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Classical Music

By Edited Jun 29, 2015 2 0

Classical Music covers the period roughly between 800 A.D. and the beginning of World War I, and includes all music covered in this 1100-year period. The category covers everything from Gregorian chant to huge symphonies, and all kinds of vocal, instrumental and orchestral works in between.

Early Medieval Period (800-1200 A.D.)

The early Medieval period starts with some of the earliest surviving works we have--the Gregorian chants--and extends through composers such as Leonin and Perotin, whose works were highly embellished versions of Gregorian chant. In the east, Russian and Byzantine chant were developed to a high degree by the end of the early Medieval period.

Gregorian chant was originally written for a single voice, although more than one monk would sing. Later, that voice was doubled at the octave, for those monks whose range was not suitable for the chant as written. Still later, the practice of organum was established, writing for a voice a fifth above the original part.

But there was more than just religious music--this era was the flowering of the troubadours in the south of France, and the trouvères in the north of France--itinerant minstrels who sang not only religious songs, but songs about love, war, and albi (dawn songs), meant to rouse a lover from a married woman's bed before her husband waked. The tradition was also present in modern-day Germany (at that time part of the Holy Roman Empire), where the minstrels were called Minnesingers and Meistersingers. Jongleurs, those who did not compose but performed others' works, were vilified in manuscripts, but were very common because few people of the day were well-enough trained to be able to compose. It is in this period that we have the first preserved works of women composers, most notably Hildegard of Bingen, but also many trouvères and troubadours.

Late Medieval Period (1200-1450 A.D.)

From France came the composer de Machaut, whose long phrases evoked a lover's reluctance to leave his beloved, and his three-part harmonies ushered in a variety of new forms of songs: rondeaux, virelais, and ballades, the forms fixes. This composer was so revolutionary that his music was termed ars nova, to distinguish it from the ars antiqua of Leonin and Perotin. Italian composers added caccias (hunting songs, where one part chases another). In England, rounds, carols and country dances were popular and dance forms quickly spread to France, Germany and beyond.

In the early 1400s, a new style of composition called fauxbourdon was introduced almost simultaneously by three composers: Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, and John Dunstaple (sometimes spelled Dunstable). Fauxbourdon was part-writing, with one voice accompanied by a part a fourth below it, and another part a sixth below the top voice. Faburden, the English variant, was full triadic harmony, with the melody in the middle voice.

Belle, Bonne, Sage - ars subtilior
At the end of every stylistic era, composers are often fascinated by the theoretical underpinnings of music, and the end of this era was marked by ars subtilior, which originated in Modena, Italy. This was a highly manneristic style of writing, which involved complex mensural themes, extreme chromaticism and syncopation, and even scores notated for the eye rather than the ear.

The Renaissance (1450 A.D. - 1600 A.D.)

Influenced by fauxbourdon and the printing of music on printing presses, which allowed for more rapid spread of musical styles, the renaissance was ushered in by the followers of Dunstaple and Dufay: Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Palestrina. These three composers, followed by Josquin des Prez, were the mainstay of the second and third Franco-Flemish schools of composition. All these composers authored motets, not in the isorhythmic style of the ars nova, but compositions for four equal voices, with a thick texture.

In Venice, composers such as Willaert and Gabrieli wrote massive works for multiple choirs, groups of instruments, and even multiple organs. There were two schools of composition in Venice, one which favoured the style of the Franco-Flemish, and the other which was more progressive; this ended in a public duel in 1569 between the composers Donato and Zarlino on the Feast of St. Mark.

At the end of the renaissance, secular music came to be written again in a complex and almost impenetrable style, called mannerism. This form involved extreme chromaticism and complexity, although simpler than most of the ars subtilior.

The Baroque (1600 A.D. - 1750 A.D.)

