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Have you ever wondered why they pipe classical music tunes into elevators? Apparently the tone, pitch and arrangement of specific pieces can lull you into a state of calmness and security. In high class hotel lounges waiting customers usually relax with a free drink listening to the sounds of a professional pianist playing a soothing classical piece or two. We are now aware that certain frequencies of sound can change our brain waves, which in turn cause our brains to release certain chemicals into the bodies system; making you relax or they can also make you anxious. In Britain several towns, including parts of London have taken this idea a step further by using classical music to prevent young trouble makers from causing trouble at late night bus stops and train stations.

Classical music aversion therapy

In Britain many commuters coming home from work in the evening will have experienced some sort of intimidation by gangs of rowdy teenagers looking for something to cure their boredom. Incidents of assaults on innocent bystanders at quiet bus stops and train stations have left the police wondering how to catch these hooligans in the act. They tried CCTV cameras and emergency help buttons, but none seemed effective, so in an act of desperation they tried a method already being used in Canada with a lot of success. The main idea is to set up speakers that play a range of classical music songs in the areas that had most reports of assaults and complaints. At first people were skeptical about the affect that Mozart or Bach would have on troublesome teenagers, but after several weeks it appeared to work.

The classical music aversion pilot was tried outside a popular late night supermarket hangout where kids were usually found making noise and harassing passersby. After two weeks of constant evening playing the car park was completely empty; council officials are a little baffled by the success of the test, but other wise excited and enthusiastic about putting this new method to other uses. What is it that puts the teenagers off? Some think that it is considered not cool for a young person to hang out listening to classical music so they leave; others believe that they are turned off by the sound of the music all together. Whatever is causing the rowdy teenagers to disperse it has been a big help to people who feel intimidated by these gangs of youths and are scared to walk the streets at night.

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Have you heard of Milton Babbitt, Henry Cowell or Elliot Carter? These are the names of a few well known contemporary classical music composers of recent times. Though they are classed as artists of the classical music grouping, the contemporary sub genre that they have been pigeon holed under may sound nothing like the typical traditional music that you or I know of.  

This modern form of traditional Western music was developed by a group of composers that felt tired by the standard format of their time. For centuries classical music had been playing out within fixed boundaries and after the First World War new forms of music were stating to take center stage. Classical musicians and composers took this chance to change the stereotypes that had been given to their much loved genre.

The first time people listen to a live or recorded contemporary classical music recital you may be surprised by what you hear, arrangements are scattered, there is no fixed tonal ranges and composers will mix in prerecorded sound affects of all types, it can seem like a surrealist’s nightmare. When asked many contemporary music writers will tell you that there is a structure and pattern in the song, it’s just that people are not familiar with it yet.

As human beings we tend to look for patterns in everything that we see, whether it is a visual image or audio sound. The simpler the pattern the easier it is to for your brain to make sense of and enjoy. Dance music today make use of a 4/4 bar beat which is very simple and runs through the whole track, vocals and several other instrument parts are added to give a pleasing sound that doesn’t require much thought. On the other hand modern classical music is very challenging for first time listeners and requires a lot of attention in order to make any sense of the music.

It is believed that famous classical composers like Mozart and Bach subconsciously stuck to strict musical guidelines, which are much easier for audiences to listen to. Since a young age we are exposed to various forms of music and their arrangements tend to stick with us, so whenever we listen to a new piece of music we’re already predicting what notes or tones will follow on from the last. If the song presents mixed up, unfamiliar tones our brains get muddled up and cannot enjoy the sound.

If you’re determined to give contemporary classical music a try, then allow yourself to listen to a song or two once a day. Gradually your mind will get used to and start appreciating new sounds that you never thought you were capable of enjoying.

Johannes Brahms established himself as more than capable composer of piano music at the very beginning of his career. After all, he was an accomplished pianist in his own right. His three piano sonatas (op. 1, 2 and 5) earn Brahms a significant spot in the history of piano music. However, along side the three sonatas is also the op. 4 Scherzo in E flat minor.

The Scherzo was composed in 1851 and is his actually Brahms’ earliest surviving original work, although it was published until three years later. Brahms developed an earliest mastery of the scherzo form. This is possibly likely due to Brahms’ interest in the Classical tradition as the scherzo was developed into its known form at the hands of Beethoven. Evident even in this earliest scherzo is Brahms’ already keen sense for rhythmic development and symphonic thinking in terms of structure. In addition to Brahms’ keen sense of rhythm is the motivic unity of the work. No doubt, the op. 4 Scherzo and the three piano sonatas were the signs of an already remarkably developed musical mind.

