History Western Classical Music (With Examples!)

This article is based on a series of Morning Music posts. It’s a work in progress because I only made it to the beginning of the Classical Period. (Yes, Classical music has a Classical Period — and it’s fairly short.)

Gaudeamus omnesJim Holt’s book, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, is a really fun book. In my discussion of the book, I highlighted a joke from the 15th century. It doesn’t even seem like a joke, because most of it is spent explaining to the listener why it is funny. As a result, it’s important to understand just how much art changes over time. A joke that we find funny today would make no sense to someone who lived a thousand years ago.

I am going through the history of what we call Classical music. It is a particular kind of music that really represents what the elites of Europe have listened to. As a result, for nearly the first millennium — dating back to about 1000 CE — it was exclusively religious. But even through the Baroque period (1600–1750), most of the major composers had some relation to the church.

The Medieval Period: Get Your Chant On

We are going to start with the Medieval period because, frankly, there wasn’t much that changed before that. For what we would call Classical music, this remained supreme and largely unchanged for 500 years.

So that means we are going to listen to a Gregorian chant. When learning music theory in an American college, you always start with these chants. They are incredibly formal in their melodies. They have as simple a rhythm as you can get. And they have no harmony whatsoever (unless you consider unison harmony, which I guess it technically is, but really). Yet they do have a simple beauty. And they are often hypnotic. You can well imagine someone going into a trance during one — having a religious vision.

Thus we listen to “Gaudeamus Omnes” (Let Us All). I don’t present it as something you are going to love. But this piece is meant to work the same way a film history class works — allowing you to see how the art form evolves over time.

Josquin des Prez Gets Funky

Josquin des PrezNext in our exploration of classical music, we get to the Renaissance period. This is a hard one because it is when sacred and secular music diverge. The main importance of the secular music for our purposes is that it introduces instruments. Up to this time, all the music was sung. But the secular music tends to lead us more in the direction of the folk music tradition. So forgive me for staying with the sacred for a while more.

There are many new things here. The main innovations at this point are that the music becomes polyphonic and somewhat rhythmic. No longer is a melody just sung in unison with quarter notes. What’s more, this is the time that fugue-like structures find their way into the music. You hear this quite often in motets — where different people are singing the same thing but at different times. If you want a simple example, think of a group singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” — but actually beautiful to hear. It is formal without being rigid — or at least it is when created by a great composer.

Today, we are going to listen to a piece by Josquin des Prez — one of the greatest of the Renaissance composers. This is the motet “Ave Maria … Virgo Serena.” It is performed by Schola Antiqua of Chicago and it is gorgeous. But I think this fact is easy to miss if you listen to it relative to modern music of almost any kind — since the polyphonic innovations have been so thoroughly integrated into our musical language.

Claudio Monteverdi and His “Tiny” Revolution

Claudio MonteverdiNow we look at the early Baroque period. This is the period where counterpoint just goes crazy. This is where two or more musical lines work together to create a greater harmonic whole. Probably the best representation of this is the string quartet, which won’t really come into its all until the Classical period — although it certainly existed long before that and continues to be one of the great forms of classical music.

The man most associated with the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music is the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. He fused the kind of polyphony that we heard from Josquin with a style of composition called the basso continuo. In it, the melody and the bass line are provided, and an indication of the kind of harmony, but not the actual notes. The performer was then expected to improvise the rest.

Actually, many of the great classical musicians into the Romantic period were known to be excellent improvisers. So those who think someone like Antonio Salieri[1] was a boring fellow are quite wrong; he was the McCoy Tyner of his day!

We are going to listen to a madrigal from 1619, “Chiome d’Oro, Bel Tesoro” (Golden head of hair, beautiful treasure). You can definitely hear the transition here. For one thing, now we have voices and instruments together. Also: the different musical lines are working in the service of the harmonic structure. This was originally written for two voices, two violins, and a basso continuo. You can well imagine just how revolutionary this music must have sounded to the people of the early 17th century. And here it is beautifully fleshed out by Voices of Music:

Barbara Strozzi: Attack of the 50 ft Baroque Woman

Barbara StrozziAlmost every Baroque composer you’ve heard of is from the late period. There is a strong urge on my part just to skip right to them. But the middle period is really important. Because of the establishment of absolute monarchies throughout Europe, “court” music was developing. This created a great deal more sharing of music geographically. And so composers like Johann Jakob Froberger became really important in spreading different ideas all around the continent. (But we won’t listen to anything by him because most of the stuff online is harpsichord music — which I’m just not that fond of.)

This is the period when Baroque becomes more austere. There’s something almost romantic about the Renaissance and early Baroque music. But now it becomes intricate and exact. At its worst, it is overly intellectual. At its best, it is deeply affecting without pandering.

One of the greatest composers — almost certainly the greatest of secular vocal music (including the librettos, which are said to be excellent) of this period was a woman, Barbara Strozzi. She was also a great singer. Not only was she a woman in a time when they didn’t do this thing much, she was illegitimate. Yet she dominated the period. And look at the painting — she’s quite young and already has the look that she doesn’t take shit from anyone.

