A court gathering to hear music

The History of Classical Music

Now that you have been properly introduced to some of the more famous pieces in the classical music repertoire, I thought that an overview of the different eras that comprises the history of classical music would be the next logical step. The term is very broad, covering music from the medieval through the present day. The article will attempt to introduce you to a few different styles and ideas of each of the musical periods in the western world, as well as contextualizing them to explain the various developments and to highlight important composers. This is by no means a comprehensive guide but an overview aimed to help the novice understand classical music better. Due to the large scale (we are after all talking about a thousand years of music) not all has been covered. For example, any music after 1945 was excluded, as there are so many schools and approaches that the article wouldn’t really benefit from a few hundred words.

Early Period:

Although early music did exist as church and court music, it is very much the early church music, and in particular the vocal church music, that would eventually become the highly sophisticated music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Although there are a great many virtues in the music of the troubadours, madrigals and the minstrels, the focus of the article is more on the church music.

Medieval Musical Manuscript

Medieval Musical Manuscript

Medieval (1100-1400)

It all starts here, with a single line of notes. Monophonic chant, also called Plain chant developed in various centers throughout Europe. Like the court music, it was local, based on local liturgies and different regions produced different styles of chanting. Listen to the difference between the Mozarbic Chant of Portugal and Spain, and the Amborisan Chant. Both are doing versions of the ‘Gloria in Excelisus Deo’ part of the mass.

This began to change with the standardization of the mass and chant by the Catholic Church in 1011 A.D. The result was Gregorian chant, derived from mixing the chant styles of the two main European centers Rome, the center of the church, and Paris, the political center. This came to replace almost all local forms of chant. Here again listen to the “Gloria” but done as Gregorian chant.

With this standardization developments started to occur. Gradually more lines were introduced to the music, moving through Organum. Much of this music is still anonymous. Once again different centers experimented in different approaches to organum, perhaps the most significant was the English. Although the Florid Organum of St Martial was the most significant on later organum, giving way to the famous Notre Dame School, the English organum favored the interval of the third, which would become the path through which modal music would lead to major/minor tonality, but more on that later. These were later developed by two of the earliest known composers, first by Léonin and later Pérotin. Both provided many new compositional techniques, the most vital being modal rhythm, essentially irregular notes arranged in a regular pattern.

The primary difference is that where Léonin’s style moved more towards lengthy florid lines, Pérotin focused more on using more elaborate voices, bringing a firm start to polyphony.

Renaissance (1400-1600)

The initial move was to smooth out elements that had become prominent in the late medieval style. In particular this meant simplifying some of the rhythms. However, this provided a more flowing style and in many ways added to a more focused rhythm that moved more towards the end of the piece. The interval of the third, with its greater color (minor and major) became more valued. In the medieval period it was considered a dissonant, and thus subordinate to the fifth and fourth.

The music gradually became more complex again in the music of Johannes Ockehem. His fondness for canons can be heard in his Missa Prolationum. This has been linked to the increased detail that was seen in the visual arts at the time.

In the 1470s the first impact of the printing press was felt in music. Musical notation started to take form, allowing the idea of transmitting music and having it reproduced more faithfully. This also meant that the local element, as with the standardizing of the mass by the church in 1011, was surpassed by a growing internationalism, specifically the Franco-Flemish style of polyphony. With this came an increase of simplification particular with G.P. Palestrina. The move towards a clearer style came in part due to the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent. Essentially, the decision had been reached that the polyphonic music at the time made the lyrics, the divine sacred texts, incomprehensible. They abandoned the intermingling of several voices in the canon style of Ockehem in favor of imitation of duets and trios that would build in texture to five or six sections. There were also increasing passages of homophony (multiple voices moving in a similar rhythm) for passages of particular importance. Palestrina eventually developed a free flowing style of counterpoint from these, allowing both clarity and musical interest.

The period’s obsession with antiquity, in particular the Greeks, lead some to experiment with a form of musical theatre, where it voice told a story accompanied by instruments, essentially trying to replicate Greek Drama. They succeed, somewhat. They created a form of musical theatre that is still present today, although the degree to which it resembles traditional Greek drama is questionable.

Baroque (1600-1750)

Again, we see a localization take hold within music, as the Baroque period offers a variety of composers from a variety of places. The term itself was originally used as an insult to the highly ornate, seemingly incoherent style of the music. It has since become a term to describe a broad range of composers over a 150 year period. One of the transitional composers was Jacopo Peri. He worked for both various churches and courts, most notably the Medici. His style is significantly less complex than much of the Renaissance music before him or the more ornamental style that would characterize Baroque. Little of his work is performed today, and often only as something of a curiosity. Nonetheless, he is, according to some, the true inventor of a new form called, Opera that would later be revised by Claudio Monteverdi in his L’Orfeo.