The form of the op. 4 Scherzo is that of a rondo, the typical A-B-A form being expanded by the addition of a second trio, thus, A-B-A-C-A, and ultimately closing with a developing coda. The scherzo sections are characterized by an unremitting rhythmic drive that has been described as “demonic.” Despite the Classical influence, the inner character of the op. 4 Scherzo is wholly Romantic. Malcolm McDonald remarked the Scherzo’s “whiffs of Hoffmannesque devilry,” and its “reminiscence of Heinrich Marschner’s ‘troll opera’ Hans Heiling.” In fact, Franz Liszt, one of the leading figures of the New German School of composers, even found the Scherzo appealing. Yet the Classical influence is undeniable. The rhythmic working of the piece wholly suggests the influence of Beethoven than any of Brahms’ contemporaries. In fact, it seems the only contemporary of Brahms that was also influenced by this aspect of Beethoven’s writing at the time was Charles Valentin-Alkan.

Ultimately, the op. 4 Scherzo is a remarkable work to be written a composer of such a young age. Brahms was only 18 years-old when he composed it.

The Four Pieces for Piano, op. 119 was the last set of piano music that Johannes Brahms composed. Written in 1893, while spending the summer in Ischl, Upper Austria, they are the last statement of Brahms’ lifelong devotion to the composition of piano music. Brahms had established himself as a prominent composer for the piano early in his career with his three piano sonatas and the First Piano Concerto. The expansive variation sets of his middle career further established him, not only as prominent composer of piano music, but as a master of Classical tradition. At the end of his career, though, he turned to composition of short piano pieces. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was the great depth and intimacy of expression this medium was capable of.

The four pieces of op. 119 are:

  1. Intermezzo in B minor
  2. Intermezzo in E minor
  3. Intermezzo in C major
  4. Rhapsodie in E flat major

In comparison with Brahms’ other sets of piano music, it seems that he used the term “rhapsodie” somewhat loosely. “Intermezzo” was also Brahms’ umbrella term for anything that either did not fit into a capriccio or a rhapsody, and thus his intermezzos display a wide range of emotions.

Brahms’ late piano music is the perfect example of how great both his composition and pianistic technique was. His display of harmonic understanding is breathtaking in the op. 119 pieces. Furthermore, his subtle use of counterpoint to create polyphonic texture that can only be brought out by a pianist with an extremely sensitive touch is mind-boggling.

However, as brilliant as Brahms’ technical display is in the op. 119, the emotional depth of the pieces is just as amazing. Brahms wrote the following to Clara Schumann about the opening Intermezzo in B minor:

“I am tempted to copy out a small piano piece for you, because I would like to know how you agree with it. It is teeming with dissonances! These may [well] be correct and [can] be explained—but maybe they won’t please your palate, and now I wished, they would be less correct, but more appetizing and agreeable to your taste. The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances! Good Lord, this description will [surely] awaken your desire!”

While Johannes Brahms is certainly well-known for his three monumental piano sonatas and his equally colossal two piano concertos, his greatest contribution to piano music is perhaps his collections of short, single movement compositions. The three piano sonatas and the first piano concerto were written early in Brahms’ career and the second piano concerto, completed in 1881, is the only instance of a large scale piano composition since those early works. His middle “period” piano music, if Brahms’ music could be divided into periods, was marked by large scale variation sets like the Handel and Paganini variations. It was in the later period, however, that he turned a focused attention to the composition of short, single movement works for piano.

The single movement piano piece was for the most part of Romantic origin, being virtually unheard of in the Classical period. In the early part of the 19th century, the Irish composer John Field began the composition of single movement “nocturnes” for the piano. This form was shortly thereafter popularized by Frederic Chopin. Within a short period of time, composer turned to the composition of these single movement works, nearly to the total demise of the piano sonata and concerto. In fact, it was very possibly Brahms’ piano sonatas and concertos that saved these forms from completely falling into disuse.

With the exception of the opus 10 Ballades and the 16 Waltzes of 1865, Brahms’ first published set of short piano compositions is the 8 Klavierstücke, op. 76. Three other sets followed, as well as the Two Rhapsodies, op. 78. The sets contained various forms of character pieces for piano, although most are titled Intermezzo. An overwhelming majority of the pieces are lyrical in character. Late in life, Brahms’ virtuosic piano technique had begun to diminish and he loathed the “banging” that was creeping into his playing. It’s possible, therefore, that the composition of so many lyrical piano pieces were designed as a remedy for his own playing.

