The Simplified History of Classical Music

How the thinkings of the times shaped each era of classical music.

When the phrase “classical music” is uttered, many people think of Mozart or Beethoven. However, classical music stretches far beyond these two great composers, and its style and history are deeply intertwined with the European philosophies and cultures that influenced the past centuries. 

Music historians categorize classical music into four time periods: The Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras. While these eras can be defined by dates, they are better identified stylistically, creating some overlap. However, each has its own unique characteristics, so much so that a trained musician can categorize a piece into one of the eras simply by listening to it. 

The Baroque Era was from approximately 1600 to 1750. It was, in Europe, a musical and societal transition from the Middle Ages. Notable composers who shaped this period include J.S. Bach, A. Vivaldi, D. Scarlatti, A. Corelli, and G.F. Handel. The Church dominated the narrative in the music world, and Baroque music was generally composed for Christian religious ceremonies. For example, J.S. Bach wrote a new piece every week for Sunday masses at the church he worked for. Nonetheless, Baroque music was deeply innovative. New harmonies were created, musical instruments were invented and improved, and more complex piece forms were developed.

The Classical Era occurred between the relative years of 1730 and 1820 and is probably the most well-known era because both Beethoven and Mozart lived in it. They, along with J. Haydn, were the three giants of the Classical Era and were responsible for many musical advancements. For example, the ancestors of the modern symphony and string quartet were created in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As power shifted away from the Church and towards the State, musicians discovered more artistic freedom. In the Baroque Era, musicians earned a salary from composing for a church, but during the Classical Era, steady jobs were found in royal courts and homes of the nobility. The new ruling class wasn’t as restrictive with musical rules as the Church had been. Previously, writing certain notes and chords could lead to imprisonment for the crime of “unholy music,” but Classical composers broke down these artistic barriers, paving the way for the luxurious techniques of the Romantic Era. 

The Romantic Era was from roughly 1800 to 1910, and it quite lived up to its name. The haunting melodies, trembling vibrato, and luscious bowstrokes continue to move present-day audiences. There are numerous great Romantic composers: C. Saint-Saens, F. Chopin, N. Paganini, C. Schumann, J. Brahms, F. Mendelssohn, P. Tchaikovsky, and A. Dvorak are just a few. These men and women developed brilliant ways to incorporate raw emotion into sound, and their pieces are regarded as technically challenging masterpieces. New scientific and political landscapes arose during this period, and led to changes that influenced the free and unleashing quality of Romantic music. Models for modern string and wind instruments were completed by 1900, so the Romantic music that is played today doesn’t sound too far off from the original premieres. 

There is no doubt that all music written today has direct connections to the groundwork laid by these past masters. Yesterday’s music may have been an introduction to today’s, but its beauty lies in the fact that it is still very much alive. With evolving cultural and political landscapes, each generation of musicians brings fresh perspectives to the timeless music of past composers, ensuring that yesterday’s music can still be appreciated by the listeners of today and tomorrow.

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