A History of Classical Music – Part 5: Modern

Still Life with Mandolin – Pablo Picasso (Guggenheim Museum, New York)

‘Modern’ classical music is a broad term, referring to music composed from around the turn of the twentieth-century to present-day (music composed now is usually called ‘contemporary’). Like modern art, modern music is all about breaking the rules.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, music was generally ‘romantic’ in style, but composers such as Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius were pushing the boundaries of music beyond pure romantic, while French composer Claude Debussy was at the forefront of a new movement in music called ‘Impressionism’. Many composers reacted to the romantic movement and branched out into many different styles, drawing influences from many different sources, including Eastern music and jazz, and experimenting with new ways of writing music, new sounds, new instruments and new orchestration. The real turning point came in 1910 when Russian composer Igor Stravinsky wrote a ballet called Le Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring) which was unlike anything else that had come before it. Audiences were shocked by this music, and there were even riots at some performances.

After the First World War (1914-18) some composers returned to the influences and structures of earlier periods of music: this is usually referred to as “neoclassicism”. But others continued to explore new ideas. With the advent of electronic technology, some composers became more and more experimental.

Modern music can seem difficult to listen to because of its unusual harmonies, chords, rhythm or lack of clear melody (tune) and structure. However, because it is so different, it is also exciting and unusual, highly varied and often very complex. One very famous piece by American composer John Cage doesn’t even sound like music. Entitled 4’33” It is called 4’33, it is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence! And some Modern music is just a joke, such as this piece for orchestra and typewriter:

Modern Classical Music playlist (a Spotify playlist)


Opus and Köchel, Fitzpatrick and Deutsch

How music is catalogued

To help us identify and organise pieces of music by a particular composer, individual compositions or sets are usually given an “Opus” number. The word “opus” is Latin and means “work” or “work of art”. The abbreviation is “Op.”, or “Opp.” in the plural. The practice of assigning an “opus number” to a work or set of works when the work or set was published began in the seventeenth century. Opus numbers were not usually used in chronological order and did not necessarily denote when a work was actually composed. Unpublished works often were left without opus numbers.

From the 1800s onwards, Beethoven in particular assigned opus numbers to individual works and sets (including piano pieces, songs and other short works) as they were completed and published: low opus numbers indicate early works, while high opus numbers (for example, the Piano Sonata Opus 110) are works composed and published at the end of Beethoven’s life. Works published posthumousaly (after death) were also assigned high opus numbers, while some works were not given an opus number at all, and were later catalogued in the 1950s as WoO (Werke ohne opus/’works without opus number’). These include the three ‘Electoral’ piano sonatas, written when Beethoven was a very young man, which are not usually included with the main body of the Piano Sonatas (32 in total, whose opus numbers range from Opus 2 to Opus 111).

Not all music has an opus number. The music of Bach is given a ‘BWV’ number, which is an abbreviation of “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” (literally, “directory of Bach’s works”), and was the cataloguing system for Bach’s music used by Wolfgang Smieder in the 1950s.

Similarly, Mozart’s music is catalogued with “K numbers” from the name of the cataloguer, Köchel. A low K number indicates a piece written when Mozart was very young, while a high number indicates a piece written at the end of his life. Some people know the works by their K numbers alone.

Ralph Kirkpatrick catalogued the numerous works of Domenico Scarlatti in a facsimile edition, and so these pieces are also given a K number, usually written “Kk” to distinguish it from Mozart’s Köchel number. To make matters slightly more confusing, Scarlatti’s works also have a “Longo number” after Alessandro Longo’s edition for the piano. The Kk and Longo numbers do not correspond, which can make identifying a particular work by Scarlatti tricky; fortunately, there are tables of Kk and Longo numbers available online to help clear up such discrepancies.

Confused? Read on…..

Haydn’s works are generally referred to by their Hob or Hoboken numbers, after the cataloguer Anthony von Hoboken’s classification, though some have Opus numbers alone. The works are also grouped into categories, for example, I for symphonies, or XVI for the piano sonatas. The Piano Sonatas have both a work number and a Hob. number, which, like the works of Scarlatti, make identification more confusing.

Schubert’s works have both Opus and “Deutsch” numbers (after Otto Erich Deutsch’s catalogue). The first set of Impromptus for piano, for example, are both Opus 90 and D899. (I tend to refer to Schubert’s piano music by its D number, because that is how I have always known it.)

