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10 of the biggest big ideas in classical music history

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Gustav Mahler once famously said, "The symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything." 

That pretty much sums up what I love about classical music, in general: the ambition. It's not that other kinds of music are any less ambitious; I think it's more that, in the long history of Western classical music, there's a grand tradition of idiosyncratic geniuses who are brilliant, foolish or arrogant enough to try things that are completely new and expect it to catch on.

As a celebration of that legacy, I've chosen 10 big ideas from classical music history that will completely blow your mind. Have a look through the list below for some of the finest in music that think BIG. 

1. Hildegard von Bingen: the morality play

Hildegard was one of the most influential figures of her time, in a whole bunch of different fields. Chief among those were music and theology, but she was also an influential poet, botanist and medical researcher (insofar as such a thing existed in the 1100s). 

Given her wide-ranging talents, it's probably not surprising that Hildegard was one of the earliest composers to conceive of the notion of musical drama. Her Ordo Virtutum is widely considered to be the first morality play ever written — all the more extraordinary because it happens to be sung through. (Except for the role of the devil, of course. He didn't learn to sing until about 1968.)

2. Claudio Monteverdi: opera

By the time Monteverdi composed the music to L'Orfeo, lots of composers had already tried their hands at various types of musical drama (not least, Hildegard — 500 years earlier). Emilio de' Cavalieri had written the first (kind of) oratorio. Jacopo Peri had basically invented what we now think of as the chamber opera. 

But Monteverdi took things to the next level, scoring his story with a large orchestra (for the time) and a full chorus. L'Orfeointroduced the spectacle and catharsis that we associate with opera today.

3. Andreas Werckmeister: well temperament

Werckmeister might be the most influential music theorist ever, if only for a single innovation. Before this guy came along, keyboard instruments only worked in certain keys. For example, a melody might sound fine in C major, but if you tried to play it in C-sharp, it would be badly out of tune.

But, Werckmeister devised a way to tune keyboard instruments so that they could play in every key. Now, because of him, I can sit down at a piano and play "Twinkle Twinkle" in C major, E major, Ab major or any other major key and have them all sound equally mediocre.

More auspiciously, his idea paved the way for Bach's famousWell-Tempered Clavier and literally all Western classical music that came after.

4. Antonio Stradivari: the perfect violin

Nobody quite knows why Stradivari's violins sound so good. But some time in the early 18th century, this Cremonese artisan devised a formula for making stringed instruments that some say hasn't been bettered. Stradivari's prestige is such that his instruments now sell for ridiculous sums, and the word "Stradivarius" is the musical equivalent of "Cadillac." 

5. C.P.E. Bach: sonata form

From the 18th century onwards, most first movements of sonatas, symphonies, string quartets and other large works were based on some version of the same musical structure: sonata form. To oversimplify ludicrously, that's when you have an opening section with one or two catchy themes, followed by a middle section where those themes get broken apart and warped into a bunch of different keys, and a closing section that sounds basically like the opening.

Honestly, it's completely ridiculous to ascribe the invention of sonata form to one person. (More so than opera, even.) But, C.P.E. Bach's as good a choice as any. Well, maybe there's one better choice, but that guy gets credit for EVERYTHING.

6. Joseph Haydn: the string quartet

How good an idea was the string quartet? Seriously —  it has the consistency and versatility of the piano, except with four times as many brains in control.

Apparently, Haydn happened upon the winning formula by accident, when a baron commissioned some music for him to perform with his string-playing friends. But, his real genius was in recognizing the format's potential and devoting such a significant chunk of time to it later in his career.

7. Franz Liszt: the solo piano recital

Some people say that Liszt was the first musician to turn the piano sideways to display his profile, rather than his back. Wrong. But Liszt was genuinely responsible for innovations that have become even more fundamental to modern piano performance than that. 

For one thing, he coined the term "recital," and was the first person to define what a "recital" entailed. Namely, one person playing solo piano music all night. No orchestras, no special guests. Just a fabulous celebrity producing moment after moment of musical rapture.

8. Béla Bartók: comparative musicology

Bartók was one of the first composers to study folk music really closely — specifically, the folk music of his native Hungary. He called this comparative musicology, but nowadays we just say "ethnomusicology." Basically, it's the study of music as it relates to society.

But, this is more than just a discipline for ivory tower-dwelling scholars and bored undergrads. Ultimately, the deepest effect of Bartók's research was to urge composers and musicians to take music that falls outside of the "Western classical" tradition seriously — to respect it, and to learn from it.

9. Arnold Schoenberg: 12-tone technique

In 1921, Schoenberg decided that the notion of "harmony" had run its course, and that we needed a new way to organize music. What he came up with is a method where you take the 12 notes from A to G-sharp and arrange them in a particular sequence. Your music has to be based entirely on that sequence. No chord progressions, no spontaneous melodic invention that isn't derived in some way from that series of notes. 

The results weren't always easy to listen to. But that didn't stop the 12-tone method from sweeping the compositional world straight through the mid-20th century.

10. Nicole Lizée: notated glitch

In the 21st century, recorded music can be an instrument. And nobody uses that instrument quite like Nicole Lizée. Her music is based around the sounds that machines make when they're not working correctly: the sounds of glitches. Except, in Lizée's compositions, all of the "glitches" are meticulously written out in the score. 

With so many different simultaneous musical currents running nowadays, it's getting harder to come up with musical ideas that catch on and last. But, that's never really been the point. The point is coming up with cool new ways to make music. And, even if people aren't still doing notated glitches in 2125, that doesn't mean that this isn't super awesome:

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