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This essay was originally published in five parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
A printable (plain HTML) version is available here.
I utilized many sources while writing this history of European music, but the single most important reference work was A History of Western Music, Seventh Edition, by Donald J. Grout, Peter J. Burkholder and Claude V. Palisca. This book is very comprehensive and easily recommended for those who have a serious interest in the subject.
The earliest evidence we have of musical instruments dates back to the Old Stone Age. We know that there were rich musical traditions in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and elsewhere. Indirectly, it is possible that some aspects of Babylonian musical theory and practice influenced the Greek, and by extension European, musical tradition. The ancient Greeks used various musical instruments such as harps, horns, lyres, drums and cymbals. Greek music theory evolved continually from Pythagoras before 500 BC to Aristides Quintilianus in the late third century AD, whose treatise De musica (On Music) is an important source of knowledge of the Greek musical tradition. Music was closely connected to astronomy in Pythagorean thought, as mathematical laws and proportions were considered to be the underpinnings of both musical intervals and the heavenly bodies.
Plato and Aristotle argued that education should stress gymnastics to discipline the body and music to discipline the mind. Plato was, as usual, the stricter of the two. He would only allow certain types of music for limited purposes and asserted that musical conventions must not be changed, since lawlessness in art leads to anarchy. Aristotle was less restrictive and argued that music could be used for enjoyment as well as for education. To the Romans, music was a natural part of most public ceremonies and featured in entertainment and in education, too. During the early Christian era, the musical legacy of the Greco-Roman world was modified and transmitted to the West by scholars such as Martianus Capella (fifth century AD).
The Church was the dominant social institution in post-Roman times and deeply affected the future development of European music. Some elements of Christian observances may derive from Jewish tradition, chiefly the chanting of Scripture and the signing of psalms, poems of praise from the Hebrew Book of Psalms. How much borrowing there was from Jewish sources is hard to say, but similarities between Jewish melodies passed down through oral tradition and medieval melodic formulas for signing psalms in Christian churches suggest that there might have been some borrowing. For medieval Christians, music was the servant of religion. The most characteristic Byzantine chants were hymns, which became more prominent in the liturgy of the Eastern Church than in the Western one.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (ca. 480-525) was born in Rome, knew Greek and has been called “the last of the Romans, the first of the scholastics.” Like Augustine before him, he believed that the application of reason to theology was essential. According to Edward Grant, “Boethius began a trend that would eventually revolutionize Christian theology and transform it into a rationalistic and analytical discipline.” He wrote on philosophy, logic, theology and mathematics, and his influence helped to preserve some fragments of Greek philosophy and mathematics in Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages. His De institutione musica (The Fundamentals of Music), written in Latin but drawn from Greek sources, was widely cited for the next thousand years. Church leaders drew on Greek musical theory but rejected pagan religious customs, elevated worship over entertainment and singing over instrumental music.
The term “medieval” has, somewhat unfairly, come to carry decisively negative connotations for many people. Renaissance humanists viewed everything in between the fall of Rome in the fifth century AD and the revival of the Classical heritage in the fourteenth century as an unenlightened age which they labeled the Middle Ages. Much later, historians such as Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) from Switzerland and George Voigt (1827-1891) from Germany devoted considerable time to the epoch which was dubbed the “Renaissance,” or “rebirth,” and they reinforced the impression of the previous era as a “Dark Age.”
There is no doubt that there was prolonged unrest and urban disintegration following the collapse of Roman authority, accompanied by major population movements across the European continent, yet even during these troubled times there were exceptions. Charles Martel and the Carolingians managed to halt the Islamic invasion in France in the eighth century and for some time rebuilt a stronger state. Christianity spread among the barbarians.
Saint Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636) and the Venerable Bede (ca. 672-735) contributed to the modest storehouse of scholarly and philosophical knowledge that was available in much of Europe before the organized recovery began in earnest from the twelfth century onward. The theologian Isidore was born into a prominent family in Roman Spain and served as Archbishop of Seville, then under Visigothic rule, for several decades. His encyclopedia Etymologies exists in more than a thousand manuscripts, making it one of the most popular books of the European Middle Ages before the printing press. It covers the seven liberal arts, medicine, law, timekeeping and the calendar, theology, anthropology, geography, cosmology, mineralogy and agriculture. He was not a very original writer, but his work contained some useful information in an age when this was in short supply.
The Venerable Bede was an accomplished English (Anglo-Saxon) monk and historian. At the age of seven he entered the monastery of Monkwearmouth in northeastern England, near the modern city of Newcastle. He is especially remembered for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which constitutes the chief source of information for modern scholars about early Britain. He also helped popularize the system of dating events from the birth of Christ. Bede’s work is a fine example of good medieval scholarship, but he was not typical, as most monks spent more time in the fields and farms or in administration than on being scholars.
Monks from Ireland, which was very early converted to Christianity following the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, played a major role in keeping alive what remained of learning in the West during the Early Middle Ages. John Scotus Eriugena (ca. AD 810-877), the Irish philosopher and theologian who served King Charles the Bald of France, wrote a significant treatise titled On the Division of Nature. According to Edward Grant, “Eriugena’s emphasis on reason was given institutional roots in eleventh-century Europe with the development of the cathedral schools that emerged in various European cities.” Grant believes that “…medieval theology was a systematic, rationalistic discipline.”
Emperor Charlemagne brought in Alcuin, a distinguished scholar and headmaster of the cathedral school at York in present-day England, to serve as his educational adviser. Alcuin had studied with an Irish teacher and was assisted by several Irish clerics. John McKay, Bennett Hill and John Buckler elaborate in A History of Western Society, Seventh Edition:
“At his court at Aachen, Charlemagne assembled learned men from all over Europe. The most important scholar and the leader of the palace school was the Northumbrian Alcuin (ca 735-804). From 781 until his death, Alcuin was the emperor’s chief adviser on religious and educational matters. An unusually prolific scholar, Alcuin prepared some of the emperor’s official documents and wrote many moral exempla, or ‘models,’ which set high standards for royal behavior and constitute a treatise on kingship. Alcuin’s letters to Charlemagne set forth political theories on the authority, power, and responsibilities of a Christian ruler. Aside from Alcuin’s literary efforts, what did the scholars at Charlemagne’s court do? They copied books and manuscripts and built up libraries. They used the beautifully clear handwriting known as ‘caroline minuscule,’ from which modern Roman type is derived. (This script is called minuscule because unlike the Merovingian majuscule, which had letters of equal size, minuscule had both upper- and lowercase letters.) Caroline minuscule improved the legibility of texts and meant that a sheet of vellum could contain more words and thus be used more efficiently. With the materials at hand, many more manuscripts could be copied.”
Although this Carolingian revival was initially motivated primarily by concerns about the low level of clerical literacy, it welcomed the natural sciences as well. Astronomy, for instance, was relevant for timekeeping and the calendar and for determining the correct date of Easter. As David C. Lindberg says, “The importance of the copying of classical texts is demonstrated by the fact that our earliest known copies of most Roman scientific and literary texts (also Latin translations of Greek texts) date from the Carolingian period. The recovery and copying of books, combined with Charlemagne’s imperial edict mandating the establishment of cathedral and monastery schools, contributed to a wider dissemination of education than the Latin West had seen for several centuries and laid a foundation for future scholarship.”
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There was some revival of interest in mathematics after the work of Gerbert d’Aurillac (ca. 945-1003), who became Pope Sylvester II in 999. As Grant states, “In the eleventh century, Gerbert’s students disseminated his love of learning and his teaching methods throughout northern Europe. As a consequence, logic became a basic subject of study in the cathedral schools of Europe. And, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, would become ever more deeply entrenched in the curricula of the cathedral schools and then the universities of Europe.”
The number of monks greatly exceeded the number of nuns during the Middle Ages, but nuns had an important impact on society, too. As with monks, intellectual and scholarly nuns were not typical of the era, but some of them did exist. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German abbess and composer who was given by her family when eight years old as an oblate to an abbey in the Rhineland, where she learned Latin and received a good education. A talented poet and composer, she collected 77 of her lyric poems, wrote scholarly works and carried out a vast correspondence with many prominent persons of her time. “Hildegard represents the Benedictine ideal of great learning combined with a devoted monastic life.”
The French scholar Peter Lombard (ca. 1095-1160) wrote a treatise titled Four Books of Sentences, which became the basic textbook in all schools of theology in the Latin West until the seventeenth century. Between 1150 and 1500, only the Bible was read and discussed more than the Sentences. After education at Bologna, before 1150 he taught theology at the school of Notre Dame, Paris. Here he came into contact with Peter Abelard and the mystic Hugh of Saint-Victor (1096-1141), who were among the most influential theologians of the time.
The codification of liturgy, helped by Frankish kings, led to the repertory known as Gregorian chant, which was codified after centuries of development as an oral tradition. It was used in Christian services in Western and Central Europe until the Protestant Reformation and in Catholic areas even after that. Most people in these regions heard Gregorian chant at least weekly. From the ninth through the thirteenth centuries, chant formed the foundation for most polyphonic music. All later music in the Western tradition wears its imprint.
The Greek system of notation had apparently been forgotten by the seventh century, when Isidore of Seville wrote that “Unless sounds are remembered by man, they perish, for they cannot be written down.” Yet with increasingly complex chants arose the need for notation, a way to write down the music. The earliest surviving books of chant with musical notation date from the ninth century AD. The invention of musical scales was important, but music antedated the invention of scales. The invention of musical notation enabled musicians to build upon the work of the past. It may well have been a necessary condition for the development of musical expression, but not alone sufficient to explain all later advances.
The connection between mathematical ratios and musical intervals discovered by Pythagoras and independently by the Chinese was important, but not as crucial as polyphony. “Just as linear perspective added depth to the length and breadth of painting, polyphony added, metaphorically, a vertical dimension to the horizontal line of melody.”
As stated in A History of Western Music, “Many particular features of Western notation have been around for a millennium, including staff lines, clefs, and notes placed above the text and arranged so that higher notes indicate higher pitches. The invention of a notation that could record pitches and intervals precisely and could be read at sight was decisive in the later evolution of Western music, which more than other musical traditions is not just played and heard, but written and read. Indeed, notation is the very reason why we have a thousand years of music we can still perform and hear, and why books like this can be written. Almost as important, the codification of Gregorian chant and its diffusion in notation made it the basis for much of the music from the ninth through the sixteenth centuries. That these events took place under the Franks was significant, since Charlemagne’s empire was the political and cultural center of western Europe. From his day through the fourteenth century, the most important developments in European music took place in the area he once ruled.”
Churches and monasteries prospered after AD 1000 due to the relative political stability and great economic growth of the High Middle Ages. Europeans developed new and large cathedrals which employed the principles of the Roman basilica and the round arch, and artists decorated these buildings with frescoes and sculptures. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Vikings and Magyars had burned hundreds of wooden churches. In the eleventh century the abbots therefore wanted to rebuild in a more permanent fashion, so the builders replaced wooden roofs with arched stone ceilings called “vaults.” Because these ceilings were heavy, only thick walls could support them, which again allowed for only small windows.
Nineteenth-century historians coined the term Romanesque, meaning “in the Roman manner,” to describe church architecture in many regions of Europe between the tenth and the twelfth centuries. The main features of this style, solid walls, rounded arches and masonry vaults, had been the characteristics of large Roman buildings. Romanesque churches had a massive quality to them and symbolized a “fortress of God,” a place of refuge in a time of insecurity. Because of this, churches of this style often have a powerful, fortresslike appearance.
The Romanesque style is usually called Norman style in English, as it was championed in England by the Normans, the conquerors of mixed French and Viking (Norsemen) origins. After the Norman Conquest in 1066 under the leadership of William I (ca.1028-1087), better known as William the Conqueror, English culture was more closely allied to that of France. The Norman-style Winchester Cathedral has been the seat of many coronations and burials.
The Romanesque style was eventually replaced by new ideas, which later scholars termed “Gothic.” This is a misnomer as the style had nothing to do with the Goths, a post-Roman Germanic tribe. The term was coined following the Renaissance and the revival of the Classical style by Filippo Brunelleschi, when everything before this was considered inferior. Those who have had the pleasure of seeing impressive Gothic cathedrals such as the Notre Dame in Paris will, however, fail to detect any sign of barbarism in them.
Due to the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress, the ceiling weighed less in the new architecture. This made possible thinner walls and large stained-glass windows which flooded the church with light. The construction of such cathedrals represented a gigantic investment of time and money. Many craftsmen and their apprentices had to be assembled: quarrymen, carpenters, stonecutters, glassmakers etc., in addition to unskilled laborers to do the heavy work. The construction was rarely completed in a lifetime, and later generations often added to the building. Contributors and workers left their imprints on the cathedrals, which often carried scenes celebrating country life and the activities of ordinary people.
According to A History of Western Society, Seventh Edition, “Medieval churches stand as the most spectacular manifestations of medieval vitality and creativity. It is difficult for people today to appreciate the extraordinary amounts of energy, imagination, and money involved in building them. Between 1180 and 1270 in France alone, eighty cathedrals, about five hundred abbey churches, and tens of thousands of parish churches were constructed. This construction represents a remarkable investment for a country of scarcely 18 million people. More stone was quarried for churches in medieval France than had been mined in ancient Egypt, where the Great Pyramid alone consumed 40.5 million cubic feet of stone….Gothic cathedrals were built in towns and reflect both bourgeois wealth and enormous civic pride. The manner in which a society spends its wealth expresses its values. Cathedrals, abbeys, and village churches testify to the deep religious faith and piety of medieval people. If the dominant aspect of medieval culture had not been the Christian faith, the builder’s imagination and the merchant’s money would have been used in other ways.”
