Classical 91.5

Music History - on Ice

Feb 7, 2018

Surya Bonaly, competing in Nagano in 1998
Credit Getty images

I love figure skating!  With the Winter Olympics on, here's your very basic guide to Western classical music AND some breathtaking spins, too.

First, a little background.  From the moment a Proto-Euphratean musician etched a melody into a clay tablet  around 2000 B.C.,  people have been recording musical ideas for posterity.  Most surveys of Western classical music pick up around the 11th century, and they cover Gregorian Chant, organum, and secular music performed throughout Europe by the troubadours and trouvères of France.  From about 1400 to about 1600, Renaissance composers began to break established norms, creating wildly imaginative polyphony in sacred music. Secular music thrived, too, especially in the form of dance music and madrigals.  Sometimes you'll hear all of this pre-Baroque era music simply called "Early Music."

Which spun into . . .

Baroque music

Formality and flourishes characterize the era named for the ornate architectural style of the time, the "Baroque," derived from the Portuguese "barroco," or “oddly shaped pearl.”  From about 1600 to about 1750, composers such as George Frideric Handel and J.S. Bach produced music for lavish courts, wealthy patrons, and formal church occasions.  Later, nineteenth century critics dissed the era as too stylized and overly complicated.

Watch Carolina Kostner skate to the "Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ" attributed to Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1751).

Classical music

It's both a generic term AND  specific era, which can be confusing.  The intricate style of Baroque music evolved into a "Classical" style (from c.1750 - c.1830) obsessed with simplicity, clarity, and structure. Mozart and Haydn wrote longer pieces in new forms based on symmetry and natural expression. Humans were thought to be rational creatures, and music flowed from our capacity to understand ourselves and the natural world.

Two-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron skate to a Mozart piano concerto.

Romantic music

Starting around 1830, composers began to reflect the Romantic ideals that life is actually irrational and that a person's heart and imagination cannot -- and should not -- be reined in.  Composers and performers pushed all the boundaries, writing longer and longer symphonies and performing fiendishly difficult works for nearly a century, until about 1920.

For a taste of Early Romantic music, watch this flashback to 1996 and Rosalynn Sumners skating to Beethoven's "Für Elise," played by Murray Perahia.

Hear the Late Romantic style in this routine performed by Anna Duskova and Martin Bidar, skating to Antonin Dvorak's "Carnival Overture," played by Istvan Kertez and the London Symphony Orchestra.

20th Century Music

As New Yorker writer Alex Ross puts it, music exploded like a piñata at the start of the 20th century. Composers such as Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky smashed expectations.   There arose a thousand new forms of musical expression: jazz, electronic music, atonalism, minimalism . . . how does one label a century of boundless variety?  What would you call it?

Tatsuki Machida IS The Firebird in this routine inspired by Igor Stravinsky's Firebird ballet.

For much, much more on the history of Western classical music, click here. 

For a primer on how skating competitions during the Pyeongchang Olympics might sound quite different to you, click here.