The College Of Musical Knowledge: Giovanni Battista Viotti

The Idagio cellphone app offers a “radio play” feature that allows you to listen to the music of favorite composers — and a little else, besides.  From time to time, the folks at Idagio will include a piece by a different composer, just to mix things up a little.

892px-giovanni_battista_viotti_aftertrofsarelliThat’s how I discovered the music of Giovanni Battista Viotti.  I was listening to “Mozart radio” and a piece that didn’t sound quite like Mozart began playing.  I checked the app and saw that the radio was playing a piece by Viotti — a composer that I had never heard of or, to my knowledge, listened to.  I liked the piece that was playing, so I decided to see if there was a Viotti radio option.  Sure enough, there was, and after listening to it I found that I liked Viotti’s work quite a bit.

Born in 1750, Viotti was a violin virtuoso who was a prolific composer of violin-centric concertos and other pieces.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that the violin features prominently in his pieces.  He lived a colorful life that saw him working at the court of Marie Antoinette, became embroiled in the French Revolution, and was later expelled from England for a time due to concerns about his potential revolutionary sympathies.  Along the way Viotti and his Stradivarius helped to establish the French school of violin playing, and his compositions influenced Beethoven and Brahms.

Viotti doesn’t exactly get a warm reception from the critics — and I suspect that the fact that some music historians view him as a kind of suck-up to the nobility of the day doesn’t help the reviews of his music.  One article about him, for example, says that the quality of his playing was vastly superior to his compositions, variously describing them as “sweet but anaemic” and “tedious.”  Another article acknowledges that Viotti’s music was admired by his contemporaries and that his violin concertos show true compositional prowess, but his other pieces are “relatively uninspired.”

Not being a musical scholar or analyst, I can’t comment on Viotti’s composition — but I can say that I like his music quite a bit.  It’s very melodic and often uplifting, and is great walking music.  I particularly like his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 15 in B flat major and its jaunty third movement.  It and other pieces have been added to my Idagio list of favorites.

One lesson in the College of Musical Knowledge is that you shouldn’t let what critics say define your personal playlist.  I enjoy Viotti’s music, and I really don’t care whether he’s acclaimed by modern critics or not.

At The College Of Musical Knowledge

When it comes to rock music, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grip on its history and principal performers.  I lived through most of the history of that particular musical genre, was immersed in it when I was in high school and college, and read about my favorite artists and the early days of rock ‘n roll, the British invasion, and psychedelia.  I can pretty easily identify songs that fell into subgenres like doo-wop, bubblegum, acid rock, and disco and can identify obscure songs and artists.  And even though I don’t listen to current rock music much these days, I still carry around that history.

2014-ryan-stees-featureWith classical music, that’s not true.  I didn’t pick it up because it was the prevailing musical form in my formative years; instead, the apogee of the classical period happened decades or even centuries before I was born.  I’ve listened to it over the years, but my knowledge really is narrow and about an inch deep.  I’ve watched Amadeus, listened to a kid’s tape we had when the boys were little called Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and am generally familiar with at least some of the creations of some of classical music’s biggest names, like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven.  I know that I really like baroque music.  But . . . that’s about it.  I still confuse Schubert and Schumann.

For a fan of the music, my knowledge is pretty dismal.  It’s embarrassing.

Recently I’ve decided that I’m not just going to accept my state of blissful classical music ignorance, and am going to try to broaden my horizons by discovering some new composers, learning about distinguishing between the different classical musical periods, and trying to understand the whole composing process and how orchestration works.  I’m not going to try to learn how to read music — we’re talking baby steps here — but I’m hoping to end up with a better appreciation for the music that I listen to most frequently these days.

Thanks to the great Idagio app that I’ve written about before, I’ve already discovered a few previously unknown composers whose music I really like, and learned some interesting things about process.  This year I’ll be reporting from time to time on what I’m getting out of my enrollment in the College of Musical Knowledge.  Fortunately, there’s no curriculum, and there won’t be any midterms.  I’ll just be auditing the classes.

Idagio

I’m admittedly something of a cheapskate, and my cellphone is pretty much app-free as a result.  I’m willing to pay for music, however, and when my old iPod started to show signs of its age I began looking for a new, reliable source for music to listen to on my walks.

220px-beethovenAfter doing some research, I decided to subscribe to Idagio, a classical music app, and it has been a great choice for me.  I really enjoy classical music, but I feel like my knowledge — of the scope of the works of different composers and of pieces from different genres and periods — is both narrow and shallow.  When your exposure is confined to the stuff you’ve personally added to your iPod, it’s going to be limited by definition.  For the cost of only a few bucks a month, Idagio has fixed that problem.  Now I’ve got access to a sweeping library of works by composers I’ve never really listened to before, and I feel like I’ve been launched on a pleasant voyage of discovery.

I like how Idagio is organized.  The “discover” section of the app highlights new works from artists, new albums, and playlists that have been created for Idagio.  When you go to the “browse” section of the app, you can choose among composers, ensembles, soloists, conductors, instruments, genres, or periods,  If you pick a favorite composer, you can listen to the composer’s “radio,” which is a random selection of pieces by the composer, or you can listen to their work sorted by popularity or pieces that were recently added.  If you like baroque music, as I do, you can focus on that period, listen to an assortment of music, hear composers you’ve not heard before, then do searches of the “composers” library to take a deeper dive into what they’ve created.  If you then hear something that you like, you can download it and create your own library of personal favorites.  The app also organizes music into “moods” — like “gentle,” “happy,” “exciting,” “passionate,” or “angry” — and the Idagio-created playlists include a range of options, from collections designed to increased concentration and focus to composer-specific and period-specific options, like Mozart piano music or “baroque meditation.”

In short, there are lots of different ways to hear the music, which increases the ability to use Idagio as a tool to broaden your exposure to the sprawling world of classical music.  And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of this app.