Classical is a popular genre when it comes to dinner music, particularly Thanksgiving dinner, but not all pieces work well in this setting. Put on Verdi’s Requiem or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and you may be serving a sense of foreboding with your sides. On the other hand, Brahms’ Lullaby, while famous and lovely, may only enhance the already soporific effect of a heavy meal. So what should you add to your dinner playlist? How about Tafelmusik.
What is Tafelmusik? In German, it literally means “table music” and it’s been around since the mid-16th century. It is music that was often played at feasts and banquets and can be instrumental, vocal, or both. Composers of Tafelmusik include Johann Schein and Michael Praetorius, but perhaps the most celebrated collection is that of Georg Philipp Telemann. Telemann’s version has been compared to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos in that it is a supreme example of the composer’s skill in writing for a variety of instruments.
Telemann’s Tafelmusik was originally named Musique de table and was immensely successful upon publication – with an unprecedented 206 advance purchases, 52 of which came from abroad. It came, however, toward the end of the musical form’s life in 1733 (Tafelmusik was most popular during the 1600’s). Still, it supports the same philosophy as earlier Baroque examples – that life’s delights (eating and artful music) should meet. And because of that, it is as perfectly at home at celebratory dinners today as it was in the past.
The collection consists of over four hours of instrumental ensemble music which is long enough to last through any dinner party, Thanksgiving, luncheon, or any other meal. It features a cornucopia of styles and instruments including bassoon, oboe, trumpet, harpsichord, and strings that all delight the senses with truly vivid music. It has been described as brilliant, dazzling, and infectious music.
Ah, Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It’s a staple at weddings. It’s almost always found on “relaxing classical music” playlists. It can even be heard during the holidays both in its original form and as incorporated into Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Canon.
It is perhaps one of the most famous baroque pieces that almost anyone – classical music fan or not – can hum without help. And yet, it is also one of the most hated by musicians themselves, particularly cellists. But why?
That Terrible Bass Line
Pachelbel’s Canon, as it is commonly known, is one part of his Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo. In simple terms, a canon is similar to a round – like Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Typically, one instrument or voice starts the melody and other parts then join in. Unlike a round, however, the parts in a canon don’t have to be exactly identical.
Pachelbel uses the techniques of the canon with 3 voices engaged in the “round”. He adds a basso continuo (bass line) which is independent – making the piece more of a chaconne than a canon. This bass line is the cello part. The same 8 notes that repeat throughout the entire piece with no variation. This is why cellists cannot stand playing this piece. As everyone else in the room enjoys the lovely sounds of the canon, the variations of the melody that travel through the violins and viola, the cello is stuck playing the same two-bar line – one that is so simple it can be played by beginning students. Musically speaking, this is definitely not challenging or fun for cellists.
…or is it? The Piano Guys have a wonderful rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon that plays on this common cellist complaint and takes the piece to new heights.
Incidentally, I describe the bass line as the cello part, but it can be played by other instruments (as is the case in wind ensembles).
It’s not just the bass line that is played over and over again. The entire piece itself seems to be overplayed. Weddings, parties, relaxing CDs, holidays, etc. It’s everywhere.
In addition to its original form, the piece’s chord progression can be heard in numerous other places including in popular music. Green Day’s Basket Case, Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger, and Vitamin C’s Graduation are all based on the same chords. Some songs even incorporate samples of the original, as is the case in Coolio’s C U When You Get There.
One could argue that that’s evidence of the simple genius of the piece. Comedian Rob Paravonian would disagree with that.
There Are Many, Many Better Pieces
Perhaps one of the most common reasons musicians give for why they dislike (or even hate) Pachelbel’s Canon is because there is plenty of “better” classical music out there to choose from. One Google search for “relaxing classical music” or “classical wedding music” will return numerous options that are NOT the famous canon. Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, and Elgar’s Salut d’Amour just to name a few.
Musically, Pachelbel’s Canon also doesn’t offer much. For those who were taught to listen closely to minute details in music, the piece falls far short from anything written by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. It’s unsophisticated and highly redundant.
But its simplicity is effective. The unvarying melody at the root of the composition and the repeating basso continuo line are designed to sustain a mood. Unlike other pieces that use a chord structure that gives the music forward momentum (dynamic harmony or chord progression), Canon in D uses a chord structure that does not vary much (static harmony). So unlike music that creates moments of tension and relaxation to tell a story, the canon’s repeating chords serve to prolong the same calm feeling throughout the entire piece.
When It’s Played Badly, It’s Awful
Because the piece is so well-known, mistakes and intonation issues stick out like a sore thumb. One lazy performer – including the musician falling asleep while playing the bass line – can ruin the entire piece.
