The history of classical music is quite old. I said in my first post that what makes the genre “classical” – which, by the way, is a term that didn’t appear until the 19th century – is that it’s Western art music. More formally, what makes it classical, Western, and art-y was that, beginning in the early Medieval period, those that composed such music started using staff notation, which is very familiar to those musicians, professional and amateur alike, who can read sheet music. On sheet music, you have the staffs, notes, key signatures, tempo indications, etc. Prior to staff notation, nearly all music was sung and performed from memory. Obviously, once staff notation emerged, it started to make things easier.
However, it took several centuries for early Medieval music, which was mostly chant for liturgical purposes, to morph into the types of forms that I mentioned in my last post. Vocal music has always held an important place in classical music, but more and more instrumental music emerged. And, in the 19th century, the virtuoso performer certainly helped to promote such music.
In this post, I want to briefly cover the important periods and key figures. You, the newbie, certainly already know some of them – e.g., Mozart and Beethoven – but there are many others who were equally important in defining new forms and the period in which they wrote. What I cover here is from the Baroque period onwards, because this is the start of the common-practice period that I covered before. There are important figures in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, of course, but that type of music doesn’t make up the bulk of what people listen to and that they’re the most familiar with.
The list below is by no means exhaustive, but you’ll see some names that you probably haven’t seen before.
Here we go with the Baroque . . .
“Baroque,” like “classical music,” is a term that musicologists came up with a few centuries after the period had passed. Common-practice tonality, which is where composers wrote in a particular key (e.g., C major, F minor), emerged. This is something that you don’t see in Medieval or Renaissance music. Along with this tonality, professional composers were instrumentalists (usually keyboard or violin), usually wrote music for small ensembles, and were highly skilled improvisers. It wasn’t uncommon for a composer to both write down his music for wide distribution, but be able to improvise, on the fly, while performing. It also wasn’t uncommon for composers to borrow, wholesale, from other composers. Copyright didn’t exist at the time, and some composers might have been gracious enough to give credit where credit was due. Other times, nothing.
Another major hallmark of the Baroque period is ample and hefty ornamentation. Basically, this is playing unneeded and excessive notes along with what’s already there. On the other hand, one could argue that “unneeded” is a strange judgment call. Baroque music wouldn’t be Baroque without the ornamentation. This hallmark is difficult to describe without pointing it out during a performance, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Finally, the Baroque style was all over Western Europe, though France, Germany, and Italy stand out as the key countries contributing to the style.
Now, let’s get to the main figures:
Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in Germany and spent his life working in Germany. Hands down, the most important figure in the period. Early in his career, Bach’s claim to fame was his skill as an organist, on which he could improvise incredibly. He also was a skilled harpsichordist, and wrote a lot of music for that instrument. Finally, he is also best-known for his cantatas (a vocal work concentrating on religious themes), Passions (the story of Jesus’ agony before the crucifixion), and oratorios. Unlike other Baroque composers, however, Bach never wrote any operas. Rather, his Passions and oratorios fit the bill in that department. Finally, a fun fact is that, after his death in 1750, which we can use to mark the end of the Baroque period, Bach’s music fell out of favor and it lay dormant until the mid-19th century, when it experienced a revival under the hands of Felix Mendelssohn.
List of representative works:
- Air on G String (from the Orchestral Suite No. 3)
- Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (from Cantata BWV 147)
- Overture in the French Style
- Chorus from St. John Passion, “Herr unser Herrscher”
- Solo from St. Matthew Passion, “Erbarme dich”
- Toccata and Fugue in D minor
- Cello suite No. 1, Prelude
George Frederick Handel. Born in Germany, but spent most of his life working in England. The other towering figure of the Baroque period. Like Bach, Handel was also a highly skilled organist and keyboard player. Also like Bach, Handel composed a fair number of religious-themed music such as the oratorio (the most famous being “Messiah,” from which you get the “Hallelujah Chorus”) as well as anthems, which are more in the English vein. Unlike Bach, however, Handel is very well-known for his operas, and his operas are the showcases for Baroque music, a few of them still performed today.
- “He was despised,” from “Messiah”
- “Hallelujah chorus,” from “Messiah”
- “Cara speme,” from “Julius Ceasar in Egypt”
- “Zadok the Priest” (coronation anthem)
- Air and variations from Suite No. 5 in E major, “The Harmonious Blacksmith”
- Recorder Sonata in A Minor: Allegro
Georg Philip Telemann. From Germany and worked in Germany. Second to Bach among the Germans, and among the most prolific, combining Italian, German, French, and even Polish styles into his music. He wrote organ music, harpspchord music, concertos (e.g., harpsichord, violin, viola, trumpet, recorder), oratorios, Passions, and theoretical works. Not as well-known as Bach among the listening public, but very important nevertheless.
Francois Couperin. Born in France and spent his life working in France. Part of a famous musical family (which he himself was called “the Great”), Couperin’s main output was in harpsichord music.
Jean-Philippe Rameau. Born in France and spent his working life in France. Born in the same year, 1685, as Bach and Handel, Rameau wrote in many of the same forms as the other two. Rameau wrote harpsichord music, small ensemble music, and operas. He also wrote some in music theory.
Antonio Vivaldi. From Italy and worked in Italy. The giant among the Italians. Extremely prolific, particularly with concertos, the most famous of which are the four concertos for violin called “The Four Seasons.” He also wrote operas, some of which have seen revivals in recent decades.
Domenico Scarlatti. Born in Italy, but spent the bulk of his working life in Spain. Son of the famous Italian composer Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico’s claim to fame is the 555 extant harpsichord sonatas he wrote over the course of many years. Less staid and formal than other Baroque comp: osers, Scarlatti’s sonatas make use of Spanish styles like intimidating the strumming of a guitar. For those interested in harpsichord music, Scarlatti is a must-listen.
Henry Purcell. Born in England and worked in England. The only Englishman of the group. As with the others, Purcell wrote in many forms, but he’s best known for his harpsichord music, chamber music, and operas. Part of English Baroque, but of a different style than Handel, who himself was German.
- From “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary”
- “Come Away, Fellow Sailors,” from “Dido and Aeneas”
- “Dido’s Lament,” from “Dido and Aeneas”
- Trumpet Tune
- Round O
And there you have the Baroque style.