MusicMusic Genres

History of Classical Music

history of classical music

Classical music is generally thought to have a niche audience and market – some say that it has an aging audience! Thankfully, though, the rising names of the young classical musicians and the power of YouTube and social media have brought classical music to a newer and broader audience.

Still, a majority of people think of classical music as stiff, stodgy, and unexciting. Actually, the style itself started as a rebellion against the profound influence of religious and liturgical music.

Classical music is art music that is deeply rooted in the traditions of Western culture, which involves both religious and secular music. The term “classical music” is quite a tricky one, because it refers to a musical period which is also called “Classical” (1750 – 1820). But in this sense, “classical music” is a broader term that covers music from the Medieval period to the present day.

What makes classical music sound “classical”? Instrumentation, textures, tempo, timbre, tonality, and also atonality (the last being especially prominent in the modern period) – a lot of things, actually. It is amazing to note that classical music has truly evolved. For any layman, he would recognize “classical music” as any music with strings, brass, wind instruments, keyboards, or other instruments that are normally used in an orchestra. There’s also a distinct lack of percussion, except for the timpani, the xylophone, and the triangle. But obviously, there’s a lot more to classical music than what people see and hear on the surface.

If you have been introduced to the most popular classical music tunes, and you seem to dig them, then good for you! You might be interested to know about the different periods that have shaped classical music.

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Medieval period (1150 – 1400)

Way, way back in the early days, music already existed in the form of church and court music. However, it was the church music – in particular vocal music – that paved the way to the sophisticated music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, to name a few. Even though there are significant contributions from the troubadours, minstrels and madrigals, this part focuses more on church music.

We can assume that Medieval music may have begun even way earlier than 1150. Some sources cite that this musical style may have emerged as early as 500 A.D. Whatever the case, this period is the first in which we can be sure how music exactly sounded like during that time. Surviving notated manuscripts from the Medieval period came from the churches or other religious places, and so, most pieces written at that time have sectarian themes and subjects.

The most popular instruments used during the Medieval musical era were the flute, the recorder, and several plucked instruments, most notably the lute and the harp.

However, the Medieval era is perhaps best known for its plainchants. A plainchant (or a plainsong) consists of a single, unaccompanied melodic line. This style is also referred to as monophonic. The Gregorian Chant, typically sung by monks, is probably the most popular example of the plainchant.
Although the monophonic vocal style was popular during this period, the polyphonic vocal style was also being developed.

Although a considerable portion of Medieval-era music was not attributed to one specific author, the notable composers during this period included Adam de la Halle, Hildegard of Bingen, John Dunstable, Phillippe de Vitry, Guillaume de Machaut, and Francesco Landini.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, there has been a resurgence of interest towards Medieval-era music. A number of emerging choral ensembles and instrumental consorts specialize in the Medieval music repertoire. They have been influential in bringing the early and Medieval-era music to present-day audiences through public concerts and recordings.

Renaissance period (1400 – 1600)

Religious and sectarian music continued to flourish during the Renaissance period. A majority of musicians were still focused on choral music. However, this period saw a significant increase in the use of harmony and polyphony.

Anthems, masses, motets, and psalms became the bulk of religious music during the Renaissance era. However, some composers had begun to adopt secular styles as well towards the end of this period.

Early brass instruments (such as the trumpet and the cornet), modified string instruments (such as guitar, viol, lute, and lyre), and early woodwind instruments (such as the bagpipe and the windpipe) were introduced during this period. The harpsichord also became a prominent fixture in Renaissance-era music.

The latter half of the Renaissance period became significantly influential as composers started to move away from the modal system of harmony and began to focus on the organization of major and minor scales.

The most notable musicians of the Renaissance period were Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina, William Byrd, John Dowland, Joaquin de Prez, Thomas Tallis, Guillaume DuFay, and Claudio Monteverdi.

Baroque period (1600 – 1750)

The Baroque period saw the creation of writing music in a particular key. However, this era also witnessed the development of complex and intricate harmonies, and laid the foundation of music for the next 300 years or so.

This period saw the decline of choral music and the growing prominence of instrumental music, as composers turned their focus to writing instrumental works for different ensembles.

One of the most prominent things to come out of the Baroque era is the counterpoint. Counterpoint is a musical technique that consists of two or more independent and simultaneous melodies (instead of the usual one harmony and one melody) — the counterpoint dominated in Baroque-era music.

Whenever you think of counterpoint, the first person that pops in your mind is Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most famous and influential figures in classical music. He is widely regarded as the master of counterpoint. Bach is probably the most well-known figure of this era, although he was far from the most famous during his lifetime. His fame only rose during the 19th century onwards. Bach wrote a lot of works of nearly all forms and genres, which include cantatas, masses, preludes and fugues, and partitas.

The concept of the modern orchestra was born during this period, together with the opera, the concerto, the cantata and the sonata.

As instrumental music became more prominent, it is not surprising that a lot of musical instruments were invented or modified significantly during this period. Wind instruments such as the oboe and the bassoon, and stringed instruments such as the cello and contrabass were among the new instruments that emerged during this period. The string family of the Renaissance era was gradually replaced with the stronger sounds such as the violin, viola, and cello. The harpsichord continued to flourish.

A 1720 fortepiano by Bartolomeo CristoforiThe fortepiano – the ancestor of the modern piano – was invented during the early 18th century by Italian harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori.

Early Baroque-era composers include Claudio Monteverdi, Henry Purcell, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and Alessandro Scarlatti. Later composers of this era include Bach, George Frederick Handel, Dominico Scarlatti, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Antonio Vivaldi.

Classical period (1750 – 1820)

The term “classical music” has two meanings:

1) a broader term which applies to Western music from the Medieval to modern period.
2) a specific term which refers to music from 1750 to 1820.

