Wednesday, December 21, 2011

the difference between baroque, classical, and romantic music

We know almost nothing about music in Europe before the Middle Ages. Virtually nothing survives from the pre-Medieval West, meaning we don't know what kind of songs the Romans sang, or what music Homer's epic poetry was meant to be sung to - doubtless, a very great loss. But our method for recording music on paper - musical notation - was slowly developed over the course of the middle ages to allow Christianity to use certain music for religious purposes. What survives of that time is spectacularly beautiful. It was in the spirit of that age that music would be simple, slow, and an exercise in capturing true beauty and holding it for as long as possible. A good example would be the music of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), an 12th Century nun who is still remembered as perhaps the greatest composer before the Renaissance.

When the Renaissance did come, it's effect on music was still nominal. High music, in the service of the Church, was still slow and reverent, but was becoming more complicated. In Medieval music, all the singers generally sang the same part, only occasionally creating harmonies, all strengthening the music together, a reflection of the deep humility of its age, but in the Renaissance, something exciting happened - composers began to create different lines for different singers, not only allowing for harmony, but also for the lines to be played against each other. Music became more interesting, more difficult to perform, and arguably, far more beautiful. Perhaps the greatest composer of this period is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1526-1594), an Italian organist famous for his greatly influential choral music that fully displays the range and power of Renaissance music.

But it was during the Renaissance that a more or less permanent musical class developed in Europe, allowing for more varied and complicated music. And indeed, composers created something entirely new during the late Renaissance and early modern age. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is probably the most important composer you've never heard of. That is because he is widely regarded as the first composer of the Baroque age. His music was bold, complicated, even difficult to play; but mostly, it was *contrapunctal*, music by point and counter point, sounding like an argument between the musicians themselves. He even wrote what is now recognized as the first opera in 1607, appropriately based on the story of Orpheus, who conquered the powers of death with the power of his music. A new age had begun, an age that would see simply uncountable works of extraordinary art. With the beginning of the Baroque age, it may well be said, human music had finally come of age.

The Baroque age was one of artistic flourish and big ideas: the West enjoyed an unequaled explosion in art - particularly in architecture, poetry and music - as well as science and philosophy. In keeping with the spirit of the age, Baroque music quickly took on a sense of mathematical proportion and harmonious design. In particular, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) took a scientific approach to music, creating carefully balanced concerti that also allow musicians to fully exercise their skill. He was vastly influential in his time, but was largely forgotten soon after his death until the early 20th Century. He was a particularly strong influence on Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a possible candidate for the greatest artist mankind has ever produced. He wrote in every style and for every instrument that his time allowed him, with the result that virtually every musician in the world has played his music. He wrote music for churches all of his life, including the most beautiful of all choral and organ music. Bach's music is flawless, mind-boggling, almost philosophical in the implications of its perfect construction. It has never been equaled. In particular, a Passion Play he wrote in 1727 remains one of the great artistic achievements of mankind, deep in feeling, spiritual and intellectual, heavy in meaning between music and drama, and possessing what I believe to be the single most beautiful song ever written.

Musical tastes were changing even in Bach's time; he knew that the Baroque age would die with him. The West was experiencing another passionate examination of its classical roots, in particular Greek and Roman art. At first this movement was called Neo-Classicism, but in music it is now referred to as the Classical Era. It sought simplicity, clarity in design and thought. It would prove to be somewhat shorter than the Baroque period that came before it, and even though it was graced by many great composers, including the great Cellist Luigi Boccherini and the Austrians Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert, the age was dominated by the incomparable Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Among all composers, and perhaps all artists, Mozart is the clearest and brightest, the perfect encapsulation of his flamboyantly brilliant age. He is also the greatest prodigy the world has ever known: he seems to have begun composing from the moment he could write, and even though he died at the age of 35, remains one of the most prolific of all composers. Like Bach, he wrote in all forms available: dozens of symphonies, hundreds of concerti and some of the most famous (and beautiful) operas ever written. What Shakespeare was to literature, Mozart was to music; at once accessible to all, deeply felt and brilliantly captivating, as well as thick with importance, nuance, and a genius that allows a curious observer to continue finding meaning wherever he looks.

If the Classical age was short, it was only because it was overtaken unexpectedly by a world that ceased to be moved by its quiet, charming ideals. The new 19th century demanded feeling, passion, movement; this was an age of countless revolutions, visible not only on the map, but in human knowledge as well, with Darwin and Marx fundamentally changing the way the world saw itself. But artistically, and especially musically, the coming of the Romantic age was driven by an extraordinary man whose troubled life would radically change human art. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) began writing in a style very similar to Mozart's, but his voice becomes murkier, and digs deep into human passions and will to create soaring odes to mankind. Where Bach was mathematical, Mozart clear, Beethoven bring humanity itself to a fever pitch, becoming the great prophet of our passionate age of individuality and building a strong foundation for our nagging Modern sense of disappointment. In fact, he is the greatest, most vocal libertine in the western tradition; his music is thick with a universal urge for freedom that was particularly potent in his age of powerful monarchs, but that continues to advocate man's striving toward freedom today. His 9 symphonies remain the untouchable heights of the form, and in fact, few composers since have dared to write more than that magical number. The final movement of his 9th symphony has become a symbol of the greatness of Man, of the promise and strength of the human spirit.

The revolution Beethoven sparked would result in the greatest wealth of truly great music the West has ever enjoyed, influencing a cohort of great composers whose only failure was to be born into an age of greatness: Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsy, Robert Schumann, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Gustav Mahler, a truly unmatched age in the history of music. Romanticism, too, would pass away, as the 20th century began to prefer intellectual expression, dissonance, and nuanced expression of Modern and Post-Modern disaffection. With recorded music, the entertainment that Art Music had provided since the Renaissance began to be overshadowed by other, more popular, forms of music. But while it lasted, Western Art Music was a true artistic achievement, unequaled in any other work of Man.

[via reddit]

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