If there's a formal start to the Baroque period, it might be said to begin with the Florentine Camerata, a group of musicians, humanists, and poets who assembled in the house of Count Giovanni di Bardi to guide trends in the arts. Although they began to meet in January, 1573, it took years of discussion before agreement was reached that music and drama had become too complex, and the group wanted to reform both under a romanticized version of the drama of the ancient Greeks. This included a declamatory style which was thought to be "between speech and song" (and can be heard in the chanting of the Orthodox churches today). The Camerata thought that music was so complex no-one could understand the texts, and they began to write for a solo voice in a simple line, accompanied by a thin texture of instruments. Although this style did not persist, this group of composers did invent the form now known as opera--drama set entirely to music.

Another legacy of the Camerata was that in thinking harmonically rather than polyphonically. This gave rise to the concept of figured bass, which led to the development of chordal and harmonic progressions as part of the common music vocabulary. While composers of the Medieval and Renaissance periods certainly knew harmony and harmonic progression, it was in the Baroque that composers began to plan their compositions that way.

Monteverdi was one of the early Baroque composers and is best known for his madrigals and operas, most of which survive until today. His compositions clearly show the transition from the Renaissance (now known as prima prattica) to the Baroque (seconda prattica), and this transition is most marked in the difference between the Fourth and Fifth Books of Madrigals. Monteverdi thought that in prima prattica the harmony controlled the words; in seconda prattica the words should control the harmony. The Fifth Book of Madrigals shows the beginnings of conscious functional tonality.

The practice of Baroque music was fostered by the royalty and nobility, who began hiring composers for their personal courts. This was the rise of the patronage system, which continued through the Classical era and was responsible for the popularization of styles of the composers Jean-Baptiste Lully, Georg Fridrich Haendel, and Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, among others. Music became formalized, and instead of owing composition largely to inspiration, formalized systems of instruction came to be taught, which accounts for the unique and easily identifiable characteristics of the Baroque and Classical styles.

Other composers were in the service of local churches, among them Dietrich Buxtehude; his pupil, Johann Sebastian Bach; and Antonio Vivaldi, whose prodigious output can be attributed to his position at a Venetian girls' orphanage.

Baroque music built on the traditions of the Renaissance and included suites, derived from collections of dances built on the Renaissance dance forms; sinfonia, the precursors of modern symphonies, built out of the quilt canzonas; operas; masses; and the flowering of the madrigal schools of Italy, France, and England.

Again, the Baroque period came to an end with the highly mannered style of the Rococo, or Galant style. This Galant style can be seen in some of the works of Couperin, Rameau, Bach's sons, Boyce, Stamitz, and Stanley.

The Classical Era (1750 A.D. - 1825 A.D.)

After the Rococo period, popular taste once again swung towards a simpler style of music--this time with a melody over a chordal accompaniment. This is a style called homophony, and is remarkable for its structural clarity, compared with the complexity of the earlier periods of music. (Therefore, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque are often classified together as "early" music.) The absence of polyphonic allowed composers to give greater emphasis to dynamic phrasing, harmonic progression, and subtleties of interpretation. With simplicity paramount, the details for each instrument became more central, leading to the impressive range of new instruments, and the sonatas and concerti written for solo instruments with orchestral or piano accompaniment.

The influence of the Baroque was still apparent in opera, which had carried over the style of the da capo aria, an ABA form, in which the reprise of the A section was heavily ornamented, but the divisions were clearer and the way that the sections were assembled and their transitions had been radically altered. The pre-eminent composer in the reformation of opera was Christoph Willibald Gluck, who used changes in instrumentation, melody, and harmony to enable powerful dramatic shifts in the music.

The sinfonias, groups of professional (and often court) musicians, had given way to symphonies, bands of musicians associated most often with theatres. Originally presented as preludes or interludes to operas, symphonies began to be presented as entertainment on their own. And once instrumental music began to be presented for its own sake, works for smaller groups, particularly string quartet, emerged on to the music scene and were immensely popular with both audiences and managers, who needed to pay only four musicians instead of twenty or thirty.

