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A Brief History of Western Music

The story of music begins with the ancients who used music in mystic ceremonies, festivals, war dances, and perhaps as work songs. Every civilization, ancient to modern, has used and enjoyed music in one form or another.

The Early Christian Era

In the Early Christian era, one line melodies known as plainsong or Gregorian Chant were used in religious ceremonies. Modes or scales were derived from the chants and became the standard building material for music far into the future. Words to these chants were written down, but the music was often in the form of reminder markings called neumes, which were placed above the words to help singers follow the correct melodic direction. These neumes later evolved into notes.

The Romanesque Era

Between 850 and 1150, in a period known as the Romanesque Era, two events happened that would change music forever; Guido d’Arezzo used three and four line staffs to show definite pitch, and some unknown musician joined two melodies together. A form of music called organum was the result.

The Gothic Era

The later Middle Ages or Gothic Era, which lasted from 1150 to 1450, saw the rise of music with multiple voices called polyphonic music. Harmonies that were formed by the combining of melodies were based on the lowest and most fundamental intervals in the harmonic series which are octaves, fifths, and fourths. The music sounded austere.

Trouble in the church gave rise to secular or non-religious music performed by minstrels and troubadours who traveled from court to court to bring the news and to entertain with their music. These visits might be compared to the modern concert tour.

Towards the end of the Gothic Era, the character of music changed. Composers began to use imitative techniques together with harmonies crafted from thirds and sixths. The new music was referred to as the Ars Nova or New Art.

Important composers of the period included John Dunstable (1370-1453), Guillaume Duffay (1400-1474), Jean Ockeghem (d. 1495), and Jacob Obrecht (d.1505). The Ars Nova was the culmination of centuries of musical development and the transition into the Renaissance period.

The Renaissance Era

The Renaissance (1450-1600) is thought of as a period of awakening with emphasis changing from Gothic dependence on faith and religion to reliance on knowledge, reason, and scientific thought. Great names associated with the period are Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vince, Shakesphere, and Martin Luther. The cultural and moral climate forged during the Renaissance is one that prevails today.

Music continued to develop and evolve, reflecting the clarity, realism, and awareness of the time. Secular (non-religious) music became more important and instrumental music emerged as an art form. The sixteenth century is sometimes referred to as “The Golden Age of Polyphony” because it marks the zenith of vocal polyphonic style. The church modes or scales that originated in the Early Christian Era continued to influence the dominant sound of the Renaissance, however, there were definite tendencies towards the feeling of major and minor which formalized after 1600 in the Baroque Era.

Well known composers of the period are Josquin Des Prez (1450-1521), Thomas Tallis (1510-1585) Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (1525-1594), Orlando de Lassus (1530-1594), Giovanni Gabrieli (1553-1612), William Byrd (1543-1623), Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and Thomas Morley (1587-1603).

The Baroque Era

In the period between 1600 and 1750, empires fought to rule the world. It was an era of colonization in America and one of war and lavish excess in Europe. The period was The Baroque Era. Art, architecture and music were ornate and elaborate. Great names associated with the period include Newton, Galileo, Bach, Descarts, and Rembrandt.

The idea that music should be constructed by the combining of many melodies of equal importance (polyphonic music) shifted to a new approach. It was discovered that elaborate polyphonic texture made it difficult to understand lyrics. For clarity, composers turned to a single line melody with harmony (homophonic music). Attention to harmony led to the study of chord progression and chromaticism. The major-minor system emerged, and the transition from vocal counterpoint based on the medieval church modes to instrumental harmony and counterpoint based on the major-minor system was complete.

Other changes in The Baroque Era included the use of thorough-bass, which was a kind of musical short hand to indicate harmony, the widespread use of improvisation, and the development of equal temperament which was an improved way of tuning musical instruments.

Composers of The Baroque Era include Jean-Baptist Lully (1632-1687), Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Antonio Vivaldi (1676-1741), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and George Frederic Handel (1685-1759).

The Classical Era

The Classical Era, between 1750 and 1820, is a significant historical period in America because the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution took place. In Europe the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were raging and Vienna became the dominant center of musical thought.

The music of the times showed emotional restraint and refinement. Melody and harmony were simple and concise, reflecting the purity of classical thought. The rise of the symphony as a form marks the beginning of a great artistic tradition in instrumental music.

Well known composers of the period are Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1791), Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Beethoven was an innovator. His later work showed great freedom of spirit and a heroic emotional style that paralleled the ideas of individual freedom, and dignity of spirit embraced by the American and French Revolutions. It was these characteristics that thrust music and musicians into the Romantic period. Beethoven's music represents the transition between the two periods.

The Romantic Era

Nineteenth Century Romanticism (1820-1900) was sparked by a spirit of independence and personal freedom. Emphasis shifted from the restraint and formal discipline of the Classical point of view to the emotionalism and individualism of the Romantic. Feeling and mood became important and were expressed by artists in increasingly lavish formats.

