Around 500 A.D., western civilization began to emerge from the period known as "The Dark Ages," the time when invading hordes of Vandals, Huns, and Visigoths overran Europe and brought an end to the Roman Empire. For the next ten centuries, the newly emerging Christian Church would dominate Europe, administering justice, instigating "Holy" Crusades against the East, establishing Universities, and generally dictating the destiny of music, art and literature. During this time, Pope Gregory I is generally believed to have collected and codified the music known as Gregorian Chant , which was the approved music of the Church. Much later, the University at Notre Dame in Paris saw the creation of a new kind of music called organum . Secular music was sung all over Europe by the troubadours and trouvères of France. And it was during the Middle Ages that western culture saw the arrival of the first great name in music, Guillaume de Machaut .
Generally considered to be from ca.1420
to 1600, the Renaissance (which literally means "rebirth") was a time
of great cultural awakening and a flowering of the arts, letters, and
sciences throughout Europe. With the rise of humanism, sacred music began
for the first time to break free of the confines of the Church, and a
school of composers trained in the Netherlands mastered the art of polyphony
in their settings of sacred music. One of the early masters of the Flemish
style was Josquin des Prez . These polyphonic traditions reached their
culmination in the unsurpassed works of Giovanni da Palestrina .
Named after the popular ornate architectural
style of the time, the Baroque period (ca.1600 to 1750) saw composers
beginning to rebel against the styles that were prevalent during the High
Renaissance. This was a time when the many monarchies of Europe vied in
outdoing each other in pride, pomp and pageantry. Many monarchs employed
composers at their courts, where they were little more than servants expected
to churn out music for any desired occasions. The greatest composer of
the period, Johann Sebastian Bach , was such a servant. Yet the best composers
of the time were able to break new musical ground, and in so doing succeeded
in creating an entirely new style of music.
From roughly 1750 to 1820, artists, architechts, and musicians moved away from the heavily ornamented styles of the Baroque and the Rococo , and instead embraced a clean, uncluttered style they thought reminiscent of Classical Greece. The newly established aristocracies were replacing monarchs and the church as patrons of the arts, and were demanding an impersonal, but tuneful and elegant music. Dances such as the minuet and the gavotte were provided in the forms of entertaining serenades and divertimenti.
At this time the Austrian capital of Vienna became the musical center of Europe, and works of the period are often referred to as being in the Viennese style. Composers came from all over Europe to train in and around Vienna, and gradually they developed and formalized the standard musical forms that were to predominate European musical culture for the next several decades. A reform of the extravagance of Baroque opera was undertaken by Christoph von Gluck . Johann Stamitz contributed greatly to the growth of the orchestra and developed the idea of the orchestral symphony . The Classical period reached its majestic culmination with the masterful symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets by the three great composers of the Viennese school: Franz Joseph Haydn , Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , and Ludwig van Beethoven . During the same period, the first voice of the burgeoning Romantic musical ethic can be found in the music of Viennese composer Franz Schubert .
As the many socio-political revolutions of the late eighteenth-century established new social orders and new ways of life and thought, so composers of the period broke new musical ground by adding a new emotional depth to the prevailing classical forms. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth-century (from ca. 1820 to 1900), artists of all kinds became intent in expressing their subjective, personal emotions. "Romanticism" derives its name from the romances of medieval times -- long poems telling stories of heroes and chivalry, of distant lands and far away places, and often of unattainable love. The romantic artists are the first in history to give to themselves the name by which they are identified.
The earliest Romantic composers were all born within a few years of each other in the early years of the nineteenth century. These include the great German masters Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann ; the Polish poet of the piano Frédéric Chopin; the French genius Hector Berlioz ; and the greatest pianistic showman in history, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt .
During the early nineteenth century, opera composers such as Carl Maria von Weber turned to German folk stories for the stories of their operas, while the Italians looked to the literature of the time and created what is known as Bel canto opera (literally "beautiful singing"). Later in the century, the field of Italian opera was dominated by Giuseppe Verdi , while German opera was virtually monopolized by Richard Wagner .
During the nineteenth century, composers from non-Germanic countries began looking for ways in which they might express the musical soul of their homelands. Many of these Nationalist composers turned to indigenous history and legends as plots for their operas, and to the popular folk melodies and dance rhythms of their homelands as inspiration for their symphonies and instrumental music. Others developed a highly personal harmonic language and melodic style which distinguishes their music from that of the Austro-Germanic traditions.
The continued modification and enhancement of existing instruments, plus the invention of new ones, led to the further expansion of the symphony orchestra throughout the century. Taking advantage of these new sounds and new instrumental combinations, the late Romantic composers of the second half of the nineteenth-century created richer and ever larger symphonies, ballets, and concertos. Two of the giants of this period are the German-born Johannes Brahms and the great Russian melodist Peter Ilyich Tchaikovksy .
By the turn of the century and for the next few decades, artists of all nationalities were searching for exciting and different modes of expression. Composers such as Arnold Schoenberg explored unusual and unorthodox harmonies and tonal schemes. French composer Claude Debussy was fascinated by Eastern music and the whole-tone scale, and created a style of music named after the movement in French painting called Impressionism. Hungarian composer Béla Bartók continued in the traditions of the still strong Nationalist movement and fused the music of Hungarian peasants with twentieth century forms. Avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varèse explored the manipulation of rhythms rather than the usual melodic/harmonic schemes. The tried-and-true genre of the symphony, albeit somewhat modified by this time, attracted such masters as Gustav Mahlerand Dmitri Shostakovich , while Igor Stravinsky gave full rein to his manipulation of kaleidoscopic rhythms and instrumental colors throughout his extremely long and varied career.
While many composers throughout the twentieth-century experimented in new ways with traditional instruments (such as the "prepared piano" used by American composer John Cage), many of the twentieth-century's greatest composers, such as Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini and the Russian pianist/composer Sergei Rachmaninoff , remained true to the traditional forms of music history. In addition to new and eclectic styles of musical trends, the twentieth century boasts numerous composers whose harmonic and melodic styles an average listener can still easily appreciate and enjoy.