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Classical 101

Music to Be Thankful For

At this time of the year we think of gathering with family and friends to celebrate, tell stories, give thanks, and express gratitude for what we have, knowing that even if things aren't ideal, good company and good music too, come to think of it, help make it better. In the world of music there's plenty to be thankful for. When I think of the ideal gathering of great composers, for me always at the head of the table are Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Can you imagine the world of music without them? I find it intriguing and appropriate that Mozart expressed his admiration for Bach and that Beethoven expressed his admiration for both Mozart and Bach. You can hear examples of it in their music, too. Bach was the culmination of the development of music of the Baroque Era, but his influence became greater after his lifetime. Of course, it was Mendelssohn in the 19th century that helped bring about a great revival, or perhaps first large-scale appreciation of Bach by championing performances of his works. However, Mozart reportedly said when studying some of Bach's music, "Here's a man from whom one can learn something," high praise considering the source. A brilliant example from Mozart after his exposure to Bach is the magnificent five-part fugue in the final movement of the Jupiter Symphony from 1788. Beethoven clearly recognized the genius of Mozart, loved his opera The Magic Flute for its elevated theme (despite the comic elements) and sublime music, and was influenced by his music early in his composing career as well as by Franz Joseph Haydn, whose music Mozart also loved. Bach's influence on Beethoven, however, is felt most strongly in the late works in which Beethoven seems most visionary and beyond his contemporaries.  In the final movement of "Piano Sonata 31" (the next to the last sonata Beethoven wrote) there's a wonderful homage to the great fugal writing of Bach, beginning about three minutes from the end. There's the paradox that musical genius can express: combining an old form from the Baroque Era that was considered very old-fashioned by the the musical establishment of Beethoven's time, with the Romantic spirit to create something uniquely new. There's something to be grateful for. Each succeeding generation strives to produce something new and worthwhile, and yet it is only by fully understanding and honoring the past that the fullest potential for the future can be realized. Perhaps it's true: we don't know where we're going unless we know where we've been.  Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven are just part of that story.