In music, emotion was generated by a greater use of chromaticism, which led to the discovery of new chords, new progressions and fluid modulations to remote keys. The orchestra size increased and composers introduced new tone colors to help the music become more vivid. Nationalism had always been an important influence on the development of music but in the Romantic Era it crystallized and became the focus of much of the musical art created in the period.

Romantic composers include many familiar names; Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Cesar Frank (1822-1890), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), and Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). 

Post Romanticism and Impressionism

The Post-Romantic period is a transitional time that began in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century and played into the Twentieth Century. Post-Romantic music continued in the Romantic tradition and is often associated with German music, although many non-German composers are considered to be Post-Romantic. This brief period of music represents the culmination of the profoundly beautiful Romantic Era.

Well known Post-Romantic composers include Edward Elgar (1857-1934), Richard Strauss (1858-1949), Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), Gustov Mahler (1860-1911), Jan Sibelius (1865-1957), Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943, and Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).

While  Post-Romanticism represented the twilight of an era, Impressionism, which was an artistic style developed in France as a reaction to Teutonic Romanticism, ushered in the Twentieth Century with a new attitude. Emphasis turned away from grandiose emotionalism towards an elegant refined style that was led by the French painters and  poets.

Impressionist music was introduced to the world by Claud Debussy (1862-1918). By using ideas from the past like parallelism and modality, with advanced harmonic technique, Debussy was able to develop a new style of music that was distinctly French. His innovations set the standard for the Impressionist style and pointed towards the new music of the Twentieth Century.

Other Impressionists include Frederick Delius (1862-1934), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Paul Dukas (1865-1935), Erik Satie (1866-1925) and Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915).

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century is a period of wild technological change. Two world wars in the first half century drive the human race from the machine age into the space age, and by the end of the century, computers become the working tool of choice in nearly every endeavor including music.

The early part of the century is the scene of artistic revolution; revolution of the Impressionists against Romantic emotionalism, revolution against European over-refinement, revolution against symmetry in art, and specifically in music, revolution against consonance and tonality.

Artists began to emphasize self-expression and art as technique rather than as an expression of feeling. these attitudes led to abstraction in art and music, and to a long period of adjustment to the new styles for artists and their audiences.

Revolution leads to evolution. The move towards abstraction was logical but the rate of change was astonishing. Once the direction of art was clarified, artists raced to take it to its critical mass. It took several hundred years to move from polyphonic modality to the homophonic idea and major-minor system. Centuries were needed to move from open fifths, fourths, and octaves to emphasis on thirds and sixths, and then to the chord and its extensions up through the harmonic series.

In a brilliant flash of time which was the Twentieth Century, rhythm became polyrhythm, melody became asymmetrical, harmony raced through the upper extensions of the harmonic series, tonality moved to polytonality and then to atonality, the twelve tone system and serial technique were invented, orchestral color was used to sharpen dissonance which evolved from consonance, experimentation, special effects and quarter tones developed, and the computer remembered, assimilated and printed the collective knowledge of our artistic heritage, and waits to be called upon to help create future masterworks.

Parallel to the mainstream of artistic thought was the creation of entertainment for the masses in order to generate profit. In America, a wonderful style of music called jazz developed and contributed to the musical identity of a nation. Jazz was assimilated into the artistic mainstream. Later came Rock and Roll. Television and motion pictures became the new entertainment of choice and music was used to amplify the action. The entire world is now exposed to Western music and the art of the Western Cultures is enhanced by unique musical tapestries from far away places.

The story of Twenty-first Century music continues to be written in concert halls, on the motion picture screen, at rock concerts, in churches and in schools.

Prominent composers of Twentieth Century Music include Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Bela Bartok (1881-1945), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Alban Berg (1885-1935), Erik Satie (1866-1925), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Charles ives (1874-1954), Gustav Holst (1874-1934), Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), Heitor Villa-Lobos (1881-1959), Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967), Anton Von Webern (1883-1945), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Arthur Honegger (1892-1955), Carl Orff (1895-1982), Howard Hanson (1896-1981), George Gershwin (1898-1937), Roy Harris (1898-1979), Francis Poulenc (1899-1936), Randall Thompson (1899-1984), Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Aram Khatchaturian (1903-1978),  Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Olivier Messiaen (1909-1992), William Schumann (1910-1992), Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007), Alan Hovaness (1911-2000), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), Morton Gould (1913-1996), Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), Irving Berlin (1888-1989), Glen Miller (1904-1944), Franz Waxman (1906-1967), Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), Stan Kenton (1912-1979), Henry Mancini (1924-1994), John Williams (b. 1932), and thousands of others who have written musicals, movie scores, educational and church music, radio and television scores, and for the pure pleasure of creating in the wonderful language of music.