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What are the forms and types of classical music?

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September 28, 2015 5:25PM

By "classical", I assume you mean the way in which it's used by most people, as "serious/historical" music, rather than the more precise "Classical", meaning the period roughly from 1760-1800 - i.e. Mozart, Haydn, early Beethoven, as opposed to "Romantic", "20th Century", "Renaissance" etc.

It's a huge question to answer. Taking the broadest view, classical music can be either instrumental, vocal, or both. The other broad view is that it can be sacred or secular (and the divide between these two isn't always as clear-cut as you might think!)

Within each of these categories there's music for solo performers, either singly or in groups, and music for concerted groups such as choirs or orchestras, with more than one instrument or voice on each part.

This yields the following eight categories, with some examples from most of them:

1. SACRED VOCAL MUSIC FOR ONE OR MORE SOLO PERFORMERS: there aren't any common examples in this category that I can think of.

2. SACRED VOCAL CONCERTED MUSIC: unaccompanied choral music intended for performance in church or on sacred occasions, such as masses, motets, Anglican services and anthems by such composers as Machaut, Dufay, Lassus, Palestrina, Byrd and Tallis; also examples by later composers such as Lotti and Bruckner. This whole category forms the bulk of sacred music from days of plainchant (around 400AD) until at least 1600, and still constitutes the core repertoire of many smaller choirs, even secular ones - who, of course, perform such pieces in a secular (i.e. concert) context. Much contemporary Christmas music in what might be termed the "classical tradition" also falls into this category, with arrangers and composers including David Willcocks.

3. SACRED INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC FOR ONE OR MORE SOLO PERFORMERS: not a huge category, but includes many of Bach's organ works, as well as Corelli's "Sonatas da chiesa" (i.e. "for the church"), written for one or two solo violins accompanied by a keyboard instrument and (probably) a bass instrument such as a viola da gamba, cello or bassoon. Also includes Mozart's organ sonatas, which... well, let's be charitable and say that they're not his absolutely best music!

4. SACRED INSTRUMENTAL CONCERTED MUSIC: One of the very few examples I can think of are some of Corelli's concerti grossi (see category 11 below); in parallel with his sonatas da chiesa (see category 3), these are called "concerti da chiesa" - i.e. "concertos for [performance in] church".

5. MIXTURES OF THE PREVIOUS FOUR CATEGORIES: too numerous to mention. Part of the problem is that the earlier the music, the less we know about it. It's not clear, for example, whether some of the lines of masses written in the 13th century were sung or played on instruments. However, clear examples of mixtures are Anglican verse anthems, beginning with Byrd's "Teach Me, O Lord" (choir and solo vocal performers accompanied on an organ) and the Mozart and Haydn masses (orchestra, choir and solo singers). This category began for sure around 1600 when the Gabrielis, uncle and nephew, began to write explicitly for instruments in church. An interesting sub-category of this genre is West Gallery music, hymns and other service music used during Anglican services up until the end of the 19th century in which any available melody instrument (not organs, which weren't apparently as common then as we'd think) was used to accompany vocal lines which could be performed by solo performers or by groups. Other famous examples are Bach's Passions and cantatas and the sacred histories of Heinrich Schuetz. Another problem even with this later Renaissance, Baroque and Classical instrumental music is that it is, for all intents and purposes, secular music called sacred, presumably either to pass it through some kind of "acceptability censorship" or out of habit. Secular compositions could be given different words for a religious context and vice versa. The dividing line between secular and sacred is, in short, not as clear as you might think.

6. SECULAR VOCAL MUSIC FOR ONE OR MORE SOLO PERFORMERS: the chief example would be English and Italian madrigals in the decades around 1600. These are for three or more solo singers. Chief composers include Byrd, Gibbons, Marenzio and (for a really wacky but wonderful treat) Gesualdo. This is domestic music, written to be performed quite literally around a table, as the layout of the printed music makes clear. The madrigal's later descendant was the glee, starting in the second half of the 18th century.

7. SECULAR VOCAL CONCERTED MUSIC: this took off in the twentieth century, with the rise of the secular unaccompanied (i.e. by instruments) chamber choir. Examples include folk-song arrangements by Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, and more recently such pieces as Barber's "Reincarnations" and his "Agnus Dei" (a choral arrangement of his famous "Adagio for strings"). Earlier examples of secular vocal concerted music are more often than not accompanied.

