Classical music and Jazz … a perfect match!

Reading Time: 5 minutesSeptember 9, 2021

Classical music and Jazz … a perfect match!

There are quite some musicians in both the Classical music and Jazz music scenes who frown when you mention you like both music genres, especially when you also mention you find them less different than people might think. Some Jazz musicians would say: “Well, but Classical musicians only ‘reproduce’, they can’t improvise.” Some Classical musicians would then reply: “Well, Jazz musicians just play too many random notes and call it a solo.” Obviously all who utter such cliches are very wrong and might not have spend enough time listening and exploring both musical genres.

I will not go into the preconception some Classical musicians have about Jazz improvisation, you could write a whole book about it and still have more to say, but I would like to comment shortly in this article about the presumption by Jazz musicians about Classical musicians improvising, before proceeding with what this short article is mostly about, how Classical music and Jazz are connected.

A Facebook friend of mine shared an amusing story about Beethoven on her wall, originally shared by by another member of the “Ludwig van Beethoven” Facebook group, that “illustrates” that the preconceptions by some Jazz musicians mentioned above is wrong … the story goes as follows:

Here’s what happens when you challenge one of history’s greatest composers and pianists to a musical battle. It didn’t go too well for Mr Steibelt …

A native of Berlin, Daniel Steibelt was one of Europe’s most renowned piano virtuosos. He was a typical Prussian – formal, correct, proper. In 1800 he came to Vienna, no doubt with the aim of advancing his musical reputation. It was quickly agreed among the city’s musical patrons that Steibelt should compete against Beethoven in an improvisation contest.

These improvisation contests were a popular form of entertainment among Vienna’s aristocracy. One nobleman would support one virtuoso pianist, another would support the other. In the salon of one of the noblemen, the two pianists would compete with each other, each setting the other a tune to improvise on. The playing would go back and forth, increasing in intensity, until a winner was declared. In his early years in Vienna, Beethoven was made to take on the city’s best talent and he quickly saw them off. It was agreed that Prince Lobkowitz would sponsor Steibelt and Prince Lichnowsky sponsor Beethoven, the improvisation contest to take place in Lobkowitz’s palace.

As the challenger, Steibelt was to play first. He walked to the piano, tossing a piece of his own music on the side, and played. Steibelt was renowned for conjuring up a “storm” on the piano, and this he did to great effect, the “thunder” growling in the bass. He rose to great applause, and all eyes turned to Beethoven, who took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and reluctantly – to the collective relief of everyone present – trudged to the piano.

When he got there he picked up the piece of music Steibelt had tossed on the side, looked at it, showed it the audience ….. and turned it upside down! He sat at the piano and played the four notes in the opening bar of Steibelt’s music. He began to vary them, embellish them ….. improvise on them. He played on, imitated a Steibelt “storm”, unpicked Steibelt’s playing and put it together again, parodied it and mocked it. Steibelt said he would leave Vienna and never return again whilst Beethoven lived there.

Pretty amusing, isn’t it? Some of the most virtuoso pianists were improvising and “jamming” to proof their level of skills already back then, much like what still happens in today’s Jazz scene at jam sessions.

And this amusing anecdote isn’t the only example of improvisations in Classical music. Some other examples in Classical music where improvisation played a role were “Cantus firmus” and “Basso Continuo” and the Classical term “Variations” clearly suggests what one could expect. There are more examples, but I will not go deeper into that (others have written about that before already) and I would rather like to use this blog article to let you actually hear the link between Classical music and Jazz music.

If you listen to some of the compositions of two of the greatest composers in Classical music history Bach and Beethoven and you are familiar with Jazz music as well, you might hear some similarities in the melodies and phrasing. Obviously the “feel” (timing and articulation) is very different with Classical music, it doesn’t have that clear syncopated “feel” of Swing and Bop we know so well from Jazz.

The “link” though between Classical music and Jazz becomes very clear when we compare some of Beethovens work (Youtube on the left) with Ragtime (Youtube on the right), a music genre many music and Jazz enthusiasts consider to be the first real Jazz style and predecessor of Boogie Woogie and Swing.

You could say that composers like Beethoven and Bach can be considered to have been the very first Jazz composers, how about that?

This also becomes very clear with an example of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and how relatively “easy” it is to turn a Classical composition of Bach into Jazz, primarily by changing the “straight feel” of Classical music (Youtube on the left) to the more syncopated feel of Jazz (Youtube on the right).

It isn’t that strange to imagine that some of the greatest Jazz musicians loved listening to the work of the great Classical composers and were inspired by it, musicians like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, just to name a few, were well known listeners of Classical music. And if you listen to pianists like Michel Petrucciani and Chick Corea (both personal favorites of mine, whom I fortunately have seen perform live several times) you can even hear it in their playing.

Funny enough, there is also a surprisingly large list of Classical composers who were inspired by Jazz, naturally composers like George Gershwin (Rhapsody In Blue perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of this “genre”) and Leonard Bernstein directly come to mind. You might like to check that complete list if you like to “explore” those Jazz inspired Classical works.

Personally I am a big fan of recordings where Jazz and Classical music is fused. One of my absolute favorites is the “Cityscape” collaboration between Michael Brecker (my all time favorite saxophonist) and composer and conductor Claus Ogerman. Another recording I really enjoy listening to is Charlie Haden‘s “Now is the Hour” with Ernie Watts on saxophone. I have seen this lovely music performed life as well, many years ago at the North Sea Jazz Festival (then still in The Hague). Last (but not least) I also like to mention the album “Hot House Flowers” of trumpetist and composer Wynton Marsalis.

I consider these 3 albums as perfect examples of a “perfect marriage” between Classical music and Jazz … where they are no longer separate music genres, but a unified musical experience.

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