Creating AYICM: Six Eras of Musical Style

To create the A Year in Classical Music shows, I begin by dividing music history into six stylistic eras: before 1800, 1800-1849 (early Romanticism), 1850-1899 (high Romanticism), 1900-1945 (post-Romanticism, early Modernism), 1946-1979 (radical Modernism, the postwar avant-garde), and 1980- (post-Modernism, contemporary tonality). For the sake of contrast I’ve staggered these six eras in a non-chronological order, and when it’s time to choose the next year I’ll feature here on the show I select it from the era that’s up next.

It’s a shame to have to group the many, many different stylistic eras that came before 1800 into one category, but with the exception of Haydn and Mozart we usually don’t know exactly when most compositions were written before the 1800s — even in the case of J.S. Bach, in many cases we only know what city he lived in when he composed a given piece. At least as far as musicians were concerned, this was before Western culture invented the myth of the Artist, the individualistic genius who created for posterity. Until Beethoven, or even until Liszt with Beethoven as an early exception, composers occupied a place in their societies comparable to that of chefs in our society: they were usually unknown outside of their own specific venues or cities, they were craftsmen who within narrow limits could experiment with the forms they worked with but who were mostly obliged to produce the familiar kinds of pieces their audiences expected, and their works were typically heard once or twice and then forgotten. I’ll feature everything I can find from years before 1800, then, but they’ll mostly be after 1765 and even then there won’t be all that much to discuss.

The three 20th century eras will seem artificial to some — especially the last two, 1946-1979 and 1980-present, considering the multiplicity of styles in these years. But, I need categories to work with, and certainly there was a radical, nihilistic turn after the wars as a great many composers cut ties with the past, and then a conservative turn around 1980 as a great many re-embraced it.

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