In 1994, President Clinton declared September to be ‘Classical Music Month’. The proclamation written by Mr. Clinton states “This month we exalt the many talented composers, conductors, and musicians who bring classical music to our ears. These artists carry on a great tradition of musical achievement, and we are proud of their outstanding accomplishments. Whether in new American works or in the masterpieces of the great composers of old, music is a unifying force in our world, bringing people together across vast cultural and geographical divisions. Classical music speaks both to the mind and to the heart, giving us something to think about as well as to experience.”
In honor of Classical Music Month, we have written a highly condensed version of the genre’s history, and highlighted different pieces of music that are available on Freegal with your library card:
According to the website of Columbia University, Western classical music “is traditionally understood as beginning with plainchant (also called "Gregorian" chant), the vocal religious practice of the Roman Catholic Church”. Plainchant was originally only sung by memory until a Roman Emporer in the 9th century arranged for it be notated.
The earliest non-religious form of classical music came from troubadours and trouveres: poet-musicians of the Middle Ages who set their poems to music. According to Britannica.com, Bernart de Vantadourn was considered one of the finest troubadours if his time. The Britannica site states that his lyrics, mostly about love, “express emotional power combined with lyric delicacy and simplicity.”
In the 10th and 11th centuries, composers of music began arranging song around important times on the Christian calendar such as Christmas and Easter. According to Columbia University, “Viderunt omnes” by Perotin was played at the Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris in c. 1200 on Christmas Day.
Classical.net writes that 13th century musician Guillaume de Machaut was “one of the undisputed pinnacle geniuses of Western music, and the most famous composer of the Middle Ages. Today his four-voice La Messe de Nostre Dame is a textbook example for medieval counterpoint.” His music was part of a movement to treat musical pieces as stand-alone works, called ‘motets’. It was in this time that composers first used tenors for secular music.
The tradition of the motet continued into the 15th century. Another example of a composer who used them is Guillaume Dufay (c. 1400-1474). Per ClassicalMusic.net Mr. Dufay was “the most renowned composer of his time.. (he) composed grand motets for ceremonial occasions in early Renaissance Italy:” His unique and complex motet “demonstrates the influential exchange of musical ideas among artists around the world during the early Renaissance period.” The Renaissance period (1400-1600) brought many changes to music. The invention of the printing press in 1440 for example, made it much easier to distribute songs. A flourishing system of music education also made training new singers and composers an easier and more available process.
The period after the Renaissance became known as the Baroque (c. 1600-1750). Per Columbia University website, this time is known for bringing forth an increased interest in the use of solo voice and the use of instruments. It was during this period that the first opera surfaced. They were often based on Greek mythology per ClassicFM.com. ‘Orfeo’ by Claudio Monteverdi is an example of one of the first operas.
Parts of the 17th and 18th centuries became known as the Classical period of music (c. 1735-1835) Some of the most well known composers in music history began to perform at this time. Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ was written during this time, as well as many works by Franz Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. The symphony was also introduced during the classical period. Early symphonies were modeled after the overtures of Baroque Italian operas per the website of Columbia University. In the late 1700’s symphonies became increasingly popular, and so their size also increased.
The piano “short” or miniature was brought to popularity in the 19th century. The “Preludes” of Frederic Chopin are examples of this. Despite their names, the “Preludes” were not introductory pieces, they were individual works. Quite a bit of opera dominated the classical music scene in this century as well. Giusuppe Verdi was tremendously popular in Italy and Richard Wagner was a dominating force in Germany. Some of their most well known works include “La traviata” and “Tristan and Isolde” respectively.
Another important artist at this time, Johannes Brahms, wrote no operas at all. According to NPR.org, Mr. Brahms was considered by many to be Beethoven’s first worthy successor in the field of instrumental music. One of his most famous symphonies was ‘Symphony No. 1 in C Minor’.
The 20th century brought even more changes. Frenchman Claude DeBussy (1862-1918) was “a seminal force in the music of the 20th century” and one of those that helped us enter the “modern” era of classical music per Britannica.com. DeBussy’s music was highly original and was influenced by music in East Asia and Russia rather than Europe. His major works include ‘Claire de lune’ and ‘La Mer’.
Béla Bartók was another composer who reached beyond what the typical limits of classical music were. Per NPR, Bartok “became obsessed” with folk music after hearing a peasant woman sing indigenous folk songs. NPR writes that “Bartok's discovery of these folk songs would be the defining factor in the development of his unique style and voice.”
Like Bartok, Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is another composer who drew from folk music. His ballet ‘Rodeo’ was influenced by American folk, and depicted the lives of cowboys in the west. ‘Rodeo’ is one of the earliest examples of American ballet, per pbworks.org. The melody of the final ‘Hoe-Down’ is borrowed from traditional American fiddling according to the website of Columbia University.
The ballet would of course never be what it is today without Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). From his breakthrough work The Firebird to The Rite of Spring where riots broke out at the opening, Mr. Stravinsky did not shy away from doing something different. According to the BBC “Stravinsky’s brilliance had a seismic impact on the rest of the century – not only on classical music, but on jazz, rock, modernist literature, painting, and even movies. Without Stravinsky, as Ross points out, where would the dinosaurs of Walt Disney’s Fantasia be? Thank goodness we need never find out.”
Classical music also fused with jazz in the 20th century. Several composers, including George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein could work in both. Shostakovich had his ‘Jazz Suites’ and Ravel’s ‘Piano Concerto in G’ was jazz inspired per Classicfm.com. Diversity ruled this century in music. Not only was jazz an important influence, but atonality was developed with the help of Arnold Schoenberg. Italian composers such as Francesco Pratella explored Futurism, whie artists like Pierre Schaeffer attempted to included technology into their work. It was at the 1940’s and 1950’s that synthesizers and computers were first used in classical music.
The 20th and 21st century has seen classical music enter the world of movies (think composers John Williams and Hans Zimmer who has written scores for Star Wars, Jaws, and and endless more). Composer Austin Wintory has written music for movies as well, and video games. According to IndieWire.com, some of the most important composers of this century include Alexandre Desplat, Marco Beltrami, Hans Zimmer, Lesley Barber and Carter Burwell. Many of these artists, and more, can be found on the Freegal Music site.
Listen to classical music all September long, and beyond on Freegal.