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Western Musical Form & Structure

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Throughout the long period of MEDIEVAL MUSIC, encompassing roughly a thousand years from the early Christian era to the mid-15th century, the Roman church was the dominant and unifying force in Western music.  The most important musical developments were the establishment and codification of the repertory of PLAINSONG chants of the Mass and Offices, which would serve as the structural basis for countless secular as well as sacred compositions in ensuring centuries;  the rise of polyphonic techniques and forms;  and the development of metrical rhythms and principles of rhythmic organization.

Gregorian Chant
Gregorian chants serve as reminders of humankind's devotion to religion in the Middle Ages. Their effect on Western music up until the 16th century was monumental. There were three main types of chant: the reciting formulas, the melismatic (group of notes sung to a single syllable) songs, and refrains sung by the choir and congregation. Most chants were sung solo, alternated between choir and soloist and alternated between choruses. A choral example ["Le Jeu Pascal de Prague" performed by the Deller Consort, from Gregorian Chant (Cat.# Harmonia Mundi HMA 190235.37) (p)1974, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1990 Harmonia Mundi, Ltd.] was sung in honor of the dead.

ORGANUM, the earliest form of polyphony, featured the addition of one, two, or three melodic lines to a plainsong melody in the tenor voice (the lowest voice in two and three part polyphony, the second lowest in four-voice works).  Originally (c.  900-1050) consisting of simple doublings of the chant melody at fixed intervals of the fourth or fifth, the newly composed voices gained increasing contour and rhythmic independence during the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly with the introduction of modal rhythms (a way of notating that clearly set forth short, repeated rhythmic patterns) by the composers Leonin and Perotin.  This technique was extended to the principle of isorhythm (longer reiterated rhythmic patterns) in the major genre of medieval polyphony, the MOTET. CANTUS FIRMUS techniques, in which the "fixed melody" (usually borrowed, most often from plainsong) is sung or played in the tenor voice against more rapid, freely-composed upper voices, remained a common basis for most polyphonic forms until the late 16th century.

During the 12th and 13th centuries an independent tradition of secular songs developed among MINSTRELS at feudal courts.  The musical structures of the Ballade, Rondeau, Virelai, and other types of songs were derived from the French poetic formsof the same names.  During the ars nova period (French music of the first half of the 14th century), expressive two-, three-, and four-part settings of ballades and rondeaux, often incorporating two instrumental parts, were composed by Guillaume de Machaut and other leading figures.  In Italy, the primary 14th-century forms were the Ballata with a refrain structure;  the Caccia, which involved continuous imitation between the upper two voices against a slower-moving tenor; and the MADRIGAL (not to be confused with the 16th-century form of the same name).

In contrast to such rigid late Gothic techniques as isorhythm, RENAISSANCE MUSIC (c. 1450-1600) is characterized by imitative polyphonic styles of seamless textures, rhythmically flowing lines, equality among voice parts, and a growing emphasis on sonorous harmonies.  The two major genres of sacred polyphony, the motet and settings of the Ordinary of the MASS, were brought to their highest levels of mastery by JOSQUIN DES PREZ and PALESTRINA.  The principal formal procedures of Mass settings were cantus firmus and parody techniques, the latter incorporating melodies or complete polyphonic sections of motets or secular works.  Following the Reformation, Martin Luther and his followers assembled collections of chorales (see CHORALE), or Protestant hymns, derived mostly from secular songs and Catholic hymns designed for congregational singing.

The music of Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina provides some of the most quotable examples of counterpoint theory. In his choral music Palestrina worked to balance the clarity of plainsong with the rich texture of polyphony. His resulting compositions were long rumored to be the key to preventing the Council of Trent in 1562 and 1563 from abolishing polyphony in church and gained Palestrina the exaggerated reputation of the "savior of church music."

The humanistic spirit of the Renaissance is reflected in the rise of distinct secular styles and forms.  Polyphonic secular songs, including the French chanson, the Italian frottola, the German polyphonic lied, the Spanish villancico, and the Italian and English madrigal, were lighter in texture (with a solo singer on each part) as well as spirit.