New instruments appeared or came into widespread usage at this time, among them brass instruments such as trumpets and various horns. This was during the revival of Classical learning and the foundation of the first universities, and these developments were paralleled in music. “Like stained-glass windows, song touched hearts and lifted spirits.” Those who sang polyphony at first valued it as decoration, a concept central to medieval architecture. “Polyphonic performance heightened the grandeur of chant and thus of the liturgy itself.”
We cannot say with certainty that the ancient Greeks did not invent polyphony. For Plato and Aristotle, music was considered to be a force that shaped ethical behavior and society itself. This music must have been more powerful than a few simple melodies. Just how sophisticated it was we don’t know for sure, yet as Charles Murray writes in Human Accomplishment:
“But as far as can be determined from the evidence, every previous musical tradition, Greek or otherwise, consisted of horizontal linkages of notes placed one after the other, forming melodies. The melody might have a rhythmic accompaniment. Many instruments might be involved in playing the melody. But the music had a single, linear melodic line. Polyphony was the first expression of the idea that notes could be stacked on top of one another, creating musical lines that went different directions at the same time. Technically, polyphony has a narrow meaning. It is music in which simultaneous voice or instrumental parts are in two or more melodic lines, each of which can stand alone. Exactly where and when polyphony began is uncertain. The Welsh apparently sang in different parts very early, and so did the Danes. It may well be that other folk cultures had local musical traditions that used simultaneous melodic lines. But the main sequence for the development of polyphony came through the Catholic monasteries, especially the great monastery of St. Martial in Limoges, in central France, via an evolution of the method of singing prayers called organum.”
Organa (pl.) grew more complex and sophisticated between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, and secular versions of polyphony began to develop. “Advances in theory and notation during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries allowed musicians to write down polyphony and develop progressively more elaborate varieties, in genres such as organum, conductus, and motet. The rise of written polyphony is of particular interest because it inaugurated four precepts that have distinguished Western music ever since: (1) counterpoint, the combination of multiple independent lines; (2) harmony, the regulation of simultaneous sounds; (3) the centrality of notation; and (4) the idea of composition as distinct from performance. These concepts changed over time, but their presence in this music links it to all that followed.”
The term organum is used here for two or more voices singing different notes in agreeable combinations. This term was used for several styles of polyphony from the ninth through thirteenth centuries. Early in the twelfth century, singers and composers in France developed a more ornate type of polyphony which is known today as Aquitanian polyphony. The twelfth-century liturgical composer Léonin, or Leoninus, was the first major European composer we know by name. He had probably studied at the emerging University of Paris and was associated with the Notre Dame school of composition in that city. His works were superseded by those of his French successor Pérotin, or Perotinus, during the early 1200s.
A History of Western Music explains: “Musicians in Paris developed a still more ornate style of polyphony in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The creators of this style were associated with the new Cathedral of Paris, Notre Dame (‘Our Lady,’ the Virgin Mary). One of the grandest Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame took almost a century to build: the foundations were begun around 1160, the apse and choir completed in 1182, the first Mass celebrated in 1183, the transept and nave finished around 1200, and the façade completed about 1250. During this time, musicians at or connected to Notre Dame created a new repertory of unprecedented grandeur and complexity. This new repertory was perhaps the first polyphony to be primarily composed and read from notation rather than improvised, and included the first body of music for more than two independent voices. Such elaborate music was valued for its artistry in decorating the authorized chant, making important services more impressive, and paralleling in sound the stunning size and beautiful decoration of the building itself. The Notre Dame composers developed the first notation since ancient Greece to indicate duration, a step of great importance for later music.”
These developments had far-reaching consequences for the future course of European music. A History of Western Music again:
“Before 1000, virtually all composition consisted of inventing a single melody line. By 1300, composition increasingly meant creating polyphony, although monophonic melodies continued to be composed. The emergence of written polyphony was a major turning point in Western music, as the coordination of multiple parts, interest in vertical sonorities, and use of counterpoint and harmony to create a sense of direction, tension, and resolution became characteristics of the Western tradition that set it apart from almost all others. In this sense, medieval polyphony was of enormous historical importance. Moreover, the notation that composers developed for polyphony introduced two features that became fundamental to later Western notation: vertical placement to coordinate multiple parts, as in Aquitanian and Notre Dame organum and modern scores, and different noteshapes to indicate relative duration, pioneered in Franconian notation and continued in our whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes and rests.”
These developments continued during the Renaissance era. The Franco-Flemish Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450-1521), one of the leading composers of Renaissance Europe, was widely hailed as a great musician and held prestigious positions at courts and churches in France and Italy. The Franco-Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso (ca. 1532-1594) ranks with the Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594) among the great composers of sacred music in sixteenth century Europe, although unlike Palestrina he also wrote many secular works.
Despite the many contributions made by composers and theorists of late medieval polyphony, their music seldom outlived them by more than a generation or two. As new styles were created, older styles soon fell out of fashion. At the time of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, medieval music was often regarded as crude, harsh and primitive. Nevertheless, the medieval era created the entire basis for the future developments of European music. Without medieval polyphony there could have been no Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.
As Charles Murray puts it: “The process that had begun with the invention of polyphony would continue for centuries. If one were looking for the most dazzling immediate effects of a musical invention, the most promising candidate would not be the original invention of polyphony, but the development of modern tonal (major-minor) harmony that began in the Renaissance and reached its full expression in the Baroque. It is tonal harmony that made possible the music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, and that fills most of today’s concert programs. But tonal harmony falls in the category of a great invention that builds on a more fundamental expansion of the human cognitive repertoire — in this instance, the idea that music has a vertical dimension as well as a horizontal one. Notes can be stacked. Melodies can be stacked. Once that idea was in the air, all else became possible.”
The era from roughly 1600 to about 1750 has in retrospect been called the Baroque period in European history. The creativity among musicians during this age paralleled new ideas in science, politics and economics embodied in the Scientific Revolution. In art and architecture as well as in music, the Baroque began in Italy. Many great works of art had been made in Renaissance Italy, among them the Pietà sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica and the decoration of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and those created in the Vatican by Raphael.
The theatricality of the Baroque period’s art can be seen in the works of the Italian sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), who served no less than eight popes in his lifetime. Bernini’s life-size marble sculpture of the Biblical David (1623) depicts movement in an entirely new way and hence looks more dramatic than Michelangelo’s masterly nude depiction David (1501-4). Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645-52) in Rome is another of his greatest marble sculptures. His most famous architectural works include the design for the spectacular square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Bernini was a deeply believing Roman Catholic who felt that the purpose of Christian art was to inspire the faithful.
The Aztecs, Incas and other American peoples had rich musical traditions of their own, with songs in a variety of styles and a wide array of instruments. Much of their music was associated with dancing and religious rituals. Catholic missionaries used this native interest in music to spread Christianity, and brought over the polyphonic music used in European churches. Spanish musicians moved to the Americas to serve as cathedral musicians there.
By 1600, the flood of silver and gold from its colonies in the New World had made Spain the richest country in Europe, and arguably the most powerful nation on Earth. Its empire included the Netherlands and half of Italy, Portugal (annexed in 1580) and Portuguese possessions such as Brazil, the Philippine Islands and most of the Americas. Yet her wealth was squandered on luxury goods and failed imperial policies and did not lead to the development of major industries. Spain held on to her Latin American possessions until the early nineteenth century, with the independence movement of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), but she had lost her dominant position within Europe itself by the mid-seventeenth century.
Bowed instruments may have originated in Central Asia and eventually spread to China and India and to Europe via the Middle East. The modern violin family consists of the violin, viola and cello along with the double bass. The violin emerged in Renaissance Italy, descending from the family of six-stringed viols. As the common “fiddle,” it was easily adopted for dance music, was small, portable and soon became popular. Italian instrument builders developed the art of violin-making to a peak that has never been surpassed.
Antonio Stradivari (ca. 1644-1737) from Cremona, Italy was a crafter of stringed instruments such as violins, cellos, guitars and harps and the most prominent member of a renowned family of Italian instrument-makers. He is often known to the general public under the Latinized version of his name, Stradivarius, or the colloquial “Strad.” He was possibly a pupil of Nicolò Amati (1596-1684), who came from another dynasty of violin-makers. During his remarkably long life, Stradivari made or supervised the production of more than 1,100 instruments, including harps, guitars, violas and cellos. More than half of these survive and are still being used today by some of the world’s leading string players. He was a careful craftsman and selected woods of the highest possible quality, but scientists are still struggling to explain exactly what set his instruments apart from others. His workshop was by the mid-eighteenth century engaged in a healthy rivalry with that of the Guarneri family, among them Giuseppe Guarnieri (1698-1744). As Norman Davies writes in his book Europe: A History:
“With the exception of Jacob Stainer (1617-78) in Tyrol, all the master violin-makers, from Maggini of Brescia to Amati and Stradivari of Cremona and Guarneri of Venice, were Italian. The art of violin-playing was greatly advanced by the development of systematic teaching methods, including those of Leopold Mozart and of G. B. Viotti. The Paris Conservatoire, from 1795, was the predecessor of similar institutions in Prague (1811), Brussels (1813), Vienna (1817), Warsaw (1822), London (1822), St Petersburg (1862), and Berlin (1869). A striking feature of violin-playing from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries was the marked predominance of East Europeans. The phenomenon may possibly reflect the traditions of fiddle-playing among Jews and Gypsies, and more probably the special status of music-making in politically repressed cultures. At all events, Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was for a long time the first and last of the ‘greats’ who was not either East European or Jewish or both. Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) of Vienna and Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80), a Pole from Lublin who helped launch the St Petersburg school, were founders of the magnificent line which ran through Kreisler, Ysaye, and Szigeti to Heifitz, Milstein, Oistrakh, Szeryng, and Isaac Stern. All played their ‘Strads’.”
The Italian Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) had an unparalleled influence on performers and composers alike. By 1675 he was living in Rome where he became a leading violinist and composer, enjoying the support of Queen Christina of Sweden and other rich patrons. René Descartes died of pneumonia in Stockholm in 1650 while teaching Christina, unaccustomed as he was with the cold Scandinavian winters and with getting up early in the morning. Corelli’s teaching was the foundation of most eighteenth-century schools of violin-playing. It is known that he met George Frideric Handel, who was in Rome between 1707 and 1708.
Another Italian composer and violinist who left a decisive mark on the form of the concerto and the style of late Baroque instrumental music was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) from Venice. Vivaldi trained for both music and the priesthood, a combination that was not unusual at the time. He was a virtuoso violinist and one of the most original and influential composers of his time. The Four Seasons, a series of four violin concerti, is his most famous work today.
These developments in Christian Europe extended to Jewish music as well. Judaism was among the European faiths most bound by tradition, but the seventeenth century saw the introduction of polyphonic music into synagogue services in addition to churches. The Italian Jewish violinist and composer Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570-ca. 1630) published a collection of Jewish liturgical music (Hashirim asher lish’lomo, The Songs of Solomon) in 1623, which incorporated the influence of Monteverdi and other northern Italian composers of the time.
L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), first performed in 1607 in Mantua, was one of the earliest European works recognized as an opera. An opera (Italian for “work”) is a drama with continuous or nearly continuous music that is staged with scenery, costumes and action. The text is called a libretto (Italian for “little book”). The opera is a union of poetry, drama and music. It had its origins around 1600 and became the leading genre of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The association of music with drama goes back to ancient times, to the plays of Sophocles and Euripedes. Some of the plays of the Renaissance incorporated music, too. Opera consisted of a blend of already existing genres, but mixed in a new way. Another early opera composer was the German Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787).
According to Norman Davies, “Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo [was] ‘the first viable opera in the repertoire’. Since its origins in the court entertainment of late Renaissance Italy, the operatic genre, which combines music, secular drama, and spectacle, has passed through many phases. The opera seria, whose most prolific proponent was Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), author of 800 libretti, was devoted to classical and historical themes. Alongside it, the opera buffa launched a long tradition of light-hearted entertainment leading through opéra comique to operetta and musical comedy. Grand Opera, which starts in the late eighteenth century, reached its peaks in the Viennese, Italian, French, German, and Russian schools. Romantic nationalism became a prominent ingredient. The supreme laurels are disputed between the lovers of Verdi and Puccini and the fanatical acolytes of Richard Wagner. Modernist opera began with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), the precursor of a rich category including Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945), and Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress (1951). The Orphean theme has provided recurrent inspiration. Jacopo Peri’s Florentine masque Euridice (1600) anticipated Monteverdi’s production in Mantua. Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (1762) opened the classical repertoire. Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) is one of the most joyous of the standard operettas.”
Western European countries were at this time gradually expanding overseas and the Russian state expanded into Siberia, eventually reaching all the way to China and the Pacific Ocean. While the Portuguese and the Spanish had begun this trend, by the seventeenth century the Dutch, French and British were increasingly active. The English Civil War in the 1640s was primarily a battle for power between the king and Parliament but had religious aspects as well. Italy remained exclusively Catholic. Almost everywhere, the power of the state grew.
According to Justo L. Gonzalez in The Story of Christianity: Volume Two, the religious conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War constituted “probably the bloodiest and most devastating European war before the 20th century… The principles of tolerance of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) were not born out of a deeper understanding of Christian love, but rather out of a growing indifference to religious matters….Perhaps rulers should not allow their decisions to be guided by religious or confessional considerations, but rather by their own self-interest, or by the interests of their subjects. Thus the modern secular state began to develop.”
