The great composers and their masterworks

by John Stanley

(Classical Music Map)

Introduction Classical Music

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The Baroque Era

The Classical Era

The Romantic Era

The Romantic Legacy

The Modern Age

A Brief History of Jazz


I. History of Classical Music  (by John Stanley)
The great composers and their masterworks in MP3 format
Albeniz Borodin Donizetti Hindemith Prokofiev Schutz
Albinoni Brahms Dowland Janacek Puccini Scriabin
Allegri Britten Dvorak Kodaly Purcell Sibelius
Arne Bruckner Falla Leoncavallo Rachmaninov Smetana
Auber Busoni Field Liszt Rameau Strauss J.S.
Bach Byrd Gabrieli Lully Ravel Strauss R.
Barber Carissimi Gershwin Mahler Respighi Stravinsky
Bartok Charpentier Gesualdo Mendelssohn Rimsky-Korsakov Tallis
Beethoven Cherubini Glinka Meyerbeer Rossini Tchaikovsky
Bellini Chopin Gluck Monteverdi Saint-Saens Telemann
Bernstein Clementi Gounod Mozart Scarlatti Verdi
Berwald Corelli Grieg Mussorgsky Schoenberg Victoria
Berlioz Couperin Handel Pachelbel Shostakovich Villa-Lobos
Bizet Debussy Haydn Paganini Schubert Vivaldi
Boccherini Delibes Hildegard Palestrina Schumann Wagner

Orff  "Carmina Burana"
II. A Brief History of Jazz


"Music expresses that which cannot be put into

words and that which cannot remain silent."

                                                                                                                        Victor Hugo




The Concert


Human beings have been inspired to make music from the very earliest times. This most sophisticated of arts is also the most fundamental. There is something in us that responds to sound and to rhythm, and in producing our own music we have taken our inspiration from nature, be it the wind in the trees, the pounding of waves, or the calling of birds. We have developed methods of imbuing sound with meaning, combining notes, pitches, and rhythms to make melody, and using music as an intricate means of expression on infinitely varied levels.

It was late in history that music was written down; until the Middle Ages it was passed down orally from generation to generation. The voice was the most primitive instrument, with songs - often wordless - being employed in all cultures as far back as prehistoric times for prayer and ritual, for celebration, exhortation, and lament. The first written music was the plainchant of medieval monks, who were also the first composers; their simple vocal lines celebrated the glory of God. Basic pre-Christian instruments such as reed pipes, bone flutes, and pottery drums were refined through the ages, and during the Renaissance were incorporated fully into sacred as well as secular music. The role of the composer developed as Western society became ever more complex, and music reflected the sometimes radical changes of a constantly evolving culture.

With the lessening influence of both church and royal court as artistic patrons in the nineteenth century, composers were freed from the inevitable restrictions that patronage imposed. Public concerts and publication became important sources of income, a trend that continues today with broadcast fees and recordings. Classical music has become in some areas almost dauntingly experimental, but, paradoxically, is now in many ways more accessible to a broader public than ever before.

The Composer in Society

Music has been a vital part of human society since time immemorial. In the West, what we now call classical music evolved over centuries, although its documentation did not begin until around the ninth century, with the first systems of musical notation. Because the church and court effectively dominated classical music until the nineteenth century, the art and culture of these institutions have left the clearest record. The composer's position in society' has also evolved as our expectations of music have changed and grown.

Lady Standing at a Virginal


The Medieval period

The first composers probably did not consider themselves composers as we think of them today. They composed as a way of glorifying God, often in the context of monasteries, such as that at Cluny in the eleventh century. These monasteries became the first great musical centres, and one of their members, the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, was among the earliest recognized composers. Their form of expression was plainchant (or plainsong) — a single, clear line of vocal music - used in religious services and devised primarily to convey the words and meaning of the sacred texts.

Outside the church, twelfth-century French troubadours and their successors created a demand for secular music that rivalled the sacred. With the Crusades came a rediscovery of ancient Greek culture, knowledge, and philosophy. At the same time, the first universities such as those at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford came into existence. Against this background church composers expanded their music into an art of its own, with grammar and rules of construction that did not depend on religious texts or functions. The new musical techniques drew inspiration as well from the great new cathedrals that were being built around Europe at the time, especially Notre Dame in Paris, with its vast soaring vaults that virtually demanded equally soaring, celebratory music.

