Around the time that Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” was still relatively fresh, I was living with someone who was nuts for country music and Mozart. Fortunately, for me, Paul relegated his country listening to live festivals. He spent the remaining balance of his disposable income mostly on Mozart records.
Thankfully, I already had a budding appreciation for classical music. At the same time, I was studying the college course work for Music History 101. It was a perfect storm for the classics in my life. One Christmas, my roommate gifted me a recording of my favorite composer Beethoven. The new record replaced my worn-out copy of the Third Symphony. I still have that record in my collection.
These fond memories flooded back after I noticed that September is Classical Music Month. I also realized that a blog post is in order. It has to greatly condense the meaning of classical music into just a few paragraphs as a quick refresher.
The term “Classical Music” is a very broad name for the large body of musical compositions of various periods of works rooted in the Western tradition from approximately 1000 CE up to the present day. The musical forms do not broadly include vernacular or popular music.
Generally speaking, the “Early Period” was a time for the early Christian church to take over European culture. Vigorous efforts were made to overtake any associations and influence related to the previous “pagan” cultures. However, Church authorities had adopted the philosophy that music has a cosmic connection to nature and possesses the power to influence human thought and conduct, a very pagan concept. Official church policy favored vocal music over instrumental forms, because they felt instrumental music was too ambiguous to suit liturgical requirements. This preference is why so much Early Period music consists of Gregorian Chants.
The next period, The Renaissance, followed on the heels of the dark ages from around 1400 CE to about 1600. Renaissance means “rebirth”. Composers and musicians were a large part of the overall reawakening of the arts and culture that happened throughout most of Western Europe at that time. Music expanded beyond narrow, religious constraints as composers claimed the freedom to explore, discover, and innovate musical form. Two of the more familiar composers of that period were Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli. You might hear some of their music from time to time on Public Radio.
Next in line, is the Baroque Period. This music is much more familiar to us than that of the previous musical eras. The Baroque Period is generally catalogued from about 1600 CE to approximately 1750. New, more efficient, ordered, complex styles, such as sonatas and concertos, emerged during this time. Musical works were marked by the harpsichord, small string ensembles, and some woodwind instruments. The most famous Baroque composers include, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frideric Handel.
Following the 1750s, refinements to music came about to replace the waning Baroque styles. The Classical Period within Classical Music was born. This period is frequently thought of as a high point in musical history. It is marked by many developments and inventions of musical instruments. Most noteworthy was the pianoforte, later the piano, as they replaced the sharp sounding harpsichord.
The most noticeable development to take place during the Classical Period was the great expansion in size and scope of the orchestra, itself. Woodwind instruments became more sophisticated and versatile and garnered their own section in the larger symphony orchestras. Smaller groups more often included string quartets.
The Classical Period within Classical Music contains the lion’s share of what most people hear in public concerts and on Public Radio stations. The most famous operas, solo pieces, concertos, and symphonies were written at this time. The most brilliant composers all wrote during the Classical Period. They include but are not limited to: Haydn, Paganini, Rossini, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Ludwig Van Beethoven’s grand symphonies set the stage and bridged into the Romantic Period. We find musical works with references to life aspects, for example, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony is also called the “Pastoral”, which envisions rural scenes.
The Romantic Period saw the rise of virtuoso composers and performers. We find the demanding works of Franz Liszt, who wrote to show off his own competence. Of special note is Frédéric Chopin who is famous as one of the greatest composer-performers.
Also, of major importance to the Romantic Period was the huge growth of opera. Giuseppe Verdi stamped the genre with nationalistic, political, and social themes. His works were noteable for their musical composition, too.
As momentous as the 20th Century was, in terms of world history, events were mirrored in this Period of Classical Music. One of the greatest composers of this period, Dmitri Shostakovich was highly controversial and persecuted in his home country, the Soviet Union. He was forced to write conventional symphonies for officialdom. His smaller works, more to his liking, were suppressed.
Of note was Arnold Schoenberg and his experiments with tonality. George Gershwin brought in popular musical influences. Touching on just a few other writers, we find Ravel and Stravinsky. As the century moved forward, such people as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Peter Maxwell Davies came to public attention. Halfway through the 20th Century, we find film music being categorized as modern classical. Soundtrack albums from the movies “ET” and “Star Wars” are famous examples.
I hope my superficial overview has inspired you to investigate the incredibly rich history of Classical Music and the amazing biographies of the composers. More importantly, I hope you feel a strong urge to listen to some of the grand compositions that are categorized as Classical Music, this month.