Western classical music falls naturally into three periods:

The Baroque: Pre-19th century, with composers like Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart etc.

The Romantic or Classical: 19th century, with composers like Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and so on.

The Modern: 20th century, with composers like Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Shostakovich etc.

Western classical music comprises six different types or idioms of music. These are:

  • Symphonic orchestral music: In the 18th century a greater production of musical instruments and the patronage of Princes enabled a larger group of musicians to be assembled than was possible earlier. Musical instruments like the Violin,  Viola, etc. (Strings), Flutes, Clarinets (Woodwinds), Horn and Trumpets (Brass), Timpani and Drums (Percussion) could now be combined to play in harmony. Haydn (1732-1809) was to first to make use of these possibilities and compose symphonies. He is considered to be the father of the symphony.

Beethoven (1770-1827) took the symphonic form to greater heights and his nine symphonies are considered to be the backbone of Western Orchestral music. Symphonies were also composed by others, particularly, by Brahms (1833-97), Berlioz (1803-69), Mendelssohn (1809-47), Sohumann (1810-56), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Tchaikovsky (1840-93) etc.

Sometimes the composer gives prominence to one instrument (the Piano, Violin, Clarinet, Horn). This instrument is given also a solo part within the framework of the orchestral composition, which is then called a Concerto. The composer often sets apart a gap for the Soloist (Pianist, Violinist, etc.) for him to improvise. This improvisation is called a Cadenza.

Outstanding compositions of this genre are the Violin concertos of Beethoven, Paganini (1784-1840) (who was himself a great Violin virtuoso), Mendelssohn, Brahms, Max Bruch (1838-1920), Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).

  • Instrumental music: Music composed for one or two instruments is called Instrumental music. In this genre of music the Piano and the Violin occupy the pride of place in Western classical music. Chopin’s (1810-49) compositions are all for the Piano. He composed various types of music - Ballads, Waltzes, Polonaises, Nocturnes. Beethoven wrote 32 Sonatas for the Piano and 10 for Violin and Piano. Other outstanding composers of Instrumental music were Schumann (1810-56), Cesar Franck (1822-90), and Debussy (1862-1918).

  • Chamber Music: When music is composed for more than two instruments, it is called Chamber music. We thus have the Trio, Quartet, Quintet, Sextet, Septet and Octet for 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 instruments respectively. Of these the Quartet has been the most favoured by the great composers and some of the greatest Chamber music is in the Quartet form. The Quartet is always for two Violins, one Viola and one Cello. Outstanding compositions of this type are the last 7 of 16 Quartets of Beethoven.

  • Church Music: Music for the Church goes back to the early Gregorian Chants earlier than the 18th century. Church music incorporates choral singing as also solo male and female voices, and Orchestra. Some of the great compositions of Church music are the Mathew passion by Bach (1685-1750), Requiem by Mozart (1756-91), The Messiah by Handel (1685-1759), Requiem by Verdi (1813-1901) and the enchantingly beautiful Mass, Missa Solemnis by Beethoven.

  • Opera Music: Operas started in Italy, as musical dramas in the last years of the 16th century. Italy has been the stronghold of the Opera since then. In fact, almost all the music produced by Italian composers is Opera music! An Opera can be considered as a drama set to music. The text of Opera is called a Libretto. Usually the person who writes the Libretto co-operates with the composers to produce the Opera. Mozart, Verdi, Puccini (1858-1924), Wagner (1815-83), and Richard Strauss (1864-1949) mainly composed Operas. Others who composed wonderful Operas were Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bizet and Berlioz.

  • Songs: In Western classical music the term Song has a very specific meaning. A Song is not just a piece of music that is sung by a very human voice. In the Song, the composer strives to achieve an amalgamation between the music and the lyrics (text). Or to put it in other words he attempts to musically interpret the text. Usually he selects some famous or popular poem and sets it to music. Though Beethoven wrote some lovely songs (some of them to Poems by Goethe), it is Schubert (1797-1828) who is considered the first great songwriter. He was followed by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler in Germany, Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), Berlioz and others in France and Benjamin Britten in England. The songs are generally composed with Piano accompaniment. Songs sometimes also have orchestral accompaniment. Some famous songs are To the Beloved Far Away and Adelaide by Beethoven, The Erlking, Seranade and Ode to Music by Schubert, A poet’s love and The Song Cycle by Schumann, and The Song of a Wayfarer and The Song of the Earth by Gustav Mahler.

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