History of Art Music Essay

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The change of phase from Baroque to Classical occurred in Europe between 1600 and 1750 had significantly affected music ideologies and expressions. During the Baroque period where counterparts and highly melodic structures of polyphonic sounds are employed, the classical period, on the other hand, utilized the effects of instrumental and solo-work in certain musical instruments especially on the piano and other keyboard instruments.

The clavichords and harpsichords, which precede the pianoforte and the modern pianos today, have made a significant impact on the quality and type of music produced during and between their inventions. These inventions and their further utilization were realized during the Baroque to Classical periods. For instance, the clavichord that was usually played alone in gatherings had been largely replaced by a harpsichord, which sounds like much similar to our modern piano—these instruments were essentially key players in genres and music prototypes in those eras.


During the baroque period two genres emerged: sonata de chiesa (church sonata) and sonata de camera (chamber sonata). Since sonatas are usually accompanied by any string instrument such as viol ( a predecessor of violin), or cello, other keyboard instruments such as harpsichords can be seen in certain chambers. Thus, solo players or part players, as mentioned earlier can be variably noticed in musical audiences. The basso continuo, where the melody is commonly accompanied by varied harmonies, was perfected. This is when; harpsichordists came into play, usually to improvise such harmonies and melodies. Yet, the roles of keyboardists were secondary than primary. Cellos, viols, violins or more frequently the lute or flure were the accompanying instruments in this basso continuos.

Chamber music is not the predominant work field of the keyboard. Unlike in church music where, organ, as the major instrument, played significant parts in masses, services and the church music itself; harpsichords were not usually used. As seen in the illustration below the common melody employed was realized higher notes or other forms rather than keyboard pieces. Perhaps, the non-use of this instrument in many basso continuous can be attributed to the thick texture and complex sound of other keyboards such as the organ. The Harpsichords and Clavichords are also somewhat polyphonic in effect with the sounds of strings on its mechanisms. Below is the sample where, a flute was used in a composition, Badinerie Suite no. 2 typifies this.

The dawn of chordophones such as clavichords and harpsichord forced the early keyboardists to play using the available sounds and dynamics that early chordophones provide. The early harpsichordists or clavichordists usually lack the intensity in dynamics since, the pedals and the strings were almost heavy and no effect on dynamic structure can be totally and artistically achieved. Thus, playing the harpsichord or clavichord became a solo-piece performance (it was even considered house furniture), usually in homes of the elite rather than including the instrument in large ensembles (Burrows, 2006).

The pianoforte, the father of the modern piano, had changed the way keyboard is played. The piano was used in ensembles that coordinate with the total harmony and polyphonic strength of the ensemble. While, pianoforte pieces were supported by strings to achieve the artistic expressions of a certain period, the keyboardists during the baroque era had not explored much on the variety and musical potentials of the piano.

The pipe organs, much popularly used in chapels and cathedrals were widely used but keyboardists using the organ, singly played the instrument. Consequently, the player usually employs himself in the church as organist than joining an ensemble. This made the organ almost a single instrument played than adjoining it in an orchestra. The reason for this is rather physical than musical. Organs, especially the pipe organs are attached to large balconies of churches than other handy instruments in an orchestra. The bulk structure cannot be of use to courts where symphonies were usually arranged.

On the textural aspect, organs are somewhat polyphonically sounding with trains of sounds verging simultaneously; thus if included in an orchestra it will greatly affect the harmony and cadence in an orchestra play. It can be very much assumed that keyboard players assume the role of a single player than a team player musician in an ensemble.

One major and leading keyboardists and vocal master is Johann Sebastian Bach. His operas and organ work largely determined the success of keyboard playing. Later, his works on the organ for instance “Toccata in F, from BWW 540” is one great example of recitative expression of a single instrument—that in organ. This work exemplifies that during his period—the baroque, where he flourished, the use of single-man keyboard playing was a typical role. In fact in compositions in early baroque, employed only parts for keyboards in sonatas, especially those of Scarletti. However, the latter employed much of strings than keyboards.

The keyboardist in the baroque period usually plays as a part-player or a contributor to achieve the musical piece requirement such as solos in ornate baroque orchestral compositions. But since, baroque music typifies the grand structures even in melodies, the assumption of keyboardists are largely in parts than seen doing solos. During the middle of the baroque period, operas were in its foundational stage, and in ensembles, keyboards played secondary roles to the grand operas being established that time. Thus, this contributed to the less prominence in compositions and focus on keyboard instruments, much less to the keyboardists.

The use of keyboards in more symbolic and serious music was not contemplated; in fact, harpsichords were used in dances during its invention. Francois Couperin is one of those leading keyboardists who effusively experimented keyboards in his compositions, “Ordres”. This has become the structural base of certain French dances, commonly played in German and English settings.


Cristoforis and harpsichords are the early versions of keyboards. While many keyboards exist during the baroque period, chordophones such as pianos, were the only significant instruments that had gained certain prominence. Fortepianos, a prototype of the modern piano today had not made any significant contribution to the world of keyboard playing, since it was immediately replaced by a more complex sounding-machine—the modern piano. Modern pianos were only invented during the early mid-baroque periods, thus compositions for the single piano and pianos with orchestras are usually not common. The early musicians such as Handel, for instance, never really explored keyboards because during his time pianos and other forms of keyboards were not the main instrument in musical scenarios. Instead, classical and dramatic polyphonic structures of vocal prowess were extensively used to maximize the tonal harmony and musicality. Notice that, while the keys are almost the same, musical effects are different.