At the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, much of present-day Germany was ruined and impoverished. The Holy Roman Emperor was weak, and the Empire encompassed almost three hundred more or less independent political units. This decentralized power structure held many problems compared to France, but rulers used patronage of scholars and musicians as a way of asserting their status. France replaced Spain as the strongest power in Europe, which increased the prestige of French language and culture. The “Sun King” Louis XIV (1638-1715), who installed his royal court at the magnificent Versailles palace outside of Paris, was the most powerful European monarch and the model for artistic patronage. The English, Germans, Russians, Poles and Austrians imitated French architecture and arts. According to A History of Western Society by John McKay, Bennett Hill and John Buckler:
“In the gigantic Hall of Mirrors, later to reflect so much of German as well as French history, hundreds of candles illuminated the domed ceiling, where allegorical paintings celebrated the king’s victories. The art and architecture of Versailles served as fundamental tools of state policy under Louis XIV. The king used architecture to overawe his subjects and foreign visitors. Versailles was seen as a reflection of French genius. Thus the Russian tsar Peter the Great imitated Versailles in the construction of his palace, Peterhof, as did the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great in his palace at Potsdam outside Berlin. As in architecture, so too in language. Beginning in the reign of Louis XIV, French became the language of polite society and the vehicle of diplomatic exchange. French also gradually replaced Latin as the language of international scholarship and learning. The wish of other kings to ape the courtly style of Louis XIV and the imitation of French intellectuals and artists spread the language all over Europe. The royal courts of Sweden, Russia, Poland, and Germany all spoke French.”
From the 1660s on, French music was almost as influential abroad as was Italian music. Ballet emerged in the court culture of Renaissance Italy, but developed in the French court at this time. For three decades, Louis XIV’s favorite musician was Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), originally from Florence, Italy, who wrote music for ballets and religious services at the court but earned his greatest success with dramatic music. Lully created a distinctive French kind of opera and fostered the modern orchestra. There were several excellent French playwrights, too, among them Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière, and Jean Racine (1639-1699).
The tie or necktie, now worn by men all over the world, can also be traced back to this period. Croatian mercenaries in French service, wearing their traditional small, knotted neckerchiefs, aroused the interest of Parisians. More “modern” versions of the necktie spread from Victorian Britain, where the prototype of the modern suit emerged after 1860 as the “lounge suit,” but the first version of the well-known necktie dates back to the seventeenth century.
As Davies states, “The French word cravate, ‘necktie’, has been taken into almost every European language. In German, it is krawatte, in Spanish corbata, in Greek, gravata, in Romanian, cravata, in standard Polish, krawat, in Cracow, eccentrically, krawatka. In English, it acquired the special meaning of ‘a linen or silk handkerchief passed once or twice round the neck outside the shirt collar’….All sources agree that it derives from an old form of the adjective for ‘Croat’ or, as a Croat would say, hrvati. Exactly how an East European adjective became permanently attached to one of the commonest items of European clothing is a matter for conjecture. One theory holds that Napoleon admired the scarves worn by captured Hapsburg soldiers. This is clearly a misattribution, since Littré cites Voltaire using the word long before Napoleon was born….Louis XIV is perhaps nearer the mark. Croat mercenaries in the French service at Versailles are the likeliest source of the fashion which spread all over the world. At all events, people who deny the influence of Europe’s ‘smaller nations’ should remember that the Croats have the rest of us by the throat.”
The organ is one of the oldest instruments still in use in Western music. Its earliest history is so buried in Antiquity that it is difficult to reconstruct, but the first organ we know of was the hydraulis, or water organ, from about 250 BC, created by the innovative Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria, a pioneer in the use of compressed air. It was used for public entertainments and circus games in ancient Rome. The first recorded appearance of an exclusively bellow-fed organ was not until almost 400 years later. By the eighth century AD organs were being built in Christian Europe, and from the tenth century their association with churches had been established. By the seventeenth century all the essential elements of the instrument had been developed. It was during the High Baroque period that the organ reached its greatest popularity and found its greatest composer in Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
In the eighteenth century for the first time, many of the greatest European composers came from the German-speaking regions of the continent: Handel, the Bach family, Haydn, Mozart and finally Beethoven and Wagner. Britain, in contrast, became a virtual colony for foreign musicians, and largely remained so until the twentieth century. While the Italians and the French were proud and often resisted foreign ideas, German and Austrian composers blended the best from the native tradition with other traditions and created a very successful synthesis. German-speaking Central Europe continued to be divided among hundreds of political entities, from large states such as Austria and Saxony to tiny principalities and independent cities. Some of these local rulers followed Louis XIV’s example from France of displaying their power and wealth through patronage of the arts. Many aristocrats were also enthusiastic amateur performers who often became particularly generous patrons of music.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in the heart of Germany. He probably learned the violin from his father, who was a court and town musician, and later became fascinated with the music of Vivaldi. The Bach family produced a string of talented musicians for many generations, of which J.S. was just the most prominent. Johann Sebastian Bach composed primarily to fulfill the needs of the positions he held, as church organist and concertmaster. His first positions were as a church organist, beginning at Arnstadt in 1703. He worked in different cities, among them Weimar and Leipzig, and tutored students in performance and composition, including several of his own sons. Like other musicians of his time he was the subject of restrictions placed on him by his employers, even restriction of movement.
Although now considered one of the greatest composers in history, Bach was a modest man who regarded himself as a craftsman doing his job to the best of his ability. He gave God credit for his achievements; the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone be glory”) were added at the end of many of his scores. His church music was not confined to cantatas but included motets, passions, and Latin service music. His greatest works include the masterpiece The Art of Fugue and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, still one of the most popular works in the organ repertoire, The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Brandenburg Concertos, to name but a few of the highlights. When he died after a stroke, he left a small estate which was split between his nine surviving children and his wife, who died in poverty ten years later.
Bach composed The Art of Fugue in the last years of his life and kept at it even while lying in his deathbed. Because the published score leaves the medium undesignated, a strong prejudice would confine The Art to keyboard exposition, using a harpsichord, a piano or an organ, but it has appeared in many guises, from string-quartet arrangements to chamber orchestra and even full-orchestral realizations. As writer Thomas F. Bertonneau says:
“By the middle of the eighteenth century, Europe’s musical taste had turned away from Papa Bach’s ‘baroque manner.’ Bach’s sons, for example, tended to express themselves in the new and popular Style Galante, which reduced the dense polyphonic textures of fugue and chorale, with their layers of intertwining voices, to the simpler textures of incipient sonata form, with its emphasis on harmonic progression as a means of evoking emotional responses from the audience. Bach meant The Art to sum up the earlier musical ethos, but in the age of the rococo, the divinely serious play — the spiritual mathematics — of strict imitative composition failed in its appeal. Or the new audience failed in its duty to appreciate the old art. The lovely frivolity of Bach’s sons, of the Mannheim composers, and of the early Franz Josef Haydn furnished amusement for people (aristocrats and burghers) who preferred elegance to gravity and diversion to elevation. Haydn himself and Wolfgang Mozart, at the end of his life, both became interested in Bach and began reintroducing fugal textures into their instrumental music. Ludwig van Beethoven followed their example and one result is the finale of his Ninth Symphony. Felix Mendelssohn knew The Art.”
J. S. Bach was more famous as an organist than as a composer in his lifetime. Musical taste changed quickly in the mid-eighteenth century. When he died, his work was considered somewhat old-fashioned. Bach’s sons were influenced by him but went their own ways, and their fame, especially that of the musician and composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), for a while eclipsed that of their father. Yet his music was never forgotten and was studied with respect by Mozart. Bach’s reputation was restored to almost its present status during the nineteenth century, although the real Bach revival would not come until the twentieth century. Handel’s works never went out of fashion in the same way.
Georg Friederich Händel (1685-1759) originally came from Germany but spent most of his adult life in England, where he became known as George Frideric Handel. He was born in Halle, the son of a barber-surgeon at the local court who eventually let him study music. He moved to Hamburg and later to Italy, associating with the leading musicians of Florence, Naples and Rome. Except for a few visits to Continental Europe, Handel spent the rest of his life in England. In London, he enjoyed the lifelong support of the British royal family and other notables and became a revered figure. Handel was the master of all types of vocal and instrumental music. Unlike Bach he didn’t write for a church, a court or a town council; he wrote for the public. His Water Music premiered in 1717 with a concert on the River Thames in London, and his magnificent work Messiah premiered in Dublin, Ireland in 1742.
According to A History of Western Music, “Handel won international renown during his lifetime, and his music has been performed ever since, making him the first composer whose music has never ceased to be performed. Handel’s music was enormously popular. When his Music for the Royal Fireworks was given a public rehearsal in 1749, it attracted an audience of over 12,000 people and stopped traffic in London for three hours.” Because of this, “The English came to regard Handel as a national institution, and with good reason. He passed all his mature life in London, becoming a naturalized British citizen in 1727, and wrote all his major works for British audiences. He was the most imposing figure in English music during his lifetime, and the English public nourished his genius and remained loyal to his memory.” When he died in 1759, he was buried with public honors at Westminster Abbey.
Northern Italy, the Netherlands and Britain during the Renaissance and the early modern era prospered from capitalism, a new system where individuals invested their own money in businesses designed to make a profit. A crucial innovation was the joint stock company, which pooled the wealth of different individuals while limiting their risk. The capitalist system proved more economically efficient than concentration of money in the hands of the state or the privileged few, as was the case in Spain. Capitalism put money into the hands of individuals who could invest it locally, for instance building new opera houses in Hamburg or London. Among the long-term effects of this were the rise of public opera and public concerts and an increased demand in the upper and middle classes for musical instruments and lessons. Rulers, cities and prominent families supported music and the arts as a way of competing for prestige. In France, power and wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the king.
During the eighteenth century, public concerts arose in many cities alongside the private concerts and academies that had long been presented by wealthy patrons and clubs. Public concerts, by contrast, were usually money-making ventures for which tickets were sold, initially to the upper or upper-middle classes who could afford them. The English pioneered public concerts, which were social events as well as opportunities to hear music. In London a middle class interested in listening to music, a large number of excellent musicians in the service of the court and the theaters combined with the inability of the king to pay his musicians well encouraged the building of the first commercial concert halls, which flourished there in the late 1600s and early 1700s. This practice eventually spread throughout Britain and North America as well as Continental Europe.
The European market for books grew dramatically during the eighteenth century. There was something of a “reading revolution” where educated readers critically reviewed many texts that were constantly changing and commanded no special respect. Reading became an individual and silent activity. Prussia led the way in the development of universal education, inspired by the Protestant ideal that every believer should personally be able to read and study the Bible. In addition to a strong population growth there was a remarkable rise in basic literacy in many European countries between 1600 and 1800, accompanied by the growing circulation of newspapers and magazines as well as books. Europe now had a sizeable reading public. Women, too, were increasingly literate, although they still lagged behind the men.
The eighteenth century was the age of the Enlightenment, when leading intellectuals argued that human reason could solve all kinds of problems, both social and practical ones. Belief in natural law led to the notion that individuals had rights and that the role of the state was to improve the human condition. Among the most prominent French thinkers were François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, and Montesquieu. The Genevan philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose political philosophy influenced the French Revolution, also made contributions to music as a theorist and a composer. These philosophes were social reformers. Some of these ideas were incorporated into the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the other American Founding Fathers were as representative of the Enlightenment as the French thinkers were. The American and French Revolutions in the late eighteenth century spread new political ideas.
Britain, formed by the union of England and Scotland in 1707, increasingly had the most powerful navy in Europe and used it to wrest parts of India, Canada and several Caribbean islands from France during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). International trade expanded rapidly with the emerging Atlantic economy, as did unfortunately the transatlantic slave trade. Prussia became a kingdom in 1701. It soon developed one of Europe’s best-trained armies and emerged as a power to be reckoned with under the leadership of Frederick the Great (1712-1786). Along with Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) of the Austrian Empire, Frederick sought to expand primary education to all children, with partial success. Poland fell victim to its neighbors and became divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria.
Rulers patronized arts and letters and sometimes promoted social reform. Enlightened despots such as Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) and the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) wanted to expand education and care for the poor. Humanitarian ideals and a longing for a universal brotherhood were important factors in a movement known as Freemasonry, the teachings of the secret fraternal order of Masons. Founded in London early in the eighteenth century it spread rapidly throughout Europe and North America and numbered among its adherents kings (Frederick the Great and Joseph II), statesmen (George Washington), poets (Goethe) and composers (Haydn and Mozart).
The Austrian Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was the most celebrated composer of his day, prolific in every medium, but best remembered for his numerous symphonies and string quartets, which established standards of form and quality that others emulated. “Haydn has been called ‘the father of the symphony,’ not because he invented the genre but because his symphonies set the pattern for later composers through their high quality, wide dissemination, and lasting appeal.” He was born in a village near the border of Hungary and became a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna at the age of seven, where he acquired practical experience in music and learned signing, harpsichord and violin. He spent most of his career serving the Esterházy family, the most powerful Hungarian noble family. For years he was responsible for composing on demand at a prodigious rate, but this also allowed him the opportunity to experiment and to hear his music performed under excellent conditions.
In addition to being an Enlightenment man of good character, Haydn was a skillful businessman. The publication of his music brought him praise throughout Europe and generated commissions from other patrons. He spent much time in London between 1790 and 1795, composing, giving concerts and teaching. “During his stay in London, Haydn became acquainted with some of Handel’s oratorios. At Westminster Abbey in 1791, Haydn was so deeply moved by the Hallelujah Chorus in a massive performance of Messiah that he burst into tears and exclaimed, ‘He is the master of us all.’ Haydn’s appreciation for Handel bore fruit in the choral parts of his late masses and inspired him to compose his oratorios The Creation (completed 1798), on texts adapted from Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and The Seasons (completed 1801). Both were issued simultaneously in German and English, in a nod both to Handel and to the English public, and both quickly became standards of the repertory for choral societies in German- and English-speaking areas.”
The English poet John Milton (1608-1674) is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost, which, as mentioned, influenced Haydn in his musical composition The Creation. Haydn made his last public appearance for a performance of this work to celebrate his seventy-sixth birthday in 1808, the culmination of half a century of hard work. His output includes over 100 symphonies and 68 string quartets as well as piano sonatas, operas, masses and oratorios.
