A Guide to Western Composers and their Music
from the Middle Ages to the Present
The history of music discussed here is that of art music with its roots in Western culture. Such music is said to have originated after the Roman Empire collapsed in Europe in the 5th century AD and excludes Western folk and popular music.
Western art music is noted widely for the development of several complex kinds of instrumental music like concerto, symphony, and sonata as well as combinations of instrumental and vocal styles like opera. In terms of musical notation, it can be differentiated from other kinds of classical music by its staff notation system.
CONTENTS of Music History 102:
As is usual with information on the history of Western music, this site has been organized according to the eras of history:
- The Middle Ages (ca. 500–1420 AD)
- The Renaissance (ca. 1420–1600 AD)
- The Baroque Age (ca. 1600–1750 AD)
- The Classical Period (ca. 1750–1820 AD)
- The Romantic Era (ca. 1820–1900 AD)
- The Twentieth Century (1900–2000 AD)
It is useful to note that although the era of Western music around the 18th century is called the classical period, Western art music as a whole started being referred to as classical music since the beginning of the 19th century.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Western Europe entered a time known as “The Dark Ages” — a period when invading hordes of Vandals, Huns, and Visigoths overran Europe. These years were marked by constant warfare, the absence of a Holy Roman Emperor, and the virtual disappearance of urban life. Over the next nine centuries, the newly emerging Christian Church came to dominate Europe, administering justice, instigating “Holy” Crusades against the East, establishing Universities, and generally dictating the destiny of music, art, and literature. It was during this time that Pope Gregory I is generally believed to have collected and codified the music known as Gregorian Chant, which was the approved music of the Church. Much later, the University at Notre Dame in Paris saw the creation of a new kind of music called organum. Secular music was performed throughout Europe by the troubadours and trouvères of France. And it was during these “Middle Ages” that Western culture saw the appearance of the first great name in music, Guillaume de Machaut.
Generally considered to be the period from ca.1420 to 1600, the Renaissance (which literally means “rebirth”) was a time of great cultural awakening and a flowering of the arts, letters, and sciences throughout Europe. With the rise of humanism, sacred music began for the first time to break free of the confines of the Church, and a school of composers trained in the Netherlands mastered the art of polyphony in their settings of sacred music. One of the early masters of the Flemish style was Josquin des Prez. These polyphonic traditions reached their culmination in the unsurpassed works of Giovanni da Palestrina.
Of course, secular music thrived during this period. And instrumental and dance music, a notable part of Renaissance music, was performed in abundance, if not always written down. It was left for others to collect and notate the wide variety of irrepressible instrumental music of the period. The late Renaissance also saw in England the flourishing of the English madrigal, the best known of which were composed by such masters as John Dowland, William Byrd, Thomas Morley, and others.
Named after the popular ornate architectural style of the time, the Baroque period (ca.1600 to 1750) saw composers beginning to rebel against the styles that were prevalent during the High Renaissance. This was a time when the many monarchies of Europe vied in outdoing each other in pride, pomp, and pageantry. Many monarchs employed composers at their courts, where they were little more than servants expected to churn out music for any desired occasions. The greatest composer of the period, Johann Sebastian Bach, was such a servant. Yet the best composers of the time were able to break new musical ground, and in so doing succeeded in creating an entirely new style of music.
It was during the early part of the seventeenth century that the genre of opera was first created by a group of composers in Florence, Italy, and the earliest operatic masterpieces were composed by Claudio Monteverdi. The instrumental concerto became a staple of Baroque music, and found its strongest exponent in the works of the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Harpsichord music achieved new heights, due to the works of such masters as Domenico Scarlatti and others. Dances became formalized into instrumental suites and were composed by virtually all composers of the era. But vocal and choral music still reigned supreme during this age, and culminated in the operas and oratorios of German-born composer George Frideric Handel.
From roughly 1750 to 1820, artists, architects, and musicians moved away from the heavily ornamented styles of the Baroque and the Rococo, and instead embraced a clean, uncluttered style they thought reminiscent of Classical Greece. The newly established aristocracies were replacing monarchs and the church as patrons of the arts, and were demanding impersonal but tuneful and elegant music. Dances such as the minuet and the gavotte were provided in the forms of entertaining serenades and divertimenti.
