A brief history of classical music

Friday, February 24, 2023

A guided tour of the key composers and artistic movements that have made classical music the rich art-form that today still entrances, moves and uplifts

Johann Sebastian Bach

The birth of classical music

Fixing a date for ‘the beginning of classical music’ is as elusive as pin-pointing the millennium in which dinosaurs became extinct. 1000 AD merely provides a convenient starting point for the birth of modern Western music. It was around that date when the idea first occurred of combining several voices to sing a melody; it was the time, too, when the Church, for so long the most important influence and inspiration on the development of music, recognised a need to standardise the single-line unaccompanied chants that had been used for centuries in sacred ceremonies.

Gregorian chant

This early Christian music, derived from Greek songs and from the chanting used in synagogues, had evolved into what we now call plainsong, plainchant or Gregorian chant, the traditional music of the Western Church – a single melodic line, usually sung without accompaniment. (The Gregorian chant melodies sung today date from after the death of Pope Gregory in 604 AD.) Without any accepted written system to denote the pitch or length of a note, the scoring of music was inevitably a haphazard affair.

The invention of music notation

Guido d’Arezzo, a Benedictine monk whose life as a teacher and musical theorist usefully coincided with the Church’s need for musical unification, is generally credited with the introduction of a stave of horizontal lines by which one could accurately record the pitch of notes. He also came up with what we now call the tonic sol-fa system, used by singers, in which notes are named by their position in the scale, as opposed to being named after letters of the alphabet (a practice derived from the ancient Greeks).

Still there was no method of notating the length of a note. Without this, it is difficult to see how any sense of rhythm could be measured. Some scholars say that this was defined by the natural accentuation and emphasis of speech patterns and that therefore no special device was needed – the singers (without a conductor, of course) provided their own ‘flow’ and expression.

Saint Hildegard of Bingen (born c1098) left an extraordinary legacy of works from around this time, many of which have been recorded frequently, with one of the most outstanding recordings being ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’, a Gramophone Award-winning album from Gothic Voices with Emma Kirkby and Christopher Page, which has remained one of the best-sellers in the Hyperion catalogue for 40 years. David Fallows once noted in Gramophone that ‘part of her genius is the way she uses a relatively restricted melodic vocabulary with astonishing resource ... I keep hoping to find a medieval melodist who is quite as interesting.’

Alleluias – a specialist's guide: for many people, the term ‘alleluia’ brings to mind the eponymous Handel chorus, but, as Peter Quantrill argues, there are many and varied examples of the genre through the ages and into the 21st century.

The rules of harmony

With two of the three main elements of music – i.e. Melody and Rhythm – in the process of being codified, the idea of Harmony came into the world. Naturally, not all the singers in a choir would have the same vocal range, a problem for the comfortable unison singing of the psalms. So voices began to be divided according to natural range, chanting the Plainsong in parallel lines at two pitches, five notes apart (C-G for example) The gap between the two notes is called an interval, thus the singers sang the interval of a perfect fifth. From this apparently simple concept, but which took so long to implement, the idea grew that while one line sang the Plainsong (the ‘tenor’ or ‘holding’ part), others could weave another tune around it.

Rules were drawn up as to which part of the service could use which type of intervals. Gradually, the interval of a third (C-E), for long considered to be a dischord, was allowed. Within the moderately short time-scale of a century, we have Pérotin of Notre Dame – one of the early masters of Polyphony – writing music for three and four voices.

perotin of notre dame

Pérotin of Notre Dame

Secular music: the troubadours

Parallel to the development of liturgical (Church) music ran the flowering of the secular music of the troubadours, the poet-musicians who sang of beautiful ladies, chivalry, spring and suchlike. These were the successors of the court minstrels, employed to sing the great sagas and legends, who themselves had their less-educated counterparts in the jongleurs, itinerant singers and instrumentalists. Nobly-born for the most part, the troubadours came from Provence and Aquitaine (the trouvères, their northern counterparts, and the minnesingers of Germany were almost contemporary). Only about 60 manuscripts of troubadour and trouvère poetry survive today and few of them contain musical notation which, again, have indications only of pitch but not of note length.


These 200 years witnessed the birth of harmony, of modern musical notation, the dance and song craze which pervaded Europe during the time of the Crusades and the complex structure of the troubadours’ poetry – more than enough to ignite the imagination of Renaissance man.

The Renaissance

The study and use of chords is what we call Harmony. Diaphony – ‘two-voiced’ music – dominated all musical composition till the 13th century; this two-part singing as applied to plainchant was also called organum. Voices would sing an octave apart (C-C), a perfect fifth (C-G), a perfect fourth (C-F) or a major third (C-E) apart.

Polyphonic music: The New Art

Polyphony is also concerned with the sounding of more than one note, but through melody – the word means ‘many-sounds’, ‘many-voiced’. The addition of a third, fourth or more independent musical lines sung or sounded together was the next obvious development, and it was the extraordinary Philippe de Vitry, a French bishop, musical theorist, composer, poet and diplomat, who showed the way forward in a famous book called The New ArtArs Nova (as opposed to the Ars Antiqua of Guido d’Arezzo). Time-signatures indicated a rhythm for the music and improvements in notation symbolised note lengths – the ancestors of our minim, breve and semibreve. Guillaume de Machaut (another French priest, poet and composer) took de Vitry’s ideas a stage further and wrote both secular songs and settings of the Mass (1364 – the earliest known complete setting by one composer) with three and four polyphonic voices.

● Recommended recording review: 'Machaut – The lion of nobility' (Orlando Consort)

Though France was the musical centre of Europe at this time, Italy was developing its own ars nova independently with music that reflected the warmth and sensuality of the country, in contrast to the more intellectual Gallic writing. England, less affected by ars nova, did not make a significant contribution to any musical development until the arrival of John Dunstable. Living in France as the court composer to the Duke of Burgundy (the younger brother of Henry V), Dunstable used rhythmic phrases, traditional plainchant and added other free parts, combining them into a flowing, mellifluous style. Nearly 60 pieces of his music still survive.

Guillaume Dufay

Dunstable in turn influenced the Burgundian composers Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, whose music can be said to be the stylistic bridge between ars nova and the fully developed polyphony of the 15th century. The technical aspects of musical composition and the almost mathematical fascination with note combination began slowly to open the door to the personality of a composer being reflected in his music.

Top 10 Renaissance composers: our beginner's guide to the greatest composers of the Renaissance period.

Out of the church

By the middle of the 15th century, the royal palaces and the great houses of the noblemen had usurped the Church as the single most important influence on the course of music (in 1416, Henry V of England employed more than 30 voices in the Chapel Royal while the Papal Chapel had only nine). One by-product was the closer relationship between secular music and the music of the Church, a cross-pollination which benefited the development of both. The musicians who passed through the Burgundian court disseminated its style and learning to all points of the European compass.

Josquin Desprez and expressive music

The most noticeable advances during this period were the increased freedom composers gave to their vocal lines and the difference in the treatment of the texts they set. Previously, words had to fit the music; now the reverse was the case and this is no better illustrated than by the work of one of the next generation of composers to become renowned throughout Europe, Josquin Desprez. His music incorporates a greater variety of expression than any previously – there are even flashes of quirky humour – and includes attempts at symbolism where the musical ideas match those of the text. With various voices singing in polyphony, it is difficult to follow the words; where the subject called for the words to be heard clearly, Josquin wrote music that had the different voices singing different notes but the same words at the same time – chordal music, in other words.

Not surprisingly, Josquin has been called ‘the first composer whose music appeals to our modern sense of art’. After him, it is easy for our ears to follow the development of music into the language which is familiar to us today through the works of the great classical composers of two centuries later.

josquin desprez

Josquin Desprez

The 16th century witnessed four major musical phenomena: the polyphonic school reached its zenith, the tradition of instrumental music was founded, the first opera was produced and music began to be printed for the first time. For most people, the opportunity to see and read music had simply not been there; musicians could now, for the first time, stand around a score printed in a book and sing or play their part. Limited and expensive though it was, music was now available. No wonder it flourished so rapidly.

A musical explosion

It’s hard to conceive now of the central importance of the Christian Church at this time. The buildings which the men of the Renaissance erected with such splendour and confidence symbolised the age of ‘re-birth’ and the music of the time rose to fill the naves of the great European cathedrals. Palestrina in Italy, Lassus in the Netherlands and Byrd in England carried on from where Josquin had left off to produce complex and richly expressive works which took the art of polyphonic writing for the voice to new heights and demonstrated man’s ability to express his faith with a glory and fervour that no previous century had matched.

