Classical Month The History of Classical Music Part II: Baroque and Classical

April 22, 2015

In a previous blog we looked at Early Music, spanning such eras as Renaissance and Medieval before Claudio Montaverdi came in and decided the world was now ready to baroque. (Yes, we went there.)

It’s now time to not only focus on this era but also the Classical movement, which features a number of names you may well recognise. So what are you waiting for? Head over to YouTube, tap in ‘classical music’, select the first video you come across and allow the gorgeous orchestral piece to play as we bring you (almost) up to speed on the history of classical music.

Montaverdi baroqued up around 1609 with his opera L'Orfeo (the first of its kind) and by 1750, it was all over. Everybody was baroqued out, having had enough of the florid, long and elaborate tunes. It was an interesting time though and it could well be that Shakespeare hummed his favourite piece whilst penning Hamlet. Indeed, the first real orchestras came about around this time, one of the earliest being the 24 Violins of the King at the Versailles Court of Louis XIV.  

The general setup of a baroque concert is to have a group of soloists as well as the main orchestra, which when taken together is known as Concerto Grosso meaning ‘Great concerto’. Baroque also features musical opposites in the form of cantata and sonatas, something which makes sense as ‘baroque’ literally means ‘bizarre’. The former comprises pieces of music that are sung (normally for church), whilst the latter is purely instrument-based. There is also ‘the suite’, a collection of dance-inspired movements which often begin with an overture. For big names in this area, you’re mainly looking at Bach and Handel who rather interestingly were both born in 1685. What a year! Vivaldi was another who contributed to the movement, composing over 500 concertos. Oh yes, Baroque Had Talent.

The Royal Opera House opened in London on Baroque’s watch in 1732 and you may be aware that Stradivarius violins are the most expensive violins in the world. Well guess what? They too came about in the 1700s, carved to perfection by the great Antonio Stradivari, though it should be noted that there were many brilliant Italian violin makers.

Rather interestingly, the Classical era was then ushered in around 1750 and reigned supreme for 70 years. Elegance is what typified the era and, with the public inspired by the excavations of Pompeii, all things classical – that is to say, Roman and Greek – were very much ‘in’. Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart were the titans of the time as symphonies became the norm and the quartet was featured for the very first time. This simple creation allowed the four part harmony, with which one can do just about anything.

Rich noblemen were known for their extravagancies and owning your own orchestra was something that many aspired to achieve. Composers meanwhile were workmen for hire, originally commissioned to create a symphony or two before ultimately becoming freelancers with Mozart perhaps being the most famous and one of the first. Classical is renowned for its human tunes, bigger orchestras and more of an emphasis on instrumental music than vocal and choral.

Now you may have noticed that classical music is called Classical Music, yet encompasses pretty much all eras. So why is that? Well, the truth is that nobody really knows though theories abound. Perhaps it’s because Mozart and Beethoven are the most famous composers of all time and both were classicists. Or perhaps it sounds more pleasing to the ear than ‘Early Music’ or ‘Baroque’.

Be sure to join us next time, when we shall delve into romantic and modern music.


Part I - Early Music (Medieval and Renaissance) - can be read here

Part III - Romantic and Modern - can be read here.  




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By Henry Fosdike