Do You Know Your Beethoven from Your Boccherini?
Whether you need to brush up on your knowledge of musical styles for your upcoming music theory exam, or are just keen to learn more about our rich heritage of “classical” music, I hope this post about the history of classical music will stimulate your earbuds!
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This post will take a brief look at each of the main eras that “classical” music is divided into. I’m using the word classical in inverted commas, because most people understand the term “classical music” to mean “art music” or “serious music” or sometimes just “old music”… But, technically the term only refers to a short period of time spanning the 18th to the 19th centuries. This post will cover these traditional periods of music from Western Europe:
and will show you how you can identify music from each period, using clues from:
- the instruments
- the texture of sounds (the way different instruments are blended together)
- the harmony
- the structure (how a composition is organised)
This post will be helpful for anyone studying music theory at ABRSM grade 6 or higher, as knowledge of musical styles is tested at these grades. For example, you may be asked to look at a printed score and name the most likely composer.
But if you’re not studying for a music theory exam, you’ll still find the posts useful and interesting if you are an amateur musician, hobbyist or even GCSE or A level student. You will be able to…
- identify the style/period of music you hear playing on the TV or radio
- make a good guess at the most likely composer, just by listening!
- notice details about your favourite music that you might never have noticed before
- be able to explain why a piece of music sounds “Baroque” (for example)
- exercise your brain as you listen to music or read a score
- maybe even discover a new genre you haven’t really listened to before!
When did music begin? Nobody really knows, although some researchers such as Steve Mithen (The Singing Neanderthals) have suggested that we humans have been making music longer than we have been speaking. But when it comes to knowing for sure what music sounded like in the past, we can only go as far back as the oldest written manuscripts which survive today.
The oldest music manuscripts which we have today mostly date back to the Medieval era. This period started in about 500AD and finished at around 1400AD. That’s quite a long time span, and a lot of developments took place along the way. Let’s take a brief look at how music sounded all those centuries ago!
Texture & Harmony
Early Medieval music started off as monophonic. This means that there was just one line of melody, with no chords or other kind of accompaniment.
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory collected together a large number of religious songs, which were called “plainsong”. Today we often refer to this type of music as “Gregorian chant”, and it is still widely sung today.
Here’s an example of Gregorian chant; you can also try to follow the ancient notation system used at that time!
During the ninth century, musicians began to experiment with chords and harmony, by adding one or more different musical lines to the original chant. How did this happen? As a quirk of nature, people’s voice ranges tend to differ by about a fourth or a fifth, for example a tenor voice is about a fifth higher than a bass voice. When people with different voice ranges want to sing the same melody together, they often naturally start to sing on a note which is comfortable for them, so a bass voice and tenor voice singing the “same” song, might actually sing it a fifth apart.
Interestingly, this phenomenon can be observed even today at football matches, when a large group of men attempt to sing something like “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the higher voiced men will sing the tune about a fifth higher than the lower voiced men. Probably few of them realise that they are mimicking the beginning of polyphony (combining more than one line of music)!
This first step towards harmony as we know it was called organum. The single melodic line from Gregorian chant remained the foundation for a piece, and then other voice parts were added as decoration. As the years went by, composers became more and more experimental.
Here’s an example of organum, where the voices mainly sing in fourths, fifths or octaves:
Polyphony gradually became more and more involved; composers would add in intervals of a third, include extra voices, or have the musical lines move in a non-parallel way.
Most of the music we have today from this time was written down by monks, and so it is religious (liturgical) music. However, sometimes they also wrote down secular songs, such as “Sumer is i-cumen in” which dates to about 1240AD.
This song is in “Middle English” – you can find the lyrics here, as well as the modern English equivalent, and this is the first part of the original notation:
Medieval music was not based on the major/minor key system we use today. Instead, it was built on modes. Each mode had a slightly different “flavour” and a composer would pick a mode which best corresponded to the emotions in the music. The subject of modes is quite large and beyond the scope of this article. For further reading, a good place to start is here.