Giovanni Palestrina

Giovanni Palestrina


How was this rich cloth of musical gold woven? One distinguished writer on music, Percy Scholes, drew an illuminating analogy on musical ‘fabric’ when discussing the music of Palestrina. ‘Woven’ he felt, was an appropriate word for this kind of composition. ‘The music consists of the intertwining of a fixed number of strands. And as [the composer] weaves he is producing a ‘woof’ as well as a ‘warp’. Looked at as warp the composition is a horizontal combination of melodies; looked at as woof it is a perpendicular collection of chords. The composer necessarily has both aspects in his mind as he pens his piece, but the horizontal (or ‘warp’) aspect is probably uppermost with him. Such music as this we speak of as ‘Contrapuntal’ or as ‘in Counterpoint’. The ‘woof’ (= perpendicular, ie ‘Harmonic’) element is there, but is less observable than the ‘warp’ (= horizontal, i.e. ‘Contrapuntal’). A moment’s thought will show that all Contrapuntal music must also be Harmonic, and a second moment’s thought that not all Harmonic music need be Counterpoint.’

It had taken 1000 years from the earliest Plainsong for the tradition to develop into the elaborate, highly sophisticated art form, which produced such masterpieces as Palestrina’s Stabat mater, Victoria’s Ave verum Corpus and Byrd’s O Quam Gloriosum.

● Recommended recording review: Byrd Edition, Volume 13 - Infelix ego (The Cardinall's Musick / Andrew Carwood)

The madrigal and the birth of opera​

Now, new preoccupations challenged composers. The reverent, lush choral works of the Church, mainly from Northern Europe, became fertilised by the lively, sunny dances and songs of the south. The secular counterparts of the church musicians led to the madrigal, a contrapuntal setting of a poem, usually about 12 lines in length, and whose subject was usually amorous or pastoral. The emphasis was on the quality of word-setting and the form proved remarkably popular if short-lived – especially in England (perhaps because of our great literary heritage) where the likes of Gibbons, Weelkes and Morley were the madrigal’s finest exponents.

The madrigals, like the liturgical motets and settings of the Mass, were all for unaccompanied voices – that was how the vast majority of music produced up to this time was conceived. It wasn’t until the end of the 14th century that instrumental music began to emerge as an art-form in its own right. The recorder, lute, viol and spinet had played their part in dance music and in accompanying voices (occasionally replacing them) but now composers such as Byrd, Gibbons, Farnaby and Frescobaldi began to write music for specific instruments, though it must be said that the art form did not truly flourish until the Baroque era. Musicians would join together to play a series of varying dance tunes, forming a loosely-constructed suite; or a player might improvise his own tune round another’s – a ‘fancy’ or ‘fantasia’; or they might compose variations on a tune played over the same repeating bass line – ‘variations on a ground’ as it’s called. Other innovations were by the Italians Andrea Gabrieli (c1510-86) – the first to combine voices with brass instruments – and his nephew Giovanni (1557-1612), whose antiphonal effects for choirs of brass instruments might have written for our modern stereo systems.

William Byrd

And it was from Italy that the next important step in musical history was taken. Indeed Italy was the country – actually a collection of small independent states at the time, ruled by a number of affluent and cultured families – which would dominate the musical world for a century and a half from 1600. Such was the power of Italian influence at this time that music adopted the language as its lingua franca. To this day, composers almost universally write their performance directions in Italian. One particular word, opera, described a new art form: that of combining drama and music. No one had thought of the concept till the end of the 16th century.

In the late 16th century, artists, writers and architects became interested in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. In Florence, a group of the artistic intelligentsia became interested in how the ancient Greek dramas were performed. Experimenting with declaiming the more poetic passages and using a few chords of instrumental music to accompany other passages in natural speech rhythm, the idea of music reflecting, supporting and commenting upon dramatic action was born: dramma per musica (‘drama by means of music’), a play with a musical setting.

Claudio Monteverdi

Into the ring then came one of the supreme musicians of history, Claudio Monteverdi. He did not write the first opera (that honour goes to Jacopo Peri and his Dafne, now lost, of 1594 or 1597) but with one work, Orfeo (1607) he drew up the future possibilities of the medium. Solo singers were given a dramatic character to portray and florid songs to sing, there were choruses, dances, orchestral interludes, scenery. Opera was a markedly different entertainment to anything that had gone before but, more importantly, it was a completely new way of using music. The earliest known opera by a woman is La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini, written to celebrate the visit of Archduke Karl of Styria to Florence during the carnival season of 1625, and Caccini's masterpiece. Caccini was the first professional female composer, and there is a fine recording of La liberazione by La Pifarescha led by Elena Sartori on Glossa.

The Baroque period

Monteverdi’s successors such as Pier Cavalli and Marc’Antonio Cesti developed a type of flowing, lyrical song inspired by the flow of spoken Italian – bel canto (‘beautiful singing’) which in turn encouraged the prominence of the singer. Dramatic truth soon went out of the window in favour of the elaborate vocal displays of the opera soloists – composers were only too happy to provide what their new public wanted – and no class of singers were more popular than the castrati. Feted wherever they appeared, the castrati, who had had their testicles removed as young boys to preserve their high voices, were highly paid and immensely popular, a not dissimilar phenomenon to The Three Tenors of today (with two small differences). The practice of castration to produce an entertainer, an extraordinarily barbaric concept, was only halted in the early 19th century. The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, actually survived until 1922 and made a dozen or so records in 1902.

St Paul had written that women should keep silent in church. They were therefore not available for the taxing high lines in church music. If the origins of the castrati could be laid firmly at the door of the Church, similar dogma can also be held responsible for the slow progress of instrumental composition. From the earliest times the Church had voiced its disapproval of the practice. St Jerome had declared that no Christian maiden should know what a lyre or flute looked like (let alone hear what they sounded like). The weakening of the Church’s authority after the Reformation encouraged composers in the writing of instrumental music for groups, music moreover that took into account the relative strengths and colours of the different instruments, another new concept. The same change of emphasis led also to a flood of brilliant instrumental soloists. Among them was a brilliant Italian-born violinist named Jean-Baptiste Lully who went to France in 1646. Here he worked for King Louis XIV, the extravagant builder of Versailles who employed 120 musicians in various bands. An orchestra of ‘Twenty-four Violins’ provided music at the French court; with Lully’s addition of flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets and timpani, the modern orchestra began to emerge.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-77) was one of the most widely-published composers of her time and her secular songs have a central place in many singer's repertories centuries later. There are dozens of good recordings of Strozzi's music to explore, but most recently the 2023 Gramophone Concept Award-winner 'Battle Cry: She Speaks' by Helen Charlston and Toby Carr featured the compelling ‘L'Eraclito amoroso’ and ‘La travagliata’. In her review, Alexandra Coghlan noted Charlston's 'articulation that pulls us up short, swift shifts of tone and colour that catch the mercurial play of musical light through Strozzi’s monologues'. 

The sonata forms

Another important by-product of the Italian opera was the introduction of the sonata – the term originally simply meant a piece to be sounded (played), as opposed to sung (cantata). Although it quickly took on a variety of forms, the sonata began with the Italian violinists imitating the vocal display elements of opera – a single melody played against a harmonised background or, if you like, accompanied by chords. This was a huge difference from the choral works of a century before driven by their polyphonic interweavings. Now there was music which, even if there was no background accompaniment, the listener’s ears could supply the harmony mentally – you could tell where the tune was going to resolve, you could sense its shape and destination more easily. With the musical emphasis on harmony – a key feature of the coming century and a half – rhythm began to take an increasingly important part. Chordal patterns naturally fall in sequences, in regular measures or bars. Listen to a chaconne by Purcell or Handel and you realise that the theme is not a tune but a sequence of chords. Measuring the beats in a bar (one-two or one- two-three or one-two-three-four – the emphasis always on the first beat) gives the music a sense of form and helps its onward progress. Phrases lead the ear to the next sequence like the dialogue between two people, exchanging thoughts in single words, in short sentences or in long paragraphs. Sing a simple hymn tune like All people that on earth do dwell and you are aware of what music had now acquired – a strong tonal centre.

Henry Purcell

Makers of musical instruments responded by adapting and improving instruments: the great Italian violin makers Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri, the Ruckers family of Antwerp with its harpsichords and the Harris family of England building organs.

