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Summary of Classical Music History
by Alex Cosper (1/29/13)


Classical music covers many eras and musical styles. While there are quite a few books that cover the history of the actual music, it's rare to find authoritative books about the sales of classical music in the age of recording. That's because classical music has a very small market share, at least in the United States, where about a third of all music is purchased. Internationally, certain composers have sold millions, but specific albums usually aren't chart toppers.

The definition of classical music varies among different schools of thought. Generally, classical music later than the 19th century is categorized as "contemporary classical" music. In San Francisco classical music has enjoyed significant radio audeiences over the years, but for the most part, the commercial radio industry has avoided classical, although many public radio stations around the country left of the 92 on the FM dial have embraced forms of classical and sometimes combine it with jazz.

Unlike pop music, classical is usually categorized by composers instead of performers, at least by purists. The biggest names in classical music history are Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Debussy, Handel, Vivaldi and Chopin. Famous classical composers in the age of recording include Copeland and Stravinsky. Pop music, on the other hand, has borrowed many melodies from classical music partly because the music is in the public domain, meaning no permission is needed to use the music and royalties are not collected by the composers' estates. One of the most famous classical pieces, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, was recreated into a disco hit called "A Fifth of Beethoven," which hit number one on the American pop charts in 1976. A tribute to Mozart called "Rock Me Amadeus" by Falco also hit number one in 1985. Other pop songs have lifted classical melodies without always crediting the original composers.

The timeline of Western classical music can be broken down into specific eras. The early period consisted of Medieval (circa 500-1400), Renaissance (1400-1600) and Baroque (1600-1760). Baroque is also considered part of the Common Practice period, which includes the Classical (1730-1820) and Romantic (1815-1910) eras. The Modern and Contemporary era is divided into Modern (1890-1930), 20th Century (1901-2000), Contemporary (1975 through the present) and 21st Century (2001 through the present). The overlapping eras represent transition periods.

The Medieval era, also known as the Middle Ages, marked the decline of the Roman Empire. Popular instruments of this time frame included the lute and the pan flute while Gregorian chants were common. During this time music began to evolve from monophonic to polyphonic forms, meaning the advent of chords structures, or multiple notes played at once. The Renaissance era ushered in commercialism, innovation and humanism throughout Europe as the Protestant Reformation was underway. The invention of the printing press opened the door for mass distribution of sheet music. Toward the end of the Renaissance era in the 1550s, the violin emerged from Italy close to its modern form, although its roots trace back centuries earlier.

The Baroque era marked elaborate arrangements in music, most famously by Sebastian Bach, George Handel and Antonio Vivaldi and Jean Baptiste Lully. During this era tonality, chords, harmony and counterpoint became more sharply defined and opera began to develop as a popular form of music. Bass also became an essential musical ingredient while Bach's compositions ushered in four part harmonies. Bach and Handel were from Germany while Vivaldi and Lully came from Italy. During the Classical era Amadeus Mozart from Austria, Franz Schubert from Austria and Ludwig van Beethoven from Germany became rose to prominence and their music was characterized by expanded orchestras. Yet this music was a departure from the complex harmonies of Bach and a return to simplicity as melody became the foreground again. The most recognizable melody from this era was Mozart's "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Part of what shaped the music was its alignment with nobility. Concertos, sonatas, string quartets, symphonies, serenades and minuets rose to prominence in the Classical era.

Romanticism reflected emotional reaction to the Industrial Revolution and contrasted with the Age of Enlightenment as well as scientific reasoning. It represented a flashback to the religious, spiritual and mystical emotions of the Middle Ages. Romantic music also reflected the beginning of the middle class, whereas earlier classical music was directed toward the upper class. Romantic music was composed for the general public, who paid to see performances at festivals, whereas earlier classical music was usually intended for small elite audiences.

As the recording industry began to replace the sheet music industry in the twentieth century, opera star Enrico Caruso was one of the first superstars on vinyl. Cultural values soon changed as early records could only hold a few minutes of playing time, as classical music became overshadowed by the simplicity and mass marketing of pop music that centered around folk, gospel, dixieland and jazz. It would take until the late 1940s when long playing 33 and 1/3 rpm records allowed full classical pieces to be sold to the public for their turntables.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) helped put finally America on the map for contributions to the classical music artform. One of his most famous compositions was Appalachian Spring, which marked a more eclectic approach, drawing from diverse influences. Ugor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was born in Russia then migrated to France then America. He was world famous for ballets such as The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Another famous piece by Stravinsky was Symphony in C in the late 1930s, which contained four movements and helped define neoclassicism, a trend that moved away from the emotional aspects of Romanticism.

Even though American pop culture has mostly resisted a gravitation toward classical music, it is still taught in schools and has a loyal following. Once in a while there's a pop hit on the charts that in some way echoes the melodies of classical music, such as "Hooked On Classics" by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which made the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which was composed by RIchard Strauss in the 1890s, became the theme to the science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and was a top three hit for Deodato four years later.

One of the most famous opera tunes of all time was William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini, first presented in 1829. In the twentieth century it was used in Bugs Bunny cartoons and many other TV shows. Equally as familiar to many people is Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite every Christmas season. This piece was also featured in the groundbreaking 1940 Disney film Fantasia, showcasing the first full color animation in the motion picture industry. Many other movies have relied on classical music for soundtracks.









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