At this time, the Austrian capital of Vienna became the musical center of Europe, and works of the period are often referred to as being in the Viennese style. Composers came from all over Europe to train in and around Vienna, and gradually they developed and formalized the standard musical forms that were to predominate European musical culture for the next several decades. A reform of the extravagance of Baroque opera was undertaken by Christoph von Gluck. Johann Stamitz contributed greatly to the growth of the orchestra and developed the idea of the orchestral symphony. The Classical period reached its majestic culmination with the masterful symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets by the three great composers of the Viennese school: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. During the same period, the first voice of the burgeoning Romantic musical ethic can be found in the music of Viennese composer Franz Schubert.
As the many socio-political revolutions of the late eighteenth-century established new social orders and new ways of life and thought, so composers of the period broke new musical ground by adding a new emotional depth to the prevailing classical forms. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth-century (from ca. 1820 to 1900), artists of all kinds became intent in expressing their subjective, personal emotions. “Romanticism” derives its name from the romances of medieval times — long poems telling stories of heroes and chivalry, of distant lands and far away places, and often of unattainable love. The romantic artists are the first in history to give to themselves the name by which they are identified.
The earliest Romantic composers were all born within a few years of each other in the early years of the nineteenth century. These include the great German masters Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann; the Polish poet of the piano Frédéric Chopin; the French genius Hector Berlioz; and the greatest pianistic showman in history, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.
During the early nineteenth century, opera composers such as Carl Maria von Weber turned to German folk stories for the stories of their operas, while the Italians looked to the literature of the time and created what is known as Bel canto opera (literally “beautiful singing”). Later in the century, the field of Italian opera was dominated by Giuseppe Verdi, while German opera was virtually monopolized by Richard Wagner.
During the nineteenth century, composers from non-Germanic countries began looking for ways in which they might express the musical soul of their homelands. Many of these Nationalist composers turned to indigenous history and legends as plots for their operas, and to the popular folk melodies and dance rhythms of their homelands as inspiration for their symphonies and instrumental music. Others developed a highly personal harmonic language and melodic style which distinguishes their music from that of the Austro-Germanic traditions.
The continued modification and enhancement of existing musical instruments, plus the invention of new ones, led to the further expansion of the symphony orchestra throughout the century. Taking advantage of these new sounds and new instrumental combinations, the late Romantic composers of the second half of the nineteenth-century created richer and ever larger symphonies, ballets, and concertos. Two of the giants of this period are the German-born Johannes Brahms and the great Russian melodist Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
By the turn of the century and for the next few decades, artists of all nationalities were searching for exciting and different modes of expression. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg explored unusual and unorthodox harmonies and tonal schemes. French composer Claude Debussy was fascinated by Eastern music and the whole-tone scale, and created a style of music named after the movement in French painting called Impressionism. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók continued in the traditions of the still strong Nationalist movement and fused the music of Hungarian peasants with twentieth century forms. Avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varèse explored the manipulation of rhythms rather than the usual melodic/harmonic schemes. The tried-and-true genre of the symphony, albeit somewhat modified by this time, attracted such masters as Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich, while Igor Stravinsky gave full rein to his manipulation of kaleidoscopic rhythms and instrumental colors throughout his extremely long and varied career.
While many composers throughout the twentieth-century experimented in new ways with traditional instruments (such as the “prepared piano” used by American composer John Cage), many of the twentieth-century’s greatest composers, such as Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini and the Russian pianist/composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, remained true to the traditional forms of music history.
In addition to new and eclectic styles of musical trends, the twentieth century boasts numerous composers whose harmonic and melodic styles an average listener can still easily appreciate and enjoy. One such composer is “Minimalist” Steve Reich. His Piano Phase is a much appreciated musical composition featuring a short pattern of notes being played repeatedly with a recording of the pianist/another pianist playing the same notes at a slightly slower speed than the original.
Early music synthesizers and magnetic tape physical manipulations were also used in the late 20th century by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen. This was an early indication of the digital sampling many composers use today.
Western music produced in the 21st century thus far incorporates some elements of 20th century classical music alongside multimedia and Internet-related technology. The influence of other genres of music such as rock, pop, and jazz on Western music has also been noticeably higher in this century.
A Bibliography of sources used in the creation of Music History 102.
Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
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