Another brilliant Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), achieved wide renown earlier in his life than Haydn did. He was born in Salzburg, a quasi-independent state ruled by an archbishop. His father Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) was a violinist for the archbishop, a well-regarded composer and the author of a celebrated treatise on violin playing. He sacrificed his own career to give his exceptionally gifted son and his talented daughter Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), nicknamed “Nannerl,” a good musical training.
According to the quality website The Mozart Project, “It took all of thirty minutes for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to master his first musical composition….Below it Leopold jotted: ‘This piece was learnt by Wolfgangerl on 24 January 1761, 3 days before his 5th birthday, between 9 and 9:30 in the evening.’ Wolfgang’s achievement was followed in rapid succession by others: a minuet and trio ‘learned within a half an hour’ on January 26, a march learned on February 4, another scherzo on February 6. It wasn’t long before the little boy entered a composition of his own into the notebook. At six measures, this andante in C major (K. 1a) is a mere wisp of a work. Other small compositions would follow. Inconsequential as they were, these bits and pieces were tokens of greater things to come. No doubt, the boy held great promise as a composer. But Leopold, who could clearly see and hear his children’s daily progress as keyboard performers, had more immediate aims. He began to neglect his court career and devote more time to Wolfgang and Nannerl’s musical instruction. Ambitious plans began to take shape in his mind. Partly out of parental pride, partly out of a sense of duty, he determined to take his two musical prodigies on tour to the courts of Europe.”
When Wolfgang and to some extent his older sister Nannerl showed great talent at an early age, Leopold trained them in music and took them on tours across Europe, exhibiting their skills. In London, the young Wolfgang met Johann Christian Bach, who had a lasting influence on the boy. He eventually became acquainted with by Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of Fugue and studied Handel’s works. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed prolifically from the age of six to his premature death at thirty-five and was hailed as a child prodigy.
According to A History of Western Music, Seventh Edition: “And prodigy he was: by the age of three he had developed perfect pitch; at five he was an accomplished harpsichord player; at six he was composing; at seven he could read at sight, harmonize melodies on first hearing, and improvise on a tune supplied to him. Though arduous, these trips exposed Mozart to an enormous range of musical styles. He also composed at a stupendous rate, turning out thirty-four symphonies, sixteen quartets, five operas, and over one hundred other works before his eighteenth birthday. Mozart spent the years 1772 to 1780 in Salzburg as third concert master at Archbishop Colloredo’s court. In 1781, over his father’s objections, he left the archbishop’s service and settled in Vienna, convinced that he could make a living through teaching, concertizing, and composing. Indeed he quickly won success, establishing himself as the best pianist in Vienna and enjoying a triumph with his Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail. With his father’s grudging consent, he married Constanze Weber in the summer of 1782. Their marriage was happy and affectionate. Four children died in infancy, but two sons lived into adulthood, the younger becoming a composer.”
Constanze Mozart (1762-1842) was to outlive her famous husband by half a century. Composing at a prodigious pace, teaching private students, performing in public and private concerts and selling his works to publishers brought Mozart a good income. During visits to Vienna, Haydn met Mozart around 1784, and their admiration for each other’s music was mutual. At a quartet party, Haydn told Leopold, “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Mozart became a Freemason in 1784, as did many prominent figures of his time.
Mozart was a virtuoso pianist. His nineteen piano sonatas are among his most popular compositions, studied by countless piano students since then. Although he wrote symphonies and other works as well, opera was still the most prestigious musical genre. One of the leading opera composers at Vienna was Christoph Gluck (1714-1787). Mozart eagerly sought opportunities to compose for the stage, and his first great success was Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782). His next operas were Italian comic operas, The Marriage of Figaro from 1786 and Don Giovanni, which premiered in Prague in 1787. His successful The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte in German) premiered in Vienna in September 1791, just a few months before he died, on 5 December 1791. Mozart’s last year was a very productive one and included his unfinished Requiem, his final work and widely considered one of his best.
Ibn Warraq has showed in his book Defending the West how many European scholars and artists even during the colonial period were willing to give credit to the achievements of other peoples and were genuinely curious of their culture and history:
“Western art has, in the words of Roger Scruton, ‘continuously ventured into spiritual territory that has no place on the Christian map,’ and has done so with generosity, tolerance, affection, and a noble vision of universal humanity. Literature and music, as much as painting and architecture, has acknowledged other civilizations and other peoples, embraced them as equals, and sometimes treated them as superior souls from which the West could learn. In her biography of Mozart as a dramatist, Brigid Brophy includes as dazzling chapter on the exotic in eighteenth-century art, reminding us of Western humankind’s ventures ‘to unpath’d waters, undreamed shores’: China, Turkey, Persia, Babylon, Egypt, Abyssinia, South America, India, and even outer space. Brophy sings the virtues of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Il Seraglio) and Die Zauberflöte, and places them firmly within the Enlightenment’s cosmopolitanism and its educative program: ‘To admire and copy foreign countries inside Europe was scarcely less obligatory than to admire, collect and copy the exotic products of other continents.’“
Mozart’s almost six hundred compositions are numbered chronologically in a thematic catalogue compiled by the Austrian musicologist Ludwig von Köchel (1800-1877) in 1862, whose “K” numbers (K for Köchel) are universally used to identify Mozart’s compositions. The music of Haydn’s and Mozart’s age was moving away from the traditional polyphony of the Baroque period towards homophony. Classical homophony is in many ways the opposite of polyphonic counterpoint. The age from second half of the eighteenth century until the early 1800s is often called the Viennese Classical or simply the Classical period of European music. Beethoven was a transitional figure between the Classical and the Romantic periods.
The brilliant composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was born in Bonn in northwestern Germany, where his grandfather and father were musicians at the court of the Elector of Cologne. From early childhood he studied piano and violin with his father, who hoped to make him into a famous child prodigy like Mozart. The boy received further training from local musicians, but eventually settled in the Vienna of Haydn and Mozart, which was the musical capital of Europe. “There is still no department of music that does not owe him its very soul,” writes music historian Paul Lang, who speaks of Beethoven’s “unique position in the world of music — even in the whole history of civilization.” A History of Western Music, Seventh Edition, by Donald J. Grout, Peter J. Burkholder and Claude V. Palisca, elaborates:
“Beethoven traveled to Vienna in 1787 and probably met Mozart, then moved to Vienna for good in 1792. His first teacher there was Haydn, with whom he studied counterpoint, at the same time cultivating patrons among the aristocracy. His compositions ranged widely, from music for amateurs to virtuoso works for himself and from private works for connoisseurs to public symphonies. Confident in his own worth as an artist, Beethoven treated his aristocratic sponsors with independence and even occasional rudeness. His presumptions of social equality led him repeatedly to fall in love with women and noble rank….Beethoven never established a permanent home, moving more than two dozen times during his thirty-five years in Vienna. A gradual loss of hearing provoked a crisis around 1802, from which he emerged with new resolve to compose works of unprecedented scope and depth. The music of the next dozen years established him as the most popular and critically acclaimed composer alive. Through sales to publishers and support from patrons, notably a permanent stipend set up for him in 1809, he was able to devote himself entirely to composition and write at his own pace.”
Beethoven absorbed the music of Mozart and Haydn as well as Enlightenment ideals in thought. On a visit to Bonn, Haydn praised his music and urged the Elector to send the young man to Vienna for further study, where Beethoven arrived in November 1792. He took lessons with Haydn, although their personal relationship was complex as Beethoven had a strong will. He quickly established himself as a pianist and composer. His Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, op. 13, commonly known as Sonata Pathétique, was composed in 1798, and the beautiful Moonlight Sonata (Mondscheinsonate in German) was completed in 1801. In his youth he was a piano virtuoso, but he had to give up performing due to his deafness and became the first musician to make a living almost exclusively through composition.
Around 1803, Beethoven began a more ambitious style which marked a new phase of his career. While his financial position and status was now secure, it was apparently a psychological crisis created by his accelerating loss of hearing which triggered this. Ironically, this made him more productive by removing distractions from his primary role as a composer. Nevertheless, it is difficult for ordinary people to understand how a person can compose timeless music entirely in his head, without hearing anything. His Eroica (Symphony No. 3) from 1804 was longer than any previous symphony. Other major works over the next decade followed in the footsteps of the Third Symphony.
Beethoven observed the French Revolution from a distance. At first he was an admirer of Napoleon, but he later became disillusioned with him. By 1814 he was at the height of his popularity, and his music was played regularly across Europe. He had changed people’s expectations for what instrumental music could do, but his deafness became worse, until about 1818 he could hardly hear at all. Ill health combined with economic problems after the Napoleonic Wars and suspicion of his Republican ideals made him a slightly more isolated figure during his final years, though still popular. His music changed and became more challenging. His Ninth Symphony was first performed in 1824, and the distinguished audience gave it a thundering applause. Sadly, Beethoven himself did not hear this, so one of the solo singers pulled his sleeve and pointed to the audience, and he turned and bowed.
Beethoven had thought as early as 1792 of setting music to the poem An die Freude (“Ode to Joy“), a hymn by the German poet, historian and dramatist Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) championing the brotherhood of humanity, but it took more than thirty years before he used it in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Consistent with his ethical ideals and religious faith, he selected stanzas that emphasized universal fellowship through joy, and its basis in the love of an eternal Heavenly Father. He often celebrated heroism in his music. Many of his compositions were immediately popular and have remained so ever since:
“Beethoven’s music was esteemed particularly for its assertion of the self. Beethoven could afford the time to compose as he pleased, without answering to an employer. Perhaps as a result, on occasion he put his own experiences and feelings at the heart of a work, going beyond the long-standing traditions of representing the emotions of a poetic text, dramatizing those of an operatic character, or suggesting a generalized mood through conventional devices. Such self-expression was in tune with the growing Romantic movement…and it came to be expected of composers after Beethoven. Modern musicians and listeners who assume that composers before Beethoven also wrote when they felt inspired and sought to capture their own emotions in music are astonished to discover that earlier composers mostly created music to meet an immediate need, to please their employer, or to gratify their audience. Beethoven, and especially the critical reaction to Beethoven, changed everyone’s idea of what a composer is and does. The image he fostered of a composer as an artist pursuing self-expression who composes only when inspired continues to hold sway.”
Beethoven’s body of work is not at large as Mozart’s, although Beethoven died at fifty-six while Mozart died at the young age of thirty-five when he was still getting better and maturing as a composer. What great masterpieces the world would have known had he lived for another generation we do not know. There are other differences between these two giants in the history of music, too. Mozart was buried in a common grave, as was the custom at the time, while thousands of citizens lined the streets of Vienna at Beethoven’s funeral in March 1827. All later composers have had to face Beethoven’s tremendous influence.
Albert Einstein was a passionate amateur musician who often played the violin while thinking of a difficult problem in physics. He was especially fond of Mozart. According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, “What Einstein appreciated in Mozart and Bach was the clear architectural structure that made their music seem ‘deterministic’ and, like his own favorite scientific theories, plucked from the universe rather than composed. ‘Beethoven created his music,’ Einstein once said, but ‘Mozart’s music is so pure it seems to have been ever-present in the universe.’ He contrasted Beethoven with Bach: ‘I feel uncomfortable listening to Beethoven. I think he is too personal, almost naked. Give me Bach, rather, and then more Bach.’ He also admired Schubert for his ‘superlative ability to express emotion.’“
Beethoven’s mentality was indeed different from that of Bach or Mozart. As Peter Watson states in his book Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud:
“All music leads up to Beethoven, says Mumford Jones, and all music leads away from him. Beethoven, Schubert and Weber comprised a smaller grouping, of what we might call pre-romantic composers, who between them changed the face of musical thought, and musical performance. The great difference between Beethoven (1770-1827) and Mozart, who was only fourteen years older, was that Beethoven thought of himself as an artist. There is no mention of that word in Mozart’s letters — he considered himself a skilled craftsman who, as Haydn and Bach had done before him, supplied a commodity. But Beethoven saw himself as part of a special breed, a creator, and that put him on a par with royalty and other elevated souls….Goethe was just one who responded to the force of his personality, writing, ‘Never have I met an artist of such spiritual concentration and intensity, such vitality and great-heartedness. I can well understand how hard he must find it to adapt to the world and its ways.’ Even the crossings-out in his autograph music have a violence that Mozart, for example, lacked. Like Wagner after him, Beethoven felt that the world owed him a living, because he was a genius.”
Beethoven’s contemporary, the poet, novelist, playwright and scholar Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), was the greatest literary figure of German Romanticism, but unlike Beethoven he was hostile to the French Revolution from the very beginning. He was born in Frankfurt am Main, then a city-state within the Holy Roman Empire. Much of his life he lived in Weimar, where he also died. He helped establish this city as an important intellectual center, and along with Friedrich Schiller he was one of the leading figures of Weimar Classicism. His father was the son of an innkeeper. Goethe was educated with his sister at home by tutors until he was 16. In 1765 he left to study law in Leipzig, where he indirectly became one of the disciples of the pioneering art historian Johann Winckelmann. At Strasbourg in 1770-71 he met the intellectual Johann Gottfried Herder, who taught Goethe to look at literature and art as the expression of a specific national genius and culture.
