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History of Classical Music



History of Classical Music



Medieval (c.1150 - c.1400)

This is the first period where we can begin to be fairly certain as to how a great deal of the music which has survived actually sounded. The earliest written secular music dates from the 12th century troubadours (in the form of virelais, estampies, ballades, etc.), but most notated manuscripts emanate from places of learning usually connected with the church, and therefore inevitably have a religious basis.

Gregorian chant and plainsong which are monodic (i.e. written as one musical line) gradually developed during the 11th to 13th centuries into organum (i.e. two or three lines moving simultaneously but independently, therefore almost inadvertently representing the beginnings of harmony). Organum was, however, initially rather stifled by rigid rules governing melody and rhythm, which led ultimately to the so-called Ars Nova period of the 14th century, principally represented by the composers de Vitry, Machaut, and Landini.

Recommended Recording:

See Medieval Period Catalogue List


Renaissance (c.1400 - c.1600)

The fifteenth century witnessed vastly increased freedoms, most particularly in terms of what is actually perceived as 'harmony' and 'polyphony' (the simultaneous movement of two or three interrelated parts). Composers (although they were barely perceived as such) were still almost entirely devoted to choral writing, and the few instrumental compositions which have survived often create the impression (in many cases entirely accurately) of being vocal works in disguise, but minus the words.

There is obvious new delight in textural variety and contrast, so that, for example, a particular section of text might be enhanced by a vocal part dropping out momentarily, only to return again at a special moment of emphasis. The four most influential composers of the fifteenth century were Dunstable, Ockeghem, Despres and Dufay.

The second half of the 16th century witnessed the beginnings of the tradition which many music lovers readily associate with the normal feel of 'classical' music. Gradually, composers moved away from the modal system of harmony which had predominated for over 300 years (and still sounds somewhat archaic to some modern ears), towards the organisation of their work into major and minor scales, thereby imparting the strong sensation of each piece having a definite tonal centre or 'key'.

This was also something of a golden period for choral composition as a seemingly endless flow of a capella (unaccompanied) masses, motets, anthems, psalms and madrigals flowed from the pens of the masters of the age. In addition, instrumental music came into its own for the first time, especially keyboard music in the form of fantasias, variations, and dance movements (galliards, pavanes etc.). Composers of particular note include Dowland, Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, Frescobaldi, Palestrina, Victoria, Lassus, Alonso Lobo, Duarte Lobo, Cardoso and Gesualdo.

Recommended Recordings:

  • Byrd: Mass for Four Voices; Mass for Five Voices; Infelix ego
    Naxos 8.550574
  • Gesualdo: Sacred Music for Five Voices (Complete)
    Naxos 8.550742
  • Lamentations
    Music by Tallis, White, Palestrina, Lassus and de Brito
    Naxos 8.550572
  • Lassus: Missa super entre vous; Infelix ego; Missa imitationem moduli susanne un tour
    Naxos 8.550842
  • Lobo: Missa pro defunctis / Cardoso: Missa pro defunctis
    Naxos 8.550682
  • Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli; Missa aeterna Christi munera
    Naxos 8.550573
  • Palestrina: Missa hodie Christus natus est; Hodie Christus natus est; Stabat mater / Lassus: Missa bell' amfitrit' altera
    Naxos 8.550836
  • Tallis: Mass for Four Voices; Motets
    Naxos 8.550576
  • Victoria: Missa O magnum mysterium; Missa O quam gloriosum / A. Lobo: Versa est in luctum
    Naxos 8.550575

See Renaissance Period Catalogue List


Baroque (c.1600 - c.1750)

During the Baroque period, the foundations were laid for the following 300 or so years of musical expression: the idea of the modern orchestra was born, along with opera (including the overture, prelude, aria, recitative and chorus), the concerto, sonata, and modern cantata. The rather soft-grained viol string family of the Renaissance was gradually replaced by the bolder violin, viola and cello, the harpsichord was invented, and important advances were made in all instrumental groups.

Until about 1700, the old modes still exerted themselves from time to time by colouring certain melodic lines or chord progressions, but from the beginning of the 18th century the modern harmonic system based upon the major and minor scales was effectively pan-European. Choral music no longer dominated, and as composers turned more and more to writing idiomatic instrumental works for ensembles of increasing colour and variety, so 'classical' music (as opposed to 'popular') gradually began to work its way into the very fabric of society, being played outdoors at dinner parties or special functions (e.g. Handel's Water Music), or as a spectacle in the form of opera. On a purely domestic level, every wealthy lady would have a spinet to play, and at meal-times the large and rich houses would employ musicians to play what was popularly called Tafelmusik in Germany, of which Telemann was perhaps the most famous composer.

Of the many 17th century composers who paved the way for this popular explosion of 'classical' music, the following were outstanding: Monteverdi, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Schutz, Buxtehude, Purcell and Lully. Yet, the most popular composers of the period, indeed those who seem to define by their very names the sound of Baroque music at its most colourful and sophisticated are Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel, Telemann, Rameau, François Couperin, Domenico Scarlatti, and Vivaldi, all of them at their creative peak during the first half of the 18th century.