Instruments were no longer used only to accompany or replace singers.  Repertoires of keyboard music (often played on the ORGAN, the HARPSICHORD, or the CLAVICHORD) and LUTE music developed in such forms as the fantasia, ricercar, canzona, and sets of variations (see VARIATION) on secular tunes.  A similar repertoire was composed for a CONSORT of instruments, both among instruments of a single family (usually viols or recorders) and among mixed ensembles of winds and strings.

Major developments at the beginning of the period of baroque music (c.  1600-1750) were concentrated in vocal music.  The simplified vocal style of monody, with a solo vocal line in speechlike rhythms over a sparse harmonic accompaniment, provided the basis for the first operas (see OPERA), notably those of Claudio MONTEVERDI.  Distinct national and regional serious and comic operatic forms arose, comprising the ARIA, the RECITATIVE, and the chorus, as well as less elaborate types of music such as the English MASQUE.  The ORATORIO, originally similar in outline to opera (but without stage action), and the CANTATA, a narrative work in several movements for soloists, chorus, and orchestral accompaniment, incorporated operatic forms and conventions but gradually evolved during the 17th century into distinct genres on either religious or dramatic subjects.  The stylistic characteristics of later baroque opera and oratorio traditions are best known today through the works of George Frideric HANDEL. Chorale melodies were incorporated within the church cantata, passion, and other genres of Lutheran music chorale melodies (see CHORAL MUSIC), and functioned in the manner of cantus firmus in many organ works.

Handel's Water Music
In addition to his popular operas and oratorios, German-born composer George Frideric Handel wrote music in the 1700s for the church and for royal celebrations. The legend that Handel composed Water Music as early as 1715 to regain the favor of the Elector of Hannover (later King George I), his former employer, remains both popular and unsubstantiated. It is known, however, that Water Music was played for King George during a royal party in 1717. The king enjoyed the one-hour piece so thoroughly that he ordered it played three times that day.

Vivid emotional portrayals characterized many vocal works.  The fundamental formal principle in most instrumental works, however, was the contrast in patterns between opposing groups, sections, dynamic levels, soprano and bass voices, or other elements of structure.  The sonata ("sound piece"), a term originally used to designate various types of music for instruments, evolved into the most important genre of CHAMBER MUSIC and music for harpsichord, notably in the work of Domenico SCARLATTI.  Sonatas for violin and continuo, and trio sonatas, typically for two violins and continuo, included three or four contrasting slow and fast movements.  (The continuo was the instrument or instruments providing the bass line.  It was usually an organ of harpsichord, sometimes reinforced by a cello or bassoon.  See FIGURED BASS.) The CONCERTO ("contrasting instrumental bodies"), a term originally applied to vocal works with instrumental or organ accompaniment, evolved in the works of Antonio VIVALDI and his contemporaries into an orchestral form similar in outline to the sonata.  The distinguishing feature of the baroque concerto, however, was the continuous alternation between a small group of instruments and the larger string ensemble (the concerto grosso), or between the soloist (usually a violinist) and an orchestra.

The keyboard forms of the late 16th century remained popular, but new forms also developed, notably the TOCCATA, a "touch piece" for organ or harpsichord featuring rapid scale-like runs and similar idiomatic figures.  The long history of Renaissance and baroque imitative polyphony culminated in the development of the fugue, a formal procedure employed in organ, chamber, orchestral, and choral works by J. S. BACH (My Heart Ever Faithful).

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos
The compositional style of Johann Sebastian Bach was influenced by musical developments of the baroque era, where harmonic complexity developed alongside an emphasis on contrast in instrumentation, volume, or the emotional character of a piece of music. In this excerpt from the third of Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos, in the key of G, three groups of three stringed instruments each, with basso continuo (continuous bass harmony; string bass and harpsichord in this instance), are eloquently combined, alternated, and contrasted with one another.

Sonata procedures that were first developed in the CLASSICAL PERIOD IN MUSIC (c. 1750-1825) dominated major instrumental genres through the early 20th century, and remain vital components of many recent works.  The sonatas for piano or for solo instrument with piano accompaniment of Franz Joseph HAYDN, Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART, and Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (Ode to Joy, 9th Symphony) are expansive three- or (in many of Beethoven's works) four-movement cycles featuring clearly articulated tonal schemes and extensive thematic development.

