An educational and eclectic tour of music from the middle ages to today illustrated with clips from YouTube.
The advent of the Internet has allowed users to “see a world in a grain of sand” and “hold infinity in the palm of your hand”, even if only for five minutes’ surfing over a morning coffee before the day’s tasks begin.
Music, in particular, can be disseminated as never before, and for classical aficionados there is always more to discover in this seemingly infinite realm of resources. Even as the Berlin Philharmonic uploads the latest high-definition concert footage, some rare archival gem is lying in wait, freed from the physical confines of a library and unearthed at the click of a mouse. Want to see Callas singing at the height of her powers? Type in “Callas”: chances are you’ll find just what you were looking for, alongside something you never knew existed.
Of course, with millions of YouTube clips dedicated to classical music there’s plenty of filler to sift through. Limelight has strung together just 40 of the most informative, representative and entertaining videos we could find to present a selective, chronological history of western classical music from the twelfth century to the modern age. Concert, recording and documentary footage has been assembled to illustrate the most epoch-making moments and innovations in the field. We searched for the highest visual and audio quality as well as the most compelling way to tell the story. We can’t possibly cover everything and there are countless composers and clips that deserved to make the cut, so feel free to jump in and suggest inclusions of your own!
The Middle Ages
Chant – Hildegard von Bingen
Some of the earliest notated music is of the liturgical chant melodies and sung Latin texts that developed from Byzantine and Celtic traditions. Named for Pope Gregory I, the repertory of Gregorian chant (plainsong) of the eleventh and twelfth centuries has been preserved for hundreds of years, lately finding a new mainstream audience on “chillout” and mediation compilation albums.
We begin our journey with an antiphon by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), a German Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic, philosopher, and the first acknowledged female composer.
Ars antiqua – Léonin
Gregorian chant consisted of a single, melismatic vocal line over a drone. Léonin (1150s – c1201) is the first known composer to extend sacred music into the realm of polyphony, with multiple interweaving melodies based on the original chants. He lived and worked in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where he composed and compiled his great legacy: the Magnus Liber (“great book”) of polyphonic organum.
Pérotin was Léonin’s successor in the late 12th and early 13th century, further developing the music of the Notre Dame school of polyphony. He pioneered increasingly complex organum triplum and quadruplum: three- and four-part polyphony.
Baude Cordier (c1380 – before 1440) was a French composer whose secular love songs are in the intricate late 14th-century style of ars subtilior. He wrote music in canons, rondeaux and other forms, but is most famous for his elaborate notation, as in the beautiful heart-shaped manuscript of Belle, Bonne, Sage (Beautiful, Good, Wise) shown here.
Troubadours and Minstrels
Alongside the developments in church music emerged the poet-musicians of the 12th and 13th centuries: singer-songwriters and raconteurs of the era. Troubadours were based in the South of France, writing in Provençal, while trouvères worked in the North singing in the old French language. Minnesingers were German poets – often of aristocratic birth – who sang of courtly love in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The song in this clip is by Neidhart von Reuental (d c1250), performed by Sydney’s Renaissance Players.
Stay with us for our YouTube tour through the Renaissance, which begins on the next page.
The Franco-Flemish School of Polyphony
Vocal music both sacred and secular reached new heights in complexity and expressive richness during the 15th and 16th centuries, with several generations of Flemish artists developing the form and disseminating their masses, motets and songs abroad in Italy and elsewhere. Early 15th-century exponents of the style include Dufay, Binchois and, later, Ockeghem. Today, the best known of the High Renaissance Flemish masters is Josquin des Prez. Here the Hilliard Ensemble sings his charming frottola (a secular song and stylistic pre-cursor to the madrigal) El Grillo (The Cricket), in which the phrasing imitates the sound of the chirping insect in a delightful bit of word-painting.
During the Renaissance, the music of the medieval troubadours and minstrels who accompanied themselves on the lute was elevated to a high artform. Developments in lute playing style and tablature meant that virtuosos were prized in royal courts, while a repertory of songs developed and could now be published – thanks to the advent of the printing press – for dilettantes to accompany themselves at home. The lute song flourished all over Europe and especially in England, where the words of Shakespeare were set beautifully to music and where John Dowland (1563 – 1626) was the form’s undisputed doyen. This YouTube clip, however, presents a lesser-known song by English composer John Benet, sung here by Andreas Scholl and accompanied by viol consort as well as lute.