In the 1780s he went to Italy, as his father had done before him, climbed Vesuvius and visited Pompeii and Herculaneum. In Sicily he climbed one of the peaks of Mount Etna, where the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles according to legend is said to have ended his life. Goethe was fascinated by the work of the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. He followed public events, such as the establishment of the first railways in Britain, and read the early works of authors Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac in France. His correspondence was enormous and included prominent figures such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Felix Mendelssohn. Goethe was a contemporary of the influential Prussian brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt and was on friendly terms with the post-Kantian idealist philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In addition to being a brilliant writer he did studies of geology and botany and created a theory of color perception. As scholar Nicholas Boyle writes in the Encyclopædia Britannica entry for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
“In making this change to what one might call a more subjective science, Goethe was greatly helped by his study of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which was completely transforming the German intellectual landscape and was in particular being vigorously furthered in the University of Jena. The openness to Kant in turn made it easier for Goethe to respond positively when in 1794 one of Kant’s most prominent disciples, the poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller, who was then living in Jena, suggested that he and Goethe should collaborate on a new journal, Die Horen (The Horae), intended to give literature a voice in an age increasingly dominated by politics. The friendship with Schiller began a new period in Goethe’s life, in some ways one of the happiest and, from a literary point of view, one of the most productive.” Indeed, Schiller’s collaboration with Goethe “was closer, longer, and on a higher level than any comparable friendship in world literature. The poets began a correspondence, which ran to over a thousand letters, and for over 10 years they discussed each other’s works and projects, as well as those of their contemporaries, in conversation and writing. Both profited incalculably from the relationship.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe showed great interest in the literatures of Britain, France, Italy, ancient Greece, Persia and India. His magnum opus is the two-part drama Faust, which accompanied him throughout his long and productive adult life. The first part of Faust was published in 1808, while part two was completed in 1831 and published in 1832 when he was in his eighties. Goethe did not invent the myth of Faust, but he brought it to an unprecedented level of psychological complexity. His influence spread across Europe, and his poetry was set to music by almost every significant Austrian and German composer after him.
The great Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) came from a musical family and was extremely prolific for his short life. He died at thirty-one, weakened from syphilis and possibly from its treatment with mercury. He had great respect for his contemporary Ludwig van Beethoven and wrote over 600 songs, or Lieder, many of which were first performed for friends in home concerts. He set music to poetry by many writers, including fifty-nine poems by Goethe. His other works include several symphonies, among them Symphony in C Major (The Great; 1828) and his famous Symphony in B Minor (the so-called Unfinished Symphony), masses and piano works. Portions of the German translation of The Lady of the Lake by the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who was popular throughout Europe, were set to music by him. Franz Schubert is often called a bridge between the Classical and the Romantic periods of European music, along with the German composer, conductor and pianist Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and perhaps Beethoven himself, but Schubert arguably had more in common with Haydn and Mozart before him than with Schumann, Chopin or Wagner after him.
The eighteenth-century concert orchestra was much smaller than today’s. Haydn’s orchestra from 1760 to 1785 rarely had more than twenty-five players, but his successors gradually increased this number significantly. As orchestras grew in size, there emerged the need for someone to take control. After Beethoven around 1820, the conductor as we know him today emerged. There were also major and rapid changes in the instruments themselves at this time.
The clarinet, a single-reed wind instrument, was introduced around 1710 and by the 1780s took its place alongside the oboe, bassoon and flute as the standard woodwind instruments.
The pianoforte (Italian for “soft-loud”) or piano was invented by the Italian maker of musical instruments Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1732) in Florence in the early 1700s, a rare case where such an important invention can be attributed almost entirely to a single individual. At first the new instrument met with slow acceptance, but from the 1760s on, makers in Austria, Germany, France and Britain produced pianos in increasing quantity. It was for these new, square Viennese-style pianos that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna composed his concertos and sonatas. Eighteenth-century pianos are often called fortepianos to distinguish them from the larger, louder forms of pianos developed during the nineteenth century.
The scientific and technological advances during this extremely dynamic period of European history brought new advances in metallurgy, high-quality steel and precision casting that radically changed the way goods were manufactured, including musical instruments. Mechanical innovations brought about by the Industrial Revolution, such as interlocking rods, gears and screws, were applied to improve existing instruments. In the early 1800s, brass instrument makers applied the valve technology of the steam engine to the design of trumpets and horns. The new metal technology greatly improved the otherwise unreliable wind instruments of the eighteenth century. Keys and valves were devised which enabled horns and bassoons, for example, to play more consistently in tune. New brass instruments were invented as well, including the tuba, which became the bass of the orchestral brass section.
Theobald Böhm (1794-1881), a German goldsmith and musician from Munich with experience in the steel industry, perfected a type of flute that became the basis for the modern instrument in the mid-nineteenth century. The musician Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) from Belgium created a new wind instrument now called the saxophone, familiar to a modern audience from jazz and marching bands. By the late nineteenth century the harp and the wind, brass and percussion instruments of the orchestra had almost reached their present form.
New railways were connecting people, first in Britain and then throughout the Western world and beyond. Music was no longer simply a court experience but was now enjoyed by the newly-emerging bourgeoisie. Dance music, the waltz in particular, becoming a craze at the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. In the 1820s at the time of the Carnival, Vienna offered as many as 1,600 balls in a single night. Middle-class music-making had arrived.
One of the most important changes was in the sheer quantity of instruments that could be produced. In the 1770s the output of the largest piano manufacturers in Europe was about twenty pianos a year, because every piece needed to be made by hand. By 1800, Broadwood in London was manufacturing about four hundred pianos a year by employing a large and specialized work force, and by 1850 the firm was using steam power and mass production techniques to make over two thousand pianos a year. Because they were now produced in such large quantities, pianos became inexpensive enough for many middle-class families to afford one. The design of the piano was improved through a series of innovations.
According to Peter Watson, “Two elements were involved here. One was the evolution of the steel frame, steel being developed as a result of the industrial revolution, which enabled pianos to become much more massive and sturdy than they had been in, say, Mozart’s day. The other factor was the genius (and marketing) of Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), who debuted at nineteen and may just have been the greatest violinist who ever existed. A superb technician and a flamboyant showman, who liked to deliberately break a string during a performance, and complete the evening using only three strings, he was the first of the supervirtuosi. But he did expand the technique of the violin, introducing new bowings, fingerings and harmonics, in the process stimulating pianists to try to emulate him on their new, more versatile instruments. The man who most emulated Paganini, on the piano at any rate, was Franz Liszt, the first pianist in history to give a concert on his own. It was partly thanks to these virtuosi that so many concert halls were built all over Europe (and, in a small way, in North America), to cope with the demand from the newly-enriched bourgeoisie, who were eager to hear these performers.”
After the Mongols destroyed the city of Kiev in the thirteenth century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded its territory to include parts of the former Kievan Rus. In 1385 it entered into a dynastic alliance with the Kingdom of Poland, which was deepened in 1569 and became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The emerging Russian state, now centered on Moscow rather than Kiev, thus had to face a Polish rival in Slavic lands. The westward pressure of Russia was reasserted after 1613 under the new Romanov dynasty. Nicholas Ostler explains in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World:
“[I]n 1795, Russia gained control of the whole east of Poland up to the Neman and Dniester rivers, a situation that prevailed until the remapping of Europe that followed the First World War in 1918. Linguistically, this control had little effect: although the Polish language is fairly closely related to Russian, it is less so than Ukrainian and Belorussian; above all, the Poles’ political and religious history (as a Catholic nation) had been quite distinct, and in fact their literacy and general standard of living far exceeded those of the Russians. To start with, under Tsar Aleksandr I the country was accorded a separate constitution — but the Tsar found it hard to respect its terms; later, especially after 1863-4 (when Poland rebelled), attempts were made at ‘Russification’. Among other measures, Russian was imposed as the language for official business; and not only the University of Warsaw but all Polish schools were required to operate exclusively in Russian. This proved unworkable, and Polish survived. By contrast, about the same time, in 1863, a Ukrainian language law was introduced, far harsher, banning publication of all books in Ukrainian besides folklore, poetry and fiction, and was followed up in 1867….This was more effective.”
Ukrainians were encouraged to view themselves as “little Russians.” However, a Ukrainian-speaking enclave existed under Austro-Hungarian rule, where their grammar continued to flourish and provided the basis for continued Ukrainian nationhood later. These Ukrainians were known as Ruthenians. Under Russian rule, a Polish natural character continued to survive. Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) was the greatest Polish poet of the Romantic era.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was the Romantic composer most closely identified with the piano, and his solo piano music won him enormous popularity. He was born near Warsaw, Poland, to a French father and a Polish mother. After studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, he performed in Vienna and toured Germany and Italy. When abroad he heard of the failed Polish revolt against Russian domination and decided to settle in Paris, where he established ties with other composers, including Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and, briefly, Felix Mendelssohn. His Polish roots always remained strong in exile, and Polish national themes influenced his music. He became the most fashionable piano teacher for wealthy students. The rarity of his public appearances as a pianist (he made only about 30 in the course of his lifetime) increased his cachet and allowed him to charge very high fees for lessons. Already weakened, he went on a tour of England and Scotland and made his last public appearance on a concert platform in London in 1848. He died from tuberculosis in Paris, France, in 1849.
According to Peter Watson, “Chopin invented a new kind of piano playing, the one that we are familiar with today. He had certain reflexes in his fingers which set him apart from other players, at that time at least, and this enabled him to develop piano music that was both experimental and yet refined. ‘Cannon buried in flowers’ is how Schumann described it. (The sentiment was not returned.) Chopin introduced new ideas about pedalling, fingering, and rhythm, which were to prove extremely influential. (He preferred the English Broadwood pianos, less advanced than some available.) His pieces had the delicacy and yet the vivid colourings of impressionist paintings, and just as everyone knows a Renoir from a Degas, so everyone knows Chopin when they hear it….The piano cannot be fully understood without Chopin. Or without Liszt. Like Chopin he was a brilliant technician (he gave his first solo at ten), and like Beethoven (whose Broadwood he acquired) and Berlioz, he had charisma. Good-looking, which was part of that charisma, Liszt invented bravura piano playing.”
The Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the greatest piano virtuoso of his time. When only nine he made his first public appearance as a concert pianist in what is now Bratislava, Slovakia, and moved with his family to Paris at the age of twelve. There he came into contact with many leading writers and artists, including author Victor Hugo. In 1830 he first met Hector Berlioz and in 1831 he heard Niccolò Paganini play for the first time. At this time he also met Frédéric Chopin. As a pianist Liszt was the first to give complete solo recitals, and between 1839 and 1847 he gave over one thousand solo concerts, touring Europe from Portugal and Ireland in the west to Romania and Russia in the east. His reception at times rivaled the hysteria sometimes afforded rock and pop superstars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and women adored him.
His roots show in works inspired by Hungarian or Gypsy melodies. Liszt had an enormous impact on music by devising new techniques for piano music and by introducing innovations as a conductor. He left the concert stage in 1848, but continued teaching and helping younger composers such as Edvard Grieg and Claude Debussy. As a composer he extended the harmonic language and invented the symphonic poem. He encouraged new music by conducting performances of important works, among them the premiere of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin in Weimar on 28 August 1850, the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The German Romantic composer and music critic Robert Schumann (1810-1856) studied piano from the age seven and soon began to compose, especially songs and piano pieces, but also symphonies and various works for orchestra. He was musically influenced by Franz Schubert and was married to Clara Schumann (1819-1896), one of the foremost pianists of her day and a distinguished composer and teacher in her own right. Many of Robert’s best-known piano pieces were written for his wife. Unfortunately, depression ran in his family. Robert Schumann had episodes of strange behavior, attempted suicide and was confined to an asylum near Bonn, where he died in 1856. Schumann wrote the incidental music to the English writer Lord Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred in 1848-49. One of his greatest accomplishments in dramatic music was Szenen aus Goethes Faust (Scenes from Goethe’s Faust).
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was an early Romantic composer, pianist and conductor. A fervent German patriot, he came from a wealthy banking family and was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), a contributor to the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. Moses Mendelssohn embraced the Enlightenment and sought a revitalization of Jewish religious thought. Like most Jews in Central Europe he spoke Yiddish, a mixture of German, Polish and Hebrew, but he also mastered German and taught himself French, English, Latin and Greek, and studied mathematics and philosophy. He was convinced that modern Enlightenment ideas did not necessarily need to be opposed to Jewish thought. Reflecting the German tradition, he was less critical of religion than the French Enlightenment often was.
Although Jews were slowly gaining legal rights as a spillover from the French Revolution, Felix Mendelssohn’s father had his children baptized as raised as Christians. Felix began composing seriously at the age of eleven. At seventeen he composed the magical Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He blended influences from Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven with key aspects of Romanticism, the movement which exalted feeling and the imagination, partly as a reaction to the emphasis of reason and logic during the Enlightenment. His works include Italian Symphony, the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah, a violin concerto and numerous chamber works. A fine pianist, he was also the greatest conductor of his day, an excellent organist and violinist and was well read in poetry and philosophy.
The German composer and conductor Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born in Hamburg, but spent much of his professional life in Vienna. The son of a double bass player, he showed early promise as a pianist and studied piano, cello and horn as a child. Through lessons in music theory he developed a love for the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He earned money from playing popular music at restaurants and taverns and acquired a taste for folk music as well. In 1853 he met Robert Schumann and his wife Clara, who became his strongest supporters. After Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and final mental illness, Brahms helped take care of the family while Clara returned to her previous life as a performer. He wrote symphonies, chamber music, piano works, choral compositions and more than 200 songs and made a living as a pianist and from sales of his music to publishers.
Johannes Brahms’ most famous choral work, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), based on Biblical texts, was first performed at Bremen on Good Friday in 1868 and firmly established his European reputation. His last symphony, No. 4 in E Minor (1884-85), may well have been inspired by the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, which he read at the time. In his last two decades he traveled widely as a conductor, performing mostly his own works. He was buried in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) near Beethoven and Franz Schubert.
Beethoven had increased the size of the orchestra. Berlioz would increase it still more. The French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) followed Beethoven’s lead in his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and “shaped his symphonies around a series of emotions that tell a story.” He created more than a dozen works that have gained the status of musical classics, among them his Symphonie fantastique (1830) and the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839), and wrote the nineteenth century “Bible” on orchestration. He played flute and guitar but never learned how to play the piano. He was one of the most literary of composers; the epic poem The Aeneid by the classical Roman poet Virgil inspired his opera Les Troyens (The Trojans). He also found inspiration in many of Shakespeare’s works, in Goethe for La damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust) and composed the Rob Roy Overture to the writings of the Scottish author Walter Scott. After 1835 he began to conduct and soon became one of the first to make a career of orchestral conducting, touring across Europe with his own works as well as music created by other composers.
