For this article, I will refer to European classical music by its eras: Renaissance (1400-1550), Baroque (1550-1700), Classic (1700-1800), Romantic (1800-1900), and Modern (1900-now). These dates are very general, and these eras naturally overlap with each other. Here are the two reasons why I believe that classical music from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classic eras is superior to music from the Romantic and Modern eras.
Before the Romantic era, there were few standards related to ensembles and anything as large as a modern symphonic orchestra was rare or nonexistant. Composers often wrote for the ensembles and combinations that were available to them, which might even change over time. There was little excess; each part was written because the composer deemed it appropriate and not because he knew there was a set number of musicians he had to write for, unlike today’s composer of symphonic works. It’s true that composers of the classic era wrote ‘symphonies’ but to this day there is no official definition of a symphony. Some of the pieces that were called symphonies in those days would be considered something less today. Like an album compared to an EP, for example. Many of Bach’s pieces don’t even specify instrumentation, allowing for a large degree of interpretation and instrument assignment.
Unfortunately, the symphonic orchestra was standardized during the Romantic era. This unfortunate monstrosity provides the main face of classical music for most people today. Many people think of classical music as overblown, boring music, and the symphony has a lot to do with that. Compositions of previous periods have a more intimate quality that an ensemble of 8 musicians would naturally have over a group of 70. And it’s not like the 70 members of an orchestra are adding much depth to music – many of them are simply doubling up on parts that could just as easily be divided among a few people.
The symphonic orchestra became an institution, rising up in every major and wannabe-major city across the Western world. Unfortunately, the only way to hear many pre-Romantic era pieces is to hear them performed by a modern orchestra, including concerti originally performed by a dozen musicians, now performed by 70 with unnecessary quintupling of parts.
Before the symphonic orchestra was standardized, classical music was always at the forefront of technology. The fact that that statement likely draws smiles and laughs is sad but deserved. Instruments were constantly being refined or invented before the Romantic era. The instruments used in classical music in 1850 look and sound quite different from the instruments used in 1700. But classical music instruments used in 1850 are IDENTICAL TO THOSE USED TODAY. There are many modern masters that proudly and idiotically play 200 year old instruments. The standardization of the orchestra essentially FROZE the whole movement in time. After this point it became very unusual to hear instruments from outside of the symphonic orchestra included in mainstream classical works. In previous eras, it was not uncommon to hear instruments like lutes and mandolins incorporated but there seems to be very little room for strummed, fretted instruments today, outside of soloists.
The saxophone had the misfortune of being invented shortly after the codification, ensuring that this innovative and versatile instrument is still uncommon in classical music. Many years earlier, instruments like the trombone and piano were introduced and quickly identified as the breakthroughs they were, incorporated widely into compositions. Unfortunately, the piano was very much still the rage when the codification took place, and has now supplanted every other keyboard instrument, including the once-mighty harpsichord. Even worse, due to modern inflexibilities, pieces originally written for harpsichord are more often performed on pianos today. Listening to pianos all the time and never harpsichords is like eating vanilla and never chocolate.
If classical music still sought out innovation like it once did, synthesizer keyboards would now be widespread. Electric guitars would have been a fad and perhaps even faded away by now. Ensembles might include trap kit drums, theremins, Chapman sticks, whatever. The sky would be the limit, as it once was. It’s really a shame that classical music decided to freeze itself in time but at least rock music and jazz have picked up the slack in some respects.
Unfortunately, public radio in America does a great deal to reinforce the lack of innovation, emphasis on orchestras, and obsession with the past. Most classical music played on the radio comes from the ‘common era’, which includes Romantic, Classic, and late Baroque, but ignores anything earlier or later. This means that most of the music on public radio is bloated, conducted by egomaniacs, and lacking the true sophistication and emotion of earlier eras.