A final contribution to this period was made by Italian opera. The use of the orchestra in opera naturally led to the expression of dramatic musical ideas – one reason why the Italian orchestra developed faster than elsewhere. Round about the start of the 18th century composers began to write overtures in three sections (fast-slow-fast), providing the model for the classical sonata form used in instrumental pieces, concertos and symphonies for the next 200 years and more.

Thus this ‘homophonic’ period, emphasising music with a single melody and harmonic accompaniment, melted seamlessly during the 17th century into the Baroque era of Vivaldi, Bach and Handel.

Top 10 Baroque composers

The concerto is born

The concerto developed from the dance suites popular in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century, known as the sonata da camera. Originally a composition that contrasted two groups of instrumentalists with each other, the form developed into the concerto grosso (‘great concerto’) of which the first leading exponent was Arcangelo Corelli. Here a group of solo string instrumentalists alternate with the main body of strings in a work, usually of three or four movements. Geminiani, Albinoni, Torelli, Handel and others contributed to the form. The solo concerto was but a short step from here where a soloist is contrasted with (later pitted against) the orchestra. No concertos of this period have achieved the popularity of Vivaldi’s whose 500 essays in the genre (mainly for strings but sometimes for wind instruments) are the product of one of the most remarkable musical minds of the early 18th century. The Four Seasons, among the best known and most frequently-played pieces of classical music, illustrates the new concept.

Top 10 Vivaldi recordings: 10 of the best Vivaldi recordings, including Gramophone Award-winners and Editor's Choice albums

Northern Europe provided the springboard for the rapid development of keyboard music: the North German school of organ music, founded by Frescobaldi and Sweelinck a century before, with its interest in contrapuntal writing, laid the way for the likes of Pachelbel and Buxtehude whose line reached its peak in the great works of Bach. Meanwhile Rameau and Couperin in France were producing short descriptive harpsichord pieces (as well as operas) in a style that is called ‘rococo’ – from the French rocaille, a term originally alluding to fancy shell and scroll work in art. It was predominantly diverting rather than elevating and rococo usefully defines the character of lighter music written in the Baroque period, especially when contrasted with the works of the two musical heavyweights of the time, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach in his own time was considered old-fashioned, a provincial composer from central Germany. But his music contains some of the noblest and most sublime expressions of the human spirit and with him the art of contrapuntal writing reached its zenith. The 48 Preludes and Fugues for The Well-Tempered Clavier explore all the permutations of fugal writing in all the major and minor keys; his final work, The Art of Fugue (left incomplete at his death) takes a mathematical delight in the interweaving of contrapuntal variations on the same theme. Yet the technical brilliance of Bach’s music is subsumed in the expressive power of his compositions, in particular his organ music, church cantatas and the great St Matthew Passion and Mass in B minor. His instrumental music is evidence that he was by no means always the stern God-fearing Lutheran – the exuberant six Brandenburg Concertos show that he was well acquainted with the sunny Italian way of doing things and many of his most beautiful and deepest thoughts are reserved for the concertos and orchestral suites. His influence on composers and musicians down the years has been immeasurable. For many he remains the foundation stone of their art.

● Recommended recording review: Bach's St Matthew Passion (Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon)

Bach’s great contemporary, Handel, also came from Germany but in contrast was a widely travelled, man-of-the-world who settled in England and became a shrewd entrepreneur and manipulator of musical affairs. In instrumental forms, such as the concerto grosso, Handel was equally at home writing in homophonic or polyphonic style and introduced a variety of wind/string combinations in his colourful scoring. He developed the typical 17th-century dance suite into such famous (and still immensely popular) occasional works as The Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music. Opera was a field into which Bach never ventured but Handel – between 1711 and 1729, – produced nearly 30 operas in the Italian style until the public tired of these when, ever the pragmatist, he turned to oratorio. An oratorio is an extended setting of a (usually) religious text in dramatic form but which does not require scenery or stage action. Handel’s have an immense dramatic and emotional range and often employ daring harmonies, never mind the unending stream of glorious melodies and uplifting choruses.

George Frideric Handel

Bach was the last great composer to be employed by the church, fittingly, for the church had been the mainspring for the progress of polyphonic music and Bach was the ne plus ultra of the style. Henceforward, musical patronage came from the nobility and the nobility preferred music that was elegant, entertaining and definitely not smacking of anything ‘churchy’. Following the 17th century’s example of the French court and Italian principalities, every European duke worth his salt aspired to his own orchestra and music director. One such was the court of Mannheim where an orchestra under the direction of Johann Stamitz raised orchestral playing to a standard unheard of previously. A new era, breaking away from the contrapuntal writing of the later Baroque, was ushered in.

The 50 best Johann Sebastian Bach recordings

The 50 greatest George Frideric Handel recordings

The Classical era

The term ‘Classical Music’ has two meanings: used to describe any music which is supposedly ‘heavy’ (as opposed to pop or jazz as in ‘I can’t stand classical music’) and also a certain period in the development of music, the Classical era. This can be summarised as music which is notable for its masterly economy of form and resources and for its lack of overt emotionalism. If Bach and Handel dominated the first half of the 17th century, Haydn and Mozart are their counterparts for the latter half and represent all the virtues of the Classical style.

Top 10 Classical era composers: the Classical era was dominated by many of the greatest composers in the history of music, including Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert

This can be traced back to a generation or so before the birth of Haydn to the rococo style of Couperin and Rameau and, more powerfully, in the invigorating keyboard works of Domenico Scarlatti whose more than 500 short sonatas composed in his sixties demonstrate a brilliance that only Bach equalled. Scarlatti, though, writing on a smaller scale, had the specific intent of delighting and instructing his pupil, the Queen of Spain. His near-contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann brought the rococo style to Germany. Lighter and even more fecund than Bach, Telemann was held in far greater esteem in his lifetime than Johann Sebastian. Despite his stated credo (‘He who writes for the many does better work than he who writes only for the few… I have always aimed at facility. Music ought not to be an effort, an occult science’) the two greatly admired each other to such an extent that Bach named his son Carl Philipp Emanuel after Telemann and chose him as godfather.

Georg Philipp Telemann

CPE Bach’s music represents a cross-roads between the Franco-Italian rococo and the emerging classical schools – indeed, in some of his keyboard music he seems to anticipate Beethoven. His piano sonatas, making use of the expressive powers of the newly invented pianoforte, lead us to redefine the term ‘sonata’ as used in the previous century. Now the sonata became a formalised structure with related keys and themes. These Bach developed into extended movements, as opposed to the short movements of the Baroque form. Listening to CPE, perhaps the most original and daring composer of the mid-18th century, one becomes aware of the serious and comical, the inspired and the routine, lying side by side with engaging unpredictability.

Parallel to this was the work of Johann Stamitz. His music is rarely heard today yet he and his son Carl (1746-1801) were pioneers in the development of the symphony. This form had grown out of the short quick-slow-quick one-movement overtures or sinfonias of Italian opera. Stamitz, in the employ of the Mannheim court, had one of the most distinguished orchestras in Europe under his direction. The symphonies he wrote were to be the pattern for those of Haydn and Mozart – in them we can see, as in CPE Bach’s sonatas, use of related keys, two contrasted first movement subjects (themes) and the graceful working out and development of material. He was the first to introduce the clarinet into the orchestra (and was probably the first to write a concerto for the instrument), also allowing the brass and woodwind greater prominence. His orchestral crescendos, a novel effect at this time, were said to have excited audiences to rise from their seats.

Italy had dominated the musical world of the 17th and early 18th centuries with its operas and great violinists. From the middle of the 18th century, the centre of musical pre- eminence moved to Vienna, a position it would retain until the last of the Hapsburg emperors in the early years of the 20th century. The Hapsburgs loved music and imported the best foreign musicians to court; the imperial chapel became a second centre of musical excellence. Equally important was Vienna’s location at the centre of Europe. With the Viennese court as its focus, all kinds of influences met and mingled from nearby Germany, Bohemia and Italy.

Sonata form and the symphony

There is less than half a century between the death of Handel (1759) and the first performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio (1809). Bach and Handel were still composing when Haydn was a teenager. To compare the individual ‘sound world’ of any of these four composers is to hear amazingly rapid progress in musical thinking. Without doubt, the most important element of this was the development of the sonata and symphonic forms. During this period, a typical example generally followed the same basic pattern: four movements – 1) the longest, sometimes with a slow introduction, 2) slow movement, 3) minuet, 4) fast, short and light in character. Working within this formal structure, each movement in turn had its own internal structure and order of progress. Most of Haydn’s and Mozart’s sonatas, symphonies and chamber music are written in accordance with this pattern and three-quarters of all Beethoven’s music conforms to ‘sonata form’ in one way or another.