The Incompoarable J.S. Bach

The Incomparable J.S. Bach

The basic ingredients that would characterize later Baroque music are a tonal harmony in the form of a basso continuo (a continuous bass line) upon which tonal polyphony, inspired by the counterpoint developed during the Renaissance, would be played. The interval of the third that was slowly becoming important to composers provided the emergence of major and minor keys as ways of managing dissonance and chromaticism which would be the key feature until the end of the 19th century. In addition to this is the conceptualization of equal temperament, dividing the octave in twelve parts. Surprisingly, these are not twelve perfectly tuned semitones. There are actually twelve, untuned intervals, but the degree to which they are untuned is exact, meaning that they balance each other out. This allowed modulation between keys. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier is in some ways a realization and celebration of this standardization. Instrumental music came into its own. In particular the keyboard instruments, namely the harpsichord and the organ, became the mainstays of music.

J. S. Bach is the giant of this era, although he was far from the most famous musician of the time, his fame rose particularity from the 19th Century onwards. His main post was as Kapellmeister in Leipzig, essentially the man in charge of the music of that town. He created many varied works, from Chorale Cantatas, masses, preludes, partitas. With the exception of theatrically based works (such as operas), Bach’s catalogue covers all forms, instruments and orchestras of the period.

The printing press also paved the way for standardization. Pedagogical texts were produced, including Johann Fux’s Gradus ad Paranassum (1725) systemizing counterpoint of the earlier periods and Archangelo Corelli, who organized violin technique and pedagogy. The period also allowed for greater individual distinction. Composers and performers began to become famous in their own right, their knowledge and expertise being transmitted either through pedagogy or in the press praising their talents.

Although the liturgy still provided a basis for some works composers chose to organize material differently. Form became more important, as the need to remain within a single key required methods of organizing musical material to return to the ‘tonic’ or home key. This provided the framework for sonata form as well as the idea of theme and variations. The basics of form encapsulated that of binary (AABA) or trio (ABC).

Classicism (1750-1820)

During the Renaissance the focus shifted on Classical Antiquity (hence the name) and people tried emulate that in new art and architecture. While the emphases, was still on formality and hierarchy just like during the Baroque, the focus was more on clear division, strong contrast, and a simpler style, unlike the complex, ornamental style of the Baroque.  In simple terms, the polyphony gave way to a single melody accompanied by subordinate harmony. Revealing the shift in modulation, such as between the first and second theme of a sonata became increasingly important. The knowledge of the older musicians with their technical expertise was needed, but the newer style came from the younger musicians. C.P.E. Bach proved a great combination of these two. He gained, from his father the knowledge of the old techniques but was able to utilize them in newer styles favored by the public. This transitional period which would lead to the likes of Joseph Hayden and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dated from around 1730-1760. Fact of the matter was that Bach, although still respected, had become something of a relic.

The simplicity also had economic reasons and benefits. The taste for new music became a public fixation, but the resources available to a composer were rather limited. Whereas Bach had all the musicians in Leipzig at his disposal, Mozart, as an example, would have to hire musicians, which would mean rehearsals , and rehearsals cost money. In order to limit the budget, pieces requiring only one rehearsal, became en vogue.

A court gathering to hear music

A court gathering to hear music

During this time period court music (composers were in the service of nobleman) thrived. The court orchestra of Mannheim was the most famous one at the time, and hence influenced the musical styles of many composers, including Hayden and Mozart. Hayden is often called the father of both the Symphony and the String Quartet. Even as a young boy, he received musical training and was eventually hired as a chorister in the St Stephen Cathedral in Vienna. As he grew older, his voice unfavorably matured and following a poorly received prank on a fellow chorister he was dismissed.  Subsequently he took various jobs and, realizing his lack of knowledge in music theory and composition he studied many of the texts that had been made available through print during the Baroque period (most notably Fux’s treatise) and studied the work of C.P.E. Bach. This eventually lead to his employment in the Esterházy estate, which helped him develop his defining style and success.