As we’ve seen, the majority of music from this time was vocal. Musical instruments did exist of course, but they were not often used in church music, and were quite primitive in nature. Instruments which were in existence at the time include the flute, plucked string instruments such as the harp and lute, and an early version of the trombone.
Musical pieces were simple in their structure. A song would involve a great deal of repetition, for example, and common musical forms were the round or canon, where the same tune would be repeated by each voice but at staggered intervals. Many songs consisted of simply a verse plus a chorus, as they do today.
So we have seen that Medieval music was really the beginning of “classical” music as we know it, and that many changes took place in this period. Despite all the developments, we still use some of the same instruments today, we employ similar techniques in popular song writing, and the genre of Gregorian chant is still hugely popular.
Medieval music gradually evolved into Renaissance music, our next port of call.
Medieval music had seen a huge change in music style, from the simple one-line melody of plainchant, to the blending of two or more voices in polyphony. During the 1400s, education and learning became widespread throughout Europe, and the new era of blossoming of ideas in science, medicine and the arts was named the “Renaissance”, which means “rebirth”. But rebirth of what exactly?
The Renaissance started in Italy. The Italians had started trading with the Arab peoples, who happened to have wonderful, rich libraries containing the texts written by the ancient Greeks, such as Plato and Aristotle. Until this time, the works of the ancient Greeks had not been seen in Europe, so even though they were already thousands of years old, they contained fascinating new ideas.
The “rebirth” is about bringing those ideas back to life, and the interest that they spawned helped to develop many new ideas and to encourage education in general. Many of the oldest universities date back to this era.
In music, composers were becoming much more experimental. Instead of sticking to just fourths, fifths and octaves for harmony, the interval of the third became widely used. Composers also became more inventive with trying out different musical forms, and improvements in musical instrument “technology” meant that instrumental music started to become much more widespread.
In the 15th century, music was printed on a press for the first time. (Previously music had always been written or copied out by hand). This meant that the spread of ideas could happen a lot more quickly and be spread further afield.
In Medieval music, the composer would contrast each vocal line separately, making several independent strands of music. The Renaissance composer, on the other hand, tried to blend each line together, focusing on all parts at the same time. Composers used a technique called “imitation”, whereby each player/singer would play/sing a similar refrain one after the other. Instead of only concentrating on the melodic aspect of music,
Renaissance composers took more interest in harmony, or how the individual voices/parts worked together to produce chords. An early Renaissance composer was Johannes Ockeghem (died 1497), who was born in Belgium and died in France. Listen to his “Kyrie” from Missa Prolationum (a church Mass). Notice how the voices blend together beautifully:
About half way through the Renaissance period we find the composer John Taverner (not to be confused with John Tavener, who is a modern composer!) Here’s part of a Mass written by Taverner; notice how more complicated the vocal parts are compared to Ockeghem’s. Taverner was an influential English composer, who died in 1545.
Finally, perhaps the most important late Renaissance composer was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594). Palestrina was an Italian composer who excelled in writing beautiful religious music. Palestrina’s music was still based on the old modal system (rather than today’s major/minor system), and he always wrote the words to his music in Latin. He wrote a total of 105 masses, and his best known work is the “Missa Papae Marcelli”, which took him three to four years to write. One characteristic of Palestrina’s music is that he made sure any dissonant harmonies occured on the weak beat of a bar.
The recorder, flute, trumpet, lyre and tambourine were popular instruments which were still around from Medieval times.
In the string family, a new invention was the viol, a six-stringed instrument played with bow and held between the legs. Viols came in various sizes, as you can see in the picture.
In the wind family, the shawm was popular. The shawm was a double-reed instrument which was a precursor to the oboe.
During the Renaissance period music remained modal, that is, built on modes rather than the major/minor key system we use today. Towards the end of the era, composers began to introduce “accidentals” into their music – extra sharps or flats which broke out of the original fixed mode. This was the beginning of a new era – the beginning of the tonal system in music, which is the system predominantly in use today. Tonal music blossomed in the Baroque era.
