Classical music can now largely be split into seven main periods, each with their own stylistic characteristics, innovations, offshoot movements and star names. Of course there’s all kinds of crossover to be found at either end, but here’s the basics…
Early Music – Till 1400
This actually covers a huge period – essentially everything that happened till the Renaissance, when things started to really take off. Religion played a huge role, the church being one of the only arenas for public music-making.
As such, music for the voice is massively important at this time. There were noisemakers, though… percussion and wind instruments can of course be traced back to early humans – actual horns, bone flutes and alike – but they became more advanced. There were bagpipes, too! Around 1400 the earliest harpsichords begin to make an appearance.
Who are the early music pioneers?
Composers like Hildegard von Bingen, Dufay, Pérotin and Machaut.
Recommended recording: The Early Music Collection (Naxos)
Renaissance – 1400-1600
The Renaissance music period is a bit like the curtains finally being opened in Miss Havisham’s dark, dusty old sitting room, the light streaming in at last.
Music is revived, reborn if you will, composers allowed to think beyond the church walls. Science, art and mythology all become fair game for inspiring new music. That said, the church is still massively influential and if Top of the Pops was on, sacred works would continue to dominate the chart.
So choral music is king, but stringed instruments are on the rise; viols, lute, cello, etcetera. Organs are cool, too, and the harpsichord comes into its own. Oh, and notated music is becoming a thing now, thanks to to something called printing.
Who are the famous composers in the Renaissance period?
The most famous Renaissance composers include Josquin des Prez, Thomas Tallis, Gesualdo and John Dowland… plus the likes of Monteverdi, Gibbons and Byrd, whose music-making would go on into the next period.
Recommended recording: The Hilliard Ensemble – Renaissance Music (Erato)
Baroque – 1600-1750
Okay, so the curtains are open and the light’s streaming in. But now, it’s time to re-decorate! The Baroque is all about excess and ornament.
So, music really begins to dazzle, composers – and musicians – start to show off a bit. Classical music kind of comes into its own during this time, the forms, structures and techniques we are familiar with today are set out in the Baroque.
Major and minor keys are used (instead of ‘modes’), notation systems are updated, forms (like the fugue) developed and a little thing called the orchestra rears its head. Then there’s opera, that’s new too, along with all manner of other ‘types’ of work such as the related oratorio and cantata (such as Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’, or ‘Sleepers Awake’, below).
With the orchestra comes the very early signs of the symphony, while concertos are a popular format for composers. Instrument-wise, strings really come into their own, along with woodwind, valveless horns and trumpets and the timpani. Boom!
Who are the big composing names of the Baroque period?
Baroque has many poster boys, like JS Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi (he’s still about), Telemann, Scarlatti, Couperin… the list goes on (not Liszt, though, he comes later). Here are our top Baroque composers.
Recommended recording: Baroque (Harmonia Mundi)
Classical – 1750-1830
Confusingly there’s a classical period actually called ‘Classical’… But, if you think about what’s happening in art, literature and architecture it makes a lot of sense.
Form, structure and clean lines really float people’s boats right now. So, the flowery wallpaper has been stripped and the frilly, trilly bits in music begin to bow out, making way for lighter, clearer musical lines.
Less is more, so instrumental music is on the rise and the piano sonata is popular. The orchestra has come into its own, the symphony and string quartet – largely thanks to Haydn – are things composers aim to conquer, along with more opera and choral music.
Then there’s the whole ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement – again, led by Haydn – with an emphasis on tumult and darker sonorities. Instruments are getting even closer to what we still use today, brass instruments eventually have valves and the popularity of the fortepiano means the concert grand is just around the corner.
Who are the most famous composers of the classical period?
Time to bring out the big guns… Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, CPE Bach, Rossini, Paganini, Boccherini… and the rest.
Recommended recording: The Complete Haydn Concertos (Naxos)
Romantic – 1830-1900
Passions ran high in the Romantic era; drama, expression, poetry and tall tales were the order of the day. The shining marble columns of the Classical era began to dull, crack even, as composers just wanted to loosen their collars.
Music really began to ‘say’ something directly to audiences, works began to have more meaning, or at least were more extrovert, and their connections to art and literature were clear for all to hear. Lieder, art song and chamber music really came into their own – the French salon scene was popular with a thriving middle- and upper-middle class.
Opera and ballet also boomed, with the likes of Wagner, Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky on the scene. The piano evolved into the instrument we know and love – Steinway was founded in the 1850s.
Who are the most famous Romantic composers?
Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Brahms, Johann Strauss II, Wagner, Verdi, Robert Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Dvořák, Puccini… The likes of Elgar, Debussy and Fauré were about later on, too, and they would go on to dominate the early 20th-Century period. Here are our top 15 Romantic composers
Recommended recording: Chopin – Complete Edition (DG)
20th Century – 1900-2000
The dawn of a new century! The world’s increasingly complex political landscape inspired a lot of artists and composers. So the first decades of this era include responses to conflict, political oppression and the atomic age.
Stylistically it’s a case of ‘anything goes’, with the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern…) aiming to show the world that tonal music ain’t all that. Patterns, pictures and abstract sounds float to the surface; Impressionists are doing their thing in France, as are the Minimalists in the US.
Brand new art forms emerge, with the cinema offering composers new opportunities. Technology evolves at an astonishing pace and in no time we have strange new sounds competing with (and joining) the orchestra – from the sound waves of the theremin to the Moog synthesiser and beyond. The sky is really the limit for music by the end of the period.
Who were the most famous composers of the 20th century?
Elgar, Debussy, Fauré (told you they’d be back), plus Holst, Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bernstein, Copland, Satie, Vaughan Williams, Philip Glass, John Adams, John Williams… we could go on, and on.
Recommended recording: Shostakovich – The Complete Symphonies (Naxos)
Modern – 2000-present
And here we are, right here, right now… Modern Music basically covers everything in the last 20 years or so. But as each decade passes, we reach new frontiers.
Today, musical boundaries are beginning to blur, as technological and stylistic attitudes shift. ‘Post-Classical’ music (another confusing term) often refers to the quasi-Minimalism of Max Richter and Ludovico Einaudi.
Recognisable classical elements fuse with designed soundscapes, either created with the aid of a computer, or actual musicians. Film music has inspired a whole generation of composers and musicians, so new music can be ‘cinematic’ without ever going near a film. Then there’s music for videogames, which came into its own in the last 20 years.
Periods change, composers influenced by all that came before. Whatever your view, today is really no different. Composers are still writing operas, symphonies, concertos, but they’re also writing film scores, game scores, music for art installations.
Composers can be rock stars (haven’t they always been, to someone?), rock stars/DJs/producers can be composers. It’s all music.
Who are the most famous composers leading the 21st century?
Philip Glass, Thomas Adès, Jennifer Higdon, Karl Jenkins, Ludovico Einaudi, Ólafur Arnalds, Max Richter, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Caroline Shaw…
Recommended recording: Ludovico Einaudi – Islands (Decca)