About "Classical" Music


The high school I attended did not have a music program. Its avowed purpose and grim determination was to prepare students for college. Still, each year the school featured a "Week of Awareness"; a topic was selected by the faculty, and student volunteers filled the week with special programs designed to illuminate it. The topic might be "World Hunger", or "the Environment", or "Nuclear Proliferation." And one year the topic was simply "The Arts". I can't recall the name of the student who gave the presentation on music, although I can picture him very clearly. He was very plainly in love with his subject, illustrating each of his points with excerpts from his personal music library, and his passion for it sparked my own interest in classical music. That lecture, plus scattered facts I have gleaned through the years from the liner notes of recordings and listening to classical music radio stations, has formed the basis of my knowledge of classical music. It's an admitedly sketchy approach to musical education, but not an uncommon one, I think.

What follows is a broad outline of classical music, how it is defined and divided. It is intended to be a general sketch which the reader may color with his or her own knowledge of music. For any gaps or inaccuracies in what follows, I apologize in advance.

Tim Eagen
June, 1999

What is "Classical" Music?

The term "classical" refers to both a genre and a period. Generically, classical music refers to the music of the artistic tradition of Europe, and later the Americas, distinct from the folk tradition of these same places. In many places there exists also an intermediate tradition that acts as a bridge between art and folk music; this is exemplified by the harp in Ireland, and the guitar in Spain.

The music of the art tradition is generally more complex and intricate than other music. In the centuries in which it began to grow, it was not truly a music of the people, as it was generally composed for orchestras made up of more-or-less professional musicians. In the days before recordings and the equipment to play them became generally available, this meant that only the rich could afford to assemble the orchestras needed to play such music: the ruling nobility and the church, for the most part. During the early centuries of development, the art tradition was pretty much dominated by the church. This became less the case as technique developed and improved throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Classical music is divided into four generally recognized periods: the Baroque (1600-1750), the Classical (1750-1820), the Romantic (1820-1920), and the Modern (1900-present). Some commentators include a fifth period, called the Impressionistic, to describe the music of French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in the late 19th century. It should be recognized that these periods are variable, and that there is sometimes considerable overlap between them. The periods were named and created by critics and historians as a means of categorization and convenient reference, but they need not be taken as absolutes.

The Baroque Era

The term "baroque" means "highly ornamented, intricate, and elaborate." It is also used pejoratively to mean "irregular, overly elaborate, and grotesque." The application to the music of the 17th and early 18th centuries is a critical observation. Certainly the music of the Baroque Era was intricate, though hardly irregular, as an almost geometrical symmetry seemed to prevail in the compositions of this period. Often the music was characterized by standard phrases and elegant little flourishes, in much the same way that Homer's epics are characterized by stock phrases such as "the wine-dark sea" and "rosy-fingered dawn."

The pre-eminent composer of this period was Johan Sebastian Bach, although my personal favorite has always been Antonio Vivaldi. Other important composers of the Baroque Era include Scarlatti, Corelli, Pachelbel, and Handel.

These links lead to MIDI versions of some Baroque Era music:
Pachelbel's Canon in D
Bach's Little Fugue

The Classical Era

Composers began to favor simpler harmonies, while at the same time improvements made in musical instruments allowed a greater variety of musical textures from a single performer. For instance it was very difficult, if not impossible, for a single Baroqe Era violinist to play his instrument both loud and soft (different performers playing different style instruments were needed to achieve this effect, giving rise to an orchestral style now known as "terrace dynamics"). These imrovements continued throughout the Classical Era. Beethoven's piano was a superior instrument in terms of textural shading to the fortepiano used by Mozart, and allowed him greater possibilities.

Important composers of the classical period included JS Bach's sons CPE Bach and JC Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Here is a link to a MIDI version of a Beethoven miniature:
Beethoven's Für Elise

The Romantic Era

Beethoven is often regarded as standing at the cusp between the Classical and Romantic Eras, and is sometimes included as the first of the Romantic composers, as well as the greatest of the Classical composers.

The Romantic Era was characterized by widely sweeping and antithetical influences. Symphonies were expanded and became a form of their own. Wagner's influence saw the frontiers of opera greatly extended. Ballet, formerly just an incidental feature of opera performances, became an art form in its own right, and benefited from the attentions of composers such as Tchaikovsky. Nationalism played a part, as in the banding together of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui and Balakirev to create a Russian tradition.

A considerable movement grew up with the basic philosophy that musical compositions could and should not try to represent imagery (such as Vivaldi's Seasons); instead, music's purpose was to convey feeling and emotion, and ideas only in the abstract. Beethoven certainly held this to be true, even though the imagery of the Pastorale seems at times to be amazingly concrete.

The Romantic Era was a time of wild and whirling ideas in music, and I have only touched on a few that I have encountered. Important composers of this period include Mendelssohn, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Wagner, and a host of others.

These links lead to MIDI versions of some Romantic Era music:
Gabriel Faure's Pavanne
Mussorgsky's Bydlo, from Pictures at an Exhibition

The Modern Era

Like Romanticism, the Modern Era has many influences. Some of these arise from an explorative interest in the music of non-European cultures. Others incorporate jazz elements into their compositions, as in the work of George Gershwin. There are the so-called neo-romantic stylings of Rachmaninov and Bernstein, and the guitar concertos of Joaquin Rodrigo. Aaron Copland based his famous Appalachian Spring on American folk tunes. Samuel Barber's emotionally charged Adagio for Strings is one of the most popular of all 20th century musical compositions.

Of the experimental music of this era I have the least knowledge. It took me some time before I was able to appreciate the use of atonality by Stravinsky, and the Rite of Spring, which I had formerly loathed, has become one of my favorite pieces of music. Perhaps one day I will learn to value the single-note and noise compositions of Cage, or the minimilast style of Glass. Or it may be I will continue to view music built to fit a theory as absurd and meaningless. In the meantime, the reader will need to look elsewhere for information on music of this type.

These links lead to MIDI versions of some Modern Era music:
Prelude from Rachmaninov's Five Fantasy Pieces, Op 3
Vaughn Williams' Fantasia for Greensleeves

Credits & Links

I do not know the identity of the person who sequenced Pachelbel's Canon in D and Bach's Little Fugue; I obtained those from AOL's file library some years ago. Beethoven's Für Elise I obtained from eDepot's Beethoven Page. This is a great page on Beethoven that includes all 9 of his symphonies in MIDI format. Unfortunately, the page does not reveal the name of the person who sequenced the tune. The remaining music on this page was obtained from MidiWorld's Classical Music Index:

Music Sequenced by:
Gabriel Faure's Pavanne John Cowles
Mussorgsky's Bydlo, from Pictures at an Exhibition Robert Finley
Prelude from Rachmaninov's Five Fantasy Pieces, Op 3 Unknown
Vaughn Williams' Fantasia for Greensleeves Gae Mataponti

This is an amazingly comprehensive MIDI music library, which I highly recommend.