The period in the history of Western Europe, today called the Middle Ages, begins around 450 A.D. What had once been a vast empire dominated by Roman law and culture fell apart in consequence of a series of incursions by the Goths, Huns, and other “barbarian” tribes. Europe became a feudal society in which the majority of the population was peasants, or serfs. The landowners were noblemen who lived in tapestry-hung castles in walled villages, some of which are the antecedents of European cities of today. To fight the almost constant wars with each other, powerful lords raised their sons to be warriors, knights who pledged to follow codes of loyalty and chivalry. When not engaged in battles, these armored fighters participated in elaborate tournaments for the entertainment of the court. Knights also joined the crusades, multi-year Christian expeditions to the Middle East to recapture the Holy Land from Moslem rule.
As Christianity spread during the Middle Ages, great cathedrals were built across Europe as places of public worship, each presided over by a bishop appointed by the pope. Monasteries and convents were established as self-sufficient religious communities where monks and nuns lived in isolation from the outside world. At a time when the population was essentially illiterate, monasteries were centers of learning. Monks copied and illustrated religious manuscripts as well as books that preserved writings of Arabic and Greek scholars.
Monasteries have a special significance in the history of European music. The intoning of sacred texts, a practice the early Christians borrowed from other religions, was an important element of their liturgy. The chants sung in the services, some of them of ancient origin, were passed on through oral tradition, undoubtedly undergoing changes in the process. In order to bring some organization to this huge body of melodies, monks formulated principles for classifying the scales on which they were based, the church modes. They also experimented with methods of writing them down. Monophonic chants constituted the core of the repertory, but there were also practices of performing chants with one or more melodies added to them, an early form of polyphony. The system that the monks ultimately developed, essentially the staff of lines and spaces in use today, accomplished not only the exact fixing of the pitches of a melody, but allowed for the notation of two or more simultaneous melodies that graphically represented their relationship to one another. Observations about these relationships led to concepts of consonance and dissonance and to early rules for creating new music of two or more parts. What was originally intended as a mechanism for preserving existing music laid the foundations for Western theories of counterpoint and harmony. Those principles and practices made possible the composition of music of great textural complexity and are themselves among the major intellectual achievements in human history.
The designation “Renaissance” dates from the 18th century and reflects the revival of interest in the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome that profoundly influenced the culture and thinking of the century and a half following the Middle Ages. The period is also called the Age of Humanism because of the emphasis on the nature, potential, and accomplishments of man in literature, art and music, science, and philosophy. The medieval approach to understanding the world, which was based on speculative systems of divine order and harmony, was supplanted by theories derived from scientific observation. Learning was highly valued and, through the invention of printing, became available to a wide population. Other important inventions are the telescope and instruments for navigation used by explorers such as Columbus and Magellan.
The Catholic Church remained an important institution during the Renaissance, but diminished in influence in consequence of the wealth and power of families such as the Medici of Florence and the Estes of Ferrara, whose courts became centers of culture, learning, and military might. The Reformation, which began with Martin Luther’s criticisms of Church abuses, had its greatest impact in Germany. Other breakaway movements followed in France and Switzerland, as well as in England, where Henry VIII defied the authority of the pope and declared himself head of a new Anglican church. Wars between Catholics and Protestants are part of the history of many of the countries that broke with Rome.
In music and the other arts, patronage by royalty, who competed in maintaining splendid courts as well as chapels, spurred the development of secular forms of artistic expression.
Whether secular or sacred, Renaissance art, sculpture, and architecture embody the ideals of balance, clarity, and emotional restraint that characterized the classicism of the Greeks. In music, where no ancient models survived, that aesthetic found expression in a style that evolved from concepts of consonance and dissonance developed in the Middle Ages but with new emphasis on harmonious sonorities. The predominant texture consisted of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voice parts creating a highly contrapuntal web in which the lines diverge, converge, cross, echo, and imitate each other, sometimes with great rhythmic independence, sometimes moving together in the manner of a hymn. In setting religious texts, composers strove for an atmosphere of serenity and spirituality, in the setting of secular texts, for vivid representation of words and images. Instrumental music continued to be of secondary importance to composers, whose approach to writing for instruments was usually the same as that for voices. For example, published collections of dances required unspecified instruments of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass range—in essence vocal pieces without words. Some composers, however, began to explore shaping musical material in ways that exploited the unique features of the instruments on which it would be performed.
Many of the historic events in Europe during the 17th and early 18th centuries are extensions of forces that shaped and defined the Renaissance. The explorations of the 16th century were followed by the establishment of more and more colonies in the New World. In the sphere of intellectual activity, the scientific methodologies and discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo laid the foundations for the work of Kepler and Newton, and the philosophers Descartes, Spinoza, and Locke embraced the Renaissance pursuit of truth through reason. Religious conflicts engendered by the Reformation continued to erupt throughout the 17th century. In the area that is now Germany, tensions between Protestants and Catholics following the Reformation ignited a catastrophic Thirty Years War, during the course of which half the population died. The history of England is also a violent one, with such bloody deeds as the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I, both Catholics, and the posthumous hanging and dismemberment of Oliver Cromwell, a commoner and Puritan who became England’s Lord Protector during the Commonwealth period. The powers of the absolute monarch reached new heights in France, whose citizens were heavily taxed to support Louis XIV and the 20,000 courtiers who lived at the extravagant palace he had built for himself at Versailles.
