Timeline

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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.

    

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It only takes a few notes to recognize the main theme of John William's score to the film “Star Wars." The Star Wars franchise has become a cultural touchstone all around the world. The original 1977 film is a marriage of a universal mythological tale, told with fantastic artistry.

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Even mentioning the name Wagner spawns a dramatic response. He’s one of those figures that’s either loved or hated. It’s been said that more ink has been spilt on the works and life of Richard Wagner than almost another composer. His operas and his essays, his philosophy and his spirit, stand as pillars of German Romanticism.

Timeline: Franz Liszt

Apr 11, 2016
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When I say the words “rock star," what comes to your mind? Perhaps you picture guitars, stadiums and teeming mobs of adoring fans flocking to their favorite band or musician. In many ways, composer and pianist Franz Liszt was Europe’s first “rock star." 

His fans, mostly women, would rush the stage at his performances desperate to grab a bit of his clothes or a lock of his long hair. One writer actually called the phenomenon, “Lisztomania."

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The modern piano is a masterpiece of acoustic design and engineering; 88 keys with the ability to play all of the notes a musician could possibly reach simultaneously, and a sound that can fill a concert hall by itself. Inside, the metal frame is holding 18 tons of tension as the strings are struck over and over again by large hammers. Each key triggers a complex mechanism allowing the performer to easily control the volume of the note simply by touch. We see and hear the piano so often that we’ve forgotten just how unique an instrument this keyboard has become.

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In the Romantic Era, composers were no longer employees of the aristocracy; they composed for the people. This freedom was doubled-edged. Although it allowed the artistic genius of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner to flourish, it also spawned a generation of composers who happily wrote crowd pleasing, disposable works for commercial success. Composers like Frederic Chopin rejected this “popularization” of music altogether by retreating from public performance and refusing to compromise his emerging artistic style. Ironically, Chopin’s music became (and has remained) extremely popular.

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For the first 50 years after his death, the majority of J.S. Bach’s music remained unpublished and unperformed.  The 19th century saw an unprecedented return to his music in what we call “The Bach Revival."

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Felix Mendelssohn had natural artistic talent to spare. He was a painter, poet, pianist and composer who not only left the world an impressive body of work but also helped revive the music of the past for generations to come.

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Hector Berlioz was passionate about music, love and literature. He was brash and opinionated, isolating others and ultimately himself. Although he was unappreciated during his lifetime, today he stands as the quintessential French Romantic composer of the 19th Century.

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Franz Schubert lived to be only 31 years old, but he left behind more than a lifetime’s worth of music. Schubert wrote over 600 songs, numerous chamber and symphonic works. Even his unfinished 8th symphony has become a staple in our modern concert halls, quite impressive for a composer who had very little exposure while he was alive.

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Italian opera was in severe decline in the first decade of the 19th Century. However, thanks to the works of composers like Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, a new golden age was about to dawn. The brightest star of this new operatic style was Gioachino Rossini.

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Beethoven loomed so large in early 19th Century Germany that other composers are often overlooked. One prime example is Carl Maria von Weber, a founder of the Romantic Movement.

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The last decade of the 18th century was a time of incredible change in the western world. The technological advances of the industrial revolution, the wars and upheaval of the enlightenment and the rise of scientific rationalization had eroded old certainties within the collective consciousness.

In other words, when you question or change all of the old rules of society, technology, politics and religion what are you left with? You’re left with yourself – at least that’s answer the Romantics gave.

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Composers were not the only ones who shaped the course of music. Sometimes a librarian influences the future in ways that no one could ever imagine. Baron Gottfried van Swieten is a name that isn’t too familiar in the musical world today but his work, energy and encouragement touched a generation of composers.

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The years 1813 to 1816 were a dry period for Beethoven. He was wrestling with his health and with his family.

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At the dawning of the 19th century, Beethoven had not given up hope that his doctors would find a treatment to reverse his hearing loss. His condition was not only affecting his musical output but also his social life, which was very important to him.

Ludwig van Beethoven has been called the most admired composer in all of music history. His legacy stands as a monument for the entire 19th century and beyond.

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Muzio Clementi was called the “father of the pianoforte”.  He earned this title, not because he played the instrument first, but because he played it best out of his generation.

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The rise of the American and French Revolutions were signs of deep changes in the Western world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.   Not only was the Age of Enlightenment a period of political upheaval, It was also marked by economic change as a thriving middle class began to grow in Europe and across the sea in the new world.  This shift had very real and practical effects on the world of music.  It changed the way composers created work and supported themselves.

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Even if you’re not that familiar with classical music you still know the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and can probably even hum a few of his tunes. His music has always been popular and his legacy has influenced composers for centuries.

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The word "symphony" is one of the most iconic musical terms, but what makes a piece of music a symphony? The term itself is a compound word with Greek roots meaning “sounding together."

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