Music Essays - Western Art Music

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Western Art Music

Western practices define art music as a musical tradition that is basically written, not transmitted by rote or in any recordings but preserved in the form of music notation. This art evolved prior to renaissance period in Europe and matured in romantic period. We can define the identity of an art work by its notated version. Earlier, the European art music was derived as a part of the traditional music. We can say that the art music concept refers to authentic and creative music. Here, I am going to describe the three famous western art music composers, who belong to the different historical periods. They are Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1824) and Alban Berg (1885-1935).

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in year 1685 in Eisenach and was a craftsman. His father’s name was Johann Ambrosius Bach. He was an organist at St. George's Church. His mother’s name was Maria Elisabetha Lämmerhirt. His father Ambrosius taught him how to play violin and harpsichord. His relatives were professional musicians. Their posts ranged from church organists and musicians to composers. His uncle taught him the art of playing the organ. He was proud to his family’s achievement. His mother and father died in the year 1694, when he was only 10 years old. After his parents’ death, he moved away with his elder brother to Ohrdruf, where he learnt music (Geck & Hargraves, 2006).

His era was characterized by presence of composers who created work on the demand of employers. Bach focused on the different flavor of the music. In Weimar, as a court organist, he successfully produced organ works, and created music as desired by his patron who was the composer for the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen. In Leipzig, Bach held the most long term and important position as a cantor in Church of St. Thomas'. It should not be surprising that in this period, he wrote great church music. The demands from employers helped him to create work under various genres. He did work on sacred vocals that consist of 200 cantatas of church; other works consist of 20 cantatas which were under Secular vocal. Apart from this, his works comprise of music based on Orchestra, including 4 suites of orchestra, 6 Brandenburg Concertos, and for 1, 2, 3 and 4 harpsichords.

6 sonatas and partitas formed the part of unaccompanied violin under Chamber music. Bach Also composed key board music, which includes 2 volumes of Das wohltemperirte Clavier. Among the suites composed there were 6 French Suites, 6 English Suites, etc. In the field of organ music, he made contribution in about 150 chorale preludes, fantasias, toccatas, preludes, and fugues (Wolff, 2000).

Bach had the quality of a student or an emulator. The music of his contemporaries constantly surrounded the composer. His study into their music gave an insight to him about the wide variety of personal and national styles as he was often engaged in the re-arranging of these pieces into different instrumental combinations. This was the unique work, which he carried all through his life thus integrating them into his own ideas.

Bach had deep faith in his religion. Even his Bible was filled with various annotations and comments. These religious feelings can be very well felt in his music, which frequently strikes the listeners’ heart. Bach liked completeness in every task he did. His various works seem to move forward to attain completeness by exploring each imaginable possibility. The examples showing this attitude are two of his collections of preludes and fugues. In preparing them, Bach had made use of every possible major and minor key combinations. But this encyclopedic quality came out in his final works only. His mass in minor is a summation of his sacred style, which he redrafted from his previous pieces. Thus, to conclude, we can say that his music was unique because it constituted the human element in it (Williams, 2004).

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1824)

The second composer chosen by me is Ludwig Van Beethoven. He was born on 16th December 1770, in the German town of Bonn in a musicians’ family. His father and grand father were also musicians. Till the age of eleven, his father acted as his teacher but after that he went under the guidance of the court organist C. G. Neefee. As soon as he reached the age of twelve he deputized Neefe. In this period, his first music notes were published. He remained the assistant of Neefe till the year 1787. Soon after this, at the small age of seventeen he went to Vienna. This time his visit was very short because of his mother’s illness. After five years, in 1792 he finally went to Vienna to earn his living (Powell, 1995, December).

From the year 1792, he started learning composing and counter pointing under the able guidance of Salieri, Haydn, Albrechtsberger and Schenk. He simultaneously tried to establish himself as a composer and pianist. From the year 1800, Bethoven was trying hard to master the high classical style, so that he could impress the town Aristocrats. With the passage of time he was successful in establishing very good relations with them. These relations helped him secure his income for living. By the year 1809, the princes of the state, Prince Lobkowitz, Archduke Rudolp and Prince Kinsky were impressed by him and had guaranteed him yearly income. This period denoted the “early period” of his life (Cooper, 1991).

From the start of the middle period, i.e. from 1809 to 1813, he enhanced and developed his high classical style into a more individualistic and dynamic style. By this time, he was able to write piano concert Nr.5, symphonies Nr. 3 – 8 and many other chamber music. At the negative side of his life, he came to know that his hearing power was being lost with the passage of time. This hearing impairment also broke his relations with the lady whom he loved. By the year 1812, his performances came to stand still because of his ailment. It was difficult for him to even handle public interaction. Some of his remember able music compositions were Symphony No.5 in C minor; Symphony No.9 in D minor “Choral”; Piano Sonata No.30 in E minor, first movement; Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor “Pathétique”, Adagio cantabile and Piano Sonata No.14 in C-sharp minor “Moonlight”, Adagio sostenuto (Stanley, 2000).

