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Classical Music Eras

Extracts from Michael Beek

BBC Music Magazine

Early Music (until 1400)

This actually covers a huge period – essentially everything that happened till the Renaissance, when things started to really take off. Religion played a huge role, the church being one of the only arenas for public music-making.

Medieval music is the sacred and secular music composed during the Middle Ages, which covers a huge stretch of time, from A.D. 476, following the fall of the Roman Empire, to the start of the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th century. So that's around 1000 years, making it the longest major era of Western classical music.

A lot of early medieval music is a mystery. Many people of the period were illiterate, so music was passed on orally, rather than being written down, which means that it’s lost. Plus, it wasn't until 1030 that an Italian Benedictine monk named Guido d'Arezzo invented a four-line stave, using his hand to remember the lines.

The music that was written down was usually church music, as it tended to be members of the clergy who could write - and even that is hard to decipher for a modern musician. That's because there were different systems of musical notation from today, the best-known being square notation. It wasn't always written very clearly, and for a long time there was no way of indicating precise rhythm. As for secular music: the first surviving fragments we have date from the first half of the 13th century.

Famous Composers: Guillaume de Machaut - Hildegard von Bingen - Stephen of Liège - Léonin Pérotin

Stephen of Liege

Renaissance (1400-1600)

The Renaissance music period is a bit like the light streaming in at last.

Music is revived, reborn if you will, composers allowed to think beyond the church walls. Science, art and mythology all become fair game for inspiring new music. That said, the church is still massively influential and sacred works continue to dominate.

Choral music is king, but stringed instruments are on the rise; viols, cello, lute.  Organs are popular too and the harpsichord comes into its own.

In addition to this, notated music is increasingly used, thanks to printing.

Famous composers: Thomas Tallis - John Downland - Monteverdi

Baroque (1600-1750)

The Baroque is all about excess and ornament.

So, music really begins to dazzle, composers – and musicians – start to show off. The forms, structures and techniques we are familiar with today are set out in the Baroque.

Major and minor keys are used (instead of ‘modes’), notation systems are updated, forms (like the fugue) developed and orchestras started to take form. Then there’s opera that’s new too, along with all manner of other types of work such as the oratorio and cantata. 

With the orchestra come the very early signs of the symphony, while concertos are a popular format for composers.

Instrument-wise, strings really come into their own, along with woodwind, valve-less horns and trumpets and the timpani.

Famous composers: JS Bach - Handel - Vivaldi - Monteverdi - Telemann - Albinoni

Thomas Tallis

George Frideric Handel

Classical (1750-1830)

We come to the middle of our seven music eras; confusingly there’s a classical period actually called ‘Classical’… But, if you think about what’s happening in art, literature and architecture it makes a lot of sense.

Form, structure and clean lines really appeal now making way for lighter, clearer musical lines.

Less is more, so instrumental music is on the rise and the piano sonata is popular. The orchestra has come into its own, the symphony and string quartet – largely thanks to Haydn – are things composers aim to conquer, along with more opera and choral music.

Brass instruments eventually have valves and the popularity of the fortepiano means the concert grand is just around the corner.

Famous composers: Haydn - Mozart - Beethoven - CPE Bach - Schubert - Rossini - Boccherini

Gioachino Rossini

Romantic (1830-1900)

Passions ran high in the Romantic era; drama, expression, poetry and tall tales were the order of the day; composers wanted to loosen their collars.

Music really began to speak directly to audiences, works began to have more meaning, or at least were more extrovert, and their connections to art and literature were clear for all to hear. Art song and chamber music really came into their own – the French salon scene was popular with a thriving middle- and upper-middle class.

Opera and ballet also boomed, with the likes of Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky. The piano evolved into the instrument we know and love – Steinway was founded in the 1850s.

Famous composers: Tchaikovsky - Mahler - Brahms - J Strauss II - Wagner - Chopin - Mendelssohn - Verdi - Berlioz - Dvorak - Rachmaninov

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

20th Century (1900-2000)

The dawn of a new century! The world’s increasingly complex political landscape inspired a lot of artists and composers. So the first decades of this era include responses to conflict, political oppression and the atomic age.

Stylistically it’s a case of ‘anything goes’; patterns, pictures and abstract sounds float to the surface; Impressionists are doing their thing in France, as are the Minimalists in the US.

Brand new art forms emerge, with the cinema offering composers new opportunities. Technology evolves at an astonishing pace and in no time we have strange new sounds competing with (and joining) the orchestra – from the sound waves of the synthesiser and beyond.

Famous composers: Elgar - Debussy - Faure - Holst - Shostakovich - Prokofiev - Stravinsky - Satie

Vaughan Williams - John Williams

Gustav Holst

Modern (2000-present)

Modern music basically covers everything in the last 20 years or so. But as each decade passes, we reach new frontiers.

Today, musical boundaries are beginning to blur, as technological and stylistic attitudes shift. Post-Classical music often refers to the quasi-Minimalism of Max Richter and Ludovico Einaudi.

Recognisable classical elements fuse with designed soundscapes, either created with the aid of a computer or actual musicians. Film music has inspired a whole generation of composers and musicians, so new music can be ‘cinematic’ without ever going near a film. Then there’s music for videogames, which came into its own in the last 20 years.

Famous composers: Karl Jenkins - Max Richter - Ludovico Einaudi -  John Williams - Hans Zimmer

John Williams

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