As more and more pieces began to be peppered with flats and sharps outside the notes dictated by the mode, the various modes became indistinguishable from one another, and eventually just two of the modes came to dominate – the Ionian and the Aeolian.
Today we call the Ionian mode the “Major” and the Aeolian “Minor”, and so was developed the key system we use today.
Texture and Form
Many new musical forms were also invented during this time. Most importantly, the Baroque era saw the advent of Opera.
Also in vocal music, some composers decided that weaving together many voices made it difficult to understand the words being sung, and so they developed a style called monody, in which a single voice would be accompanied by an instrumental bass line and chords.
In instrumental music, new forms include the Suite (a set of dances), the Sonata and Concerto (pieces for a solo instrument/s with accompaniment), and the Fugue (an intricate technique involving combined multiple strands of melody sung at different pitches).
The first known opera was written by Jacopo Peri, but most of it is now lost. The earliest opera which still exists as a complete manuscript is “Euridice” by Peri and Caccini. Opera quickly became a hugely popular musical form in Italy, and thanks to the genius of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), opera soon spread across Europe as an exciting new musical spectacle. Monteverdi appealed to the masses by cleverly combining aspects of both the old and new styles of music.
Here’s an excerpt from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”, probably the most important opera of this era. The male and female solos here are an example of monody, and are in quite a different style to the choral section at the end of the clip.
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) lived approximately half way through the Baroque era. Purcell was English, and contributed hundreds of compositions to the English musical heritage, many of which are still performed today.
One of his most exquisite songs is “When I am Laid in Earth”, from his opera “Dido and Aeneas” (can you spot the mistake in the score, in bar 3?!) This song is built on a ground bass, which is simply a bassline which is repeated several times underneath a varying melody. The ground bass in this clip can be seen in the lower part from bar 10.
Towards the second half of the Baroque era, you’ll find a lot more composers whose names are familiar to you – Bach, Handel and Vivaldi all fit into this era. By this time, composers had established the major/minor key system which we know today, and were exploring many other new avenues such as the development of instrumental music. Until now, vocal music had dominated; in the Baroque era instrumental music became equally important, for the first time in musical history.
In this period, the violin family (including the viola and cello) made their debut. The oboe evolved from the Renaissance shawm, and the harpsichord became a popular household keyboard instrument. The recorder, lute and trumpet remained widely used, and another new development was the combining of these instruments into an orchestra.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a virtuoso violinist and composer. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” are four violin concertos – pieces written for a violin solo with accompaniment. Whereas today we call a piece a “concerto” if it is for a solo instrument and orchestral accompaniment, back in Vivaldi’s day, the type of accompaniment was more flexible; the “Four Seasons” accompaniment was written for a string quartet and basso continuo (improvised accompaniment). A basso continuo was most often played by a harpsichord and cello, but other instruments could be used, depending on who was around at the time to play! (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basso_continuo#Basso_continuo for more about basso continuo).
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) was one of the most prolific composers ever, writing hundreds of compositions for both voice and instruments, religious and secular. Bach consolidated the “new” major/minor key system, by writing music in all possible keys – something which had never been done before, due to tuning restrictions.
Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” comprises two sets of 24 preludes and fugues, written for the “keyboard” (meaning the harpsichord or clavichord, as the piano had not yet been invented!) in each of the possible major and minor keys.
Baroque music usually displays a lot of continuity. A piece often has one “mood” – happy or sad, and does not swing from one emotion to another. Likewise, rhythms are repeated throughout the piece, and snatches of melody recur again and again. Rhythmically, the music can often feel like it has perpetual momentum. If there is variation, it usually comes as a complete contrast, not as a gradual process. A sad section of music might be followed by a happy one, a loud section by a quiet one, a legato section by a staccato one. But these changes happen abruptly, and are contained within a new section of music, lasting several bars.