Music specialists and academics often also refer to the “autographed score” or “autograph version”. These are original scores, written out by the composer, or transcribed by an assistant, and represent the first finished version, and are important historical documents in the scholarship of a particular composer’s works (over the years, music is subjected to editing; in recent years, scholars have gone back to autographed editions to understand the composer’s original intentions or to clear up questions of attribution or interpretation). Very occasionally, an original autographed score will come to light, which was previously thought to be lost, or non-existent, which can create a lot of excitement amongst music specialists and academics, as well as fetching significant sums at auction. In 2009, researchers unearthed two pieces of music thought to have been written by Mozart when he was still a boy, and earlier this year a ‘new’ piece by Mozart was premiered, after an autographed notebook was found in the attic of a house in Austria.

Autograph score sheet of 10th Bagatelle Opus 119 by Ludwig van Beethoven

A History of Classical Music – Part 4: Romantic

'The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog' by Caspar David Friedrich

Just like the Baroque and Classical periods before it, the Romantic period in music coincides with the Romantic period in art and literature. The Romantic period in music starts around 1820, a few years before Beethoven died (in 1827), and Beethoven’s music can be considered to bridge the gap between the Classical and Romantic periods. Schubert was also a Classical-period composer whose music can be considered very Romantic: his music expresses deep feelings and a great variety of moods and emotions.

The Romantic era also coincides with a very turbulent period of history: Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and in the subsequent years, the European powers (including Great Britain) worked hard to establish political stability following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. However, conflicts and revolutions continued to rage across Europe: this was a difficult period to be alive, and this is often reflected in the music, art and literature of the time.

Romantic music is all about feelings, and how to express those feelings in music. Music from the Baroque and Classical periods was for entertainment, at home or at court, or for the church, while Romantic music is ‘music for music’s sake’. Romantic music used and extended the structures set down in the Classical period (such as the Sonata, Concerto or Symphony) but extended these in an attempt to create music that expressed deep or passionate human feelings and truths. Romantic music drew inspiration from other art forms such as literature and painting, from history (and historical figures), and from nature. Some composers are described as “romantic” though they lived outside of the Romantic period, such as Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1874-1943).

During the nineteenth-century the symphony orchestra (and its instruments) developed further and grew much bigger, and the invention of an iron frame for the piano made it a stronger and more versatile instrument, capable of a bigger sound. Romantic composers took advantage of these developments to produce music that is often broad in scope, with contrasting dynamics, melodies, colour and mood. The key features of Romantic music are:

  • A strong sense of melody (tune), often very beautiful, lyrical and song-like
  • Freedom in structure and design: Romantic music is a more personal expression of the imagination, fantasy or adventure
  • More unusual and daring use of harmony and modulation (changes in key)
  • A rich variety of types of pieces, such as songs, ‘piano miniatures’ (short pieces), tone poems to enormous symphonies lasting over an hour, with spectacular dramatic and dynamic effects.
  • Connections and unity within a work through the use of themes or musical “mottos” (also called leitmotif). Richard Wagner is perhaps the most famous for this, particularly in his operas.
  • Greater technical virtuosity (skill), especially in pianists (such as Liszt, violinists (Paganini) and flautists.
  • The concert as a ‘spectacle’, or ‘occasion’ – much as the modern classical concert is now.
  • The performer as a celebrity (Liszt, Paganini)

Some of the greatest composers of the Romantic period are:

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849): composed a huge amount of music for the piano, often ‘miniatures’ (small-scale works) such as Nocturnes, Preludes, Etudes, Scherzi, Ballades. Also music inspired by the folk dances from his homeland (Poland) such as Polonaises and Mazurkas. He transformed the Waltz from a drawing room dance to an elegant concert piece (his most famous waltz is the ‘Minute’ Waltz (Opus 64/1), so-called, not because it should last only a minute, but because it is small.) Most famous works: Piano Sonata in B-flat minor (includes the famous ‘Funeral March’), Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, Fantasie-Impromptu Op 66, ‘Raindrop’ Prelude.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Wrote songs, works for orchestra and chorus, many piano works, his most famous being Kreisleriana. His piano concerto is one of the most famous of all piano concertos. His music displays many contrasts in mood. His wife, Clara, was a fine virtuoso pianist and a composer in her own right. Most famous works: Papillons (Butterflies) and Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Piano Quintet in E flat, Dichterliebe (a song cycle).