Joseph Haydn

Haydn’s contribution to musical history is immense, he was nicknamed ‘the father of the symphony’ (despite Stamitz’s prior claim) and was progenitor of the string quartet. Like all his well-trained contemporaries, Haydn had a thorough knowledge of polyphony and counterpoint (and, indeed, was not averse to using it) but his music is predominantly homophonic. His 104 symphonies cover a wide range of expression and harmonic ingenuity. The same is true of the string quartets. With its perfect balance of string sound (two violins, viola and cello), the implicit economy in the scoring, the precision and elegance in the handling of the medium, the string quartet is the quintessential Classical art form.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart composed 41 symphonies and in the later ones (try the famous opening of No 40 in G minor) enters a realm beyond Haydn’s – searching, moving and far from impersonal. This is even more true of the great series of piano concertos, among music’s most sublime creations, where the writing becomes deeply involved – the slow movement of the A major Concerto (K488) is grief-stricken, anticipating the writing of a future generation. It was Mozart, too, who raised opera to new heights. Gluck had single-handedly broken away from the ossified, singer-dominated Italian opera and shown in works such as Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) that music must correspond to the mood and style of the piece, colour and complement the stage action; arias should be part of the continuous action and not merely stuck in to display the singer’s vocal talents. Mozart went further and in his four masterpieces The Marriage of FigaroCosì fan tutteDon Giovanni and The Magic Flute revealed more realistic characters, truer emotions (and, of course, incomparably greater music) than anything that had gone before. Here, for the first time, opera reflected the foibles and aspirations of mankind, themes on which the Romantic composers were to dwell at length.

The 50 best Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart recordings

Haydn - the poor man’s Mozart?

Revolution in the air

‘The Old Order Changeth’: for the first half of the 19th century, Europe, taking its cue from the French Revolution and American War of Independence, was imbued with a spirit of general political unrest, culminating in the 1848 uprisings. Nationalism, the struggle for individual freedom and self-expression were reflected and indeed created by all the arts – the one fed off the other. The neat, well-ordered regime of the periwig and minuet gave way to the impetuous, passionate world of the tousle-headed revolutionary.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven coupled his genius for music with profoundly held political beliefs and an almost religious certainty about his purpose. With the possible exception of Wagner, no other composer has, single-handedly, changed the course of music so dramatically and continued to develop and experiment throughout his entire career. His early music, built on the Classical paths trod by Haydn and Mozart, demonstrates his individuality in taking established musical structures and re-shaping them to his own ends. Unusual keys and harmonic relationships are explored, while as early as the Third Symphony (Eroica), the music is vastly more inventive and cogent than anything Mozart achieved even in a late masterpiece like the Jupiter. Six more symphonies followed, all different in character, all attempting new goals of human expression, culminating in the great Choral Symphony (No 9) with its ecstatic final choral movement celebrating man’s existence. No wonder so many composers felt daunted by attempting the symphonic form after Beethoven and that few ever attempted more than the magic Beethovenian number of nine.

How Beethoven’s symphonies changed the world: Ludwig van Beethoven's symphonies have influenced every generation of composers since they were written. Riccardo Chailly talks to Philip Clark about the enduring power of the symphonies

His chamber music tells a similar story, building on the classical form of the string quartet, gradually making it his own (listen to the Middle Period Razumovsky quartets) until the final group of late quartets which contain music of profound spirituality and deeply felt personal statements – light years from the recent world of his illustrious predecessors. The cycle of 32 piano sonatas reflect a similar portrait of his life’s journey; the final three of his five piano concertos and the sublime Violin Concerto are on a par with the symphonies and quartets. His single opera Fidelio, while not a success as a piece of theatre, seems to express all the themes that Beethoven held most dear – his belief in the brotherhood of man, his disgust at revolutionaries-turned-dictators, the redeeming strength of human love. All this was achieved, romantically enough, while he himself struggled with profound deafness. Beethoven’s unquenchable spirit and his ability to use music to express himself places him in the forefront of man’s creative achievements. ‘Come the man, come the moment’ – Beethoven’s lifespan helpfully delineates the late classical period and the early Romantics. His music is the titanic span between the two.

Franz Schubert

Those who followed revered him as a god. Schubert, the next great Viennese master, 27 years younger but who survived him by a mere 18 months, was in awe of Beethoven. He did not progress the symphonic or sonata forms, there was no revolutionary zeal in his make-up. What he gave was the gift of melody. Schubert is arguably the greatest tunesmith the world has ever known and in his more than 600 songs established the German song (or Lied) tradition. From his Erlkönig (1815) onwards, Schubert unerringly caught the heart of a poem’s meaning and reflected it in his setting. For the first time, too, the piano assumed equal importance with the vocal part, painting a tone picture or catching the mood of the piece in its accompaniment.

The Romantic piano

And it was the new iron-strung pianos which came to be the favoured instrument of the first part of the Romantic era. A bewildering number of composer-pianists were born just after the turn of the century, the most prominent of whom were Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Of these, Mendelssohn relied on the elegant, traditional structures of Classicism in which to wrap his refined poetic and melodic gifts. Many of his piano works (his Songs Without Words, for example) and orchestral pieces (Hebrides Overture and Italian Symphony, No 4) describe nature, places, emotions and so forth. Schumann, too, favoured such short musical essays with titles like Traümerei and Des Abends to evoke a mood or occasion – ‘characteristic pieces’ they were called, ‘programme music’ later on. The undisputed master of the romantic keyboard style was Frédéric Chopin. Almost his entire oeuvre is devoted to the piano in a string of highly individual and expressive works composed in the short period of 20 years. Fifty years after his early death in 1849, composers were still writing pieces heavily influenced by him. Chopin rarely used descriptive titles for his work (beyond such labels as Nocturne, Berceuse or Barcarolle). The technical and lyrical possibilities of the instrument were raised to new heights in such masterpieces as the Four Ballades, the final two (of three) piano sonatas and the many short dance-based compositions. Most of these derived from his homeland of Poland and, as a self-imposed exile living in Paris, Chopin was naturally drawn to expressing his love of his country. Nationalism of a much more fervent kind was to be a key factor in the music of composers writing later in the Romantic tradition (Chopin himself, incidentally, disliked being labelled ‘a Romantic’).

Louise Farrenc's three symphonies, as Richard Wigmore wrote in Gramophone, ‘represent a double triumph: over sexual prejudice, in an age when female creative artists suffered from so many social constraints, and over the French establishment’s resistance to a quintessential German genre.’ Farrenc's First Symphony was written in 1841 and her Third in 1847, and have been given an outstanding recording by Insula Orchestra and Laurence Equilbey (must read: Laurence Equilbey on Louise Farrenc the symphonist), about which Wigmore wrote: ‘these are among the earliest symphonies, if not the earliest, by any female composer. Yet when you listen to them Farrenc’s sex is irrelevant. This is music whose inventiveness and melodic fecundity can stand comparison with virtually any mid-19th-century symphony, and Equilbey and her forces prove ideal, committed advocates.’

But to truly define ‘the Romantic era’ in music, we have to look at the three composers who dominated the musical world for the second and third quarters of the 19th century and who pushed music onward to the dawn of the next: Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner.

Top 10 Romantic composers

Forgotten Romantic violin concertos

The Romantic era

Rebellion and freedom of expression lie at the heart of the Romantic movement in music, literature, painting and architecture, a self-conscious breaking of the bonds and belief in the right of the artist. Liszt, Byronic in looks and temperament, the greatest pianist of the day, gave us the solo piano recital, the ‘symphonic poem’ – the extended orchestral equivalent of Schumann’s ‘characteristic pieces’ – and a bewildering variety of music in all shapes and forms. The B minor Piano Sonata, in which all the elements of traditional sonata form are subsumed into an organic whole, is one of the cornerstones of the repertory; his final piano works anticipate the harmonies of Debussy, Bartók and beyond. While all of his music is by no means profound – there’s a great deal of gloss and glitter – his adventurous scores and his patronage and encouragement of any young composer who came to him made him one of the most influential musical geniuses of the entire century.