In the early 1300s the composer and churchman Philippe de Vitry dubbed the new music Ars Nova: New Art. Pope John XXII, in his Edict Docta Sanctorum (1324—5), described it as "a multitude of notes so confusing that the seemly rise and decorous fall of the plainsong melody, which should be the distinguishing feature of the music, is entirely obscured." Negative reaction to modern music is not unique to our own times; but in this case it revealed papal recognition that the leading

composers had begun to consider themselves not merely servants of the liturgy, but also artists.

The major composers continued to combine the functions of churchman and musician (often as chapel or cathedral singers) until the Renaissance and beyond, but they also increasingly served in the courts of the ruling classes, writing both sacred and secular music. The fourteenth-century composer Guillaume de Machaut, though better known for his complete musical setting of the Mass, actually wrote more secular music, and held positions at the courts of Luxembourg and Normandy as well as at Rheims Cathedral.

The Renaissance

With the Renaissance came a shift in music's centre of gravity in Europe. The great new bastions of culture were not the monasteries of northern France but rather the city states of Italy. Music now depended on the patronage of various dukes and princes. Within the aristocratic courts themselves, music -like all the arts — was still focused largely on religion, and the pope remained a leading patron. The composer Josquin Desprez, although he was born and died in the French-speaking Netherlands, found his varied career in the service of the powerful Sforza family of Milan, Duke Hercules of Ferrara, and the pope, among others.

Josquin's importance is reflected in how much of his music was published from the beginning of the sixteenth century by the Venetian pioneer of music printing, Ottaviano dei Petrucci.

The advent of printing had an enormous influence on the music world, enabbling the  widespread distribution of sheet music for the first time, and doubtless contributing to  Josquin's fame throughout western Europe. It fed the first commercial demands for music coming from an emerging middle class of traders and imerchants, who gathered informally to sing madrigals or chansons (two forms of secular song). The new

secular forms pervaded church music too; composers increasingly turned to secular melodies for their sacred compositions, the Masses, Passions, and Magnificats.

The Catholic Church could not significantly influence the new musical developments of the secular world. But in the Council of Trent (1545-63), convened principally in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, it attempted to curb what it regarded as dangerous elements in religious music, still the principal focus of leading composers. The greatest composer of the time, Palestrina, and his followers were instructed to re-address themselves to a clear, unadorned setting of the sacred texts, free from all emotional or artistic extravagances. In fact they achieved a musical style of great beauty and artistry, but one that still deferred to the authority of the church.

Woman Playing a Lute near a Window


The Baroque period

With opera — perhaps the single most important development of the Baroque period - secular music finally acquired a form that was sufficiently popular, expressive, and large-scale to tip the balance of patronage away from the church to the princely courts, and eventually to the general public. Monteverdi, whose La favola d'Orfeo (1607) is credited as the first true opera, spent the first half of his professional life at the courts of Cremona and Mantua, and then from 1613 until his death as director of music at St Mark's in Venice.

The circumstances of Orfeo dispel the notion, however, that aristocratic (rather than church) patronage meant artistic emancipation. Monteverdi was required to alter his original version to provide a happy ending suitable for the occasion of its performance - this was probably part of an attempt to arrange a politically advantageous marriage. The very first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, opened in 1637, and Monteverdi wrote music for or some of the competing establishments that soon appeared in its wake. The phenomenon reflected an increasing appetite not only for opera but also for public access to music in general.

The public concert also appeared in an early form in the Baroque period. In private academies — learned societies for the promotion of science and the arts, including music — performances were given for the aristocracy as well as well-bred outsiders. The Accademia Filarmonica in Verona (founded in 1543) was probably the first to promote music, but accademias spread rapidly in the seventeenth century until every major town had one, and sometimes several. The Accademia dei Filarmonici, founded in Bologna in 1666, counted Mozart and Rossini among its later members.

The Venetian ospedali, or orphanages, also fulfilled a function as embryonic music conservatoires. Virtually all the major seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italian composers spent time as either pupils or teachers at these establishments, which also mounted frequent public concerts. Vivaldi — who had trained as a priest - was for 36 years in charge of music at the Ospedalc della Pieta for girls.

In England, the period of the Commonwealth, after the Civil War, left music predominantly in the hands of the middle classes, who mounted semi-private performances in private houses, colleges, and taverns. Roger North, Attorney-General and author ot Memoires of Musick (1728), cites a 1664 performance at the Mitre Inn, London, as the first public concert. In 1678, Thomas Mace converted a room in the York Buildings near Charing Cross in London into a specialist concert venue, and by 1700 a number of such enterprises existed, not only in the capital. Concerts proliferated in eighteenth-century England, promoted by music societies in all the major towns. The success of Handel's 1733 concerts in Oxford prompted the foundation there of the Holywell Music Room - supposedly the first venue built specifically for the holding of concerts.