8. SECULAR INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC FOR ONE OR MORE SOLO PERFORMERS: a positively gigantic category. Includes practically all chamber music such as all the string quartets by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven; all solo harpsichord, clavichord and piano music by people like the preceding, Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Chopin and Liszt; all sonatas for a melody instrument such as violin, oboe, flute, recorder, cello or viola da gamba or any combination of these, accompanied by a keyboard (harpsichord, clavichord, chamber organ and later piano), or plucked stringed instrument (lute or theorbo), all of which were written continuously from the early decades of the 17th century until the 20th; all works for solo melody instrument by composers like Telemann and Bach... the list goes on.

9. SECULAR INSTRUMENTAL CONCERTED MUSIC: nearly as extensive as the preceding list. This forms the bulk of the concert-hall repertoire of symphony orchestras, and includes all the symphonies of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler, as well as all other purely orchestral pieces such as the tone poems of Liszt and Richard Strauss and the waltzes of Johann Strauss II. (I should point out that the woodwind (flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons), brass (trumpets, French horns, trombones, tuba) and percussion (kettledrums and other instruments such as gongs and cymbals) players in a standard symphony orchestra are always technically solo performers, but they are regarded as part of the concerted group.)

10. MIXTURES OF THE PREVIOUS FOUR CATEGORIES: the concerto would be one of the leading examples of this type. Corelli pioneered works consisting of an orchestra and a group of solo perfomers (the "concerto grosso"), while Vivaldi brought the solo concerto (orchestra plus one solo performer) to prominence. This latter became the standard combination, being continued by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Liszt (the usual solo instruments for these later composers being the piano and the violin). Oratorios with a sacred theme, or even using standard sacred texts like the Latin Mass and (from Mozart onwards) the Requiem Mass for the dead, but written for secular performance, are written for orchestra, choir and solo performers. All of Handel's oratorios including "Messiah" fall into this category, as does Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius". Another huge category is that of instrumentally accompanied vocal music by one or more solo performers. This must go as far back at least as bardic recitations of heroic poems like "Beowulf". In the 14th through the 16th centuries, chansons were written for two to four voices, sometimes accompanied by instruments. Leading composers of this genre were Machaut, Binchois, Dufay, Ockeghem, Busnois, Obrecht and Josquin. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries solo songs accompanied (usually) by a single chord instrument such as the lute came to the fore; Dowland and Coperario in England were masters of this form. In the 17th century the French air de cour continued the tradition. In the 19th century song, accompanied usually by the piano, came to the fore in Germany, its chief exponents including Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf. The 20th century has continued the tradition, with Vaughan Williams, Chausson and Debussy being among the better-known practitioners.

11. STAGE WORKS: This is actually part of the preceding category, but its development is so unique that it needs separate mention. All of opera belongs in this category, from the earliest ones by Peri and Monteverdi written around 1600 through composers such as Lully, Cavalli, Purcell, Charpentier, Handel, Rameau, Mozart, Rossini, Weber, Donizetti, Bellini, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini. All of these works are written for similar forces to those of oratorio, but are of course intended for performance in costume with sets on a stage. Some oratorios are like unstaged operas in this respect, being "dramatic" in the technical sense (i.e. dramas, intended for stage performance). In fact, some of Handel's dramatic oratorios have been successfully staged. His "Messiah" is an exception: it does not have characters, or even tell a story, but is contemplative.

There is a completely different way of approaching your question, however: chronological. According to this method, you might list the different historical periods and the leading forms and types of each.

MEDIEVAL: This runs from the fall of the West Roman Empire, around 500AD, to about 1400. It begins with plainchant, a single line of music sung by choirs in churches and monasteries, with accompanied or recitation (see above) and with instrumental music to accompany dance. All of this music was essentially monodic - i.e. one real musical line. Around 1000AD, the greatest innovation in Western musical history occurred: the simultaneous performance of two or more independent musical lines. This was polyphony, and it remains the dominant style of classical music to this day. The predominant music of this era was liturgical (written specifically for performance during church services), but the paraliturgical forms of mystery and miracle plays outgrew their church context and provided the basis for stage drama (plays). Vernacular (non-Latin) and secular music, both vocal and instrumental, became more popular. Leading forms included the liturgical mass and motet and a host of spinoff forms, the instrumental estampie and other dance forms, and the chanson and other accompanied solo vocal forms. Leading composers included, as well as the ones mentioned above, Leonin and Perotin.

