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7 Eras of Classical Music

Updated: 7 days ago

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.

A beautiful concert venue aways a pianist to play classical music.

7 Eras Of Classical Music: Quick Menu

A painting of a Medieval classical musician with her lute instrument.
A Medieval musician is pictured playing her lute.

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.

Our top recommendations for musical instruments and listening material from the Medieval period can be found here:

Listen to Psalm 90/91 - Gregorian Chant

The Renaissance era is when composers began evolving by incorporating 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 unfortunately, 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second half of this era is when composers began to move away from the original modal system of harmony (which sounds outdated to our modern ears) and started to organize these sounds into major and minor scales.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:

William Byrd

William Byrd (c. 1539/40 - 1623) was an

English composer and organist, widely considered to be one of the greatest from the Renaissance era. He is known for his contributions to English music, both religious and secular. He served as the organist at the Lincoln Cathedral and the Chapel Royal. His work was heavily influenced by his devotion to his

Catholic faith.

Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis (c.1505 - 1585) was a famous English composer renown for his contributions to religious music during the Renaissance era. His mastery of polyphony played an important role in introducing Continental musical styles to the Monarch. He collaborated with William Byrd, mentioned above, and his work is still celebrated in today's modern era.

Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1566 - 1613) was an Italian composer and the Prince of Venosa. He was known for creating experimental and highly expressive music. Along with many collaborators, he set a trap to discover his first wife's infidelity. After confirming his suspicions, he brutally murdered her along with her lover. Due to his aristocratic status, there were no consequences for his actions. After the murder, his music reflected his deeply sad and melancholy state. His music pushed the boundaries, using strange harmony, sudden changes in tempo and dynamics and remains important today.

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 string instruments like the 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 fully 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:

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a German musician and composer renowned for his contributions to classical music during the Baroque period. Born into a musical family, Bach's musical talent was obvious from a very young age. Throughout his life, Bach composed a huge catalogue of music including 200+ cantatas. His most famous piece for piano, The Goldberg Variations, named after the Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who was the first pianist to perform this piece, consists of an opening aria with 30 different variations. His compositions are characterized by their complex counterpoint and harmonic structure. He held various musical positions throughout his life and continued to compose and perform until his death.

A portrait of the famous classical music composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German composer and one of the most influential figures in Baroque classical music. Handel followed his passion for music despite the disapproval of his father. He eventually moved to England where he became famous for his musical compositions. He is known for blending operatic and religious elements, developing the English oratorio. Handel's Messiah was composed in 1741 and the masterpiece is a quintessential piece in choral music, even today. His piece Zadok the Priset has been performed at every British coronation ceremony since he composed it in 1727. Handel suffered a stroke in 1737 but continued to compose and perform until he died.

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a virtuosic violinist and famous composer from Italy. His innovative concertos helped to develop the Baroque classical music style. His catalogue consists of over 500 pieces, including "The Four Seasons", his most famous piece. "The Four Seasons" is a series of violin concertos that depict the seasons of the year. He spent many years in Venice where he composed many of his works and served as the musical director to an orphanage for girls. He influenced any of his peers, including the prolific J.S. Bach, who we discussed earlier in this post. Bach was said to have transcribed many of Vivaldi's pieces and certainly gained many valuable ideas. Vivaldi died a poor man in Venice, despite his immense influence and success.

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 they have been 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:

Franz Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809) was an important Austrian composer who was born in the city of Rohrau. He made significant contributions to both symphony and string quartet music and was this often referred to as the"Father of Symphony" and the "Father of the String Quartet". He spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Esterházy family, which allowed him to develop his style in relative isolation from other musical trends at the time. Haydn's music was loved and celebrated across Europe and even influenced composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. His work is important in the classical music realm even today.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) hailed from Salzburg, Austria and was one of the most prolific and influential composers of all time. He was a child prodigy who began composing at the young age of five and by the age of 8, had already performed for the king and queen. He composed a wide body of works, including symphonies, operas, chamber music and piano concertos. His music is known for its beautiful melodies, elegance and beautiful orchestration. Despite passing away at the young age of 35, he left behind a large catalogue of music that remains influential and celebrated today.

