Adagio for Strings Samuel Barber
28 June 2013, 13:06
Classical music geeks unite! Here are ten of the nerdiest, swottiest, most niche-interest moments in classical music – from painfully quirky chords to hilariously obscure time signatures. If you've ever found yourself trying to explain to someone why a minute musical detail is just the most incredibly exciting and interesting thing in the whole world, then you need our list.
1. The C# in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony
From carefully placed chords to toe-curlingly obscure musical references, Beethoven manages to out-geek even himself in the first movement of his 'Eroica' Symphony. After two eardrum-bursting E flat major chords, the music completely changes direction with a 'wrong' note: a creepy-sounding C#, which is completely unrelated to the music's original key. Totally geeky. And all in the first ten seconds as well.
2. The Tristan Chord
If there was a prize for the geekiest chord in the world, this is about as squirmingly nerdy as it gets. The 'Tristan' chord pops up in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde as a way of letting the audience know the music is about someone called Tristan. So far, so unsurprising, until you realise this harmonically unstable augmented fourth, augmented sixth and augmented ninth above a tonal root was considered so innovative and daring at the time that it may well be the starting point for 20th century tonality as a whole. And if you thought that description was geeky, imagine what the chord sounds like…
3. The responses to the Tristan Chord
Spotting the Tristan chord in other composers' works is like the geeky musical equivalent of Where's Wally - Britten, Berg and Messiaen have all hidden it in their pieces with mind-bendingly nerdy results. But Debussy trumps them all in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande, where he includes the chord before a setting of the phrase 'je suis triste'. (Triste. Triste-an. Someone give that man a medal.)
4. The tritone
"Ma-ri-a, I just met a girl named Ma-ri-a…" Unbeknownst to you, you've just hummed the scariest interval in the whole of Western music: the diminished fifth, or tritone. Known as the 'the devil in music', this dissonant interval was branded as dangerous in Medieval times, and has since been used by composers the world over when they're trying to let you know subtly that all is not well. Listening to West Side Story suddenly got a whole lot geekier.
5. The BACH motif
Imagine you live in Germany where B naturals are called 'H' and B flats are simply called 'B'. Then imagine your name is Bach. Spell out your name on manuscript paper, and you get B, A, C, H, or B flat, A, C, B natural. Following so far? Obviously, if your name IS Bach, and you just happen to be one of the greatest composers ever to walk the earth, you might be tempted to sneak a few of these signature musical motifs into your compositions. Think of it as the geekiest musical graffiti ever. And then revel in this brilliantly brainy B-A-C-H fugue.
6. The DSCH motif
Not one to be outdone, Shostakovich also fashioned his own musical tag into his pieces. (Bear with us on this one) If you shorten Dimitri Shostakovich's name to just D. Sch., and write it in German notation, you end up with D, Es, C, H, or D, E flat, C, B natural. He's hidden it in a piano sonata, his Violin Concerto No. 1, his Symphony No. 10 and his String Quartet No. 8, among others. Listen out for it and feel quietly smug.
7. The hemiola
No, it's not an obscure blood disease. A hemiola is one of the most mind-blowingly brilliant rhythmic devices ever used, where two bars of three beats feel like three bars of two beats. Confused? Put your anoraks on and enjoy a blast of Monteverdi's hemiola-infested Vespers.
8. The bar lines in the Rite of Spring
No, we're not talking about the lines at the bar (although there might have been a few people in need of a stiff drink after that riot) - Stravinsky was king of the obscure time signatures. You can't get much more geeky than a whole bar just for a demisemiquaver upbeat, and there's even an 11/4 bar just before the Glorification of the Chosen One. Seriously, how many pieces have an 11/4 bar?
9. The pianists in Carnival of the Animals
Saint-Saëns composed this musical menagerie in 14 movements describing a selection of his favourite four-legged friends, including lions, chickens, elephants, swans and… pianists? It's an oh-so-amusing jibe from the composer, likening piano students practising their scales to animals. And everyone knows geeky animal-based musical jokes are best when they're weaved into your compositions.
10. The 'beheading' in Symphonie Fantastique
You know when you poison yourself with opium and imagine you're being dragged to your own death before heading off to a witches' sabbath? Yeah, that. If it's not top of your to-do list, allow Berlioz to describe it to you in the geekiest musical love story of all time, his Symphonie Fantastique. He's even managed to capture the moment the hero's severed head falls to the floor in the fourth movement with a 'chop-drop-bounce-bounce' from the orchestra. Give this a go if you've got a strong stomach.