Thursday, June 18, 2009

Western Music - A Short History


by James L. Zychowicz

Music in the Western Culture is the result of various influences, including the formalization of improvised traditions; the growth of notation; the development of tuning systems; the treatment of text; innovative approaches to form; the role of patronage; the absorption of various cultures into the style; the growth of technology; investigations of performance practice; and various other factors.

Western music also benefits from various dualities: sacred and secular traditions; monophonic and polyphonic textures; conservative and progressive tendencies; popularism and elitism; canon and non-canonic works; and other polarities. The western tradition is complicated by these various influences and perspectives, and formal musicological study often becomes a point of departure for other, more individualized investigations of music.


The western tradition of music has its origins in the chant tradition of the early Christian era. The monophonic music of chant dominated the middle ages, and included the composition of sequences and tropes. In the high middle ages, organum emerged, thus introducing polyphonic textures into liturgical music. By the thirteenth century, the motet became a seminal polyphonic composition and included liturgical and secular texts as well as a chant cantus firmus. In the Ars Nova of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, secular music was composed polyphonically, and resulted in elaborate contrapuntal devices and notational practices.

In the fifteenth century the early Renaissance polyphony showed evidence of a new style influenced on fauxbourdon and based on previously improvised traditions. At this time textures grew from a reliance on lower voices to treble-dominated textures. Renaissance motets and madrigals have their origins in the music of the Netherlands composers (Obrecht, Ockeghem, Busnois, Binchois) and the idiom culminates in the work of Josquin Desprez. With the late Renaissance, more national and secular music emerged, as found with the English madrigal and the French chanson.

The late sixteenth-century music included attempts to return to Greek drama. The latter resulted in the formulation of monody for declaiming music which was at the core of early opera (Caccini, Peri) and became a vehicle for composers like Monteverdi to take forward the nascent genre of opera. Italian opera (opera seria, opera buffa) soon dominated the early baroque style of the seventeenth century, which extended to the composition of oratorios on sacred subjects. In France opera soon took root, and a national style evolved starting with Lully.

In the seventeenth_century instrumental music developed on its own, treble_dominated texture of vocal music was supported by the basso continuo tradition of accompaniment. Works for instruments included keyboard suites (Froberger, Kerll) and sonatas, organ music (Frescobaldi), including various partitas and fugues, and trio sonatas (Corelli, et al.) for various combinations of instruments. Music for orchestra included sinfonias and concertos, including the concerto grosso.

The high baroque music of the eighteenth century was dominated by the genius of Bach and Handel. Bach composed music for almost every genre except opera; he left a corpus of liturgical music, including cantatas, that show the influence of the Reformation on musical style. Handel, as a German- born composer who studied in Italy and worked many years in England, shows the international aspects of the baroque style. Like Bach, he wrote in almost every genre, including opera seria and oratorio.

While Bach and Handel yet composed, a style change was taking place in the early eighteenth century. Rococo preferences moved toward simpler harmonies and more transparent textures, as well as a tendency toward instrumental music (C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Joseph Haydn). Later in the century, the Classic style of Haydn and Mozart dominated the music of Western Europe, with the symphony, sonata, and string quartet predominating, and the sonata principle at the core of musical structure. The opera seria of Handel and his generation gave way to opera buffa, as found with Mozart and others. The bel canto tradition in opera seria metamorphosed with Mozart and emerged later in the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.

The classical style may be seen to culminate in the music of Beethoven, who is perceived as the link between the classic and romantic style. This distinction is important for the so-called common practice era from ca. 1725 to 1900, that is the period of the defining tradition of western music. Beethoven contributed to almost every genre of music at the time, including piano sonata, string quartet, and symphony. He expanded the symphony with regard to form, orchestration, texture, and aesthetics, contributing programmatic elements to an otherwise self-contained style.

As the link to the romantic era that dominated the nineteenth century, Beethoven is a point of departure for many of the trends that existed in the era. The so-called Romantic style includes the growth of a number of varied and often antithetical influences. These include the development of the symphony as a genre; program music and the ideal of absolute music; grand opera; lieder; character pieces for piano; the piano sonata; national musical style; and the expansion of tonality and harmonic practice. The early Romantic composers include Schubert, Weber, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Chopin; among the later ones are Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, and Verdi.

With Wagner romantic opera expanded in terms of the orchestra, the scope of subject matter, the demands on voices, and the overall length. As a controversial figure, Wagner influenced the musical establishment, such that affinities were aligned with him and the music of the future, or with more conservative trends that reached back to Beethoven. Wagner's harmonic and timbral idiom was critical for the late romantic efflorescence at the end of the century that led to the so_called end of tonality as it was generally understood in the nineteenth century.

With Wagner, the dominance of the Austro-German tradition in nineteenth-century music became apparent. The extended harmonic and formal practices of Mahler, Richard Strauss, Schönberg, and others preceded the freer treatment of dissonance in the twelve-tone music of the New Viennese School of Schönberg, Berg, and Webern. At the same time, the Impressionism of the French composers Debussy and Ravel were based on non-functional harmonic principles. Composers like Bartók introduced folk elements into music.

Twentieth-century music includes many different styles and tendencies, including

At the same time, the rediscovery of the past has resulted in an explosion of interest in the authentic music of past cultures. Similarly, the eclecticism of twentieth-century culture touches upon the growth of ethnomusicology and the perspectives it offers to studies of more traditional western music.

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