According to National Day Calendar.com, September is Classical Music Appreciation Month. I love classical music. It is great music to relax by, to get energized, and much more than just instrumental music. From the Medieval era to the Romantic period of the late 19th century, classical music has brought advancements in instruments, musical tone and expression with each style reflecting different periods of history. It isn’t just music of the past but music which has led to other musical genres. It is music that can be enjoyed today as it was many years ago. Music which has led to the advancement of instrument we still play today. Let’s dive into a brief review of each period and the importance it has on the development of music and its enjoyment.
The Medieval era is generally considered to be between 500-1400 CE. Music during this era was heavily connected with the church. Liturgical (sacred) music was performed in church and was mostly vocal with choral music and chants. A chant is monophonic, meaning single melody with no accompaniment or instruments and were distinctive by regions. In Spain and Portugal, the Mozarabic chant was influenced by North African music. In Milan, the popular chant was the Ambrosian chant named for St Ambrose. The Roman Catholic Church began to standardize the Mass and chants through the combined efforts of Pope Gregory I (540-604) and Charlemagne (742-814). According to music historian, the Gregorian chant developed from the Gallican chant from Gaul (modern day France) and the Roman chant. The music from the Medieval era is important because it began the foundation for music notation. Music could be shared between musicians and choral groups. The rhythmic notations of musical notes and rests first appeared with formal structure between 1130-1300.
The Renaissance (1400-1600 CE) was a period of great discovery in science, literature and in music. The invention of the printing press and helped distribute music far and wide across Europe. Music became more than just for church. It became music to enjoy in the home and in the community. Music began to have a variety in range, rhythm, harmony and form. It is also the period in which tonality (musical keys) began to develop. It became a vehicle for personal expression. One of the most famous Renaissance composers, John Dunstaple (or Dunstable) (c. 1390-1453) was an English composer of polyphonic music. Numerous copies of his music have been found in Italian and German, which is proof that his fame was widespread. Later in the Renaissance period saw the rise of English Madrigal music around 1588 which is an a cappella style with 3-6 voices. Many instruments we know today originated in the Renaissance period. For example, organs, trumpets, tambourine, and the bagpipe. Other instruments would be used to develop future instrument such as the viol which had six strings and played with a bow. It was like a cello.
The Baroque period (1600-1750 CE) followed and the musical style was more elaborate and ornate with the use of harmony rather than modality. This period saw the development of the concerto, cantata, and the sonata. Chamber music was a common style at this time with professional musicians expected to be accomplished improvisers. Dance suites were also popular which were designed for listening rather than dancing. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a dance suite known as partitas. Further advancements were made with instruments. The harpsichord, an instrument like the piano, was a very popular instrument for the autocracy to play in their homes and for the entertainment of their guests. Other famous pieces from this period are Georg Frideric Handel’s Messiah (1741) and Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (1725). the Four Seasons is a group of four violin concertos. My particular favorite, and many others as well, is the “Spring” concerto which conjures images of flowing creeks and the singing birds as winter breaks away to the warmth of spring.
The Classical period (1750/1775-1820) is characterized by simple, cleaner music which focused more on melody than the Baroque period. Woodwind instruments were added to the orchestra. This is the period most people will think of when they hear “classical music” with popular composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven. Some music historians see Beethoven as a Romantic composer (which I will discuss next), other view him as the bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods. The Classical period had many great composers who are often left behind with the popularity of Mozart and Beethoven. Frank Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was known as the Father of the Symphony and Father of the String Quartet as he composed over 100 symphonies and 60 string quartets. Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) was a composer I was not familiar with until I did my research for this post. He is known as the Father of the Pianoforte as he revolutionized the art of playing the piano, techniques which are still used today. Lastly, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) who became famous as a jealous rival of Mozart; however, he was an accomplished composer in his own right and gave music composition lessons to Beethoven.
The Romantic period (1820-1910) saw the growth of the orchestra with the expansion of the woodwind and brass sections with music which was very expressive and emotional. The composers of this period, such as Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, the music had a new preoccupation with nature and fascination with the past and legends and myths. Chopin was known for nocturnes. He would publish 18 in his lifetime, three more would be published posthumously. Music meant to represent the fields and forest. Wagner would write Ride of the Valkyries for his opera, Die Walkure, with its dramatic notes represents the mythological Valkyries as they ride over the battlefields choosing warriors to take to Valhalla and those who will remain on Earth. And almost all mothers have sung or hummed Brahms’ Lullaby (1868) to their child as they rocked them to sleep. It is still a popular song to sing to a baby at bedtime. The Romantic period would give away to more experimental music with the emergence of Jazz in America in approximately in 1919.
In conclusion, Sir Isaac Newton said in 1675, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We discover new truths by building on previous discoveries. It is true with music. With geniuses like Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and others who attempt to play instruments and notes in new ways helped developed the music we know and love. Classical music isn’t just wordless music. It is music which invokes passion and other emotions. It can help us imagine the beauty and power of nature. It is music that helped bring our favorite genres today. I encourage everyone to learn about these composers, their music, their advancements and you will see how musicians of today have built new music from their genius.
For Further Reading
Muzio Clementi https://www.britannica.com/biography/Muzio-Clementi
The Greatest Composers of the Classical Period https://www.liveabout.com/top-classical-period-composers-724098
Classical Music Month https://nationaldaycalendar.com/classical-music-month-september/