Periods & Eras in Western Classical Music

[This post is #7 in the West­ern Clas­si­cal Music Series]

Why should you care about peri­ods and eras in WCM? Because they’re invalu­able if you wish to appre­ci­ate a WCM work in per­spec­tive his­tor­i­cal­ly. On a broad lev­el, WCM has evolved through the fol­low­ing eras:

  • Baroque (1600 — 1750)
  • Clas­si­cal (1750 — 1830)
  • Roman­tic (1830 — 1940s)
  • Mod­ern ((1940s — Present)

Yes, as sim­ple as that. But these four peri­ods cov­er over four cen­turies of music. Eras in music par­al­lel man’s evo­lu­tion in many ways. Soci­etal norms are reflect­ed in each mile­stone. Let’s look at each era in some detail.

Baroque

Music in the Baroque era was pri­mar­i­ly an indi­vid­ual hob­by. The con­cept of music to be used to enter­tain or embell­ish an occa­sion was not yet wide­ly prac­ticed. Hence, Baroque works are like an indi­vid­ual cre­at­ing, refin­ing, and con­tin­u­ing to refine his own artis­tic work. I often think of musi­cians of this era as icon­o­clasts and intro­verts, who used music as the dimen­sion of exis­ten­tial life that these unso­cia­ble souls turned to in order to ful­fill their intel­lec­tu­al and cre­ative abil­i­ties.

As a result, music of the baroque era tends to be most­ly intel­lec­tu­al, inter­twined with musi­cal con­structs that par­al­lel those in math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions. The fact that emo­tion can be involved in music wasn’t dis­cov­ered or appre­ci­at­ed dur­ing this era, hence it is large­ly devoid of emo­tion. Music was a sub­ject of intense study, not enter­tain­ment. Groups of musi­cians per­form­ing togeth­er was a con­cept that was born dur­ing this era, unheard of before, lead­ing to some of the first trios & quar­tets. Thus, it was in the Baroque era that Cham­ber Music was born.

Do not equate his­tor­i­cal pro­gres­sion of the evo­lu­tion of music with the abil­i­ty to appre­ci­ate it. Baroque works are often the hard­est and most dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate though they pre­date oth­er works, like from the Roman­tic era, that may be much eas­i­er on the mind and ears.

In many ways, Baroque music mir­rors the Baroque archi­tec­tur­al style — embell­ish­ments and adorn­ments all around for each theme. Also, most of the Forms we dis­cussed ear­li­er were devel­oped and for­mal­ized dur­ing the Baroque era.

The most famous com­pos­er of the Baroque era was Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach. The sheer bril­liance of his work makes him a tow­er­ing fig­ure in music even today, remark­able for the intel­lec­tu­al depth and artis­tic clar­i­ty of his com­po­si­tions. To me, he epit­o­mizes Baroque music. Rec­om­mend­ed lis­ten­ing for J. S. Bach:

Bran­den­burg Con­cer­tos (Sam­ple):

The Well-Tem­pered Clavier (Sam­ple):

The Art of Fugue (Sam­ple):

Classical

The Clas­si­cal era is when music flour­ished and flow­ered while still remain­ing restrict­ed with­in strict, for­mal rules of com­po­si­tion. Clas­si­cal music depart­ed from Baroque orna­men­ta­tion, lead­ing to sim­ple melod­ic tunes with­out intel­lec­tu­al embell­ish­ments. Emo­tion was still not the dri­ving force behind the com­po­si­tion — it was form, and form that clas­si­cal com­posers held up on a pedestal as the god­dess of music. The musi­cal forms and styles we dis­cussed in ear­li­er posts, like the sonata, the sym­pho­ny, and the con­cer­to, were all devel­oped dur­ing the Clas­si­cal peri­od. The defin­ing ele­ment of Clas­si­cal music is bal­ance — try bal­anc­ing a piece of stick on a sin­gle fin­ger for a while, and that’s what clas­si­cal music is all about — com­bin­ing mul­ti­ple instru­men­tal voic­es into a melod­ic har­mo­ny, expound­ing on its the­mat­ic abil­i­ties, while bal­anc­ing it with­in rigid rules of form.

The indis­putable mas­ters of this era were Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart. Here are some inter­est­ing and enter­tain­ing facts about Haydn you must read. At a time when Mozart’s father (a huge influ­ence in his life) was ques­tion­ing his son’s career path, in 1785, Haydn said to Mozart’s father Leopold:

Before God and as an hon­est man I tell you that your son is the great­est com­pos­er known to me either in per­son or by name; he has taste, and, fur­ther­more, the most pro­found knowl­edge of com­po­si­tion.

Haydn was a father fig­ure to Mozart and their friend­ship is very well doc­u­ment­ed.

Haydn is con­sid­ered, jus­ti­fi­ably, to be the father of the sym­pho­ny and the string quar­tet.

Rec­om­mend­ed lis­ten­ing for Joseph Haydn: Sym­phonies 103, 104 (Sam­ple):

It was Franz Schu­bert and Lud­wig van Beethoven who start­ed as clas­si­cal com­posers and helped evolve music into the next era.

Romantic

Socio-polit­i­cal changes brought about one of the great­est evo­lu­tion­ary changes in music his­to­ry: the intro­duc­tion of emo­tion in music. For the first time, music broke its rigid shack­les of struc­ture and form, giv­ing promi­nence to indi­vid­ual expres­sion roam­ing wild and free. As stat­ed before, Schu­bert and Beethoven lived this tran­si­tion, but it is Beethoven on whom the spot­light shines as the pil­lar of this enor­mous tran­si­tion. Oth­er mas­ters of this era who need to be men­tioned are Felix MendelssohnRobert Schu­mann, the god of piano Frédéric ChopinHec­tor Berlioz, and Franz Liszt. It makes me cringe to write all these names in a sin­gle sen­tence, for each of them is respon­si­ble for a body of works so vast and huge, that to be able to appre­ci­ate them all in a sin­gle life­time is vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble. Believe me, you can spend more than one life­time just attempt­ing to plumb the depths of Chopin’s works — a genius who made the piano tran­scend from a mere instru­ment to a medi­um for inex­press­ible emo­tions.

