Do you know an allemande from an arpeggio? A bagatelle from a badinerie? Does the difference between a fugue and an étude elude you?
Join the club. Though the cognoscenti may believe one can’t truly enjoy classical music unless you speak the lingo, for most of us it’s sufficient to have a grasp of a few fundamental musical terms. As an observant editor of mine recently reminded me, not everyone took music appreciation in school, or music lessons for that matter. Of course, editors also had something to say about all the cinematic jargon I sometimes dispensed as a movie critic. It’s like holding forth on wine; you can begin to sound very pretentious very quickly, even when the terms are valid and precise.
Far be it from me to counsel against education, musical or otherwise, but you should not feel ignorant and out of touch just because you haven’t a clue that a saraband is a dance in triple meter (I looked it up) or a rondeau is a Medieval and early Renaissance musical form based on poetry.
After all, understanding some of the more commonly used orchestral and operatic “music speak” is not about sounding savvy at cocktail parties or a post-performance soiree. It’s about pleasure and enrichment. And many terms likely are already familiar to you, such as overture, movement, crescendo, operetta, sonata, libretto, opus, nocturne and a cappella.
As tempting as it might be to do a cram course on musical argot just so you can opine with authority, restrain yourself. Just relax and savor the moment.
Some terms come with commonplace associations, like allegro (a musical tempo meaning cheerful or quick), which sounds like a fast-acting allergy remedy, while others like atonal (music that lacks a tonal center) or dissonance (notes that conflict) are relatively self-descriptive.
Naturally, you can also hold you own and enhance your understanding simply by knowing some of the defining features of the famous periods of classical music and the composers most associated with them.
First, one should recognize that the term “classical music” is really a synonym for the whole of Western Art Music while the Classical period is defined by specific dates and styles.
Here’s the condensed version: The Medieval period (1150 to 1400—Guillaume de Machaut, Francesco Landini and others) gave birth to the earliest written secular music of troubadours, but many surviving manuscripts derive from academic settings associated with the church. The Renaissance period (1400 to 1600—Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, Girolamo Frescobaldi and others) was a golden age of choral composition marked by textural variety and contrast. The Baroque (1600 to 1750—Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann) was increasingly colorful and sophisticated, introducing the idea of the modern orchestra, along with opera. The Classical (1750 to 1830—Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven) was the origin of the sonata, which dominates instrumental composition to this day, and of the modern symphony. The Early Romantic (1830 to 1860—Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Schumann, Mendelssohn) was the age of the virtuoso, defined by a search for originality and individuality of expression. The Late Romantic (1860 to 1920—Brahms, Wagner, Verdi) was highlighted by the sudden appearance of national schools and the operatic preeminence of Verdi and Wagner.
This alone will give you a basis. Want more? Read a book. Take a class.
Meanwhile, the next time someone chides you for not knowing ars antiqua (old art) from ars nova (new art), just smile indulgently and say, “In music, the best accompaniments are a love of genius, a taste for musicianship and an open heart.”
Bill Thompson writes about the arts, film and books.