This section discusses the specific term of classical music.

The Classical music period saw more emphasis on harmony. Classical music is characterized by a lighter, clearer texture and simpler approach compared to Baroque music’s heavy, complex and ornate style. While counterpoint was still used by some composers during this period, polyphony otherwise took a back seat to the single melody accompanied by harmony.

The Classical period expanded upon the Baroque period, continuing the development of the sonata, concerto, trio and quartet.

Although there weren’t a lot of new instruments invented or introduced during this period, the piano (or fortepiano) eventually replaced the harpsichord as the most favored keyboard instrument. Orchestras also increased in size, power, and range.

Some unforgettable music written during this era isn’t comparable with anything that preceded it, such as the famous Fifth Symphony by German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, for instance. Beethoven was one of the only few musicians who contributed substantially in the transition from Classical to Romantic music.

His Austrian contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also one of the most famous figures of the Classical music era. He gained fame as a child prodigy and continued to be a prolific composer and musician until his death at age 35. Mozart’s compositions are considered the pinnacles of many sub-genres of classical music – concertos, operas, symphonies, choral music, and chamber music.

Apart from Mozart and Beethoven, other notable composers during this period also included Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert (who was also a transitional figure, like Beethoven), and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The son of Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp employed previous techniques he learned from his father, while utilizing them in newer styles that were popular at the time.

Romantic period (1820 – 1900)

“Romanticism” is a term that refers to an artistic, literary, intellectual, and musical movement from the early to late 19th century. This movement placed a strong emphasis on emotion and individualism, as well as glorification of the past and the beauty of nature.

“Romantic music” does not necessarily mean music with love or romantic themes, although there are many “romantic” pieces written during this period. Romantic-era music actually connotes intensity, unbridled expression, sweeping emotion, and lots of drama. Much of the music from this period is also programmatic – that is, it is meant to describe something or tell a story, such as a beautiful scene in nature, or one’s feelings.

Transitional figures such as Beethoven and Schubert bridged the gap between Classical and Romantic music. Romantic music expanded upon Classical music and brought it to increased amounts of expression and intensity. As the Romantic musical period developed, composers had wanted to break themselves free of the rules and restraints of the musical styles and techniques of the past, while daring to be different and individualistic.

The ideal for the Romantic composer was to write music which was a reflection of his feelings and emotions, in order to instill in his audience certain preconceived moods. He wanted to express his emotions and spark the imagination of his listeners through his music.

Not surprisingly, instrumentation became more prominent during this period, with orchestras increasing to even more significant numbers than before. Romantic composers also tended to experiment a lot, trying out different instrumentation combinations and reaching new and unprecedented musical boundaries. Freeform styles such as nocturnes, preludes, etudes and, rhapsodies became popular. Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin, although not the inventor of the nocturne, made the genre more sophisticated, yet more accessible at the same time.

In addition to expressing their feelings and emotions, Romantic composers also used their music to display their nationalism. Prime examples of this are Chopin’s popular mazurkas and polonaises, where he incorporated elements of Polish folk music. Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia has been long interpreted to symbolize the rise of his native country, Finland. Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem Vlatava evokes the scenes and sounds of the Moldau River in the present-day Czech Republic. Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies incorporates many themes based on Hungarian folk music.

The Romantic period produced some of music’s most adored and beloved composers. Chopin and Liszt are probably the most famous figures of this era. Other popular Romantic composers of the 19th century included Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, Jean Sibelius, Bedrich Smetana, Camille Saint-Saens, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Post-Romantic music emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after the peak period of Romanticism. The style of post-Romantic music is a combination of Classical and Baroque forms, while still largely Romantic. Among the most famous composers of this style are Giacomo Puccini and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Late-period Romantic composers, such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, became famous for bridging the gap between Romantic and early 20th-century modern music.

20th and 21st centuries (1900 – 2000, 2000 – present)

Early inventions, such as recording and radio, would change the face of music forever. Subsequent technologies such as movies, television, music videos, the Internet, and social media are also influential in this era, bringing music closer to both the masses and niche audiences.

Along with these revolutionary advancements permeating our culture, the musical styles and forms dramatically evolved and transformed. It’s probably because every decade in the 20th and 21st century ushered in a new style and sound. Historic events, politics, as well as the audience’s continuously changing tastes also inspired the diverse range of musical styles of this period.

Over time, composers have been disassociating themselves from the rules and restrictions of the musical styles and techniques of the bygone eras. Modern classical music is not anymore a mere place for expression, but most especially, it is the place for the ultimate experimentation, innovation, and free rein.

Despite the term “20th-century classical music,” its origins can be actually traced back to the years before the turn of the century, such as Impressionism and Post-Romanticism. Neoclassicism and Expressionism came after 1900; they were developed to counter the excessive dramaticism of Romantic music. Minimalism, Post-Modernism, and avant-garde music, on the other hand, occurred during the mid-20th century. Atonality, polystylism, serialism, eclecticism, aleatoricism, and electronic music were all developed during this very period.

The 21st-century music is mostly a continuation of the 20th-century music, retaining such forms as post-modernism and polystylism. Newer musical genres such as pop, rock, and jazz have also influenced modern classical music in one way or another. The multimedia and the Internet have been significantly instrumental for bringing classical music to new audiences. YouTube and social media, in particular, have provided an opportunity for a lot of budding classical musicians to launch their work successfully, without the help of big-name promoters or major record labels.

Notable composers of the 20th century music include Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Alexander Scriabin, Bela Bartok, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich and a lot more. Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Avro Part, Terry Riley and Philip Glass are probably the best-known post-modernist composers.

Among the most notable composers of the 21st-century music include Eric Whitacre, Fazil Say, Michael Finnissy, Magnus Lindberg, and many others.


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