Top 15 Liszt recordings: A beginner's guide to the music of one of the great composer-pianists

Franz Liszt

Berlioz was not a pianist. Perhaps that is why he is the most important composer of the period in terms of orchestral writing. He based his music on ‘the direct reaction of feeling’ and could summon up with extraordinary vividness the supernatural, say, or the countryside or ardent lovers. Like Liszt, he never wrote a formal symphony: Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique are ‘programmatic’ and rely on their literary inspiration for their structure. Berlioz wrote on an epic scale, employing huge forces to convey his vision: the Grande Messe des Morts, for example, requires a tenor solo, brass bands and a massive chorus as well as an expanded orchestra. Théophile Gautier, whose Nuits d’été Berlioz set to music, summed Berlioz up thus: ‘[He] represents the romantic musical idea, the breaking up of old moulds, the substitution of new forms for unvaried square rhythms, a complex and competent richness of orchestration, truth of local colour, unexpected effects in sound, tumultuous and Shakespearean depth of passion, amorous or melancholy dreaminess, longings and questionings of the soul, infinite and mysterious sentiments not to be rendered in words, and that something more than all which escapes language but may be divined in music.’ Technical improvements in the manufacture of orchestral instruments – the brass and woodwind especially – helped composers like Berlioz achieve their ends, for the modern instruments provided a wider range and variety of sound. This additional colour in the composer’s orchestral palette encouraged more extended (sometimes seemingly formless) works. The prop of the symphonic structure was needed less, though, writing this at the beginning of the 21st century, many still enjoy the challenges of composing in that form.

Hector Berlioz – music's great revolutionary: Tim Ashley is joined by four great advocates of the composer to celebrate the self-taught, revolutionary musician whose eccentric genius is only now being fully recognised

Hector Berlioz

The third Titan of the Romantics was the most written- and talked-about composer of all time: Richard Wagner. As intelligent and industrious as he was ruthless and egocentric, Wagner’s great achievement was The Ring of the Nibelungen, a cycle of four operas which took opera from the realm of entertainment to a quasi-religious experience. Influenced by Beethoven, Mozart (held to be the first truly German operatic composer) and Meyerbeer (whose sense of epic theatre, design and orchestration impressed him), Wagner’s vision was to create a work that was a fusion of all the arts – literature, painting and music. He called his vision ‘music-drama’.

Some of his ideas had been anticipated 40 years earlier by Carl Maria von Weber, one of the first to insist on total control of all aspects of the production of his work and who, as early as 1817, wrote of his desire to fuse all art forms into one great new form. Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, the first German Romantic opera, was a milestone in the development of these ideas, using German mythology as its subject.

Richard Wagner

Wagner decided that the music must grow from the libretto (he supplied his own), that there must be no display arias for their own sake, inserted just to please the public; the music, like the opera’s narrative flow, must never cease, for the music is equally important in the telling of the story and commenting on the action and characters; leitmotivs, short musical phrases associated with different characters and moods, would recur throughout the score to underpin and bind the whole work. The orchestral contribution was at least as important as the vocal element. But Wagner was more than just an operatic reformer. He opened up a new harmonic language, especially in the use of chromaticism (see page XXXI). This had not only a profound influence on succeeding generations of composers but led logically to the atonal music of the 20th century.

Not all composers fell under Wagner’s spell. Brahms was the epitome of traditional musical thought. His four symphonies are far nearer the style of Beethoven than those of Mendelssohn or Schumann, and the first of these was not written until 1875, when Wagner had all but completed The Ring. Indeed Brahms is by far the most classical of the German Romantics. He wrote little programme music and no operas. It’s a curious coincidence that he distinguished himself in the very musical forms that Wagner chose to ignore – the fields of chamber music, concertos, variation writing and symphonies.

The 50 best Johannes Brahms albums

Top 10 Wagner recordings

Verdi v Wagner

It was only in old age that Giuseppe Verdi adopted some of Wagner’s musical ideas. The Italian represents the culmination of the different school of opera. Wagner’s operas are the descendants of Beethoven and Weber; Verdi’s developed from the comic masterpieces of Rossini and the Romantic dramas by Bellini and Donizetti. With the famous trilogy of Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853) and La traviata (1853), Verdi combined his mastery of drama with a flow of unforgettable lyrical melodies, creating masterpieces of the genre of which the public has never tired. Don Carlos (1867), Aida (1871), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) show a development and tirelessly searching mind that remain among the great miracles of music.

Giuseppe Verdi

One thing that Wagner and Verdi had in common was their fierce patriotism. In his own lifetime, Verdi was held as a potent symbol of Italian independence, while Wagner espoused the dubious theories which made him such hero of the Third Reich. During the course of the century, Western music, now dominated by German tradition and forms, began to be more and more influenced by the rise of nationalism. Composers wanted to reflect the character and cultural identity of their native lands by using material and forms which derived from their own country. Russia was the foremost in the surge of nationalism that now fertilised the Late Romantic era. Glinka was the first important Russian composer to use Russian subjects and folk tunes in his opera A Life for the Tsar. Influenced by the Italian tradition, it nevertheless succeeded in conveying typical Russian song and harmony and had a profound effect on Borodin, Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov – the so-called ‘Mighty Five’ (or ‘Mighty Handful’ – though Cui is hardly ‘mighty’ compared with the genius of his peers).

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Tchaikovsky, the most accomplished of all his Russian contemporaries, paid lip-service to the Nationalists, composing largely in the German tradition. Elsewhere in Europe, nationalist schools of music arose: in Bohemia there were Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček; in Scandinavia, NielsenGrieg and Sinding; in Finland, Sibelius, whose seven symphonies developed the medium in a highly arresting and individual way; in Spain, Albéniz, Granados and de Falla. Britain and the United States were slow in developing a nationalist school: Parry and Elgar wrote firmly in the German manner and it was not until the later arrival of Vaughan Williams and Holst that a ‘British’ (or at any rate ‘English’) sound began to emerge. America was a curious case. Its first native composer of any note, Gottschalk, used indigenous native rhythms for his (mainly) piano works as early as the 1850s – South American, New Orleans and Cuban elements are boldly to the fore. It took another half century before any music directly derived from American folk material began to assert itself in the form of jazz.

The dates for each period of music must be treated flexibly. The Romantic period embraces a wide divergence of personal styles and represents a long and rapid period in Western music’s development. In common with every aspect of life, the art developed at an ever-increasing pace. Parallel to the growth of Nationalism, came the Italian verismo school of opera, the school of Realism or Naturalism epitomised by the works of Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni, whose subjects were drawn from contemporary life presented with heightened violence and emotions. During the closing years of the period, emerging under the influence of Wagner, came the neo-Romantics whose use of massive symphonic structures and elaborate orchestration is heard in the music of BrucknerMahler, Scriabin and the early works of Richard Strauss.

How Vaughan Williams found his voice through folk song

The 50 best Mahler albums

The Nationalists

Towards the end of the century there was a reaction against the excesses of the Romantics – the too-obvious heart-on-sleeve approach, the emotional over-indulgence, the extra-musical programmes and philosophies began to pal. Just as the Baroque period had melted into the Classical period, the Classical drifted into the early Romantic era, so the close of the 19th century saw a tendency toward bold experimentation in new styles and techniques. Coinciding with the French Impressionist movement in painting and poetry, came Impressionist music, epitomised by the daring (at the time), personal harmonic idiom of Claude Debussy. Here emphasis was put not on the subject of a piece of music but on an emotion or sensation aroused by the subject. His music is just as closely organised as anything in the classical German manner but, using the whole-tone scale and fresh harmonies, Debussy conjures up a sensuous, atmospheric spell in his piano music and orchestral works. The fastidious Maurice Ravel followed in his footsteps with exotic evocations of light and colour, later tinged with jazz references.