These were some of the contexts in which artists worked during the approximately 150-year period of the Baroque. As in the Renaissance, popes, cardinals, monarchs, and members of the aristocracy continued to use art as a symbol of power and wealth. But artists and musicians also created works for a wider public. The art, architecture, and music they created exhibit features that are characteristic of romantic expression—intense emotion, flamboyance, and dynamic movement. For subjects, painters and sculptors were drawn to dramatic moments from mythology, ancient history, and the Bible, which they depicted with elaborate decoration, vivid color, and bold use of light and shadow. They also portrayed scenes from everyday life that were displayed in the homes of the rising middle class. Architecture, often grandiose in scale, employed sweeping lines, high domes, columns, and statues, all overlaid with ornamental detail. The taste for dramatic expression in conjunction with the opening of public concert halls created a supportive climate for the emergence of opera and oratorio and of new instrumental genres independent of vocal music such as the sonata, concerto, and suite. In their pursuit of dramatic intensity, composers introduced strongly contrasting effects—between loud and soft, between soloist and large group, between voices and instruments—and developed a vocabulary of devices that associated particular keys, meters, rhythmic figures, and instruments with specific emotional states, such as anger, love, joy, and grief.
The term classical, when used in the context of works of art, refers to features such proportion and symmetry that characterize the sculpture and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome and also the art of subsequent periods that display those features. Classicists embrace the notion of universal ideals of beauty and strive in art to achieve universality through the representation of ideal forms.
It is for this reason that the period that followed the Baroque, when the flamboyance and drama were supplanted by emotional restraint and formal balance and symmetry, is called Classical. The 18th century is also called the Enlightenment Period, because of the ideals of reason, objectivity, and scientific knowledge found in the writings of Diderot, Voltaire, and Lessing that permeated all aspects of European society and culture. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin are among the Americans who shared the belief in human progress and natural rights, that is, the rights of the individual as opposed to the rights of the state, as embodied in a monarch. These ideas led to the American Revolution, then the French Revolution, with its slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Both the aesthetics of classicism and the Enlightenment world view shaped the art of the second half of the 18th and early 19th centuries. As in the Renaissance, architects once again found inspiration in the proportion and grace of Greek and Roman temples. Robert Burns’s poems in Scottish dialect, Jane Austen’s novels about life in a country village, and Schiller’s plays about aspirations for freedom and brotherhood are testaments to enlightenment notions of the dignity and worth of the common man.
In music, composers of the early classical period discarded complex textures, learned compositional techniques such as fugal imitation, and grandeur in favor of transparent textures, a single melody supported by a subordinate accompaniment, and somewhat superficial sentiments. In the mature classical style of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, counterpoint, processes of rigorous development, and depth of expression reappear, but in the context of classical ideals of clarity, proportion, and refined taste. Important developments during the period include expansion of the orchestra to thirty or forty players, improvements in the mechanisms of instruments, especially the piano, and ever greater public support through concerts and publication of music.
In many respects, the social and political history of 19th century Europe and the United States is a continuation of trends and movements rooted in the previous century: secularization, industrialization, democratization. But the way in which artists perceived, interpreted, and expressed the world was informed by a romantic aesthetic. As a general descriptive, romantic is applied to literature, visual arts, and music that emphasize imagination over objective observation, intense emotion over reason, freedom and spontaneity over order and control, individual over universal experience. The romantics of the 19th century sought inspiration in nature (poetry of Wordsworth, paintings of Constable and Turner), mythology and folklore (stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann), and the past (Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn; Dumas, The Three Musketeers). They idolized tragic heroic figures (Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe), and the artist as visionary (Walt Whitman, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself”). And they were fascinated by subjects associated with dreams (Goya’s The Dream of Reason), oppression, injustice, and political struggle (novels of Dickens, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable), the macabre (stories of Edgar Allen Poe), and death (poems of Emily Dickinson). The lives of many romantics were marked by the restlessness, longing, and unhappy love relationships they depicted through their art (the English poets Byron and Shelley).
Music was in a number of respects the perfect romantic art form. In the words of the composer Franz Liszt, “Music embodies feeling without forcing it to contend and combine with thought…” Music was used as a vehicle for expression of personal emotion, for awakening nationalistic aspirations, and for the display of virtuosity. Composers continued to use genres they inherited from past, such as the symphony, concerto, piano sonata, and opera, but also developed repertories particularly associated with the 19th century, such as the art song and instrumental program music. Whatever the form, romantic composers spoke a musical language infused with poetic lyricism, harmonic complexity, and dramatic contrasts. The requirements of their orchestral scores led to the expansion of the orchestra, both in size, to eighty or more players, and in its palette of instrumental colors through the addition of trombones and tubas, piccolo and contrabassoon, harp, cymbals, triangle, and a variety of drums. The concept of what constituted a single work encompassed the extremes from short, intimate songs and piano miniatures of Schubert and Schumann intended to be performed in intimate surroundings, to the operas of Wagner and symphonies of the late romantic written for large concert halls and demanding enormous performing resources.