From Gregorian Chant to Henryk Gorecki, the first living classical composer to get into the pop album charts, here is the fascinating story of over a thousand years of Western classical music and the composers who have sought to express in music the deepest of human feelings and emotions. Polyphony, sonata form, serial music - many musical expressions are also explained - with the text illustrated by performances from some of the most highly praised recordings of recent years.
Music of the western classical tradition spans some fourteen centuries, from the emergence of Gregorian chant to the sounds of the present day. The range covered is extraordinary - the sacred and the secular, the massive spectaculars of the opera stage and the darkly intensive world of the string quartet.
But there was a gradual development, one that reflected the times in which the composers lived and worked. It is the purpose of this History to give an overview, to draw the multifaceted threads together and provide a background to our present musical experience.
Medieval and Renaissance Periods
Western classical music, like drama, began in church with the chanting of monks. Out of this plainchant grew choral polyphony -many sounds - as the vocal line was embellished and developed. As composers became interested in rhythm, contrast, harmony and music with words not taken directly from the mass, new vocal forms were introduced. This was the age of the motet, the madrigal, the chanson and carols. Slowly too, instruments began to be incorporated into musical performance and composers began to write for ensembles. From dance came the idea of musical contrast, and the seeds of all later music were sown.
Baroque and Classical Periods
The musical form above all others that came from the Baroque period was opera, a form reflecting the time's love of theatrical excess. Even religious music was written to be staged, hence the development of the oratorio and the chorale, while the increasing virtuosity of instrumentalists led to the formation of orchestras and the development of the concerto grosso.
Taken up by composers of the classical period, the concerto grosso became the symphony the contrast of a soloist against an ensemble became the concerto, and, at the other end of the scale, the sonata and the string quartet came into being.
The Romantic Period
Romantic composers believed that music was an expression of their inner feelings and so they produced music that was wild, tempestuous and often tried to tell a story. Tone-poems, programme symphonies and large scale concertos became their hallmark. Increasing nationalism was reflected not just in the use of folk tunes in orchestral music but also in the subject matter of operas.
And if there was one instrument above all others that the Romantics claimed as their own it was the piano. Many composers, like Liszt and Chopin, were virtuoso performers who wrote their pieces to show off their own talents.
The 20th Century
The 20th century is the most confusing of all musical periods. It is a century in which the old empires crumbled, the world map was redrawn by two world wars, and in which there are still nationalist conflicts. It is also a century in which man has walked on the moon. The immense political and scientific changes have been reflected in art and in music as composers have sought to find a new musical voice.
From the atonalism of Schoenberg to the rhythmic experiments of Stravinsky, from the aural impressionism of Debussy to the electronic world of Varese, composers have tried to examine what music is and how it relates to life. Some of these experiments have taken music away from popular taste, others have proved to be a dead end; but all have contributed in some measure to the mainstream so that classical music now is as rich, vibrant and diverse as it has ever been.
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