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Composers and Arrangers


Classical composition probably (in its broadest sense) dates back to the late Middle Ages, when musical notation began to develop in Christian monasteries. In those times and for some centuries thereafter, the church was the main patron of musical composition. During the 14th century, or possibly earlier, the writing of music in score (that is, for several instruments or instruments and voices) began to take place. This was the beginning of orchestral writing. Composers then were mostly sponsored by the church and were supposed to be religiously motivated in their work, which was not to be considered an expression of their own emotions. It was probably not until the end of the 15th century that the work of a composer began to be recognized as a statement of individual expression. Recognition of composers did not really become common until several centuries later. Even Johann Sebastian Bach, writing in the 18th century, was known more as an organist and choirmaster than a composer during his lifetime.

The writing of music in score was the beginning of a great change in the history of music. The craft of making musical instruments and the techniques of playing them were also advancing. By the beginning of the baroque period, around 1600, these changes brought musical composition to a new stage of development, which was enhanced by patronage from secular sources. The nobility had taken an interest in sponsoring musical composition, and over the next two or three centuries they came to supplant the church as the main patrons of composers. Under their patronage, composers had more room to experiment and develop new musical styles.

Until the end of the baroque period in about 1750, there was a flowering of musical forms, including opera. In the early 1600s, Rome became preeminent in opera, using the chorus and dance to embellish the operatic spectacle. Instrumental music also grew during this period, reaching its greatest flowering in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel. The major musical forms of baroque origin were the sonata and cantata, both largely attributed to the composers of opera.

The "true" classical period in music began in about the mid-18th century and lasted through the 19th century. Composers embellishing the sonata form now developed the symphony. Through the latter half of the 19th century, most composers of symphonies, concerti, chamber music, and other instrumental forms adhered to the strict formality of the classical tradition. In the 19th century, however, many composers broke from classical formalism, instilling greater emotionalism, subjectivity, and individualism in their work. The new musical style evolved into what became formally known as the Romantic movement in music. Romanticism did not replace classicism, but rather, it existed side by side with the older form. A transitional figure in the break from classicism was Ludwig van Beethoven, whose compositions elevated the symphonic form to its highest level. Other composers who perfected the Romantic style included Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Hector Berlioz, and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky in orchestral music, and Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner in opera.

Many of the composers of the early classical period labored for little more than recognition. Their monetary rewards were often meager. In the 19th century, however, as the stature of the composers grew, they were able to gain more control over their own work and the proceeds that it produced. The opera composers, in particular, were able to reap quite handsome profits.

Another abrupt break from tradition occurred at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time composers began to turn away from Romanticism and seek new and original styles and sounds. Audiences sometimes were repulsed by these new musical sounds, but eventually they were accepted and imitated by other composers. One of the most successful of the post-Romantic composers was Igor Stravinsky, whose landmark work The Rite of Spring was hailed by some to be the greatest work of the century.

Through the 20th century composers continued to write music in the styles of the past and to experiment with new styles. Some contemporary composers, such as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, wrote for both popular and serious audiences. John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and other composers moved even further from traditional forms and musical instruments, experimenting with electronically created music, in which an electronic instrument, such as a synthesizer, is used to compose and play music. An even more significant advance is the use of computers as a compositional tool. In the 21st century, the only thing predictable in musical composition is that experimentation and change are certain to continue.