How did we progress from Gregorian chants to orchestral symphonies? And how did B.B. King help lay the groundwork for the meteoric rise of The Beatles? In a new series, we trace music from its origins to the present day.

How music began

Hurrian "Hymn 6" is the oldest recorded melody, dating from 1400BC

Though researchers are still trying to discern exactly how long music, in any form, has existed, the oldest instruments ever discovered date back about 42,000 years. In the millennia that followed, primitive instruments—as simple as the human voice or as intricate as the lute—evolved greatly, as did the uses to which they were put.

The Ancient Egyptians played harps, flutes and clarinets—but it’s difficult to even to guess what their creations sounded like.

The Hurrians, a people so ancient as to have been all but forgotten, notated complete songs as early as 1400 BC—but aside from what we’ve learned through a few remaining relics, we’ve got a tenuous grasp on how large a part music played in their culture.

It’s not until music makes its way into Western society that historians begin to form a clearer picture of how antiquated music blossomed into what we listen to today.

 

Beginnings of music and the renaissance

Example of a monophonic Gregorian chant, "Deum Verum"

The earliest medieval church music was a chant called plainsong, sung alternately by priest and choir. Most music had a single melodic line—known as monophony—but from about the 9th century on, music with two or more melodies sung simultaneously (polyphony) developed.

By 1100, a system for writing down music was devised. Previously, music was almost entirely passed on orally.

Significant composers of that time include Hermannus Contractus and Hildegard Von Bingen. Hildegard's surviving compositions is one of the largest among medieval composers.

Although her work pushed the boundaries of monophonic chants, she often had text and music working in relation to one another, a trend that was to become common later that century.

In the Renaissance, instrumental music emerged as a separate style from vocal music, and tunes were written specifically for particular instruments. The northern European tradition of elaborate polyphony merged with the southern (mainly Italian) taste for chords and harmonies.

The madrigal—a form of secular song in five or six parts—was invented in about 1530 in the Netherlands and Italy. It became popular in Elizabethan England and helped bolster the trend toward secular music.

 

The Baroque and Classic period

J S Bach: Harpsichord Concerto No 1, Allegro. As performed by Francesco Cera

In the early 1600s, Baroque style emerged in Italy. It rejected Renaissance serenity for dramatic contrasts in tone, volume and pace. A new style of religious music developed—oratorio—written for solo voices, chorus and orchestra.

New instrumental forms also emerged: the sonata (for solo instruments) and the concerto (for a solo instrument backed by an orchestra).

Instrumental music rose in popularity through the widespread use of the harpsichord and organ. The most celebrated violins and cellos ever made were produced during this period by Nicolo Amati of Cremona, Italy, whose pupils included Antonio Stradivari.

Baroque music reached its finest expression during the late 1600s and early 1700s, in the work of Bach and Handel.

Bach wrote mainly church music (particularly Passions, religious cantatas and organ pieces), whereas Handel's work was mostly dramatic (opera, oratorios and secular cantatas). Both composers brought the twin traditions of polyphonic melody and harmonic chords together in a highly sophisticated way. Both also helped develop a clear and formal system of key changes and scales that gave music a new technical precision.

During the 1700s and early 1800s, music retained much of the formality of the Baroque period. It was emotionally restrained, with a new emphasis on a single, tuneful melody in place of Baroque polyphony.

The symphony became the most important orchestral form; the sonata emerged as the most important form of instrumental music as a whole. The sonata reached perfection in late-18th-century Vienna—by then the world's music capital—in the work of Haydn, Mozart, Gluck and the young Beethoven.

 

The Romantic period

Debussy, "Clair De Lune" movement from Suite Bergamasque

The formal beauty of 18th-century compositions gave way to the "Romantic" period, in which emotional expression was paramount. The symphony came into its own, and some of the finest operas were written.

Working during the early to mid-1800s, Romantic composers sought dramatic ways to express their feelings.