The other great economic shift was that, musicians increasingly became free agents. Before, music was created within and for the court only. Mozart, for example, sold subscriptions to his concerts in order to finance himself, rather than relying on Royal patronage. On the other hand, Hayden utilized the stability of his court appointment to focus on creating new ways of composing and structuring works within the new aesthetic of the period, Mozart sought success within the public domain. This meant being a virtuoso performer and composing operas. Both of these allowed playing over several nights and touring schedules, allowing Mozart to generate a viable income. He also preferred greater chromatic chord use and combination of melodies within a single work. His training with Hayden provided him with a more structured, disciplined approach which led him to become more colorful and virtuoso. His compositional style required greater attention and interaction within the orchestra and posed a greater challenge on individual musicians. This more technical approach demanded more from composer as well as the performer, and the public craved for more. At the same time, these increased skill requirements differentiated the later Classicism around 1780 from the earlier transition period (1740-1760). Both Hayden and Mozart were considered as geniuses at the time and enjoyed a great deal of success.

In the following, a new generation of musicians appeared, and the best known and most acclaimed was definitely Ludwig van Beethoven. Just like Mozart he gained a reputation as a virtuoso performer, particularly noted for his improvising. However, his compositions had  an even greater impact: they were longer, more complex. more ‘pianistic’ as opposed to ‘vocal’, and ensured a greater interaction between instruments, leading to a new style. The early classicist notion of simplicity over complexity was being usurped. Form allowed a greater deal of exploration of musical material. The clearest place to see this is in the development sections of Beethoven’s works. Rather than Mozart’s playfulness, Beethoven reworked his themes in large, bold, and complicated ways. His main focus was to create a monumental, original artwork. As a consequence, his quality approach meant that he’d create fewer volumes: whereas Hayden composed over 100 symphonies, Mozart wrote 41, and Beethoven just 9 symphonies. However, the emotional intensity and musical sophistication that exist in the Beethoven symphonies indicate the ultimate shift. Although Beethoven began his career as a classicist, he ended it as a proto-romanticist.

Romanticism (1820-1900)

The increasing interest in nature, the glorification of subjective thinking and the interest in the supernatural characterized the Romanticism. The standardization that occurred during the classical period was tested and pushed to its limits, because each composer had his own, subjective approach. consequently, free form styles such as nocturnes, rhapsodies and preludes became popular. A prime example of this is Frederick Chopin. He incorporated elements of folk music in his Mazurkas, alth0ugh they are meant for the concert hall.

Musicians became free from nobility as musicians could now operate independently or through various musical education organizations. One such way was through the increased interest in music from the middle classes, and this provided an avenue in which composers could earn a regular income. Chopin, for example, only gave a few concert performances. His usual income came from giving lessons and selling his manuscripts.

This independence lead others to have grand touring schedules and concerts. Composers and performers essentially became rock stars, adored by the public. Two of the main examples are the violinist Nicollo Pananini and Franz Liszt. Paganini actually inspired list, with his technical achievement with the violin, to match it with the piano. Duels became something of a regular feature between pianist. Liszt had a particular rivalry with Sigismond Thalberg, a fellow composer and virtuoso, where they essentially tried to reduce the other’s popularity in the media. This did not really work and so, to settle the score, on March 31, 1837, Liszt and Thalberg had a duel in the salon of Princess Cristina Belgiojoso. Each first played a piece already in their repertoire. Then each played out a piece of extreme technical difficulty they had prepared specifically for the meeting. Liszt’s was “Reminscences de Robert le Diable”. Although it was called a draw by those present, Thalberg, who had competed with Liszt for many years, never again challenged him.

One the opposite side of this spectrum was Wagner. Wagner wanted to create Gesamtkunstwerk (the total art work) wherein the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic elements of art came together. Orchestras were growing during this period with the introduction of more instruments and greater roles for existing ones. But for Wagner progress was too slow. He wanted it even bigger. Some instruments he specified for his orchestras such as the octobass, a bass so large that it required to people to play it. He was also one of the few composers from this period to gain patronage in the form of Ludwig II of Bavaria. This enabled him to build the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Festival Theatre). Here the orchestra is hidden under a hood to firstly remove it from the sight of the orchestra, the drama was primary to Wagner, and secondly to correct the balance between the singers and the orchestra. The music used larger amounts of chromaticism and dissonance that added to the dramatic effect of the music.  Although the Ring Cycle is the mammoth work of this era, it is the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde, with the famous Tristan Chord (00:12) that highlights the emotional longing and chromatic defiance that characterized Wagner’s work.