But it would be a long time before composers could live on the income from such ventures. Unless they appeared themselves as performers, they usually earned nothing from performances of their music. Without performing rights protection, and with the first (hopelessly inadequate) copyright legislation appearing only in 1709, composers still relied on salaries from their wealthy patrons, supplemented by payments for works accepted by often exploitative publishers. Handel fell out with his unscrupulous publisher, John Walsh, over the publication of his opera Rinaldo in 1711; he only returned to the company when Walsh's son took over ten years later.

Church music flourished for a while in Protestant England particularly with the anthems of Henry Purcell, whose versatility also led him to compose music for the theatre and the royal

court. Religious music enjoyed even more importance in Lutheran north Germany, where both the clear, simple congregational hymns or chorales, and more complex cantatas and Passion settings could be found. Such options attracted skilled musicians, including Johann Sebastian Bach, to the larger, well-endowed churches. Bach was probably the last of the great composers to devote most of his musical efforts to the church. His employment at Leipzig required him to write a cantata every week for the Sunday services; despite the fact that he was effectively writing to order, his devotional works represent some of his most sublime music.


The Classical era

After Bach, the more puritan Pietist movement successfully replaced the semi-operatic cantata of the Lutheran service with the sermon. Once again the focus of religious music shifted south, this time to Catholic Austria, where the Masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert appeared.

But by now, for these composers and most others, the growth of interest in orchestral music - particularly with the development of the symphony - pushed religious music to

the sideline. The cost of maintaining the necessary large body of musicians initially concentrated such music in Mannheim, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and with Haydn's long-time employers at Esterhaza. There it could be underwritten by a handful of European ruling establishments with sufficient inclination and resources.

By the 1790s, though, Haydn had won recognition throughout western Europe. He also earned a sizeable freelance income, notably from his final 12 London symphonies for the public concerts organized by the London impresario, J.P. Salomon, from 1791 to 1795. Haydn was shrewd in his dealings with publishers, transferring to Breitkopf and Hartel in Leipzig when he became dissatisfied with Artaria in Vienna. Breitkopf s pioneering methods produced elegant sheet music which, with larger print runs, could be sold cheaply and distributed widely. Haydn may not have reaped die income from royalties that he might under today's copyright laws, but Breitkopf s publications brought him widespread tame, and with it lucrative commissions for new works. By contrast, Mozart, who for want of a permanent salaried court position also attempted a freelance existence, tailed to get his works published in his lifetime and suffered a stunning lack of professional success.

The Guitar Player


The Romantic age

Beethoven ranks as the first great composer to lead a successful freelance career, though it may have been his unique personal characteristics that enabled him to do so. He was the first musical figure to whom the Romantic image of the tortured artist-hero, struggling in isolation with his muse, applies with any accuracy. Such an existence initially grew from his habit of wooing the aristocracy for private commissions, rather than from the public cult following that he only later attracted.

Beethoven's career nevertheless made the notion of a professional composer, treed from all except artistic considerations, seem a real possibility for the first time, and this matched the spirit of the new subjective and emotionally liberated Romantic age. In reality, with few exceptions, composers fulfilled a variety of musical and non-musical roles out of economic necessity, until the public recognized their artistic stature if it ever did. Liszt and Paganini toured widely as virtuoso solo performers, for whom there was a huge public demand; Berlioz and Schumann were music critics; Bruckner was a cathedral organist; and Borodin taught chemistry. Most, at some stage, played or conducted their own and others' music.

Artistic greatness has never been a guarantee of public recognition and still less of financial success. Conversely,

some composers whose music proved of no great lasting value were extremely popular in their day. But for those who won enduring fame, a rapidly growing audience awaited -the urban and middle-class populations that expanded dramatically during the industrial revolution. As the great age of amateur music-making dawned in the nineteenth century, composers tor the first time earned a significant income from publication of their work in the form of printed sheet music.

Classical music became recreation for the middle classes, from informal concerts in private homes to soirees such as those that took place in the well-heeled Mendelssohn household. On the larger scale, music societies, now freed from aristocratic control, sponsored public orchestral concerts as a feature of city life throughout Europe and the United States. Beethoven's Ninth symphony was written partly in response to a L50 commission in 1822 from, the recently founded London Philharmonic Society (1813). Similar societies appeared in Vienna (1812), Berlin (1826), and Pans (c.1828), and in the latter half of the century many of the world's great independent and municipal orchestras and concert halls were established.

