Introduction to Orchestral Music
Created | Updated Jun 11, 2008
Many people would like to listen to classical music, but are put off by the problem of where to start. There is such a vast array of music and not all of it is immediately likeable.
This Entry covers orchestral music only. It does not talk about any sort of vocal music or chamber music. It divides orchestral music into six major styles: Baroque, Classical, Early Romantic, Middle Romantic, Late Romantic and Modern. By listening to the music in the stages shown, you will get a fairly gentle introduction to the different styles of music and find out which ones you like. You can then concentrate on the music you like the best.
Although these periods are given here with dates attached, they are actually based on the type of music, so it is possible for a piece of Baroque music to be written after 1750, or for a single composer to compose in more than one style. But in general, the different styles stuck to these dates.
As you start listening to orchestral music, you may not be able to tell the different styles apart, so these descriptions will not mean very much to you. As you listen to more and more music, you will begin to distinguish certain features. Come back then and re-read these descriptions.
The Entry first describes each of the styles of music, then gives a 'listening table', with recommendations for music you can listen to in each of the styles.
Baroque (1600 - 1750)
Main composers: Vivaldi, JS Bach, Handel, Corelli
This is the oldest music for orchestra. The baroque orchestra usually consisted of strings and assorted wind instruments, with very little percussion. Although string instruments such as the violin were important in the baroque orchestra, the tunes were almost always carried by wind instruments. The wind instruments include the trumpet, oboe, bassoon, flute and recorder. Other instruments such as the clarinet had not yet been invented. Baroque music is very like vocal music in its approach. It features long phrases by a solo instrument, then rests where the orchestra takes over. The music is usually fairly continuous. It may be divided into sections of a few minutes each called movements, with a break in between. There is usually no particular pattern to the movements. A typical baroque concerto might have anything from two to ten movements. Many of these movements would be based on dances of the day, such as gavottes, hornpipes or minuets.
Classical (1750 - 1800)
Main composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
The best example of the classical style is probably the music of Haydn. Strings instruments such as violins are much more in evidence and the wind instruments are less important. Musical phrases are much shorter and are passed around the strings. Compositions tend to have a more rigid structure. For example, the symphony adopted a rigid structure of four movements, the first always being in the form of a sonata, the second slow, the third a minuet and so on. The classical concerto for a solo instrument and orchestra always had three movements, with the middle one being at a contrasting speed to the outer two.
A complicated system of harmonies was formulated in classical times, saying which notes could be played in a particular key and at what time. While the details of this are not obvious to the listener, the overall effect makes the music sound refined but restrained, without any emotional overtones. This lack of emotion in the music is one feature that distinguishes classical music from the later romantic music.
Another important thing to note about classical music is that the music is not intended to mean anything. It is pure music which is beautiful for its own sake.
Romantic (1800 - 1920)
Early Romantic (1800 - 1830)
Main composers: Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert
Middle Romantic (1830 - 1870)
Main composers: Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Johann Strauss
Late Romantic (1870 - 1920)
Main composers: Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky
Romantic music is based on the outward display of emotions in the music. It was the dominant type of music for the whole of the 19th century. There isn't a sharp dividing line between Romantic and Classical, but Romantic is more over-the-top, with lots of speeding up and slowing down, changes in volume and so on. Composers in at the beginning of the Romantic era, such as Mozart and Beethoven, produced both restrained, structured classical compositions and free, emotional romantic ones.
The Romantic era produced so many composers that it is necessary to break the era into three, Early, Middle and Late. The later periods used bigger orchestras and tended to be more and more emotional and over-the-top.
Modern (1920 - today)
Main composers: Britten, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Tavener, Barber, Shostakovich, Copland
The modern era started around 1920. It has no unifying thread, but consists of a large number of different styles. Most composers had got tired of Romantic music, so they experimented to create a new type. These experiments often consisted of abandoning aspects of music such as key, harmony or even playing in time with the conductor. Some compositions involve each player deciding for himself when to start at random. Many modern pieces sound like a hideous noise to the untrained ear.
Other composers went the opposite road of returning to the roots of early music and developing these. John Tavener's music is based on ancient chants of the Greek Orthodox Church. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is a modern setting of medieval songs.
American composers such as Gershwin and Bernstein introduced the Jazz idiom into the orchestra, the supreme example being Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'.
So the Modern era is a mixed bag and there is something for everybody there.
Listening Guide Stage One - Starting off
Listen to the following essential pieces
|Baroque|| Vivaldi The Four Seasons|
|Classical|| Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik|
|Early Romantic|| Mozart Piano Concerto 21|
Mozart Clarinet Concerto
Beethoven Symphony 6
|Middle Romantic|| Johann Strauss The Blue Danube Waltz
Tchaikosky Symphony 5
Tchaikosky 1812 Overture
|Late Romantic|| Mahler Symphony 1|
Sibelius Symphony 2
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2
|Modern|| Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue|
Tavener Song for Athena
Listening Guide Stage Two - Expanding your tastes
|Baroque|| Bach Brandenburg Concertos 1-6|
Handel Water Music
Handel Fireworks Music
|Classical|| Prokofiev Classical Symphony|
Haydn Surprise Symphony
|Early Romantic|| Mozart Piano Concerto 22|
Beethoven Symphony 9
Beethoven Symphony 3
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
|Middle Romantic|| Debussy La Mer|
Dvorak Cello Concerto
Ravel Mother Goose
Tchaikovsky Symphony 6
Tchaikovsky Italian Caprice
Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite
Tchaikovsky Swan Lake Suite
Borodin Polovtsian Dances
Mussorksky (arr Rimsky-Korsakov) Night on the Bare Mountain1
Mussorksky (arr Ravel)Pictures at an Exhibition
|Late Romantic|| Mahler Symphony 2|
Sibelius Symphony 5
Nielsen Symphony 4
Elgar Enigma Variations
Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 3
|Modern|| Stravinsky The Rite of Spring|
Britten Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Elgar Cello Concerto
Copland Appalachian Spring
Note: make sure to get the right arrangements for the two Mussorgsky pieces - it is important.
Stage Three - In Depth
There's a lot here, so it's best to concentrate on the style(s) you like the best.
|Baroque|| Handel Organ Concertos|
|Classical|| Mozart Symphony 41|
Mozart Symphony 40
|Early Romantic|| Schubert Symphony 9|
Beethoven Symphony 5
|Middle Romantic|| Tchaikovsky Symphony 4|
Saint-Saens Symphony 3
|Late Romantic|| Strauss Ein Heldenleben|
Mahler Symphony 5
Mahler Symphony 9
Nielsen Symphony 5
Elgar Symphony 2
|Modern|| Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks|
Britten Sinfonia da Requiem
Ives Symphony 1
With these instructions, you have everything you need except money! Depending on where you live, your local library should be able to help you with a lot of these.