The Periods of Classical Music

musica marinThe periods of classical music denote not only changes in musical style and its progression as an art form, but it also supplies us with a linear timeline that provides a historical backdrop against which we can understand and measure society´s influence.

Early Music is a term used to describe music written before the 17th century. It is characterized by sacred music such as Gregorian chants and by the music of Hildegard von Bingen. Melodies and harmonies became more complex and secular forms of music began to bloom.

Recommended examples of this era are Chant by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, Canticles of Ecstasy by Hildegard von Bingen, and An English Ladymass by Anonymous 4.

1600 – 1750 is known as the Baroque period. This was the start of classical music, as we now know it. Composers used the major and minor scales, employed ornate melodies, and wrote dynamic rhythmic contrasts into their music. New forms were developed such as the fugue, the opera, and the concerto grosso. Bach, Scalati, Handel, Vivaldi, and Pachelbel were part of the Baroque period.

The Classical period (1750 – 1820) of music reflected its times. It was the Age of Reason and the composers simplified their music. They did away with the ornate melodies of the Baroque period and concentrated on cleaner forms and well-ordered phrases. Mozart and his fabled nemesis, Salieri, are two composers of the period who mastered the new music forms of the sonata and the concerto. The Symphony, during the Classical period, became a more mature form of music, perfected by composers such as Mozart and Schubert. The Classical period was so called because critics appreciated the symmetry of the compositions. It was elegant as well as balanced, both elements being reminiscent of ancient Greece or Rome.

The Early Romantic period (1820 – 1860) was a time of upheaval in the music world. The elegant formalism of the Classical period was thrown over to make way for a more dynamic form of expression. It was a time when the Arts saw a movement of getting back to nature that was reflected in Chopan´s Nocturnes and List´s Symphonic Poems. Society was feeling the effects of the Industrial Revolution, i.e. Man being dominated by Machines, and they needed a break. Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Schumann, and Berlioz provided a musical atmosphere in which feeling dominated order. Larger orchestras and more extended music forms were used to convey a sense of power, in heroic proportions, to which the public could relate. Typical of this era are: Mendelssohn´s Hebrides Overture that captured the ebb and flow of the tides at Fingal´s Cave, and Beethoven´s Pastoral Symphony.

The Late Romantic Period (1860 – 1900) carried on the experimentation of the Early Romantic period in that it used bolder phrasing, larger orchestras, and insisted that music tell a story. Romance, here, does not mean the boy-meets-girl type. It speaks to a broader meaning of the word to encompass unbridled imagination and deep passion. Rossini´s Marches told the story of war and gallantry while Tchaikovsky´s Swan Lake swept us away to a forest where swans danced in ballet shoes. Anything was possible in the world of music during that time. A cigarette girl could turn the head, and heart, of an Army officer in Bizet´s Carmen, and the achingly poignant melodies of Puccini´s Madama Butterfly leaves not a dry eye in theatres.

The Twentieth Century period (1900 – Present) has been dubbed the age of exploration. Elements of other types of music – jazz, impressionism, and minimalism crept into the styles of composers who are stretching the boundaries of the established order. Bolder strokes in melodies, phrasing, and timing have been the signature of composers like Philip Glass, Prokofiev, Curt Weill, and Vaughan Williams. These composers were not afraid to go back in time, and in the case of Carl Orff, to the 13th century, to bring forth the most dynamic choral effort of this period. In this author´s opinion, Orff´s Carmina Burana is a masterpiece of choral composition that easily allows the sensuousness and bawdiness of the lyrics, sung in Latin, shine through.