Orchestral concerts and opera performances were often organized as part of musical festivals, such as on the Lower Rhine from 1817 (under Mendelssohn's directorship from 1833 to 1847), and from 1 876 at Bayreuth, where Wagner built a festival theatre for annual performances of his own operas. Bayreuth remains a major event in the opera calendar today.

Young Woman Seated at the Virginals


The twentieth century and beyond

Many of the features of nineteenth-century musical life continued into the twentieth century. The orchestral concert and opera remained the principal focal points. Societies and festivals proliferated; annual events at such places as Darmstadt in Germany and Tanglewood in the United States played a vital role, from the 1940s on, in music education and in the commissioning and dissemination of new works. But a number of technological developments in the twentieth century transformed the musical world at least as radically as the evolution of notation and printing in earlier eras.

World War 1 accelerated the development of broadcasting technology, and by 1920 a number of competing radio stations, particularly in the United States, scheduled daily programmes. The BBC was set up in Britain in 1922 as a government monopoly and had sold 4.5 million licences for "wireless" sets by 1 931, enabling it to provide generous sponsorship for music. The BBC founded its own symphony orchestra in 1 930 and in 1927 it took over the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (founded m 1895), which have grown to become one of the world's major festivals, responsible for several new commissions each year. In Germany, the state Rundfunk companies support symphony orchestras in each of the provinces and major cities. But the main impact of broadcasting (even more so in the age of satellites) was that classical music finally became available to a mass audience.

Through the purchase of recordings, this audience was next able to select the music it wanted to hear. Beginning with Edison's cylinder phonograph in 1877, recorded sound developed through disc and magnetic tape in the late 1920s, Columbia Records' Long-Playing disc in 1948, stereophonic reproduction in 1957, Philips' compact cassette in 1963, digital recording and compact discs in the early 1980s, and more recently the growth of MP3 players and downloading. Each innovation has represented an improvement in convenience and the fidelity of the recording to the original performance, which has boosted sales and demanded the re-recording or re-mastering of anything on obsolete formats.

Broadcasts and recordings, requiring no great musical skill for their appreciation, have now replaced sheet music as the main distributors (and also sponsors) of classical music, and have dramatically expanded the overall market. Recent startling successes for artists such as Nigel Kennedy, Pavarotti, composers such as Gorecki, and the British radio station Classic FM have even rivalled those of the normally far more lucrative pop industry. But many classical composers agree that they are seeking a more elusive artistic or spiritual end, for which financial reward is welcome but of secondary importance.

Despite the growth of their potential audience, as we step into the twenty-first century composers may or may not stand a better chance of earning a living from their music than their Romantic counterparts. Composers are certainly acknowledged in society as creative artists, writing from a subjective viewpoint and inspired by personal beliefs. But they have found new and often better ways of supporting themselves in related areas, particularly in the film industry and education. Most modern composers have made contributions in either or both of these areas, which therefore deserve some credit as present-day patrons.

The needs of the film soundtrack have, with a few notable exceptions, rarely coincided with those of great classical music, and yet a host of composers, from Prokofiev, through Britten and Copland, to Fart and Takemitsu, have supplemented their income by writing film scores. Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Cage, Carter, Beno, and others have held teaching posts in universities and conservatoires, few of which are more than a century old. In most cases these composers probably enjoyed the opportunity to share their knowledge with the next musical generation, since the life of a composer can be an isolated one.


Classical music has diversified and developed over the centuries in response to changes in society; composers, like anyone else, have depended on society to earn their living. In early times, they began with practically the sole option of a monastic career, writing music for the church, of an appropriately limited nature. Most have striven more or less ever since for greater variety and freedom of expression, restrained by the type and degree of patronage that society granted them. Sources of patronage today have become almost as varied as the music they support, coming from governments (especially in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc), universities, film, broadcasting and recording companies, wealthy societies, foundations and individuals, and the musical public. All these patrons impose far fewer rules than the church and aristocracy of previous ages, but according to the extent of their economic resources, they still limit what proportion of a composer's output will be performed. And yet, as is the case with all art forms, there is no limiting the artistic drive itself, and composers arc perhaps freer today than ever before.


Lady Seated at a Virginal


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