Over the last 1,000 years, 'classical' music has been composed in a variety of genres which are themselves worthy of investigation; indeed many seasoned collectors gradually move towards a particular preference after a time, be it violin concertos, piano sonatas, string quartets, religious music or opera. Whatever the form or description of any given piece, it usually falls comfortably into one of five broad categories: orchestral, chamber, solo instrumental, choral or opera.
The typical orchestra as we know it today, consisting of upwards of eighty players, can be traced back roughly to the middle of the 17th century. By this time the string section already formed the basis of any large ensemble of players, with brass, woodwind and percussion being added variously as the situation demanded. By the end of the Baroque period (c.1750) this was still very much the case, so that it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century when the Classical period was at its height that a full woodwind section had become more or less established, often with the addition of horns, trumpets and timpani. It was finally during the mid-1800s that the orchestra settled into a regular, basic pattern of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion, with various 'exotic' instruments being introduced from time to time.
The most common genres the listener is likely to come across may be summarised as follows:
Normally understood to be any type of music composed for a small ensemble of between two and approximately fifteen players. Larger groups are usually referred to as a chamber ensemble/orchestra.
The most basic form is a work for solo instrument with keyboard accompaniment. There are countless miniatures of this type, particularly for flute, violin, cello, oboe, and clarinet, often with descriptive titles. For slightly larger appetites, there are also numerous accompanied sonatas dating from the Baroque period onwards, typically in three or four movements, and after about 1750 corresponding roughly to symphonic structure. Duets also exist typically for two instruments of the same family (e.g. violin and viola, or flute and clarinet) although pieces for almost any duo combination may be encountered.
Other chamber works which normally fall into multi-movement structures are the string trio (violin, viola, cello), piano trio (piano, violin, cello), string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello), piano quartet (piano, violin, viola, cello), string quintet (typically 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, or 2 violins, 2 violas, cello), and piano quintet (typically piano, 2 violins, viola, cello). Examples of sextets, septets, octets and even nonets are rather less plentiful and can be for a variety of different combinations.
Solo Instrumental Music
Into this category falls any music composed for a single, unaccompanied instrument. Although distinguished examples exist for every conceivable instrument (including various works for percussion), the bulk is composed either for the organ (in a vast variety of styles and genres), keyboard (piano, harpsichord, clavichord, spinet, virginal), guitar (mostly miniatures/arrangements in the popular Spanish idiom) or lute (mostly dating from the Renaissance and early Baroque periods).
The oldest genre of all, for what is man's oldest 'instrument'- the human voice. Anyone wishing to trace a stylistic history of classical music could do no better than to examine vocal music, for every composer worthy of the name wrote at least something which involves singing of some description.
In its simplest form vocal music consists of a single, monodic line, as in Medieval Gregorian chant for example. From this was derived all music for unaccompanied choir, so that as one moves further forward in time, more and more independent parts are gradually added, and the musical language and texturing becomes correspondingly more complex. The great majority of texts of pieces for unaccompanied and accompanied choir (masses, motets, psalms, canticles, vespers etc.) had a religious basis until the turn of the present century, although there are notable exceptions, especially regarding the secular madrigalists of the sixteenth century.
If choral music in the 'classical' tradition tends towards the sacred, then the accompanied song, chanson, ballade, virelei, lied or melodie is almost invariably secular in origin or intentions. Indeed there are Medieval and Renaissance songs which are positively ribald in terms of their chosen texts. The most popular form within this category is, however, the keyboard accompanied art song, particularly the German Lied of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An Italian invention, opera was born right at the beginning of the Baroque era (shortly before 1600), and although stylistic approaches to the genre have been many and varied, the basic outlines have remained remarkably consistent.
Essentially a play set to music, the typical opera will open with an overture or prelude designed to set the scene or even introduce some of the most important themes to appear later on. The action will be split into acts and scenes, and within these the principle vehicles for expression are (a) the solo aria, duet, trio etc. for the principal(s); (b) the 'chorus', to allow a larger group to join in with or more usually comment on the action; and (c) recitative, a formal device similar to sung conversation, where the plot typically moves at a faster pace before the next set piece allows greater contemplation on the chain of events.
French opera also typically makes provision for an extended balletic interlude, and from middle-period Wagner onwards (c.1865), the general tendency is to interweave the various elements as seamlessly as possible, thereby avoiding the heavily sectionalised procedure which had then dominated the genre for over 250 years.
reprinted with permission from Naxos Music