Modernism, Serialism, and Beyond (1900)

By the beginning of the 2oth Century composers had become tired of the conventions and standardization that had occurred during the common practice era and started to explore more methods of organizing there music. For some this simply meant expanding on these conventions, such as Sergei Rachmaninoff who composed music in the Romanticist style well into the 1940s.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Others chose to redefine, mutate or reject the previous conventions. Claude Debussy was one of these composers. Originally fascinated by Wagner‘s highly chromatic tonal music eventually came to the conclusion that it was “a beautiful sunset mistaken for a dawn.” He, like other’s had realized that Wagner’s approach to tonality was z limitation to tonality. He thus sought other ways of organizing his material. In a way, he looked backwards, and used modes for his compositions just like during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. This gave him a tonal ambiguity and freedom to move his music as evidenced by The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It also reveals Debussy’s use of nonfunctional harmonies, where, instead of driving the piece forward, the harmony simply colors the melody. During this period, brass and wind instruments started to compete with the traditional string instruments.

Another mammoth work of the early 2oth Century was Igor Stravinsky‘s The Rite of Spring. Famously causing huge public outrage and a near riot at its 1913 premiere the piece, with its seemingly cacophonous melodies intermingling and the violent nature of the strong rhythms revealed new areas of fascination of the modernist age. Rather than having pitch as the primary element in music, it became subservient to the atmosphere created by texture, rhythm and tone.

And finally Arnold Schoenberg and twelve-tone music. Whereas Debussy and Stravinsky sought new and exotic techniques and sounds to create their music Schoenberg became fixated on the very bases of the common practice era, the twelve tones of equal temperament. Sometimes called atonal music, to prevent this from falling into complete chaos Schoenberg derived a system that required all twelve tones to be used in succession and then have that succession repeated for the remainder of the piece. The system, although being approached from a different direction than his contemporaries, also required a greater focus on texture, instrumentation, dynamics, and rhythm.

Although creating an interesting, even haunting effect, it has not really been well received. Nevertheless, Schoenberg’s technique was pivotal in Western music for the next few decades with composers such as Pierre Boulez and Stockhausen developing his twelve tone technique into complete serialism, wherein every element from pitch to dynamics to rhythm were all subjected to a rigorous system. Again, the results were not popular and many, such as the minimalists, rejected it outright.

Final Words

I hope that this introduction to the history of western classical music has given you an impression of the different styles at different periods. More than anything I hope it allows you to appreciation the different types of music more. What is your preferred era of classical music, or what are your favorite composers? Please let us know in the comments.

The History of Classical Music
Article Name
The History of Classical Music
Overview of the history of classical music explaining the differences between the periods with highlights of important composers & pieces.
20 replies
  1. J.A. Shapira says:

    What a fascinating article. As a season ticket holder at the Symphony I found this to be very educational and most interesting. Bravo.

  2. Daniel Gerson says:

    Like any other art form, music is a window to the past and an art piece’s present. Therefor it is of no actual importance whether we like it or not if it is only to be received as a piece of auditory perception. We have experienced all kinds of music from the past and present and therefor our perception is, shall we say, tarnished?

    That is why some of these pieces may sound rather odd or even unpleasent, simply because our tastes or idea of what good music is supposed to sound like are diametrically opposed to those of the audience that the music was written for at the time.

    Therefor, in the vast musical archives, there might be pieces, which were not too well received back in their day, that would find greater favour, than the acknowledged standards that have been passed on to us over the generations, with audiences today.

    Yet it is important that we are being presented with this kind of knowledge, as it allows us to at least try to get our minds into a position from which we can listen to these pieces knowing what they meant to their time and why they helped to advance and enrich the world’s musical repertoir.

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      Very important points. Although saying that “it is of no actual importance whether we like it or not” is an extreme view. It seems to take the view of history for history’s sake. Where is the pleasure, the aesthetics? We are not unresponsive machines or repositories of knowledge, be they audio, visual or written.
      In the same way we respond to the modern world in the present we should respond to the past in the present (we have little choice of that). Modern music and current performance is essentially a response to this past, in one way or another. For a musicologist your notion is necessary, as the aesthetics may very well impinge on their work. But for those not in the profession who simply wish to listen to the work there is a greater human element that needs to be addressed. I including some more challenging pieces because I do believe that people should experience as many styles as possible and that notions about what constitutes art can truly be contemplated. However, if we perform pieces as historical auditory perception they become curiosities, something to leer at and quickly forgotten.

      • Daniel Gerson says:

        I may have sounded more adamant than was orginally intended. Of course it is important to enjoy whatever pleasures present themsevles to us. What a dreary place would the world be if we were just to process input without emotional involvment.

