Distinguishing between early 19th century piano composers?
January 7, 2010 10:11 PM   Subscribe

Can you describe to a non-music-theorist fan the differences a close listener might hear in the piano music composed by Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and Beethoven? I've been loving exploring classical music but things start to blur during the 1800-1850 era. I'd like to be able to better hear what the above composers are doing differently from one another. General thoughts about their music are welcome (book recommendations, too), but especially interested in info related to solo or prominent piano pieces.
posted by mediareport to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The intuitive answer here is to listen to the music often, making sure you know which composer (piece) you're listening to at any given point, and to register (and start learning about) your emotional response to the music, then go from there. Romantic music is all about individual experience, and much less about theoretical distinctions.
I also read some biographic literature. One learns who these people were, which makes it somehow easier to remember which pieces belong to them.

There simply is sometimes a blur of styles. These composers were influenced by each other, and by prevailing style ideas: Schumann and Mendelssohn use similar musical languages, but Mendelssohn is more clearly influenced by Bach; a few bits of Beethoven (op. 90) sound almost like Schubert; Schubert is the melody-dude among these men, but others naturally wrote melodies all the time too, etc.
The only one who stands out most of the time is Liszt, who employs virtuosic effects like extended octave passages and orchestral fill-ins much more frequently than the others. Tremoli (telephone-bell effects, malicious people call them) are his specialty, they're only very rarely heard in the other's works (or never).

Beethoven is a bit the odd bird in your collection because he's at least a half generation older than any of the others and composed in so many different styles throughout his life. That might be a study all of its own...

Explore youtube - you'll get access to an enormous amount of repertoire at single clicks; very helpful for learning styles.
posted by Namlit at 1:48 AM on January 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: [Thanks to all the folks who gave such great answers; it's a shame they got eaten in the Great AskMe Server Burp of '10, but if anyone wants to recontribute for posterity, feel free...]
posted by mediareport at 5:07 PM on January 9, 2010

Namlit is right on, the styles do tend to blur together for a casual listener such as myself. Liszt stands out for his wild Lisztomania stuff, but Liszt and Chopin also wrote piano pieces for each other to perform, further confusing the issue.

I love playing 'name that tune/composer' on Classical Music Programs on the radio, and I still often get selections wrong after years of guessing. Reminds me of those old radio British Quiz shows for educated highbrows, annoying but fascinating if you are into that sort of thing. This is not a quiz, and we are not receiving points in life for correct guessing.

Maybe we ought to just listen to the songs we like. Some of those golden oldie hits for a start. These are two of mine:
Funérailles by Liszt.
Preludes by Chopin (esp: No. 15 in D-flat major; No. 20 in C minor.)

My special award to myself for mostly useless non-advice: I cannot think of a friendly analytic biographic overview book about 19th Century Classical Music which brings all of the elements into focus in the same way that 'All the Rest is Noise' by Alex Ross does for 20th Century Classical Music. Until then I will have to live with the somewhat imperfect 'The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music'. Welcome suggestions.
posted by ovvl at 6:10 PM on January 9, 2010

Sorry, I missed that whole blip, duh,
posted by ovvl at 6:13 PM on January 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, ovvl; I'd love more recommendations for specific pieces by each composer. I mentioned that in a lost reply, and also that it's not so much about "name that composer" as it is "understand what each composer is trying to do so I can listen more deeply." A bunch of folks mentioned not overthinking it and "just listening," because Romantic music is primarily about individual emotional response rather than theory, which is a reminder I appreciated. Jaltcoh, I think, recommended starting earlier, with Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart sonatas. I checked out Haydn's sonatas yesterday and they were wonderful, and clearly different from the early Romantics. That was helpful, as was the point that Beethoven was the odd bird in my list but that his later Sonatas were seminal, pushing the boundaries of Classical form in ways that all the Romantics clearly used (I think I'm getting that right), and so those sonatas would also be a great place to start.

Someone else recommended immersing in each composer for a week,. There was a handy guide posted with a series of adjectives for each one (e.g., Liszt = fiery, extravagant; Chopin = subdued; Mendelssohn = delicate, lovely, etc.), which some folks liked but others said wasn't really useful because all the composers had at least some work that could be described by all the adjectives.

That's all I can remember right now, but one thing the answers definitely did was help me not be so stumped by the wall of ROMANCE I'd hit as I explored classical music. It was overwhelming, and much of it has sounded the same to me in the past, but the answers so far helped me get my brain around it and gave me confidence to dive in.
posted by mediareport at 6:36 PM on January 9, 2010

Response by poster: Server snafu link
posted by mediareport at 10:04 AM on January 10, 2010

The easiest way is to listen to the music of each composer so long that you get to know their overall "sound". Just like you can tell a difference betw. The Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Differences betw. these specific composers:

Beethoven -- compositions follow structurally sonata form (as mentioned earlier) + there is a huge energy and momentum towards the musical goals. This is easy one, e.g. get familiar with Pathetic Sonata (for piano) e.g. and you know what I mean.

Chopin -- overall sound is the lightest, structural forms are small. The compositions consists of two parts i.e. left and right hand. Most of the time the left hand is an accompaniment.

Liszt -- Large forms, which are not standard (as Beethoven's). Lot's of (most often at least 3) elements simultaneously. Really difficult sounding, but tonal.

Mendelssohn -- newer and lighter than Beethoven, but still structural and uhhh... anal-retentive.

Schubert, Schumann -- Probably the most difficult to tell the difference. Schumann has a lighter and more sensitive sound. Schubert focuses on melody, Schumann on harmony. A great example of differences betw. the composers is to listen to Dichterliebe and Winterreise, which are written for piano and vocal. To me ultimate Schumann composition is "Ich will meine Seele Tauchen" from Dichterliebe: Moving and delicate harmony combined with a "singing" melody. Schubert does not have this kind of harmony...

hope this helps.

posted by Doggiebreath at 5:35 AM on January 31, 2010

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