes altogether – the shortest of them lasts just over 30 seconds. The Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag wrote dozens of very short works, all of them terribly intense and full of feeling.

But one of the most famous writers of short pieces was of course Frederic Chopin, who was both a virtuoso pianist and composer for the piano. Let’s have between four and five minutes of utter genius, courtesy of dear old Fred.

Click here to listen on YouTube to the Grande Valse Brillante played by Daniil Trifonov, Gold Medal winner of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, 2011.

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Published in: on August 2, 2013 at 10:33  Comments (3)  

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  1. People just like to have a pop because they think that classical music lovers take their music too seriously. To add to your list above Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jean Michelle Jarre, William Orbit (who produced Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ among many other works of length) and a massive collection of many other ‘non classical’ artists have written musical movements (tracks) that last longer than 5 minutes. And they have sold out stadiums despite the presence of long meandering pieces.

    I think a lot of resentment derives from narrow minded music teachers in the 50’s and 60’s who misunderstood and belittled the new compact forms of popular music that were emerging at the time. This set up a resentment in a vast swathe of people towards classical music and those that love it and also produced a ‘turning off’ effect in people who liked music but not the ‘classical’ – European Orchestral sound influenced music that was being forced on them by the stubborn traditional music teacher.

    Having been to the musical trough and both listened to or played just about every style and genre there is I can happily say that in MHO classical music is a very strong and important branch of the great Tree of music that will exist till the Human Race perishes. (Beyond that if we create indestructible time capsules.)

    It is interesting to note that quite a lot of old rockers I know also like their classical works. The challenge is to persuade more to come to concerts or put on concerts in their more familiar venues.

  2. Thanks for this Julian. At home we often use the phrase ‘serious music’ rather than ‘classical’, not least because that phrase can also embrace other music about which people are serious! That’s also why I use the phrase ‘Seriously good music’ for Classics from Scratch, but also feel I have to add ‘not taken TOO seriously’ so people don’t feel put off. In my defence, a lot of people have reacted well to that approach, so hopefully I’m achieving something in a small way.

  3. There’s lots of longer pieces of “pop” (not that they would call it that) from the days of “prog rock” in the 1970’s, .e.g. Pink Floyd. Watch anyone live and lots of their pieces will last a lot longer than the “Single” which is really a device to get radio airtime. I recommend you check out “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen for a great example of how sound is used to create atmosphere in a rock song – plus it features the tremendous saxophone of Clarence Clemmons.


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