By the turn of the century, it was no longer possible to define a dominant general musical trend. Under its many fragmented divisions we can only label the successor of the Classical and Romantic periods somewhat lamely ‘Modern Music’.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky studied with one of music’s great orchestrators, Rimsky-Korsakov. He orchestrated some of Beethoven’s piano sonatas as an exercise; he worked at counterpoint and learnt about classical forms – in other words, a sound, traditional conservatoire training. In less than a decade, we find Stravinsky writing music that is a world away from that of his mentor. The Firebird (1909), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), his three ballet masterpieces, became progressively more adventurous: in Petrushka we find bitonal passages (ie music written in two keys simultaneously), dissonant chords, a new rhythmic freedom and a percussive orchestral quality; in The Rite of Spring, a score which provoked a riot at its première, Stravinsky reduced all the elements of music to reinforce rhythm. Debussy and Schoenberg in certain of their works reduced music to the vertical effect of simultaneously sounding notes, so Stravinsky reduced melody and harmony to rhythm. As Alec Harman and Wilfred Mellers put it in their Man and His Music: ‘Harmony without melody and rhythm, rhythm without melody and harmony, are static. Both the pandemonium of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Debussy’s Voiles deprive music of the sense of motion from one point to another. Though they started from diametrically opposed points, both composers mark a radical departure from the traditions of European music since the Renaissance.’

Stravinsky the conductor: Riccardo Chailly and Teodor Currentzis talk to Peter Quantrill about what can – and can’t – be learnt from Stravinsky’s own recordings

Stravinsky went on to write in a number of other styles throughout his remarkable career, dominating the musical world for 50 years, in the same way that his almost exact contemporary Pablo Picasso dominated his field. Arguably, no other composer this century has exercised a greater influence than Stravinsky – Debussy and Ravel were less wide-ranging, Sibelius and Bartók less daring, Schoenberg and Webern less accessible.

Arnold Schoenberg is Stravinsky’s only rival as the musical colossus of the age – to some he opened the door on a whole new world of musical thought that is as exciting as it is challenging; to others he is the bogey man of music, who sent it spiralling out of reach to the ordinary man in the street until, nearly one hundred years later, it has revealed itself as a cul de sac.

Since the Renaissance, all music had a tonal centre. No matter how far away from the tonic – the basic key – the music wandered, the listener was always conscious of the inevitability of a final return to that centre. Increasingly towards the end of the 19th century, music began to incorporate intervals outside the prevailing diatonic scale with the result that a work would feature an extraordinary amount of modulation. This is known as chromatic writing, since intervals from the chromatic scale (not the diatonic scale) are used to harmonise a piece. Listen, for instance, to Wagner’s later works and to those of Mahler and Richard Strauss which followed closely on their heels. Hearing them, it becomes less clear as to which key the piece is written in, its tonal centre less obvious. What Schoenberg did was follow logically on from this and ask ‘If I can introduce these chromatic notes into my music, can a particular key be said to exist at all? Why should any note be foreign to any given key? Harmony is simply the sounding together of notes, so why shouldn’t the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale be accorded equal significance?’

The Second Viennese School

The theories and music of the so-called Second Viennese School – in succession to the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart et al – put the listener’s expectations on a wrong footing. There are none of the familiar features of chords we recognise, tunes we can hum or rhythms we can tap our feet to. Only the traditional manner of indicating on the score individual notes, time-signatures and expression marks remain. Because the vast majority of the music we are exposed to when growing up is tonal, it is fairly easy to assimilate a Beethoven symphony on a first hearing. Because serial music is written in a completely foreign language with which most of us have no reference points, its effect is like listening to a Scandinavian epic poem spoken in Japanese. The music lover has to acquire a knowledge of the language – in other words, the musical technique involved in the composition – before it can be appreciated. There are comparatively few who have the time to study Scandinavian poetry in Japanese translation, as it were.

Not all composers were attracted to the new technique but dissonance, atonality and the abandonment of melody are strong features of many composers’ work this century. Very little serial or atonal music has established itself in the regular concert repertoire; still less has found its way into the hearts and affections of the ordinary music-loving public. This, to jump forward in time, is especially true of music written since the Second World War. A list of works from the pens of world-famous contemporary composers will elicit a blank response form the majority of people. The avant-garde of today is taking far longer to become assimilated than the avant-garde of previous centuries. Opinions are deeply divided over the merits of a composer like Charles Ives, for example, whose polyrhythmic, polytonal works are far too complex for them ever to achieve popularity; Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Cage, Carter, Berio, Nono (the list is endless) will remain a closed book for most people. Yet each of these composers have a huge and fanatical following in certain quarters. Musical development will always, hopefully, have daring, fantastical innovators, examining new possibilities, expressing themselves in new and original ways. Whether they will ever find a broad, responsive and appreciative audience, only time will tell. Most new commissions have a premiere, a broadcast (if they’re lucky) and are then consigned to oblivion – in whatever musical language they’re written.

Sergei Rachmaninov

The other path taken by music this century is the one which retains its link with tonality and (increasingly, nowadays) with melody. Harsh and acid though some of Prokofiev’s music may be, his style is a tangible descendant of the Romantics. Shostakovich too, sharing Prokofiev’s love of the spiky, humorous and satirical, as well as the sombre and introspective, follows on from the same tradition. Rachmaninov to an even greater degree wrote in the late-Romantic vein, producing some of the most popular symphonies and concertos written this century. In France, the most important composers after Ravel and Debussy were Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc, three disparate composers un-usefully grouped together as Les Six (the other three made negligible contributions) and all influenced by the whimsical and eccentric Eric Satie. The most significant French composer since the Impressionists is Oliver Messiaen who introduced elements of Indian music and bird-song into the language of Western music. Pierre Boulez, whose complex works are often based on mathematical relationships, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose scores for his innovative electronic music are represented by charts and diagrams, are both pupils of Messiaen.

Florence Price (1887-1953) was the first black woman to have a symphony – her First in E minor – performed by a major American orchestra and her highly distinctive music has seen a great revival of interest in recent years. A recording of Price's First and Third symphonies by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin was Gramophone's Recording of the Month in the November 2021 issue and was shortlisted for a Gramophone Award in 2022, and there is a phenomenal recording of the Violin Concerto from the same forces with soloist Randall Goosby – an Editor's Choice in June 2023 (must read: Florence Price – out of the shadows).

No longer does one school of musical thought prevail. There seems little to link the socio-political operas of Kurt Weill and their brittle, haunting melodies with his contemporary Paul Hindemith and his dense, contrapuntal neo-classical idiom. Far less does Aaron Copland, born only five years later in 1900, have any connection with either. The first conspicuously great American-born composer, Copland used in his music folk material, the sixths and sevenths intervals of the blues, echoes of cowboy songs, jazz and the memory of Jewish synagogues. His Appalachian Spring (1944) has been compared by one critic to Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony.

Neglected for tar too long, Grażyna Bacewicz's string quartets were given an outstanding recording by the Silesian Quartet – a Recording of the Month in the August 2016 issue of Gramophone and winner of the Chamber Award the following year. As Richard Bratby summarised: ‘Bacewicz’s seven quartets, written between 1938 and 1965, really do create a whole imaginative universe. Taken individually, they’re fascinating; music of concentrated invention, life-affirming energy and superb technical skill (Bacewicz was a virtuoso violinist herself). Listened to as a cycle, they become a vivid portrait-in-the-round of Bacewicz’s life and times. You’ll hear the influences of Polish folk music, of Szymanowski and Bartók, and the post-war experiments of her younger contemporaries Lutosławski and Penderecki.’

The British legacy

The Purcell centenary of 1895 stimulated interest in the great heritage of England’s musical past; the English Folk Song Society was founded in 1898; the London Promenade Concerts were inaugurated in 1895 and suddenly, ‘the land without music’ found itself in the midst of a musical renaissance. No one deserves more credit for the revival of the nation’s musical fortunes than Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Vaughan Williams took as his creed the belief that ‘The Art of Music above all other arts is the expression of the soul of the nation’. English Tudor music, medieval tonalities and folk song attracted him, composing in what might loosely be called a romantic neo-classical style, using counterpoint, classical forms (such as the symphony and the fugue) and modern harmony. Holst was inspired similarly but also drew inspiration from the east – his most famous piece, The Planets, from the ideas of Chaldean astrology.

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was influential as a composer, a conductor, and as a member of the women's suffrage movement. Smyth's music is now finding strong advocates in the recording studio. A recording of Smyth's The Prison by the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus, under James Blachly, was shortlisted for a Gramophone Award in 2021, while the second of her six operas Der Wald has been recorded for Resonus by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and John Andrews (must read: Ethel Smyth’s opera Der Wald - a journey of discovery)

Of the succeeding generation, the most important have been Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and William Walton. Britten especially, with his many stage works, established English music on the international stage, writing for a wide variety of mediums including an opera for television (Owen Wingrave). Peter GrimesBilly BuddWar RequiemSerenade for Tenor, Horn and StringsThe Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – the list of works he composed since the Second World War now in the regular concert repertoire is remarkably high. Walton’s outstanding contributions were made before the war with FaçadeBelshazzar’s Feast, the Viola Concerto and the First Symphony. Tippett has had less lasting success compared with his two contemporaries but A Child of Our Time (1941), the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939) and the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953) will undoubtedly stay the course.

