A History of Classical Music: Part 1 - Introduction

Alex Johnston's series of articles outlining the history of classical music - with accompanying Spotify playlist

A history of classical music: Part 1 - Introduction

Hildegard of Bingen

This is the first of what will become a series of articles by List contributor Alex Johnston that provides a personal history of classical music. Streaming music technologies has transformed how we read about music, and this series will run in parallel with Spotify playlists containing many of the pieces of music mentioned. The ad-supported Spotify version of Spotify is free. The playlists will be embedded in each article and on The List Spotify profile

Do you like the odd piece of classical music, but you also feel like you can't tell one composer from another, and you don't know who wrote your favourite bits, and you're finding it all it a bit intimidating, but you'd like to know more?

We can help. This is the first in a series of articles in which we aim to give you a guided tour of what's known as 'classical music'.

Why is 'classical music' in inverted commas?

When we talk about classical music, what we're really talking about is the Western tradition of written music. It's been going on for a while, but it's been essentially unbroken since AD 900 or so, in that people we call 'composers' have been writing music for performance continually since then, and new ones are coming along all the time. That's a lot of music.

What's so special about it being written?

Classical musicians are trained to be able to play a piece of music properly just from reading the score. That's how it differs from traditional music, which is usually passed down by ear from one musician to another, and popular music, which is typically learned from recordings but also from musicians trading songs and bits and pieces, and jazz, which over the last half-century has reached such a level of complexity that you need fearsome competence in both reading music and playing by ear to be able to play it at all.

Has 'classical music' really been going on since AD 900?

Yes – earlier, in fact, but that's when it first began to be written down. It's changed a bit over the years, and most histories divide it up into periods.

1. Early Music

Abbey of Solesmes

This consists of music of the medieval period, from the 10th century until the Renaissance, which started around the 15th century. Early Music can be divided up into music that was written for religious purposes, such as Gregorian chant, and music that was written for secular purposes, like most troubadour music. But the Early period has a convenient climax, with the emergence of medieval polyphony - the spark that would light the fire of pretty much all Western music since then.

2. Renaissance

Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

The first great explosion of complexity. The writers of the Renaissance are arriving at new ways of understanding the universe, just as the painters were finding new ways of painting it, so it's no surprise that the composers were finding new ways of making music. Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Du Fay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina (pictured) are five of the most brilliant composers of the time, but this period also sees the explosion of Tudor church music in England, with composers like Thomas Tallis and William Byrd negotiating the tricky political landscape of 16th century England by writing wonderful music on both Latin and English texts, depending on whatever language the current monarch prefers to pray in. Other composers we'll be listening to are the fabulously miserable John Dowland and Scotland's first major composer, Robert Carver.

3. Baroque

Georg Friederich Handel

The music of the 17th and early 18th centuries. It's at this point that the increasingly, well, baroque complexity of Renaissance music manages to simplify itself, as composers arrive at the principle of 'tonality' - the system of major and minor 'keys' that forms the foundation of Western harmony. We'll cover a lot of ground here (including Arcangelo Corelli and Henry Purcell) but the most famous names are the two earliest composers that most people have heard of: fellow Germans and exact contemporaries Georg Friederich Handel (pictured) and Johann Sebastian Bach. Handel is a dramatic genius, brilliant at opera and oratorio, the first composer to get rich and famous from composing, whereas Bach spends his entire career as a hard-working and respected but under-appreciated court musician in middle Germany, and it isn't until long after his death that listeners come to appreciate his technical virtuosity and gift for making complex forms powerfully expressive.

4. Classical

Ludwig van Beethoven

Yes, this is a specific period, lasting about a century from 1730 or so to 1820 or so. In this period you find Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven (pictured). Haydn is the great innovator, codifying forms like the string quartet and symphony and immediately bending them in outrageous ways. Mozart is the most poised and 'classical' of classical composers, balancing comedy and tragedy on a knife-edge in his operas and concertos. Beethoven is the first Hero Composer, and not just because he goes deaf in mid-career: he turns the symphony into a stage where cosmic forces of the universe are at war, and wrenches tragedy and eroticism out of a brand new instrument, the piano. Franz Schubert crams many achievements into a very short career, including being the greatest writer of classical song, although he belongs equally to the next period, which is...

5. Romantic

Johann Strauss Jr

At this point, all bets are off. Composers in the romantic period are the first generation to be severely self-conscious about coming after a period of composers who everyone thought was great, namely the guys in the previous paragraph, and they deal with this in various ways. This is when you start to get Star Composers like Frederic Chopin and his countryman Franz Liszt, self-consciously eccentric geniuses like Hector Berlioz, and geniuses who actually become mentally ill, like Robert Schumann. The romantic era lasts from about 1820 to the end of the 19th century, and includes figures like the not-really-all-that-romantic Johannes Brahms and the could-hardly-be-any-more-romantic Richard Wagner, who is temperamentally Brahms' opposite: flamboyant where Brahms is reserved, confidently revolutionary where Brahms is introspective and doubtful, and above all, theatrical where Brahms is all about pure music. And then you've got the rise of lighter music written by composers who only wanted to entertain, such as Franz Léhar and Johann Strauss Jr (pictured), you know, the waltz guy.

