What do we mean when we describe music as “classical?” Is it music played by an orchestra or a group of string instruments? Is it piano music? Is it music composed by people whose names begin with the letter “B” (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms)? The answer to all of those questions is “maybe.” To understand classical music we need a little more information.

Classical music has two definitions — one which is very broad and another which is a little more specific. In the most general terms, classical music is the art music of Western civilization. It is music that men and women have written in an attempt to create something great or important. Classical music includes many different genres and styles and it’s roots can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece. It can be played by instruments or be sung. One person or one thousand people can perform it. In another definition, “classical music” is the art music from what we call the “classical era” which spanned from about 1750 through 1820. This music includes the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as many other significant musicians.

In terms of the general definition, the first written examples of classical music are Gregorian Chant. This music was composed by monks in the middle ages and was the official music of the Christian church for several hundred years. The monks were literate men who recorded all of their activities, including the music that they sang. They developed a system of notation that allowed them to share their music with neighboring monasteries. Gregorian Chant is named after Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), who organized the music. Some of the standards he established remained in effect until the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The renaissance era (about 1450-1600) brought a new level of importance to music and to musicians as individuals. In the Middle Ages music was grouped with geometry and arithmetic as a scholarly activity, and people who were trying to please God with their work wrote it down anonymously. In the renaissance, music was considered an art and individuals who sought to create works that were pleasing to their own ears composed it. The greatest renaissance composer was Josquin Desprez (about 1440-1521). Like Leonardo da Vinci and other renaissance artists, Desprez was an educated, well-rounded individual. The greatest mechanical creation of the renaissance was Johann Gutenberg’s printing press that was invented around 1460. This new machine led to the rapid spread of ideas and information, forever changing Western society. By 1500 printing presses were used to mass-produce music, bringing new compositions to eager audiences throughout Europe.

opera.jpg – 21328 BytesAround the year 1600 Western civilization witnessed a development in classical music that would change the music world as well as the entertainment industry forever — the birth of opera. Opera fused music and drama together and, like movies in the twentieth century, opera was hugely popular with the public who enthusiastically awaited every new production. Also, just as the twentieth century has its movie stars, early opera had its “star” performers who were idolized by the public. 1600 also marks the beginning of the baroque era. Baroque music is characterized by strong, driving rhythms and heightened expression of emotions. Also, there was a desire to create massive and monumental works of art and music. This characteristic can be seen in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the sculpture of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), and in the architectural structures at St. Peter’s in Rome and the Palace of Versailles in France. In music there was a greater interest in large performing groups.

The classical era in music spanned from about 1750-1820. This period coincides with the Age of Enlightenment and also with a marked growth of the middle class in Europe. It was a time when a growing number of people had money that they could spend on music, and they could afford to attend public concerts, buy musical instruments, and study music privately. In other words, the general public was becoming more educated and interested in art music. The music of the classical era was different in many ways from that of the preceding eras. Compared to the music of the baroque, melodies from the classical era are longer and have a much greater variety of rhythms. Baroque melodies tend to repeat the same rhythmic figures frequently. Early classical melodies have a lighter feel and often seem to float through the air effortlessly. The classical era also saw the birth and development of two important new genres — the string quartet and the symphony.

Although Ludwig van Beethoven began his musical career in the classical era, his music served as a connecting bridge to the romantic era. The compositions of the later years of Beethoven’s career provided the groundwork for the styles and ideals that were common from 1820-1900. His music was filled with an intense force that had never been heard before.

In the romantic era there was a great fascination with the power of nature. Beethoven paid homage to nature in his sixth symphony, titled the “Pastoral Symphony.” It set new standards for program music — music that represents a thing, event, or idea through strictly musical means. In this piece, Beethoven represented nature by imitating birdcalls with the flutes and clarinets. He also included his musical impression of a thunderstorm. As a result of this work, program music became a dominant approach to composition in the nineteenth century.

The romantic era saw a new emphasis on individual expression of emotions. To create a wider range of expression in their pieces, composers specified on paper exact terms to let the performer know what was intended. Words like “passionately,” “lovingly,” “furiously,” and “forcefully,” are frequently found on the pages of romantic music. The twentieth century has seen more rapid changes in technology, lifestyle, and philosophy than any other period in Western civilization. The world of Western art music has experienced the same swift changes in style. One general trend of twentieth century composers is a tendency to experiment and find something new and different. The composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) went through several stylistic phases in his career. Because our century has moved so quickly, we have had several styles of composition all being written at the same time, and the twentieth century is known as an era of “-isms” — expressionism, minimalism, and serialism, to name just a few.

Since there have been so many different approaches to music in the twentieth century it is hard to give overall definitions of style. However, in general, melodies are more complicated and usually more unpredictable than those of any other period. They contain more leaps and are often quite disjointed. Harmony has become more dissonant, and harsher sounds are more prominent. Composers have also experimented with new and different chords. Rhythm has also become much more intricate and we often hear several different patterns played at the same time.

More than 2000 years ago the roots of classical music began to grow. At that time, music consisted of one melodic line that had no interfering parts. In the last 2000 years we have seen countless presentations of music: Music with many melodic lines played at the same time, music with melody accompanied by harmony, and music with no melody at all. In the process of all of this musical development, many genres have been created for many different combinations of instruments.