The Gods Must Be Crazy

In Greek mythology, Apollo is the god of light, god of the sun, and the god of truth. By extension this also makes him the god of reason and of rationality. Dionysus, by contrast, was the god of wine, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy. This also made him the god of chaos and the irrational. The juxtaposition between these two provides us with a very useful tool to understand a big idea in music: that is, the differences between the Classical and the Romantic eras.

The Classical – Apollo

Classical music (with a capital ‘C’) roughly denotes the period from the mid-18th Century to the mid-19th Century. More specifically, from around the 1740s to the 1830s. It was a product of the Age of Enlightenment and so it embodies many of characteristics of our Greek god Apollo, namely, balance, proportion, and clarity.

The Age of Enlightenment was also known as the Age of Reason. Many of its ideas are traceable back to the 17th Century scientific revolution, which refuted the long-accepted model of the cosmos that placed Earth at its center. The new rigor and methodology of science, which required verifiable proof of observable phenomena, had ripple effects in many areas, one of which was philosophy.

The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, summed up the Enlightenment by describing it as humankind’s emergence from immaturity. 'Immaturity', he says, is the ‘inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.’ Who is he pointedly referring to? Those two undisputed twin pillars of society at the time: the church and the aristocracy. You don’t have to be a genius to see how this would totally destabilize these two institutions that relied on the unquestioning and ignorant obedience of the people they led. And how it culminated in the French Revolution.

Ok, ok. Enough back story. What has this to do with music?

Well, every movement in art is a reaction to what was happening around it – and to what came before. And before the Classical period came the Baroque. Baroque music is organized by one main idea, that of polyphony. Polyphony means ‘many voices’ where each musical line operates independently; the artistry lies in the fact that each voice must make melodic sense by itself as well as in combination with the other parts. 

The best example of polyphony is called a fugue. A fugue is constructed by having the same short motif or phrase played successively by each ‘voice’. Some of you who read the blog Listening in Layers will recognize the fantastic example below by Bach. The ‘voices’ are all played on the organ and you can see them visually in different colors in the video, which makes it very helpful. 


Ok, that’s the Baroque in the very briefest of nutshells. But we were supposed to be talking about the Classical period. Right, here goes.

Classical composers reacted against all that complexity of the interweaving lines of polyphony. They wanted their Apollonian ideal of clarity. So they started composing music that was ‘homophonic’. Homophony means ‘same/ one voice’ and is simply another name for melody and accompaniment. You will be very familiar with this because it is the basis of all popular music (in pop music, the guitar, the bass, the keyboard, and any other instruments, all accompany the main melody of the singer.)

Fine. But the Classical composers also wanted symmetry, balance and proportion. So they started to use much more musical punctuation (cadences) to break up the phrases and allow the music to breathe more. You can hear how this music derives from the regularity of 18th Century dance music (like the quadrille, minuet etc.) You don't have to know those dances to know that music people move to requires repetition and symmetrical phrasing. Oh, one thing you may have noticed in the Bach example above is that there are no real resting points until the very end; each section is defined mainly by the entrance or exit of one of the four voices and they all seamlessly overlap. This is the opposite to the many cadences (musical punctuations) we find in the Classical style.  

In this example by Mozart, which most of you will recognize, we hear many of the biggest hallmarks of the Classical style.


The very opening phrase is played in unison, which is a far cry from all that polyphonic counterpoint of the Baroque. Not only is it in unison, it is directly balanced by an equal and opposite phrase (the first one goes up, the second goes down. How Newtonian!) In the main section, we get a very clear homophonic texture with the melody easily the most prominent thing we hear (melody and accompaniment.) Also, this tune is perfectly balanced and proportioned within itself because it is built up through symmetrical repetition - if we go down a step, we recover it by going up a step next time. Finally, in a very short span, Mozart also gives us several very clear cadences, which you will hear as very brief moments of silence. So that is our perfect Apollonian Classical model. 

The Romantic – Dionysus

Romanticism was a reaction against all this clarity and proportion, all this restraint. Romanticism is about unbridled passion, imagination, and fantasy. (Doesn’t that sound like the best part of being drunk?) That ties in very neatly with Dionysus, our god of wine, religious rapture, and delirious chaos.

For the Romantics, music is elevated to become the highest and most sublime art-form. As we have discussed in previous blogs, this is because music is not bound up with precise concepts like words and paintings. Music was therefore more freely able to express ideas of the infinite, the spiritual, the mystical, and the ineffable. This was completely intoxicating to the Romantics, who wanted to be hypnotized and mesmerized by art, whether by intense introspection (as in the music of Schubert or Chopin) or through awe (as in Beethoven or Wagner.)

The Romantic composers began to break free of that Classical need for clarity and proportion. They started to treat forms more freely, in service of fulfilling the immediate need for emotional expression rather than conforming to a predetermined structure. The point is, the more singular something was, the more it was valued.

In the below example by Schumann, we are burst upon by three abruptly lurching chords. But immediately the whole atmosphere shifts drastically to something mysterious, haunting, and tragic. A lone oboe sings poignantly, almost drowned out by cascading (weeping?) violins and cellos. Ominous timpani and trumpets intone funereal rhythms. The music begins to swell emotionally and we are driven forward, spurred on by those same trumpets. The tempo (speed) increases and increases and we are eventually propelled into the main portion of the overture, which is alternately frenetic and overwrought, then ghostly and otherworldly. Schumann's pendulum really does swing wildly.  


Schumann's overture perfectly encapsulates a Romantic musical work. It is totally overt in its emotional expression, it is dramatic and erratic in its moods, it is tragic, and it is obsessive. It also draws on themes of the supernatural (in its source material, Lord Byron’s Manfred) and it is the musical embodiment of rapturous chaos. Dionysus would love it... 

Kirsten Hicks