See Baroque Period Catalogue List


Classical (c.1750 - c.1830)

The Baroque era witnessed the creation of a number of musical genres which would maintain a hold on composition for years to come, yet it was the Classical period which saw the introduction of a form which has dominated instrumental composition to the present day: sonata form. With it came the development of the modern concerto, symphony, sonata, trio and quartet to a new peak of structural and expressive refinement. If Baroque music is notable for its textural intricacy, then the Classical period is characterised by a near-obsession with structural clarity.

The seeds of the Classical age were sown by a number of composers whose names are now largely forgotten such as Schobert and Honnauer (both Germans largely active in Paris), as well as more historically respected names, including Gluck, Boccherini and at least three of Johann Sebastian Bach's sons: Carl Phillip Emmanuel, Wilhelm Friedmann and Johann Christian (the so-called 'London' Bach). They were representative of a period which is variously described as rococo or galante, the former implying a gradual move away from the artifice of the High Baroque, the latter an entirely novel style based on symmetry and sensibility, which came to dominate the music of the latter half of the 18th century through two composers of extraordinary significance: Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

See Classical Period Catalogue List


Early Romantic (c.1830 - c.1860)

As the Classical period reached its zenith, it was becoming increasing clear (especially with the late works of Beethoven and Schubert) that the amount and intensity of expression composers were seeking to achieve was beginning to go beyond that which a Classically sized/designed orchestra/piano could possibly encompass. The next period in musical history therefore found composers attempting to balance the expressive and the formal in music with a variety of approaches which would have left composers of any previous age utterly bewildered. As the musical map opened up, with nationalist schools beginning to emerge, it was the search for originality and individuality of expression which began here that was to become such an over-riding obsession in the present century.

The Romantic era was the golden age of the virtuoso, where the most fiendishly difficult music would be performed with nonchalant ease, and the most innocuous theme in a composition would be developed at great length for the enjoyment of the adoring audience. The emotional range of music during this period was considerably widened, as was its harmonic vocabulary and the range and number of instruments which might be called upon to play it. Music often had a 'programme' or story-line attached to it, sometimes of a tragic or despairing nature, occasionally representing such natural phenomena as rivers or galloping horses. The next hundred years would find composers either embracing whole-heartedly the ideals of Romanticism, or in some way reacting against them.

Of the early Romantic composers, two Nationalists deserve special mention, the Russian Glinka (of Russlan and Ludmilla fame) and the Bohemian Smetana (composer of the popular symphonic poem Vltava or 'The Moldau'). However, the six leading composers of the age were undoubtedly Berlioz, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Verdi.

See Romantic Period Catalogue List


Late Romantic (c.1860 - c.1920)

With the honourable exceptions of Brahms and Bruckner, composers of this period shared a general tendency towards allowing their natural inspiration free rein, often pacing their compositions more in terms of their emotional content and dramatic continuity rather than organic structural growth. This was an era highlighted by the extraordinarily rapid appearance of the national schools, and the operatic supremacy of Verdi and Wagner. The eventual end of Romanticism came with the fragmentation of this basic style, composers joining 'schools' of composition, each with a style that was in vogue for a short period of time.

Recommended Recordings:

See Romantic Period Catalogue List


Post 'Great War' Years (c.1920 - Present)

The period since the Great War is undoubtedly the most bewildering of all, as composers have pulled in various apparently contradictory and opposing directions. Typical of the dilemma during the inter-war years, for example, were the Austrians, Webern and Lehar, the former was experimenting with the highly compressed and advanced form known as 'serial structure', while simultaneously Lehar was still indulging in an operetta style which would not have seemed out of place over half a century beforehand.

So diverse are the styles adopted throughout the greater part of the present century that only by experimentation can listeners discover for themselves whether certain composers are to their particular taste or not. However, the following recordings serve as an excellent introduction and will certainly repay investigation:

Recommended Recordings:

  • Antill: Corroboree ; Outback Overture
    Naxos 8.570241
  • Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra; Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf; Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals
    Naxos 8.550499
  • Copland: Rodeo; Billy the Kid; Appalachian Spring; Fanfare for the Common Man
    Naxos 8.550282
  • Gershwin: Piano Concerto; Rhapsody in Blue; An American in Paris
    Naxos 8.550295
  • Orff: Carmina Burana
    Naxos 8.550196
  • Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (Highlights)
    Naxos 8.550380
  • Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 9
    Naxos 8.550427
  • Stravinsky: Jeu des cartes; Rite of Spring (1947 version)
    Naxos 8.550472


See 20th Century and Modern Catalogue List





 
Introduction to Classical Music
  Introduction
  Music Categories
  Musical Instruments
  History of Classical Music
  Discover the Classics
     Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4

Glossary

A-Z of Opera
  Introduction
  Synopses of Opera
  Index of Operas by Composer
  Opera Libretti

How To Enjoy A Live Concert
  A Note from the Author
  Introduction
  The Listener's Job Description
  Part 1: Before the Concert
  Choosing a Concert 
Kinds of Concerts 
Styles of Presentation: Formal, Informal, and Beyond 
Buying a Ticket
Sections of the Theater 
Getting Ready 
Getting There 
  Part 2: At the Concert
  "Concert Manners" 
The Concert Ritual 
Reading the Program 
Instruments of the Orchestra 
Ways to Listen 
Meeting the Performers 
Essential Life Support 
  A Brief Glossary

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