Joseph Haydn
Franz Joseph Haydn was an 18th-century classical composer. He has been called the father of the symphony, although his work really only laid the groundwork for what was to become the symphony. Friends called him "Papa Haydn" because he was so congenial and ready to help others.

These features are most prominent within the first movement of the cycle, where they constitute a structural procedure known as the sonata form.  (The principles of sonata form, through which a single movement is developed, should not be confused with the overall multimovement scheme, or "form," of the SONATA as a whole.)

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven is considered possibly the greatest Western composer of all time. He wrote symphonies, concertos, chamber music, sonatas, and vocal music. His best-known composition is the Ninth Symphony with its passionate chorus, the Ode to Joy. Beethoven began to lose his hearing in the 1790s and was completely deaf by 1818.

The formal outline of the sonata, and the procedures of sonata form, were applied in orchestral and chamber form as well. Thus the SYMPHONY may be considered a sonata for orchestra; the classical concerto a sonata for soloist and orchestra;  and the STRING QUARTET (and such related genres as the piano trio and string quarter) a sonata for small ensemble.  The overall design of each of these genres consists of a fast movement in sonata form;  a slow movement;  a third movement (not included in concerti or early sonatas) in MINUET and trio or SCHERZO and trio form;  and a finale, most often in RONDO, sonata-rondo, or theme-and-variation form.  Sonata-form procedures were also widely employed in simplified form within the single-movement OVERTURE.

Opera remained the primary genre of vocal music, given new life through the reforms first implemented by Christolph Willibald GLUCK.  The comic opera and singspiel attained greatest expressive power in the works of Mozart.  Oratorios, masses (intended for concert rather than liturgical use), and various song and chorale genres were widely performed.
Classical forms underwent considerable expansion during the period of ROMANTICISM (c. 1830-1910).  Such composers as Felix MENDELSSOHN and Johannes BRAHMS, seeking to extend classical practice, maintained the broad outlines, procedures, and balance of these forms while incorporating a more expansive harmonic palette.  Other romantics--including Hector BERLIOZ, Frederic CHOPIN (Fantaisie-Impromptu in C#), Franz LISZT, Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV and Richard WAGNER--believed that the enriched, often highly chromatic tonal language of the age and the romantic imperative for intense personal expression required free adaptation or the development of new forms, sometimes based on literary or pictorial themes.  Programmatic symphonies led to the development of the single-movement SYMPHONIC POEM, loosely structured around poetic or dramatic subjects.  Conceiving of opera as a "total art work" (Gesamtkunstwerk) for the portrayal of mystical truths, Wagner replaced conventional, set numbers with vocal lines midway between aria and recitative, accompanied by continuous, constantly evolving orchestral colors and textures.  Giuseppi VERDI, by contrast, accepted the conventions of Italian serious opera, composing "singers' operas" with rapid stage action and melodramatic plots.

Frédéric Francois Chopin
Polish-born French composer Frédéric Chopin began to study piano at age four, in 1814. Chopin's compositions, nearly all of which were written for piano, are romantic and lyrical.

The tendencies toward increased brilliance and breadth, also reflected in the virtuosic piano works of Liszt, were counterbalanced by an opposing desire for intimate expression in simple forms, most notably in the flowering of the romantic lied (German art song).  The lieder of Franz SCHUBERT, Robert SCHUMANN, and later composers served as models for lyrical instrumental themes, and in the development of many types of character pieces, brief piano works that depict particular moods or qualities.  Popular genres of this type included the "song without words," the impromptu, the NOCTURNE, INTERMEZZO, rhapsody, and PRELUDE.

Franz Schubert
Although he died at the age of 31, Austrian composer Franz Schubert had already written 9 symphonies, 22 piano sonatas, 35 chamber works, 6 masses, 17 operatic works, numerous short piano pieces, and more than 600 songs. Known as the father of the German art song, Schubert was one of the first composers of the romantic era (about 1790 to 1910). Retaining a classical framework, his compositions achieved new sonorities by emphasizing rich harmonies and expressive melodies.