Pre-Reformation Church Music in England – Tallis’ Spem in Alium
This 40-part motet for eight choirs of five voices each by English composer Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585) represents the pinnacle of High Renaissance polyphony and also reflects the church architecture for which it was written through the choirs’ surround sound effects. It is the most ambitious sacred music to have emerged in Tudor England, here cleverly performed by just six members of The King’s Singers using overdubbing.
The Counter-Reformation – Palestrina saves polyphony
After Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses were nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517, and facing mass Anglican and Protestant defection, the Catholic Church appointed the Council of Trent to purge the church of impurities and abuses. Their influence extended to music and it was decreed that florid polyphony obscured listeners’ understanding of the liturgy and was to be placed with clearer, syllabic settings. It is said that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1526 – 1594) convinced the Council of the value of polyphonic music with his six-voice Pope Marcellus Mass, which does contain transparent part-writing. He became known as “the Prince of Music” whose works demonstrated total matsery of the conservative church style.
Stile antico church music in Rome – Allegri’s Miserere
Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) became famous in Rome and abroad for his double-choir Miserere of around 1630. The work forgoes intricate polyphony for more declamatory impact in stile antico, or the “ancient style” – essentially Palestrina’s style. Pope Urban VIII deemed it so solemnly beautiful that it was banned from being performed anywhere outside of the Sistine Chapel, and only then during Holy Week. It was not until the teenage Mozart heard it in Rome and transcribed it from memory that it was released to the wider world.
Continue over the page to The Baroque.
The First Opera – Monteverdi
Well, technically the earliest opera for which music survives is Jacopo Peri’s Euridice of 1600. But in 1607 Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo burst forth as the most sophisticated, fully formed example of a new genre at the point of transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque. It remains the earliest music drama still regularly performed today.
Versailles and The French Baroque
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 – 1687) came to the court of King Louis XIV in France as a dancer, but became one of Europe’s most powerful proponents of music for ballet and opera as official composer to the Sun King. His work captures the sumptuous brilliance of the palace at Versailles and was much admired by composers abroad, including Henry Purcell. The French overtures that open many Handel operas, for instance, derive from Lully’s stately style.
The Birth of the British Baroque – Henry Purcell
Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695) is credited with one of England’s first operas, Dido and Aeneas, often referred to as the finest musical setting of English text in any opera.
The Concerto – The Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (1723) has become one of the most popular and most frequently performed pieces of classical music, but at the time of its composition it was quite radical, helping to define the form of the modern concerto for virtuosic solo instrument and orchestra, as well as providing an early example of programmatic music depicting a theme or story.
Keyboard music – Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier
The prelude (or toccata or fantasia) and fugue combination became one of the favourite organ and harpsichord musical structures of the Baroque. With his collection of 48 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys (1722 and c1740), JS Bach demonstrated the versatility of the then still novel, revolutionary equal temperament instrumental tuning system.
The English oratorio – Handel
When George Frideric Handel was commissioned to compose Messiah for Dublin in 1741, he discovered the potential of a new genre and embraced the oratorio – a dramatic sacred choral work – in English. The form had much to offer for a middle-class British public that had never accepted the aristocratic concept of opera in Italian. Messiah proved so successful that Handel undertook to present an oratorio every year thereafter during Lent. His resulting popularity made Handel the most significant influence in British music for more than a century. He composed 26 English oratorios in his lifetime.
Keep surfing over the page for your YouTube guide to the Classical era.
The Classical Era
The String Quartet – Haydn
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) is known as “the father of the string quartet”, having written more than 60, each with the composer’s sparkling wit and unique sense of musical humour shining through. He elevated the genre from light entertainment and background music to an artform all of its own. Aside from pioneering the string quartet, Haydn also made significant contributions to the symphony and piano trio.
Who could possibly settle on just one achievement? Mozart mastered and extended the symphony, quartet, mass, opera, and just about everything else he tried his hand at. While not the most historically accurate example, this selection of scenes from the film Milos Forman film Amadeus offers a neat little summary of the composer’s precocious, unfathomable genius, which we already encountered back in the Renaissance section of Page 2 when he transcribed Allegri’s Miserere from memory after only two hearings.
Lieder and Art Song – Schubert
No composer has ever set verse to music as eloquently and sensitively as Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). He completed more than 600 songs to words by Goethe, Schiller and the finest German poets of his day. Winterreise is a cycle of 24 particularly heartfelt, ultimately bleak songs that capture Schubert’s deeply romantic, yearning spirit.
