Writing Music History

Imagine that, as a lover of classical music, you wished to get a broader understanding of the history of music; you wished to grasp the “big picture,” so to speak. Were you to acquire the music history text most widely used in North American colleges and universities, you would encounter a tome describing the works of some five hundred composers. Now I can’t keep five hundred composers in my head, and I don’t think you can either. After all, you want to see the whole picture at once, not temporarily acquire information to be regurgitated on a chapter test and then forgotten to make space for new information.

My ideal music history, therefore, would treat only twenty-four composers, roughly four for each historical period–Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern. To be sure, such periodization has fallen into disrepute among professional historians, but it remains useful as a way of organizing the larger perspective. You will probably be familiar with at least half of these composers: Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, Stravinsky.

Moreover, my ideal music history would insist on providing an illustration for every assertion–no empty generalizations, please–and would draw all the musical examples for each composer from a single work, so that the repertoire for the history would be limited to twenty-four works, preferably music easily available on iTunes or YouTube. And for medieval music, generally based on plainsong, let the selections, so far as possible, be based on the same piece of plainsong.


  • Plainsong, Kyrie Cunctipotens
  • Tuotilo of St. Gall, Kyrie Cunctipotens trope (ca. 900)
  • Cunctipotens genitor (St. Martial School, ca. 1125)
  • Anonymous, En non Diu-Quant voi-Eius in Oriente (13th century)
  • Machaut, Missa Nostre Dame (Kyrie, ca.1364)


  • Dufay, Ave regina coelorum (ca. 1464)
  • Josquin des Pres, Missa Pange Lingua (Agnus Dei; ca.1515)
  • Victoria, Missa O Magnum Mysterium (motet; Kyrie; 2nd half, 16th century)
  • Weelkes, As Vesta Was from Latmos Hill Descending (1601)


  • Purcell, Dido and Aeneas (1689), “Dido’s Lament”
  • Buxtehude, Ein feste Burg (2nd half, 17th century)
  • Vivaldi, Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Op.3, No. 8 (1st movement, 1712)
  • Bach, Cantata 140, Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (1731) (1st movement)

Classic [46:00]

  • Haydn, String Quartet in C Major, Op. 73, No. 3 (1797) (1st movement)
  • Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) (Act II Finale)
  • Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (1st movement, 1803)

Romantic [30:00]

  • Schubert, Erlkönig (1815)
  • Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (Dream of a Witches Sabbath, 1830)
  • Wagner, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1865)
  • Verdi, Otello (Act I, Drinking Song, 1887)

Modern [23:30]

  • Debussy, La Mer (Jeux de Vagues, 1905)
  • Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (Colors, 1909)
  • Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps (First 4 movements, 1913)
  • Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (I. Pulses, 1976)

Finally, my ideal music history would describe the style of an individual composer or historical period in musical terms. At this point I run into an obstacle. The general public has embraced the vocabulary of art criticism and literary criticism so that one can analyze a painting or a poem without losing the reader. Music criticism enjoys no such common vocabulary, so that university students are often required to take courses in music theory before being permitted to take a music history course.

Writing a self-contained history of classical music in musical terms requires explaining the rudiments of music theory on the fly, so to speak. One partial solution would be to include a glossary of every technical term employed in the book as well as a primer of basic music theory that the reader could consult as necessary. The reader of a book, in contrast to the listener of a lecture, has the advantage of being able to control the pace completely, pausing for explanations of technical terms whenever necessary.

To avoid becoming overly entangled in music theory, my ideal music history would describe works, composers and periods in terms of three overall concepts: time, tonality, and timbre.

· Time in music has several different meanings, including duration, rhythm (in the sense of “beating time”), repetition, and historical time (the placing of individual composers and works along a continuum).

· Tonality refers to the hierarchical organization of musical events with respect to a single unifying pitch. Music from the common practice period, roughly 1600 to 1900, can be described as tonal music. (If asked to name your five favorite pieces of classical music, your choices would very likely come from this period.)

· Timbre refers to the quality of musical sounds. Timbre allows you to distinguish a saxophone from a flute, for example, even when both instruments are playing the same notes. Timbre also allows you to hear the difference between solo singers and a choir of singers.

My ideal music history would never claim to be the final word–nobody would want to limit musical experience to twenty-four works by twenty-four composers–but would offer a picture capable of being held in the mind all at once, and a framework into which additional works and composers could logically be placed.