The patronage system produced some of the strongest composers of the day: Haydn, in service to the Esterhazy family; Mozart, at the court of Salzburg; and Hummel, also in the service of the Esterhazy family. However, musicians were increasingly striking out on their own: Clementi, the first real genius of self-promotion; Beethoven, who managed to find patrons for individual works but could never secure a permanent position; and Méhul, who managed a successful operatic composing career in the midst of the French Revolution.

The Classical Era ended with a shift towards chromaticism, a tendency towards the flat-dominated keys, and darker colours, a shift to the minor mode, and loosening of the forms. In addition, the prolonged use of the subdominant, to enhance modal ambiguity, led to a lessening of dependence on the key of the piece, and allowed for more subtle and extreme modulation.

The Romantic Era (1800 A.D. - 1900 A.D.)

The Romantic era was ushered in largely by Beethoven, followed by Rossini, Schubert, and Weber, Mozart's nephew. These composers were expected to produce music not for small gatherings at royal or noble households, but also for the public at large, who had an insatiable appetite for concerts. The piano, increasingly common since the beginning of the Classical era, came into its own with the works of John Field. Later, Liszt, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Berlioz were to completely transform the forms of symphonies, operas, string quartets, and piano music.

Musicians and composers began to be popular for themselves, and the cult of personality for composers and musicians was increasingly a factor in the success of these persons. Liszt and Paganini, in particular, were in demand and travelled throughout Europe giving a new form of concert, the solo recital. Composers increasingly looked to their own national traditions, composing in "folk" styles, and giving rise to nationalist styles, most particularly, the Russian, French, Finnish and Czech national styles. With the operas of Richard Wagner, music increasingly took on dramatic political leanings and became a vehicle for propaganda.

The Modern Era (1900 A.D. - Present Day)

The twentieth-century is marked primarily by a shift towards dissonance and a reliance on theory to generate music. Composers of this era experimented with an extreme range of forms and styles, many of which defy classification into traditional forms. Cage experimented with chance; Schoenberg developed dodecaphony, which relied on the system of twelve half-steps per scale, and all twelve must be used before one can be repeated; Ives wrote music for different keys in each part; Partch and others experiments with microtonalism ("playing in the cracks of the piano"); Shostakovich and Messiaen tried incorporating numerous forms from the past, mixed together; Glass and Reich moved towards minimalism; and Babbit, Stockhausen and Boulez represented the serialist movement.

As a reaction against Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Albeniz, Dukas, De Falla, and others founded the school of Impressionism. This was music intended to please the senses, and was strongly influenced by the music of non-Western cultures.

Expressionism was a reaction against impressionism, and sought to express the immediate feelings of the composer, and was often based on the new science of psychology. Composers such as Mahler, Skryabin, and Stravinsky show expressionistic tendencies.

Futurism, founded in 1909, advocated the use of ambient noises as part of the music. Among other noises, Pannigi included two motorcycles in one of his compositions.

Atonality is the product of composers like Schoenberg, whose style developed into dodecaphony, and was quickly adopted by Berg and Webern; this style eventually developed into pointillism in which each tone is determined independently of all other tones--a feature of the music of Messiaen.

After the Second World War, technological advances in sound equipment allowed composers to use electronics to produce sound. Compositions were written for musicians to play along with prerecorded tape, or for theremin, electronic generators, or other sound-producing instruments. In the 1980s, the development of the personal computer enabled composers to easily develop music based on a huge variety of theoretical backgrounds, exotic instruments, increasingly complicated rhythms, and intolerable dissonances. Cage wrote a work for twelve radios--something that could never have existed before the advent of technology.

Where classical music will go from here is anyone's guess--however, with the increasing fragmentation, dependence on theory, and mannered styles, it's clear from history that a revolution and a new style period are just around the corner!


A History of Musical Style (Dover Books on Music)
Amazon Price: $24.95 $13.48 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 29, 2015)
If you buy only one book on classical music in your life, this is the book to have. Technical enough for the musically literate, and simple enough for the novice listener, there is simply no other book that covers classical music in this kind of depth and breadth without ever losing the reader.

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