Middle Ages 450-1450
1. Anonymous – Alleluia vidimus stellam
This is an example of a Gregorian chant from the Middle Ages. As learned in class, this was the official music of the Catholic church for many centuries. It was sung in church, by an all-male choir in Latin (the official language of the church). These were usually prayers set to music, so obviously the text (and music) is religious or sacred. As you can hear, it has a monophonic texture, meaning the entire choir is singing the same melody, there is no instrumental accompaniment or other voices doing something else.
2. Bernard de Ventadorn – Can vei la lauzeta mover
This song is a troubador song, called a canso. Troubadors were noblemen who traveled singing and playing music in different villages, cities, etc. Bernard de Ventadorn was one of the most well known troubadors, known by name and wrote this song around 1150. These cansos were accompanied by instruments.
These songs were usually about unrequited love, castle life and battles. They were sung in the local languages, like in this case in French.
Renaissance 1450 – 1600
3. Josquin – Ave Maria virgo serena
This is a polyphonic setting in 4 voices of the Ave Maria prayer written in the late 1400’s. All 4 voices sing an independent melody. It is sung in Latin, the official language of the church. Since it is a prayer, it is sacred music.
Although the recording features female voices in the high register, remember that back then women were not allowed to sing together with men in church, so this would’ve been sung by an all-male choir, perhaps using boys to sing the high pitches.
4. John Dowland – Flow My Tears
Flow My Tears is a lute song, meaning a song for a singer accompanied by a lute player. As you can see, the lute is the predecessor of the guitar. Although it looks slightly different, it was played just like a modern day guitar. The English composer, John Dowland, was a famous composer of lute songs and wrote this song in 1596.
Lute songs were very popular during the late Renaissance as a way of entertainment. This songs were secular (not religious), so they were sung in different languages, like in English and talked about love and nature.
Baroque 1600 – 1750
5. J. S. Bach – Little Organ Fugue in G minor
This piece is a fugue, which is a piece built on a main melody (heard at the beginning) and then imitated by several other voices, in this case 4 different voices (although played by one performer, playing 2 voices in each hand). They all come in with the same theme, but at different pitches and then continue with their own independent melody all throughout. The fugue is polyphonic music at its best. Although Bach composed many pieces like this one to be played in an organ, which often times was housed in a church, this is not religious music since it does not have any text or has any associations with religion. As you can tell from following the score, there are hardly any rests or pauses. Baroque music is very busy, with a lot of rapid notes, played with a very steady beat. Bach wrote many fugues, for the organ and the harpsichord, the two main keyboard instruments of the Baroque era. This one was written around 1703-1707.
6. Vivaldi – “Spring” (from The Four Seasons) Concerto for violin and orchestra
Vivaldi wrote many concertos for different instruments. This one, called “Spring” is part of a set of four violin concertos called The Four Seasons, each depicting a season published in 1725.
As we’ve learned in class, a concerto is a piece for orchestra and a soloist, in this case the violin. The orchestra is made up of string instruments, as was the norm during the Baroque era, accompanied with a harpsichord. If you pay attention, the harpsichordist is constantly playing, playing the “basso continuo”.As is common in a concerto, there is an alternation of the orchestra and the soloist. Pay attention to how several times, the orchestra or tutti plays the main theme, or “ritornello” (theme that returns), while the soloist plays more elaborate music. By having the tutti play the ritornello several times throughout the piece, the melodies and rhythms repeat often. Also, notice the sudden change in dynamics (volume) called “terraced dynamics”.
Classical 1750 – 1820
7. Mozart – Piano concerto No. 21 in C major
This is one of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos, written in 1785. A concerto is a piece for orchestra and soloist in several movements (usually 3). In this case the piano is the soloist, which plays against the orchestra. This video is of the entire concerto, we’ll be focusing on the first movement. Usually a concerto starts with the orchestra and then the soloist comes in (around minute 3), reason why you should listen to at least the first 7 minutes, to hear the interaction of the piano with the orchestra. Mozart’s music epitomizes the Classical style, in which there is a clear melody (played by the piano or the orchestra in the orchestral sections) and a light accompaniment. Even if the accompaniment is played by an entire orchestra, it remains light and subordinate to the main melody.
8. Beethoven – Symphony No. 5
This is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (out of 9) published in 1808. A symphony is a work for orchestra in several movements, usually four. The first movement is based on a 4-note theme that is repeated and varied throughout the entire movement, making the theme very identifiable since it is heard so often. Beethoven mentioned the four-note theme was “faith knocking on the door”, giving the music perhaps an eerie or mysterious feeling, which is why you might have heard the main theme before as it has been commercially used to create suspense.
Romantic 1820 – 1900
9. Chopin – Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2
This Chopin piece is a Nocturne, which as the name implies, was a light, calm piece meant to be played at night. This is one of Chopin’s most well-known pieces, and it typifies the Romantic movement and Chopin’s works as well: it has a clear, passionate and expressive melody, with an accompaniment played by light chords and with the performer taking liberties in the dynamics and tempo (slowing down or speeding up) to make the music very expressive. Almost all of Chopin’s pieces were written for the piano, as he was a great pianist himself, reason why we usually associate Chopin with Romantic piano music.
10. Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique – 4th movement
This is the 4th movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, published in 1830, which is a “program symphony”, meaning that it has a title (as opposed to just Symphony No. 1) and it has a story associated with it. The symphony is a sort of autobiographical account of a young artist who is deeply in love with a girl. Each movement of the symphony has a sub-title and a short program (text) that tells a scene from the story. This 4th movement is titled “March to the Scaffold” and the program notes read: “The Artist, knowing beyond all doubt that his love is not returned, poisons himself with opium. The narcotic plunges him into sleep, accompanied by the most horrible visions.” One of these visions is that he murders his beloved. In turn, he is then condemned to death and is led to the scaffold to be beheaded. You can hear the march-like, forceful music in this movement representing just that. Towards the end, we hear the “fixed idea” (6’30”), a melody associated with the beloved, the girl, played by a solo clarinet, representing the last time the artist thinks of her beloved before we hear a loud thump when the guillotine comes down and chops off his head. We then hear his head bouncing (string instruments plucking strings), a drumroll and the triumphant cheering of the crowd.
Notice the enormous size of the orchestra, especially the size of the brass and percussion section, which makes this music loud and powerful. This massive orchestral works were characteristic of Berlioz and other Romantic composers, in an effort to make their music much more expressive in terms of dynamics, pitch and tone color.