Clavichords in many respects are totally different in mechanism, in comparison with the sound of harpsichords. And the latter, has a very distinctive sound than that of a modern piano.

Carl Philippe Bach is one who used clavichord sufficiently, slightly deviating from his father Johann Sebastian Bach, who revolutionized the artistic and harmonic sensitivities of an organ. Francois Couperin, on the other hand, a great French musician and keyboardist influenced the use of harpsichords to the latter piano masters in integrating the playfulness of keyboard keys.

The great virtuosos such as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven used in number of scores piano pieces to show their musical artistry. But only the modern piano, because of its complexity and ability to be bent on musical artistry and be confined in musical elements, received much recognition and acceptance. This later on leads to development and creation of various musical compositions exclusively for the piano. Chopin, Dvorak became household names for the use of virtuostic piano effects and melodies.

The early physical developments of keyboards have dampened, for some time, or even stunted the growth of texture and sustaining power of piano music during its early invention. As noticed, clavichords or harpsichords do not have many pedals on them to sustain sounds in longer time periods, as it is required. Thus, fewer sustaining effect on the melody can be heard from an early pianoforte, compared to the modern pianos nowadays.

A notable comment was given by Charles Rosen:

“Instrumental changes since the eighteenth century have made a problem out of the balance of sound in … all chamber music with piano….The piano, in turn, has become louder, richer, even mushier in sound, and, above all, less wiry and metallic. This change makes nonsense out of all those passages in eighteenth-century music where the violin and the piano play the same melody in thirds, with the violin below the piano. Both the piano and the violin are now louder, but the piano is less piercing, the violin more. Violinists today have to make an effort of self-sacrifice to allow the piano to sing out softly … The thinner sound of the violin in Haydn’s day blended more easily with the metallic sonority of the contemporary piano and made it possible for each to accompany the other without strain.” (Rosen 1997, The Classical style, p. 353)


Perhaps the greatest adaptation of musicians during the changes in keyboard structure and sound quality is the creation of solo work for keyboards. Sonatas were created that clearly emulsified the sound of singe instruments such as pianos. For instance, Haydn made numerous piano sonatas, total of sixty-two to exemplify the work on piano. However, earlier keyboard sonatas, particularly for the organ by Johann Kuhnau were created to give life to the single instruments.

The changing physical features of the piano and other keyboard instruments had made the piano an isolated musical instrument. However, sonatas and concertos for the piano never end, Bach in Part II of the Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 870-893), is one such example that though keyboards like organs were not part of chamber music, expressed that keyboard music can be complete in itself. Isolation of these instruments had been one of the solutions as form of adaptation to the physical changes.

The changes in sounds and quality had pushed several composers not to consider the keyboards in many of symphonies and compositions with orchestra. Concertos however were created also especially for organs, pianos, harpsichords to adopt and singly bring out the best music of such instruments without compromising the quality of the orchestra in general. The general temperaments in music and its complexities also greatly changed with the improvisations of sounds and experiments done by musical geniuses. Bach made several attempts to adapt the keyboard to the changing times of baroque to classical.

The diminishment of counterpoint and polyphonic structures as discussed was the central figure of baroque music which was partly decreased in use during the classical period, made also serious effects on keyboard music. The monodic forms, where keyboards are only accompaniments, placed the players on the background rather than the forefront of musical scene. While Gluck, Bach, Haydn and other late baroque composers have significantly made contributions to the prominence of the keyboard music such as harpsichords, clavichords, organs and pianos. Only the classical era made the first giant leap to put to pedestal keyboard instruments particularly the piano (Rosen, 2002).

This can be attributed because during the baroque period, keyboards had not yet been perfected. Later, great masters such as Chopin, Dvorak, Lizst and Debussy of the Classical era elevated the piano and other keyboard instruments to the level of the elite harmonic quality, and explored the endless possibilities of this instrument.


Good, E. (1982) Girrafes, Black Cragons, and other Pianos: A Technoligical History from Cristofori to the Modern Grand. Stanford, CA. Standforn University Press

Hanning, B.R. (2002) A Concise History of Western Music (2nd edition). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Rosen, C. (1997) The Classical Style, 2nd ed. New York: Norton.

Baroque Period. Wikipeda, Free Encyclopedia, from Wikipeda Online. Retrieved May 10, 2007 from

Encarta Encyclopedia, 2006. J. S. Bach’s Badinerie Suite No. 2 (sample score).

Encarta Encyclopedia, 2006. Clavichord photograph by H. Deutsch.

Encarta Encyclopedia 2006. Harpsichord photograph by Encarta (photograph credits cited above)

Wikipeda Free Encyclopedia. Photograph and outprint source of Well-Tempered Clavier, credits cited above.

Encarta Encyclopedia, 2006. J. S. Bach’s Badinerie Suite No. 2 (sample score).

Rosen, C. (2002) Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion. New Haven: Yale University.
Burrows. Baroque Music. Encarta Encyclopedia. USA: Encarta

History of Music and Piano. Wikipeda Free Encycolpedia, from Wikipeda Online, retrieved May 10, 2007,website:< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_history_and_musical_performance”>

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