Introduction | Classical Music
The story of classical music is not bound up simply with the traditions of any one country: it is tied up with the cultural development of Europe as a whole. This section attempts to pick out the composers from each successive age who, looked at from one point of view, exerted the greatest influence on their contemporaries and subsequent generations, as well as both within their own countries and internationally.
Even then, the full picture can only be appreciated by taking into account music by the many recognized masters who do not feature here: among them Du Fay, Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, Domenico Scarlatti, Gluck and a whole pantheon of Romantic and twentieth-century figures. Women are also absent from the story because, for reasons too complex to be merely regrettable, they have had little impact on the development of classical music. Despite this, there are talented women composers whose music does survive: Hildegard of Bingen from the eleventh century, or Barbara Strozzi from the seventeenth, Clara Schumann in the nineteenth and Lili Boulanger in the twentieth.
The 1,000-year period has been sliced up into generally agreed periods that are, of course, not set in stone. You do not have to look far to find evidence to contradict them: for instance, a tradition of unaccompanied vocal music, following the Late Renaissance model of Palestrina, flourished well into the Early Baroque; and Richard Strauss’s Late Romantic masterpieces were composed at the dawn of the Contemporary era, long after Late Romanticism had supposedly run its course. History often contradicts ‘definitive’ readings, and the stories of both twentieth-century and contemporary music could be written in many different ways.
Still, the language of music, its principal genres and its circumstances of performance have changed considerably over 10 centuries. Status and social roles also changed, as musicians gained increasing independence – at first from the Church, then from aristocratic patrons – before attaining a kind of ‘aristocracy of the spirit’ in the eyes of an admiring nineteenth-century public. During the last millennium, and especially in recent centuries, European society has seen its dynamism reflected in the progressive drive of its music.
The idea of progress has played a key role in the development of music since the Early Baroque era. In particular, composers in the nineteenth century became increasingly preoccupied with advancing the common musical language to the point where, like the society around it, the language exhausted its own potential. In contrast to previous ages, originality became de rigueur, as nineteenth-century musicians became increasingly aware of their historical context. With greater knowledge comes greater self-consciousness and pressure to act as an individual; as a result, twentieth-century composers often struggled to forge a personal musical style.
Instead of finding a single solution to the collapse of the common language, in recent years composers have had a plethora of options from which to construct a personal idiom. The norms from which musicians in previous ages could hammer...
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