-A Series By Sam and Jakob-
Welcome to our new series! For those of you who don’t know Jakob and I, we are your resident classical music nerds, and we’ve decided to join forces to bring you these posts about the Romantic period and its music. The Romantic period is exactly where classical music starts to draw some uncanny parallels with black metal- as you’re about to see.
You can feel free to forget your preconceived notions of the stuffy, cathedral bound, aging composer in the white powdered wig. The romantic period was a world where the previously known and loved conventions of the classical music world were ripped away and burned, with composers such as Wagner, Brahms, Chopin, Paganini, Mahler and Tchaikovsky trampling on the ashes of the old world’s ideals. Music became written for the composer, not the audience. Nature came to be revered. Extreme subjectivism and nationalism rose to power as key themes. The composers began to look towards the supernatural, the endless and the terrifying as a means to capture and even frighten the listener. The new world, in all of its shocking and inconceivable glory, had risen.
And now, in the pages of our history, that world is ours to explore. Let us begin.
Breaking Down Musical Conventions
The Classical period was a dainty cocoon, hanging from the complex and mathematical limbs of its Baroque forefather with a delicate tenacity that, in its simplicity, embodied unparalleled beauty and calm. What it nurtured inside- the creature that it carefully carried, wrapped precariously inside deep folds of soaring melody and rich chordal undertones- was to be the epitome of the unanswered free-spirit-hood that its nurturer could never allow.
The romantic period ripped its way out of this restricted and regal period in the years surrounding roughly 1830, and changed everything. It came as a black storm, raging against all that dared to come into its path…
Toying With Emotion
Musical conventions and previously established ideology largely received a much-needed revamping in this era. Composers began to write for the sole sake of writing, which truly allowed music to flourish in a completely new way. Many of these composers simply wanted to express powerful emotions in ways the old forms simply could not handle- such as grief, tragedy, love and even suffering. Emotion became the plaything of the musician, and much of the characteristic sound of the Romantic period came from a deep desire to establish a specific emotional outcry within its pieces. This was achieved through the use of ambiance and the establishment of a rolling atmosphere that moved along with the listener in ways never seen before.
Sound familiar yet? You could use almost the exact same passage to describe both of the above works.
Expecting the Unexpected
Because music was now written for the composer instead of for the audience, composers started getting tricky. Religion in particular has a long standing reputation as being an untouchable topic- one of very few lines that are not to be crossed. In fact, the use of a certain interval in music was in all effects prohibited through the ages, because it was believed to be the work of Satan himself. This interval, known as the “Devil’s Note” or simply the tri-tone, is so dissonant that you can feel it stirring something deep inside of you- which was scary for a relatively young and unknowledgeable civilization who feared stepping out from underneath the all-encompassing shroud that was the church.
This interval is actually the diminished fifth- seen very commonly in jazz and blues. Black Sabbath’s iconic self-titled track sounded so evil and demonic exactly because it exploited this forbidden interval. So when Paganini decided to do the same thing almost two hundred years prior, people would run screaming from the concert halls, fearing for their lives.
However, the rejection of the expected conventions ran much deeper than simply adding a single new interval. Phrases and melodies were often purposely composed at odd lengths to throw off the listener (followers of Schubert and his work would be familiar with this). As well, it became common for pieces to arrive at totally unexpected endings- such as finishing a piece in an entirely different key.
Composers such as Wagner took this a step further by totally changing the organization of his orchestra around, in order to load down the bottom end. He was one of very few composers to make occasional use of the octobass- one of the world’s largest musical instruments, even today, standing at ~3.5 meters in height. It took either two people or an elaborate system of levers and switches to be able to play it. The lowest of its 3 strings is tuned to C1. Yes, that’s right- with only three strings, it can djent way harder than you.
When Wagner made use of his orchestra’s elaborate lower frequencies, the entire room would shake.
All this effort just to be exactly the opposite of what everyone expected, and yet still managing to express everything that was intended. Reminding you of anything?
• • •
Thanks for reading my part of the series! Make sure to follow Jakob so you can watch for the next instalment of our collaboration, and learn even more about the extensive parallels between these two beautiful genres.