People often think of the pleasant strains of instrumental music that reach their ears the moment ‘classical music’ is mentioned. The interesting thing is that classical music spans a period of over seven hundred years and has evolved into different styles of music. Of these, the ones most talked about, in the order of their evolution, are the mass, the madrigal, Gregorian chant, chamber music, choral works, the opera and the symphony. These styles developed through different periods in the development of music.
It is thought that classical music saw its origins in the Middle Ages, developing through the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary periods. During these periods, there were wonderful composers who gave the world fugues, sonatas and concerti. This not only established classical music, but also laid the foundation for different genres of music like jazz, pop, rock, etc.
The classical music composed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century in Europe, the UK and Russia was influenced by the Upper Classes. In the 16th century, since the church was dominant, it was church music. Around the same time, India saw the emergence of classical music in the courts of emperors. In the 17th century, however, there was a change and the first ever opera was composed in Venice.
In the 20th century classical music was recognized both in the western and eastern world. Today everyone has access to classical music. Listening to classical music is a great experience. Moreover, there is a wealth of legendary musicians who literally transport you to another world with their compositions.
How Did Classic Music Evolve?
Singing is something that existed for centuries even before classical music was recognized. Here’s a brief look at its history:
The Middle Ages – Before 1400
During the Middle Ages, a group of monks along with Pope Gregory I got the credit for the first classical music ever heard. These people actually wrote the music, producing the first sheet music. Pope Gregory allotted each singing note a letter: A, B, C, and D, which are used to this day to represent notes. Since then, E, F, G and half notes between these notes have been added. The monks began to write and sing songs based on these notes and this music came to be known as Gregorian chants. They were spiritual and serene. Some years later, a monk whose name was Guido of Arezzo came up with the musical notations do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti. Gregorian chant thus characterizes the medieval age with a religious leaning. Examples are Salve Regina, Gregorian chant sung by the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey St Maurice and Saint Maur, and Frescobaldi’s works.
The Renaissance Period – 1400 to 1600
Then came the Renaissance Period, which brought the world the madrigals and operas. It was the age when music and art flourished. Madrigals were a type of vocal music formed of three or more voices and sounded very rhythmic. It was called madrigalism. The singers sang, expressing the mood of the song in their voices. The Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi added music to madrigals and also invented the opera, which was more dramatic.
The Baroque Era – 1600 – 1750
In the Baroque era, which was around the late 1600s, the so-called upper class families hired a composer to entertain them. It was during this time that Vivaldi, Bach and Handel existed; creating musical pieces that would be remembered forever. There were also church composers during this time. This period is considered the first of the four prominent periods in the history of classical music. Composers experimented with various styles, transcending beyond the rules of the Church. It was during this time that the piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori. Famous works in the Baroque era include Bach’s Well tempered clavier, a set of 24 preludes and fugues and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – with each season being a concerto for violin.
The Classical Period – 1750 to 1820
The Classical period, during the mid 1700 to early 1800 saw some of the best composers in classical music history. Composers like Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Mendelssohn composed concertos, sonatas and symphonies. This period was characterized by more balance structure and harmony to the music. There was more of instrumental music than vocal, as more musical instruments were invented. A new musical form was the classical concerto where the orchestra accompanied a solo instrumentalist. There was also the symphony by Haydn, who composed more than a hundred of them. It was during this period that the sonata was also first composed, which introduced the melody and secondary themes. Mozart’s specialty was the opera and Beethoven’s was piano sonatas and symphonies.
The Romantic Era - 1820 -1900
Around the mid 1800s, Beethoven ushered in the Romantic era and classical music became emotional and a form of free personal expression. This period saw the emergence of musicians like Berlioz, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, and Strauss. Before the mid 1800s, Vienna Austria was considered the classical music capital, but subsequently, composers like Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff worked from their country of residence, blending the local music into their compositions. Notable compositions of this period are Liszt’s virtuosic piano solo St. Francis of Paul Walking on the Waves and Mendelssohn`s First Violin Concerto.
Impressionistic Period - early 1900
In this period, classical music evolved to become more visual, with composers like Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel and Gershwin, who turned their music into visual masterpieces. Ravel’s Bolero centred around dance scenes using a single rhythmic theme. The harmonies and scales were vibrant.
After the Impressionistic period which lasted for a few years around the 1900s, we now have the present day contemporary music. Although much of the earlier styles formed the basis for contemporary classical music, composers experimented, merging different genres of music. For example take Schoenberg`s 12-tone system. John Cage used nuts, screws etc. to tweak the sounds of piano strings.