Brahms’ collections of short piano pieces are, essentially, just that. However, knowing the extreme sensitivity Brahms possessed for motivic unity, it is possible to view each as a coherent whole. In fact, Rudolph Reti points out the shared motivic elements between the two rhapsodies of Brahms’ op. 78 in his book The Thematic Process in Music.

Johannes Brahms, one of the leading composers of piano music during the late Romantic, completed his second and final piano concerto in July of 1881, more than 20 years since the completion of the Piano Concerto No. 1. In his own unique sense of humor, Brahms described the work to his close friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg as “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.” Later he wrote to the violinist Theodore Billroth describing it as “a few small piano pieces.” However, the Second Piano Concerto is anything but tiny.

Brahms had worked intermittently on the concerto for four years. The result was one of the largest concertos for piano ever composed. The work surpasses the First Piano Concerto in terms of length and maturity. Not only this, but Brahms also enlarged the structure to true symphonic proportions by adding a scherzo movement, which is more than just a “wisp.”  Finally, to top it all off, the Second Concerto makes even more demands on the pianists artistic and technical abilities. To stress the importance Brahms attributed to the work, it is his first composition he dedicated to his teacher Eduard Marxsen, as if Brahms felt he had finally composed a piece he felt confident in presenting to his former teacher.

The work is somewhat of enigma though. The mood of the majority of the piece is that of serenity, the scherzo being the closest it gets to any kind of dramatic expression. However, it is this seeming serenity that betrays both the complexity of the work and the demands it makes of the soloist. Brahms was not only a prolific composer of piano music, but was also an accomplished pianist himself. Throughout his career, he held an keen interest in the virtuosic techniques of the piano, although, not for the sake of virtuosity, but as a means of artistic expression. As Malcolm McDonald remarked, the Second Piano Concerto was the next logical step after the technically challenging Handel and Paganini Variations.

The work was given its premiere on November 9, 1881 in Budapest with Brahms himself as soloist. Unlike the First Piano Concerto, the Second was an instant success and Brahms when on to perform it in many cities across Europe.

Johannes Brahms composed his Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor intermittently throughout 1853, however, it was not complete when he first met the Schumanns. It is the last and the greatest of his piano sonatas. Brahms wrote his three piano sonatas all with the time of a couple of years, yet it is remarkable to observe the giant leaps he made as a composer in such a short time. The F minor sonata is in five movements, instead of the more usual four, and is his single largest piece of piano music. According to Malcolm McDonald it also “stands with Liszt’s B minor Sonata and the Grande Sonate of Alkan as one of the three greatest piano sonatas of the mid-nineteenth century.”

The F minor sonata is the result of everything Brahms had learned from his previous two sonatas. The F sharp minor was endowed with Romantic passion and a fantasia-like constructor. The C major sonata was it’s exact opposite, a stern testament of Classical form. The F minor sonata was then the synthesis of the two. While still evident is Brahms’ remarkable understanding and handling of Classical forms, the piece is enlivened by the same Romantic passion of the F sharp minor sonata.

The opening of the first movement is heroic and assertive, but proves to be only musical germ from which the rest of the movement grows. What ensues is a rich sonata form that is no doubt inspired by Beethoven in its virtuosic displays and ability to nearly break the medium of its expression.

While Brahms turned to actual “old songs” for the slow movements of his previous two sonatas, he invents one of his own, without words, for the slow movement of the F minor sonata. The movement, however, is headed by a quotation from the poet Sternau: “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture.” Unlike the variation sets of the first two sonatas, this movement is structured as a large ternary form of almost symphonic proportions.

After the fiery scherzo, Brahms interjects a short movement before the finale marked as an Intermezzo, with the subtitle “Rückblick” (a backward glance). In this movement, the theme of the Andante slow movement undergoes a remarkable transformation. Thus, it “looks back” to the slow movement. The F minor sonata then concludes with a restless rondo. Like the C major sonata, the finale begins with a scherzo-like character, yet there are no other similarities to be found between the two movements.

Brahms, in his later years, sometimes thought of revisiting the F minor sonata and possibly revising portions of it. However, and possibly for the best, Brahms never did make whatever revisions he intended. With this Sonata, Brahms left the form and never returned to it. Yet, within the space of two years and in three magnificent compositions, he left his mark in music history and will remain one of the greatest composers of piano music.