Johann Christian Bach

Johann Christian Bach (1735 - 1782) was the youngest son of legendary composer Johann Sebastian Bach. He diverged from his father's complex contrapuntal techniques and significantly influenced classical music. After the passing of his father, he studied alongside his brother in Berlin before moving to Italy and converting to Catholocism. He composed many operas in Italy, achieving massive success with "Catone in Utica". He later moved to London, where he became known as the "English Bach" and enjoyed a successful career with many avid followers, including none other than Queene Charlotte. J.C. Bach was heavily inspired by Mozart and his music is characterized by clear, melodic lines. He left behind a catalogue of over 90 symphonies, operas and many keyboard works.

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 include:

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) was an important composer who was born into a musical family on Bonn, Germany. He displayed his talents as a musical prodigy from a young age. Later in his life, he moved to Vienna, Austria, where he studied under Franz Joseph Haydn, quickly rising to fame as a virtuosic pianist and innovative composer. His music was rich, fulled with emotional and dynamic intensity. Around 1795, Beethoven began to his hearing and by 1819, was completely deaf. Even without his hearing, he continued to compose, including his masterful Ninth Symphony, which even to this day is an important piece in the classical music world.

Franz Schubert

Born in Vienna, Austria, Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) was a prolific composer known for his great contributions to the lied (German art song) genre. He composed over 600 pieces, including his most famous "Ava Maria" and "Erlkönig". Schubert struggled financially throughout his life, despite his great talent. He often relied on the support of his friends to get by. He contracted syphilis and his health began deteriorating, eventually leading to his death at the young age of 31. Schubert's music is rich in emotional depth.

With the exception of a few composers, such as Brahms, the music from this later portion of the romantic era includes less focus on traditional form. Instead, composers focused more on the dramatic or emotional elements of the music. 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:

Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) was born in Hamburg, Germany and was a renowned composer and pianist. He became one of the leading musical voices of the Romantic area. Despite being born in Germany, he spent much of his career in Vienna, Austria, where he was well respected and played an important role in the musical community. Along with Bach & Beethoven, he makes up one of the "Three Bs" of classical music, due to his many significant works. He was a master of symphonies, concertos, chamber music and piano work and his compositions and revered for their deep emotional expression and complex structures. He was able to create innovative music while still respecting important musical traditions. He was a perfectionist, which led him to destroy many of his compositions.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) was an influential German composer known for the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art". He created operas that included music, drama, poetry and visual spectacles. "The Ring Cycle" was a series of four operas which featured some of the most ambitious operatic repertoire. Wagner's career was filled with intense personal and political turbulence, including many years in exile for participating in the Dresden uprising in 1894. He held openly antisemetic views which have cast a shadow over his legacy but despite this, his innovations have heavily influenced the path of Western music.

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:

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971), was a revolutionary Russian composer who was born near Saint Petersburg. He significantly impacted 20th-century classical music with his wide body of work. He began studying under esteemed composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and rose to fame with his scores for the Ballets Russes such as "The Firebird", "Petrushka" and the innovative and creative "The Rite of Spring". The latter famously incited a near-riot at its premier due to its complex rhythms and experimental approach. Over his career, his style evolved significantly. He embraced neoclassicism and later, adopted 12-tone techniques. During World War II, Stravinsky emigrated to the United States and became a important figure in American music until his death.

Béla Bartók

Hailing from Hungary, Béla Bartók was an important pianist and composer born in 1881. From an early age, he displayed immense musical talent and gave his first public concert at the young age of eleven. He was heavily influenced by Richard Strauss and later by Claude Debussy. He collaborated with Zoltán Kodály to collect and study Magyar folk music, which had a profound impact on his compositions. He blended elements of folk music with more modern techniques. In 1940, Bartók emigrated to the United States due to the negative political environment in Europe, where he continued to compose pieces that remain important even today.

The Best Classical Music Songbooks & History Books

Below we have compiled a list of some of our favourite songbooks & history books which feature information and music from the eras that we discussed above. We hope that you will find them insightful and that they will help you along your musical journey:

Classical Music Concerts

Are you a classical music enthusiast? Why not go see a performance live in your city. If you're in Toronto, we've compiled a list of the 15 best music venues in Toronto.

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The Best In-Person & Online Classical Music Lessons

Are you asking yourself "where can I find music lessons near me?" Or "how can I find the best online music lessons?"

Are you looking for music lessons in Toronto?

At Greater Toronto Music School, our qualified instructors can teach you more about the eras of classical music (or jazz or rock) and give you the best in-home or online music lessons available in your area.

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