Brief History of Music: An Introduction

Brief History of Music
Brief History of Music

In all probability, music has played an important role in the lifecycle of humans perhaps even before we could speak. Significant evidence has been discovered that very early man developed primitive flutes from animal bones and used stones and wood as percussion.

Voice would have been the first and most natural means of expression in our distant ancestors, used to bond socially or comfort a sleepless child. It is from these humble beginnings that the music we enjoy today evolved.

As we move further through the history of music we find increasing evidence of its key role in sacred and secular settings, although the division into these categories was not defined in this way until many years later.

History of Music

Influences from the west to the east merged into the pre-Christian music of the Greeks and later the Romans. Musical practices and conventions perhaps conveyed by travelling musicians brought a wealth of diversity and invention.

Surviving Greek notation from this period of musical history has given scientists and musicologists alike a vital clue to the way that the music of the time might have sounded. It certainly indicates remarkable links to the music that would follow, perhaps most notably through the use of modality in Greek music.

In the frescoes and in some written accounts, including the Bible, we have learned about the instruments that featured in the Roman and Greek times and their significance to the cultures. The trumpet as an instrument of announcement and splendid ceremony, or the lyre as an integral player in the songs of poets.

Across Europe from the early part of the first century, the monasteries and abbeys became the places where music became embedded into the lives of those devoted to God and their followers.

Christianity had established itself and with it came a new liturgy that demanded a new music. Although early Christian music had its roots in the practices and beliefs of the Hebrew people, what emerged from this was to become the basis for sacred music for centuries to come. The chants that were composed devoutly followed the sacred Latin texts in a fashion that was tightly controlled and given only to the glory of God. Music was very much subservient to the words, without flourish or frivolity.

It was Pope Gregory (540-604 AD), who is credited with moving the progress of sacred music forward and developing what is now called Gregorian Chant, characterises by the haunting sound of the open, perfect fifth.

Some controversy surrounds this claim, but the name has stuck and the music remains distinct and vitally important as it moves away from plainchant towards polyphony. This, in turn, looked back to earlier times and customs, particularly in the music of the Jewish people where the idea of a static drone commonly underpinned a second vocal line.

Medieval Period

As we move forward in musical time, we begin to enter the Medieval Period of music which can be generally agreed to span the period from around 500AD up until the mid-fifteenth century. By this time music was a dominant art in taverns to cathedrals, practised by kings to paupers alike. It was during this extended period of music that the sound of music becomes increasingly familiar. This is partly due to the development of musical notation, much of which has survived, that allows us a window back into this fascinating time.

From the written music that survives from the monasteries and other important accounts of musical practices, it’s possible to assemble an image of a vibrant culture that ranges from the sacred to the secular. Throughout the Medieval period, the music slowly began to adopt ever more elaborate structures and devices that produced works of immense beauty and devotion.

Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin pioneered many of the musical forms we still recognise today including the motet and the sacred Mass. Alongside these important forms came the madrigal that often reflects the moods and feelings of the people of the time. It’s wonderfully polyphonic form is both mesmerising and delightful.

Renaissance Period

Instruments developed in accordance with the composer’s imaginations. A full gamut of wind, brass and percussion instruments accompanied the Medieval music, although it is still the human voice that dominates many of the compositions. Towards the close of the high medieval period, we find the emergence of instrumental pieces in their own right which in turn paves the way for many musical forms in the following period: The Renaissance.

Before leaving this period of music it is important to mention the Troubadours and the Trouveres. These travelling storytellers and musicians covered vast distances on their journeys across Europe and further afield into Asia. They told stories, sung ballads and perhaps most importantly, brought with them influences from far and wide that seamlessly blended with the western musical cultures.

The Renaissance (1450 – 1600) was a golden period in music history. Freed from the constraints of Medieval musical conventions the composers of the Renaissance forged a new way forward. Josquin des Prez is considered to be one of the early Renaissance composers to be a great master of the polyphonic style, often combining many voices to create elaborate musical textures.

Later Palestrina, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd build on the ideas of des Pres composing some of the most stunning motets, masses, chansons and instrumental works in their own right. Modality was firmly established as a basis for all harmony, and although strict rules governing the use of dissonance, the expressive qualities of Renaissance music is virtually unparalleled.

As instrumental pieces became accepted into the repertoire, we find the development of instruments like the bassoon and the trombone giving rise to larger and more elaborate instrumental groupings.

This gave composers far more scope to explore and express their creative ideas than before. The viol family developed to provide a very particular, haunted quality to much of the music of the time alongside the establishment of each recognisable family of instruments comprising, percussion, strings, woodwind and brass.

Keyboard instruments also became increasingly common and the advent of the sonata followed in due course. Other popular forms for instrumental music included the toccata, canzona and ricercar to name but a few, emanating from the Courtly dance.

Towards the end of the Renaissance, what was called the Church Modes began to dissolve in favour of what is now considered to be functional harmony or tonality based on a system of keys rather than modes.

