Image: Julius Schmid's 1897 Schubertiade
Written by Karen Betley
Quick Summary — Examining the origins of a piece of music can transform the way you listen to it. Music History examines the history of the composer and unpicks the social, political, economic, and cultural trends of the time to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the music.
- 1. What is Music History?
- 2. What to expect from a Music History class!
- 3. Who will enjoy Music History?
What is Music History?
Music History will appeal to anyone who has a love of music and an appetite for digging around in the past.
Did you know?
- In writing his opera The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart took as his starting point the radical politics of the French Revolution
- Beethoven wrote his "Kreutzer" sonata for his Black friend and drinking partner, violinist George Bridgewater – but unlike Beethoven, George Bridgewater ended his days in near obscurity
- Bach began organising his Organ Preludes whilst locked up (as opposed to ‘locked down’!) in a prison cell?
This is just some of the information that students have uncovered during their exploration of Music History here at the City Lit.
Of course, this information does not alter in any way the notes that are played, but it does affect the way that we hear them.
Exploring the historical context for a piece of music helps to create a more authentic appreciation and hearing of the work. It brings to light once more its original, sometimes quite radical, purpose, and at the same time helping to give it a greater resonance for today. This is what Music History is all about!
TIP: Pair your Music History experience with our other general History courses for a deeper understanding of the historical context.
What to expect from a Music History class!
So how do we set about providing a historical context for a composer or musical work?
Music History is a mixture of detective work and time travel
Social and political context
Whether it’s Haydn or Hildegard, the journey usually begins with a look at the social and political backdrop of their lifetime.
- What kind of upbringing did the composer have: wealthy or impoverished, repressive or liberal?
- Did this affect her/his development?
- What thinking was ‘in the air’ at that time? For example, with Richard Wagner, the thinking of Schopenhauer led him to focus in his work on death and transfiguration, whereas for Richard Strauss it was all about Nietzsche’s philosophy of strength and freedom.
And then, of course, it is essential to explore the cultural context for a musical work or composer.
Which artists' works were listened to, read, or gazed upon at the time? And this question usually generates an interconnected web of links between musicians, writers, painters and poets – which often offers revelatory insights!
The story in the notes
Once this initial detective work has been done then it’s time to turn to the notes themselves.
Armed with our contextual information, we can now listen to recordings and examine scores. Here we begin to understand more fully, the musical choices that a composer has made, and why.
These are choices that affect the shape, or structure, of a work, the keys that are used throughout, the textures and rhythm patterns that provide the music with its energy, and, if appropriate, the words that a composer has chosen to set.
The instruments, voices, audience, and setting
And finally, this exploration of the music itself would not be complete without focusing-in on the instruments and/or voices for which the work was originally written, as well as the venue and audience that it was intended for.
For example, imagine if we could time travel back to the 1711 premiere, here in London, of Handel’s opera Rinaldo. With castrati holding forth on the stage and an audience chatting and eating throughout, the experience would be both ear and eye-opening!
And it is these issues of what we call performance practice that provide another contextual layer to the subject placed under our musical microscope.
So, as can be deduced from this brief introduction, Music History classes are a mixture of detective work and time travel!
Who will enjoy Music History?
Finally, who are Music History classes designed for?
Well, these classes will appeal to anyone who has a love of music and an appetite for digging around in the past. Playing an instrument and reading music are secondary to an inquisitive nature and a love of puzzle-solving.
But perhaps more importantly, Music History is designed to appeal to all those who enjoy listening to music and would like to transform their listening into a more active and life-enhancing experience, and who could resist that!