We have preferred to overlook everything produced in the Middle Ages and earlier, focusing solely on the most relevant classical music composers from the year 1400 until today. This involves discussing the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classicism (periods that summarize 400 years of history), as well as Romanticism and Nationalism (approximately 1800-1900) and the new classics, also known as modern classics. In this case, depending on the decade, they barely have common links, although often many do. After all, we refer to a final period that spans from 1900 to today, in which technologies and new advancements have brought about a paradigm shift in understanding classical music.
Facing this new landscape, for example, a large part of contemporary classical music composers are only seen in cinema. Not always, of course, as we have the example of Max Richter with his albums of modern classical music not initially associated with movie soundtracks, but rather with concepts like sleep (“Sleep”) or human rights (“Voices”). Moreover, given the number of names we could dedicate lines and lines of interesting content to, we have chosen to be a little more concise in that sense, being more direct about the author’s name and their most interesting compositions. Otherwise, the other option would be to create a 300-thousand-page article, and we understand that you’re here more to discover their great pieces than their lives (often as appealing as what they composed).
If you think about it, just talking about the Strauss family (Johann, Josef, and Eduard) could take quite a while. Imagine in the case of Bach, with everything the man had to experience (and since childhood, too). And mind you, everything there is to tell about him is worth it, really. But well, as we say, let this entry serve to generate interest in learning a bit more about what you find here, and to know or remember what defines each era of classical music that we talk about.
Composers of Renaissance Classical Music (1400-1600) and their most famous musical pieces
Considering that classical music is difficult to define in specific terms, it is generally understood to be music rooted in the traditions of Western Europe and performed by trained musicians in formal settings such as concert halls, opera houses, and churches. In fact, the roots of classical music can be traced back to the sung melodies of medieval religious rituals.
However, its contemporary incarnation spans everything from opera and the symphony orchestra to chamber ensembles, solo works, choral music, songs, film music, and avant-garde compositions. The works from the intermediate centuries (that is, from the 1400s onwards) constitute the bulk of the well-known repertoire and reflect the artistic and architectural trends of their times, both in their sound worlds and their conception.
The Renaissance, therefore, marked the end of the medieval era and, like in the other arts, the music of the period was significantly influenced by developments that defined the early modern period (highlighted by the invention of the printing press): the rise of humanist thought; the recovery of the literary and artistic heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome; greater innovation and discovery; the growth of commercial enterprises; the emergence of a bourgeoisie class; and the Protestant Reformation. From this changing society emerged a common and unifying musical language, particularly the polyphonic style (that is, music with multiple independent melodic lines performed simultaneously) of the Franco-Flemish school, with its greatest master being Josquin des Prez.
- Josquin des Prez: Obsecro Te and El Grillo.
- Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli: Kyrie and Sicut Cervus.
- William Byrd: Sellinger’s Round and Ave Verum Corpus.
- Gregorio Allegri: Miserere.
- Guillaume Dufay: Vergene Bella and Ave Maris Stella.
- Claudio Monteverdi: L’Incoronazione di Poppea, SV 308, Act 3: “Pur ti miro” (Nerone, Poppea) and L’Orfeo.
- Thomas Tallis: Spem in Alium and If Ye Love Me.
- Philippe Verdelot: Letamini in Domino and Queste non son più lagrime.
- Johannes Ciconia: Per quella strada lactea del cielo and Gloria.
- Claudin de Sermisy: Tant que vivray.
- Tomás Luis de Victoria: O magnum mysterium and Amicus meus osculi me tradidit signa.
Baroque Composers (1600-1750) and Their Most Famous Musical Pieces
The era of the Baroque period in classical music took place approximately between 1600-1750 AD. During this time, most works had certain important characteristics. First, there’s a constant rhythmic flow, or a constant motion at all times. Next, each piece or movement generally focuses on a single melodic idea that is thoroughly developed.
Finally, almost all Baroque works included some form of counterpoint: two or more musical lines that go separate ways but intersect and interact at certain points. Some notable composers of this period were Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Händel, Antonio Vivaldi, or Claudio Monteverdi (whom we mentioned in the previous period because he played an essential part in this transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque).