The Italian Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) composed some of the most popular operas ever written, among them The Barber of Seville, Cinderella and William Tell. The latter was based on the legend (?) of the Swiss national hero William or Wilhelm Tell from the early fourteenth century, whose life symbolizes the struggle for freedom. The operas of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), including La bohème Tosca and Madama Butterfly, are still among the most frequently performed in the standard repertoire.
However, the greatest Italian composer of opera in the nineteenth century was Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), the son of an innkeeper in northern Italy who studied music as a child. Verdi is noted for operas such as Rigoletto (1851), La traviata (1853), Don Carlos (1867), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) and wrote operas for houses in Milan, Venice, Rome, Trieste, Naples, Florence, London and Paris. He preferred stories that had already succeeded as spoken dramas, drawing on plays by authors such as Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller and Victor Hugo. Verdi’s opera Aïda was first performed in Cairo, Egypt, in 1871, two years after the opening of the Suez Canal which linked Mediterranean Europe with the Indian Ocean.
One of the towering figures of nineteenth-century culture was Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Born in Leipzig, Wagner had an enormous impact on all of the arts, especially his belief in the interrelationship between the arts. He brought German Romantic opera to a new height and created what he considered to be a new genre, the music drama. In his late works he developed a rich idiom that influenced composers to attenuate and even abandon tonality.
Wagner was highly influential with his emphasis on music as the servant of drama. At the age of fifteen, he attended a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which had a profound effect on him. Several of his elder sisters became opera singers or actresses. Wagner read the plays of Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller and studied music in Dresden and Leipzig. Fleeing from creditors he spent the years 1839-42 in Paris, with little success. In the early 1840s he composed his opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). After Tannhäuser from 1845, based on Germanic legends, his popularity was ensured. Yet when he supported the 1848-49 insurrection he had to flee Germany after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
During the next decade he lived primarily in Zürich, Switzerland, composing, conducting and writing treatises. His discovery of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer influenced his writing of Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde), which he composed between 1857 and 1859 in Venice, Italy and in Lucerne, Switzerland. It premiered in 1865. Having already studied the Siegfried legend and the Norse myths, Wagner began composing his massive cycle of four music dramas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which took more than a generation to complete. The four operas that constitute the Ring cycle are Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and finally Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), later called Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The Götterdämmerung, inspired by Ragnarök, the end of the world as we know it according to Norse mythology, premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in Bavaria, Germany in 1876.
According to scholar Deryck V. Cooke, Richard Wagner “developed such a wide expressive range that he was able to make each of his works inhabit a unique emotional world of its own, and, in doing so, he raised the melodic and harmonic style of German music to what many regard as its highest emotional and sensuous intensity. Much of the subsequent history of music stems from him, either by extension of his discoveries or reaction against them.”
Wagner’s standing as one of the greatest composers of all time is indisputable, but his reputation has been somewhat mired by his anti-Semitic tract Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), published under a pseudonym in 1850 and under Wagner’s own name in 1869. In this essay he arguably contributed to an anti-Semitic strain in German culture that was to prove dangerous under different circumstances a few generations later.
While the French, Italians and others have had a huge influence on the development of European music, the German-speaking regions have produced a disproportionate number of great names within the European musical tradition. The contributions from the Iberian Peninsula, as well as from former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America, are in my view strongest in literature. Luís Vaz de Camões (ca. 1524-1580), or Camoens in English, was one of Portugal’s greatest poets. Lope de Vega (1562-1635) was a Baroque playwright and poet whose reputation in the Spanish-speaking world is second only to that of Cervantes. Pedro Calderón de la Barca y Henao (1600-1681) is another prominent dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age. Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was the principal Spanish composer the early twentieth century, but in general, Spain did not produce many musicians of the same stature as Velázquez or Picasso in painting.
The Baroque reached a peak in northern Europe with the incredibly productive Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). A classically-educated humanist scholar who studied in his native Flanders as well as in Italy, he developed a rich, sensuous and colorful style which was very well received at the time. He was a devout Catholic and painted many religious pictures in addition to fleshy, sensual nudes, water nymphs and angels. In fact, Rubens was so successful that he established a large studio in the city of Antwerp and hired many assistants who aided him in the production of paintings. The Dutch and the Flemish, too, are not as prominent among the great names in music as they are in art.
There are exceptions, among them the Belgian-French Romantic composer, organist and music teacher César Franck (1822-1890), who was born in Liège, Belgium, but came to Paris to study at the Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. Nevertheless, when you consider the truly impressive number of great painters produced in the Low Countries, from Jan van Eyck via Rembrandt to Vincent van Gogh, then their musical contributions do not match this. Calvinist countries could produce great theologians such as the Swiss scholar Karl Barth (1886(1886-05-10)-1968), but it appears as if the major composers in the Protestant regions of Europe, like J. S. Bach, flourished mainly in Lutheran areas, not in Calvinist ones. The Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was Jewish.
The English-speaking world could produce great literary figures such as Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the Anglo-Irish satirist remembered for Gulliver’s Travels, or Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose novels and short stories Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations were among the most popular of the Victorian era. The English women novelists Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), known for her novels Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own, must also be mentioned, as should the US-born British author Henry James (1843(1843-04-15)-1916) and the Americans Mark Twain (1835-1910) with his novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville (1819-1891) with Moby-Dick. Yet in music, Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the first English composer in more than two centuries to enjoy wide international recognition. He was followed by his countryman Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). George Frideric Handel spent much of his adult life in Britain and composed some of his best works there, but even he was originally born and raised in Germany. While the English-speaking world did not produce much music of the highest order before the twentieth century, it did produce brilliant authors and poets who inspired great music, none more so than William Shakespeare.
As scholar Stanley Wells says in his book Shakespeare: For All Time, the English dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was born in the same year as Shakespeare but matured faster as a writer. Had Shakespeare, too, died at the age of only twenty-nine, Marlowe would probably have been remembered as the greatest writer of the two. Shakespeare’s reputation grew rapidly during the 1590s. In his own time his poems were far more popular and widely read than they are today, when he is first and foremost remembered as a great playwright. His diversity, his gift for mixing comedy and tragedy and his mastery of completely different literary genres was one of his greatest strengths as a writer.
Franz Schubert and the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) are but two of the major figures who have given us songs, tone poems, ballets, symphonic scores or other compositions based on some of Shakespeare’s works, and artists of the stature of William Blake, J. M. W. Turner and Dante Gabriel Rossetti have drawn inspiration from his characters. Voltaire lived in England between 1726 and 1729 and became familiar with English literature. He appreciated Shakespeare’s talent but was critical of some aspects of his plays, for instance Hamlet. Goethe admired Shakespeare and drew inspiration from him throughout his life. The writer and poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885), best-known outside of his native France for the novel Les Misérables, embraced his works more than did Voltaire.
Hector Berlioz composed more great music inspired by Shakespeare than any other person, even more than Giuseppe Verdi, who himself wrote several works inspired by the English playwright, including a Macbeth opera. The French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) loved Hamlet and produced lithographs illustrating this text in addition to Goethe’s Faust. In 1847 Delacroix also helped with designing costumes for the French writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and his version of Hamlet, which Delacroix disliked. Dumas is especially famous for novels such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the short-story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) as well as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) were great admirers of Shakespeare, but Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was severely critical of his plays, especially King Lear. The Russian/Soviet composer and conductor Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote the ballet Romeo and Juliet, today one of the most popular ballets based on Shakespeare’s works. It was first performed in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1938 and due to Communist censorship wasn’t performed in Moscow until 1950. The American composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), born in the United States to a Russian Jewish family, wrote the music to the musical West Side Story, set in New York in the 1950s and again loosely based on Romeo and Juliet.
Many artists of the nineteenth century, especially those who did not have an independent nation state, were inspired by national traditions. The Norwegian composer and pianist Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), born in the city of Bergen, wrote songs, short piano pieces and orchestral suites that incorporated the modal melodies and harmonies as well as the dance rhythms of his native Norway. The all-pervading influence in his music is that of Norwegian folk songs and dances. Not all of his music was nationalistic; his Piano Concerto in A Minor remains a favorite. An ethnic character emerges most clearly in his songs based on Norwegian texts, especially his excellent Peer Gynt Suite (1875), written to a play by the major Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). A successful marriage between music and text, Peer Gynt is a rich drama in rhymed couplets and Ibsen’s last play to employ verse.
Ibsen is otherwise remembered for plays such as An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts and A Doll’s House. He was a man of radical ideas who challenged Victorian family values and was one of the champions of realistic drama, along with his prominent Swedish contemporary August Strindberg (1849-1912). The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) studied Ibsen as a pioneer of modern theater with a focus on controversial social issues. From Sweden, several women writers, for instance Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) with her The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, and Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), the influential writer of children’s books such as Pippi Longstocking, were among the most important names.
In Denmark, the violinist and conductor Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is regarded as the foremost composer, but literary figures such as the philosopher, theologian and cultural critic Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and especially the Danish author Hans Christian or H. C. Andersen (1805-1875) are more famous abroad. Andersen’s massively popular fairy tales, including The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and above all The Emperor’s New Clothes, have been translated into dozens of languages around the world.
Bohemia had for centuries been a part of the Austrian Empire and thus, unlike Russia, a part of the mainstream of European music. Opera had long been heard in the capital city of Prague, but in Italian or in German, which was the official state language. In the nineteenth century there was growing focus on Czech traditions. Composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), the son of a Bohemian brewer, wrote the comic opera The Bartered Bride, which was first performed in Prague in 1866 and secured his international reputation. He chose Czech subjects, and the sets and costumes drew on national traditions. Influenced by Franz Liszt he created a Czech national style by using folklike tunes and popular dance rhythms such as the polka.
Smetana lived for several years in Gothenburg, Sweden as conductor of the philharmonic society there, but returned to Prague in 1861. His six symphonic poems are collectively titled Má vlast (My Country, from the 1870s). Of these, the most famous outside of the Czech Republic is The Moldau. He became deaf in 1874, but like Beethoven continued to compose. Smetana was succeeded by Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904), whose operas include plots based on Czech village life, local fairy tales and Slavic history. This tradition of music with a national flavor was continued by the Czech composer Leoš Janácek (1854-1928). The Czech journalist and poet Jan Neruda (1834-1891) was one of the notable authors of the era.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a Russian fiction writer, essayist and philosopher and one of the towering figures of world literature. He grew up in a middle-class family in Moscow and acquired a love of reading, especially the works of the Ukrainian-born writer Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) and the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). At his father’s insistence, Dostoyevsky trained as an engineer in St. Petersburg. While he was at school, his father was murdered by his own serfs. In 1848 he joined a group of intellectuals which met to discuss literary and political issues. Such groups were illegal at the time, and they were arrested and charged with subversion. “Dostoyevsky and several of his associates were imprisoned and sentenced to death. As they were facing the firing squad, an imperial messenger arrived with the announcement that the Czar had commuted the death sentences to hard labor in Siberia. This scene was to haunt the novelist the rest of his life.”
In prison the writer underwent a profound spiritual and philosophical transformation and undertook intense studies of the New Testament, the only book the prisoners were allowed to read. His experiences there and among the urban poor of Russia greatly affected his later literary work and enabled him to attain profound philosophical and psychological insights. He also had to endure the deaths of his wife and his brother and a financially devastating addiction to gambling. Released from his imprisonment by 1858, Dostoyevsky spent several fruitful years abroad and began a productive period producing some of his greatest novels, among them Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Idiot (1868). The Idiot was influenced by Hans Holbein’s painting Christ Taken from the Cross and by Dostoyevsky’s personal opposition to the growing non-religious sentiment of the times. His last work was the epic family tragedy The Brothers Karamazov, completed in 1880. The writer died a few months later at his home in St. Petersburg. His funeral was attended by thousands of citizens.
The Russian author who is closest to Dostoyevsky in literary importance is Leo Tolstoy. His novel War and Peace from 1869 is one of his masterpieces, along with Anna Karenina from 1878, universally applauded as one of the world’s greatest novels. Tolstoy’s central message is an emphasis on human love and trust, but within a realistic framework. Realism in European literature was championed by the Frenchman Émile Zola (1840-1902) and others in the mid-nineteenth century. Realist writers such as Zola and Balzac believed that literature should depict life exactly as it is, just like objective scientists do.
According to A History of Western Society, Seventh Edition, “The greatest Russian realist, Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), combined realism in description and character development with an atypical moralizing, which came to dominate his later work. Tolstoy’s greatest work is War and Peace (1864-1869), a monumental novel set against the historical background of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy probed deeply into the lives of a multitude of unforgettable characters, such as the ill-fated Prince Andrei; the shy, fumbling Pierre; and the enchanting, level-headed Natasha. Tolstoy went to great pains to develop his fatalistic theory of history, which regards free will as an illusion and the achievements of even the greatest leaders as only the channeling of historical necessity.”
Sergey Prokofiev made an opera based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and another opera based on The Gambler, the great novel which Fyodor Dostoyevsky allegedly completed in just a few weeks so that he could pay off his own considerable gambling debts.
Finland was a part of the Russian Empire from 1809 and the Napoleonic Wars to independence during the revolutions in 1917, but it had been a part of the Kingdom of Sweden for centuries before this. Composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was born to a family from the Swedish-speaking minority. He became a committed patriot and learned the Finnish language, abandoned his law studies at Helsinki and devoted himself entirely to music. He was especially fascinated with Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. From 1897 to the end of his life he was supported by the Finnish government as a national artist. His major tone poem Finlandia was written in 1899, but because of its nationalistic-sounding name it had to be renamed so as to avoid Russian censorship. Sibelius was original in his treatment of form and reworked the sonata form in novel ways, some of which were anticipated in the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. He drew inspiration in his work from the Nordic landscape, as did the prominent Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976).