Moving into Romantic territory: Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) emerged from the Viennese Classical tradition of Mozart and Haydn but represents a transition figure with his domineering Romantic spirit. His Third Symphony, Eroica, was notable for its unprecedented length and complexity. Those who witnessed the first performance in 1805 recognised the power and importance of the work.
Join us over the page for the next leg of the tour: the Romantic era in the 19th century
The Romantic virtuoso composer – Chopin
Fryderyk Chopin (1810 – 1849) composed almost exclusively for his instrument, enriching the solo piano music repertory with unprecedented techniques, quasi-improvisational style and emotional depth. With his etudes, preludes, waltzes and mazurkas he significantly expanded the body of work available to amateur players, while the great “Heroic” Polonaise in A-Flat Major presents an early example of patriotism and national identity expressed through music. Though they couldn’t be featured here, honourable mentions in the trajectory of the 19th-century virtuoso composer-performer include Liszt on piano and Paganini on violin.
Ballet – Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the Piano Concerto in B-Flat Minor are among the most famous works in the classical canon, but his best-loved and most memorable music was composed for the Bolshoi Ballet. The scenario of Swan Lake (1876) was based on Russian folk tales.
Romantic nationalism – Smetana
The Bohemian Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 1884) was the first Czech nationalist composer at a time when patriotism in music was flourishing. Along with his compatriot Antonín Dvorák (Slavonic Dances), he established a distinctly Czech musical idiom drawing on folk songs and old chorales. Written in the symphonic poem form pioneered by Franz Liszt, the six orchestral works of Smetana’s Má Vlast (My Homeland) each depict some aspect of the Bohemian landscape or folklore.
Italian Opera – Viva Verdi!
The career of Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) could sum up 50 years of Italian music following the death of bel canto composer Donizetti. Verdi’s 28 operas firmly established him as Italy’s greatest dramatist, with his theatrical sense of timing and power saturating sacred music like his Requiem, too. More than any of his predecessors, he focused on human drama and conflict as his subject.
The Mighty Handful – Mussorgsky
In the second half of the nineteenth century, five of Russias’ leading composers – Borodin, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov – formed a group known as The Mighty Handful, or The Mighty Five. Ardent nationalists, the quintet expressed disillusionment with the Germanic-dominated teachings of the St Petersburg Conservatory and forged their own brand of Russian nationalist art music. Of the five, Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) became one of the most accomplished with the thrilling symphonic fantasy Night on Bald Mountain, the piano pieces Pictures at an Exhibition and the opera Boris Godunov, the latter based on Pushkin.
The Gesamtkunstwerk – Wagner
Wagner can be credited with advancing opera further than any other composer. He composed music dramas and expounded the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk, or complete artwork drawing together music, words (he wrote his own libretto for the epic Ring cycle) staging, visual arts and effects. His purpose-built opera theatre in Bayreuth accommodated a larger orchestra than previously used in the artform, while his use of Leitmotifs to signify certain characters and themes is one of the mainstays of film music today. He was an uncompromising visionary whose political and moral views ensure he remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of music.
The Symphony – Mahler
Gustav Mahler’s (1860 – 1911) nine symphonies and his unfinished tenth are long, programmatic affairs utilising enormous forces: a larger orchestra and choir than ever previously presented on stage. The sheer depth of his orchestral writing was also greater than that of many of the symphonists who came before him, ranging from delicate to overwhelmingly grand.
Over the page: modernists up ahead!
The Birth of Modernism
Opera in the Modern Age – Richard Strauss
With the dark, colourful and intensely chromatic music of Salome – and a twisted plot to match – Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) announced a confronting new modernist voice for the operatic stage. The first performance in 1905 was a true succès de scandale.
Primitivism and rhythm – Stravinsky
In this clip, Simon Rattle describes Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) as “the seminal work of the twentieth century”, and he’d be right. No one had ever heard anything quite so bold, raw and incendiary when the work was premiered in Paris, bristling with polyrhythms and outrageous dissonance that sparked an infamous near-riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Most 20th-century orchestral works and film scores that have followed owe a debt to The Rite.
