Are you wondering what is classical music?
Or are you just too confused by the huge, subjective term?
Well, in any case, you have come to the right place!
So, let’s answer your question first.
What is classical music?
The term classical music is generally used to refer to the formal music tradition of the Western world and distinguish it from folk music or the popular musical form.
However, nowadays, the term “classical music” is also used to refer to other non-western forms of music with similar formal traditions.
Terminology and Definitions
In the beginning, the English term “classical” derived from the Latin word “classicus” was used to refer to the highest class citizens of Ancient Rome.
By the Renaissance, the term gradually attained a more general definition, meaning formal, approved, or authentic. Further, Daniel Heartz summarized this into,
- A formal discipline
- A model of excellence
The contemporary understanding of classical music remains vague. It is generally used to refer to Western music and is an umbrella term for Western orchestral, instrumental and choral music.
It is colloquially used to refer to western art music too.
Western Art Music is a wide-ranged term that comprises a variety of musical styles from the 16th century to the 19th century and further to the present day.
The complication of the term “classical music” arises as it is also used to refer to other non-western genres with similar formal and long-lasting traditions like the Indian classical music (Carnatic and Hindustani), Gamelan music, and some styles from the court of Imperial China.
Thus, to remove the complication, the broader term of classical music is now specified to “Western music” or “Western classical music”.
However, musicologist Ralph P Locke notes that neither term is suitable and ideal. The latter creates complications when referring to practitioners from non-Western cultures performing Western art music genres.
History of Classical Western Music
The periods of classical music can be majorly divided into the Early music period (500-1600) and the Common practice period (1600-1910). The Modernist and Post-modernist eras describe the prevalent tradition.
Roots of Musical History
The initial attitude towards music was derived from the Ancient Greek and Roman styles and theorists. In the Greco-Roman society, music was seen as central to education and was a part of the liberal arts of education in the Middle Ages.
Lots were lost from the Greco-Roman texts due to misinterpretation. However, musicologist Gustave Reese notes that it was still influential to the formation of Western classical music as the musicians read the texts extensively during the medieval periods.
Early Music Period
Medieval Period (500-1400)
The fall of the Western Roman Empire marked the beginning of the medieval era in Western classical music.
In the early medieval period, the vocal music, predominantly Gregorian chant, was monophonic, that is, music using a single, unaccompanied vocal melody line. During the high medieval era, polyphonic, that is, music using several independent vocal melodic lines, was developed.
Some notable Medieval music composers include Pérotin, Léonin, Francesco Landini and Johannes Ciconia.
Medieval musical instruments included the flute, the recorder, and string instruments like the lute. Early versions of organ and fiddle (vielle) also existed.
A number of musical instruments had also been adopted from the medieval Islamic world. For example, the Arab rehab is the ancestor of Europeans bowed string instruments like the lira, rebec, and the violin.
Renaissance Period (1400-1600)
The Renaissance Period was marked by the use of the first bass instruments. Other major characteristics included greater use of instrumental music and multiple interweaving melodic lines.
Elements of writing music and musical notation began to take shape, and oral transmission of music gradually evolved into preserving written pieces of music.
Music could now be performed without the original composers’ absence and distortion in the original compositions. The invention of the movable type printing press made a strong impact on this development.
Social dancing had become widespread, so music appropriate for accompanying dancing was also created.
Wind instruments included bass like slide trumpet, valveless trumpet, sackbut, and wooden cornet. Viol, rebec, lyre, hurdy-gurdy, lute, guitar, and the bandora are stringed instruments.
Keyboard instruments with strings included the harpsichord and clavichord. Percussion had the tambourine, Jew’s harp, triangle, and various drums, while woodwind instruments like the bagpipe, reed pipe, transverse flute, recorder, and crumhorn were also used.
This was the first work of opera. Another of his compositions, “Euridice”, is the first work of opera to have survived till the present day.
A few of the greatest composers of this period include John Dowland, Carlo Gesualdo, John Dunstaple, Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis.
Common Practice Period
Baroque Period (1600-1750)
The music slowly became more complex in this period, compared to the previous eras. Baroque music finds the use of complex tonal counterpoint and a continuous bass line (basso continuo).
The beginnings of the sonata form and the major and minor tonalities took shape during the baroque period.