The Frenchman Claude Debussy (1862-1918) exercised enormous influence on contemporary composers. He started with piano lessons as a child and began studying at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, first piano and then composition. In the 1890s he lived in the “Bohemian” Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, where artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others drew inspiration at the turn of the twentieth century. He is often grouped with fellow French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and his work overlapped in time and sometimes in thought with that of Impressionist and Symbolist painters and writers. His major works include Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and La Mer (The Sea, 1905). He also planned to make an opera inspired by the short story The Fall of the House of Usher by the American poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), but this project was never completed.
Debussy admired some of Wagner’s works, especially Tristan and his last work, Parsifal from 1882, but he drew from the French tradition a preference for restraint. He initially made a living as a music critic, but by the early 1900s he was well established as a leading modern composer. According to A History of Western Music, “The changes that Debussy introduced in harmonic and orchestral usage made him one of the seminal forces in the history of music. The composers who at one time or another came under his influence include nearly every distinguished composer of the early and middle twentieth century, from Ravel, Messiaen, and Boulez in France to Puccini, Janácek, Strauss, Scriabin, Ives, Falla, Bartók, Stravinsky, Berg, and others from national traditions, as well as American jazz and popular musicians.”
A strong Russian tradition had begun with nineteenth century composers such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergey Prokofiev, and continued into the twentieth century with individuals like Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Next to literature, the Russian contributions to European high culture were particularly strong in ballet. Dance was prominent in pagan religious rituals and largely ignored in Christian medieval times, but secular dance as an art form resurfaced during the Italian Renaissance. Norman Davies writes:
“From Italy, the baletto was exported in the time of Catherine de’ Medici to the French court, where, under Louis XIV, it became a major art form. Lully’s Triomphe l’Amour (1681) fixed the long-lasting genre of opera ballet. The modern theory and practice of ballet were largely developed in mid-eighteenth-century Paris, especially by the royal ballet master Jean Georges Noverre (1727-1810)….Russia first imported French and Italian ballet under Peter the Great, but in the nineteenth century moved rapidly from imitation to creative excellence. Tchaikovsky’s music for Swan Lake (1876), Sleeping Beauty (1890), and The Nutcracker (1892) laid the foundations for Russia’s supremacy. In the last years of peace, the Ballets Russes launched by Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) enjoyed a series of unsurpassed triumphs. The choreography of Fokine, the dancing of Nizinski and Karsavina, and, above all, the scores of Stravinsky, brought ballet to its zenith with The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). After the Revolutions of 1917, the Ballets Russes stayed abroad, whilst the Soviet Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets combined stunning technical mastery with rigid artistic conservatism.”
The Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky was arguably the most important composer of his time and had an enormous influence on later composers. He was born near St. Petersburg to a well-to-do musical family. He began piano lessons at the age of nine and studied music theory in his teens. After hearing some of his early compositions, the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) commissioned Stravinsky to compose for his Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet), which reigned in Paris from 1909 to 1929. Stravinsky then wrote the ballets that made him famous and are still among his most popular works: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. The Firebird was based on Russian folk tales. He collaborated on them with the Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokin (1880-1942), founder of the modern ballet style, and the brilliant dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), born in Kiev, Ukraine, the son of a Polish dancer.
Igor Stravinsky moved to Paris in 1911 and to Switzerland in 1914. Six years later, after becoming stranded in the West because of World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he returned to France. During his exile from Russia, in the 1920s he turned to Neoclassicism, i.e. to reviving the styles and forms of the pre-Romantic music from the eighteenth century, then called Classic. This period included several symphonies and lasted until the opera The Rake’s Progress premiered in 1951. When World War II began in Europe in September 1939, he moved to the United States and settled in the Los Angeles region. He died in New York City in 1971. A religious tone could be found already in his cantata Symphony of Psalms (1930), and several of his late works are religious. He experimented throughout his life, and “Stravinsky’s impact on other composers was in league with that of Wagner and Debussy.”
The German Richard Strauss (1864-1949), born in Munich to a musical father, was a celebrated conductor in addition to being a composer, and held positions in the opera houses of Munich, Weimar, Berlin and Vienna. He made a composition in 1897 based on the novel Don Quixote by Cervantes. By the early 1900s he turned his attention to operas, some of which were very successful. One of his works was the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) from 1896, a musical commentary to a prose-poem by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche of the same name. Nietzsche proclaimed that Christian ethics should be replaced by the ideal of an Übermensch (English: overman) who is above good and evil. Nietzsche expanded on his ideas about leaving traditional Judeo-Christian morality behind in his book Beyond Good and Evil, published in 1886.
While Enlightenment philosophers viewed human beings as rational, some intellectuals, among them Sigmund Freud, the Austrian Jewish founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology, developed a very different understanding of the human mind. In their view, human behavior is basically irrational, a constant battle between the rational consciousness and the irrational subconscious, which is driven by sexual, aggressive and pleasure-seeking desires. With its focus on the alleged dangers of repressed sexual desires, some opponents as well as enthusiasts saw Freudian ideology as implying an uninhibited sex life as necessary for mental health. Freud and his followers arguably undermined the view of man as a rational being. A climate of alienation and pessimism could be detected in the literature as well. This was especially evident in the works of Franz Kafka (1883-1924). T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) in his famous poem The Waste Land (1922) depicted a world of growing desolation, although he grew slightly more optimistic later in his life.
The turn of the twentieth century was generally an age of great optimism in Europe and the Western world as a whole, then at the height of its dynamism and combined global influence through the colonial empires of the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and especially France and Britain. This was a time of rapid change in technology, society and the arts. One visual symbol of this progress was the electrification of industry, businesses and homes which brought light to the world, literally and metaphorically. Global communications and trade expanded greatly along with improved means of transportation: Internal combustion engines gradually replaced steam engines in factories, ships, trains and automobiles, and airplanes were introduced. However, certain intellectual undercurrents and a growing rejection of traditional culture indicated that there might be some dark clouds in the horizon.
Apart from Latin America, where Spanish and Portuguese rule had ended generations ago, the early twentieth century represented the peak of Western European colonial rule of much of the planet, with the French and the huge British Empire in the lead. Already at this point there were critical voices among Europeans themselves, inspired by real abuses such as those committed under Belgian King Leopold’s rule in the Congo in West Africa. The short novel Heart of Darkness from 1902 by the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) has long been considered a masterpiece of empathy and a testimony to the abuses of imperialism. Conrad learned English as an adult and retained a strong Polish accent in spoken English, but he gained an almost complete mastery of the English language in writing.
Non-conformist thinking in the arts mirrored changes in the world of physics, with relativity and quantum mechanics. Artists no longer placed a high value on traditional concepts of beauty or on pleasing the viewer, but valued originality above all else. “Success was measured not by wide popular appeal but by the esteem of intellectuals and fellow artists.”
Modern painting grew out of a revolt against French Impressionism and painters such as Monet and Renoir. This gave rise to Expressionism, with its emphasis on inner, intense emotions and imagination rather than external impressions. The Dutchman Vincent van Gogh demonstrated this sentiment with his painting The Starry Night from 1889. Paul Gauguin was another prominent figure. Many painters became increasingly separated from ordinary visual reality in their works. Developments in music ran parallel to developments in painting, as composers were attracted by the emotional intensity of Expressionism. Some of them turned their backs on long-established conventions, just like abstract painters did, and arranged sounds without creating recognizable harmonies. This led to the growth of atonal music, with Alban Berg and others. Audiences at the time generally resisted modern atonal music.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was the leading Austro-German composer of symphonies after Brahms and Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), yet he made his living primarily as a conductor. He was born into a Jewish family in what was then the Austrian Empire but is today the Czech Republic. He received engagements at Hamburg, Ljubljana in present-day Slovenia, Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and eventually New York City. Mahler won acceptance as a great conductor, though not always as a composer, in his own lifetime. His background brought him a complex identity as an outsider, similar to Franz Kafka, the German-speaking Czech Jew famous for the novels The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), both published posthumously. Kafka’s novels are filled with troubled individuals in a dark, confusing and threatening world.
The Austrian and later American composer Arnold Schoenberg or Schönberg (1874-1951) was one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, known for his atonal and twelve-tone music. The son of a Jewish shopkeeper, he was born in Vienna and moved to Berlin in 1901, where Richard Strauss got him a job teaching composition. He later returned to Vienna and taught privately. Schoenberg studied the works of earlier composers, among them Brahms. He had the support of fellow Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, but his music met stormy receptions, especially after he adopted atonality in 1908. In the 1920s he formulated his influential twelve-tone method, which he used in most of his later works. After the Nazis came to power he moved to the United States. He died in Los Angeles, California.
A complex and dangerous mix of nationalistic tensions and great power rivalries combined with various alliances and misguided military policies led to the disaster known as the First World War (1914-18), otherwise called World War I (WWI) or simply The Great War. Millions of young men rotted in the trenches and died in the mud because of a seemingly meaningless war. The bloodshed brought an end to the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires, and independence to many of Europe’s smaller nations, especially in the east. Many European economies were wrecked, and the USA emerged as a world power and a leading player in Old World affairs. This was accompanied by growing American cultural influence abroad and the spread of musical styles such as jazz, blues and finally rock.
As author David Landes puts it, “The twentieth century divides neatly at two points: 1914 and 1945. The first date marked the start of the so-called Great War — one of the most absurd conflicts in human history. These four years of combat left 10 million dead and many more maimed and stunted. They also took a prosperous and improving Europe and left it prostrate. The tragedy lay in the stupidity of kings, politicians, and generals who sought and misfought the conflict, and in the gullible vanity of people who thought war was a party — a kaleidoscope of handsome uniforms, masculine courage, feminine admiration, dress parades, and the lightheartedness of immortal youth.”
World War I caused great suffering and killed much of the optimism which had existed in Europe previously. An influenza pandemic (the Spanish Flu) in 1918 that killed some twenty million additional people seemed to prove that modern life was not always benign. The horrors of trench warfare shocked those who witnessed it. The rejection of modern industry in favor of the heroic fighting of a pre-firearms society is evident in the writings of the Englishman J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the massively popular fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings and a WWI veteran. Tolkien was a personal friend of C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), a leading Christian apologist and fantasy author known for The Chronicles of Narnia series.
Cultural changes were reflected in architecture, too. The “modernism” of early twentieth century architecture still stands out, with its constant experimentation and habitual rejection of old ways. There was much emphasis on functionalism, where buildings had to be functional more than decorative and where architects had to think like engineers and machine builders. According to A History of Western Society:
“Franco-Swiss genius Le Corbusier (1887-1965) insisted that ‘a house is a machine for living in.’ The United States, with its rapid urban growth and lack of rigid building traditions, pioneered in the new architecture. In the 1890s, the Chicago school of architects, led by Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924), used cheap steel, reinforced concrete, and electric elevators to build skyscrapers and office buildings lacking almost any exterior ornamentation. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Sullivan’s student Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) built a series of radically new and truly modern houses featuring low lines, open interiors, and mass-produced building materials. Europeans were inspired by these and other American examples of functional construction, like the massive, unadorned grain elevators of the [US] Midwest. In Europe architectural leadership centered in German-speaking countries until Hitler took power in 1933. In 1911 twenty-eight-year-old Walter Gropius (1883-1969) broke sharply with the past in his design of the Fagus shoe factory at Alfeld, Germany — a clean, light, elegant building of glass and iron. After the First World War, Gropius merged the schools of fine and applied arts at Weimar into a single, interdisciplinary school, the Bauhaus,…[which] attracted enthusiastic students from all over the world.”
The Hungarian composer, pianist and ethnomusicologist Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was arguably the most important Hungarian musical figure since Franz Liszt. He was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a small town in what is today Romania. His parents were amateur musicians, and he studied composition in Budapest rather than in the Imperial capital of Vienna. Among his influences were Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Franz Liszt, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Béla Bartók created an individual modernist idiom by synthesizing elements of peasant music with the German and French Classical tradition. He collected and published nearly two thousand Hungarian, Romanian, Slovakian, Croatian, Serbian and Bulgarian song and dance tunes, using the new technology of audio recording.
New technologies revolutionized music, in recording as well as in reproduction and distribution. Due to the technologies of sound recording, photography and film we have a much fuller picture of the history of the twentieth century than of any previous age. The sheer amount and variation of music from this century can seem overwhelming. According to A History of Western Music, Seventh Edition, by Donald J. Grout, Peter J. Burkholder and Claude V. Palisca, “The advent of recording technology had the most significant impact on musical culture of any innovation since the printing press. It completely revolutionized the way we experience and share music as listeners, performers, or composers.”
The American inventor Thomas Edison made his first sound recording in 1877, using a tinfoil cylinder phonograph, but he intended it merely to be a dictation machine for offices. Edison soon replaced his fragile tinfoil cylinders with wax cylinders. In 1887 the German-born inventor Emile Berliner patented his Gramophone, a more practical system that recorded on a flat disc instead of a cylinder. His records were the first sound recordings that could be mass-produced by creating master recordings from which molds were made. Berliner’s system was the ancestor of all other analog disc records in popular use throughout the twentieth century.
Record players became available in the 1890s. Musical performances by specific artists could now be preserved and admired forever. Recordings combined with new mass media, above all radio and TV, and spawned an unparalleled growth in the size of the audience for all kinds of music. In the 1920s, new methods of recording and reproducing sound using electricity — including electric microphones and loudspeakers — allowed a great increase in the quality and frequency range of recordings, making the medium even more attractive to both developers and buyers of music. This coincided with the growth of commercial radio broadcasts.