Atonal Music – Schoenberg
If Stravinsky can be credited with liberating rhythm in the 20th century, it can be said that Schoenberg liberated pitch with his radical twelve-tone serialist system, which divested music of the expectation of harmonic resolution or melodic hierarchy. When he devised this approach to generating pitch content, Schoenberg wrote that his method would “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years”. Along with his disciples of the Second Viennese School, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, he developed a sound world that captured the anguish of Post-WWI Europe. Pierrot Lunaire (1912) is one of the first atonal song cycles and also employs a conflation of declaimed and sung pitches called Sprechstimme which required a special notation.
Note: this video clip contains some disturbing imagery – it’s disturbing music, after all – and may not be deemed work-safe, particularly towards the end!
English Symphonists – Holst
English choral and orchestral music flourished in the twentieth century: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, and the younger generation led by Benjamin Britten. Few works have had the popular impact of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, a seven-movement symphony that admits generous helpings of Wagner and Stravinsky. Mars, the Bringer of War, was the first movement to be completed in 1914, anticipating the outbreak of World War I. He later adapted the central melody of the movement Jupiter to a hymn setting, I vow to thee, my country, one of England’s most beloved patriotic anthems.
Orchestral colour and development – Boléro
French Impressionists such as Debussy and Ravel brought out the finer points of orchestral colour, but the latter’s Boléro (1928) simply builds to an ecstatic climax based on the languorous development of an endlessly repeated melody or idée fixe, orchestrated in manifold different ways.
Jazz and Classical music collide: Gershwin
George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) composed music for Broadway and the classical concert hall, as well as a raft of popular songs that have become jazz standards. He was one of America’s most successful composers, moving up from Tin Pan Alley to the silver screen (An American in Paris). Strongly influenced by blues and jazz, he drew attention to African-American hardship in his opera Porgy and Bess. I Got Rhythm (shown here in Gershwin’s own performance) was one of his signature tunes.
Music under oppression – Shostakovich
The tribulations of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) in Stalinist Russia have been well documented by historians and by the composer himself in his memoir Testimony. He is considered the foremost symphonist of the mid-twentieth century, creating monumental works of great emotional force even as he faced official pressures under the Soviet regime.
Experimental Noises – John Cage
John Cage (1912 – 1992) was an inventor and philosopher as much as a composer, and one of America’s most beloved iconoclasts. He embraced all sound as music, as seen in this 1960s television appearance in which he “plays” radios and a piano alongside everyday household items and appliances, to the bemusement of the studio audience.
Minimalism – Steve Reich
Philip Glass (b 1937) and Steve Reich (b 1936) once worked as removalists together in New York, but alongside Terry Riley they each contributed their part to a bold new American musical landscape during the 1960s: minimalism. Reich’s “phasing” techniques in particular add an intriguing method to the premise of melodic or rhythmic ostinati unfolding over long periods of time. All three minimalists expanded the possibilities for percussion sections in concert works, and count jazz and rock musicians among their admirers.
New orchestral textures – Messiaen
“Écoutez les oiseaux!” (“Listen to the birds”), Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992) would exclaim to his students at the Paris Conservatoire. The French composer and organist wrote some of the most arresting sacred music of the modern age, drawing on the birdsong he heard as the voice of God. In his orchestral works (Turangalîla Symphonie) and his unique colouristic approach to chordal writing for piano and organ (e.g. Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus), he drew on his synaesthetic sensibility. His Quartet for the End of Time, composed in 1941 in a German POW camp, has become a modern chamber music classic, while other works on a grander scale (the opera St François d’Assise) demonstrate the full extent of his vision. It is a testament to Messiaen’s originality that his students, including Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis, each went emphatically their own way rather than simply emulating the master.
Theatre of the avant-garde – Stockhausen
Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007) was the leading German composer of his generation, a pioneer of the serialist avant-garde and of electronic music. He was also one of the biggest, most bombastic personalities in modern composition. He was eager to step outside the physical restrictions of traditionally staged music and theatre, as evidenced in the Helicopter String Quartet (1993), which stations each player in a helicopter and transmits the audio and video of the performances back to a concert setting.
The New Simplicity – Arvo Pärt
Arvo Pärt’s (b 1935) answer to the clangour of the twentieth century is to retreat into a style that has come to be known as the new simplicity, or holy minimalism in sacred music. The Estonian composer favours austerity, a two-part homophonic texture, and a bell-like approach to triadic harmony that he describes as tintinnabuli His music has influenced that of the younger generation of Baltic composers as well as the English John Tavener.