She is typical of the work that is breaking away from the early Baroque period. Notice in the following cantata, “Che Si Puo Fare” (What Can Be Done), the melodic development, which sounds distinctly classical at times. At the same time, the harmonic structure is still very much like what we heard from Claudio Monteverdi:

Dieterich Buxtehude: Let the Harmony Begin!

Dieterich BuxtehudeNow we get to the end of the middle part of the Baroque period. I’m going to focus on Dieterich Buxtehude.

He was a well known organist in his time, and so he wrote a lot for the organ. But he also wrote a great deal of vocal music. This is not surprising, as the middle Baroque period was when music and words first came together as equals. But for some reason, his vocal work doesn’t seem to have been terribly popular in his own lifetime.

What we are going to listen to today is Membra Jesu Nostri (The Limbs of our Jesus) — a cycle of seven cantatas. The main thing to notice about it is the very modern harmonic structure. This is kind of an inflection point in music from melodies creating harmonies to harmonies creating melodies. It is what allows us to know with such certainty that a piece of music is finished: because it has a harmonic denouement — as surely as a Greek tragedy.

Vivaldi: So Great One Name Is Enough

Antonio VivaldiThere are really two titans of the late Baroque period: Bach and Vivaldi — two men so great, they only need one name. They were quite distinct, even if they both fully sum up the period. Bach is more focused on counterpoint. And it can, at times, be overwhelming. Vivaldi does get into excessive counterpoint at times, but it isn’t actually his thing. Vivaldi is more free flowing. But Bach, in his formalism pushed in some surprisingly modern directions. Above all, both composers are similar but distinct.

In general, my favorite is Vivaldi. That dates back to when I played flute. Vivaldi understood how to write for the flute. Playing pieces by Bach always felt like I was playing something that was actually meant for the violin. Vivaldi knew that flutists had to breath from time to time. But I also think that Vivaldi understood the character of the instrument better. That is not to say that Bach didn’t write some of the greatest flute music ever — he did.

Bach and Vivaldi Similarities

One thing that both composers pushed was the use of solo instruments. Up to this point, most music had been predominately ensemble.

What’s more, the forms became longer — that was especially true of Bach, who often got lost in his own compositions. But ultimately, I don’t think you can point to a better piece as the height of the Baroque period than Vivalidi’s Four Seasons. It is actually not a single piece, of course; it is four violin concertos. But they are beautiful, and unlike almost everything else in my life, I do not get tired of listening to them. Here they are performed by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta with the great (there are a lot of great violinists in the world) Janine Jansen at the International Chamber Music Festival in 2014. (I was going to present Antal Zalai better performance of it, but the audience applauding between each movement drove me crazy.)

Interestingly, after their deaths, both Bach and Vivaldi fell out of favor. They were considered old fashioned. Bach came to be admired in a way he was not during his life in the 19th century. Vivaldi was not rediscovered until the 20th century. And that is probably why Bach has a bigger reputation.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Classical Period Begins

Carl Philipp Emanuel BachThe Classical period of music started in 1750, and I am going to stop just as we reach it.

It’s interesting, though, that we call the kind of music we have been listening to as “classical music,” when most of what people think of as classical music is, in fact, from the Romantic period. In general, my favorite period of music is the Classic period because it spans a divide: not so intellectual as the Baroque period and not so emotional as the Romantic period. (Interestingly, when I take the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, my thinking and feeling functions are about equal, so that might be why I like the Classical period.) I’m also really fond of early 20th century music, but that will have to wait for later.

Galant Music

Now I want to look at what is called Galant music. It represented a turn away from the excessive complexity that had come to dominate the Baroque period. It also represented the big shift toward the solo instrument. And so we are going to listen to one of the great theorists and composers of this this period, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach — one of the sons of the Bach. He was not only influenced by his father, but also his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, who was himself part of galant style — although more as a follower than an innovator.

We are going to listen to Trio Sonata in B-Flat Major, dating from 1843 — when Bach was 29 years old. It is for flute, violin, and bass. But as you will see in the following performance, the bass part has been fully realized for the piano. I’m very struck by this flutist, Sofia Lubyantseva, who is very good. Note the clarity of the lead instruments, the simplicity of the harmonic structure, the directness of the melody. It also has lots of clear legacy material. For instant, it is largely a very clever fugue. Even though this piece was written before it had started, it signals that the Classical period had begun.


Here are all the videos put together in a single playlist:

[1] If you read that article (and you should), you will not that it says historians have uncovered no animosity between Salieri and Mozart. That’s not exactly true. As the article points out, if there was any animosity between the men, it was all on Mozart’s part. Mozart did complain in one or two letters about Salieri. But it’s clear that this was just a younger, less-established musician with a chip on his shoulder. I’m sure as his career improved, all that was forgotten.

Unlike portrayed in Amadeus, Mozart’s career steadily improved. Had he lived another decade he probably would have been a rich man. He got the reputation of being terribly poor because his father (a truly vile man) had taught him to never owe money to someone for very long. So he would borrow money from one person. Then borrow money from another to pay the first person. And on and on. And remember at that time, people lived on credit far more than they do now, because money would normally come in chunks. Cervantes (early, but still) was a tax collector for the Spanish king and had to pay all his own expenses and waited as long as 3 years between payment.

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