With the death of JS Bach in 1750, a new era in music began to evolve. This era has lent its name to the whole spectrum of serious art music, which shows just how important it is – 1750 is the beginning of classical music.
What is “classical music”? To many people, it’s a general term which encompasses all music which is not “pop” or “jazz”, etc. To people who are interested in “classical music” in general however, the term really only refers to the specific period from about 1750 to 1830. In this section, we’re talking about music of the Classical Era – music which was written from roughly the time of J.S. Bach’s death (1750) to that of Beethoven’s death (1827). In less than a hundred years a lot changed in music – let’s explore what was going on in Classical times.
So much happened during the Classical era that we can only touch on a few aspects of it in such a short post.
Some monumental figures who feature heavily at this time are Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, all of whom were both prolific and progressive, meaning that they wrote an awful lot of music and their style developed with time. Each musical era evolves gradually from the next; there is never a sudden overnight change in techniques, so composers who were around in the early Classical days (for example Mozart) initially wrote in a style similar to the Baroque days, and later composers’ styles evolved into the Romantic era.
The popularisation of the piano also had a dramatic effect on the music composed at this time. Mozart lived from 1756 to 1791, and Beethoven from 1770 until 1827, so their lives overlap and span the Classical era. We can learn lots of useful facts about the era by examining their music alone, but if you want to explore Classical composers a bit more, you could also try some Haydn, Schubert, Stamitz, C.P.E. Bach and Gluck. As with earlier eras, most of the famous, enduring composers from the time were male. This is mainly due to the lack of opportunities for women during these years.
During the Classical period, quite a few new types of “standard” composition were invented or developed. We see the emergence of the sonata, the string quartet, the symphony and the concerto.
Generally, these four types of composition had a similar organisation to them; the difference was in which instruments were playing together. Each had three or four movements; the first and last movements would normally be quick, the second movement slow, and if there was a third movement it would be in a dance form, for example a minuet and trio.
A sonata was a piece for solo instrument with a piano accompaniment, or piano solo. It would have three or four movements.
The string quartet followed a similar pattern to the four-movement sonata form. A string quartet consists of two violins, a viola and a cello. There is no double bass in a string quartet.
The Classical symphony was a large-scale piece for full orchestra.
The concerto was written for one solo instrument accompanied by a full orchestra.
The first movement in each of these types of composition was usually written in “sonata form”. In basic terms, this means that the movement was divided into three main sections. First came the exposition, where the various themes used in the piece are presented with some key changes. Next up was the development, where the original themes would be manipulated, expanded or altered in some way, and finally came the recapitulation, where the themes from the first part were restated, but without the change of key.
Here is part of Mozart’s first violin concerto, written in about 1775. Typically of early classical music, the themes are frequently built on sections of scales and arpeggios (broken chords). At 5’20, the orchestra pauses, and the violinist performs a cadenza, an improvised section designed to show off the soloist’s skill and wow the audience.
In contrast, here is the first movement of Beethoven’s final (16th) string quartet from 1826. Notice how much more lyrical the style of music has become – the emphasis on scales and arpeggios is much less, and instead there is a lot more melodic variety with an attempt to convey emotion, and more harmonic and dynamic variation and contrast.
Texture & Style
Whereas in the Baroque era most music had been polyphonic (with several independent strands of music woven together), in the Classical period homophonic music dominated – tunes played above a chordal accompaniment.
The overall effect is that Classical music tends to sound cleaner and lighter than Baroque music. In style, Classical music is elegant and graceful. A truly magnificent Classical piece has to be properly constructed, in proportion and performed with moderation and control.
The piano was invented in 1698 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, in Italy. The early models were crude however, and it wasn’t until various technical improvements had been made over time that the piano began to achieve popularity.
The main difference between the harpsichord and the piano is that the piano can sustain notes, whereas a note played on the harpsichord dies away almost immediately, and the piano can produce a very broad range of dynamics, from pianissimo to fortissimo, whereas the harpsichord is basically just – quiet.
