What if a sentient life form from a planet somewhere in the Large Magellanic Cloud was folding space one day and materialized in your back yard while you were grilling shish kabobs? After checking to make sure you hadn’t accidentally woken up in a Hunter S. Thompson novel, you offer your new friend a kabob and he proceeds to eat the skewer. After a brief befuddled moment of indigestion the conversation turns to music. “What is this thing your people call music?” Take a moment to ponder this. How would you reply? Some common replies I get from my music students are :
1.) “It is pleasing to the ear”.
Perhaps most of the time, but not always. When Igor Stravinsky debuted the Rite of Spring in 1914 the audience responded promptly with a riot. The edgy intensity of the rhythms, bestial orchestration and carnal themes created a sensory overload that resulted in an orgy of violence. (Personally I Love the Rite of Spring, but those present at it’s first performance did not find it particularly “pleasing to the ear”). This definition is also quite subjective as London punks perceived the Sex Pistols as a delightful sound while it’s a safe bet Margaret Thatcher’s ears were tortured. Some find a chorus of frogs pleasing, yet is it music?
2.) “It has a melody”
Well I suggest melody is a key component to most music but not all . After all, Drum Corps make sounds that we would identify as music right? Many drum corps groups consist of drums only. No melody instruments per se. Many rap artists create works that are monotone, without a perceptible melody. So music can exist without melody.
3. “It has a rhythm”
Yes , All musical events unfurl over time. The flowing river of time and rhythm is another key component of music. But windshield wipers have rhythm as well. Most machines make rhythmic sounds, Although I doubt many would say these sounds were in fact music? So all music incorporates rhythm but not all rhythm is music.
4. “It has harmony”
Well, solo instruments, and voice do not always have harmonies supporting them. Plainsong or Gregorian Chant is the first music we know of to be transcribed into a notation system. And it is devoid of harmony. Western music (no, not country western) generally has a highly developed harmonic structure compared to other musical traditions. However Chinese classical music often has little harmony, sometimes none at all. Harmony is a component of most music but music exists without harmony.
5. “It has lyrics”
Although this is a pretty common answer, obviously music does not always have words.
6. “Music is sound”
All music is sound but not all sound is music. Take for instance crickets, frogs , dogs barking, sirens, lawn mowers, etc. Could we use those sounds in a musical context? You bet. Are they intrinsically music? No.
What is music then? It is Organized sound. All music is organized in some fashion. The composer chooses sounds or the absence of sound (rests) the way a visual artist chooses colors from the pallet. And just as we can identify different historical periods of visual art, we additionally can identify historical periods in music. Many people think classical music is any music performed by an orchestra. It is not. Classical music is the music from what we refer to as the classical era. A period of 70 years between 1750 and 1820. Let’s have a look at the development of music in western civilization.
Our musical traditions are a result of a variety of influences, including the formal systematization of previously improvised traditions; the growth of notation; the development of tuning systems; the musical interpretation of text; and innovations in form. Also the role of patronage; the assimilation of various cultures into the style and the growth of technology have influenced the outcome of the music of western civilization.
The earliest known music has its origins in the chant tradition of the early Christian era. ( Of course by "known" we are talking about music that has been written down. Music of course has existed since the dim beginnings of mankind.) The monophonic (one sound) music of chant dominated the middle ages. Although it seems likely that other cultures and times may have developed a system of notating music there is no evidence of it yet discovered. Notation is attributed to Gregory the Great in the 5th century. (though some say it was later, perhaps 7th century and originally the chant may have been so named to honor the contemporary Pope Gregory II). Regardless of who invented it, we begin our journey with Gregorian Chant. Charlemagne, once elevated to Holy Roman Emperor, aggressively spread Gregorian chant throughout his empire to consolidate religious and secular power, requiring the clergy to use the new repertory on pain of death. So it was quite popular you see.
We know that by the 1200’s, polyphony (multiple sounds) had appeared. Pérotin seems to be the first composer of four-voice polyphony — at least the first composer whose music has survived, although complete survivals of notated music from this time are spotty at best. This group of composers working at or near the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris from about 1170, along with the music they produced, is referred to as the Notre Dame school, or the Notre Dame School of Polyphony. Polyphony is the use of multiple sounds or voices which differs from the earlier chants which were monophonic with one part sung in complete unison. The music from this time is often called ars antiqua (old arts).
In the following century the monophonic chant, already harmonized , was becoming altered, fragmented, and hidden beneath secular tunes. The lyrics of love poems might be sung above sacred texts, or the sacred text might be placed within a familiar secular melody. It was not merely polyphony that offended the medieval ears, but the notion of secular music merging with the sacred. Controversial in the Roman Catholic Church, the music was starkly rejected by Pope John XXII. This is the music of the beginning of the Renaissance, referred to as ars nova (new arts). The new polyphony in music is similar to the introduction of perspective in painting. And is equally revolutionary.
Around 500 A.D., western civilization began to emerge from the period known as "The Dark Ages," the time when invading hordes of Vandals, Huns, and Visigoths, and other marauding hoards overran Europe and brought an end to the Roman Empire. For the next ten centuries, the newly emerging Christian Church would dominate Europe, administering justice, instigating "Holy" Crusades against the East, establishing Universities, and generally dictating the destiny of music, art and literature. However secular music was sung all over Europe by the troubadours and trouvères Who traveled the countryside singing the “news“. (Remember- no radios, No TVs, or newspapers.)
