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Guide to Classical Music: Classical Music Genres

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Classical Music Genres Guide - iMusician

Classical music is most commonly classified into time periods, each representing a specific era. Within the eras, however, we can also examine different classical music forms, compositional techniques, styles, and genres. The latter is the subject of this article! Join us as we explore the most significant genres of classical music throughout its history.

Classification of classical music

When it comes to its classification, classical music, as the art music of the Western world, is much different from other types of music. When examining contemporary works, we distinguish a wide variety of genres, such as rock, pop, or jazz, that can further be organized into sub-genres with more narrowed-down sound characteristics.

Classical music takes a different approach. As we’ve already outlined, it is primarily classified into time-specific eras, each characterized by varied styles, sound characteristics, instrumentation, and motifs of inspiration. There are, however, other terms that, too, can be used to classify classical music compositions. These may include genres, music forms, compositional techniques, and styles. To make things even more complicated, these terms have generally broad, often overlapping definitions, meaning they are occasionally used interchangeably. Let's look at the fundamental definition of classical music classification terms.

Form refers to the structural elements of the composition or performance, describing how individual parts and sections are constructed and how they connect to each other. Some form examples include binary, strophic, or rondata form.

Compositional techniques characterize the specific methods of composition, such as the twelve-tone, fugue, or canon technique.

Style is associated with the distinctive sound characteristics of a particular composer or a historical period, connecting the composition to specific artistic and cultural movements and historical events that had an impact on its creation.

Finally, the genre is used to indicate the shared traditions and overarching set of conventions behind a composition. Genres stem from a fusion of social functions (contexts and validation by particular communities) and compositional rules, and their primary purpose is to guide listeners’ music experience. In other words, genre doesn’t only refer to the musical elements of a composition (including its overall style and structure) but also its cultural context and the purpose of the music.

Now, let’s look at some of the most significant classical music genres.

1. Symphon

A symphony is a large musical composition, most often written for an orchestra. The term has had many meanings ever since it originated in the ancient Greek era; the meaning that is common now was established by the late 18th century.

Traditionally, a symphony consists of multiple distinct sections or movements, most commonly four, with the first one often written in a sonata form. Symphonies are almost always composed for symphonic orchestras consisting of string (violin, viola, cello, and double bass), brass, woodwind, and percussion sections. Altogether, such an orchestra can total 30 to 100 musicians. Although rare, some symphonies also contain vocal parts.

Some of the most prominent symphonies include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 In C, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (‘Ressurection’), Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (‘From The New World’), and the Symphony No. 1 by Florence Price.

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2. Opera

Opera can be described as a form of theater in which music plays a fundamental role, and the dramatic roles are performed by singers. An opera (which in Italian literally means ‘work’) usually stems from a collaboration between a composer and a librettist, who is responsible for writing the text in the opera.

An opera performance traditionally includes several performing arts, including acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The acts are usually accompanied by an orchestra or a smaller musical ensemble, which has been led by a conductor since the 19th century. Operas are most commonly performed in opera houses located in most major cities across Europe, as well as Asia and the USA.

Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi’s La Traviata, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo are among the most well-known operas.

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3. Sonata

A sonata is a long composition for one or two instruments, often made of three or four parts. Most commonly, it is a performance of solo piano or a duet between a piano and a solo instrument, typically a violin or a cello.

It is important to distinguish the genre of sonata from the sonata form! While a sonata is a multi-movement composition, the sonata form refers to a specific three-part structure—exposition, development, and recapitulation — frequently used within individual movements of more extensive works.

4. Chamber music

Chamber music broadly refers to any classical music composition composed for a small group of instruments — usually such that it can fit into a palace chamber or a large room (overall, no more than ten pieces of instruments). Each individual part is performed by one instrument, and traditionally, no solo instrument performances are included in chamber music.

Chamber music's intimate nature is also why it has often been called ‘the music of friends.’ For this reason, playing chamber music requires not only good musical abilities but also special social skills that differentiate chamber music compositions from solo or symphonic works.

5. Cantata

We just mentioned a sonata; now it’s time for a cantata. A cantata, which literally means ‘sung,’ indicates a typically multi-movement vocal composition for lyric singers, often involving a choir and accompanied by an orchestra or an ensemble of instruments.

The genre developed in the early 17th century, simultaneously with opera and oratorio. Throughout various classical music periods (from Baroque through Classical and Romantic eras), different types of cantatas were composed — some were used in the liturgy of church services (church cantata), others centered around non-religious subjects (secular cantata). Several cantatas have also been written for unique occasions, such as Christmas cantatas.

Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann were perhaps some of the most prolific composers of cantatas.

6. Ballet

We primarily associate ballet with a performance dance that originated during the Italian (and French) Renaissance. And truly, the music to which ballet dancers would dance was long considered secondary. It was in the 19th century that ballet gained status as a ‘classical’ genre and became as valuable as the dance itself.

Many say that while ballet originated in Italy/France, it was greatly refined in Russia. Adam’s Giselle and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet remain some of the most prominent ballet compositions in the genre’s history.

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7. Concerto

A concerto is mainly understood as an instrumental composition written for one soloist, or rarely more, accompanied by an orchestra or other ensemble. It typically has a three-movement structure: fast movements (e.g., presto or allegro) at the beginning and end of the composition and a slow movement (e.g., lento or adagio) in the middle.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat (‘Emperor’), and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor are among the greatest concertos ever.

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8. Oratorio

An oratorio is a musical composition for a choir, lyric singers, an orchestra, or other ensemble. It is unique for its dramatic or narrative text, which often has biblical or religious themes.

One could say that the narrative text and the use of soloists, choirs, and orchestra make the genre similar to an opera. However, unlike opera, which is a musical theater, an oratorio includes minimal staging — almost no acting, sets, props, and costumes. Oratorios are typically presented as a concert performance, with the chorus usually assuming a more central dramatic role.

Some of the most known oratorios are Hercules by George Frideric Handel, The Seasons by Joseph Haydn, and St. Paul by Felix Mendelssohn.

9. Suite

A suite is a self-contained and organized set of instrumental or orchestral/concert band pieces of music performed in a specific order in a concert form. It originated in the 14th century and was an important musical form, particularly during the Baroque period.

The structure and scope of the genre changed throughout time, with Suites, at some point, including a prelude or ‘overture’ and up to five dances. The popularity of Suites declined significantly in the 18th century but was revived in the late 19th century, often presenting extracts from other genres and forms, including opera, ballet, or even film and video game music.

10. Requiem

A Requiem or Requiem Mass is a Catholic Church Mass performed to repose the soul of a deceased person, mainly in the context of a funeral. A Requiem is typically composed for and performed by lyric singers and often chori, with instrumental or orchestral accompaniment.

With time, Requiems became more than compositions performed in liturgical service. Many composers were drawn to the dramatic character of the text, which eventually made the requiem a genre of its own. Many requiem compositions of composers such as Verdi or Mozart can be considered concert pieces rather than liturgical works.

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