Here is one of Chopin’s most pop­u­lar Noc­turne, of which he com­posed not less than 21.

Most of Chopin’s works are best appre­ci­at­ed alone, in the dark, at night.

You must have lis­tened to Schubert’s “Ser­e­nade” numer­ous times, with­out know­ing it:

Observe how the music doesn’t fol­low any of the Baroque/Classical forms or struc­ture, it is free flow­ing, as and where the artist’s heart and mind wan­dered. This is the essence of Roman­tic music.

The Roman­tic era is also the one where opera flow­ered thanks to Richard Wag­n­er and Giuseppe Ver­di. Hav­ing only a sin­gle life­time, I con­fess I am not an expert in Opera hence can’t write much about it.

Final­ly, a spe­cial men­tion goes to the two Russ­ian genius­es, Sergei Rach­mani­noff and Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was a clos­et gay who has cre­at­ed mon­u­men­tal works, and his death remains a mys­tery even today. And any­one who has not lis­tened to Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Con­cer­to has not lived at all. Here is Sergei him­self play­ing it, thanks to a 1929 record­ing:

Modern

Before delv­ing into the Mod­ern era, let us give a lit­tle thought to the expo­nen­tial growth of com­plex­i­ty in music. Let us take the sym­pho­ny as a barom­e­ter of the cre­ative work of a com­pos­er:

  • Haydn com­posed 106 sym­phonies in his life­time
  • Mozart com­posed 41
  • Beethoven com­posed 9

As time passed, each com­pos­er felt oblig­ed to put in more and more com­plex thought in each of his com­po­si­tions. Johannes Brahms kept a bust of Beethoven over­look­ing the table he com­posed and took 20 years to com­pose his first sym­pho­ny. 20 years! He end­ed up com­pos­ing 4 sym­phonies in his life­time.

As com­posers strug­gled with cre­ativ­i­ty, there evolved two schools in 20th cen­tu­ry music. One fol­lowed the same tonal foun­da­tion based on cen­turies of pri­or work, while the oth­er broke the bound­aries of tonal­i­ty alto­geth­er. The lat­ter gave rise to aton­al music, where there is no cen­tral key around which the com­po­si­tion rests. The most famous com­pos­er of this school is Arnold Schoen­berg, who invent­ed Seri­al­ism as a unique foun­da­tion of com­po­si­tion. On the oth­er hand, with­in the tonal school of com­po­si­tion, Igor Stravin­sky broke new ground with his some­times shock­ing com­po­si­tions, espe­cial­ly those involv­ing dis­so­nance for the first time in WCM.

I am not at all famil­iar with most of mod­ern music, and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” remains the only work that I enjoy from this peri­od. Works such as “The Rite of Spring” are real­ly meant to be lis­tened to live in front of the full orches­tra, to appre­ci­ate the nuances and the dis­so­nance. I have been for­tu­nate to attend two live per­for­mances of this unbe­liev­able work. It is a work of about 30 min­utes, but those 30 min­utes trans­port you to a dif­fer­ent world alto­geth­er. This is how Disney’s artists inter­pret­ed it in the clas­sic “Fan­ta­sia (1940)”:

Summary

Dif­fer­ent peo­ple like WCM from dif­fer­ent eras. You may like Baroque and hate Clas­si­cal. You may fall in love with Roman­tic and hate Baroque. The point is, there is cen­turies of music for you to pick and choose when it comes to WCM. Do not give up if one par­tic­u­lar form or genre from one par­tic­u­lar era doesn’t suit you — try anoth­er. These eras are also instruc­tive in learn­ing about how music evolved through the cen­turies. Hap­py lis­ten­ing!

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  • Nice one. This series should become an eBook.

  • Thank you for includ­ing Rachmaninoff’s Con­cer­to #2 — one of my favs. (the oth­er being #3). BTW did you con­sid­er includ­ing Debussy and Rav­el some­where? I think it would between Roman­tic and Mod­ern. Their music comes pret­ty close to being what Impres­sion­ism was in Paint­ing.

    • Thank you. Yes, did con­sid­er Debussy and Rav­el but had to stop some­where! 🙂

  • Bri­jwhiz

    One impor­tant aspect was clar­i­fied for me by this arti­cle. It is much eas­i­er to appre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ence in Bach, Mozart and Beethoven when looked through the lens of peri­ods. While I am still at the pedestal to the man­sion of music I believe this knowl­edge of peri­ods will hold me in good stead

    In this pan­theon I feel a real con­nec­tion to Tchaikovsky. Maybe this is because he was one of the first com­posers I had ever heard (as a clas­si­cal record­ing — I might have heard oth­ers in movies or ads with­out know­ing about the com­pos­er)

    About ebook, even if we find a way to embed the videos or audios it will be messy get­ting the per­mis­sions need­ed. Alter­na­tive­ly you can point to the mate­r­i­al. This is what Sandeep Baghchee did with Nad and oth­er books of his.

    •  Thank you! Yes, the first expo­sure we get always retains a spe­cial feel for us. Tchaikovsky’s bal­lets are very acces­si­ble and are fre­quent­ly rec­om­mend­ed for WCM begin­ners.

      Thanks for the sug­ges­tion re ebook. Will need to first fin­ish the series and then strate­gize.

  • Bri­jwhiz

    Wow, this is news to me. Should check this out.