The British American inventor David E. Hughes (1831-1900) invented the loose-contact carbon microphone, vital to telephony, broadcasting and sound recording. Charles Wheatstone in 1827 was the first to use the word “microphone,” and Hughes in 1878 revived the term in connection with his discovery. The Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell, a key figure behind the creation of the first practical telephones in the 1870s, experimented with early loudspeakers for his device. The German inventor Werner von Siemens patented an improved loudspeaker in 1877. The English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) received a patent for another loudspeaker in 1898, and two General Electric researchers in the USA, Chester Rice and Edward Washburn Kellogg, patented the modern, moving coil loudspeaker in 1925.
The evolution of diverse musical styles and popular or pop music was facilitated by these new technologies, by commercial radio broadcasts and above all by the growth of television during the second half of the twentieth century. Film music was a new genre, first used to the “silent” movies of stars such as Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), a funny little Englishman working in Hollywood, the USA, and later for sound movies. The 1920s were a great age for German films, too. Radio quickly became a popular and influential mass medium. Despite economic setbacks during the Great Depression following the stock market crash in New York in 1929, falling prices and continuing improvements stimulated a growing market for recorded music. However, the Depression helped the National Socialists (Nazis) gain power in Germany.
In 1948, Columbia Records in the USA introduced the long-playing record, or LP, 33? rpm vinyl gramophone records developed by the Hungarian-born engineer Peter Goldmark (1906-1977) and others. These quickly became popular as they allowed much longer recordings than existing alternatives. The leading American entertainer Walt Disney’s (1901-1966) animated film Fantasia in 1940 became the first major film released in stereophonic sound. The 1950s saw high-fidelity and stereophonic records and the debut of a new recording technology: magnetic tapes. The telephone engineer Valdemar Poulsen from Denmark (1869-1942) patented his telegraphone in 1898, the first practical apparatus for magnetic sound recording and reproduction. The engineer Fritz Pfleumer (1881-1945) in Germany invented magnetic tape for recording sound in 1928. The Dutch electronics company Phillips introduced cassette tapes in 1963, which quickly became popular worldwide and unlike LPs were re-recordable.
However, “The new media of mass culture were potentially dangerous instruments of political manipulation.” That radio, television and motion pictures could be great tools of propaganda was demonstrated by directors Sergei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union and Leni Riefenstahl in Nazi Germany. The totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Communism both desired strict state control of the arts. The Nazis forbade the performance of all kinds of “decadent” or “Jewish” art and established a Reich Music Chamber under the notorious Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), to which all German musicians had to belong. Many artists, scientists and intellectuals fled the country at this time, among them the German writer Thomas Mann (1875-1955), author of the novella Death in Venice.
The Madrid-born Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) in 1929 wrote The Revolt of the Masses, where he traced the birth of what he viewed as a “mass-man” society, dominated by masses of mediocre and indistinguishable individuals. “ A prolific writer, Ortega was the head of the most productive school of thinkers Spain had known for more than three centuries.” The fear that Western egalitarian societies could disintegrate into a large mass of indistinguishable individuals had already been aired by the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). De Tocqueville is most famous for his book Democracy in America (1835), published after his travels in the United States.
The Diary of a Young Girl by the German Jewish girl Anne Frank (1929-1945), who lived most of her life near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, chronicles her life from June 1942 until August 1944. She was one of the approximately six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s program of systematic state-sponsored extermination of undesirables, especially Jews and Gypsies. Anne Frank’s diary is a touching testimony of an innocent child’s meeting with an unspeakable evil and has been translated into many languages, making her one of the most famous victims of this genocide against European Jewry.
Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945, inspired his countrymen during WWII with his speeches, including the famous quotation “… we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Churchill was an orator, historian and artist in addition to being a noted statesman. For decades, he largely made his living as a prolific writer of books and essays for newspapers and magazines and received the Nobel Prize in Literature after the war, a rare distinction for a major politician. His six-volume memoir The Second World War is a very influential history of WWII, although it must be kept in mind that it was written by one of the leading players in the war itself, not by an objective historian.
Much of Europe lay in ruins after the massive destruction caused by WWII, and many countries received American financial aid afterwards. The United Nations (UN) was founded after the war, in the hope that it could secure a new age of global peace. However, the Soviet Union under Communist dictator Joseph Stalin occupied much of the eastern half of Europe at the end of the war, and soon imposed its repressive Communist system on these countries. Europe was thus split in two large blocs separated by an ideological and physical boundary which Sir Winston Churchill dubbed the “Iron Curtain.” A Cold War rivalry ensued between the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union and the Western bloc led by the other superpower, the United States, through the military alliance known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), created as an attempt to contain the expansion of Communism.
The Cold War lasted from shortly after 1945 until the downfall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the physical symbol of the division of Germany and of Europe, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. There were many minor and some medium-sized armed conflicts around the world during this period, among them the Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War (1954-75), but a major, direct and in all likelihood disastrous nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers was avoided, although the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 came close to triggering such an event. The post-war period was also a time of decolonization among former Western European colonies in Asia and Africa, most of which was completed by the 1970s.
The Communist system of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations was based on the writings of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, but above all on the texts and analyses by Karl Marx, especially the The Communist Manifesto from 1848, written by Marx and Friedrich Engels, and Das Kapital (Capital in English) by Karl Marx, first published in 1867.
In response to the repression of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Englishman George Orwell (1903-1950) published the satirical novel Animal Farm in 1945 and what many people consider to be the ultimate work of anti-Utopian or dystopian literature with his Nineteen Eighty-Four, or simply 1984, from 1949. This novel describes a totalitarian state where the dictator Big Brother through his Thought Police crushes the individual and his desires. The regime relies heavily on government surveillance and state-sponsored propaganda through falsifying historical records and constantly rewriting history books. Orwell’s highly influential book introduced many terms such as “Big Brother,” “doublethink” and “Newspeak,” the new language constructed by the totalitarian state to replace the old language, into common usage.
Another writer from Britain, the historian Robert Conquest (born 1917), in 1968 published The Great Terror, an account of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. Conquest criticized left-leaning Western intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw and the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) for “blindness” with respect to the repressive nature of the Communist regimes and accused them of being apologists for Stalin and his murders. The book The Captive Mind from 1953 by the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) tried to explain the collaboration of and fascination with totalitarian regimes among many leading intellectuals.
Another text which exposed Communist crimes was The Gulag Archipelago by the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), a three-volume book written between 1958 and 1968 and published in the West in 1973. It circulated as an underground publication within the Soviet Union itself. The book, which was based on the author’s personal experiences as a prisoner in the Gulag, the system of forced labor camps which ruined the lives of millions of alleged dissidents, dealt a severe blow to the credibility of the Soviet regime. Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to post-Soviet Russia in 1994.
Mikhail Gorbachev (born 1931) became the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. His attempts of reform during the second half of the 1980s contributed to the end of the Cold War, although US President and leading anti-Communist Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) should receive a significant part of the credit as well. He challenged the Soviets and engaged them after 1980 in a military buildup that their failed economy simply couldn’t keep up with. Reagan, who became known as the “Great Communicator,” began his career in filmmaking and television before he was elected president, a testimony to the power of TV and the visual mass media.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 turned out to be relatively peaceful, with the partial exception of Romania. The Czech playwright, essayist and dissident Václav Havel (born 1936) demonstrated how the lies, hypocrisy and apathy of Communist societies poisoned all human relations. In the post-Communist period he became a political leader as the last President of Czechoslovakia (1989-93) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003) after its peaceful separation from Slovakia.
Some Europeans had the misfortune to gain first-hand experience with both twentieth century systems of totalitarianism. The Hungarian Jewish author Imre Kertész, born in Budapest in 1929, at 14 was deported to Auschwitz, the leading Nazi concentration and extermination camp, but became one of the few Holocaust survivors. His semiautobiographical novel Fateless from 1975 later won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. According to Kertész, “Auschwitz is the ultimate embodiment of a radically new event in European history: totalitarian dictatorship. Europe’s 20th-century totalitarianisms [Fascism and Communism] created a completely new type of human being. They forced a person to choose in a way we were never forced to choose before: to become either a victim or a perpetrator. Even surviving involved collaboration, compromises you had to make if you wanted to bring a bigger piece of bread home to your family. This choice has deformed millions of Europeans.”
In the Soviet Union, the government controlled the arts along with every other realm of life. They were seen as ways to indoctrinate the people and teach them to venerate their leaders. Amazingly, a few composers managed to create meaningful music under these difficult conditions. The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) spent his entire career within the Soviet system. All of his works were created in a heavily politicized context, which has generated a search for double meanings in his music. There was no room for dissidence under Stalin, and little even after him. Shostakovich’s music shows the influence of several other composers, including Beethoven, Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky. The ambivalence of his works reflects the accommodations he had to make to survive in a repressive environment, but his undeniable talent has earned him devoted listeners throughout the world.
Continental Europeans could still produce stars such as the French singer and actress Édith Piaf (1915-1963) or the German-born singer and actress Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992). However, in sharp contrast to earlier periods, during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the English-speaking world dominated popular music. The rise of English as the language of business and diplomacy was facilitated by Britain’s leading economic, military and technological position in the nineteenth century and by the equally dominant position of the USA in the twentieth century. Britain and its offspring still contributed to this trend, but the United States through the influence of Hollywood movies and later American television shows and series became the leader. American popular culture added another dimension to the increasingly unique role of the English language as a near-global lingua franca.
American music styles such as rock and roll, or rock, blended black and white popular music. Among its great American stars was Elvis Presley (1935-1977) in the 1950s and 60s. Presley died a sad figure in 1977, but his great voice and music remained popular after his death, as did a sometimes unhealthy personality cult. Aided by rapid modern communications, rock was soon listened to throughout the world, a development the American rock musician Chuck Berry (born 1926) summed up with his 1956 hit Roll Over Beethoven. This trend was closely related to the Western “youth rebellion” and the rise of youth culture and teenagers as a major consumer group and target audience for commercial products. Electric versions of traditional musical instruments were created, and the electric guitar in particular became popular.
The most popular stars of the 1960s were The Beatles, four young men from Liverpool, England, with singer-songwriters John Lennon (1940-1980) and Paul McCartney (born 1942) in the lead. They brought the art of creating catchy pop and rock melodies to a new height. During the later 1960s they became entangled with and championed many radical ideologies and also the use of narcotics, which became very widespread from the late 1960s onwards. Much of the popular music of the period was easily accessible and perhaps easily forgotten, although some of the leading artists, among them the American singer-songwriter and poet Bob Dylan (born 1941), could display more lasting melodic and lyrical qualities.
The African American artist, dancer and songwriter Michael Jackson (1958-2009) was a star in the music business from he was a child. His 1982 album Thriller became the best-selling album of all time. With the highly influential video for his song Thriller he made the genre of “music videos,” short films to illustrate a piece of music, generally popular. However, from the 1990s onwards, Jackson’s personal life was mired by scandals, with repeated though unproven accusations of child sexual abuse. His increasingly bizarre personal life, extreme spending habits and seeming addiction to plastic surgery made him a symbol of some of the most decadent and self-destructive sides of Western popular culture and celebrity cultus.
During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, rock gave way to far more aggressive forms of music such as hard rock and heavy metal. On the surface, these styles were radically different from that of Elvis Presley, not to mention European Classical music. However, occasionally you could find surprising elements of continuity, with some hard rock vocalists trained as opera singers or taking inspiration from Bach or Mozart. These new forms of music contributed to an incredible variety of increasingly global musical styles. Even Gregorian chant was occasionally mixed in with modern pop music. This admittedly constitutes a small niche compared to other musical traditions, but possibly a permanent niche which preserves European medieval music in its own right, not just for its later historical importance.
This age will above all be remembered for the technological changes it introduced, from the spread of communications satellites and the advent of mobile phones to the Internet. Portable transistor radios became a major consumer item from the 1960s on. The Walkman, the audio cassette player brand developed by Nobutoshi Kihara (born 1926) for the leading Japanese electronics company Sony in the 1970s, changed people’s listening habits: It allowed them to carry their own choice of music with them and spawned a range of related electronic devices at the turn of the twenty-first century. By the 1980s, electronic computers were made available for home use, as were digital synthesizers. Electronic keyboards combined with personal computers made synthesized music accessible to musicians everywhere.
The digital revolution affected music greatly, not just in how we record, reproduce and distribute it, but in how we create it, too. In the early 1980s, Phillips and Sony unveiled the Compact Disc, or CD. CDs soon replaced older recording technologies such as vinyl records (LPs) or cassette tapes and were gradually complemented by similar formats for movies and digital cameras. The first commercially available CD was made in 1980 and contained a recording of Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie, played by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989). Soon technology was developed which made it possible to download music or even entire movies of full length from the Internet onto your Personal Computer, PC, or to various portable electronic devices.
This accelerated a trend that had begun at the turn of the twentieth century with the invention of the first vinyl records. With the introduction of recorded music, people no longer had to go to a concert hall to hear great music. They could listen to it in their private homes, or even while sitting on a bus or train. Listening to music became a solitary pursuit rather than a communal one, although public concerts and live music have remained very popular as well. Thousands of digital radio stations are now available on the Internet, and various Internet websites have begun to offer digital recordings of music or films, legally or illegally, for private consumers to download at home. This has created great challenges for the music- and movie-making industries and changed the way we interact with music in profound ways.
The world today is radically different from what it was in the days of Haydn and Mozart, and the kind of music played by Mozart is no longer the dominant one in Europe. There are those who lament this, but we should remember that thanks to modern technology, the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven can be enjoyed by far more people than ever listened to it during these composers’ lifetime, and sometimes far beyond the Western world itself. Western music has absorbed elements from other musical cultures and traditions whereas East Asians have produced some of the leading performers of European Classical music. Personally, I see no reason why music should remain exactly the same in the twenty-first century as it was in the eighteenth. Nevertheless, European Classical music does represent one of the highest peaks of global musical achievement. While Europeans should always remain open to other impulses, it would be a shame not to maintain this tradition, too, as a vibrant and dynamic one.