Towards the end of the 19th century music is developing in all sorts of ways, some of which have less to do with music and more to do with things like nationalism. Many non-German composers are a bit cheesed off at the way the German-speaking ones seem to regard themselves as the real bearers of tradition and everyone else as amusingly provincial. And they have a point, when you consider world-class heavyweights like Claude Debussy in France, taking music downtown and introducing it to spicy non-Western flavours; Piotr Tchaikovsky in Russia, spinning out melody after unforgettable melody, and Giuseppe Verdi in Italy, bringing a tough-minded realism to opera. Music itself becomes a battleground for competing ideas about what it should do next. The result? Modernism.

6. Modern

Arnold Schoenberg

There are various legendary performances of 'modern' music where the audience let it be known that they weren't too keen on what they were hearing, and the most famous one is the 1913 debut performance of Diaghilev's ballet The Rite of Spring, with a score by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. There was a riot. The general consensus now is that the riot was caused not so much by Stravinsky's pounding music as by the way that principal dancer Vaslav Nijinsky's tights left so little to the imagination. But by the early 20th century, Europe is racing towards world war and it's no surprise that the music of the period is as unsettled as the political map of the continent. Gustav Mahler writes epic symphonies that demand, and repay, total immersion; Richard Strauss starts out an exploratory genius and then backtracks into mellow classicism. For better or worse, two composers dominate the first half of the 20th century: Stravinsky himself, a wizard of self-reinvention, and the ornery genius Arnold Schoenberg (pictured), who for various reasons is the most controversial composer ever, in that people either love his stuff or hate it. (We love it.) Schoenberg's great pupil Anton Webern becomes enormously influential on a generation of composers who grew to adulthood during WW II. The French composer Pierre Boulez tries to persuade the world that Webern's is the only right way to write music, and that anyone who disagrees is a wuss, but as the 1960s wear on, composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich are not convinced, eventually turning to non-Western music and inventing minimalism. In any case, older composers like Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich had already taken what they wanted from the modernists and used it in their own highly personal music.

The 20th century is also a century of great mavericks: Charles Ives, Erik Satie, Edgard Varèse, John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, Helmut Lachenmann. It’s also the century when society finally stops having a problem with women writing music, and yet it still takes several decades to go from pioneers like Ethel Smyth, Amy Beach and Nadia Boulanger to modern composers like Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Sofia Gubaidulina and Judith Weir. Not to mention those few women like Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson who’ve crossed over from the avant-garde to a measure of popular success.

You may not have heard of these people. As we move into the era of recording, jazz and popular music become more popular than classical music, and the whole idea of 'classical music' is basically invented, to distinguish what everyone had been listening to from what most people now want to listen to, namely, 'popular music’. In 1964 the Beatles conquer America, and an entire generation of college-educated music journalists starts taking popular music seriously. Ever since then, the prestige of classical music has never been as widespread. It's actually become more prestigious, but for all the respect it gets, fewer people listen to it.

And that's a shame. Because people keep being born who want to make music that demands, and repays, a little bit more attention than usual, and these are the people we call 'composers'. They're out there right now. You might be one of them.

Is this really going to take more than one article?

Josef Rheinberger

Yes. To explain why, meet Josef Rheinberger.

In popular music, any artist that puts out the equivalent of three or four albums is reckoned to have a career. Some famous ones have recorded even less. That's maybe four or five hours of music per artist. Obviously, some people record much more than that, but most never get to.

Most composers, even the obscure ones, have written way, way more music than that. Let's take a random example.

Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) was a minor 19th century German composer who was especially noted for his organ music. Rheinberger's complete works have been lovingly edited in 48 volumes. That's a couple of dozen masses, two full-scale operas, about 80 songs, loads of choral music, two symphonies and a lot of chamber music. His organ music alone takes up the last ten volumes.

It would take days to listen to everything Rheinberger wrote. Even so, your best chance of hearing his music is if some organist decides to do some piece by him in a recital. He just isn't performed very often. Not because he was bad; he was very good. It's just that for the hundreds of good composers like Rheinberger whose reputations are secure and whose works have been critically edited and published, there are thousands of other ones whose works only survive in crumbling scores in dusty boxes in second-hand bookshops, and tens of thousands more whose work is lost forever -- maybe it got played once and was never published at all. And yet, in the 4061 pages of Richard Taruskin's recent Oxford History of Western Music, Rheinberger gets mentioned only three times, and only once in his capacity as a composer, as opposed to someone else's teacher.

We can't hope to cover all the great music ever written. We can't even hope to cover all the great music written by people you've heard of. We can only give you some of the high points of the high points, but that's still an awful lot of music by a lot of composers, who in turn were standing on the shoulders of thousands of others.

So let's take a moment to pay tribute to Josef Rheinberger, who represents the numberless throng of gifted composers whose work we can't find the time to talk about.

Cheers, Prof.

And now, to begin at the beginning: Really Early Music.

A history of classical music

A history of classical music: Part 2 - Really Early Music »


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