Baroque Period

The Baroque Period (1600-1760), houses some of the most famous composers and pieces that we have in Western Classical Music. It also sees some of the most important musical and instrumental developments. Italy, Germany, England and France continue from the Renaissance to dominate the musical landscape, each influencing the other with conventions and style.

Amongst the many celebrated composers of the time, G F Handel, Bach, Vivaldi and Purcell provide a substantial introduction to the music of this era. It is during this glittering span of time that Handel composes his oratorio “The Messiah”, Vivaldi the “Four Seasons”, Bach his six “Brandenburg Concertos” and the “48 Preludes and Fugues”, together with Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”.

Instrumental music was composed and performed in tandem with vocal works, each of equal importance in the Baroque. The virtuosity that began amongst the elite Renaissance performers flourished in the Baroque. Consider the keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti or the Concertos that Vivaldi composed for his student performers. This, in turn, leads to significant instrumental developments, and thanks to the aristocratic support of Catherine Medici, the birth of the Violin.

Common musical forms were established founded on the Renaissance composers principles but extended and developed in ways that they would have probably found unimaginable. The Suite became a Baroque favourite, comprising contrasting fast slow movements like the Prelude; Allemande, Gigue, Courante and the Sarabande. Concertos became ever more popular, giving instrumentalists the opportunity to display their technical and expressive powers.

Vocal music continued to include the Mass but now also the Oratorio and Cantata alongside anthems and chorales. Opera appears in earnest in the Baroque period and becomes an established musical form and vehicle for astonishing expression and diversity.

Increasingly, the preferred harmony is tonal and the system of keys (major and minor), is accepted in favour of modality. This lifts the limitations of modes and offers composers the chance to create ever more complex and expressive pieces that combine exciting polyphonic textures and dynamics.

Notation accompanies these developments and steadily we find that the accuracy of composers works becomes more precise and detailed giving us a better possibility of realising their intentions in performances of today.

Classical Period

From the Baroque, we step into the Classical Period (1730-1820). Here Haydn and Mozart dominate the musical landscape and Germany and Austria sit at the creative heart of the period. From the ornate Baroque composers of the Classical period moved away from the polyphonic towards the homophonic, writing music that was, on the surface of it at least, simple, sleek and measured.

One key development is that of the Piano. The Baroque harpsichord is replaced by the early piano which was a more reliable and expressive instrument. Mozart and Haydn each wrote a large number of works for the Piano which allowed for this instrument to develop significantly during this period.

Chamber music alongside orchestral music was a feature of the Classical Era with particular attention drawn towards the String Quartet. The orchestra itself was firmly established and towards the latter end of the period began to include clarinets, trombones, and timpani.

The rise of the virtuoso performer continued throughout this period of music as demonstrated by the many of the concertos and sonatas composed during this time. Opera flourished in these decades and became a fully-fledged musical form of entertainment that extended way beyond the dreams of the Baroque composers.

Romantic Period

As the Classical era closed Beethoven is the most notable composer who made such a huge contribution to the change into the Romantic Era (1780 – 1880). Beethoven’s immense genius shaped the next few decades with his substantial redefining of many of the established musical conventions of the Classical era. His work on Sonata form in his concertos, symphonies, string quartets and sonatas, goes almost unmatched by any other composer.

The Romantic era saw huge developments in the quality and range of many instruments that naturally encouraged ever more expressive and diverse music from the composers. Musical forms like the Romantic orchestra became expansive landscapes where composers gave full and unbridled reign to their deepest emotions and dreams.

Berlioz in his “Symphonie Fantastique” is a fine example of this, or later Wagner in his immense operas. The symphonies of Gustav Mahler stand like stone pillars of achievement at the end of the Romantic period alongside the tone poems of Richard Strauss. The Romantic period presents us with a vast array of rich music that only towards the end of the 19th Century began to fade.

It is hard to conceive of what could follow such a triumphant, heroic time in musical history but as we push forward into the 20th Century the musical landscape takes a dramatic turn. Echoes of the Romantic Era still thread through the next century in the works of Elgar, Shostakovich and Arthur Bliss, but it is the music from France we have title impressionism that sparkles its way into our musical consciences.

Debussy and Ravel are key exponents of this colourful movement that parallels the artwork of Monet and Manet.  What we hear in the music of the impressionists harks back to many of the popular forms of the Baroque but in ways that Bach is unlikely to have foreseen. The tonal system transforms to include a wider range of scales and influences from the Orient allowing composers to write some of the most stunning works ever heard.

Both Ravel and Debussy composed extensively for the piano using poetry for inspiration. Their orchestral works are amongst some of the most beautiful and evocative pieces ever written.

In parallel, the Teutonic world began to undergo its own revolution in the form of the second Viennese school, led by Arnold Schoenberg. Disillusioned with the confines of tonality Schoenberg threw out the tonal system in favour of a new twelve-tone serial system giving each step of the chromatic scale equal musical validity. The result was serial music that was completely atonal and transformed the musical landscape almost beyond anything that had happened before.

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