On Writing Music History

Imagine that, as a lover of classical music, you wished to get a broader understanding of the history of music; you wished to grasp the “big picture,” so to speak Were you able to acquire the music history text most widely used in North American colleges and universities, you will encounter a work of some five hundred composers.

Now I can not keep five hundred composers in my head, and I do not think you can either After all, you want to get the full picture at once, not the temporary information acquired in the study and then forgotten to make space for new information mp3 song download.

My ideal music history, therefore, will treat only twenty-four composers, roughly four for every historical period – Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern. To be sure, such periodization has fallen into disrepute among professional historians, but it remains as useful as a way of organizing the big perspective. You will probably be familiar with at least half of these composers: Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, Stravinsky.

Moreover, my ideal music history will insist on providing an illustration for every assertion – no empty generalizations, please – and will draw all the musical examples for each composer from a single work, so that the repertoire for the history is limited to Twenty-four works, preferably music easily available on iTunes or YouTube And for medieval music, generally based on plainsong, let the selections, so far as possible, be based on the same piece of plainsong.


Plainsong, Kyrie Cunctipotens
Tuotilo of St. Gall, Kyrie Cunctipotens trope (ca. 900)
Cunctipotens genitor (St. Martial School, ca. 1125)
Anonymous, En non Diu-Quant voi-Eius in Oriente (13th century)
Machaut, Missa Nostre Dame (Kyrie, ca.1364)
Dufay, Ave regina coelorum (ca. 1464)
Josquin des Pres, Missa Pange Lingua (Agnus Dei; ca.1515)
Victoria, Missa O Magnum Mysterium (motet; Kyrie; 2nd half, 16th century)
Weelkes, as Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending (1601)
Purcell, Dido and Aeneas (1689), “Dido’s Lament”
Buxtehude, Ein Feste Burg (2nd half, 17th century)
Vivaldi, Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Op.3, No. 8 (1st movement, 1712)
Bach, Cantata 140, Wachhet ruft uns die Stimme (1731) (1st movement)
Classic [46:00]
Haydn, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 73, No. 3 (1797) (1st movement)
Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) (Act II Finale)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (1st movement, 1803)
Romantic [30:00]
Schubert, Erlkönig (1815)
Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (Dream of a Witches Sabbath, 1830)
Wagner, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Verdi, Otello (Act I, Drinking Song, 1887)
Modern [23:30]
Debussy, La Mer (Jeux de Vagues, 1905)
Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (Colors, 1909)
Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps (First 4 movements, 1913)
Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (I. Pulses, 1976)
Finally, my ideal music history will describe the style of an individual composer or historical period in musical terms. At this point I run into an obstacle The general public has embraced the vocabulary of art criticism and literary criticism so that one can analyze a painting or a poem without losing the reader. Music criticism enjoys such a common vocabulary, so that university students are often required to take a course in music theory.

Writing a self-contained history of classical music in musical terms requires explaining the rudiments of music theory on the fly, so to speak. One partial solution would be to include a glossary of every technical term employed in the book as well as a primer of basic music theory that the reader could consult as necessary. The reader of a book, in contrast to the listener of a lecture, has the advantage of being able to control the pace completely, pausing for explanations of technical terms when required.

To avoid becoming overly entangled in music theory, my ideal music history will describe works, composers and periods in terms of three overall concepts: time, tonality, and timbre.

· Time in music has several different meanings, including duration, rhythm (in the sense of “beating time”), repetition, and historical time (the placing of individual composers and works along with continuum).

Tonality refers to the hierarchical organization of musical events with a single unifying pitch. Music from the common practice period, roughly 1600 to 1900, can be described as tonal music. (If asked to name your favorite pieces of classical music, your choices will likely come from this period.)

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