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.