A Brief Guide to Musical Eras

A Brief Guide to Musical Eras

Are you curious about how the Baroque era differs from the Romantic one? And which composers wrote during the Classical time period? Writer Matthew Philion offers this brief history of how classical music has evolved through the agesalongside some Minnesota Orchestra recording suggestions to bring these soundscapes to life.

By Matthew Philion

Classical music is a language. And like any language, it develops over time. We can partition these developments into different eras, but more important than dates is recognizing how the music has continued to evolve and inspire, to speak to new generations of listeners.

The Baroque era, from the 17th and 18th centuries, is a good starting point. The music is characterized by smaller ensembles, light and bright textures, innovations in the interlocking of melodies knowns as counterpoint, instrumental virtuosity, and a mix of secular and religious works. The industrious Vivaldi and Bach are noted composers of the era, as is George Frederick Handel. In 1976, the Minnesota Orchestra, led by the late Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, recorded Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Suite from Water Music—both considered Baroque masterworks, and perfect examples of the soundscape of the era.

Enter Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven

The “Classical” era marks a point of maturity for instrumental music—and its name sometimes leads to confusion, since the generic term “classical music” has come to encompass Western so-called “art” music from all periods. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven more or less standardized many of the musical forms we recognize today, among them the four-movement symphony, the three-movement concerto and the string quartet. Composers often stuck closely to these forms, but innovation was in abundance, too. Music Director Osmo Vänskä’s highly-praised recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra of the Beethoven symphonies are great entries to the era. In particular, their account of the composer’s Fifth Symphony highlights Beethoven’s mastery of form and ability to create inspiring melodies and themes.

The Romantics: Expanding the Language

All through the 19th century, composers of the Romantic era worked to expand the musical language of the Classical masters. Frenchman Hector Berlioz wrote for huge orchestras, making the music as loud as a rock concert. Richard Strauss threw away the symphony form, turning to literature as inspiration for his tone poems. Tchaikovsky inherited Mozart’s great gift of melody. And with the massive works of Richard Wagner, harmonic innovation reached a high point. Skrowaczewski and the Orchestra recorded an album of excerpts from Wagner’s operas; the selections from Tristan and Isolde are inescapably romantic, full of drama and passion.

The Modernists: Creating New Rules

The “modern” era of classical music is, counterintuitively, stated as beginning over 100 years ago. Unlike the Romantics, who sought to build upon the works of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, modern composers, in many cases, wanted to tear down the old and create a new language.

Frenchman Claude Debussy’s orchestral piece Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a harmonically audacious touchstone of the modern era. Once described by a critic as “profoundly decadent,” the work begins with a beguiling flute solo in the low end of its melodic range, a sound unlike anything that had come before. Adam Kuenzel, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal flute player, says that he first performed Afternoon of a Faun 40 years ago, and he sees the work as “helping to untie the knot of functional harmony on emerging music.” Kuenzel has recorded the piece on a wonderful album called Reveries, and he’ll perform it in concert with the Minnesota Orchestra May 30 and 31.

Other modernists were busy, too. In Russia, Igor Stravinsky led a revolution of rhythm, while in Vienna Arnold Schoenberg challenged the conventions of tonality—the basic rules of harmony, major and minor scales, and the relationship between keys that had rooted music for centuries. Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály looked to folk music for inspiration. And in America, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Charles Ives found the cowboy song, the jazz ensemble and the marching band to be musical influences. Former Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Sir Neville Marriner’s recording of Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo displays the composer’s mix of simple and complex.

What Next?

What comes after the modern era? Post-modern? More-modern? Contemporary composers such as Libby Larsen, Mason Bates, Jennifer Higdon, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Eric Whitacre are as likely to be influenced by hip-hop, the Beatles, classic movies and Indian ragas as they are Brahms, Bach and Beethoven. The works of the beloved, greatly missed Dominick Argento exemplify the freedom of today’s composers. His Valentino Dances, recorded by the Minnesota Orchestra in 1999 for an album featuring his compositions, mixes pop music, popular culture, opera and even an accordion in an irresistible package. It’s the kind of work that honors the musical language of the past while using techniques and approaches free from expectation, inspiring new generations of composers and listeners alike in today’s era of classical music.


Matthew Philion is an attorney, writer, teacher, former classical music DJ, and amateur trombone and euphonium player. He has been a fan of the Minnesota Orchestra since attending his first concert in 1978—a laser light show at the St. Paul Auditorium featuring music from Star Wars and The Planets.

Minnesota Orchestra Staff