Of the more recent generations of British composers, it is still too early to say with any certainty who and what will be remembered in the great scheme of things 50 years hence. Elizabeth Lutyens, Humphrey Searle and the so-called Manchester School of Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr have their champions and devoted admirers; they do not always mix comfortably with the likes of Richard Rodney Bennett, Malcolm Arnold and George Lloyd – to name those born prior to the War and who each enjoy a loyal following.

Contemporary composers you need to discover today ...

Caroline Shaw

What were you doing when you were 30 years old? Caroline Shaw is unlikely to forget, for this was her age when she received the Pulitzer Prize for music. The year was 2013, and the accolade was for her a cappella piece Partita (2009-11) for eight voices. Composed for the vocal group Roomful of Teeth, of which she was (and still is) a member, the work was released on their Grammy-winning self-titled debut album in October 2012. It didn’t receive its full premiere until November the following year, when it was performed by the group at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York.

Partita for eight voices made Shaw the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for music. And in 2019, The Guardian ranked it as the 20th greatest work of classical music since 2000. All this for good reason – the piece is a vocal joyride. It begins with spoken word: ‘To the side. To the side. To the side and around’ – followed by a wall of harmonised euphoria. It continues with tides of song gathering and then drifting apart; flooding in and falling back. The work as a whole is inventive and pulls out all the stops when it comes to what a mouth and a pair of lungs can do: speech, whispers, sighs, wordless melodies and sundry other vocal techniques. It was inspired by artist Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 305 – ‘born’, as Shaw says, ‘of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another’.

Read the full article: 'Contemporary Composer: Caroline Shaw'

Anna Clyne

Cultural considerations are not the only things that have recently brought a host of female composers to prominence. Half a century ago the wholly different talents of Lutyens, Maconchy and Thea Musgrave need not have feared comparison with their male contemporaries – a situation mirrored now with the emergence of a new generation on the new music scene, from among whom Anna Clyne is striking for the rapidity with which her output has evolved into a mature idiom always lucid in its compositional craft and immediate in its emotional impact.

Born in London, Clyne studied music at the University of Edinburgh then at the Manhattan School of Music where her tutors included Julia Wolfe – a founder member of the influential ensemble Bang on a Can, which commissioned and performed several of her earlier pieces. Clyne had begun composing around the age of 10, and although the first acknowledged works date from her early twenties, an essentially youthful delight in the discovering as well as realising of unusual combinations of sound is a constant across all her music that emerged at this time.

Read the full article: 'Contemporary composer – Anna Clyne'

Hildur Guðnadóttir

Every aspect of a traditional ‘classical’ composer’s craft requires a degree of compromise. Notation, no matter how meticulously realised, can never fully represent the work as conjured in the composer’s imagination; and no performance or recording can ever fully recreate every intention of a score – so it becomes a compromise upon a compromise. This isn’t to say, of course, that the whole business of writing and recording music is a fruitless exercise, it is simply that each element of the process that requires the music to be ‘translated’ into another medium moves the music further from the composer’s initial conception – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

Advances in the affordability and accessibility of recording technology over the last few decades have made it possible to write and record entire albums’ worth of music from home, practically alone, on nothing more than a laptop. It’s a model that has been widespread in pop music for years, but there are also many composers who are self-producing recordings of great interest to Gramophone readers, and one of the most compelling and successful is Hildur Guðnadóttir.

Read the full article: 'Contemporary composer – Hildur Guðnadóttir'

Errollyn Wallen

An influential figure and inspirational role model for young musicians, respected and admired by fellow composers and performers, and recognised by the pillars of the British musical establishment, Errollyn Wallen is a leading figure in today’s classical music world. But the journey that she has taken has been nothing if not unconventional. Indeed, it could never have been any other way.

She was born in Belize, and at the age of two moved to London with her parents. She became a musician almost by accident, owing to the fact that she came from a musical family: her father was a fine amateur singer who wrote songs and introduced his young daughter to jazz, blues and the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald. Being a keen dancer, Wallen first experienced classical music at a ballet class when an accompanist suddenly started playing Chopin. She was absolutely mesmerised and immediately set about exploring classical music – in both its traditional and its more contemporary forms.

Read the full article: 'Contemporary composer – Errollyn Wallen'

Sofia Gubaidulina

As the Soviet system gradually lost its grip on power through the 1980s, a diverse range of compositional voices was released into the wider musical world. A generation of ‘unofficial’ composers, effectively an underground movement in the 1960s and ’70s, suddenly came to prominence. Western audiences were introduced to the sophisticated polystylism of Alfred Schnittke, the esoteric serialism of Edison Denisov, the serene tintinnabulation of Arvo Pärt – and to Sofia Gubaidulina. Her music was, and remains, difficult to categorise. She is a religious maximalist, who employs an often brutal modernist language to express and explore dimensions of her Christian faith. Her music always seems immediate and spontaneous, yet is underpinned by sophisticated mathematical procedures. And, while she embraces joy, hope and light in her music, she does so via extreme contrasts, often leading her listeners through dark and unsettling places on her very individual path to transcendence.

Gidon Kremer brought Gubaidulina’s music to international attention when he gave the premiere of her violin concerto Offertorium in Vienna in 1981. The Soviet authorities almost succeeded in preventing the concert from taking place, but it was made possible by Gubaidulina’s enterprising Western publisher, Jürgen Köchel, who smuggled the score out of the country to get it to Kremer. The premiere was a great success, and Kremer continued to spread the word in the following years, giving performances of the concerto with leading orchestras around the world.

Read the full article: 'Contemporary composer – Sofia Gubaidulina'

Jennifer Higdon


'Jennifer Higdon’s myriad accolades and accomplishments are impressive by any standard, but particularly in the world of contemporary classical music. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award. Her music is in such high demand that she’s able to compose exclusively on commission. And her champions include top-tier soloists, ensembles and orchestras. According to a recent survey of US orchestras, Higdon is one of the most performed living American composers.

'Yet Higdon’s most striking achievement doesn’t fit so easily into a biography, and that’s how thoroughly her music has filtered into every stratum of classical music culture in the United States. Glance through the ‘Upcoming Performances’ page of her official website and you’ll find that her work is being played not only by the Houston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, but also by municipal, community, and high school ensembles across the country. On the surface, it appears to be a simple formula: Higdon writes music that audiences like to hear and musicians find gratifying to play. But is it really so simple?..'

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Lera Auerbach


'In an age of multitasking habits, polymodal perceptions and multisensory experiences, we are all now expected to become polymaths. As Vinnie Mirchandani put it in his preface to The New Polymath (Wiley: 2010): ‘[We] can no longer be just one person but a collection of many.’ But in trying to become too many people, what is lost? Identity, depth, talent? Genius, perhaps?

'Lera Auerbach is a polymath in the original sense of the word – as defined and defended by Renaissance writers and thinkers; but she is also very much an artist of her time. Apart from being a successful composer and concert pianist, she’s a painter, sculptor, librettist and author of several books of poetry and prose, but for Auerbach these extramusical activities are not exercises in dilettantism: all art forms are interconnected and designed to nourish and sustain each other...'

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Sally Beamish


'In a way, music was Sally Beamish’s first language. Her mother, a violinist, taught her to read and write notes at the age of four – before she could play an instrument, before she could even read or write words. She would draw little flowers or faces on the manuscript and her mum would interpret how the graphic notation might sound. ‘I always wanted to make my own stuff,’ she says. ‘I’ve made my own clothes, written stories, painted…’ When she started learning piano aged five, she constructed herself a little exercise book.

'Today Beamish is one of the UK’s busiest and most warmly respected composers, with commissions coming in thick and fast for scores ranging from large-scale ballet and oratorios to chamber, theatre and solo works. At 60 she already has a catalogue of more than 200 pieces and that number is rising fast: this year she has been writing three piano concertos, among several other projects. For many listeners, the great appeal of Beamish’s music is the space it finds between softness and steel – her knack of blending folk-flecked lyricism, emotional candour, a sense of the natural world and a propulsive way with rhythm plus real economy, directness, luminous orchestrations and rigour of craft. She’s the kind of composer who seems to know exactly what she wants a piece to say and finds the most compassionate and least fussy way of saying it...'