From 1420 to 1600, the Renaissance (which means "rebirth") was a time of cultural awakening and a flowering of the arts, letters, and sciences throughout Europe. With the rise of humanism, even sacred music began for the first time to break free of the confines of the Church, and composers trained in the Netherlands mastered the art of polyphony in their compositions. These polyphonic traditions reached their culmination in the unsurpassed works of Giovanni da Palestrina.
Of course, secular music thrived during this period, much of which lyrically was quite bawdy. Instrumental and dance music was performed in abundance, if not always written down. It was left for others to collect and notate the wide variety of irrepressible instrumental music of the period. The late Renaissance also saw the birth of the English madrigal. My favorites were composed by John Dowland, William Byrd and Thomas Morley .
The word Baroque in Italian means bizarre, the Baroque period (1600 to 1750) saw composers beginning to rebel against the styles that were prevalent during the Renaissance. (Does all meaningful art come from rebellion?)
Baroque music like the art and architecture from the same period was heavily ornamented and fancy. This was a time when the many monarchies of Europe competed with each other in pride, pomp and pageantry (or egotism, conceit, and arrogance). Many monarchs employed composers at their courts, where they were little more than servants expected to churn out music for any desired occasions.
One noteworthy composer of the period, Johann Sebastian Bach, was such a servant. In the old days musicians either were servants of the monarchy, the church, or they wandered the countryside singing for their supper so to speak. Yet the best composers of the time were able to break new musical ground despite generally being told what to do by unmusical masters, and in so doing succeeded in creating an entirely new style of music.
It was during the early part of the seventeenth century that the genre of opera was first created by a group of composers in Florence, Italy, and the earliest operatic masterpieces were composed by Claudio Monteverdi. The instrumental concerto was a quite popular form of music, my favorites come from the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Most people are familiar with his popular work “The Four Seasons”. The Harpsichord ruled as pianos were not invented yet. Dances became formalized into instrumental suites and were composed by virtually everyone. But vocal and choral music also reigned during this age, and I believe peaked, in the operas and oratorios of George Frideric Handel.
As I mentioned earlier, Classical music is the music of this era, 1750 - 1820.
Composers of this period concerned themselves primarily with form. Although the Classical Era lasted for only 70 years, there was a substantial change in the music that was produced. Classical music placed a greater stress on clarity than ornamentation. artists, architects, and musicians moved away from the heavily ornamented styles of the Baroque and the Rococo, and instead embraced a clean, uncluttered style they thought reminiscent of Classical Greece. The newly established aristocracies were replacing monarchs and the church as patrons of the arts, and were demanding an impersonal, but tuneful and elegant music. Dances such as the minuet and the gavotte were all the rage.
At this time the Austrian capital of Vienna became the musical center of Europe, and works of the period are often referred to as being in the Viennese style. Composers came from all over Europe to train in and around Vienna.
Johann Stamitz contributed greatly to the growth of the orchestra and developed the idea of the symphony. The Classical period reached its majestic culmination with the majestic symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. These 3 along with Franz Schubert would be on the “must have” list of any music fan I believe.
Although Beethoven was a great composer in the classical period he also ended it with his passionate symphonies. He and Shubert to some degree ushered in the new era of Romanticism that stressed emotion rather than reasoning or form. If anyone has conducted a Beethoven performance, and then doesn't have to go to an osteopath, then there's something wrong. What rocks harder than the opening of the 5th? I personally enjoy the music of this period a bit more than the previous eras.
The Romantic composers were all born within a few years of each other in the early years of the nineteenth century. These include the great German masters Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann ; the Polish master of the piano Frédéric Chopin; the French genius Hector Berlioz ; and the greatest pianistic showman in history, The first Rock Star, Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. (Can you tell I like Liszt? His Hungarian Rhapsodies are to me, some of the most inspired and inspiring pieces ever written.)
During the early nineteenth century, opera composers such as Carl Maria von Weber turned to German folk stories for the stories of their operas, while the Italians looked to the literature of the time and created what is known as Bel canto opera (literally "beautiful singing"). Later in the century, the field of Italian opera was dominated by Giuseppe Verdi, while German opera was virtually monopolized by Richard Wagner. ( Mark Twain once said “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”.) Wagner disliked singers and would write parts just to piss ‘em off sometimes! He was a bit of an egomaniac, and he married one of Liszt’s daughters.
For an interesting if not surreal look at the romantic era rent or buy Ken Russel’s “Lisztomania” or “The Music Lovers”. Both are really great films! Composers of the Romantic era often had a highly personal harmonic language and melodic style which distinguishes their music from that of the previous traditions. ( Remember that until this time most music was being composed for someone other than the composer, a patron of one sort or another. Now public performances give composers the freedom to do as they wish, and that’s a good thing! Imagine if Van Gogh had only painted pictures of wealthy patrons, how poor the world would be.)
The continued modification and enhancement of existing instruments, plus the invention of new ones, led to the further expansion of the symphony orchestra throughout the century. Taking advantage of these new sounds and new instrumental combinations, the late Romantic composers of the second half of the nineteenth-century created richer and ever larger symphonies, ballets, and concertos. Two of the giants of this period are the Johannes Brahms and the great Russian melodist Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
(“The Music Lovers” is about Tchaikovsky’s life.) Did you know the “Nutcracker” was received so poorly when it first premiered it closed after only 1 performance? Tchaikovsky went to the grave believing it was a terrible failure. Someone revived it in the mid 1900s and it became the most performed ballet of all times. Tchaikovsky was 100 years ahead of his time.
Until then your humble narrator leaves you with this question to ponder.
What historical era of music do you enjoy most?
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