RENAISSANCE: around 1400-1600, this period saw the full flowering of sacred vocal (usually unaccompanied) polyphony, as well as the increasing independence of instrumental music and the development of musical notation, including the printing of music. Leading forms were the mass and motet, the Anglican service and anthem, the hymn, the madrigal and the instrumental fantasia.

BAROQUE: around 1600-1750, this saw the continued rise of independent instrumental music, with the invention of the concerto, the sonata and the solo keyboard repertoire, as well as the two main forms which were to dominate the next couple of centuries: the oratorio and the opera. Instruments were increasingly used in churches.

CLASSICAL: around 1750-1800. The period of Mozart and Haydn, these composers raised the symphony from a minor incidental piece written as part of a larger works such as an opera to an independent work. The concerto was also reformulated and the string quartet developed. The form of all these became more standardised: the concerto, for example, now always consisted of an opening fast movement, a second slower movement (sometimes with only part of the orchestra playing) and a final fast movement. Symphonies, sonatas and string quartets followed the same pattern but with an extra dance movement (usually a minuet) inserted before the last movement.

ROMANTIC: around 1800-1900. Forms were basically the same as before, with the addition of the solo song, the piano nocturne and the orchestral tone poem (an orchestral composition meant to express an extra-musical idea, such as a mood, a story or a poem), but the scale grew enormously, and the number of works dropped. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies; his successor, Beethoven, wrote only nine - but what a nine! The last of these symphonies, also known as the "choral" because it introduces a choir and vocal soloists, lasts more than an hour, whereas a "typical" Mozart/Haydn one lasts about 20-25 minutes. (As well as the symphony, the leading forms remained, however, opera, oratorio and mass/requiem (the requiem became very popular in this period, leading examples written by Mozart, Berlioz, Bruckner, Verdi and Faure). The symphony in this period replaced the minuet with a scherzo, a much faster movement with two beats rather than three.

MODERN: 1900- . The dissolution of every "given" in music. Composers did away with everything that had previously been assumed about music: that a piece should be based on a musical scale (hexachord; major/minor scale) in which one note predominated (in C major, for example, the predominant note, towards which all of the others gravitate, is C) (Schoenberg); that music consists of consonance and dissonance, and that dissonances need to be resolved by consonances (Schoenberg again), that a piece must contain conventional pitches (Varese), that instruments must be played conventionally (Penderecki's "Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima"), that instruments must be conventional ones (Harry Partch), that composers must write every note that they want the performer(s) to play, in the order in which they must be played (Phil Glass, Riley, Cage, Stockhausen), that music in fact must have audible sound (Cage), that it must be performable (Ives), that it must be performed live on acoustic instruments of any kind (electronic music by, among others, Xenakis, Boulez and Steve Reich). A reaction to such drastic experimentation has taken place among audiences, with such music now a special interest. "Classical music" to the general public now means the serious music of the past, especially operas and orchestral works (especially symphonies) by people who have been dead for at least 100 years. This used not to be the case. If I remember rightly, the Renaissance theorist Tinctoris (d.1511) said something to the effect that no music written before the last 40 years was worth listening to. Berlioz, in the 19th century, was another modernist - he wasn't much interested in any music before Beethoven (he called Handel "a barrel of pork and beer"). Most composers were interested in older music - Palestrina has continued to be part of the repertoire of major church and cathedral choirs since 1600 - but the bulk of music that was performed was modern. People went to hear the latest symphony by Mozart in his day as they would go to hear that same symphony today, as the main constituent of their staple diet of "classical music". Part of this sensibility is the revival of interest in the instruments on which old music was performed. This is now a major part of the classical musical performance world - cantatas by Bach, sonatas by Beethoven, operas by Handel and symphonies by Brahms (I think) have all been performed on the original instruments of their day, as well as music as far back as Leonin and Perotin.

A further distinction could be made between domestic music (chansons, madrigals, glees, string quartets, songs) and music for public performance (mass, motet, service, anthem, oratorio, passion (e.g. Bach's St Matthew Passion), opera, sonata, concerto, symphony, orchestral tone poem. In fact, there are many ways of classifying the forms and styles of classical music.


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