- Johann Sebastian Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007: I. Prélude, The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book 1, BWV 846-869: 1. Prelude in C Major, BWV 846, and Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Aria.
- Georg Friedrich Händel: Keyboard Suite in D Minor, HWV 437: III. Sarabande and Water Music Suite No. 1 In F, HWV 348: 2. Adagio e staccato.
- Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons and Concerto for Lute, 2 Violins and Continuo in D major, RV 93: 2. Largo (Arr. for Guitar).
- Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D Major, Kk.430.
- Georg Philipp Telemann: Trumpet Concerto in D Major, TWV 51:D7: I. Adagio.
- Johann Pachelbel: Canon in D.
- Antonio Soler: Sonata No. 84 in D Major, R;413.
Classical Composers (1750-1800) and Their Most Famous Musical Pieces
Classical music in this period has a clearer and cleaner texture than Baroque music and is less complex. It is mainly homophonic, using a clear melodic line over subordinate chord accompaniment, but the counterpoint from the previous period was by no means forgotten, especially when it was later revived in these years.
Classicism also makes use of the galant style, emphasizing elegance rather than the solemn dignity and impressive grandeur of the Baroque. Variety and contrast within a piece became more pronounced than before, and the orchestra increased in size, range, and power.
- Franz Joseph Haydn: String Quartet No. 62 in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3, Hob.III:77, “Emperor”: II. Poco adagio, cantabile.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem, K. 626: Lacrimosa, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 “Elvira Madigan”: II. Andante, Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492: Sinfonia, Symphony No.25 in G Minor, K.183: 1. Allegro Con Brio, and Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 “Sonata facile”: 1. Allegro.
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight” in C-Sharp Minor”, Op. 27 No. 2: I. Adagio sostenuto, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67: I. Allegro con brio, and Für Elise, WoO 59.
- Franz Schubert: 4 Impromptus, Op.90, D.899: No.4 in A Flat Major: Allegretto and Ave Maria, D. 839.
Romantic, Nationalistic, and Impressionistic Composers (1800-1925) and Their Most Famous Musical Pieces
Romantic music can be characterized by its expressive and emotional qualities, especially in terms of melody. Thus, the focus of romantic composers was designed to break away from the rigidities of the classical period. In his later works, Beethoven pioneered a new approach to orchestration, varying instrumentation and timbre (for example, his use of a choir in the Ninth Symphony). Furthermore, Beethoven inspired later romantic composers through his use of harmonies that modulated keys much more dramatically than in the past, and through the use of melodic motifs that extended and evolved throughout extensive pieces.
Expanding on these developments, romantic composers often used techniques like chromaticism, variable tempos, and increased dissonance to create an expressive and dramatic style, as seen in the symphonic work of Hector Berlioz and the opera of Giuseppe Verdi. The fusion of theater and music was promoted through Franz Liszt and Berlioz’s Tone Poem, designed to tell a story or advance a theme through music. This idea was expanded upon by Richard Wagner, who used thematic melodies (leitmotifs) and an increasingly dramatic compositional approach.
Another key ingredient of romantic music was the influx of new melodic sources. This was primarily driven by the strengthening of nationalism in the late 19th century (hence the name). Composers like Antonín Dvořák, Johannes Brahms, Frédéric Chopin, and Edvard Grieg used elements of folk music (Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Norwegian, respectively) in their work. Romantic music has survived even beyond the romantic period. In fact, elements of romanticism can be found in the works of late 20th-century composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and John Williams.
- Niccolò Paganini: 24 Caprices, Op. 1: No. 24 in A Minor (Theme with Variations. Almost Presto).
- Richard Wagner: Die Walkure, Act III: Ride of the Valkyries and Tannhäuser: Overture.
- Gioachino Rossini: William Tell and The Barber of Seville.
- Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
- Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op. 15: No. 7 in F Major, Träumerei and Dedication, Op. 25 No. 1 (Arr. Liszt, S. 566a).
- Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata, Dies Irae, and Rigoletto / Act 3: “La donna è mobile”.
- Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor: IV. Adagietto.
- Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra.
- Felix Mendelssohn: Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Op. 21: Tempo primo.
- Bedřich Smetana: The Moldau and My Country: No. 2, Vltava [Moldau].