He lost his brother in the year 1815. After this, he tried to be in the custody of one of his nephew. Bethoven was now harassed on the matters related to this nephew. His relations with his nephew were also getting worse and he was unable to handle these circumstances; as a result, he tried to commit suicide in the year 1826. This period is also known as the late period of Bethoven’s music career.

Having a fight with all these struggles along with his poverty, Ludwig Van Beethoven left the world on March 26, 1827.

In the end, a brief summary of his life long contribution can be summarized year wise as following: 1800: His first Orchestral symphony; 1802: Orchestral symphony no. 2; 1803: No.3 “Eroica” orchestral symphony; 1804: a triple concerto (piano, violin, and cello), piano sonata Op.53 “Waldstein”; 1805: 1 opera, Fidelio; 1806: No.4 orchestral symphony, 1 concerto for violin, piano sonata Op.13 “Pathétique”; 1808: No.6 “Pastoral” orchestral symphony; 1812: No.7 & 8 orchestral symphony;1816: song cycle “To the Distant Beloved” (An die ferne Geliebte);

1823: Choral music including Missa solemnis; 1824: The final “Choral” orchestral symphony (Cooper, 1991).

Alban Berg (1885-1935)

The First composer that I have chosen from contrasting historical periods is Alban Maria Johannes Berg. He was an Australian composer and was from the period of 19th century.

Alban Maria Johannes Berg was born on 9th February, 1885 in Vienna. His father’s name was Conrad Berg, who was a positioned sales executive in the export trade. He belonged to Nuremberg but shifted to Vienna in the year 1867. His mother’s name was Johanna Anna Berg. Alban’s maternal grand father was a Viennese citizen (Bruhn, 1998).

Conrad and Johanna Berg had four children. The eldest of them was Conrad. Charley was his second brother and he followed the steps of his father. Alban was third Child of his parents. The fourth Child was Smaragda. Smaragda and Alban were very close to each other (Perle, 1980). Alban’s mother Johanna was very vigorous and energetic person. Alban learnt more from his father rather than his mother. When Alban was a child he was more interested in literature rather than music. He began to compose when he was 15 years old. In the year 1903, he completed his education. Till the age of 19, he learnt the music on his own. In the year 1904, he became the associate member of second Viennese school Arnold and Anton Webern. He studied about counterpoint, music theory, and harmony with Arnold Schoenberg. He studied music for full-time by the year 1906. Alban met the singer Helene Nahowski, daughter of a wealthy family in the year 1906 (Perle, 1980).

In the year 1907, he became composer. He also inscribed songs, which included his Seven Early Songs; three out of which were Berg's first openly performed work in a concert. This also featured the music of Schoenberg's pupils in Vienna. Arnold Schoenberg seems to be the most prominent person in his life. He spent 6 years with Arnold. Till 1911, he worked and studied with him. Alban Berg used to admire Arnold Schoenberg as a musician and teacher. They remained close acquaintances lifelong. Both of them developed an idea of developing variation. Alban passed the idea to his students (Bruhn, 1998).

The society in which he grew up was of very helpful nature. Alban’s social environment consists of the watercolorist Gustav Klimt, the author and comedian Karl Kraus, the architect Adolf Loos, the poet Peter Altenberg, and the musical group Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker. In the year 1913, two songs of Berg's were on Picture Postcard Texts (Perle, 1980).

The music of Alban explains and demonstrates better than any other individual composer. Alban engaged a lyrical and harmonic language that resemble to the romantic style. He was the most advanced composer of this style. For the work, Alban Berg moved from a rather tonal approach to a purely atonal style. Alban created a rich mix of styles and approaches which included the language that ranges from post-romantic to purely atonal, free mixing of popular and folk elements. Alban Berg’ romantic tonal works gave ways to growing atonality and to 12-tone composition. Alban’s other works included two string quartets. His work included the Lyric Suite in year 1926; Three Pieces for Orchestra in year 1915; Orchestral music which includes Chamber Concerto in year 1925. One of his works Lulu (Opera) remained unfinished due to his death.

For 3 years, i.e. 1915 to 1917, Alban served the Austrian Army. In the year 1917 he started to work for his first Opera (Wozzeck). An opera is an art in which singers and musical group perform a theatrical work. After 1920, he started to teach private pupils of Vienna. Alban’s most appreciated work is his mournful Violin Concerto, quotations from historical tonal music which includes a Bach singing group and Carinthian folk song. Alban Berg passed away in year 1935 in Vienna, on Christmas Eve. He died of blood poisoning that was caused by an insect bite. He was 50 years old at that time (Schmalfeldt, 1991).


The study of these composers reveals that they have made significant contributions in the field of western art music. Though, they all have different inspirational background but still their work in the field of sacred vocal, orchestral suits are remarkable. For example Bach made great contribution as an organist in secular vocal and composed different suits of orchestra.

Bethoven was the musician having both romantic and classical styles. He was a new composer of the new age with high energy. His involvement in controversies also made him the most interesting of all great composers. The work of Alban Berg includes the two operas. The first one was Wozzeck and the second was the Lulu. His intention behind this was to include the technique of composition, which means to give theater what belongs to theater. His aim was to compose good music to develop musical content of drama and to translate poetic language into music.