Guide to Enjoying Orchestral Music. Part 1, The Eras

My son Anthony has expressed an interest in orchestral music and is wondering how one can find the sort of music they will like.

First of all, I used to refer to orchestral music as ‘classical’ music, but I learned that classical is the name of one time period and style of orchestral music. We all know what an orchestra is–a collection of physical instruments played by people. These instruments were available, to some degree, for hundreds of years and allowed audiences to listen to richly textured music.

I used to think this music was really complicated. It turns out, it is not complex from the perspective of music theory. The most complex chords are typically triads, major or minor, with melodic elements added on. The music used the same elements we are used to hearing in popular music. It is a system of scales, keys, and chords referred to as the Common Practice Period.

The common practice period is thought of as going from 1650 to 1900. After 1900, composers tried to break free of traditional concepts of harmony, the result being music that is intellectually interesting to some, but regrettably, very few want to listen to it. This shows that the harmonic and melodic norms of the common practice era still reflect what most people enjoy hearing in music.

The common practice period is divided into eras that reflected musical norms or styles common to that era. These eras or periods are:

Baroque 1600-1750. Famous composers include Pachelbel, Bach, and Handel.

Classical 1750-1820. Famous composers include Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Beethoven is considered a transitional composer as he started firmly in the classical tradition and evolved his style to the extent that later works strained the boundaries of the classical tradition and utilizing the freer form and passion of the Romantic era.

Romantic 1820-1900. Famous composers include Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Brahms, Debussy, Strauss, Berlioz (Wrote influential Treatise on Instrumentation), Bizet, Mahler, Mussogorsky, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. As I write this list, I see that the Romantic era provided most of the beloved orchestral works that are still popular today.

20th Century/Modern. As I said, I don’t generally like orchestral music of this era, but some of my favorite works fall in this era. So, I will mention Stravinsky, and Copeland.

Things they don’t teach you in school

Background: I am currently a Junior in the Mechanical Engineering program at the U of M – Twin Cities. This past January I accepted an 8 month, full-time internship with St. Jude Medical.  I am part of the R&D (Research and Development) group in the Cardiovascular Division.

For a variety of reasons I spend a large portion of my time at work in the machine shop. It is my understanding that I am not at all required to but it allows me to be involved in every part of the R&D process. The machinist, Ed, enjoys teaching and has sort of taken me under his wing. Ed is almost always swamped with projects meaning that if you need something built it could take days or weeks.

One day, Ed and I were working in the shop when our mutual boss, Ralph, came in with a pretty urgent project which he hoped Ed would expedite. Now some people come into the shop, throw down CAD drawings and quickly leave expecting Ed to drop everything for their project, but Ralph knew better. After casually chatting with Ed for a while, Ralph handed Ed some CAD drawings and said, “Alright Ed, here is an opportunity [he paused for dramatic effect] to excel. This project goes all the way to the top (it didn’t at all). Before today Dan Starks (St. Jude CEO) said ‘Ed who?’ but not after this project. 20 years from now employees will still be talking about you!” Ralph said this with a smile and Ed knew it was BS but he appreciated the effort and quickly finished the parts for Ralph.

Weeks later I was at my desk when Ralph approached me. With a smirk on his face he said, “Alright Anthony, I have an opportunity for you to excel…”

Apparently there was an urgent project that no one wanted to do, so Ralph needed me to do it ASAP. It turned out to be a great project; very interesting and enjoyable but now when I am approached by an unusually friendly superior, I expect to receive an important, urgent, or undesirable assignment.