The harpsichord and the pipe organ became more popular in the baroque era while the violin family of stringed instruments took the present form.
The baroque period saw vocal development of the opera types, like the opera seria and opera comique.
Some instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and the recorder were continued to be played along with new instruments like the oboe, cello, contrabass, and fortepiano.
A few of the best-known composers of the baroque period are Antonio Vivaldi, Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, Arcangelo Corelli, and Jean Baptiste Lully.
Classical Period (1750-1820)
Falling between the baroque and romantic periods, the classical era was the vibrant era of the prominent three composers – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig Van Beethoven.
The significant difference between baroque music and the classical era is that the instruments used in the baroque ensembles were much less standardized. Norms and standards had yet not taken shape.
Norms of presentation, styles, and composition were established during the classical era. The piano became the predominant solo instrument.
Chamber music included ensembles with 8 to 10 persons for serenades. Opera saw the development of regional styles in Italy, France, and Germany.
Baroque instruments like the theorbo and rackett fell into disuse, but other instruments like the cello, contrabass, recorder, trombone, and fortepiano were continued to be used by classical era musicians.
Mozart expanded the role of the clarinet family of single reeds in orchestral, chamber, and concerto settings.
Stringed instruments used in string sections of chamber music and orchestra, like a string quartet, were standardized into four instruments – violin, viola, cello, and double bass.
Prominent classical musicians around the eighteenth century include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Johann Christian Bach.
Romantic Period (1810-1910)
The first decade of the 19th century to the early 20th century saw the rise of the romantic era. There was increased attention to emotion and expression in melody, paralleling romanticism in other art forms.
Classical era forms were broken down with music written in free forms like nocturnes, fantasias, and preludes.
In the 19th century, increasing interest in music throughout western Europe brought about the creation of institutes for teaching, performing, and preservation of music.
As Europe progressed with colonial expansions worldwide, music also became the expression of nationalism, patriotism, and even political sentiments.
Composer Antonin Dvorak instilled traditional themes in his pieces. Other composers were Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov and Edvard Grieg.
The modern piano took over the delicate fortepiano with a more assertive tone and wider range. In the orchestra, strict rules of the baroque music period were lifted, and instrumental sections were expanded to give a fuller and more expressive sound.
The size of the orchestra, which was around 40 in the classical music era, expanded to over 100. For example, composer Gustav Mahler’s 1906 Symphony No. 8 was performed with about 150 instrumentalists and choirs over 400.
New woodwind instruments like bass clarinet and piccolo, percussion instruments like xylophones, snare drums, celestas, and even wind machines were added for sound effects.
Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss are prominent romantic composers of the period.
The music of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss blends traditional music with modernist contemporary music.
Modern classical music, also known as contemporary music, includes romantic, impressionist, expressionist, and neoclassical compositions.
The two most dominant movements of the modern era were the impressionist beginning around 1890 and the expressionist starting around 1908.
Music history saw diverse reactions, challenges, rearrangements, reinterpretations, and various changes. No single music genre was found to hold a dominant position. Interpretation of music solely depended on individual composers.
Many composers like George Perle, Richard Wernick, Pierre Boulez, Toru Takemitsu, Richard Wilson, Wolfgang Rihm, and Jacob Druckman played an active role in advancing the vastly different forms and ideas of the modern period.
In instrumental music, saxophones found a place as supplementary instruments and, at times, as a featured solo instrument in some works, like Maurice Ravel’s orchestration and presentation of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet Suites 1 and 2”.
French composer Claude Debussy is regarded as the father of modern classical music. A few other notable composers of this period are Heitor Villa Lobos. Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, Amy Beach, George Gershwin, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Sergei Prokofiev.
Influence on Different Kinds
Chamber music is composed for small instrumental ensembles, performed without a conductor.
It was traditionally intended solely for the performer’s pleasure and performed in a room or reception hall. However, nowadays, it is often heard in concert halls.
It has been long associated with aristocratic households. Early 17th century Italy saw the rise of the duo sonata form (usually violin and continuo) and the trio sonata.
In the 1750s, the string quartet became more popular. To date, the string quartet remains the best-known chamber genre and ensemble.
