Monday, September 4, 2017

September is Classical Music Month

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, 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. 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 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 ‘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,  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 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 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 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, 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.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Anniversaries in Music

Did you know that a significant amount of events in music history have taken place in the month of August? For example, the debut album of Pink Floyd called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” was released fifty years ago this month. Ultimate Classic Rock calls it “a psychedelic masterpiece”. It was the only LP made under the leadership of founding member Syd Barrett. The name of the album came from the title chapter of the children’s book “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame. Rolling Stone listed it as one of the “greatest albums of all time”. The record is available on Freegal twenty-four hours a day. Here are more August happenings in music history:

·      On August 2, 1962 Robert Allen Zimmerman emerged from a courthouse in Manhattan as Bob Dylan for the first time. In an interview with The New York Times, the artist was quoted as saying that his name change had nothing to do with Dylan Thomas the poet. Mr. Dylan reportedly said “I just chose the name and it stuck”.

·      Named as an “all-time summer anthem” by Yahoo Music and one of the “Greatest Songs of All Time” by Rolling Stone, ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ by Sly & The Family Stone was shared with the world in August of 1969. It was that year's seventh biggest hit per Billboard.

·      Thirty years ago this month, the soundtrack for the 1980’s blockbuster smash movie “Dirty Dancing” was released. Per Billboard, the album spent an astounding eighteen weeks in the number one spot and has sold over 32 million copies worldwide. From “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” by Jennifer Warnes & Bill Medley to “She’s Like The Wind” by Patrick Swayze himself, the entire soundtrack is on Freegal.

·      According to, it’s quite rare for a musical act to celebrate it’s fiftieth anniversary. In August of 2007, The Osmonds did just that in Las Vegas. It was the first time that the full clan had performed together in 27 years. They performed hits they had as a group and also chart-toppers that Donny and Marie had as a duo. AllMusic writes “slice it any way you want, but the Osmonds' musical prowess has been practically unparalleled for half a century, never going out of style, never acting in bad taste, and always entertaining.” The recording of their 50th Anniversary celebration is on Freegal.

·      In 1958, the Billboard “Hot 100” chart was published for the first time. It tracks music sales of all songs across all genres. It is the same today. In August of  1958, the first ever #1 Billboard Hot 100 song was ‘Poor Little Fool’ by Ricky Nelson. According to Billboard, Mr. Nelson had 12 hits on the charts in 1958 and 1959. His music, including ‘Poor Little Fool’ is on Freegal.

·      On August 18th of 1977, the King of Rock and Roll,  Elvis Presley, passed away. He was only 42. Rolling Stone calls Mr. Presley “one of the most important cultural forces in history…decades after his death, his image and influence remain undiminished. “ Also according to Rolling Stone “Presley still appears to hold the largest number of gold, platinum, and multiplatinum certifications of any artist in history”. His estimated total album sales at this time is over one billion in total.

·      Celebrated classical composer Leonard Bernstein performed his last ever concert on August 19, 1990 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. Mr. Bernstein has won nine Grammy Awards, two Tony Awards, a George Peabody Medal, and he is a Kennedy Center Honoree among other accomplishments. The New York Times also declared him to be “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history”.

·      On August 20th of 1882, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ debuted in Moscow. The overture was written to celebrate “Russia’s defense of it’s motherland against Napoleon's invading army” according to ClassicFM. In 1891, Mr. Tchaikovsky conducted the piece himself at the dedication of Carnegie Hall. It is perhaps best known for it’s cannon fire and ringing chimes. The overture is now often played at July 4th concerts in the U.S.

·      “King of Pop” Michael Jackson was born on August 19, 1958. Mr. Jackson won hundreds of awards in his career including 13 Grammy Awards and 26 American Music Awards (more than any other artist). His trophy tally makes him the “most successful artist of all-time” per MTV.  He is also one of the best-selling musicians in history. Michael Jackson's album “Thriller” remains the top selling album of all-time per Rolling Stone.

*All of the music and artists referenced above are available on the Freegal Music site.