- Antonín Dvořák: Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22, B. 52: II. Tempo di valse and 8 Humoresques, Op. 101, B. 187: No. 7, Poco lento e grazioso.
- Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne.
- Béla Bartók: For Children Vol. 1, Sz. 42: No. 3 Quasi adagio.
- Edvard Grieg: Peer Gynt (Death Of Aase) – Solomon Grey’s Paradise Lost Rework and Lyric Pieces, Book 5, Op. 54: Nocturne and Lyric Pieces, Book 5, Op. 54: Nocturne.
- Isaac Albéniz: Asturias.
- Enrique Granados: Allegro de concierto, op. 46.
- Manuel de Falla: Siete canciones populares españolas: No. 5 Nana.
- Claude Debussy: considered one of the main exponents of musical impressionism (despite his objections), and essentially a founder, Debussy created masterpieces like Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and La Mer. His focus on creating subtle and evocative atmospheres made him a central figure in this movement.
- Erik Satie: while sometimes regarded as a precursor to impressionism rather than a purely impressionist composer, Satie influenced the style with pieces like the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, which feature an emphasis on simplicity and atmosphere.
- Paul Dukas: although not as well-known as Debussy, Dukas contributed to the movement with his famous orchestral work The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
- Albert Roussel: his compositions, like Le festin de l’araignée, exhibit impressionistic characteristics focused on atmosphere and sensations.
20th Century Neoclassical Composers (1900-1950) and Their Most Famous Musical Pieces
Also known as the music of the interwar period, it originated shortly after World War I as a reaction to what some composers perceived as the excesses of Romanticism. Neoclassicism thus returned to the more formal and less expansive structures and forms common in the 18th century.
However, the harmonic and melodic material was decidedly modern and eschewed the emotionalism and programmatic tendencies common among Romantics in favor of purely abstract material.
- Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring: Part One: Adoration of the Earth: Introduction and The Firebird (L’oiseau de Feu) – Suite (1919): Finale.
- Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 / Act 1: Dance of the Knights.
- Francis Poulenc: Mélancolie, FP 105.
- Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony, Op.4: “Playful Pizzicato” from Simple Symphony, Op. 4.
- Krzysztof Penderecki: 3 Pieces in Baroque Style: No. 1. Aria.
- Maurice Ravel: I hesitated whether to include him in the previous section or this one, but ultimately his musical style extends beyond impressionism, leaving a significant mark with works like Bolero and Daphnis et Chloé, which exhibit rich orchestral colors and exquisite textures.
Modern Classical Composers (1950 to Present) and Their Most Famous Musical Pieces
Starting from the 20th century, modern classical music encompasses a multitude of diverse compositional approaches that significantly depart from the previously held principles of classical music.
Generally, the only aspect shared among various modern classical schools is their departure from tradition: freeing harmony from tonal centers, employing unconventional instrumental techniques, relying on non-musical sound sources, introducing new tuning scales, embracing randomness in the compositional process, and deconstructing musical themes and motifs into static and repetitive passages.
Some aspects of Romanticism carried over into Modern Classical (in fact, many composers of the Romantic era took the view of the Modernists) and from then on it could be said that every composer of classical music does a bit of what he does. wants. Not surprisingly, not all compositions from the 20th century onwards are modern classics in terms of approach, and attempts to return to earlier conventions are present in styles such as the aforementioned neoclassicism.
- Philip Glass: Opening.
- John Cage: In a Landscape.
- Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint: III. Fast.
- Ennio Morricone: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – Main Title, The Ecstasy of Gold y Gabriel’s Oboe.
- Arvo Part: Spiegel im spiegel y Tabula Rasa I. Ludus.
- Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story: Act I: America.
- Shiro Sagisu: A Cruel Angel’s Thesis.
- Clint Mansell: Lux Aeterna y Together We Will Live Forever.
- Joe Hisaishi: One Summer Day y Opening Song – Merry-Go-Round of Life.
- John Williams: Duel of the Fates, Theme From Schindler’s List, Theme from Jurassic Park y Hedwig’s Theme.
- Hans Zimmer: MLS Anthem – Procession, Time y Cornfield Chase.
(Madrid, 1987) Novelist by vocation, SEO specialist by profession. Music lover, cinephile and reading lover, but in “amateur” mode.