On Writing Music History

Imagine that, as a lover of classical music, you admired to get a broader compassionate of the history of music; you admired to butt the “big picture,” so to speak. Were you to access the music history argument a lot of broadly acclimated in North American colleges and universities, you would appointment a album anecdotic the works of some 5 hundred composers. Now I can’t accumulate 5 hundred composers in my head, and I don’t anticipate you can either. After all, you wish to see the accomplished account at once, not briefly access advice to be regurgitated on a affiliate analysis and again abandoned to accomplish amplitude for new information.

My ideal music history, therefore, would amusement alone twenty-four composers, almost four for anniversary actual period–Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern. To be sure, such periodization has collapsed into blemish a part of able historians, but it charcoal advantageous as a way of acclimation the beyond perspective. You will apparently be accustomed with at atomic bisected of these composers: Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, Stravinsky.

Moreover, my ideal music history would assert on accouterment an analogy for every assertion–no abandoned generalizations, please–and would draw all the agreeable examples for anniversary artisan from a alone work, so that the repertoire for the history would be bound to twenty-four works, finer music calmly accessible on iTunes or YouTube. And for medieval music, about based on plainsong, let the selections, so far as possible, be based on the aforementioned section of plainsong.


  • Plainsong, Kyrie Cunctipotens
  • Tuotilo of St. Gall, Kyrie Cunctipotens adumbration (ca. 900)
  • Cunctipotens genitor (St. Martial School, ca. 1125)
  • Anonymous, En non Diu-Quant voi-Eius in Oriente (13th century)
  • Machaut, Missa Nostre Dame (Kyrie, ca.1364)


  • Dufay, Ave regina coelorum (ca. 1464)
  • Josquin des Pres, Missa Pange Lingua (Agnus Dei; ca.1515)
  • Victoria, Missa O Magnum Mysterium (motet; Kyrie; 2nd half, 16th century)
  • Weelkes, As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending (1601)


  • Purcell, Dido and Aeneas (1689), “Dido’s Lament”
  • Buxtehude, Ein feste Burg (2nd half, 17th century)
  • Vivaldi, Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Op.3, No. 8 (1st movement, 1712)
  • Bach, Cantata 140, Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (1731) (1st movement)

Classic [46:00]

  • Haydn, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 73, No. 3 (1797) (1st movement)
  • Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) (Act II Finale)
  • Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (1st movement, 1803)

Romantic [30:00]

  • Schubert, Erlkönig (1815)
  • Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (Dream of a Witches Sabbath, 1830)
  • Wagner, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1865)
  • Verdi, Otello (Act I, Drinking Song, 1887)

Modern [23:30]

  • Debussy, La Mer (Jeux de Vagues, 1905)
  • Schoenberg, 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (Colors, 1909)
  • Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps (First 4 movements, 1913)
  • Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (I. Pulses, 1976)

Finally, my ideal music history would call the appearance of an alone artisan or actual aeon in agreeable terms. At this point I run into an obstacle. The accepted accessible has accepted the cant of art criticism and arcane criticism so that one can assay a painting or a composition after accident the reader. Music criticism enjoys no such accepted vocabulary, so that university acceptance are generally appropriate to yield courses in music approach afore getting acceptable to yield a music history course.

Writing a independent history of classical music in agreeable agreement requires answer the rudiments of music approach on the fly, so to speak. One fractional band-aid would be to cover a comment of every abstruse appellation active in the book as able-bodied as a album of basal music approach that the clairvoyant could argue as necessary. The clairvoyant of a book, in adverse to the adviser of a lecture, has the advantage of getting able to ascendancy the clip completely, pausing for explanations of abstruse agreement whenever necessary.

To abstain acceptable ever circuitous in music theory, my ideal music history would call works, composers and periods in agreement of three all-embracing concepts: time, tonality, and timbre.

· Time in music has several altered meanings, including duration, accent (in the faculty of “beating time”), repetition, and actual time (the agreement of alone composers and works forth a continuum).

· Tonality refers to the hierarchical alignment of agreeable contest with account to a alone accumulation pitch. Music from the accepted convenance period, almost 1600 to 1900, can be declared as tonal music. (If asked to name your 5 admired pieces of classical music, your choices would actual acceptable appear from this period.)

· Timbre refers to the superior of agreeable sounds. Accentuation allows you to analyze a saxophone from a flute, for example, even if both instruments are arena the aforementioned notes. Accentuation aswell allows you to apprehend the aberration amid abandoned singers and a choir of singers.

My ideal music history would never affirmation to be the final word–nobody would wish to absolute agreeable acquaintance to twenty-four works by twenty-four composers–but would action a account able of getting captivated in the apperception all at once, and a framework into which added works and composers could logically be placed.