Updated: Jan 23, 2022
Classical music originated in Europe in the 5th century CE and is rooted in the traditions of Western culture. Modern day scholars have classified the music into different eras and have attached approximate dates to each era. These dates act as a guideline to help represent the gradual shift in compositional style, instrumentation, etc. as the music continued to develop. In this article, we will examine seven of the most important eras of Classical music and highlight some of the most notable composers from each one.
Around the 12th century is when the earliest records of secular music begin to show up. Early music from the 12th century troubadours in the form of virelais and ballades were recorded in manuscripts that were held and created by the church, therefore having rules and regulations governed by it.
Around this time, Gregorian chant and plainsong began to be developed (11th-13th century). These types of pieces were originally monophonic (having only one unaccompanied musical line). This was usually due to rules put forth by the church that did not allow certain harmonies or rhythms. Overtime, the use of polyphony and harmony was used in these chants as they developed and evolved. The church was still very much involved in how the music was written. Common instruments in this time period are: the flute, the recorder and the lute .
Some examples of early music are:
The renaissance era is when composers began evolving the use of harmony and polyphony in their compositions. It became more common to have two or more voices (or instruments) following interrelated parts. Most composers focused on writing chorale pieces and not a lot of instrumental pieces have survived from this era.
In the second half of this era is when composers began to move away from the original modal system of harmony (which sounds outdated to our modern ears) and started to organize these sounds into major and minor scales. This is when music began having a more definite key center. Since music is still very tied to the church at this point, we see new forms of worship music such as anthems, masses, psalms and motets. Early instrumental music (mostly for keyboard instruments) such as fantasias, variations and dance movements start to show up near the end of this era. Some notable composers and pieces to check out from this period include:
It is during the baroque era that we saw the development and emergence of what we know as the modern orchestra and opera (the Overture, concerto, prelude and arias etc). During this period is also when we see the use of violin, cello and viola. The harpsichord is also invented along with developments in all instrument groups that would shape the next 300 years of music.
During this era, we see the old modal system of harmony disappear as the use of the major and minor scales system becomes most prominent. It is around this time that composers began focusing less on choral music and writing more colorful and expressive instrumental pieces. Music had started becoming a part of everyday life, with concerts performed outside and for almost any occasion. Having musicians perform at your dinner parties was a sign of status and riches.
The composers of the 17th century Baroque era paved the way for the future of classical composition. Some notable composers from this era include:
Whereas the baroque era was a period of the development of the sound, expression and colour of classical music composition, the classical era saw the development of form and clarity in structure and order. During this era, development of the form of what we know as the modern sonata form. Along with the sonata form, the further development of the concerto and symphony forms also reached a new level of refined order.
During this period, German composers such as Schobert and Honnaur dominated (although now largely forgotten). During the last half of the 18th century (a period described as Rococo or Galante) is when we see the emergence of Mozart (a child virtuoso and one of the world’s most famous composers), who almost single-handedly developed what we know as the piano concerto.
Some notable composers from the Classical era include:
Johann Christian Bach
Early Romantic (c.1830-1860)
As the classical period began to reach its pinnacle, composers were now stretching the boundaries of what was previously thought of as possible. The search for a unique form of expression or approach became the goal of the composer (influenced especially by the late works of Beethoven and Schubert). The romantic period is also known as the period of the virtuoso. During this era, the most technically difficult music was written and played with the most ease. Harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary continued to expand, giving composers more tools of expression than ever before. Music was often tied to some sort of narrative (operas) usually of a romantic or tragic nature (or both). Composers in this era either fully embraced the concepts of Romanticism or would reject or purposely avoid them. Some of the most notable composers of this era are:
Late Romantic (c.1860-c.1920)
With the exception of a few composers (Brahms) this later portion of the romantic era is characterized by there being less of a focus on traditional form. Composers focused more on the dramatic or emotional elements of the music and were less focused on the traditional forms. Composers such as Wagner are great examples of how a composer would focus on expression and emotion. The use of overtures (themes) became more prevalent as audiences were drawn to or reminded of the story it proceeded. Often popular overtures would be played as their own concert. Some examples of popular late romantic works are:
20th and 21st century (c.1920-present)
As time moves on through the eras of classical music, composers move further and further away from traditional rules and guidelines. Sometimes this era is broken into two (modern and postmodern). With such a rich history and so many tools and resources to draw from, classical composition has become a place for experimentation and innovation. Composers continue to stretch the concept of what is possible with harmony, rhythm and expression. Composers such as Stravinsky started using mixed meters and challenging traditional harmonic ideals. As well, Bela Bartok used atonal and 12 tone harmonic concepts within classical song forms such the Concerto and sonata.
Some examples of popular 20th and 21st century works are:
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