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Music Categories

Over the last 1,000 years, 'classical' music has been composed in a variety of genres which are themselves worthy of investigation; indeed many seasoned collectors gradually move towards a particular preference after a time, be it violin concertos, piano sonatas, string quartets, religious music or opera. Whatever the form or description of any given piece, it usually falls comfortably into one of five broad categories: orchestral, chamber, solo instrumental, choral or opera.

Orchestral Music

The typical orchestra as we know it today, consisting of upwards of eighty players, can be traced back roughly to the middle of the 17th century. By this time the string section already formed the basis of any large ensemble of players, with brass, woodwind and percussion being added variously as the situation demanded. By the end of the Baroque period (c.1750) this was still very much the case, so that it was not until the end of the eighteenth century when the Classical period was at its height that a full woodwind section had become more or less established, often with the addition of horns, trumpets and timpani. It was finally during the mid-1800s that the orchestra settled into a regular, basic pattern of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion, with various 'exotic' instruments being introduced from time to time.

The most common genres the collector is likely to come across may be summarised as follows:

commonly in four, but occasionally only in three, contrasting movements, the outer ones often being vivacious in character, with a more reflective slow movement and contrasting minuet or scherzo.

Symphonic Poem
a one-movement work popular during the nineteenth century, with a story-line or programme often detailed by the composer.

usually the orchestra-only curtain-raiser to an opera, often used to open concerts. During the nineteenth century it became increasingly fashionable to compose independent concert overtures, occasionally with picturesque titles.

evolved from various forms of works using a solo instrument throughout the Baroque era and by the end of the eighteenth century denoted a work invariably in three movements (fast-slow-fast). It was designed principally as a work to demonstrate the virtuosity of the soloist, and was often written for the composer's own use as a soloist.

evolved from passages of dance music, usually in an operatic context, into the popular, full-scale Romantic classics of Adam, Delibes, Tchaikovsky, early Stravinsky and beyond.

Incidental Music
usually composed in short sections, often with recurring themes, for a particular stage production.

usually a selection of short movements taken from a ballet or incidental music, sometimes orchestrations or another composer's work, although quite often an entirely original set of pieces.

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Chamber Music

Normally understood to be any type of music composed for a small ensemble of between two and approximately fifteen players. Larger groups are usually referred to as a chamber ensemble/orchestra.

The most basic form is a work for solo instrument with keyboard accompaniment. There are countless miniatures of this type, particularly for flute, violin, cello, oboe, and clarinet, often with descriptive titles. For slightly larger appetites, there are also numerous accompanied sonatas dating from the Baroque period onwards, typically in three or four movements, and after about 1750 corresponding roughly to symphonic structure. Duets also exist typically for two instruments of the same family (e.g. violin and viola, or flute and clarinet) although pieces for almost any duo combination may be encountered.

Other chamber works which normally fall into multi-movement structures are the string trio (violin, viola, cello), piano trio (piano, violin, cello), string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello), piano quartet (piano, violin, viola, cello), string quintet (typically 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, or 2 violins, 2 violas, cello), and piano quintet (typically piano, 2 violins, viola, cello). Examples of sextets, septets, octets and even nonets are rather less plentiful and can be for a variety of different combinations.

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Solo Instrumental Music

Into this category falls any music composed for a single, unaccompanied instrument. Although distinguished examples exist for every conceivable instrument (including various works for percussion), the bulk is composed either for the organ (in a vast variety of styles and genres), keyboard (piano, harpsichord, clavichord, spinet, virginal), guitar (mostly miniatures/arrangements in the popular Spanish idiom) or lute (mostly dating from the Renaissance and early Baroque periods).

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Vocal Music

The oldest genre of all, for what is humanity's oldest 'instrument'- the human voice. Anyone wishing to trace a stylistic history of classical music could do no better than to examine vocal music, for every composer worthy of the name wrote at least something which involves singing of some description.

In its simplest form vocal music consists of a single, monodic line, as in Medieval Gregorian chant for example. From this was derived all music for unaccompanied choir, so that as one moves further forward in time, more and more independent parts are gradually added, and the musical language and texturing becomes correspondingly more complex. The great majority of texts of pieces for unaccompanied and accompanied choir (masses, motets, psalms, canticles, vespers etc.) had a religious basis until the turn of the present century, although there are notable exceptions, especially regarding the secular madrigalists of the sixteenth century.

If choral music in the 'classical' tradition tends towards the sacred, then the accompanied song, chanson, ballade, virelei, lied or melodie is almost invariably secular in origin or intentions. Indeed there are Medieval and Renaissance songs which are positively ribald in terms of their chosen texts. The most popular form within this category is, however, the keyboard accompanied art song, particularly the German Lied of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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An Italian invention, opera was born right at the beginning of the Baroque era (shortly before 1600), and although stylistic approaches to the genre have been many and varied, the basic outlines have remained remarkably consistent.

Essentially a play set to music, the typical opera will open with an overture or prelude designed to set the scene or even introduce some of the most important themes to appear later on. The action will be split into acts and scenes, and within these the principal vehicles for expression are (a) the aria, duet, trio, etc. for the soloists; (b) the 'chorus', to allow a larger group to join in with or more usually comment on the action; and (c) recitative, a formal device similar to sung conversation, where the plot typically moves at a faster pace before the next set piece allows greater contemplation on the chain of events.

French opera also typically makes provision for an extended balletic interlude, and from middle-period Wagner onwards (c.1865), the general tendency is to interweave the various elements as seamlessly as possible, thereby avoiding the heavily sectionalised procedure which had then dominated the genre for over 250 years.

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See Naxos Instrumentalists, Singers, Conductors, Choirs, Orchestra, Ensembles.


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

Glossary of Musical Terms

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

How To Enjoy A Live Concert
  A Note from the Author
  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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