Classical genres for varying instrumental forces included the serenade, nocturne, and divertimento. Standard ensembles were string trio (violin, viola, cello), string quintet (two violins, two violas, cello), and piano trio (piano, violin, cello).
With fewer than 25 musicians, chamber orchestra often depicts eighteenth-century music, requiring a conductor.
Concerto is the musical composition for a solo instrument and orchestra. It derives its form from the older concerto grosso.
A concerto has a three-movement form with fast tempos in the first and last movements and a slow central movement.
19th-century concertos saw a dramatic battle between the soloist and the orchestra, while later composers preferred the soloist and the orchestra to blend.
The first known solo concertos are Giuseppe Torelli’s violin concertos. Antonio Vivaldi was the first important concerto composer who wrote around 350 solo concertos (mostly for violin). Then came Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed the first keyboard concertos.
Each concerto was either a piano concerto, violin concerto, or cello following the classical period. The piano concerto was the most popular, followed by violin and cello.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos. Ludwig Van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, and Johannes Brahms were some of the other notable composers of piano concertos.
Counterpoint is the art of combining different melody lines into a musical composition. The term is often used interchangeably with polyphony, a kind of music with multiple distinct melody lines. However, counterpoint refers explicitly to the composition and handling of these melody lines.
The relationship between the melodic lines the vertical aspect of the counterpoint was studied as harmony, especially in the eighteenth century.
Harmonic orientation was first seen in baroque music, though harmony and counterpoint are essentially intertwined. The baroque style of music brought about this change after the figured bass and continuo invention.
Orchestration, also known as instrumentation, combines different musical instruments based on their variety of timbres, tones, and colours into a musical composition of a very diverse nature like those in chamber music, symphony orchestra, and jazz bands.
There are many traditional groups in Western music. Apart from these standard groups, a composer may use hundreds of other possible combinations.
The larger and more diverse an orchestra group is, the more expressive colours it can pose to a composer. Smaller groups have their characteristic melodies, and composers may even illuminate those.
The term sonata, derived from the Italian word meaning “sounded”, refers to a musical form usually consisting of three or four movements.
It was decoded as nonvocal music and was used for a confusing number of genres in the 17th century. Then, in the 1650s, the two kinds of sonata ensembles were sonata da Chiesa or church sonata and sonata da camera or chamber sonata.
Bach established the three-movement keyboard sonata as the standard norm in the classical period.
Since his time, the first movement was played in allegro tempo and sonata form. The second movement was generally slow.
The third was usually a minuet or a scherzo in a four-movement sonata. Then, the last movement was usually a minuet, rondo, or theme and variations.
Symphony is the long musical composition for orchestra. The term had become a standard name for instrumental music, especially overtures in the early Italian opera. It is usually in several movements.
The Austrian composer Joseph Haydn is regarded as the “father of the symphony”. He wrote more than 100 symphonies, and since his time, symphonies have been regarded as the most important orchestral genre.
Mozart wrote around 35 original symphonies, while Beethoven composed nine symphonies with weight and ambition.
A few of the later symphonists include, Franz Schubert, Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms, Dmitry Shostakovich, Felix Mendelssohn and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Classical Music and Its Relation to Other Genres
Many classical composers acknowledge a debt to popular music. Many musicians have often implemented popular songs, music, and genres into classical music compositions.
Some examples are student drinking songs in his “Academic Festival Overture” by Brahms and the influence of jazz on Maurice Ravel’s “Blues” movement in piano and violin sonata.
On the other hand, numerous popular songs are based on classical music. For example, in heavy metal, several lead guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore and Randy Rhoads were influenced by classical era music or baroque music.
Folk music is the traditional and generally rurally inclined music passed down through families or other small societal groups.
The influence of folk music can be found in many classical music compositions over the ages. Composers like Dvorak and Smetana had used folk themes to add a nationalistic tinge to their works.
At the same time, Khachaturian incorporated the folk music of native Armenia and other Middle Eastern and Eastern European folk themes into his work.
Classical Music – A Musical Tradition
The classical style of music attracts music lovers, composers, and practitioners from all around the world as they work not only to uphold the heritage of the classical tradition but also to enjoy a wide-ranged and special genre of music that has been the muse and the balm of thousands in the history of music.
If you are into music, you cannot deny that the classical music era did set a benchmark.
I hope you found this article an interesting read.
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