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Musicians' Corner December 2015

From Bach to Rock: A Brief History of Classical Music

December 17, 2015

What's your favorite musical genre? Are you a jazz connoisseur or a country music fan? Perhaps you're all about blues, or just love rock-and-roll. But, what about classical music? Surprisingly, many music students state they don't like or rarely listen to classical music, despite the fact they are learning how to play a "classical" instrument.

"Classical music is boring. It all sounds the same!"

Those of us who enjoy classical music know there's huge diversity within the broad spectrum of "classical" music - and, if it were not for the evolution of the genre throughout the centuries, we would not have the popular music we enjoy today. So, how did we get from Bach to rock? To answer that question, we need to take a trip back in time...
The earliest examples of notated music date from the Middle Ages (roughly 500 to 1430 A.D.). Western music originated in the Catholic Church and the earliest notation was intended for intoning chant. Most musical instruments as we know them today had not yet been invented, therefore musical notation consisted of a simple, single line of notes indicating the rise and fall of pitch (the staff had yet to be invented too, so pitch was approximate). By the time of the Renaissance (1430 to 1600), staff notation evolved to indicate precise pitch and the predecessors of the violin family emerged. With the advent of new, more complex instruments, notation could now include harmony and music began to be written for instruments, instead of simply for voice alone.

While the seeds of modern music were planted in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Period, it was not until the Baroque Era (1600 to 1750) that music blossomed into the form recognized today. Composers such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Telemann introduced chordal structures and harmonic progressions that served as the benchmark for future compositions. Modern instruments began to appear as well, and it was in the Baroque Era the modern orchestra was born! The Classical Period (1750 through the early 19th century) witnessed the meteoric rise of the orchestra and the introduction of the concerto, as well as the invention of the modern piano. Haydn, Clementi, and Mozart expanded the boundaries set by previous composers and wrote for larger orchestras, solo instruments with orchestral accompaniment, and chamber ensembles - most notably the string quartet.

What about Beethoven? Beethoven served as the bridge between two eras - the Classical Period and the Romantic Era. From the early 19th through early 20th centuries, composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz, and Brahms redefined classical music. In addition to contributing to the wealth of orchestral, solo, and chamber repertoire, composers of the Romantic Era introduced programmatic music - music that shunned orthodox structure and told a story or painted a picture through music. If you have watched the Disney movie Fantasia, you've heard a perfect example of programmatic music: The Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Paul Dukas. That brings us to the 20th century...and today. The 20th century, or Modern Era, was all about experimentation. The only rule was that there were no rules. Pioneers such as Stravinsky, Ives, and John Cage shocked listeners and critics alike with music that defied established paradigms. Conventional instruments used in unconventional ways? Let's try it. Acoustic instruments combined with electronic sounds or electronically distorted? Why not? Throw out conventional notation completely? Go for it! The music of the Modern Era and of today continues to combine tradition with innovation to create a classical genre that reflects our 21st century culture.

So, the next time your favorite pop song comes on the radio, you can thank Bach for that familiar chord progression. Love those improvised jazz solos? They have roots in improvised cadenzas from Classical Period concertos. Does that melody remind you of summer? That's Romantic Era influence at work. Like techno? Try listening to a little Luciano Berio. Or, if none of these are your cup of tea, you could always crank up the stereo and rock out to some Beethoven... 

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