My oldest daughter had the wonderful opportunity to present a brief history of piano music to the senior group at our church. It was such a fun and interesting presentation that I wanted to share it. She played the pieces live, but I have included links so you can hear the music. This makes a terrific and engaging music history lesson for all ages. Enjoying classical music starts by listening to interesting little bits here and there.
Beginning about 1600, the Baroque era represented a musical retreat from the dependence on words for the meaning of the work. Renaissance music was characterized by polyphonic music – 2 melodies at once.
Though Johann Sebastian Bach used this style in organ fugues, the single melody with supporting chords was born in this era. We call this homophonic music.
Opera as an art form was invented in this era, though it was based on Greek tragedies. This is going on at the same time in history as Rembrandt is painting, and the Pilgrims are making a home in Massachusetts.
Keyboard Music in the Baroque era was written for the clavichord or harpsichord, because the piano had not yet been invented. No matter how hard you strike a harpsichord key, you will get the same sound. Therefore, dynamics, such as forte (loud) and pianissimo (very soft) were not written into keyboard music.
Bach was such a master that many other great composers like Mozart and Haydn were trained using his music. Bach was well known for his church music, as well as his strong faith. He is known for saying, “The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the spirit.”
Here is Bach’s Minuet in G Major.
The grandeur of the Baroque era gave way to the tidy forms of the Classical Era. The symphony, sonata, and string quartet were all born in this time period. Meanwhile, Francisco Goya and Thomas Gainesboro are painting during this time and The French Revolution is breaking out in Paris.
Finally, The pianoforte, or piano for short, was invented, and a great deal of depth and emotion was suddenly able to be conveyed on this diverse instrument. Although Mozart is the most famous and prolific composer of the Classical Era, no one was able to demonstrate a greater range of feeling than the emotionally unstable Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Having a tyrannical father, Beethoven was forced to practice long hours, as his father wanted him to become as famous as Mozart. His teachers realized he was a genius, but found his stubbornness and pride very hard to deal with. Beethoven appeared to searched his whole life for acceptance and meaning. He is quoted as saying, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
Beethoven, with his unbridled passion, bridged the way to the Romantic era of music history. The invention of the pedals on the piano allowed virtuosos like Frederic Chopin to create amazing works for the piano, making it sound like a symphony of instruments all by itself. Perhaps a reaction to rising Industrialism, Romanticism was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century.
Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats were composing words while Eugene Delacroix and John Constable were painting. America was fighting to maintain independence from England and Queen Victoria rose to the throne in the height of the Romantic movement.
Frédéric François Chopin was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era who wrote primarily for solo piano. As a pianist, his talent was unrivaled. Perhaps no one before or since in music history has contributed as many meaningful pieces to the piano’s repertoire, or come closer to capturing what the piano can do. Amazingly, he gave only 30 public performances in 30 years.
Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu is a good example for Chopin’s work. See if you recognize this piece from more modern times. The melody was borrowed for Judy Garland’s song, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer, also of the romantic period, whose works are still popular. His themes are colorful and endearing, making his music easier to hum and whistle and much more memorable than the ground breaking works of his contemporaries such as Richard Wagner. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Chant Sans Parole.
Tchaikovsky was well known for his compositions written for famous Russian ballet theaters. Sleeping Beauty Waltz from the ballet Sleeping Beauty may sound familiar. This melody was put to words in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
The next development in both the art and music communities was Impressionism. The composer and artist sought to capture the impression of a moment, rather than a whole reality. Baudelaire is an Impressionist poet. In contrast, at this same time in history, American pioneers were forging the Oregon Trail. And as Claude Monet was painting his lovely, blurry Water Lilies, Claude Debussy was experimenting with a whole-tone scale.
A normal major or minor scale separates each note with either a half or whole tone at exact intervals that we are used to hearing. A whole tone is a scale in which each note is separated from its neighbors by the interval of a whole tone.
Claude Debussy entered the Paris Conservatory at age 11. At a young age he began winning prizes and shocking his professors with his inventive compositions. Debussy strived to break as many rules of music as he could, but ironically, in writing his creative pieces, he created new rules for himself. Debussy’s Clair de Lune is a classic favorite.
Finally, we enter the 20th century of music history. With a growing sense of nationalism and unity, Americans began to create their own musical forms. Ragtime is the first purely American musical art form. It got its name because the right hand plays a syncopated or ragged melody. Ragtime led very quickly led to invention of jazz.
Scott Joplin was an African American composer who wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. They called him the King of Ragtime. Most American’s can hum Joplin’s perennial favorite, “The Entertainer”.
The rest is history. That you probably already know, I mean.
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