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt (1811-1886): As well as a composer, Liszt was also a virtuoso pianist, who turned the piano recital into the showpiece it is today. He was also a revered teacher and championed many young composers such as Wagner and Berlioz. He wrote a great deal of music for the piano, much of which is very difficult to play, and is considered some of the finest music ever written for the instrument. He wrote the first ‘symphonic poem’, a piece for orchestra which tells a story, and a lot of his music was inspired by literature and art. One of his most famous works for piano is the Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), a suite of pieces which describe his travels around Switzerland and Italy, conjuring up images of mountain streams, thunderstorms, countryside and art works. Other important works include: ‘Faust’ Symphony, the B-minor Piano Sonata, Hungarian Rhapsodies (inspired by the music of his homeland, Hungary), Transcendental Etudes (very technically difficult pieces for piano).

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Italian composer most famous for operas, including Aida, Rigoletto and La Traviata, which contain many well-known and much-loved arias (songs) and choruses (such as Nessun Dorma).

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): German composer famous for operas (including the ‘Ring’ cycle), and other music which is large in scale and scope, with complex harmonies and rich textures.

Pyotyr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Russian composer who is perhaps most famous for his ballet music (Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty). Also, symphonies, piano concertos, piano miniatures.

Other Romantic composers to explore: Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, Hector Berlioz, Gustav Mahler

Romantic playlist

A History of Classical Music – Part 2: Baroque

J S Bach

Baroque (“baah-rock”) is a style of art, which includes music, architecture and painting, and which lasted from around 1600 to around 1750. The greatest composer of the Baroque period is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Baroque is a style of music, rather than an exact period of time. In other words, some composers lived during the Baroque period, but their music isn’t necessarily “totally Baroque” in style (for example, Domenico Scarlatti, or Georg Frederic Handel). The best way to get to know Baroque music is to listen to it (this is true for all classical music!). When you listen to Baroque music, you will begin to notice two distinct features:

  1. ‘Twiddly bits’. Baroque music has lots of twiddles on notes. The proper name for these twiddles is “ornaments”, “decoration” or “trills”. These were often used to add interest to the music, especially during a repeated section, or to add “sound” if the piece was played on the harpsichord which cannot sustain sound in the same way as the piano. If you look at Baroque architecture, you will see lots of twiddly bits in that too. All this decoration helps to make the architecture much more interesting – just like in the music. One of my students, Eli, is a big fan of Bach’s music and describes the trills and mordents (a kind of ornament) in the Menuet in G minor which he learnt for his Grade 2 exam as “the last bit of topping on the pizza”, or the “icing on the cake”.
  2. Baroque music is made up of many different strands or “tunes” which all come together – or sometimes oppose each other – to create the whole piece. This is called “counterpoint” and is a key feature of music from the Baroque period.
Baroque decoration

Baroque music often seems very ordered, and logical, but it’s never boring. Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (1674-1741) wrote The Four Seasons, which is a wonderful piece for orchestra which describes the different seasons: try listening to the Tempest (storm) in from ‘Summer’ for some really descriptive music.

Baroque music remains very popular today and is widely performed, sometimes on “period instruments” – instruments which are either from the Baroque period (and therefore very rare) or are authentic copies of Baroque instruments.

The piano as we know it didn’t exist during the Baroque period, so composers such as Bach and Scarlatti were writing for other keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, spinet (baby harpsichord), clavichord and organ. Today many pianists play Baroque music on the piano. One of the most famous works for keyboard is the Goldberg Variations, by J S Bach. Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) made two definitive recordings of the Goldberg Variations, in 1955 and 1982. Here he is playing the ‘Aria’, which is the first piece of the work:

Further listening:

J S Bach: Brandenberg Concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier, Cantatas, Harpsichord and Violin Concertos, St John Passion (written for Easter)

George Frideric Handel: The Messiah (includes the “Hallelujah” chorus), Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, Keyboard Suites, operas. (Although German by birth, Handel lived in London, and you can still visit his house and play some of the harpsichords there.)

Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, many concertos for solo instrument (for example, two mandolins) and orchestra, operas

Domenico Scarlatti: 100s of keyboard (harpsichord) sonatas, of many contrasting styles and moods

Other composers from the Baroque period: Teleman, Rameau, Couperin, Albinoni, Allegri, Lully, Purcell, Corelli, Pergolesi

‘Summer’ from The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by Europa Galante

Baroque Playlist – a short playlist of some of the best known Baroque pieces

50 Best Baroque Pieces

Handel House Museum