The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part two

Last week we looked at the historic periods of Western music starting with the Medieval period, progressed through the Renaissance, and concluded with the Baroque period.

You may have noticed that as we went along, the periods became shorter and shorter. Partly this is due to their remoteness. The further in the past you go, the less difference is apparent between the minor changes. The closer you come to modern times, the more set the instrumentation is, and the differences become more about styles. Also, transportation and communication has an effect. As it has become easier to move about and communicate with remote parts of the world, the faster the changes happen.

Anyway, we’re going to pick up with the Classical period (circa 1750-1820). This is the true classical period. Three of the biggest names are from this seven decade period, and in many ways defined the genre forever after. Haydn is classical. Mozart is classical. Beethoven is (mostly) classical. (More about that later.)

In many ways, the Classical period carried the ideas of the Baroque to their extreme. For the first time, most accompanying parts were written for specific instruments rather than whoever-was-available. The style was simpler and cleaner, with solo instruments or one section carrying the burden of the melody and given a very simple accompaniment by the other members of the group. On the other hand, other subtler changes were introduced. Phrasing (the act of performing a series of notes as a unit, much like you would sing a sentence) became included in written parts. Also the indication of dynamics (how soft or loud to play) became much more involved. This last part is particularly noteworthy as the pianoforte (or as we know it today, “piano”) became much more popular. Unlike the harpsichord of the baroque era, a piano was capable of playing softer or louder, depending on how hard the keys were hit.

Composers were commonly supported by noblemen, with the monarchs snatching up the best and brightest. Under these employers, they were able to write everything from small chamber pieces to grand opera. There was a good deal of cross-pollination going on, since many composers (including the biggies) studied under or worked with earlier established composers. Practically everyone was familiar with everyone else’s work, and they frequently emulated each other.

The Classical period is also noteworthy for being the period that gave us the symphony. The symphony grew out of collections of pieces that would provide incidental music, particularly for the stage. Since this music did not have to follow a specific program, and could be used for any number of different productions, it was basically music for the sake of music. A few acquired nicknames that indicated something reminiscent in the way the music sounded, but that wasn’t the primary intent. Eventually the symphony separated itself from its theatrical origins, and composers latched on to this musical form as a way of showing what they could do musically when they did not have to follow a specific story or idea. Usually, a symphony would be made up of four movements: an upbeat overture-like opening, a slow and quiet second movement, a dance-like third movement in three, and a rousing finale. As the form grew in popularity, sometimes a fifth or even a sixth movement would be added.

Some of the most important composers from the period include Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gioachino Rossini, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (son of J.S. Bach), and Antonio Salieri.

And then there’s Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven studied under Haydn and became well known as a virtuoso pianist while living in Vienna. He wrote many pieces and became the classical music version of a rock star in his day. However, around 1800 his hearing began deteriorating and the last decade of his life he was almost totally deaf. He had to quit performing and conducting, however his skill as a composer was such that he was able to compose all the way to the end of his life in 1827. Amazingly, the music he wrote as his hearing declined is perhaps his best work. Maybe the loss of outside influences allowed his immense imagination to take over. Who knows? Today, music historians consider Beethoven a transitional composer; he started in the Classical period, but when he was done he was instrumental in starting the….

Romantic period (circa 1815-1910). This was a period of rebellion in many ways. The Age of Enlightenment that went hand-in-hand with the Classical period was concerned with science and math, and advancing the cause of order and civility. The Romantic era brought a return to artistry and emotion. People became enamored with religion and the supernatural. Mythology became prime material for music and art, as did ghosts and witches. Interestingly, so did national pride. (Sound familiar?)

Arguably, this was the time of the highest fascination with opera, such as Richard Wagner’s four epic opera that make up Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and Aida are two other examples. On the lighter side, the operetta became popular as well. These were smaller, usually comic, opera that could be performed by smaller groups on tighter budgets. The works of Gilbert and Sullivan are among these.

Meanwhile, program music became popular. Program music is a type of instrumental music that attempts to tell a story or present a place or idea. Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is an excellent example of a previously music-for-music’s-sake format being converted to storytelling, in this case the tale of a man who finds out his wife is a witch and gathers with other witches for evenings of debauchery and revelry.

Nationalism was a huge force for this period, as composers started writing music that was inspired by their homelands. Many of Chopin’s piano works are inspired by dances from his native Poland. Much of Tchaikovsky’s work is inspired by the stories and culture of his native Russia. Johann Strauss’ waltzes are practically the soundtrack for Vienna even today. Even the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas are easily identifiable with Britain. Also, for the first time, the United States takes its place in the world of classical music. John Philip Sousa‘s work is highly patriotic. A case could be made that ragtime composer Scott Joplin could be considered a Romantic composer representing not just America but black America, especially when you consider that he wrote an operetta as well. And then there’s Antonín Dvořák, who presents a curious case of nationality to two nations at once. His ninth symphony (aka The New World Symphony) was written while living in the US, and incorporates themes reminiscent of American folk music alongside themes from his native Czech background.

Strangely enough, even though we group all these musical periods under the broad term “classical”, it’s really the Romantic era that gives us the greatest number of memorable composers. A very incomplete list includes such names as Beethoven, Paganini, Schubert, Berlioz, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss (no relation), Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Offenbach, Bruckner, Smetana, Borodin, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Fauré, Sousa, Elgar, and Puccini.

Okay, I know I said I’d get to the Twentieth Century in this column, but those were two major periods. And there’s a lot of ground to cover in contemporary music. So, we’ll wrap up next time with as much of that as I can make clear. Come back next week; it gets a little weird.