The 4 eras of classical music: a short guide


6 January 2022, 17:08

4 eras of classical music.

Photo: Getty / Alamy

With centuries of history to consider, it can be easy to change the different eras of Western classical music a bit. Here’s a quick guide to the four key periods we usually learn in music theory: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, and beyond.

The Baroque period (around 1600-1750)

The Baroque era extends from around 1600 to 1750 and includes the music of Bach, Vivaldi, Francesca Caccini, Handel and Purcell.

It was a busy time for musical development. Composers and musicians experimented with new styles of music and different ways of writing their music. They also began to agree on an instrument tuning system that made playing together easier.

One of the most defining elements of Baroque music is the harpsichord, an ancient keyboard instrument that plucked the strings to create its distinctive sound.

The Baroque era also gave birth to new musical styles, introducing the concerto, sonata and opera. Dance suites were in vogue, inspired by music for dancing but actually meant for listening.

Improvisation is common in baroque music. Composers often did not specify performance directions, allowing the performer to design their own dynamics, phrasing and adornments on the spot.

Some baroque music can be quite complex with several melodies playing at the same time, also known as polyphony. This is common in much of the keyboard music of the time and is found in many of Bach’s most popular works.

Read more: 10 of the best baroque composers

Instruments began to be grouped together in a more standard way during the Baroque era, creating the first versions of the modern orchestra. Wind instruments and brass had limited range and could only play in certain keys. The Baroque period is also home to instruments with wonderful names, such as the sacqueboute and the hurdy-gurdy.

The classical era (1750-1830)

We use “classical music” (small C) as a generic term for Western instrumental, orchestral and choral music. But the classical era (large C) specifically refers to music composed between 1750 and 1830.

The music of the classical period is even sometimes called “Viennese classicism”. The city was a hub of musical activity at the time, home to Gluck, Haydn, Salieri, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

Giant strides were made in the development of musical instruments during the classical period. The harpsichord was replaced by the piano as the most common keyboard instrument and was no longer the musical basis of the orchestra. Instead, classical orchestras were much more like those we know and love today, with clarinets, oboes, flutes, horns, and trumpets joining the strings to create a much richer sound.

With more advanced instruments capable of taking better solo lines, the emphasis was placed more on the melody. Composers became more specific about how their pieces were performed, writing instructions for dynamics and ornaments.

Sonata and symphony styles flourished, as did the new form of string quartet. Solo instrumental concertos have grown in popularity as magnified concertos (concertos for more than one soloist) has become less common. the concertante sinfonia The form remains popular, however, defended by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Mozart.

Towards the end of the classical era, musical styles began to change and change. Beethoven ushered in the new era of Romanticism, challenging traditions passed down by his teacher, Haydn, and becoming more ambitious and inventive.

Read more: 10 of the best composers of the classical era

The romantic era (circa 1830-1900)

Despite its name, the Romantic Era is not known for its romance. Composers of this time wrote increasingly emotional and intense music inspired by nature, literature and poetry.

Alongside Beethoven, a host of other German composers were at the forefront of the genre, including Brahms, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Carl Maria von Weber, and Robert and Clara Schumann.

Read more: Who was Fanny Mendelssohn, the little-known composer whose music was published under her brother’s name?

Although still firmly anchored in tonality, for the most part composers began to experiment with more chromatic writing, borrowing notes from other tones to create more interesting and adventurous harmonies.

Further development of instruments has increased virtuosity and longer and more complex phrases. And composers began to write new musical forms, such as symphonic poems, song cycles, nocturnes and arabesques.

Orchestras flourished during this time, greatly increasing their size with up to 120 players requested by Wagner. The sound produced by symphony orchestras was richer than ever, with virtuoso writing and extended scales for instruments at both ends of the scale thanks to the addition of piccolos and E-flat clarinets in the upper register, and bass brass such as trombones and tubas at the lower end.

Romantic composers drew inspiration from wherever they could find it, and many began to write “programmed music” – musical descriptions of a story or setting, such as “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven depicting countryside scenes. Many were also inspired to write music about their homelands, such as that of Sibelius. Finland or the set of six programmatic symphonic poems by Smetana, My vlast, which means “My homeland”.

Read more: 10 of the best romantic composers in classical music history

Towards the end of the era, composers continued to experiment and push the boundaries. Their music became increasingly genre-defying until the turn of the century, when classical music was on the verge of one of its biggest changes to date.

20th century and beyond (from 1900s)

By the turn of the century, musical styles under the “classic” umbrella began to branch out and split into more subgenres than they had ever done before. Divisive political climates across the world and tremendous technological advancements have motivated composers to create new styles of music in response to their circumstances.

The classical music era of the 20th century saw the birth of Modernism, Impressionism, serialism and minimalism, a new influence of unclassical styles such as jazz, and even experiments with recorded sound.

The world politics of the 20th century, especially in Europe, had a significant impact on the musical production of Western classical composers. The Soviet and Nazi regimes placed strict expectations on their country’s composers, blacklisting those who did not comply. Composers such as Hindemith and Shostakovich wrote music full of political subtext, having been forced to write in styles deemed “acceptable” by their governments in order to avoid persecution.

Read more: 10 of the best composers of the 20th century

Read more: Dmitry Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor

The 20th century also saw a complete diversion of tonality in the works of some composers, with Schoenberg developing his 12-tone composition system rather than sticking to traditional tones. This system was continued by two of his students, Berg and Webern.

Music composed by introducing mathematical elements of chance to decide notes and rhythms, also known as “process music”, has become popular with John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Read more: How I wrote … Applaud the music – Steve Reich

Composers such as Mahler, Strauss, and Sibelius marked the transition from the Romantic era into the 20th century, experimenting with popular symphonic forms and pushing boundaries. During this time, Debussy cultivated in France the beginnings of the Impressionist movement, although he rejected the term.

Towards the turn of the century and into the 21st century, film and video game music gained popularity, with composers such as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Nobuo Uematsu heralding a new era for orchestral and choral music.


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