The Music Column: A Brief History of Classical Music; Vol. II

Welcome to the second edition of the music column!

Previously, my wonderful colleague Sparsh introduced you to the world of rock and roll, telling you more about its origins, subgenres, as well as its history. This week, I would like to introduce you to the world of classical music.

Readers, I understand your skepticism about classical music. It’s old, it’s boring, it’s long, and it’s dry. But believe me, classical music is not all that we perceive it to be. When seen with a critical eye and an open mind, classical music is perhaps the most emotion-filled music that one can produce, and when examined for its effects on society, classical music has been, historically, a very influential genre of music one can make to change society, either for better or for worse. 

Full disclaimer going forward: I am a very biased individual towards classical music. In the past few years, I have amassed a large collection of pieces (lord forbid they become called songs) in a Spotify playlist. As a matter of fact, as I write this piece for The City Voice, my playlist has ballooned to over 400 tracks, spanning nearly 53 hours of playtime. Needless to say, I am entranced by the artform. As such, I can only provide what I can only hope to be an unbiased view of the art and its music.

For a bit of background, when referring to classical music, I am referring to the sphere of music that Ludwig Van Beethoven, Franz Joseph Haydn, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Max Bruch, and Antonín Dvořák inhabited and contributed to. From the most famous pieces (such as the “Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano” or better known as “Für Elise”) to the most obscure (such as Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D major), classical music shows off its skill at being multifaceted. One of the reasons for this is due to its very long life time. 

Early Music (Renaissance: 1400s-1600s | Baroque: 1600s-1700s)

Having its roots in Europe in medieval times, “modern” classical music would not truly begin until the invention of a standardized musical notation system (think a key signature or clef) in the 15th century, brought on with the invention of the printing press during the age known as the Renaissance, and would not gain notoriety until the 17th century with the introduction of the modern harmonic system consisting of major and minor scales. Prior to this time, music was largely local, with areas of Europe playing and adopting their own music forms, most commonly performed and written through voice and chant and specifically promoted by the Catholic Church.

 In the 17th century, after the creation and adoption of a universal harmonic system and musical notation system, classical music began its nearly 300 year long journey towards modern day classical contemporary music. In this period, colored by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi (you may know his infamous work: The Four Seasons), ideas of harmony, melody, and chord progressions began to develop. Alongside these musical elements, musical forms developed during this time as well. Forms such as the sonata, concerto (an orchestral piece accompanied by a solo instrument), cantata, and the opera emerged out of the woodwork during this time period. As a matter of fact, famous composers such as Antonio Vivaldi were so enamored with the new forms of music, that they wrote hundreds of compositions dedicated to simply one form at a time.

Famous works during this time include: 

Classically Classical (1700s-1800s)

Departing from early roots, classical music moved out of its infancy starting in the mid 18th century with the dawning of the Classical era. While many see the start of the Classical era with the death of J.S. Bach, the figurehead of classical music in the Baroque era, most experts and historians agree that the change between the two distinct time periods happens slowly over time, rather than with one person’s death and a drastic paradigm shift in thinking. The most common explanation for the Classical era then, finds itself explaining the era’s origins through new ideas and a shifting political climate. Notable figures of this era include some familiar faces. Composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (notorious impromptu composer who once reportedly wrote an entire overture for the opera Don Giovanni the opening day of its premiere), Franz Joseph Haydn (master of polyphony and symphonies), and Franz Peter Schubert all come to mind when one mentions the Classical era. 

During this time, much like the Baroque era predating it, new forms of music were introduced. If Baroque music was all about setting up the foundations of forms, then the Classical era after it sought to complicate, nuance, and develop structures from the past. Sonatas, symphonies, string quartets, and concertos were developed and innovated upon during this time, shying away from the traditional structures set out by the Baroque era, and creating modern forms of music that were much more experimental, emotive, and pedantically metronomic. Indeed, take a listen to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major K. 216, and you’ll find something completely different than Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op. 8, RV 297, “Winter”. Music during this time moved away from church settings, and due to its more personal and private nature became close-doored, with music only heard for the rich enough to afford performers or composers to sponsor for.

Famous works during this time include:

Romantic Era (1830s-1920s)

However enticing, the era of “classical” classical music would not last forever. By the turn of the century, one man would be accredited to changing classical music forever: Ludwig Van Beethoven. Born in Bonn, Germany, on December 16, 1770, Beethoven would change the face of classical music. While his early compositions were largely classical in nature, Beethoven would soon be known as a passionate composer and extremely gifted with the ability to write emotive and sometimes radical music.. Composers before Beethoven were not known to be expressively emotive with their compositions, nor was music expected to be produced in such a way that emotions such as anger, sadness, desperation, joyfulness, and passion could be shown within the music. Music, then, was more used for entertainment. Art for art’s sake. 

Besides the late composers of the Classical era (including Mozart), this notion that music was meant to be reflective of thoughts, emotions, and expression was hardly embraced. Thus, Beethoven broke with tradition. Cooking up composition after composition, Beethoven would grow to write 9 symphonies (his 9th, with the famous “Ode to Joy” melody was written while he was deaf), 32 piano sonatas, one opera, and numerous string quartets (chamber music played by one cello, one viola, and two violins); just to list a few of his works. Beethoven’s emotive melodies and passion in dynamics (volume and mass of notes played) thus perfectly encapsulates the Romantic era at its core: passionate, deeply intense, personal, and very radicalizing. Famous contemporary composers such as Camille Saint-Saens, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Borodin, Antonín Dvořák, Max Bruch, and Richard Wagner all similarly emulate and channel this passionate composing.

Famous works during this time include:

Contemporary Era/Modern Era (1920s-Modern Day)

Beginning in the 1920s, great social and political changes left great impacts on the classical music scene. In the turn of the century, Europe began gearing up for war. Through World War I and World War II, composers such as Maurice Ravel, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Sergei Prokofiev would see little romanticism with music. Thus, left with a culture and world lacking romanticism and having to face the gritty realities of death and modernization, classical music would move forward, this time ditching romanticism in favor of more abstract and modern compositions. Listen to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, and chances are that anybody would be able to say that it is nowhere close to anything that Beethoven would write.

In the mid to late 20th century, governments such as the Soviet regime would even control music, deciding what was considered good for the masses and what was not. Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 in c minor, Op. 43 is a great example of this form of censorship. Labelled as a potential enemy of the state of the Soviet Union, Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony would not see public appearance till many years after he first composed it and sent it to publishing, simply because the expressionism found in his music was seen to be too anti-Soviet and anti-nationalistic. Political climates thus sent classical music to become a tool. From showing the power of a nation with compositions such as Jean Sibelius’: Finlandia, Op. 26, to the will of the people through examples such as American orchestras standing in solidarity with censored Soviet composers by playing their works during the height of the Cold War, or to the creative ingenuity of individuals, classical music would, for better or for worse, become a meaningful way to change cultures and people.

Famous works during this time include:

A Step Back

Classical music has had a long life. From early music to classical to the experimental and contemporary, classical music has a large world spanning nearly a half millennia. As such, no article could ever truly do the art form justice. That’s why we have a weekly column now, to talk about music and its ever expansive world. Tune in next week to read more. As parting words, I entreat you to listen to these works. Spend some time listening to its beauty and reflecting!


Writer at The City Voice

A senior, Aaron Chen is involved with Speech & Debate, NHS, GRYS, the City Chess Club and E-Club. Aaron has represented City at national level events for 3 years, including earning the title of 2021 National Speech and Debate Tournament Champion. A correspondent for The City Voice, Aaron reports on current events and analyzes political and social issues important to a dynamically changing generation of young adults.