At the end of the 18th century a new wind instrument was invented, which became very popular very quickly – the clarinet. Mozart was particularly taken with the instrument, and composed some of the most beautiful clarinet music ever written. Here’s the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto:
During the Classical period, the instruments of the symphony orchestra became standardised. There are four sections in an orchestra – the strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. The string section comprises violins, violas, cellos and double basses. The woodwind has flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. The brass section has trumpets, trombones and tubas, and later French horns were frequently added. The percussion section can vary, but could include a bass drum, timpani, triangle, cymbals and tuned instruments such as the xylophone or glockenspiel.
We could say that Baroque music was mostly about form, and Classical music was a proportionate balance between expressiveness and form. Towards the end of the Classical era (which really has no definite end date), the focus began to shift towards a greater emphasis on expressiveness, with form becoming much more flexible. This was the beginning of the Romantic Era.
As the emphasis on elegance and form began to dwindle, emotion became the driving force behind composers from around the turn of the 19th century. By the time of Beethoven’s death in 1827, “Classical” music was considered old hat, and Romantic music had arrived.
In the Romantic era, imagination was king – fantasy and adventure, dreamscapes and tragedy, the supernatural and romance were all common themes. Whereas in the Classical era music had been written simply for the beauty of sound, in the Romantic era it became much more common for a piece of music to be about something.
Form and Style
All the main types of composition which had been perfected during the Classical era (e.g. the string quartet, sonata, concerto and symphony) continued to be popular, although composers were more flexible with their structure. Some new types of composition were also developed – for example, several dances such as the waltz, polonaise and mazurka; pieces with a certain “character”, such as the nocturne, prelude and rhapsody; and songs became widely popular, particularly a German type of song called a Lied (pronounced “leed”).
For the orchestra, a new kind of symphony called the programme symphony was invented – a symphony which tells a story, and the concert overture, which was a one-movement piece, again with a story in mind, designed simply to be performed at a concert.
The composer most associated with the dance forms mentioned above is probably Chopin (1810-1849). He wrote a vast amount of piano music, being a virtuoso pianist himself. Here is a Chopin mazurka:
One great master of German Lied was Schubert (1797-1828). He died right at the beginning of the dawning of the Romantic era, but his compositions are clearly of a Romantic nature. Lieder lyrics were based on literature, and were normally written for a solo voice with piano accompaniment. Listen to this famous lied by Schubert, which was published shortly after his death, in 1829. “Schwanengesang” means “Swan Song”, and “Standchen” means serenade.
A very interesting programme piece for orchestra is the “Carnival of the Animals”, by Saint-Saens (1835-1921). Saint-Saens, a French composer, wrote the piece in 1886, but it wasn’t performed in full until after his death. Each movement of the work (there are 14 in total!) represents a particular animal. I’d really recommend listening to the whole work (this clip has all the movements), but for now, here is “The Swan”, which was the only part performed while Saint-Saens was still alive:
The piano had become by far the most popular instrument by the Romantic era. The symphony orchestra, which had been standardised to a certain extent in the Classical period, started to be extended by the more adventurous composers.
In addition to the “standard orchestral instruments“, several more exotic members were introduced.
In the woodwind section, we begin to find the bass clarinet, cor Anglais and contra-bassoon (pictured), and many interesting percussion instruments were experimented with, such as the celeste in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”.
In the brass section, technological advances made the instruments more versatile, and larger numbers of all brass instruments were used, with a resounding effect. You can see how the general size of the orchestra was expanding here.
Romantic music was a true flowering of creativity. Composers enjoyed experimenting with the “rules” of harmony and form set down by their predecessors, and poured out their emotions into their music.
By the end of the Romantic era, the boundaries of tonality were also beginning to be crossed: the major/minor tonal key system which had been in place since JS Bach’s time was re-examined and other possibilities were explored.
This brings us to the latest period in musical history – the modern period, a turbulent time of change, controversy and diversity like no musical period before has seen!