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Augusta Read Thomas


'American classical music this past quarter-century has been dominated by the minimalist aesthetic that came to the fore as a reaction against the modernist thinking which had previously held sway. Currently it represents a virtual lingua franca in terms of its influence on mainstream composers. Others, however, have looked back (not in anger and still less out of nostalgia) to an era in which aspects of modernism were linked to a freely evolving tonality so that new possibilities were opened up for exploration. Only recently has this approach regained prominence, with Augusta Read Thomas being among its leading exponents.

'Born in Glen Cove, Long Island, in April 1964, Thomas studied at Yale University and later at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Chicago’s Northwestern University. To speak of influences is often unnecessarily subjective, yet two composers with whom she came into contact during this period were to leave their mark on her music in the most direct and positive sense. From Jacob Druckman (1928-96) she absorbed the value of instrumental colour as a formal and expressive component rather than just an external dressing, while in Donald Erb (1927-2008) she had the example of an orchestrator who was second to none in this respect among American composers of his generation. What this gave to Thomas’s music from the outset was its clarity of conception and precision of gesture (whether in the briefest of instrumental miniatures or in large-scale orchestral works), which act as the focus for her often intricate textures and iridescent harmonies – thereby ensuring that her work exudes an immediacy and a communicativeness whatever its degree of complexity and dissonance...'

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Unsuk Chin


'Curiouser and curiouser. Listening to the music of Unsuk Chin can feel like an adventure in Alice’s Wonderland. We start in familiar territory, with simple and attractive musical ideas, but these gradually weave into complex and unsettling textures. Soon we are down the rabbit hole, and nothing is quite what it seems. The music appears stable, until a subtle change in harmony casts it in an entirely new light. Perspectives change, motifs and melodies twist and distort. Simplicity gives way to beguiling complexity. Then everything stops, often with a thump from the percussion, and we are left contemplating the bizarre turn of events. Was it all a dream?

'Unsuk Chin has been fascinated by Alice in Wonderland since childhood, and it has inspired much of her music, most notably her 2007 Alice opera. But her take on the story is distinctive. The opera is full of moments of intrigue and wonder, but these are set against stark representations of the tale’s brutal absurdity – a fantastical yet always lucid conception, typical of Chin. As a Korean based in Germany, she has an outsider’s perspective on European culture, and her music regularly highlights its ingrained paradoxes. She is a voice of reason, bringing order to the surreal. Above all, she brings clarity, however complex her music becomes, with every note remaining audible, every motivation clear...'

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Anna Thorvaldsdóttir

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir

Before notating her works conventionally via the five lines of the musical stave, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir literally draws them. The pristine pencil illustrations this process spawns are something to behold. One of them is reproduced on the cover – and inside the booklet, in a more complete version – of what was the first album to feature her music and her music alone: Rhízoma.

The drawing features a consistent yet bumpy horizon of two almost-horizontal lines in counterpoint. Beneath that, multiple roots gather towards a single, thick trunk before breaking into four branches, fraying outwards at their end points (it could be a forbidding volcano; it could be a weedy turnip). Thoughts in text form are scattered around in meticulous block capitals: ‘In constant development’ / ‘Bell like’ / ‘I predict that the duration of this piece will be approximately 12-14 minutes’.

Speaking at an open question-and-answer session in Copenhagen in January, Thorvaldsdóttir explained that she uses drawings like these as compositional aids, devices for ‘mapping where a piece is going’. But they contain vital structural clues for the rest of us. In the case of this particular drawing – an image of the piece Streaming Arhythmia (2007) – we can trace how the biology of subterranean roots or ‘rhizomes’ has influenced the development of the music. The sketch also bears an uncanny resemblance to the landscape of Thorvaldsdóttir’s Iceland: a barren and highly atmospheric terrain characterised by black rock, dark moss, starkly outlined volcanic peaks and a total lack of trees.

Read the full article: 'Contemporary composer – Anna Thorvaldsdóttir'

Olga Neuwirth

Olga Neuwirth

The music of Olga Neuwirth (b1968) is richly allusive, moving freely between reference points as varied as Monteverdi, Weill, Miles Davis and Klaus Nomi. She has cited influences from Boulez to the Beastie Boys. Yet if there’s one artist whose aesthetic approach seems particularly close to hers, it isn’t a musician at all – it is film-maker David Lynch, the maverick director behind such cult classics as Twin Peaks (1990-91; 2017), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001). Bizarre juxtapositions, surreal narrative twists, vivid images of obscure significance: his films are not just strange but also uncanny – even inexplicable at times – as they journey into dreamlike worlds in which the standard rules of time, space and sense seem to drift away. Music may be a more abstract medium than film, but Neuwirth’s work proves its ability to be just as fascinatingly unfathomable. Her music is enthralling and provocative not despite its strangeness, but because of it.

The Lynch comparison is one that Neuwirth provoked herself when she turned Lost Highway, the film that some call Lynch’s very strangest, into an opera in 2002-03, in collaboration with her Nobel Prize-winning compatriot Elfriede Jelinek. It is hard to imagine a more audacious choice of film to receive the operatic treatment, but Neuwirth’s fragmentary, multidimensional music creates something that somehow does seem to be the kindred spirit of the original. At one point in both film and opera (some time before he inexplicably transforms into a car mechanic), the protagonist Fred explains why he doesn’t own a video camera. ‘I like to remember things my own way,’ he says. ‘How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.’ Perhaps the opera takes a similar approach in adapting the film, twisting it into new shapes – hyper-expressionist vocal acrobatics for one character, deadpan spoken word for another, eerie falsetto vocalise for a third – while retaining the plot and enhancing the noir undercurrent. In fact, perhaps that is what all opera does anyway, taking the kernel of a story and heightening its intensity through clipped lines of text and sweeping currents of music. To be sure, opera seldom portrays events ‘the way they happened’.

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Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023) was one of the foremost women composers on the planet and one of the leading creative figures of her generation of either gender; a truly original artist with a very distinctive musical style and personal voice, developed and refined over decades. The awards she has received over the years are indicative of this, including the Kranichsteiner Prize (1986), the Nordic Council Music Prize (2000, for Lonh), the Grawemeyer (2003, for her first opera, L’amour de loin), the Nemmers Prize in Composition (2007), the Wihuri Sibelius Prize (2009) and the Léonie Sonning Music Prize (2011).

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Thea Musgrave

Thea Musgrave

Asked once whether she had any advice for young composers, Thea Musgrave replied: ‘Don’t, unless you really have to; then you’ll do it anyway.’ Musgrave – the Scottish composer, conductor, pianist and teacher who turns 90 this month – has lived by her own advice. There’s a clear-sighted rationality to her approach, to the way she speaks about her music, to the way she adheres to deadlines and writes practical, non-fussy scores that endear her to commissioners and orchestral musicians.

But beneath the pragmatism, Musgrave’s music is all about drama. Whether in her searingly perceptive operas or her non-narrative instrumental works, she has long been fascinated by the innate drama of human behaviour: the psychological dance of conversation, interaction, confrontation and appeasement. She’s a composer who recognises that music mirrors life, that music can shape the way we live, that the emotional and even physical makeup of musicians is integral to the impact of any performance. To put it simply, her work speaks directly and compassionately about all of us. ‘There are basic human truths,’ she says, and it is those truths that she probes in her music.

Read the full article: 'Contemporary composer – Thea Musgrave'

Roxanna Panufnik

Roxanna Panufnik

There’s a different kind of revolution taking place in today’s contemporary music, and at its heart lies Roxanna Panufnik. Hers is not a radical revolution designed to overhaul the old order completely, à la Schoenberg or Cage. Instead, here is a quiet revolution that utilises music’s power to unite people from different cultures, religious backgrounds and political persuasions: a revolution that is more John Lennon than John Cage.

In Panufnik’s own words: ‘I’m on a mission to shout from the rooftops the beauty of all these different faiths’ music. It’s about bringing us together. Too often we don’t think about what we have in common, but instead about our tiny fraction of difference from each other.’

The importance of music’s social and political function was, of course, not lost on Roxanna’s father. The well-known, much admired and highly regarded Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-91) was forced to escape the oppressive post-war climate of his native country in 1954. He arrived in London and some nine years later married author and photographer Camilla Jessel. Roxanna was born in 1968.

Read the full article: 'Contemporary composer – Roxanna Panufnik'

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