The History of Classical Music in 1200 Tracks: From Gregorian Chant to Górecki (100 Hours of Audio)

What is clas­si­cal music? It may seem like a reme­di­al ques­tion, but it is a seri­ous one. Leonard Bern­stein took it seri­ous­ly enough to design an entire pro­gram around it. His “Young People’s Con­certs” with the New York Philharmonic—broadcast on TV from Carnegie Hall in 1959—began with an admis­sion of how unclear the ter­m’s usage had become in pop­u­lar cul­ture. “You see,” he told his young audi­ence, “every­body thinks he knows what clas­si­cal music is… Peo­ple use this word to describe music that isn’t jazz or pop­u­lar songs or folk music, just because there isn’t any oth­er word that seems to describe it bet­ter.”

Clas­si­cal music is often thought of in even more neb­u­lous, and per­haps elit­ist, terms as “art music,” over and above these oth­er forms. Yet Bern­stein goes on to define clas­si­cal music in more pre­cise ways: A clas­si­cal com­pos­er “puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instru­ments or voic­es that he wants to play or sing those notes—even the exact num­ber of instru­ments or voic­es; and he also writes down as many direc­tions as he can think of” about tem­po, dynam­ics, etc. What might sound like a straight­jack­et for musi­cians instead offers an inter­pre­tive chal­lenge: “No per­for­mance can be per­fect­ly exact.… But that’s what makes the per­former’s job so exciting–to try and find out from what the com­pos­er did write down as exact­ly as pos­si­ble what he meant.”

This work­ing def­i­n­i­tion, while devoid of tech­ni­cal jar­gon for the sake of Bern­stein’s untrained audi­ence, still man­ages to give us a good sense of the para­me­ters he set for the “clas­si­cal.” They do not stretch wide­ly enough to include impro­visato­ry mod­ernism (though he had a high regard for jazz as a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry). But they do include much instru­men­tal and choral Euro­pean music from the start of the medieval peri­od into the 20th cen­tu­ry. The def­i­n­i­tion could be a much nar­row­er one. “One of the first things you learn when you’re intro­duced to clas­si­cal music,” Jay Gabler writes at online radio sta­tion Clas­si­cal MPR, “is that the term ‘clas­si­cal’ most prop­er­ly describes music com­posed from about 1750 to 1820.”

This means Mozart and Haydn, most of Beethoven, but not Bach, Wag­n­er, Debussy, or Cop­land. And cer­tain­ly not aleato­ry exper­i­men­tal­ists like John Cage, min­i­mal­ists like Steve Reich, or aton­al odd­balls like Arnold Schoen­berg. While Bern­stein seems to set­tle the issue with rel­a­tive ease, “musi­col­o­gists,” Gabler notes, “can stay up all night talk­ing about the shape and tra­jec­to­ry of clas­si­cal music, debat­ing ques­tions like the impor­tance of the score, the role of impro­vi­sa­tion, and the nature of musi­cal form.” These are the kinds of dis­cus­sions one might have over the 1200-track Spo­ti­fy playlist above, “The His­to­ry of Clas­si­cal Music–From Gre­go­ri­an Chant to Górec­ki.” (If you need Spo­ti­fy’s soft­ware, down­load it here.)

We begin with the 11th cen­tu­ry church music of Leonin and Per­otin, two com­posers asso­ci­at­ed with Notre Dame who are cred­it­ed with “the begin­ning of mod­ern music” for their use of polypho­ny and var­i­ous rhyth­mic modes. (Hear the espe­cial­ly haunt­ing “Viderunt Omnes” by Leonin at the top of the post.) The playlist, cre­at­ed by a cura­tor who goes by Ulysses Clas­si­cal, then takes us through the late Medieval and Renais­sance peri­ods and into the Baroque, exem­pli­fied by Han­del, Bach, Vival­di, Pachel­bel, Scar­lat­ti, and oth­ers. Beethoven and Mozart get their due, but not more so than Dvořák and Tchaikovsky.

By the time we reach the 20th cen­tu­ry, we begin to move quite far from the for­mal­ism of Bern­stein’s def­i­n­i­tion and into the strange realms of Schoen­berg, Mes­si­aen, Ligeti, Reich, and Philip Glass, with whom this his­to­ry ends. Obvi­ous­ly the strict peri­odiza­tion Gabler men­tions can­not con­tain all of what we mean by clas­si­cal music, but just how much can the des­ig­na­tion encom­pass aton­al exper­i­men­tal mod­ernism and still be a coher­ent con­cept? Let the musi­col­o­gists debate. For those of us who approach this music as a form of pure plea­sure, it’s enough just to sit back and lis­ten.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

Stream 58 Hours of Free Clas­si­cal Music Select­ed to Help You Study, Work, or Sim­ply Relax

The World Con­cert Hall: Lis­ten To The Best Live Clas­si­cal Music Con­certs for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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