The end of the Romantic Era began when some composers started to break away from the traditional forms of harmony which had been the mainstay of serious music since the time of Bach. Instead of using the major and minor scale systems as a basis for their compositions, some composers such as Debussy (1862-1918) experimented with other scales, such as the pentatonic scale and the whole tone scale.
Later, other composers were even more adventurous in breaking the rules, with innovations in form, instruments and tunings, amongst other things. The Modern era is defined as a time of experimentation. We are experiencing it right now, these are exciting times!
The pentatonic scale is a scale of only five notes (the major/minor scales have seven). It’s the equivalent of playing only the black notes on the piano, but it can be transposed into different keys. Starting on C, the pentatonic scale is C-D-E-G-A. Because the notes F and B are left out, it’s impossible to write a pentatonic melody which contains an interval of an augmented fourth (F-B), which is a dissonance. This makes pentatonic music sound particularly soothing and relaxing.
Debussy is the most famous composer who explored the pentatonic scale. A good example of its use is in his piece “Girl with the Flaxen Hair” (1910):
Debussy also liked the whole tone scale, which is a six note scale built on only tones (no semitones). If you start on C, a whole tone scale is C-D-E-F#-G#-A#. Because each note is equally spaced from its neighbours, there is no strong pull towards a tonic note. Other composers who used the whole tone scale are Messiaen (1908-1992) and Bartok (1881-1945).
Here’s a particularly stirring performance of Bartok’s 5th string quartet (1934). Notice how the lack of a firm tonic makes the music sound very unsettled:
The composer Schoenberg (1874-1951) is synonymous with serial music, which is a method of composing which is really mathematical. Schoenberg perfected the technique of composing 12-tone serial music, (the American term “tone” means “note”, rather than the distance between e.g. C-D). He would create a tone-row, which meant he wrote out each of the 12 unique semitones, and then would manipulate the row of notes in different ways, but always keeping them in the same order, to create a composition.
Schoenberg’s music is certainly innovative, but is not everyone’s cup of tea. Here’s the first movement of Schoenberg’s piano concerto op.42 (1942):
Another twentieth century innovation which has proved hugely controversial was the “invention” of quartertones. A quartertone is half the size of a semitone, so there are 24 quarter tones in one octave. Obviously, writing music in quartertones also meant some new devices in music notation were necessary!
This piece by Charles Ives (1874-1954) employs two pianos, one of which is tuned a quartertone lower, thus providing the “in-between” notes needed. If you’ve never listened to quartertone music before, it might sound out of tune – on the contrary, the pianos are tuned with impeccable accuracy, but you are hearing all the in-between notes which your ears are not used to! This is the second of three quartertone pieces Ives wrote in 1924: http://youtu.be/EU85bUyDPWs
The modern era has witnessed the invention of many new musical instruments, in particular there are many powered by electricity. Modern engineering techniques also mean that today’s instruments are generally more accurately tuned and cheaper to produce than before.
The standard set up of the symphony orchestra has remained the same, but many composers call for more unusual instruments to be added in.
This means that a standard instrument like the piano has been altered physically in some way.
John Cage wrote his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano in the 1940s:
Cage’s prepared pianos typically had nuts, bolts and bits of rubber stuck at strategic points in between the strings. Metal gadgets make the sound ring out more than usual, and rubber dulls the sound.
With modern music, anything goes! Modern music is unpopular with some people, who find it hard to understand or assume it is just random notes. However, most of it is not at all random, but is in fact a result of composers pushing boundaries as far as they will go.
John Cage even went as far as challenging the concept of “music” as being about sound produced by musical instruments, with his infamous piece “4’33” which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. His point was there there is no real silence – in a performance of this work, we hear people making noises, chairs creaking, breathing, coughing and more – these are sounds which we normally don’t notice, and his piece is about focusing our attention on these small, every day details.
Experience Cage’s “4’33” (1952) for yourself here:
That brings us to the end of this post on the history of music – hope you enjoyed it!
Why not test your memory by taking part in our challenging Music History Quiz!