Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Three Great Eras of Classical Music

Repeat post from July of 2012, with additions and changes in the music.
The Three Great Eras of Classical Music:

I've talked many times on classical weekends on the Tales about the different eras of classical music.  There are three great eras of music that usually are considered in the genre called "classical music":  The Baroque era in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the Classical era in the 18th to early 19th century, and the Romantic era from around 1825 to the early 20th century.  The Medieval and Renaissance Periods contained music leading up to the Baroque Era and the Modern era in the twentieth century followed the Romantic era. 

Each period of music exhibits certain characteristics different from the others.  Knowing these characteristics will help the listener, when hearing a piece for the first time, recognize what era of music the piece is from.  The characteristics I describe are generalizations for a certain era, and there may be exceptions to the general rule. 

In the Baroque period of music one of  the main characteristics that is prevalent is the use of polyphony, or "many  voices."  You may hear two or more lines of music being played at the same time.  Because you may hear two or more voices [or themes] at the same time in Baroque music, some first time listeners may find it complicated or uneven to listen to.  But once you understand what is happening and hear many pieces of this style, you will come to really enjoy this music.  You will also realize how brilliant the composers were.  Also, if you hear a piece with a harpsichord as the keyboard instrument in it, then you know you are almost assuredly hearing a piece from the Baroque era.  Another main characteristic in the Baroque era of music is the small size of the orchestra in symphonic pieces.  The orchestra will be smaller than that in the classical era, and much smaller than in the Romantic Era.  J.S. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti, and Telemann are some of the major Baroque composers.  When one thinks of Baroque music Johann Sebastian Bach first comes to mind. 

In the classical period of music the masters developed defined structures for the different genres, like symphonies, sonatas, concerti for each genre and within each movement of the different genres.  For example, Franz Joseph Haydn helped develop the sonata form that is used in many classical pieces wherein the movement would have the structure of exposition, development and recapitulation.  I discuss the sonata form here.  Also, other forms for the various movements of a piece had defined structures, like rondos, theme and variations, etc.  Also, the polyphony of the Baroque era was replaced [for the most part] with the orchestra working together to display a motif [theme or melody] and accompaniment, instead of two or more themes being played at the same time as you might find in the Baroque era.  The orchestras in the Classical era were bigger than in the Baroque era and in pieces using a keyboard instrument, the piano and not the harpsichord is used.  Also, more prevalent in the classical period was the use of ornamentation [trills and turns].   Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Hummel, Clementi and for the early part of his career Beethoven, are some of the great classical composers. 

The Romantic period of music had huge orchestras, bigger than the classical, and much bigger than the Baroque eras. With that big orchestra you get the big sound in the Romantic era. While structure is so important in the Classical era, mood and feeling are very important in the romantic era. One of the main characteristics of the Romantic era is the use of rubato which I discuss here where a note written may be delayed from it's written time by the soloist or orchestra.  Rubato adds to the feeling and beauty of the piece. Also, the use of dynamics [softness and loudness], while of course you will find in all the eras of classical music, were used sometimes dramatically in a Romantic piece of music to enhance the mood of the piece.  When you hear a big sounding, beautiful and very moving piece of music, you probably are listening to a piece from the Romantic era. Beethoven [the late stages], Chopin, Robert Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Camille Saint Saens, Antonin Dvorak and Brahms are some of the great Romantic composers.

I love and appreciate all three eras of the great Masters.  Here are two examples from each era of Classical music.   

Baroque Era:  The first piece by J.S. Bach is from the Baroque era, the Allegro movement of his Brandenburg Concerto #5.  In this piece look at the small size of the orchestra and the harpsichord, both which are characteristics of a piece played in the Baroque Era of music.  Also, see if you can detect the polyphony [many voices] characteristic of this great era. Then I have Handel's famous hornpipe movement of his "Water Music".

Classical Era:  First is one of Mozart's beautiful piano concerto's, his dramatic concerto in C-minor.  Mozart was the quintessential classical composer and this piece is truly representative of a classical era piece of music.  Of course, this being a piano concerto, the piano and not the harpsichord [used in the Baroque era] is used.  Also, the orchestra will almost always be bigger than in the Baroque Era, but usually not quite as big as you will see from a Romantic Era symphonic piece of music.  As in most classical pieces you won't hear the different lines [melodies] played at the same time in contrast with each other [as the polyphony of the Baroque Era], but you will hear one voice with accompaniment. Then listen to a piece from one of the most important developers of ideas and composition in the classical era of music, Franz Joseph "Papa" Haydn - his "Surprise Symphony "#94.  Haydn scores the symphony in G Major with four movements: 1. Adagio-Vivace Assai, 2. Andante, 3. Minuet, and 4. Allegro Molto.  Note: You may see why this is called his Surprise Symphony when you hear the sudden loud Sforzando out of the blue in the Andante movement.

Romantic Era:  The first example is Johannes Brahms ultra melodic symphony #2.  Listen to the big wonderful sound from the big orchestra, which is characteristic of the Romantic era.  When you look at this video, you will see how much bigger the orchestra is than the one in the Baroque Era of music.  This beautiful symphony, scored in D-Major, has four movements: 1. Allegro non Troppo 2. Adagio non troppo  3. Allegretto  and 4. Allegro con spirito [get ready to jump out of your seat].  This beautiful large bold sound is something you would typically hear in the great Romantic Era of music.  The second example is the very beautiful piano concerto in E minor by Frederic Chopin.  This concerto, one of my favorite piano concertos has 3 movements: 1. Allegro Maestoso, 2. Larghetto, and 3. Rondo - Vivace.
For any one new to classical music, the next time you hear a piece you have never heard before on your classical music station in your area, see if you can tell what era of music this is from. Then when you hear the name of the composer, see if that composer is indeed from the era of music you thought.  

Please turn up the volume and enjoy these three pieces, from each of the three great eras of the masters.

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto #5 in D-Major, Movement 1, Allegro: [Baroque]

G. F. Handel: Water Music - "Hornpipe": [Baroque]

W.A. Mozart: Piano Concerto #24 in C minor: [Classical Era]

F. J. Haydn: Symphony # 94 in G Major, "Surprise": [Classical Era]

Johannes Brahms: Symphony #2 in D-Major: [Romantic Era]

F. Chopin: Piano Concerto #1 in E minor: [Romantic Era]


Joel said...

Thank you for a most educational post! I think that I like the polyphony of the Baroque period best. We used to have tickets to a chamber music series, and we should go again! I have always liked the Brandenburg concertos. And the Four Seasons is also a favorite. :D

Big Mike said...

Good choice Joel! There really is no wrong answer. These are all great periods of music with great composers.

Thanks Joel for your contribution!!