        Nonetheless, I thought it was an important point that had to be made, because as you pointed out, we, the uninitiated majority, may only take works of the past at face value. Obviously a mistake when you want to truly understand a piece of art.

        For example, I will gladly recognize the technical brilliance of Baroque music, but it will never be the kind of music I will enjoy listening to, because I find it overstyled and self-indulgent. In turn I am completely disregarding that it wonderfully complements its time and style; it just had to be like this, therefor you can’t find fault with it.

  3. Dr. Olaf S. van Hees says:

    Nice article, but it is more complex and complicated than you think. But that’s for the freaks!
    One important thing, but that might be an other topic, is performance and interpretation.
    There still is a “school” that performs the classicals with massive symphony orchestras, although those orchestras never existed in those days. Or eg. the French harpsichord composers on large, mordern concert grands. An absolutely horrid!
    I do hope, when my concert practice has become a bit more quiet within some weeks, to write something about those aspects for the Gazette.

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      It certainly is a mammoth subject and we do hope to go into more detail in late articles. There is another group of musicians who insist on playing pieces on period instruments (for example playing Mozart on the older style piano-forte rather than a modern piano). What is interesting is that they insist on very modern concert conventions like people sit very quietly, facing forwards, given their utter attention to the music. Mozart would not have had this luxury, people playing card games, chatting, drinking, all the while his music was playing. It is interesting how the re-constructionists pick and choose which elements are important.

  4. David Schwartz says:

    Great history, but the best book I have ever read on how to LISTEN to classical music takes a different approach. David Hurwitz’s Beethoven or Bust is a must read, because it teaches you how to listen to music in a structured and informed way, and goes way beyond the historical aspects of a work to look at structure and how it works as a piece of audio art. Take a look!

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      Absolutely. Hurwitz’s book, although I have only skimmed it, is a fine example of a listener’s guide and I am glad it helped you to appreciate the music. In defense, I did mention at the beginning of the article that this was a brief survey of 1000 years of music, and thus that necessary evil, brevity, played a significant role. Where Hurwitz had 200 odd pages and 100,000 words I had only 3,000. There was a choice of history over musical form and as musical forms changed so much over time (for example, the change in the symphony from the time of Mozart to the time of Beethoven) I decide rather to provide a brief history with audio examples. In the continuation of the series we will be going into more detail providing more depth and hopefully a greater listening experience.

  5. J.A. Shapira says:

    Well the season just started so thus far, my favorite has probably been Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 and Gustav Holst’s Planets which were spectacular. However, I also really enjoyed Brahms No. 1 as always. What I’m most looking forward to is the Tchaikovsky festival at the end of this month.

  6. Dr. Olaf S. van Hees says:

    Beethoven was the first musician/conductor who at the end of the 18th Cent. demanded silence during performances, since at one performance the noise from the audience was so loud that the music was hardly audible. It is not that very modern as Mervin stated, but already more than 200 years old.
    On the other hand, JS Bach performed a lot of his secular orchestral works at the end of the week in a coffee house, Café Zimmermann, where he was nothing more or less than the leader of a contemporary jazz band! He was famous for improvising his harpsichord parts right through the orchestral music. Haendel in London performed in the same way, and all the time the audience was chatting and drinking.
    At present times, my own classical ensemble Café Haydn is performing the same way (“Café Haydn – Tea with Jane”) and the audience likes it!

    • A.C. Mertin says:

      Although Beethoven did demand silence and was one of the first to really do so the convention of the audience not listening completely to a work was still a common practice in the 19th century, especially with opera. Also, Beethoven, with regards to many things was more an exception than a rule. in the 19th century Operas would be played quite regularly and those who could afford a private box would keep the curtain closed for the majority of the piece, chatting, drinking, etc. until their favorite aria would come on and then listen to that. Alternately, the notion of the rock star musician, like Liszt and Paganini, would encourage audiences to listen to music more attentively and I think it was more a gradual transformation from this that led to ‘modern’ (in the sense of our current concert etiquette).
      Where do you generally perform? What is the demographic of the audience?

  7. JC says:

    Yet another fascinating article from Gentleman’s Gazette.You have the right balance between keeping the main focus on clothes, while also providing information on other subjects.Dankeshohn

  8. Jay Sennett says:

    An excellent article, thank you. I especially liked your discussion of early pre-Gregorian music, a period about which I knew nothing until I read this piece. I look forward to more articles in the future.

  9. Virad says:

    Nice photo of Frederick the Great of Prussia, a great philosopher, military strategist and king who was also a great musician. Check out some of his music.

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