They tell us about composers of classical music and we imagine eccentric geniuses. But how many of them do you know and recognize? When you hear their music airplay or played at a festival, do you know which musical period they belong to? And what did they do to contribute to the success story of classical music? Keep reading, it promises to be worth the time.
1. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). The Renaissance
While the history of music dates back to prehistoric tribes, we begin our journey through the Renaissance (late 14th – 17th century). It was then that classical music composers were finally able to print their works. Gutenberg’s printing press (1450) contributed to the spread of music. At this time, in addition, the first instrument tuning systems were born and the notes began to be altered with sharps, flats and naturals, seeking greater expressiveness.
There are several Renaissance musical schools: the Franco-Flemish, the English, the German, the Spanish … And above all, the Italian, which stands out for Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Claudio Monteverdi.
Monteverdi is a key classical music composer in the transition between Renaissance and Baroque music. Its madrigals (musical pieces of three to six voices that tell a secular story) are famous, as well as L’Orfeo , which is considered the first opera in history.
2. Georg Friedrich Haendel (1685-1759). Baroque
The main characteristic of baroque music (from 1600 to 1750) is contrast : opposition is sought in rhythm, in nuances, in sound, in instruments, etc. In addition, at this time the orchestra emerged (which is still small at the moment) with instruments grouped by families: string, wind and sometimes percussion.
Friedrich Haendel is one of the most important classical music composers of this period. German nationalized English, Handel begins writing operas in Italian, without success. However, he realizes that in English they do work, so he dedicated his career to instrumental and vocal works in this language. Played music to the great court events, such as Water Music composed for boat trips on the Thames from King George I. His most famous work is, The Messiah, one of the fundamental pieces of sacred music of all time.
3. Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741). Baroque
Vivaldi was born into a family of musicians, and began studying at the San Marco School in Venice. To follow his musical vocation, he was ordained a priest, which is why he earned the nickname, “the red priest”, since he was a redhead. However, the Italian composer and musician officiated few Masses and showed little interest in religious life.
On the contrary, Antonio Vivaldi is one of the most prolific composers of classical music, having composed more than 700 works, including 46 operas and more than 400 concerts. The most famous is the Concerto opus 8, RV 269, 315, 293, and 294: in other words, The Four Seasons. There are actually four concerts, with a clearly pictorial intention: each instrument represents something descriptive of the landscape, streams, birds, fires, etc.
4. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). End of the Baroque
Considered by many to be the greatest classical music composer of all time, Bach’s career can be divided into several stages. They correspond to the cities where he lived: Arnstadt (1703-1707); Mülhausen (1707-1708); Weimar (1708-1717); Köthen (1717-1723) and Leipzig (1723-1750).
His period in Köthen was one of the most fertile musically speaking: from this time are his two violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos. However, his best known works are from the Leipzig era. It is about his two Passions (Passion according to Saint Matthew and Passion according to Saint John), the Mass in B minor and the Christmas Oratory.
Such is its importance in history, that it is considered that with the death of Johann Sebastian in 1750 the Baroque era in music ended.
5. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809). Classicism
Musical Classicism coincides with the time of the Enlightenment. With the French Revolution, the ideals of equality, liberty, and fraternity applied to music. Art and teaching are popularized, and music seeks to be a universal language, accessible to all. The flourishes and artifices of the Baroque are left behind. The fundamental thing is that classical music is pleasant, that it ‘enters through the ear’.
The Austrian Haydn is one of the most influential classical music composers in the development of classical music. At the age of 27, he composed his first string quartets, for which he became famous. The composer himself recognized the supremacy of his friend Mozart; but Haydn made great contributions to the development of the symphony. From then on, it began to be structured in four movements.
6. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). Classicism
Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy, who at age six was already an advanced violin player, but had a short life full of financial hardships.
Despite everything, in his 35 years of life, this genius of music composed more than 600 pieces. His work covers all genres: symphonies, entertainments, sonatas, chamber music, concerts, opera and church music. His last composition, a Requiem Mass, was left unfinished, as a kidney ailment killed Wolfgang Amadeus in 1791. Only a few friends attended Mozart’s funeral, which nonetheless had a great influence on music composers.
7. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Beginnings of Romanticism
Musical Romanticism begins in 1800, with the 1st Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. At this time, the creative freedom of the artist is defended. Beethoven will be considered the first independent artist. Reason is no longer appealed to, but sentiment. Music becomes a language that tries to express what cannot be explained in words. Each romantic author has his personal, subjective style.
Beethoven studied with Joseph Haydn, and although he claimed to have learned nothing from him, he quickly assimilated Viennese classicism. Little by little, he was creating his own language, in all musical genres.
Most of Beethoven’s best known works belong to his first stage, the so-called ‘heroic decade’. However, the musician’s deafness caused him to isolate himself from society just when his fame reached its peak, and since 1818, his music was relegated to a small group of experts, except for the premieres of Symphony No. 9 and the Missa Solemn.
8. Frédéric François Chopin (1810 – 1849). Full Romanticism
The construction and expansion of the piano changed the course of the history of classical music. The piano won in nuances and volume. And if there is a composer, famous for his virtuosity on the piano, it is Frédéric Chopin.
His first work for piano was composed when he was only seven years old, although it was his father who wrote the score. At the age of eight, he was already considered a child prodigy, and he gave concerts before aristocrats.
Chopin is a fundamental exponent of full Romanticism (the one that developed between 1830 and 1850), for his hazardous personal life and, musically, for his use of forms of popular folklore.
9. Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Late Romanticism
With Romanticism coming to an end, classical music composers search for a unique language. They use the sounds in a freer way.
Richard Wagner was characterized by the use of chromaticisms (that is, of intermediate notes in the scale). In this way, he managed to give his works more expressiveness, especially his operas (which he called “musical dramas”). In them, each character had a different tonality. Music was at the service of dramatic expression.
Wagner wanted all the arts within an opera to have the same importance (music, costumes, choreography, libretto …). He himself wrote the libretto and designed the scenery for, among others, The Ring of the Nibelungs or Tristan and Isolde. This Wagnerian theory not only affected the world of opera, but also defined the birth of contemporary theatre.
10. 20th century classical music composers
As with contemporary theatre or dance, once we reached the twentieth century, we reached the dispersion of musical movements: futurism, primitivism, twelve-tone …
Each ‘ism’ had different characteristics, but they mostly agreed in the rejection of the classical tonality. That is, they used ambiguous chords or unconventional melodies and rhythms.
Some of the most relevant classical music composers of this century are Claude Debussy (the composer of Prelude to the siesta of a faun); Igor Stravinsky (author of The Rite of Spring); Sergei Prokofiev (famous for Peter and the Wolf or for the ballet Romeo and Juliet); or Dmitri Shostakovich (whose Symphony No. 1 is considered a masterpiece for its stylistic avant-garde).