So while the piece may be the bane of your existence for any of the reasons mentioned above, if you have to play Pachelbel’s Canon, be sure to play it well and in-tune or everyone will notice.
Handel’s “Messiah” is one of the most widely played pieces during the Christmas season and certainly the most popular oratorio (a musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists). It’s also, however, the subject of a wide variety of myths, misconceptions, and questions ranging from things as simple as its title to why we stand during the famous “Hallelujah” chorus.
Let’s take a moment to explore answers to these key frequently asked questions about “Messiah”.
What is Handel’s Messiah?
Handel’s “Messiah” is a large work for orchestra, choir, and solo singers called an oratorio. It was composed in 1741 and is typically performed around Christmas. The most famous part is the “Hallelujah” chorus which has been used in popular culture in movies, cartoons, and even commercials. While many people refer to it as “The Messiah”, its official name is just “Messiah”.
What is the story of Handel’s Messiah?
It doesn’t tell story. Instead, the libretto, written by Charles Jennens, is a series of contemplations on the Christian theme of redemption through the life of Christ. The work is in 3 parts: the first part foretells Jesus’ birth and the Christmas story, the second part leads up to and includes the crucifixion, and the third part talks about the spread of Christianity and eternal life. Interestingly, despite its Christian message, most of the text is from the Old Testament.
Where was Handel’s Messiah first performed?
Contrary to myths about London, it was actually first performed on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland as a charity concert benefiting three charities: prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercers Hospital and the Charitable Infirmary. Handel sought and was given permission from St. Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to use their choirs and he even had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performance. To ensure that the audience would be the largest possible, gentlemen were asked to remove their swords and women were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The takings from the concert were around £400 and each charity received about £127 which secured the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
Why do you stand for Handel’s Messiah?
Audiences typically stand only during the “Hallelujah” chorus. The reason for this has its origins in a legend that may or may not be true. The often repeated story is that King George II was so moved by the chorus during the London premiere that he rose to his feet. Because of protocol, the audience in attendance also stood and thus the tradition was born. However, many experts agree that there is no evidence that King George II was even in attendance at the premiere. Newspapers of the time did not mention his attendance and it would be unlikely they would leave out the detail of a royal presence. The first written documentation of this story was a letter written 37 years after the London premiere. The London premiere also received a rather cool reception unlike the Dublin premiere which was a hit. All of this has led to numerous debates and countless passive-aggressive battles between sitters and standers.
Why is Handel’s Messiah so popular at Christmas?
The premiere in Dublin was held in April and Handel himself associated “Messiah” with Lent and Easter. In fact, only one-third of the piece deals with Jesus’ birth and the Christmas story. So why is a piece that’s really an Easter work so popular during Christmas? Laurence Cummings, conductor of the London Handel Orchestra, once told Smithsonian Magazine that the custom may have come out of necessity stating that while there is so much fine Easter music like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, there is little great sacral music written for Christmas. Regardless of the reason, “Messiah” has been a regular December staple since the 19th century, especially in the US.
How long is Handel’s Messiah?
Handel wrote the original version of “Messiah” in three to four weeks. Some accounts estimate just 24 days. We say “original version” because Handel rewrote parts to better meet the abilities of specific soloists and depending on availability of instruments. In 1789, Mozart re-orchestrated it to give it a more modern sound.
The time it took Handel to write the work is amazingly short when you consider the score is 259 pages. NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman estimated that there are roughly a quarter of a million notes in it which means Handel had to keep a continuous pace writing 15 notes per minute.
Typical performances of the entire “Messiah” are usually around 2 1/2 to 3 hours long.
If you’ve ever listened to baroque music (think Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, etc.), you’ve probably seen the term Concerto Grosso and wondered, “What is that?” Well, as you can probably guess, it does not mean the concerto is gross.
Concerto grosso (or the plural concerti grossi) is Italian for “big concerto”. Unlike a solo concerto where a single solo instrument plays the melody line and is accompanied by the orchestra, in a concerto grosso, a small group of soloists passes the melody between themselves and the orchestra or a small ensemble.
The group of soloists (or soli, concertino, or principale) was often made up of two violins, a bass melody instrument such as a cello, and a harmony instrument such as a harpsichord. Wind instruments were also common. The orchestra (or tutti or ripieno) was usually a string orchestra or a small ensemble of strings, often with a few woodwinds or brass added.
Concerti grossi were very common in the Baroque era (1600-1750). Right around 1750 (just after Handel composed his Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 with 12 different concerti), the solo concerto became the more popular musical form and the concerto grosso all but disappeared. Interestingly, a few 20th century composers like Igor Stravinsky, Philip Glass, and Henry Cowell have revived the form.
Listen to Corelli’s Concerto Grosso op. 6 no. 8 below and see if you can spot the concertino vs. the ripieno.