Rhythmic energy and experimentation became important expressive devices, as did the unusual, dissonant chords used by Beethoven. Symphonies began to extend over an hour in length, in contrast to the 20-30 minutes of the Classical period.

Chamber and choral music declined in importance, but secular song remained popular.

As the 19th century drew to a close, Romantic composers wrote for increasingly large orchestras and experimented with new kinds of expressive effects.

Whereas previous composers had used dramatic key changes and dissonant chords for expressive effect, Wagner used them continuously to create emotional weight and tension.

Debussy and Ravel introduced new rhythm patterns and new types of harmony, some based on unconventional scales. Nationalism had a major impact. Folk melodies and popular song inspired the music of Sibelius, Dvořák, Elgar and Richard Strauss.

 

Opera

"The Ride of the Valkyries" from Wagner's The Ring

Opera is generally said to have originated about 400 years ago with Monteverdi.

In the 18th century, Handel developed the genre with superb solo arias, and Gluck's Orfeo showed how a libretto's musical and dramatic possibilities could be fully exploited. Haydn's operas were eclipsed by Mozart's later works of genius.

The two greatest opera composers of the 19th century were Verdi and Wagner. Verdi's genius emerged in Rigoletto, La Traviata, Il Trovatore and Aïda. After a 16-year gap, he produced Otello in 1887, with its varied, dynamic and tragic score.

Wagner strove for transcendent "music-drama" rooted in Nordic myth. The four operas of The Ring (1850-74) are considered by some as the greatest work in Western music. In France, Berlioz wrote a grandiose Romantic opera, The Trojans (1856-58). In 1875 came Bizet's popular, passionate opera Carmen, Johann Strauss's archetypal Viennese operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat), and the social satire of English operetta HMS Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan.

At the turn of the century, Puccini dominated Italian opera with the popular works La Bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900).

 

The Modernist period

The opening of Stravinsky's The Right of Spring 

It became clear that after the horrors of WWI, classical music could no longer seek out balance and beauty as this did not reflect the world composers lived in. This was echoed throughout the art world. 

Composers began to explore the darker side of music, experimenting with harsher sounds.

In 1913, The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky caused a riot at its Paris premiere because it rejected all traditional rhythm, instead juxtaposing discordant "blocks" of music.

Other composers, such as Schoenberg, adopted the 12-tone scale for whole pieces rather than short sections. Or, like Bartók or Gershwin, they added influences from folk music or jazz.

After 1945, Stockhausen and others carried this Modernist experimentation to new levels, with music composed from a wide variety of electronic and mechanical sounds completely unrelated to conventional musical instruments.

Technology too had begun to alter the course of music. Where it was once enjoyed by those who could afford the instruments and sheet music, or a trip to the theatre, music was now entering the homes of the everyday person. 

 

A quick note about female composers

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel , "Oratorium nach den Bildern der Bibel"

"I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to?"

These words were once uttered by Clara Schumann, the distinguished Romantic pianist and spouse of Robert Schumann (who for a time was known as the husband to Clara Wieck). Many female composers, such as Louise Farrenc (who was critically acclaimed in her time), seem to have been excluded from the canon and deemed not worthy to study. As is echoed around most of the arts.

Although they did indeed exist, many were simply not granted the same opportunities.

Fanny Hensel, sister of Felix Mendelssohn, had at least six of her works published under her brother's name. When he visited Queen Victoria, he asked her what she would like him to play, and she unknowingly chose one of Hensel's.

Baroque composer Barbera Strozzi, for example, was the most prolific secular composer of her time—and that's inclusive of male composers. But, unlike comparable male contemporary Francesco Cavalli, she didn't have the means in her lifetime to ensure her works would be archived for future generations.

Ethel Smyth (whose father had considered her music a waste of time) composed what was to become the anthem of suffragettes "March of the Women".

Thankfully, women were to become more prominent in music.

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