However, legends like Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Handel, Liszt, Strauss, Brahms, Debussy, Vivaldi, Stravinsky, and many, many more are still the names that come foremost to the mind while talking about classical music. Let us take a look at the different styles of classical music before we look at the musicians.
Styles Of Classical Music
Classical musicians followed a particular structure or style when they composed their music. Of these, the important ones are:
• Symphony - A symphony is about an hour long and is made up of four movements. It requires a complete orchestra and is challenging to compose due to its complexity.
• Sonata - Sonatas are like symphonies but can be played by a lesser number of players.
• Sonatina - A sonatina is a shorter sonata with fewer movements.
• Concerto - A concerto involves a solo player backed by an orchestra.
• Dance – In classical music, dance music included the waltz, which was characterized by a steady rhythm.
• Serenade – This was mainly background music often played on special occasions like dinner parties and events. Serenades are also an hour long and make for gentle and peaceful listening.
• Theme and Variation – This is a melody at the beginning of the musical piece. It recurs throughout the song with some variations. For example, Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
• Rhapsody – These do not have a specific structure and similarity to fantasias, but they have a unique rhythm and tune.
• Tone Poem – Similar to rhapsodies, tone poems told a story. For example think of the Star Wars score by John Williams.
• Overture – An overture or prelude is a short piece that evokes an emotion or mood.
• Ballet – There is classical music set to ballet. Initially this was meant to be background music, but Tchaikovsky changed all that, literally revolutionizing this genre.
Here are some terms to get familiar with while understanding classical music. These relate to the way the music sounds and is composed. First, a look at the way music sounds:
• Atonal music sounds dissonant. This relates to music like jazz.
• Crescendo relates to the gradual increase in the volume of the music being played. As it gets louder in degrees, it reaches a crescendo. The progression is steady.
• Tempo relates to the music’s speed. For example, The Four Seasons by Vivaldi has different speeds. The conductor of the music normally decides this, although the composer could also specify the tempo.
• Rubato is a variation in the tempo, where the speed is increased or decreased in one phrase. It later catches up with the tempo.
• Cadence refers to a pause in the music, when the orchestra stops for a moment to indicate the end of a movement. It barely lasts for a few seconds.
• Counterpoint is a combination of different melodies to form a harmonious whole and here, each singer picks up from a different point in the song.
Now take a look at the terminology related to musical composition:
• A Cadenza is a solo. Some musical movements end with it. As the orchestra ceases to play, the soloist continues to perform for a few minutes.
• An Exposition is the first movement of the symphony, introducing the main themes.
• Movements are the different sections in the entire piece and could be dissimilar to each other, yet connected. Some symphonies have four movements. Concertos have three movements. During a performance, there is a pause between movements.
• Now that we have a good grip on the history, evolution and different aspects of classical music, it is time to look at some of the greatest composers of all time.
Vivaldi has written over 700 musical pieces. A priest by profession, he later worked as a violin teacher. His specific style was concertos and one of his most famous works is The Four Seasons.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach’s specialty was playing the piano. He was especially known for his ability to blend different tunes into one song in the counterpoint style. His most famous work is Air on the G String.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart was a child prodigy and a gifted musician. A musical genius, Mozart loved to compose complex scales and include it in his music. He probably has the largest number of compositions compared to other musicians. Some of his most famous works are The Magic Flute, The marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, etc.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
A brilliant composer and pianist, Beethoven was a sensitive musician. Even though he went deaf at the age of 31, Beethoven continued to compose some of the most beautiful classical music known to man. His music was emotional in keeping with his various moods. He has composed symphonies, concertos, overtures, chamber music and operas. In fact, Beethoven is referred to as one of the three Bs of classical music along with Bach and Brahms.
Chopin revolutionized the belief that classical music is limited when played on the piano. He composed some wonderful music during his time. Some great examples of his work are Grand Valse Brilliante and the lively Fantaisie-Impromptu Opus 66 in C-sharp Minor. All of Chopin’s music was played on the piano and his music was heavy with romance and passion.
Tchaikovsky has the credit for bringing a major change to classical ballet music. His famous compositions, among others, were Nutcracker Suite and 1812 Overture.
Stravinsky’s music was unique and off beat with crescendos. His Rite of Spring is one of his most controversial works, yet one of his most admired.
Other notable composers in the classical music area are Joseph Haydn, Schubert, Handel, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Liszt, Strauss, Berlioz, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Gershwin, etc.
Thus, classical music has been composed and experimented with across a variety of genres for over a thousand years. It has encompassed a range of instruments like the piano, violin and other stringed instruments, allowing music lovers all over the world enjoy concertos, sonatas and operas that shall live forever.