Timeline

Mondays at 5:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 10 a.m., and Fridays at 7 a.m.

Timeline is a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition. Hosted by VPR Classical's James Stewart.

Check out our new web app where we can listen to all of the episodes in order.

If you'd like to go deeper, please see our suggested reading list.

Timeline is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation.

    

US-PD

In 1450, Johannes Gutenburg made history in Europe with his moveable type printing press. Thanks to his process and his machine, the printed word was able to spread across the Western world.

US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

This week, we’ll discuss the music of the 15th century French composer Guillaume Dufay and how the lines that defined secular and sacred music began to blur in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

There are moments in music history, like all history, that stand as dividing lines. Once they happened, nothing could ever be the same.

US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

Though the church was instrumental in the development of musical notation, it was not the sole arbiter of music in medieval times.  The high middle ages were also the time of the troubadours or trouveres; French composers and performers of secular lyric poetry and song beginning in the late 11th Century.

Engraving by W. Marshall from "Fuller's Holy State", published 1648.

Hildegard of Bingen was a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, abbess, polymath and a literal visionary of the 12th Century.

US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

Have you ever been to a restaurant and heard an off-brand version of the popular “Happy Birthday To You” song?

The reason why a restaurant would choose to use that version, rather than the traditional “Happy Birthday To You,” is because, until recently, that song was protected under copyright. The company Summy Birchard of the Warner Music Group claimed the rights to that melody. They earned an estimated $2 million dollars a year in licensing fees for what is arguably the most popular song in the world. They owned that music.

US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

Guido de Arezzo was one of the first music theorists in our western musical tradition.

US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

It’s easy to take for granted this ability to take a piece of music and understand it instantly, but this wasn’t always the case. Let’s explore the birth of modern musical notation and the history of this elegant practice.

DNY59 / Istock

There is a long history of connection between the world of music and the world of mathematics.

US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

The art of writing down melodies, preserving sound in time, was not something that was first invented just 1,000 years ago. Humans have made music for most of our history, let's explore some of the earliest examples of musical notation. The first comes to us from a culture that’s nearly 3,400 years old.

U.S. Public Domain

Music has always been created with a specific venue in mind. The composer may not know who will be in the audience or how it will be received but they know it has to be played on an instrument or sound system in a place. Throughout all of history, whether it was a church, a ballroom, a dance hall, an opera house or a dive bar, music was written to fill that location.

U.S. Public Domain

In the 20th century no medium affected culture more than film. The music written to accompany the images, story and dialogue has become a huge part of the movie-going experience. In many cases it’s impossible to separate the musical theme from the film itself; the two become one in our minds.

Timeline: Minimalism

Apr 3, 2017
U.S. Public Domain

The music of the early 20th century was marked by increasing complexity and abstraction. Serialism and the chance practices of John Cage and his followers created an aesthetic that stood opposed to the Romanticism of the century before. In the '60s and '70s a counter-reaction began to emerge as a new group of young composers sought to free themselves from the strict rules of atonalism and serialism and embrace the simplicity of minimalism.

Every morning, for more than 75 years, American composer Elliott Carter would awaken and go to his studio to write music. Carter and his wife, Helen Frost-Jones, lived in the same apartment in Greenwich Village in New York, since 1945. He was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, composing over 40 works after the age of 90. Carter’s music encompasses many of the influences and styles that shaped the last 100 years of music.

James Stewart / VPR

Musical labels are useful. The title of a genre or style comes in handy in the record store, on the radio or for streaming services. But these labels can also be problematic and divisive.

James Stewart

In 1952, on a summer day in Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor held an outdoor recital of contemporary piano music. During this concert he premiered a new work by composer John Cage. For this performance, Tudor sat at the piano with the lid closed, keys covered for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, split into 3 movements. The results of this performance are still controversial to this day.

U.S. Public Domain

In the second half of the 20th century, technology evolved at an ever-increasing pace. The ability to capture a performance and manipulate recorded sound allowed musicians, artists and composers a freedom that they had never experienced before. It all started with the advent and adoption of magnetic tape.

U.S. Public Domain

As a composer, Aaron Copland desired to be as American in his music as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian. He was always interested in expressing his Inscape, the true emotions happening within him. His writings, music and instruction helped bring the rigor of the European tradition to American music and influenced a generation of composers.

U.S. Public Domain

His life embodied the American dream. Starting from nothing, he used his talents and musical intuition to build a fortune and an international reputation. George Gershwin’s music touched a diverse array of audiences and forms, from popular song to concerti to opera. In his short life he helped shape the future of American music.

U.S. Public Domain

The modern American musical is usually associated with the “triple threat”, singing, dancing and acting. It is also the culmination of costume and set design utilizing resources and technology that would make Wagner jealous. The line that connects operas to musicals is a complicated one, influenced by shifting cultural tastes, commercial enterprise and a wide ocean.

Pages